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Started by LMNO, March 23, 2005, 01:17:10 PM

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CHAPTER 2:  Face-Raping Bats!

"Well, Erin, let me see this cell phone of yours," I said.  She reached into her purse (purse?  Did she have a purse when she walked in?  How could she have kept that hidden?) and pulled out your typical-style phone.  High-end, no doubt, but just the same as any other:  Black, smaller than a deck of cards, and vaguely sinister-looking.  She laid it on the desk, and glanced up at me.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I'm almost afraid to touch it."  Looking quickly at the phone, not wanting to get lost in her eyes a second time, I noticed it had a few deep scratches in the back, where the battery gets recharged.

"What's this?"

"Well, after about a week of these strange calls, I lost my nerve, and sort of... snapped.  I threw the phone at the wall.  It didn't stop the calls, though."

I picked up the phone, opened it, & began dialing a string of digits.  "Well, let's see if we can figure out where these calls are coming from."

"I tried 'Star 69', but it didn't seem to work."

Letting another innuendo slip by, I said, "Well, that's because you use the Government, Inc.'s services.  You know as well as I do that ever since the National This-Is-For-Your-Own-Good-Just-Trust-Us Act of 2006 passed, no information request will ever provide accurate information, just add your name to the ever-growing list of people who want to Know Too Much."

Looking around nervously, she said, "I had to take a chance."

"Don't worry about it.  These days, the list includes about 98% of the population.  Government, Inc. uses Quantum Information Storage, but they haven't gotten around to figuring out how to make a Quantum Processor yet.  So it's like finding a speck of dust in the middle of the galaxy."

A small smile flickered at the corner of her mouth.  I noticed that her lips, full and red like the promise of a pomegranate just before the bitterness sets in, had a small, almost miniscule scar running from the top edge of the left cupids bow diagonally to the bottom lip, like she was delicately brutalized at some great distance in her past, or had fallen out of a willow tree as a child.  It was the smallest and most perfect of flaws on a flawless face, the unnatural error of symmetry calling attention to her impeccable beauty.  "So how is it, Mr. LMNO, that you plan to get around Government Inc.'s little plan?"

"Ah, it all depends on your connections, dollface.  I know a couple of Scrids down at MegaTeleComTech, and they owe me a favor."

"They use Scrids?"  Her forehead folded upon itself slightly, and I realized that was the look of someone who's not used to being puzzled, when the muscles have all but forgotten the feeling of a frown.

"Well, with the millions of signals coming down the wires & flying through the air every second, who else but genetically-modified, hyper-intelligent Giant Land Squids are they going to use?"  The phone on the other end of the line was ringing, so I held up one finger, not wanting to be any ruder than I had to be to Erin.  After all, if she was going to be paying me, she was my employer.  The line picked up.

"Hey, Randy? ...Yeah, it's LMNO... I know, I know, not since September... Mmm Hmmm... How' the brood?  ...Great, great...  Look, Randy, I have to call in that favor...  No, that didn't count, because I wasn't the one who got the wires crossed...  Yeah, well, tell it to the wall...  Ok, fine.  25%, and a sack of mollusks.  Listen, Randy, what I need from you is to keep a tracer on this phone, number 333-2342, and to track all incoming calls....  Yeah? Great.  If you can do this for me, we're even.... Right...  Ok.  I'll call you again when I need the number."

I hung up, and looked at Erin, still struggling with the glass of scotch.  Pouring another for myself, I said, "Well, that's that.  All we have to do now is wait for another call."

Suddenly the phone rang.  I snatched it up, and a sickly whine burst from the receiver.

UsurperoftheClowntroddenggggggggggggggggggg..."  The line went dead.

"That was pretty freaky," I said.  I turned to look at Erin.  She had contracted somehow, drawing herself into herself, her eyes wide with fear.  She grabbed my glass, and drained it, her face never changing expression.

"It's ok.  I'm calling Randy now."  I dialed up the Scrid, and waited as the connection was made.  "Randy?  Yeah, it's me again.  I need to know—WHAT?  How is that possible?  ...No, I don't think you're lying, that's genetically impossible, that's why it's so much fun playing poker with you... Could you triple-check that?  ...I see." I hung up.

"What?  What?"  Erin was literally on the edge of her seat, chest heaving with anticipation, temporarily driving all other thoughts out of my head.  Coming back to myself, I put the phone carefully on my desk.

"He said the call was coming from inside the phone itself," I said, as I drew my gun. 

I don't like guns.  I mean, when I have to use them.  Sure, target practice is fine, and it gives you a certain "manliness" quotient, holding the powerful and explosive Doom Cock like some hero from TV, but when it really comes down to needing to use a gun, everything becomes uncomfortable.

Case in point: Right now, the nine millimeter in my hand felt all too heavy, and the smell of cordite and oil filled my nostrils.  I held Death in my hand, I wielded Violence.  And right now, it was pointed at a small piece of plastic on my desk.

Erin started, "Wait.  How can the call have originated inside the phone—" when the phone rang again.  But it didn't so much ring, as shriek.  Digital feedback, mixed with good old fashioned Screaming of the Damned, from what I could tell, filled the office.  The scratches down the back of the cell phone widened and split, following some sort of pre-described demarcations, splitting the top half down the middle, and spreading out either side, while what looked like legs began sprouting from the lower half.

"sssskkkkskkskkkkkkYourASoulWillSufferAgonyssskkkksttttshshshhhhhTearYourSkinUntilPainBecomesYourOnlyFriend... akehhekkksskkkkskkkkksssYouWillKnowNoFriendButThePainOfYouSoulandTheEmptinessOfYouLifeskjjehhddded..."

"Oh, My God," Erin cried.  "It's EMO!"

Wings burst through the back of the phones, and buzzed furiously.  Launching itself

The editors of "LMNO-PI" would like to interrupt at this point and note that the "face-raping bat" scene has been deleted, seeing as how the Author of this petty drama is currently both sleep-deprived and hungover, and wrote, what we here all agree, was a pretty bad and tasteless scene.  Needless to say, this chapter is filled with weak adjectives, and horrible similes, such as "plummeted through the air like a Pearl Harbor bomber", and the like.  The Editors would like to apologize to the readers, and to assure you that this passage should contain Horrific and Wildly Exciting descriptions of LMNO's ferocious and chaotic gunfight with the Strangely Demonic Face-Raping Bat Cell Phone.  We apologize for the interruption.

...The last bullet hit home, and hit true.  The phone exploded into shards of plastic and bits of newly-formed flesh, and what seemed to be fluttering bits of paper.  The newly found silence was almost stifling compared to the screams and gunshots.  I slid the gun back into its holster, and grabbed one of the slips of paper out of the air.  It was completely covered with Ones and Zeroes.

"Damn.  I'm not enough of a geek to read machine code raw."

"What. The fuck.  Was that!?"

"I'll explain it to you in the car.  Right now, we have to get out of here."

"I put that up to my EAR!"

"I know.  It likes that sort of thing.  But we have to go.  I need this translated."

"Where are we going?"

"I need this read, fast.  So we're going to a bar."

"WHAT?  Are you serious?  We just got attacked by that... that... thing—"

"Face-Raping bat."

"—Whatever, and you're thinking about getting drunk?  Not to mention, where are you going to find a place open right now?"

"Easy.  It's the only bar open at this hour of the morning.  The Open Bar."


CHAPTER 3: Who's Up For Some Exposition?

I grabbed my shabby leather trench coat as we left the office, making our way down the dimly-lit, musty corridor to the street.  The wiring here was as bad as the office, and the flickering bulbs did nothing to calm Erin's nerves.  Against my better judgment, I offered her my arm.  With a wan smile, she placed her palm in the crook of my elbow, and drew close.

The scent coming off her, like the fields of Amsterdam, like the first rain of summer, mounted a frontal attack on my brain, as the pressure from her fingertips made me think of what those hands could do, in another time, another place.  Dammit!  Get a hold on yourself, L!  And yes, I know that was another pun.  Shut it!  Don't think that she's gonna get over the Face-Raping Bat anytime soon!

Turning towards me, Erin said, "I still don't see why we're going to a Bar."

"Not just any bar, honey.  This one is... Special."

"Special like 'mine is the power and the glory' special, or special like 'I need help wiping my own ass' special?"

I chuckled.  "Neither, doll face.  There are some pretty weird characters who hang out there who might help us with this."  I pulled the scrap of binary code from my pocket, & she flinched, but kept her cool.

"Your friends, I bet."

"Well, some of them.  Others... let's just say we have an uneasy truce."

"Hmph.  Sounds like any other joint in the City."

"Ah.  But can you say that any other bar will talk back to you?"  Leaving that last comment hanging, I opened the front doors onto the street. 

The City loomed through the threshold, the grim oppressiveness pushing down on your shoulders almost immediately.  It wasn't supposed to be like this, originally.  There was something about the way the City was built.  "Psychotecture" they called it.  The theory was that the brain interpreted angles in the same way it interpreted feelings and emotions.  Make the angle big enough, prominent enough, and it will affect your mood.  Of course, the possibilities were huge, and Government, inc. ate that shit up like pancakes.  The designers got to work, like Frank Lloyd Wright on steroids, plotting out the buildings, the streets, even the lampposts.  Great idea, right?  Make the City what you want it to be:  The financial center attentive, focused, and precise, the Restaurant district warm, inviting, etc.

When it was finished, the designers submitted the City to Government, inc. who then did what they always did:  Auction off to the lowest bidder.  Who, of course, will cut corners.  Literally.  The precise distances and angles the designers calculated were eyeballed, estimated, and (occasionally) eliminated.  When it was all done, the City was a mockery of itself, a concrete and steel grotesque, oppressive and forbidding, even on the brightest Spring day.  Needless to say, the suicide rate in the City shot up 1723% in the first year after completion.  No wonder no one left their windowshade up for long. 

Pulling up my collar, we hunched against the psychic assault of the City in all its vast malevolence, and made our way to the car.  A silver, beat-to-shit late model beast, it contrasted sharply against the sleek and sinister beauty of the latest models parked nervously alongside.

"Holy shit," Erin said, bemused.  "Does that thing run on gas, still?"

"Never got around to installing the hydro cell converter."

"Where do you find the cash to refill the damn thing?"

"I try not to use it that often, but today, we're in a hurry, and since there's no one on the road yet, I figure we can get away with it."

"Damn, I think I will need a drink after riding in that piece of junk."

"Just get in.  We've got to get to the Open Bar before the Troll gets too drunk."

"We're actually looking for a Troll?"

"A collective, actually," I said, hitting the started, & gunning the car to life.  The engine fought me for a second, as if it knew it wasn't long for this world, and just wanted to fade away into rust, but then it remembered why it was made, and let out an angry roar as it cleared its pipes of any carbon that might be in its steel throat.

"We've got to find Aini."


We drove in silence for a few minutes.  Well, relative silence, anyway, as the car grumbled, coughed, & roared its way through the mostly empty streets of the City.  I glanced over at Erin.  She had a look on her face like a John Singer-Sargent painting, deep but not revealing any secrets.

"Ok.  Fine.  You're saying the only way to figure out whatever that—that—"

"Face-Raping Bat."

"Yeah, Face-Raping Bat—was doing is to find a Troll collective.  Fine.  But what do you mean about the Bar talking back to you?"

I sighed.  "Listen.  This is a delicate subject, because I'm not sure if Government, Inc. knows about it.  You remember when they came up with Quantum Storage, so they could collect almost infinite data on everyone in the country?"

"Yeah.  There was a big protest about it."

"...Until most of the protesters were killed in the 'Accident'.  Anyway, a few who got away went underground, where they were able to hack their way into Government Inc.'s system & see what was really going on.  What they found was, like I said earlier, a system of storage, but no way of processing the information fast enough.  The Quantum Processor simply couldn't survive the massive amount of energy required to make it run."

"But what does that have to do with a Bar?"

"I'm getting there.  These underground hackers decided that they were going to try & beat Government, Inc to the punch and develop their own Quantum Processor, so they could stay a step ahead of the Christ Squads and to keep tabs on the Claw Shrimp.  Their breakthrough came when they realized the only solution was to bring the Quantum process to the Macro world.  That way, the larger bodies could handle the energy needed without breaking down.

"Their next problem was to somehow manifest tangible Quantum symptoms in a visible form.  Luckily, these weren't your usual Hackers.  They decided to throw everything they had at the problem, so they tried combining their technical and mathematical skills with some... unorthodox methods."


Yeah.  They hooked up with a Kabbalist (a real Kabbalist), a couple of Ceremonial Magicians, a Tarot card reader, and combined that with their resident Tantrist--"

"Sex Magic?  Are you serious?"

