((Author's note: In case you haven't guessed, this thing wants to be a novel. A *long* novel. The good news is, we're almost to the end of Part II: Lensmoor Gothic- remember when I was actually displaying the chapter name at the top of these? Thems was the good old days- and nearing Part III: The Penniford Run. Which is almost, nearly, probably close to the end of the first fourth or so of the story. So if you're getting tired of seeing 'The Outsiders - Part Hojillion' on the main page, you may want to petition Ochani to have me committed. To those who are actually following this monster (all three of you), rejoice! There's more to come. Much, much more. I don't know what I'll do with this thing when it's done. Try to convince, cajole, or otherwise hypnotize someone into publishing it, maybe? Any suggestions? -JP))
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Sandra set the pipe down and sat back. The room was thick with pungent, minty-smelling smoke. She exhaled, adding to the miasma. "When should we expect to hear from you?"
"Within a few days, I should think," the Professor said. "I'll have my man Standish contact you when I have anything to relate."
"Sorry?" Liam said. "You'll have who do what?"
"Standish. An associate of mine. Is there a problem?"
"You're...what? Outsourcing this job?"
The Professor contrived to look both tired and annoyed at once. "I could explain to you how that word is wrong in every particular, but frankly, I can't be bothered. No, Mr. Steiner. I am entrusting some of the legwork to my closest and most talented assistant, Henry Standish. It may seem to you as if I have nothing better to do than sit on my much-deserved laurels and contemplate my navel, but that is because I have chosen to entertain guests- the three of you- during a long-anticipated break from my daily activities. Just because you do not see my assistants, associates, servants, messengers, and assorted hangers-on, this does not mean they are not there. Intriguing as your little problem is, it ranks quite low on my list of Important Things That Must Be Done. I have intrigues stretching across half the Multiverse. I cannot be bothered to toddle down the pub to personally deliver messages to you. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes," Sandra said. "We appreciate your assistance." She shot a glance at Liam. "Or I do, at least."
"I have no doubt we'll benefit from working together," the Professor said. "My associations with the Society have always been positive, though I find their variety of micromanaging ridiculous and counterproductive." He was talking more freely now, the smoke having loosened his tongue. "They may be visionaries, I don't argue that. But visionaries need practical, business-oriented minds to translate their visions into the material world. This is what the Society hasn't come to understand yet. Once they can delegate authority- or find someone willing to do so- they will undoubtably enter the field of play. At the moment, however..." He stirred the layer of smoke with a hand and smiled.
"One," Liam said. "The Society isn't a business. It's been set up the way it is for a reason. Two-"
"And do you know that reason, Mr. Steiner?" The Professor seemed more at ease now, more confident in his mastery of the conversation. He smiled a grandfatherly smile at Liam. "No, of course you don't. You trust to the knowledge and intuition of your role models. Bishop, Harmon Blake, Mr. Bilody- they tell you they know what they're doing. They tell you they have plans. And yet the Society seems no more organized than when it was formed. Why is that, do you think?"
"Two," Liam said. "Not being centralized, not being bloody organized, is the whole idea. In a nonlocal Multiverse, any-"
The Professor held up a hand. "Please. Don't insult me by feeding me the party line. Bishop may know what he means when he talks about a nonlocal Multiverse, but I don't, and I am quite certain you don't. I consider myself a practical magician, not a theorist, and you are neither, so let's not have a load of tummy-rubbish about 're-engineering the reality game' or 'programming holographic mindspace', whatever that means."
Liam crossed his arms. "You're not a magician. You're a businessman."
"The two are not mutually exclusive. And you needn't use 'businessman' as if it were a nasty word. If individuals like myself did not exist to keep the wheels running smoothly, there would be no place for individuals like you to drop out of, much less come running back to when you want something." He sat up, brushing off the knees of his trousers. "However, as bracing as this discussion has been, I have work that needs doing tonight. I will be certain to contact the three of you when we have something to proceed on." He stood up and offered out a hand to Sandra.
She stood up and shook it. "We'll be in touch."
"Undoubtably. You can see yourselves out?"
"Do you trust him?"
"Of course I don't trust him. And that reminds me: I'm pissed off at you."
"Listen," Liam said. "I know I acted like-"
"Oh, I know what you acted like. But that's not why I want to smack the shit out of you."
"Um. It isn't?"
"Look, you just do that, and that's fine, because you weren't the primary negotiator in there. I was. But you made me feel like the villain for being polite to him, and I don't like feeling like the fucking villain, Liam."
"I'm sorry, love."
"You're fucking right you are. I mean, Jesus, Liam! What would you have done if I wasn't there?" She made a face. "Oh, that's right, you wouldn't have gone if I wasn't there, because you wouldn't have thought of it."
"Sandra, I'm sorry."
"I don't care. I'm going to be good and pissed for as long as I feel like it, and you're just going to have to deal with it. Or you can find someone else to drink with, I don't care. Isaac, you want to get a drink with me?"
Isaac, who was trailing some yards behind them, looked up. "Hm? Oh. Sure."
Sandra paused, and took a longer look at him. Her brows drew together. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. I just feel...really weird."
"It's not us, is it? I mean, we yell and scream and try to kill each other, but that's just how..." She stopped. "Jesus. I sound like someone's mother. 'When mommy and daddy argue, it doesn't mean they don't love each other'. Oh yes, there will be whiskey tonight..."
"It's not that," Isaac said. "I just...my brain feels weird. Sort of. Um. Fizzy."
"That's probably the Lux," Liam said. "They say the original strain could bring on hallucinations."
"Hey." Sandra punched Liam in the shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be still petrified with outrage or something?"
"Couldn't be buggered. Can we skip the petrified outrage and go straight to the heavy drinking instead?"
"Hmm." Sandra appeared to consider this. "Yeah. All right."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.