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WARREN'S WORLD (excerpt)

SEPTEMBER 23, 1983 - WARREN'S HOUSE, 11:35 P.M.

A humanoid creature, 12 feet tall, composed of some dense looking, bluish black, rubbery substance, stalked down the hall towards the group of superhuman intruders. Its jewel-like eyes flashed red in its otherwise featureless, clearly artificial visage. Huge three fingered fists clenched at the end of sculpted, massive, dark and gleaming arms. The polished linoleum of the hallway beneath the figure's dense, thudding feet seemed to tremble as it approached.

Dave's character, Captain Jack Thunder, stared in wonder at the awful approaching apparition.

(Dave himself looked in mild shock across the table at Warren, who was tonight.)

"What the fuck is that?" Captain Thunder cried out.

Night Vision, the black clad man in the battle harness festooned with futuristic gimmicks and weapons, dropped the unconscious ACE (Augmented Cybernetic Elite) agent whose body he'd been searching and yanked his Mark VII pulser rifle off his back.

("Okay, Warren, I drop the creep I'm searching and draw my rifle again. If that thing comes within twenty feet of us, I'm gonna blast it," snarled Rick, Night Vision's long time player.)

("Roll a d20 and don't fumble," Warren said back. Rick obligingly rolled, and not getting a 1, advised Warren "No problem.")

"This isn't fair!" Blue Blazer said, sounding rather put upon, as her player Leslie fixed Warren with an affronted glare from the armchair she was sitting in over by his smaller bookshelf. "We just had a big fight! We won!"

(Leslie's fingers slipped and she dropped the old, battered paperback copy of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE she'd been skimming on to the pinewood floorboards with a thump. "Shit, I'm sorry, Warren," she said, suddenly contrite, knowing how mad Warren could get when someone mistreated one of his books.)

Purple Haze gestured and a square of purple mist seemed to condense out of the air around the rapidly stalking Whatever It Was, congealing into a solid rectangle of purple substance.

("I encase him in a purple rectangle, Warren," Jimmy said, picking up percentile dice and rolling them. "Uh... 76?"

"Fine," Warren said idly, "the rectangle forms, no problem." Behind his notebook, he rolled a set of his own dice.)

Barely breaking step, the midnight blue construct flexed its arms and legs, sending shards of shattered purple material flying everywhere.

"Shit!" Purple Haze said. "I'm runnin'!"

("Warren, where's the nearest exit sign in the opposite direction from that fucking thing?" Jimmy demanded.

Warren rolled dice again behind his notebook. "Sorry, Jimmy," he said, after a second, "the only exit sign you see is at the end of the hall, behind the critter.")

Mindstar closed her electric blue eyes and furrowed her brow in concentration.

("Warren," Ellie said earnestly, "I try to read its mind and see if it has any thoughts I can influence."

Dave groaned. "Just use your telekinesis, Ellie. It's a robot. It's not going to have thoughts."

"Let her run her own character," Warren advised. "Ellie, roll percentile and add it to your Telepathy rating."

"Um," Ellie said, looking at her dice. "Um... percentiles are the which ones again..."

"D10s or D20s," Jimmy said. "You need two different colors, one for the tens, the other for the ones..."

Jimmy reached forward and nudged a red d10 and a white d20 out of Ellie's pile of mostly borrowed dice. "These two," he said. "Call red high."

"Oh, okay, I remember now," Ellie said. She picked up both dice and rolled them. "92! And my Telepathy rating is a 34, so..."

Warren rolled dice behind his notebook, then looked up. "Sorry, Ellie... you detect no thoughts at all in the approaching creature."

Dave sighed. "Told you."

Ellie looked disappointed. "Okay, but now I can still use my Telekinesis, right...?"

"Write down your Energy Point expenditure for the Telepathy you used," Warren reminded her dryly. "You have to keep track of your Energy Points."

"That's why I said to use your Telekinesis FIRST," Dave expostulated. "Now you don't have as much energy to... oh, never mind." He turned to Rick. "Just shoot the fucking thing, Rick.")

