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Focus

Something was wrong with this place. I knew it the moment I arrived. After so many years on this job I can smell wrongness. And in most cases I also knew what was wrong. But this was different. I only had the clear knowledge of wrongness, with an intensity that bordered on panic. And not the slightest inkling of an idea why.

But of course, as usual, there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t have done anything if I had known what it was, either, so maybe it was even better this way. Yet, the uncertainty increased the apprehension, and so it was with great reluctance that I began my day’s work. As I unwrapped the cart I took a closer look around. In this line of work it doesn’t do to pay too close attention to your wares and I had made that into a habit a long time ago. Not just like that, of course. Like almost everybody I know in the business I had to get burnt first before appreciating the dangers of fire on a visceral level. It was a close call back then but I made it through. They kept me on the special ward for only the shortest time before letting me resume my duties. Fully graduated they call it. There is no other way, I have since learned. You either make it through that phase or not. I did. Guess I was a little lucky.

The street corner was normal enough, even at a closer look. Four to five-story buildings, shops on the ground floors all around, four lane traffic in both roads, side-walks wide enough for decent trade. The vehicles in the street and the general infrastructure indicated your average post-industrial civilization. Internal combustion engines dominated the street, but nothing too smoky or smelly, suggesting a certain awareness of health and environmental issues, while the absence of clean (or driver-muscle-based) locomotion said loud and clear “we know we’re making a mess, but we don’t care enough to do something about it”. Visible smog-level was low, but the air spelled ‘cancer’ and other diseases for most life-forms I was aware of. Anywho, I was only here for a day and after shifting out my body would be put back into its pristine state. One of the perks of this job, I say. Never age more than a day.

Speaking of body, Looking at the locals brought me the shivers. Quite amazing that I’m still this aesthetically sensitive after all these years. But I guess I have to live with it. Can’t have it all. Seeing them teetering precariously on those stubby two legs I didn’t need to remember the other lesson each of us learns the hard way sooner or later: never look at yourself while on the clock. I certainly wouldn’t want to see myself like THAT. Instead I brought up the memory from this morning, looking into the wall-covering bathroom mirror while performing the bodymind cleansing ritual. The right number and configuration of legs, eyes, and decently covered by hair, the overall beauty rounded off by a nice brown-black color.

Sorry, I’m getting carried away sometimes with my own appearance. Some people say I am rather easy on the eye. Others say I’m a little too fond of that fact. Well, not my call, either way. But I should return to the story.

The shops around the intersection I was working that day seemed to be selling clothes (the locals had at least enough decency to cover some of that terrible nakedness with fabrics). Predominantly, with some rather pricy-looking shops thrown in that sold accessories of some kind or other. Or something. If you get to see each world for only one day you don’t pay too much attention to specifics like that. But you learn pretty quickly to spot the tell-tale signs of wealth that is connected with power in most places I’ve seen. And this place was going out of it’s way demonstrating that only the rich and powerful need to even think about buying anything. The old saying comes to mind, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” Although I prefer the version, “if you have to ask the price, you’ve had too much grun-hgt’srh.” Question of attitude if you know what I mean.

The setting was plain enough, and trade would be good, I could feel that. But the wrongness of the place still didn’t reveal its cause. Neither the locals nor their technology were advanced enough to cause any problems, and there was no indication whatsoever that anything was not what it appeared to be. Well, the dispatchers do make mistakes, but obvious errors like that were a thing of the deep past, so I didn’t really expect anything so simple to be at the root of my unease.

By the time the cart’s covers had disappeared into the false bottom of the thing I was familiar enough with the place to be able to relax a little bit. The morning’s shoppers had yet to show up in significant numbers and I decided to let the cart take care of itself for a little while (it was actually much more able to do that than I ever would be, but somehow management seems to believe that live sales staff is better for the trade, and they certainly won’t hear any arguments from me about that).

Walking slowly around the corner, out of sight from my cart, I found a place where the locals gathered to feed. In public, imagine that! I turned away quickly before the urge to lose my (decently, privately ingested, mind you) breakfast could cause my current body to misbehave, and made my way back to the cart, any impulse to explore thoroughly wiped from my system.

And that’s when I saw it. This abomination the locals have made of their moon. Hanging right there, between the buildings right at the end of the street as if it were getting ready to land there. The recognition hit me like a freight train. And on its heels came the second recognition: I knew what was wrong with this place.

I wasn’t here for the first time. The wrongness was simple familiarity. Not close familiarity mind you, but enough to frighten me when I arrived. And enough to scare me almost shitless now as I recognized it for what it was. Not strangeness but familiarity had thrown me off balance when I came in. You may not know that, but we never, NEVER, N.E.V.E.R, N-E-V-E-R!, ever visit the same place twice. And that wasn’t just some quirky management policy like the live sales staff, it was essential to our trade. We’re not so big in customer service, you know. No warranties, money-back guaranties, returns, or anything like that. And no-one gets seconds. Customer loyalty is a contradiction in terms in our line of business.

When I rounded the corner again still fighting my panic I saw one of the locals standing at the cart, its back to me, but the body language clearly giving away its agitation. I activated my best ‘we only want the best for our customers’ attitude (or was it ‘from our customers’? I seem to never be able to quite remember that), and approached the bi-ped confidently.

Instead of clearing my voice and risking to startle the creature I walked around it and the cart, giving them a wide enough berth to not appear having snuck up on it. Turning to face her (passing by I had seen out of the corner of my eyes the unmistakable signs of a mammal female) I opened my mouth to say something but then stopped dead.

Here I was, face-to-face with a previous customer, in a place that should never ever have seen any of us again, let alone me myself. Someone had screwed up in dispatch, and if I got out of here alive there would be hell to pay. Unfortunately I was only too well aware that that was a big if. But my anger at this major fuck-up actually helped me overcome the panic that might have swept me away otherwise. I would go back home and raise hell, or die trying.

“Ah, excuse me,” the woman began, some emotion vibrating in her voice, my translation software not fully online enough to make it understandable yet, “I’ve bought this here yesterday…”

With that she pulled something out of her purse, and I had to mentally scramble not to focus on it too hard, instead gazing just a few hairs past her right outer hearing organ.

But of course it wouldn’t be that simple. Noticing my lack of specific focus she waved the thing in my face as she continued with her complaint. I couldn’t look away without aggravating her more, and I definitely couldn’t look at the merchandise too closely. So I unfocused my eyes, at the same time doing my best to ignore her yammering.

Making acknowledging noises that I hoped would help calm her down, I took the item from her and replaced it with one from the cart trusting the system still to work well enough to make sure it would look similar enough to the supposedly defective unit.

“There, ma’am, this one should work,“ I said when she paused for breath, “please accept my apologies for your inconvenience.”

With that I turned away from her, smiling, affecting a friendly dismissal, and lucky me, she actually shut up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that she put the new unit into her bag and turned to go, head held high, a battle with customer abuse clearly won.

Good for her.

Having resolved the situation without too much trouble should have put me on ease but as I watched her disappear into the thickening crowd of shoppers I couldn’t completely shake off the growing feeling of foreboding.

