Unfinished Business > Escape Sequence > …go on until you reach the end, and then stop

The salient fact of which the Trader had been attempting to advise his distraught partner was that, even from his remove, there was something about this particular clinch that set it apart from the gannetlike swoop with which Mrs Harcourt was infamously wont to descend upon any attractive stranger of even approximately oxygen-breathing persuasion. Perhaps it was some subtle aspect of her body language which read less than usually like the erotic equivalent of ‘Oh god oh god oh god, I gotta have all the sherry trifle, right now!’” Possibly it lay in certain physical evidences, apparent to the trained observer, that her M.O. was not in this case that of a commando assault on enemy tonsil positions—or in the even more flagrant and unabashed dereliction by her free hand of its customary duty of launching surprise rear and flank attacks against potential bulwarks of resistance. It might even have been drawn as a highly reasonable inference from the way in which—to an observer so diligent as to have had no pretensions to any civil manners whatever—the young Lenswoman’s response, whilst apparently affectionate and undeniably passionate, lacked a certain je-n’ai-pas-besoin-de-savoir1 common to the general run of men, women, and penguins2 temporarily overwhelmed by the hypnotic force of Candy’s hypernymphotic personality and the pornographic plot-logic it carried like a bunch of dumb rocks in its mighty emotional avalanche.

Over towards the drinks tables, a third and steelily determined incursion of the Style Police had finally been appeased by a no-strike force of Joyful Trolls, who were now pressing on them many cocktails with names well-calculated to distract them from any literary infelicities possibly perpetrated in more distal regions of the scene. But in tribute to this triumph of goodwill over gratuitous action sequence, we shall try not to provoke those lads too greatly henceforward, nor too long. Onward, fellows and friends—onwards! to our glorious and eagerly-awaited grand climac—

Please do not throw fwaps at me!

Since the urbane and ever-courteous Trader could not possibly have stared at the deeply intimate hot g^H^H^H^H^H and touching spectacle for long enough legitimately to draw those conclusions, and in any case had been dragged away by Carrie before the opportunity arose, it can hardly be likely that that final anomaly about the Kiss had in fact occurred even to that supersensitive and worldly-wise soul. No, dear, it didn’t! And since, in the spirit of jolly good cheer and mutual respect with which the Quadrille was double-dipped and deep-steeped, the general company was now turning its joint and several attentions to other matters in an almost marked manner, it is probable that no-one else did either. Well, not unless they were natural empaths from some deeply advanced culture whose thought occupied sufficiently high bands as to partially overlap with Cam Kinnison’s natural resonances; and how likely was that, eh?

Nyssa stumbled in her dance, a rare event indeed. “You okay, Nyss?” Tegan demanded concernedly, catching the little Traken lest she fall. Her friend’s countenance did not immediately reassure her, being atypically flushed and hectic. “Doc—!”

But Nyssa laid a gentle finger on Tegan’s lips. “Oh, my Elissa,” she whispered warmly in her longtime companion’s ear, using that Traken heart-name on which hung a hundred hundred things she could seldom say, “it’s going to be all right. Dance close with me, this dance?”

“You got it, little sheila!” And they had. Across the room, a happy cockatiel got its beak temporarily out of a Sloe Comfortable Narrative Up Against The Authorial Self-Indulgence, and emitted an approving cheep by way of a toast.

“Speaking of which,” Amber murmured, dancing past Trader Grey and Carrie.

“Trust me, ma’am…”

Away from such areas of reassurance, however, the dance was breaking up somewhat, it being very difficult to quadrille properly when everyone is tactfully avoiding looking in a certain direction. (Or, in the case of Fitz, is being forcibly prevented from doing so.) Bob the Muse, therefore, took the oportunity to slip away to the food table, where he found Daibhid in much the position he’d expected. Staring fixedly at the opposing wall with a cooling cup of tea in his hand and what could only be described as an expressionless rictus on his face.

“Hi, Dave,” he said.

“Mm,” came the response. Bob, who, through the fortunate combination of a virtually non-existent degree of tact and an ability to leap to mile-high conclusions from a standing start, had already worked out the truth, wondered if he should explain, but decided that, given how easily his author was embarrassed, it wouldn’t make much difference. Instead, he had another idea.

“Brig! Jamie! Harry! Chris!” he called, “Come over here a minute!”

They did so, with a curious, overly-casual sidle, that all but screamed “Over there? No, I suppose I’m not looking over there. There’s no reason for this; I don’t even know what (if anything) is going on over there. On account of how I’m not looking, you see.”

Eventually, they arrived at the food table. “Just stand there, please,” Bob requested, arranging them around Daibhid, and producing a long, two-tined fork from his coat.

“Er, what exactly are you doing?” asked the Brigadier.

Affixing a slice of bread to the fork, Bob surveyed the crimson faces before him. “Well, it’s a shame to waste all that heat…”

Mistress of Pure Mind and Mistress of Pretty Much Everything But That broke their long kiss; in a further departure from the Dark Muse’s custom and practice, this showed few or no signs of being enforced by the cruel necessities of practical respiration. And though they remained caught in a loose embrace, and looked long and steadily into each other’s eyes; and though the leather-clad Lenswoman’s hand stroked Candy’s bleach-brittle locks most tenderly, there was something about her warm,

“Oh, thank you!—It wasn’t half as hard as all that, you know!”

that was not quite, not absolutely and heaven-stormingly true romancy, loverlike.

“You did it, Toots!” Candy’s voice had changed subtly; fruitier than ever, if possible, a certain indefinable hot edge had gone out of its harmonics. “That was like—I’m—you did it! You’re the tops! ‘Half as hard’, my big jiggly bum!”