"Shoot it," Captain Thunder snapped out gravely to Night Vision.

Obligingly, the black clad cyber-knight brought his energy weapon up to his shoulder, sighted, and fired.

("I'm giving it 4 dice of Energy Blast, Warren, just to see how it likes that, aiming for the head," Rick said.

"Roll percentile and add it to your Weapon Attack rating," Warren said.

Rick rolled, did some mental math, and said "Unless its damn head has a target rating higher than a hundred, I hit it by a lot.")

A ruby red beam of seemingly solid light momentarily connected the barrel of Night Vision's futuristic rifle with the near-featureless 'face' of the artificial being. The beam simply seemed to be absorbed into the dark substance of the creature's head without effect.

("Roll your damage," Warren said crisply.

Rick rolled 4 d10s and added them up. "23 points," he said. "Remember, that's an enhanced particle beam. If it has any Special Energy Defenses, my beam ignores them."

Warren turned a couple of pages in his notebook. After a few seconds, he said, "Sorry, Rick... the beam seems to absorbed into its face without any noticeable effect. It's still coming."

"Well THAT sucks," Rick said.)

"Blue Blazer, Night Vision," Captain Thunder rapped out crisply, "pour every erg of energy you can into it. I've got an idea."

("Les, Rick, hit it with everything you've got, I want to try something, Warren," Dave said, eyes gleaming, "where's the closest fire extinguisher?"

Warren sighed. Another brilliant Dave idea. "Roll... um... a d30, you want less than your luck," Warren said.

"A d THIRTY?" Dave exclaimed, sounding put upon, knowing full well his character's Luck was only 14, and he'd have less than a 50% chance of succeeding in that roll. "Come on, a d30 is ridiculous! This is an office building! What, it's the only office building in New York not in compliance with State fire codes? Make it a d20, I mean, let's not be stupid about this."

Warren looked at Dave placidly from behind his notebook. "Your Luck is a 14," he said. He rolled a die behind his notebook. "Sorry. The closest fire extinguisher is back down the hall, behind the approaching creature."

Dave's face flushed. "I can roll my own damn dice," he started to expostulate.)

A crackling halo of blue tinged ethereal flames sprang into being around Blue Blazer, blasting outward from the area of her head in a shimmering cobalt bolt towards the rapidly nearing monster. Night Vision, having dialed up his pulser rifle's energy output, fired again, a searing red beam spearing outwards towards the creature as well.

("Uh, I'm firing on the damn thing again, Warren," Rick said. "Full charge, 10 dice, in the chest." He rolled percentile. "Uh... 86 total... that should hit."

"I blast it too, Warren," Leslie said, still sounding annoyed at the necessity. "Um..." She looked down at her character sheet, one purple painted nail tapping her Energy Point column. "12... no, hell, 15 dice of Energy Blast." She looked through her dice, then said "Rickie, can I roll your percentiles, I put mine away."

"Don't call me Rickie," Rick growled, pushing his percentile dice over to her.

"Oh, get over yourself," Leslie said, picking up the dice and rolling them. "Um... 57... plus... what... my Attack Value is 7, so..."

"64," Warren said. "Don't forget your skill levels at Energy Blast and the Accuracy modifier of the attack itself... that's +5 for the Skill Levels and another +5 for the Accuracy modifier, which is 74 total." Leslie just looked at him attentively. Warren sighed. "You should write this down, Leslie," he chided her. "I'm not going to keep reminding you of this stuff."

Leslie pouted... but picked up a pencil stub and obediently scribbled something on her character sheet.)

Both beams, the crackling blue and the tight pulsing red, struck the onrushing giant full on in the chest... and were swallowed up within it. A faint pinkish glow could be seen radiating around the edges of the dark giant's body now, and its rapid rush forward slowed as it leaned into the pulsating blasts of energy emanating from the two superhuman adventurers.