Shaking my head trying to dislodge the unpleasant cognitive dissonance I turned back to my cart.

“How much for this?” A young man asked, turning over one of the units in his hands, obviously and strongly attracted.

I quoted the price, which on our side was as always purely symbolic, and he said, “how much if I take three?”

I put on stern smile #3 and pointed pointedly to the sign above the merchandise that said in the local lingo, “One unit per customer, no exceptions. Thank you.”

He looked at me and turned his head, clearly thinking he might be able to trick us. Waving to two passers-by he said, “excuse me, would you mind helping me for a moment?”

They hesitated, looked past him taking in the cart and yours, truly, and lowered their heads, continuing on their way, pace picked up a little, embarrassed.

“Suppose these two would have bought together with me, what discount would we have gotten?”

“Sir, they haven’t even stopped to look, why would you assume they might actually buy?”

“Just suppose…”

“You know what, you’re the first customer, I give you 30% discount on the unit you’re interested in. How about that? I really can’t make an exception from the one-unit-per-customer policy, as much as I’d want to make you happy.”

“…”

“And it doesn’t matter how many other people you’d like to give it to, either, I’m afraid” I interrupted him before he could try the next argument.

Even after as many years on this job as I have been I’m still amazed how some customers get really greedy while others won’t even look at the merchandise. They’ve tried to explain it during training, of course, something about causes and conditions, but to me it sounded just like so much noise.

Still, can’t deny it works.

“Here you are, sir, and here is your change,” I gave him the packaged unit in the nice baggies we’re obliged to hand them out in, and affected as strongly a dismissal as I knew how. Things were warming up, apparently, as he left without further comment.

“Ah, there you are,” an elderly gentleman beamed at me from a few meters away as he approached the cart at speed. Knowing what was coming I steeled myself. “I’m so glad you’re still here. I bought one of these yesterday, and would very much like to buy more…”

Stern smile #3 re-applied, finger pointing at the sign. Hoping.

But no dice.

“Alright, I’ll have only one, then,” he said and smiled smugly.

“Awfully sorry, my good sir, this is unfortunately not open to negotiation or interpretation,” I tried, knowing full well that he wouldn’t give up that easily.

“Excuse me,” a short man in an expensive suit interrupted, cutting in from the side. “Why do you even bother? They don’t work. I know my rights. I want a full refund. And I’m reserving the right to sue for damages, too, fraudulent…”

He waved grandly and I saw he hadn’t come alone.

“Can I see your papers, please, sir?,” a uniformed giant asked with a voice so low I felt it rumble in my stomach almost as much as I heard it. Neat trick. Just like the big member of the constabulary standing behind the small complainant made for an impressive picture.

I shrugged and pulled the paperwork from its place in the cart. If dispatch had messed that up like they had the location, things might get interesting.

Splitting my attention between the glowing fan who wanted more and whom I couldn’t satisfy and the equally but opposedly glowing detractor, whom of course I could even though I shouldn’t, I kept a metaphoric eye on the constable perusing the paperwork.

“Now, about my today’s purchase,” the fan said, and I could hear the emphasis on the time, “is it still the same price as yesterday?”

“I am really terribly sorry, sir, there is no time limit on the restriction. Even if you had purchased ten years ago, I couldn’t sell you another one. There’s really nothing I can do, I’m afraid.”

Moving fluently from excited to agitated he joined the small angry man and the huge authority figure, looking to the latter to maybe support his right to buy and state my lawful obligation to sell, but the giant was still busy going through the papers.

Two new customers stepped up to the cart on my other side and I was able to complete their transactions while the troubled trio was still busy figuring out what to do next. At least I hadn’t come here only for unpleasantness.

“The papers are in order,” the giant rumbled with what I thought was reluctance and a little bit of respect. The translator unit was finally getting up to speed it seemed. “The one-unit-per-customer policy is reflected here properly, as well as the no-returns policy displayed here.”

He pointed at the sign saying exactly that, right next to the one previously discussed, “All purchases are final. No returns, no refunds, no exchanges, no exceptions. Have a good day.”

“While I can’t take the unit back or exchange it for another one, I am authorized to offer you this voucher for your purchase’s worth of pet supplies at our partners’ outlets…”

“I don’t want no fucking dog-food,” the little man screamed, face tomato red, and turned to the constable. “Arrest him, impound his cart, do something…”

The giant slowly turned to him and shook his head. “Sadly, there’s not much I can do here, as much as I sympathize with your troubles, sir. The papers are in order, and by making your purchase yesterday you agreed to the implicit contract. He isn’t even obliged to offer you the voucher, sir. If I were you I’d calm down, take the voucher or not, and leave things be.”

“Or else, what? You’ll arrest me? I know my rights, you have to arrest him. I’ll sue his company to kingdom come.” And added with a poor attempt at sly, “Besides, I play golf with the chief, and I’m sure you value your career…”

The constable was visibly taken aback by the threat. He straightened up standing almost twice as tall as the small man as he did so. His face went hard. Looking at the small guy with what if he were one of us I’d say was a passable glare #5, and said, “You may want to tread very carefully now, sir, or you won’t be playing any golf with anyone for a while.”

“Maybe I could buy your unit, since this so-called merchant isn’t selling me one today,” the former fan cut in, somewhat defusing the situation.

As far as I was aware there was no actual danger in customers swapping or passing on their units, but normally it shouldn’t occur to either party to even want something like that. Just like the two passers-by earlier had not been able to raise even the slightest interest in my merchandise, so should this kind of thing not happen.

This was as unprecedented as my being here for the second time, apparently in as many days local time. The unease I had felt when the previous complainant had walked off with her replacement unit, went up a notch as I watched them go through their negotiations while the constable looked on thoughtfully.

“Have a care, now, sir,” he said to me as he turned away. “Your business is in order but if your activities disrupt my peace I’ll have words with you. And you won’t want that.”

I nodded and smiled, still watching the two customers as they finalized their deal, apprehension rising.

Something wasn’t right. And it was getting worse. If I only had a way to abort the day’s trading and return to dispatch, but that’s not how it works. I had to tough it out hoping the day and my shift would end before things went completely out of control.

The minutes crept past, accreting first one hour, then two. The local day at this time of year was long, and with the feeling of unease growing with every attempt at returning a previous purchase or, worse in some cases, getting more, time seemed to be slowing up instead of running faster as would usually be the case with a progressing day.

Lunch hour was the busiest as all around offices emptied of worker bees and word apparently had gotten around that I was here. But one by one I fielded the impossible requests and sold record numbers, beginning to wonder whether the stock would even last until shift’s end.

When the crowds began to thin, work in the offices resuming, the hour too hot for leisure strollers, I dared breathe a sigh of relief, allowed myself some hope that things wouldn’t spin out of control after all.

And of course that’s when they did.

“Dhisje, hirh-hhd.”

I almost jumped out of my disguise. Might have, if it hadn’t been my own flesh, really.

“There, that’s better,” the apparition added as I spun around to face it, my translation system catching up with itself.