"Serious as the Pope's feeding tube.  She was able to raise enough kundalini to manifest a fairly good representation of the Tree of Life as pure energy, but it wouldn't stay still.  It was too unpredictable.  It kept changing, & breaking down.  After taking a break, they had some tequila, and realized that it they had to embrace the unpredictability, not control it.  Perhaps it was because they were all pretty drunk, but they decided that since perception helped shape quantum actions, then they should make the laboratory into a bar, which is perhaps the most unpredictable place a person can go."

"Now you're putting me on."  Erin began to pout, and I almost drove the car into a streetlamp before I pulled myself together enough.

"You'd think I was, but get this:  By adding the element of chaos to the probability equations of Quantum mechanics, the Orgone energy from sexual charge, and the altered consciousness of Magic and Tarot, something happened: Tangible, macro, collapsing wave states.  In that environment, in that place, you could, just by thinking about it, create whatever you wanted.  Granted, it wasn't quite the Quantum Processor they were looking for, but damn, it was fun.  They decided to not only keep it a secret, but keep the bar part up and running, with entrance available to only those who know."


"I know, it sounds like bullshit.  It gets worse.  A few months ago, the bar somehow gained sentience."

"That's it.  Let me out of the car."

"Wait.  Think about it.  Whet is the human mind but information being strung together in random ways?  What is consciousness but an enormous probability?  The Macro wave states had existed for so long, they started self-regulating.  You'll see.  We're almost there."

Softly, subtly, we had slid into a darker part of the city.  We had left the relative eeriness of the City's residential district, and had entered the pseudo-psychotic Warehouse District.  Graffiti dedicated to Hastur and Nyarlotep fought with each other, and you could see the glint of wide eyes and sharp knives in every dark angle large enough to hide a body (or two).  The occasional working streetlight did nothing but push the surrounding darkness to a more sinister, inky mess.

"I gotta warn you, dollface, the Open Bar is a little different than most of the places you've probably been to."

"Oh, really?"  She finally smiled again, briefly, like she had more secrets than she knew what to do with.  "And how do you know where I've been?"

"I'm just saying, even with the self-regulating Quantum consciousness, the wave states are unstable, and need constant maintenance and upkeep."

"Meaning what, exactly?"

"Well, why fix what isn't broke?  The same processes that brought it into being are used to keep it going."

"...You mean, tantric sex, excessive drinking, and strange pagan rituals..."

"Exactly.  And Math, of course."

"Of course."

I stopped the car.  "We're here."


CHAPTER 4: The Open Bar; Showdown.

As she stepped out of the car, Erin said, "You've got to be kidding me." 

We were standing in front of a narrow door, attached to a cramped, squat, suspiciously non-Euclidian building sandwiched between two hulking behemoth towers that loomed overhead, windows shattered like broken teeth, or spare eye sockets gouged out of the walls.

"I know, I know.  They like a certain sense of mystery abut it.  Makes 'em feel dangerous."  I took her hand (the sensation of my fingers entwining with her made me think of copulating Seraphim, of snakes in the spring), and led her to the door.  "Hey, OB!" I shouted at the door.

"Who are 'They'?" Erin whispered.  I didn't have a chance to answer, as the surface of the door swelled, and suddenly had the appearance of a round, friendly face, about three times the size of a normal head.

"L, how are you?  I—"The huge eyes rolled towards Erin, and scowled.  Erin let out a muffled shriek and flinched back, as the door looked her up and down.  "What do you think you're doing, L?"

"She's a client, OB.  Play nice.  We were just assaulted by a cell phone."

"You sure?  She looks too good to be one of yours..."

"Hey, thanks a lot, OB!  Now, are you going to let us in, or am I gonna have to do this the hard way?"

The door grinned, "Oh, I was just kidding.  We know your credit is good here.  C'mon in."  The face disappeared, and the door was a door again.

Erin looked at me quizzically.  "What's the hard way?"

I chuckled.  "Darling, there is no hard way.  The Open Bar likes to play that it's just a little kid, having awoken only a few months ago.  But really, it basically could control everything that happens in itself.  This includes entering.  It's a good thing we raised the energy through sex and not violence.  I wouldn't want that much negative energy in one consciousness.  I prefer his silly goof at immaturity.'

OB's face popped out of the door again.  "I heard that."

"You were supposed to."  The face disappeared again, and I grabbed the doorknob.  Turning to Erin, I said, "you ready for this?" as I swung the door open.

"I guess so... Holy shit!"  On the other side of the door was an enormous room, wood-paneled, with large wooden columns supporting a stories-high vaulted roof.  There were tables scattered about, an enormous mahogany bar with brass railings, a stage off to one side, and what looked to be private rooms in back.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' cover of "All Tomorrow's Parties" emanated from nowhere in particular.  The place was about three-quarters full, and filled with all sorts of odd types: Scrabblists, Emo kids, Metalheads, Drunken Buddhists, Renegade Kareokists, and the Ubiquitous Barflys.  I led Erin over to the bar, where a man with an enormous polystyrene nose was wiping a glass down with his shirttail.

"Hey, Mangrove, two martinis."

He looked up.  "LMNO, haven't seen you here in a while.  Who's the lovely lady?"

"Ah, yes.  Erin, this is Mangrove.  Mangrove, Erin."

"A pleasure," Mangrove said, as two martini glasses filled with expensive gin and a lemon rind delicately twisted along the rims materialized in front of us.  Erin looked at them dubiously.

"It's ok," I said.  "Look up."

The ceiling was barely visible, as there were oddly shimmering darts of light folding in upon themselves, in a perpetual mobius strip of color and illumination.  "What is that?" asked Erin, enraptured.  I turned to her to answer, and was momentarily caught up in the sense of wonder she radiated, the raucous noise of the bar dimmed, the rest of the world faded away.

"Um.  The, ah..."  I followed her gaze up, and came back to myself.  "Those are the collapsing wave states.  They're what made the Open Bar.  When you concentrate hard enough, one of the wave states will fold the universe into what you were thinking about.  That's how we got this place to look the way it does.  Apparently, OB can fold space-time.  Mang here decided that a good bar should always be almost full, but never packed, because it adds to a atmosphere of solidarity and community.  Or Something.  Did I get that right?"

"Indubitably, L.  Now miss... Erin, was it?"


"...Erin.  LMNO tends to get snobbish about his drinks, I was wondering if you would like anything other than the bitter taste of gin?"  Mangrove had a sly grin on his face as he asked.  I knew what he was up to.

Erin smiled back.  "A white wine, if you please.  Sauvignon Blanc, preferably."

"Absolutely."  A chilled glass of wine appeared in front of her.  I decided to step in before things got out of hand.

"Mang, we're looking for Aini."

"Why the fuck would you deliberately look for her?"

"Face-Raping Bat...  It's a long story.  I'll tell you later.  Anyway, is she around?"

"Back corner.  Just look for the large amount of people deliberately avoiding her."

"Thanks."  I grabbed my glass, and took a long pull.  This was gonna be tough.  "One more thing, Mang," I said.

"What, pray tell?"

"Lemme get a cold wrought-iron crowbar."


With the cold iron crowbar in hand, I inclined my head in Erin's direction.  "Look, if you don't want to deal with this, you can stay here with Mang.  Not only would he enjoy the experience, he'd also the closest to the Bar, so you'd be perfectly safe.  Not to mention, I think OB has a crush on you."

"What do you mean?"

"Look to your left."  A bouquet of flowers had appeared, hovering in the air, and lowered itself into a vase which rose from the bartop.  Then a box of chocolates appeared.  "See?  What a hopeless romantic."

A voice emanating from nowhere in particular said, "I heard that."

Erin patted the railing, smiled, and said, "Um... thanks, uh, 'OB', but I really have to take care of this."  Straightening up, she looked at me with steely determination, and said, "Somebody, somewhere, is trying to scare me, and just recently tried to hurt me.  So I'm in for the long haul.  Let's go do this."

"Fair enough."  I turned, and began searching out our Troll.

It wasn't hard to find her:  There was only one place in the Bar that people were reluctant to go.  A moat of empty tables and chairs surrounded a hazy mass that only slightly resembled a young woman with wings on her back.  From a distance, it looked like an out-of-focus photograph, but it shimmered, like a heat mirage.  Then you could hear her:  From where we were, it was a low buzzing, like cicadas from a mile off, but as we drew closer, you could start making things out.

"Meep...3.14592... A FAGGOT WHO LOVES TO MASTURBATE WHILE EDITING POSTS INTO PERVERTED MESSAGES...oracles are dumb, and psychics are always wrong... meep... 65358979323846264... I sprinkle you with fairy dust..."

Erin stopped.  "What's going on?  What is that?"

"That, is the Aini collective.  Millions of nano-bots, all loosely connected by a driving urge to annoy as many people as possible.  The thing is, each of the bots has a tiny spark of independent thought, which makes her a bit tough to talk to if you don't get her attention first."

"meep... 3383279502884... Stop changing what I say..."

"But why does... she... it..." Erin trailed off, dumbfounded.

"I know, she has that effect on people.  Let me handle it."

"How?  How are you going to be able to deal with nano-bots?"

"The thing is, she thinks she's a fairy.  She's convinced herself so much so, that she actually plays by the ancient rules of fairly lore."  I hefted the crowbar.  "Hence the cold wrought iron.  Oh, which reminds me—Turn your pockets inside out."

"I don't have pockets."  She motioned downwards at herself, and I foolishly looked.  Her tight red dress clung to her hips like clingfilm, detailing the smooth curves of her body, a shallow dip where her thighs met, the gentle and slight protrusions of her hipbones.  It was the promise of heaven, the inevitability that all men succumb, the literal birthplace of desire.


Aini's incessant ranting brought me around again.  We were now face to faces, the bots coalescing, trying to approximate a face and a body, but their independence made them unable to agree on an appearance.  The result was not unlike seeing the corpse of a young girl covered with insects.

"Aini, I want to talk with you.  This is Erin."

"This is Erin... 1971693993751058209749445923... I want to talk with you... meep...I ate yew.  Yum!  Squirrels are stupid...fairy dust..."

"I'm serious.  Hey!  Are you listening?"

"Are you listening?...I didn't say that, why are you making me say that?... 06647093...GOAT FUCKER!"

"Enough of this shit," I muttered as I drew back with the crowbar, and swung it as hard as I could at Aini's head.  The front part of her face sheared off, as hundreds of bots died, falling to the floor, no more than silicon and nanowires. 

Aini shrieked, and quickly rose from the table, up, and up, her faux wings pretending to flap, as the nanobots quickly re-arranged themselves to form a bow in her hand.  "I shoot an arrow at your head!" she cried, and let loose a stream of bots.  Erin screamed, and ducked under a table.

"Fuck you."  I swung again, and the 'arrow' dissolved into angry dust.  Using the crook of the crowbar, I hooked Aini's foot, shearing it off at the knee.  "OB!  Window!" I yelled.  A beautiful stained glass window appeared in the wall, just as I hurled Aini's leg.  It shattered in a beautiful rainbow of glass, the shards of which disappeared before falling among the other patrons.  A few cheered and clapped in appreciation of the show.  I owe Agent Compassion for that move, I thought.  Damn, I owe her a dollar.

"Aini! Listen up," I yelled.  "I need your hyper math!"

"Oh."  She fluttered down.  "What's up?"

I sighed.  Why is it always this hard?  I handed her the slip of paper I got from the face-raping bat.  "This looks like machine code.  I need to know what it says."

"Did you know I can find out anyone's IP address and then change it at will?  It's easy!... Meep..."

I swung the crowbar again, this time catching her in the side with a satisfying crunch.  I could hear the thousands of tiny robots pulverized.  Damn, it felt good.  "PAY ATTENTION!"

"Ow!  Dammit!  Ok, ok... It's mixed format... it's repeating "XVI" and "16" a few times...  Oh look, the inevitable "23"...  It's throwing a lot of purposeful gibberish between "7"s and "8"s... ok, a few words here... "Neztach"... "Hod"... Stupid psychics...  Ok, skipping a bit...  Ah."


"Hope you like the bohemian scene."


"Whatever this is, and wherever you got it," Aini said with what approximated a knowing grin, "it came from the shop at 42nd and 13th.  Don't forget your beret... meep..."

I knew when not to push it any further.  I abruptly turned around, grabbed Erin by the elbow, and quickly walked away.  "Don't look back," I muttered.  The crowd parted for us as we made our way back to the front of the bar.

"GOAT FUCKER!!... I didn't say that, you made me do it... 64709384460955058223... yer not kewl, and yew know it[/size]...meep... meep..."[/size]

"Just ignore her," I said.  "It will soon seem like a dream."

"It already seems like a dream."

"Mang!  More drinks!  Make 'em doubles!" 

Mangrove's nose awaited us, with the rest of him behind it.  "Hell, after that performance, why don't you just take the bottle?"

"Fine by me.  Make it scotch."

