'Tidying up' was too cutesy of a word for it. Mallory was a lean, mean cleaning machine. Whatever machismo he could gather unto himself he did, eliminating dust and dirt like a focused filth assassin. He was the Zen master of tidying up—a familiar and comfortable state of daily routine.

He ran the dust-sweeper around the corner of the coffee table, eliminating a dustball kicked up by Eiko's playing—Most Terrible Lizard King™ was doing battle with Peacemaker Pretty Soldier Biiko™ in her lovely pink camouflage with matching pink non-violent stun weapons, and so far the only casualty was the carpeting.

He scooped up the end result of the horrors of plastic war, then rounded the next corner, asking Lorelei to put her legs up—she promptly put them behind her head, which made him do a bit of a double take, but then it was back to the Zen cleansing routine.

Kisei smoothly shifted her legs onto the L-bend in the couch before Mallory even got there, opting for the more sensible route of simply relocating them while giving Lorelei her usual look of mild disdain. As usual, Lorelei bit back with a sarcastic comment which Kisei ignored, as she resumed writing in her journal.

The carpets finished, it was time to break out the feather duster. He ran it over the various framed pictures of Eiko and Meiko from their earlier days, and took special care to clean the one recent group photo they had taken during the Nippon stopover; the only picture of Mallory in the House, and most importantly, the only picture where Mallory and Meiko were together...

On a whim, he walked over to the RealNet Workstation where Meiko was browsing job listings, and dusted her a bit. She flinched and then sneezed when he flicked the duster over her face... and they both shared a laugh, a wonderfully silly and heartfelt laugh.

Just one perfect moment in time, one which Mallory never wanted to end. If he spent the rest of his days like this, with all of them, he'd be the happiest man in the multiverse...

In order to maintain that happiness, he tried his best to ignore the ghost. Dusting Meiko's Workstation screen a bit, he moved on to dusting the engine in the alcove behind her. Then he'd have to head to the kitchen and clean up Meiko's last attempt at proving her worth in the field of cooking, and he could move on to the laundry...

The ghost stood in his way. His expression hadn't changed since he got there—one of anticipation, of prompting. Prompting Mallory to take some sort of action...

"Leave me alone," Mallory said, pushing past him. "I'm happy. Just leave me alone... I couldn't do anything even if I wanted to. Not against him—"

Him. The memory alone broke his trance, and broke his wonderful moment.

Because immediately, he was there. And he didn't wait, he didn't pause, just as before—he simply burned it. All of it. In one horrifying moment everybody he knew and loved was gone in a flash of purple fire. All that remained was himself and himself and himself. Mallory and Mallory and Mallory, Mallory and the ghost M and the killer Multi...

Multi, who was wearing a sweatshirt much like Mallory's, except with the black and the white of its yin-yang reversed.

Mallory awoke in an instant. It was better to wake an hour ahead of schedule than to have nightmare after nightmare.

unreal estate / episode 14 / beyond blue skies

The sky outside the house was black, with gray lettering all over. System status indicators, hexadecimal code, and jargon on top of jargon that Mallory (an REC-certified Engineer) couldn't make heads or tails of.

Of all the realities Mallory had been to, this one felt... very, very weird. It was a bizarre mix of spartan and luxurious; a hodge podge of whatever the Open Reality Movement had felt like cobbling together. Shantytowns stood next to storage warehouses stood next to office buildings stood next to bizarre glass and metal buildings with more aesthetic appeal than functional use. Whatever someone felt like creating, they made it; these were reality hackers, the sort who cared more for what's possible than what makes sense.

And hackers there were, plenty of them wearing various slogan-scrawled geek pride t-shirts. "Realware Sucks" was the most common, but various other ORM ideologies (and witty, oh so clever ORM humor which nobody outside of the ORM ever understood) were present as well. The average age of a citizen of Grep, home of the Open Reality Movement, was twenty-five. Not exactly The Beautiful People, mind you, but certainly The Young Ones.

But... they weren't the only ones here. Because off to the left of Mallory's view (the center of which was dominated by a tall Noyori Labs building, which they were docked next to) was a refugee camp.

From the limited explanations Ryo gave them prior to turning in for night, word was spreading quickly that Multi (that was his name, Multi, Mallory never even knew what his other self's name was until now and even having a name other than his own didn't help the nightmares and he didn't want to know and—)—that Multi wasn't changing any Open Engine-based worlds. He'd posted armed guards around all the RealWare engines, trying to keep anybody from changing systems, so that had to mean open realities were safe, right? Right. And so they fled, heading to any open reality they could... with Grep, home of the ORM, being the most well known and popular.

And so, Grep was bursting at the seams with people. It was crowded, even moreso than Nippon. Mallory could hear the hustle and bustle even in the early morning hour, even before he opened the window to get some fresh air in the musty, cozy old house they'd found. Multi had been busy, Ryo explained... changing things. And destroying some realities in the process.

Killing people.

Which Meiko couldn't care less about, since she was wholly focused on the one person who wasn't there—Eiko. Always practical, always focused... she wanted to start planning a rescue attempt right away, as they had learned from Kensuke that Multi had her captive. But Ryo insisted that the two of them get some sleep, and deal with it in the morning.

Now, it was morning. And knowing Meiko, knowing how she could get when faced with a problem, she—

"Up already? Good, let's get the others."

—wouldn't have slept a wink. Mallory turned to face her, noting the circles under the eyes, the way she flexed her fingers as she tried to bring some life into them after organizing her thoughts on paper all night...

He wasn't going to chide her for disobeying Ryo's orders. It wouldn't accomplish anything, and she certainly wouldn't go sleep a bit on his say-so. He simply nodded silently, and moved to join her. To support her as best he could... despite feeling so useless.

- - - - -

Morning meeting in the conference room of Noyori Labs, Grep Branch. Present and accounted for:

Meiko: looking quite exhausted but doing her best not to show it. She was nursing from the strongest cup of coffee Mallory could make, something black and thick like tar, with enough kick to raise the dead. She'd brought a pile of papers with her, each coated in thick scrawl; without F.P., she'd had to make do with some old, yellowing stationery in her new bedroom.

Ryo: who had immediately chided Meiko about not sleeping and got an earful of it for his efforts. He looked pretty much as he always did, wearing casual clothing underneath his standard lab coat. He wore his usual cheerful smile, the sort that he could use to mask any true worries, in an effort to raise the spirits of those around him.

Lorelei: who was possibly more restless than Meiko, having been stuck on this world for days now, unable to get any action going towards the primary goal of rescuing Eiko. Having lost her massive supply of hot and trendy clothing along with her signature double-bladed saber, she'd resorted to tearing a "Open Reality = Open Future" t-shirt in half to make a nice midriff shirt. She wasn't going to fret and gnash her teeth and pace in circles AND look bad doing it, after all. As for a replacement weapon, she had a stun rod attached to her hand-me-down belt on her hand-me-down jeans, and wasn't happy about it.

Kisei: who was quite calm and serene, unlike the fiery woman with orange hair sitting to her right in the midriff T-shirt. She wore a slogan T-shirt too, the first time Mallory had seen her wearing anything other than her old green military uniform. She'd somehow found a tranquilizer gun on Grep, which she wore slung across her back much like her missing sniper rifle.

Belle Pasadina: wearing a nice sundress and sitting next to a holographic projection of her lover / creation Alex Gunthar. It took Mallory a few minutes to remember who they were, since that particular mission was over long ago. Long ago, back when he was new at all this, before everything started changing in good ways and bad...

Gillian Bates: whom Mallory only recognized from the RealNet news streams he used to watch back home in Grünwald. Of all the people he'd expected to meet in an open reality, she ran dead last, beat out only by the one he was hoping never to meet again who was responsible for all this... and for her part, Gillian wore the same smile Ryo wore. But she probably meant it, sitting calm and confident and cheerful in her place at the table.

And finally there was "Xyzzy", legendary leader of the Open Reality Movement, who was an ordinary guy slumped in his chair and trying not to be noticed, an effort he was exceedingly successful at as the group bantered back and forth.

"The problem here is not method, it's opportunity," Meiko was explaining, as she shuffled her paper stack to the maps which Gillian had given her yesterday. "Right now, Multi is likely moving back and forth between these three buildings on the Reality Prime campus... the security center, the network control center, and the executive offices. He never leaves Reality Prime, so if we're going to get Eiko back, we have to do it with him present and accounted for."

"Considering the guy's like a tiny god, that's not gonna be easy," Lorelei said, leaning back in her chair as she studied the documents. "Isn't he, like, omniscient or something? He'd sense us coming a mile away with his crazy super powers."

"Not likely. From what we know about these powers through Mallory and M, that's not part of the package; even M, whose powers were completely unlocked, couldn't do that. The best he can do is change things he's aware of. So... this rescue would have to be stealthy. Kisei?"

"I have entered the campus of Reality Prime numerous times in the past," Kisei replied immediately, anticipating the question. "I am familiar with the grounds and the security involved. But those two of the three buildings have impenetrable security I do not know how to defeat—they use technology RealWare has never placed on the open market where Tachi could purchase and study it. Given their tendency to hoard patents and use them for their own purposes, we can safely assume the systems guarding them are alien to us and thus undefeatable."

"Undef—wait. Two out of three buildings? Why only two?"

"Because the security center is already guarded by hundreds of skilled, fully armed guards," she explained. "Thus they did not need to waste whatever expensive technology they use trying to keep people out of the other two. Anybody who tries to get in will likely be committing suicide."

"Not so."

The group turned to the one with all the inside dirt—the former CEO of RealWare.

"I know those three buildings intimately," Gillian explained, steepling her fingers together as she addressed the troops. "I can teach you the most efficient path through the security center to its core. Once there, a bit of rampant destruction and the security systems on the other two buildings will fall. It's the only way to gain access; your assassin's analysis of our security is quite on the money, Meiko Mirai. The two key buildings of Reality Prime use reality-locking technology the likes of which reality hackers can only dream of. Frightfully expensive and difficult to maintain, which is why we only have it in two places, but quite effective."

"So, then..." Meiko said, pieces falling together in her head, gears turning quickly. "You're saying if someone who's well versed in fighting off hundreds of people at once takes the efficient path to the security core and trashes it, then someone who's well versed in stealthy infiltration could then enter one of the other buildings and rescue Eiko without being blocked."

"It's marvelous the way you think, Meiko," Gillian said, casting a look of what was probably simple admiration in her direction.

Lorelei grinned ear-to-ear, as she cracked her knuckles. "Good thing we know someone who's good at taking on hundreds of enemies at once, then..."

"As well as one who specializes in stealth-based operations," Kisei added, without the grinning or the joint-fluid-popping.

"Hold on, both of you," Meiko said, trying to curb Lorelei's enthusiasm more than Kisei's lack thereof. "It's a good plan, with one very huge flaw—we have no idea where Eiko is. All we have is a network address, which we can't map to a specific room inside Reality Prime without information we can't get access to. She could be in any of these buildings, or none of them at all. Until we can lock down exactly where she is, nobody's going anywhere."

"Actually, the way I see it, all we need to lock down is where Multi is," Lorelei said. "That way, we can go kill him. After that, fetching Eiko is trivial. Right?"

Whatever roll the group was on came crashing to a halt, as conflicted glances were exchanged around the table.

The first to speak up was Ryo, raising his hand for attention like a kid in class. "Ah... isn't that going a bit far? This isn't a war council, it's a rescue council. If we can get Eiko back and get out without incident, wouldn't that be preferable?"

"But Ryo, darling, this is the natural consequence of Multi's actions," Gillian said. "He surely has to know that; you can't do what he's done without repercussions. Simple cause and effect; he kills, so we kill. I have no real interest in this child you're all concerned about, no offense, but I would suggest you take any opportunity you get to eliminate this man."

"But... but what if it doesn't work?" the more flighty and nervous voice of Belle Pasadina spoke. "He'll be enraged! He'll take it out on everybody in the multiverse! It could be even worse than what he's already done. If... if we leave him alone, then maybe you guys could just stay here—"

"I ain't living life on the run anymore!" Lorelei spat back. "We've been fleeing this guy ever since we met him, and there's no way to escape someone like that. You think you'll be safe here? How long until he finds a way into the Open Reality Movement's little hidey holes? I say take his ass out now before we lose the opportunity. Yeah, murder is naughty and evil and wrong, but you know what? Watch me not care. If ever there was a justifiable homicide, this would be it. Call it proactive self-defense if you have to, but it's justifiable!"