“What,” I spluttered, swallowing a curse directed both at the intruder and my own jumpy nerves and eloquence.

“No worries, you’re the only one seeing through my mask,” he smirked as I frantically looked around for first signs of panic, “and we’ll fix that momentarily, I think.”

As I looked on, still trying to process what I’d just seen and heard, the nightmarish apparition morphed into an almost ordinary-looking specimen of the local sapients, just like the language had shifted to one I could comprehend a moment earlier.

“Who,” I began, but immediately lost track of my own words as the memory of what I had seen and heard became whispy and ethereal and soon lost any substance at all. I blinked, feeling slightly dazed.

“Are you alright, son,” the man standing in front of me said. He was dressed in what the locals apparently considered business attire and held out one of those little cardboard rectangles they use for introductions.

“I’m OK,” I responded, catching myself. “Maybe too much sun or too little water.” To give me a moment to recover I picked up a drinking bottle from within the cart and took a long slow sip. Yes, that was better. What was all this, really.

“Tuor Aminta Palomer the third,” the man said as I took the card from him, “I’ve heard a lot about your remarkable and unique products and would very much like to explore possibilities of mutually beneficial business relations with your organization.”

This was wrong. Totally wrong. Wronger than wrong. The carts and products were designed to attract beings, of course, but only ever in a narrow, self-centered way. The one-item-per-customer policy wasn’t just a matter of scarcity marketing.

Maybe this had to do with my being back here again, which was also wrong.

Or was it another aspect of whatever it was that had been bothering me more and more the whole day already?

“How did you hear about us, sir?” I asked, more to gain some time to think than for the actual information.

“Why, your products have received rave reviews all over, no false modesty. It’s only a matter of time before you go franchise, you know. Thought I’d come in early, get in on the ground floor, kind of thing. Big, big things coming, I’m sure. And with our expertise in marketing and developing this kind of thing, why, it’s going to be stellar.”

“Thank you for your offer. Im sure you’ll understand that I have to discuss this with central, sir. If they are interested, someone will be in touch,” I said, stern dismissal smile #4 generously applied, as I pocketed his card and turned back to my cart.

After fussing over the display for a few moments I surreptitiously checked and found the guy was still standing there, grinning, and tapping a foot. Lightly.

“OK,” I said slightly exasperated, turning around to him, “what else can I do for you?”

“You could sell me one of those, couldn’t you?”

“I suppose I could, seeing as that’s what I’m here for.”

I reached behind myself and picked up one of the few remaining display units, handing it to him, trying hard to keep my face on neutral half-smile #2.

“Are you sure these are the genuine items?,” he asked, turning it over in his hands and squinting at it from all sides, looking first straight and then out of the corner of his eyes, then passing it quickly and very closely in front of his nose, making me fear he might knock himself out.

“I just sell them, sir, but I have no reason to believe they aren’t,” I said, getting more nervous again, the earlier unease back in force. “Central packs the cart, I pick it up, that’s all.”

“Noticed nothing out of the ordinary today, then,” he said, half asking, half accusing.

“I’m not sure I follow, sir,” I tried to stall, “would you like to purchase or not?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. “Some material evidence won’t hurt.”

“Evidence? Listen, Mr., ah, Palomer,” I said, finally growing too impatient to keep up appearances, but he interrupted me.

“Mr. Palomer was my grandfather, call me Tuor, but yes, evidence.”

“What are you playing at, Tuor? You haven’t even gotten the deal yet you came for, and you’re talking about collecting evidence?”

“Alright, I’ll level with you. First of all, you can’t have failed to notice that you’re here the second day in a row. And that’s not just out of the ordinary, as far as I am aware, that’s utterly unheard of. Impossible, even. But here you are. So, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed anything. Even if it wasn’t yesterday on your own timeline, you shouldn’t be here.”

By now I had my arms crossed over my chest and was giving him something that might once be called puzzled stare #1 if it ever makes it into the facial expressions library. Which I very much doubt, of course. it’s not conducive to soliciting trust and business, believe me, I’ve since checked in the mirror.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, jovially, quite apparently enjoying himself. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been trying to catch up with you for ages now. Would still be lagging behind if you hadn’t come back here. Your dispatch people usually really know what they’re about.”

So, he knew about the one-time rule and he knew about dispatch. Whatever this guy was (there was an itch in my memory, something I was missing, but I couldn’t for the life of me scratch it), he was not Mr. Whatever the third.

I decided to go on the offensive.

“What makes you think they might not be the genuine items, Tuor?”

“Let me ask you something,” he said, holding up the item he had been toying with so I had a hard time avoiding to look at it. “What do you see?”

I tried looking away, tried to close my eyes, but it was like the bloody thing was a magnet for my gaze. Steeling myself for the unsanitary side effects I had experienced that one time before as a rookie, I allowed my gaze to briefly touch it. And found that I wasn’t surprised to see it change into what I knew they really looked like. A large, irregularly shaped, smooth crystal, about the size of one of the locals’ fists.

“How are you doing that?” I asked between clenched teeth. “That’s supposed to be impossible.”

“Well, just like you showing up here two local days in a row should be impossible, right?”

“You got me there. But it looks genuine enough to me. Not that I’m an expert, really.”

“Look more closely, follow the colors and the movement. Allow your gaze to settle but keep the focus relaxed.”

I followed his instructions, feeling a little spooked by his apparent knowledge of things I hardly understood. A recently lost memory tried getting unlost again but failed as the inner life of the jewel slowly filled my awareness. And kept filling it until nothing else was left.

His voice brought me back. Startled I blinked and found that he had removed the object from my immediate field of vision, and it had also returned to its local appearance, which once more I knew I shouldn’t look at too closely.

“So, what did you see?”

I shook my head trying to dislodge the cobwebs that seemed to snare my thoughts, jumbling and slowing them.

“We’re not allowed too much time with them,” I said, still trying to rouse myself from the state the jewel had put me in. “As far as I remember it didn’t look much different from the one demonstration I had received when I started the job. Multicolored lights, moving and shifting and changing, and triggering something in the observer’s mind. But…”

“Exactly. But.”

“I remember that gazing at them in their revealed original state creates clarity of mind, a sort of wakefulness that’s almost painful, while the impressions come through loud and clear if you will, leaving you with insights and inspirations and stuff.”

“But that wasn’t what you experienced just now, was it?”

I finally snapped back to the supposed reality of the situation.

“OK, you got me. Something is going on here. But before I go any further discussing this with you, we’ll need to clarify something else. You’re not a local. You know things and can do things the locals can’t possible even be aware of. None of them. Or things would look very different here. So, Tuor, or whatever, kindly come clean and give me a good reason why I should keep talking with you.”

“Not that you have anywhere else to go, or anything else to do,” he said, grinning mischievously.

I looked around and saw that while the pedestrian traffic had picked up again, there was a distinct lack of interest in the cart and its display in every single face I saw. The unease I had experienced earlier sat up and shook itself, realizing it wasn’t alone anymore. It had been joined by a second, and much clearer feeling: fear.

