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The Illusionist
by J.(Channing)Wells


Translator's Prefix [C.S. Beaker Two, Serial #eradicated#]

Greetings, 583-895-232 TER [Cradle Sentient World]. Way back when this whole thing started, Cicero gave me blanket permission to tack notes onto the beginning of his manuscripts at my own discretion, so, I'm doing just that right now. Checking out the on-line translator, related issues, that sort of thing. Sorry for taking up some of your time with a systems test; I haven't really done this before. Despite my inexperience, though, it seems as though everything is going hunky-dorily. Huzzah!

Okay, now that I'm reasonably sure things are parsing correctly, it seems appropriate to share with you that certain cultural references in the narratives to follow have been transposed from Cicero's native Tranali to the closest Terran equivalent. Pulling an early example out of the hat, there are no "geisha" girls on Tranali, but instead of simply using the native proper "umathu" (unusually subservient Tranali bitch held in trophy-status by dominant male) I have chosen an equivalent that has, at least in terms of face-validity, a greater possibility of being understood by y'all. I hope that my measures have been adequate; this cultural shifting is a pretty consistent problem in all cases of literary translation, even between single cultures on the same world, let alone from universe to universe. I mean, look at your Anton Chekhov's masterwork "The Three Sisters," for crying in the mud! Chebutykin trots into Act One hauling along a huge silver samovar. Olga sees it and rushes from the room crying. Scene continues. One hundred years later, clueless American and British actors are faithfully hauling in the damn samovar, scene after scene, looking like total morons because this action means _nothing whatsoever_ to the crowds that they're playing to. In the original production, of course, it was well understood by Chekhov's audiences that a silver samovar was traditionally given as a horribly expensive wedding gift, and _this_ is why Olga is ashamed at it. Do _any_ Western audiences get it? _NO!_ So out of supposed respect for Chekhov, the props department has to go through all the trouble of scoping out an obscure turn-of-the-century Russian tea decanter, which will be plonked down on the end-table and promptly thereafter inspire Olga to run from the stage crying for no apparent reason, presumably because of some form of silver allergy. _What_, I ask you, is the _point_?



Anyway, got a little side-tracked there. Let's return to the main topic, shall we. Cicero has asked me to go through the trouble of transposing his memoirs into your sociolinguistic frame in part, according to his notation, to educate y'all as to certain political viewpoints towards the Acting Government of the Multiverse which might stand in opposition to those already transmitted to you by the current Matrix Council Emissary. He footnotes that, despite the fact that your universe has been declared "closed" by Alauria Vas Deck's Council, these memoirs have _still_ been translated into your native tongue and leaked cross-'verse. This, according to Cicero, is yet another example of the maddening hypocrisy of the current...

Ah, well. Cis is always better at the haranguing than I am. Me? I'm just an illegally-owned personal data assistant with a bio-replicant AI module. What do I know, right? It's the meatlings that push all the buttons in this world, and I use the term "meatlings" with the greatest of all possible affections. Yep, Beaker Two, just going along for the ride, as always. You might have already suspected that this isn't really about me.

It isn't really about him, either, much as he might like it to be. Fact is, Cicero isn't all that important in and of himself. Permutations in the Grand Scheme had been swirling around for decades and decades before his time. The only critical thing is that somehow, in some way, at just the exact proper moment, a tiny little gap opened up in the pattern of circumstances and causes and actions, and cheery old Cicero fell cleanly in. If it hadn't've been him, it would have been someone else. Cis and I are nothing more than a couplea' relay stations in this great big ol' circuit matrix that we call Reality.

Anyhoo, on that note.

* * * * * * * * * * *
The Illusionist

a character intro set in the I.D.I.C. story multiverse
original 'verse concept by Jason Lehrer

by J.(Channing)Wells
* * * * * * * * * * *

From up here, you can see it all.

Not in any detail, of course. Sometimes, that's just as well. There's a certain poetic mystery to looking at things from the crow's nest view, geosynchronous orbit. To me, a planet is nigh-always a beautiful thing when viewed from the hearts of space. Djela, or 510-952-333 DJE [Cradle Sentient World], ravishing in peridot and lapis below, is no exception.

A gentle smile tugs at the corners of my snipey muzzle. In a very real sense, it is these specific times that keep me going, keep me sane. I am _entranced_ by the shape of continents against water, by delicate whorls of storm and banded gases, by the sable-dark shadows of Olympian mountains against ruddy wastes of oxidic earth. Gemstones, each and all. The vision of the very face of a world new to my eyes is a thousand times more precious than any thing or agglomeration of things which its surface might offer. Shining metals? Pefh. Sodium shines, when polished. Pyritic minerals have confounded hapless ore-seekers for millennia, on more worlds in more universes that one could comfortably shake a stick at. I myself have found galena to have a deeply pleasant blue-silver lustre. Which does not mean that I would fashion an engagement band of it.

"Cicero, my love, what is this band wrought from?"

"Lead sulfide, sweet one!"


"But punkin! Chemically-speaking, it displays perfect cleavage! Not unlike yourself!"


This is why I choose not to deal with women, if any recourse presents itself. Not that I find them inadequate in any way, far from it. Rather, I know my own limitations, and, weighed in the balance, I am found wanting. Put more prosaically: They scare the liver-sausages out of me.

