“Doug, please. I was expecting a woman, based on your name.” The corners of his eyes crinkled up in a genuine smile; that much, at least, I could still see around his mask. A mask with the old team mascot on it, in point of fact, a cartoon slaveowning plantation owner leaning nonchalantly on a cane, eyes shaded by a massive hat. The mascot looked like he ought to be selling fried chicken, not emblazoned on NCAA merch.

“J. Terry Plummer,” I said, reaching out a gloved hand. “The Terry is for Terrence. I’m sure you can guess what the J is for and why I don’t use it.”

Doug grasped my hand and pumped it vigorously and once. “I have a cousin that does the same. L. Maddie Leslie. She’d be Leslie Leslie otherwise!” A barklike laugh, almost a cough, bubbled up.

He pointed me to a seat, which I took, sinking rapidly into the expensive fabric.

“Now, your email said that you were with the paper,” Doug said, his eyes shining above the cartoon plutocrat. “But I happen to know that you’re also a private investigator, isn’t that so?”

I responded with my own–fake–laugh, but I made sure my eyes crinkled just right. “As the most powerful man on this campus, sir, I shouldn’t be surprised to find you so well informed.”

“It’s all the alumni and the fans,” Doug said. “They’re better than the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.”

“Well, your football fan bureau of investigation is quite right; I’m a private investigator licensed to practice in Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, and a registered member of the Mississippi Private Investigators Association. I’m doing contract work for the newspaper, and I’m sure you can imagine why.”

“Yes, I read about the editor being down with the Chinese virus,” Doug said. “And I imagine they want someone with less of a stake in local politics, am I right? A private investigator isn’t so different from a reporter. Might even be better, since there’s some professional ethics and courtesy there.”

I nodded, eyes artificially crinkled. There was no way for him to know I was po-faced behind my protective Mario mask. “I’m not surprised that you did your homework,” I said. “But I am surprised you agreed to see me.”

“During the Chinese virus, all the unpleasantness in town, and in person to boot?” Doug said. “Look, Terry, I’m going to be honest with you. I want to make two things very clear. First, I have nothing to hide. You’ll find we’re an open book here. And second, we are trying to get back to normal around here. Our mayor still insists on the masks, for now, but before long this old virus will be a dim memory. And what says back to normalcy like giving a press interview in person?”

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Pirates (pronounced pyh·raa·teez) is a physical fitness system developed in the early 17th century by Cap’n Bloodburn. It is practiced worldwide, especially in major shipping lanes, straits, and sea trade routes to the Orient–to say nothing of internet forums, bittorents, and file-sharing hubs. As of 2020, there were thousands of people practicing the discipline regularly with hundreds of experienced instructors.

Pirates developed in the aftermath of the early 17th century physical culture of looting and plundering in order to alleviate ill health. There is, however, only limited evidence to support the use of Pirates to alleviate things like lower back pain. Evidence from studies show that while Pirates improves bank balances, it has not been shown to be an effective treatment for any medical condition, other than evidence that regular Pirates sessions can help muscle conditioning, swordfighting skills, and general gunnery in healthy adults, when compared to doing no exercise.

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For every justice, an injustice
For every step forward, two back
As soon as we think we’ve made progress
The chasm still opens a crack

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“FEDERATE,” Jerry said. “Friends of EDucating Everyone About Their Errors.”

I scribbled that down, making sure to note his inflections. “For the record, you’re quoted in last week’s paper as saying to Dr. Taylor that, quote, ‘he’d better watch himself because mob justice goes both ways.'”

Jerry smiled and nodded enthusiastically, slipping his thumbs into his belt loops. “I am happy to confirm that,” he said. “And, I might add, it seems that my prediction came true.”

I cocked my head. With no mask, Jerry’s face was open for reading, and there was no guile that I could see. He was genuinely tickled pink that Jerome Taylor was dead. “Off the record, now,” I continued, “aren’t you worried that people might associate your clear glee with seeing him gone to…?”

