Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006



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Giving it 14 Percent


Written by A. S. Fox
Illustrated by Barb Jernigan


 

He was reading a comic book when it happened. "Ombudsman." Fiona's voice buzzed over O'Malley's console. "Time to work. Level A, Main Conference Room."



O'Malley rose and put on his coat. It had been in the closet, waiting in shrink-wrap and desiccators for a good fourteen months. He rolled his shoulders, swallowed his fears and developed the mien of a man genuinely thrilled to be working for StarDrive. Having worked less than ten full days in the past eleven years, his mastery of this skill had paid the rent for quite some time now.

"Fiona, you may be the only person here that I truly love."

"I'm a computer." The voice remained dispassionate and hollow.

"My point exactly."

O'Malley worked in the tallest building in the world—the StarDrive Tower. Management arranged workers according to rank. Each successive rank earned a seat of power in a small office one step closer to the shining beacon of progress, otherwise known as Level A, the Top or HQ. He worked on the second floor and had never been called to an office higher than the hundredth floor.

He took an elevator down to the foyer and stopped before The Door. Above it hung an epic painting of a starship breaking the bounds of light. StarDrive's stated goal was to produce a faster than light spacecraft. The Chinese felt that, for form's sake, even the elite should enter and leave via the main door. It was perhaps the only vestige of their eighty-year Communist experiment. O'Malley put his hand in the fingerprint reader, half expecting to get a shock. Instead, the door opened and he entered. The Door gave one access to a special elevator, filled with sofas and upholstered chairs, which fired directly to the executive floors high above.

He sat while the elevator conveyed him to the executive entrance. Four enormous jade Foo Dogs guarded the corridor. O'Malley had heard rumors from his fellow Ombudsmen that StarDrive had liberated them from a failing nation-state. Beyond those lay various personal offices guarded by the Dragon Ladies of the Imperial Royal Secretarial Service: beautiful, lithe, Asian women of indeterminate age who would serve tea. Possibly they were also capable of typing, calculating particle mechanics or killing a man with one blow. O'Malley would probably never know.

He was ushered in by one such stunning beauty, handed a cup of Irish Breakfast tea—Twining's bag still in the cup to show they cared—and plunked at the end of an enormously long and, theoretically, intimidating table.

"I am Number One," a voice announced. Ten somber, middle-aged Chinese men wearing blue pinstripe suits faced him. In the logic of The Organization, Number One actually ranked fourth in the corporate schema.

"Good day, sir." O'Malley sipped his tea. They had over-brewed it by fifteen minutes. He smiled and drank more.

"We have a problem," Number One continued. They all smoked; O'Malley could barely make out the rough vicinity of his voice. In all the time he had been working for StarDrive, he had never gone more than three sentences before one of his betters would ominously say "we have a problem."

"That, sir . . ." He enunciated to carry across the room. ". . . is why you pay me. How may I assist?"

The men appeared embarrassed. "We have a problem with our space ship, with achieving light speed. We need your help."

"I'm sorry." O'Malley tried not to drop his jaw. They were being polite, among other things. Politeness usually meant someone had died. "I'm not an engineer or a scientist. I work for your human resources department." He sighed and then added, "At a very low level."

"We know," a different voice answered. "But your name is O'Malley and we thought you might be able to help us with this specific problem."

He sipped his tea dry; a Dragon Lady refilled it with Jasmine White leaf. He savored its crisp sweetness and tried to be motionless. He had heard it worked for lizards and certain kinds of rabbits.

"You see . . ." a third voice spoke.

"We have men hallucinating upstairs," the leader finally spoke, pushing forward. This was Han, the actual number one of StarDrive. O'Malley had never met him, but the Chairman Mao-sized banners of him on every floor familiarized a person with his general likeness. He saw now that a wart or two had been tastefully airbrushed off the inspirational posters.

"Europeans?" O'Malley thought he caught the drift of the problem. Hallucinations would be terribly bad press.