Captain Thunder's eyes narrowed. He had originally planned to employ a fire extinguisher, but the closest one was on the other side of the enemy artifact... as the powers that be would have it. But... he turned to Purple Haze. "Those things you create out of your purple energy," he said. "You control whether they're solid or liquid, right?"

("Jimmy, you can control the state of the purple stuff you make, so you should be able to control what temperature it comes into existence at, right?")

Purple Haze focused again, from his frantic search for a retreat. "Uh, sure," he said.

"Can you control their temperature, too? Could you encase that robot or whatever it is, right now, in a solid, supercold straightjacket?" Thunder's eyes sparkled. Obviously, the humanoid device was designed to absorb energy attacks, but the glow around it indicated it had already reached and exceeded the amount of energy it could store and was radiating the excess away. If he could suddenly crash cool it...!

Purple Haze looked... intrigued. "I... I don't know," he murmured.

("Uh..." Jimmy looked puzzled, then glanced narrowly at Warren. "I

never gave that any thought. Can I create my purple energy constructs at any temperature I want, Warren?"

Warren ran his tongue around under his lower lip, something he did while thinking. "Purple Haze is an auto and bicycle repairman and general tinker, right?" Jimmy had specified this when he set up the character, so Purple Haze would know how intricate mechanisms worked and could thus duplicate them with the strange mental energy field he controlled.

"Yeah," Jimmy sighed, already knowing where this was going.

Warren said, "I've let you create purple liquids before, although normally the stuff you make is solid. I've never given any thought to the actual temperature of the stuff, but if physical law applies, then the liquid form of a substance that is normally solid at room temperature should be very hot, like molten stone. And we haven't defined it that way, right?"

"Right," Jimmy agreed. "Actually, temperature has to do with the speed that the molecules of a substance are traveling... the faster they travel, the more distance there is between them, and therefore, the less dense the material is."

Warren nodded. "Which means that your purple stuff is basically just a mental construct that you create as a solid or a liquid, whichever you desire, and which does not seem to be subject to the normal laws of physics."

Dave said, "Which means that now that I've suggested it, he should be able to create energy constructs of any temperature he wants, just by thinking about it."

Warren shrugged. "Not necessarily. We've simply established that his 'purple stuff' is a mentally generated solid material amenable to his own psychokinetic manipulation. Like ectoplasm. It may not be possible for it to vary from the ambient temperature of the environment it is created in. We simply don't know." He paused and continued to run his tongue around under his lower lip, making it bulge in and out.

"Dice roll?" Dave suggested, doing a pretty good job of keeping the hope and interest out of his voice, but not his eyes, which were bright at the thought of the possibilities if Jimmy's powers could be expanded to include these new parameters.

Jimmy's own features were just as carefully schooled to blandness as he looked at Warren.

Warren smiled inwardly. The old Warren... the previous Warren, back in the good old days... would have doubtless already been bullied by Dave's charm and Jimmy's obstinacy into letting the character redefine his powers this way, and then had to suffer over the next few months of RPG sessions as Jimmy, egged on by Dave, continued to push the envelope, using his newly expanded powers to create not only boiling purple lava, supercooled purple ice, and superheated purple steam at will, but also starting to explore various other physical properties of the purple mental substance - like, say, the pressure the substance was under when it was created, which would allow him to fairly quickly cause massive explosions in any confined space pretty much at will, among other things.

The old Warren was so whipped that there wouldn't even have been a question of a dice roll to settle the matter; Dave and Jimmy would just have teamed up to spout some plausible sounding, over-Warren's-head bullshit about physical properties and molar numbers and atomic weights and god knows what all, and Purple Haze would have become an unbalanced godlike entity who could basically do anything he wanted to do and deal with any conceivable situation that might come up with little difficulty.

Players loved to play characters like that, or they thought they did. Actually, they got bored playing characters like that very quickly, as there is nothing more boring than constant instant gratification and a lack of periodic frustration. It's like playing a pinball game where the ball can never drop.

And, meanwhile, the presence of the character would have made it impossible for anyone else to have fun, too, because there was no longer any sort of credible challenge for any group the character was in, and no one else ever got to do anything, either.

