He was floating. That much he was certain of.
Whether or not he was alive, that was very much in question. Mallory, like most in the multiverse, was not particularly religious. He had no easy answers to what was beyond the thread of life—for all he knew, this could be it. If he heard someone talking to his grave much like Meiko talked to her parents, he'd know for certain, but until then the best he could say was that he was floating.
Experimentally, he raised one arm. It moved, he could feel it move through something wet and thick. The sensation across his skin was burning hot, but a good kind of burn—the sort of burn that, while hurting, lets you know it's a hurt that's better for you in the end. He had no idea why that was, it just felt that way...
That thought slammed down his nervous system like a stack of heavy Reality Engineering manuals. He sat bolt upright—
And rose from whatever liquid he was immersed in, coughing and wheezing as his lungs tried to adjust to breathing air again. His eyes stung, fingers madly wiping away whatever it was, his naked body clamoring over the edge of the (tub?) to get to his feet, to escape, to find Meiko...
The walls were wooden. That was odd, considering the strange crystal structure he'd just climbed out of, with its black immersive liquid. Strange lights danced around the room, or perhaps just dancing in his eyes which were not quite fully adjusted to the situation; he couldn't tell.
One familiar element—his baja sweatshirt and pants, folded neatly on a wooden table nearby. They were burned in places, tattered and nasty, but the yin-yang was still there. He grabbed his clothes and yanked them on, absolutely needing something familiar in this sea of unsettling sights. For some reason, the liquid he was soaking in had evaporated before he got the first leg into his pants...
Out the door, or what was probably a door and not just a beaded curtain of some kind, he had to assume it was a door. He had to assume this was a hallway, despite the oblong shape it took on. More dancing lights adorned the walls, some in the shape of familiar letters but not assembled into words he could read... was he dreaming? He'd heard you couldn't read in a dream. That would explain it, if it was true.
He stumbled down the hallway, hand groping along the hardwood wall, trying to find another door. Even the one he had walked through before had somehow vanished back into the woodwork. Which was impossible.
At least the people rapidly approaching him didn't look impossibly weird. They wore strange white tunics, almost like robes, and were speaking in complete gibberish but at least they were people. Ordinary people. Whom he couldn't understand.
"Where is she?" he asked, blinking furiously, vision a bit blurry without his glasses. (Where were they? He just noticed he didn't have them. They weren't with his clothes.) "Where's Meiko? Meiko Mirai? Please..!"
"Sarhpi, cahy tel dah," a robe-wearing man said, raising his arms in what was presumably a calming manner as they closed on him. "Tu requirl ster..."
Mallory leaned heavily against a wall, trying to press as much of his body against it and away from the people—and fell through what he could only assume, again, was a door and not a beaded curtain of some kind.
Quickly scrabbling to his feet, he noticed two things: One, Meiko's room was much nicer and had a window. Two, the sky outside that window was blue, and the grassy fields were green...
"You need to get back in your tank, Mallory."
He whirled to face a new man, one with a receeding hairline, and green robes instead of white.
"You are experiencing some 'culture shock' right now," the man said, carefully pronouncing every word so as not to make a mistake. "That's normal. But your skin isn't done... healing?... yes, healing from the burns. Another hour, and your friend has another three hour, then you'll both be okay and I'll explain everything. This is a promise..."
A multitude of questions rose in Mallory's throat, pouring out with need. "Who are you? Where am I? What's happened?" he asked, asking and asking even if he didn't expect quick answers. "What is going on?! Is Meiko going to be all right..?"
"She'll be fine. You'll both be fine," he said, trying to be reassuring. "Please, just return to your room for now..."
Before Mallory could emit more questions, he felt a tiny prick from behind, and began to rapidly fall asleep. The white-robed man behind him was there to catch him.
The one in green robes breathed a sigh of relief, as Mallory slipped away. "Thank God," he said, wiping sweat from his brow. "What on Earth he-was thinking, getting out of a ri'gn tank early? Let's get him back in, now... ah, heipi mau tu bi, alle..."
This doesn't make any sense, the unconscious Mallory told himself.
Except that it makes perfect sense, the subconscious Mallory told himself. And you know it.
As the third quarter sales figures were read off, Gillian Bates was wholly focused on the task at hand—swirling her coffee cup around on a diagonal axis with one finger without spilling a drop. It took fine motor control to accomplish this, but she was quite good with her hands... given most of her time was spent tapping away at a workstation, she'd have be.
None of the other CxO's (CIO, CFO, COO, etc.) took notice of this idle activity of their CEO. Or rather, perhaps they did, but they were maintaining the polite fiction and ignoring it. Such a blatantly un-mission-statement-y attitude would earn any other employee a dressing down, but considering the special place the Bates family held within RealWare for the last two aeons, she was allowed a bit of leeway...
And it WAS a dreadfully boring presentation. Profits were stable, of course. They had always been stable. They never really went up too high or down too low—even in times of multiversal recession or recovery, RealWare was a rock. The rock of ages. Nothing could ever unseat it...
The double doors were not flung open. Multi simply pushed them open as anyone else entering the board room might. The fact that there was absolutely nothing dramatic about his entrance, no sense of importance or urgency, drew Gillian's attention away from her beverage mug in an instant. (But she did not let it spill.)
"Yes, Multi?" she asked, before one of her lackeys could ask it. "Is there a security issue at the moment? We are in the middle of something I am told is frightfully important..."
He paused. Clear indication that he had rehearsed this, and knowing Multi as she did, he would likely make a huge speech of some kind. Before he could begin, she made a zipping motion in the air—familiar shorthand between employer and employee, proof of the closeness they had worked with previous.
"You know I'm not particularly interested in the fluff when it's time to get to business, Multi," she reminded him. "Let's summarize. You're here to announce an intention, so you might as well out and announce it."
(Caught him off guard. Typical of him, she thought.)
"I... am here to take over operations of the company," he said, trying to get back into the flow. "I doubt you will believe me, but this is for the best for all concerned across the multiverse. The time is right for—"
Gillian tapped a button on her intercom.
"Security? Gillian Bates. Chief of Security Multi is now fired," she told the grey plastic box. "Please send in... let's see... four officers to remove him from this reality. Consider him armed and dangerous. Gentlemen, if you would please duck underneath the table for the time being to prevent possibility of injury..?"
Her lackeys, of course, sat there with a dumbfounded expression and did nothing. They weren't very good at dealing with such rapid change. Writing them off for the moment, Gillian sat back and waited for the test results...
The first one dispatched wasn't done in a particularly flashy manner. He simply fell sideways, impacting against the far wall as if dropped from an equal height. The problem was that he landed upside down, and thus slid down directly onto his head when gravity resumed normal operations. (Gillian hoped he wasn't too badly injured; a demonstration or not, there was no need to waste valuable workers.) The next two were slammed into each other once, twice... five feet over Multi's head, no less. The final one, that's the one he went all out on—the screams and cracking sounds indicated bones deciding they needed to be broken at the moment instead of whole. He dropped on the spot in the least pleasant-looking position the human body was capable of.
Throughout the process, her former chief of security hadn't broken a sweat. He hadn't broken his cool; he knew he had regained the upper hand, easily sliding back into a position of power. No matter how Gillian had thrown him off his game initially, he was back in contention.
"You didn't have to go that far," Gillian scolded mildly. "All I wanted was a simple demonstration of your capabilities..."
"Now you have me curious," he admitted, walking across the room to stand before her, with no fear whatsoever behind those purple glasses of his. "How long have you known...?"
Gillian steepled her fingers, leaning back in her ergonomic office chair which cost more than Multi's yearly salary. "Ever since you were hired. Or rather, I knew there was SOMETHING unusual about you ever since you were hired. You were quiet, but occasionally too sloppy, Multi. There were occasional fluctuations in our reality engine... each timed with some strange event, some oddity that our programmers couldn't account for in Reality Prime's customized engine coding. You were practicing, weren't you? Honing this unusual skill of yours?"
"You always told me to make the most of myself, Gillian," he reminded. "You sent me to security training seminars. You bought me equipment. You let me hone quite a few skills... and gave me the leeway to hone one of my own, yes."
"I'll get to that in a minute. The second oddity was your personal business jaunts... here, there, and everywhere. Antiparadisia, Nippon, all sorts of unusual locales..."
"Did you send a spy after me?" he asked. "Or perhaps an audio-visual kink..?"
"I couldn't risk it. Not after I trained you so heavily in countermeasures to fight that sort of thing. But I did log your arrivals and departures... your predeclared ones, and the ones where I checked up on you and you didn't happen to be around despite our systems showing you as never having left. It was especially sloppy to vanish on me last night, for instance..."
"I didn't need to worry about subtlety anymore. The first phase of my work is done, after all," he said with some pride. "The competition is eliminated. None remain to interfere in phase two."
"And you don't consider me to be interference, do you..?"
"You've seen a fraction of what I'm capable of," he warned, not in a threatening sense but in a pleading one. "I wouldn't suggest further resistance. We've worked together quite well so far, and I'd hate to harm you..."
"But you'll have to, won't you?" she asked, rising from her chair to meet him eye to eye. "I'm the figurehead. I'm the one who's the undisputed queen of this particular empire, the one who's just as crafty as you, and—I don't intend this as a boast—the one who is much more clever than you. I am a risk to you."