"Couldn't we reason with him?" Ryo suggested. "From what Gillian's told us, he's not really a bad guy at heart; he wants to help everybody out, and he's doing what he thinks is right. And heck, if he's anything like Mallory, then that means... err... wait a minute, where's Mallory?"

"You try reasoning with him while he's turning gravity upside down on you, smiling nicely as he crushes you to death," Lorelei countered. "And leave Mallory out of this; we've already discussed that."

- - - - -

The branch of Noyori Labs in Grep was a tiny one, compared to the home branch in Nippon. Just a simple two-story structure; a conference room, a few small labs, and a nice balcony overlooking the chaotic sprawl of Grep... but there was a nice sliding door between the balcony and the conference room, which is what Mallory needed. Something that would give him a moment's peace.

He leaned on the overlook's railing, crossing his arms and tucking them in a bit for warmth. The "weather" report high above said that it would be a little cold today as they were "feeping" the environmental controls; nothing he couldn't deal with, even if his sweatshirt had been through quite a bit lately and was starting to develop some holes...

"What a mess, huh?"

"I think it's kind of neat, actually," Mallory replied without thinking, looking out across the refugee camps and the haphazard urban planning of Grep. "It's like everybody just carved out a little niche to call home and did what they wanted with it. I like that."

"I meant the situation," the one standing next to him said... his arms folded much as Mallory's were, despite his ORM slogan T-shirt not providing the same warmth. His short-cropped brown hair didn't help much, either; it was the sort of haircut you got when you didn't want to bother washing it a lot, when you had better things to do with your time. His eyes looked a little like Meiko's, in that they were run down and tired. "The situation's a complete mess. ...sorry, I didn't really introduce myself back there. My name's Lewis, but my friends call me Xyzzy."


"No, Xyzzy. It's supposedly an old, worn out magic word," he said. "And with all that's been going on, I'm feeling kind of old and worn out myself. Funny thing, feeling grumpy and old at age twenty-eight..."

"Grumpy?" Mallory asked, turning a little to talk directly with the man. "I thought the Open Reality Movement loved having more people come on board? I read a few articles about it when I was studying for my REC test. How you guys have this 'collective' going, where everybody's welcome and they all contribute to the movement in some way..."

"Yeah, but... look out there. Those aren't recruits, they're refugees," Xyzzy said, nodding towards the camp. "It's not for love of freedom that they're here, but for fear of RealWare. Overnight, we went from being a motley crew of misfits and individualists to being the last best hope for humanity against a psychotic overlord. Some of the more cynical ORM'ers would say we already were that, but... this isn't what I wanted. ...you were just as quiet as me in there, you know. Kinda feels like all of this is out of your control, doesn't it?"

"Well... yeah, it does," he admitted. "Meiko's the one who solves problems, not me. I'm just there to support her... it's the best I can do. I can't really do anything else... I wish I could, but..."

"Sorry for bringing it up, but... don't you have powers over reality like he does? Or did I completely misunderstand what they were talking about earlier?"

"Huh? No, no... I mean... sort of. But I couldn't possibly, I mean..." Mallory backpedaled. "No, they won't help. I can't use them when I want. And even if I could, well... no. I can't. Multi's stronger. He's capable of so much more that I can't really do anything against him..."

"Neither can I, unfortunately," Xyzzy said. "Here I am, supposed leader of the ORM, and I can't do jack. I'm not a rebel commander, a warlord, I'm just this programmer who thought things ought to be different and that means I'm useless right now. That's frustrating. I was considering extending some sort of olive branch to the guy, try to work with him—I mean, we're both sort of against RealWare's mode of thinking. I figured I could persuade him to stop running amok, really work with the people instead of forcing these things on them... but I can't do that. All it'd take is one backstab by him and we're toast... and he doesn't strike me as a trustworthy sort. ...I wish Gillian was still in charge there. At least then it was just business."

"But weren't you two enemies?" Mallory asked.

"In some ways... but ideally, I'd prefer to think of it as being rivals. We just had different views on the direction reality should be moving in, but she actually let us compete with her with a 'may the best world view win' mentality," Xyzzy said, with a little smile at the thought. "Despite my grudge, I have to admit that it was kind of fun to butt heads with her. Sure, it was a quote-unquote war, but only in the silliest capitalistic sense. Not in an actual bloody body count and struggle for power sense... and even in that quasi-war, I never wanted utter dominance. I didn't see myself dictating reality like Multi is. I just wanted... I guess I just wanted it free from control."

"Which is exactly what he's not doing," Mallory realized.

"Right. It's strange, he's against RealWare's mundane reality style, but he's even nastier with control than Gillian ever was. Before and after this, RealWare controlled reality; they meter it out, they monitor it, they keep it leashed to a single point of control. ...which is how Multi managed to take it over so easily, too. My father and I didn't think things should be that way, we figured everybody should be the master of their own reality. It extends down into everything the Open Reality Movement does... like the buildings. You said it yourself, everybody carved out a niche to call home here in Grep and did what they wanted with it. We just want to be free."

"I'd love to be free right now," Mallory mused. "I keep dreaming about how things were just a little while ago... we'd go to all sorts of amazing places around the multiverse, doing jobs, meeting people... and I'd work to keep the house from falling apart, and they'd work to keep us fed, and everybody was happy..."

"Mallory... what if those days are over?" Xyzzy asked, face darkening. "We've got to consider the possibility. Multi's strong, you said it yourself. What if we can't stop him? What if he destroys what we've been trying to do here, what if he ends up telling everybody how to live forever? I'm just a geek, man, just a nobody-special. I'm not a fighter. I tangle with engineering problems and deal with marketing flacks, I don't fight honest-to-goodness wars. NOBODY here does... so what could we possibly do to stop this?"

"We can destroy him, of course."

That coming from a more feminine voice, which was strolling through the sliding door. The raised voices from before didn't follow her out; the meeting seemed to be over.

"The discussion regarding Multi's fate has unfortunately been delayed," Gillian informed them, as she walked up to the overlook railing. "Meiko decided that since we still had no means to do such a thing, it was too early to discuss if we would do it or not. I believe she is postponing the inevitable, however..."

"A Tribal Alpha fragger and a shinobi aren't going to be enough against your security forces," Xyzzy said with a little contempt. "And if you really wanted him dead, you could've done it a lot earlier, you know..."

"Are you implying that I should have had my trusted head of security assassinated prior to this?"

"You knew he was going to do this one day. You told us as much yourself! So why didn't you stop him? Of all people, I know you're capable of it—"

"Xyzzy, Xyzzy, you lack forward vision. It's always crippled your movement, and that's quite a shame. How was I to know he would go sour? From all indications, he was set to rise in the ranks like a shooting star," she said, leaning backwards on the railing, a perfect picture of casual poise. "You don't know the boy like I did. Did you know he came to us in the Preferred Partners Program?"

"You mean the cradle-robbing program?"

"Just one of any number of faceless orphans some reality pawned off on us for a lease discount," she continued. "They saw no use for him, just another five-year-old mouth to feed. But I saw potential. He was eager to please, so eager to earn the respect of his peers... and so creative! I still have a painting or two he produced in his art classes hanging in my office; I claimed to keep them around just to embarrass him, but really, I was quite proud of the boy. He quickly earned a paying if lowly position, and fought and clawed his way up the corporate ladder... he was just as adept at making social network connections as he was with paint. He knew who to praise, who to befriend... who to stab in the back. I allocated funding for his training, seeing he had an eye for observing people and an aptitude for clever thinking. Perfect for security work. And the powers...! I was aware he had some sort of gift, after we started seeing anomalies in our corporate Reality Engine. Why, if he hadn't gone rogue, he and I could have revolutionized reality as we knew it..."

"But he DID go rogue. And don't pretend you didn't know, because you did know things were going south," Xyzzy accused. "You could have fired him, if not killed him. Done SOMETHING. Didn't you say once in a public debate with me about open reality that you felt any weapon was justifiable in a battle? If your rival couldn't overcome it, they didn't deserve victory..."

"Oh yes, but you see... Multi is still my weapon," she said, with a sort of mad glee. "He's gone rogue, and I'll have to attempt to destroy him, but if he survives my attempt then it means he is the paradigm shift I always wanted! His survival will prove his worth, or his destruction will show him to be just another false idol. Sort of like you, Xyzzy, just a false idol... your band of merry misfits are sadly incapable of inducing the change I seek, or you'd have done it now despite my best efforts. Multi is more of a success story than you'll ever be. For all his wanton destruction, he is... change. Change, pure and simple."

"...I always figured you were a bit eccentric, but not completely insane," Xyzzy bit off bitterly. "This is the kind of change you want? I was perfectly happy with the way the multiverse was before, thank you very much. There were more people in it, for instance!"

"I'm disappointed in you, Lewis. For a zealot, you lack zeal. Your father certainly had a great deal of it—"

"You would know! Your father had him killed!"

...and Gillian's smile faded.

"I... am not my father," she said, absolutely serious. "That is the line I will not cross. Yes... he decided to deal with the earliest incarnation of your movement by simply killing everybody involved. How you escaped alive is a mystery... but I never approved of his action. Do you know why?"

"Enlighten me," Xyzzy coldy suggested.

"Because to do that would be just as wrong as killing Multi at an early age. It would be slaughtering the innocent before they had a chance to prove their worth to history. It's a grossly destructive act, a waste, a disgusting thing... I always told you I wanted to defeat you in the marketplace, and I meant it. Because yes, RealWare's 'defense' force could likely sweep through Grep and kill every man, woman and child here... and that would mean you would never be able to prove if you were the paradigm shift. It would mean I was cheating, I was running in fear of your POTENTIAL alone. I would never do that, Lewis. And that means I could not kill Multi until the time was right... which is now. He has shown his quality... now it is time for him to prove that quality by either perishing or surviving the natural consequences of his actions."

"...fine. Since that's as close to an apology as I'll ever get from a Bates... I accept," Xyzzy said, a bit less chilly than before. It was something to chew on, all right. "But... I'm not my father, either. And if that means I've got less zeal, then fine; I've got less zeal. I just wanted peace, not chaos. The freedom to live in peace."

"Ah, but with peace comes stagnation, yes?"

"It's better than changing reality around like he's doing!"

"Like he's doing," she echoed. "That is the difference maker. Not that he's simply changing reality; after all, you're trying to do that yourself, Xyzzy; you and your movement. There's nothing inherently evil about changing your reality to reach your dreams... mmm. Mallory—tell me..."

Mallory snapped out of his trance, as he sat there quietly ingesting all that he was hearing. "Er, what? Yes?"

"Which appeals to you more... peace in stagnation, or risking change?" she asked him. "Let's say you had the power to change reality as you saw fit—which, ironically, you do in fact have. Are you content to sit back and hope for the best, to wish for peaceful days of comfort and similarity? Or would you reach for what you REALLY want, and try to change things to achieve your dreams? Peace or change, safety or risk? Decide."

On the spot, Mallory felt their eyes boring through his skull. It was six or seven questions wrapped up into one larger issue which he still hadn't come to grips with...

"I don't know," he said honestly. "I really don't know. ...I'm gonna go now. Excuse me."

He turned and opened the sliding door, headed quickly back into the building, away from the uncomfortable situation.

"...would you ease off on him?" Xyzzy asked his rival, quietly. "He's not really part of this. He's just this guy."

"On the contrary, I believe that he could be the most important player in the day's drama," Gillian disagreed. "It all depends on whether he's willing to play a part, or if he'll watch from the side."

- - - - -

Lorelei applied five times as much force as was required to trigger the door opening mechanism. The doors swished open with a satisfyingly science-fictiony door noise—courtesy of some fanboy who built this shelter for Grep months ago.

"I can't believe I even had to argue that," Lorelei continued ranting, as she had ever since leaving the conference room. "Whacking the guy should go without saying! He wants us dead, the least we can do is to do him in return, right? You agree with me, right?"

"For the fifth time, I am in concordance with your views," Kisei repeated from before, adjusting only the number via incrementation. She entered their small personal room, having a seat on her bunk bed. "I have done risk analysis, and it was a very simple analysis to make. He wishes us dead, and has shown tenacity in chasing us; the safest route is to eliminate the problem."