Mang rolled his eyes.  "But of course.  Erin?"

Demurely, she said, "Better make it scotch for me, as well."  She turned to me, and said, "so, did you understand anything she was babbling about?"

"Yeah, one or two things.  I have to work out some of the details, but I know where we have to go next."

"...And that would be..."

"What do you know about poetry?"

"It's usually bad, and it takes place in coffee shops?"

"Right both times.  But don't worry.  The coffee there is excellent."


CHAPTER 5: Delays.

Editor's Note: The Author is currently being put to work on an extremely boring and tedious bit of litigation. The reason this affects you, dear reader, is that he will be temporarily be unable to continue the Exciting Icelandic Saga-- um, that is, the Gripping Detective Novel that is "LMNO-PI". We apologize for the delay, and assure you, dear reader, that this story is in no way over. Why, we haven't gotten to the Caffeinatrixx, or the Triple Doom Oracles, or the Haiku battels, or the Scrabbleists! Not to mention the exciting conclusion... Actually, we're just hoping it's exciting, since we have no idea how this is going to turn out....


CHAPTER 6: Bad Elements and Coffee.

Getting back into the car, Erin asked, "So now what?"

"Now we go to the place your phone originated.  Somewhere in that bit of code was its Location of Origin.  Those kinds of devices tend to have Meta Code built into it, so any one line of code contains up to 23 other aspects of the program."

"And that Troll was able to read that?"

"Yeah.  Aini may be fucking annoying, but she has her uses.  Sometimes.  But I try not to push it."

"...And it came from a Coffee Shop?  No, wait, let me guess... It's actually a transdimensional Communist Dojo actively engaged in bringing down the Establishment."

"Actually, that's more the NSRA's style."

"The what?"

"New Soviet Red Army.  I'm not willing to get them involved yet.  You know things are going poorly when you need to get them involved.  Kinda like killing a mosquito with a bazooka."

"...But, a coffee shop."

"It really does seem ridiculous, doesn't it?  But these quasi-bohemian college-lifestyle hangouts really are the best places for breeding dissent, and for staging unpredictable acts of subversion.  What Cop is going to be able, not only to fit in, but to be able to sift through the conversations going on in one of those places and figure out which ones are flights of fancy, which ones are honest plots, and which ones are coded messages?"

"But LMNO, you seem to know these places pretty well.  You even seem to be friendly with some of these people.  And you say my phone came from there?"

"Technically, yes, according to Aini.  But all she really knew was what 'home base' the phone was programmed to report.  And since there's no screening policy at the shop, and they have public computer access...  Well, there's no telling who could have been there."

"Ah.  Hey," Erin motioned to the dank streets and storefronts of The City.  "We just passed the Starbucks..."

"You are aware, of course, that coffee is not a trademarked beverage, yes?"


"As it turns out, marketing material aside, Starbucks doesn't own coffee, nor the practice of making it.  I swear, usually I joke about Illuminati plots and the Starbucks conspiracy, but when they were able to successfully outbid and out-brand virtually all other coffee companies, I wasn't so sure.  Suffice it to say, any current alternative coffee places are Underground."

"Like the Bar we were just at?"

"Well, not so underground.  The place isn't conscious, and it's open to the public.  But it's run by a very stern mistress:  The Caffeinatrixx."

We pulled up to a freshly-painted monstrosity of concrete inside the University Row District.  The beams and rebar the contractors used in this section of the city were of such poor quality, they started folding in on themselves almost immediately.  The precise angles, meant to relax and mentally stimulate, were horrible to contemplate now, and produced such headaches of anyone looking at them for too long that the college dropout rate eventually became 100%.  The hum of human activity inside the building compared to the barren street would be welcoming to even the most claustrophobic sociophobe.  We stepped inside before the psychotecture became too much.

Inside, the air was thick with exotic cigarette smoke and the rich smell of roasting coffee.  There were hundreds of people here, sitting at small tables, some trying to pose as sophisticated intellects, others trying their best to stay awake, their eyes skittering to and fro, their fingers twitching slightly.

Erin grabbed my arm, and leaned in close, her perfume cutting through the atmosphere of the coffee shop, making me dizzy, thinking about rope swings, and summer ponds.  "What the hell is that?"

I looked in the direction she was pointing.  At first glance, it was a woman.  A beautiful woman, bound by a black leather corset and a mini skirt.  But then a second look revealed the differences: From her head sprouted two cat ears, and poking out beneath her skirt was a tail that swished lightly in the air as if testing the environment for prey.  She was talking to a small table of people, and when she smiled, you could see the needle point of her razor sharp teeth.  But cat ears and a tail weren't the oddest things about her.  When she moved, it became obvious that her knees bent in the opposite direction, much like a cat standing on its hind legs.  "That's Malaul.  The Caffeinatrixx," I said.  Her ears twitched in my direction, and she turned.

Scowling, she stalked over to us, a growl in her throat.  She flexed her fingers, and claws extended from where her fingernails should have been.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," I said...


"Where the FUCK have you been?"

Malaul crossed the final three yards between us with one bound, and she was up in my face.  "You think you can just walk in here, after slipping a way like that--"

"Hi, Mal, I--"

"Don't give me any of your sweet talk, L!  I know you too good for that.  Don't think you can just waltz in here... Mrurrrrrrr..."  Quicker than a blink, she grabbed me, pulled me to her, and kissed me. 

She smelled like the desert, rich with heat, with the ever-looming sense of danger, and death.  She tasted like chocolate and coffee.  Her claws dug into my back, and her tail wrapped around my leg.  I'll never get used to that tail, I thought.  I eased back into the kiss, like a song you only remember at dawn.  Her rough tongue lapped at me, as I did my best to avoid cutting myself on her teeth.

Abruptly, she let me go, and I stumbled, trying to catch my breath, and my balance.  Malaul had noticed Erin, and her eyes narrowed into slits.  Uh oh. 

"L," she breathed.  "Don't tell me you brought one of your new sluts into this place, after all this time."  Her sharp teeth glinted in the light.

Erin glared back.  "Look, whoever-you-are.  No one calls me a slut and gets away with it."

Malaul laughed, and swiped at Erin's face, her claws missing by a centimeter.  Erin flinched; Malaul smiled.  "We can settle this right here, bitch.  We can charge admission as everyone watches me tear strips from your skin.  Won't be the first time."

I decided it was time to step in.  "Mal.  Mal.  She's a client.  I'm on a case."

"The hell you are."

"Seriously.  This is Erin.  Erin, Malaul, the Caffeinatrixx.  Mal, Erin has been getting strange calls, and her phone just turned into a face-raping bat an hour ago."  I took a chance, and reached up to scratch Malaul behind the ears.  Her claws withdrew to wherever they go. 

"Murrr... So why are you here?"

"Over at the Open Bar, Aini said that the phone was directed to go here.  Probably from one of the open terminals."  At Aini's name, Malaul's ears flattened back, and she scowled. 

"And you believe her.  Hmph.  Well, I guess that's the risk you run when you run an open source café.  The logs are in the back.  You two want something to drink while you wait?"

"Espresso, with a splash of grappa.  Erin?"

"Just plain coffee, please.  Black."

Malaul laughed.  "Honey, in here, it's never plain."  She walked to the end of the café, gliding in only the way a woman whose knees bend backward can.

Watching Malaul disappear behind the swinging doors of the Café's kitchen, Erin turned to me and said, "You seem to know her quite well."

"Well, Mal was the original and Lead Tantrist involved in creating the Open Bar. I met her just before she started work on that. She's spent much of her life exploring the various sensual disciplines, like Tantra, Taoist sexual techniques, the Kama Sutra, Thelemite sex magic, and the like. The Hackers were lucky to find her. That was one of the last projects she did before the change."

"Projects? Change?"

"Well, as it turns out, after years of practice and personal fulfillment, Malaul decided to share with the world. She had so much excess Kundalini energy, she dedicated herself to, essentially, recharge humanity's Orgone batteries. The Hackers convinced her to use that extra energy in constructing the Bar. Soon after that, she went in for genetic body modification."


"Yeah, you didn't think all that was simply prosthetics, or grafted on, did you? That goes down to the genetic level. As it turns out, when you alter your DNA, the chakras move as well, and the act of raising Kundalini changes. Mal was thrilled, for she had new worlds to explore."

"So why is all of this taking place in... well, places like this?"

"I figure it's half a joke. The whole college/university/bohemian thing not only creates a relaxed environment for the participants, but what Cop in their right mind is going to try to monitor a coffeehouse like this, and attempt to filter out what's a real conspiracy, what's simply stream-of-thought bullshit, and what is actually coded messages? It adds a level of security, all neatly wrapped up in unpredictable chaos. You can't get a better system of disinformation that a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals sitting around getting jacked up on coffee."

"You said that already."

"You asked already."

"Oh.  Yeah."

Through the din and the crowd, I could see Malaul walking back with our drinks. Setting them down, she said, "Well, I hate to admit it, but Aini's right. Whoever was using the terminals tried to hide their tracks, but I think I can get some information out of it. I'll get one of my boys to work on it." She glanced at me, and turned her head towards Erin. "Sorry about all that earlier. You know how it is."

Erin smiled thinly. "I suppose."

"Oh, don't be like that." Malaul looked Erin up and down slowly, and arched an impossible eyebrow. "You know, L," she said, never taking her eyes of Erin, "I have a few... experiments... in back that I'm sure both you and... Erin would be interested in."

"Tempting, Mal, but she really is a client. Maybe next time?"

She sighed. "I suppose. You just stay here, and enjoy your coffee. I'll send a boy out when the information surfaces." Malaul walked back to the end of the café, catching the eyes of several patrons along the way, and disappeared in the crowd. Erin sipped her coffee.

"My god!"

"I know. It's almost criminal to have something this good."

"Starbucks should be burnt to the ground."

"Don't think it hasn't been tried by the Church of Foamy."

Just then, the door burst open, and dozens of people spilled in the door, making a hell of a racket, carrying bottles of rum and whiskey. They were mostly unkempt, disheveled, drunk, and had a crazed look in their eyes. They ran for a corner, and began chanting, "A challenge! Hear, hear! Who now wants to challenge us! They shall be destroyed!" The Café's other customers began giving them room, some hastily grabbing cups of their precious coffee and trying their hardest not to be noticed.

I stood up. "We better move somewhere a little quieter."

"What's the matter?"

"Didn't you hear that? 5-7-5. They're starting a Haiku Battle."

The yelling intensified, and I noticed more then a few of them looking at us. Too late, I thought. The chant shifted. "It's LMNO! You should know better than that, to come back in here!" They streamed out , forming a rough circle around us. I turned to Erin. "Sit tight, and keep your head down, this may get messy."

I slowly turned in a circle, until I found the greasy-haired degenerate I was looking for. "Hello Paul. What's this? A glutton for punishment? I don't have all day."

The crowd cheered. The Battle was on.


CHAPTER 7: Syllables Count.

The historical tradition of Haiku Battle dates back to when the intelligentsia were blacklisted by Government, inc. Over-educated and under-employed, grad students, MENSA candidates (the society itself was outlawed and driven underground in '07), and previously tenured professors fell through the cracks; and like any marginalized and underprivileged social group, soon tribalized and turned rogue. In the beginning, they were still unaccustomed to violence, and settled on spontaneous haiku to work out any confrontations. Several years toughened them up, however, and now the haiku were merely preambles to savage beatings, and occasionally death. Paul was their current leader, and a fairly sharp poet. I was going to have to play this one carefully.

The crowd traditionally called out the topics. I sized them up, trying to see what disciplines they were leaning toward. I soon found out: "Irrational Numbers!" a scrawny kid with glasses shouted out. Paul cleared his throat, and began:

"An endless number,
Square root of negative one.
Math is for the birds."

The crowd murmured appreciatively. Well, at least they chose an easy one to start with, I thought. I said:

"They do not exist
Except inside our own minds.
Magic, to be sure."

Silence. Then a brutish thug of a Classics professor wielding a bat stepped up, and calmly swung hard into Paul's shoulder. Paul didn't flinch, but you could see the rage in his eyes. After all, he was used to this, and while I may have crossed paths with him once or twice, he did this for fun. A young woman stepped forward. "Mayflies," she uttered, and stepped back. It was my turn to begin this time. Mayflies?

"Pesky little beast.
More than one hand can deal with.
Where's the flyswatter?"

Guffaws erupted from the mob. Shit. A dread-locked English Lit grad student shouted, "He ended with a preposition! He ended with a preposition!" Paul, with an evil grin, puffed his chest out, and said:

"It lives for one day.
An Eternity for them;
For us, a moment."