"Clever? I wouldn't say—"
"It's a fact, not a boast," she said, this time more threatening than pleading in her warning. "You're sloppy, Multi. You have great aspirations, it seems, but you've never been able to execute them flawlessly, have you? I can tell from your expression that you HAVE felt frustration at your own errors. Power has gotten you this far, and I suspect power will get you even farther since as you say none can stand against you... but that talent won't help you against me. Having someone like me around only means leaving a strong option open for your downfall. No, if you want to do what you intend to do—and I'm likely not off the mark when I guess that it involves domination of the multiverse through RealWare—you need to kill me. There's no room at the top for two, is there?"
"...reality shall be determined by the last one standing," he recited, his personal mantra.
"Quite right. Otherwise, I'd suggest we work together on your endeavor. I nurtured you, I sponsored you, I waited to see what you would become... I wouldn't want that to go to waste. But you're not going to be able to do this with me, so a waste of some sort is inevitable. You know what you have to do," Gillian told him... and waited.
It didn't take long for her young prodigy to make up his mind. He raised his hand, and she could feel the purple in the air...
She raised her hand to stop him. Instinctively, he did so...
"There's only one problem," she said quickly. "I don't intend to die here. Gentlemen of the board, excuse me—I am stepping out for a while."
In a flash of purple light—originating from the pocket of her business blazer, where her F.P. was tucked away and her hand had been secretly reaching for it—Gillian Bates vanished from the face of Reality Prime on her own terms.
Despite being absent, her words echoed in Mutli's ears. I can tell from your expression that you HAVE felt frustration at your own errors...
On impulse, he turned to face the Chief Information Officer, and crumpled his body into a six-inch-wide sphere of flesh within the span of three agonizing, scream-filled seconds.
"From now on you all obey me without question," he nearly growled. "You are not the future, with your generation's backwards stubbornness, but I can tolerate your existence for now. As long as you remain useful and keep this company's mundane day-to-day business afloat, I'll ignore the fact that you continue to breathe. But if you treat me the way she just did, if you even THINK of talking down to me, you will learn the hard way why I am the one in control. Am I understood?"
Terrified faces stared back at him.
"I said, am I understood?" he repeated, anger mounting...
Before he had to make another example, there was nodding and agreement and consensus.
Multi left the board room in a much fouler mood than he had going in. Nothing went according to plan except for the most important part... the takeover of RealWare. That was all that was really important to him; any words spoken or actions taken should be trivial in comparison to the actual results. But if so, why was he so angry..?
Victory was his. He could feel it in his grasp; he had crushed all the others, he had at least banished the former shepherd of reality. She would die in time for her disrespectful attitude. He would move to phase two, he would complete the great work, he would be praised for his benevolence and his wisdom... yes. Everything would be well. The big picture mattered most; the future mattered most. The rest he could dismiss from his mind immediately.
Besides, where could she turn to for help in a multiverse owned and controlled by HIS company, RealWare?
The sky was the color of a coredump. Clouds of hexidecimal floated freely, indicating today's system operations status for anybody who needed a quick reference. And in a reality filled with hardcore programmers, engineers and reality hackers, such information was far more important than a daily stock quote or a corporate logo as other realities might have in their skies...
In fact, one wandering programmer was too busy checking on a recent error report hanging over his head to notice the purple flash before him. But he did see the 'enemy' standing in front of him when he looked down, holding her hands in the air.
"I come in peace," Gillian Bates said smoothly, with a tiny smile. "Take me to your leader. Hmm... I've always wanted to share tea with the head of the Open Reality Movement; I suppose I'll have to thank Multi for giving me the opportunity..."
Wooden rafters. Now, those he was familiar with. A soft bed underneath him felt nicely familiar too... and the faint scent of the Great Outdoors, with trees full of sap and birds that sing...
I'm home, he thought.
"You are awakened?"
Except that wasn't his father's voice.
Mallory sat upright quickly and unlike other times when he had been rendered chemically or physically unconscious, he DIDN'T immediately wish he hadn't sat upright quickly. On the contrary, his head was clear, he felt fit and fine, and his sharp focus helped him identify the man sitting at his bedside as specifically not being his father.
Now that he could look at him without a haze of panic, the man felt immediately familiar in that kindly old man sort of way. He was quite healthy for his age, neither underweight or overweight, and had no male pattern baldness to speak of in his silvery locks. In fact, they were tied neatly into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He closed an ancient-looking yellow and black book as he turned to address Mallory...
"Before you again-run, let me say your friend is fine and she will join us in under two hours," he said up front. "My name is Leeham, and you are Mallory—it was written on the tag in your jacket, yes? You are both safe now. You were burned very badly but I got you to this place, a... a..."
"Hospital?" Mallory guessed, catching on quickly as the man struggled now and then to find the right word.
"I guess that's it. I was never as good at your language as they were," Leeham said, looking slightly upset at his own ignorance. "Hos-pit-al. 'Hyptal'. It makes sense, yes..."
"This doesn't look like any hospital I know of," Mallory said, glancing around what could conceivably have been his bedroom back on Grünwald. "In fact it's one of the only wooden buildings I've seen outside of my home reality and Nippon..."
"I assure you it is in fact a hyp—a hospital. You've seen many things you probably don't recognize, right? Why would one more make a difference?"
"Where am I?" Mallory asked, earlier questions starting to return to the forefront. "What exactly is going on? Last thing I remember, we were... attacked, and yeah, I think there was fire... and you said you had answers! I need to know what's going on! And we have to get home, Eiko and the others—"
"Patience, patience. All will be clear—"
"Is there any particular reason you can't tell me right now?"
"Because I know on the video streams they always hold off on the big revelations until the last possible minute but I really think you owe me better than that," Mallory said, trying to be assertive. "Especially since my home was under attack right before I left! So unless there's an important reason I really, really would like to know where I am and how... no, wait, I can answer how I got here I think, but WHERE here is, and how soon I can get back to Restless. Okay?"
"You... ah..." the old man said, trying to follow that stream of babble. "Please, I am not good with the language... talk slower. What is this Restless..? It's a 'reality,' isn't it?"
"Of... course it's a reality," Mallory said, staring at the man as if he'd asked if water was wet. "And we have to get back the moment Meiko wakes up. Can you get me a RealNet terminal, maybe? At least I can get word to Ryo to make sure everything's okay at home. ...and hopefully it's not too late..."
"You can't go back to the multiverse."
"What? I thought this was a hospital, not a prison!"
"No no, I mean... it is impossible. Physically-impossible," he clarified. "For the time being you are here and you cannot leave not because I am wishing-restraining you but because there is no... 'mobile building' you can use, and there is no 'RealNet terminal'. We do not have these things anywhere for you to use."
"That's not possible. Even realities who really, really, really value their privacy like Grünwald have terminals somewhere..."
"Yes, well, we do not," the man said, growing a bit frustrated. "And the reason we do not relates to the story which I intend to tell you. As for why I did not want to tell you right now, I was GOING to wait until your friend was awake, and we were at my home in comfort. That way I would not have to tell the story twice..."
"So tell me now, and I'll tell her later. I promise I'll do my best to remember it and tell it right," Mallory added, even if the man didn't know about his tendency to achieve massive communication breakdowns.
"There is also a matter of the 'culture shock', which I explained—"
"I left home a few months ago and I still haven't fully gotten over the first few culture shocks. I've just gotten used to being confused a lot—like you said before, I don't think one more is really going to make a difference. Now... why can't I leave here?"
"...in the Bard's words, 'as you like it,'" Leeham said, with a sigh. He carefully opened his yellow and black book. "Fortunately the story is brief, as this small book is the only accurate text on that era we had ever uncovered. So, I will read to you from the Notes of Cliff... about what our ancestors termed the Quiet Apocalypse."
It was a dream room. Everything a young girl could possibly want—hundreds of toys, expensive games, complete collections of dolls both common and rare, windows with beautiful views over the greenery of Reality Prime's main campus...
None of that made Eiko happy. Especially after one of the guards let slip that her house had been destroyed and all inside it were dead.
She'd cried for hours after they left her here and locked the door; then she tried to break the windows, but they weren't breakable. The dolls were breakable but some part of her didn't want to break them, since it would really be a waste of perfectly well-invested money in recreational toys. So instead she'd take a few of the board games that were too childish for her and bash them against the wall, leaving little scuff marks on the paint but otherwise doing no damage whatsoever...
Once she couldn't cry any more she plotted escape. Because that's what her oneechan would have done, she'd have been smart and thought about it and tried to thwart her captors. But surrounded by nothing but kid's stuff, locked in with a door she couldn't open or break down and windows she couldn't force, there was very little plotting she could do. There was an air vent in the ceiling, and she'd seen people sneak in and out of buildings countless times through air vents in video streams, but she lacked fancy grappling hooks that would get her up there as well as tools to remove what looked like a very secure grate...
She was busy trying to fashion some kind of climbing gear using only doll hair when the door opened. She made a break for it, running for the door but hit an invisible wall...
"Please, there's no need for that," Multi said, gently lifting Eiko into the air with his talent, and setting her on the bed. And holding her there, just in case. "I'm here to bring you a gift..."