“Well, no,” Cam demurred, as an astonished world waited for a cringeworthy Harcourtian double-entendre where no double-entendre was, in the event, to be forthcoming, “I didn’t do more than a tenth—strictly spotting and back-up, mostly—and as mental surgery goes, that was pretty straightforward. Klono’s brominaceous BO, my Dad could have done that much himself, the big lug—if he could have handled the bit with the infinite rookery of Linux penguins, without having a heart attack on the spot…”

“Hey!” said Candy sharply, with a panicked expression as of one who has mislaid the Arkenstone on the 15:54 to Gidea Park. “I liked those penguins! Gimme back!”

“QX—that’s the part he couldn’t have handled. They’re tucked away there, where we moved them aside to make room for this attentive arc here… between your Katherine Hepburn collection and the Two Fritz Leibers omnibus… I’m afraid the pointers may take a few days to settle fully. I’ve never worked on an embodied AI architecture before, you know.”

“You did great, babe!” Candy released the delectable Klovian completely, in order to perform several bounces of unrestrained enthusiasm. “And if you ever do change your mind—you do know how to whistle, don’t you?”

Camilla smiled faintly. “In the next few centuries,” she said, “I may just learn. I’ve a psychotic Platonist Destiny to subvert in my own fiction first, though, and I’d best be getting back to that shortly. At least I haven’t been a total chocolate teapot at the party!” Her face sobered. “You’re still going through with—what I saw, in there?”

“No reason not to, now.” Candy’s eyes gleamed with merry purpose, and not her default one neither. “This was always just a holiday, get me straightened out a bit. Now you’ve wildest-dreamed me that way, I reckon I ought to be getting back where I belong—and with whom!” She considered that a moment, then pulled a wry face and resumed, “Not the Ultimate Whom, I don’t mean…”

“Candy,” said Cam, strangely hesitant under the circumstances, “are you sure you still want to? You’re not really native to this Darkside of yours, and I’d think you’d fit in better here now—cancel that: even before I got to you.” She received in return only a stare hard and cool as pebbles of rose-quartz. “And… what I saw of that Darkside scares me. Even in metafiction, to maintain a continuum where Boskonian societies tend to be right and to win, against its inherent entropy… That bespeaks so much power, and such incredible malice, I don’t even like to think about its Source.

“It will tend to corrupt you, and it will act along the fault-lines we’ve healed for now. And, forgive me, but you want to go and bind yourself to Musing for a… person… who reminds me of a Gray Roger who dropped out of charm school, and keeps succumbing to possession by one of the most pointlessly obnoxious cacodemons I’ve ever heard even posited. And… Candy, I know you now as closely as anyone else is ever going to, and I really, truly like you. A lot.”

Camilla bit her lip. “I can’t even begin to offer you shielding from that… phenomenon… you call ‘Caries’!”

“Stood it before,” said Candy tersely. “Better set up to, this time. Hey, Cami? I like it better here too, okay? But I’ve got a man in there. He’s mine. I have to pull him up, or go down with him, and that’s all there is to it, you know?” She made a hitching-up-hotpants motion, which sat strangely with the ballgown she was, in fact, wearing. “And if little Ayna could get born there, and come through so’s History Man’d die for her, and you’d think she was Carrie’s favourite niece or something… I got to try, so I’m going to.”

“That’s a Code I recognise, I’ll grant you.” Cam grimaced. “I’m not sure I’d apply it to what I’ve seen of your Battery Bray—but that’s your call. Are you sure there’s anything there to save? From what you showed me… my present visualisation… don’t hate me for this, but it’s really not encouraging.”

“Hell,” said Candy, “nor’s mine, and I know the creep better than you do.” She chuckled suddenly and unaffectedly. “I guess I must just love him, is all. Whaddya know about that!”

Camilla paused, and blinked.

“Even the greatest thinkers in my Universe used to underestimate that,” she said seriously. “I’m not remotely in their league yet, and won’t be any time soon. But I don’t think you’re one who could fall in love with something that wasn’t there at all, and I can say that now with some authority, if anyone can!” She smiled back wanly. “Perchance your prospects are better than they look…”

“Have to be, Toots!” Candy threw an expansive arm around Camilla Kinnison’s grey-clad shoulder. “Come and meet the family, why don’t you? And—oh, ma’am, would you care to do me the honour of doing it by way of the dance?”

“I’d be delighted, Mrs Harcourt!”

And so, like another couple before them, they were; and so too were those they danced by, with all the grace of young and confident superwoman matched with good-timing enfleshed machine intelligence with virtual megacycles of first-hand acquaintance with Astaire & Rogers under her belt3; and towards Carrie and the Trader they proceeded by circling and unhurried routes, and the room seemed brighter wherever they passed.

The Eighth Doctor saw them coming. A wild pang of hope filled his hearts, such as he had seldom known since the glory days of Grimm Reality. Could it be…? He swept off with Anji in tow (gladly detached from the tedious process of as-iffing that great toe-slaying galoot Harry Sullivan in a manner at once respectful of her arch-Joyful hostess, and pointed enough to penetrate the solid inches of gallantry and bone that lay between her words and their intended destination), seeing immediately that Fitz would not soon nor without a crowbar be detached from his current tincture of conversation with Prof. Bernice Surprise Summerfield. It was just as well, he reflected absently, that the Style Police were now rapidly hitting the Road to Oblivion with the assistance of many and in self-defence right rapidly consumed Hearty Fourthwallbangers!