Ok, that was pretty good, I thought, as Paul grabbed the neck of a rum bottle and swung it at my head, catching me directly in the mouth. My lip split wide open, blood splattering the faces of a few nearby Pure Math hoodlums, who giggled psychotically. I felt a tooth loosen, and the room grew dim. A moment later, the pain caught up with the trauma, and I found myself on the floor, with Paul's boot trying to make a soft spot in the back of my head. It took a couple of Latin students to pull Paul off-- After all, there was one more haiku before the melee could really begin. A delinquent Philosophy professor spoke up. "The history of the Universe." Paul was quick to speak up this time. A total ringer. What a crock. Total set up, I thought groggily.

"There was a big bang.
Heat, and light, and life, and death.
We go to the void."

I was still down on one knee, and I could hear the cracking of knuckles as the crowd tensed up, ready to go to work. My lip was essentially useless. How could I even speak, let alone think of a decent haiku right now? I just hope I can make it through the beating. I tried to relax my mind and my body, preparing for the inevitable.

I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, and a smell like the forest on an early October morning. Erin stood next to me, squared her shoulders, and cried out:

"Chaos; then order.
We make all these things happen.
Order; then chaos."

A few gasps ricocheted through the crowd. Paul stood, stunned. "You... you can't substitute," he stammered, breaking form. "That's not the rules."

"Bullshit," I said, getting to my feet, trying to speak through the blood and loose tissue. "I know the rules as well as you. Substitutes allowed if they're willing to take the punishment as well."

"Fuck you, Mr. LMNO. You're not getting away from me." Paul curled his hand up into a fist and walked forward. "And the bitch is gonna get hers too, you better believe... Urk," Paul stopped, and looked down at the sword that just sprouted from his chest. With a blur, the sword disappeared, leaving a bloody hole. In an instant, Paul's right arm dropped to the floor. Screaming, Paul wheeled around, just as the sword ripped through his stomach, spilling his intestines onto the floor at the feet of a tall man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He looked around at the crowd.

"yuo knwo teh ruels. L geos free. Adn I buy ihm a drnik."

I stared. "Horab? What are you doing with these freaks?"

"Latre. Let's get taht faec of yuors fixde."

We made our way to a table, where a busboy, dressed only in tight jeans and an apron, was waiting with a bucket of ice and some gauze. Mal knows how to dress up the help, I thought. Horab and Erin made their introductions, and then he turned to me and said, "Yuo shuold knwo bteter tahn to mess wthi thsoe guys."

It was still painful to talk. "Yeah. I know. Still, how..."

"I was in teh sotry next door, lokoign for my satrt button, adn word caem dwon form teh zebra that j0 were haedign to teh Café. I herad yuo had a new caes, so I deicedd to see how j0 were doign. On my wya donw, I ran itno the Savage Intelletculas, and we all sotr of tumbeld in togehter. Good thign, too. Yuo're not taht good at haiku, are j0?"

"Shut it. I was doing fine."

"If yuor plan was to get codl clokced and have this lovley peice of wrok," he motioned to Erin, who nodded her head at the compliment, "come adn saev yuor ass, tehn it went off wihtout a hicth."

Erin spoke up. "There was one hitch, actually. I believe it's called 'murder'?"

"Don't wrory. Those guy sfell off teh grid years ago. Not olny do tehy hold no statsu positoins in scoiety, a few of tehm are Abbie Hoffman disipcles, and nkow how to dukc teh systme, so tehre's nohting to track. So L, excatly what are j0 wroking on?"

I did my best to relate the story so far through my busted lip, with Erin providing most of the details. After he was caught up, Horab looked thoughtful. "Yuo siad Erin got a traot card?"


"Well, why haevn't j0 gon eto see teh Triple Oracle? It wuold maek sense, rihgt?"

"I haven't gone, because it's always about doom with them. Remember?"

"Get ovre it, L. Evenutally, it's awlays abuot doom. Anywya, they colud probbaly keep pointign j0 in the rigth diretcion. And yuo can get good infromation, proivded yuo haev an in. And I heav an in."


"Dind't j0 hear? I'm srot of marired to oen of their dauhgters. Let me go adn try to find her. I tohught she'd be here, somehwere..." Horab trailed off, stood up, and wandered off deeper into the Café, which had more or less returned to normal, save for the two handsome baristas who were given the unenviable task of cleaning up Horab's mess.

"Did he say a 'zebra' told him where you were?" Erin looked like she was just about out of patience with all this. "I'll tell you, L, this is all getting pretty weird. And what's with his accent?"

"That's just the way he talks. Truth be told, sometimes I don't know what the hell he's talking about sometimes. But he's a solid guy, and (when he's not killing people) he's good for a few laughs."

"He sounds like a nut job."

"Look around you. Look at the City. Look at what became of our country. You should believe me when I say that Horab is merely synchronized with the times at hand."

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Malaul was coming back to the table with a ream of paper. She scowled when she saw my face. "What did you do now?"

"It wasn't me. I was drawn into a Haiku battle, and Horab had to kill Paul."

"Yeah, right. So, where's he now?" Malaul glanced over at the corpse removal job, and let out a small hiss.

"He said he was going to look for his... sort-of wife?"

"You mean Hoshiko? She's at the gaming tables, as usual."

I stared. "Hoshiko? And Horab? Is that even possible?"

Malaul gave a wan smile, and shoved more ice into my face. "Hush. They did it as a joke, but it kind of caught on. They're sort-of married, sort-of divorced, and entirely independent of each other."

"...Whatever you say. So, what have you got for me?"

"The information was encrypted, but that didn't take too long to crack. The problem is that the info itself is in code, or something... Have a look."

The first few lines of the top page of the stack of papers read:


"Now this," Malaul said, pointing to the page, "is at least somewhat familiar. I think "Neztach" is Hebrew, and it's connected with Tarot through the Tree of Life."

I sighed. "Looks like I'll have to track down the Oracles of Doom, for sure. Because Erin was sent the Tower card, as well."

Malaul let out a low whistle. "Well, you'll need some help getting them. You better hope Horab finds Hoshiko."

"Is she still..."

"Yeah. You know what they say. Once a Scrabblist, always a Scrabblist."


CHAPTER 8 (One): After a Brief Sabbatical by the Author...

"...What's taking him so long?" Erin asked.

Shaking my head slowly, I muttered, "goddamn writers.  Think they can go on about their own business, and just leave us hanging.  The coffee's going cold, and I think my ass has fallen asleep from sitting in this chair so long.  At least my face has healed up by now."

"What are you talking about?  I meant that Horab guy.  Hey—what happened to your face?"

"Oh, right.  I forgot, you can't see the gaps in time.  The author took a couple of weeks between chapters."

Erin looked at me quizzically as a topless barrista came by to warm up our coffee.  Lets hope she doesn't ask if we want milk, I thought.  "The more time I spend with you, the less I understand you."

"Common occurrence.  Anyway, just consider it another one of those 'Quantum Fluxuations'."

"Whatever you say.  Hey, is that him?"

Horab cam back to the table, followed by a young woman, slim, with the face of a woodland elf.  Or a pixie.  Or some kind of fae creature that isn't all fluffy and warm and full of smiles.  She was wearing a small headset, and her eyes were jittering back and forth, like she was speed reading.  "Zephyr," she said, followed by, "15."

I cleared my throat.  "Hoshiko.  Hoshiko.  Horab, is she still in a game?"

"Yeah.  I told her yuo wanted to talk, but you know ohw she gets..."

Erin spoke up.  "I know I'm probably going to regret this, but what the hell is she doing?"

I chuckled.  "Here, stand up."  I motioned her over behind Hoshiko's left shoulder.  As Erin came around, I could tell she saw the hologram.  It was a keyboard that seemed to jut out of her head, and beyond that, a cross-hatched gaming board.  "She's got a person-tech Scrabble game going on.  She's pretty hardcore about it.  See that wire?"  I pointed to a lead winding its way into the base of her skull.  "Force feedback.  She doesn't just play for the thrill.  That wire connects to a select few opiate receptors in her brain.  It sends a voltage equivalent to the points she scores, so the better she does, the more pleasure she gets.  But you probably don't want to know what happens if she loses.  But she rarely loses."

"I've heard about the feedback, but why is she doing this inter-neurally?  Aren't there enough people to play with around here?"

"Hoshiko is one of the best in the world.  No one around here wants to play her.  She's probably hooked up to the Scotland quadrant.  They're pretty brutal about their games."

We sat back down, and waited.  Erin said, "Her eyes are creeping me out."

"Oh, she's got a comprehensive Scrabble dictionary implanted on her corneas.  Comes in handy when you're up against an uber-literate Scot."

Hoshiko spoke up.  "Junky, triple word.  39.  Pause."  Her eyes settled, focused on us, and said, " Sorry, LMNO.  I'm up against a guy who calls himself 'William A Wallace'.  He's kind of a tool, but a decent enough challenge.  So things might get a little Schizy.  14," she muttered."

Erin leaned over to me and whispered, "why does she keep reciting numbers?"

Hoshiko grinned.  "Hi.  I'm right here.  It's ok to ask, I'm not violent like Horab."

"I am rarley violent!"

"Hush.  You must be Erin," Hoshiko said, extending her hand.  "I have a bad habit of counting the points in a word out loud.  You'll have to forgive my blather.  44."

"Pleased to meet you.'

"Likewise.  47.  So, what brings you here?"

I leaned forward.  "Look, Hoshiko.  I need to find the Triple Oracle."

She laughed.  "What?  You?  Let me see if I can imagine the script.  9.  You: 'I need answers.'  Them:  'Doom.'  5."

"I know, I know, but I need their tarot skills."

"Why not ask Mangrove?  47."

"Trust me, I thought about it.  But he's more one of those prankster Kabbalists, and would undoubtedly try to 'enlighten' us by sending us off to Dr. Dee's lab to decode the hidden meaning of the word 'Hamzah'."

"13.  But good point.  Well, I suppose I could give you some pointers."


With a grin, she stood up, her eyes beginning to flicker again, and she said, "Just turn around.  Oh, and say hi to mom for me.  Zinky, double word, motherfucker! 26!"  as she walked away.

I turned around, and peered into the smoke and noise.  "Ah."

"I don't see anything," Erin said.

"Exactly.  You can never see Doom until it's too late.  I think they're in the next room."

"But there is no next room."

"If you've learned anything by now, darling, it's to just trust me on some things.  Hang on."

We stood, the credit chip in my arm tingling as Malaul scanned the price of the coffee (and I was sure I was going to find an additional fee for "cleanup" or somesuch.  Probably not as much as Horab's gonna get stuck for after killing Paul, I thought), and I straightened my coat as Erin looked around.  "I don't get it," she said.

Horab also stood up, out of courtesy, ands spoke up.  "The Oracels, bieng a Three-in-One kind fo thing, tend to exist outside and between dimensions.  Yuo have to adjust you r frequency to fit."

"I almost understood that."

"Just hold on to L.  He usaully knows wha thes doing."  Horab leaned over to shake my hand.  "Good luck, man.  I'm off ot deal witht hat zebra again."

"See you at the Bar later?"

"Sure."  Horab walked out the door, his fingers lightly brushing the hilt of his sword, making the Haiku Battle-ists flinch.  His laughter followed him into the night. 

I turned to Erin.  "You ready?"

"I guess."  She took my hand, and I felt that electric shock.  She smelled like cinnamon, and freshly turned earth, and spring air, heavy with morning dew.  "This is all getting pretty weird.  And I think your whole 'quantum' thing is wearing thin.  It's like you're just sweeping everything under the rug by throwing the word 'quantum' at it."

Hand in hand, we walked through the smoky café towards the back wall, and I sighed.  "I know, it's like I'm making everything up as I go along, and then ascribing something vaguely technical to it, so it doesn't seem so odd.  It's an old habit, updated.  What if I told you that I was a magus, given powers by Lucifer to warp time and space and to bend reality to my will?"

"I'd say you were fucking nuts."

"Ok, how about if I said I was a prophet of the One True God, sent to this earth to right the wrongs of Satan, and given the blessings of the Lord that I would never want, and that Our Lord will forever aid me in my quest by performing miracles?"

"Did I say you were fucking nuts before?  I was wrong.  You're obviously retarded."

"Fine.  Suppose I told you that shit just tends to happen, and I have no clue why, or how, but I've learned it's just better to ride it out?"


"So you see my point.  After you rule all the other possibilities out, the pretty much the only thing that offers some sort of rational solace is Quantum Physics brought into the Macro world.  Even if it's not exactly true."

"So what is true?"

"Nothing is true. Everything is permitted."


"Hassan I Sabbah.  Ok, look, I have a confession.  I usually don't do this, but you've been through a lot, and I figure full disclosure is in order.  You know that group that formed the Open Bar I was telling you about?  They're what are known as Erisians.  And I'm one of them."

"...And exactly what did you do for them?"

