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First pages

1

“You have an incoming call, Grak.”

An incoming call?

Who would be calling me?

I looked to the left to Yocto, my enlightened gnome Paratechnologist friend, and then to the right to Kordeun, my spirit-swilling dwarven companion.

Both appeared as surprised as I.

With his massive flaring eyebrows lifted, a tidal wave of confusion appeared to be crashing across Yocto’s face.

Kordeun was sitting on the sofa near Yocto. His beard gnashed and twisted, threatening to get tangled in his belt buckle, as Kordeun considered the situation.

People called me about as frequently as they called old childhood friends after graduation.

Which is to say, almost never.

We were sitting in the living room of the extradimensional space connected to my ship, watching replays from this year’s glorious Wizarding tournament.

The one I’d missed because I had been laid out injured from an attack by ANGST terrorists who had infiltrated the Gnomerian Federation’s Wizarding team.

We were not really inclined to stop watching.

Mostly because I had yet to see the matches.

Yocto and Kordeun had been lucky enough to attend the tournament and remain unscathed. They had also been fortunate enough to get to the tournament without having to travel through the maw of a ship-devouring, dimension-hopping demon.

But we were all privileged enough to still be alive, on vacation, and taking in the tournament’s afterglow.

“Will you take the call?” pursued George, my far too helpful synthetic intelligence, digital conscience, and general doer of things I did not want to do.

But I never got calls.

Whining, even if only in thought, only begets more whining.

I sighed.

Repeating a falsity does not make it true.

Already missing the rebroadcast before it disappeared, I grumbled, “I’ll take it.”

“It’s the Gnomerian Federation,” George added helpfully about a minute too late.

If I’d known they were calling, I would have said no.

George could be tricky.

But he generally had my best interests, or at least some interests generally related to mine, at heart.

I had already heard numerous apologies from the Gnomerian Federation while I was still on Halus 7, where the Wizarding tournament had been held.

I didn’t need to hear more when I was on my ship, still orbiting the planet. I could see the dry, ochre orb if I cared to look outside, at the risk of missing the Wizarding replay now only to recall missing the Wizarding action then.

I really doubted the Gnomerians were sorry, but they needed to save face somehow in front of the countless races in the multiverse that had watched their Wizarding players, or imposters acting like their Wizarding players, try to kill me during the championships.

An attack by Wizarding players on a member of the audience was unprecedented in the modern macroversal era.

So my being attacked was a really big deal and had some rather large consequences.

The same races had watched me smash my attackers to pulp, subsequently get blown up twice, and then lie comatose on the sidelines for the rest of the tournament while I healed.

Not exactly well-liked before trying to kill an almost innocent spectator, the Gnomerians were nobody’s favorite now.

What were they going to offer me?

“Any idea why they are calling?” I asked.

“The gnome would not say.”

“Alright. Stop the replay and put him through.”

The glorious holographic vision of wizards flying through the air, blasting each other senseless in arcane combat, disappeared as surely as my desire to get this call.

Instead, the giant head of a female gnome appeared. Unlike the Paratechnologists of Alyon and similar cityships, whose eyebrows often formed elegant, sweeping curves or were left to grow in natural, forehead-obscuring profusion, the Gnomerians favored regular, symbolically geometric eyebrow constructions.

This Gnomerian was no different.

In fact, her eyebrows could have been topiaries in a formal geometry garden.

A series of squares, cubes, and pyramids, along with other shapes I could not name, marched in perfect formation across her forehead.

How she did not get distracted by their overarching shadow was beyond me.

Without the aid of magic, she would probably have spent half her day getting those things ready.

“Greetings, most noble Grak!”

I had never been ‘most’ anything—except perhaps thirsty, lazy, or hungry—especially noble.

“I am Joulee Fuseplasma, Exoarch of the Gnomerian Fleet.”

“Well met, Joulee,” I lied. “To what do I owe this honor?”

Perhaps a bit of flattery would get this call over with sooner.

“As you know, the Gnomerians are most aggrieved at the actions of the vile, cowardly, puerile terrorists masquerading most treacherously under our guise. We would like to extend an offer of friendship to help make amends for this travesty…”

Before Joulee could continue—I had the feeling she might be going on for some time—I interjected, “And what are you offering?”