"And Meiko... what was her problem? She barely spoke up! All she had to say was 'It's too early to decide that.' What kind of answer is that? I was figuring she'd be all for this! I told you as much back at the onsen!"

"She is correct in her reasoning, however. Since methods of rescue and assassination both require determining a solid location for Eiko or Multi, we cannot finalize plans for either until—"

"Could you talk a little less formally for a change, please? I'm trying to work up a nice frothy rage here and your stoic attitude is helping a little too much."

"I mean no disrespect by my words, Lorelei..."

"Well... I'm going to kill him, at least," Lorelei decided, walking back and forth in front of the seated Kisei, full of restless energy. "One way or another. If she won't authorize it, I'll do it en route to getting Eiko back. While I'm in the neighborhood, like."

"In direct disobedience of her orders..?"

"You might follow the ancient honorable code of the warrior, but I'm more of the kick ass and ask ethical questions later variety. She can fire me if she likes, but I'm doing this for her own safety! ...you're not going to stand in my way, right? Come on, you AGREE with me about this! Don't tell me you're—"



"...patience," Kisei suggested, lowering her voice, trying to inject some calm. "Patience. There are variables here. Meiko is right; it's too early to say one way or the other. Don't make assumptions about the future. Only... prepare for all eventualities equally. Then once a course of action is decided, you will be ready. Becoming agitated is not going to help you in the here and now, or when the time does come to act."

"So you're suggesting I just sit here and wait, then?" Lorelei asked.

"On the contrary, I am suggesting we prepare for all eventualities... including one which involves deadly use of force. Because at the moment, neither of us has the force we require, do we?"

"Well... my saber's gone, if that's what you mean. Trashed with the house. Your cache of scarily versatile munitions went up in smoke too..."

"Then in order to be ready at a moment's notice, we must prepare ourselves," Kisei decided, rising to her feet. "I have meditated upon how best to dispatch Multi, if the time came to do so. I believe I may have the answer. And since you are keen on taking action, perhaps you can... tag along?"

- - - - -

The problem wasn't how to rescue Eiko. The problem was how to know where she was, so she could then be rescued.

The problem was one of communication. Right now, they had an unconfirmed, one-way communication link. Through Belle's knowledge of her old RealNet studio systems, they could send her the tampered video stream... assuming she was watching it.

The problem was one of confirmation. Confirmation, through communication. Some way for Eiko to respond, so they could tell her exactly where to be, so she could escape... which they couldn't do, because they weren't even sure of where she was.

The problem wasn't how to rescue Eiko. The problem was to how to know where she was...

With a scowl, Meiko crumpled up the paper she was working on, and lobbed it towards the old wicker wastebasket. It missed by a mile, but even if she scored the three pointer it would've bounced off the overflowing mountain of trash anyway.

She couldn't appreciate the lovely study / bedroom she'd selected for herself. She couldn't appreciate the fine wooden molding, the splendid wallpaper, the absolutely fabulous antique oak desk she was working on. All these things in her newly inherited replacement home were quite wonderful and all but she had bigger things to worry about. Home could start being home once she had her sister back in her arms...

Meiko didn't even look up from her writing when the tea set was placed on her desk.

"Technically speaking, the human body can go without water for longer than you have," Ryo Noyori said, sitting on the edge of the desk next to the tea. "But if you're seriously gonna stay awake all the time, you're not going to be able to go without caffeine for that long. So drink up, mmm?"

"Yeah, tea," she agreed, grabbing a cup and draining it completely without bothering to savor the fine taste. Which was for the best, considering Ryo wasn't the multiverse's finest tea brewer.

"Meiko, you've got to stop beating yourself up over this. Not sleeping helps nobody. Everybody's already putting their heads on this problem, they can do without yours for eight hours—"

"Don't ride my ass right now, Ryo, I'm trying to think," she warned, crumpling the sheet she was working on. "I've had plenty of days to spend relaxing and taking it easy in the past. A couple spent pushing myself hard won't kill me."

"But you're not alone here, that's my point. We've got experts in different fields, we've got a lot of brain power to put towards the problem, right? Can't you trust in them..?"

"I do trust in them, actually," she said, finally looking away from her writing. "And it's going to take all of us to do this. But I can't NOT work on it, Ryo. Come on! You know me better than that! I'm the professional problem solver. I take control and I lead the charge whenever there's an issue. I couldn't sit back even if I wanted to, I'd go nuts trying not to think about the problem at hand..."

Ryo laughed softly. "Yeah, that's true... that's my Mei-chan! But come on, can't you let Ryo-kun worry for you instead? I've done it before, you know—"


"Stop what?"

"Just... stop. Don't say that," Meiko replied... quite serious. "Don't play it off, don't laugh it off. And absolutely do not worry for me on this. ...don't worry for me anymore. You were worrying for us when we found out about Mallory, and it didn't make things any easier on us, it just meant we got to sit back and sing la-la-la while stuff happened we weren't paying attention to! No. I'm a big girl now, Ryo. Let me worry about my problems myself."

Ryo scratched his head, trying to think of a good way he could crack a joke, use a disarming smile, anything from his usual bag of tricks... but that stern look from Meiko, stern not in a 'Meiko's adorable stern glare' sort of way, stopped him dead each time.

"I'm... sorry," he said. "Sorry. Ah. I forget, sometimes. I'm sort of used to..."

"There's no need to apologize, Ryo. ...I'm not angry at you. I'm more angry at myself than anything else... look, just let me work on this for now. All right?"

"All right. How are things going with Mallory, then?"

Meiko's gears of thought skipped a few teeth at the topic shift.

"What?" she asked. "Well... fine, I guess. ...they WERE going fine. Until everything blew up, of course..."

"Good, good," Ryo said, reassuming his usual smile. "I'm glad you have someone, Meiko. Especially if you don't want me worrying for you anymore... well. I'd better get back to the lab, then. Follow my own lines of inquiry, and all..."

"Wait. Why ask that? I mean, yes, it's polite and conversational to ask about my love life, but—"

"It's nothing, it's nothing!" he protested, hopping off from his sitting position on the desk, straightening out his lab coat. "Don't worry about it. Really, don't. It's not even relevant anymore; you've already found someone you love. And I'm honestly, genuinely happy for you; it's all I ever wanted you to have. Don't second guess, don't doubt. Just enjoy it. You deserve to be loved..."

Perplexed, Meiko stared at her old friend as he hummed to himself, heading out of her room... or at least mostly out, before pausing at the door.

"Where is Mallory, anyway?" he asked. "I was assuming he would get you some tea himself, but since the kitchen was empty, I helped myself..."

"Ah... I don't know," Meiko admitted. "I've been busy up here. He's been quiet ever since we got here..."

"Eh? And you didn't ask him why?"

"I... kinda figured he needed his space. Like we talked about. And I was using the time to think..."

"Tisk tisk," Ryo tisk-tisk'ed, with a wry grin. "You're a big girl now, right? Right! So, do the big girl thing and talk to him. I'm sure you can help him and he can help you! But do it after drinking your tea; it's going cold. Ta ta!"


He had fully left the room at that point, humming as he walked away.

- - - - -

Food was a safe harbor. You could think better while eating or cooking, Mallory found; so in lieu of going home and cooking (which he wasn't up for at the moment, as it'd mean going back to the fray) he tracked down a cafe.

Not all members of the ORM were hackers. Some simply provided services for the hackers, such as the owners of this cafe. The menu was written in chalk on a board, with frequent changes as the chefs changed their minds or experimented with new dishes; Mallory picked 'Sandwich Surprise' and was surprised indeed to receive a bowl of soup instead. A bowl of soup which, curiously enough, tasted like a sandwich. The distraction of bizarre cooking was quite helpful at the moment, and he took a mental note to get the recipe before leaving—most restaurants in Grep would give you the complete details of their dishes if you asked for them...

He was busy trying to figure out how an unidentifiable yellow thing in his soup tasted better than it looked (and oddly, tasted like ham and cheese) when a familiar figure wandered by the sidewalk cafe.

"Mellow Fellow?" Mallory called out, hoping that he wouldn't be embarrassed when the fellow turned around and turned out not to be very mellow.

And the fellow was not mellow, but he was Mellow Fellow. A Mellow Fellow without his usual smile...

"'ey, Mallory," he greeted, reversing course and pulling up a chair at his table to straddle without being asked. "I heard you were around here. Didn't figure I'd meet ya, though. Doing a lot of supply 'n fugee runs to RealWare-owned worlds... how ya been? Righteous or unrighteous?"

"Sorta both," Mallory admitted, pushing his soupwich aside for the time being. "Are you okay? You don't look so hot..."

"Been pullin' overtime. Lotta things to do; so many want to come here, and this place be needin' a huge amount of supplies... my engine, my wings 'o freedom, they stealthy, see?" he said, making a small flapping motion with his arms. "I don' bother much with protocols, just sneak in, sneak out. Got nicely tuned, upgraded wings. So, ORM called me, said 'Mellow, we need help,' and I say all right. ...'cause it's better than hangin' around I's Land lately."

"I wish I was hanging around I's Land right now, myself..."

"You remember how they were, yeah? When the Babylonia marched in and demanded our young?" Mellow asked. "Same way now. Not their problem, not their business. Just Babylonia. Doesn't affect us at I's Land! Swear, Mallory, they don't look ahead to the real problems comin' round the bend at them... sometimes I worry I's the only one who's lookin'..."

"I can't imagine Multi would do anything to your reality, though. I mean... it's perfect as is. It's a beautiful place, why would he change anything?"

"It's not just I's Land, mon. It's... all's land. Everywhere. Mellow, he thinks cross-reality, yeah? I's worried for everybody. I's feelin' Babylonia closing in, Mallory. Shadows overtakin' everything, even I's Land... freedom killed in wake of the devil's control... had to do something, couldn't just stand around, you know?"

"So... you're running supplies?" Mallory concluded, although it wasn't much of a jump in logic to make. "Doing your part...?"

"Righteous," Mellow agreed, allowing himself a little smile. "It ain't much but it helps, and that's what counts. Everybody here's pullin' together to support each other, no matter what it means. Gotta do the right thing, Mallory. Small or large, gotta do the right thing."

"...Multi thinks he's doing the right thing, too," Mallory said, opening up his thought stream a little to the I's Lander.


"The guy who's responsible for all this. He really, honestly thinks he's doing the right thing. Gillian told us about him, how he wants to help out and make people happy... he doesn't sound like he should be a bad guy. I mean... he isn't that far from me..."

Mellow leaned back a bit, rocking his chair slightly; it knocked against the table, each time. "That eating at you, Mallory? The whole twin thing...?"

"Oh, no, no! I mean, I'm me, he's him, it's not like I'm having an identity crisis!" Mallory protested. "That's fine, I'm okay. Really..."

"Yeah, but you just said 'e's not that far from you. Just tryin' to do the right thing. Don't downplay havin' a mirror, man. Be a powerful spiritual thing, having an opposite out there. You can't shake somethin' like that off, and as I's a believer in the connectedness of things, I's seein' how it could be affectin' you..."

"I didn't think about it much until yesterday. I just... let Ryo do our worrying, and we put it out of our heads, got on with our lives. We had a total of two minutes together with the guy, after all! And there were the other me's, and they were so wildly different that I didn't feel too weird then, either. But... if he really feels like he's doing his best to support people when he's doing all these awful things... it's creeping me out. We have the same powers, sure, but others had them too. He's got the same thinking, that's the creepy bit! I don't honestly think I'd run around slaughtering people, but... is he really that far removed from me?"

"You ain't the same at all, Mon."

"He's him and I'm me, I know—"

"I ain't just talkin' names or even physical bodies or mentalities," Mellow said. "There be a bigger, singular key difference here, okay? One absolute difference that makes all the difference."


Mellow waited a moment, so the drama would be right for his grand theory to be presented.

"He's control," he stated. "And you're freedom. And that be that."

Mallory scratched his head, soup long forgotten as he considered it. "O... kay. I mean, that's obvious, right?"

