e-version notes
 

Otherland

Volume Two

River of Blue Fire

Tad Williams

Original Copyright 1998
DAW Books ISBN 0-88677-844-1

Volume One Synopsis

Foreword

First
THE SECRET RIVER

  1. Deep Waters
  2. Greasepaint
  3. The Hive
  4. In the Puppet Factory
  5. The Marching Millions
  6. Man From the Dead Lands
  7. Grandfather's Visit
  8. Fighting Monsters
  9. The Hollow Man
  10. Small Ghosts
  11. Utensils
  12. The Center of the Maze

Second
VOICES IN THE DARK

  1. The Dreams of Numbers
  2. Games in the Shadows
  3. A Late Crismustreat
  4. Shoppers and Sleepers
  5. In the Works
  6. The Veils of Illusion
  7. A Day's Work
  8. The Invisible River
  9. In the Freezer

Third
GODS AND GENIUSES

  1. Inside Out
  2. Beside Bob's Ocean
  3. The Most Beautiful Street in the World
  4. Red Land, Black Land
  5. Waiting for the Dreamtime
  6. The Beloved Porcupine
  7. Darkness in the Wires

Fourth
BEDLAM'S SONG

  1. Imaginary Gardens
  2. Death and Venice
  3. The Voice of the Lost
  4. Feather of Truth
  5. An Unfinished Land

Afterword

This book is dedicated to my father,
Joseph Hill Evans,
with love.

As I said before, Dad doesn't read fiction. He still hasn't noticed
that this thing is dedicated to him. This is Volume Two—let's
see how many more until he catches on.

Acknowledgements

As always: huge book, much to say, lots of blame (almost entirely mine), but also lots of credit, herewith tendered. The ever-swollen Roster of Gratitude carried over from the first doorstopping volume was:

Deborah Beale, Matt Bialer, Arthur Ross Evans, Jo-Ann Goodwin, Deb Grabien, Nic Grabien, Jed Hartmann, John Jarrold, Katharine Kerr, M.J. Kramer, Mark Kreighbaum, Bruce Lieberman, Mark McCrum, Peter Stampfel, Mitch Wagner.

It must now be amended to include:

Barbara Cannon, Aaron Castro, Nick Des Barres, Tim Holman, Nick Itsou, Jo and Phil Knowles, LES.., Joshua Milligan, Eric Neuman, Michael Whelan, and all the friendly folks on the Tad Williams Listserve.

Still starring in their long-running, long-suffering roles as my Esteemed Editors, a bazilion thanks should also be rendered unto Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert.

Author's Note

I've received an awful lot of mail, electronic and old-fashioned-with-a-stamp both, about the first OTHERLAND volume. Most, I'm pleased to say, has been extremely nice and very favorable. The only note of discomfort has been from some readers who were upset by what they felt was the "cliffhanger" nature of the first volume's ending.

I understand and apologize. However, the problem with writing this kind of story is that it's not really a series—it's one very, very long novel, which should be under one cover except that 1) it would take so long to write that my family and pets would starve, and 2) they couldn't make covers that size, unless they were adapted from circus tents. That means I have a difficult choice to make: end each part in more abrupt fashion than some readers find ideal, or create artificial endings for each volume which I believe would change the overall shape of the book, and perhaps even adversely affect the structure of the story.

Thus, I can only ask for the indulgence of kind readers. I'll do the best job I can not to end volumes in mid-sentence—"And then she discovered she was . . . oops, The End"—but please understand that what you're getting is a part of a larger work, and may reflect that. I'll still do the best I can to find some kind of closure for each individual volume.

Thanks.

For more information, visit the Tad Williams web site at: www.tadwilliams.com

OTHERLAND: City of Golden Shadow
Synopsis

Wet, terrified, with only the companionship of trench-mates Finch and Mullet to keep him sane, Paul Jonas seems no different than any of thousands of other foot soldiers in World War I. But when he abruptly finds himself alone on an empty battlefield except for a tree that grows up into the clouds, he begins to doubt that sanity. When he climbs the tree and discovers a castle in the clouds, a woman with wings like a bird, and her terrifying giant guardian, his insanity seems confirmed. But when he awakens back in the trenches, he finds he is clutching one of the bird-woman's feathers.

In South Africa, in the middle of the twenty-first century, Irene "Renie" Sulaweyo has problems of her own. Renie is an instructor of virtual engineering whose newest student, !Xabbu, is one of the desert Bushmen, a people to whom modern technology is very alien. At home, she is a surrogate mother to her young brother, Stephen, who is obsessed with exploring the virtual parts of the world communication network—the "net"—and Renie spends what little spare time she has holding her family together. Her widowed father Long Joseph only seems interested in finding his next drink.

Like most children, Stephen is entranced by the forbidden, and although Renie has already saved him once from a disturbing virtual nightclub named Mister J's, Stephen sneaks back in. By the time Renie discovers what he has done, Stephen has fallen into a coma. The doctors cannot explain it, but Renie is certain something has happened to him online.

American Orlando Gardiner is only a little older than Renie's brother, but he is a master of several online domains, and because of a serious medical condition, spends most of his time in the online identity of Thargor, a barbarian warrior. But when in the midst of one of his adventures Orlando is given a glimpse of a golden city unlike anything else he has ever seen on the net, he is so distracted that his Thargor character is killed. Despite this terrible loss, Orlando cannot shake his fascination with the golden city, and with the support of his software agent Beezle Bug and the reluctant help of his online friend Fredericks, he is determined to locate the golden city.

Meanwhile, on a military base in the United States, a little girl named Christabel Sorensen pays secret visits to her friend, Mr. Sellars, a strange, scarred old man. Her parents have forbidden her to see him, but she likes the old man and the stories he tells, and he seems much more pathetic than frightening. She does not know that he has very unusual plans for her.

As Renie gets to know !Xabbu the Bushman better, and to appreciate his calm good nature and his outsider's viewpoint on modern life, she comes to rely on him more and more in her quest to discover what has happened to her brother. She and !Xabbu sneak into the online nightclub, Mr. J's. The place is as bad as she feared, with guests indulging themselves in all manner of virtual unpleasantness, but nothing seems like it could have actually physically harmed her brother until they are drawn into a terrifying encounter with a virtual version of the Hindu death-goddess Kali. !Xabbu is overcome, and Renie, too, is almost overwhelmed by Kali's subliminal hypnotics, but with the help of a mysterious figure whose simulated body (his "sim") is a blank, with no features at all, she manages to get herself and !Xabbu out of Mister J's. Before she goes offline, the figure gives her some data in the form of a golden gem.

Back (apparently) in World War I, Paul Jonas escapes from his squadron and makes a run for freedom through the dangerous no-man's-land between the lines. As rain falls and shells explode, Paul struggles through mud and corpses, only to find he has crossed over into some nether-region, stranger even than his castle dream—a flat, misty emptiness. A shimmering golden light appears, and Paul is drawn to it, but before he can step into its glow, his two friends from the trenches appear and demand that he return with them. Weary and confused, he is about to surrender, but as they come closer he sees that Finch and Mullet no longer appear even remotely human, and he flees into the golden light.

In the 21st Century, the oldest and perhaps richest man in the world is named Felix Jongleur. His physical body is all but dead, and he spends his days in a virtual Egypt he has built for himself, where he reigns over all as Osiris, the god of Life and Death. His chief servant, both in the virtual and real world, is a half-Aboriginal serial murderer who has named himself Dread, who combines a taste for hunting humans with a strange extrasensory ability to manipulate electronic circuitry that allows him to blank security cameras and otherwise avoid detection. Jongleur discovered Dread years before, and helped to nurture the young man's power, and has made him his chief assassin.

Jongleur/Osiris is also the leader of a group of some of the world's most powerful and wealthy people, the Grail Brotherhood, who have built for themselves a virtual universe unlike any other, the Grail Project, also called Otherland. (This latter name comes from an entity known as the "Other" which has some important involvement with the Grail Project network—an artificial intelligence or something even stranger. This powerful force is largely in the control of Jongleur, but it is the only thing in the world that the old man fears.)

The Grail Brotherhood are arguing among themselves, upset that the mysterious Grail Project is so slow to come to fruition. They have all invested billions in it, and waited a decade or more of their lives. Led by the American technology baron Robert Wells, they grow restive about Jongleur's leadership and his secrets, like the nature of the Other.

Jongleur fights off a mutiny, and orders his minion Dread to prepare a neutralization mission against one of the Grail members who has already left the Brotherhood.

Back in South Africa, Renie and her student !Xabbu are shaken by their narrow escape from the virtual nightclub known as Mister J's, and more certain than ever that there is some involvement between the club and her brother's coma. But when she examines the data-object the mysterious figure gave her, it opens into an amazingly realistic image of a golden city. Renie and !Xabbu seek the help of Renie's former professor, Dr. Susan Van Bleeck, but she is unable to solve the mystery of the city, or even tell for certain if it is an actual place. The doctor decides to contact someone else she knows for help, a researcher named Martine Desroubins. But even as Renie and the mysterious Martine make contact for the first time, Dr. Van Bleeck is attacked in her home and savagely beaten, and all her equipment destroyed. Renie rushes to the hospital, but after pointing Renie in the direction of a friend, Susan dies, leaving Renie both angry and terrified.

Meanwhile Orlando Gardiner, the ill teenager in America, is hot in pursuit of the golden city that he saw while online, so much so that his friend Fredericks begins to worry about him. Orlando has always been odd—he has a fascination with death-experience simulations that Fredericks can't understand—but even so this seems excessive. When Orlando announces they are going to the famous hacker-node known as TreeHouse, Fredericks' worst fears are confirmed.

TreeHouse is the last preserve of everything anarchic about the net, a place where no rules dictate what people can do or how they must appear. But although Orlando finds TreeHouse fascinating, and discovers some unlikely allies in the form of a group of hacker children named the Wicked Tribe (whose virtual guise is a troop of tiny winged yellow monkeys) his attempts to discover the origins of the golden city vision arouse suspicion, and he and Fredericks are forced to flee.

Meanwhile Renie and !Xabbu, with the help of Martine Desroubins, have also come to TreeHouse, in pursuit of an old, retired hacker named Singh, Susan Van Bleeck's friend. When they find him, he tells them that he is the last of a group of specialist programmers who built the security system for a mysterious network nicknamed "Otherland," and that his companions have been dying in mysterious circumstances. He is the last one alive.

Renie, !Xabbu, Singh, and Martine decide they must break into the Otherland system to discover what secret is worth the lives of Singh's comrades and children like Renie's brother.

Paul Jonas has escaped from his World War I trench only to find himself seemingly unstuck in time and space. Largely amnesiac, he wanders into a world where a White Queen and a Red Queen are in conflict, and finds himself pursued again by the Finch and Mullet figures. With the help of a boy named Gally and a long-winded, egg-shaped bishop, Paul escapes them, but his pursuers murder Gally's children friends. A huge creature called a Jabberwock provides a diversion, and Paul and Gally dive into a river.

When they surface, the river is in a different world, a strange, almost comical version of Mars, full of monsters and English gentleman-soldiers. Paul again meets the bird-woman from his castle dream, now named Vaala, but this time she is the prisoner of a Martian overlord. With the help of mad adventurer Hurley Brummond, Paul saves the woman. She recognizes Paul, too, but does not know why. When the Finch and Mullet figures appear again, she flees. Attempting to catch up to her, Paul crashes a stolen flying ship, sending himself and Gally to what seems certain doom. After a strange dream in which he is back in the cloud-castle, menaced by Finch and Mullet in their strangest forms yet, he wakes without Gally in the midst of the Ice Age, surrounded by Neandertal hunters.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Renie and her companions are being hunted by mysterious strangers, and are forced to flee their home. With the help of Martine (whom they still know only as a voice) Renie, along with !Xabbu, her father, and Dr. Van Bleeck's assistant Jeremiah, find an old, mothballed robot-plane base in the Drakensberg Mountains. They renovate a pair of V-tanks (virtuality immersion vats) so Renie and !Xabbu can go online for an indefinite period, and prepare for their assault on Otherland.

Back on the army base in America, little Christabel is convinced to help the burned and crippled Mr. Sellars with a complex plan that is only revealed as an escape attempt when he disappears from his house, setting the whole base (including Christabel's security chief father) on alert. Christabel has cut what seems an escape hole in the base's perimeter fence (with the help of a homeless boy from outside), but only she knows that Mr. Sellars is actually hiding in a network of tunnels beneath the base, free now to continue his mysterious "task."

In the abandoned facility, under the Drakensberg Mountains, Renie and her companions enter the tanks, go online, and break into Otherland. They survive a terrifying interaction with the Other which seems to be the network's security system, in which Singh dies of a heart attack, and find that the network is so incredibly realistic that at first they cannot believe it is a virtual environment. The experience is strange in many other ways. Martine has a body for the first time, !Xabbu has been given the form of a baboon, and most importantly, they can find no way to take themselves offline again. Renie and the others discover that they are in an artificial South American country. When they reach the golden city at the heart of it, the city they have been seeking so long, they are captured, and discover that they are the prisoners of Bolivar Atasco, a man involved with the Grail Brotherhood and with the building of the Otherland network from the start.

Back in America, Orlando's friendship with Fredericks has survived the twin revelations that Orlando is dying of a rare premature-aging disease, and that Fredericks is in fact a girl. They are unexpectedly linked to Renie's hacker friend Singh by the Wicked Tribe just as Singh is opening his connection to the Grail network, and drawn through into Otherland. After their own horrifying encounter with the Other, Orlando and Fredericks also become Atasco's prisoners. But when they are brought to the great man, along with Renie's company and others, they find that it is not Atasco who has gathered them, but Mr. Sellars—revealed now as the strange blank sim who helped Renie and !Xabbu escape from Mister J's.

Sellars explains that he has lured them all here with the image of the golden city—the most discreet method he could devise, because their enemies, the Grail Brotherhood, are so unbelievably powerful and remorseless. Sellars explains that Atasco and his wife were once members of the Brotherhood, but quit when their questions about the network were not answered. Sellars then tells how he discovered that the secret Otherland network has a mysterious but undeniable connection to the illness of thousands of children like Renie's brother Stephen. Before he can explain more, the sims of Atasco and his wife go rigid and Sellars' own sim disappears.

In the real world, Jongleur's murderous minion Dread has begun his attack on the Atascos' fortified Colombian island home, and after breaking through the defenses, has killed both Atascos. He then uses his strange abilities—his "twist"—to tap into their data lines, discovers Sellars' meeting, and orders his assistant Dulcinea Anwin to take over the incoming line of one of the Atascos' guests—the online group that includes Renie and her friends—and takes on the identity of that usurped guest, leaving Dread a mystery spy in the midst of Renie and friends.

Sellars reappears in the Atascos' virtual world and begs Renie and the others to flee into the network while he tries to hide their presence. They are to look for Paul Jonas, he tells them, a mysterious virtual prisoner Sellars has helped escape from the Brotherhood. Renie and company make their way onto the river and out of the Atascos' simulation, then through an electrical blue glow into the next simworld. Panicked and overwhelmed by too much input, Martine finally reveals her secret to Renie: she is blind.

Their boat has become a giant leaf. Overhead, a dragonfly the size of a fighter jet skims into view.

Back in the mountain fortress, in the real world, Jeremiah and Renie's father Long Joseph can only watch the silent V-tanks, wonder, and wait.

OTHERLAND
River of Blue Fire

Foreword

There was snow everywhere—the world was white. I must have been warmer in the Land of the Dead, he thought, mocking himself, mocking the senseless universe. I should never have left.

Snow and ice and wind and blood. . . .

 

The thing in the shallow pit made a terrible raw honking sound and swung its head. Antlers the size of small trees swept from side to side, gouging snow and dirt, narrowly missing one of the men who had leaned in to jab at it with his spear.

The elk was larger than anything like it Paul had ever seen in tired old London Zoo, taller than a man at its shoulders and heavy as a prize bull. It had fought with terrifying strength for almost an hour, and the points of the huge, curling antlers were streaked with the blood of a man named Will Not Cry, but the animal's shaggy pelt was also drenched with its own blood, as was the snow around the edge of the hole.

It leaped again and fell back scrabbling, hooves churning the bottom of the pit to a pink froth. Spears snagged in the elk's thick hide rattled like exotic jewelry. Runs Far, who seemed the party's most fearless hunter, leaned in to jerk one of his spears free. He missed his first stab, dodged the swinging antlers, then smashed the stone point back in again just under the creature's thick jaw. Arterial blood spurted ten feet, splashing Runs Far and the two hunters nearest to him, adding another layer of color to their ocher-and-black hunting paint.

The elk heaved up the slope once more in a last desperate attempt to escape the pit, but failed to crest the rim before the spears of the hunters pushed it off balance and sent it sliding backward, awkward as a fawn.

The freshet of blood from its throat pulsed more weakly. The buck stood on wobbly legs at the bottom of the pit, hitching as it sucked air. One leg buckled, but it struggled upright yet again, teeth bared in final exhaustion, glaring from beneath the spread of horn. The man named Birdcatcher jabbed a spear into its side, but it was clearly a superfluous gesture. The elk took a step backward, its face registering what in a human Paul would have called frustration, then fell to its knees and rolled onto its side, chest heaving.

"Now he gives himself to us," said Runs Far. Beneath his smeared paint, his mouth was locked in a grin of exhausted pleasure, but there was something deeper in his eyes. "Now he is ours."

Runs Far and another man clambered into the pit. When his companion had grabbed the antlers, holding them firm as the elk gasped and twitched, Runs Far slashed its throat with a heavy stone blade.

 

In what seemed a piece of particularly cruel irony, the hunter with the strange name of Will Not Cry had suffered not just deep antler-gouges across his face and head, but had lost his left eye as well. As one of the other hunters stuffed the ragged hole with snow and bound it with a strip of tanned hide, Will Not Cry murmured to himself, a singsong whisper that might have been a lament or a prayer. Runs Far crouched beside him and tried to wash some of the blood from the injured man's face and beard with a handful of snow, but the ragged facial wounds still bled heavily. Paul was astonished by how calmly the others reacted to their companion's terrible injuries, although all of them bore scars and disfigurations of their own.

People die easily here, he decided, so anything less serious must seem like a victory.

 

The Neandertal hunters quickly and adroitly razored the elk carcass into chunks with their flint knives and wrapped the skin, organs, and even bones in the still-smoking hide for travel. The People, as they called themselves, did not waste anything.

As work slowed, some of the men began to watch Paul again, perhaps wondering whether the stranger they had saved from the frozen river was properly impressed by their prowess. Only the one called Birdcatcher looked at him with open distrust, but they all kept their distance. Having participated in neither the kill nor the dismemberment, Paul was feeling particularly useless, so he was grateful when Runs Far approached. The leader of the hunt had so far been the only one to speak with Paul. Now he extended a blood-smeared hand, offering the stranger a strip of the kill's deep-red flesh. Sensible of the kindness being shown him, Paul accepted it. The meat was curiously flavorless, like chewing on a bit of blood-salted rubber.

"Tree Horns fought hard." Runs Far took another piece into his mouth. When he could not fit it all in, he reached up and sliced off the remainder with his stone blade, retaining it until he had finished the first mouthful. He grinned, displaying worn and scratched teeth. "We have much meat now. The People will be happy."

Paul nodded, unsure of what to say. He had noticed a curious thing: When the hunters spoke, it was in recognizable English, which seemed a highly unlikely thing for a group of Neandertal huntsmen to do. At the same time, there seemed a slight dissynchronization between their lips and what they said, as though he had been dropped into a well-dubbed but still imperfect foreign drama.

In fact, it seemed as though he had been given some kind of translation implant, like the kind his old school friend Niles had received on entering the diplomatic corps. But how could that be?

For the fifth or sixth time that day, Paul's fingers went to his neck and the base of his skull, feeling for the neurocannula that he knew was not there, again finding only goose-pimpled skin. He had never wanted implants, had resisted the trend long after most of his friends had them, yet now it seemed that someone had given them to him without his permission—but had also managed to completely hide the physical location.

What could do that? he wondered. And why? And more Importantly, where in the bloody hell am I?

He had been thinking and thinking, but he was no nearer to an answer. He seemed to be sliding through space and time, like something out of the more excessive kind of science fiction story. He had traveled across a boy's-adventure Mars, he remembered, and through somebody's cracked version of Alice's Looking Glass. He had seen other improbable places, too—the details were fuzzy, but still too complete to be merely the residue of dreams. But how was that possible? If someone were to build sets and hire impostors to fool him this thoroughly, it would cost millions—billions!—and try as he might, he could not find a single crack in the facades of any of these might-be actors. Neither could he imagine a reason why anyone would spend such resources on a nonentity like himself, a museum curator with no important friends and no particular prospects. No matter what the voice from the golden harp had said, this must all be real.

Unless he had been brainwashed somehow. He could not rule that out. Some kind of experimental drug, perhaps—but why? There was still a gap in his memory where the answer might lurk, but unlike the strange journeys to imaginary landscapes, no amount of concentration could bring light to any of that particular patch of darkness.

Runs Far still crouched at his side, his round eyes bright with curiosity beneath the bony brows. Embarrassed, confused, Paul shrugged and reached down for a handful of snow and crunched it between the crablike pincers of his crude gloves. Brainwashing would explain why he had awakened in a frozen prehistoric river and been rescued by what looked like authentic Neandertals—costuming and sets for a hallucination wouldn't be very expensive. But it could not explain the absolutely, unarguably real and sustained presence of the world around him. It could not explain the snow in his hand, cold and granular and white. It could not explain the stranger beside him, with his unfamiliar but utterly lived-in, alien face.

All those questions, but still no answers. Paul sighed and let the snow fall from his hand.

"Are we going to sleep here tonight?" he asked Runs Far.

"No. We are close to where the People live. We will be there before full dark." The hunter leaned forward, furrowed his brow, and stared into Paul's mouth. "You eat things, Riverghost. Do all the people from the Land of the Dead eat things?"

Paul smiled sadly. "Only when they're hungry."