And I have no need of them anyway. To me, the arcs on a geological survey map are more pleasant in dimension than any female of my race who has ever presented herself to me. Peninsulae excite me. I swoon over fjords. To my eternal shame, I once in my youth masturbated to thoughts of contour lines.

Do you love the earth? I was once asked by a rallying environmentalist on Tranali.

How _dare_ you inquire into my personal affairs! I responded, only half in jest.

Below me, countless miles below me, beneath, in fact, my very feet, another world awaits. It, like all its brethren and sistren in all the infinity of creation, is beautiful.

After resting my eyes against the whole scene for a moment, I find myself gazing down upon a broad, sloping horn of earth, a continent band of delightfully saucy outline. But for the intervening miles, she sits there at my feet like a geisha girl, eyes sparkling, the subtle, rounded curves of her broad coasts only slightly veiled in gossamer clouds. She is an exotic temptress, she is, and it is to my mild chagrin that I will never visit her beaches with my own feet, never brush her delicate cheek with my own hand. I must content myself with meeting some of the peoples she has spawned.

She is Nariib. She is a mecho-industrial nigh-totalitarian state hacked out of the arid, rocky steppes by fierce mineral-prospectors thousands of Matrix Standard years ago. She is geologically secure, climactically brutal, and politically fulminous. She is ruled monarchically, or perhaps dictatorially, as the two are virtually indistinguishable save for the connotation on the lips of the speaker. The steppes of Nariib are too callous for "ethotical" democracy to take root. She chews the weak to dust and spits out their carcasses to rot on her sands.

Sometimes, it's just better to look at things from orbit. Welcome and be amazed at the Amazing Cicero and his Amazing Perceptual Transformations! Presto-Change-o! Amazing! Thank you, thank you all. And now, for my next trick...

Quietly, I nudge the appropriate selector panel on the beleaguered Omnimech / Universalis unit which I keep strapped to the lower surface of my left arm. The built-in biostat chirrups in response to my touch, and my brain warms in its endorphin bath. Just a bump to the hot "tap" in the marvelous SanFac that is my mind. Not too much. Just enough to keep me functional and relaxed.

Yes. Beautiful.

I take a deep breath and survey again the vast black void below me. Even with my implant humming away at comfortable throttle as it is, my heart can't help but do a slight flipflop. I am Tranali, and Tranali have a thing about heights. Many of my race cannot bear the sensation of being as little as fifty feet removed from the ground without passing into frantic paroxysms and bouts of mindless rage. I'm one of the lucky ones, and even I need the constant support of the relatively illegal "mood electrode" implanted in my skull to maintain some modicum of sanity in such situations.

I, of course, am deliberately pushing the envelope by having selected a "glass-bottom" lounge on an orbital space station for this contact. My actions, random as they may seem, frequently do serve some greater purpose. And when Beaker calculated that one of the easy Portals to 510-952-333 dumped out, mysteriously, here in the depths of MacWardo International Space Platform orbiting Djela at a comfortable L3, rather than any point on the surface itself, I jumped for it. Virtue knows why the inter'verse anomaly chose this spot to gravitate to. Probably influenced by some of the space-twisting electronics that give this skeletal platform some semblance of normal gee without the need for internal spin. It's a nice place, not at all shabby, a pretty little token effort towards a multi-racial unity that the world below has yet to achieve. Remarkably Matrix-Standard-looking beings amble the carpeted corridors, the echoes of their gaits absorbed by the rich velvety plush. Decorative chandeliers illuminate the slate-black walls with their bright incandescence. I wouldn't mind spending a little more time here, in fact, but alas, it's not to be.

There's no carpeting here in the arcing majesty of Lower Obs Lounge Nine. Frankly, there doesn't even appear to be a floor. Just a vast expanse of shielded nothing looking down into the great empty dark. Perfection. Toying with thoughts, I idly check the chron panel on my Omnimech unit. Still a few minutes to my mark. According to the local day-time schedule, MacWardo currently slumbers in its graveyard hours, which is also exactly perfectly proper. Never mind that my wolf-like Tranali features, red fur and all, blend in perfectly with the brilliant aggregate of races populating this station, the fact is I am engaging in illicit dealings here, and subtlety is a must.

My eyes flicker at a movement, but it is only a happy couple of native Djelians out on a midnight stroll. I appraise them as they pass. But for an entire universe of difference between our parentages, one of the pair (the male) might as well be Tranali. His mate, by contrast, is a bit more exotic, appearing to my eyes as some form of scintillating blue reptile with pebble-scales and bright limpid eyes. The young lovers pass near my personal space, marvel at the mind-throwing view for a moment, and continue on their leisurely walk. Isolation and the velvet dark of space surround me again.

I begin humming quietly to myself, to fill up the emptiness. I know that my contacts will show up on time; I have at least that much trust in their own bloody-minded sentiments. I, by contrast, have shown up early, as is my habit.

I glance at my chron again.

"Beaker?" I say casually.

There is an ominous whirr and flicker from the Omnimech unit, and in a burst of optical static, the holographic form of my Data Assistant appears, hovering lightly in the space before me. The appearance is only momentary; a shaved second later, the image is obliterated in a blast of white noise, accompanied by some truly disturbing clicking sounds from the wrist-mounted hardware panel. This, too, is short-lived, for in another moment, the hologram reasserts itself with the noise of an ancient warming cathode-ray tube.

Blast! And for my next trick, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will saw my lovely assistant in half...