"Obvious, but it's still deep, Mon. It's spiritual, you can't deny the power of it. Somethin' in your core which sets you so far apart that he ain't you and you ain't him. See, Multi—'e wants to tell you what you want and then give it to you. Mallory—'e gets others to talk about what they want and then gives it to them. You work with 'em, he works against 'em even if both of you wanna do what's right. But I's got more respect for your righteous ways than the ways o' him. Mal... he's Babylonia, Mon. Now, I's usin' that word to mean a lot, probably confuse you tons, but that's the reality of what Babylonia means to me—control. E's the poison o' Babylonia, pure 'n simple, and you're the antidote."

Mallory stared down at the table. "I'm not an antidote, Mellow. I can't do anything against him. He's too strong..."

"Now, that I's not knowin' a lot about... powers and conflicts and mayhems. All I knows is what I see in you," Mellow explained. "I ain't tellin' you to go to war or not to go to war. You do what you gotta do, Mallory. But do it knowin' you're righteous. That's all I's tryin' to say to you..."

He was about to speak up again, until he noticed the pair approaching. He waved to them, but they didn't approach him—they approached Mellow instead.

"We've been looking all over for you," Lorelei said. "C'mon, Kisei and I need a ride to Arboria. Are you available for a ride? We won't be long..."

"Oh, yeah, I's avail," Mellow said, getting up from his chair. "One hour tops though, gotta make a medicine run to Urbana. You ready to go now?"

"Wait, wait!" Mallory spoke up, rising as well. "I'd... uh, I want to come too..."

Lorelei turned, as if noticing him for the first time. "Eh? Why?"

"I guess... I just want to feel useful right now. To do something to support you all..."

"Mallory, we're about to go shopping for heavy weaponry, not cook an omelet," Lorelei said, with a playful smirk. "You could be suited for playing firing range target, but if you really wanna be useful... go talk to Meiko. She's been stewing in her room all day."



He hadn't even thought of her once in the last hour!

Mumbling apologies and dropping some Grep monetary scrip on the table, he hurried out of there with Intent and Purpose.

- - - - -

Torn asunder by a short, sharp series of religious wars, the once verdant paradise of Arboria lie in smoking ruin. Craters littered the landscape, some radioactive, some on unstable geographic fronts. The air was thick with the choking dust kicked up by dozens of illegal weapons of mass destruction. No sane person would ever want to live on this hellhole, much less run a thriving munitions business on it as Duke had for years...

At least, until now.

Mellow Fellow's Smiling Taxi Service landed in a verdant field of lush grasses and wildflowers. A few butterflies twirled around the mobile shack, dancing in and out of the windows of this strange new addition to their world... the breeze which flowed in with them smelled vaguely of lilacs...

The trio stepped out of the shack, puzzled with the collective equivalent of having solved an eight-hundred-piece jigsaw marked as "Adult" difficulty which, once fully assembled, turned out to be a pair of adorable kittens.

"Mellow... it's not quite 4:20, right?" Lorelei asked. "So you didn't land us in the wrong reality, presumably..."

"This be the armpit of Babylonia, the hellzone of Arboria. My engine, she tells no lie..." Mellow replied. "We is where we is, even if—"


In the distance, there was a small campsite erected; survivalist's pup tent and smoke-free cookfire, plenty of surveillance equipment open and ready to be installed. And one very, very enraged former munitions dealer, who was approaching with speed.

"Will you look at this? Just LOOK at this mess!" Duke wailed, gesturing wildly at the pleasant fields of nature's pure beauty. "It's awful! It's a disaster! I'm ruined, I tell you—RUINED! I have half a brain to load up with what I have left and go blow the hell out of Reality Prime—!"

"It seems that Multi has decided to restore Arboria to its former glory," Kisei correctly deduced.

"You're damn right he did! You remember my warehouse, the one full of billions of points of heavy military weaponry? Gone. A few redwoods poked up through the ground under it, set off some of the explosives, the whole thing blew—and grass grew over the crater immediately after. Grass! Lush, green, lovely grass!"

"Grass? Oh, how horrific," Lorelei mocked. "You'll have to hire someone to mow the lawn now..."

Kisei ignored Duke's plight, addressing him on a direct business level. "I require a weapon from you, Duke. One which I know you have in stock at a more secured location than your warehouse... I believe I mentioned I might one day return for it. Has it survived this... natural disaster?"

"Are you deaf, Kisei? I just said that my whole sto... ...wait, you can't mean—"

"I do."

"Tell me you're going to use them to blow that schmuck's head off," Duke said, gleeful instead of spooked by the ominous unspecified weapons. "Not that I wouldn't give them to you otherwise, a promise is a promise, but I'd derive SO much satisfaction knowing they're gonna be put to good use..."

"There is a distinct possibility that they will be used in that manner."

"Right! Well! I'll just be five minutes with my metal detector and an autoshovel," he announced, grabbing a nearby case. "Be right back. Excuse me, ladies..."

"Yeah, you do that, Duke," Lorelei said, waving him off... and then dropping to a whisper. "Kiss? What exactly is Duke about to dig out of the ground? It's gotta be something nasty, if even HE wouldn't sell it openly. You're not going to use a full-fledged nuclear bomb, are you? We just want the freak dead, not all of Reality Prime turned to glowing putty..."

"That would be inefficient," Kisei agreed. "However, it is indeed a banned weapon. One which Tachi obtained with great difficulty, and felt it would be best to store off-site from our home—"

Duke was back in under a minute with a black case.

"Looks like I picked the right site for my camp—it was behind the tent," he said, passing the case over. "You still have the skills to go with those, though, Kisei...? I thought you were strictly a rifle expert nowadays..."

Inside the case were two unassuming-looking pistols. They'd be easy to mistake for ordinary metal-slug-throwing guns, except for the additional bulk of two water-filled purple cartridges on the back, and no obvious ammunition-loading mechanism...

Lorelei's jaw didn't drop, but she did stare quite intently as Kisei took a hold of the guns, one in each hand, and began doing some warmup exercises and gun-kata stances with them...

"Okay... I'll bite," she said, once curiosity had overwhelmed her. "Kisei, how on earth did you get your hands on a pair of Reality Pistols? They've been banned for centuries! ...do they even work?"

"Do they work? Do they WORK?" Duke asked, in the tone one would use if accused of having sex with a housepet. "Lorelei, this is Duke you're dealing with! I don't sell bad goods. I've kept these in good condition, digging them up each year just to make sure the parts were fresh, the micro-engine water stable, and the explosive charge viable. They'll work just fine... assuming Kisei's still got the skills..."

"Let me make sure my memory is accurate. I only read about them in a Tribal Alpha history book, after all... Reality Pistols work by teleporting a tiny explosive charge. There's no real bullet and no actual firing, it doesn't zip through the air, it just appears right where you want it to and then explodes. Correct?"

"Correct!" Duke affirmed, ignoring Kisei as she continued to stretch and warm up, using a variety of guns-akimbo poses to prepare herself. "One explosive round per gun, no more, no less. No reloading in battle possible, since it takes an hour to disassemble and insert a new charge. Highly illegal, since they also tend to destabilize host reality engines when they're overused in battle, but one shot in that freak's head shouldn't hurt anyone... problem is getting the shot into his head."

"It's a gun, Duke. Point and shoot, yes?"

"It's a teleporting charge. You point, yeah, and you shoot—but how far ahead of the muzzle the charge teleports depends entirely on the skill of the marksman," he explained, overjoyed to play the know-it-all. "The trigger's analog. How far you squeeze it determines how far the charge shifts across reality—ranging from one meter to thirty meters depending on the pull distance. Which means you have to have ridiculous amounts of manual dexterity to hit anything, to the point where you can control your trigger finger down to the sub-milimeter... and if you're gonna carry two of them at once, which only makes sense considering they're single-shot weapons, that means being ambidextrous on top of all that—"

"You got anything buried that I can use?" Lorelei asked, on a whim. "Double saber, maybe? Mine's scragged. I'd prefer a force blade, stun and other modes, like I had before... and if you have any other illegal reality-technology gear I could use, load me up. Money is no object! We nicked Ryo's scorecard."

"Well... I dunno, I've only got a few crates of stuff salvaged. I'll see if I've got anything. Wait here."

Lorelei let the military fanboy rummage around, joining Kisei as she focused on her Zen mastery of the weird little guns.

"I don't mean to cast doubt on your madskillz, Kiss, but you sure about these things?" she asked, hoping Kisei wasn't so into the zone that she could no longer hear spoken words. "Sounds like they're hellaciously difficult to control. And if you only get one shot against this guy..."

"Pick a target," Kisei asked, within her sphere of absolute calm.

With a shrug, Lorelei glanced around... and pointed at a random cluster of trees. "All right, hit one of those—"

With grace that cats would be envious of, Kisei twisted herself into a flawless defensive posture to use against attackers, while simultaneously aiming two guns at two different targets that the human eye couldn't actually see.

There wasn't any audible noise from the guns, but two trees—ones positioned behind several rows of other trees, thus impossible to hit with a normal bullet—were sliced in half by tiny explosive charges, splinters flying as they toppled to the ground.

Kisei nodded once in satisfaction, before turning back to Lorelei. "The sniper is silent, but slow," she explained. "The element of surprise is useful, but that alone may not be enough against my enemy. He can stop bullets; bullets are too slow. With these, I will be able to strike my target at the speed of thought."

"...damn," Lorelei summarized her position on the subject, staring in awe at the superhuman feat. "I think I'm love."

Then she looked down, finding two strange objects thrust at her by the scrawny army guy.

"It's all I have," he said. "One force saber similar to your old one, but only single-bladed. And as for illegal reality technology, I've got this shield... it'll project an invulnerable field, but you can only use it in short bursts before the battery drains. Only battery I have, too. Take it or leave it."

Gingerly, Lorelei grasped the blade of the saber—lighting it up, the familiar blue glow comforting while the lumpy circular shield hung loosely on her arm. She wasn't the one who used sword and shield, usually...

"Terrific," she said, with distaste. "Instead of berzerking my way through, I'm going to be playing Dee. Rei-Lei would be ROTFLing right now."

- - - - -

Meiko was slumped against her desk, but not asleep. Just dejected.

She was stuck in a pattern; fatigue had eaten into her, and completely wrecked her thought process. She wasn't going to get far like this, constantly hitting the same points over and over in a redundant fashion that was repetitive and unhelpfully redundant. The crumpled up wads of paper had grown to ridiculous sizes, the actual basket no longer visible...

It was time to pack it in.

Except that she was being offered tea again.

"Ah, I didn't realize Ryo already made you some..." Mallory said, after bringing it in. "Oops. Well... you're going to need it so you can stay up, right? So I guess two loads of tea can't hurt..."

She was going to comment on how it was officially time to go to sleep and she'd have to pass on his tea, but was too tired to make an effort at rejecting him when he was just trying to help. So, she decided to apologize for something else...

"I'm sorry—"

"I'm sorry—"




"Stop," Meiko ordered. "This is another one of those moments where we're both apologizing for something and stampeding over each other to get it out. This time, we're talking turns, and I call dibs on the first one. I want to apologize for hiding out up here and ignoring you ever since we got here."

"Uh... that's funny, I was going to apologize for being such a quiet loner lately..."

"Oh, good, then they're compatible apologies," Meiko said with what cheer she could manage. "No harm, no foul. And if I can add one apology on top of that, I'm sorry, but I have to pass on the tea. I'm throwing in the towel and getting some sleep."

"Right, right," Mallory said, nudging his teaset away from her. "Sorry, I just... well, I wanted to feel useful. But I know that there's not a whole lot else I can do right now, after all, other than..."

She waited patiently for him to finish his sentence before finishing it for him.

"Let's get this out of the way," she suggested. "Maybe it was wrong of me to ask the others not to bring it up, for them to leave you alone... your powers. They might be used against Multi, right?"

"Well... right, except—"

"Except that it's a bad idea, of course. I tried explaining to them that you can't really do it on command, and even if you could... I wouldn't allow it."

"I'm not? Not that I'm complaining, but, uh... why?"

"Because... you stand a strong chance at dying in the process. You're not going to be the one to valiantly sacrifice his life for me, Mallory. I'm not going to allow that kind of drama in my life. I have trained experts on my payroll for a reason, and this is it. So your powers aren't going to be a factor in our rescue. We have to think of something else."

