Mohammed's Spring Gazebo June 16, 1997 12:47 AM I was woken out of a deep sleep, or as deep a sleep as one can get while sitting at a desk. The left of my neck was sore. I had been dreaming about the Machine's Truth. Earlier that night I had heard (or perhaps imagined that I heard) a soft whirring sound come from the Machine That Goes *ping*. I had looked up from where I had been staring at the same page of legalese for who knows how long, unaware until then that my thoughts had been wandering, and had tried to take a stab at understanding the inner workings of the Machine That Goes *ping*. Staring at the softly blinking lights, I must have been lulled across the short remaining distance into sleep ... and I had had a flash of insight. It was fading now: something about frogs. Frogs, and setting the words of an alternate IEEE standard to music in 7/8 time. That was all I could retrieve. But what had woken me? I had a vague impression of a noise waking me up. It hadn't been a *ping* - that I would remember, I felt sure - yet there had been something. There must have been a noise. I looked around my study; nothing seemed out of place. And then it came again. A quiet tapping. As if someone was gently rapping at my door.... Immediately I came to my senses and stood. Lurching with the clumsiness of half-asleep feet around the piles of books and papers on the floor, I made it to the front door and flung it open. "Hello?" I rasped. A complete stranger stood on my porch, a man with heavy jowls and bags under his eyes. It occurred to me that I probably looked no better at the moment. His response to my greeting seemed to be spoken more to himself than me. "You are here. With all the letters spilling out of your mailbox, I was beginning to think that you had gone on a little unofficial vacation." I stood up straighter. "I'm a little behind these days." MORE mail? I thought to myself. Buying myself a moment to clear my head of muzziness, I stepped back and motioned him inside. I grabbed the stack of papers off one of my other chairs and set it on the floor, and then sat down behind my desk. Blinking once, I looked at him again. Paying no attention to the empty chair, he remained standing, a box of cigarettes in one hand. Withdrawing one, he said, "Are you a religious person, breadbox?" before placing the thin cylinder in his mouth. His use of my name derailed me. "Well, no," I managed to say, "I suppose not really. Uh," I trailed off as he struck a wooden match across a matchbox's sandpaper strip. I groped about wordlessly for an ashtray, as questions suddenly crowded the forefront of my thoughts. Unable to sort through them, I tried to remember the names of the new players who I had yet to meet. "That's a good position to be in these days." A cloud of smoke accompanied this observation. I placed the finally-found ashtray on the desk before him. "An advantageous position, one might even say." He dropped the match into the ashtray, where its flame slowly suffocated. "How, how so?" I caught myself. "Look; do I know you?" He smiled in response, a penultimately humorless smile. "Doesn't the asking of that question provide its own answer?" More thick smoke. "Now, I think if I were you, I would avoid getting drawn into religious discussions for the time being." "Including this one?" I smiled, pleased that I had been able to respond to his observation of a self-reference with another. His expression did not change, and deftly he ground his cigarette into the ashtray. "Perhaps so." He was now beginning to make me nervous, and so when he nodded curtly and turned to leave, I was quietly relieved. I stood up, intending to show him out, but I saw that he was not waiting for me, and was already opening the door. Rarely have I seen someone so reserved and simultaneously so unconcerned with the simplest social niceties. As I was sitting down again, he paused, turned to me again, and said, "Nonetheless, it would be in your best interests to heed my advice." Was this remark intended to have a sinister implication? I could not tell. "And why is that? Who are you to advise me on my best interests? Why should I listen to you when I don't even know who you are?" But he ignored me and left while I was talking, the click of the door his only reply. Though still tired, I had now lost any desire to sleep, so I went to the kitchen to make some coffee. As it was brewing, I stared at the pot and tried to figure out what was going on. How could it be in my best interests not to discuss religious issues - something I almost never do anyway? Why would he care enough to come and tell me this? And just who the hell was he, anyway? I returned to my study with a large mug in one hand and sat down again. As I looked over my papers, trying to remember what I had been doing before I fell asleep, there was a knock at my door once again. Annoyed, I did not bother to get up but just yelled, "It's open!" The door opened and a completely different stranger poked his head in. His watery eyes, set in a curious