“Carrie! Trader!” he greeted them heartily, for all the world as no history of knock-out ear-boxing between copies of violently cognitively dissonant EDAs, from let it be noted behind, lay between them. “Do I take it from present company that a Beebite submission awaits?”

Anji winced. “And this has to do with me, because…?”

“Well, so to speak and without prejudice to future contractual negotiations and so forth, it doesn’t,” the Trader admitted, with a becoming authorial bashfulness for which he is too seldom given due credit. “This is more in the nature of a farewell: Camilla Kinnison’s Dance is no more; and its proposed translation and deserialnumberisation into the Whoniverse, whilst it has played its part (and a noble part indeed!) in the greater endeavour, has likewise disappeared up the—”

“And I’ll wager I’m never going to get to wear those, either!” complained Eighth, sotto voce, referring to the incoming goldfish-harbouring pumps on which Mrs Candia Harcourt tottered towards them with uncommon if not downright infeasible grace. Those shoes, he was morally convinced, would fit him perfectly! Bother, blow the girl down, and drattation!

“Hi, Sis!” Candy’s enthusiastic Tiggering effectively distracted us all from places we did not really need to go, which was rather a pleasant example of turnabout. “Allow me to introduce my bestest bootiliciousest pal in all the universal worlds, the all-beloved Camilla Kallisti4 Kinnison!”

Camilla blinked. “My middle name isn’t—!”

“Says you, Red!”

“We’ve already met…” said the Trader bemusedly, as well with his longtime fanboily idol and a Tiggering Candy before him he jolly well might!

“Yeah, but if you knew Tootsie like I now know Tootsie—”

“Please be assured that the prospect pleases,” said the Trader rather, and we choose our words advisedly as ever, stiffly, “but I think Carrie and I already exist at a quite, so to speak, appropriate distance; and, being unable to finish lost sentences with the ready aplomb of a Rupert Giles, may I further add—”

Carrie, out of pure love and pity, stepped heavily on his foot. “Camilla Kinnison,” she said formally, “what are your intentions towards my little sister?”

“Oh, wait a cherry-pickin’ minute—!”

“Carrie Pariticek,” Cam returned, a distinct twinkle in her eyes, “I mean to accompany her to Lady Sally McGee’s5—”

“MYAAARGH!” A squashed-looking tortoiseshell cat bounded up, and began stropping her claws against the leather encasing the young Lenswoman’s trim calf.

“Yay!” Candy cheered. “Our lift!” By which it might instantly be discerned that here was none other than C’mell the PLOT-hole-finding cat, youngest and most blatantly weird of Carrie’s three sisters.

Carrie smiled faintly in familial acknowledgement, but the smile scarcely touched her cornflower eyes. “As offers to take my sister brothel-crawling go,” said she, “I can’t imagine a fairer; but I meant in the longer term.”

Trader Grey winced.

“Sis,” said Candy, “there isn’t going to be any ‘longer term’…”

“I see.” Carrie’s voice could have frozen daffodils in such wise that they could be fractured, glasslike, in that now-traditional party trick with the hammer. “I hope you’ll both enjoy yourself very much. Moving right along, does it seem to anyone else that we—?”


“It’s all right, Candy.” Only an entity thoroughly assimilated into mortal womanhood could have put such a tooth-aching backspin onto such an ostensibly light remark as Carrie achieved then. “I was just wondering about the resolution of our quest, this time—”

“—Round. Yeah. Carrie, we’re not going together. Not together together, if you get me…”

“—and whether it doesn’t raise more questions than it—” Carrie blinked. The Trader had abstracted a rolled-up website from some fold of her electric-blue ballgown, and very gently commenced tapping her on the nose with it. “Not together? Not how many togethers?”

“Not in the al—?” began the Trader in honest becrogglement, and received an immediate education in how God meant a rolled-up website to be fwapped with.

“I’m just stopping off there to consult with Lady Sally about this ‘Darkside’ phenomenon.” Camilla nodded to Eighth. “I’d appreciate it if you could leave your own observations about it with her, from time to time. It’s bad—the whole set-up stinks like a Sandusker take-away—and somehow I’m not reassured by its present quiescence. If that spreads beyond the metafictions, the whole Cosmic All could be in for a lot of grief I definitely don’t care to contemplate…”

“It’s showed no signs of that yet,” Eighth said, with a manly frown. “But as you wish. I’ll do it!”

“‘Lady Sally’s?’” Anji gave him a suspicious look. “Doctor, how do you know—?”

“I’ll explain later,” the Doctor lied.

“Thank you for taking an interest, and for treating Candy.” Carrie did not sound very much mollified. “Well, Camilla, it’s been—”

“Treating?” Candy shook her head bemusedly. “Hoo boy, babe, have you got it bass-ackwards! I’m going for a job interview!”

The coldness dropped all at once from Carrie’s voice, to be replaced by open concern. “Candy… if that’s what you want to… but, are you quite sure… you haven’t been here so long… oh, mode protection violation #FFCE04, I don’t…”

“You don’t think I could cut it, huh?” Candy’s voice was very level, but the glow on her cheeks gave her away. “Yeah, yeah, I know the House’s rep. ‘Art with contempt in it is always sour’, huh?” Carrie’s unhappy flicker6 said all that needed to be. “Thought I’d get some practice in, the other way. Might as well learn from the… horse’s mouth… you might say.”