"No." Han waved dismissively. Europeans apparently were beneath his concern. "Nationals, of course—important men, pilots and engineers."

"The nature of these hallucinations?"

"Our men . . ." Han hesitated. "These men are very trustworthy and I know many personally."

Great tension filled his voice. The message was clear. I trust them, you better trust them too. Or else.

"Our men believe they are seeing leprechauns."

"Leprechauns." O'Malley kept a somber face.

"Yes," one of the adjutants agreed.

It all clicked. "I'm the only Irish employee you have, then?"

One of the men nodded with obvious disdain. "It would appear so."

"And you felt that being O'Malley would give me some ethnic, some Irish born, insight into these hallucinations?"

"Exactly." Han nodded. Silence sat upon the boardroom. Finally, Han put out his cigarette and announced with finality, "You leave immediately."

O'Malley tried not to spit. Although he understood that being in the world's tallest building also connected him to the StarDrive Space Elevator, he had never given it thought. He'd read the brochures during training. A satellite stationed many thousands of kilometers above the towers trailed a cable that linked the building, itself and an ancillary ballast-weight station with a tube built like a human spine. Inside, a bubble-shaped elevator made the transit. Five hours from tower to space station, four from space back down. No bends, no discomfort, no sense of gee-force or blastoff; they even had some kind of gyroscopic system that buffered it against the winds in the upper atmosphere. You could drink tea on the way up.

When they ushered him into a semi-sterile room, he panicked. A new set of Dragon Ladies rushed forth and disencumbered him of his outer garments; olive drab overalls and a maroon sweater with elbow patches and matching knit cap replaced them. A particularly fierce Dragon Lady grabbed him and shoved two half-slipper, half-rugby cleat contraptions over his bare feet. After that, a pale red-haired woman who proved more terrifying than the Dragon Ladies arrived. She smiled and donned similar garb. He noticed she wore a Celtic cross layered with thick Gaelic sigils and some very not-Christian iconography on its edges.

They were dumped in a chute, which turned out to be the actual elevator. It was cramped and not the luxurious ride he had been led to believe existed. He and the woman huddled as the bubble rocketed into the air, faster than his lunch could follow.

"O'Malley." He spoke between hyperventilating gasps.

"Cassie." She threw her head back, clearly exhilarated by the ride. "You're from the North." She spoke Gaelic. "I saw your file. Worked in a pub, almost got a chemistry degree from Dublin, but you come from Belfast. Moved about the same time The Troubles were erupting and all those bombs started putting holes in Buckingham Palace."

O'Malley frowned. "Where are you from?" She spoke Gaelic? She spoke fast in Gaelic?

"Kilkee, but I'm a Traveler." It explained her dark eyes. Travelers were the gypsies of Ireland, though it was disputed if they were also Rom, like their Eurasian counterparts.

"My people are actually from Ballyclare, but yah. I was from Belfast. Not anymore." He shut his mouth and ignored her until the slingshot of first acceleration slowed.

"Were you any good at chemistry, O'Malley?"

"I moved to Pontianak to tend bar at a local Irish pub." He counted to twenty. "Why do you ask?"

"Malaysia had extremely porous borders with little oversight of foreign passports at the time; that meant . . ." She shrugged suggestively.

O'Malley rolled his eyes. His lunch had returned to its proper place. "How does a Traveler end up subletting her services to a Chinese spaceship company?"

She laughed and touched his shoulder. "I was visiting my sister Ling Ling, adopted. She works for StarDrive and when word came down that they needed an Irish religious expert, I apparently was the only one in Indo-Malaysia."

"Wasn't there a panda named Ling Ling?" O'Malley tried to pry his shoulder loose.

"Mom was extremely creative." She smiled and kept her grip.