Runs Far was in the lead, his stocky legs carrying him through the snow with surprising ease; like all the hunters, even the terribly wounded Will Not Cry, he moved with the instinctive grace of a wild beast. The others, although burdened now with hundreds of kilograms of elk parts, followed swiftly, so that Paul was already winded trying to keep up.

He skidded on a fallen branch hidden by snow, and slipped, but the man beside him caught and held him unflinchingly until Paul had found his feet; the Neandertal's hands were hard and rough as tree bark. Paul found himself confused again. It was impossible to sustain disbelief in the face of such powerful arguments. These men, although not quite the caricature cavemen he remembered from childhood flicks, were so clearly something different from himself, something wilder and simpler, that he found his skepticism diminishing—not so much fading as sliding into a kind of hibernation, to awaken when it again had a useful task to do.

What sounded like a wolf howl came echoing down the hillside. The People ran a little faster.

Nothing around you is true, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you, the golden gem, the voice from the harp, had told him. Whatever these men were, true or false seemings, they were at home in this world in a way that Paul most decidedly was not. He would have to rely on their skills. For his sanity's sake, he might have to trust that they were exactly what they seemed to be.

 

 

When he had been a boy, when he had still been "Paulie," and still the chattel of his eccentric father and frail mother, he had spent each Christmas with them at his paternal grandmother's cottage in Gloucestershire, in the wooded, rolling countryside that the locals liked to call "the real England." But it had not been real, not at all: its virtue was precisely that it symbolized something which had never completely existed, a middle-class England of gracious, countrified beauty whose tattered true nature was becoming more obvious every year.

For Grammer Jonas, the world beyond her village had become increasingly shadowy. She could describe the complexity of a neighbor's dispute about a fence with the sophistication of a news-net legal analyst, but had trouble remembering who was prime minister. She had a wallscreen, of course—a small, old-fashioned one framed in baroque gold on the parlor wall, like the photo of a long-dead relative. It mostly went unused, the calls voice-only. Grammer Jonas had never completely trusted visual communication, especially the idea that she could see without being seen if she chose, and the thought that some stranger might look into her house and see her in her nightgown gave her, as she put it, "the creeps, Paulie-love, the absolute creeps."

Despite her distrust of the modern world, or perhaps even in part because of it, Paul had loved her fiercely, and she in turn had loved him as only a grandmother could. Every small success of his was a glowing victory, every transgression against parental authority a sign of clever independence to be encouraged rather than condemned. When, in one of his fits of unfocused rebellion, young Paul refused to help with the dishes or do some other chore (and thus forfeited his pudding) Grammer Jonas would be at the door of his prison-bedroom later in the evening to pass him a contraband sweet, in a breathless hurry to get downstairs again before his parents noticed her absence.

The winter when he was seven, the snows came. It was England's whitest Christmas in decades, and the tabnets competed for the most astonishing footage—St. Paul's dome wearing a dunce cap of white, people skating on the lower Thames as they had during Elizabethan times (many died, since the ice was not thick enough to be safe.) In the early weeks, before the tabs began to trumpet "New Atlantic Storm Creates Blizzard Horror" and run daily body counts (with corpse-by-corpse footage) of people who had frozen to death sleeping rough or even waiting for trains at the smaller stations, the heavy snows brought a sense of joy to most people, and young Paul had certainly been one of them. It was his first real experience of snowballs and sleds and tree branches dropping cold surprises down the back of one's neck, of a world with most of its colors suddenly wiped clean.

One mild day, when the sun was out and the sky was mostly blue, he and his grandmother had gone for a walk. The most recent snowfall had covered everything, and as they walked slowly through the fields there were no signs of other humans at all except for the distant smoke from a chimney, and no footprints but the tracks of their own rubber boots, so that the vista spread before them seemed primordial, untouched.

When at last they had reached a place between the hedgerows, where the land before them dipped down into a gentle valley, his grandmother abruptly stopped. She had spread her arms, and—in a voice he had never heard her use, hushed and yet throbbingly intense—said, "Look, Paulie, isn't it lovely! Isn't it perfect! It's just like we were back at the beginning of everything. Like the whole sinful world was starting over!" Mittened fists clenched before her face like a child making a wish, she had added: "Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Surprised and a little frightened by the strength of her reaction, he had struggled to make her insight his own—struggled but ultimately failed. There was something beautiful about the illusion of emptiness, of possibility, but he had been a seven-year-old boy who did not feel, as his grandmother more or less did, that people had somehow ruined everything, and he was just baby enough to be made nervous by the thought of a world without familiar places and people, a world of clean, cold loneliness.

They had stood for a long time, staring at the uninhabited winter world, and when at last they turned back—Paul secretly relieved to be walking in their own reversed footprints, following the trail of bread crumbs out of the worrisome forest of adult regrets—his grandmother had been smiling fiercely to herself, singing a song he could not quite hear.

 

Paul had tried and failed to share her epiphany that day, so long ago. But now he seemed to be the one who had tumbled into the world she had wished for, a world—thousands of generations before even his grandmother's inconceivably ancient childhood—that she could only imagine.

Yes, if Grammer Jonas could have seen this, he thought. God, wouldn't she have loved it. It really is the beginning—a long time before the crooked politicians and the filthy shows on the net and people being so rude and vulgar, and all the foreign restaurants serving things she couldn't pronounce. She'd think she'd gone to heaven.

Of course, he realized, she'd have trouble getting a good cup of tea.

The People were moving in deceptively ragged order along the edge of a hillside forest, heading down a long, snow-blanketed slope broken up by irregular limestone outcroppings. Slender tree-shadows stretched across their path like blueprints for an unbuilt staircase. The light was fading quickly, and the sky, which had been the soft gray of a dove's breast, was turning a colder, darker color. Paul suddenly wondered for the first time not when in the world he was, but where.

Had there been Neandertals everywhere, or just in Europe? He couldn't remember. The little he knew of prehistoric humankind was all in fragmented, trivia-card bits—cave-painting, mammoth-hunting, stone tools laboriously flaked by hand. It was frustrating not to remember more. People in science fiction flicks always seemed to know useful things about the places time travel took them. But what if the time traveler had been only an average history student? What then?

There were more limestone outcroppings now, great shelves that seemed to push sideways out of the ground, shadowy oblongs less luminous in the twilight than the ever-present snow. Runs Far slowed, letting the rest of the group jog past, until Paul at the end of the line had caught up with him. The bearded hunter fell into step beside him without a word, and Paul, who was quite breathless, was content to let him do so.

As they came around the corner of a large outcrop, Paul saw warm yellow light spilling out onto the snow. Strange, gnarled figures stood silhouetted in a wide gap in the cliff face, spears clutched in misshapen hands, and for a nervous moment Paul was reminded of folktales about troll bridges and fairy mounds. Runs Far took his elbow and pushed him forward; when he had reached the mouth of the cave, he could see that the guardians were only older members of the People, twisted by age, left behind to protect the communal hearth like Britain's wartime Home Guard.

The hunting party was quickly surrounded, not only by these aged guardians, but by an outspilling of fur-clad women and children as well, all talking and gesticulating. Will Not Cry received much sympathetic attention as his injuries were examined. Paul half-expected his own appearance to cause superstitious panic, but although all the People regarded him with interest that varied from fearful to fascinated, he was clearly less important than the meat and tales which the hunters brought. The group moved away from the lip of the cave, out of the cold winds and into the fire-flickering, smoky interior.

At first the People's home looked like nothing so much as an army encampment. A row of tents made from skins stood with their backs to the cave's entrance like a herd of animals huddled against the wind. Beyond these, sheltered by them, was a central area where a large fire burned in a depression in the floor, a natural limestone hall, low-roofed but wide. The few women who had remained there tending the flames now looked up, smiling and calling out at the hunters' return.

The rest of the People were much like the men with whom he had traveled, sturdy and small, with features that but for the pronounced brows and heavy jaws were nothing like the caveman caricatures he had seen in cartoons. They dressed in rough furs; many wore bits of bone or stone hung on cords of sinew, but there was nothing like the jewelry that bedecked even the least modernized tribes of Paul's era. Most of the younger children were naked, bodies rubbed with fat that gleamed in the firelight as they peered from the tent doorways, shiny little creatures that reminded him of Victorian illustrations of gnomes and brownies.

There was surprisingly little ceremony over the hunters' return, although Runs Far had told him they had been out for days. The men greeted their families and loved ones, touching them with probing fingers as though making certain that they were real, and occasionally someone rubbed his face against someone else's, but there was no kissing as Paul knew it, no hand clasps or hugging. Paul himself was clearly mentioned several times—he saw some of the hunters gesturing at him, as though to illustrate what a strange adventure it had been—but he was not introduced to anyone, nor was there any clear hierarchy that he could see. About two dozen adults seemed to make the cave their home, and not quite half that many children.

Even as some of the People exclaimed over the elk meat, others began preparing it in an extremely businesslike manner. Two of the women picked up long sticks and swept a portion of the firepit clear, pushing the burning logs to one side and exposing a floor of flat stones. They then spread several portions of the meat across these heated stones; within moments, the smell of cooking flesh began to fill the cavern.

Paul found himself a spot in the corner, out of the way. It was much warmer here in the cave, but still cold, and he sat with his skins pulled tight around him, watching the quick return of normal life; within a few moments after the hunting party's arrival, only the hunters themselves were not busy with something. Paul guessed that on other nights, they, too, would be at work, making new weapons and repairing the old ones, but tonight they had returned from a long, successful trip and could wait for the victors' rewards, the first portions of the kill.

One of the women lifted a sizable chunk of flesh from the fire with a stick, placed it on a piece of bark, and carried it like offering to Runs Far. He lifted it to his mouth and took a bite grinned his approval, but instead of finishing his meal he sawed the meat in half with his knife, then rose and carried the bark platter away from the fire toward one of the tents. No one else seemed to pay any attention but Paul was intrigued. Was he taking food to a sick wife or child? An aged parent?

Runs Far stayed inside the tent for long moments; when he can out, he was putting the last of the meat into his own mouth, chewing vigorously with his broad jaws. It was impossible to guess what had just happened.

A presence at Paul's elbow suddenly caught his attention, A little girl stood beside him, staring expectantly. At least, he thought it was a girl, although the boys were just as shaggy-haired and positive identification was made difficult by the kirtle of fur around the child's waist. "What's your name?" he asked.

She shrieked with gleeful terror and ran away. Several other children pulled free of the general hubbub to chase her, laughing and calling in high voices like marsh birds. Moments later, an other, larger shadow fell across him.

"Do not speak to the child." Birdcatcher looked angry, but Paul thought he saw something like naked panic just beneath the man's scowl. "She is not for you."

Paul shook his head, not understanding, but the other one turned and walked away.

Does he think I'm interested in her sexually? Or is it this of the Dead thing? Perhaps Birdcatcher thought he meant to take the girl away, back to some death-realm beyond the frozen river. That's me, the Grim Reaper of the Pleistocene. Paul lowered his head and closed his eyes, suddenly as tired as he had ever been.

 

There had been a woman in his dream, and flowering plants and sun streaming through a dusty window, but it was all disappearing now, pouring away like water down the plughole. Paul shook his head and his eyes fluttered. Runs Far was standing over him, saying something he could not at first understand.

The hunter prodded him again, gently. "Riverghost. Riverghost, you must come."

"Come where?"

"Dark Moon says you must come and talk." The hunt leader seemed excited in a way Paul had not seen before, almost childlike. "Come now."

Paul allowed himself to be coaxed to his feet, then followed Runs Far toward the tent where the hunter had taken the first cooked meat of the slaughtered elk. Paul thought he would be led inside, but Runs Far gestured for him to wait. The hunter ducked through the flap, then reappeared a few moments later, leading a tiny shape wrapped in a thick fur robe out into the firelight.

The old woman paused and looked Paul up and down, then extended her arm, the invitation—although it was more like a command—very clear. Paul stepped forward and let her clutch his forearm with hard, skinny fingers, then the three of them moved slowly toward the cookfire. As they led the woman to a rounded stone near the warmest part of the blaze, Paul saw Birdcatcher staring at him, holding the arm of the little girl who had approached Paul earlier. His grip was so tight she was squirming in pain.

"Bring water to me," the old woman told Runs Far as she slowly settled herself on the rock. When he had gone, she turned to Paul. "What is your name?"

Paul was not sure what kind of answer she wanted. "The men of the People call me Riverghost."

She nodded her satisfaction, as though he had passed an examination. Dirt lay in the wrinkles of her seamed face, and her white hair was so thin the shape of her head could be clearly seen, but the forcefulness of her personality and the respect in which the People held her was quite clear. She raised a clawlike hand and carefully touched his.

"I am called Dark Moon. That is the name they call me."

Paul nodded, although he was not quite clear why she seemed to attach so much importance to this exchange of information. This isn't my world, he reminded himself. To primitive people, there's magic in names.

"Are you from the Land of the Dead?" she asked. "Tell me your true story."

"I . . . I am from a place very far away. The People—the hunters—saved me when I was in the river and was drowning." He hesitated, then fell silent. He did not think that he could make her understand his true story since he did not understand it himself, even the parts he remembered clearly.

She pursed her lips. "And what do you mean for us? What do you bring to the People? What will you take away?"

"I hope I will take nothing from you, except the food and shelter you give to me." It was hard to talk simply without sounding like an Indian chief in a bad American Western. "I came from the river with nothing, so I have no gifts,"

Dark Moon looked at him again, and this time the appraisal went on for some time. Runs Far returned with a cup made from what looked like a section of animal horn; the old woman drank enthusiastically, then turned her gaze back to Paul. "I must think," she said at last. "I do not understand what you do in the world." She turned and patted Runs Far on his shoulder, then abruptly raised her voice to address the People at large. "Hunters have returned. They have brought back food."

The others, who had been pretending with almost civilized discretion not to be listening to her conversation with Paul, now raised a few ragged shouts of approval, although most were busy chewing.

"Tonight is a good night." Dark Moon slowly spread her arms. The weight of the fur robe seemed too great for her tiny frame to support. "Tonight I will tell a story, and the one called Riverghost will think kindly of the People, who have given him food."

The tribesfolk came closer, those nearest arranging themselves near Dark Moon's feet. Many took the chance to study Paul carefully. He saw fear and concern in most faces, but it was only Birdcatcher in whom it seemed to have an edge that might become violent. The rest of the People looked at him as civilized shoppers might watch a street crazy who had happened through the store's front door, but as yet had shown no signs of screaming or knocking things about.

Some of the smaller children had already fallen asleep, worn out by excitement and bellies full of cooked flesh, but their parents and guardians simply carried them to the gathering, unwilling to miss something so clearly important. Birdcatcher, his distrust not sufficient to keep him away, stood on the outside of the circle, and though he still glared at Paul, he was listening, too.

"I will tell you of the days that are gone." Dark Moon's voice took on a kind of singsong cadence, and even Paul could feel the satisfaction of a familiar ritual beginning. "These are days before your fathers' fathers and their fathers walked in the world. "

As she paused, he felt an unexpected thrill. Despite his reservations, his skepticism, it was hard to huddle in this cold cave and not to feel that he was close to one of the sourcepools of story—that he was about to be the privileged auditor of one of the oldest of all tales.

 

"Then, in those days," Dark Moon began, "everything was dark."

 

There was no light, and there was no warmth. The cold was everywhere, and First Man and First Woman suffered. They went to the other First People, all the Animal People, and asked them how to keep warm.

Long Nose told them to grow hair all over their bodies, as he had done. Because he was so large, First Man and First Woman thought he must be very old and very wise, but as hard as they tried, they could not grow enough hair to stay warm. So First Man killed great Long Nose and stole his hairy skin, and for a little while they did not suffer.

But soon the world grew colder, and even the skin they had taken from Long Nose was not enough to keep them warm. They went to Cave Dweller and asked her how they might keep warm.

"You must find a deep hole in the mountain," said Cave Dweller, "and there you can live as I live, safe from the wind-that-bites, and raise a family of cubs."

But First Man and First Woman could not find a hole of their own, so they killed Cave Dweller and stole her hole for themselves, and for a little while they did not suffer.

Still the world grew colder. First Man and First Woman huddled in their cave and pulled their skins tight around them, but knew that they would soon die.

One day. First Woman saw tiny Naked Tail running across the cave. She caught him in her hands and was going to eat him, for she was very hungry, but Naked Tail told her that if she did not swallow him, he would tell her something important. She called over First Man to hear what Naked Tail would say.

"I will tell you of a powerful secret," Naked Tail said. "Yellow Eyes, who lives out there in the great cold and dark, has a magical thing, a thing that bends in the softest wind and yet does not blow away, that has no teeth but can eat a hard tree branch. This magic is a warm thing that keeps the cold away, and it is what makes the eyes of old Yellow Eyes shine brightly out in the darkness."

"What does this matter to us?" said First Man. "He will never let us have this magical warm thing."

"We can play a trick on him and steal it," said First Woman. "Did we not take Long Nose's skin and Cave Dweller's house?"

First Man did not speak. He was frightened of Yellow Eyes, who was cruel and strong, and much more clever than Long Nose or Cave Dweller. First Man knew that the broken, gnawed bones of many of the other Animal People lay outside Yellow Eyes' den. But he listened while First Woman told him the thoughts that were in her belly.

"I will do what you say," he said at last. "If I do not try, we will die in any case, and the darkness will have us."

 

The flames wavered as a gust of cold air scythed through the room. Paul shivered and pulled his furs more tightly around him. He was becoming drowsy, and it was hard to think clearly. Everything was so strange. He had heard this story somewhere, hadn't he? But how could that be?

The cave grew darker, until the glow of the embers turned all the listeners into red-lit ghosts. Dark Moon's cracked voice rose and fell as she sang the song of stolen fire.

 

First Man went to the place of many bones where Yellow Eyes lived. He saw the bright eyes from a long way away, but Yellow Eyes saw him even sooner.

"What do you want?" he asked First Man. "If you do not tell me, I will crush you in my jaws." Yellow Eyes showed his terrible teeth to First Man.

"I have come to make a bargain with you," said First Man. "I wish to trade for the warm, bright thing that you have."

"And what do you have to trade?" asked Yellow Eyes. His eyes were shining a little more brightly.

"A child," said First Man. "It is so cold that he will die anyway if we do not have some of your warm, bright thing."

Yellow Eyes licked his lips and clicked his terrible teeth. "You would give me your child for a little of my fire?"

First Man nodded his head.

"Then put the child where I can see him," said Yellow Eyes, "and I will give you what you ask for."

First Man reached into his skins and took out the child made of mud which First Woman had shaped with her clever hands. He set this child down before Yellow Eyes.

"He is very quiet," Yellow Eyes said.

"He is frightened of your teeth," First Man told him.

"That is good," said Yellow Eyes, and opened his jaws wide. "Reach into my mouth and you will find what you asked for."

First Man was very frightened, but he came close to the mouth of Yellow Eyes, which had the smell of death.

"Reach into my mouth," said Yellow Eyes again.

First Man stretched his arm deep into the mouth of Yellow Eyes, past the terrible teeth and down the long throat. At last he touched something very hot and cupped his hand around it.

"Take only a little," said Yellow Eyes.

First Man withdrew his hand. In it was something yellow that bent in the wind but did not blow away, that had no mouth but began to bite his skin even as he held it. First Man looked at Yellow Eyes and saw that he was sniffing the child made of mud, and so First Man began to run, the warm yellow thing held close in his hand.

"This is not your child!" screamed Yellow Eyes in anger. "You have tricked me, First Man."

Yellow Eyes began to chase him. First Man ran as fast as he could, but heard his enemy coming closer and closer. The warm magic thing was very heavy in his hand and was biting his skin, so First Man threw it away up into the air. It flew into the sky and stuck there, and it covered the world in light. Yellow Eyes screamed again and ran faster, but First Man reached the cave where he lived with First Woman and ran inside. They pushed a stone into the opening so that Yellow Eyes could not get at them.

"You have cheated me, and I will not forget," shouted Yellow Eyes. "And when a true child comes to you, I will take it from you."

First Man lay on the floor of the cave, with no strength left in his body. First Woman saw that a little of the warm, bright thing still stuck to his hand. She brushed it off with a stick, and as it began to eat the stick it grew and warmed the whole cave. That was fire.

Ever after, First Man's fingers were not all the same, as with the other Animal People. One finger on each hand was twisted sideways from carrying the hot fire, and that is why all First Man's and First Woman's children have hands that are different from the Animal People.

The fire that was thrown into the sky became the sun, and when it shines, Yellow Eyes and his people hide from its light because it reminds them of how First Man tricked them. But when it grows small and the world is dark, Yellow Eyes comes out again, and his eye is the moon that stares down as he looks for the child First Man and First Woman promised to him. Every night since the days your fathers' fathers and their fathers walked in the world, he hunts for the children of First Man and First Woman.

 

Dark Moon's voice had become very still, a thin whisper that rode above the breathless silence in the cave.

"He will hunt for them even when your children's children and their children walk in the world."

 

 

He could hear a great, slow pounding, the ticking of a titan clock or the footfalls of an approaching giant, but he could see nothing but darkness, could feel nothing but icy wind. He had no hands or body, no way to protect himself from whatever lurked in the black emptiness here on the edge of all things.

"Paul." The voice in his ear was soft as feathered flight, but his heart thumped as though it had shouted.

"Is that you?" His own voice made no sound outside his head, or he no longer had the ears to hear himself speak.

Something was beside him in the dark. He could sense it, although he did not know how. He could feel it, a swift-hearted, tenuous presence.

"Paul, you must come back to us. You must come back to me."

And as though she had never left his dreams, but had only vanished from his waking mind, he could see her now in memory, could summon up the image of her absurd but beautiful winged form, her sad eyes. She had crouched, trapped in that golden cage, while he had stood helplessly on the other side of the bars. He had left her to that terrible grinding thing, the Old Man.

"Who are you?"

Her presence grew a little stronger, a barely-felt vibration of impatience. "I am no one, Paul. I don't know who I am—don't care anymore. But I know that I need you, that you must come.

"Come where? You said 'come to us.' To whom?"

"You ask too many questions." It was spoken sadly, not angrily. "I do not have the answers you wish. But I know what I know. If you come to me, then we will both know."

"Are you Vaala? Are you the same woman I met?"