“Enough already. I may not have customers anymore, and I may not be able to leave at will, and I suppose there’s not much I could do about you even if I wanted to, but I could still just shut up instead of cooperating and talking. So, once again, spill it. Please?”

“Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. Either way may not make much difference. But I like you. I think you’re a nice guy despite appearances. And your reaction to my trade deal shows you’re not involved in what’s going on beyond accidentally being here. Explaining is not so easy. And I don’t think we have a lot of time. But let’s go with a metaphor. Your employers are engaged in a long-term project of, for lack of a better word, charity. They are extremely positively motivated. The methods applied, however, are, of necessity sneaky, and thus don’t allow for a lot of, well, lets call it quality control. So the interest your bosses are working for, have in turn contracted my bosses to, as it were, tidy up after you guys, and make sure things are moving in the right direction.

“There’s a certain amount of, ah, animosity, if you will, between our two organizations, even though we work towards the same overall end. Your bosses don’t really like anyone checking up on them, they are too proud by half, if you ask me, and someone looking into what they are doing feels too much like lack of trust, like implicit criticism, you know?

“That’s why we don’t have access to your dispatchers’ plans and schedules, and that’s why it took me way too long to catch up with you.

“And now that I have, as it were, caught up with you, I have been able to confirm something neither of our organizations has been able to plan for. You see, as I’m sure you’re aware, your methods aren’t always above board, being sneaky, and all that. Which creates an opening for those who would rather see a very different outcome from the one we should all be working towards.

“Once the jewels are being used by your customers, it cannot be discerned anymore with any level of certainty whether the newly-emerging qualities are built-in or result from the interaction between jewel and the customers’ mind streams. That’s why I needed to look at one fresh off the boat, if you will. And I have, and I now have the confirmation for my worst fears.

“Someone has meddled with your stock. And I mean not just your stock here on this cart at this time, but with all your output. For quite some time now. And I suspect that your follow-up appearance here, which allowed me to catch up with you, although a good thing on the face of it, is a really bad sign underneath. A sign that whoever is behind this is ready for us finding out. And that scares the living shit out of me.”

I stood speechless with my mouth hanging open as he wound down. The unease about this day finally had a label. And unfortunately that didn’t make it better. At all.

“Then you didn’t cause the fuckup that brought me here for a second time in order to catch up with me?” I finally asked.

“That is as far beyond me as it is beyond you to influence your daily trajectories. Luckily while I can’t divert any of you in transit out, I do have some tricks up my sleeve now that we’re here. With your permission, I think we need to…”

Staring at him, cart and customers forgotten, I nearly jumped out of my skin when he suddenly disappeared in a kind of negative flash. There was a hint of something monstrous that tried to trick a recently lost memory into resurfacing, and then he was gone, replaced for a moment by an imploding absence of light. Along with him this implosion seemed to try to suck the memory of him and of our conversation straight out of my mind. But surprised as I was, this time I was ready and I held on with everything I had. I knew that more than just my life depended on not forgetting everything.

I almost succeeded. And I almost didn’t.

I blinked again at the sudden rush of passers-by approaching the cart, wondering why I thought it was sudden, and only dimly recalling that there was something I needed to remember about my merchandise.

But then there was no time nor space to breathe, let alone remember, as the rest of the day brought a buying frenzy I had never before experienced.

I should have run out of stock after the first hour of it. I knew that I had been running low already before. But every time a customer stepped up to the cart, a unit was there for him to pick up, pay for, and carry off. That felt completely wrong, adding to the unease and pulling at that thin strand of not-quite-memory I just couldn’t get to solidify enough to grasp.

Another thing that didn’t feel right and contributed to the unease that was growing into something physical, something nauseous and migraneous, was the fact that every passer-by who came within a certain range of the cart, swerved and came right at me. I knew that wasn’t right. Our business simply doesn’t work that way. Only a few percent of any given group has the right conditions to be attracted by and make use of our products. But this afternoon they all came, and they all bought. Feverishly so.

But like all good things, the not quite so good things also must come to an end sooner or later. Or something like that. I’m never quite sure. In my line of work “beginning” and “end” are somewhat fluid concepts. And don’t get me started on good and bad.

One thing did happen, though, whether you call it an ending or something else. When the sun had set fully and the light would have gotten that special transitory quality that signifies change if it hadn’t been for electricity and civilization, the shift finally came to an end and as a result the whole damn world shifted around me.

Releasing a breath of relief I hadn’t realized I’d been holding I relaxed and prepared to raise hell with whoever had been responsible in dispatch. Looking down at myself I fully expected to see something much more aesthetically pleasing than the weird hairless ape shape I’d been enduring for a day. Apparently the universe had other plans, though. Instead of nice fur I saw…nothing. Yes, that’s right. Looking up again (not quite stopping to wonder what I was moving and looking with if the absence of a lower body was in any way indicative regarding the upper part) I found that instead of the institutional decoration of transit hall #29 at dispatch, I was surrounded by the same stuff my body had apparently been turned to: nothing.

Amazingly panic didn’t join me in my nothingness. Or maybe it did, but since it was also, ah, nothing, it didn’t make its usual strong impression.

What did join me was a faint outline of something I still didn’t quite remember seeing earlier on that damned planet. Huge, bird-like shape, mean beak, but instead of the mean stare you’d expect to complete that image his eyes were full of mischief. Garuda, I thought. That does explain some of it.

“Hang on, we’re almost there,” Tuor said, and this time my translator picked up his language and did its job right away.

His outline solidified first, followed by my own (yes, all limbs accounted for, fur nice and smooth, thank you ver much), and then finally the surroundings took shape. Not that they were too shapely, mind you, but on a day like this I’d take anything, really.

“This is a safe house,” he said by way of both apology and explanation. “You’re my only witness right now and until I know who is involved I can’t risk your return to dispatch. Your actual return, that is. Since we still need some answers, I’ve taken the liberty of swapping you out for a simulacrum and we’ll both be riding that…hang on.”

“What…,” I began but he shut me up with a gesture. Literally. Now that feels weird, I can tell you.

Then the world shifted again and I was finally back at dispatch, in transit hall #29 as expected, beginning to seriously doubt my sanity. What a weird transit hallucination that had been.

“Welcome back, Hawker #2895,” the lovely voice of my favorite dispatcher came over the speakers, returning me fully to the reality of the situation.

“Feeling lucky I am back,” I shouted, “what the fuck happened with my deployment today? Never go back, my ass.”

There was a tiny pause, but before I could even begin to wonder whether I had been heard, she replied, “Ah, yes, you’re expected for a routine debrief in meeting room twenty-seven A. Please proceed there immediately. And have a nice evening!”

Right, I thought, nice evening. And routine debrief, right, indeed.

“Thanks. But hey, speaking of evening, you free for dinner tonight?” I shouted, knowing full well that she’d hear me but equally as well that she’d never respond.

She didn’t disappoint me and I made my way to the indicated conference room already rehearsing what I’d say first to the desk jockey who’d be debriefing me. Had enough to say about the day for half a dozen debriefings, after all.