"A bit of this, a bit of that...  I added focus, imagination, a slight knowledge of Tantra, and some of the symbolism.  But that's not the point, really.  The point is that as an Erisian, there isn't ever a big-T Truth, there's just the one that fits for now.  And for the past few hours, the quantum model has been working well.  But we're going to have to change things for this next bit.  As Horab tried to explain, The Oracles exist outside of this dimension, but not like a multi-verse traveler."

"A what?"

"It would take far too long to explain Verthaine to you.  I shouldn't have even brought it up.  Ah."  We had made our way to the back of the room, and there was what appeared to be a beaded curtain hanging over one section of the wall.  I concentrated for a second, and reached out to brush the beads aside.  As I did, I felt Erin's hand tighten up.  What should have been wall was a dark patch of... something.  Like a vertical oil slick, or something you can't focus your eyes on, the section of wall was flat and bottomless at the same time.  "Ok, we're ready."

I felt a sharp tap on my shoulder, like a claw.  Which, in fact, it was.  I turned to find Malaul holding out a bottle.  "It's rum," she said.  You'll need it."

"For me or for—"

"For Zorga, of course.  It's all about her, remember?  And here."  She handed me a bunch of carrots.

"Carrots?  What are you playing at, Mal?"

"You must not have heard.  The Pookah's brood are out there.  Watch your step."


CHAPTER 8 (the other): Archetypes and Pookahs.

Hand in hand, we stepped into the inky nothingness.

...There were mirrors, thousands of them.  Each image they reflected was reflected in every other, but each image was distorted, no two were the same.  All possibilities were laid out, then rejected; accepted, then thrown aside.  There was no clear path; all choices were the same choice, a False one.  A step in one direction was a step in all directions; progress was impossible.  Progress was just another illusion.  Nothing was True.

Quiet snickering trickled into our ears.

"Close your eyes," I said, and kicked out.  One mirror shattered; all mirrors shattered.  Shards of glass filled the air, and then were gone. We were out of the Kingdom, past the World.

There was a Universe of books.  A Borges nightmare, all letters, all languages, all words, the sum of knowledge, dusty leather tomes extending forever.  Everything was True.  The quiet wars of knowledge raged all around us, contradictions battling over assuredness.  Confident in their Truth, the tomes swelled with certainty, the pure cold truth of logic constantly proving their points, reaching conclusions that clashed with the ones around them.  They were locked in cold ivory towers, and poured boiling vats of thought upon their neighbors.  The air was still. Nothing moved.

The pattering of dozens of tiny feet intruded.

"Turn left.  Towards the East."  Scrolls and parchment and vellum and paper and stone parted, revealing the constant dawn, the never-ending noon, the eternal sunset.  Nurturing killer, beginner and ender, illuminator and blinder.  The Foundation was established, and abandoned.  Onward to Glory.

Raphael stood, beautiful man-woman, eight swords held in eight hands.  The books of the Foundation came alive in the mind, the idealistic wars of history reenacting inside the confines of a skull, the recreations becoming new creations, an orgy of ideas and a morass of concepts.  Thoughts and phrases mingled, met for drinks, had shameless one-night-stands, pulled on their pants, smoothed their skirts, and went back to the bar.  Scores of orphaned ideas wept for shame and cried for nurturing.  The fabric was too thin.  The thought of a Unicorn.  The thought of a Unicorn.  THE THOUGHT OF A UNICORN.  Raphael lowered hir swords.  Eight crows flew north.  We followed, chased by frustrated mutterings.

The gang was all here.  Wotan, Jesus, Dionysus, Mithras, Inanna... Countless mothers, and endless fathers.  Knowing smile, a secret learned through sacrifice, a barter of knowledge for pain.  Limbless, drowned, eyeless, withered, full of peace, and light.  The broken bodies abandoned for clarity and inner reward.  There was spiritual self-mutilation, inner struggles between desire and commitment.  They pointed north, towards strife.

Five Seraphim, Five wands, Five Chariots, Five Warrior-Kings, Five more minutes of waiting... Get it over with, already.  Fuck!  How long do I have to deal with this bullshit? Are we there yet?  All this work, just to get literally nowhere.  Why do I even bother?  I haven't got all day... How long have I been awake, anyway?  I gotta take a piss.  Are we done here?




Go gently.  Body-surf.  Follow the stream as it flows.  Embrace.  Change.  Khamael stood to the left. We went right.  Severity was left behind.

Darkness.  Absence.  Nothing.  A universe-shaped hole where the Universe was supposed to be.  Nothing, that is, except me. 

And Erin.

And thousands of rabbits.


"They're here!"

"Are they toys?"


The rabbits surrounded us, noses twitching, shifting ever closer in the blackness.  But it wasn't dark, there was just... nothing there.  Except the rabbits, and Erin's hand in mine.

"Hi kids.  How are things?"

"It talks!  How do you think it tastes?"

I coughed.  "Hey now, let's not be hasty here.  So, what, have you taken over Choronzon's job or something?"

"The squirrel ate him.  We're just here because we want to be."

"Let's play with him!"

"Now, now..."  I held up the carrots Malaul had given me.  "I have a treat."

"Oooh!  Carrots!"

"Shut up, silly.  There's no way there are enough for all of us."

"Yeah, tough guy.  This isn't the Open Bar.  You can't just make more appear out of thin air."
  The rabbits moved closer.  In parallel, Erin also moved closer, and I could feel her warm body press against me, trembling slightly.

"Oh, these aren't for you."  Angry muttering filled the non-air.  "These are for your mother.  Any idea where she is?"

The brood settled down quickly.

"Mom?  It wants Mom?"

"Silly food-toys."

"Go get her!"

One lone bunny scampered off into the void.  The rest of the brood sat back on their haunches, and waited.

Erin said, "L, what in fuck's sake is going on here?  What was... all that back there?  The words, the mirrors, the books..."  Her face looked distressed.  You could tell the hysteria was only one more weirdness away.  I better settle her down before fluffy gets here, I thought.

"Ok, you know how I said that we were going to have to more or less give up the Quantum theories in order to see the Oracle?  Well, that's because they usually like to hang out in the Void.  That's where we are now."

"It certainly is aptly named."

"Well, the Void doesn't really exist in the Quantum Idea.  It's more of a symbol, a meta-archetype."

"You mean like, the complete absence of anything.  If there's nothing, there can't be any thing that behaves in a quantum manner."

"Well, no.  The Void is here.  Absolute Nothingness is still a few paths away.  You can almost see where it all begins, the three levels of Nothingness... Wait.  I'm getting ahead of myself.  For now, think of it this way. The Tajikistani Interpretation of Quantum Theory posits the Void, but so far, no one's been able to actually come up with any working equations.  So the best way to get here is the Old Fashioned way:  We just climbed the double helix ladder of Tarot and Kaballah."

"Excuse me?"

"One of the places where the Void has been thoroughly explored and defined is in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.  Now's not the time for metaphysics, but some say it lies between the Archetype World and the Mystical world.  However, considering the Tree itself is a metaphor itself, and also filled with archetypes, this gets a bit tricky.  Let's just say that the Void is sort of like the space between a beam of light and a prism.  Everything above the prism is a singular, unified event, and everything below the prism has the illusion of differences.  Anyway, at the bottom of the Tree, things sort of collapse together again to create the Universe we move about it.  Apparently, Hoshiko pointed us to an opening into the base of the Tree, and we had to move up it, using the symbols of the Tree, and the symbols of the Tarot to move in between."

"...I thought you said it wasn't the time for metaphysics."

"Hey, you asked, right?"

"Right now, I just want to know what's up with all the rabbits."

"You've heard of a Pookah?"

"...Irish trickster sprit, right?"

"You bet.  Well, this one's name is fluffy, and she has a lot of kids."

"But what is she, uh, they doing here?"

"Whatever she wants, I suppose."

Then, from out of the not-darkness, there was a sound, that grew with each passing second.  That's her, I thought.  The unmistakable sound of fluffy.


A small, dangerous-looking rabbit appeared in front of us, twitching it's nose with suspicion.

The brood of bunnies started hopping up and down at the sight of fluffy.

"Mom! Mom!"

"Look, mom, food!"


"Food toys!"

"Can we keep them?"

fluffy stood there, looking at us, standing in the Abyss.

I finally spoke up.  "Hi, fluffy.  How are tricks?  You look... different."  That was a bit of an understatement.  Out here, the pookah was much larger.  Much larger.  Her nose twitched in amusement, and not with out a slight hint of malevolence.

"Well, well.  If it isn't LMNO.  And... guest."

"fluffy, this is Erin.  She's a client of mine—"

"Looks more like dinner."


"I told you it was food!"


"Oh, fluffy, you aren't still mad about that... incident..."

"Ppppfffftt!  You were talking about bunny suicide.  That makes you fair game."

"You tell him, mom!"

"When do we eat?"

"Why all the talking?"

Erin grabbed the carrots from my hand, and stepped forward.  "Look," she said, "things between you two might not be rock solid right now, but L promised me answers, and he's a long way off from giving them to me.  I have been not only all over the City, but apparently though different dimensions and realities as well, not to mention I was accosted by a face-raping bat to start the whole day off!"

"Face raping bat?  Pffft!"

"It's true," I piped in.  "Came out of a cell phone."

"So why are you here?"
  fluffy eyed us suspiciously.

"This is why," Erin said, thrusting the Tarot card at fluffy.

"Down two levels, past Tiphareth.  Can't miss it."

I sighed.  "What we need, fluffy, is deeper interpretation, someone who knows the Tarot better than I do."

"Which is anybody."

Erin stamped her foot, which was weird to see, considering there was actually nothing for her to stamp upon.  "Dammit!  We want to see this Oracle LMNO dragged me through hallucinations to get to, and Malaul gave us these carrots warning us about you!  Now will you please let us through?"

"Malaul?  Carrots?"
  fluffy grabbed them out of Erin's hand. "Did you know that I once spent several months living in her corset?"

"...I don't even know how to begin to answer that."

"Wise choice.  I suppose, for Mal's sake...  Come on, children.  Back to the hutch."

"Aw, c'mon, mom!"

"We found them fair and square!"

"And we're hungry!"

"If you're good, I'll feed you all a nice piece of Troll pie.  As for me,"
fluffy said, winking at Erin, "These carrots are going into a laaarge margarita.  Give my best to Mal.  Oh, and L, you do know what the answer is going to be, right?"

"Yeah, I know.  Doom."

"Well, good luck anyway."

Softly, and silently, the rabbits faded away, and we were left alone, in the epitome of alone.

Eventually, Erin spoke up.  "Now what?"

"Now we wait.  Knowing them, they're playing ninja, or sculpting obscene topiary."

Erin shook her head slowly.  "This has been the absolute strangest day..."

"You ain't seen nothing yet."



In the Abyss, your depth perception is shot all to hell, because there is no distance.  That's why it looked like two tiny figures appeared, and then swelled, as if expanding before us.  One was a lithe redhead, a knowing smile on her face, and holding what looked like a margarita.  The other was a tall brunette, with pale skin, dressed in a revealing black dress.  She didn't look very happy.

"Hi Bella," I said to the redhead.  "How're things?"

"Okay.  You?"

"Eh, it's been a rough day."

The brunette spoke up.  "What does this have to do with Zorga?"

"Everything.  It's all about Zorga after all.  Here, I brought you this."  I handed Zorga the rum.  She took it, uncorking it immediately, as she produced a glass from somewhere.

"Bella, Zorga, I'd like to introduce you to Erin.  Erin, this is Sssbella, and Zorga, two-thirds of the Oracle of Doom."

"Um... Pleased to meet you both," Erin said.


We stood there for a few moments.  Bella took a sip of her margarita, and looked out into the void.  Zorga was busy being Zorga.  No one spoke.  Finally, Erin said, "Well?"

"Oh, we're just waiting for Demonica.  She's late, again.  We're thinking she messed up the difference between day and night again," said Bella.  "Seen Mal lately, L?  She's been asking about you."

"Yeah, she tipped us off about fluffy."

"Oh, you met fluffy?  Isn't she just the cutest?"

Erin spoke up.  "If by 'cutest' you mean 'scary as hell,' then yes."

Bella turned to Erin.  "Why, dear, where do you think you are?  You're in the abyss!  Things have the meaning you give them!  Really, L.  Who have you been hanging around?"

"It's all part of a case.  Erin's looking for some answers--"

"We know."

Another pause.  It was impossible to tell if it was a minute, or an hour.  Zorga kept nursing her bottle of rum, which never seemed to go empty.  Good thinking, Mal, I said to myself.

In that strange, ballooning way, another figure appeared.  She eventually grew into a tall blonde, with a pink T-shirt and jeans.  She was scribbling away at a newspaper, mumbling to herself.  Finally, I thought.  Demonica.