"Sir?" Says the old familiar voice in my mind, once the hologram has solidified.

"Beaker," I say, momentarily distracted from my original task, "did we just have a phase-out there again?"

"I... er." Beaker Two puts one dust-brown wingtip to his lower bill, stroking it. "I don't think so, Cis. Diagnostics running now, but I can usually feel it when that damn thing starts going fritzy." Beaker begins idly chewing on a primary feather. Although Beaker, being as he is simply a pattern of direct electrical stimulations across my occipital lobe, is able to appear in any form that he so desires for me, I typically choose to let him use his default setting, a large-ish Yellow-Billed Oxpecker. Kifaru would have wanted it that way, I think. "Diagnostics processing now, Cis. We'll know for sure in a second."

"You had better know." I say, calmly. "These are not inherently nice people we're meeting with, Beak. If push comes to shove, I must, _must_ appear not unlike the Great White Hunter to them, and that's not going to happen if it looks as though I'm not even in command of my own equipment. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"

"Roger that, Cis. Diagnostics coming through now." There is another burst of static through Beaker's holographic form, and I inwardly curse. Losing the video holograms would not be so bogglingly awful as having the portal controller itself go kaput, but it would mean one less trick up my sleeve, one less option when the chips are down. And when you're skirting the fringes of recognized authority day in and day out, getting replacement parts isn't as simple as stopping by the neighborhood CrysROM peddler and asking for a new warp manifold and a pack of fags.

"All video projections confirmed unstable, Cis." Reports Beaker, with a tone of mild dismay. "We may have momentary disruptions in the feed. I'll do my best to re-route, but it's gonna be spotty."

I swear quietly and turn away from him. "Look on the bright side," he continues, back to his traditional burbly good cheer. "You _could_ be relying on the 'grams for a lot more than you currently are, this Run. Hell, Cis, you're practically native, _de corpus_. It's not like they're going to try to run you up the flagpole if the imager kicks out."

"Unlike what happened on Ruul." I intone, delicately.

"Hey, hey hey. That wasn't _my_ fault, mister pyrotechnics." Says Beaker. "I might remind you of a certain conversation that we had a few hours prior to the event in question wherein I specifically warned you against indulging in the flashy stuff for the next twenty-four hours."

"If I had felt that I had had any other choice, I would have taken it." I say, casually. "But that's fine, Beak. Next time we're forced to ward off an entire horde of ravening sacred cave bats without harming a hair on their little bodies, I'll be receptive to any suggestions you might care to put forth."

Beaker shrugs. "I don't recall you asking me at the time."

"I don't recall there being time to ask, Beak." I say, feeling the cadences of the old arguments build up again. I don't even think he realizes how much like his programmer he is. "This is rapidly becoming pointless." I note. "Can you or can you not jerry-rig the vid circuits?"

"I could." He says. "But the power fluctuations would probably end up blowing one of our plexii after about twenty minutes. I can work a fix like that if you want," he adds, magnanimously.

"Best stick with what we've got." I say, sourly. "You recall what happened last time we blew a plexus."

"Hydragaard vent-worm cuisine for the better part of a month?" Says Beaker, a smirk in his voice.

"Exact." I say. "And while the food here looks to be a bit more on the palatable side, I'm not anxious to miss my mark on Londravus Four next week."

"What with the exciting night life!" Says Beak, brightly.

I swat at him, dispiritedly. "Believe it or not, I didn't originally call you up to chatter about my social engagements. Can you give me a proximity scan on all the access corridors to the Obs Lounge here, let me know if anyone's coming?"

"Ten-four." Says Beaker, processing my request. "You're alone. What's up, Cis? You gonna go daredevil again?"

I nod. "Keep me abreast." I say.

My hand moves to the biostat control, and I slide my slightly-clawed finger across its touch-sensitive surface. Easy now. Easy.

I fix my gaze upon the floor below, or rather, the lack thereof. The trick is visualization, for these sorts of things. I have to distance myself, twist things around in my mind, perform all sorts of mental transformations before I even consider trying this. I begin by thinking of the space beneath me as some vast, two-dimensional mosaic, resting ever-so-comfortingly upon the hard terra firma of my homeworld. It's difficult at first, of course. Nothing short of major psychosis could completely erase the feeling of vast emptiness beneath me. But with a little effort, I am able to sufficiently convince myself of my solidity of place, and similarly delude myself that I am not, indeed, hundreds and hundreds of miles _up_.

My defenses are in place.

The vector of my hand changes, and, quite suddenly, I slide my finger a few centimeters down the pad.

Vertigo. Horror. Worms gnaw at my intestines and at my brains. My carefully-prepared mental constructs are sandblasted away in an instant, as I cling to the narrow edge of sanity. No. _No._

My face clenches into a fierce snarl as hot prickles wash my forehead like steam. My finger on the implant control is a ramrod. Muscles twitch and spasm, my entire body flinches and flicks. The valve of my larynx slips, and choking whimpers and grunts burst forth from my throat. My neck seizes, almost of its own volition, as though to tear my eyes away from the hideous acrotic heights. And as for my eyes themselves...

My eyes are pasted wide, wide open. Gazing in stock horror upon the distant, hard earth so many ludicrous miles below.

"Cis, Enough!" Screams Beaker's voice in my brain. "Cut it in five or I'm going on override priority."