Again the impatience. "These things are unimportant. It is so hard for me to be here, Paul—so hard! Listen! Listen, and I will tell you everything I know. There is a place, a black mountain, that reaches to the sky—that covers up the stars. You must find it. That is where all your answers are."

"How? How do I get there?"

"I don't know." A pause. "But I might know, if you can find me."

Something was interfering with his concentration, a vague but insistent pain, a sense of pressure that Paul could not ignore. The dream was collapsing from its own weight. As he felt it beginning to fall away, he struggled to cling to her, that voice in the emptiness.

"Find you? What does that mean?"

"You must come to me . . . to us. . . ." She was growing faint now, barely a presence at all, a whisper traveling down a long corridor.

"Don't leave me! How do I find you?" The vague discomfort was growing sharper, commanding his attention. "Who are you?"

From an incomprehensible distance, a murmur: "I am . . . a shattered mirror. . . ."

 

He sat up, his throat tight, a pain like a knifepoint of fire in his belly. She was gone again! His link to sanity—but how could someone or something so clearly mad lead him back to reality? Or did he only dream. . . ?

The pain grew sharper. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, to the glow of dim coals, and he saw the shapeless shadow crouched over him. Some hard, sharp thing was pressed against his stomach. Paul dropped his hand and felt the cold stone spearhead buried deep in his fur robe, a warm slickness of blood already matting the hairs. If it pressed in an inch farther, it would pierce through to his guts.

Birdcatcher leaned close, sour meat on his breath. The spear-point jabbed a little deeper.

"You are my blood enemy, Riverghost. I will send you back to the Land of the Dead."

First:
THE SECRET RIVER

 . . . For here, millions of mixed shades and shadows,
 drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that
 we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still;
 tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling
 waves but made so by their restlessness.

—Herman Melville,
Moby Dick

CHAPTER 1
Deep Waters

NETFEED/NEWS: Schoolkids Need Waiver To Avoid Helmet

(visual: children trying on helmets)

VO: Children in Pine Station, a suburban town in Arkansas, must either wear a safety helmet during their entire school day or their parents must sign a waiver saying they will not sue for damages should their child be injured.

(visual: Edlington Gwa Choi, Pine Station School Dist. Superintendent)

GWA CHOI: "It's quite simple. We can't afford the coverage any more. They make nice, comfortable helmets now—the kids will hardly even notice they've got them on. We've done tests. And if they don't want them, that's okay too, as long as their folks take responsibility. . . .

 

A beetle the size of a panel truck was bumping slowly along the shoreline, the baboon beside her was singing, and Renie was dying for a cigarette.

"And we go down,"

!Xabbu chanted in an almost tuneless voice,

"Down to the water.
Ah!
Where the fish are hiding,
Hiding and laughing. . . ."

"What's that?" Renie watched the beetle hunch across the uneven stones of the beach with the mindless forward drive of one of those drone robots working to tame the surfaces of Mars and the moon. "That song you're singing."

"My uncle used to sing it. It helped him be patient while waiting for fish to pass over the rock dam so we could catch them." !Xabbu scratched at his baboon pelt in a fastidious manner far more human than simian.

"Ah." Renie frowned. She was having trouble concentrating, and for once even !Xabbu's stories about his childhood in the Okavango Delta did not interest her.

If someone had told her that she would be transported to what was for all purposes a magical land, where history could be rewritten at a whim, or people could suddenly be shrunk to the size of poppy seeds, but that at least for this moment, her most pressing concern would have been the absence of cigarettes, she would have thought them mad. But it had been two harrowing days since she had smoked her last, and the momentary leisure of floating in midstream on a huge leaf that had once been a boat had finally given her a chance to notice what she was missing.

She pushed away from the leaf's curling edge. Better to do something, anything, than stand around obsessing like a charge-head with a fused 'can. And it was not as though everything was under control, she reflected. In fact, from the moment they had reached Atasco's virtual golden city, things had gone pretty damn poorly.

Across the expanse of water, the beetle had clambered up from the beach and was disappearing into a sea of grass stems, each as tall as the palm trees back home. She walked carefully toward the center of the leaf, leaving !Xabbu to sing his quiet fish-catching song and watch the now empty beach.

Sweet William's stage-vampire silhouette stood at the leaf's farthest edge, watching the opposite and more distant shoreline, but the others sat in the center with their backs against the huge center vein, a makeshift shelter of skin torn from the leaf's outer edge draped over their heads to protect them from the strong sun.

"How is he?" Renie asked Fredericks. The young man in quasi medieval garb was still nursing his sick friend Orlando. Even limp in slumber, Orlando's muscular sim body was a poor indicator of the frail child who animated it.

"He's breathing better, I think." Fredericks said it with real emphasis, enough so that Renie instantly doubted him. She looked down at the curled figure, then squatted so she could touch his forehead. "That doesn't really work," Fredericks added, almost apologetically. "I mean, some things show up on these sims, some don't. Body temperatures don't seem to change much."

"I know. It's just . . . reflex, ï guess." Renie sat back on her heels. "I'm sorry, but he doesn't look good at all." She had only so much strength, and she could not support any more hopeful untruths, even though the things Fredericks had told her about the real Orlando Gardiner tore at her heart. She made herself turn away. "And how are you, Martine. Any better?"

The French researcher, who wore the dark-skinned, dark-haired sim of a Temilúni peasant woman, mustered a very faint smile. "It is . . . it is easier to think, perhaps. A little. The pain of all this new input is not quite so bad for me now. But. . . ." She shook her head. "I have been blind in the world for a long time, Renie. I am not used to being blind here."

"What you mean, 'here'?" The warrior-robot sim belonged to a Goggleboy-type who called himself "T4b." Renie thought he was younger than he let on, maybe even as young as Orlando and Fredericks, and his sullen tone now only deepened her suspicions. "Thought nobody come here before. What's all that fen back at the last place if you been here?"

"I don't think that is what she meant. . . ." began Quan Li.

"No, I have not been here," Martine said. "But online-plugged in. That has always been my world. But the . . . noise since I have come here, the overwhelming information . . . it makes it hard for me to hear or even think the way I am used to." She rubbed at her temples with slow, clumsy movements. "It is like fire in my head. Like insects."

"We don't need any more insects, God knows." Renie looked up as a distant but still unbelievably large dragonfly skimmed the shoreline and started out across the river, loud as an ancient propeller plane. "Is there anything we can do, Martine?"

"No. Perhaps I will learn to . . . to live better with it when some time has passed."

"So what are we going to do?" Renie said at last. "We can't just drift with the current, literally or figuratively. We have no idea what we're looking for, where we're going, or if we're even heading in the right direction. Does anyone have any ideas?" She looked briefly at Florimel, who like Martine and Quan Li wore a Temilúni sim, and wondered when this woman would make her feelings known; but Florimel remained unsettlingly silent, as she had been most of the time since their shared escape had begun. "If we just wait . . . well, Sellars said there would be people coming after us." Renie looked around at the odd assortment of sims. "And we certainly are hard to miss."

"What do you suggest, dearie?" Sweet William was picking his way across the irregular surface of the leaf toward them, feathers bobbing; Renie wondered whether he wasn't finding all that simulated black leather a bit uncomfortable in this tropical warmth, "Don't get me wrong, all this can-do attitude is most inspiring—you must have been a Girl Guide. Should we build an outboard motor out of our fingernail clippings or something?"

She smiled sourly. "That would be better than bobbing along waiting for someone to come and catch us. But I was hoping someone might come up with something a little more practical."

"I suppose you're right." William levered himself down beside her, his sharp knee poking her leg. Renie thought he had changed a little since they had fled Atasco's palace, that his arrogance had softened. Even his strong northern English accent seemed a little less pronounced, as though it were as much an affectation as his death-clown sim. "So what do we do, then?" he asked. "We can't paddle. I suppose we could swim to shore—that would give you all a laugh, watching me swim—but then what? I don't think much of having to dodge yon overgrown buggy-wuggies."

"Are they big, or are we small?" asked Fredericks. "I mean, they could just be monster bugs, you know, like in that Radiation Weekend simworld."

Renie narrowed her eyes, watching the shoreline. A few flying shapes, smaller than the dragonflies, were hovering erratically at the water's edge. "Well, the trees are miles high, the grains of sand on the beach are as big as your head, and we're riding in a leaf that used to be a boat. What do you think? My guess would be 'We small.' "

Fredericks gave her a quick, hurt look, then returned his attention to his sleeping friend. Sweet William, too, glanced at Renie with something like surprise. "You've got a bit of a bite, don't you, love?" he said, impressed.

Renie felt shamed, but only slightly. These people were acting like this was some kind of adventure game, like everything was bound to turn out all right, that at the very worst they might earn a low score. "This isn't going to just end with a polite 'Game Over,' you know," she said, continuing the thought out loud. "I felt and saw a man die trying to break into this network. And whether what happened to the Atascos took place online or off, they're just as dead." She heard her voice rising and struggled to control herself. "This is not a game. My brother is dying—maybe dead. I'm sure you all have your own worries, too, so let's get on with it."

There was a moment's silence. T4b, the spike-studded robot warrior, ended it. "We ears, wo'. You talk."

Renie hesitated, the weight of their problems suddenly too much to bear. She didn't know these people, didn't have answers for them—didn't even truly understand what questions to ask. And she was also tired of pushing these strangers forward. They were an odd group, showing little of the initiative that Sellars had ascribed to them, and of the few people she trusted in the world only !Xabbu was truly here, since Martine was strangely transformed, no longer the quiet, ultra-competent presence she had been.

"Look," Renie said, "I agree we don't want to land if we can help it. Even the insects are as big as dinosaurs, and insects may not be the only animals out there. We haven't seen any birds yet, but that doesn't mean there aren't any, and we would make about a single bite for a seagull."

"So what can we do besides drift?" asked Quan Li.

"Well, I'm not saying we can make an outboard motor, but I'm not ready to give up on paddling, or maybe even making some kind of sail. What if we pulled up more of this skin from the leaf," she indicated the tattered awning over their heads, "and used that?"

"You cannot have a sail without a mast," said Florimel heavily. "Anyone knows that."

Renie raised an eyebrow: The silent woman apparently did know how to talk, after all. "Is that really true? Couldn't we make something that would at least catch some wind? What are those things they use on shuttle rockets—drag chutes? Why couldn't we make a reverse drag chute and use some of the thinner veins to tie it down?"

"I think Renie's ideas are very good," said Quan Li.

"Oh, she's a regular Bobby Wells, all right," Sweet William said. "But how long is it going to take us? We'll probably starve to death first."

"We don't have to eat, do we?" Renie looked around; the sim faces were suddenly serious. "I mean, don't you all—haven't you all arranged something? How could you go online for this long without some kind of feeding system in place?"

"I'm getting fed on an intravenous drip, probably." Fredericks suddenly sounded lost, miserable. "In that hospital."

A quick poll revealed that Sweet William's question had been largely rhetorical. All the party claimed they had some kind of resources that would allow them to be self-sufficient. Even William parted the curtain of his fabulous glamour long enough to reveal: "I'll probably be all right for a week or so, pals and chums, but then I'll have to hope someone looks in on me." But everyone was strangely reticent about their offline lives, rekindling Renie's frustration.

"Look, we're in a life-or-death situation," she said finally. "We all must have important reasons for being here. We have to trust each other."

"Don't take it personal," said William, grimacing. "I'm just not having any frigging Canterbury-let's-all-tell-our-Tales. Nobody has a right to my life. You want my tale, you have to earn it."

"What is it you want to know?" demanded Florimel. Her Temilúni sim displayed resentful anger quite convincingly. "We are all some kind of cripples here, Ms. Sulaweyo. You, him, me, all of us. Why else would that Sellars man choose us—and why do you think we are all prepared for a long period online? Who else would spend so much time on the net?"

"Speak for yourself," spat William. "I have a life, and it doesn't include a Save the World Fantasy Weekend. I just want to get out of here and go home."

"I wasn't prepared," said Fredericks mournfully. "That's why my folks have got me in a hospital. Orlando wasn't expecting this either. We kinda came here by surprise." He grew thoughtful. "I wonder where he is—I mean, his body?"

Renie closed her eyes, struggling to stay calm. She wished !Xabbu would come back from the leaf's edge, but he was still watching the shoreline slide by. "We have more important things to do than argue," she said at last. "Fredericks, you said you tried to go offline and it was very painful."

The young man nodded his head."It was horrible. Just horrible. You can't believe how bad it was." He shuddered and crossed his arms in front of his chest, hugging himself.

"Could you communicate with anyone, Fredericks? Did you talk to your parents?"

"Call me Sam, would you?"

"Sam. Could you talk?"

He thought about it. "I don't think so. I mean, I was screaming, but I couldn't really hear myself, now that I think about it. Not when I was . . . there. It hurt so bad! I don't think I could have said a word—you just don't know how bad it was. . . ."

"I do know," said Florimel, but there was little sympathy in her voice. "I went offline, too!"

"Really? What happened?" Renie asked. "Did you find a way to do it yourself?"

"No. I was . . . removed, just as he was." She said it flatly. "It happened before I reached Temilún. But he is right. The pain was indescribable. Even if there were a way to do it, I would kill myself before having that pain again."

Renie sat back and sighed. The vast orange disk of the sun had dropped behind the forest a little while before, and now the winds were freshening. A large insectoid shape flew erratically overhead. "But how can you not find your neurocannula? I mean, maybe you can't see it, but surely you can feel it?"

"Don't be naive, dearie," said William. "The information going from our fingers to our brains is no more real than what's coming in at our eyes and ears. That's what a neural shunt does. What have you got that's any better?"

"It's not better. In fact, it's worse." Renie smiled in spite of herself."My equipment is old—the kind of thing you wouldn't be caught dead using. And because it's simple, can just pull it off."

William glowered and said, "Well, hooray for Hollywood." Renie had no idea what he meant. "What good does that do the rest of us?"

"I could go offline! I could get help!"

"What makes you think you wouldn't get the torture-chamber effect yourself?" demanded William.

"Let her go," growled T4b. "Let her anything. Just want out this far crash place, me."

"Because my interface doesn't connect to my nervous system like yours does." She reached up to her face, searching for the reassuring, if invisible, contours of her mask, fondled many times in past days. But this time her fingers touched nothing but skin.

"And that brother you keep talking about," said Florimel. "Was his nervous system connected directly to a system? I do not think so."

"Renie?" Quan Li asked. "You are looking unhappy. Would you like us not to talk about your poor brother?"

"I can't feel it anymore." The twilit sky seemed to press down on her. She was lost and defenseless in the most alien place imaginable. "Jesus Mercy, I can't feel my mask. It's gone."

 

 

For a while he had been able to follow the conversation, but soon Orlando found himself sinking back down, the murmur of his companions' voices no more intelligible than the slapping of small waves against the side of their strange craft.

He felt weightless but still strangely heavy. He was motionless, stretched at Fredericks' side, but at the same time he was moving somehow, slipping down through the very fabric of the leaf, the waters rising blood-warm around him. He was sinking into the deeps. And as it had been not long ago, when he had shared the raft with Fredericks, he found he did not care.

In this vision, this trance, the water-world was all light, but a light stretched and bent and split by the water itself, so that he seemed to be passing through the heart of a vast, flawed jewel. As he sank deeper through the cloudy river, odd glimmering shapes wriggled past him, creatures whose own self-created radiance was brighter than the refracted glow of the sun. They did not seem to notice him, but went their apparently random, zigzagging ways, leaving an afterimage burned across his bemused gaze like particles mapped on their path through a bubble chamber.

They were not fish, though. They were light—pure light.

I'm dreaming again. The idea came to him gradually, as though he had begun to solve the central riddle of a mystery story that no longer interested him. Not drowning, dreaming.

As he sank deeper, ever deeper, the light grew fainter and the pressure increased. He wondered if this was how death would feel when it came at last, a gentle, helpless descent. Perhaps he truly was dying this time—he was certainly finding it hard to be interested in all the living everyone else seemed intent on doing. Perhaps the end was nothing to be feared, after all. He hoped that was true, but he had watched and studied death for so long, trying to learn its every guise so that he would be prepared for it when it came, that he could not fully trust it.

Death had been waiting for him as long as he could remember—not the far-off death of most people, a sad but necessary appointment that would have to be made one day, when life had been pursued to satisfaction and everything important had been arranged, but a very present death, as patient and persistent as a bill collector, a death that loitered outside his door every day, waiting for that one moment's distraction that would allow it to get its bony foot across the threshold. . . .

A shadow impinged on Orlando's downward-drifting reverie, and his swift clench of fear at its appearance told him that, expecting it or not, he was still not resigned to death's cold incursion. But if this was death that had come to him at last, a dark silhouette in the deepest waters, it had come in the form of . . . a lobster, or a crab, or some other many-jointed thing. In fact, the shadow seemed to be. . . .

. . . a bug?

Orlando. Boss, I don't know if you can hear me. I'll keep trying, but I'm running out of time. If they catch me, I'm history.

He could see the thing slowly waving its jointed legs, movement picked out in the faint gleam from its circle of eyestalks. He tried to speak, but could not. The water was pressing on his chest like the weight of a giant's hand.

Listen, boss, last time you told me "Atasco." I think that's what you said—it was subvocal. I've played it back thirty times, done every kind of analysis I could. But I don't know what it means, boss. There was a bunch of stuff on the nets about someone named that, tons of stuff. He got killed in South America. That guy? You gotta give me some more information, boss.

Orlando felt a vague stirring of interest, but it was only a twitch beneath an immensely heavy blanket. What did this many-legged thing want of him? He was trying to drift downward in peace.

The crab-thing crawled onto his chest. He could feel its blunted legs only very faintly, as the fairy-tale princess must have dreamily sensed the sleep-disturbing pea. He wanted to shake it off, to bring back the heavy quiet again, but the thing would not go.

Your parents are going to turn me off, boss. They won't turn off the household system because they're scared to unplug you again after your vital signs dropped so bad, but they 're going to have me pulled. I had to sneak my external body into your suitcase, boss, but it's only a matter of time until someone in this hospital notices me.

Orlando tried to speak again. He felt inaudible sounds form and die in his throat.

See, the only way I can resist a shutdown is if you order me to, boss. I'm just a psAÍ, an agent—your parents have authority unless you tell me different, but I can't pick you up online at all. Where are you?

The effort of resisting the downward tug was too much. Orlando felt a great lethargy sweep through him, a warm, compelling heaviness. The voice of the crab-thing was growing fainter.

Boss, listen to me. I can't help you if you don't help me. You have to tell me to save myself or I can't do it—they'll drezz me. If you tell me to, I can pull all my stuff and hide in the system somewhere, even move to another system. But you have to tell me, boss. . . .

He wished no one ill, not even a bug. "Go ahead, then," he murmured. "Save yourself."

The voice was gone, but something about its urgency lingered. Orlando wondered what could possibly have been so important. As he considered, he felt himself drifting ever downward. The abyss, dark and enveloping, lay waiting beneath him. The light was only a faint glimmer far above, shrinking every moment like a dying star.

 

 

Renie's shock and horror was such that it was hard to understand what the others were saying. The dreamlike nature of the whole experience had just taken a savage turn into an even more threatening unreality,

"Look, love, don't act so frigging surprised." Sweet William hunched his bony shoulders so that, feathers aquiver, he looked more than ever like a strange jungle bird. "It's some kind of auto-hypnosis or something."

"What do you mean?" asked Quan Li. The old woman had put an arm around Renie's shoulders when the tears, so unexpected, had suddenly begun to flow.

I can't feel the oxygen mask, but I can feel tears on my cheeks—naked cheeks. What's going on here? Renie shook her head and sniffed, ashamed to have lost control in front of these near-strangers, but if she could no longer feel those physical things that connected her to RL, then she could not leave this horror story, no matter how bad it got. I'm not plugged in like the others. How can this be happening?

"I don't know if autohypnosis is the right word. Post-hypnotic suggestion—you know what I mean. Like what stage magicians do."

"But who could do such thing? And how?" demanded Florimel. "It makes no sense." Her anger sounded like contempt, and Renie felt herself even more disgusted that she had cried in front of this woman.

"Maybe that's the same as the pain when I got unplugged," Fredericks offered. "But whatever it was, it didn't hurt imaginary. Imaginarily. You know what I mean. It hurt majorly."

"See, that would make sense, too," said William. "Something piggybacked on the carrier signal, a super-powerful subliminal. If they can mess about with our brains at all—and they must be able to mess about with people's brains, otherwise we wouldn't have come here looking for answers in the first place—I'll bet they can do it without us realizing it."

Renie wiped her eyes and blew her nose, trying to ignore the ridiculous, impossible aspects of the exercise. A few more insects droned unsteadily past overhead, each the relative size of a small car. The bugs seemed uninterested in the tiny humans talking so urgently below—which, Renie decided, was something at least to be grateful for.

"So what, then?" she said out loud. "I'm only imagining that I'm wiping my nose, is that what you're saying? Just like Fredericks here only imagined that he was having electrical shocks run through his spine?"

"Have you got a better explanation, chuck?"

She narrowed her eyes. "How come you know so much about all this. . . ?"

"Renie!" !Xabbu called from the leaf's edge. "There are many more of these insects near the water's edge, and they are moving out onto the river in a crowd. I have not seen this kind of insect before. Are they dangerous, do you think?"

Renie squinted at one of the round-bodied creatures as it rumbled past the leaf. Although its wings were strong and shiny, the rest of it had a curiously unformed look, legs awkward, head lumpish.

"Whatever they are, they are new-hatched," pronounced Florimel. "They eat nothing as large as us, I am sure, if they eat at all, They are looking to mate—see how they dance!" She pointed to a pair who performed a swooping pas-de-deux less than a hundred relative yards from where she and the others sat.

"Are you a biologist?" Renie asked. Florimel shook her head, but did not elaborate. Before Renie could decide whether to ask another question, Fredericks began waving his hands as though he had burned them,

"Orlando isn't breathing!"

"What? Are you sure?" Renie scrambled toward the still form. Fredericks was kneeling beside his friend, tugging at his thick-muscled arm in an effort to wake him.

