Disclaimer: Opal Koboi, Lili Frond, and the clones belong to Colfer. Nymphadora Tonks and her metamorphmagus abilities belong to J.K.Rowling. The setting belongs to the recent Hollywood adaptations of classic SF movies, and a scene from David Eddings's Tamuli series.
Author's Note: IMPORTANT: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST CHAPTER OF The Opal Deception. Can be viewed at: htt p:homepage .eircom. net/ eoincolfer65/ OpalCh1 .htm (remove spaces)
Many, many thanks and chocolates to Chuthulupenguin and Slime Frog for the A&BtheCofD beta jobs and idea bouncing.
WARNING: Contains femslash (f/f situations), and moderately disturbing/unusual pairings.

Nebula: n., pl. –lae, -las 1.Astron. a. a cloudlike luminous patch in the sky, consisting of a galaxy of stars, or of the materials from which a galaxy is formed; an extra-galactic nebula. b. a small regular disc resembling a planet, consisting of a gaseous envelope enclosing a central star; a planetary nebula. c. an irregular, luminous, or dark patch in the sky consisting only of gases and dust; a diffuse nebula, an irregular nebula.
Nostrum: n. 1. a patent medicine. 2. a quack medicine. 3. a medicine made by the person who recommends it. 4. a pet scheme or device for effecting something. L, neut. Of noster our, ours
(from The Macquarie Dictionary, 1987)

You move your feet nervously, the small noise echoing in the huge expanse of polished metal. The foyer is huge, with ceilings far higher than is usually found deep Underground, each surface the same shimmering silver. It reminds you of the Mud Man science fiction flicks you'd loved in your twenties. You grin, mentally placing yourself in one of the many female position left unfilled by such movies, wondering how you would fit into the B-grade films. Femme fatale: smooth and perfect, bringing the hero down? Love interest: intelligent seduction and old scotch? Perhaps both? You smirk, and pet your (already perfect) hair smooth.

Then Miss Opal Clara Koboi enters. In an instant you know you are not the love interest, and that the position of femme fatale has already been filled.

She is unrecognizable as the woman from the mug-shot posted on the streets. You make a mental note to update the picture the LEP is circulating, because the reason why they haven't had anything but pranks for the reward offered for Opal's capture is immediately obvious. Then you remember why you are here and blush, wondering if she knows your thoughts.

- Mademoiselle Lili Frond, with two 'i's; I took the liberty of getting an ID card made for you.

You almost draw back as the woman moves closer. She is tall, almost as tall as a short Mud Man. The tips of her ears still draw up into a vague point; not quite outside the realms of either Fairy or human normal, so you can't ascertain her species simply by looking at the delicate shape. Her hair is luscious, dark brunette and as thick as the LEP think you are. You remember the painstaking effort with which you crafted that image: a dumb person gets told so much more than an intelligent one; that is why you always know more about the LEP than Holly Short does. When Opal is close enough for you to smell her indistinguishable scent you shiver, and she pins a laminated badge to your cheep white blouse. -You understand your position here, Lili?

You nod, disguising an involuntary nervous swallow with the dip of your head.

-Perfect, she purrs. -In that case I have no reason to suspect that we won't get along famously. Nor why we should not get away with truly amazing things in a manner that will become even more famous. A few simple … tasks, and all those things from your past will find a swift death in a magma flare.

You nod once more, distracted by the scent – what is it? Perhaps it is cinnamon? Is that cardamom? – as Opal places a light, delicate hand at the small of your back and steers you towards the door she'd entered by.

-What does the LEP think I'm doing right now? You hear, but barely recognize. The hand is warm, disturbingly so. You've entered a wide, metallic corridor which echoes the foyer and the sci-fi movies, both. It is wide enough that occasionally there are work booths to one side; all empty, and looking little-used. Doors are less frequent, though there are illusions of noise coming through the walls.

You strain to answer, pushing thoughts of Arthur C. Clark and Asimov to one side. –Plotting revenge. The Commander and Captain Short are going underground, and Foaly disappeared as soon as we figured out your switch. They're all worried about the technology you've developed. Is it true that you grew a clone in weeks instead of years?

-No, but I'm working towards that. Are you interested in what I'm doing?

You nod, involuntarily. You're in the depths of hell, what is another level down when the flames already lick at your expensive heels and your pantyhose?

-–I'm developing the clones. All the right-to-life organizations were in fits back when cloning was first developed because of the … catatonic nature of the clones. The lack of a 'soul' leading to a vegetate fairy with no abilities of movement, speech or thought. It wasn't the lack of a soul - that is such a very human way of looking at it, don't you agree? The clones were given lobotomies mere moments post-natal, because Carson and Coriander were attempting to develop the perfect servile army.

-Developing the clones…? You wonder aloud. –Why? And then you start, when you pass the first fairy you've seen in the complex, behind a dark desk working on something on neat screens before her. She is a pixie, beautiful, with a sharp and nasty intelligence behind her pale blue eyes. She has a vague resemblance to the Opal by your side, and a perfect similarity to the portraits decorating news bulletins.