By the time they had arrived and the grim Chinese technicians lifted them from the capsule, O'Malley had discovered that Cassie liked groping men. It took him another few seconds to realize he still spoke perfect Gaelic, that his employers apparently knew what he used to do for a living and, most importantly, he did not like zero gravity one tiny bit. When they were ushered into the spinning sector with its two-thirds gravity, he breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then a group of terrified looking Chinese engineers confronted them with The Problem. It boiled down to this: at twelve percent light speed the ship began to shake and shimmy, things got a little blurry and light got sort of fuzzy. At fourteen percent, the leprechauns started appearing. That was that.

The chief pilot promised them that they would be taken to the place where the little men showed up consistently; apparently no one had thought to film the operation. O'Malley tried unsuccessfully to suggest it. Instead the captain stiffly informed them the ship would again be at fourteen percent translight within the hour.

The two Irish nationals endured the preflight check and the acceleration out of the star dock. The gravitational spin of the starship's twin hulls ceased, putting them in freefall. "You don't believe in little men, do you?" He rubbed his protesting stomach.

"Cassie. And why not?"

O'Malley snorted. "Okay. First, because there are no leprechauns. Second, because if there were leprechauns, we'd have seen them somewhere other than outer space. And third, did I mention the part about there being no green bonnie men?"

"What is your first name?" She brushed his arm. He told her. She made a face. "What was your mother thinking?"

"Oh, no. Da had three jobs. First, making us, second, naming us and third, dying early enough to leave a pension to feed us. The rest was me dear Mum."

"I think I'll call you O'Malley." The ship launched into some new phase of its altogether gut-wrenching throttle through space.

::Eight percent translight:: a crisp voice informed them in Mandarin.

"All women do." He tried not to grimace more than was necessary. Good thing they hadn't given him tea with cream and sugar.

::Ten percent translight:: The chairs started to vibrate oddly and his feet felt numb.

::Twelve percent translight:: The voice sounded dubious. It might as well have screamed "Danger! Leprechaun Alert!" The light did seem a bit gooey.

"Did you know that the light in Ireland actually moves infinitesimally slower than normal light?"

"Whadya mean?" O'Malley turned his face to see her dark and clearly mad eyes.

"Scientists in County Cork proved it two years ago. The speed of light across most of Ireland is actually one eighteenth of one percent slower than the universal constant."

"So what? Do you think that proves . . . "

::Fourteen percent translight:: came the terrified announcement.

POP! Something small, green and grinning stood three paces in front of them.

"Good morning," said the leprechaun in lilting, if old sounding, Gaelic.

 

"Okay." O'Malley pointed to the little man in his green suit, trimmed with gold brocade and buttons, shoes with brass buckles and a genuine shillelagh. Dimpled and thick nosed, exactly like the pictures, the elf stood two feet tall. "That's a leprechaun."



"Told you so." Cassie smiled gleefully.

"You speak the Mother Tongue?" The leprechaun stepped closer.

"We do." Cassie addressed the tiny elf in her own Southern Traveler's Gaelic. "Hello, fey friend of Mab."

The leprechaun bowed and kissed her hand. Suddenly he turned around, as if there were something coming up behind him. "Oh."

Pop! He was gone just as the ship began to decelerate.

::Kill engines, kill engines!:: Apparently the crew did not find the little men as reassuring or polite as Cassie did.

The captain reestablished gravity and raced back to the pair. Had they seen them? Yes. Now what, he demanded? It took all O'Malley's ombudsman training and quite a bit of convincing to explain that they were going to have STAY at fourteen percent translight for a while. That assumed the Chinese wanted him to actually hold a conversation—with, yes, he admitted they were obviously something—these guys who looked like leprechauns.

In the end he got the guarantee of a night's sleep in semi-gravity while the crew radioed HQ and received further orders. O'Malley tried a toothpaste tube of something called General's Chicken Paste Number Four and gave up trying to have an appetite. Then he padded as quietly as possible to what seemed like a secluded nook. It provided a bed contraption that folded out, an air mattress and solar blanketing with electric toe warmers. He looked left and right, saw neither a pagan woman nor men of any height, Chinese or Irish, and tried to go to sleep.