Gray and Eighth exchanged concerned looks of their own. Candy’s enthusiasm for the prospect was all too understandably and undeniably evident—and in terms of fitting what they each understood of the job profile, she surely did, to much the same degree that Christina Aguilera might confidently expect to sashay unopposed into the post of Head of the Tehran Advanced Nuclear and Strategic Studies Institute7.

There are levels of the Art at which indiscriminate nymphomania, galloping squickophily, and a tendency to get Early Modern on offensive persons with brass knuckles and impossible chainsaws, are not unalloyed assets. There are establishments at which habitually tooting cocktails of morphia, monosodium glutamate, and bleach powder is not actively encouraged for its simplifying effect on industrial relations, nor even passively tolerated. There are circles in which, whilst a cultivated acquaintance with the great masters of erotic literature is indeed prized, a tendency to commit romans a clef in which oneself and one’s entire social circle die unspeakably and futilely in snuff crossovers with titles like The Story of, O, One Hundred and Twenty Days of Skeleton Girls in Furs (with Whips) Against Nature of Cancer of Venus, raises the odd eyebrow in positive disapprobation. And even such, by universal repute, were the exalted art, policy, and mores of Lady Sally’s House.

And Candy smiled a smile of surpassing and undoubtable sweetness—an ability she had possessed ever since anyone this side of the Dark had known her—and took Camilla’s hand in one of her own, and Carrie’s in the other. “Cam,” she said, “we could ding-dong like this all night, and time’s drawing in. Can you put me and Carrie en rapport for half a mo?”

Carrie started, then set her shoulders and met the Klovian’s eyes squarely. “I—never mind. Would you?”

“With pleasure,” said Camilla, and did so.

It was another of those speed-of-thought jobs, over in a notmuchosecond.

It has already been intimated that, with the loss of her hologrammatic nature in favour of fleshly embodiment, Carrie’s ability to perform one of her former-trademark whole-body glows in moments of exceeding delight had necessarily been lost. From which we may observe that logic itself is not incapable, from time to time, of sucking like a great big hoover.

Trader Grey, Carrie, Candy, and Camilla were briefly lost to the world within the event horizon of a group hug of the most enthusiastic proportions. And much did Anji marvel, upon perceiving Candy’s utterly uncharacteristic neglect of this perfect opportunity for copping a feel of her sister, her Author’s brightside counterpart, and/or even her recent partner in that really embarrassing kissy PDA. But the Doctor, after a moment’s quizzical peerology, appeared to be struck with enlightenment of some description, and smiled with the understanding of a joyful event well-framed by a benevolent Fate. There was one small, bitter irony in the whole event for him, of course—but how, after all, could it ever be otherwise? For there was little question indeed of Fate’s bringing happiness unalloyed to him—the Eighth! the Eighth Doctor! always the bridesmaid and never the bride, and listen, mush, the first smartarse fanboy to mention The Adventuress of Henrietta Street gets a sound fwapping with a TARDIS roundel, are we all clear about that?!

Anji saw the Doctor’s wry, lopsided smile, and could not forbear to comment. “Penny share for your thoughts?” she said bracingly.

“Eh?” The Doctor shook his head, awakening from his reverie and tearing his gaze away from the goldfish that still swam mesmerically around within the tall heels of Candy’s aforementioned and unattainable glass pumps. “No, no, no, nothing at all. I was just thinking that all’s well that ends well, and that the Joyful gathering has done the trick as usual. There’s a moral in that somewhere, you know!”

The group hug finally broke up, and Carrie blinked a few times before returning to her usual unrufflably cool demeanour. “Oh, my,” she murmured. “C’mell, could you pop outside and bring Calypso8 through? She’ll be so happy—”

C’mell fluffed out her tail like a bottle-brush. “Uh-uh, sweet-chops,” Candy demurred. “My man is not fit to be left alone, and I don’t think our gracious welcome extends to having him at the party!”

“I see.” Carrie searched very carefully for words. “Candy, I’m glad that you’re moving on to… something you deserve better. I know this will be right for you. But you can’t just leave Calypso Darkside in your place. This was only a temporary arrangement, until you and your ‘Author’—”

“Don’t quote that.”

“—unquote, had had time to recover from each other. Until you knew what you were doing.

“You’re better now, Candy. It’s time.”

Candy sighed and shook her head. “Listen up, Ol’ Blue-Eyes! It’s not like you’d desert your lump of lead here, is it? It’s like that for me, and never forget it. Ever since that crazy Third Pro-Fane Bacchanal, and maybe I think before. ‘Our souls a single stock’, and all…”

“I… but then, I don’t understand. You can’t be going back, not now you have this chance…”

“Not yet, no. It isn’t time.” Candy’s breathing was coming a bit heavy now, not that this was an unheard-of occurrence. “Cam showed me that. See, I haven’t changed as much as all that. I just don’t have to do stuff any more. I’m on a high about that right now—you felt that, eh?—but I’m not exactly Joy To The World between the old sticky and satins, you know? Or much elsewhere, when you get to it. Good dirty fun, tops. I need the other side too… before I go back, or it’ll all be for nothing. Can’t share what I don’t get, can I?”

A familiar loving malice was fast seeping back into her big ripe grin. “No offence, Sis, but I’m not you, and my cuppa coca’s not yours. I’m glad you brought me here, and sure Eloise is clearly quite the authority on Joy in her way… but all my fortune cookies end with the words ‘in bed’, and that’s not really her pidgeon. It is Her McGeeship’s, though—so that’s where I earn my diploma. La,” she added, the thought of Eloise apparently recalling her official guestly persona. “And when I’m good and ready… I’m back. And may the best girl or evil alternate universe WIN!”