If the Gnomerians were offering tickets to the next Macroversal Wizarding Championships, I was all ears.

“We would grant you the honor of visiting Gnomeria, where we will make full amends and suitable reparations.”

Compared to the thought of attending the next MWC, this offer sounded about as appealing as diving naked into the sun.

I tried my best to be tactful, resisting the urge to give a flat rejection.

Maybe Wizarding tickets were involved.

One could always hope.

In which case, I would march across the macroverse, or into a demon’s gullet, to get them.

I had done so once before.

On my vacation, in fact.

I would do it again.

I put on my best negotiating face, which was just as gnarly as any other I had ever made, and said, “I really appreciate the offer, Joulee, but we’re a bit busy here.

“Could you send the details to my Abstract, so that I may give your proposal the consideration it deserves?”

“The details have been sent. We look forward to the honor of your reply,” Joulee replied with a nod of her head, at risk of knocking someone from their command chair with an unanticipated thrust of her eyebrow ornamentation.

I nodded and smiled, my massive canines protruding even more than normal. “Until then.”

I waved my hand, and Joulee, along with her gigantic geometric eyebrows, disappeared.

Thankfully, Wizarding took her place.

2

After the Wizarding fireworks had died down—a most terrific display of explosive eldritch talents between the gaseous Ilusia o’Ornaus and the crystalline Gundsarrnin Kxwq’a—I asked George, “Anything I should care about in the Gnomerians’ offer?”

George gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “If you’re interested in seeing the glories of Gnomerian civilization firsthand, then prepared to be wowed. Otherwise, they have proposed a meticulously tedious tour of their Federation, with many exhaustive ceremonies and events that will likely drive you crazy.”

I loved that George, my synthetic intelligence, was often snarkier than I.

And that he was spot on.

Sitting through officiousness, particularly officiousness I cared little about, was about as far away from enjoyable as I could imagine.

I would not march across the macroverse and into a demon’s gullet for the pleasure.

“Is there anything else? Any offers, perhaps?”

I held out hope for something, anything, worthwhile.

“No. This is a goodwill mission. One where the Gnomerians show their goodwill and you receive it.

“There may be things—perks, privileges, and rewards— on offer as part of the trip, but those are not the mission’s primary purpose and are therefore not explicitly detailed.”

I sighed.

George, however, was not finished. “The Gnomerians are not Paratechnologists. They do not share our level of technomagical expertise, just as they do not share our level of generosity.

“An analysis of important visits of state such as the one proposed, comparing the proceeds of such visits across species and collectives, places the generosity of the Gnomerians in the bottom 10 percent of cataloged cultural, political, and noetic exchanges.”

See, I knew George had my interests at heart.

Somewhere.

But I had no doubt that his would also be served by not going.

Kordeun, who had yet to leave the couch—his venue of choice for the matches—snorted. “Sounds like they’re well worth a trip across tha multiverse, Grak.

“Not only did they try ta kill ya, but they don’t want ta give ya anythin’ fer it, either.”

Yocto laughed. “If it’s stuff you’re after, Grak, we could give you better.

“And we already have.”

I sighed again.

I could not disagree.

From my ship, to my new home, to the last set of Wizarding tickets, and to almost all my gear, the Paratechnologists of Alyon had been most generous.

Having your dreams come true was tough.

No matter how many came to fruition, you still wanted more.

At least I did.

And I was almost too lazy to be greedy and too unambitious to strive for my dreams.

“It’s decided, then. I’ll let them know soon enough.

“But first, Wizarding!”

The Ilusians’ defeat of the Gundsarrnins’ had to be followed by an even more exciting match during the next round!

Gnomerian reconciliation offers or no.

3

“Grak, you have another incoming call. Will you take it?”

Two calls in a single day?

What had the multiverse come to?

“Is it important?”

I hated to have our Wizarding viewing marathon interrupted, but I would—reluctantly—if needed.

“Of course it is. No one ever calls you unless it’s for something important.”

George was only exaggerating slightly.

Being an orc PI came with its fair and not so fair share of responsibility.

But I appreciated the fact that he was loath to interrupt our viewing even for an important call.