"I want to go HOME," Eiko protested.
"This is your home now," he said, while motioning for the guards to wheel in a small desk and RealNet Terminal. "I understand that the transition will be hard on you. It's going to be hard on everybody; the future can be a frightening thing, I know. But I promise to you that I'll do my best to ease you into the future, just as I will everyone else. And as a token of my sincerity, I'm giving you a workstation... of course, I can't allow you to freely communicate with just anyone, but you can watch any of the RealNet streams and—"
"I want to GO HOME! I don't care about any stupid terminal. You're the bad man who attacked us before, aren't you? Well, my oneechan and my oniichan can't be dead! You're wrong! Oniichan would've protected her..."
"...I see the guards have been a bit loose, and will need to be punished," Multi said, sadly. "I didn't want the revelation to come to you that way, Eiko. You and all the other children of reality are very important to me, and it's important that I earn your trust no matter what I have had to do in the past. You especially, as one of the first, will be of great importance..."
"I won't do anything you tell me to do at all, so nyah," Eiko said, folding her arms. "And you can't make me."
"Actually, I could... but I don't want to. That's not how you start a proper relationship. Which is why I need you as... my spokeschild, I suppose. My liason to the others here in Reality Prime. You've heard of the Preferred Partners Program, correct..? I think you helped negotiate a treaty with I's Land regarding it."
"That's the stupid thing where you get realities to give you their children so you don't shut down their engines."
"I wouldn't use those words, especially not now," Multi said with distaste. "True, the program was little more than a cheap workforce cultivation system before. But now it can be so much more! I've checked with our personnel department and we have about three hundred workers here little older than you. Why should they be doing menial jobs none of the high and mighty RealWare elite cared to do? I want them to help me with MY great work instead. We're going to pave the road to the future, Eiko! A future which will truly belong to the next generation, the ones without the preconcieved notions of what reality 'should' be which have poisoned the multiverse with mundanity. With the imagination and boundless innocence of your peers, we'll—"
"I won't do anything you tell me to at all," Eiko repeated. "I don't care what you're doing or what your crazy talk about the future is all about. You sound like a bad episode of Important Courtroom Drama!"
"...I didn't want to phrase it like this, but you have to work with me instead of against me if you want to regain your freedoms," Multi said, feeling frustration rise for the second time that day. "Obviously I don't want to keep you in this room forever, but until I'm sure you're not going to cause me problems, you'll be staying here. So think about that before deciding what you will and will not do. Now... you can use this terminal to keep yourself entertained, if the toys aren't to your satisfaction. I'll check in on you at dinnertime. Do you want anything special? I can get you food from anywhere in the multiverse. Nipponese, maybe?"
"I'll take a full thirty-two piece sushi platter with caviar and a filet mignon and gourmet chocolate milk with a crazy straw," Eiko quickly ordered.
Multi actually paused to scratch behind his head. "That doesn't sound entirely like the sort of meal a girl your age would want..."
"If you're gonna keep me here like a stupid baka, I'm gonna get what I want, and I want the most expensive dinner I can think of!" Eiko barked back, keen on showing her defiance by exploiting his kind offer. "And... you said I can watch video streams on that terminal?"
"Of course. Anything you want. We have every premium channel, every video-on-demand service—"
"I want to talk to my friends, too."
"That I can't allow," Multi said, reasserting himself.
"Why?" Eiko asked. "Who could I call? You said yourself you killed my family!"
...and Multi actually hesitated. Eiko could see it in his eyes; he wasn't fully sure about something... and the guards hadn't said anything about Lorelei or Kisei, did they..?
"...it's a matter of trust, Eiko," he chose to answer with. "You have to earn my trust if you want the freedom to communicate, and later on, freedom to leave this room. Until then I can't simply give you full access to RealNet, now can I?"
"Then let me talk to my friend Kensuke," she said quickly, seeing her ray of hope. "His address is Kensuke@Onegai. It's a kid's site, messaging for kids. He's my age and he's not anybody special. He'd be safe to talk to, right? You'd monitor what I was saying anyway, right? Right?"
"He's gonna be a lawyer when he grows up," she continued, pressing him. "He wants to help people and he never stops reading books or learning things! He's just the sort of person you'd want in this future of yours—and if... if you convince me you're doing a good thing then I could convince him. You'd like that, right?"
I've got him, she thought. I've got the baka by the things Lorelei keeps trying to talk about before oneechan stops her.
"I... suppose it couldn't hurt," he decided. "I'll have my people do a background check on your friend first, of course. Standard security protocol. Agreed?"
"Agreed!" Eiko said, giving the awful man a big, cheerful thumbs up.
"Good, good," he said, smiling at last, feeling like things were going well for a change. "In the meantime, I have things to do... I suggest tuning into Reality Prime's corporate feed at three o'clock. Well... tune into ANY feed, really. I'm planning to override all of them. I've got a very important speech to make."
Groggy. Unpleasantly so.
Meiko rarely drank alcohol. A little sake when business called for it, or to celebrate, but nothing beyond that. Some of the girls at the orphanage would always be sneaking out to sample the Adult World in all its vices, but not Meiko; she had her plan, after all. She was already in the Adult World, in a lot of respects...
Memories of the past swirled up to memories of the present, as she rose from the bed. She was wearing some sort of cross between a tunic and a gown, in brown cloth... not her pajamas, which she had already taken half off before—
That snapped her into the moment, for certain. Where WAS she? A bedroom of some sort, a house with a funny shape, everything made of wood...
And Mallory, standing at a balcony, overlooking what seemed to be the upper portions of a vast forest. He turned when he heard her sheets rustle.
"Oh, hey," he said, a bit subdued. "Leeham's gone down to ground level to get some food from the market. This is his place. He said we should just let you sleep, since you were more burned than me and probably had to recover more..."
"Mallory, what's going on...?" Meiko asked, climbing out of bed and moving to join him...
...and seeing something she had never conceived of in all her multiversal travels.
A city in the trees. Each one half-carved, half-built into the natural landscape. There were structures all over the place, each with balconies similar to the one she stood at, some with ornately designed windows... and from what she saw when she dared to look down, not a single asphalt road, no ground vehicles, nothing that looked even vaguely familiar. Still, despite the alien landscape, it was so peaceful and radiant that she couldn't help but feel a sense of calm here...
"What a... nicely designed reality," she admitted, taken aback by the sight.
"It's not a reality," Mallory said. "And we're trapped here. We can't get back home. I think I'd better tell you the story Leeham told me... I don't have his little book but I don't think I'm gonna forget it anytime soon..."
"Story..? Mallory, we've got to get back to the house! We left Eiko there when you... when you saved us..."
"There aren't any mobile houses here, Meiko. No RealNet, either," he said, walking back into the treetop apartment proper and having a seat on a wooden chair. "Assuming he wasn't lying to me, and I really don't think he was... we're not even IN the multiverse anymore. We're somewhere else totally. According to Leeham, it's called 'Earth'."
"No, Earth. THHH," Mallory thh'd. "It's supposedly a giant ball of dirt hanging in the middle of an open space orbiting a giant ball of gas but I think he's probably wrong about that. Anyway... look, do you trust me when I say we can't actually leave this reality and I'm about to tell you why?"
"I'll draw my own conclusions about the not-leaving part, but I trust you enough to listen to what's probably a long history lesson while Eiko's in peril," she said while sitting on the bed across from him, "Because I know you wouldn't do that without a damn good reason. Right?"
"Right. Okay. Let's see, how'd he start... oh, right. Roughly two thousand years ago, everything was going really, really bad..."
They called it a "Quiet Apocalypse."
Everybody was expecting that if the world WAS going to end, it'd end in some firey nuclear cataclysm or some vast sweeping plague which claimed all life, or maybe even robots coming alive and killing their masters. Something huge. Something that you could really sink your teeth into.
Instead, the "end" came in fits and bursts, with a little bit of everything. First, innocently enough, a computer virus infected every machine on the "Internet" which was running a particular popular kind of software. But unlike other viruses, this one infected through a previously unknown vulnerability and then waited in silence, undetected and polite to other resources on the system...
Several months later, it struck hard, wiping out data all over the world. Not every computer was destroyed in the process, but plenty were—enough to throw the global economy into wild, disoriented lurches up and down the financial scales.
Just as that happened, limited nuclear war broke out between two nations with long-standing grudges. Everybody assumed these weapons would be the end of everything, but only seven of them were used before saner heads finally prevailed. Still, the damage was done, and the resulting mess left in the environment—both political and physical—wasn't helping matters as the world tried to recover from the virus-induced economic woes.
The next phase hit when a virus began to spread. Nobody knew how it started; some suspected mutation from the tiny nuclear war, some suspected government conspiracy, or maybe computer failure at some bioweapons research lab. It wasn't doomsday, but it slowly ate into the population, with no cure in sight. Entire countries were quarantined with little effect, with some people seeming to be immune for no reason at all, with others dying quickly after exposure...
With the vital information networks in turmoil, nations threatening war every day, money markets plummeting and living humans dropping dead... matters were quite clear. Earth was sliding towards doom with steady speed. Every end scenario was playing out at once, none of them really hogging the spotlight, but doing their part to keep things chaotic and deadly for all involved.