“What, that I killed him?” Jerry leaned to one side and spat on the pavement. “I was happy when they got Saddam Hussein, but I wasn’t anywhere near Iraq. Taylor was hoist by his own petard. You familiar with ‘for whatever one sows, that will he also reap?'”

“Galatians 6:7,” I said.

“Quite so, quite so,” Jerry chuckled. “You a man of faith, Mr. Plummer?”

In fact, I knew that chapter and verse because it always sounded to me like the name of a science fiction film; one finds what little escapes one can in stultifying Baptist Sunday school. “I have faith in a lot of things,” I said. Then, quickly turning the question around: “What do you have faith in, Jerry?”

Jerry seemed to swell visibly at the question. “I have faith in eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. I have faith that, despite all this noise, the town and university won’t turn their backs on their heritage. And I have faith that rabble-rousing outsiders like Taylor will get their just desserts in this life or the next.”

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“Here’s your welcome package,” CJ said, handing me a manila envelope, her eyes inscrutable over her mask, which had a pattern of raised stylized fists on it.

I spilled the contents onto the table, poking at each in turn.

“Press pass from the local paper, dues statement from the Mississippi Private Investigators Association, receipt for a small business license in town, union card, and an employee ID.” CJ lingered over the latter. “If anyone asks, you’re helping Dr. Wander with forensics work, drilling Mayan teeth he imported from the Yucatan to see what kind of corn they ate.”

I gathered all the cards into a little stack in my hands and spread them out like playing cards. “Very useful,” I said. “But I have to ask: of all the strings you pulled to get this, how many were less-legal?”

“As far as you need to know, this is all above-board,” said CJ. “We don’t have many allies here in town, but those we do have are a resourceful bunch.”

I nodded, and folded with my hand of miscellaneous cards, setting them back down. “What kind of support can I expect from the union?”

“We’re more of an aspirational union, Mr. Plummer,” CJ said. “We have no collective bargaining rights in this state, the university administration refuses to acknowledge us, and the townies see us as a bunch of communist agitators from Berkley. Union folks will talk to you or they’ll answer to me, but don’t expect a strike on your behalf or hired goons at your back and call.”

“Clearly not,” I said. “If you had goons, your guy might still be alive.”

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“J. Terry Plummer. I’m a private investigator licensed to practice in Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, and a registered member of the Mississippi Private Investigators Association.”

“Uh-huh.” Her eyes flicked to my credentials, and then back up at me. “None of those states have any PI licenses at the state level.”

“And the MPIA is a Yahoo! Group message board,” I said. “What’s your point?”

She flicked the credentials back at me; the cards caught the wind and scattered. I didn’t make any move to pick them up. “You’re used to spewing all that nonsense and flashing these and having people take it for the real thing.”

I wished I could see the full expression on her face, but the flower-pattern mask made it so only her narrowed eyes were visible, and I knew from experience that could just as easily be an affect. “I wouldn’t say I’m used to it,” I said, still not moving to collect my cards, even though one was caught in a very awkward location in the cuff of my pants. “But it does come in handy. It’s a funny coincidence that none of those states have an association and yet they’re both places where a boring-looking white guy like me has the easiest time flashing some authority and getting where he needs to go.”

“Hmph,”

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Retrace your steps, they said. That was the way to recover what was lost even if it was your own way. Albert tried to cast his mind back.

“I was with Stuart King,” he said. “Wait, why was I with Stuart King? What was Stuart King doing here?” Not an unreasonable question; Stuart King was an actor famous across the multi-verse for being the best and definitive actor to play General Cousteau. While they were many variations of the show that could be picked up from within Amai, that particular Stewart King was the definitive one even for people that had come from a reality with its own version on account of his magnificent beard. Of all the possible Stuart Kings, but There was only one that had both a beard and the role of General Cousteau.

“That’s all well and good, yes,” Albert said, massaging his temples, “But what would I have been doing with actor like that? I was a nobody where I came from and I’m even more of one here in Amai.”