“Unless they’re complaining about something.”

“I field those calls for you, Grak. I only let the ones worth your attention through.”

“And you have my undying gratitude. Letting me watch Wizarding is vital to everyone’s safety…and happiness.”

Before I could say something else silly, George added, “It’s Fluxcoil. He would like to request your services.”

Fluxcoil was one of my primary clients. As a leading Paratechnologist for Alyon, he was a hub of excitement.

“Put him through.” I waved my hand vaguely, and the Wizarding match disappeared from the space it had occupied in the region floating between us.

“Grak!” Wreathed in a cloak of roaring fire, Fluxcoil’s elegant eyebrows fairly danced with excitement as he spoke.

I was surprised they did not catch on fire.

“Howdy, Flux. What’s up?”

I leaned back in my plush chair, readying myself for the request to come.

Fluxcoil seldom called unless he wanted something.

And most often, that something related to matters of import in Alyon itself.

“May I speak freely?”

I looked to Kordeun and Yocto with a grin.

Since both of them would probably be participating, willingly or not, in whatever request Fluxcoil had, there was little need to exclude them from the conversation.

“Yes. Yocto and Kordeun are with me.”

A little fair warning was always a good thing.

“Not a problem. Not a problem.” Fluxcoil was bustling with pent-up energy. He seemed a bit wound up.

Or it could have just been the flames.

They could make anyone dance.

“We need your help, Grak.”

Fluxcoil had needed my help so that I could go on this vacation and once again while I was on vacation.

Nothing unexpected.

“What can I do for you, Flux?”

“Citizens are disappearing, Grak. We need your help finding them. We need your assistance bringing them back.”

“Any leads on why they’re going or how?

“Have we pissed someone off? Any more than usual?

“Has the democtopus come back from the dead?”

Fluxcoil sighed. “We don’t yet know the reasons. That’s where you come in.

“The disappearances appear to be targeted. But we have yet to receive any demands, so I would not yet call them hostage-takings.”

“Targeted how?”

“The common thread seems to be people who have come in contact with you.”

Mic drop.

My stomach fell.

I had few meaningful connections in the city.

I was more of an acquaintance orc.

Friends were few and far between.

I blamed my winning personality.

Except right now, when most of my true friends were sitting nearby.

“Who’s gone?” I asked, dreading the answer.

Since Fluxcoil was talking to me, he was alright. Being in the extradimensional regions of Alyon proper must be protecting him, as it did the cityship itself, from most threats.

Orthanq? I doubted anyone would be crazy enough to try to kidnap a demon lord, but stranger things had happened.

Jumbai? Aside from Yocto, Kordeun, and Orthanq, my neighbor Jumbai was just about the only other person in Alyon that I would consider a friend. I seriously doubted anyone could safely navigate the mind-altering haze of his cave and come back out with him in tow.

Who else?

“Cretus is gone.”

“Cretus!”

Cretus was my best frenemy and archnemesis. I had misguidedly saved him from a mob of disgruntled passengers back in the day. Now, he intercepted me everywhere I went across the city. Flinging me from place to place in a net suspended beneath his giant undead bat was the reward for my not-so-good deed.

Who would ever think taking Cretus would be a good idea?

Only someone equally insane.

Only someone like the ANGST gnomes.

When would these fools leave me alone?

Hadn’t I wiped out enough of them for them to get the message? Leave me and my city alone or face the beatdown.

Sadly, Cretus had never learned, either.

And now they were together.

“Anything I should know or be prepared for when I get back?”

“There’s no one else who is close to you who has been taken, but there have also been some acquaintances who have gone missing. We have warned others and offered them our protection.”

That was a load off. I could still get drinks from Orthanq and uleru from Jumbai.

“All the incidents thus far have occurred in normal space. So, no one in extradimensional regions has been taken. This is why, for instance, no attacks have occurred on Alyon.

“With that in mind, we are working to enclose the entirety of Alyon outside the cityship in a pocket dimension to prevent future attacks along these lines.”

Well, that was another load off my shoulders.

I felt better already.

I would be safer staying in the extradimensional space on my ship where no one could reach me.

But then I would not be able to help.

I grunted, accepting what needed to be done. “Count me in.”

“Excellent!”