Somewhere in the mess, a single technology patent was filed.
Months later, at the nadir of human civilization when nations were openly at war, the poor were starving more than usual and the future was a bleak landscape of endless misery, RealWare arrived.
Using a strange invention by Alfred Bates the First, this corporation promised to save humanity from the dying Earth. They would establish wholly new worlds outside the scope of known reality, where the environment could be controlled, where nobody would have to go hungry, and pioneers would pave the road towards a renaissance, a rebirth of human civilization... somewhere far, far away from here.
There were doubters, of course. But when reports came back from the early adopters that this was no hoax, that the worlds created were pure and safe and ready for settlement, settlers came in droves. The rich at first, but soon the poor as well, as the pricing structures for migration were adjusted. RealWare worked with various national governments, assuring them they would do their best for humanity at large, and all would be welcome in these brave new worlds...
The public, seeing everything fall apart around them, sang praise of RealWare. Nobody else had this technology of theirs; some tried to copy it, but failed. Others somehow... vanished, in mid-research. All the while, waiting lists were filling immedaitely for migration, as entire nations emptied into the newly established multiverse. The affluent and the skilled had their golden tickets but all were in theory welcome... and for five months, RealWare's doors stayed open.
Then they decided they had enough people, and closed those doors. All mobile structures were pulled into the newly independent multiverse, all connections from their RealNet to Earth's networks were severed, and not a single widget of reality technology was left behind on that doomed ball of dirt. RealWare had pulled up stakes and left town.
Earth, as a whole, was livid. They had broken their promise! These new realities were supposed to be salvation for all, not just 'enough' according to RealWare's whims. Rage filled the population, rage and doom as they were the ones left behind. The current leading nation immediately declared war on RealWare, declaring it to be a rogue state harboring terrorism—one presidential election later and they changed their tune, pleading for RealWare to come back and make peace for the sake of all. Neither the warmongers nor peacemongers got anywhere with their aims, since there was no longer any way to reach RealWare or any of the realities in its network.
The multiverse and the universe were now wholly seperate, and never again the two would meet.
"But that's when folks in this real... on this 'planet' started to unify," Mallory continued. "From what Leeham told me, it was like RealWare leaving was a huge kick in the pants... but a kick that made them realize they had to save their own home since now, RealWare wasn't gonna do it for them. Some nations unified, others faded out, the ones that survived enacted new controlling laws to clean up the environment, control the population and so on... basically they got their act together. And now they're really, really advanced compared to the reality we know, which RealWare was apparently keeping as controlled and low-tech as they could... that's why they were able to heal our burns, which would've been fatal otherwise."
"Which I can be thankful for," Meiko said. "As for what I say about the rest of their woes... it's completely not my problem. Okay, so there WAS a 'first reality', and RealWare backstabbed them. Got it. This is utterly fascinating, Mallory, but it's not our problem. We've got more personal issues to deal with, like making sure my sister and my employees are alive and well."
"But that's what I'm saying, I'm saying we might never know," Mallory replied. "We're stranded here! RealWare didn't leave behind anything when they left, no mobiles, nothing. We can't get back! I've... I've brought us to a dead end! I didn't mean to, I was just trying to save you..."
"Without which we'd definitely be dead, so don't kick yourself out of guilt," she ordered. "And yes, we can too leave this place."
"No, we can't."
"Yes, we CAN! Think, Mallory! How did this Leeham guy know you weren't from Earth?"
"He... he must have seen us teleport in. Right?"
"Circumstantial. He knew from the very first minute who you were and what you were and where we're from. And how could he know that if all he had to work from was a school book from days of yore? ...Leeham, if that's you, I know you're waiting downstairs. I heard you come in."
On cue, the old man ascended up from the bottom level of the treetop home. "The wood is a bit rotten," he admitted bitterly. "I need to have it replaced soon..."
"Now do the honor of answering my question," she said. "How did you know we came from the multiverse?"
With a heaving sigh, Leeham gave in.
"You could have been happy here, once I taught you the language your words had eventually evolved into," he said. "I would've welcomed you in. I could grow an extension to the house, I would have my family around me again... if circumstances were different. But I know better than to argue it now. If I had told him the whole truth, well... chances are, Mallory is just as stubborn as his mother was."
If there were a precident, it was long lost in the centuries of forgotten multiversal history.
As far as anyone alive knew, it had never been done before. The idea of overriding every single live RealNet stream everywhere in the multiverse—as well as stream-on-demand services for prerecorded video—was unthinkable. It interrupted the news, it interrupted sports, it even interrupted Love & Hate...
Some people across the multiverse took one look at the face which now adorned their RealNet displays, and thought, "Haven't I seen that guy somewhere before..?"
"I am speaking to you from Reality Prime, home of RealWare," he began. "RealWare, your friend and companion throughout all of history. Always commanded by a member of the Bates family—until now. There has been a changing of the guard. Along with this change, other changes will come... and I felt it was only fair to give you some idea of what to expect. This concerns all of us, everywhere.
"We are about to embark on a brilliant future, all of us. Until now, you have lived in realities which were mundane... pedestrian. Dull. Gravity always moves the same way, there is always air to breathe, there is always a sun and sometimes a moon but otherwise your skies are flat, unappealing colors... essentially you have all lived in the same cookie cutter pattern of Reality. And why? Because RealWare saved their finest creations for the rich, for those who would hide them away from you and indulge in them.
"No longer. My name is Multi, and you may have seen me or someone who looks like me before—but now I am the only one left. I'm going to start changing the realities you know around you, bettering them, improving on the original designs. I have an eye towards guiding us all into a superior age, one where mankind's imagination is truly unleashed... and I think you'll find that over the years, as your children are raised in this wonderful tomorrow, they'll thank you for the cooperation you will be showing me today—"
Eiko turned it off. She'd heard it before. In fact, she didn't think it was possible to be more long-winded and dramatic than he had already been, yet he managed it somehow.
She guessed he had watched a lot of video streams; he was acting just like the hero in some big adventure. He really believed in what he was saying, too, which scared her even more—at least she knew the characters on the screen were just actors and it was all just a big fun story, like playing dolls. He was gonna play dolls too, but with real people...
Scheme. Plan. Get out. She had to be clever and smart and crafty just like her oneechan would be.
Eiko powered on the RealNet terminal.
Just like he'd said, it was really, really restricted. RealWare owned RealNet and could do what it wanted with it; if they didn't want you going somewhere, there wasn't much you could do. Normally this just meant you had to pay extra to visit certain nodes, or you could institute parental controls so your kids couldn't do things you don't like (and you could monitor everything they did do to make sure you still liked it)... but from inside RealWare, under Multi's instructions, it meant this lump of plastic was barely a workstation at all.
But when she tried to log into Onegai, it worked. Of course, huge portions of the node were locked off, essentially she could only message her friends—or rather 'friend' since the restrictions were blocking all her contracts save for Kensuke@Onegai. Which would be enough.
She opened the message composer, praying he still had figured out a way around his parent's rather harsh grounding, and wrote.
"Dear Kensuke, I'm not at my house anymore but I'm okay..."
...he might censor that part, but that wasn't important; if anything it'd raise his suspicions even more. Especially since he knew what Mallory looked like, and now he'd probably seen Multi's broadcast and thought "WTF?", whatever that actually stood for.
"I'm really bored here. I've got a lot of toys and stuff but I lost the My First RealNet Workstation my sister gave me for my birthday which had all my files on it, and I can't get them reauthorized for this one. Can you do me a favor? I really wanna see that episode of Important Courtroom Drama where the interreality superspy in the clown suit was framed for loitering. You know it's my favorite, right? We had so much fun watching that one! There's a copy in the archives here but I wanna watch it with the commercials that were airing when we watched it that day, so I can remember what it was like. Send it to me right away pls. Hugsnkissed! Eiko-chan!"
Hoping she hadn't pushed her luck, she pressed Send with keyboard commands, just like her oniichan had taught her (just like his okaasama had done long ago).
Now, she just had to wait, and hope he got the message. Because they were talking about how the superspy was going along with the frame job just because they had his daughter hostage, and there was this bit where a secret message was smuggled into his dressing room in a cream pie...
She couldn't get a pie over RealNet, but a video file, that she could get. And with any luck it'd have more than clowns and funny commercials.
Alive. It was all alive, and so very, very real...
There were trees on Grünwald, of course. Great trees, tall and proud, with leaves of green and bark of brown and wood of grain and such... and they were generally all alike. Forests of similar trees, arranged in an organized manner for later harvesting. All part of the standard Reality Engine coding package for agricultural realities, staple RealWare programming...
But this, this place was truly alive and wild. Trees grew anywhere they wanted, to any shape and any height they pleased. They grew because they planted themselves through some natural cycle, according to Leeham—an ecology that sustained itself perfectly, even after humanity put a serious dent in it thousands of years ago. In the Realities, a self-balancing ecology didn't come cheaply and usually needed a tweak or two to keep it going... and most folks didn't care one way or another as long as they got their power and their RealNet and their buildings. Trees were decorative and animals were a nuisance...
Animals! He had already seen several birds, many kinds of squirrels as they hiked through the woods. Grünwald had animals—mostly domesticated ones. Wild ones presented a danger to the stability of a reality, RealWare explained. They were available if you wanted them, although they were hard to breed and quite expensive since Reality Engines could only handle life-from-nothing if it was simple life, like plants...