It was gratifying to see how much things had changed, that he wasn't simply being trampled underneath the bulldozer wills of Dave and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy.

All that passed through Warren's mind in less than half a second, objectively. (As much as objectivity had any meaning in that context, anyway.)

"No," he said, finally. "Maybe if Purple Haze was a molecular physicist, I'd let him make a Willpower roll to try to do it. As it is, no."

Dave and Jeff immediately started protesting both at once. Warren sighed and held up one hand. "Okay," he said. "As usual, I run this game on the One Appeal System, and I'll hear you guys out since you obviously don't agree with my decision. But in this case, I'm going to explain my reasoning first, so you can see where I'm coming from."

Warren thought to himself, with some wry amusement, that all of this yammer yammer yammer was taking place in the maybe two or three seconds it would have taken the giant android to turn the corner at the end of the long hall the adventuring party was in and close with them. But he kept his amusement off his face and out of his voice. "First," he said, "yes. The purple stuff that Jimmy creates... excuse me, that Jimmy's character, Purple Haze, creates..." Warren always tried to speak very very specifically and accurately at times like this, "...should indeed be mainly controlled by his own volition. The fact that the purple stuff stays at room temperature, even when in different physical states like solid and liquid, is a fairly clear indication that in effect, the purple matter is mainly a mental projection, a sort of psychokinetic ectoplasm, whose shape and discrete form is controlled by Jimmy's... Purple Haze's... will. I can accept the argument that Purple Haze just never thought of altering its temperature before. I can accept that now that someone else has suggested it, he should be able to at least attempt to control other aspects of the energy manifestation beyond simply shape and physical state, like temperature. So you don't have to make those arguments; I'm already persuaded by them. In point of fact, since the 'purple stuff' already defies conventional physical law governing the creation and destruction of energy and mass, there's no reason it couldn't materialize with more inherent energy... like heat... or less, as a supercold mass, or fluid, or even gas."

Dave sat back, looking pleased. Jimmy, eternally more paranoid, narrowed his eyes and looked wary.

Warren went on. "However, this is one of the rare cases when I'm going to say that I don't care. I generally try to be an impartial referee, and simply make whatever decisions and arbitrations have to be made as fairly as possible, based on my own knowledge as to how things actually work, and when I don't know, I do tend to put things on a fair and open dice roll. But I'm not going to do that this time, because, frankly, if Purple Haze gains the ability to alter, at will, the various physical and chemical properties of the mental energy he constructs imaginary but solid artifacts out of..."

"It will make him too powerful?" Dave openly sneered.

Warren sighed exasperatedly. "You say that like it's immaterial, or like according to the Constitution, it's inadmissible in this court of law."

Dave folded his arms over his thin chest and looked disapproving. "Well," he said rather loftily, "I don't think that's something a gamemaster should think about when making decisions, no. I don't think it's fair. Players shouldn't be penalized based on how powerful their characters might turn out to be."

Warren wanted to roll his eyes, as he remembered long ago conversations, in a previous time, when Dave had not only refused to let Warren run a character he'd created named Warstar because the character was too powerful and would unbalance the adventuring party, but had managed to persuade all the other game referees in their group to blackball Warstar on the same grounds, also. But all that was past, and as far as the group here was concerned, had never happened anyway. Still, it was amusing.

"Dave," Warren said patiently, "I have to take it into consideration. What does every player in a fantasy roleplaying game want? They want to be invincible and invulnerable, to have the perfect power or ability to deal effectively with any obstacle or difficulty that arises, to be able to triumph over all adversity and to always be the leader, the hero, the Big Star. That's what everyone wants out of a roleplaying game..." Warren paused. "Hell," he went on, after a second, "it's what everyone wants out of life." He gave a strange little smile that was gone in an instant. " But," he said, gesturing around the table, "first, if everyone got that, they'd be bored. Suppose I told you guys that I'd decided never to kill another one of your characters; that somehow, no matter what happened, my RPG would from now on be just like comic books, and something would always save you at the last second. Think about it. Would you all enjoy the RPG as much? Or would it get boring?"