Flaming sparks flew from Fluxcoil’s halo as he bounced in place.

Fluxcoil added cautiously, “Since you’re a target, be ready for something to strike at any time.”

I appreciated Fluxcoil’s warning, but, given all the friends I had made over the years, the type ANGST would not be targeting as potential hostages, being at risk was nothing unusual.

“I will send what we know thus far to George for your review. We can go over any questions you may have after you’ve caught up.”

“I’ll be in touch.”

I hated to miss Wizarding, but there was work to be done.

Even if it meant helping Cretus.

Again.

“Until then, thanks, Grak.”

Fluxcoil faded, and with him my chances to enjoy the rest of my vacation.

Now, I had to let the Gnomerians know I was not available.

4

Joulee’s eyebrows filled the majority of my viewing area.

My mother had taught me to always make eye contact when I was talking, but eyebrows like Joulee’s made that very difficult.

Especially when the three-dimensional projection of her face threatened to knock me from my chair.

The problem was, her garb did little to deflect my attention from her massive eyebrow ornaments.

Unlike Paratechnologists, who were generally dressed as brightly and randomly as possible, if they had not modified themselves almost beyond recognition, the Gnomerian was dressed quite simply. Joulee was wearing a shimmering black garment that appeared so fluid and reflective that it could have been made of some self-adhering liquid. Aside from its unusual nature, the garment had no decoration or visible details.

This bare ascetism brought my complete attention to her face.

And above the clothing’s dark surface, her eyes were alive with burning intensity.

And colossal eyebrows.

If it hadn’t been for those comical eyebrows, I might have shivered.

“Greetings, most noble Grak. We have awaited your word most eagerly.

“When will you be joining us in Gnomeria?”

I cleared my throat. “About that...”

Her eyebrows rose, threatening to knock the roof off my ship.

“I won’t be able to attend.”

“I am certain we can make accommodations around your schedule.”

“It’s not that, Joulee.”

“Then, what is it? The people of Gnomeria are most eager to meet you and offer their apologies.”

“I’m a homebody. I don’t like to travel.”

“Yet you traveled across the macroverse to attend the Wizarding Championships.”

“That was a special case. I left because of Wizarding. If not for the tournament, I would still be at home. Probably on my couch. Sleeping.”

“I see.” Joulee’s eyebrows were furrowed, deep in thought. From my perspective, an earthquake was disturbing the geometric topiary hair garden on her forehead.

“And if the Macroversal Wizarding Championships were in Gnomeria, you would visit?”

“I most certainly would.”

The likelihood of that happening was less than zero.

Who would support having the next tournament within the territory of a people whose representatives had shown the worst sportsmanship the Championships had ever seen?

I felt secure in my offer.

Unless some goody-goodies thought letting the Gnomerians redeem themselves through hosting the tournament was a good idea.

Why had I opened my mouth?

Why hadn’t I just said no and kept a flat, unwavering game face?

Now, there was a chance, however slim, that I might have to go to Gnomeria in the not too distant future.

“For you, Grak, we will see what we can do.”

I must have really hurt the Gnomerians’ pride for them to try to host the tournament just to get me there.

Well, not just to get me there, but in part to get me there.

I held no illusions.

I was far from being that important.

Something else must be going on.

“You do me great honor, Joulee.”

“All honor is yours, Grak.”

Sadly, I was afraid that might be true.

And I hadn’t even told her the real reason I would not be able to attend.

It was probably for the best.

Even if I generally had little to do with the best of anything.

5

“How did your call go?” asked Yocto as I emerged from the command room of the extradimensional space connected to my ship and returned to the lush adjoining living room cum orc cave.

I thought of this extradimensional space, the one that included all the ship’s nicer amenities, like the living room we were lounging in, as my real ship and the dirty, broken-down mace-like physical shell as the decoy. The real ship was like the gnarled face I showed to the world, while the interior, hidden ship was like all the thoughts I kept sheltered in my mind.

Except, for me, my mind was less complicated and interesting than my face.

But I was not above stretching a metaphor or two.

“She seemed to take rejection nicely.

“She must be used to it.”

Yoctoerg raised his own impressive eyebrows, parrying my flippancy with a great wave of hair and shimmering dance attire. “Is that fair?”