"I didn't think anything like this was possible..." Mallory mused aloud.
"RealWare was never interested in this sort of thing," Leeham commented bitterly, picking up instantly Mallory's unspoken realizations. "If they were, they'd have stayed behind and helped us fix what was wrong. No, instead they decided a controlled reality was the right way to live... one that could be abused as much as you like, without the messy consequences. The sort of mentality that got us into this mess..."
"Things aren't perfect in the multiverse either," Meiko said, gingerly picking her way through the patchy, grassy ground—the hiking shoes Leeham had offered her were too big, so she had to walk carefully. "Engines crash all the time. RealWare has never gotten things fully stable; instead they just make sure the crashes are safe enough to endure until you can reboot or reinstall..."
"Typical of the mentality," Leeham grumbled. "It's easier to change things around a little than get to the root of the problem and fix that. Easier to add a band-aid to a wound, to treat the symptoms and not the disease—"
"As much fun as bantering philosophy is, I'd really like to know where we're going," Meiko said. "'I'll explain when we get there' isn't going to cut it, Leeham. Mallory and I have a serious problem here and if you have a means of getting us home..."
"Don't be hasty, now," Leeham warned, as the group crossed a small creek. "Multiversal folk are always so hasty. Eager to move on, to abandon the past, to press through without thinking too much about why and how—"
"And how do you know about multiversal folk? Have you been there? You have a vehicle, don't you..? That's how you know our language and even a bit about what's out there..."
"What's that huge thing up ahead..?" Mallory asked, pointing to a sizeable lump covered in vines and leaves...
"That, my dear boy, is where we're going," Leeham said, stepping up to the thing... and pulling away a few tangles of overgrown forest, the wild trees deciding to pile up on top of the thing...
When it was clear, a perfectly ordinary front door was visible, complete with a carved wooden sign reading HOME SWEET HOME, in a language perfectly familiar to Mallory.
"A house," Meiko deduced. "So you were in the multiverse once. And you used this to go there. So... why didn't you tell Mallory? You knew we wanted to leave, and you had the means..."
...and an entirely new sensation took over Mallory's whole of self.
It was something strange and alien, but very comforting. Very soothing. He turned in place, studying his surroundings. The grass, the creek, the blue sky high above, the house...
'Realization' was a bit of a stranger to him. But that's what he was experiencing. Culture shock had passed, and in its place, no fear...
No fear. Green grass beneath his feet. Blue sky above...
Water trickling down a creek. Birds chirping from the trees...
Was she smiling?
No, actually, she was frowning.
This wasn't the way he wanted to bring her here. In his dreams, she was happy to be by his side in this place. It was supposed to be a wonderful, joyous moment... not this. But that could wait, because after months of strange dreams about this place, he knew exactly where he was.
"I'm home," Mallory realized.
When Leeham offered nothing, merely looking away with shame, Mallory turned to face him and finish the unspoken revelation.
"You and my mother both went to the Multiverse," he continued. "You found this house somehow, and got it going... and curiosity drove you. You knew the past, you knew what was out there and you had to see... and you explored it together. While she was pregnant with me."
"Wha?" Meiko said, as it was her turn to play the confused one. "Mallory? Come on now, that's not poss—"
Leeham finally raised his eyes, to look at his son directly.
"We were archaeologists," he explained. "On one of our digs in this forest, we came across this house... something which we knew couldn't be a relic of OUR past. The engine we found inside fascinated her. She did everything she could to make it work, for two years she tinkered on it... and I helped her. Once it was running, we threw caution to the wind and activated it..."
"And that's when it happened?" Mallory asked.
"No, we made several trips, actually," Leeham said... a tiny twinkle returning to his eye that could be called mischevious. "We kept our explorations secret, of course. We had no idea how the more restrictive government of this world would react to us discovering the 'traitors' in the Multiverse. But explore we did. We studied your language, your ways, how your culture had dropped into stagnation... it was all so amazing, Mallory! She was drawn into it, and I was drawn with her... we had to learn more. We would journey back and forth so often... and... and then, she..."
"The engine failed," his son answered. "It's just like M found out in his research—I must have... vanished from my mother, and ended up in the Multiverse when the accident happened."
"She didn't live much longer after that," Leeham said, bitterness returning, showing his age again after the moment of youthful memory. "The trauma was too great. We'd lost you, I'd lost her... and for a time, I hated this thing that caused it all, this relic of the treasonous past. I HATED it... but how can you focus hate on a thing? Especially the thing that we put so much love into repairing. No, it was silly, and I realized that after a time. But this didn't mean I had to use it again, either... after all, why go back to that place? There wasn't any point. Not without her..."
He gave the HOME SWEET HOME sign on the door a brief glare. It returned a wooden expression.
"So, I let the forest take the house and never again used the engine," Leeham said, finishing his story. "My tenure as explorer was officially over. I tried to return to my archaeology work on Earth, but my heart wasn't in it. I... faded, I suppose. ...but now here you are! The doctors took a blood sample when I found you, they matched you as my son and didn't think anything odd about it... but Mallory, please, imagine how overjoyed I was! You weren't lost, and somehow, some way, you'd returned to me..!"
"And when I said I wanted to leave, decided not to tell me about this house. You want us to stay."
"It's a second chance, my boy!" Leeham pleaded, approaching his son across the grassy ground. "Maybe God's smiling on me today... the thought that I'd have a family again never even occured to me, and out of the bright blue you came! I... I know you likely have a father on the other side. But please, even if I've only known you a short time, I can feel a connection. You can't leave now! Please..!"
Mallory looked away... his brain had absorbed so much that day, he had to process it. But he didn't fumble, he didn't stammer. He didn't pull the baffled farmboy routine—when he did speak, he spoke from his heart.
"I'd like to get to know you better," he told Leeham. "I really would. Ever since Dad... my dad Josef told me I was adopted I've wondered... but... Leeham, Dad, I can't do this now. I'm sorry, I can't. I've got a family over there that needs me—Eiko, and Kisei and Lorelei, they're all in trouble. I have a life there and things I need to take care of. But I'm not saying I'll abandon you! I just need to go now. I'll... I will come back. I promise you. Okay?"
"Your family..." Leeham repeated, the word having great weight with him. Enough to sag his shoulders, as he realized—much to his original prediction—that Mallory would indeed be as stubborn as his mother.
"I won't abandon you. I promise. I just have to take care of this," Mallory said, quickly reaching out to give his dazed father a hug... it felt natural to him, there was no hesitation. "I can't say I'll live here, but I won't vanish from your life. Meiko and I.... ...Meiko?"
She leaned out of the open doorway.
"The engine's broken," she announced. "I checked, the displays are inactive and it won't reboot. ...sorry, I just didn't want to interrupt you two..."
"It's.. it's all right," Leeham said, letting go of his son. "But... it's been years since I abandoned the house. The engine might... not restart. It could be too badly damaged—"
"This looks like a job for an REC-certified Reality Engineer!" Mallory declared, striding into the mobile home, past the two of them. "Leave it to me!"
He paid no attention to his surroundings, except to note: Nicely furnished. Cozy. A fixer-upper. The engine was right where he figured it'd be, the same sort of niche Meiko's engine occupied.
Right, then. THIS he could do!
Rearing back, he delivered a mighty kick to the side of the engine.
A large, metal bit of it fell off. And his big toe hurt. Nothing else happened.
"Mallory!" Leeham exclaimed, horrified. "What are you doing!? Don't kick the blasted thing!"
"No no, wait, I can do this," he said, putting up his hands. "I just have to focus. Have to focus. Right..."
Focus, just like he focused when he teleported here. Focus on something you absolutely have to do, something you need to do, regardless of fear over what you are, something that must be done...
Eiko's in danger. They're all in danger. I have to do this. I have to do this for Meiko...
His foot swung straight and true.
Now his little toe was hurting.
He was about to try again when Meiko stuck her leg in the way to stop him.
"This isn't a reality," she said. "It doesn't have an engine. It just exists. ...so, your power might not work on Earth."
"I don't know what you're talking about, but I do know kicking it isn't going to work!" Leeham exclaimed. "It took her two years to get it running. I don't even know how it works, she was the engineering-minded one..."
Even in this world, my mother was a Reality Engineer, Mallory randomly mused.
"All right, then..." he said, pushing up the sleeves of his baja sweatshirt. "We'll do this the old-fashioned way, then. I'll just fix the thing."
"Fix it?" Meiko asked. "Mallory, you've never actually tinkered with an engine before. You just gave it the technical tap, so to speak..."
"But I'm a certified engineer," he said. "I'm YOUR certified engineer, the one you hired just for situations like this! It's my job. And I have to have remembered SOMETHING from all that studying, right? I couldn't have passed the test on pure luck... I think... look, I can do this, all right? I'll fix it. I'll sit here and I'll work on it as long as it takes to fix it! I'll fix it, then we'll go get Eiko and everything will be fine! Trust me, Meiko, I know what I'm doing! ...uh, Leeham, do you have wrenches and hammers? I think I may need those for... stuff. And things."