Everyone looked thoughtful at that. "Second," Warren continued, "even if, say, one person might not be bored running a nearly all powerful character with vast abilities that would be useful in virtually any situation, I guarantee you that everyone else in the group would get tired of it real fast. Attacked by a giant android? Purple Haze washes it out of the building with a flood of boiling purple lava. Toxic gas filling the room? Purple Haze pushes it back with a purple mist he creates that has a higher internal pressure than the surrounding atmosphere. Attacked by 50 ACE agents? Purple Haze inundates them in high pressure, superheated purple steam. What are the rest of you going to do? Carry his golf clubs? I can't challenge him with any reasonable opponents or obstacles, and anything I come up with that would give him a hard time, will kill all of you."

Warren shook his head. "It's not just bad game mastering to allow it, it's bad writing. It's the kind of thing a really lousy comics writer would script into an issue to solve some plot problem, and then be stuck with forever. Sorry, I'm not allowing it. I probably shouldn't have allowed Purple Haze to create both liquid and solid versions of the purple substance in the past, but I have, so I'll let that go. But I'm not letting him start trying to control the temperature or other physical properties of his purple stuff."

Dave looked disgusted. "Well, if you're just not going to allow it, there isn't any argument I can make," he said. "But I think you're being unfair. I don't..."

Dave stopped and put his hands to his forehead, massaging as if he had a headache, eyes closed. "Jesus," he murmured. "Oh Jesus Christ."

His eyes opened again, brown and crackling with anger... and yet, at the same time, almost agonizingly weary. "You fucking nobody," he said, glaring at Warren in obvious hatred. "You've got some fucking nerve lecturing ME on bad writing. I've got three goddam Eisner Awards..."

They'd all seen Dave's strange fits of incoherent irrationality before, but still, they were always upsetting. Fortunately, this one didn't last long... maybe five or six minutes, during which Dave started in (as usual) by cursing out Warren and calling him all sorts of awful, incomprehensible things, and then progressed to looking around at everyone else in the room and rambling insanely at them, too.

None of them could ever really remember clearly what Dave said during these episodes. Strange, senseless, hallucinatory stuff, about the calendar, and his career, and his awards, and something to do with some utterly delusional wife and child... hell, Dave didn't even have a girlfriend at the moment. Nobody could ever follow what he said. But whenever he had one of his fits, if Warren was in the room, Dave always screamed abuse at him.

Sometimes, at the end, he'd cry. Those were always the worst.

This time, fortunately, he didn't; he just ran down, finally letting his head slump into his hands in despair. "You never listen to me, you never listen, damn it, Ellie... all of you..."

He closed his eyes.

A few seconds later, he opened them again, and looked around. Rick had his arms comfortingly around Ellie, who was looking at Dave with her lower lip trembling and tears in her eyes (Ellie was, of all of them, the most easily upset). Leslie, who back in high school had dated Dave for several years, had gotten up and taken Warren's hand and was holding it tightly. Normally, her boyfriend and informal fiance Brian would have comforted her, but Brian had ROTC drill early in the morning, so he'd left at 10 p.m. that evening. Jimmy was just staring at Dave, drumming his fingers nervously on the table.

"Oh shit," Dave said, weakly, his voice hoarse and raspy from all the shouting he'd done. "Did I... did I freak out again?" He looked upset.

"Yeah, dude," Jimmy said, commiseratingly. "You got your pills?"

Dave fumbled in his shirt pocket, shaking fingers bringing out a narrow yellow plastic pill bottle with a round white plastic childproof cap. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "But I'd'a swore I took one this morning... I'm sure I did..."

"Obviously," Warren said quietly, "they don't have your medication balanced right yet, Dave. I saw you take a pill this morning at breakfast... we were working on that plot for the SCARLET CYCLONE mini series, remember?"