She lowered the paper revealing an absolutely enormous word scramble puzzle.  In a soft voice, she said, "Hi.  Wow, you guys are early."  She gave off a low evil chuckle, which made Erin visibly shiver.

"Zorga doesn't like waiting, even for Zorga's sister," said Zorga.

"Oh, please, you've got rum.  I'll make it up to you, we'll go be ninjas & chase some pirates after this is over."  Demonica tossed her hair back.

"Hi, Demonica," I said.  "Hoshiko sends her love."

"Oh, hi L.  How is Hosh?"

"The same, still kicking ass in scrabble.  You taught her well."

"Don't I know it.  Hello, Erin."

Erin gave a start.  "How... I mean, how do you know--"

The three women just gave a stare that just screamed, "Oh, please." 

Bella put down her drink, shook out her hands, and said, "Okay, ladies.  Shall we get to it?"

Zorga, Demonica, and Bella joined hands, and the Abyss gave a tremble, as if matter threatened to explode the universe into a second big bang.  The women went... blurry, like looking at them through the bottom of a tequila bottle, and started to twist and spin, coming together, and growing even taller.  Their bodies merged, and their 3 faces emerged from the twisting mass that began to resemble a very sexy Shiva, but with a triple-faced head.  The Oracle spoke.

"I, I, I, see ALL!  I, I, I, cast the future of Futures!  And I, I, I see only DOOM!"

"Here we go," I said, stepping up to the six-armed Oracle.  "Wish me luck."

"DOOM!" she/they cried.

"Well, yeah, but could we dial it back a little?  How about before the Doom?"

"... More Doom!"

"Perhaps you could be a tad more specific?"

"You, you, you dare mock an Oracle from the Old Tradition?  Mortal, you know not the dangers you face by acting in such a manner!"

"Let me guess... Do any of the dangers I have to face involve Doom in any way?"

Three arms lashed out, grabbed me by the lapels, and threw me through the Abyss.  I felt like I was falling for days, but when I landed, I was no further away than I had been before. Time to stop fucking around, I thought.  I stood, shakily.

"Mortal Man, I, I, I, see naught in your future.  Your time is nearing its end.  The Knife of Atropos is being sharpened on the rocks as we speak."

I got down on one knee, bent my head, and chanted the Litany.  "Oh, wise Oracle, the Three who are in One, from Time Immemorial, who see all things that were, and all that is, and all that shall be; whose identities are separate, equal, and in conflict; Sisters, and yet severed; Whole, and yet in thirds.  A humble traveler who has lost his way beseeches the Grace of Thee Three, for guidance and counsel."

"That's better.  Still though... It's Doom for you."

"With all due respect, I'll handle my Doom at its proper time.  My request, however, is not for me, it's for Erin.  We seek knowledge in this."  I nodded to Erin, who revealed the Tarot card.  The Oracle plucked it from her hands, and peered at it.  She, They, began laughing.

"You bring the Oracle of Doom the Tower card?"  The Oracle laughed again.  "You do know the outcome of this, of course."

We waited for the inevitable.


There it was.

Erin was the first to speak, this time.  "Is there, uh, anything else you can tell me?"

"Of course there is.  I, I, I, was just fucking with y'all.  It just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up."

"Why do you keep repeating yourself like that?"

"Oh, I, I, I, stole that from Stravinsky and Tony Kushner.  Revealing the inner Trinity, and all that.  But that's beside the point.

"You are headed for major Transformation.  Before your Doom, many things will be revealed.  Many Trials await you, fair traveler.  You will be Tested.  You will Change.  You will Transform.  Of these things, do not doubt.  Your Doom awaits, but there are many roads to travel before the End of All Things."

"Thank you... But where should we go from here?  We need to find who sent this, and what they want from me."

"Want?  You know what they want, but refuse, for now, to reveal it to yourself.  I, I, I will not spoil your fun.  You must travel to the Ocean.  You know of which I, I, I speak."

Erin's eyes went wide.  "The Ocean?  But how did you--"

The Oracle sighed, and the Universe shook. "We are an Oracle, remember?  Enough of this.  We are finished here.  LMNO, thanks for the rum."

I jumped up.  "Wait!  We need an exit.  I don't think we could handle another journey down the Tree."

"Fine.  Because we like you.  Take a hand.  Both of you."

Erin and I each grabbed one of Her many hands.  The void began to tremble.

"Close your eyes.  The Infinite Light is not meant for those such as you."

Heat.  Light.  Every cell, every strand of DNA, every atom was bathed in light.  There was nowhere to turn without the glare of a thousand million inquisitive suns.  The light was not in our eyes, it was in our entire bodies.  A thirsting, questing, blind curiosity probed our very natures.  It began to take us apart.  I heard Erin scream.  The light began to feast.  If souls existed, ours were being drained off into the Light of Forever.


We were thrown to the ground.  The bustle of the Café surrounded us.  Hands grabbed us, pulled us into chairs.  Bella, Zorga, and Demonica were separate again, sipping at tea, rum, and tequila.  With smiles all around, the rose from the table, gave a brief nod, and turned to leave.

"Good Luck," was the last thing they said as they walked out the door, into the night.

I stood up, stretching.  "Looks like you need some sleep."

Erin just sat there, visibly drained.  Her luminous green eyes seemed almost sunken, and her lips were drawn thin as she gazed into the table.  The day's events had obviously taken their toll.  "Hey," I said, "let's get some sleep."

Erin stood slowly, and we made our way out of the Café, into the cold night air.  The City's oppression was less palpable tonight somehow, perhaps alleviated by the full moon glowing a tainted yellow, offering it's meager light to the sidewalk, which gobbled it up hungrily.

"The Ocean," mumbled Erin.  "God..."

"Let's get you home first.  We'll deal with what we have to do next tomorrow."

Erin grabbed me above the elbow, like she was clinging to a life preserver.  And maybe in a way she was.  After all the different states she'd had to go through, all the things she'd seen, the only constant was... me.  Her fingers gripped tightly, and I could feel the heat from her hands radiate through my coat, into my skin.  She still walked with confidence, but she wouldn't be awake for much longer. 

Her hand let go of my bicep, and slid along my back.  Instinctually, I raised my right arm, and she moved up next to me, her head resting gently against my chest as I grasped her shoulder, gently steering her towards the car.  I could smell her again, like 4-day old lilies when they start to wilt, releasing their heady perfume into the air.  My head filled with images:  A half-drank cup of tea, waiting for a trip to the sink in the chilled morning air; a solitary charred log in a fireplace, gently smoking, the last ember of the last fire of the winter fading into grey; an empty jar of perfume lying on its side, kicked over in a fit of jealous passion; the desiccated hull of an old boat, ribs jutting out of a sandy beach...  Which brought me back to the Ocean.  Why was Erin so shocked when the Oracle told her to go there?  What was it about the Ocean that frightened her so?  Tomorrow, deal with it tomorrow, I thought.  Right now, you have to deal with Erin.  She's dead on her feet.

We reached the car, and I helped her inside.  "LMNO," she said, "I want to thank you for helping me today..."

"Hey, that's why you hired me.  Now let's get you home.  Where do you live?"

"1723 Heofon.  East Quadrant."

I whistled low.  "Pretty classy digs there."

She looked over at me.  "I happen to be a pretty classy lady.  Or have you not noticed, since your tastes run towards the genetically modified, apparently?"

"Trust me, I noticed.  But seeing as how you're a client, I tried to ignore it."

Erin sighed.  "Right now, I just want to go to bed.  Could we get going, please."

"You're the boss," I said, gunning the engine. 

Driving towards the East Quadrant, I glanced over at Erin.  She was still awake, gazing out the window at the Moon, which looked impossibly big tonight.  Her hands were resting in her lap, fingers twisted together, lifeless.  I caught the faintest sound of her humming over the engine noise.  It sounded like an old lullaby, probably sung to her decades ago, before the Rebellion, before the Sanctions, before the Mandated Plutocracy, even.  Before anyone would have known she'd wind up in this car, having traveled through space-time and ancient mystic-space to get here, half-asleep, staring at the impossible moon.

The car roared on through the night.


CHAPTER 10: An Easy Way Out.

The current chapter
takes the form of a haiku:
"Many Things Happened."


CHAPTER 11:  The Good Part.

We screeched to a halt in front of her building, sweating hard.  Erin was shaking bits of window glass from her hair, as I tried to feel the extent of the damage from the gash on my face.  I turned off the car, and the sudden silence was punctuated by the ticking of the cooling engine.  I reached into the back seat, carefully picking around the exoskeletons and carcasses, until I found an old shirt, which I proceeded to tear into strips, dabbing away the blood on my face.

"My God!  Are you all right?" asked Erin.

"Yeah.  Fucking claw shrimp.  I hate those bastards."

"I've never actually seen one up close.  I mean, I've seen them on the video feeds, but..."

"Now you know what an entire horde of them look like, especially when you enter their turf."

Erin looked down.  "I so need a shower.  Looks like you do, too.  Come on inside."

We stepped out of the car, and stuck in the rear car door handle was a still twitching leg, trying after ripped from its body.  Growling, I crushed it against the car door with my boot.  So much for my new paint job, I thought. 

We stepped up to the front door of her building, and Erin submitted to the retinal scan and voice print.  We were soon in the elevator, going up, up, up.  "How far up do you go?" I asked.

Erin blushed, and said, "I own the penthouse.  It was a gift from my father."

The penthouse?  Why did this broad come all the way downtown if she can afford a place like this?  Maybe she had already tried some others.  Let's face it, L, you know some things others don't.  The elevator door hissed open, and we were inside her apartment.  The walls were made of glass polymers, and we were high above most other buildings.  I could see the City stretched out before me like a tumor.  You could almost see it twitch.  Erin pressed a button on the wall, and the sight of the City mercifully faded from view as the windows polarized.  "Come on," Erin said, leading me to the living room.  It was an opulent affair, large couches and expensive Asian rugs.  There was a side bar, where she picked up a decanter, and poured out a dark red wine into two glasses, handing me one.  I slung my coat over the arm of one of the couches, and gladly took it.  "You settle in, while I clean up," she said, moving off into one of the other many rooms.

I sat, and took in all the details of the place.  The apartment was mostly white, minimalist without being stark, with a neo-Asian flavor.  I noticed a Noh mask on one wall, and an abstract painting opposite, sort of a Pollock-meets-Duchamp adventure.  I stood to look at it more closely.

"I had an idea," Erin spoke up behind me.  I turned, and saw her there, a towel wrapped around her lithe body.  "Why don't we clean up together?"  She let the towel slip down past her

The Editors would like to apologize again for the intrusion into this Epic Saga/Romance, but they were just looking at and decided that the following sex scene in "LMNO-PI" conveyed no new information concerning the characters, save for the specific measurements and shapes of certain anatomical body parts of both main characters.  Seeing as how such a scene did not contribute to the main story arc, The Editors have decided to delete the scene.  In addition, the over-use of the word "member" to describe the human penis, and use of phrases such as "dripping flower petals" struck The Editors as overly poetic and ultimately, not in a style suitable for such a story.  And who wants 25 pages dealing with one sex scene, anyway?

collapsed to the bed, as Erin lit two cigarettes, and passed one to me.  "Where did you learn how to do that?"

"Years of practice.  I'm surprised by your flexibility."

"Well, I used to by a gymnast."  Erin curled up against me, our sweaty bodies cooling in the air-conditioned room.  She smiled. 

"Looks like we're going to need another shower."


CHAPTER 12: More Exposition.

The morning sun peeked into the room, the smartshades only allowing the sky to have a presence, the awful pulse of The City blotted out by the dark glass.  I woke to find a slim arm with sharp fingernails slung across my chest, and Erin's warm body curled up next to mine.  The sheets were rumpled and strewn over the bed, and I thought back fondly over the past several hours.  Hell of a way to end the day.  I reached up gently, and brushed her auburn hair out of her eyes.  She blinked slowly at me, first with some confusion, and then smiled a lazy smile, relaxed and content.  "Hi."

"Hi  yourself.  Sleep well?"

"As far as I remember, there wasn't much sleeping to be had."

"Says you."  I checked my watch, previously tossed on a mahogany bedside table.  "It's ten o'clock already.  We better get ourselves ready to face the day."

Erin sighed and rolled onto her back, the sheet slipping past her body, reminding me of how she was put together, the endless contours and curves of her hips and breasts.  The she frowned, and Paradise was Lost.  "The Ocean..."

"What is it?  Why does this bother you so much?"

"Do you want to hear a story?"

"From you?  Always."


...I was eight years old.  Just a girl.  My parents took me to The Ocean for summer vacation, the first time we had been outside The City since I was born.  As we crossed the Emperor Cheney Memorial Bridge, I could feel The City falling away from me.  Can you believe it?  That scared me.  The creeping horror of The City... I missed it.  I remember scrunching myself down in the back seat, not wanting to look at the suburbs, the flat lines, the even planes. 