and trusting face, roamed around until they settled on me. "Breadbox?" "Yes, come in." Was everyone awake tonight? He walked over to my desk, followed by yet another person I didn't recognize. Her face also radiated curiousity, but accompanied with caution and a sharp intelligence. Where the hell were all these strange people who knew my name coming from? The man said, "I'm Mold; this is Scold." I relaxed upon hearing names I recognized, and stood up, offering my hand. "Of course! Yes, I know of you. Welcome. This is a bit of a surprise, I must say. I mean, when you first arrived in Ackanomic, I thought it very unlikely that I would ever meet the two of you." Mold smiled. "Well, there wasn't much to investigate back then." "True. Here, let me clear off another chair so that you can sit down. Can I offer you some coffee?" "No, please, that won't be necessary." I was about to insist, but Scold cut me off. "Breadbox, what do you know about Rule 1301 - the Church rule?" I sat back down. So this was why they were here. Was I under suspicion somehow? The words of my previous visitor were starting to look like good advice. Trying to act normal, I replied carefully, "Just what I have to know, to carry out my duties as a Justice." Mold had a thin notebook open in one hand. "Do you know of any reason why that rule in particular might be the target of an abduction?" "No," I said decisively. "As far as I can see, the abductions occur pretty much at random." Scold queried, "Do you know of anyone who might benefit from Rule 1301's - absence?" Mold looked sideways at her choice of words. Scold kept her gaze fixed on me. "... Nnno. I mean, a few people tried to ordain themselves, but nothing really came of it. Well, as far as I know anyway: I imagine a lot of what goes on in the Churches isn't public, so I'm not privy to that. I'm, uh, not a religious person myself." A pause. Mold looked over his notes. "There seems to be a lot of activity going on behind the scenes these days, doesn't there?" Cough. "You mean the flurry of scams we've had recently? That was mostly Malenkai's doing. I expect that he'd saved up a lot of ideas while on vacation...." "There was also the business with the Orbital Mind Control Laser," Mold went on. Scold's turn. "As a Supreme Court Justice you were involved with that affair, at least indirectly." My heart jumped. "Whoa. Hang on. I had no idea what was going on there. I wasn't even paying much attention to those events until that CFJ was appealed. Even now, I still don't understand exactly what the scam was really about." "But looking at the sequence of events with hindsight, you would surely agree that it had to have been a planned maneuver, with a number of people working in conjunction with each other." I hesitatingly nodded. "Yes. That's true. But I assure you I was not one of those people." Mold, who had been gazing distractedly at the Machine That Goes *ping*, looked at Scold. "And Malenkai was involved in that one too, wasn't he? Isn't Malenkai a Priest of some Church?" I offered, "He was originally a member of the Church of the Markovian Dream, but he left it to join /dev/joe's Church - Seleya." Mold looked at me. "And /dev/joe is the one who had the Mind Control Laser used on him." Scold furrowed her brow. "Who actually used the Laser?" I recited from memory. "Guy Fawkes offered the transfer to /dev/joe; Mohammed used the OMCL to cause the transfer to occur; and two-star was the one who originally judged the CFJ False. And Malenkai was the one to actually make use of the Vending Machine." As I said this, Mold flipped through pages in his notebook, and made notes. Scold began, "Didn't /dev/joe enter the Afterlife not too ..." but was interrupted by Mold. "Wait. Mohammed is also a member of Seleya, like Malenkai, but Guy Fawkes is a Markovian. And two-star is not a member of any Church." He looked up excitedly. Scold shrugged. "So?" "Don't you see?" demanded Mold. He put a hand to his forehead briefly. "Why would a Seleyan Priest agree to help steal from the Founder of his own Church? And why this roundabout method that required the co-operation of rival Church members? It doesn't make any sense.... Unless this is part of a conspiracy that crosses religious boundaries! Maybe even a conspiracy to destroy one of the other Churches!" Scold had not moved. "How does this hypothesis explain the removal of Rule 1301?" she asked carefully. Mold turned back and leaned over the desk at me. "Breadbox: in your judicial opinion, is there any way that Rule 1301's temporary absence could help an outsider to weaken a Church's power?" I tried to hide my discomfort with this question by staring at the notes covering my desk. The existence of such a conspiracy seemed improbable, but what did I really know? And could I be causing trouble for innocent people if I encouraged this line of thought? My coffee was getting cold. Had I said too much already? The warning of the stranger played through my thoughts. I looked at the crushed butt he had left in my ashtray. His matchbox was sitting next to the ashtray, apparently forgotten in his haste to leave after having delivered his enigmatic message. The matchbox was a pretty red and blue.... I jumped to my feet, almost hitting my head against Mold's, and grabbed the matchbox off my desk. "What is it?" he asked. Why hadn't I recognized it before? Carefully I opened it, and a glittering flea hopped out onto my hand. "Phoebe!" I raised my hand up close to my face. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see a familiar - er, entity - tonight." My visitors stared. "What is THAT?" asked Scold. "This is Phoebe the Steel Flea. Not a real flea - she's a nanotech." "How do you do?" said the ever-courteous Phoebe. Mold jumped in. "A nanotech? You mean she's a technological relic left over from the ancient astronauts?" Scold wearily crossed her arms, eyes rolling. "Mold, you know there's no evidence that the prehistoric natives of Ackanomic were 'astronauts', however technologically advanced they may have been." "No evidence? What about the Codex of Kra translations? They clearly indicate ..." "Breadbox," said Pheobe, quietly so that only I could hear her. "These people are your friends. Do not trust the advice of strangers." My accumulated fears of the evening fell from me like weights. "Oh, Phoebe, I can't tell you relieved I am to know that. I'm so glad you're here; I had no idea what was the right thing to do. How can I ever thank you?" "No thanks are necessary, breadbox. But that's not the reason I originally wanted to visit you. I know that you enjoy hunting for treasure." "Scold, how can you possibly maintain that the descriptions of U1 and U2 could refer to anything besides ..." "Well, I dabble in it, yes." "My advice is this: when treasure hunting, it is best to bring along some tools. I would recommend a Gimme Shelter, a Cheez-Whiz, and a Pulse Laser. Of course, to maximize your chances of success, I'd make sure I had some authentic Snowgod Campaign Prosthetic Foreheads on hand, too - or at least a reasonable imitation." "Uh, okay." I didn't understand exactly what all this meant, but nonetheless I grabbed a pen with my other hand and scribbled down the particulars in the margin of one of my notes. "Thank you, Phoebe. Is that all you wanted to tell me?" "Yes. Well, I might also mention that it could be to your advantage to do some research on alternate IEEE standards." I gaped at her, dumbfounded. "Just a hint," she added slyly. It occured to me that the room had grown quiet again. I saw that Mold and Scold were once again peering at Phoebe. Mold began, "Breadbox - uhm, is there any way we could borrow that nanotech long enough to run some lab tests ..." I quickly put my hand down so that Pheobe could jump back into her matchbox. "No. She's not mine to give. Phoebe belongs to herself." I saw that he was unconvinced, so I quickly cut him off. "Look, there's something I think you should know. I had another visitor tonight, just before you showed up." I was interrupted by an electronic chirping. Scold stepped back, saying "Excuse me," and pulled out a cell phone. "Hello?" Mold turned back to me. "Yes? Go on." "He told me - or, rather, this stranger implied that it would be in my best interests not to talk about, quote, religious issues. I'm pretty sure now that he was warning me to not discuss the abduction with you two." Mold frowned. "He was the one who left Phoebe's matchbox on my desk, though I don't think that he knew ..." Eyes wide, Mold suddenly grabbed the cigarette out of the ashtray and held it up between us. "HE was here? HE told you not to talk to us?" Breathless, I nodded. Mold turned. "Scold ..." Scold looked up from her conversation, concern evident in her eyes. "Mold, there may have been another abduction. Rule 407 this time." "'May have been'?" She nodded. "It's not clear what actually happened. I think there's been a thread split." They looked at me for a brief moment. Then Mold dropped the cigarette back into the ashtray and turned to go, saying over his shoulder, "Thank you for the information. We'll be in touch." "No problem; let me know if there's anything else ..." But they were already gone. I slowly sat back down, trying to digest everything that had happened. I looked at my desk, and saw that Phoebe's matchbox was nowhere in sight. Thinking that Mold had walked off with her, I almost got up to run after them, but then I realized: no, Phoebe had simply vanished again, as she always did. I leaned my whirling head back against the wall behind me. A conspiracy? Aimed at one of the Churches? Surely Malenkai would not be party to such skullduggery. Would he? As I reached for my coffee, feeling more tired than I did when I fell asleep, a sharp sound split the silence. I jumped, my hand hitting the mug crosswise and knocking it across my desk. I watched with dismay as coffee seeped into my notes, realizing belatedly that the sound had merely been the Machine That Goes *ping* going *ping*.
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