Dave had fumbled the cap off and now, trying to shake a single small white pill onto his palm, had managed to spill most of the bottle. Pills clattered onto the table and the floor. "Fuck!" Dave swore, miserably. His eyes were bright with unshed tears.

Jimmy immediately knelt down and started sweeping the pills into his palm with the fingers of his other hand. "No problemo, Dave-meister," he said. "No sweat. Don't worry about it. It's copacetic. Chill."

Leslie let go of Warren's hand and walked over to Dave, slipping her arms around his shoulders. "It's okay, Davie," she said, her voice low and comforting. "It's not your fault. It's all right."

"Shit," Dave said again, blinking. He hated to cry period, but especially in front of other people.

"She's right, Dave, it's not your fault, man," Rick said. Everyone else immediately chimed in agreement.

"We understand, Dave," Warren said solemnly. "I mean, honestly, it's not like it affects our feelings for you." He paused. "I mean, we all know you're a gigantic asshole, fits or no fits."

Everybody laughed at that, maybe a little too heartily, but Dave joined in too. "Fuck you, Dawson," he said, after the chuckles had died out.

"Not on the best day of your life," Warren responded, pertly.

"No," Dave agreed, his voice regaining at least a ghost of its former cockiness, to everyone's relief, "probably that would be the worst."

They all laughed again, in relief as much as good humor.

"Yeah, look," Warren said. "I'm going to call it a night. It's getting late anyway." This was a considerate fiction; it was barely midnight and they often played until sun up... but clearly, Dave needed some rest, and it wouldn't be much fun to play without him.

So the game broke up. People chattered idly while gathering their stuff up, Leslie sticking close to Dave and touching him frequently, just to comfort him. Warren wandered out to the top of the stairs with them (he lived for the most part alone in an ostensibly four bedroom apartment at the top of the two story converted house and rented out the lower floor, another four bedroom apartment, to various college students) to say good night.

As Dave and Leslie started down the stairs, Warren leaned down to squeeze Dave's shoulder briefly. "Be cool," he said.

Dave looked up and grinned. "Cooler than you, and don't get gay with me," he said.

Ellie was hugging Rick, then leaning up to kiss him good night affectionately. The kiss went on for a few seconds while Warren watched, smiling with benign patience. "See you tomorrow," she said, then glanced over at Warren. "Right?"

Warren had just then turned to go back in, leaving the upper door open; now he stopped and thought a sec. "Yeah, probably," he said, after a minute. "Laurie might come over tomorrow afternoon."

"Cool," Rick said, kissing his girlfriend lingeringly one more time and squeezing her ass through her jeans, making her giggle. "Have a good night, baby." He turned and started downstairs. "Hey, you guys, wait up!"

Ellie waved until Rick was through the door and had closed it behind him. "You want me to go down and lock it, Warren?" she asked, her voice serious and eager to please.

Warren came up behind her, slipped his arms around her waist, kissed her hair at the back of her head, then leaned in to kiss and nibble her neck. Ellie reached down to her waist with a happy little purr and covered Warren's hands with hers and squeezed them, letting her eyes flutter closed. She sighed, leaning her head back against Warren's shoulder as his mouth worked gently where the column of her neck swept down to her deltoid muscles. "Nah," he said, in between nibbles, "I heard the lock click when Rick closed it." His hands slipped out from under hers, moved up to her shoulders, and turned her to face him. "But," he murmured, nibbling the tip of her nose, "if you really want to go down..." His hands pushed down suggestively on her shoulders.

Ellie giggled and sank to her knees in front of him. "You really love it when I do this, don't you, Warren?" she asked him, fingers deftly unsnapping and unzipping his jeans.

Warren smiled down at her and ran his fingers through her hair on either side of her head, lightly stroking her ears. "Don't you like doing it, baby?"

Ellie had fished him out into the open air know with the dexterous movements of long practice and was leaning forward, her mouth busy. After a few wet seconds, she pulled her head back and looked up at Warren earnestly. "Well, I love making you happy, of course, Warren," she said with utmost sincerity. "But I hardly ever do this for Rick."