"Of course, yeah, I know, I agree," he dogpiled in concurrence. "Something else. Definitely. ...maybe I can be useful in helping you think through this stuff? An outside perspective can't help, right? Can't hurt! I meant can't hurt..."

"Hey, if you want to sift through my notes while I'm unconscious, feel free," she offered, wearily pulling herself out of the seat she'd been wedged into for the last few hours. "But I've been going over and over this and I can't get anywhere. We've got all these great people, all these great resources... as much as it feels odd to think of people as resources... and no way to combine them to get what we want. Lorelei, Kisei, Ryo, Alex, Belle, Mellow, Xyzzy, Gillian... Open Engines, security buildings, RealNet hacking, weird technologies... it's all a blur right now..."

On a whim, Mallory nudged a precarious pile of notes to see if it would topple. It did. A few notes fell side by side.

"Alex and RealNet hacking," he read off the two notes. "Hacking and Alex, Alex and hacking..."

"I'm going to crash," Meiko announced. "Wake me up if anything important happens. Seriously, please wake me up, don't let me sleep out of pity..."

"Okay. I don't think I'm gonna get real far here alone, though," he said... and then, glancing at the cards, randomly mused to himself. "You know... it's a shame Alex isn't an official member of the Important Courtroom Drama cast. Eiko would probably love to have an official action figure of him... and he's a better hero than I am right now."

Meiko halted her bedward progress.

"Repeat that," she requested. So he did.

Her gears, groaning from metal fatigue, resumed turning...

- - - - -

The Council of Various Interesting Persons reconvened at Noyori Labs an hour later. Meiko had no organized plan, just a series of notes scrawled in her own handwriting (and Mallory's, when her wrist went limp), but she could tell it straight from her brain—her looping thoughts now were obsessively studying it, after all.

"Action figures," she announced. "That's the link we need. Eiko loves to buy action figures from her favorite shows. She has every figure from Important Courtroom Drama except one—Alex Gunthar, the character we hacked into the show. And just as we have access to the video streams, we also have access to the production company's commerce node. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going into the toy business."

"Insert smarmy, uncomprehending comment here," Lorelei added. "But I think I know where you're going with this..."

"We're going to hack their commerce node to insert an Alex Gunthar figure into their toy stocks," Meiko continued. "But this hack will only show if displayed on the same RealNet Workstation we know Eiko is using. From there, she'll be able to purchase the figure... and since we can check if the figure is purchased by someone, that'll act as our communication feedback. If she buys the figure, it means she's seeing our broadcast. She'd be the only person capable of buying it because of her location and the hack."

Lorelei thought about it. "Makes sense, but who says she's going to be able to buy it? The kid likely doesn't have a scorecard of her own..."

"Multi will buy it for her, if she's persistent enough," Gillian added in. "He's eager for acceptance, especially from the children he idealizes. That's why he let her message Kensuke, and in fact that's why he's keeping her alive in general. He'll buy the toy if she tries hard enough."

"And Eiko is quite capable of finagling money out of strangers, much less emotionally vulnerable strangers like Multi," Meiko added to the addition. "So. What we're going to do is give Eiko specific instructions through Alex, and then she'll signal to us via the toy purchase when it's time to act out our half of the plan. If you recall, all we needed was to know exactly where she'll be... and again, we're going to exploit Multi to do it. We need him in one of the two buildings, executive or network control. There's no real reason why a kid would want to go to the executive building... but if Gillian's right, then all Eiko has to do is play along with Multi and ask to help him with his 'great work' which he does from the network control center."

"Which he will do, since the creativity of a child is of utmost importance to him," Gillian said, looking more and more pleased as the plan unfolded. "Sharp thinking, Meiko Mirai. You'd make a fine employee for RealWare..."

"Thank you, but I'm happy with my chosen profession," she said, without missing a beat. "So. Eiko butters Multi up until he agrees to let her work with him on some project—likely non-lethal, Eiko's smart enough to pick a harmless modification to the multiverse for her request. And right before she leaves, she's going to ask for the toy. That'll be the signal that we have to move, because I doubt she'll be able to keep him in the network control center for long. Lorelei smashes her way into the security center to disable the defenses, Kisei sneaks into the NCC, both leave with Eiko in tow. Mission complete. Questions?"

Lorelei was about to speak up—until Kisei put a hand on her arm, silencing her. It was her turn to clear the air.

"Meiko... I would like to request authorization from you to use deadly force against Multi," she said. "I am aware of your feelings on the issue of assassination, but you have heard the arguments in favor of ending this nightmare before it becomes even more of a safety risk than it already is. If you authorize it... I will deal with both the rescue and the elimination in the same mission. ...I will commit seppuku afterwards for my unclean act if you demand it, although I realize this is not likely in line with your thinking."

The knights of the round conference table went silent, waiting for their leader's reply.

For a moment, it seemed as if Meiko had fallen asleep. But her eyes opened soon after; she was merely thinking it over.

"Authorization granted," she stated. "I wish it hadn't come to this. I really do... but we don't have a choice. He's just going to keep chasing us, and ruining our lives, and... as much as I hate to be responsible for singing a death warrant... I'll sign it. But this is SECONDARY to rescuing Eiko. Don't do it if you don't have a clear and absolute opportunity, Kisei. No self-sacrifice. No mistakes. We'll live on the run if we have to rather than lose anyone to this... this monster. Agreed?"

"Agreed. I will go prepare myself for the mission now."

"You might want to wait on that, Kisei. Important Courtroom Drama doesn't air for another couple of hours... and then we need to wait for Eiko to manipulate Multi into joining her in modifying reality. It could be well into tonight. It could be days from now, even."

Lorelei sat back, pondering the plan. "Meiko, it sounds good, but... what if the purchase never happens? What if we're waiting for hours to days to weeks to forever..?"

"Then... I don't know," Meiko admitted, as she got shakily to her feet. "We'll think of something else. I hope. For now, I'm going to my new home, and I'm going to bed..."

Mallory was right there to help her out of the room, wordlessly assisting. The others departed to make their own preparations—and to play the waiting game.

- - - - -

He kicked aside a few stray wads of paper, helping Meiko across the floor of her bedroom. He helped her sit on her bed. He turned out the lights for her.

"I'll be right downstairs on the couch if you need me," he told her. "But get some sleep, all right? Everything's going to be fine. I know it will."

"I hope so, Mallory... I really do," she said, sagging in as she sat in place. "It's all so... iffy. A lot of variables. A lot of questions. And if they can't stop him... if he just keeps coming after us..."

"Kisei and Lorelei have never let us down before. I'm sure everything's gonna be okay..." he said, trying to reassure her... which was a tough job, when he was also feeling nervous about it all. "ER right. So... goodnight, Meiko."



"You don't have to sleep on the couch, you know."


Meiko wrapped her arms around herself, looking very small and scared.

"I don't want to be alone tonight," she said. "Please..."

He sat next to her, and offered the best thing he could; a hug. And a kiss.

She kissed him more than he was kissing her, until he kissed her back just as much. The room felt slow and quiet...

"Meiko... you've got to get some rest..." he reminded her, as she lay back on the bed with him.

"I don't care," she said. "It doesn't matter. I need to be with you tonight. I don't want to be alone..."

She won't be, he decided. Not tonight, and never again.

- - - - -

There they were, right as they had predicted. Everything was going according to plan.

Eiko and Multi, in the spacious network control center. Kisei, sneaking in through shadows no eyes could possibly penetrate. Lorelei, getting ready to run in in case anything went wrong...

And it did. Kisei fell from the shadows, dead. Eiko was screaming. Lorelei rushed, and for her efforts she fell dead as well.

Next to die was Eiko. Then Meiko. All the while, Multi was smiling, because he knew it was right and good and what had to be for the sake of everything.

And the ghost, the ghost was always there, shrugged deep into his black trenchcoat, always staring at him. What are you going to do about it? he was saying with those eyes. What are you going to do about it...?

He didn't wake up screaming. He just woke up. He didn't sit bolt upright, he didn't even move; Meiko, sleeping next to him, hadn't stirred a bit.

It wasn't going to work.

He was lying around and not doing anything but wishing, hoping, praying.

Are you content to sit back and hope for the best, to wish for peaceful days of comfort and similarity? Or would you reach for what you REALLY want, and try to change things to achieve your dreams? Peace or change, safety or risk?

The yin-yang of his sweatshirt stared at him from the desk chair which he'd thrown it over.

He's the poison of Babylonia, pure and simple, and you're the antidote.

Meiko slept soundly next to him, so exhausted, but so at peace from being in his arms... so perfect. So right... everything he had dreamt of, everything he wanted right here. But so fragile right now...

What are you going to do about it?

He wasn't useless. He had one very good use, if only he could find it in himself to do it...

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.

There wasn't any escaping that now. So... he'd simply make peace with it. He'd do what he had to.

You're not going to be the one to valiantly sacrifice his life for me, Mallory. I'm not going to allow that kind of drama in my life.

He kissed Meiko on her cheek, a simple goodbye, and grabbed his sweatshirt. There wasn't time for an apology...

Sometime later, the door to the room quietly opened.

"Meiko..?" Gillian asked, peering into the room. "Dear, it's time to wake up..."

Groaning at the interruption, she awoke from her sleep, holding the sheets to her body as she sat up. "The toy...?"

"Purchased," Gillian confirmed. "In addition, crayon drawings have started to appear all over Urbana's buildings. Eiko's making her move, and it's one she knew we'd never miss; Lorelei and Kisei have already been dispatched to Reality Prime. Get dressed, and let's go monitor the mission. Where's your counterpart..?"

Blinking to get her eyes used to the darkness, Meiko looked around... but saw nothing.

- - - - -

Flexing her muscles, Lorelei bounced the heavy shield against her forearm a few times. She wasn't used to this fighting style, but she'd be a quick learner. Either that or she'd be dead, so a quick learner it would be...

Kisei, on the other hand, was flowing and natural as she kept a solid grip on her Reality Pistols. For someone who had only used a rifle for the last few years, the new weapons were just as much an extension of her physical body as the old weapon was. Lorelei felt a tiny pang of envy at that, encumbered with her clumsier gear...

When Mellow Fellow's mobile shack shifted, Kisei was at the window, ready to give the signal to move quickly if they were spotted. A few tense moment passed, before she spoke up—which meant they were safe, otherwise she wouldn't bother with words.

"I suggest that you leave shortly after we do, Fellow-san," Kisei suggested. "This may very well be a one-way trip for us, and there is no sense in losing you as well."

"I-and-righteous-I's stayin' put," Mellow said with as much authority as he could muster. "This is a crusade for me, too. You don' worry, your getaway vehicle'll be right where you left it. Get goin'."

Wordlessly, the two slipped out of the hut—wearing black jumpsuits provided by Duke, they blended in perfectly with the night air of Reality Prime. They hugged the edges of the campus, away from the spacious gardens and fountains where they'd stand out like a pair of sore thumbs... instead, the shadows guided them towards the triumvirate of buildings, two out of three of which would be their targets for the evening.

Right before they'd have to part company... even if it risked the mission, Lorelei had to speak up. She spoke in a near-silent whisper, one she'd learned through her years of raids in Tribal Alpha.

"You really think this is a one-way trip?" she sub-vocalized.

"I would prefer not to fail my mission, obviously," Kisei replied in a similar whisper. "But we must be prepared for all possibilities. The hagakure teaches me to meditate upon eventual death, as it could come at any time."

"Yeah, well, I'm gonna do my best to avoid 'eventual' equaling 'today'... but... I gotta ask something before you go. Just in case."

"We do not have much time—"

"What did you mean, when you said you weren't entirely without experience when I talked about getting you laid? Back at the onsen. You never told me, and it's been driving me nuts."

"Ah," Kisei said... and broke into a tiny, tiny smile before responding. "I have never had sexual intercourse, actually. I was lying in a manner of jest and teasing which I felt you would appreciate, given your normal standards for such lighthearted camaraderie."

"...right. We've got to work on your sense of humor. And we WILL have time to do so... especially after that bar-crawl I'm still planning on dragging you to. So get the job done and we'll go dress sexy and have beers in Nippon to celebrate. Deal?"

"As you wish," Kisei agreed.

Both women parted ways, heading to their separate objectives.

And for all Kisei's tracking skills, she couldn't detect the one who followed her, because he didn't want to be detected.