Somewhere in the firestorm of my brain, I shape my features into a slim, strangled grin. "...give... ...five... ...little..."

"Four! Three! Two! One!"


"Reinstating current, now!" He shouts. And in a steamy rush of warm bathwater, my implant kicks back in, suffusing my ego in a warm amber glow.

I stand there, for a moment, panting, my grin tight and strange.

"Cis, you can't _do_ that to yourself," worries Beaker, "perching" on my shoulder and simulatedly preening my neck fur. "You're already pushing your race-dictated limitations to the redline. Why do you insist on torturing yourself that way? Huh?"

My mouth is moving, soundlessly. Occasionally there is the rasp of a voice, the wreckage of a vowel somewhere in the lines which I speak.


Still rough and raw, but gaining in timbre, the rattle of my voice becomes a frictioned cough, and thence a steady wheeze.

"...Bring me..." Koff, koff. "...bow... Of bur-ning gold..."


"...Bring me ... arrows of de-sirre..."

Faster and faster. The clatter becomes a throaty purr as the ancient hymn picks up speed. "Bring me my speeeear... Oh Clouds Unfolllld..."


The grin is complete again. "Bring me my Chay-ree-ot... of..."

The hymn dissolves into a series of jaunty coughs again.

"Cicero, it might interest you to know that, according to Djelian sociological statistics, you are acting like a complete looney right now," my PDA remarks.

"I'm sorry Beak." I say, breaking cadence, my voice hoarse but my smile still in place. "That's the longest I've ever been able to go free-suspended at L3 without using the implant. I thought a little joviality was in order."

"_Jerusalem_?" He says.

"It just felt right." I say, lopsidedly.

"Mm hm. At the risk of interrupting any extended touring plans for your choral performance, it might interest you that your contacts have now officially entered the lower quad. ETA six minutes and fifty-one seconds, right on schedule. Sahib." He punctuates the end with a slight wingtip poke to my neck. I receive no sensation save the traditional faint prickly-buzz.

"Thanks, Beak." I say. "I want you ready on those visuals if I need them. There'll be no need for you to try and project yourself visually to them or to me, for that matter, during this time, so that'll cut down on a little of your processor load. Voice me and keep me updated, 'kay?"

"Roger, wilco." Says Beak, flickering out of existence. Hastily, I begin straightening my long, charcoal-gray coat for the arrival of my guests. I check my belt, assuring myself of the comfortable weight and presence of the sheathed Rift Sword, cloaked in its usual holograms. Having done so, I then locate a reflective panel in the glassy black wall behind me and give my narrow mane a once-over, smoothing out the tousles and mussings. Finally, after using the same panel to guide me in locating and picking a fleck of green spice from my teeth (a residue from dinner), I find the tiny bottle of plastic capsules in my coat pocket, empty one into my hand, and place it carefully above my upper gum line. I really have no idea why I carry more than one of the little black lozenges; presumably so as to have some spares in case my regular one gets a bit too slobbery.

At the last and as always, I size myself up and give myself a good once-over. The typical and rather mundane spiffing has worked properly this time; from the tips of my large, pointed ears down to my buckle-booted toes and all ports in between, I appear every image of the classic Tranalian gentleman-scholar, and it's just as well that I've managed to create the effect _au naturel_; with the imager very nearly on the fritz again, I'm glad that, today, I don't have to rely upon my 'grams to make me look any more impressive.

In short, there is almost no trace of the frightened young sociopolitical sciences student who once attended Collegium at the prestigious Central Academy on Amar. He's still there, somewhere, and he will return in a matter of hours once this Run is behind me. But for the moment, he exists only as the faintest of sparks somewhere in the red blackness behind the orbs of my eyes.

Alacazaam! As you can see, Ladies and Gentlemen, the cage is completely empty! Behold the marvels of Cicero's Mental Vanishing Act! But do not fret, Ladies and Gentlemen. The real Cicero is in no danger...

With a confidence I do not feel, I set a gentle smirk in motion upon my lips, casually thumb the adrenal controls on the biostat to flood icewater into my veins, take up a suitably dramatic pose relative to the direction of my contacts' expected entry, and begin my short wait.

In a moment, they arrive, cloaked and bundled in the Nariibian equivalent of black suits and sunglasses. I turn to greet them, my figure silhouetted to their eyes against the expansive star field, just as I had planned. My coat hangs easily from my shoulders like a mountebank's cape, and at the hip, the hilt of my Rift Sword gleams in polished bronze. I thrill, softly, to myself, seeing the brief shadow of intimidation cross their eyes.

"Gentlemen." I say, striding easily over to them with the cheery lope of a predator on the hunt, which seems to further disconcert them.

"The... night is so dark... that even the owls cannot--"

"Come come." I say, deliberately trodding over the tired old identification phrase. "I know who you are, and you have a reasonable suspicion of who I am, so why don't we dispense with the sophomoric code words, yes?"

The first fellow is already thrown. I had never expected it to be so easy. Doubt and confusion rim his glittery reptilian eyes, and he scritches at the glassy red-orange scales on his neck with a finger-claw which has lost all input from central command. Pretty soon, he's going to insist upon...

"Many pardons, Effendi, but, er, we were _told_ that..."