Warren cupped her chin gently and stroked her now moist lips with his thumb. Ellie moaned in her throat and closed her eyes. "But you love me more than you love Rick, sweetie," he said, quietly.

Ellie's tongue came out and licked Warren's thumb. "Yes, of course I do," she agreed breathily, her eyes meeting his for a moment. Then she leaned back in and resumed her previous ministrations.

Several rhythmic, well moistened minutes later, Warren gasped and his hands tightened on Ellie's steadily bobbing head. Ellie moaned happily and, as Warren had first coached her (she couldn't remember how long ago now) kept moving her head steadily, and concentrated on the simple act of swallowing.

Finally, Warren gently pushed her head back, bent his knees, and suddenly swept Ellie up in his arms without apparent effort. She giggled and slid her arms around his neck and put her head back docilely to be kissed. Their mouths met and fused for a long time, their tongues exploring deeply, Warren's arms holding her like a small child, as strong and steady as a statue's.

After the kiss, Warren said, quietly, "Thank you."

Ellie giggled and wriggled in his arms happily, like a puppy. "My pleasure. Blowjobs at the top of the stairs are a specialty of the house, sir."

Warren kissed her again, this time on the tip of the nose, and then carried Ellie back into the living room, through the dining room where the game session had been, through the kitchen, and into the small back bedroom where he slept. Ellie was alternating kissing his neck and upper chest where it was bare in the V from his shirt collar with happy little mmmm sounds. His big brass bed seemed even bigger in the tiny room, but Warren liked it best out of all the rooms used as bedrooms in the flat; it got the best morning sunlight through its one window and was handy to the back stairs which led up to the big attic he used as an exercise room and work area.

Now he lay Ellie down on the neatly made bedspread, kneeling next to her and kissing her again. Ellie kissed him back eagerly and openly, and Warren reflected, as she sucked and nibbled happily on his tongue, that he slept with women who were more sexually proficient than Ellie... Leslie was technically a better and more versatile kisser, for example... but what Ellie lacked in technique, she made up for in willingness and open, unmanipulative affection. She was such a sweetie. Rick was a lucky guy... well... he would be, if they were ever going to actually get married.

Warren put that thought away firmly as the kiss deepened, his hands moving over Ellie's wriggling body, unbuttoning her plaid cotton shirt, slipping it down her arms as the two of them playfully tried to undress each other without letting their tongues out of each other's mouths. Ellie was happy, Rick was happy... all Warren's friends were happy. The world was perfect. That was all that mattered.

On the sidewalk, a block up towards the apartment Jimmy shared with Brian and Leslie, the four friends walked quietly together. After another block, Dave and Rick would peel off, Dave to head for his own apartment on Dale Street, Rick to walk over to the house he and Ellie rented together. They were quiet, but it was a mostly cheerful quiet. No one wanted to talk about Dave's fit, least of all Dave.

"Sleeping alone tonight, huh?" Dave said to Rick, finally. He sounded almost guilty, most likely because he knew Warren was usually more considerate than that. Since Brian had already gone to bed early, most likely Leslie would have stayed with Warren tonight... but then Dave had had his fit. Of course, Leslie wasn't going to sleep with Dave tonight, that was long over, and she wouldn't cheat on Brian that way, but... well, it had probably changed Warren's plans, seeing that Dave needed company. "Sorry about that, guy."

Rick waved his hand. "Oh, please," he said. "Ellie would probably have been asleep as soon as we got home anyway... besides, it's not like... I mean, you know. It's Warren."

All four of them nodded. Rick was no more jealous or concerned than Brian would have been if Leslie had spent the night with Warren... which she did, once or twice a week, generally. Hell. It was Warren. You couldn't be upset about it. Dave knew that. He himself wasn't seeing anyone right now, but his girlfriends in the past had all slept with Warren on occasion. In fact, one of his exes still visited Warren every once in a while; she always said hi to Dave while she was in town. Didn't bother him a bit.