- - - - -

The security control center. Gillian had taught her the most efficient path through it, once which would only involve fighting a dozen people at worst. There would be slinking through air vents, and some detours through storage rooms, et cetera, et cetera.

Which she'd inevitably fail at. Lorelei was not stealthy, and any attempts to be so would probably go wrong—especially lugging around a pair of weapons she wasn't at 100% with. So, she decided hours ago on a little unspoken change in strategy...

In the words of Zerg, fellow member of the Steel Blades Clan, "Just rush that shit down." So she did.

The front door caved easily after a crossing pair of slashes from her blade, and a burst of the pure reality bubble formed by her shield.

The next six armed guards went down hard, stunned into submission with the blade; she'd had to bounce off the walls a few times and there was thankfully a few pillars to hide behind and somersault between.

The next two hallways involved running along the walls and executing non-lethal yet deadly-looking pirouette slashes on the phalanx of guards coming after her—she collapsed a few walls as she went to keep the few stragglers from following her, cut any walls she found to sever security system wiring, and generally hack and slashed the living hell out of everything around her...

All in a day's work, and truth be told, kind of boring. She'd had flag runs in Tribal Alpha that were more brutally exciting than this. And, much as she hated to admit it, the shield was proving infinitely useful; if she timed when she squeezed the activation trigger, she'd barely have to bother dodging gunfire. Playing Dee had a few advantages, which explained how Rei-Lei kept beating the pants off of her.

Her objective was the core room of the security center, the power plant which kept those nasty high-tech defenses alive and kicking. Reaching the room was a simple affair—then she noticed that there were considerably more guards in that room than Gillian had anticipated. As in, one hundred more of them than Gillian had anticipated.

Ah. NOW it was officially fun.

What followed were three of the most blissful moments of Lorelei's existence, a frenzied orgy of mayhem and carnage the likes of which would go down in Tribal Alpha history, if Tribal Alpha cared about that sort of thing anymore. By the end of it, standing atop a pile of unconscious RealWare security personnel... Lorelei felt so satisfied she was concerned she'd have to change her jumpsuit, to avoid it remaining sticky and damp in personal places.

Then she noticed that all the lovely power plant equipment she was simply going to deactivate had taken a lot of damage in the process, and was about to explode, killing everybody including herself, which was bad.

Praying that she'd gained enough skill points at playing Dee to play it on a much larger scale, she jammed the dial on her shield to Maximum and held down the activation trigger...

A full minute later, once the explosions ceased, she relaxed. Despite the room being coated in soot and still on fire in several places, she hadn't lost a single life. Shield battery drained, Lorelei sat on top of her pile of conquests, and took five.

It was all up to Kisei now.

- - - - -

When the steady hum coming from the shielding around the Network Control Center was silenced—and more importantly, the series of explosions and mayhem from the Security Center was silenced—Kisei made her move.

She hugged shadows as if she were betrothed to them. Every skill, every year of training under her father led up to this mission—above all others, she could not fail. Failure meant failing those important to her, and she would sooner die than allow that... but death would mean failure, so she would not die, and she would not fail. It was simple and pure.

According to Gillian's notes, there would be a large antechamber which connected to the actual NCC core room. It would have rafters and shadows. Which meant, much as Kisei silently predicted, it would be a perfect place for a personal bodyguard to strike from.

Even in shadow, a sniper round embedded itself where Kisei was half a second ago. She chose a deeper shadow to hide within, and waited. And waited.

The bodyguard was a professional, but something was causing him to hold back. She knew why once he spoke up.

"I thought those guns were illegal, Kisei," a voice spoke from nowhere; perfectly echoed off the chamber walls, to mask its true origin point.

"Gabriel," she confirmed, using the same voice trick to remain hidden. She couldn't afford to do this, to talk to him. She had to get on with the mission. Time was a factor...

"I'm under contract, Kisei. I will protect the body of one Multi, CEO of RealWare. I'm very sorry it's come to this again..."

She slinked along the walls, heading for the doors. Perhaps she could talk him to distraction, then make her move. Taking on both Multi and Gabriel would be difficult... but she did have two guns. She could make each count.

"I have been authorized to use deadly force by my employer this time, Gabriel," she told him as she moved. "I am no longer restrained. I will kill you if I must to achieve my mission."

"But will you use that force? I know I'm not exactly your lover, Kisei, but I'd like to think you have enough feeling towards me not to execute me. Or are you still being fiercely loyal to your code, as before...?"

"No. This is for more than my code," she said, raising one gun as her ears began to pinpoint her target. "This... is for those I care about."

One step into the light, to draw his fire, to distract him. One smooth motion to pull the—

She wasn't alone. They weren't alone.

She quickly stepped back into shadow, avoiding another sniper round in the process. Who? Who had just walked past her? She felt nothing, saw nothing... but could tell someone was here. Another bodyguard?

Either way, she had missed her moment. Cursing silently, she waited for her next opportunity, and prayed she would not be too late for Eiko...

- - - - -

The ordinary room, the place of power, the core of RealNet. Multi focused on the work, translating the crayon drawings Eiko had made, overlaying them onto the mundane buildings of Urbana...

"Do the giant lizard next! Do it, do it!" she cheerfully commanded, poking at her drawing with one finger. "It'll look so cool on the Urbana Stock Exchange next to the butterflies and the fairies. Oooh, I know, give it dragon wings! That'll be even better—"

The sharp crack of gunfire snapped Multi's focus. (Far away, a large chunk of the Urbana Stock Exchange collapsed as his misdirected focus ripped away from it.) He turned to look at Eiko... and saw worry in her eyes. She knew something...

Quickly, he held her in place with his power, and rose from his chair. "Gabriel! Gabriel, what's going on?!" he shouted out to the antechamber. "Who's...."

He was across the room as well as where he was, and the door had never opened.

"You're not Gabriel," Multi said, too stunned to say anything less obvious.

"No," Mallory confirmed... calm and at peace, as he addressed his opposite. "And I'm not you, either. But I'm close enough, for this..."

Eiko's smile was bigger than it had been in days. "M.. Mallory-oniichan—!"

"Don't step closer," Multi warned, raising a hand, ready to gather his power. "Don't step closer, or I'll kill her. You know I'll do it!"

"No, you won't."

The new CEO of RealWare frowned as much as Eiko was smiling, and killed her with a thought.

Except he didn't. Couldn't. Nothing happened. In fact, Eiko had wriggled free of his powered grip, and was already running to go hide behind her beloved oniichan.

Fine, Multi thought, and decided to make both of them explode into flames instead.

That didn't happen either.

"What the..?" he exclaimed, staring at his reformed hand in disbelief. "My power... you've disabled it!? HOW?"

"I didn't disable it, I'm just countering it," Mallory told him... still advancing slowly, as he herded Eiko behind him with one hand. "I'm using my power to make sure the opposite of whatever you're trying to do happens."

Furious, Multi stepped backwards, grasping the console with one hand. RealNet, and Reality Prime's engine flowed into his being—he drew upon power, the kind of greater power he'd use to modify entire realities. Surely THAT would be enough to overcome this ridiculous trick....

But again, when he tried to crush his enemy, turn gravity inside out and pound his flesh into nothing... nothing is exactly what happened. He could feel the countering now, rising in power to match his own, even without an engine to feed on. Mallory Heisenberg was drawing on more of the power than Multi had ever been able to draw upon unaided... impossible. Unthinkable!

"What do you hope to prove by this? You'll hit your limits eventually. My powers are stronger, stronger than any of the others and certainly stronger than yours! I'll defeat this attempt with ease..."

"No, you won't. Because I have to stop you," Mallory repeated... so calm, so focused compared to any other time in the entirety of his life. "I can't really fight you, I can't defeat you; but for Meiko and for everything I love and care about, I can at least stop you. It's all I can do. Eiko, get back against the wall, quick..."

The air visibly thickened, a purple haze which threatened to crush the both of them. Multi didn't care. He built his power higher and higher, desperate to win, to overcome this... he pushed himself harder than ever and every time Mallory stepped forward, unconcerned, not showing the tiniest signs of breaking, it only pushed Multi to go further. He saw through the haze, saw the young child trying to move but being pushed back by it, trying to approach but moving slowly, as if time were flowing like syrup around them...

"You can't keep this up," Multi said, in disbelief. "It doesn't make sense. You could barely do anything before, how are you doing this now..?"

"I just... decided I had to do it," Mallory said, with a shrug and a very Mallory-esque goofy smile. "Just like I had to do what I did before, to protect Meiko. Once I accepted it, it was easy. We're like a yin-yang, Multi; I have to balance you out, not fight you. Yin-yang, poison-antidote, whatever you want to call it. I can stop you, even if nobody else can. You had to kill the others because they could potentially find a way to stop you, right?"

"Re... reality shall be determined by... the last one standing...!"

"Well, we're both standing and neither of us can do anything to the other," Mallory reasoned. "I think I've demonstrated that by now. So... what's the point? Let's both call it quits! Listen, Meiko and the others, everybody in the multiverse only want you dead because you won't stop hurting them! All you have to do is give up, stop doing what you're doing. You don't have to die here!"

"Give up..? Don't you understand? This is the future! It's what has to be done, I can't give up," Multi protested, as the room around them started to fade from view. "I'm in control. I can do this. I can overcome you!"

He drew from reserves he didn't even know he had. He drew from every engine, everywhere. Everything, everywhere. He was tied into the multiverse on the whole—and even that wasn't enough. Something eerily pure about Mallory kept him on the exact same level...

"You can't draw this much power," Multi warned. "You'll... explode. I saw it happen to M. You know it'll happen!"

Mallory looked around himself, at the distant and fading everything of all. "Yeah... I know. Well... if I have to do that, then I have to do that. I'd do anything for her, and you're not going to keep me from protecting her... so if you won't stop, then we're both going to have to die for her. I'm sorry it had to be this way... she's gonna be really mad at me, I think..."

A soundless scream emerged from Multi's self, as the two deadlocked mirrors ceased to exist in conventional reality.

- - - - -

Her ideal of becoming speed was rapidly fading away, as she was forced to hide in shadow and await opportunity. She spent no mental energy on anger at herself for getting trapped in this situation; she had to react at the speed of thought...

There. Purple light from the cracks of the closed doorway. It would provide a distraction to anybody concentrating less than she was, and she was the epitome of concentration...

Three muscles were used; one to raise the gun, one to twist her wrist for positioning, one to squeeze the trigger...

And one to adjust it a few inches to the right. Four muscles, then. The end result would be satisfactory regardless.

Gabriel dropped from the rafters, right from the hiding spot she had predicted he was using. His arm fell a moment afterwards, rifle still in the disembodied hand.

Kisei sprang from the shadows, quick to pounce on his body—she slapped down a wad of immobilization gum to his uninjured arm, as well as one to the bleeding shoulder which had been shattered by her Reality Pistol shot. Sputtering blood, he spoke to her through a woozy smile.

"I'm glad it was you," Gabriel he said. "I'm glad it was you to kill me..."

"You are not dying," she informed him. "I aimed specifically to ensure that; you are not the one I wished to use deadly force against. You will not stop me from my objective now. ...I will send a medical team here once I am done. Stay conscious."

Her "enemy" watched helplessly, as Kisei shoved the doors to the NCC open, tossing away her spent pistol and aiming the other one with intent to kill...

Except that someone had beat her to the job. Multi was enveloped in a light that hurt to look at, one which bent and twisted reality in ways the human mind couldn't fully comprehend... but in the confusion, she could tell that there were two figures rapidly dissolving before her eyes: Multi, and Mallory Heisenberg.

She didn't bother shooting, as by the time she had registered the sight, both were gone.

Instead, she picked up the shocked Eiko, and turned to leave. One way or another, the mission seemed to be complete.

- - - - -

Here is nowhere. Here, you are everywhere.

Nearly every citizen of the multiverse had been here, whether they knew it or not; it existed between things. It was there in the molecules of your coffee cup, it was as distant as your deepest memories. It did not exist despite existing, and the only place mortal eyes had glimpsed it was in the depths of complicated reality mathematics which only seven or eight people currently alive could even start to comprehend.

For lack of a better name, it was Nullspace, and the two of Mallory were ascending through it at uncontrollable speed.

