(Rated 'R' for naughty language and misuse of Zen)
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Town and Country - 2
"Aw! Sweet Jesus McJoseph, that's disgusting."
Isaac shrugged. "The power's off."
"I was lured by the siren song of cozy lights. I regret nothing."
"Well, unless you want to go rooting through someone's refrigerator- no!" he said, as Liam's eyebrows went up. "What the hell kind of on-the-job training is this?"
"The Society isn't a job, like. It's not something you do. It-"
A silhouette lurched past the window. Isaac jumped, banging his knee on the table.
Liam raised his eyebrows. "That sounded like it hurt."
Isaac rubbed absently at his temple. "Do you have a cigarette?"
Liam rolled one, lit it, and passed it to him.
They sat together in silence, watching smoke curl up into the glow from the streetlights.
"All right," Isaac said at last. "I confess. I don't understand."
"I'm told that's the first step to wisdom."
"Nothing. Go on."
"I don't understand The Society. I don't follow what we're doing here, or why, or what we're supposed to do about all this in the first place. I thought I was signing on for a job. I know how jobs are supposed to work."
"Backbreaking, repetitive, mindless, hierarchical-"
"Sure. But I understand that."
Liam crossed his arms. "You want to push an idiot stick all your life, Isaac?"
"Truth to tell, I kind of expected to."
Liam laughed. "You expected wrong, mate."
Three Days Earlier-
Isaac stood at the front steps of the Halls of Night and looked up at the statues that loomed out of the mist and darkness above.
"Ready to do this?" Liam said.
"I don't know." Isaac blinked, and the building seemed to have changed subtly, towers and balconies shifting like the shadows of tree branches. "This whole city makes me dizzy."
"You get used to it."
He looked over at Liam. "Do you?"
"You went through the Invisible College, didn't you?"
"How many semesters?"
"Well, I..." He stopped. "There was...I mean, I can definitely remember..." He stopped again. "Dammit."
"The Invisible College is on the border between the Prime Materia and Lensmoor. You had one foot in dream town the whole time."
"That-" He blinked. "That...explains a lot, actually." He turned toward Liam. "How long have I been away from home?"
"Come on inside," Liam said. "We'll see what we can see." He opened the door and stepped aside.
Isaac cast a dubious glance at the man, but stepped across the threshold, into a long, baroque corridor floored in black-and-white tiles. He heard his footsteps echo in the hall, and thoughts of gothic horror rose unbidden to his mind. Empty rooms, carpeted in dust and brittle cobwebs, ancient rocking chairs lain still and dead for uncounted years, a long promenade between marble galleries where portraits of things human and inhuman hung side-by-side, documenting generation upon generation of decadence and sorcery, the crypts stretching endlessly underground-
He blinked and stopped walking. Liam bumped into him from behind.
"Shit! I was doing it again." He turned to Liam. "How long have we been walking?"
The man shrugged.
"I kept seeing the most morbid sort of..."
"It's a mood thing," Liam said. "You're unsettled, feeling a bit bloody-minded..." He shrugged again, and Isaac thought- not for the first time- that Liam reminded him of someone.
"What did you see? When we were..." He waved vaguely at the rest of the labyrinthine building.
"Bishop's just through here." Liam opened a door which Isaac was certain hadn't been there a moment before. "He'll be wanting to see you."
There was something he couldn't remember-
And when he next came fully back to himself, he was sitting in a semicircular booth in an empty lounge. A man in rimless spectacles was sitting across from him, regarding him over glass of wine. An empty chessboard lay between them on the table.
Isaac snapped his fingers, sending the dust motes swirling in the lamplight. "I've got it!"
Liam crushed his cigarette out on the tabletop and tossed it into the the darkness. "Got what?"
"I was trying to figure out who you reminded me of. It's been bugging me for days."
"You've only known me for days."
"Right. And it's been bugging me that long."
"The Thin White Duke."
Liam's expression did not change. "The wot?"
"It's a David Bowie character. You see, he'd take on these personas depending on what album he was working on, like with Ziggy Stardust..." He trailed off. "David Bowie? 'Space Oddity'? 'Golden Years'? 'Rebel Rebel'?"
"Look, I don't know him, right?"
"It's just...you had an accent, so I thought..."
"You've got a beard. Do I ask you about the bloody History of Beards?"
"All right, sorry."
"How do you know this Bowie bloke so well, then?"
"I just like his music," Isaac said. "Look, forget it. It's not important."
Liam looked up at the ceiling. "Right. I'm bored. I'm so bored, I'm going to start drinking warm lager in a moment. I wish something would happen."
They both looked around.
Liam frowned. "Bugger."
"Good try, though."
"The Legions of the Tomb," Liam said. "Are bloody dull."
"Shouldn't we be...I don't know...investigating, or something?"
"Starting with what? Anyway, this is Zen Investigation. It's a subtle art."
"You just made that up."
Liam put a hand to his chest. "Are you questioning the sublime art of Zen Investigation?"
"It just seems a lot like kind of..." He waved a hand. "Doing whatever."
"That-" Liam held up a finger. "Is the beauty of it. See, if we go out looking for something specific, we probably won't find it. I mean, there's a lot of stuff about. Telephones, and chairs, and jam, and soot...but if we just go, and let Everything direct us, we're bound to end up in the place we're meant to be, right?"
"Um." Isaac scratched at his beard. "Are you sure you didn't make that up?"
"Yeh. Well. Maybe."
"You were saying," Bishop said. "About your family."
Isaac blinked. "Was I? Sorry..." He rubbed at his temple. "My family...they haven't seen much of me in a while. Things have been a bit strange since the Happening. You know what I mean?"
"Yes," Bishop said. "It happened everywhere. Go on."
"They're not really very imaginative people. Just knowing I have a job will be enough for them."
"Just Bishop, please. We tend to avoid honorifics here."
"Not to tempt fate, but...do I have a job?"
Bishop pushed his glasses up on his nose. "That would depend on what you define as a 'job'. Your True Will has led you to the Society, I have no doubt of that. But the way you use the term 'job' suggests employment, which indicates by definition a heirarchy or system of superiority. I'm afraid you'll find nothing of the kind here. Anyone can at any time be a member or adversary of the Society, sometimes both at once. We are noncentralized, nonheirarchical, and nonstandardized. There are no rules about interaction or behavior. Each individual must choose how they will contribute to the gestalt. You'll understand more as you begin to master the planes and develop your own Systems. For now, you may wish to spend some time settling in. The Invisible College has given you a foundation to work from, but movement within the Labyrinth will take practice. You may experience some temporal distortions during the adjustment period, but these should subside as the proper neural connections are made. Please feel free to ask anything of anyone- of course- but in particular of William Steiner, who you met earlier, and who offered for you to accompany him."
"He most certainly did."
"Did I say yes?"
"You did indeed." Bishop set down his wine glass. "Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going."
And he was gone.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.