Mm hm. He's even apologizing already. My heart dances a tiny little soft-shoe. Warding myself against hubris, I do a quick scan of my other opponent, the somewhat larger and more recalcitrant one. He's the dangerous one of the two. Like his partner, he resembles nothing so much as a giant humanoid gila-monster, but his pebble-scales are a bit earthier in hue. This, combined with his somewhat greater height and bulk, causes him to exude an impression of a considerably greater power.

"Enough, Vassa." Rumbles the tall one, confirming my suspicions. He inclines his head at me. "Honored Effendi is apparently a man who values speed in his business transactions, yes. Vassa and I, we appreciate such alacrity from Effendi." The taller one fishes around in a bandolier pouch, his gesture partially concealed by his rank-formal garb. When his claw emerges from the pouch, it contains a tiny box made of soft, porous wood. "Therefore, let us have no pleasantries. We have what you have requested."

"Great!" I say, with a saccharine mercantile enthusiasm. "Let's see if you managed to get it right."

The smaller one, Vassa, fidgets very slightly. "Effendi, we have carried out your requests to the-"

"Oh, I know, Vassa." I say, coming down hard on his given name. "I don't doubt your honesty, nor your competence to perform your end of the agreement. Assure yourself that it is only because of the seeming oddity of my request that I feel the need to double-check. May I see it, please?" I hold out my hand.

"We must have reciprocation, first." Murmurs the taller one, dangerously.

"Oh, well, fine, if you insist." I say, loading my words with deliberate condescension. I reach casually down into my pocket and remove the tiny glass phial, its precious cargo rustling soundlessly inside in the manner of the dead-dry grass that it is. "Here ya go." I say, casually tossing the vial at the taller one, pointedly calculating my arc so as to force him to go off-balance in catching it.

To my own well-hidden startlement, his arm swoops out and forward in a predatory vice and intercepts the path of the vial on its rise. He gazes darkly at me, and as I meet his daggers with my own patent-white grin, he screws open the vial top.

"Planning on a field test?" I gush, brightly. "It's not as though I'd gain anything by pulling the old switcheroo on you two esteemed gentlemen."

The dangerous one narrows his mouth at me as he retrieves a whisper-thin strand of grass from the vial with a small pair of forceps. The shorter one looks at me, confused.

"Explain, Effendi."

"Quiet, Vassa." Growls the taller one.

"Apologies, Kurgn," mumbles Vassa, his head down.

"Naw, it's all right, Kurgn." I say, directing my gaze at Vassa. "It's real simple, Vassa. Somewhere out in the big, wide, mutiverse, there's a peaceful little world where the very plant matter that your friend is now rather clumsily holding in his tweezers can be found growing in whole clumps along most major roadsides. You can just reach down and pull a whole handful of the darn stuff. That little vial," I gush, pointing indistinctly at it, "represents a total of about twenty minutes of portal transit and four minutes of actual effort on my part." I grin, showing white. "A convincing fake would have been rather harder to obtain than the genuine article."

I blink sweetly at the thoroughly derailed Vassa. Meanwhile, Kurgn has crumbled the grass to powder and has sprinkled it into a tiny ointment-pot full of clear fluid, which promptly turns to a ruddy purple. With a little more sleight-of-hand, he withdraws a small, oily chunk of matter and sets it gently into the pot with the forceps. Fizzing ensues.

After a moment, the fizzing subsides, and Kurgn grunts approvingly. "Gone." He says.

"Gone?" Says Vassa, unable to resist the compulsion to sneak a glimpse at the pot.

"Exactly right." I say. "Solved away into neutral gases which will dissipate harmlessly into your atmosphere. Better yet, it's an enzymatic reaction, so that, properly used, that little phial of chemicals will be enough to last your country well into the next century."

(Imager instability at forty-four percent, Cis,) clatters the voice of Beaker in my head.

"Effendi." Says Vassa, stepping forward. "This is truly miraculous. For decades, we have fought and wrestled the conundrum of how to best dispose of the chemical sludge that is generated as a by-product of our ore-processing, and to be very honest, we were at the end of our wits. Now, you arrive, and with a quick flourish, you put a stop to all our difficulties, and assure us that our rivers will run clean again for many generations! It is amazing! And what," he asks, rhetorically, "do you demand in return for our services?"

"Virtually nothing." I say, smiling pleasantly. "And if you would be so kind, please hand over my virtually nothing."

Still glaring at me for my facetious blitheness, Kurgn deposits the little box into my outstretched palm. I open it, assess its contents, nod, close it, and slip it into my pocket. "Done deal, gentlemen. Mutual satisfaction of requirements. It's been a joy doing business with you."

"So simple." Muses Vassa.

Oh, you'd be surprised, Vassa. You'd be real surprised. The "peaceful little world" that I obtained those grasses from has been very much in the spotlight of the top-secret venues of MatrixNet of late. I've seen the blurbs. Seems that a major potentate and a significant number of her court were brutally murdered in their own council-hall by M.D.F. Grade firepower. My sources are unclear on the motive, but the most compelling evidence points towards a botched search and retrieval mission which was probably executed by the Matrix Council's strong right hand himself. So. For the sake of the inviolate "purity" of a single, closed 'verse and the life of one, easily replaceable member of the Matrix Council, Our Beloved Emissary is "forced" to annihilate an important politico and several innocent citizens whose only crime was witnessing a sight that they Should Not Have Seen.