He didn't have a body. He possibly didn't have a mind, but he fought to believe that he did have one. "He" was he, be it Mallory or Multi, this state would apply to either of them. As well as the fear either of them was feeling.

"Stop this..." Multi was begging, even if he wasn't using a physical voice induced by air over vibrating cords of flesh to say the words. "Stop this, please! We can't survive it..!"

"You can stop anytime you want to," Mallory said, fighting through the fear. "But I can't stop until you do. I told you that. Just give up! I don't want to die any more than you do!"

"But it's my dream..."

And in that flash, Mallory knew what his counterpart's dream was. He could feel the passion for it, the desire to achieve a limitless existence where none would be wanting and nothing bad could ever happen. No matter how clumsy Multi was at achieving his goals, no matter what flawed methods he used, what he really wanted was pure and shining and wonderful...

Mallory had to force himself to look away from it.

"You can find another way to have that," he suggested. "It doesn't have to be this way!"

"There is no other way. Reality shall be determined by the last one standing..."

Ascend the corporate ladder. There's no room for second best. Achievers ascend, failures descend. Work for your own glory—

—work with your friends, with your family. It doesn't matter who's best. Together they can do what you want to do...

That perspective was completely lost on Multi, as much as Mallory tried to push it on him. He'd never give up, Mallory realized. Not when all he's ever known was that kind of achievement, coupled with that sort of obsession...

The two of them spiraled upwards, heading towards... something. Something even beyond Nullspace, something huge and bright. It didn't hurt Mallory's eyes (he didn't have eyes) to look at it. It looked so, so very—

He had no shoulder for a hand to be placed upon but there was one there anyway.

"You can stop now," a third voice that was also his own said. "Trust me. It's over. Just look away, don't watch..."

Because Mallory trusted the voice (it was his own) he did as he was told, and looked away. His ascent slowed, and stopped... while Multi's continued, upwards towards that distant light.

A whisper fluttered down from high above, as Multi reached his destination.

It's beautiful... it's so beautiful, just like my dreams...

"And... he's gone," the third voice said. "I was wondering if this is what it'd take to beat him. I'm glad I hung around and managed to help you out there."

Despite there being no bodies, Mallory fixed one in his non-mind. It helped him focus. And the body was quite familiar to him...

"M..?" he recognized, as the cynic's black trenchcoat fluttered in no wind. "But you're—"

"Dead?" M filled in, with a smirk. "Not totally dead, no. I've... I don't know. Evolved? Moved onwards and upwards? Floating around limbo? All I know is that I drew in power until I found myself here. I thought I could take him with me, but all I got was his hand. Just my luck..."

The two of them were more solid now, solid enough to hold on a conversation with imagined body language. Which is how M could scratch his head in a Mallory-esque way, looking for a means to fill the silence of the awkward social moment.

"So... you got the note I left on your kitchen table after exploding, then? Good. Well. Multi's gone onward. It's over."

"Onward..? I don't understand..."

"To wherever that light goes," M said, pointing up at the thing both of them were taking great care not to look at. "And he won't come back; after all, I can't come back and I'm not even all the way there. I'm just... above things, right now, like you are. Take a look down. G'wan, it's fun!"

Mallory looked past his shoes...

...at the multiverse. Standing on the outside, looking in.

Thousands of points of light, all connected by a tangled web of lines. Reality Engines, glowing so brightly, and RealNet keeping them linked. And in the center of it all, an incredibly bright light that represented the place where Earth was located. It made absolute sense to him, in the same way he could look at a frying pan and know exactly what its form, function, and purpose were...

"Hey, stop me if you've heard this one. A Buddhist walks into a bar, and says 'Make me one with everything!'" M joked. "Get it? Huh?"

"..." Mallory non-responded with. "Down there, that's... that's everything, then? It all feels so... simple, from here. I understand how it all works...! And that's a really big deal for a guy like me who barely understood it even when he was living there!"

"Yeah, well, knowledge of the multiverse is nice and all, but I don't think you should be hanging around," M suggested. "As much fun as it is at the crossroads of existence, you've got someone to go back to. Can't keep her waiting, now, can we?"

"But... I can't go back, can I?" Mallory asked. "How could I ever find my way back..? It's all so small down there, and I don't even understand how I got here!"

"Hey, I didn't say it'd be easy. I couldn't find a way back, myself. I gave up trying after a while, figured I'd just watch and wait... but I tried, at least. You're gonna try too, yeah? You don't strike me as the quitting sort. You wouldn't be here if you were willing to give up."

Mallory looked away from everything, to nod to his friend. "Of course. I'll try. ...are you coming with me?"

"Me? I don't think I can even if I wanted," M said, shrugging into his coat as he was wont to do. "I'm too far gone. Besides... that light up there, it's pretty appealing. I've been studying it a little, trying not to get pulled in, just trying to figure out where it goes... and I think... if I went there, maybe I'd find Melvin, Megumi, and Matsuri again. As much as I hated them, well... they were my friends. Maybe I'll see them again there..."

With a smile, the kind of smile M never wore in life where he was never at peace, he flipped Mallory a brief two-fingered salute.

"If I'm right, then it means I'll see you again, one day," he promised Mallory. "But for now... beat it, all right? Otherwise, you'll be stealing the great martyr spotlight I had going. No need for TWO of 'em..."

M craned his neck, looking upwards... and streaked out of sight, glowing with white light as he vanished.

Leaving Mallory all alone, as much as anyone could be alone when they were technically everywhere at once.

Resisting the urge to look upward, he focused downward... and began to descend. He had no idea what he was doing, but did it anyway and hoped for the best. It had to be possible to return; the multiverse wasn't really that complicated anymore, it all made absolute sense to him. All the complexities, all the mysteries, everything made sense... if there was a way back, he'd find it.

It was too large to hold, too big to grasp—he'd have to reach for something smaller than everything. Some part of everything that he knew by heart, something he could use as a beacon...


It was difficult to see her at first, obscured by the flickering light of Grep's Open Engine, but once he focused she was bright as a sun. He'd know her Self no matter where in Nullspace he was, no matter how far gone he was. That was the beacon he could return to.

Placing one hand over his heart (or believing he was, which was good enough), he descended towards Grep. Towards her...

Actually, no. Speed was meaningless, he could be there right now. It'd just take a quick—


In the distance, he spotted the dim glow of Reality Prime's engine. It was practically right next to the flickering glow of Grep's engine. Neither of them were particularly strong, not compared to the glorious light of Earth. They were dangerously weak, even, threatening to wink out at any moment...

Why would anybody live like that, under constant threat of reality crashes? Just because one person didn't want to open their knowledge to others, and the other couldn't do any better than he was doing without that knowledge? If they helped each other out, they could have found the answer together. It didn't make much sense to him, because from what he could see (he could see everything) all it would take to make them as strong and real as Earth was a few small changes...

Both Reality Prime and the Open Reality Movement were very close to the truth. A simple nudge would be all it would take to make every reality as bright as Earth itself.

He wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. Multi thought he could impose his will on everybody, too. All Xyzzy ever wanted was freedom and here Mallory was, about to make a choice for him...

But in a way, Mallory was doing what he always did. He listened to people and then tried to help them get what they wanted. From here he could feel them huddling around those dim lights like candles in the dark, and while he was hanging around... the least he could do was bring them the light they wanted...

And so,

let there be

the light of day for everyone, everywhere...

- - - - -

"I don't believe you," Meiko said, defiant in the face of Kisei's stoic declaration. "He's not dead. He wasn't there. You don't know what you were seeing; it couldn't have been him."

"He is not on Grep, Meiko Mirai. I saw him at Reality Prime, and I saw him die alongside Multi—"

"You're wrong!" Meiko shouted. "He wouldn't do that! I told him he wasn't allowed... he wasn't allowed to do that... he can't die for me. I won't let him! ...he'll come back. I know he will—"

everything changed, everywhere.

Noyori Labs shuddered once, as if moved slightly to the left, then slightly up, then dropped back into place. Meiko struggled to find her footing as the windows lit up, the ordinary coredump-grey sky of Grep suddenly changing...

When the spots left her eyes, brilliant blue daylight was streaming in through the windows.

"Are we crashing?" she guessed, turning to look outside.

"No... no, that's not possible," Xyzzy was saying, as he stood by the window, staring outside in shock. "Open Engines don't have the Blue Sky of Death, they just flat out crash—and there's no error message up there. ...the system status message is still there, in fact, but... it's white letters on blue sky, and it says everything's okay..."

Meiko turned to ask Gillian if she knew what was going on, and there was Mallory Heisenberg, standing in the center of the room.

In his arms was a large, spiral-bound technical manual. The cover read How To Build a Freedom Engine, Final Version. There was no author attribute.

The book slipped from his limp hands, as he staggered forwards, towards Meiko.

"I... I think that took the last of what I had to give," he said weakly... and collapsed into her arms.

"Doctor... get a doctor in here!" Meiko screamed, staggering herself to support his weight. "He's not breathing! HURRY!"

As the room exploded into a frenzy of activity, people running to accomplish various tasks related to hopefully saving Mallory's life... Xyzzy walked calmly to the center of the room, picking up the fallen technical manual.

Feeling like he was in a waking dream, he flipped briefly through the pages. Diagrams, schematics, plain-language writing which made everything so simple... the solutions to various problems he'd been banging his head against the wall trying to solve, laid out in a tangle of handwritten scribble...

Even if nobody was paying attention to him, he felt the need to speak.

"I think reality just got out of beta," he said.

- - - - -

The third-hand copy of How To Build a Freedom Engine, Final Version was tossed down on the desk like a metal gauntlet of war.

"If we thought Multi's takeover was a disaster, this ranks as an extinction-level event," the COO of RealWare stated. "Every single engine, everywhere, has been replaced with one of these so-called 'Freedom Engines.' Even the Open Engines are now Freedom Engines! Xyzzy's people have been distributing the book like wildfire, and new realities are practically popping up overnight; you can put one of these things together from three thousand points' worth of common equipment and a few days of work entering the program code. It even clones the RealNet protocols without the need for the cheap encryption hacks the ORM was using! Needless to say... RealWare's monopoly has been destroyed. It's over. ...Miss Bates! Are you even paying attention!?"

"Hmm?" Gillian said, turning her liberated-from-Multi ergonomic board room chair around, unfortunately breaking eye contact with the lovely blue sky outside. "Yes, of course. And I suggest you don't take that tone with me again, unless you enjoy collecting unemployment. I may not be one for killing my employees like your previous CEO was, but I can make you long for the days of Multi's reign. ...now, then. You were saying the monopoly is destroyed?"

"Yes. The monopoly is destroyed. The best we can do is launch a campaign of FUD, tell people these new engines are a hazard—which is going to be hard considering we haven't heard one report of them crashing yet. We could also try to enforce our prior customer contracts, issue mandatory equipment upgrades to put RealWare engines back in production—which is going to be a bit hard when they don't have any RealWare owned equipment on hand TO upgrade. In essence, ma'am... we're dead."

"Really?" she said, glancing around the room. "For a dead company, we seem to be quite alive. My trash basket was emptied this morning. The cafeteria still had those wonderful fudge brownies I enjoy. And all of you are still slated to receive your overjustified salaries in direct deposit on pay day next Wednesday. So, tell me—how exactly are we dead when the patient still breathes? I'm quite aware of our financial status, we have enough ready cash to cool our heels for three centuries, producing nothing of value, without going under..."

"But... but the engines. Nobody will buy our engines anymore. What's the point of RealWare if we don't have the engines?"

"There's still a point. It's simply... shifted a bit," Gillian said, smiling to herself. "A paradigm shift. A lovely, wonderful paradigm shifting right from under our feet. Isn't that precious? And it wasn't even Multi's doing. It came from a source I never expected... but, I digress. Our point, our purpose, is going to change. No, we won't be the dominant, controlling force in the multiverse anymore. But we have reality engineers, do we not? I want a copy of this book for every single one of them, as well as reports on potential future projects we can develop using this technology base. These miracle engines going to be wide open to after-market parts and upgrades, which we will excel at developing. Even beyond the technical—we have reality designers, do we not? Some of the finest in the multiverse! Just imagine the wonders they'll craft, given a wholly stable canvas to play with... Multi would be thrilled to see what we're now capable of. If he were still alive, of course."