It was the first time I saw birds... They were like erratic airplanes, with broken wings, or huge, meaty flies.  I actually had to ask what they were.  I didn't believe my parents at first when they told me.  I guess eventually my curiosity took over, because soon I had my face pressed to the window, and later, when Daddy said it was safe, I rolled it down, and felt the strangest sensation:  Cool air rushing past my face.  It was probably the happiest I had ever been.

When we actually arrived at The Ocean, I couldn't believe it.  I screamed when I saw it, half in delight, and half in terror.  There was nothing there but water!  No buildings, no cars, no billboards...  No people either.  At the time, I didn't know if that was strange or not, but looking back on it, well...  It didn't matter to me at the time, because the next thing that caught my attention was the sand.  It was blisteringly white, like glass dust lit from below, and it was smooth, with slight ripples from the tide.  I ran towards it, and was shocked when I felt the grains give way beneath my weight.  I turned, and saw my parents laughing and grinning.  It was something I wish I could have framed...

...So cut to an hour later.  I had gotten up enough bravery to dip my toes in the water, and even feel the waves splash up against my calves, before running back up the beach where the towels were.  Mommy and Daddy were building a sand castle, and laughing.  That was when I heard it.  A sickening "thud" sound, right behind me.  Turning around, I saw, half embedded in the sand, the mangled corpse of a man, mostly naked, mutilated.  I screamed, and then I saw more of them falling, falling out of the blue sky.  It looked as if they were falling out of the sun.  I shrieked again when a pair of hands grabbed me, and swept me off my feet.  I think it was Daddy, but at the time, all I could see was bodies, and blood, and the endless Ocean.

A voice was shouting at me, asking me what was wrong.  I just kept screaming, about the bodies, about the gore, about how flayed limbs and gutted corpses were falling out of the sun.  I felt a sharp pain in my cheek.  Daddy had slapped me.  He told me to stop making stories.  I looked at him.  His eyes were furious.  I realized that he couldn't see the bodies, even as they littered the beach, thumping into the ground, splattering the white sand with dark red blood, and pulverized organs.  I think at that point I had something of a nervous breakdown, because the next thing I know, I'm waking up in a doctor's office, and he's mumbling to my parents about the dangerous psychic effects of bringing a City-born child out into the open so suddenly.

But my parents still blamed me, somehow....  I haven't been out of the City since then.

Erin sat up quickly and perched at the edge of the bed.  "L," she said, "I afraid of what's going to happen if we go out there."

I reached out my hand, and she took it in her own.  "Don't worry.  I think I can help.  Just let me make a few calls while you get dressed.  Oh, and one more thing..."


"How do you like you coffee?"  I smiled.  "Mal showed me a few of her other tricks, as well."

I stood up, stretching, feeling old muscles complaining.  Grumpy old bones, I thought, as I slipped on my pants and shoes, and threw my shirt over my shoulders.  Padding out into the kitchen, I turned to see a flash of Erin's Long, smooth leg as she disappeared behind a corner to get dressed.  My coat was in the living room, and I snagged a small bag of coffee beans from one of its pockets.  I never go on a case without some coffee if there's even a chance it's going to be a late night.  And yesterday, well...

As I was prepping the beans, I noticed a phone on the counter.  I picked it up, and heard, "Not default authorization.  Please enter passcode.  D.O.D.B. 1723."

"Erin?" I called out.  "You have a code lock on your phone?"

From a room far in the back came the reply, "Well, after all that weird stuff with my cell, I figured someone might have had access to it.  So I called the phone company, and they put a lock on it."

"Yeah, but from the Department of Defensive Bureaucracy?"

"What?"  Erin was at the doorway of the kitchen in a moment, dressed only in a lacy bra, panties, and a button down shirt just halfway buttoned.  She was a vision to behold, but the look of panic on her face drove out any further ideas I might have had at the moment.  "You mean..."

"Yeah.  Government, Inc. has had total access to your apartment ever since you put the lock on the phone.  Don't say anything.  Shh."  I went back into the living room, got my coat, and fished around in the inner pockets.  Where is it...  Ah.  My fingers wrapped around a small device, and I could feel it twitching in my palm.  With Erin watching, I pulled out a chrome cylinder, about the size of a tube of lipstick.  I could see her wanting to say something, ask a question, but I raised my finger to my lips. 

Walking back to the phone, I tapped one end of the cylinder, and gave the middle a half turn.  A seam appeared at the halfway point on the cylinder, and slid apart, revealing a slip rod, jointed in the middle.  The ends of the cylinder slid out, and the entire device folded in half.  Practically turning itself inside out, more rods began snaking from the inside of the cylinder, which folded upon itself revealing an insect-like robot as big as a dinner plate, delicate legs and feelers moving gently in the morning sunlight.  It seemed attracted to the phone, and when I tapped on the counter three times, it quickly moved to the phone and began dismantling it. 

It extracted a small silicone chip, drew it close to the center of the bot's body, where a tiny bit of phosphorous vaporized it.  A few more furious moments, and the phone was reassembled.  Three more taps on the counter, and the bot scurried down a cabinet and began exploring the rest of the house for bugs.  As Erin and I watched, the bot quickly found and destroyed 13 other devices spread throughout the apartment.  With some mild sense of sorrow, I noticed that it had found a camera in the bedroom, and quickly vaporized it.  Should have held onto that, I thought.

After a few more minutes, the bot returned to the kitchen, twitched, and collapsed back into the small cylinder, which I returned to my coat pocket.  Again, I reached for the phone, and said to Erin, "Ok.  We've only got 30 minutes before Government, Inc notices that all the bugs have been erased.  I'm going to make a call, you're going to keep getting dressed, and then we're out of here.  Oh, one more thing."

"What's that?"

I drew Erin in close, my arm wrapping around her waist, and kissed her long, and hard.

"Bring a wet suit."


CHAPTER 13:  Fight!  And flight.

Erin went back to finish dressing, and I picked up the phone, and quickly dialed.

"Randy... Yeah, it's me again... No, fine, fine.  Things are heating up...  No, not in that way—well, actually, yes, in that way too...  Yeah, I know this is an East Quadrant number, it's my client's apartment... Hey now, no need to get crass...  Look, no time for that now.  This line has just now been cleared of bugs, and any minute now, the GovInc automatic monitors are going to wonder why they aren't hearing anything.  Randy, I need another favor... yeah, I know, but this is serious.  Do you still have friends at the Ocean?  ...Yeah, the Edge of the World Clan, I remember.  Do you think they'd allow a friend of a friend access to their stuff?  ...No, seriously...  Look, just make a call for me, and let me know, ok?  ...Yeah, leave the message in the usual place..."  I heard the sound of heliplanes in the distance.  "Look, Randy, I have to go.  They've located us...  Ok, half an hour."

I hung up, and ran to the back room, where Erin had just finished packing up a bag.  She had decided on a rugged-looking pair of pants, with boots to match.  "Erin, we have to go. Now."

"What is it?"

"Those heliplanes are no doubt on their way here.  Looking for us. Well, not us, but for whoever dismantled their bugs.  Which is us.  So we have to haul ass."

"Not in your car, we won't."

"You have a better idea?"

"Yeah," Erin said, sweeping up a set of keys and tossing them to me.  "We'll take my car."  She breezed by me, slinging the bag over one shoulder.  I followed her to the elevator, scooping up my jacket as I went.  We stepped into the elevator, and Erin jabbed at the button for the basement.  The doors closed, and we plunged hundreds of floors, accelerating as we went.  At this rate, we'll hit free fall, I thought.  Soon enough though, I could feel the huge disc brakes start to apply pressure, and after a few minutes, and several readjustments to the air pressure, we came to a gentle stop. 

The door slid open, and there was a figure in the doorway.  A large man, at least 6'6", almost as wide as the doorway, with a bulky jacket, pockets strategically placed all over it, bulging dangerously.  He was wearing a helmet covered with a dark fabric, and a gun belt with at least thee visible kinds of projectile weapons, including an impossibly large gun.  It was a cop.

"Shit" I said.

"Fuck" he said.

"No" Erin said.

The cop's hand dropped to his waist, and I lunged forward, jabbing him in the throat with my fingers.  The cop let out an "urk," but didn't go down.  In fact, his right arm swung around, massive fist coming at me like a hammer.  I dropped to one knee, feeling the rush of air as the punch barely missed my head, and drove the heel of my hand into the side of his knee, just behind the reinforced kneepads he was wearing.  Out of nowhere the old street joke of why the cops really wore those kneepads flashed through my mind, but I was already driving my elbow into his other knee.  I threw myself backwards as the cop, foundations shattered, fell forward to the ground, his arms still reaching out to try and grab me.  I quickly got to my feet, and jumped up, grabbing onto the low-hanging water pipes jutting from the ceiling of the garage, and brought my knees to my chest.  The cop had his hands flat on the concrete floor, and was pushing himself up as I let go, and thrust my legs down as I dropped.

My feet met his neck and drove his face into the floor with a wet smack, followed by a dull cracking noise, his neck becoming slivers of bone.  The cop shuddered a bit, then finally stopped moving.  I crouched down next to him, and pulled at his jacket.  Fuck, this guy's heavy.  Erin asked in a shaky voice, "what are you doing?"

I turned my head, and saw that she had gone several shades whiter.  "What do you mean?  Do you see all the stuff he's got?"

"But... he's a cop.  And you killed him."

"Better him than you, darling.  Now help me roll this guy."

Tentatively, she grabbed onto his jacket, and we rolled him over.  Erin winced when she saw his ruined face.  I quickly unzipped his jacket, and stripped off his gunbelt.  "We're lucky he didn't get a call off to whoever his backup was," I said.  "There's a good chance conventional radio signals won't carry, so his heart monitor won't be registering any information anyway."  I slung the cop's jacket over one shoulder and the gunbelt over the other.   "Now let's get this car of yours, and get the fuck out of here."

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

We walked quickly through the garage, and eventually Erin's slim, delicate finger pressed the remote starter she removed from her pocket.  The response was almost inaudible, but immediate.  Twenty yards away, a car thrummed to life, its streamlined frame and oversized tires putting my humble carbon monoxide generator to shame.

"Wow.  Is that a MobileTek 2300?  Where did you get that?  More importantly, how could you afford it?"

"You have your connections, I have mine."

"Fair enough, I guess.  Look, we both know you may have another episode when we leave the City proper, so I should drive.  It seems almost blasphemous, though."

"Well, thanks for saying that, at least.  Mind sixth gear.  It's sticky."  She pressed another button on her keychain, and the rear door popped open.  I tossed the cop's jacket into the rear, and walked to the driver's side, with the door already open, inviting me in.  I slipped behind the wheel.  As the door was closing, I caught a snippet of siren, getting closer.  Shit. 

Turning to Erin, I asked, "Is there a back way out, one that, say, only a building resident would know, but isn't that suspicious?"

"Well, yes, but it's a ways off--" she began, as I threw the car in reverse and slammed on the gas.  Erin narrowly avoided bouncing her face off the dashboard, and she scrambled for the seatbelt.  "What the fuck?"

"They know we're down here," I said tersely.  "We have to get as far away from the elevator as possible, and try to blend in."  I shifted, and the car sprung forward like an eager beast, tires gripping the tarred garage floor effortlessly.  I have to get me a car like this someday, I thought.  We turned a corner just as a half-dozen searchlights appeared behind us, probing the gloomy air.  The lights were attached to three Urban Safety Tanks, each one bristling with so-called "crowd control" armaments, each one more lethal than the last.  We weren't quick enough around the corner, evidenced by the sudden squeal of tires, and the blare of the sirens, punctuated by the standard announcement: "This is for your own good.  Stand still and be recognized.  If you move, you will be considered a Criminal Element, and shot.  This is for your own good..."

I floored the gas, and the car shot ahead, the parked vehicles on either side of us whiffing by.  I spotted a down ramp, and aimed the car in that direction, hoping that the Tanks didn't have as much pickup as Government, Inc claimed.  We had enough momentum that the car didn't recognize there was no longer any ground below it for a second, and then we crashed downwards along a steep ramp that took us lower into the garage.  I swung a hard left, and gunned the engine, which responded eagerly, putting much-needed room between us and the police. 

At the far side of the garage, a small aperture in the wall was evident.  "There," said Erin, "that's the back exit."

"Are you fucking kidding?  There's no room!"

"Hey, you asked if there was another exit, not if I had ever used it in this car.  I suppose you don't really think things through, do you, Mr. Cop-killer?"

I glared at her, and down shifted.  "Well, hold on then.  It'll be a tight fit."  I pointed the car at the opening, and gripped the wheel tighter.

***     ***     ***     ***     ***


Chapter 14: Movie trailer.