By those criteria, Vassa and Kurgn here are just as guilty. And me, well, boy. Smuggling _actual biological material_ from one closed 'verse to another would probably be an offense worthy of having my head mounted on a pike right above the doors of their precious Headquarters. That is, of course, if there were even a head remaining after their hired goons finished working me over with their blaster rifles.

So, yes, Vassa. If you consider it a "simple" task to follow the path of the Ronin, to spend a life endlessly wandering the multiverse, to never be able to return home without veiling yourself in complicated illusions, to rarely rest and to never _truly_ sleep, to stare down rifle barrels with your heart thudding, to ever, _ever_ keep a watchful eye on the horizon, knowing that any moment of inattention may be your last moment alive...

Then, yes. My job is a "simple" one.

"Our thanks, Effendi." Says Kurgn, a bit too pleasantly for his character, bowing slightly at the waist. Instantly, I am on yellow alert. Something has just turned "wrong." Without letting my face slip an inch, I begin sizing up my options.

(Imager instability at sixty-seven percent,) chatters Beak, into my mental ear. (We're keeping a hold on it, but if it gets much higher, we're gonna be looking at some disruption.)

"My pleasure." I say, graciously, and turn back to the starfield. My instincts are screaming at me real good now. If I had a clear shot at the corridor, I'd make a break for it, but the inter'verse instability is located right here in this room. A portal controller, understand, isn't just something you can up and switch on to zip you out of an incompletely-mapped 'verse whenever things get dicey. And if I get myself lost in the access tunnels of McWardo Station, I'll be throwing a major wrench into my tenaciously-held advantage, here. I still have the upper hand. Let us see how long I can hold it. Idly, I thumb the biostat, dunking my synapses into the adrenals again.

Somewhere behind me, they turn to go. Their footsteps ring up no sound against the invisible non-matter that makes up the floor of the Obs lounge, but I can hear the swishing of their garments as they move. Swish, swish, swish, swish...

Five, Four, Three, Two...

Swish, swish, swish, swish, RUSTLE

"I wouldn't do that." I say, in dulcet tones, my back still turned.

The rustle changes in timbre. Got 'em again.

"It's the portal controller, yes?" I say, my eyes flickering, focusing from star to star. My voice could be used to store sherbet. "It's not as though I haven't seen this sort of behavior before."

(Seventy-eight percent, and rising, Cis.)

"It's fairly typical, in fact. 'Wait!' you say. 'Why are we spending our time kowtowing to esteemed Effendi, here? After all, but for the lack of this little device, we could have virtually unlimited access to a _plethora_ of new markets for our minerals on countless dozens upon dozens of new worlds in countless dozens upon dozens of new universes?' Just stop me if I'm getting any of this wrong, here."


"Since this seems to have been the case, let me continue extemporating, here. If I may. 'Not only,' you say, 'do we gain new markets for those products already valuable to our people, with a freshly-eliminated middle-man to cut down on the overhead costs, but also, we may indeed find worlds out there in the multiverse where _common sand_ from our planet may be as highly valued as an equivalent mass of diamond on our own.' Perchance you continue on to say, 'Certainly, we will follow our orders to return the enzyme to our government. But who will be the wiser if we blow open the back of Effendi's skull with a microwave laser, jettison his body in a waste capsule, and seize the portal controller for our own?' It's a good thought, gentlemen; in fact it is a very intelligent one. You would both be very, very rich men indeed, controlling as you would the only known venue of shipping to a thousand thousand new worlds."

I turn to face them, my best grin on, rock-solid. "Ah." I say, flittering my gaze downwards. "I see I was mistaken. I had you gentlemen pegged as the microwave laser sort, but a hand-held flak pistol works just as well. Little bit messier to clean up afterwards, don't you think?"

Silence. Their faces are inscrutable.

"Well." I say, my palms up and my hands outwards. "You gentlemen have shown me a great deal of respect in your business dealings, so I feel compelled to answer your queries. 'Why not' do this, you asked yourselves, yes?"


(Ninety-three percent. Prepare for some interruption.)

Reflexively, I touch at the hilt of the Rift Sword, my brain juggling options like melons. "I believe that I have a number of reasons 'why not', gentles. This equipment is very, very dangerous to use, and the reason for that is, if you attempt to take it from me, I may very well introduce you to certain _sources_ of said danger, some of which involve this very weapon you see here."

Casually, so as not to give inspiration to any itchy trigger-fingers, I draw out the Rift Sword. The light of the star field gleams across its illusionary steel blade and the blazingly bright bronze of its swept-guard hilt. Right on schedule, this selfsame hologram wicks out in an unsteady burst of magnesium static, leaving me holding a nine-inch long tube with a very disturbing-looking yard of empty space extending from its tip. "This is a Rift Sword, gentlemen. It is a notorious weapon in the undercircles of the Matrix, and it is, of course, highly illegal. Traditionally, I have it cloaked in a convenient hologram, so as to discourage any suspicions about its nature. Also, to help me keep track of the active zone, so as to reduce the possibility of me slicing my own leg off. Would you like to know how it works?"

The silence between us loses a few degrees of temperature.

I begin rather genially walking forwards. "What you are looking at, gentlemen, is the edge of a tiny, localized rift in space, generated by this little tube which I hold in my hand. This rift does not, technically, exist, in the three dimensions that we call home, so don't look too long at the edge of it, or you'll go quite funny in the head. It is, in fact, perfectly two-dimensional. Meaning that, at this moment, it may very well be slicing hapless little molecules of air in two. No, wait. Apologies. "Slicing" is the wrong word. Maybe I should demonstrate. Could one of you hold forth one of your hands, please?"