He wasn't sure if he had been asleep or merely in that sweet dozy place right before actual sleep when he felt her slip into his bed. "Cassie?" As if some other nearly six foot, mostly naked and highly aggressive woman with red hair would sneak under his sheets.

"It's me." She began kissing his neck quite effectively.

"You're a stranger." He squirmed away.

"Not anymore." She rubbed his back.

"Um, I'm not that kind of girl." He wracked his brain for a better line.

Cassie laughed. "When in Indonesia, do as the Indonesians."

"But we're in outer space. And I have to figure out why there are leprechauns here."

"Why not ask them?" She blithely drifted off to sleep, apparently satisfied with merely having gotten in to his bed on day one. It seemed an incentive to solve the situation before day two.

On day two they managed to do the meet and greet with the leprechaun, find out his name was Tibbles of Green Burroughs and that Tibbles seemed astonished that they did not believe in him. Then came the hysterical screaming, the deceleration and the heinous accusations from terrified Chinese pilots who had to call the dread Chief Han and report Complications and, worse, Delays. Cassie's suggestions gave O'Malley his first headache in a decade.

O'Malley tried barring the door using a special computer code. She apparently could hack those. Thankfully, she contented herself with merely riding the night through holding him in her arms.

By day five, he had given up hope of evading Cassie at night, Tibbles by day, and the hysteria of the entire StarDrive Corporation pretty much constantly. The woman could get through furniture, welded doors and air locks.

"Why don't you make yourself useful?" He jabbed her when they woke up on day six, she having found him buried in the cargo section under a heap of welder's tools.

"I've been trying." Cassie pinched his cheek. "But you apparently missed a couple pages out of the manual. Goddess magic is usually sex magic and you keep avoiding me."

O'Malley scratched his head. She had a certain logic. "But there isn't any magic, Cassie." He had to admit the thought of sleeping with her seemed quite appealing, it always had. He just wasn't that kind of girl.

"How do you think I got through welded doors, silly?" She ran her fingers along his forearm.

"Um, I was wondering about that," he confessed. "But magic?"

"Magic."

"Well, if you can do magic to open my doors at night, why can't you do other magics?"

Cassie sat up from their secret bed; tools crashed as they fell off of her. A frightened mechanic jumped and ran, yelping something. "You really don't understand, do you?"

"What?" O'Malley felt very queasy.

"Didn't you have a grandmother?"

"Drank herself to death."

"Aunts, older female relatives, the little old lady down the alley?"

"Blown up or shot by the Ulster Unionists or Orangemen, except for the old lady down the street who taught me how to make pipe bombs."

Cassie shook her head and kissed his forehead. "Well, if you had a nanna, she would have told you lots of stories about the olden times and magic and the Celtic knots, the runes, the secrets of the Picts and such, our own weavings and doings."

"I've read the books."

"Do you know the difference between blood magic and circle magic, between weavings and callings, between unions and dispersals?"

O'Malley looked her in the eye. She seemed neither mad nor gleeful. In fact, Cassie looked outrageously serious, exactly like the Chinese pilots talking about their Pulse Drive buttons. "That would be a, um, a no, I guess." He grew quiet. What if she wasn't crazy?

"I can't call forth a fairy circle without some base of power and, unfortunately, there isn't any in outer space. But I can use you, and to do that I have to use a weaving and a union. The easiest way would be to sleep together but if you're absolutely hell bent to avoid my embrace, I can probably just drain half your blood and set up some kind of kettle in the back." She gave him a wicked leer.

"Why sex, why blood? There's no logic in it." He hated the sight of his own blood. He opted against telling her his fainting stories.

She smiled. "On the contrary, if you had read your quantum physics textbooks better, you'd know that in 2011 Australians found a link between indigenous song lines, genetics and quantum flux readings."

O'Malley rolled his eyes vigorously. "That's a joke."

She shook her head. "It really is mind over matter. But within set parameters determined by the magical systems, quote unquote, of the people involved. We're Irish, we gotta use traditional Irish protocols."

"Protocols? Cassie, you just said it was magic."