Arriving outside the meeting room I stretched my arm towards the contact space that would identify me and grant me access, only to freeze in mid-stride.

“Easy now, fella,” I heard a distinct and by now unpleasantly familiar voice inside my own head. No translation needed anymore as he was now talking mind to mind. Brrr. “This might well be the moment when we learn something.”

“What…” I began, my voice sounding annoyingly shrill with rising panic, but he interrupted me, once more right in there, between my ears, not as would have been proper, on the outside shouting in.

“Exactly. Which part of ‘easy now’ did you not get? We’re both in here, riding the simulacrum, no need to use the body’s vocal infrastructure to communicate with me. Actually not just no need. Definitely don’t. Just think. You’ll get the hang of it, or we’ll both hang.”

“OK,” I furiously thought at him, “what the fuck is going on here?”

“I thought you were faster than that, but I suppose you’ve had a long day full of unpleasant surprises, so I’ll pretend I didn’t hear the question and we can both pretend I didn’t have to explain, OK?

“If you focus your attention as you’ve surely learned in hawker 101 to anchor your mind in the present, you should be able to remember enough to get you started. I’ll take it from there. Let me know when you’re ready.”

Embarrassed that I had to be reminded of something fundamental like that I concentrated as he had suggested and finally most of the fog I hadn’t even noticed filling my mind dissolved and I became aware of my body being in the safe house with the Garuda who had introduced himself as Tuor while we were both ‘riding’ this simulacrum of my body here in dispatch. Together with that, most of my earlier encounter with the weird ‘clean-up’ bird came back in a rush.

“The screwed-with jewels..the return visit…the…”

“I see you’re getting it. Good. About time or we’d attract attention standing out here in the hallway like an action figure of you. Not that anyone would make an action figure of you, of course. Still, better get a move on and be smooth now.”

I completed the movement towards the door guardian mechanism and as smoothly as I could manage feeling as I was two bodies at the same time, followed through as the door recognized me and swooshed open.

Not sure what to expect except that something had to be on given that debriefings weren’t all that common in normal everyday operations here, I wasn’t disappointed to see Qiwiah, the deputy head of dispatch, ensconced behind a meeting table the size of a minor island state, his head barely clearing the mountain range of paper files stacked in front of him. Quaint.

“Ah, number 2895, come on in, have a seat,” he said, setting the tone to jovial, level 3 to 4 if I didn’t miss my mark. “I’m sure you must be tired from attending your CaMoSaDU all day long.”

That’s camouflaged mobile sales and distribution unit of you civilians, yes, they love acronyms here just as much as the next bureaucracy. And, no, my body here did not carry over any of the exhaustion the projected body on the other side might have accumulated during the day. A certain mental weariness, not to mention a lot of stressed-out-ness, especially given that I wasn’t exactly ‘here,’ mind you, but sitting wouldn’t do fuck all about that.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, instead of pointing out the obvious to him. Let him relax into thinking I’m going along easy.

I deliberately chose a seat one quarter around the table, though, not quite at one of the narrow ends, so he had to shift his position to look at me.

“That’s good,” Tuor remarked inside my head, “keep him guessing.”

“Very well,” Qiwiah said, “let me start by expressing our sincere concern about the perceived irregularity in your deployment today. Management has tasked me with highest priority to get to the bottom of this issue, determine whether it hasn’t just been a matter of misperception, and if indeed it was genuine, take whatever action necessary to assure it will remain an isolated and non-repeating incident. Yes.”

He looked at me, having to shift a little in his chair to see past one particularly mountainous pile of papers. I didn’t offer any response, just kept my face at what would have been neutral #2 or thereabouts, and waited.

“Ahem, yes. So. In order to help us clarify the veracity or falseness of the, ah, perception, please report, in your own words, what exactly happened at the beginning of your shift today.”

“I arrived on time, as every morning,” I began, “and checked in with dispatch. After a short wait, apparently there had been quite a queue this morning, due to some of the transit halls being offline for unscheduled maintenance or something, I went to, let me see, yes, transition node #982, and was transferred out. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Some mornings it’s faster, some mornings it takes a little longer. Doesn’t really matter as time isn’t synchronized in the target worlds, anyway. There had been no heads-up, no messages, no special announcements about the merchandise, nothing. A day like any other, really.

“Until, that is, until I materialized on the other side of the transit with my cart.”

“Ah, yes, the other side. That’s what we are interested in, please continue with as much detail as you can remember.”

“The dislocation effect wasn’t very strong as those things go, maybe that was already an effect of the re-visit,” I continued, only to be interrupted by a noise emitting from somewhere underneath the mountain range on the table.

“Ah, yes, please restrict your report to factual observations only at this time. We will be the ones drawing any conclusions. Thank you, continue.”

“Right. So, the dislocation effect was light. Maybe a 2 or 3, not more.”

“I see. Just to clarify, the world you believed you found yourself on was HJER-34-H-76-3, wasn’t it? That’s quite far removed.”

“Indeed, sir. The locals call it something that loosely translates as ‘dirt.’ That’s a few hundred million light years, give or take a parsec or five. Plus, the time displacement was roughly minus 3.21 eons, not to mention the lateral remove. So, quite a distant corner, indeed. And yet, hardly any displacement effects. I remember the previous time, it took me almost half an hour to overcome the effects.”

“Yes, thank you, please stay with this visit. Continue.”

“I supervised the cart’s auto-setup getting under way, and went for a quick look around to see whether I could pinpoint why the place felt weird from the moment I opened mind there.”

“Yes, yes, and?”

“Rounding a street corner I found myself facing something I couldn’t have mistaken for anything else, anywhere in the multiverse, sir. That’s when I knew someone somewhere had screwed up and sent me back to a place I had been to before, a few months ago. Although it turned out that it had been only the previous day, locally.”

“What was it exactly that you saw and that triggered your memory with such intense recognition?”

“Their moon, sir. It was just about to set over the city’s skyline. You’d have recognized it, too.”

“A moon? Millions of planets have moons. What makes you so sure it was the same you had seen before?”

“You’d have to have seen it, sir, but I ensure you, you’d never forget.”

“Is that so? Well, doesn’t sound too conclusive to me. Please continue with your report. What happened after you opened your cart for business?”

He looked down and seemed to be scribbling notes, or maybe he was doodling. I had expected a lot of things, but denying the reality of what had happened was not among them. Interesting.

“Besides business as usual (although the beings were distinctly familiar, which they shouldn’t have been), I had about half a dozen customers who came specifically to either return items they had just bought yesterday, or get more.”

“That is impossible,” he said, dismissively. “You must have misunderstood them. And as for familiarity, just like millions of planets have moons, millions of worlds have near identical human-level sentients who believe they are running things. That’s why our mission is even possible. You should know that after so many years on the front lines.”

“I don’t think this will be going anywhere,” Tuor interrupted in my head before I could vent my reaction out loud. “He’s either involved in what’s going on or just trying to cover his ass. He looks like a prototypical bureaucrat, my money is on the latter. Although, of course, that could be a camouflage. Either way, this is not getting us anything except what we already know, that something is deeply wrong.”