Trader Grey shook his head in an unconvinced manner. “That’s a long time to leave Calypso stuck with your boyfriend…”

Carrie winced, and love-tapped him warningly. “Choice of words, Gray. For the love of Mnemosyne, choice of words!”

“Hey, bitch! Don’t you go catching my double-entendres, now!” Candy thwacked her sister resoundingly between the shoulder-blades. “No bother that way, see? Lady Sally’s people know more about time-hopping and fiction-flipping than Teddy Boy here and all his passel of Rassilons, if the tales say true… so what you do, you call up Lyps one day after I go, ‘cause they’re nearly as faughing inaccurate, and you give her the Kitty-Come-Home. If the Lady flips me off, you’ll both know it before then.”

Carrie seemed to be caught between laughter and tears, and so typically opted for neither. “If she does that,” she said, “she is madder than you are… I could have phrased that better, couldn’t I?”

“Doubt it… Well, it’s the job as never gets started as takes longest to finish, as old Gaffer Gamgee used to tell me when I used to help him grub up his taters… Cazzer, why’d you just fwap me with a rolled-up website?”

Carrie smiled. “For calling me ‘Cazzer’,” said she. “And you don’t have to do that other thing anymore, do you?”

“No, but I wanted—Oh, hey, babe, I got to go, if I might crave yr worships’ pardon and indulgence, especially the latter…” Candy’s pink eyes shone as she babbled, if not precisely with tears at least with the sheen of an imminently-melting strawberry sorbet. “I know I wind you up, I just never could resist it, and that is not gonna change soon… Thanks for putting up with it, and never making me sock ya, and…” The Musely sisters hugged each other again: Carrie as if Candy were some exceptionally fragile confection of fine-spun sugar-sculpture, Candy as if her sister were still a virtual figure with no back to break. “Thanks for always telling me ‘No!’”

Carrie blushed. “I knew you were just…”

“The hell I was just! You’re hotter than S Doradus with extra jalapeno, and sweeter than, well, hey, me; and it’s not like we grew up together or were gonna have kids with three heads or something! Want want want, me!” The elder Muse copped a pythonic squeeze that relieved her of any possible need for speech. “But I’m still glad you never would, neither of you.” The Trader coughed, and paid close attention to a passing invisible white rabbit. “Sisters forever, huh?”

“Forever,” said Carrie quietly, “and whatever, and however. Mnem’s kiss, and fortune’s favour—to both of you.” They kissed once more, and broke apart.

“And one more thing,” said Candy in a rush, “about Trolloise and Flora-boy and all. Whoever redacts the Quadrille, could you guys ask ‘em to think about hiving my shenanigans off to a satellite, like you and Gray did with the Campions9? Only it’s her party and all, and I was just really along for the ride, and it’s not like I want to hog these great scoops of it, like all the world and his brother have some kind of reason to care anyway? Up to her, but—I gotta skip! ‘Bye, auf wiederkuessen, la, I trust I’ll see you all well—’Bye, Fastolf! Thanks for some enchanted evening! See you around, sir, hear?” And she bolted for the door, scattering breathy farewells as she went, and performing marvels of Rogers-worthy dancework in avoiding C’mell’s sportive attempts to place herself between, under, and on top of Candy’s feet with every step, skip, and jump she took.

“I thought she was going with you!” Anji objected, not that in her own perfect reality Candy’s swift having it away on her toes would necessarily have raised issues about the whole customer service thing. One just likes to keep track of some people!

“Panic attack,” said Camilla succinctly. “It’s not an unusual reaction to having a large load of freedom suddenly dropped upon one’s head.”

The Doctor snorted. “You speak as if freedom were an imposition…”

“Isn’t it?” Cam shook her fiery head tolerantly. “Perhaps not for you—but when in the course of discussions with your two Friends of Free Enterprise here, I realised that I didn’t want to follow the Grand Plan of Heavily Foreshadowed Destiny, complete the Plooran genocide, and breed a new super-race with my sibs—”

Anji rolled her eyes in disgust, and sniffed loudly. “Is it just me, Doctor, or is there a very unsavoury theme developing in this posting?”

He shrugged. “I suppose it’s one problem my people have spared themselves, at least…”

“The operative word here is won’t,” Cam observed. “I can relate to that particular issue of Candy’s, yes… and to her needing to be alone for a moment. It’s not as though I’ve ever been under a compulsion I couldn’t crack, either—let alone one like hers.” The diamond edge glinted through again: clearly the Lenswoman was not entirely reconciled to not putting certain City-of-Dreamish agencies through the big mangly mill. She shook her head again, visibly closing the subject. “Suffice to say that, if my mind weren’t inherently stable at the third level of stress, I’d definitely have thrown a major one at that point—that which, in the Modern English continuum, I believe your thinkers have aptly characterised as ‘a wobbly’…

“But I think I’d better flit any moment now—I’d sooner not leave Candy cooling her… heels… with C’mell too long.”

You little telepathic tease, Eighth thought warmly. You did that on purpose, didn’t you? Huh? came the ultra-rapid and super-subtle response, with the full force of a thousand generations of quintessentially Kinnison whaaaa?