"I'm sure, I'm sure! I just looked down and he wasn't breathing!"

"It's a sim," Sweet William said, but his voice was sharp with sudden fear. "Sims don't need to breathe."

"He was breathing okay before," said Fredericks wildly. "I watched him. His chest was moving. He was breathing, but now he isn't!"

Even as Renie reached Orlando's side, she was roughly shoved out of the way by Florimel, who knelt over the bulky form and began to push with brutal force on his chest.

"It's a sim, damn it!" cried William. "What are you doing?"

"If he has tactors, this will translate, at least a little," Florimel said between clenched teeth. "Giving him air will not—or I would give you something useful to do with that open mouth."

"Sorry." William waggled his long fingers helplessly. "Christ, sorry."

"Don't let him die!" Fredericks bounced up and down beside her.

"If he is in a hospital in real life, like you are," Florimel gasped, "then they will be able to do more for him than I can. But if his heart has stopped, we may be able to keep him alive until someone reaches him."

!Xabbu stood on his hind legs beside Renie, one hand on her shoulder. Time seemed suspended, each second achingly long. Renie's stomach contracted on cold nothing. It was terrible to watch Orlando's sim, head wagging limply as Florimel pounded on its chest, but she could not turn away. One of the hatchling insects buzzed loudly past just a few yards from the leaf's rim, and Renie bitterly wished she was of a size again to swat it.

"The noise is getting worse," said Martine suddenly, as though oblivious to what was happening. "The noise in my head."

"We can't do anything about the bugs now," Renie said. "You'll just have to ignore it. This boy may be dying!"

"No, it's . . . it's very loud." Martine's voice rose. "Ah! Oh, God, help me, it's . . . something is. . . ."

The leaf abruptly lurched upward, as though some great fist had punched it from below. Renie and !Xabbu and the others found themselves floating in the air, weightless at the top of the sudden rise; for a brief instant, their eyes met in astonishment, then the leaf dropped back down to the surface of the river again and they scrabbled to maintain their balance.

Before they could speak a word, a vast shining shape, big as the prow of a submarine, rose from the water beside the floating leaf. It was a fish, hallucinatory in its gigantism, water streaming from its glossy, spotted back, its flat, stupid eye wider than Renie was tall. A pink cathedral miracle of flesh and cartilage was visible for an instant down the titan gullet. As the leaf rocked violently in the foaming waves of its emergence, the mouth snapped shut like a cannon crash. The hatchling insect disappeared. The fish fell back into the fountaining river.

The first waves had just spun the leaf around, sending Renie and the others tumbling across its uneven surface, when a monstrous dark shape leaped over them, then smashed into the river on their far side, smacking a huge spume of water far up into the air. The leaf, caught between waves, tipped up on one side. Shrieking, Renie felt herself skidding down the veined surface toward the seething water. At the last moment, the bottom end of the leaf was batted upward by another surfacing shape. Renie crunched into the leaf's fibrous, curling edge and fell back, stunned and breathless.

More fish were popping their heads above the water to feed on the hovering insects, so that the whole surface of the river seemed to boil. Gouts of water splashed onto the leaf, instantly filling it waist-high. Renie struggled to pull herself upright, but the leaf was rocking too boldly.

"!Xabbu!" she screamed. She could dimly see human figures being tossed like bowling pins all around her, splashing and foundering, then being dashed to one side again, but no sign of the little man's baboon sim. A shard of memory pierced her: !Xabbu's terrible fear in the water at Mister J's, his childhood terror from a crocodile attack. She tried to call for him again, but a wave running horizontally across the leaf filled her mouth and knocked her down.

"Hold on!" someone shouted. A moment later the edge of the leaf was jerked upward again as though on a string, what had beer horizontal rising in a split second to the vertical. Renie found her self hanging in midair, weightless again for a fractional instant then she was tumbling downward into dark water. It closed on her, swallowed her, like the cold jaws of Leviathan itself.

 

 

He was down deep, deep as he could imagine being. There no light. There was no noise, not even the familiar, old-neighbor sounds of his own body. The stillness was absolute.

Orlando was waiting for something, although he did not know what. Someone was going to tell him an important fact, or something was going to change, and then everything would be clear. One thing he knew for certain, down in the depths, down in the dream of darkness, was that he himself had nothing left to do.

He had fought so long against the weakness, against the fear against the pain of simply being different, of feeling other people's horror and pity like a smothering weight—fighting not to care, smile and make a joke, to pretend that really he was just as good, just as happy, as everyone else. But he couldn't fight any more. There was no strength left in him. He could not sustain the weight of another struggle against the remorseless tide, could not imagine anything that could make him care.

And yet. . . 

And yet a small voice, something that almost did not seem part of him, was still alive within the great stillness he had become. A part of him that still wanted, that believed things, cared, that . . . hoped?

No. Such a voice could only be a joke, a final terrible joke. Hope had been a meaningless word for so long, a doctor's his mother's word, his father's brave-smile word. He had given all that up, which took more strength than any of them could ever know. Hope was a word whose purpose had nothing to do with its meaning; rather, it was a word used to keep him going, a word that wasted what little time and strength he had, disrupting the small moments of serenity with false promises. But now he had turned away, abandoned the rough current of life struggling to maintain itself. He was in deep, enveloping darkness, and he finally had the strength to look at hope squarely and dismiss it.

But the ridiculous voice would not go away. It poked him and irritated him like an argument in the next room.

Don't give up, it said, adding cliché to insult. Despair is the worst thing of all.

No, he told the voice wearily, hope without meaning is the worst thing. By far the worst thing.

But what about the others? What about the people who need you? What about the great quest, a hero's quest, just like something out of the Middle Country, but real and incredibly important?

He had to give the voice credit for sheer persistence. And, if it was a part of himself, he had to admire his own capacity to play dirty.

No, what about me? he asked it. Enough about all those other people and what they want. What about me?

Yes, what about you? Who are you? What are you?

I'm a kid. I'm a sick kid, and I'm going to die.

But what are you until then?

Leave me alone.

Until then?

Alone.

Only you can decide that.

Alone. . . .

Only you.

It would not give ground. It would not surrender. The voice was hopelessly outmatched, but still it would not do the gracious thing and capitulate.

With a weariness he could never have imagined even on the worst days of his illness, against all the weight of the peaceful, solitary deeps, Orlando surrendered to himself and to that small, stubborn voice.

He began to make his way back.

CHAPTER 2
Greasepaint

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: GCN, HR. 7.0 (Eu. NAm)—"Escape!"

(visual: Zelmo being rushed into surgery)

VO: Nedra (Kamchatka T) and Zelmo (Cold Wells Carlson) have escaped from Iron Island Academy again, but Lord Lubar (Ignatz Reiner) has activated his Delayed Death-Touch on Zelmo. 8 supporting, 10 background open, previous medical interactive pref'd for hospital strand. Flak to: GCN.IHMUFE.CAST

 

One of the tires on the Zippy-Zappy-Zoomermobile had gone flat, and they were all going to be late for King Sky Monkey's fabulous Pie in the Sky Picnic. Uncle Jingle, with help from the children, was trying to comfort a weeping Zoomer Zizz when the headache came back with vengeance.

She turned down the responsiveness of her facial tactors as the pain knifed through her—it didn't really matter if Uncle Jingle wore a fixed grin for a little longer than usual. She held her breath until she could tell how bad it would be. It wasn't as serious a some of the others. She'd probably live.

"Zoomer's still crying!" one of the younger children shrieked overcome by the pathos of a weeping zebra in a bobble hat.

Unseen beneath the electronic mask, Uncle Jingle gritted her teeth and struggled to sound halfway normal. "But that's silly—he's being silly, isn't he, children? We'll help him fix the Zippy-Zappy-Zoomermobile!"

The roar of agreement made her wince again. God, what was this? It felt like a brain tumor or something, but the doctors had promised that her scans were fine.

"No–o–o–o!" wailed Zoomer. "It'll be t–t–t–oo l–late! No, no, no! We'll miss King Sky Monkey's picnic. And it's all my fault!" The striped snout belched forth another long, nerve-searing wail of woe.

Uncle Jingle rolled her eyes. This particular Zoomer Zizz, whoever he was—Uncle J. had a vague recollection that this shift it was the new guy in Southern California—was really pushing it with all this bellowing. What did he want, a spin-off of his own? It wasn't like his legs had fallen off. (That had happened to one of the other Zoomers in an episode, and that particular actor had shaped it into a charming comic turn.) The problem was, these new people didn't know how to do real improv. They all wanted to be stars, and wanted to end everything with a punchline. And they didn't understand anything about working with children.

The headache was getting worse, a pain behind her left eye like a hot needle. Uncle Jingle checked her time. Ten minutes to go. Tired and hurting, she could not take any more.

"I guess you're right, Zoomer. Besides, they probably wouldn't want a smelly old zebra at their picnic anyway, would they, kids?"

The child-chorus cheered, but only a little, unsure of where this was going.

"In fact, I guess we better just leave you here crying by the side of the road, Mister Stripey-Butt. We'll go to the picnic without you and have fun, fun, fun. But first, let's all look at that special party invitation that King Sky Monkey and Queen Cloud Cat sent to us! Let's look at that invitation right now, okay?" She cleared her throat suggestively. "Invitation–right–now."

She held her breath, hanging on until one of the engineers caught the signal and played the invitation—a recorded segment featuring the royal court, an all-feline, all-simian singing and dancing extravaganza. Uncle Jingle pushed her panic button and an engineer's voice chirped in her ear.

"What's up, Miz P.?"

"Sorry. Sorry, I have to go off. I'm . . . I'm not feeling well."

"Well, you sure put the boot to old Zoomer. Maybe we can say you were trying to show him how silly he was being—you know, feeling sorry for himself."

"Certainly. Whatever. I'm sure Roland can think of something." Roland McDaniel was the next Uncle Jingle in the rotation, already in harness and waiting to go; he would only be filling an extra few minutes before his regular slot.

"Chizz. You gonna be systems go for tomorrow?"

"I don't know. Yes, I'm sure I will." She clicked off, pulled the Uncle Jingle plug, and became Olga Pirofsky again. She undid the harness with shaking hands and let herself down, then stumbled to the bathroom where she vomited until there was nothing left in her stomach.

 

When she had cleaned herself up and put on water for tea, she went to the master bedroom to let out Misha. The little bat-eared dog stared at her from his seat on the bedspread, making it quite clear that her tardiness was not going to be easily forgiven.

"Don't look at me like that." She picked him up and tucked him into the crook of her arm. "Mummy's had a very bad day. Mummy's head hurts. Besides, you only had to wait an extra five minutes."

The tail did not yet wag, but Misha seemed to be considering the possibility of forgiveness.

She opened a seal-pac of dog food and squeezed it into his bowl, then put it on the floor. She watched him eat, experiencing the first thing resembling happiness she had felt since her workday had started. The water was not yet boiling, so she walked gingerly into the front room—her head was still throbbing, although the worst was past—and turned the radio on very quietly, a classical station out of Toronto. There was no wallscreen; a framed series of St. Petersburg's riverwalk and a large picture of the Oranien-burgerstrasse Synagogue of Berlin filled the space where the screen had once been. Olga got quite enough of the modern world in her job. Even the radio was an antique, with a button on the side to scan stations and red digital numbers glowing on its face like the coals of a fire.

The whistle of the kettle brought her back to the kitchen. She turned off the halogen plate and poured the water into the cup on top of the spoonful of honey, then dropped in the strainer full of Darjeeling. The one time she had visited the studio's corporate building, someone had brought her one of those pop-top, self-boiling teas, and even though she had been hoping for a raise in salary, and thus was desperately anxious to be liked, she had not been able to make herself drink the swill.

She limped out to the front room. The radio was playing one of the Schubert Impromptus, and the gas fire was finally beginning to heat the room properly. She settled into her chair and set the cup down on the floor, then patted her thigh. Misha sniffed the cup and her ankle, then, apparently deciding it was not an evening for grudges, vaulted up into her lap. After she had bent to pick up her tea, the tiny dog tucked his nose under the bottom hem of her sweater, paw-pushed a few times to find just the right position, then immediately fell asleep.

Olga Pirofsky stared at the fire and wondered whether she was dying.

 

The headaches had started almost a year ago. The first had come just at the climax of Uncle Jingle's Magic Mirthday Party, an event that had been planned for most of a season, and which had been cross-marketed with a fervor never before seen in children's interactives. The pain had come so suddenly and with such hammering intensity that she had dropped offline immediately, certain that something terrible had happened to her real body. It had been a fortunate coincidence that the Mirthday Party plotline had featured Uncle J. splitting into twelve identical versions of himself—the production company was kindly allowing all the Uncle Jingles to participate in the residuals bonanza—so her absence was not critical. In any case, it was only a short absence: The pain had come and gone swiftly, and there was nothing unusual at home to suggest that something had happened to her helpless physical body.

If the problem had stopped there, she would never have thought of it again. The Mirthday shows broke net ratings records, as expected, and provided her with a nice bonus when the accounting was completed. (A sort of living explosion named "Mister Boom," which she had invented on the spot with Roland and another Uncle, even became a bit of a short-term fad, featuring in comedy monologues and other people's online games and spawning his own line of eternally-detonating shirts and mugs and toys.)

Two months later, though, she had another attack, and this one forced her off the show for three days. She had visited her doctor. who pronounced it stress-related, and prescribed a mild course of painblockers and Seritolin. When the next attack came, and the others that began to follow almost weekly, and when the tests repeatedly showed nothing abnormal in her physiology, the doctor grew less and less responsive.

Olga had ultimately stopped seeing him. It was bad enough to have a doctor who could not make you well; to have one who clearly resented you for being ill in an unfathomable way was unbearable.

She scratched the little crease that ran down the middle of Misha's skull. The Papillon snored quietly. His world, at least, was as it should be.

The Schubert piece ended and the announcer began to read some interminable commercial about home entertainment units, only slightly easier to stomach for being in soft classical-radio tones instead of the usual overstimulated screaming. Olga did not want to wake the dog by getting up, so she closed her eyes and tried to ignore the advertisement, waiting for the music to start again.

It was not stress that caused these horrid pains. It couldn't be. Years had passed since she had gone through the real stresses of her life: All the worst things, the nearly unbearable things, were long past. The job was difficult sometimes, but she had been in front of audiences most of her life and the electronic interface could disguise a multitude of sins. In any case, she loved children, loved them deeply, and although the children could certainly tire her out, she could think of nothing she'd rather be doing.

Years and years and years had passed since she had lost Aleksandr and the baby, and the wounds had turned to hard, numb scars long ago. She was only fifty-six, but felt much older. In fact, she had lived the life of an old woman for so long now that she had nearly forgotten any other way to do it. She could count on one hand the number of lovers she'd had since Aleksandr, none of them in her life longer than a few months. She seldom left her apartment except to shop, not because she was frightened of the outside world—although who wouldn't be, sometimes?—but because she liked the peace and solitude of her life at home, preferred it to the hubbub of other people living their heedless lives.

So, what stress? That was no explanation. Something more organic must be eating away at her, something darkly hidden inside her brain or glands that the doctors simply hadn't spotted yet.

The commercial ended and another began. Olga Pirofsky sighed. And if she was truly dying, was it so bad? What was there to regret leaving? Only Misha, and surely some other kind soul would give him a home. He would get over her as long as someone gave him love and wet food. The only other things she had were her memories, and losing them might well be a blessing. How long could a person mourn, anyway?

She laughed, a sour, sad laugh. "How long? For the rest of a lifetime, of course," she told the sleeping dog.

Finally, the announcer-babble ended and something by Brahms began, a piano concerto. She opened her eyes so she could drink some tea without spilling it on poor trusting, snoring Misha. Her coordination was never good after one of the headaches. They made her feel decades older.

So if it were all to end, was there anything she would regret leaving? Not the show. She had not created the character, and although she thought she brought something to him none of the others could—her circus training was so unusual in this day and age it had to make a difference—it did not mean much in the end. A fancy way to sell toys and entertainments to children was really all it was. As Uncle Jingle, she could occasionally do a little teaching, perhaps bring cheer to a sad child. But since the viewers did not distinguish between one Uncle Jingle performer and another—millions of credits of gear and filters and continuity coaches and art direction went every year to make sure they couldn't—she felt very little personal contact with her audience.

And lately, since the pain had begun, she found it increasingly difficult to stay involved with her job. So hard, it was so hard to be there for the children when that pain was pecking at her skull. It sometimes seemed that it only happened when she was working.

Only happened. . . .

Misha began to wriggle in irritation, and Olga realized that she had been stroking him in the same spot for at least a minute. She was quite astonished that she hadn't noticed that detail before—that the doctors and the company's medical insurance personnel hadn't spotted it either. The headaches only happened when she was hooked into the Uncle Jingle character.

But they had tested her neurocannula and her shunt circuits as a matter of routine in every company physical for years, and had tested them again when the headaches began. They weren't stupid, those company men and women. The 'can wiring had been just fine, as problem free as the scans.

So what did that mean? If the circuitry was good, then perhaps something else was wrong. But what could it be?

She scooped Misha from her lap and put him down on the floor He whimpered once, then began to scratch behind his ear. She stood and began to pace, only remembering to set down her teacup when the hot liquid sloshed onto her hand.

If the circuitry was good, what was bad? Was it just her own faulty internal mechanisms after all? Was she clutching at exotic answers because she wasn't truly ready to face the unpleasant truth, no matter how stoic she thought herself?

Olga Pirofsky stopped in front of her mantelpiece to stare at 3-D rendering of Uncle Jingle, an original sketch from the production company's design department, given to her at her tenth anniversary party. Uncle's eyes were tiny black buttons that could look as innocent as a stuffed toy's, but the toothy grin would have give Red Riding Hood a lot to think about. Uncle Jingle had rubber legs and huge hands, hands that could do tricks to make children gasp or laugh out loud. He was an entirely original, entirely artificial creation, famous all over the world.

As she stared at the white face, and as the radio played solo piano melodies, Olga Pirofsky realized that she'd never liked the little bastard much.

CHAPTER 3
The Hive

NETFEED/NEWS: Bukavu 5 Fears in Southern France

(visual: ambulance, police vehicles on airport runway, lights flashing)

VO: A small private airstrip outside of Marseilles in southern France has been quarantined by French and UN health officials amid rumors that it was the entry point for an entire planeload of Central African refugees sick with what is now being called Bukavu Five. An eyewitness account claiming that all the passengers were dead when the plane landed, and the pilot himself near death, has appeared as actual confirmed news on some net services, but as of now is still unconfirmed rumor. Officials of the local French prefecture will make no comment as to what caused the quarantine, or why UNMed is involved. . . .

 

The water was full of monsters, huge, thrashing shapes that in her old life, in the real world, Renie could have snatched up with one hand. Here, she would be less than a mouthful for any one of them.

A vast smooth side pushed past her and another great wave rippled out, spinning her wildly along the surface. In the backwaters, beyond the roil of the feeding madness, the water was strangely solid, almost viscous, and it dimpled beneath her rather than swallowing her whole.

Surface tension, she realized, not in words but images from nature documentaries: She was too small to sink through it.

An eye as big as a door loomed near, then slid back into the murk beneath her, but the water's cohesion was broken and she began to sink. She struggled to stay upright, fighting panic.

I'm really in a tank, she reminded herself desperately. A V-tank on a military bane! None of this is real! I've got an oxygen mask on my face—I can't drown anyway!

But she could no longer feel the mask. Perhaps it had slipped loose, and she was dying in the sealed, coffinlike V-tank. . . .

She blew out her held breath, then sucked in air, along with more water spray than she wanted. She had to sputter it out before she could scream.

"!Xabbu! Martine!" She threw out her arms and legs, desperately trying to keep her head above the surface as the water plunged like a giant trampoline. Just a few dozen yards away the river was seething as titan fish collided in their frenzy to reach the hovering insects. She saw no sign of the leaf or any of her fellow passengers, just tidal-wave crests and canyon troughs of river water, and the erratic movements of the hatchlings flying over head. One of them had drawn close, and was hovering almost directly above her, the noise of its wings for a moment obscuring the first voice she had heard that was not her own.

"Hey!" someone shouted hoarsely from close by, faint but clearly terrified. "Hey!" Renie kicked herself as far above the river's surface as she could, and saw T4b smacking his arms against the water as he fought to keep his unwieldy robot sim afloat. She scrambled toward him, tossed and battered by the waves surging beneath her, struggling against their sideways force,

"I'm coming!" she called, but he did not seem to hear her. He began screaming again, and windmilled his arms, an explosion of activity that she knew he could not maintain for more than a few seconds. His own movements forced him down through the surface, stirring up a froth as he sank. As she increased her own effort, and finally began closing the gap, a silvery head like the front of a bullet train flashed up from the river in an explosion of spray, engulfed him, then slid back into the depths.

Renie rocked back and forth as the force of the strike past her and dissipated. She stared, shocked into shutdown. He was gone. Just like that.

The roaring of wings grew louder overhead, but Renie could not lift her eyes from the spot where T4b had been swallowed, even when the wings were so close above her that the water began to fly in stinging drops.

"Excuse me," someone shouted. "Do you need help?"

Trapped in a dream that was becoming more bizarre by the second, Renie at last looked up. One of the dragonflies was hovering just a stone's throw above her. A human face protruded from its side, peering down.

Renie was so astonished that the next swell knocked her under, She thrashed to the surface to find the dragonfly still above her, the goggled face still staring down. "Did you hear me?" the unlikely head called. "I asked if you needed some help."

Renie nodded weakly, unable to summon a single word. A rope ladder with shiny aluminum rungs dropped from the insect's stomach like the last unraveling thread in the weave of reality. Renie grabbed at the bottom of the ladder and clung; she did not have the strength to climb. A gigantic stretch of gleaming scales broke the surface near her and then slid under once more, at its crest a fin that looked as large as a cathedral window. Somebody in a jumpsuit was clambering down the ladder toward her. A strong hand clasped her wrist and helped her up into the belly of the dragonfly.

 

She sat in a small padded alcove with a mylar emergency blanket wrapped around her shoulders. It was hard to tell which was making her vibrate the most, her own exhausted shivering or the mechanical dragonfly's wings.

