Being late yet again was bad enough, but the fact he was late for a job he hated actually made his annoyance worse.
Well, hated might have been too strong a word. Data entry was way better in every way than retail or teaching, but Fahad had graduated first class from University College London. Even then, all he had to show for his Art History degree was a job that barely paid a wage he could live on and had him living in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall. The worst part of it all was that it vindicated his dad who almost disowned him for not studying to become an engineer or a lawyer.
“Do you even know what a green light is for?!”, he shouted in vain at the Range Rover in front of him.
As he quickly made the left turn that should have taken him toward his office, instead of getting on the side road that led to his office, he had the sensation of driving through a dark tunnel or a covered bridge. He no longer saw the terraced houses and office buildings that should have been on both sides of the road. Instead on one side was a dark forest and a palace that looked straight out of a Victorian period drama. And he was no longer driving his beat-up car, but riding in a stage coach being driven by a man he had never met before.
Wait. Never met before? No, no, that wasn’t right. His name was Dena Mezabir and he had been his driver for years.
The carriage pulled up to a wide, massive, oak doorway guarded by two men in ornate blue uniforms who held a rifle. It all felt…wrong, even though his daily routine had gone without a hitch today. The guards both gave a respectful bow before one of them barked out an order. The gate opened slowly and Fahad walked through reluctantly, unable to shake the feeling something was wrong.
The interior of the palace smelt of stale incense. Large portraits of aristocrats and city and landscapes greeted him from the walls. An elderly man in a gray coat twice his size and a meticulously decorated wig greeted him.
“Late as usual, I see,” the man said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Fahad said, feeling as if in a dream.
The old man looked started. “Sorry? I never thought I’d hear that from you.”
The man looked as confused as Fahad felt. “I mean, you’re the curator, after all, and I’m just a lowly gallery attendant, as you’ve seen fit to remind me on occasion.”
What on earth was this guy talking about? There had to have been some kind of error. He was Fahad Qazi, born and raised in the borough of Waltham Forest, working for…
Wait. How could be so silly? “Fahad Qazi” sounds like some character from a fairy tale or a penny dreadful. Where could he have picked it up from? His real name was Lev na Zalenlan. How could he forget it? Maybe he went on way too much of a bender last night or something.
“Right,” Lev said, feeling sure for the first time since the morning started. “I guess we better get started cataloging the Grand Duke’s newest acquisitions.”
Sans Pareil muttered out the words on the print out as the blue lights on the machine in front of him beeped to life. The device, which had no official name as far as Sans Pareil was aware, looked like the offspring of a desktop computer and an ancient relic dug up from a temple hidden in a desert or a jungle somewhere. The computer’s tower and a propped up black scrying mirror were intertwined by electric wires and metallic frames with four small stone tablets covered with elaborate geometric symbols. If set up properly, it could form a communications channel into almost any neighboring dimensions and alternate timelines, and supposedly it only took Dr. Bilatz an afternoon to whip this miraculous device up. Still, Sans Pareil had a distaste for magic, even if it was inexorably rigged up to technology.
An image of a dark-haired, almond-eyed woman gradually unraveled on the mirror. Except for an occasional crinkle in the image like on an old VHS tape, it was almost crystal clear despite crossing unfathomable cosmic voids. She was dressed in decorated, emerald-colored robes with silver tinges and wore a sort of cone-shaped crown on her head and sat on a throne with armrests in the form of lions. Even though Sans Pareil was not much good at talking with heads of state, Athena insisted that he be the one to speak to Amar’s sister, Sirtis. Apparently, the woman had a crush on him since the first time they met on the streets of San Francisco, a young college student whose knowledge of her true life had been stolen by her vengeful brother. Whatever her feelings for him, the fact that she was in her full royal regalia did not bode well. Still, she gave a friendly smile once his face came into view.
“It is so good to see you again, Nasir.” She never forgot his invitation to call him by his civilian name even though it had been years since he and the Final Guard had saved her from her brother’s schemes.
“And to you, Ersu Sirtis. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting.”
“Well, when I received the message that it involved my brother, how could I refuse?” She paused. Sans Pareil had no idea how to interpret her expression, which almost looked pained. “Has he finally succeeded in a way to put me or my mother in danger again?”
“No, not in the slightest. In fact…” Sans Pareil stopped, cursing himself for forgetting the script he rehearsed in the morning. “I’ll just lay it out there. A week ago, we apprehended the Exi— I mean, Amar. Our investigators concluded that he was just trying to live a normal life, a civilian life at the time of his arrest. But apparently the experience pushed him too far.”
The friendliness that radiated even across the inter-dimensional void now gave way to a coldness. “What do you mean?”
“Your brother tried to take his life while in our custody.”
Sans Pareil saw shock and concern on her face, but the emotions were banished almost as soon as he could interpret them. “You could have simply conveyed this information in a written letter.”
As he often did in battles with threats on a cosmic scale, Sans Pareil decided to launch himself like a torpedo straight into the heart of the matter. “I know it would not be easy to even consider. He treated you and your mother horrifically and caused a civil war among your people. But we are not as well-equipped to keep a person with telepathic gifts confined as your government is. And besides his mental state, I really do believe he was finally trying to reform. It’s been over half a decade. Surely the political situation has—.”
“As a matter of fact, many of the wounds he inflicted are still as fresh as if they were made yesterday,” she said, her voice unraised but definitely chilled.
Sans Pareil sighed. “I know.”
“Besides, my brother’s exile was affected through a sentence formally decided by the Grand Council. It is not within my legal power to offer amnesty, even for a member of the royal family.”
Even though he already knew the answer, Sans Pareil still asked, “Would you consider requesting that?”