"You never took physics did you?"

O'Malley frowned. "Since when did any textbook claim that magic had a scientific verifiable basis in quantum physics?"

Cassie didn't hesitate. "Strock and Tadeschi, The Secret Life of Particles, 2012, published by Springer-Verlag. Followed by about seven more knock-offs and coat-tail studies."

He gulped. "Well, let me think about it for the day."

By the time they rose, the usual suspects had come to the cargo hold. They informed them with hidden embarrassment that the pilot, co-pilot and top four engineers had been shuttled down for psychiatric care and a new pilot would be taking them to fourteen percent today. Would immediately be too soon, please and thank you? He imagined they did not want to report to Chief Han that strange Europeans sleeping in their cargo hold was their sole sign of progress.

They did the drill. Strap in, hysterical announcement, null gravity, eight percent, ten percent, twelve percent - everything fuzzy, witty comment from Cassie and then fourteen percent. Pop! Mr. Tibbles arriving, obviously annoyed to be still talking to them.



 

O'Malley tried a new tack. "I thought you were a myth."



"Of course we're real, you idiot." Tibbles reddened. "You've been sighting us for centuries."

"Near rainbows, on the ground, not in outer-freaking-space," O'Malley spat back and Tibbles grew beet red.

"Morons," he muttered. "What is a Pulse Drive? It's a fancy laser that splits and refocuses light into thousands of fractal pieces, sort of like a mini fusion reactor . . . Forget it. I can see you know nothing about science."

"Absolutely nothing." O'Malley knew exactly what a Pulse Drive was, since he had been reading schematics all day.

"Rainbow. Splits light. Pulse Drive. Splits light. Whenever you split light, we show up. We're energy beings, you dolt." Tibbles looked ready to smack him with the shillelagh.

"What about werewolves and vampires?" O'Malley sneered.

"Out of phase, their energy signature cued to moonlight and reflected shadow. Mirrors, moonlight, everything is reflected light, it's all in the angles of reflection. Man, you're pretty stupid."

"Ghosts?" O'Malley leaned back in his seat; Mr. Tibbles' stick had begun to sway dangerously close to his head.

"Negative infrared signatures of dark matter. Your physicists have been blabbing about the stuff for decades. Why do you think they make it so cold?"

"So you're real?"

"Yep. Genuine leprechaun. Fairy. Mystical sprite. Elf. Magical being. Just like the little stories have always said. Don't you people read?"

O'Malley sighed. "Apparently not enough. What's with the stupid green suit and the hokey stick, then?"

Mr. Tibbles sighed back and looked as if he were deciding between vomiting and strangling him. "It's all local. In Hawaii, we're Menehune. In upstate New York, we're little Indians dancing in the corn."

"The Chinese claimed you were leprechauns, though." O'Malley grinned.

Mr. Tibbles drew himself up to his maximum height. "The Chinese are capable of lying, you know."

Then someone screamed and the ship jolted back into normal space as a new pilot qualified for short-term disability.

"What was that about?" Cassie gave him a puzzled look. The crew sprinted towards them shouting accusations, questions and pleas in frenzied Mandarin.

"A hunch." O'Malley put up both hands and spoke fiercely in chopped Mandarin. ::Tell Chief Han it will be done tomorrow, no sooner.:: They bickered, and when O'Malley did not budge or negotiate they slunk away sullenly, obviously fearful of having to tell the Chief just that.

On night six, O'Malley found the biggest, warmest room possible, commandeered extra pillows and blankets and something that resembled solid food and made a fort of his swag. He left the door unlocked and ajar. When Cassie arrived, she did so wearing a particularly fetching gown of homemade lace.

"What's it to be, blood or me?" Her eyes dazzled in the almost lightless room.

O'Malley looked up from reading a book on Irish folklore. "You can make a fairy circle in the room before we blast off tomorrow?"

She slid the door closed and locked it, her hand waving the latch closed from ten feet away. "Oh, yes." She smiled and he felt enchanted. O'Malley shrugged and said no more.