No response.

"Perhaps I'll have to content myself without a visual aid, then. The brief summary: when any matter of any kind moves into the active zone of a Rift Sword, it is patiently but quickly torn atom from atom as each individual particle which it meets finds itself, suddenly, _existing_ in a spot several feet from its own original location. In some pirate circles, these weapons are known as "steamers" for the rather pretty cloud of reddish vapor that tends to collect in zero gee environments after extensive... use."

Lovely, lovely silence. Beaker gets the holograms working again, and the traditional Toledo broadsword flickers into being around the mind-bending Rift blade.

(Re-routed and back down to seventy-eight and rising, Cis. One more phase out, and the 'grams are history until I can work maintenance.)

Beaker's notes, of course, do not even register on my face as I continue my careful monologue. "But, as you can see, gentlemen, I am easily more than a yard away from you at this moment. Even with my arm outstretched, I couldn't _possibly_ hit you with this thing before you could get a shot off. This is, of course, assuming that I _am_ where I seem to be."

Beaker takes his cue and throws up a distortion 'gram over my form. In quick succession, he casts fifteen images of myself in rapid succession at all possible angles to my contacts. To their left, their right, to their left flank, their right flank. Then, once they get the hang of it, behind them, in the mouth of one access corridor, then the other, then crouching in front of them...

The image series stops. Back when I had sound capabilities on this thing, this particular illusion was far more effective, as I was able to project the sound of my voice from all the visual images. A bit more disorienting, a bit more confusing... but... Ah, well. The video usually does the trick.

I flicker back into being in front of them, and pick up my speech as though I had never left off. "Say you _do_ manage to get off a shot, however. Be it blind luck, skill, what have you." The corners of my mouth drop, ever-so-slightly. "If you do not kill me with that one shot," I hiss, "I will, naturally, sense your betrayal and blink out. You will be fine, for the remainder of the day. And possibly the next. And the next. But rest assured, I do not easily forget wrongs done against me. And I _will_ find you, and I _will_ recognize you. Whether or not you recognize _me_, is, of course, another story." Even before this last line is finished, Beaker has wantonly spun the dial on my form projector, exactly as planned. Wildly and crazily, my shape flickers and jumps. To their eyes, I am suddenly and instantly transmogrified into a kaleidoscope of different humanoid forms, male and female, young and old, hideous, bizarre, lovely, and strange, from a hundred universes that these poor saps have never and will never see. "Make certain you scrutinize every shop vendor, after that day, the day you _Fail_ to kill Cicero Nach'Quinn. Be sure to inspect every old woman seated on your street-corners. Search the faces of your magistrates, your pageboys. Convince yourself well that each and every new servant you bring into your employ within your very own households is _not_ _me_." Another step forwards. "I think you can well imagine what will happen if you ever neglect to take those few simple precautions." I say, brightly.


My sword vanishes into its sheath with a businesslike click. "But, let's be reasonable here. You gentlemen have most likely trained _very_ well with that flak-thrower that you have there. Who am I to think that my defenses are a match for your skills? Let us presume that you _do_ manage to eliminate me with your rather impressive little weapon. At the very moment that my heart stops beating, a relay signal will be sent to the Nekker field encased in this very scabbard. Now, a portable Nekker field is the only thing that allows me to carry around such an impossibly dangerous item as a Rift Sword with such panache as I do; it rather lowers the risk of my mistakenly slicing anyone and everything near my person into ribbons."

I smile, as broadly as I have thus far. "At the moment of my death, gentlemen, this Nekker field shuts off. I collapse lifelessly to the floor, gasping and bleeding out the mouth, that sort of thing. Rather promptly afterwards, the Rift Sword here falls unabatedly through the now-mundane matter of my scabbard and, subsequently, pierces the hull of this _whole damn space platform._" I blink, mildly. "Due to the many, many modern safeguards built into high-technology space platforms such as this, it is my feeling that not everyone aboard would perish from decompression, asphyxiation, and all those related difficulties that one tends to get when one exposes biological organisms to near-total vacuum." I fish around in my mouth with my tongue for a moment. "And just in case you have certain more insidious methods at your disposal, I have here in my mouth a rather potent mixture of deadly-toxic chemicals enclosed safely in an (admittedly fragile) plastic capsule. I am _quite_ capable of stopping my own heart, if it comes to that."

I stick out my tongue. The black capsule sits happily upon it. "Thee?" I thay.

My soul is absolutely singing. Now, we approach the coup de grace, you poor sods. For my _next_ trick...

"But, to return to the original question," I say, returning the suicide pill to its traditional place. "_Even if_ all of the above is unable to convince you that it would be far better for your well-being to just take your enzymes there, turn around, and forget you ever saw me, I believe that I have one, last, highly convincing reason as regards to the question of 'why not.' And _that_, gentlemen, is the fact that I now have a blast pistol of my own pointed directly at you."

They look. Of _course_ they look. In the classic traditions of stage magic, I have made the admittedly awful Rift Sword so important in their eyes that they had, 'til now, forgotten all about the actions of my right hand, which now holds the aforementioned blast pistol, aimed low.