Such a simple room... it'd be easy to overlook it, assuming it to be yet another technology-filled oblong space, just like thousands of others in the well secured network control center. A large room, fifty feet by fifty feet by fifty feet, with displays and control panels along every wall. Just another drop in the bucket of Reality Prime...
But this simple place was his rightful inheritance, his true prize.
He was fighting the others just for this room. Not that they knew it, of course; it was the secret he had guarded feverishly, eager to eliminate the competition before they knew what they were actually competing for... and with the last of them gone, with the woman who put him in a position of power gone as well, it was finally his.
The RealNet Core.
"Every single Reality Engine is connected via RealNet back to RealWare," he continued to explain to his young charge, ignoring her impetuous mood. (The guards would grab her if she tried to run, so she didn't bother. At least she was a practical girl, Multi thought.) He added a sweeping arm gesture to the rows and rows of holographic displays, each with detailed information on the run-time of various realities... "Urbana, Nippon, SubUrbana, Restless, Nocturn, Antiparadisia, and so on... thousands of them are connected here. After all, how else could RealWare automatically push software patches to these engines? The core handles all updating, all billing, all remote access to—"
"I wanna go back to my room," Eiko complained. "I'm waiting for a message from my friend. I don't care about some stupid RealNet stuff!"
"But this is very important," Multi tried to explain. "This is how I'm going to lead the Multiverse into the future I promised you, Eiko. This is why I joined RealWare; I knew if I had access to the core of the network, the monoculture of RealWare would give me the power I needed. Let me explain... you know I can manipulate reality, yes...?"
He held out his hand, bending the light in the room slightly to form dancing colors in his palm. He hoped the beautiful gesture would impress the girl, but she remained staunchly annoyed.
"So you can do magic tricks," she agreed.
"But it's much more than magic tricks," he said, flicking his wrist to end the light show. "You see this hand? I made it myself. A very bad man tried to kill me by drawing power into himself and overloading, so he could take me with him—but he only took my arm. And I made myself a new one! I simply willed it to happen, through my innate connection to generated reality. Engines can create life, engines can govern physics—through them I can modify the body, I can modify physics, I can do anything I need to. And through the RealNet core, I can touch engines so very far away, and enact changes by remote, with my power amplified a thousand times!"
"So you can do magic tricks from far away," Eiko decided.
Multi sighed, letting his perfectly ordinary created hand drop to his side. "You don't understand the scope of this. Let me show you something wonderful, then... an idea I had planned for years, waiting for this day to come so I could finally enact it..."
He sat in his swivel-chair, turning to face the displays before him. Keying in a sequence, remote cameras he'd placed there just for this demonstration revealed a series of glass domes, deep underwater...
"This is the resort reality known as Aquarius," he explained. "A very strange reality. Unlike others, it's completely underwater; the families that vacation there visit air-filled domes, taking in the splendor of the customized ocean through glass walls. It's really quite fascinating, and it's close to the ideal of aesthetic I want for the whole Multiverse... but not close enough. Do you know why, Eiko?"
"Do I care why, Eiko?" she mimiced back at him.
"It doesn't make sense, that's why. Air-breathing people, living under water? Wouldn't it be so much easier if we simply... changed things a little...?"
With a flair for the dramatic, he held his hands to the console... closed his eyes, and focused.
His self reached out across the links. Flickering micro-engines, moving data instead of moving buildings, linking him to any Reality he liked. Linking him to the engine in Aquarius, a thing he could tangibly feel, as he changed the ripples in its pure water core...
All Eiko saw was the domes of Aquarius cracking, one by one, and eventually shattering. Water pouring in as thousands of tourists panicked, the sudden doom coming from all sides...
"Wait, wait!" she protested, trying to reach for him—and being restrained by the guards at her side. "What are you doing?! You're gonna kill them!"
"Noo..." Multi said, eyes still closed, still focusing his power. "Keep watching. Keep watching, Eiko, and see the beautiful future I want to make for you..."
...and bodies floated in the water, so many of them...
...and they moved. They moved in a way Eiko had never seen before. Because instead of legs, now they had tails. Just like mer-people from her early fairy tale books...
The people of Aquarius, floating in the water which was now their home, found themselves instantly comfortable with swimming about. Some were still in shock, but others found themselves swimming in little loops, fascinated by this bizarre turn of events. They breathed the water and found they had no difficulty living outside of the protective domes...
"Beautiful..." Multi said, opening his eyes at last. "So very beautiful. Reality can be glorious, Eiko, glorious and wonderful! Why do we persist in living mundane lives in mundane places? We could experience whole new levels of existence, we could let our imaginations run free and wild, creating like gods—"
But now Eiko was screaming.
Confused, Multi turned back to the screen. To the twitching, gasping people of Aquarius, whose bodies were reverting.
It took a full minute for them to stop moving.
"That... that wasn't supposed to happen," Multi said, with a small amount of horror in his voice. "I didn't want that to happen. I—"
His chair wheeled backwards after Eiko pulled away from the guards, pouncing on Multi and flailing at him with her tiny fists. He put up his hands instinctively to protect himself, before the heavily armed men finally pulled her away.
"You're a MONSTER!" she accused, as they were dragging her away. "A horrible, horrible monster! You killed my oneechan and you killed all those people, and you... you should die! You should die for what you've done! I HATE YOU! I HATE—"
The closing door cut off her words, as the guards hauled her back to her room. Multi suspected the next word would have been 'you'.
That wasn't supposed to happen. He had the power now, he had the control. He was going to change the future...
His artificial hand throbbed in pain, much as it had periodically since he crafted it. He clenched his good arm over it, glaring at the screen as the dead floated in place...
It wasn't his fault. He did what had to be done—how could he have made a mistake? He knew he was capable of doing this. He was ready! Why was his power failing him? It wasn't his fault. He couldn't have faulted. He had to be the shepherd with a firm hand on the crook, the one who could save everyone, the one they could have confidence in as a benevolent helper...
It must have been their fault, he decided. The people of Aquarius. They resisted and that's why the change didn't keep; his control over his powers was absolute. But the people, those people weren't ready for the future. They wouldn't have endured long anyway, so this wasn't a setback.
He would continue his plan. Perhaps a few more disasters would occur, but that would just have to be an acceptable level of loss. If every Reality had to burn in order for him to create the true future, then so be it.
For two days, they toiled at the job. It wasn't easy; Mallory tried his best not to look like he had forgotten ninety percent of what he never learned about Reality Engines, but he wasn't going to bluff his way through something so important. For Leeham's part, he could translate the old notebooks they had found—schematics and repair notes penned in his mother's hand, long ago. But he insisted that he wasn't a scientist, and he couldn't truly comprehend the things she talked about, even if he could translate the pure words.
Both poked at the engine in collective incompetence for hours a day. Meiko would take over Mallory's usual duties, namely making the boys lunch and fixing them tea using the mobile home's kitchen... when she grew too restless from sitting around, she'd also work at tidying up the place.
"It's not a bad house, really," she said, as she ran the bizarre Earth equivalent of a vacuum cleaner over the stairs—which was quiet enough for her to speak at a normal volume. Its rollers picked up the dust perfectly, cleansing the fabric in a single pass. "It's a bit like our house, Mallory... maybe it was an earlier model? I like the woodwork all over the place, the trim and molding... it's very quaint. Ours is spartan in comparison..."
"We were expecting something entirely made of plastics and metals," Leeham said, looking up from the piles of notebooks surrounding him on the carpet, as he sat cross-legged while sorting them. "The Multiverse was so technology-driven, we had assumed that any mobile-building they used would be blatantly artificial compared to the naturalist bent Earth culture took on... but it seems we were the 'futuristic' ones, in comparison. This house is very similar to a mid-twentieth-century design... no no, Mallory, that's the 'A'-coupling."
"This is an A?" he asked, poking at the scribbled glyph on the paper. "I had no idea our language changed so much...!"
"Ah, no, she just didn't have very good handwriting," Leeham admitted. "Half of the translation involves me recognizing her script..."
His look became distant, as he trailed off.
"Ah... you know... I never knew my mother," Mallory said, trying to approach the subject carefully. "I mean, my adoptive mother. It's funny, she was a reality engineer too! But... she died when I was very young. My father, er, my adoptive father—"
"You can call him your father, Mallory. I don't mind," Leeham replied. "Don't feel uncomfortable on my account. I suppose... it's just something we'll have to get used to. But go ahead, please."
"Er, I don't really have anything to go ahead with, I was just making conversation. ...um. He's a farmer, you know! That's like archaeology, right? I mean, you both... um... dig. And stuff."
"I believe I would like to meet him..." his father-of-some-style said. "I would like to say... he's raised a fine boy. I couldn't have hoped for anything better."
"Ah... thank you, er... Dad. Thank you."
"But then again, you had our genes, didn't you?" Leeham joked, giving the boy a smile. "How could you possibly go wrong with those in your system, eh?"
"Yeah, I guess that... I, uh..."
...the one who sent them here had those genes, too. And look how HE turned out...
That shouldn't be possible. All of those who he was had different upbringings, but even M—the bitterest of them all—had saved them in the end. Why was that one so different? He had to be different, after all. There was no way Mallory could be capable of anything like that...