“I don’t know, Yocto, but it’s what I gave her.”

“Anything else?”

“Joulee said the Gnomerians may try to host the next MWC so that I would visit.”

Kordeun, still planted on the couch, whistled. “Ya must’ve really pissed ’em off by killin’ their terrorist cell at tha tournament, Grak.”

“Or they are willing to shift the macroverse itself to restore their reputation after the damage it took at the tournament,” Yocto countered reasonably.

“Or both,” I amended, plopping down on one of the overly comfortable chairs arranged strategically around the living chamber to maximize sloth.

“Why don’t we go home and hope it never happens?” I offered hopefully.

“Be careful what ya wish fer, Grak. Tha macroverse has a funny way o’ granting yer wishes.”

I knew that all too well.

“Let’s go home, George.”

As much as I would pine after Halus 7, having missed most of the Wizarding Tournament convalescing, home was calling, and I really needed to listen.

With a disconcerting lurch as my world was destroyed and then reborn, we made the jump home.

6

Unea is a lucent sapphire and emerald gem nestled in the cosmic fold.

I wanted to pluck her from the heavens and keep her forever.

Unfortunately, the pocket dimension inside the pouch at my waist was already occupied by my brother Gruke, and he wasn’t moving.

I didn’t think Gruke would appreciate having a planet in his living room, blocking his view of the projections that filled most of his time.

Plus, although Gruke had a rather sizable space, planet-sized it was not.

And the planet’s residents might be a bit upset if I tried to pocket them.

So, all things considered, as we ported in, I kept my imaginings, like my hands, to myself.

 

“Welcome home, Grak!” The warm voice of the Construct filled the ship’s cabin with endearing enthusiasm. Since I only heard my name spoken and not those of my companions, I assumed that the Construct was speaking to everyone individually, or it was speaking to us directly inside our minds; I could not tell.

The ways of the Construct are mysterious and generally beyond a simple orc’s ability to decipher.

“You have acquitted yourself most nobly.”

There it was again...that word.

Noble.

I wasn’t sure if the Construct was referring to my slaying of the democtopus that had been wreaking havoc on the spaceways, thwarting the ANGST terrorist attack during the Macroversal Wizarding Championships, earning accolades for Alyon in the eyes of the citizenry of the multiverse through my performance at the tournament, or showing up with a ship full of trophies to help bolster Alyon’s souvenir quotient.

“Our thanks are yours.”

“Bah! Stop with the formalities, Construct. I’m just glad to be home, alive, and needed.

“Although, in this case, I’d rather not be needed at all.”

No one—well, no one in their right mind—wants to be needed because of calamity.

Helping to resolve misfortune was nice after the fact, but the collateral damage was anything but.

“Sadly, you are needed once more, Grak. With Citizens associated with you disappearing, you may be our best means to see them safely returned.”

I sighed. I was better at smashing faces than delivering on promises or measuring up to high hopes, especially ones laden with unrealistic expectations.

I made no promises that I could return those who were lost—much less safely—but I’d try.

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s more than we have any right to ask.”

I agreed, but I was too polite to say anything.

I wasn’t as tough as I thought.

Not that I’d let anyone know.

Some secrets were worth keeping.

Being an orc detective as soft as a pillow was one.

7

“You will not be working on this alone, Grak. We are actively investigating the source of the disappearances. Further, in order to bolster Citizen safety in light of recent events, we are ramping up our production of Sentinels to look after our residents.”

I really could not argue with the Construct. Not only would more Sentinels increase Alyon’s security, but, given their imaginative appearance, the intelligent automatons would splash even more art and imagination across the city.

Tourists loved that stuff.

Almost as much as they enjoyed feeling secure.

How many cities could say they boasted art that kept them safe?

Ignoring the fact that only a few cities were sentient like Alyon and could say much of anything.

“Is there anything you would ask of us to help you in your work?”

I shrugged, somewhat at a loss. “Let George know whatever you uncover so we are acting on the best information.”

Then it came to me, my remembered promise. “And, speaking of George, I would like a body for him to use as he sees fit.”

“A body?” asked the Construct.

I nodded. “A means to physically interact with the Citizenry in a way that we can relate to easily.”