Opal, the Opal by your side, answers through her smirk –They're beautiful, aren't they? I figured that if one of me could be tricked and bested, then a multitude of Opal Kobois could be far, far greater than that. And that is where my power lies. Even that Fowl boy makes mistakes; could you imagine how dangerous he would be if another of him double checked his plans?

-Of course, I only discovered the usefulness of the clones after the LEP realized my escape. I had had no idea that my clone would develop a functioning mind until the LEP put her on trial.

The hand moves from your back, a cold spot blossoms into being as you ache for the touch of that smooth guiding hand. Guidance in this world where you are disbelieving and lost, even though your intelligence is greater than everyone believes. But she doesn't move far enough that her scent is lost from the air, and that is disturbing, perplexing, and your mind must be befuddled because you think of this woman – the spice of her scent – as comforting. You try to bring your mind from the contemplation of Chai teas back to the bare metallic corridor, and remind yourself that the corridor is a metaphor for the tall, imposing woman beside you.

-–Have they magic, your clones?

She shakes her head, and you let out a slightly relieved sigh, since at least the abomination that is all these… Opals… are recognized by the Earth as being unnatural. Ha! You laugh inside. Most of the time the Earth holds fast to her opals, and it takes the Mud Men years to find and work a strata in the Australian desert.

They don't need magic. Their purpose is to be magic-less. What better way to get humans used to the Fairy People than by Fairies who are only short, non-threatening without magic? We can cultivate the idea of fairies who are magicless, or almost so, and our magic – and that of the few magical humans who remain – can be weaned into common knowledge.

-That is why you're cloning. Your tone, incredulous, takes you by surprise.

-Of course. Cloning; such a strong example of our technological and medical prowess. It is controversial in both our worlds, but things such as these are never really contested after they have already been completed.

You nod once again, and shiver at the idea of millions of Opal Kobois walking the Earth. You can't imagine that they work well together.

The long corridor (how long has it been, you wonder, this stretch of featureless shiny metal? Is that a slight curve to the wall, and so is the length of this hall an optical illusion and you're actually moving in a spiral?) ends in a single metallic door. Simplicity is her motto, it appears.

The door is opened by a small woman – the first real person you've seen in half an hour, and the significance is the maintenance uniform. She excuses herself, and you are ushered into a large, library-like study. A meticulous order is maintained, as is the theme of burnished steel, but you can see elements of … reality. Beside the collection of multi-language dictionaries and thesauruses is a cheep paperback thriller. A medical encyclopedia is left open on a stool; your curiosity makes you wonder on what page it is bookmarked. A glass leaves a watermark upon a wooden sideboard. Another Opal is behind a neat desk, absorbed in a computer screen and levitated on a Koboi Hoverboy (superseded for the past two years by the Foaly Fly-By). The Opal looks up and smiles when she sees her … original? … and floats closer.

-This is Clara, Opal says, and you pull your eyes from the clone (trying to find the faults you know have to exist).

-Clara? She doesn't have a nature element?

-No, I don't. The pixie snipes. -–It's hardly necessary, simply an outdated fairy tradition from the Frond dynasty. You bristle, but are almost used to half-insulting barbs about your family's place in fairy history.

-Clara was the first, who took my place at Argon's madhouse. Opal beams adoringly at her clone, which smiles tenderly back; your eyes widen as Clara leans in to kiss … herself.

Clara breaks the kiss and smirks over Opal shoulder at your face. Hopefully it doesn't portray your stomach-turning disgust, though you think that unlikely.

-Sit, Lili. Opal waves at a comfortable couch set, far enough away from the desk and the encyclopedia for your curiosity to remain unsatisfied. You both sit, and Clara slides effortlessly from her Hoverboy to Opal's lap. You are nervous already, and Clara sniggers softly at your discomfort.

-Tell us about yourself. What are you like? How do you see yourself? What do you do when you're alone? She pauses at the end of the question, and you wonder if it's suggestive, as Opal strokes the side of Clara's face.

-Um, I go out quite a lot; clubs and such. I don't do anything that interesting, really. I'm quite a good actor, and not as hopelessly ditzy as most would tell you. Not as easy as various female colleagues would like to have you believe, either. You assert, and wonder if saving face is worthwhile as Clara nuzzles at Opal's long white neck and you see the tip of a pointed pink tongue flicker out. There's a sticky stripe of saliva when she moves on and your stomach jolts.

-You remind me of us, Clara murmurs.

You shake your head, and refuse to believe it. -I'm not. I'm just a little sneak who likes to mislead men.

-And what do you think we are, Lili? Our plans are just a little more … expansive … than your own.

Clara nods in agreement, and adds-Perhaps we are just a tiny bit more interesting.