"What? Oh... oh, sorry, just... let's get to work," he said, fetching his sonic screwdriver. "A-coupling. We're almost there, I just know it! And... then we can settle everything. I just know it."
Multi drummed his fingers on the fine oak table in a manner most annoyed.
This was Gillian's chair. He made sure to use hers, to sit right where she sat. He'd already crushed one of them and that meant they would obey him. Everything was supposed to be going smoothly...
"The, ah, official complaint from Restless concerns their weather," one of the CxO's continued. "Or rather, that you stopped the rain—"
"Of course I stopped the rain," he replied. "It didn't make any sense. Why would anybody WANT to live in a reality where it's always raining? I even gave them a permanent rainbow in their sky. Why exactly are they complaining about that?"
"It's not the rainbow, sir, it's the rain. The drainage system and the water supply of Restless have been tuned for decades under the assumption that there would be a constant deluge—without it, their infrastructure's in turmoil. There are water shortages. I've asked our humanitarian aid branches to send them water, of course—"
"If they need water, I'll provide them with water. The southwest quadrant is sparsely populated, yes? Order them to relocate away from it. I'll create them an ocean the likes of which will rival the seas of Nippon!"
"Er... you're going to destroy twenty-five percent of Restless?"
"This isn't destruction, this is creation! I'm trying to create something beautiful. Why can't anybody understand that?"
"Sir, ahh... if I may speak..?" the Chief Operations Officer said, raising his hand like a child in a crowded classroom.
"Of course," Multi said, sitting back in Gillian's chair. "I value your input, all of you. I've said that."
"What we have here is a problem of public perceptions," the executive explained. "While some of the changes you've been making are minor annoyances—no doubt part of a plan of such, er, beauty and perfection that we simply can't see the big picture yet—what you did with, ah, Aquarius... it has people concerned. Some are seeing it as an aggressive act. An act of war. In fact, I have an official request from Nippon suggesting that a treaty of non-aggression is in order—"
"I'm not at war with them! I'm trying to help them!" Multi protested. "Everything I do, I'm doing for them. Are they that foolish that they want to resist the future? It's this mentality that's kept the Multiverse in stagnation for aeons! I'm sorry, but if they can't accept this, then... then that's unfortunate. But the changes will continue. The NEXT generation will understand... yes, they will. I know they will..."
(None of his yes-men replied, figuring that last part was Multi talking to himself. You didn't want to point out that the dangerous psychopath was mumbling to himself, unless you wanted to become a supercompressed ball of human tissue. They were toadies, but they learned fast.)
"...very well. So. Not everybody is happy with the path that I have set for them," he concluded. "I will learn to accept that. And we will continue. I would like to bring up a new issue—Antiparadisia. Why have they not evacuated like I ordered?"
"I was going to get to that next, actually..." The COO replied, shuffling through the files on his desktop-mounted hologram display. "I passed word along that Antiparadisia was to be shut down in two days' time, as you instructed... including your message about how such a vile haven of anarchy had no place in the future. They sent back an official reply this morning..."
Silence settled across the table, as the COO's throat bobbled nervously.
"And...?" Multi prompted.
"To summarize, they rejected your edict."
"I'd prefer if you didn't summarize. What exactly was their response?"
"...understanding that this is me conveying the official documentation I recieved this morning and not expressing any personal sentiment towards you of any sort," the COO prefaced... he raised one middle finger, extended. "They requested that I show this gesture to you and suggest that you 'sit and spin,' sir. ... —don'tkillme!"
The COO braced for what never came. Instead, Multi let his rage loose on the table, which snapped into four pieces. The Chief Financial Officer's leg was broken in the process.
"More throwbacks of the past..." Multi whispered dangerously. "Gentlemen. Excuse me. I see that need to deal with them directly."
Risking personal trauma, the COO felt the need to speak up. "S-Sir, please, another aggressive act—"
"This is a cleansing," the new CEO of RealWare replied, getting to his feet. "Trust me when I say that the only pure soul in Antiparadisia died a long time ago. I should know—I killed her myself. Anything else that walks and breathes in that place is nothing but trash, and I'll deal with that trash accordingly..."
He marched from the board room, ignoring any pleading or protest. His guards accompanied him to the network control center—he'd been doing a lot of crossing from there to the security control center to the executive building and back and forth. Three key locales, but this was the most important of all. He had a personal bodyguard just for his time spent in this building, where he was strongest yet most vulnerable... here, his will be DONE.
Confidently, he strode into the nondescript fifty-by-fifty-by-fifty room, and keyed in a sequence to access Antiparadisia's Reality Engine. And with a flicker of thought, he destroyed it.
In fact, he couldn't even connect to it. The universal link that he should have to all RealWare engines wasn't even present—the gateways across RealNet to Antiparadisia slammed shut like lead weights, and no matter how he battered at it with his will, they wouldn't budge...
He resisted the urge to unleash upon the voice approaching him. It would be a waste, and further proof that he wasn't in perfect control of himself...
"I... I was trying to explain, sir," the COO said, wheezing and gasping for breath. "Antiparadisia... they aren't using a RealWare engine anymore. They cancelled their contract and switched to an Open Engine two weeks ago... they're not connected to the core anymore!"
"That... that should not matter," Multi said, frowning deeper than he had all week. "It's all RealNet. It's all engines. Who makes them shouldn't matter..."
"It's the, it's the encryption, sir! The Open Reality Movement, they've... they piggyback off RealNet illegally. Because we own RealNet, so they have no legitimate means online, see—"
"Then break their encryption! I don't see how Gillian Bates would have allowed them to use company resources like that—"
"We've tried, sir. We're still trying. But so far the Open Reality Movement just hacks the protocols every time we make a change. It's like a race, see... every time we lock them out they find a way back in."
"I see. Well. I suppose I could go there in person and deal with this..."
"Sir, ah, that's not a good idea," the COO said. "It's like I said... they see you as an aggressive force. You'd be at risk—"
"I think you'll find I can defend myself with some skill."
"But against ALL of Antiparadisia? They hate you there, and you know what they're like! Anarchists, madmen, killers! Even with that bodyguard you've had hanging around the network control center, you couldn't possibly... I mean... not that I'm questioning you sir, I'm just trying to serve your interests, see..."
"Fine. Fine! I'll leave them be. For now," Multi warned. "Along with the other Open Reality worlds. They aren't much of a bother right now. But... I want more resources allocated to cracking into them. I want access to those worlds. ...Gillian should have never let them stand up to her like this. It would have been so much easier to create the future without these rebels hanging around..."
"I told her the same thing, sir!" the COO said, seeing an opportunity to suck up. "We shouldn't have let them compete in the marketplace, sir! Her father knew how to deal with that sort of trash..."
"Agreed. But... we don't have to go that far, not yet. I don't want to waste potential resources, you understand. ...you know, if only I could turn them in my favor—wait, yes, of course! They've been fighting the stagnation, haven't they? Trying to do NEW things with reality, trying to free it from the shackles of history... yes. Yes, a movement which wants to create a bright future couild be a powerful ally. But... I have to focus on winning over the others first. Them, I can deal with them later... I can still be in control, I'll still have perfect control..."
(With his new boss talking to himself again, the COO slinked out the way he came in. No need to interrupt when the madman was on a roll, after all.)
The three of them crowded around the display. Blue illumination lit up their faces in the darkness; the boys had been working well into the night when they finally made a breakthrough.
The engine had power. It had power, and it was operational—fortunately for them it wasn't utterly wrecked, it simply needed some wires replaced and some bolts tightened. Once reconnected to the alternative power source Leeham and his wife had installed years ago, it was up and humming like a harmonica.
Except for one problem.
"There's no water," Mallory concluded.
"We've got a perfectly operable kitchen sink over there," Meiko countered.
"Which isn't going to work, because it has to be a specially treated sort of water," Leeham continued. "From what we could tell, it took a large amount of specially treated but otherwise pure water, plus the software that sent vibrations through it for the engine to function. But when we found the house, the engine had plenty of water..."
"There wasn't a crack in the engine. It couldn't evaporate. There's no way it could have lost its water..." Mallory said, groaning as he slumped against a wall. "But somehow, it did. There's no way we can get this thing moving without water, and I don't know how you make that kind of water... I can't remember. I've tried..."
"We could pour ordinary pure water into it and hope?" Meiko suggested. "I mean, I don't know jack about reality engineering, but that's gotta do SOMETHING, right? Maybe it'd be enough to get us home, at least..."
Leeham shook his head. "You could have an accident. This engine, it is very old; you know what it did in the past... no. It's not worth the risk."
"Excuse me, but I'll decide what amount of risk I'm willing to endure," Meiko retorted. "My sister is back there! My friends and co-workers... and I'm not going to abandon them. If we have a shot, even if it's slim, we take it. This 'planet' of yours is lovely, Leeham, but I'm not staying here if we have any chance of going back. Right, Mallory?"
Both of them turned to Mallory, who was too busy thinking to pay attention. His brain had trouble multitasking, after all.
"What? Oh, ah, we gotta go back, Dad. You know that, it's like I said. ...but we're going to need water, Meiko. The kind of water that... would register on one of those wand-thingies Ryo used..."
"Wand-thingy...?—wait. Wait, no, Mallory, you CAN'T mean—"
"It's all we have, Meiko. It's our best shot."