On day seven, he lectured the pilots, warning them that if they came out of fourteen percent a second earlier than he asked them to, he would personally shuttle down, resign in front of Chief Han and blame them by family name. He advised them to take tranquilizers, rice wine, chew on wood or simply close their damned eyes—after all, they were flying through a vacuum. Whatever it took, they must not deviate course, slow down or interfere with his and Cassie's doings. Oh, and if they didn't like it, please feel free to call HQ right this instant and ask the Chief to replace him, since they had a much better idea. Strangely, no one argued and all seemed genuinely pleased that he had finally been so mean-spirited as to threaten them.

Then he went aft. He came upon Cassie finishing the circle, which she had cleverly disguised to look like any old flooring in any old space ship. "I'll need a kiss." She leant forward and he complied.

"For completing the circle?"

"No." She gave him an enormous smile. "I just know I'm not going to get another chance if this works." He shook his head and let the engineers strap him in.

Then the countdown, the usual rev up and the far less hysterical achieving of fourteen percent. Pop! Tibbles appeared and this time O'Malley unstrapped to greet him.

"I'm sorry, old friend." He spoke formal Gaelic. "I was wrong to be so rude last time."

Tibbles looked touched and Cassie nodded. "Well, alriiiight." Tibbles blushed, clearly pleased to be appreciated.

"I really do believe in you, Tibbles. I want you to know that." O'Malley gave him a curt bow, complicated by the lack of gravity. "I was wrong to not believe the old stories. Leprechauns do exist and I know, now, that so does magic."

"It's not entirely fancy physics, you know."

"I know." O'Malley started to pace. "It's a quantum signature from a collective genetic unconscious."

"Exactly." Tibbles beamed. "I think you have actually learned something. And I thought you were totally stupid."

"I'll take that as a compliment." O'Malley and the elf chuckled. "Shake? No hard feelings?"

Tibbles put out his tiny mitt and shook O'Malley's vigorously. "You know, I'm hoping you people stop calling me here."

"I think we've learned our lesson," O'Malley assured him. Tibbles turned to go. O'Malley pushed a button on the wall. The ship instantly dropped out of the Pulse Drive, as if the pilots had been poised over the Kill button, punch-drunk and praying for the signal. Tibbles gave a low moaning wail.

"These are called handcuffs," O'Malley explained, demonstrating that he and Tibbles were now firmly pinioned together by a chunk of metal.

"You can't." The leprechaun struggled, his legs kicking.

"Fairy circle." O'Malley pointed to Cassie, who batted her eyelashes.

"I'm in big trouble," Tibbles said to no one in the room.

"I want my pot of gold." O'Malley eyed the elf.

"What?" The little man struggled. "Absolutely not."

"Then you stay. I've got the Chairman of a very large media corporation who would love to put you in a nice glass box, shuffle you around and make a few billion credits off you."

"You can't, you won't . . ." The elf started to shrink in horror, but he could not pull far since O'Malley had him suspended by the cuffs.

"Gold. It's in the books. I want it." O'Malley yanked the wretched leprechaun to emphasize his point.

"I can curse you," the elf countered. Cassie coughed and Tibbles suddenly blushed. "If you hadn't brought a witch with you."

"But I did bring my own witch and my own fairy circle and now I have my very own leprechaun."

"I don't, I can't get the gold right away."

"Then I get pictures and the plastic box and a touring elf show, and you get to do stupid sprite tricks for the videocasters."

"The price of gold is really, really low these days." Tibbles bit his lip.

"You haven't got anything other than that to offer," Cassie said nonchalantly.

"And if I did?" Tibbles' face lit up.

"I'll take the formula for a working pulse drive, one that breaks the speed of light safely." O'Malley lifted the gnome to near eye level.

"Painful." Tibbles whimpered and his eyes teared. O'Malley did nothing but yank harder. They remained that way as the little man went through six colors, ranted, threatened, switched languages, and then finally sighed. "Okay."