“You would have George limit himself through a physical manifestation?”

I sensed the Construct’s challenge and recognized it for what it was—a means to gauge my intent.

“No. George would not be required to limit himself in any way. The body would be another tool for him to employ if he chooses.

“Plus, we could hang out, watch some Wizarding, maybe play a few games, and solve some cases together.

“It’d be fun.

“Since he likes to learn so much, George could also experience what it’s like to have a more limited body.”

“I see,” the Construct replied consideringly. After a moment’s reflection, the Construct added, “You continue to surprise me, Grak. I never thought I would see an orc with a heart such as yours.”

“All I ask is that you don’t let word get out,” I replied in all seriousness.

I had a rep to protect.

Being seen as too soft would only bring more problems, rather than fewer.

And I had enough already.

 

“George, are the upgrades to my flat complete? Can I teleport there directly, or do I need to get home another way?”

One of my indirect rewards for taking care of the democtopus scourge that had been terrorizing the spaceways was getting my closet-sized apartment upgraded to a luxurious orc retreat via extradimensional space.

I couldn’t wait to check the place out.

“The extradimensional makeover is complete, and you can teleport from the ship. However, Fluxcoil has asked that you visit him prior to returning groundside.”

I was now alone. Ready to return to their homes upon arrival, both Kordeun and Yocto had disembarked onto Alyon’s docks after saying their goodbyes, leaving George and me to fend for ourselves without them.

That was fine with me.

As much as I loved Kordeun and Yocto, I was, like them, ready to be home.

I had been battered across the macroverse.

From being engulfed by a ship-swallowing demon lord to being waylaid by gnomish terrorists at the Wizarding tournament, I had been beaten up.

I had been beaten down.

I had earned a break.

From my break.

Home was sounding better and better.

Besides, after a few days’ nap, I would be ready to tackle the new case, most likely with Yocto’s and Kordeun’s help.

If they would have me.

And the universe did not conspire against me.

Since my acquaintances were disappearing, Yocto and Kordeun might be ready to put a bit of distance between us.

Especially since there had been so little distance on the ship.

And I often forgot to bathe.

I double-checked my chain belt to make sure my was attached and that the ALOHA shirt was discriminatingly patterned.

Nothing said ‘wonderful vacation’ quite like a new, tasteful ALOHA shirt.

So, I stepped out of the ship onto the docks in an ALOHA shirt with a classy print of ANGST gnomes flying through the air in the midst of a festive explosion.

It was a recreation of the joyous experience when they had attacked me at the MWC, nearly killing me in the process.

Variations of gnomes on fire flying through the air careened across my shirt.

All in all, I thought it rather nice after what I had been through.

As I was walking off the ship into a city of Paratechnological gnomes, however, my shirt was perhaps not in the best taste.

As I made my way toward Fluxcoil and the Customs House, I got quite a few hard stares and disapproving looks.

I could care less.

I had earned this shirt and was not going to change it.

At least today.

All the gnomes glaring at me as I wound through the interdimensional interspecies tumult of Alyon’s docks could jump to all the conclusions they wanted, for not a single one bothered to ask me why I was wearing my shirt or what it meant.

If they wanted to jump to conclusions, that was their choice.

They could jump off the cliff of presupposition on their own.

I had business to attend to, and their prejudices were not my own.

They ran their lives, and I ran my own.

“Grak!”

No matter how distasteful or distracting others might find my attire, Fluxcoil always had me beat.

Today, he was cloaked in flowing lava that was gradually melting away and subsuming the landforms interspersed across his garments.

Since I could see the air wavering with heat haze near his shirt, I assumed the lava was real.

Since nothing he touched burst into flames, I assumed the lava was contained.

But since no one gawking at my shirt happened to bump into him, no matter how much I laughed at the thought, I had no corroboration of the lava’s actuality.

The crowd parted for both of us as we approached one another—for Fluxcoil because they weren’t sure if touching his shirt would catch them on fire, and for me because I looked like a mob of gnomes had been staring judgmentally at my shirt.

Being big, mean, and green can come in handy at times.

Crowds tended to naturally part and swerve around me like water in a stream flowing around rocks.

“Hey, Flux!”