"It's strange, isn't it?" said one of the two jumpsuited figures perched in the cockpit seats. "I mean, using an imaginary blanket to warm up your actual body. But everything here works in symbols, more or less. The blanket's a symbol for 'I've earned being warm,' and so your neural interface gets the message."

She shook her head, feeling a pointless urge to correct this improbable stranger, to explain that she didn't have anything as high-quality as a neural interface, but every time she opened her mouth, her teeth chattered. She could not turn off the film loop that kept playing in her head—three seconds of T4b splashing, then being swallowed, over and over and over.

The bug-pilot nearest her pulled off helmet and goggles, revealing a close-cropped head of black hair, Asian eyes, and rounded feminine features. "Just hang on. We'll fix you up back at the Hive."

"I think I see something," said the other jumpsuit. The voice sounded masculine, but the features were still hidden by the goggled helmet. "I'm going to drop her down a little."

Renie's stomach remained in the place they had been for several seconds after Renie and the others had plummeted back toward the river.

"Someone hanging onto some flotsam. Looks like . . . monkey?"

"!Xabbu!" Renie jumped and banged her head painful against the top of the alcove. The padding wasn't particular thick. "That's my friend!"

"Problem not," he said. "I think we need that ladder again, Lenore."

"Chizz. But if this one's a monkey, he can damn well climb up himself."

Within moments, !Xabbu had joined Renie in the alcove. She hugged the small, simian body tight.

Several passes over the roiling water turned up no other survivors.

 

"Too bad about your friends," said the pilot as they headed the dragonfly away from the river and into the forest of impossibly tall trees. "Win some, lose some." He peeled back his goggles, revealing freckled, long-jawed Caucasian features, then blithely spun the dragonfly on its side to slip between two mountainous but close-leaning trunks, forcing Renie and !Xabbu to clutch at the alcove wall. "But that's what happens—this river is no place for beginners."

Renie was stunned by his callousness. Lenore's expression was disapproving, but it seemed only the mild censure one might display to a little brother caught in the cookie jar.

"Give her a break, Cullen. You don't know what they were doing. It could be a real problem."

"Yeah, yeah." The skinny pilot smirked, clearly unmoved "Life's a bitch and then some fish eat you."

"Who are you people?" !Xabbu asked about a half-second before Renie could begin shrieking at them.

"The question really is . . . who are you?" Cullen flicked a glance over his shoulder, then returned his attention to the mega-foliage whipping past the dragonfly's windshield. "Don't you know that this is private property? Believe me, there are a lot better people to put on the scorch than Kunohara."

"Kunohara?" Renie was having trouble keeping up. Hadn't her companions just been killed? Didn't that mean anything to these people, even in this virtual world? "What are you talking about?"

"Look, you must have noticed that you'd crossed into another simulation," said Lenore, her voice kind, her manner ever-so-slightly impatient. "This whole place belongs to Hideki Kunohara."

"King of the bugs," said Cullen, and laughed. "It's too bad your friends are going to miss it."

Renie struggled with her outrage, remembering Atasco and the mistakes she had made in his world. "I don't understand. What are you talking about?"

"Well, your friends won't be able to get back in here—in fact, I'm not quite sure how you guys got in to begin with. Must be some kind of back door from one of the other simworlds. Not surprising, I guess—Kunohara's got a lot of weird deals going." He shook his head in admiration. "So your friends are going to have to meet you somewhere else. Don't worry, though. We can get you to wherever it is, if you've got an address." He banked the dragonfly sharply to avoid a low-hanging branch, then brought it neatly level with a flick of the steering controls.

"I'm Lenore Kwok," the woman said. "Your pilot is Cullen Geary, common asshole by day, but by night . . . well, he's an asshole then, too."

"Flattery, Len-baby, flattery." Cullen grinned contentedly.

The sky beyond the cockpit window was now a deep mauve; the trees were rapidly becoming monstrous vertical shadows. Renie closed her eyes, trying to make sense of it all. These people seemed to think that T4b and Martine and the rest were fine, that they'd just been knocked out of the simulation. But could that be true? And even if they could survive being killed here in the simworld—which she wasn't all that positive about, given what had happened to Singh—how would she and !Xabbu ever find them again? The whole grueling effort was already over, it seemed, with all Sellars' work gone for nothing.

"What is this place?" she asked. "This simulation."

"Ah-ah." Cullen wagged his finger. Twilight rushed past the viewscreen. "You haven't told us who you are yet,"

Renie and !Xabbu exchanged glances. With all their other concerns, she and her companions had not had a chance to concoct a cover story in case of a meeting like this. She decided that half truth was the best strategy.

"My name is. . . ." she struggled to recall the earlier alias, ". . . Otepi. Irene Otepi. I was doing systems analysis for a man named Atasco." She paused, watching their rescuers for a reaction. "Do you know him?"

"The anthropologist?" Lenore was checking readouts on the instrument panel. If she was hiding something, she was good at it "Heard of him. Central American, South American, something?'

"South American," said Cullen. "Colombian, in fact. Saw him in an interview once. What's he like?"

Renie hesitated. "I didn't meet him. Something went wrong—I'm not sure what. His simworld . . . well, there was an uprising or something. We were all on a ship, and we just kept going." Renie suspected they were wondering why she hadn't simply dropped offline. It was a good question, and she couldn't think of an answer other than the bizarre truth. "It was all pretty crazy. Then floated through to here, I guess. The ship turned into a leaf, the leaf got tipped over, you found us."

!Xabbu had been watching her closely, and now spoke in his most careful English. "I am Henry Wonde," he said. "I am Ms, Otepi's student. How can we find our friends again?"

Cullen turned to observe the baboon for a long moment before a looming tangle of branches jerked his gaze back to the viewscreen "Why? Are you planning to stay online? Just go back through this Atasco simulation or something?"

Renie took a breath. "There's something wrong with our own systems, I think. We can't go offline."

Cullen whistled, impressed. "That's weird."

"We'll get you fixed up at the Hive," Lenore said confidently "Make it all better,"

Renie was less than certain, but said nothing. The dragonfly sped on through the darkening night.

 

 

Orlando had one last dream before waking, a dim and fuzzy fragment in which a faceless child sat in a cold, dark room, pleading with him to stay and play a game. There was some kind of secret involved, something that must be kept from the grown-ups, but it all streamed away like windblown smoke as he awakened. Still, even though the events of the next minutes pushed it quickly from his mind, the feeling of foreboding it left took much longer to fade.

In the first too-bright moments after opening his eyes he thought he was paralyzed. His legs felt unattached, and seemed to move aimlessly; he had very little feeling below a tight band around his waist.

"Orlando?"

The voice was familiar. The feeling of being in the world was less so. He squinted and turned toward the voice.

"You're awake!" Fredericks' face was very close. Orlando realized after a moment that it was his friend's arm he felt around his waist, and that Fredericks was holding on to the edge of the leaf while they both floated chest-deep in the warm river.

"Well, cheers and welcome to the party, sunshine." Sweet William, looking not unlike a wet black cockatoo, was clinging to the leaf-edge a few yards away. "Does this mean he can swim now, so we don't have to keep dragging you two back on board every few minutes?"

"Leave him alone," growled Fredericks. "He's really sick."

"He's right," a woman's voice said. "Arguing is a waste of time."

Orlando craned his neck—it felt boneless as taffy—to focus on the faces beyond Fredericks' shoulder. Three female sims, the women named Quan Li, Florimel, and Martine, had clambered up to a higher part of the leaf, and were holding fast to the slope. Florimel, who had spoken, looked back at him intently. "How are you?"

Orlando shook his head. "I've felt better. But I've felt worse, too."

A vibration shuddered the leaf. Orlando grabbed at Fredericks and reached for the leaf's edge with his other hand, his heart suddenly racing. After a moment, the vibration ceased,

"I think we scraped on a root," Florimel said. "We are close enough to the bank that we should swim the rest of the way."

"I don't think I can do it." Orlando hated to admit weakness, but there wasn't much he could hide from these folks, not after they'd been watching him flounder in and out of consciousness for however long it had been.

"Don't worry your pretty little head," Sweet William replied "We'll just carry you on our backs all the way to the Emerald City, or Mordor, or wherever the hell it is we're going. Isn't that how it works in those stories? Buddies till the end?"

"Oh, shut up," offered Fredericks.

Orlando closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his head above water. A few minutes later the leaf shuddered again, then bumped to a halt, rocking in the gentle current.

"We do not know how long this is going to remain snagged here," Florimel pointed out. "Let us head for the shore now—it is not far.

"Everybody wants to be in charge, don't they?" Sweet William sighed theatrically. "Well, soonest muddled, soonest mended. Let's get on with it." He splashed free of the leaf and swam until he was level with Fredericks.

Orlando wondered a little dreamily what William was doing, then was abruptly jerked away from the leaf by an arm around his neck and tumbled backward into the water. He thrashed, trying to get free.

"Stop fighting, you prat," spluttered William. "Or I will let you swim by yourself."

When Orlando realized that the other was trying, in his idiosyncratic way, to help him to shore, he relaxed. William set out with a surprisingly powerful stroke. As Orlando floated backward, his chin in the crook of the death-clown's arm, he watched the blue tropical sky overhead, wider than anything he had ever seen, and wondered if this dream was going to continue forever.

This locks so utterly, he thought. Here I am, in a place where I could be like everyone else—better than everyone else—and I'm still sick.

But his muscles didn't feel as weak as they had at first, which was interesting. He made a couple of experimental kicks, just to see, and was rewarded by a wet snarl from Sweet William: "You're knocking me off-balance. Whatever you're doing . . . don't do it."

Orlando relaxed, feeling a small pleasure at the returning responsiveness of his virtual flesh.

A few moments later William dragged him up onto the rounded stones of the beach, then stood over him, sodden plumes draggled on his shoulders and head. "Now, just wait there, Hero Boy," he said. "Think good thoughts. I've got to go back and wrestle the blind lady onto shore."

Orlando was more than content to lie in the warm sun and flex his fingers and toes, working up after a few minutes to arm- and leg-stretching. His lungs still hurt if he took anything but the shallowest breaths, and all his muscles ached, but he felt almost none of the slippery, disconnected dreaminess he had experienced since commandeering Atasco's royal barge. But a bit of internal darkness remained to trouble him, a shadow he could not quite name or clearly see.

Something happened. I had a . . . a dream? With Beetle in it? And some kind of little kid? It was troubling because it seemed meaningless, while at the same time something was whispering deep in his thoughts that it was all very meaningful indeed. Was I supposed to do something? Help someone? Another thought, slow to coalesce, but even more chilling: Was I almost dead? I went down into the dark. Was I dying?

He opened his eyes to watch the rest of the group trudging ashore, Sweet William carrying Martine in his arms. He set her down beside Orlando with surprising tenderness. It was only as the others hunkered down in a small circle that Orlando suddenly realized that something else was wrong, too.

"Where are the others? Where's. . . ?" For a long moment he could not remember the names. "Where's Renie—and her friend? And the guy in the body armor?"

Quan Li shook her head but said nothing, looking down at the stones of the beach.

"Gone," said Florimel. "Perhaps drowned, perhaps washed up somewhere else." There was a false note in her matter-of-fact speech, something that might have been pain sternly repressed. "We were all washed overboard. Those you see here were able to cling to the leaf. Your friend pulled you back and held your head above the water, which is why you are alive."

Orlando turned to Fredericks. "So take me to Law Net Live," Fredericks said defiantly. "I wasn't going to let you drown just because you're an idiot." Something turned in Orlando's stomach. How many times had his friend saved his life recently?

As it to underscore the question, Sweet William added: "In fact, my duck, just before we tipped over, you stopped breathing for a bit. Flossie here gave you mouth-to-mouth whatsit."

"Florimel, not Flossie." She glowered at the bedraggled William. "Anyone would have done the same."

"Thank you." Despite another debt of gratitude, Orlando wasn't sure how he felt about the fierce woman, and for the first time he realized the magnitude of their loss. "Could we look for Renie and the others? I mean, what if they need help?"

"Some of us aren't quite as perky, because we didn't get a free ride," said William. "Some of us are that tired, we could lie down right here and sleep for a week."

Orlando looked along the riverbank; from his shrunken perspective it was a thing of huge brown arroyos and thin stretches of stony beach. The river, a vast stretch of green that seemed active as a storm-brushed sea, wound away into the distance. On the far side of the riverbank loomed the first of the forest trees, each one as vast as the world-ash of Norse legend, tall as Jack's beanstalk, But more than just the size of things was puzzling. "It's morning," he said. "It was evening just a little while ago. Does the time jump around here?"

"Hark at him." William laughed. "Just because he had a nice nap while the rest of us did the dogpaddle all night, he thinks time went all funny."

Orlando felt sure that somewhere his real face was flushed pink. "Oh. Sorry." He snatched at something to say. "So are we going to spend the night here? Do we need to make a fire or something?"

Martine, who had been silent since William carried her ashore, abruptly sat up straight, her eyes wide. "There is something. . . !" She brought her hands to her face, rubbing so hard Orlando feared she would hurt herself even through the tactors. "No, someone. . . ." Her mouth fell open and her face distorted, as though she silently screamed. She flung out a hand, pointing down the river course. "There! Someone is there!"

All turned to follow her gesture. A short distance away stood a white-shrouded human figure of their own size, looking down at something along the river's edge that was invisible from when they sat. Orlando struggled to get onto his feet, but was immediately struck by a wave of dizziness.

"Orlando, don't!" Fredericks scrambled up and took his arm Orlando wavered and tried to take a step forward, but the weakness was too much. He swayed in place, trying to find his balance.

Florimel was already walking swiftly toward the spot, picking her way over the uneven stones. Sweet William followed her.

"Be careful!" called Quan Li, then moved to take Martine's hand. The French woman's sim still gazed sightlessly, head turning slowly from side to side like a tracking dish unable to lock onto a signal.

As Orlando managed his first steps, inhibited more than helped by Fredericks' insistence on propping him up, the white-cloaked form turned toward Florimel and William as though realizing for the first time that there were others present. Orlando thought he saw a glint of eyes in the shadows of the hood, then the figure vanished.

Fredericks let out a breath. "Scanny. Did you see that? He just disappeared!"

"It's . . . VR," panted Orlando. "What did you . . . expect, a . . . puff of smoke?"

Their two companions were kneeling over something that lay in one of the shallow backwaters of the river. At first Orlando thought it was some kind of discarded machinery, but it was far too shiny to have been in the water long. When William and Florimel helped the machinery to sit up, Orlando suddenly recognized it.

"Look who we have here!" William shouted. "It's BangBang the Metal Boy!"

They helped T4b out of the water as Orlando tottered forward on Fredericks' arm; an observer might have thought that two ancient and venerable celebrities were being introduced.

"Are you okay?" Fredericks asked the warrior robot. Florimel began checking T4b in much the same way any accident victim might be checked, flexing joints, exploring for a pulse reading. Orlando wondered how much good that would do on a sim. "I mean, wow." Fredericks took a deep breath. "We thought you were dead!"

"And what do we call you, anyway?" fluted William. "I forgot to ask. Is just 'T' acceptable, or do you prefer 'Mr. Four Bee?' "

T4b groaned and brought a spike-gauntleted hand up to his face. "Feel pure fenfen, me. Fish ate me." He shook his head and one of his helmet prongs almost poked Florimel in the eye. "Puked me up, too." He sighed. "Doing that again? Never."

 

 

"It's not much, but it's home," Cullen declared. Renie could see nothing but a sprinkle of dimly-glowing lights before them.

"Hold up." Lenore's voice was sharp. "We got a bogey at 12:30 and closing."

"What is it?"

"One of those damn quetzals, I think." Lenore scowled, then turned to Renie and !Xabbu. "Birds."

"Hold tight." Cullen dropped the dragonfly into a steep dive. "Better still, grab those belts and strap in."

Renie and !Xabbu fumbled their way into the crash-belts hanging in the alcove. They fell for only seconds, then slowed so swiftly that Renie felt she was being squeezed like an accordion. They were floating downward, as far as Renie could tell, when a mechanical wheeze and bang came from underneath their feet, making her and !Xabbu jump.

"Extending the legs," explained Lenore. As the dragonfly thumped down on something, she continued to stare at the readouts. "We'll just wait until the damn bird gets bored. They can't see you if you're not moving."

Renie could not understand these people. They acted as though they were playing some sort of complex game. Perhaps they were. "Why do you have to do this?" she asked.

Cullen snorted. "So it doesn't eat us. Now there's a real waste of time."

"All clear," said Lenore. "He's circled off. Give it another few seconds to be on the safe side, but I see nothing except empty skies."

Shuddering, the wings beating hard, the dragonfly lifted off again. Cullen aimed it at the lights once more, which flattened as they drew closer into a vertical wall of gleaming points. One rectangular spill of light grew larger and larger before them, until it revealed itself as a huge, square doorway that dwarfed the air craft as they passed through. Cullen brought the dragonfly in neatly, hovered for a moment, then landed.

"Top floor," he said. "Mandibles, chitinous exoskeletons, and ladies' lingerie. Everyone out."

Renie felt a sudden urge to smack him, but it diffused in effort of dragging her tired body out of the crash-belt and through the hatchway behind the two dragonfly pilots. !Xabbu followed her down, climbing slowly so as not to hurry her.

The insect-plane stood in a vast hangar whose outside door was just now sliding shut with a whine of hard-working gears. Renie thought of the military base in the Drakensbergs, and then had to remind herself that the base was real but this place was not. Like all the Otherland simulations, it was incredibly lifelike, a high-ceilinged architectural monster constructed of, or appearing to be constructed of, fibramic tie-girders, plasteel plates, and acres of fluorescent lighting. All the half-dozen sims who trotted forward to begin servicing the dragonfly had individual and very realistic faces. She wondered if any of them represented real people.

She suddenly realized she had no idea whether even their rescuers were real.

"Come on." Lenore beckoned. "We'll debrief you—that shouldn't take long, although Angela may want a chat with you—then we'll show you around."

 

The Hive, as Lenore kept calling it, was a huge installation built into a mound of forest earth. The mound, in comparison to the tiny humans, was even larger than the mountain containing the Wasp's Nest base, but Renie thought the whole thing still seemed an eerie parallel to their RL situation. As they walked out of the landing bay into a long corridor, Lenore and Cullen in front arguing amiably, !Xabbu pacing on all fours beside her, she wondered again whether this was some kind of elaborate game-world.

"What exactly do you do here?" she asked,

"Ah, we haven't told you, have we?" Lenore smiled. "Must seem pretty strange."

"Bugs," said Cullen. "We do bugs."

"Speak for yourself, scanman," said Lenore. "Me, I watch bugs."

!Xabbu got up on his hind legs long enough to run his fingers along the wall, feeling the texture. "Is this a game, this place?" he asked, echoing Renie's earlier thought.

"Serious as a heart attack," Cullen countered. "It may be a playground for Kunohara, but to us entomologists it's like dying and going to heaven."

"Now I'm really curious," said Renie—and, surprisingly, she was. The fear for her companions' safety had not disappeared, but Otherland had again caught her off guard.

"Hang on a minute and we'll give you the whole thing. Let's just get you some visitor passes and then we can show you around properly."

Renie, overwhelmed by the bustling realism, had expected Lenore to lead them to some office, but instead they were still standing in the middle of the corridor, where Lenore had opened a data window in midair, when a stocky woman suddenly materialized beside them. She had an extremely serious face, well-simulated Mediterranean features, and short brown hair.

"Don't look so startled," she told Renie and !Xabbu. It sounded almost like a command. "Here in the Hive we don't have to put up with all that 'realistic' crap." As they pondered this confusing statement, she turned to Lenore. "You wanted to talk to me? About these people, right?"

"We would have checked them in before we got here, but Cully almost ran us down a bird's throat on the way in, so it was a little distracting."

"You wish," was Cully's riposte.

"They wandered in from someone else's simworld—Atasco, was it?" Lenore turned to Renie for confirmation. "And now they can't get offline."

The new woman snorted. "I hope you're getting enough water and glucose wherever you call home, sweetie, because we don't have much time to help you right at the moment." She turned back to the pilots. "That Eciton front has swung around, and it's about forty feet across when it's moving. I want you two to go and check it out again tomorrow morning."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n." Cullen saluted.

"Piss off." She returned her attention to Renie and ÎXabbu, examining the latter with eyebrows arched. "If I had the time to waste on an old joke, I'd say 'we don't get many baboons in here'—but I don't have the time. I'm Angela Boniface. You two are a problem. We've got a very strict agreement with the leaseholder, and we're not supposed to bring in anyone without his approval."

"We don't want to be in your way," Renie said hurriedly. "We'll leave as soon as we can. If you can take us to the nearest. . . ." she paused, unsure of the word, "border, I guess, we'll just get out."

"Not that easy." Angela Boniface squinted. "Damn. Oh, well—Kwok, see if you can find someone around here who might be able to figure out what's gone wrong with their gear. I have to go kick Bello's ass about something." Before she had turned halfway around, she was gone, vanished like a stage magician.

"Project administrator," said Lenore by way of explanation.

"What did she mean by 'that realistic crap'?" asked !Xabbu. Even Renie had to smile at his inflection.

"She meant in here we don't have to pretend like it's a real world," Cullen explained, extending his long arms in a catlike stretch. "Kunohara doesn't want anything disturbing the natural look of the simulation, so if we want to examine things up close, we have to interact, have to be part of the environment—but an unobtrusive part of the environment. That's why the vehicles look like big bugs. He set up all these other incredibly irritating rules we have to follow. It's kind of a little game he's got going, and he enjoys making us jump through the hoops. At least that's what I think."

"And when you earn your first billion or two," Lenore pointed out, "you can build your own simulation, Cully. Then you can make the rules."

"Well, when I do, Rule Number One is going to be 'No sixteen-hour days for the boss' I'm going to take care of some notes, then I'm outta here. Sayonara." He flicked his fingers and disappeared.

 

"There really isn't any place to sleep," Lenore apologized as she left them in a conference room. "I mean, no one bothers to do that here—wouldn't make sense." She looked around at the empty space. "Sorry it's so bare. I can put something on the walls if you want, maybe make some more furniture."