“Seeing how you penetrate things with great wisdom and clarity,” I said out loud, swallowing my original reaction after Tuor’s comment, “I humbly state that there is nothing further to report, sir. Apparently business was indeed as usual, and for some reason I misperceived it as not being so.”

“Indeed, that would very much appear to be the case,” he said, trying but not quite succeeding to hide his smugness with a polite little cough. “You believed to have been sent to HJER-34-H-76-3, whereas in reality it had been HJAR-34-H-76-3, much closer to out location, but quite similar in many ways. The result is clear, the causes apparent. Probably overwork on your part, some sort of exhaustion. Small wonder looking at your performance record. You’ve been burning the candle from both ends for too long. Management appreciates the keen spirit but of course we need to be careful when it starts affecting the quality of the work. You will present yourself at medical on your way out for a thorough checkup to make sure it’s nothing material, and then you’ll take a well-earned paid R&R period of two weeks with an optional extension. Thank you.”

“Sounds like we’re dismissed,” Tuor commented drily. “Thoroughly dismissed. Better get out of here before that changes into detained. That would be awkward.”

I got up, bowed formally, and left, trying hard to relax and not let my agitation show.

“Speaking of awkward,” Tuor continued once I was back out in the hallway. “Medical is a big no-no with the simulacrum, of course. We’d be found out too easily.”

“What to do?”

“How is your relationship with that dispatch girl, really?”

“We’re friendly. Nothing’s ever happened but she’s good…”

“Sounds like you’ll be having a conversation over something edible or potable with her…let’s see…her shift ends in half an hour. Would she be cool if you just happened to run into her on her way out?”

“Maybe. We’ve had after work drinks before. Depends on her mood, I suppose.”

As it turned out I needn’t have worried. I hadn’t been totally upfront with Tuor about my history with her. There had never been much, but not nothing at all. And while that could have gone all sorts of wrong, it surprised both of us to mature into an unlikely friendship. Or so we kept pretending.

“Hey, Da’reeque, you look like your head hasn’t been chewed off completely. Lucky you,” she said, by way of greeting when I managed to make it appear accidental bumping into her just outside the dispatch complex.

“Why, did you expect otherwise, Da’shonda?” My surprise was over-the-top sarcastic and she snorted with suppressed laughter. “Would have been possible to get the blame for the fuckup, though, I suppose. Instead Qiwiah chose to rearrange history and make it into a fatigue-conditioned perception issue instead of a fuckup in dispatch. No offense.”

“None taken. But maybe we should take our gripe elsewhere and temper it with something made from grape?”

“I’m on extended medical leave, paid to boot. I’m game for anything. And I’m buying.”

“Smooth, man, smooth,” Tuor commented offline. “Don’t tell me you’re not interested in her.”

“What, and pursue her with you riding shotgun? I may sometimes be a bit kinky, but I’m not that bent. Forget it.”

I ignored his chuckles and focused instead on keeping up with Da’shonda without getting too close. I had meant what I had told Tuor, but better safe than, ah, sorry.

When we had settled into our favorite corner at The Fountain of Nouth, a small and not too popular watering hole a couple minutes walk from the the office, our drinks in front of us, Da’shonda picked up the conversation without me having to prompt her. Like I said, old friends. Nothing more. Well, nothing much, anyway.

“I knew something had gone wrong the moment you were sent out this morning,” she said. “I tried alerting tech support and supervision. But you know what? They stonewalled me. Sent someone over to check the systems and the logs. Instead of finding confirmation for what I knew had happened, they fiddled with the log files, rebooted everything, and declared my perception a matter of faulty feedback of my console. When I checked again after they were gone, the relevant parts of log files in question turned out to have been cleaned up thoroughly. Not a botchy delete, no, surgical replacement with plausible-looking data that told a completely different story.”

“I see. That’s why you already had a debriefing order waiting when I came back. It had nothing to do with my complaint. Didn’t think it had, of course, but this is interesting, indeed.”

“Well, that’s not all. They didn’t just do their cleanup job and then leave like you would have expected for a normal cover-up. Instead they stuck around, checking and re-checking not just my system but everything. As far as I can tell no other transfer went wrong today. But I’ll eat my dispatch operations manual if it had anything to do with their work. And they were positively spooked.

“After lunch they called me in for routine debrief, too. Yes, laugh all you want. They really called it that. Pretended they wanted to double-check on the event and find out what had happened. But really, they just wanted to rule out it had been me, and then bury it as quick and hard as they could without having to bury me in the process. Actually, I should be grateful. Could have gone much much worse.”

“Damn right. They could have bombed the whole of dispatch, physically or digitally, and blamed it on some obscure outside agency,” Tuor commented offline, and I almost lost my drink.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m absolutely not. Look at the larger picture. Take into account the screwed-with jewels you’ve been peddling. There’s at least two groups at work here, very likely at cross-purposes considering the dispatch fuckup allowed me to catch up with you.”

“Ah,…”

“Before you start, no. that wasn’t us. We’re doing some interesting things every now and then, but this is way too risky. You’ve gotten off with nary a scratch and not even a black eye. This could have gotten a lot worse.”

“Are you OK, Da’reeque?”

Da’shonda looked at me with a mix of worry and upset.

“I’m OK, I just flashed on some of the possibilities for ‘worse’ as you put it. None of them pleasant. I’m really glad it went down as it did so we can sit here and have this drink.”

“Tell me about it. For a moment during that debriefing it felt like things might go sideways but then they just thanked me for my cooperation, assured me that it was a malfunction of instruments rather than the actual dispatch process, and things had been fixed, so everybody should be safe again. Then they bade me a good day and dismissed me.”

“Bring her in,” Tuor said suddenly. “Or at least bring her up to speed. Can’t be sure but my intuition hasn’t failed me too badly. Yet. Recently. Anyway. The situation is weirder than I thought and we need allies. You have been effectively suspended. Going back into the station will be difficult for you. But she is expected to show up for work again tomorrow. And she seems at the same time unimportant and perceptive enough. Bring her up to speed.”

“Listen, there’s something more, something even weirder,” I said but she stopped me with a wave of her hand.

“Really. You don’t say. I know you’ve been sent back to that dirt place, and to just the next day after your previous visit there. That’s a total, unmitigated catastrophe. By rights the whole operation should have ground to a stop, and every single part of the machinery dismantled and examined to find the problem. Instead they just pretended it didn’t happen and went back to business as usual. You tell me there’s something weirder going on? Of course there is.”

“Yes, there is. And apparently has been for a while already.”

I filled her in on the whole thing. Including my encounters with Tuor and his revelation about the jewels. The only thing I didn’t tell her was my not actually being there, but back in the safe house with Tuor.

“Wow, ok, that does explain some things. Most disturbing. How sure are you about the jewels’ corruption?”

“I’ve experienced it. If it hadn’t been for Tuor shoving it in my face I never would have noticed. Our conditioning to not under any circumstances ever look too closely at the merchandise is so universal and strong, I don’t know any hawker who’d find out by themselves.”

