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I open my eyes. I am in a warm yellow room. I am lying on a soft bed. Juronco- bearing several scars across his cheek since last time I saw him- is bending over me, shaking my shoulder. My right eye takes a minute to focus. My left comes sharp and crystal-clear immediately.
"Welcome back!" says Juronco, and smiles broadly. "Lady Annn sent me to wake you- or at least to try- and I was hoping against hope you'd actually come out of it. We should make it just in time."
"Just in time for what?" I say, trying to wrap my mind around the waking world again.
"The official crowning of the Empress of Midport," Juronco says, and smiles again at my face. "You've missed at lot. Don't worry, I'll fill you in. You're a hero now, did you know that? They found Silva's body amidst the wreckage- dead, of course, with my honorable father's bullet in his head...and half-destroyed by something else. What happened in there?"
"Ask Erythrummius," I say, and sit up on the edge of the bed. "Um. There's something funny with my left eye. Has anyone had a look at it?"
"Of course," says Juronco. "Our best technicians have had plenty of looks at it. It's artificial. The nerves in your real eye were damaged by something, probably during the explosion. Don't worry, I think you will love it, in time."
"Right. Sure. Can you get me my clothes, please? My OLD clothes, Juronco."
I decline to ride with Juronco to the ceremony, stating that I had to grab a few things before I leave, but honestly...I need to walk and think. Everything is happening so fast. I know, deep-down, that I never had control to begin with, but in some way I feel like I'm not in control anymore. It's out of my hands. Maybe I'm just getting old.
I pass a dark, narrow alley, and that deep-down sense- the one that all investigators have to have, if they expect to live very long- starts whispering in my ear. At the same moment, a voice comes from within the alley. It is not a particularly elderly-sounding voice, but all the same, there's something about it that sounds old. Ancient. Older than the hills. It sends a shiver down my spine, that voice.
"Don't let her put you in power," it says. "Whatever you do, don't let her do that. You won't like it. Trust me."
"Who are you?" I whisper into the alley.
"The ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," says the stranger. "Now begone, friend."
My traitor feet carry me away from the alley, down the street, and across the road before I can even register that I've done it. I stop at a nearby booth and dial a ride, and by the time the driver hovers into view, I've almost forgotten about the strange, ancient voice in the alley. I will remember it later, in my dreams.
The crowd is huge, stretching down the streets for miles in every direction. Annn, and the rest of us who were there- we who have seen- are up on the roof of a large, low building near Midport Square. Annn addresses the crowd through a system of amplifiers set up to follow the crowds- and just guess who set those up- equipped for long-range communication in such a way that anyone using any broadcasting machinery will hear the following announcement. She is garbed in a gossamer white-and-blue dress that whirls and dances around her with a mind of its own- I don't know how. Her hair is snow white. Her face is serene, peaceful. She steps up to the podium, and the crowd quiets faster than I would have ever imagined. Whatever Annn's got, it works. They watch her like eager disciples.
"Humans, Off-Worlders, Machines and Metahumans," she says, her voice carrying for miles in every direction. The voice of a goddess. "You are gathered here today to witness a shifting in the balance of power. The old ways are dead, and their men of authority are thrown down. No longer will the Council, the Polis, and the corrupt children of wealth rule this city. No longer will you be discriminated against. I am machine and human, perfect in blend and balance. All things within me are contained. I am the Empress, and I shall rule Midport as none before have ever ruled it. You are all my children, and the children of the future. Rejoice, my children! You are free!"
The crowd goes wild. Applause, cheers, tears of gratitude. Better than charisma. Whatever she's got...
Annn smiles the smile of a pleased Goddess, and raises her arms to the masses. The Empress is crowned.
There is a party afterward, of course. There has to be a party. Ours is a bash of geographical proportions- an uber-party for historians to drool over. The whole city gets into the act- thronging the streets like a...great big throng of people, really. Food and drink abound. We party beneath the sky. Then, when night falls, we party beneath the stars. Overall, it's a pretty damn good time to be alive.
Annn names her advisors and assistants during a lull in the festivities. Juronco, unsurprisingly, is named Chief Advisor. Tomorrow accepts the position of Internal Affairs Officer / Relations Officer with style and grace. He's still wearing his black suit. Ky takes up Trade Relations Officer, surprised but honored to tears. I give her big smile right back to her. Aden and Zeb are both named- as if they could ever be parted- Covert Affairs Officers- which means bloody sneaking spymasters- which I'm sure they love...and so on. I am named Chief of Law Enforcement, and I accept it gratefully. If you can guess who turned down Chief Advisor, I'll give you a cookie. Some advice just sticks with me.
Several hours later, I find myself on the balcony of a hotel whose name I don't remember, looking out at the splash of stars and wondering at Silva's last words. I know, of course, that I shouldn't let the ravings of a madman affect me, but...all the same, something deep inside of me is awake...and dreading.
A hand falls on my shoulder.
I look over, and into the half-smiling face of Mr. Yesterday.
"Thinking solemn thoughts, on such a fine night?" he says. "You should enjoy the festivities. There will be plenty of time for solemn thoughts, Professor Jones. There always is."
I look at him for a long time. "Mr. Yesterday?" I say.
"...Nothing. Wasn't important. I'm coming back in just a moment, okay?"
I wait until he leaves. I look up at the stars.
IS there something beyond the veil of life? Something else? Somewhere out there?
Maybe. But it's none of my business. I'm just a humble investigator.
Someone calls my name, and I turn away from the railing...
There will always be tomorrow.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.