Renie shook her head. "It's all right."

"Well, I'll come back to get you in a few hours. If any of the gearheads are available before then, I'll have them buzz you." She evaporated, leaving Renie and !Xabbu alone.

"What do you think?" !Xabbu had clambered onto the featureless rectangular block that served as a table. "Can we talk here?"

"If you mean in real privacy, I doubt it." Renie frowned. "It's a virtual conference room—this whole thing's just the visual interface for a multi-input, multi-output communications machine. But do I think they're listening? Probably not."

"So you do not think these people are our enemies." !Xabbu crouched on his heels, brushing at the short hair on his legs.

"If so, they've gone to a lot of trouble for very small chance of reward. No, I think they're just what they say they are—a bunch of university people and scientists working in an expensive simulation. Now the fellow who owns the place, whatever his name was, him I wouldn't be so sure about." She sighed and lowered herself to the floor, putting her back against the stark white wall. The jumpsuit her sim wore was only a little the worse for wear despite immersion in the river, but it was within the bounds of what would really happen. It seemed these Otherland simulations even took note of wear and tear.

Who were these people, this Brotherhood, she wondered again. How could they build a network this realistic? Surely money alone, even in almost unimaginable amounts, was not enough to bring about this kind of performance-level jump.

"So what do we do?" !Xabbu asked. "Have we lost the others for good?"

"I really don't have any answers." Bone-tired and depressed, Renie struggled to get a grip on her thoughts. "We can wait and hope that Sellars finds us before any of those Grail people do. We can keep moving, keep looking for . . . what did Sellars say that man's name was?"

!Xabbu furrowed his simian brow in thought. "Jonas," he said at last. "Sellars spoke to him in dreams. He set him free, he said."

"Right. Which tells us exactly nothing about where he might be. How are we supposed to find him, anyway? Follow the river? Which could go for millions of miles through virtual space, for all we know. It could be some kind of Moebius river, for God's sake, and keep changing so that it has no end at all."

"You are unhappy," !Xabbu said. "I do not think it is as bad as that. Look at this place! Remember the man Atasco's country. There cannot be enough people in the world to construct a million such complicated things as this."

Renie smiled a tired smile. "You're probably right. So that's it, is it? Back to the river, and hope we find Martine and the rest, or this Jonas fellow. Have you ever heard the expression, 'a needle in a haystack'?"

!Xabbu shook his narrow head. "What is a haystack?"

 

Her dreams came and went almost unnoticed, like early morning rain showers. She woke, curled on her side on the floor of the imaginary conference room, and listened to !Xabbu's gentle breathing beside her.

A memory floated through—only an image at first, an amalgam of sound and feeling. On cold mornings, when he was small, Stephen would crawl into her bed. He would mumble drowsy nonsense for a moment, then curl against her and within seconds drop back into deepest sleep, leaving Renie herself resignedly half-awake and waiting for the alarm.

It was terrible, this between-state that Stephen was now in, this unresolved nothingness. At least her mother had gone for good, to be missed and mourned and occasionally blamed. Stephen was neither dead nor alive. Limbo. Nothing to be done about it.

Nothing but this, perhaps, whatever "this" turned out to be—a hopeless search? A confused assault on incomprehensible powers? Renie could only wonder. But every moment that Stephen remained ill and that she did not make him better was a burning reproach.

The pain summoned another memory: When he was five or six, he had come home one afternoon full of agitation, flapping his aims as though he would fly. His wide-eyed upset had been so exaggerated that at first Renie had almost laughed despite herself, until she noticed the blood on his lip and the dirt on his clothes. Some of the older children had waylaid him on his way back from school. They had tried to make him say something he didn't want to say—one of the tired rituals of malevolent youth—and then had shoved him down in the road.

Without even pausing to wash his split lip, Renie had dashed out of the house. The little gang of ten-year-old thugs had scattered when they saw her coming, but one of them was a step too slow. Shouting with rage, Renie had shaken that boy until he was crying harder than Stephen. When she let him go, he slumped to the ground, staring at her in mortal terror, and she had been pierced by a deep shame. That she, a grown woman and a university student, should put such terror into any child. . . . She had been horrified, and still had never quite forgiven herself. (Stephen, who had watched from the doorway, had no such compunctions. He was gleeful about the bully's punishment, and did a little laughing dance as she returned to the house.)

How could someone set out systematically to injure children? What did these Grail people believe could be worth such monstrousness? It was beyond her comprehension. But then, these days, so many things were.

Her contemplative mood turned sour, Renie grunted and sat up. !Xabbu made a quiet sound and rolled onto his other side.

What could she do but go on? She had made mistakes, had done things she didn't like to remember, but Stephen had no one else.

A life, a most important life, was in her hands. If she gave up. she would never see him run again in his skittery, gangly-graceful way, never hear him chortle at the painfully stupid jokes on the net shows, or do any of the things that made him uniquely Stephen, Perhaps that bullying ten-year-old hadn't deserved such angry reprisal, but he had never bothered Stephen again. Someone always had to stand up for the weak and the innocent. If she didn't do all she could, she would spend the rest of her life beneath a shadow of failure. And then, even if Stephen died, he would always remain in limbo for her, a ghost of the most real sort—the ghost of a missed chance.

CHAPTER 4
In The Puppet Factory

NETFEED/NEWS: Mini-Elephants Not Just A Fad

(visual: Cannon with miniature elephant "Jimson")

VO; Business is very good indeed for Good Things Farm these days. Owner Gloriana Cannon, shown here with young bull Jimson, breeds and sells almost a hundred of the mini-elephants sometimes affectionately known as "half-a-lumps" every year. The business, which began as another mini-pel fad a decade ago, has outlasted the experts' best guesses.

CANNON: "Part of it is because these little guys are so smart. They 're not just novelties, they're real companions. But they 're also a lot more stable than some of the other genetic minis—their DMA just handles it better, or something. Stop that, Jimson. When you remember how unpredictable those little grizzlies were, all those accidents they had. And those small jungle cats that turned out so nasty . . . what was that stupid marketing name? 'Oce-littles' or 'Oce-lite', something like that. . . ?"

 

Dulcinea Anwin put her hand on the palm-reader and noticed that her nails were ragged. She frowned, waiting for the door to decide to trust her. Too much to do. She must look dreadfull, but at the moment, life was even wilder and more overwhelming than usual.

The last time I went through this door, I had never killed anyone. That thought, or others much like it, had been cropping up for days. She was pretty sure she was handling it well, but she had little with which to compare it. Still, she did not feel consumed by guilt. It would have been different, she supposed, if the victim had been someone she really knew, instead of some minor Colombian gearhead Dread had hired.

Besides, she had seen this coming for years. You couldn't be successful in her business without coming into personal contact with violence, or at least you could not avoid it forever. Still, she had thought her first experience with murder would be watching someone else do it, not performing the act herself. She pushed the thought away again, but the memory of Antonio Celestino's sightless eyes, both before and after the killing shot, seemed unlikely to go away soon. . . .

The apartment door, unable to distinguish between the new Dulcie who had shot Celestino and the old Dulcie who had not, hissed open. When she had crossed the beam, the door paused exactly one point five seconds, then shut itself. Jones appeared in the bedroom doorway, stretched luxuriously, then padded across the floor toward her with no apparent haste, as though her mistress had not been gone for almost two weeks.

Dulcie dropped her bag and leaned down to stroke the cat, who bumped her shin and then turned and sauntered away. Jones' fluffy backside, Persian-wide but bearing the Siamese coloring of the other half of her heritage, showed no signs of unfashionable shrinkage. At least Charlie from downstairs seemed to have fed her properly.

The wallscreen was pulsing with a faint pink light, but Dulcie ignored it. She hadn't accessed any messages since boarding the flight in Cartagena, and she was in no hurry to do so. She felt as though she hadn't been properly clean for days, and God knew that she would be busy enough soon.

"Priority message," said a soft male voice, cued by the front door opening and closing. "You have a priority message."

"Shit." Dulcie flipped her hair out of her eyes and rubbed her forehead. It couldn't be Dread again already, could it? She felt positively waxy. "Play the message."

Her current employer's ugly-handsome face appeared a meter high on her wallscreen, his long hair lank and damp. He looked like someone who had been chewing khat, exalted and buzzing like a downed power line. "Dulcie, call me as soon as you get in. It's extremely, extremely urgent."

"Oh, Christ. No peace." She told the screen to return the call, then slumped onto the couch and kicked off her shoes.

He came on almost immediately. "We've got a problem."

"Didn't those subroutines work?" She had cobbled together a few reaction loops before leaving Dread to mind the fort in Colombia, behavior gear that would allow them to leave their puppet sim untenanted for short stretches of time, but which would keep the impostor looking occupied and alive. Nothing that would confound serious scrutiny, but enough to get through sleeping periods and the occasional distraction on the handlers' end of things.

"It's all working fine. But the group's been split up. That African woman and her monkey friend—they're lost, maybe drowned. There was some kind of fish frenzy on the river. The boat tipped over and the rest of the group are stranded on shore."

Dulcie took a deep breath, fortifying her patience. Men, no matter how intelligent or powerful, sometimes couldn't help acting like boys, so lost in their games that they forgot they were games. Women, on the other hand, remembered what was important—an occasional bath and clean hair. "But our sim is still with the rest of the group?"

"Yes. Everyone's together now, except those two. But they're clearly in a dangerous situation, so we could lose them all at any time. I need to get on with researching some of the things they've already talked about. I can't do it while I'm handling the sim."

"Could this possibly wait just another hour? I'm sure you're tired, but I just walked through the door and I have to eat something before I faint." Men didn't understand baths, but they usually understood food.

He stared for a long moment. The look on his face seemed to suggest imminent violence, or at least harsh criticism, but then he grinned instead, his teeth bright in his dark face. "Of course," he said. "Sorry."

Dulcie could make little sense of the man—his odd reactions, like this one, the flares of brilliance, the childishness of his nickname, did not quite add up to make a full picture. Not being able to categorize him irritated her. "I really do need a chance. . . ." she began.

"Call me back when you're ready." He broke contact.

Dulcie looked down at Jones, who had returned and was sitting patiently by her stocking-clad feet. "Hurry, hurry, hurry," Dulcie told her. "Always hurrying." Jones lidded her round eyes; she seemed to agree that it was no way to do things properly.

 

Her curling red hair was wrapped in a towel-turban and her softest bathrobe coddled her damp but now wonderfully clean skin. She had stretched lengthwise on the couch with her feet up, a squeeze-tube of mango yogurt in her hand, and Jones resting comfortably—it was comfortable for Jones, anyway—along her thighs.

Look at me, she thought. I've shot someone. There are a lot of men who couldn't even do that. But look at me. I'm so calm. She made sure her pose reflected this impressive fortitude. "Now," she told the wallscreen, "you may redial."

Dread appeared thrice life-size. He seemed a little less manic. "They're all asleep, so it's not such an emergency. The puppet looks great—a little snore here, a little twitch there. You do good work."

"Thank you."

"Did you get something to eat?" His dark eyes flicked along the length of her bathrobed form in a way she found both sexual and somehow dismissive. "I'd like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date."

"I'm fine." She waved her yogurt tube. "Fire away."

Dread began where she had handed over the reins that morning, with the whole crew still floating on the river in the boat that had become a leaf, and brought her up to the present moment, with special emphasis on character continuity. "We really ought to see if we can find some agent gear that will take subvocalized notes on the fly," he said. "Otherwise, if a lot happens, we might lose some important detail after a hand-over and blow the puppet's cover."

Dulcie wondered inwardly how long he would want to keep this up, but reminded herself that with the bonus he had already credited to her account, and the salary he had promised for her share of sim-time, she could take at least a year or two off. That much freedom was worth some inconvenience.

Another part of her wondered at how quickly Celestino had become nothing more than a number in her credit account.

Aloud, she said: "Is there a chance we could find a third person to help with this? Even if those people sleep for eight hours a day, that's still a full working day for both of us, seven days a week, indefinitely. I could probably find someone to help."

Dread went silent, his face suddenly expressionless. "You have someone you want to bring in?"

"No, no." Until today, he had been so ecstatically happy about the results of the Sky God project she had almost forgotten his mood swings, but now they were again in high gear. But, she told herself, at least he wasn't boring, like most men. "No, I don't have anyone in mind. I'm just thinking about us both going crazy from overwork. And you said there's a lot of other stuff you have to do with . . . with that data." She had almost said Atasco's name: she was tired, she realized. She doubted anyone was actually tapping her lines—Dread himself had sent her some topflight defense gear, which she was using on top of her own precautions—but it was stupid to take any unnecessary risks, and certainly the Atasco assassination had been world news for days now.

"I'll consider it." For a moment, his stony look lingered. Then, as if someone had poured hot liquid into a cold cup, life came back into his features. "And there're a few other things we need to discuss, too. . . ."

"There is someone at the door," said the house-voice. "Someone at the door."

Dulcie rolled her eyes. "Intercom. Who's there?"

"Me—Charlie," was the response. "So you really are back!"

"Who is that?" Dread had gone zero-degrees again.

"Just my downstairs neighbor." She got up, dislodging a silent but irritated Jones. "She feeds my cat. I can call you back if you want."

"I'll wait." Dread killed his visual and the wallscreen went blank, but Dulcie had no doubt he would be listening.

Charlie's white-blonde hair was elaborately foiled; the strands encircled her head like the electron paths of a model atom, so that the closest kiss she could bestow landed somewhere in the air a handspan from Dulcie's cheek. "Oh, God, Dulcie, where's your tan? What good is going to South America if you don't get a tan?"

"Too much work." Charlie, Dulcie felt sure, would think a nuclear explosion had an upside—all those skin-darkening rays. "Any problems with Jonesie? She looks great."

"No, everything was just 'zoonly. Your mother came by one day when I was here. She's a chort."

"Yeah, she's a chort, all right. Laugh-a-minute." Dulcie's feelings about Ruby O'Meara Mulhearn Epstein Anwin at their very strongest could not be called affectionate, but other people always seemed to think her mother was a wonderful character. Dulcie wondered what she was missing. "Anything else?"

"Oh, God, you must be exhausted. I really just came up to make sure that was you I heard." Charlie abruptly twirled, catching up her silvery tesselated skirt and exposing her long, slender legs. "Do you like this? I just bought it."

"It's great. Well, thanks again for taking care of Jones."

"Problem not. Do you think you could feed Zig and Zag next week? I've got . . . I'm going out of town. You just have to give them lettuce and check their water."

Charlie had always maintained that she was an account executive for a cosmetics firm—a lie that Dulcie guessed was rooted in some briefly-held teenage job. Charlie thought Dulcie did not know that she was a call girl—and a fairly expensive one, too: the cartoony voice and schoolgirl figure were doubtless very appealing to a certain type of well-heeled clientele. Charlie believed her career was a complete secret, but Dulcie made it her business to find out everything she could about all her neighbors, and Dulcie was good at finding things out.

Charlie thinks she's so wicked. She doesn't know that her friend upstairs is an international terrorist-for-hire. She's been feeding the cat of a professional murderess.

Even when shared only with herself, the joke was beginning wear thin. In fact, she had just decided not to think about Celestino for a while, to allow the incident to find its proper place in the Dulcie Anwin scheme of things.

When Charlie had gone posture-walking back to the elevator like an oversized, overdressed Girl Scout, Dulcie turned back the wallscreen.

"She's gone."

Dread's face popped up immediately, as she had known it would. Of course he was listening. He'd probably been watching too, and thinking perverse thoughts about blonde, short-skirted Charlie. But if he had been, he made no mention of it, or gave any sign at all.

"Right. Well, the first thing we need to decide is how much I can afford to lead this little group from within." Dread frowned, his eyes remote. "If I thought they had any purpose at all, I'd be happy just to sit back, but they have a golden opportunity to find things out and instead they just seem to be . . . drifting."

"A golden opportunity to find things out for you," Dulcie suggested.

He smirked. "Of course." His smile vanished. "You know who I work for, don't you?"

Dulcie wasn't sure what she was supposed to say. "You've never told me. . . ."

"Come on. Don't lower my opinion of you. You're good at what you do, you make great money, you drive that scorching little red sports car way too fast, but you've never had a ticket—you get around, Dulcie. You must have a pretty good idea of who my boss is."

"Well, yes, I think I know." In fact, after seeing the Otherland network from the inside, she had known the rumors about Dread working for the almost-mythical Felix Jongleur had to be true. Only Jongleur and a very few other people could afford that kind technology.

"Then you can guess how serious this is, what we're doing. We're holding back crucial information from one of the meanest, most, most powerful men in the world. We're right in the Old backyard here. If he finds out, I'm a dead man. Instantly." fixed her with a stare even more intense than the one he had earlier. "Don't misunderstand this. If you sell me out, even I don't get to you myself before the Old Man sixes me, he won't let you live. Not someone who's found out as much as you have about this network of his. You won't even be history. In twenty-hours, there will be no evidence you ever existed."

Dulcie opened her mouth and then closed it. She had thought about just these possibilities, all of them, but to hear Dread say so flatly, with such certainty, brought it home to her in a way own musings hadn't. Suddenly, she knew herself to be in a very high and precarious place.

"Do you want out?"

She shook her head, not trusting her voice at this moment.

"Then do you have any questions before we go on?"

Dulcie hesitated, then swallowed. "Just one. Where did your name come from?"

He raised an eyebrow, then barked a laugh. "You mean 'Dread'? You sure that's all you want to ask me?"

She nodded. When he laughed like that, his lips pulled away from the corners of his mouth like some kind of animal. Like something that grinned before it bit.

"It was a name I gave myself when I was a kid. This guy in the place I stayed . . . well, that doesn't matter. But he turned me on to this old music from the beginning of the century, Jamaican stuff called 'ragga'. 'Dread' is a word they used all the time."

"That's all? It just seemed . . . I don't know, kind of silly. Not really you."

For a moment she wondered if she'd gone too far, but his dark face flexed into amusement once more. "It has another meaning too—something to make the Old Man crazy, him with all his King Arthur bullshit, his Grail and all that. The full version isn't just 'Dread,' it's 'More Dread.' Get it?"

Dulcie shrugged. All that Middle Ages stuff had always bored her to tears in school, along with the rest of History. "Not really."

"Well, don't worry your head about it. We got more serious stuff to do, sweetness." The curled-lip laugh returned. "We are going to stir it up for the Old Man—stir it up major."

Recovering her composure a little, Dulcie allowed herself the indulgence of a twinge of contempt. He thought he was so bad, so scary, so dangerous. All the men in this business were either complete psychopaths, ice-blooded technicians, or action-star wannabes, full of pithy lines and menacing glances. She was quite sure Dread would prove to be the last.

"Problem not, Pancho," she said—Charlie's favorite expression. "Let's get on with it."

Empty-eyed, self-absorbed . . . yes, she knew his type. She was willing to bet that he went through a lot of women, but that none of the relationships lasted very long at all.

 

 

Christabel had slipped and skinned her knee at school the day before, trying to show Portia how to do a special serve in foursquare. Her mother had told her to quit peeling the spray off it to look, so she waited until she was all the way down the street and around the corner before stopping her bike.

The spray was funny, a round white place on her knee that looked like spiderwebs. She sat down on the grass and scraped at the edge of the white stuff with her fingernails until it began to come loose. Underneath, the red sore spot was beginning to turn a funny yellow color and get all gummy. She wondered if that was what happened when parts of the Minglepig fell off, like on Uncle Jingle's Jungle last week, when all the Minglepig's noses came off at the same time after he sneezed. She decided that if that happened it would be very, very gross.

There were no people on the athletic field when she rode past, but she could see a few of them on the far side, wearing their army uniforms and marching back and forth, back and forth, on the dirt track. There was no music today, so the sound of her pedals was loud, sort of like music itself, going squeak-a, squeak-a.

She rolled down street after street, hardly even looking at the signs because she knew the way now, until she came to the part of the base with the raggedy grass and the little cement houses. She parked her bike beside a tree, pushed hard with her foot until the kickstand went down, and then took the paper bag out of the bike basket that her daddy had fixed so it wouldn't be all wobbly any more.

"Hey, weenit. Que haces?"

Christabel jumped and made a squeaking noise louder than the bike pedals. When she turned, someone was coming down out of the tree, and for a moment she thought it was a monkey in clothes, a scary killer monkey like that show her mother hadn't wanted her to watch but that Christabel had promised wouldn't give her nightmares. She wanted to scream, but it was like in a bad dream and she couldn't do anything but watch.

It wasn't a monkey, it was a boy with a dirty face and a missing tooth. It was the same boy who had helped her cut the fence when she was helping Mister Sellars, except he was even dirtier and he looked smaller than before. But he was inside the fence! Inside the fence, where she was! She knew that was wrong.

"Don't talk much, you." The boy was smiling, but it looked like it hurt him. Christabel took a few steps backward. "Hey, mu'chita, not gonna do nothin' to you. What you got in the bag?"

"It's n–not for you." Christabel held it tight against her shirt. "It's f–f–for someone else."

"Verdad, weenit?" The boy took a step closer, but slow, like he hardly even knew he was doing it himself. "Some food, huh? Feedin' someone, you? I saw. I been watchin."

"Watching?" She still couldn't understand what this dirty boy was doing here. There were inside-the-fence people, and there were outside-the-fence people, and he was not an inside person.

"Yeah, claro, I been watchin'. Ever since you got me to cut that fence, I been watchin'. Fence goes off, I climbed over. Get some good stuff, me, what I thought. But the fence go back on. Both of 'em. Threw a stick at it, just to see, people came running—soldier boys. I go'd up a tree, but they almost saw me."

"You can't get out." She said it as she realized it. "You can't get back over the fence, 'cause. . . ." she stopped, scared. She had almost said Mister Sellars' name. " 'Cause it's turned on. 'Cause it's 'lectric."

"Got that right, mu'chita. I found some food, too—they throw lotta stuff away in here, man, they locos—major scanny, seen? But they don't throw out food always. And I'm pretty hungry, me." He took another step nearer, and suddenly Christabel was terrified he would kill her and eat her, like in the monster stories Ophelia told at sleepovers, grab her and then bite her with that dirty mouth and the hole where his front tooth was supposed to be. She turned and began to run.