“Carrie… Trader… it’s been… an experience knowing you. I doubt I’ll solve my local Situation quite the way you were plotting it, but the Forlorn Hope or something like it may yet fly! And I’ll look forward to reading about Daz and Shahirah and the rest sometime soon.” What a freight of hidden cosmic meaning, readily decodable by the truly advanced and diligent student, hung upon that ‘soon’! Was there a hint of friendly menace in it—even a whiff of a zone of actual compulsion? Oh, go on go on go on! “It’s a much more tempting prospect than soaking up fanfic about myself anyway—I’m not as fascinating as all that!—and I shall be able to feel that I’ve been muse to a Muse, which probably gives me some kind of bragging rights. For the acme of the human evolutionary program, we’re not the most artistic family in creation, you know.” Cam and Carrie, then Cam and the Trader, exchanged brief and final hugs. “You’re sure you won’t feel any more compulsions to commit capital Irish Horlicks freetrading in GP space?”

“Irish Horlicks smuggling?” Eighth protested.

Irish Horlicks dealing?” Anji boggled.

“You don’t want to know,” explained everyone involved. “Prohibition has its own logic,” the Trader appended. “Unlike your countercustoms co-op,” Camilla concluded. Over at the drinks table, StyleInspector Strunk had to be forcibly refrained from throwing the said-book at the whole gang of ’em.

“We’re sure,” Carrie reas$$$$red her. “We have our own space opera world to play in now, and we can always play the hommage card if we’re that desperate. From now on, your friends can outlaw Evil Addictive Chocolate if they feel the urge—we’ll be busy on our side of the border.”

Camilla gave her a look. “I can’t swear they won’t, you know.”

“Your problem, milady,” the Trader defined, with just the merest smidgeon of the vindictive smugs.

“Or a symptom of one of its minor aspects.” Camilla shrugged. “Well, I do believe we’ve hit the parting of the ways.” Farewells and guestly thanks, with heavy Joyful sidebands of kinds not readily translatable into the limited vocabulary of a fundamentally non-telepathic language, flashed out along discreet tight-beams to Eloise and Florestan. “QX, fellows and friends—clear ether!” And with that time-honoured Galactic Patrol valediction, which is that thing alone and positively not a symptom of cross-contamination by Mrs Harcourt’s terrible taste in tipples, our pulchritudinous pulp princess was verily orf.

“Boy!” Anji exploded into the briefly-pregnant pause that followed Cam Kinnison’s departure. “”Was her Author ever paid by the word, or what???”

Indeed, the ambient adjectival density seemed to have lightened considerably.

“There’s no what about it,” the Trader assured her. “For even such was the spirit of the Golden Age of pulp fiction! In these degenerate days, as the corpus of true Literature is flensed to the bone by pebble-eyed corporate bean-counters, it is hardly to be wondered that the grand cosmic vision that launched a thousand young genii on their cheerfully emulous apprenticeships has been so crimped, so truncated, so outrageously—”

“Gray?” said Carrie absently.

“Indeed, oh electric-eyed siren10 of scrivenershiply delight, you have said a mouthful and no mistake. But what rough draft, its hour announced in your voice, slouches—?”

You’re not11.”

“Swindle! Conspiracy! Fiddle!”

“That’s more like it.”

“Put the violin away, Doctor,” said Anji tiredly. “So getting right down to the bottom line, what all this means is that I’m never going to get to vamp Jalal ‘Top Hunk’ Jaleel—Overgrown Boy Scout of Steel!—even in a lowly fanfic, now?12

The Trader blinked. “This is not an angle of the deal which had hitherto occurred to me, my lady. I suppose the matter might be negotiated with some minor—”

“No,” Carrie clarified helpfully.

“That’s a bit preci—”

“It is, isn’t it?” Carrie placed a gentle yet firm hand upon the manly biceps of Chaffer’s Champion. “Into each life, some rain must fall…”

As occasionally happened with the cyber-Muse’s differently human wit, the brief time-lag between its tangential kiss of attention’s outer layers and the belated realisation of the fell nature of the Near-Humorous Object which had just whooshed past, lent it a purely situational hilarity unmerited by (and possibly outright incompatible with) any intrinsic similarity to the abstract, eternal, and immutable Form of the Funny. Anji, realising that she must now laugh with embarrassing and unwarranted abandon or sneeze her brains out through her nose forthwith, wisely chose the former option. This set the Trader similarly a-spasming at once; and both of them together weren’t as bad as Eighth, when he caught the bug. Faced with this dastardly wetwarely assault on all sides, Carrie herself began to be affected, and her serene half-smile cracked ridiculously into helplessly exasperated coughs, giggles, and finally downright whoops of laughter.

It seemed to be the second whoop that brought the Trader, who knew her so well, out from under. “Carrie?”

“Whoop! Whoop!”

“Er… dear…?”

The Muse flapped her hands agitatedly at him, stood up very straight, began a deep inhalation, and

aborted it,

sat down very hard and suddenly on the floor,

and burst into unprecedented and uncontrollably racking sobs.

“Carrie! Carrie?” The Trader span agitatedly about in search of qualified aid, and raised his voice. “Is there a doctor in the—?”

Eighth was already in action, hunched over the felled Muse, and was offering her a sorely-needed large white hanky with one hand whilst horse-whispering unintelligibly into her ear. A certain alarmingly unnatural rhythm faded from her breathing, as her mode flipped from CON- and SAN-threatening hysteria to the equally uncharacteristic but less obviously devastating #07E0FC ‘Crying Jag Error’. She spluttered thanks as unintelligible as the Doctor’s whispering; made copious use of the proffered great white; and waved Doctor and Trader back, observing as levelly as a lady well may under the circumstances, “Oh my, snuffle, I still have a lot to learn about this, crack, organic overflow buffer wah, hah, hah, thing, I boo hoo hoo hoo, oh, WAAAAH!”

“Carrie, Carrie, Carrie.” It was the Trader’s voice, for a change, on which hung all the harmonics of hypnotic reassurance. “Love, what’s the—?”

