Just as Audran finished taking the details of the damsel’s distress, his phone rang with the piercing siren of an urgent message. He hesitated, torn between the rudeness of interrupting his conversation and the cachet of appearing in demand, but the cachet won out. Everyone had a façade to maintain, after all.
“Audran’s Answers,” he said automatically, as a hideous hologram erupted from the phone in a montage of fangs, claws and tentacles. “Good grief, Drake, you’ve really let yourself go. Are you still drinking Monster Tonic?”
Drake looked as hurt as the tusks would let him. “It’s great stuff — puts scales on your chest. But never mind that. My doomsday clock is showing nineteen hours till the end of the world!”
Audran sighed, anticipating a spiel that would inevitably end with an offer to sell him world-saving gadgets at bargain prices. “I’ve told you before. I don’t want to buy a robot sidekick, or a Neutronic Needle for darning the fabric of reality. Right now I don’t need anything at all. Goodbye —”
“It’s not that,” said Drake, sounding worried even through the impediment of spiky mandibles. “The last time I looked, the clock showed three trillion years till the end of the universe. Now it’s less than a day. I don’t know what’s going on. Can you help?”
Audran looked away from Drake’s demonic visage, back to the beautiful blonde who sketched wineglass designs as she waited for him to finish his call.
“I already have a client,” he told Drake. “I’m sure someone else can reset your clock.”
The Advanced Studies Association was full of people who loved saving the world. There was even a trophy for it. Audran disapproved, suspecting the other scientists of a tacit cartel to meddle with Things Man Was Not Meant To Meddle With, thus creating crises to be averted with points-scoring high jinks.
“I’m tired of Calverley winning every trophy,” said Drake. “I thought I’d give you first crack at this one. But if you don’t want to save the day... can I at least send you my new catalogue? Special deals —”
“No thanks. Goodbye!” Audran closed the call with a clear conscience, confident that someone else would step in if the universe really needed saving. However, few of the other scientists bothered helping anyone at an individual level. It was considered less prestigious — almost trifling — to help one person, rather than save the whole world. Yet Audran often grew tired of pottering alone in his lab, so he welcomed any chance to get outside, particularly if it involved meeting grateful women instead of universe-threatening horrors.
“Sorry for the interruption,” Audran said to his visitor. She was smoothly elegant, of course — almost everyone was, nowadays. He couldn’t tell whether she was twenty years old, or twenty decades. With her retro-blonde hair and fashionably furry cheeks, she had the perfect face, the perfect carapace to show the world.
Audran reviewed his notes to remind himself of her name — Rosella — and her problem. “You’re looking for someone called Etienne Ruyter, who’s gone missing?”
“That’s right. I have a party tomorrow. He’s supplying the venue, but it hasn’t turned up yet. All my arrangements — décor, guests, entertainment — are tailored to the venue. It’s unique!” Elongating her vowels in this year’s vogue accent, Rosella spoke with the passion of a socialite dedicated to ever more refined decadence. “I spoke to him last week, but now he’s disappeared. And if he doesn’t deliver, my birthday party will be ruined.”
Audran reflected that damsels nowadays weren’t as distressed as they used to be. But it was a problem to solve, and her pursuits were probably no more trivial than his own. She tinkered with cocktails, while he tinkered with gadgets.
He asked if she had anything belonging to the missing person. Rosella gave him an old-fashioned business card that said, “Etienne Ruyter — Social Historian — Packaging Collector,” along with some contact details that Audran presumed she had already tried.
“Not quite as personal as it could be, but let’s give it a shot.” From a cabinet behind his desk, Audran produced an ornate device comprising three chrome spheroids on a plinth of sparkling impressivium. Each sphere had its own panel of meters, dials and delicate controls inscribed with cryptic icons. He watched Rosella carefully, and was rewarded by a fractional rise of her exquisite eyebrows. He’d worked as hard on the Quent’s exterior as he had on its innards.
“This uses quantum entanglement to find what we’re looking for.” Audran clipped two cables to the business card. He gave another cable to Rosella. “Hold this, please. Because you’ve had the card most recently, I need to screen you out of the scan.”
She flinched, then gingerly held the cable well away from her chic blue frock. Audran frowned as he examined the readings. Fearing that his voice might betray resentment at Rosella’s e -- [End of Preview.]