"Hey, weenit, come back!"

She ran looking down at the ground flying underneath her, at her legs going up and down. It felt like something was jumping in her chest, thumping her from the inside, trying to get out. She could hear the boy's voice coming closer, then something shove her in the back and she was running too fast for her feet. She stumbled and fell onto the grass. The boy stood over her. Her knee was hurting from where she fell down at school, and now on the other leg, too. When her breath came back, Christabel began to cry, so scared she was hiccuping, too.

"Crazy little bitch." He sounded almost as unhappy as she was, "What you do that for?"

"If you hurt m–m–me, I'll . . . I'll tell my daddy!"

He laughed, but he looked angry. "Yeah? Chizz, weenit, you tell. And then I'll tell about what you hiding out here."

Christabel kept hiccuping, but she stopped crying because she was now too busy being even more afraid. "H–hiding?"

"I told you, I been watchin'. What you got? What you hiding out here? Some kinda dog or something?" He stuck out his hand "Fen, I don't care if it dog food. Gimme that bag." When she did not move, he bent over and took it from her curled fingers. He didn't pull hard, and Christabel felt more than ever like this was a bad dream. She let it go.

"Que. . . ?" He stared at the wrappers. "This soap! What are you, play some game with me?' With his quick, dirty fingers, he unpeeled one of the bars and held it to his nose to take a hard sniff. "Fen! Soap! Mu'chita Loca!" He threw it down. The soap bounced away. Christabel could see it sitting on top of the grass where it stopped, like an Easter egg. She didn't want to look at the boy, who was very angry.

"Right," he said after a minute, "then you gonna bring me food, bitch. Right here, every day, m'entiendes? Otherwise, you daddy gonna know you come here. Don't know what you doin' with that soap, but I bet you washin' something you ain't s'posed to have. You got me, little vata loca? I know where you live, you in your Mammapapa house. I see you through the window. I come through that window some night if you don't bring me nothing to eat."

Anything would be better than having him yell at her. She nodded her head.

"Chizz." He swung his arms from side to side, so he looked like a monkey again. "And you better not forget, 'cause Cho-Cho be un mal hombre. You hear? Don't mess with Cho-Cho, or you wake up dead."

He went on saying things like that for a while. At last, Christabel figured out that Cho-Cho was him, the boy. It wasn't a name she had ever heard. She wondered if it meant something outside the fence.

He let her keep the rest of the soap, but even after he had climbed up into the nearest of the thick trees and scrambled away to some secret hiding place, she did not dare leave the bag for Mister Sellars. She put it back into the basket of her bicycle and rode home. Hallway there, she began to cry again. By the time she reached her street, she could hardly see the sidewalk.

And now both her knees were skinned.

 

 

Dread rang off and settled back, extending his long legs. He called up the Otherland sim and opened its eyes briefly. All the others were still sleeping, and watching them brought a sympathetic heaviness to his own eyelids. He shook his head, then reached into his pocket for a stimulant tab—Adrenax, the real stuff from the South American black bazaars—and dry-swallowed it. He followed it up with a little drum music on his internal system, a counterpulse to make everything seem a little more exciting. When the rhythm was pumping at what seemed the proper level, cascading from one side of his head to the other, he returned his attention to business. He left the Otherland window open, but shut the sim's eyes most of the way so as not to attract undue attention should any of the others wake, then leaned back in his chair to think.

His hand stole to his t-jack; callused fingertips traced the smooth circumference of the shunt. There were so many puzzles, and so little time to spend on them. Maybe Dulcie's idea was a good one, after all. He himself couldn't keep spending nine or ten hours a day under simulation even if he had nothing else to do, and the Old Man certainly wouldn't leave him alone forever.

And what about Dulcie herself? His good opinion of her, bolstered by the unhesitating speed with which she had dispatched that idiot Celestino, had been diminished more than a little by her insistence on going back to New York. And all because of a cat—a cat! The most amazing technological advance conceivable, this Otherland network, a simulation more real than RL itself, and she was worried about leaving her cat with that pale blonde slut of a downstairs neighbor another week or two. The stupidity of it was almost enough to warrant taking Ms. Anwin off the protected species list.

What was even more irritating was that he had just sunk many thousands of his own personal credits, stringently shielded from the Old Man's notice, into building a new office to share with her in Cartagena, and now he had to worry instead whether her home system could competently carry this kind of bandwidth. When she had said she was going home, he had seriously considered just killing her and doing the whole Otherland surveillance by himself. But that would not have been practical, of course—not under current circumstances.

A pleasure deferred, then.

It was particularly galling, however, to be dependent on a woman. As a rule he never trusted anyone with more than a small piece of a job, and held all the connectors in his own hands. When you delegated, you always suffered some signal degradation. Just look at the way that pusbag of a gear man had almost blown the whole thing to bits.

Well, Celestino was landfill now, a job even he would have trouble screwing up.

Dread lit a thin Corriegas cigar, one of the few compensations of being stuck in South America as far as he was concerned, and contemplated his options. He had to be ready if the Old Man had another job for him; this was exactly the wrong time to show any hesitation or resistance. He also had to keep the Otherland puppet sim active, either by himself or with help from trustworthy employees. So far, Dulcie Anwin still fit that category, but bringing in someone else would just mean more management for him, more security concerns, more possible points at which something could go massively astray. . . .

He would put that decision aside for later, he decided. When Dulcie took over in four hours, and if the residual stimulants in his system would permit it, he would try to get a little sleep, and then he might be in a better frame of mind to judge something so important.

But in the interim, he needed to get on with some of his own research. What the people caught inside the Otherland simulation network had discovered told him very little so far about the Old Man's purposes; what they had unwittingly revealed about themselves, though, was more immediately useful. For one thing, if he decided to bring in other sim drivers to help, he could then look into trying to replace a second member of that merry little band of river travelers, in case his current infiltration got bounced from the system by the next giant fish attack or whatever.

However, he was even more interested in knowing who these people were and why the mysterious Sellars had brought them together, and of all the travelers, the African woman and her friend were the top priority. He had the others where he could keep an eye on them, but for all he knew Renie whatever-her-name-was had been knocked offline, in which case she was now a very loose thread indeed. Dread notched down the intensity of the rhythm track to something more in line with careful thought, then sent a smoke ring spinning toward the low, white ceiling. The room was windowless, sort of a half-untenanted office complex in the outer ring of Cartagena, but it had high-bandwidth data lines, and that was all he cared about. This Renie was African, that much he could have told just from her accent. But someone had said that her companion was a Bushman, and some quick reference-checking suggested that most the remnants of that people were to be found in Botswana and South Africa. That didn't mean that the woman couldn't be from somewhere else, that they might not have met online, but he liked the odds that they were both from the same place.

So, Botswana and South Africa. He didn't know a lot else about her, but he knew that her brother was in a coma, and when crosschecked with her first name and its possible variants, that would have to narrow things down considerably.

But he wasn't going to do it himself. Not the grunt work. Since the job seemed likely to be in southern Africa, he would let Klekker and his associates handle it, at least until they found a hot trail. After that, he wasn't so sure: Klekker's men were mostly thugs, which certainly came in handy sometimes, but this was a very delicate situation. He would decide when he knew more.

Dread sent up another smoke ring, then waved his hand, obliterating it. The adrenals had kicked in, and along with the rush of energy he felt a sort of blind, idiot ache in his groin and behind his eyes that he hadn't felt since the night he'd taken the stewardess. It was an itch, he knew, that would become more than that soon, he didn't know how he could possibly find the time to hunt safely. He was right on the edge of the biggest thing ever, and for once he intended to take the Old Man's advice and not let his private pleasures compromise his business.

Dread grinned. The old bastard would be so proud.

A thought occurred to him. He lowered a hand to his crotch squeezed meditatively. It wasn't a good time to hunt—at least not in RL. But this simulation was so realistic. . . .

What would it feel like, to hunt in Otherland? How close would these sims imitate life—especially in the losing of it?

He squeezed again, then brought the drums back up inside his head until he could feel them buzzing in his cheekbones, the sound track for some ultimate jungle movie of danger and darkness. The idea, once kindled, began to burn.

What would it feel like?

CHAPTER 5
The Marching Millions

NETFEED/NEWS: US, China At Odds Over Antarctica

(visual: signing ceremony for Six Powers treaty)

VO: Only months after the signing of the Zurich accord, two of the Six Powers are again squabbling over Antarctica.

(visual: American embassy in Ellsworth)

Chinese and American companies, both of which license space for commercial exploitation from the UN, are in a dispute over who has the rights to what is thought to be a rich vein of mineral deposits in the Wilkes Land area. Tensions rose last week when two Chinese explorers disappeared, and accusations were made by Chinese media sources that US workers had kidnapped or even murdered them. . . .

 

"Can I come in?" a voice asked in Renie's ear.

Two seconds later, Lenore Kwok appeared in the conference room. She wore a jaunty leather aviatrix helmet and what looked like new coveralls.

They probably are new, Renie thought. Just switched back to default setting. Even someone who had spent as much time in simulation as she had was finding it hard to reconcile herself to this amazingly realistic new world—no, new universe, for all intents and purposes, with different rules for every piece of it.

"I'm really sorry," Lenore said, "but I still don't have anybody to help you with your gear. A lot of people aren't on the Hive today—I think it's some kind of system problem. Things are pretty crazy. So what you've got is those of us who are at the end a shift, and mostly we're all in the middle of something." She made an appropriately sad face. "But I thought I'd give you a quick tour of the place anyway. Then, if you want, you can come along will me and Cullen to look at the Eciton burchelli bivouac. It's spectacular major, and you'd probably like it better than sitting around here."

!Xabbu clambered up onto Renie's shoulder to gain a better conversational position. "What is this thing you are going to see?"

"Ants. Come along—you've never seen anything like it. By the time we get back, they should have the system problems ironed out, and someone will be able to help you."

Renie looked at !Xabbu, who shrugged his narrow simian shoulders. "Okay. But we really need to get out of here, and not just for your sake."

"I utterly understand." Lenore nodded earnestly. "You probably have things to do at home. It must be big slow being stuck online."

"Yes. Big slow."

Lenore wiggled her fingers and the conference room disappeared, replaced instantly by a huge, domed auditorium. Only a few of the seats were filled, and tiny spots of light gleamed about a dozen or so others, but the vast room was mostly deserted. On the stage—or rather above the stage—floated the largest insect Renie had ever seen, a grasshopper the size of a jet plane.

". . . The exoskeleton," a cultivated, disembodied voice was saying, "has many survival advantages. Evaporation of fluids can be reduced, a definite plus for small animals whose surface-area-to-volume ratio makes them prone to fluid loss, and the skeletal structure also provides a great deal of internal surface area for muscle attachment. . . ."

The grasshopper continued to pivot slowly in midair, but on of its sides detached and lifted away from its body, an animated cutaway.

"Normally this would be for the first-year students," Lenore explained, "the lucky ones who get to come to the Hive at all. But there's almost nobody here today, like I told you."

As various bits of the grasshopper drifted loose, some vanishing to provide a better view of the section they had covered, other parts were highlighted briefly, lit from within.

"The exoskeleton itself is largely made up of cuticle, which is secreted by the epidermis directly beneath, a layer of epithelial cells which rest on a granular layer called the 'basement membrane.' " Various strata in the exposed armor glimmered into life and then faded. "The cuticle itself is not only extremely efficient at controlling fluid loss, it serves as protection for the animal as well. Insect cuticle has a tensile strength as great as aluminum with only half the weight. . . ."

!Xabbu was staring solemnly up at the revolving grasshopper. "Like gods," he murmured. "Do you remember when I said that, Renie? With these machines, people can behave as though they were gods."

"Pretty chizz, huh?" said Lenore. "I'll show you some more of the place."

With another finger flick they left the auditorium. Lenore's tour of the Hive took them to the cafeteria—although, she quickly explained, no one really ate there; it was more of a gathering place. High windows made one wall of the beautiful room entirely transparent, looking out onto a grass-forested hillside and the edge of a massive tree root. The difference in perspective between the human-sized objects in the room and the insect's-eye view made Renie faintly uneasy, like staring down a very steep angle.

Their guide whisked them through a variety of other spaces—mostly lab rooms, which were smaller versions of the auditorium, where virtual specimens and data could be manipulated in at least three dimensions and a rainbow of colors. They were also shown some "quiet spots" designed just for relaxation and deep pondering, created with the same care that might be lavished on haiku poems. There was even a museum of sorts, with small representations of various anomalies discovered in the living laboratory outside the Hive's walls.

"One of the most amazing things," Lenore said, gesturing at a many-legged creature hovering in midair and lit by invisible light sources, "is that some of these aren't like anything in the real world at all. We wonder sometimes if Kunohara's playing games with us—Cullen's sure of it—but our charter is predicated on an accurate simulation of a ten-thousand-meter-square cross-section of real terrain, with real life-forms, so I'm not sure I believe that.

I mean, Kunohara's pretty serious about the field himself. I can't see him just inventing imaginary insects and throwing them into an environment he's been so careful to maintain."

"Are there other things that are strange in this simulation world?" asked !Xabbu.

"Well, reports sometimes of objects that don't belong in any real-world simulation at all, and some weird effects—ripples in the base media, funny lights, local distortions. But of course, entomologists are just as likely as anyone else to get tired and see things, especially in a place like this, which is already pretty overwhelming."

"Why did this Kunohara person make all this?" Renie wondered.

"Your guess is as good as mine." Lenore flipped her hand through her hair, and this very human gesture paradoxically reminded Renie that she was watching a simulation, that the real Lenore might look nothing like this creature before her, and was certainly physically somewhere else entirely. "I read somewhere that he was one of those kids that was obsessed by bugs when he was little—of course, that's true for most of us here. But the difference was, he made money at it. Secured some crucial biomedical patents when he was in his early twenties—that Cimbexin stuff they're trying to use as a cellular-growth on-off switch was one of his, and that self-fitting tile, Informica—and made millions. Billions, eventually."

"And so he built this with the money?" !Xabbu was examining a caddisfly larva with what seemed too many legs as it emerged from its chrysalis over and over in a looped display.

"No, we built this, if you mean the Hive—well, a consortium of universities and agribusinesses did. But Kunohara built the world outside—the simulation we're studying. And it's really pretty amazing. Come on, I'll show you."

The transition from the Hive museum to the cabin of the dragonfly-plane was instantaneous. Cullen was already in his pilot's seat. He nodded in greeting, then returned to his instruments.

"Sorry to jump you around like that," said Lenore, "but we take advantage of our sovereignty in the Hive and don't waste much time imitating normality. As soon as we go through the hangar doors, everything happens in real time and like real life, even if it is happening in Giant Bug World. Kunohara's rules."

"He'd make us walk if he could," Cullen said. "Every now and then one of our sims gets munched—a migration specialist named Traynor got cornered by a whip scorpion the other day. Turned him into bugfood faster than I can say it. I bet Kunohara thought that was pretty funny."

"What happened to him?" !Xabbu asked worriedly, clearly picturing what a scorpion would look like at this scale.

"To Traynor? Just a rude shock, then he got bounced out of the system." Cullen rolled his eyes. "That's what always happens. But then we had to reapply to get him another licensed sim. That's why Angela wasn't exactly pleased to see you. The celebrated Mr. K. is pretty tight-sphinctered about what goes in and out of his simworld."

"Thanks for that vivid image, Cullen," said Lenore.

"Belt up," he responded. "I'm talking to you two rookies in particular. I've got clearance, and we're ready to fly. You don't want to get tactor-bounced any more than necessary."

As Renie and !Xabbu scrambled to secure themselves, the hangar door slid open, revealing a wall of shadowy plant shapes and a light gray sky.

"What time is it?" Renie asked.

"Where you are? You'd know better than me." Lenore shook her head. "This simworld's on GMT. It's a little after five AM here. The best time to see the Eciton is when they start moving around dawn."

"We're cutting it fine, though." Cullen frowned. "If you'd been here on time, Kwok, we'd be there by now."

"Shut up and fly this old crate, bug-boy."

 

!Xabbu sat quietly, staring out the window as the mountainous trees loomed and then slid past on either side. Renie could not help but be impressed herself: It was daunting, seeing things from this perspective. A lifetime of ecological catastrophes being pumped through her consciousness by the newsnets had left her with a feeling of the environment as a fragile thing, an ever-thinning web of greenery and clean water. In the real world that might be so, but to be brought down to this size was to see nature in its former terrifying and dictatorial splendor. She could at last truly imagine the Earth as Gaea, as a single living thing, and herself as a part of a complicated system rather than a something perched atop the ladder of Creation. So much of that sense of mastery was perspective, she realized—simply a product of being one of the larger animals. At her current size, every leaf was a marvel of complexity. Beneath every stone, on every lump of dirt, lived whole thriving villages of tiny creatures, and on those animals lived even more minute creatures. For the first time, she could imagine the chain of life down to molecules, and even smaller.

And has someone built that here as well? she wondered. As !Xabbu said, are we becoming gods, that we can grow ourselves as big as a universe, or walk inside an atom?

It was hard not to be impressed by Atasco and Kunohara and the rest—at least those who had not knowingly built their wonderlands with the suffering of others. What she had seen so far was truly stunning.

"God damn." Cullen slapped his hand against the steering wheel. "We're late."

Renie leaned so that she could look past him, but all she could see through the windshield was more of the giant forest. "What is it?"

"The troop's already on the move," said Lenore. "See those?" She pointed to several dark shapes flitting above them in the branches. "Those are antbirds and woodcreepers. They follow the Eciton swarm when it travels, and feed on the creatures driven ahead of it."

"I'm going to have to put on the autopilot," Cullen said crossly. "It's going to be bumpy, but don't blame me—I was on time."

"Human pilots aren't fast enough to avoid all the bird strikes," Lenore explained. "Don't take Cullen's charming manners too personally. He's always like this before breakfast, aren't you, Cully?"

"Get locked."

"It is too bad, though," she went on. "One of the most interesting things about the Eciton is how they make their camp—their 'bivouac' as it's called. They have tarsal claws, these hooks on their feet, and when the troop stops, they grab each other and link up into long hanging vertical chains. Other ants hook on, until eventually there's a kind of net many layers deep, made entirely of ants, that covers the queen and her larvae."

Renie was fairly certain she'd heard of more disgusting things in her life but she couldn't think of any offhand. "These are army ants?"

"One type," agreed Lenore. "If you're from Africa, you may have seen driver ants. . . ."

Her disquisition on Renie's domestic insects was cut short as the dragonfly plane abruptly dropped like a stone, then tumbled in midair before pulling out of its dive and into a long, flat skim above the grass forest. Cullen whooped. "Damn, we're quick!"

Renie was struggling not to throw up. Even !Xabbu, despite the mask of baboon features, looked more than a little unsettled.

Lenore's naturalist lecture was kept on hold over the next few minutes by a further succession of evasive procedures. Passing through an almost continuous serious of dives, banks, and loop-the-loops to avoid birds that Renie seldom even saw before the autopilot reacted, the dragonfly seemed to travel ten times as far vertically and horizontally as it did forward. In fact, Lenore explained, they really weren't even trying to go forward; instead, they were waiting in place for the swarm to approach.

Between being rattled against !Xabbu in the passenger alcove and bouts of severe queasiness, Renie managed to wonder at how realistic these sensations of weightlessness and g-force were. It seemed hard to believe that they could be generated solely by the V-tanks in which their bodies were currently floating.

A vast feathered shadow suddenly loomed in the windshield. Another thought-swift jerk in direction, this one an unadvertised columnar rise that seemed to slam her guts down into her shoes, finally proved too much. Renie tasted vomit at the back of her mouth, then felt her stomach convulse. There were no visible results of sickness within the simulation; a moment later, except for the slowing contractions in her midsection, even Renie felt as though it had never happened.

Must be the waste hoses in my mask pumping it away, she thought weakly. That mask that I can't feel anymore. Aloud, she said, "I can't take much more of this."

"Problem not." Cullen, body language suggesting he wasn't too thrilled with having passengers at all, reached out to the wheel and dropped the dragonfly into a sharp spiral. "It will only get worse when the swarm shows up, when we're trying to take readings and avoid those damn birds."

"It's too bad," Lenore said. "You won't have quite as close a view. But we'll try to set you down somewhere you can still see." She pointed at the viewscreen. "Look, there's the prey wave-front! The Eciton are almost here."

Hurrying through the matted foliage, dawn light winking dully on wing and carapace, came a seething rout of insects—madly-stilting beetles, skimming flies, large creatures like spiders and scorpions treading the slower, smaller prey underfoot in their hurry to escape the great enemy: Renie thought it looked like some bizarre insectoid prison break. As moments passed, and as the dragonfly spiraled down, the wave of prey insects grew denser and more chaotic. The blankly inhuman heads and jointed limbs jerking in heedless flight upset her. They looked like an army of the damned, hopelessly fleeing the trumpets of the Last Judgment.

"See those?" Lenore pointed out a group of slender-winged insects that flew above the panicked herd, but seemed far more purposeful than those below. "Those are ithomunes—ant butterflies, so-called. They follow the Eciton everywhere, just like the antbirds do—in fact, they feed on the birds' droppings."

The dragonfly's hatch hissed open. Overcome by a little too much of Nature at her most cloacal extremes, Renie struggled down the ladder and onto the top of a mossy stone, then bent double to coax the blood back into her head. !Xabbu clambered down and stood beside her.

"Just stay fairly still," Lenore called down through the hatchway. "The birds and others have plenty to feed on, but you don't want to call attention to yourselves unnecessarily. We'll be back to pick you up in about half an hour."

"What if something gets us?"

"Then I guess you'll be offline sooner than we thought." was Lenore's cheerful rejoinder. "Enjoy the show!"

"Well, thank you so much," Renie growled, but the dragonfly wings had beat into life again, pressing her down by the force of their wind, and she doubted the woman had heard. A moment later the dragonfly leaped upward with the force of a brief and localized hurricane, then zigzagged forward over the oncoming insect stampede and disappeared into the forest.