The COO sat back in his chair, trying to take it in. "So... we're... changing focus to playing grease monkeys and artists? No offense, madam chairwoman, but... we'll never make the kind of money we made before doing that. There'll be a lot of money, don't get me wrong, but nothing compared to what we once had! There's no control factor, there's no product lock-in. Do you really want to throw away your family legacy like this...?"

"On the contrary," Gillian said, relaxed with one hand resting over her belly. "My family legacy is of the utmost importance to me... and I suspect my daughter-to-be will have an ideal future, in the bright new world we will craft alongside the Open Reality Movement and any other pioneers of tomorrow."

"Your... your daughter...?"

"I always thought it was silly, what they said. But really, motherhood does change your perspective on what's truly important in this life," she continued, ignoring her lackeys for now. "Money isn't everything, you know. And I intend to carry on the prestige of RealWare by excelling in these new industries. Gentlemen, I bid you aideu; I want reports on possible future business directions on my desk by tomorrow morning. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to start shopping for educational children's toys. You can never be too prepared."

Walking quietly away from the stunned stares of her employees, Gillian hummed a tune to herself and to the life inside her. Yes, the future was bright—and for that, she had Multi to thank. Without his spark, the fire wouldn't have been lit... his wonderful spark, woefully misguided, would carry on to a rebirth and hopeful redemption.

And she had Meiko Mirai to thank as well, really. After all, it was her DNA that RealWare's top geneticists had mixed with Multi's and Gillian's genes to create the tiny miracle she now carried. Ah, the wonders of science...

Perhaps she should tell Meiko, though...?

"Mmm... no," she said to herself. "It would just upset her. There's no need. But an invitation to the baby shower might not be out of the question..."

- - - - -

Nine months came and went.

The Multiversal economy was a bit wobbly at first, as RealWare posted its first net loss since the beginning of recorded history. However, this was balanced out by the emergence of dozens of new realities... early adopters of the bizarre new technology were having striking success at developing new realities, ones with customized physical traits beyond the old safety parameters RealWare stuck to. If you had a social movement or a subculture or even a large family, you too could carve out your own little niche of existence to eke out a living...

Word spread quickly of Multi's death, even if the circumstances of it were fuzzy. Everybody agreed that it must have happened the day the skies turned blue—that was such a huge event that it could only signal the death of a tyrant. A few small religions had even formed around the event, trying to explain the mysteries of it... but information out of RealWare about those events was sorely lacking, under orders from Gillian Bates.

On the whole, life went back to normal. The newfound stability of reality, and the ability to expand it in ways never before tried actually made life a little better than normal... but not instantly perfect. Utopia was quite far away, even if it felt closer every day.

But it was as close to a perfect day as was possible, when Josef sat back on his porch, watching the clouds flutter by across the blue skies of Grünwald. Crops were ripening nicely, the grass was green, the people content and nothing but good things on the horizon...

"Lovely day out today," he thought aloud.

"Mhmmm. Perfect weather for it. But didn't the forecast call for rain...?"

"I made sure the council rescheduled the weather," he replied to the man sitting on a rocking chair next to him. "The crops can wait another day. I didn't want anything to spoil this special day..."

Leeham considered that, furrowing his brow. "I don't know, Josef. It seems... unnatural to me. Being able to just wave your hand and turn off the rain like that..."

"Leeham, are you going to be a sourpuss again? Today, of all days?"

"Ah, no, no," Leeham said, shaking his head. "Of course not. I suppose... I'll just have to get used to it all again. It's been a while since I've been here."

"And I'll have to visit your 'Earth' reality sometime. Fair's fair..." Josef said, flicking his wrist to check his watch. "Hmm. He should be here by now, though... what could be keeping him?"

Leeham scratched his head, a gesture either acquired from his son or passed down to him. "You don't think..? Even after she told him not to..?"

- - - - -

Working with pasta sauce without ruining an expensive, rented tuxedo was no easy task. Especially not for someone as clumsy as him—which is why he made sure to put on the heaviest, largest apron they had in stock. Normally it was intended for the four-hundred-pound head chef, but thankfully he had the flu today. And non-thankfully, that meant the kitchens were understaffed... and he couldn't leave them like that, of course.

He leaned across the pot, and raised the ladle to his lips, taking a quick sip to test it. His ponytail almost fell into the mix; fortunately he flipped it back with his spare hand before succumbing to a disastrous pasta sauce hairstyle incident.

"Mmm... not bad," he confirmed. "I think it needs a pinch more herbs, though. I'm not feeling the flavor at the back of the throat. And it needs to be thicker; keep stirring—"

"THERE you are."

He looked up just in time to shield his eyes and turn away.

"M-Meiko!" he protested. "I'm not supposed to see you before the ceremony! It's bad luck—"

"Don't you bad luck me, Mallory Heisenberg," Meiko grumbled, hiking up her lovely white dress as she marched angrily across the kitchen. "What did I tell you about this? Let someone ELSE cook, for once in your life!"

"But they're understaffed!"

"I thought your home turf had the best chefs in the multiverse? They can handle it! ...honestly, Mallory. I know you just want everything to be perfect, but please..."

"Okay, okay... they can take it from here," he agreed, keeping an arm across his eyes. "Uh. Now I have to navigate out here without bumping into anything, so if you could just turn me around to face away from you—"

"And I thought we agreed you'd lose the ponytail..."

"But I spent so long growing it out just so I wouldn't look like Multi. I still get funny looks when I walk down the street, even with my contact lenses in!"

Meiko sighed, shaking her head. "Right, right. Well... it won't show in the photos, I guess. And maybe we can dye it, or something, after today... I just feel weird having shorter hair than you do... all right. I'll turn and split now so you can uncover your eyes. And then, hurry up and get to the council hall! It's going to start in a few minutes, you know... and Mallory?"

"Yeah?" he asked... allowing himself a little peek.

Absolutely beautiful...

"Thank you," she said, smiling to him through the cracks in his fingers. "Thank you for everything."

- - - - -

Scratchy. Scratchy, scratchy, itchy...

Lorelei scraped her nicely manicured nails over her stomach a few more times, fidgeting from foot to foot inside the absolutely beautiful bridesmaid's dress. "This is possibly the most annoying thing I've ever worn," she muttered under her breath, glancing around the Grünwald council chamber once to make sure nobody was in earshot other than her companion. "I don't see why I couldn't just convert it to a midriff, or something. I LIKE midriffs..."

"You have endured battle conditions far worse than this," Kisei commented, standing tall and proud like a soldier at attention, despite the fancy dress and matching manicure. "Somehow, I believe you will survive without exposing your navel in order to attract male attention..."

A few flower petals fluttered across her view. Kisei turned to watch the adorable little flower girl, as she skipped about restlessly waiting for the ceremony to begin... tossing a few handfuls of petals here and there. Notably in the face of Kensuke, who was looking very embarrassed.

"Lorelei... correct me if I am wrong, but according to common social customs, isn't Eiko Mirai getting a bit old to play the role of the flower girl in these proceedings...?"

"What? Oh. Eh, Eiko'll always be Eiko, Kiss," Lorelei said, leaning against the nearest wall to relieve pressure on her feet. "As old as she wants to be at any given time. Let her play a bit, she'll have plenty of time before she's walking down the aisle herself with that lawyer brat... hey, speaking of getting hitched, when are you going to stroll the aisle with that one-armed bandit of yours?"

"If you are referring to Gabriel, I have no plans at this time to engage in romantic relations with him, much less matrimony," Kisei replied... watching as Gabriel maneuvered down the aisle, taking photographs of the assembled audience as he went. (Fortunately he was here on official wedding photographer duties, rather than official assassin duties.) "Currently I am keeping our relationship at a friendly level, as he is a spectacular conversationalist, unlike some present... beyond that, he is... too forward for my tastes. I may have to clarify our standing to him once more if he persists in attempts to 'woo' me. And besides, if I commit to a relationship as Meiko Mirai and Mallory Heisenberg possess, I cannot easily continue to 'pub-crawl' with you."

"You'd be doing better at pub-crawling if every time I hooked you up with a guy it didn't end with you putting him in a hammerlock, you know."

"It would also be easier if you did not attempt to 'hook me up'. I am content to spend that recreational time with you alone."

"Come on, that's no fun," Lorelei tasted, nudging Kisei with her elbow and winking. "How about a tag-team, then? Guys loooove that..."

Unperturbed, Kisei didn't even give Lorelei a glare. "I was under the impression that nuptial ceremonies were not the place for prurient suggestions, Lorelei..."

"All right, all right! I'm just pokin' fun, you know that," she said, with a smirk... before clearing her throat, and looking away for a moment. "And I'm cool with just hanging with you. Really. It's better than the way I used to be... lots better."

"I am glad I could provide that for you. And... it does provide well for me."

Wedding music freshly rented from a RealNet node specializing in this sort of thing began to play, and Lorelei stood at attention much as Kisei was. Although she had a goofy smile the whole time through, watching events unfold. As much as she liked to be sarcastic... all of this did feel damn good in her heart.

- - - - -


He was dazed for most of the proceedings... it began about the time the music played, and he had to be physically nudged when it came time to say 'I do'. Every little detail was sort of a blur, but it'd come to him in time. He was sure he'd study every memory of the ceremony in hindsight... such as the way her eyes sparkled when he lifted the veil, the smile on Ryo's face as he gave away the bride, the reception where Lorelei got drunk in the opening ten minutes, Gillian Bates showing off her newborn daughter and thus stealing the spotlight for awhile so he could take a breather, the traditional first dance with his new bride where everything else went away for a few magic moments, the cake afterwards that he had personally baked against direct orders from his new wife...

But for now, he was okay with the daze as he relaxed on a grassy hill of his homeland, outside the council hall where the reception was almost over. It was a familiar grassy hill to him. After all, he'd spent many an afternoon after chores and lessons lying here, listening to his cheap RealNet audio receiver he wasn't even supposed to have, staring up at the... now blue sky, and dreaming. Sometimes he'd dream of tornados... the good kind.

He looked up, and watched Meiko approaching in an upside-down manner as he relaxed on the grass, arms folded behind his head.

"That's gonna really mess up your tuxedo, you know," she chided in an extremely playful manner. (She couldn't work up a rage if she tried, not now... even the little critiques felt like playful romantic nonsense.) "What's up, Mallory? Folks are starting to notice that you bailed. Although after that ridiculous dance where you have to move your hands to your hips and fold them and turn around and jump and stuff, I don't blame you..."

"I was just... thinking," he said, looking back up at the sky. "About, you know, distance. How far I've come in just under a year... hey! C'mere, take a look at this...!"

Sitting up and then standing up, he dusted off his tuxedo... and took Meiko's hand. He pulled her along, a short jog from the grassy hill... to two nearly identical grassy hills a stone's throw away.

"See those?" he said, pointing them out. "When I first met you, you'd landed your house on me. I was right between those two hills, so I didn't get smooshed. Funny, how I managed to put myself right where I had to be... although if it happened now, I'd definitely be smooshed, what with burning out my powers making all those engines... but hey, that's where it started. And look how far I came..."

"You want to talk distance? I was in an orphanage only a few years ago! Now look at me. Now look at US..."


He watched a cloud go by, mind still dazed, spinning with thoughts...

"You know, I'm not one for partying," Meiko said, squeezing his hand. "Let's just sneak out, and get the new house over to our honeymoon dock. I think you'll like it, Eiko finagled a great bargain at a resort reality; one where you won't have to do any cooking."

Mallory wrinkled his nose. "But I LIKE to cook for you..."

"Yes, well, you'll have plenty of years to do that in the future. Promise me you'll lay off the homemaker routine at least a week and just ENJOY yourself, or we're not going at all. Got it..?"

With a smile, he nodded his head. "Got it. Let's get going... Mrs. Heisenberg."

Of course, he was still going to cook for her.

It's just who he was; Meiko's personal chef, the once lowly Houseboy, an REC-certified Reality Engineer, apparently a Savior Of Sorts, and most importantly—he was Mallory Heisenberg.

And if reality was going to be determined by the last one standing, then he was determined to make it a fine reality indeed for the both of them.

- Boyds, MD
  December 23, 2003

THANK YOU FOR READING! Want more? Here's more!

(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.