-Of course, love. No woman hiding behind a pretty LEP face and bleached hair could quite match up to us. Though, perhaps if she tried really hard- a gasp -–she could give up her simple mindgames and flirting for the leadership inherent in her blood. The Lower Elements could unite behind someone like her, Clara; never forget the power inherent in a name. Opal stops speaking as Clara shifts so she is sprawled across Opal's body in a truly indecent manner; she undoes the top two buttons of Opal's chemise and traces perfect lips across sharp collarbones.

You swallow, and hope that Opal is distracted enough to not notice your reddening face and shifting eyes. You wonder if the flush is from embarrassment or arousal, and pray that Opal, as her eyes meet yours, believes it results from embarrassment.

With her sharp gaze keeping your eyes she moves her hands below Clara's shirt and stokes the bare flesh of her exposed lower back. You gulp, and finally turn your face away.

Opal's triumphant laugh turns to a moan, and you wonder what the beautiful clone is doing now. A breathless voice, with a lack of control you would never have imagined from Opal. -–Now, love, I think our guest might be getting embarrassed. (Or something else, her eyes say, you know.)

Two pairs of dark and razor-sharp eyes glint at you, and whispers barely reach your ears.
-Perhaps Nymph?
-Oh, yes, what a truly wonderful idea. Why don't you fetch her for us?
-Excellent. I'll be only a minute.

Clara slithers off Opal lap and returns to the Hoverboy, then leaves through a second door.

-Have you ever heard of some of the theories that Mud Men have about lust? They have a famous painting, supposedly of Lisa someone-or-other, and people say it's a feminine version of the artist himself. Some of them even believe that the most attractive thing to an individual is … themself, and their own body. She raises an eyebrow and waits. –Perhaps you've noticed: I've got a wonderful body.

She moves closer, thigh touching thigh, separated by a short skirt and thin trousers. You nod, mouth dry, mind no longer controlling your body. The situation is nothing you have ever prepared for, and it has been a long time since you were in control of any of this. Perhaps...? Yes, that would probably be for the best…

Your eyes close as her mouth reaches yours; your lips open for a sweet spice-flavoured tongue to enter and a groan to escape. You can feel the exultant smirk in the upturn of lips against your own.

A door opens; closes once more. A clang, as something is knocked to the floor, and when you open your eyes you see … yourself, in a pretty green dress that is short and revealing. Small fingers twined into your hair, your own palm spread against Clara's soft cheek. A cute sparkled green watch with a fairy adorning the face encircles your wrist, and pink polish glitters on your nails. Mouths part and tongues circle reddened lips. A simple kiss has never been so scorching and erotic; you feel Opal's fingers teasing at your side, her lips tasting your earlobe.

Your head swims, and you wonder if there is any way possible that you could be drunk or drugged. You push Opal away; try to blink your mind into some semblance of clarity.

-You're all sick, you announce, and wish you believed it, and wonder if a clone of you shares your desires and characteristics, and lament that you hadn't waited for your breathing to calm before uttering the exclamation. –Why under Earth do you have a clone of me? And that comes out slightly more steady. Perhaps they will believe that.

Opal smirks, and the other two join in once they've settled their clothes. –How do you think we managed to get those pictures of you? But you're wrong about the clone. This, her hand waves towards the girl in green with the human-vision fairy watch-is Nymphadora Root. She is the LEP's contact in the Magical Mud Man world. She was born with Metamorphmagus abilities, perfected them, and then took the place of a changeling child to become our spy Above. What's your human name again, Nymph?

-Tonks. I usually wear my hair pink.

And her voice is not your own, but deeper and smoother, and for that you are relieved. You sneak a peak at her breasts and wonder if you've actually lost that much perkiness over the past few years. Perhaps you need a more supportive bra?

-Commander Root's daughter?

She nods, and you wonder if it was through this Nymph that Opal knew to approach you; Root is the only one who knows that you are not what you appear to be.

-How did Opal manage to capture you?

-She is very generous, and it's amazing what she can get for you. And her plans, well, they are the work of several highly talented genii. I'm hardly an idiot, what she's planning will help out with all the problems they have in the Magical world Above to no end. The important thing is that Opal needs some intelligent women who know how to act, and we are both extremely well-placed to help her efforts. Though, no matter what they try, I'm still as clumsy as a day-old centaur.

She smiles, and you glance over towards the door to see the kinetic artwork knocked to the floor on entering. -–Right, you murmur, and wonder how she managed to get so near when you are still half-stretched over Opal.

-You do know that this is all incredibly weird? You point out, before your lips meet your lips, and blonde hair morphs to blue before your eyes.

-Of course, Clara whispers from behind you. -But that hardly matters, you know. Everything else about magic makes even less sense.

You almost protest. Magic is inexplicable, and this weirdness before you is understandable with diagrams and pheromones. This strangeness echoes the science of the labs around you: the clones; the Law of Gravitational Attraction; string, parallel universes living as incomplete parasites off one-another. This logical progression of partnership and relationship covets methodology in a way that magic never does.

And, in that, it is less enigmatic than the simplest blue sparks.