I lifted one meaty paw in greeting.

One of the gnomes staring at my shirt nearby ducked, perhaps thinking the gesture indicated the beginning of Gnomageddon.

Fluxcoil waved his arm and surrounded us in a cloak of privacy.

Or something.

Whatever it was, we could speak freely because he told me we could. “Have you had a chance to review the information we sent, Grak?”

I shrugged noncommittally.

Fluxcoil misinterpreted the gesture. “No one can hear us or decipher what we are saying.”

“I’ve only skimmed it a bit. George dove in, though.”

“Ahh,” Fluxcoil replied, knowing this meant I had not done much of anything, despite the import of the information.

“We believe you are a target, Grak. For what, we do not yet know. You have done quite a bit to upset certain gnomes who don’t like being upset.”

Looking at my ALOHA shirt, he added, “Present shirt included.”

“But I like this shirt,” I replied peevishly. “It shows the ANGST gnomes getting what they had coming to them.”

“And those same gnomes will imagine you getting what you have coming to you.”

“Let it come,” I said.

“It already has,” answered Fluxcoil, his vast eyebrow forest rustling in tangled concern. “Look, Grak. People you know have started to disappear.

“People close, at least proximally, are gone.” And here I smiled, for Fluxcoil knew I had few friends, but many acquaintances. “They are nowhere to be found on Alyon, despite our best efforts to find them.

“You could be next.”

“Maybe me being next is the best thing that could happen,” I retorted. “They’d get what they want, and I would gladly give it to them.”

“In which case, you must be ready, Grak.

“For all we know, there is a whole army waiting to take you out. You can’t just mosey on into their base and expect to come out in one piece.”

Fluxcoil had a point, but I had a counter. “Why not?”

“Because they know who and what you are. They know what you’ve done to them or their allies. They will be ready for you.”

“And now I’ll be ready for them.”

“Not ready enough, I fear,” Fluxcoil replied dishearteningly. “If you’re to solve this case, you’re going to need a bit more.”

“Like what?”

“Your Allomorphic Lightweight Omnifunctional High-efficiency Armor will need upgrading to help you survive. They may employ spectral attacks like those of the demon lord.”

“Then, give me a new set,” I replied.

“Your ALOHA was very challenging to make. We would rather work from it rather than reinvent it.”

“So, you need my shirt?”

“And pants,” Fluxcoil responded succinctly.

I’d known I would not be able to wear my shirt for long.

So much for being a trendsetter.

“Do you have anything else to wear, or would you like me to summon something for you?”

“I’ll get George to send me some clothes from the ship.”

I had taken in quite a haul from the Macroversal Wizarding Championships. I could spare a pair of commemorative pants and a t-shirt from the event.

Trying to not feel silly as I spoke aloud, seemingly to no one in particular, while throngs of people passed by, I said, “George, could you port over a shirt and pants from the MWC?”

“Certainly, sir!”

As fast as that, a folded shirt and a pair of sweatpants appeared at my feet.

“If you’ll give me a little privacy, I’ll change right here.”

“On the docks?” asked Fluxcoil.

“Why not?” I replied.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Joe holds an advanced degree in environmental management from Duke University, where he also studied religion with a focus on meditative, experiential, and transformative traditions. Additionally, Joe graduated with (dubious) honors from the Tellanon Institute of Noetic Knowledge, Education, and Research (TINKER) but has yet to put this knowledge to good use.

 When not at play with his family, he enjoys reading, writing, and relaxation.

Q. Why do you write?
A.
I love exploring the possible, trying to make the imagined real. I enjoy diving into new places and times, where other rules and potentials exist, and bringing those visions to life. Honestly, I cannot imagine doing anything else.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I am a huge fan of 'What if' questions to spark story ideas... Like what if there were an Orc Private Investigator? What kinds of crimes would he solve? Who would be his nemeses? What would his life be like? What stereotypes would he face? How interesting and comical would it be to be him?
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
The cover scene is inspired by Grak himself. I wanted to give readers an intimate close-up of Grak, to show how rough and ready he is to do whatever it takes to solve crimes and what this has put him through. Rodrigo González Toledo and Sol Devia, the cover artists, did a fantastic job on him.

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