"We're NOT going to use your blood to power this thing!" Meiko exclaimed. "Have you seen the size of the water reservoir in the engine? To fill that, you'd have to... it'd be too risky, and—"
"And my blood's the only liquid we have that resonates just like the water in a Reality Engine! In fact, I'd guess that the reason I have my powers is because... Leeham, you never used the engine again after the accident, right?"
"No... no, I didn't," he said, a little bewildered. "You think this is somehow connected to these abilities you spoke of while we were working..?"
"The water from the engine... it's a part of me now," Mallory said, putting a hand over his heart, over the little ying-yang on his sweatshirt. "That's how I got the powers! That water didn't evaporate or leak out, it somehow merged with me when I got lost! And... and we've gotta put it back if we're gonna be able to leave this place..."
"If so... then there is no need to risk your life in the process," Leeham said, figuring things out as he went along. "Transfusion. You have the same blood type as I do, Mallory; the doctors confirmed it, remember? When they identified you as my genetic son. I'll go back to the hospital and finagle some equipment... and then you can fill the engine and be reasonably healthy after."
"Right! Now we're cooking with three parts oil and one part butter!" Mallory exclaimed. "There's no time to lose—Leeham! Go to the hospital and get... blood-moving stuff! Meiko! Get some orange juice and cookies and things together from the food stocks, I'm going to need calories, I think! Me! Get the engine's reservoir open and ready for a transfer! Let's move, people! Move move move!"
And move they did. Mallory tended to his own end of things, getting the water chamber prepared, putting the engine into sleep mode to keep it from prematurely activating...
"Mallory?" Meiko called out, from the kitchen.
"You know... if you do this, your powers might get weaker. You might even lose them..."
"I don't care," he said, speaking with the kind of honesty that only comes from pure distraction as he fiddled with the engine. "If this gets us home, then I don't care what it takes. I'd do anything for you, Meiko. I'd protect you with my life if I had to... do we have any sugar cookies? Those would work best, I think..."
"Y.. yeah, we have some," she said, fumbling with the sealed container of cookies. She took her time to cross the house, watching Mallory all the way as he futzed about... watching the determined expression on his face.
That's unconditional love, she thought. He didn't even have to think about it, he was ready to die if he had to. He'd stay by me, he'd never let anything happen to me as long as he lives... he'd never leave me...
And at that point, she truly realized that she never wanted to leave him, either.
Unfair. It wasn't fair!
He'd edited her message! He knew it. He knew she'd use some kind of code, that she'd try to get Kensuke a message of some kind. When the reply finally came, but didn't include a copy of the Important Courtroom Drama episode she asked for, she checked her out-box—and found that what really got sent wasn't what she typed.
"Dear Kensuke, I'm not at my house anymore but I'm okay. I'm really bored here. I've got a lot of toys and stuff but I lost the My First RealNet Workstation my sister gave me for my birthday. But I'm happy and being treated well, and everything's great! Hugsnkissed! Eiko-chan!"
It was enough to make her want to throw pillows around the room, so she did while yelling and stamping her feet.
MULTI NO BAKAMONO!
('Bakemono' = Monster. 'Baka' = Idiot. She liked calling Multi that, in her own private little thoughts.)
Kensuke's reply was a bit confused, mostly asking if she was really okay, and asking her to write back. And now she couldn't, because each time she tried, the Workstation locked her out. Multi wasn't going to let her communicate again, not after she pulled that stunt...
Dinner that night, although prohibitively expensive and tasty, was a sour affair in her mouth. Now she really was alone; the only shot she had at communicating was gone. The only consolation she had was more toys and dolls than she'd ever be able to afford herself, and her premium RealNet video streams...
Desperately needing distraction, she tuned into tonight's broadcast of Important Courtroom Drama. New episodes were gonna start tonight, anyway; she didn't want to miss them.
The plot was typical of the show, involving eighty-four doublecrosses and dramatic evidence reveals in mid-trial.
And then the last witness was called to the stand.
The baliff (who was new to the show this season, last time it was this old lady and now it was this seven-foot-tall bald guy) boomed his voice across the courtroom. "The court calls—"
"—Alex Gunthar to the stand!"
Eiko's jaw dropped.
The last time she saw Alex Gunthar, he was a tiny holographic projection being carried around in the bag of his programmer / lover, Belle Pasadina. They were escaping from a video network company that wanted their property back... and here he was, strolling into the Important Courtroom, looking every bit as cocky and handsome as always.
He raised one hand, putting the other on a book of law.
"Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" the baliff asked him.
"Actually, no," Alex replied. "Because right now, I'm being hacked directly into the stream being fed to Reality Prime. Which means I'm not actually part of this overproduced trough of dramatic slop, I'm just here to talk to one very special viewer—and hopefully she's watching..."
"I am!!" Eiko called out, scooting forward on the carpet, closer to the screen. "I'm right here!"
"Of course, we can't hear her," Alex continued, ignoring the other actors going through their lines around him. "But we recently got a message from her, and traced it back across RealNet so we'd know exactly what room in what building to send this feed to. And if she's listening... Eiko? We're going to get you out of there. Ryo's here, and Kensuke's here, and Lorelei's here and Kisei's here. We're all safe, and they're going to rescue you as soon as they can, but they might need your help when the time comes..."
"I'll do anything! I promise, just tell me wh—"
"Once we have a plan, we'll get you details through Important Courtroom Drama," Alex continued in his one-sided communiqué. "So tune in each night. ...look, I don't know how to break it to you, kid... but your sister and her boyfriend, they're not here. We don't know where they are. They might be there with you, but we've got no way of knowing; we didn't even know you were alive until you messaged Kensuke. The others weren't sure if I should bring this up, but I figured you'd wanna know. We'll be in touch... Alex out."
And this week's guest actor replaced Alex on the witness stand, as the show carried on regardless.
Blue sky above. Green grass below. The sound of a creek.
Was she smiling...?
She was calling to him...
He was sleepy. He didn't want to wake up, but he knew he had to; otherwise she might worry that he wasn't going to wake up, and honestly, he was just tired. Anybody would be after having a good portion of their bodily fluids swapped into a machine.
"'mwake, I'm awake..." he mumbled, trying to sit up. "Everything 'kay..?"
"From what I can tell... yes," Leeham replied, detaching a soft cuff from Mallory's arm. There wasn't any needle mark, nothing to show where blood had been siphoned and replaced, but his flesh was definitely a bit sore there. "The engine is making the same sorts of noises I remember back when it worked... we might have done it."
"No time to lose, then..." Mallory said, swinging his legs off the couch. "Let's get back home."
"Mallory, you're still exhausted," Meiko said, pushing him back on the couch gently. "Look, I know you're serious about this... but we've waited this long. We can wait an hour or so for you to get your bearings and rest a bit. All right..?"
"I'd really rather get going, Meiko. I'll be fine, really, don't worry about me..." he said, worming his way around her and getting to his feet—slightly dizzy, but no worse for wear. "Leeham...? Are you coming with us?"
"Me? Pfah, I'm an old man... I'm not ready for some adventure like this," he tried to joke. "I'll stay behind. I'll wait here. ...you said you would be back, after all."
"And I meant it, too. I'll come back once this is all over... maybe take you to see Josef?" Mallory suggested. "Once everything's better again. I promise."
"This might not work, you know. Even with your blood in the machine, it might have another accident..."
"But I have to try—"
"I know, I know," he said... with a smile. "Just as stubborn as your mother, like I said... and, well... just as brave. I'll take my leave now. Go, and do what you have to do. And I know I'll see you again..."
He reached out, and embraced his son. No further words were needed; he departed quietly, his part in this done.
The two who remained walked to the engine, which blinked and hummed and looked ready to go.
"All set...?" Mallory asked, thumb on the control panel. "I'm going to bring us back to the same docking area we left..."
He looked down, finding Meiko squeezing his free hand.
"All set," she agreed. "Let's go."
At first, they weren't sure they landed in the right place. After all, it wasn't raining anymore, and this was supposedly Restless...
Then they saw the destroyed dock, and the remains of their house.
And the men with the rifles and RealWare uniforms, who were guarding it.
Who certainly noticed their arrival, and the two faces looking out the window in horror...
"Go. Go, go!" Meiko prompted, running back to the engine niche. "We've gotta get out of here!"
She didn't need Future Perfect for this—Ryo had made her memorize the address and repeat it back to him, eighteen times. It was the last resort of last resorts... and it was easier to just use it without explaining all of that to Mallory in a lengthy way which could put them both in danger of being shot.
The house rocked with purple light as the old engine shifted, the entire structure relocating somewhere else entirely...
When Mallory next looked out the window, he was greeted with a sky the color of a coredump. Clouds of letters and numbers floated freely, along with weird techie system status messages. Not that he knew it at the time, but in the reality filled with hardcore programmers, engineers and reality hackers that he had just landed in, such information was far more important than a daily stock quote or a corporate logo as other realities might have in their skies...
Their arrival was noticed immediately, and a greeting party dispatched. Familiar and unfamiliar faces, but a few stood out: Lorelei, Kisei, Gillian...
"Good, you're here," their leader Ryo said, with his trademark casual smile. "We were getting worried. Now, we can really get started..."
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.