The convention! There was a convention in town, a science fiction and fantasy convention. Guests had been invited, abducted, and tricked into showing up from all sorts of alternate futures, pasts, and divergent timelines. Someone had clearly had the clout, or the gall, to get General Cousteau himself–the best one–to show up. Yes, that made sense. Stuart King had acted in a science fiction TV show, so this sort of thing would be second nature to him. It might not even have been his first multi-versal con.

But, again, what had that to do with lowly Albert? A science fiction fan, sure, but those were not uncommon in Amai. How could Stuart King have have anything to say to a lowly taxi driver like –

“I was his ride!” Albert cried. “He was using me to get from his portal to the convention.”

Like dead leaves bobbing up in a spring pond, murky memories of the previous 24 to 48 hours began to resurface.

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Albert woke up to the discomforting realization that not only did he not know where he was, he had no idea how he had gotten there.

Rubbing his head and sitting up, he jumped at the sight and sound of a half dozen empty bottles and bags rolling off his body. Wherever the filthy hovel where he found himself was, somebody had had an absolute rager of a party there the previous night, but hadn’t bothered to clean up. Well, that wasn’t entirely true; there was an open portal in the middle of the room into which some of the detritus had been halfheartedly shoved, but judging by the smell it wasn’t a proper disposal wormhole. Probably raining trash from Amai upon the heads of some unsuspecting dimension like a mad, drunk, messy God.

This wasn’t the first time Albert had woken up disoriented and confused in an unfamiliar situation, and he had a very foolproof way of finding his bearings.

“Hello down there!” he cried, leaning over the whistling edge of the ersatz trash hole. “Do you have any idea where this is?”

A gruff voice, like ground glass crushed into cement, answered back. “You mean the hole in the sky what’s been raining wrappers and unspeakable fluids on mine garden for the past 24 hours?”

Coughing delicately, Albert nodded even though he was sure whoever was on the other side couldn’t see him. “Yeah,” he said. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Tell you what,” the voice said, “you tell me where you and your garbage are from, and I’ll tell you where you are. If I know.”

“This is Amai-of-the-Wormholes, the City at the End, the Grease Trap of the Universe, Endsville, the City of Wormholes, the Universal Sargasso Sea.” That was probably too much information; but then again the place had a lot of names, and Albert wanted to be clear. Assuming he still was in Amai, that is.

“Oh.” The voice sounded disappointed, as if it had expected a far grander pronouncement from the mysterious trash hole. “Where is that then?”

“It’s where all of the lost things in the universe wind up,” Albert said. Stuff like himself, in point of fact, but no point getting exit stencil when he was still trying to get his bearings.

“I know that!” the voice said, annoyed. “Of course I know that, everybody knows that. Amy of the portals. But if you know where you are, why are you asking me?”

Something about the voice finally clicked. Albert was talking through to a version of Igneon, an earth on which humankind had evolved from sentient volcanoes, but one which also coincidently spoke near–perfect English. Now, theoretically, a portal could open to one of the infinite parallel Igneons from anywhere in Amai, but everybody knew that the more volcanic a timeline the greater chance the portal opened up in the Flophouse District.

“Thank you!” Albert called down the trash hole. “That may not seem like much, but you’ve given me all the information I need. I’ll try to close the hole before too much more trash falls on your rock garden.”

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“Grey goo. Don’t worry; it’s not dangerous. It’s not that kind of goo.”

“What powers it, then?”

“Sunlight. Ambient background radiation. Trace elements extracted from the environment. Micro-changes in air density.”

“That sounds suspiciously similar to perpetual motion.”

“Nothing perpetual about it; when there’s no more suns, or radiation, or trace elements, or density, it stops working.”

“So, the heat death of the universe?”

“Or a total, artificial vacuum, whichever comes first.”

“You said not to worry, though.”

“That’s right.”

“Why?”

“It’s just an empty vessel. Well, an almost uncountable number of empty vessels networked together. But without an animating force…”

“A soul?”

“I didn’t say that. But yes.”

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Words only
The tumble freely, fingertips alight
But words only
I want to do more
But words only
I press that button, over and over
But words only
Adding my own, strident, displeasure
But words only
I see fire in the darkness
But words only

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