“She—Can—!” Further do-wah hung in ominous banks over the end of the utterance.

“—matter?!” Their gracious hostess had come trotting up at the double, the single thought on her tongue also.

“Matter?” Carrie spluttered. “Matter? I’ve never been so-wah-hah-happy in my, , , life!

“Splendid, splendid, splendid!” Eighth skated over all implied gaps in characterisation like the good chap which, by calculatedly ambiguous publisherly fiat, he necessarily is albeit it ain’t necessarily so!. “Well well well, this certainly feels like a hundred kilowords to me13, so surely if we just—”

“Wah, wah, wha?, wah buffer overflow!” Carrie sobbed, only not as verbally as that.

“And I concur fully,” stated Trader Grey loyally, his workerly solidarity plainly remaining undiluted by his crossover from Heroic Proletarian to Morally Ambiguous Progressive Boss-Man (Marxist-Grouchoist)! “Er, Carrie, what—?”

Carrie’s head came up, and her mode switched abruptly. “Got it!” she said clearly, and rose from the floor, plucking a GIF animation frame from a handy layer of Tumbolia14 and wiping her streaming eyes with it. “So that’s how you recover from that… condition! Thank you…” Concerned inquiries as to whom precisely she thought she was thanking might have been made by most of those present, but were forestalled by Major Embarrassment and the 1st Carrie Emotional Reserve thundering in on their big rose-bay steeds. “Er, I’m truly sorry about giving you all such a fright. Just an unexpected aspect of organic embodiment the online manual doesn’t cover… My legs appear to be still imitating jelly, for some reason. I don’t suppose anyone could possibly fetch me a milkshake? I’ll be quite alright in a moment!”

The Trader flitted for the bar faster, if such a thing be possible, than had he descried a dropped milli-credit beneath it. Eloise, of all those present, seemed by far the least flummoxed at her guest’s sudden and spectacular collapse-and-bounce. Could it be that milady troll was thinking of a certain other remarkable AI, whose hospitality and psychic virtuosity she knew better than almost anyone, and at whom thanks might very well have been rightly directed? Woe is us, we may never know! Across the room, deep in abstruse conversation with First and Seventh, Florestan smiled faintly.

Back came the Coiner of Phrases16 on the double, and right so his partner in strictly legitimate business activities did slay the proffered vanilla17 shake with every evidence of refreshment and relief. She sighed with a purely corporeal bliss, and flicked the used carton Tumbolia-wards by way of interuniversal conservation of matter. Anyway, the bin was unavailable, since Benny was currently drinking someone’s health from it.

“Something went right for Candy,” Carrie explained, as though this did indeed explain. “Something other than scam, seduction, or slaughter, that is… I’m afraid the sound-effects must have been accumulating for some while.”

“You don’t have to apologise,” Eloise told her firmly. “We all understand perfectly.” Unable to resist an opportunity that might never come so perfectly again, she produced a yellow paper crown, and reached up to set it upon the bemused Muse’s head.

“Thank you,” said Carrie, straightening it. “And for this, too—and for having us here, all of us, and letting it happen…”

“You have, my lady,” the Trader confirmed, “once more as before, some most distinctly satisfied customers.” He took Carrie by the arm, and turned to face her. “What, never been this happy?”

“No, never.”

“What, never?”

“Hardly ever.” Carrie’s lips twitched. “There was the Thorn at the last Hoedown, of course.”

“That goes without saying, oh galvanic force that through the teal cable—Owwww! Well, but since. Was there not the Hotel Tomato?”

“There was.”

“And shall be again.”

“And shall.” In agreeable accordance with the theme of the whole Quadrille, Carrie and Trader Grey now looked more than somewhat immersed in their own private reality. The veil of waffly inconsequence that normally dimmed, nay sent up, the Trader’s overtly swashbuckly aspect, was parted; and Carrie’s eyes sparkled with virtual electricity. A shoal of hearts and flowers slipped away from the discussion of gasometer-collecting they’d been conducting in Delirium’s wake, and performed a quick round of the hokey-cokey over the oblivious couple’s heads. The three little words on which the whole edifice of civilised life has been built to its present magnificence hung invisibly in the air about them, like enough static charge to keep the young Nikola Tesla happy for a month of Sundays.

“In which case,” the Trader said softly, stepping back a little, only for his hands and Carrie’s to seek each other out apparently of their own accord, as if attracted by the static charges to which we have earlier alluded, “I do believe, if someone doesn’t mind giving us a lift back to Terminus, there’s enough in that rainy-day fund for thee and me, dear Aphrodite Kybernetikos, to hie thither this instant, where in the brief Camelot-like heyday of Nyssa’s utopia, we’ll bespeak bread and wine and book, and by way of Paradise enow—”

It was becoming more than evident to all and sundry that Carrie, on this occasion, would not be abbreviating her Author’s discourse with any fwaps whatsoever.

All and sundry, being made of stern stuff and not given to shirking its duty, did what a collective’s gotta do, apropos of those three little words now so unbearably suspended over the entire proceedings. “GET A ROOM!” all and sundry duly chorused, its tones so cunningly modulated18 as to pass the very borders of public-private reality itself.

Carrie blinked. “I think that was the next clause, yes.” And to the Trader, “And yes, I do believe there is.”


“And yes.” The Dynamic Duopoly disengaged elegantly, hampered only slightly by certain sugar which had spontaneously crystallised between their fingertips during the preceding discussions.