Scene: Interior GARAGE.  Low ceiling, rows of semi-futuristic cars lined up neatly.  No movement.  Camera holds, not moving.

SFX: Faint tires squealing, engine revving.

No movement

SFX: Engine revving growing louder.  Sirens heard.

A car, a mixture of an SUV and a BMW roadster, crashes into view.  It is going far too fast for such an enclosed space.  Behind it, sinister Tank/Hummer hybrids storm into frame.

CLOSE UP - Car Windshield: Camera closes in on LMNO, focused behind the wheel, a grimace on his face, and ERIN, looking anxious and terrified.  LMNO mouths some words.

SUBTITLE - LMNO: Well, hold on then.  It'll be a tight fit.

PAN to ERIN as she grips the dashboard.

CUT TO: A small opening in the garage wall, barely larger than the car LMNO is driving.

SFX: extremely loud gunshot.

CUT TO: A ragged and ugly hole appearing in the rear fender of the Car.  The implication is that the police are using extremely powerful firepower to bring down LMNO and ERIN.

CUT TO:  LMNO's foot jamming the gas pedal to the floor.

CUT TO: The car leaping forward, heading straight for the opening.  It fits, just barely, as sparks fly, the metal and concrete battling each other.

SFX: Squealing and screeching more annoying that 1983-era Neubauten.

CUT TO: CLOSE UP of ERIN, screaming.

ERIN: Slow the fuck down!  There's a turn!

CUT TO: The first of the Tanks slamming into the opening.  They are too big, and the resultant crash is understandably horrific.  The Tanks behind it swerve, attempting to avoid crashing, but fail.

SFX: Impossibly loud and flaming explosion.

CUT TO: LMNO, eyes wide.

CUT TO: LMNO POV: a 90-degree left turn in the tunnel.

CUT TO: LMNO wrestling with the steering wheel.  Sparks illuminate the hard line of his jaw as he attempts to keep himself and ERIN alive.

CUT TO: The car barely making the turn as flames from the explosion follow them through the tunnel, then recede.

LMNO: Are there any more of those turns I should know about?

ERIN: No, I think that's the only one.

LMNO: I'm sorry to say, we're probably going to have to ditch the car.

ERIN: OK, genius, how do you propose to get to the Ocean then?  No, let me guess.  You know somebody.

LMNO: Actually, yes.

CUT TO: LMNO POV: the tunnel getting wider.  LMNO's hands unclench from around the steering wheel, and he relaxes slightly.

SFX: Engine noise diminishes somewhat as the car slows.

CUT TO: ERIN'S apartment building, exterior.  A small garage door opens, and the car, battered and beaten, slowly pulls out.

PAN TO: Down the street, a caravan of tanks surrounds the main entrance of the building.  Cops in full military/riot gear are running into the building.  None seem to notice the car.

CUT TO: Car slowly pulling away, and soon out of sight of the police.

CUT TO: Car, interior.

LMNO: Let's hope the heliplanes don't notice us.

ERIN: Yeah, let's.  So now that you've brought the cops to my apartment, left at least one body next to the elevator, destroyed and probably killed the cops in the tanks that were chasing us, wrecked my car, and are about to subject me to what I can only assume will be extreme psychological torture, What do you propose to do?


LMNO: How about some pizza?


Chapter 15: Eat at Zeke's

I nursed the car down the street, listening for both the sound of a potential engine failure, and the whup-whup-whup of approaching heliplanes.  Luckily, neither seemed to be present, so I forced myself to relax, and took a left on Rove Avenue.

Erin noticed.  "Hey, the highway is back there," she said, pointing behind us.

"I know, but like I said, this car is thrashed.  We'd never make even the most cursory of inspections at the checkpoints."

"You realize, of course, that you're buying me a new car, right?"

"Should have read the fine print, honey.  This counts as 'expenses'."


"Just kidding.  Take it out of my pay."

"There's no way your fees will even begin to match what this car cost."

"Fine, don't pay me anything then.  At this point, I'm just happy I'm not in jail yet.  And if ditching your car will keep it that way, that's what I'm going to do."  I pulled the car into the mostly empty parking lot of a nondescript pizza joint, and killed the engine.

Erin sighed.  "What are we doing here, now?

"What, you don't like pizza?" I chuckled. "No, actually, we're here to get somethi—FUCK!"  I flinched when a flaming golf ball slammed into the windshield, cracking it, and leaving a fiery trail as it rolled off the hood.  I opened the door, and noticed a figure on the roof with a golf club, a bucket, and a lighter.

"Stain!  What the hell are you doing?" I yelled at the figure.

He didn't respond, he just lit up another ball & whacked it out over the parking lot, the flames arcing gorgeously in the morning light.

I motioned to Erin to get out of the car, but she stayed in her seat, shaking her head.  I could see her mouthing the words "he fucking crazy" through the cracked glass.  I turned back to the figure on the roof.

"STAIN!  Dammit, you're scaring my client!"

He waved.  A deep voice shouted, "I'll be right down!" and the figure disappeared.  Erin slowly got out of the car. 

"Why is it the people you know are all certifiably insane?"

"Must be my charming good looks."

"Don't change the subject."

"Look, the way I see it, you can't really choose your friends.  They just sort of happen to you.  In my line of work, I meet all types, and these are the ones that stuck around."

"Yeah, like gum on your shoe.  Crazy gum."

"Hey, I know you now, so you might be considered a friend, as well."

"I don't know about that..."

"What about last night?"

Erin blushed.  "Well, yeah, ok."

Just then, the door to the front of the pizza place opened up, and an arm waved us inside.  We complied.  A blast of cold air greeted us, as well as a large, hulking man, light brown hair cut short to his head, with burn marks up and down his forearms, and a wide grin on his face.

"L," he said, "long time no see.  What brings you here?"

"I need some firepower, and some scuba gear."

"What for?  I thought the tarot card was the Tower." 

Erin gasped.  "How the hell--"

He laughed.  "The NSRA is everywhere, honey."

Erin turned to me.  "The NSRA?  I thought you said..."

"Well, yeah, but that was before we took out those Cop tanks.  Ah, introductions.  Reverend Stain, this is Erin.  Erin, Reverend Stain, of the New Soviet Red Army."

Stain clapped me on the shoulder.  "Cop tanks?  Good job!  I was wondering how that piece of crap out in the lot got that way."

"Oh, yeah," I said, "We're gonna need a new car, too."

"Well, you came to the right place.  Sit down, have a slice, I'll be right back."  Stain ducked behind the counter, and re-appeared with two slices of cold pizza on a plate.  "Make yourselves comfortable."

We sat down in a booth away from the window, and bit down on our improvised breakfast.

"Holy shit," said Erin, "This pizza is fucking amazing."

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

A minute passed as we at our slices in silence.  Then, checking to make sure there was no one else in the room, Erin leaned in close, and whispered, "I thought you said that involving the NSRA was 'like killing a mosquito with a bazooka'!"

"Have you seen the size of those bugs out there?  Yeah, we escaped Government Inc this time, but chances are they'll find us again.  And they won't be as cautious as they were in the garage."

"You call that cautious?"

"We're still here, right?  Look, you have to at least agree that we need a new car, because your vehicle make & model are on the Watch List, now.  Since they haven't swarmed this place yet, I can only assume that somewhere in the chase, your GPS unit was damaged."

"Actually, I had it removed."

"What?  How did—"

Erin laughed.  As she did, I could feel my spirits lighten, like some great weight was temporarily lifted off my back.  The morning sun looked a little brighter, somehow.  Erin said, "Oh, wow.  The look on your face is priceless!  Come on, now.  If I found you, surely I know something about something.  I like my privacy, and so I found a guy who could remove the GPS unit."  She raised one finger, cutting off my attempt to interrupt.  "I know it's illegal, and it's tricky.  The amount I had to pay proves that."   She looked at me with bemusement.  "Oh, you think you're the only one who's brave enough to go against Government Inc?  I'll have you know that I think everyone, at some point or another, breaks the law to suit their own needs.  Like you were saying about that quantum processor thing at the bar, there's more information than there are people to look at it.  The law of averages more or less guarantees you're going to get away with most of it."

"Well, color me impressed.  Now I'm even sorrier I had to wreck the car.  I have a feeling Stain's going to give us a real piece of shit.  He's kind of an asshole like that."

A voice emanated from the napkin holder.  "I heard that!"

Erin jumped.  "What the fuck!"

"The NSRA is everywhere, pretty girl," said the napkin holder, "and you better get used to it.  L, how could you say such terrible things about me?"

"Oh, put a sock in it, Stain," I said, "your biggest self-aggrandizing claim to fame is that you're the biggest pain in the ass in The City, and yet people still want to talk to you.  I can't see how you do it.  Sure, you make the best pizza for miles, and you've got plenty of connections, but still..."

"It's because I'm one sexy motherfucker."

Erin snorted a laugh behind her hand, and the napkin holder said, "yeah, well you just haven't seen me in action, toots.  Just give me one night, and a bottle of Bushmills, and you'll be singing my praises in the morning."

"Right.  Well, you've got one part right; I'd have to be drunk to consider sleeping with you."

"Whatever works, whatever works.  So, L.  Exactly what have you got in trade?  I know you don't have enough to pay me, and I have a sneaking suspicion your little chippie shouldn't be using any sort of credit card or anything that can be monitored or tracked."

"Yeah, you've got that right... But I do believe I have something you'd be interested in.  How does a fresh Cop's Battle Jacket sound?"

"Shit, man!  I've been dying to have my people reverse engineer one of those!  I'll be right up."

Erin mouthed the words "his people?" at me.  I mouthed back, "later.  He's delusional."

The napkin holder spoke up.  "I can read lips, you know."

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

"Look Stain, is this gonna take much longer?  I want to be at the Ocean while there's still some daylight let."  I realized that every time I mentioned the Ocean, Erin would tense up.  I need to do something about that, I thought.  "Hey, while you're down there..."

The napkin holder sighed.  "Every time I go down here L," it said, "you always seem to 'remember' something else you need."

"Well, that's because I'm always thrown off by your stunningly good looks."

"Fuck you.  What else do you need?"

"Sedatives.  But do you have any of those new ones that don't affect the frontal lobes, just the subconscious?"

"You want the Somax 2350?  Planning on performing surgery in the middle of a gunfight?"

"I doubt it will come to that.  I just need to settle some nerves."

"Well, I don't have it here.  You're gonna have to make another stop, if you want that stuff.  Like, you'll have to go to the Mountain."

"Jesus Christ, Stain."

Erin broke in.  "I've always wanted to go to the Mountain!"

I cracked a wry grin, and bit my tongue against the inevitable Mohammed joke.  "Well, if you want any sort of chance of staying coherent at the Ocean, we've gotta go.  I think the dense tree coverage, combined with all the pollution damage should somewhat approximate the psychotecture.  At least, it won't fuck your mind up as much.  But we'll need something to take the edge off.  You know what that means, Stain," I said to the napkin holder.

It sighed.  "I know.  I'll throw in two bottles of tequila, but only because I like you."

Erin slowly smiled, as if she was beginning to catch on to how the dynamic went.  "Thanks so much, Mr. Stain," she said, adding a thick, sweet lilt to her voice.  "I'm not sure you'll ever know how much this means to us—to me."

"Coming around to my side, are you?  You better drop that loser, toots, and get with the Man.  Oh, and it's Reverend Stain, not Mister."

"Apologies," Erin said, giving me a slow wink.  "I'll tell you what.  When this is all over, I promise to come back here, and show you the proper appreciation for what you're doing for us."

"Oh, yeah.  You , me, and my walk in cooler have a standing reservation.  Anytime, anytime.  I'll be right up."

I gave Erin a surreptitious thumbs-up, and moments later, Stain emerged from the back, dragging some metal boxes.  He opened one up, pulled out a briefcase, and slid it across the table.  I clicked open the latches, and felt the cool air against my teeth as I sucked in my breath.

"Whoa.  This is impressive."  I found myself face-to-face with a Smith & Wesson neuro-disruptor, the latest in assault technology.  A glancing shot will send a large burst of energy through your body, momentarily making all the neurons in your body send a signal simultaneously to the brain.  Apparently, it really fucks you up, like having electroshock therapy, but five times worse.  A direct hit will completely destroy your central nervous system.  "Where the hell did you get this?"

"Not for you to ask, my friend.  Make sure you know what you're doing before you use that thing.  The rest of this is the scuba gear.  And this," he said, handing me a sealed envelope, "is for when you get to The Mountain.  Don't open it; it's sealed for a reason."

"Howabout some directions?"

"On the dash in your Brand New Car!"  He tossed me a set of keys.  "Now, let's get that Battle Jacket, what do you say?"

We all got up, and walked out into the late morning sun of The City.  The Mountain, I thought.  I probably shouldn't tell her what happened last time I was there.