“Maybe in another half a decade,” she said. “If that’s all, Nasir…”
“Yes. We will be in touch again about his condition. Physically, he’s healthy now, but mentally…”
She looked away for a brief second, and when she looked in his eyes again some of her former friendliness had returned. “Please do. He is still—well, we are sorry for what we have burdened you with, especially after all you and the Final Guard have selflessly and without gain done for me and my people. I will be happy to send you telepathic advisors to assist with his confinement, should the need arise.”
“We appreciate that, Ersu. May the star of Ishtar guide you in all things.”
“Same to you. Farewell, Nasir.” With that, the image dispersed as if a reflection in a pond had been hit by a stone.
“That went about as well as I feared,” Jon said from the doorway.
“How much did you hear?”
“Just the definite no.”
“To be honest, I was expecting worse. How is Amar doing?” Sans Pareil found, by this point, he could safely assume that Jon would know about Amar’s condition before anyone else.
“He’s fine, although sometimes I worry it’s just a front,” Jon said. “The therapist you guys got for him, though, is pretty sure—”
“Wait, his therapist is giving you updates directly?”
Sans Pareil tried and failed to hide his amusement. “It’s nothing.”
A few days later
As always, Jon was in costume (since, even in his state, the regulation that visitors to Amar have some kind of psychic defense in place was never lifted) when going to Amar in his cell. Halfway down the corridor, he started hearing Sans Pareil arguing. Sans Pareil never, as far as Jon could remember, yelled or shouted, but there was a certain stern tone that was a sure tell whenever he was annoyed.
As he neared the door, he made out the other voice. It belonged to Josephine Manners, the Director of the United Nations Commission on Paranormal, Extraterrestrial, and Superhuman Affairs. As Jon walked in, she was standing fearlessly before the most physically powerful human being on Earth. Despite being in her own right a person who arguably wielded more power than even the President of the United States, she was content just wearing a jean jacket and a low-cut black shirt. Her round gold earrings jangled as she argued.
“Stop making it sound like we have a choice here, ‘cause we don’t,” she growled. Before Jon could say anything, she whirled in his direction. “Why don’t you ask – Jon, Mantra, right? – about it since he seems to be the only one who actually seems to have Amar’s back.”
“That’s not fair,” Sans Pareil said, more to himself than Josephine. As for Amar, he was sitting at his table, watching the whole scene expressionlessly.
“What’s going on?” Jon asked.
“Basically? We have a reality warp of psychic nature that’s off all of our charts and Sans Pareil is trying to stop me from even asking the one person who might have a chance of stopping it to help.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Telepaths are rare, and the ones we do have are all basically glorified amateurs…except for your prisoner right here.” Jon caught Amar letting a little smile slip out at that.
“Wait. There’s a full-blown reality warp out there? Why hasn’t there been a red alert yet?”
Sans Pareil sighed at that. “Because we don’t even know how to slow it down, and we don’t want anyone on the team or in the reserves to run in half-cocked until we know exactly what we’re up against.”
Josephine rolled her eyes. “He says that, but we’ve already sent in drones and have had scientific and psychic observers at the edges of the crisis zone. We’ve already learned as much as we can and the *($& thing has already eaten up most of Cornwall. At the rate it’s going, we’re going to have to evacuate all 14 million people in the London metro area by next week.”
Jon was a little stunned. “But Amar just—“.
“I know. And I am sorry. You’ve got to understand that I don’t like having to do this, but from what we can tell, this thing basically just rewrites people’s entire memories, even their whole personalities. Even the machines we send into it just get…absorbed. A trained and experienced telepath is the only card we got to play.”
“But you don’t even know if he’d still be able to resist the effects of the reality warp!”
Josephine shrugged. “You got a better idea, I’d love to hear it.”
Amar finally spoke. “If I do this, I really do get amnesty.”
Josephine turned to him along with Sans Pareil. “Along with saving your own ass, yeah. The paperwork is already drawn up, provided, of course, you don’t exploit the crisis to stab us in the back.”
“Or die,” Amar added.
“You don’t…” Sans Pareil started, but trailed off.
“Actually, I think I do,” Jon wasn’t sure, but Amar seemed to look straight at him for a second as he said it. “What else have I got to lose?”
Jon felt a pang of worry. “I know you guys are going to brief him and everything, but…have you gotten any clue about the nature of the warp?”
“Well, that’s the thing that’s even weirder than a reality warp popping up in Cornwall itself. It’s bending the environment and all living beings who get caught in it to match up with that old steampunk fantasy series, Legend of the Steam Cities, out of all things. Personally, I would have preferred an Elric of Melniboné-themed reality warp, but hey, nobody asks me about these things.”
“Yeah? You know about it?”
“I’m a huge fan. I even played that adventure game based on it that Sierra made in 1996 that everyone seems to have forgotten about. And the two Sega Genesis RPGs.”
Part of him wanted to just leave it there or at least offer to coach Amar on trivia about the Legend of the Steam Cities world. Instead he blurted out, “Let me go with him.”
For a moment, Sans Pareil looked like he might actually shout at him. “Absolutely not.”
Josephine just looked at him curiously. “Why? Just because you’re some big R.E. Mann nerd?”
“Well, I mean, that could help. But also the gem might protect me from the warp’s effects.”
Sans Pareil looked thoughtful for a second. “What about your situation with the British government?”
Jon hadn’t thought about that, but Josephine without hesitation answered for him, “I can handle that.”
Josephine then turned to Sans Pareil, almost daringly. “I don’t know exactly how you capes do it, but when faced with unknown and potentially hostile territory, the Commission always sends in at least two agents.”
There was a hefty pause before Sans Pareil spoke again, clearly pained by his own words. “Alright. Go ahead and send them both in.”
(We’ll be back after the holidays! Thanks for reading!)