O'Malley handed him a notebook with an erasable pen. "Now."

"I'm right handed," Tibbles complained.

"We've got all day, don't we, Cassie?" Cassie nodded and smiled. She crossed her legs making her little sucker-booties swish. Nobody said anything. Tibbles developed an amazing ability to write with his left hand.

When the leprechaun had covered roughly twenty pages, he handed the pen and notebook back. "Okay." He smiled wanly. "You won."

"Great. Thanks." O'Malley started reading the elf's handiwork. "Now swear by Queen Mab, on your sacred honor and upon the sworn code of the fairies that all you have written is true and good, that you have in right faith given what is due and paid your debt."

"You read the book." Tibbles' face drooped into despair.

"I read all the books, you little creep." O'Malley yanked on his captive again. Tibbles wordlessly reached for the book, took the eraser, and fixed a dozen assorted diagrams, renumbered some formulas and took up another three pages with previously unwritten schematics. Then he handed it back, the look on his face totally defeated.

"Swear." O'Malley prodded him.

"I so swear before Mab my Queen and my sacred honor, I have done as asked and the debt is paid. One pot of gold or its equivalent." Tibble's eyes lolled. "Bastard."

 

O'Malley cuffed him. "Hey. Don't talk like that in front of a lady. Apologize."



"Sorry," whispered Tibbles, his left foot making a pathetic figure eight on the floor. The cuffs unlocked at O'Malley's cue.

Pop! Just like magic, the leprechaun was gone.

"You were planning this all along?" Cassie watched him closely, clearly impressed.

O'Malley shrugged as the crew began to shuffle in, looking for signs of leprechauns or explosions.

"Somewhere around the time I took to sleeping under tools and tables, it occurred to me to think of a way to capture the guy. I'm from Belfast, after all."

"After all," Cassie agreed. They tried to hold off the throng's new bout of questions, which, strangely, were devoid of accusations or threats. Apparently, the Chief had either invested him with new powers or everyone's desperation had simply given him a little breathing room.

O'Malley orchestrated the group. Scanned copies of the notebook needed to be made. For their part, the engineers did something capable and swift, using things with green lights that looked like pasta rollers. Whatever they were, in one sweep all the pages were read, digitized, filed and probably cross-referenced with footnotes.

Cassie began to ask a question, but a sudden gibbering excitement interrupted her. It appeared someone, either downstairs or on the starship, had realized what O'Malley had handed them. The engineers disappeared and the new pilot replaced them, his face stolid in resolve. He sputtered some harsh Mandarin at the pair, emphasizing the words with a hand chop.

"He said?" Cassie stepped closer to O'Malley. Did she do nervousness?

"Han wants us."

Minutes later, O'Malley and Cassie found themselves unceremoniously shoved towards another chute and toppled down the elevator towards Level A and the Grand Boardroom.

Around twenty thousand miles above the planet, she muttered, "When did you figure it out?"

"The Hwa thing."

"What's a Hwa, anyway?"

O'Malley brushed a red curl off her forehead. "The old name the Japanese used upon arriving in China. It means dwarf in Mandarin. Until they became a modern power, the Japanese were the leprechauns of China."

"They own half of the Moon now." She curled closer to him.

"But, in the ancient subconscious they were, and to some extent still are, dwarves."

"And . . ."

O'Malley snorted. "You never read Jung, did you?" The cabin was silent. "Protocols are individual sets of rules which have local meaning on a subconscious and thus, quantum level. That means the Faerie Contract would bind."

"I thought you read comic books all day."

"Well." The elevator passed some kind of altitude marker. The Mandarin made little sense at their speed. "I subscribe to a few regular ones, but they're monthly and that leaves me with a time lag at the end of the month."

"Hwa?" Cassie came close enough that he lowered his voice.

"Well, Tibbles is some kind of alien—that's probably a safe bet. He changes with perception. So what did the Chinese see? Hwa. They had to have sent a Japanese ombudsman first."

"Who saw Japanese leprechauns."