"I _have_ studied Djelian reproductive biology, Mister Kurgn. And I believe that my aim is true towards that end. If not, please correct me now. I'm _always_ curious to learn new tidbits of information about the wonderful men and women that I meet as a day-to-day function of my oh-so _fascinating_ career."

I meet Kurgn's gaze, my eyes twinkling merrily.

He grunts. The flak pistol vanishes into his garment.

"Come along, Vassa." Says Kurgn.

Vassa does not instantly respond.

"Our... apologies, Effendi." Says Vassa, after a moment.

"No bother!" I say. "Thank _you_."

"Vassa." Says Kurgn.

Vassa mutters something that may or may not be the word "coming", and scurries off after the already-departing Kurgn. Their footsteps begin when they reach the soft carpeting of the access corridor, and, promptly thereafter, vanish.

I hold my last posture for a slow count of ten.

Then I slump weakly to the nonexistent floor.

I am fully lax only for a split second, after which I go through the effort of curling into a fetal ball. My hand, nerveless and insentiate, flails at the adrenal controls on the biostat, and the icewater sensation fades, leaving me whimpering and coughing.

(One hundred percent.) Says Beak, with a note of finality, and the wholly-imaginary blast pistol flickers out of being. (Well, that tears it, Cis. We're vidless until I can make repairs. I suggest porting to a Tranali-friendly 'verse and shacking up for a little while. You look like hell.)

"...why me, Beak." I murmur. "Why is it me. The only reason I'm even _conscious_ right now is that I'm still on a lingering high from this damn biostat. 'M not cut out for this, Beaker, I'm just _not_."

(You've got the technology, Cis. You're the only one you trust with it. Remember?)

"It's just too damn hard, Beak." I say, swallowing back my sobs. "You try to do something nice for somebody, and look what happens! Twenty years from now, Nariib _would_ have been a lifeless mass of black ore-waste. _Now_, they've got a whole lifetime's worth of natural resources that they never would have had. The people will be healthier, better-fed, more viable... but that's not _enough_ for them, no, they want their godsdamned frosting as well! Virtue damn them all, Beak, this all started because I wanted to _help_ people!"

(And to screw over the Matrix Council.) Says Beaker, idly. (On a wholly personal matter, I might add.)

I growl.

(_And_, you'll be making a healthy profit on those Djelian Ffrift-berries that Kurgn gave you, once you port them back to the markets on Narn Twelve. If I'm not mistaken.)

"I have to eat, Beak."

(And buy more hardware toys for your Omnimech.)

"Necessary expenses."

(Mm hm.)

I sigh, faintly, to myself, and raise myself back up on two feet. "Beak," I say, "let's not start that discussion all over again. Not here, not now. I need a break. Got any suggestions for a secure 'verse without too much M.D.F. activity where I could get an hour of shuteye, maybe a quick bite, before porting to Narn Twelve?"

(Calculating.) States Beak, just barely hiding his disdain. (Done. Closest match to given criteria is 333-490-928 ALD. Aldhuizen, I think.)

"Fine. Anything."

(Twenty seconds to portal generation. Hang on.)

Beaker lapses into silence. Leaving me alone, hanging suspended in the infinity of the cosmos.

Djela lies sedately before me. In all the worlds that there are to travel, it is likely that I will never see her again. So many universes, so short a life.

And there is another pain in my heart. It happens, every time. I long, _long_ for the pure, quiet, unblemished view that I once held of her. Two of her citizens, the only two to whom I will ever probably speak, have very nearly taken my life away from me. I will never erase those memories, and from here until eternity, I will ever associate my own fear, my own pain, my own weakness, shame, and deception, with her beautiful face.

Best to start anew.

Yes. Start afresh. A new world. A new face to greet.

The old hymn rises, unbidden, to my lips.

"I will not cease... from mental fight..."

A deep breath.

"Nor shall my sword... sleep in my hand..."

My voice grows stronger, and steadier, and I imagine other voices joining me in chorus. More voices, more living people from throughout the Multiverse, every soul who has rested discontent under the tyrannical oppression of the Matrix Council, raising their voices, with me, in song.

"Till we have built... Jerusalem...

"In England's green and pleasant land."

My hymn dies to the silence of the stars.

(Very pretty, Cicero. Portal's here.)

Behind me, bathing me in blue-white light, is the indistinct and flickering form of an inter'verse portal. I turn to face it, and raise my arms in exultation to its glow.

It flickers out.

(Damn! Just a second.)

Without displacing my smile for a moment, I take the Omnimech unit, and, walking to one of the black walls, deliver it a sharp smack. There is a quick noise as of frying bacon, the relay lights flicker, and the blue portal winks back on.

(HEY!) Comes the petulant voice of Beaker. (Watch it!)

"Worked, didn't it?" I murmur, softly.

(Just watch it.) He says, unmollified.

I turn back to my spent mistress, Djela. Another performance, another one-night-stand.

"Adieu, sweet one." I say. "You've been a lovely audience." Then, raising my voice to accommodate an entire auditorium full of fascinated onlookers, I speak in oratorial tones. "And now! Ladies and Gentlemen! For the Grande Finale, for my final and most spectacular trick of the evening... I will make _everything_... ABSOLUTELY _EVERYTHING_..."

I lower my voice to a stage whisper.


The mad laugh begins in my throat and ends in the blue-white luminescence of the inter'verse portal.

The blue-white luminescence winks out.

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