You just couldn't be jealous of Warren, he was too good a friend to everyone.

"You guys want to come over? Watch a video or play Magic or something?" Rick yawned. "I mean, I could go to bed, but..." He shrugged. "I've got a new set of BUFFY tapes."

There was a moment's hesitation. For just a second, everyone there felt vaguely disquieted for some reason. The impulse came and went too quickly for any of them to grasp; all they knew was, the suggestion felt slightly... improper... like it always did, when someone suggested the group get together in part or in whole, without all of them there.

But they all knew Warren was with Ellie, and doubtless they were both having a good time... so that was fine.

"Sure," Leslie said, holding hands with Dave, rubbing her head against his shoulder. "You guys want to play strip poker?"

"Oh, please," Rick and Dave groaned in unison. It wasn't that they didn't want to; it was just that Leslie never actually would.

"Damn, I was only kidding, guys," Leslie said.

"Teasing is the word," Rick said. "For that, I'm gonna play my Blue deck on you."

"Oh, shit, not that Control Magic/Counterspell/Unsummon thing," Leslie complained. "Please don't. I'll be nice."

"Let's just watch a video," Dave said. "Magic takes too much thought. My brain hurts."

"I'm going to head on back," Jimmy said suddenly. "I'm pretty beat."

They tried to talk him out of it... everyone loved having Jimmy around, him and his weird sense of humor... but he was adamant.

So, at the next corner, three of them turned right, one turned left. Everyone called out good night, and the two groups parted.


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K'Thallians are one of the most widespread of the Galactic Human sub-races. Found on most worlds accessible by starship, the K'Thallians originated on a roughly Earthlike world with more than double Earth's gravity and atmospheric pressure. Adaptable, durable, enormously strong, and as a general rule, not hugely intelligent, the K'Thallians have been exported as contract labor (and, in some more lawless and therefore semantically honest regions, slaves) throughout the outward spiral arm of the Milky Way on more than 1200 of the well exploited 7000 World Lines. K'Thallian metabolisms require two to three times as much fuel as the Galactic Human baseline, making them easily exploitable, but also making them extremely short tempered when they've missed a few meals.

-- Touring The Milky Way For Fun And Profit, Webster Madison

Since you should always open a story w…

Universal Maintenance (excerpt)

WORLD 214, SYRACUSE, NEW YORKDean glanced at his watch; like everything else about him, it was cheap, shabby, and in need of a good cleaning. Dean had bought it for $30 five years before; he'd had to have the battery changed twice and the crystal replaced once since then. The current crystal was almost too scratched to see through; it was probably getting along towards time for a new one- but Dean could still make out what time it was if he tried, and to Dean, function was far more important than style. Not to mention the fact that the five dollars he'd spend having a new crystal put on could be far better spent at a bookstore or in a movie theater.It was ten minutes of three in the afternoon. Dean's appointment was at three; as always when he had an appointment, he had left his apartment a good 40 minutes early. Partof this was because Dean had a horror of being late; he was always convinced that, if he showed up even a minute after he had agreed to, people would leave wi…

ZAP FORCE (excerpt)

Graffiti found spraypainted on the side of Sparta University’s Dawne Hall, March 11, 1994:Tesla Girl Tesla GirlI’m in love with Tesla GirlBartholomew 'Barley' Keppler sat stiffly in front of one of the comm-console's many videoscreens. He couldn't really sit any other way; paralyzed from the neck down, his torso was kept upright in his motorized wheelchair by a rigid body brace that looked more like a medieval torture cage than a piece of modern medical apparatus. His head was cocked off to one side and his uncombed, greasy hair fell in lank waves to his left shoulder. The thick, black rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose distorted his bright blue eyes and nearly hid the glint of manic intelligence in them.The videoscreen in front of him was alive with oddly angular Japanese animation. As he watched, one of the characters pointed stiffly and shouted to another, "Blast him, Ray! Blast him with power!!" Knowing it would annoy Albert, Barley loudly ec…