“Yes, that’s what makes it so clever, isn’t it. Only rookies would, and whatever symptoms they come back with would not be examined closely but would just be used to imprint that prohibition on them. If they survived it. Very clever indeed.”

“Tuor says this has been going on for quite some time, and with the dispatch system working the way it does that may well mean a rather large footprint throughout the multiverse seeded with the fiddled jewels. Whatever it is they actually do instead of what they’re supposed to do.”

“At this point we can only guess at that, I suppose, or has Tuor offered any insights into that?”

“We hadn’t had a chance to talk about that yet, what with all the other stuff going on.”

“Tuor, this is untenable” I thought furiously at him, “since she doesn’t know about the whole simulacrum thing. Can we resolve that somehow?”

“Yeah, I think we can.”

Before I could phrase a response, Da’shonda looked up at something behind me, anxiety creasing her beautiful face.

“What is it?”

“Someone is…”

“Hey, here you are,” the newcomer interrupted her as he stepped up to the table from behind me, at the same time answering my question. “Introduce me to your friend, will you?”

“Ah, Tuor, meet Da’shonda, a friend and colleague from dispatch. Da’shonda, meet Tuor, the guy I told you about. Come just in time, as if you heard us, huh.”

Of course he promptly ignored that last barb at jumping in without giving me a heads up and having me scramble to connect the dots as I obviously hadn’t seen his latest disguise before.

“Nice to meet you, Da’shonda,” he said, and added, to me, “sorry I was held up, came as quickly as I could. You’ve brought Da’shonda up to speed?”

“Yes, and we’re both curious as to what you and your people have been able to learn about the actual change made to the jewels.”

“We’re still working on that,” Tuor said, as he eased into the booth next to me. “Our best guess is that the effect is a kind of subtle reversal of what the jewels are actually supposed to do. By their very nature they can’t be used for completely different things, and most possible changes would probably have been noticed.”

“Subtle reversal? Their original function is to fulfill wishes and remove obstacles,” I said. “What would be a reversal of that?”

“You’re forgetting that they do that by purifying karmic obscurations and pacifying contrary habits in the user’s mind stream.”

“Sure, sure, and?”

“Well, we’re guessing they’ve been corrupted to instead do the opposite. Introduce more karmic effects instead of reducing them.”

“Oh,” Da’shonda said, summing things up rather comprehensively.

“Oh, indeed.”

“The question is,” I said after a lengthy pause to let this information sink in and ferment a little, “what kind of karmic effect and where does it come from.”

“There may be another important question, if we want to get to the bottom of this,” Tuor added, “why would anyone do something like that and who might they be?”

“Don’t forget the question who caused the mis-placement of your day today,” Da’shonda noted. “Since it helped Tuor find you and finally begin to unravel this, it looks like those may not be the same guys with the same motives.”

“Yeah, we’ve been thinking about this.” Tuor said. “If this was indeed caused by the same people they may be much further along in their plans than we had thought possible.”

“Where do we go from here?” Da’shonda looked back and forth between Tuor an me.

“I can’t go back officially anytime soon. I’m all but suspended.”

“I can, though,” Da’shonda replied. “Actually, I’m expected back by shift start tomorrow. I can look around some more, ask around, too, see if I can turn up anything else.”

“There might be a way…,” Tuor said, trailing off. I cocked an eyebrow at him. But before I could say anything myself or try to say something on the inside, strongly suspecting that Tuor’s presence here was as virtual as my own, he continued, “what the hell, in for a penny as they say. Let’s go, Da’reeque and I have to show you something, Da’shonda, and seeing that we’ve finished our drinks, why don’t we do it now.”

We all got up and left, Da’shonda clearly curious and puzzled, but Tuor leading at a brisk pace, leaving no space for further questions. Even though I knew what to expect if not when exactly to expect it, I was more than a bit startled when the transition came. One step we were just outside the bar, the next step we were back in the safe house. Only this time there were three of us, and of course Tuor was in a very different form.

“What…,” Da’shonda exclaimed. “Watch out there is a…what is this? Where are we? Where is your friend Tuor? What happened?”

“Da’shonda, meet Tuor…again,” I said, pointing out the huge bird-like shape filling half of the considerable space of the safe house. “Tuor, you already know Da’shonda.”

“Apologies, Da’shonda,” Tuor said managing to sound completely unapologetically. “This is a safe house. You are here in your physical form now, just like Da’reeque and I have been the whole time. The space you just vacated is now occupied by a simulacrum, and of course Da’reeque and I were never physically there, so our simulacra are unchanged. All of them are right now on auto-pilot, you and Da’reeque headed back to your respective quarters, mine trailing along with Da’reeque to supposedly crash on his couch or something, in case anyone asks. Of course the simulacra need no sleep.

“In a few hours, i.e., tomorrow over there, we can all ride Da’shonda’s simulacrum to shift start at dispatch and snoop around while we are safe here. As you may have guessed things are getting progressively more dangerous, and this arrangement will allow us much bolder and more immediate action than having only one actual physical presence to continue investigating without direct communications with the rest of us.”

Only that we never made it that far. Sometime that night, if indeed it was night, they came for us.

I remember going to get some sleep in one of the safe house’s bedrooms, regrettably without lovely Da’shonda, having to endure a bit of heckling from Tuor for it.

The next thing I know I am somewhere else, entirely.

Or at least I think it is somewhere else. I have this beautiful jewel hanging on a chain around my neck, and whenever I look into it, whole chunks of my life disappear. Together with stretches of time I can’t name. At least that’s what I think. It’s hard to say, really, I just feel that my life is getting smaller, somehow. Less. I still remember quite clearly from the moment I arrived on Earth that fateful second time until I went to sleep in the safe house. Knowing that the next day we would get to the bottom of this.

And maybe that’s exactly what we did, and that’s why I’m here. Or maybe it’s still going to happen and this is a dream. And a beautiful dream, fueled and made whole by my precious jewel.

Ah, but I’m not alone. Yes, it’s Da’shonda. Did we spend the whole night together after all? Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it. How beautiful she is. How do I know that I had always thought so? She was at the safe house with me, and at the bar before that. Yes, she was at dispatch. But I feel I’ve known her much longer than that. It’s all getting a bit hazy. But too much hassle to worry about it, I think.

“Hey Da’reeque, how you holding up?” She asks and smiles at me. She doesn’t come closer, sadly. But that’s OK, I’m just happy to see her.

“Fee’in’ gu’,” I say, and find that I am almost but not quite surprised that my mouth and tongue don’t seem to work like they used to or I should have expected them to.

“I’m sorry that it turned out to be you, you know,” she says. I am not sure what she means, but she really seems sad. Why should she be sad? She’s here, I’m here, and soon we’ll…there was something we were going to do, wasn’t there?

“The jewel is doing its work, I see. They told me what to expect. I am so so so sorry. Listen, I need to tell you this as long as there’s something left of you in there. It’s not going to change anything, probably, but I have to get it out and once you’re gone there’s no one left…”

“All is fine, Da’shonda,” I say, making an effort to enunciate and am very happy it sounds OK.