"The Ainu—I heard the paramedics haul Furikaki out of his office last week screaming about the Hairy Hill Men."

Cassie positioned herself on his stomach. "You could have taken the gold, Mr. Ainu."

He laughed and smoothed her hair lightly. "Price of gold's real low these days."

She jabbed him in a soft spot. "But why really?" The cabin gave a faint hum but he did not speak. She jabbed again.

"Okay." He twirled a curl of her hair. "Between us?"

"Of course." She kissed his arm.

"We're the only ones, Cassie."

"Only ones what?" She sat up.

"The only ones who have a positive relationship with faeries. The English get abducted, the Swedes get ravaged, the Japanese are contaminated, the Chinese invaded. Hence, the stretchers."

Cassie's face changed color. "Does Han know?"

O'Malley patted her leg. "One suspects he must. Pot of gold and all."

"So why not something else?"

O'Malley's eyes glittered. "The Irish invent star travel. Too good to pass up. What's your excuse?"

Cassie rubbed her chin. "How do you know I don't just like going really fast?"

He put his hands behind his head and chuckled. They fell silent. By the next altitude marker, they had fallen asleep.

When they arrived, a fleet of Dragon Ladies whisked them back into the sterile corridor and he was again outfitted with clothing, this time a terribly familiar blue pin striped suit. Even the tie seemed standard issue. The Secretariat ushered them into a small office where a beaming team of ten StarDrive executives welcomed them. Chief Han had opted for a black suit with, miracles, a cream and crimson tie.

"Sit." All present sat. O'Malley waited in silence, thinking.

"You have placed us within scheduled parameters. Seventeen minutes ago, our crew completed the first faster than light voyage in human history, returning safely to the star base." The other nine men beamed, clearly delighted and relieved. Han lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl. "Explain yourself."

"Isn't that StarDrive's whole purpose?" O'Malley fiddled with his tie.

"But you are not StarDrive. You work on the second floor." Han gave them a piercing stare. "Why did you help us?"

Cassie coughed. "The price of gold really is through the floor." She shrugged and looked to O'Malley.

"She's right." O'Malley let go of his collar. "I'd probably make more with a modest raise, which I think one could reasonably expect for such work."

"We're not even paying Ms. Morgaine, although you can rest assured her sister now has extremely well-compensated employment for life."

"Morgaine?" O'Malley turned to her.

Cassie smiled. "Pagan witch, remember."

"And you, Mr. O'Malley," Chief Han spoke as if punishment were being doled out, "we have decided to promote."

O'Malley groaned, instantly filled with regret.

One of the executives set up a tripod with a large flow chart printed with impossible to read squiggles. He coughed, consulted a set of note cards and began, "As you can see from our corporate structure . . ."

Cassie rose. O'Malley panicked and reached out his hand.

Cassie pumped it. "I'll see you later." She started walking.

"You will?" His stomach began to act up. What if he had to wear a suit everyday?

"Magic," she whispered in luscious Gaelic. He watched in anguish as his Cassie sauntered from the conference room.

Chief Han waited until she had left then took over for the executive, droning on in grand gestures about some new position with enormous power and responsibility. But all O'Malley heard was "suit, suit, suit." After several painful minutes it grew quiet. All the men stood. He stood. One by one the men shook his hand. Han patted him on the shoulder.

 

Dazed, he followed a feral looking Dragon Lady to his new office, now on the five hundred and seventh floor. He closed the door and whimpered. Some unknown lackey (the new Ombudsman?) had moved his gear into a larger and far more luxurious space. He had a window view, two potted plants and something antique in the corner. His only solace lay on the desk: an intercom box with "Fiona" handwritten on the peeling label.



"Fiona." He pushed the button, fingers crossed. "What do I do for a living?"

"You are now the Head of Public Relations, Denial of Magic Division." Her voice had acquired a friendly purr.

O'Malley tossed his tie and coat. He sat back, put his feet on the desk, and grabbed a new stack of comics. "Fiona, I love you."

* * *

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