The Trader harrumphed, and swirled his cloak in a pronounced manner. “Carrie and I must rest awhile from trade and errantry,” he stated, as if nothing noticeable had occurred, “and take much and privy counsel on the implications of these great soul-stirring mattery things for the Harcourt family futures market. Doctor, would you consider—?—We’re indebted! Eloise—”

And so, after further pleasantries in no way abbreviated by the looming up of great Fastolf the Terileptil (always, and in ells and ells of cod-Elizabethan fustian, up for a visit to his adored ‘nest-niece’, Nyssa in her Mayor-of-Terminus version19), the Trader’s party took their grateful and merry leave of the First Joyful Quadrille.

And the waffle-iron of the o’erpadded prose went out. And the last of the superfluous footnotes20 went out with the last of the Grey. And delight and Pro-Fun and the Joyful Ending held illimitable dominion over all!

1 ‘I don’t need to know what, okay?!’. This is probably one of those English Gallicisms like ‘double entendre’ which, whilst not strictly comme il faut in French French, has become irrevocably embedded in our own island tongue with its own distinct phrasal meaning. Anyway, it has now!

2 Frobisher strove at this point to look smugly guilty, and we have no doubt that he succeeded admirably.

3 See Memoirs, Mrs Candia Harcourt, Vol. III Les Eidolons d’Antan, Ch. 34 ‘Fred and Ginger under My Belt’; and Supplementary Index of Friends, Food, and Fights, pp1256–7.

4 ‘Most beautiful’, as phrased by Eris Goddess of Discord last time she wanted to start a major divine dust-up, to which the destruction of Troy and the foundation of London were merely incidental catastrophes.

5 In the Callahanian universe of Spider Robinson, a bawdy-house in Brooklyn, chiefly notable for being an asset rather than a liability to the cause of Joy in the worlds. Catchphrases include: “Shared sorrow is halved; shared joy is increased”; “Art with contempt in it is always sour”; “I don’t have anything against monosexuals, I just don’t understand them!”; and of course the now-classic, “Whaddya mean, Lady, we gotta save the world again?!” All artists are on a straight-salary-plus-tips deal, with long mandatory holidays and optional adult-education credits, and have total discretion over which clients they choose to deal with and when, on the grounds that art happens when it happens. Danger money for potential exposure to psycho perverts with time machines, evil supercockroach anticivilisations, and brainrottingly abominable puns, is included in the package. Any and all assertions concerning its occasional infestation by an eternally Byronic young chap in a green-brown velvet jacket are blandly and unhelpfully parried by the Management, so there!

6 Being no longer hologrammatic, Carrie can’t really flicker at moments of extreme stress any more. But there’s this trick she does with her eyes at such times, so that the casual observer would swear she hadn’t changed a bit…

7 Which, as everybody knows, does not exist, hence explaining the otherwise incomprehensible assertion of the—indescribably—talented Ms Aguilera’s utter unfitness for such a post. [Ed’s lawyer.]

8 The only one of Carrie’s sisters not now present, Calypso remains holographically discarnate, and is currently acting under the sinister alias of ‘Cold-Lips’ as a supply Muse for Candy’s wonderfully vile Darkside Author, who writes as ‘Graham Woodenclub’, but is more usually known as ‘Battery’ Bray, the Grey Stewite, Man of Uranium, That Vile Sack of Spam, Ugh, Pass The Bucket! Calypso’s visual and vocal aspect is that of a young Nina Simone; and she can be just as freezingly formidable, though when not undercover one gets the impression that she likes the world more than somewhat better than the arch-diva whose semblance she borrows.

9 <Redactor>: What, and lose about the only coherent plot-line in the whole thing?

10 No, not that kind. Let’s quash that particular rumour right there…

11 And this painful gimmick must now go to its long reward, too!

12 Oh, all right, just this one last time, then! A young man who bears absolutely no legally non-deniable resemblance to Cam’s brother Kit Kinnison, but is otherwise oddly like him…

13 The wordcount-driven Lionel Fanthorpe Galloping Endings™ of more than one celebrated EDA, have clearly left a mark on their victim’s persona!

14 The place where speeches live when not being made, flames go when you blow them out, and cute anime characters’ mallets|spatulas|hand-held cruise missile launchers are stored when not in use. First characterised and named in one of Douglas Hofstadter’s Achilles-Tortoise dialogues in Gödel, Escher, Bach, in the course of an adventure even sillier than your average Pro-Fun jolliflopsiterpsiroisterijellofightification15!

15 We did not feel it was meet for the longest word in the English language to relate to fault-finding any more, and so have coined a more Joyful alternative.

16 It should be noted however that, when actually charged on this count during an inadvertent stopover on the misleadingly named and exceedingly dry Star Age colony called Shiraz, the Trader was spared its stringent penalties for coining; since, in the penetratingly witty judgement of the wise Qadi Omar ‘I like a larf, me!’ O’Driscoll, none of the allegedly felonious <nudge>utterances</nudge> appeared to have gained any <geddit?>currency</geddit?>. Oh, worra lorra larfs were had by all!

17 After a year of regular association with her sister, Carrie is accustomed to taking her vanilla where she can get it.

18 At approx. 120 dB.

19 From the Trader’s earliest and most grandiose opus, the online novel Nyssa’s End. This has been a shameless autoplug, but the Commercial Couplet would like to remind their Gentle Reader that, when all is said and done, Traders must advertise!

20 This one.

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Story copyright © 2003 the original authors; this compilation copyright © 2003–2005 Igenlode Wordsmith and Paul Andinach; HTML modified by Imran Inayat.