“No, it’s not, Da’reeque. But there was no time to change anything. You were the one who had been to that place before and it was the place where the Garuda was investigating. I suppose it could be worse. Ach, who am I kidding.

“There’s not much time left. The jewel…you know, that stuff the Garuda told us about? The modification? Turns out he was the one who had fiddled with them. I hadn’t known that was even possible. This one is tweaked to, ah, reset you. When it is done you will be an empty shell. They say they can’t leave the memory of what happened intact. Have to clean up very carefully. The jewel…”

“You mean this?” I hold up my wonderful treasure. “It seems there is something about this I should remember. But…no, it’s OK, I’m happy now.”

“Yes, you are. And that’s what you’ll remain once the null point hits. Beyond that it’s…no, I need to focus. I need to get this over with before it’s too late.

“They said they needed to trap an interloper. The Garuda had reported that one of their agents had gone rogue. Instead of quality assurance he had apparently decided to sabotage the whole operation. And they couldn’t be having with that. He might unravel everything if he was left running around unchecked. So they had me stand by until they found the right place and time. And when the signal came through it turned out to be you they used. I am so sorry, really.”

“You mean Tuor,” I say, plucking that name from somewhere. “He was with us, in that house, before, wasn’t he? Where is he?”

“That’s what they need to know,” she replies. “He wasn’t there when they sprung the trap. They tell me they can reverse the process you’re going through…mostly. But for that…pllease, Da’reeque, try to remember. Where is he?”

“Where is who?” I am puzzled. Who is she talking about? And who is it that is talking to me? Things are getting really hazy now.

“Stay with me, Da’reeque,” she sounds desperate now. “You can do this. You are the only link.”

Who is this Da’reeque person she’s talking to, I wonder, dreamily, as everything fades to pastel.

And this should have been the end. Or rather, it should have stayed that way. But it didn’t. I didn’t, either, as you’ve probably already guessed.

The next thing I remember (and things are kind of jumbled, as afterwards a lot of memories came back from what I have to surmise was “earlier,” whatever that really means) is another room, simply furnished, and with a window. Which seems like an improvement for some reason. Except for this thing hanging in the middle of the view beyond.

“What am I doing here again?” As first utterings after near-fatal encounters go it’s not necessarily world-class, I’ll give you that. But there I go. So, sue me.

“The last place they’ll be looking for either of you,” a vaguely familiar voice says.

I look around, still somewhat dazed and lost without context or content, and the figure I find standing next to the piece of furniture I’ve apparently been lying on brings the first batch of memory potpourri rushing back.

“Tuor,” I say, putting name to face. “What’s wrong with you?”

I look down at myself and groan. Not again. But then of course his appearance also makes sense.

“You were almost completely gone when I finally got to you,” he says, not explaining much. “You may not recover fully, ever, but at least you’ll still be there to try.”

“Recover?”

“What is this place?” Ah, another voice from the mostly-still-lost past. Looking around I find a stranger, try to match voice to weird Earthling face, to swirling memory, and fail.

“Ah, Da’shonda,” Tuor says, and more pieces fall into place in what passes for my mind these days. “Glad you made it through, too.”

“I can explain,” she says, and there’s panic and pleading in her voice.

“All in due course. And you don’t actually need to explain to me. Da’reeque here is the one you seem to have sold out. And since that is the main cause for my having to rescue and hide you here, I suggest you explain to him, rather than to me. I don’t care much, either way, there is little you can do here no matter where your loyalties really lie.

“Da’reeque, Da’shonda,” Tuor takes a deep breath. “Both your and my organization have been subverted. I’m a refugee and renegade wanted by my own people. Not to mention yours. They will have told Da’shonda here that I’m the bad guy, but if you think on it for a moment, if they were as good as they should and claim to be, would they have had to resort to the kind of nastiness they did? Exposing Da’reeque to a tweaked jewel that would have reduced you to an empty shell had I not intervened. Using Da’shonda to try and extract what you knew about me even as you were losing that knowledge. I think you can answer that for yourself.

“By now I am quite sure that someone has subverted both organizations so they can distribute jewels that, instead of fulfilling wishes and removing obstacles, both benevolent tweaks of karmic processes, will remove whatever (supposedly) positive karma the user may have and then open them to receive and absorb whatever negative karma is sent their way. This sending side I still need to figure out. And I don’t know what I’ll be able to do about it when I do. But what I am fairly certain about is that all the people who picked up one of the tweaked jewels are being converted into some sort of karmic garbage dump allowing whoever is behind this to escape the consequences of whatever they do.”

“Wow, that’s a lot to take in,” I say trying to do just that. “What are we supposed to do about it?”

We,” Tuor says, “are not going to do much of anything. Da’shonda is an unknown factor, and I’ve just brought you here on the even chance you’re as innocent of it all as Da’reeque. The bodies you are now wearing are yours for better or worse. Apologies for the yuck factor. Nothing I could do about it. You should accommodate soon, though. Your original bodies at the prison facility I broke you from are empty shells now. Which should keep the opposition from investigating too closely or following up. The jewel will simply look to have fulfilled its intended function on Da’reeque and then somehow have snared and emptied Da’shonda as well. The simulacra have been taken care of.”

“So they won’t come for us, like, ever?” Da’shonda sounds like she’s not quite able to decide whether that is a good thing or not.

“Well, never is a long time,” Tuor says dismissively. “Even if they do try, and even if they do somehow deduce where and when I have hidden you, they have next to no way of identifying you. Like I said, these bodies are yours now and they have no connection whatsoever to your old ones or the mask Da’reeque has been wearing here on his routine and not so routine visits.”

“So what are we supposed to do now?” I hate how querulous I sound.

“You’re going to have to figure that out on your own, I’m afraid. I need to leave and soon, and I better not come back unless I want to give them something they might be able to follow to you after all. There’s only two scenarios we’ll meet again. If I succeed, as unlikely as that may be, and you can return from this exile.”

“You said ‘two scenarios,’” Da’shonda expresses my thoughts succinctly.

“Well, the other one is too unpleasant to dwell on, really. If things go neither too well nor too poorly, yet certainly poorly enough that I need your help or you need mine, and I’m still able to return. Not sure this is any more likely than the happy ending. So better not dwell on it. I’ll be off chasing dragons, then. Toodledoo.”

“Hang on, you still haven’t told us what we’re supposed to do.”

“Ah, right, and I won’t. But thanks for reminding me, I have something for you that should help. These are the originals. Untweaked. And unused. I’m fairly sure, at least. They should help you along the way once you figure out what to do and where to go from here. I think.”

With that he hands each of us a nondescript object and disappears. And here we are, together at last, even though it is in these disgusting naked-ape bodies. And with Da’shonda maybe on the side of the bad guys. Or Tuor. And jewels that may or may not be the genuine article.

No wonder I had known something was wrong with this place.

EmptyThreads -Easy on Your Inbox

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