Now that they were out in the open, Renie could hear the sounds properly, and realized that she had never thought of Nature as being noisy. In fact, she realized, most of the nature she'd seen had possessed a classical sound track and voice-over narration. Here, the twittering of the hunting birds alone was almost deafening, and with the clicking and rasping of prey in full flight, coupled with the swarms of flies that buzzed above the hurrying mass, she and !Xabbu might have been listening to some kind of bizarre factory floor working at a nightmarish level of production.

She lowered herself to a tuft of moss; when she sank in and found herself surrounded by stiff tubular stems, she realized the moss was almost as deep as she was tall. She moved to a bare section of rock and sat down.

"So what do you think?" she said to !Xabbu al last. "This must make you feel very excited about your own hopes. I mean, if they can build this, then surely you can build the place you want to."

He squatted beside her. "I must confess that I have not been thinking about my project in the last hours. I am amazed by all of this. I am amazed. I could never have dreamed such things were possible."

"Neither could I."

He shook his head, his tiny monkey brow crinkling. "It is a level of realism that actually frightens me, Renie. I think I know now how my ancestors and tribesmen must have felt when they saw an airplane for the first time, or the lights of a big city."

Renie squinted into the distance. "The grass is moving. I mean really moving."

!Xabbu narrowed his own deep-sunken eyes. "It is the ants. Grandfather Mantis!" he gasped, then murmured something unintelligible in his own language. "Look at them!"

Renie could have chosen to do nothing else. The leading edge of the ant swarm was pouring into the comparatively clear space before them in relentless, viscous waves like lava, smothering grass, leaves, and everything else. The ants were mostly dark brown, with reddish abdomens. Each slender insect was almost twice as long as Renie was tall, not counting the segmented antennae which seemed to move a dozen times for every other motion the ants made. But it was not as individuals that they exercised their profound, horrifying magic.

As the main body of the swarm surged into view, Renie gaped, unable to speak. The front stretched away out of sight in a line that was miles across by her perspective, and it was not a thin front. The swarming, seething mass of ants streamed back into the vegetation in such thickly clotted thousands that it seemed the entire edge of the world had grown legs and was marching toward them.

Despite the first appearance of inexorable progress, the Eciton did not simply march. The outriders scurried forward, then turned and hurried back to the nearest pseudopod of the writhing mass; in the meantime, others followed the path they had just blazed, and then explored farther before hurrying back themselves, until the entire living clot had moved into the area the outriders had just visited. Thus the army crawled forward like some huge amoeba, a vast seething lump that was nevertheless questingly alive down to its last particle, an army that to Renie's vastly shrunken gaze might have covered all of Durban beneath its hurrying bodies.

"Jesus Mercy," Renie whispered. "I've never. . . ." She fell back into silence.

The dragonfly appeared from out of the trees farther back in the swarm, and moved over the front of the column, darting and then hovering while its human pilots made their observations. It swerved with reflexive suddenness to avoid a brown-and-white bird, which continued in its downward plummet and snatched up a struggling cockroach instead.

Seeing the dragonfly plane made Renie feel a little less overwhelmed. It was a simulation, after all, and even if within this simulation she were no more than a tiny fleck in the path of an ant swarm, nevertheless humans had built it, and humans could bring her back out of it safely.

The ant mass had surged to within what by her terms was only a quarter of a mile from the base of the rock on which she and !Xabbu sat, but their vantage point seemed to stand outside the main thrust of the swarm's pulsing forward movement, so she was able to relax a little and even enjoy the sheer spectacle. Lenore had been right—it was an amazing show.

"They are very fast, especially when we are so small," said a voice behind her. "The leading edges of an Eciton burchelli raid move at about twenty meters per hour."

Renie jumped in shock. For half a moment, she thought that Cullen had landed the plane and that he and Lenore had snuck up on them, that she had been watching a real dragonfly instead of the Hive aircraft, but the white-robed sim standing a few paces away up the hill was clearly someone entirely new.

"They are hypnotic to watch, are they not?" the stranger asked. He smiled within the shadow of his hood.

"Who are you?"

The stranger brushed the hood back just casually enough to avoid melodrama, revealing close-cropped black hair and a heavily lined, Asian face. "I am Kunohara. But you have probably guessed that, haven't you? They do still mention my name at the Hive, I presume." His diction was careful, his English overprecise but otherwise flawless. Renie did not think he was using any translation gear.

"They mentioned you, yes."

"This is your world, is it not?" !Xabbu asked the newcomer. Renie could see subtle signs of her friend's nervousness, and she was not tremendously comfortable with the stranger herself. "It is very, very impressive."

"The Hive people have certainly brought you to see one of its most spectacular manifestations," Kunohara said. "The swarm looks full of confusion, but it is not. Do you see the spider, there?" He pointed down to the nearest edge of the boiling mass. A long-legged green spider had failed to outrun one of the pseudopods, and now was clinched in doomed combat with a trio of large-headed ants. "She has encountered the true soldiers of the Eciton swarm. They 'walk point,' as the military people would put it. They only fight to defend the swarm—most prey is killed by the minor and media workers. But see what happens!"

The spider had been turned onto its back; its struggles were slowing. Even as its legs kicked feebly, a group of smaller ants rushed over it. Two of them severed its head with jaws as sharp and competent as gardener's shears; others began to bite through other parts and carry them away, back to the body of the swarm. Within moments, all that was left was the heavy, smooth abdomen and attached bits of the thorax.

"They will bring up a submajor," said Kunohara, with as much satisfaction as if he watched the last act of a favorite opera. "See, the soldiers have already gone back to their patrol. They do not carry things, but a submajor does."

A larger ant indeed appeared as if summoned, straddled the remaining piece of the spider, which was larger than the ant itself, and grasped the edge of the ragged thorax in its jaws. Several of the smaller ants came up to help, and together they trundled it back into the foraging mass.

"You see?" Kunohara began to walk slowly down the hill, still watching the Eciton swarm, "It seems to be chaotic, but only to the uninformed eye. In reality, a finite but flexible series of behaviors, when multiplied by thousands or millions of individuals, creates extreme complexity and extreme efficiency. Ants have lived for ten million generations, where we have only thousands. They are perfect, and they care nothing about us—one writer, I remember, said they were 'pitiless and elegant.' Of course, one could possibly say the same of high-level simulations as well. But we have only begun to discover the complexity of our own artificial life." He stopped and gave a curious smile, shy and yet not very winning. "I am lecturing again. My family always told me that I loved the sound of my own voice. Perhaps that is why I spend so much time alone now."

Renie didn't quite know what to say. "As my friend said, this is very impressive."

"Thank you. But now it is perhaps time for you to talk." He took a few steps down the stone toward them. Beneath the white robe and white baggy trousers, Kunohara was barefooted. Now that he was closer, she could see he was not a great deal taller than !Xabbu—or at least his sim was only a little larger than !Xabbu would have been in his own body. She gave up. It was too much like a problem in Einsteinian relativity. "What brings you here?" Kunohara asked. "You have come from Atasco's simulation world, have you not?"

He knew. Renie wondered how that could be. Then again, he had access to all the machineries of the simulation, while she and !Xabbu were no more free here than lab rats.

"Yes," she admitted. "Yes, we have, as a matter of fact. Something was going wrong there, so we came through. . . ."

"A back door into my world, of course. There are several of those. And there was more than something merely going wrong, as I think you probably know. Bolivar Atasco has been killed. In real life."

!Xabbu's small fingers tightened again on her arm, but something about Kunohara's bright eyes made her think lying would be a mistake. "Yes, we knew that. Did you know Atasco?"

"As a colleague, yes. We shared resources—programming on this level is almost incomprehensibly expensive. That is why I have a microscopic version of one of the forests in Atasco's version of Colombia. It allowed us to share raw materials at the earliest stages, although we differed in our focus. Now, despite being representations of the same geographical area, they are completely different in effect. Bolivar Atasco's interest was at the human scale. Mine, as you have noticed, is not."

Renie felt obscurely as though she were playing for time, although nothing Kunohara had done suggested any ill will. "What is it about insects that interests you so much?"

He laughed, a strange, breathy giggle. Renie had the impression she had done something expected but still disappointing. "It is not that I am so interested in insects, it is that everyone else is so interested in humans. Atasco and his Grail Brotherhood friends are an excellent example. All that money, all that power, and their concerns still so restrictedly human."

Beside her, !Xabbu had gone as still as stone. "The Grail Brotherhood? You know about them?" Renie asked, then paused before deciding to push forward. "Are you a member?"

He giggled again. "Oh, no, no. Not my cup of tea at all, as the expression goes. Nor am I interested in the opposite side of the coin, those deadly earnest folk from the Circle."

"The Circle?" !Xabbu almost squeaked. "What do they have to do with this?"

Kunohara ignored him. "Always these dualisms—mechanists or spiritualists." He extended both hands as though waiting to catch something that might fall from the air. "Always choosing one side of the coin, instead of simply choosing the coin itself. Both have so strongly rejected the other's side that they will regret it one day." He clapped his palms together, then extended a closed hand toward !Xabbu. It was a clear invitation. The Bushman hesitated for a moment, then reached out with a thin monkey finger and touched Kunohara's fist. It opened to reveal two butterflies sitting on his palm, one black, one white—insects built to their human scale rather than the titan forms of the simulation. Their wings fluttered gently in the breeze.

Renie and !Xabbu were both very quiet, watching Kunohara and his butterflies.

"Speaking of the dualistic approach, there are a pair of ideas you might find useful," Kunohara said, "if any of this matters to you, that is. On the mechanistic side, may I point out Dollo's Law, beloved of the early A-life theorists, although strangely ignored by the Grail engineers. Turning to spiritual iconology, you might find the Buddhist figure Kishimo-jin of interest—and also because as a parable it suggests reasons for tentative optimism. However, Buddhists tend to think in longer terms than is strictly comfortable for the rest of us, so perhaps you won't find it personally very soothing." He closed his hand and then swiftly opened it again. The two butterflies had been replaced by a single gray one. Kunohara flung it upward. It beat its wings a few times, then popped out of existence.

"What is this about?" Renie demanded. "These riddles? Why can't you just tell us whatever it is you think we should know?"

"Oh, no, that is not the way of true learning." Kunohara abruptly giggled again; Renie was beginning to find it a very irritating sound. "Any Zen master worth his certificate will tell you that beggars truly cannot be choosers."

"Who are you? Why are you even talking to us?"

Kunohara turned. His gaze, though still bright and steady, was opaque, as though whatever lived behind the simulated face was losing interest. "Why talk to you? Well, the precise entomological term for my interest would be 'gadfly' I believe. And my simulation should tell who I am, and why I have only passing interest in the conflicts of gods." He pointed to the teeming throng of ants below, an ocean of chewing, crawling monsters. "By the way, speaking as I was of mechanists, I believe your friends from the Hive are soon to understand the fallacy of control a little more clearly." He brought his hand to his white-robed chest. "As for me—well, as I said, my simulation should reveal all. You see . . . I am only a little man."

The next moment Renie and !Xabbu were alone on the rock outcropping.

She was the one to break the long silence. "What was that about? I mean, what did he want—could you make any sense of that?"

"He said 'the Circle'—spoke of them as though they were in some way like the Grail Brotherhood." !Xabbu seemed dumbfounded, his hand clapped flat on his sloping skull.

"So? I've never heard of them. Who are they?"

!Xabbu's monkey face was so mournful she felt she might cry just looking at him. "They are the people who sent me to school, Renie. This I told you. At least, that is what the group who paid for my schooling were named—the Circle. Could it be coincidence?"

Renie couldn't think anymore. Kunohara's words rolled around in her mind, beginning to jumble together. She needed to remember. There were things he had said that she would want to consider later. All she could do in way of response to !Xabbu was shake her head.

They were still sitting silently when the dragonfly returned and lowered its ladder.

"This is like being in the frigging Stone Age!" Cullen raged as she and !Xabbu strapped themselves in. "I mean, just unbelievable!"

"The system's doing all kinds of weird things," Lenore explained. "We can't communicate with the Hive properly."

"Can't communicate at all," snarled Cullen. "Can't go offline, can't do anything."

"You can't go offline either?" Renie could almost hear a distant drumbeat again, a rising signal of apprehension direct from her animal hindbrain.

Lenore shrugged. "Yeah, you're not the only ones, it seems. Ordinarily it wouldn't make much difference, but the Eciton swarm has turned. It's heading toward the Hive."

"Right," said Cullen bitterly, "and if they get there without us warning anyone so they can seal it off, the damn make-believe ants will just wipe it out. Playing by Kunohara's stupid rules, we'll have to rebuild and reprogram almost from scratch."

Renie had been about to mention their encounter with the sim-world's master, but suddenly decided not to. She gave !Xabbu a significant look, hoping he would understand and keep quiet about their experience.

Something was definitely going on, and Renie had a distinct and depressing feeling it was a lot more complicated than these two young entomologists dreamed. The Otherland network was changing—Sellars had said something about that. It had reached some kind of critical mass. But these two only knew it as a wonderful site to do academic simulations, an excellent toy, a kind of scientist's theme park; they didn't realize that the place was an ogre's castle built with bones and blood.

The silence stretched. The plane skimmed on, passing great curved walls of bark, shooting between leaves that stretched like vast green sails.

"I have a question," !Xabbu said at last. "You say that like us, you cannot leave the simulation, and that you cannot communicate with your home, the Hive."

"It's not my home," the pilot snapped. "Jesus, monkey-man, I do have a life, you know."

"Don't be a grump. Cully," Lenore said gently.

"What I do not understand," said !Xabbu, "is why you do not simply unplug yourself." His small eyes stared intently at the pilot. "Why do you not do that?"

"Because someone has to pass the message about the Eciton swarm," Cullen said.

"But could you not do that better from offline, if normal communication within this simulation world is not working?"

Renie was impressed by the way the little man had thought things through; clearly, he was using the Hive people's dilemma to explore their own problem.

"Well," said Cullen with sudden and surprising fury, "if you really want to know, I can't find my goddamn jack. It's like it isn't even there. Something's gone utterly, utterly scanned with the whole thing. So unless someone comes into my lab and pulls my plug, I'm going to have to wait until the system resets, or whatever locking else is wrong gets fixed."

Now Renie heard the fear beneath the anger, and knew her own forebodings had been all too well-founded.

Before anyone could say anything else, something knocked the plane sideways.

"Christ!" shouted Cullen. He dragged himself upright, fighting gravity. "Christ! We've lost half the instrument lights!" He struggled to pull the wheel back. The dragonfly-plane wobbled badly, stalled for a moment, then surged into life again. It leveled itself, but something was clearly very wrong. "What was that?" he demanded.

"Bird, I think." Lenore was leaning forward, touching lights on the control panel, of which more was now dark than illuminated. "Two of the wings are damaged, and we're missing a leg or two as well."

"I can't keep this thing up in the air," Cullen said through gritted teeth. "Shit! That's about a year's worth of my salary shot to hell if this thing's ruined."

"They're not going to make you pay for it." Lenore sounded like she was talking to a frustrated child, but she herself had an air of barely-controlled panic. "Can we make it back okay?"

Cullen considered for a moment. "No. We could never evade another bird, and if we lose one more wing, I won't even have a half-assed chance of landing."

He was worrying about losing a major chunk of programming in some weird reality-swap with Kunohara, Renie realized, but she could no longer think about the perils of Otherland in such a distanced way. They were in immediate danger of crashing to the ground, with everything the simulation could make of that—including, perhaps, the ultimate reality.

"Land," she said. "Don't mess about. We'll walk back."

Cullen darted a look at her, momentarily calm with a kind of amused rage. "Jesus, we really are back to the Stone Age. On foot in Bugland." He pushed the wheel forward and started working the pedals. The dragonfly lurched downward, threatened to tip over on its nose, then leveled again and began a slow, juddering spiral toward the forest floor.

Something dark momentarily blotted the window.

"Cullen, the autopilot's gone," Lenore warned him.

Cullen jerked the plane to one side. The bird missed them, rocketing past like a surface-to-air missile and buffeting them with the wind of its passing. Cullen fought to drag the plane upright once more, but now something was definitely wrong, and the downward spiral took on a deeper, swifter angle.

"Brace yourselves!" he shouted. "I don't think the tactor settings will let anything too painful happen, but—"

He didn't get a chance to finish. The dragonfly caught a wing on a low-hanging branch. After a grinding crunch, the plane flipped over and plummeted toward the ground. Renie had only about a second to prepare, two or three heartbeats, then something flung her against the cabin wall and her head exploded with light, which drained away a moment later into darkness.

CHAPTER 6
Man from the Dead Lands

NETFEED/PERSONALS: I'm Still Waiting. . . .

(visual: picture of advertiser, M.J. [female version])

M.J.: "Ooh, I'm getting very cross. I've been waiting, but some of you fellows that I thought were big men are acting like little boys. Why aren't you accessing my node? Are you afraid? Because if you are, you wouldn't have a good time anyway. I'm waiting for real men, and when I find them I'm going to take their minds and bodies on a trip they'll NEVER forget. . . ."

 

The man named Birdcatcher had pressed his stone spear so tight against Paul Jonas' guts that the point had pierced the skin. Paul took a shallow breath and felt the pain expand like a tiny star as his stomach pressed against the spearhead. He was trapped, pinned on his back with the other man standing over him.

"What do you want?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice quiet and calm.

Birdcatcher had the wild look of a first-time bank robber. "If I kill you, you will go back to the Land of the Dead and leave us alone."

"I'm not from the Land of the Dead."

Birdcatcher's brow jerked in confusion. "You said that you were."

"No, I didn't. You said that when you pulled me out of the river. I just didn't argue with you."

Birdcatcher squinted fiercely but did nothing, puzzling over Paul's words but not discounting them completely. Deceit was apparently not common among the People, something that at another time Paul would have found fascinating.

"No," Birdcatcher said at last, slow and deliberate as a judge delivering sentence. He appeared to have reached the limit of his reasoning ability and given up. "No, you are from the Land of the Dead. I will kill you, and you will go back."

Paul brought up his hands to clasp the barrel of Birdcatcher's spear and twisted it hard, but the Neandertal held it braced between his chest and arm and would not let go. Paul hung on and pushed back with all his power as Birdcatcher leaned forward to dig it in deeper, Paul thought he could feel the tissues of his belly stretching before the stone point. His arms trembled with the strain of holding it away.

"Stop!"

Keeping his weight on the spear, Birdcatcher turned to look for the voice. Runs Far was walking quickly toward them, hands extended as though Birdcatcher's anger was a living thing that might suddenly attack. "Stop," he said again. "What are you doing?"

"He has come from the Land of the Dead," Birdcatcher declared. "He has come for my boy child."

"Boy child?" Paul shook his head. "I don't know anything about any child."

Others of the People had begun to wake and move toward them, a tatty horde of shadows that appeared barely human in the weak light from the coals.

"He is a ghost," Birdcatcher said stubbornly. "He came from the river to take my boy child."

Paul felt sure Runs Far would now say something wise and chieflike, but instead the other man only grunted and stepped back into the dark.

This isn't how it's supposed to be, Paul thought desperately. If this were a story, I would have saved his life or something, and he'd have to help me. He pushed on the spear again, but he had no leverage. For long moments he and Birdcatcher remained locked in silent tension, but Paul knew he could not hold the sharp point away much longer.

"Let me see the child," he pleaded, his voice thin because he could not take a deep breath. "Let me help him if I can."

"No." Fear streaked the rage in his voice, but there was not an ounce of give.

"Why is Birdcatcher trying to spill blood in our home?"

Dark Moon's quavering voice hit them like a splash of cold water. Birdcatcher had not flinched at Runs Par's appearance, but now he pulled the spearpoint from Paul's belly and took a step back. The ancient woman shuffled toward them, leaning on Runs Par's arm. She had evidently just awakened; her wispy hair stood up in tangles like smoke.

"Please," Paul said to her, "I am not a ghost. I do not mean the People any harm. If you want me to go away, I will go away." But even as he said it, he thought of the freezing darkness outside, peopled with monsters he could only dimly picture from half-forgotten books. Sabertooth tigers? Didn't horrors like that live side by side with the cave dwellers? But what was the alternative—a fight to the death against a Stone Age savage?

I'm not Tarzan! Helpless fury filled him. What is the point of all this? I work in a bloody museum, for Christ's sake!

"You say you will help the child." Dark Moon bent over him, her eyes wide, her face mostly in shadow.

"No." Paul fought despair and frustration. "No, I said I will help him if I can." He paused, still short of breath. Trying to communicate with these people was maddening, despite the common language.

Dark Moon reached her hand out to Birdcatcher, who shied away as though he feared being burned. She shuffled a few steps closer and reached out once more. This time he permitted her to touch his arm, which she encircled with her birdlike claws.

"He will go to the child," she said.

"No." Birdcatcher almost whispered, as though he spoke through great pain. "He will take my boy child away."

"If the dead call to your child, they call," said Dark Moon. "If they do not, they do not. You cannot keep away death with a spear. Not this kind of death."

Birdcatcher darted a glance at Paul, as if to remind her that he had been doing just that, but her hand tightened on his arm, and he dropped his head like a sullen adolescent.

Dark Moon turned to Paul. "Come to the child, Riverghost."

No one in the tribe offered to help him up, so Paul struggled to his feet alone. The place where Birdcatcher had jabbed him throbbed painfully, and when he put his hand to the spot he felt wetness on his fingers. The old woman and Runs Far turned and began a slow progress across the cave. Paul stepped in behind them, his reluctance increased when Birdcatcher followed him and rested the spearpoint lightly but eloquently against his back.

I have to get out of here, he thought. These are not my people, and whatever this place is, it's not my place. I don't understand the rules.

They led him toward a tent, one of the last in the line, so far from the fire that it had a small blaze of its own burning in a stone circle before it. Paul could imagine Birdcatcher sitting before the flames, brooding, working up his courage. If his grudge was over a sick child, it was hard to hate the man.

A swift shallow jab at his back when he hesitated at the camp's edge restored a little of his earlier dislike.

Birdcatcher's tent was smaller than some of the others; Paul had to stoop to make his way through the door flap. Three children waited in the tent, but only two looked up at his entrance, a goggle-eyed infant wrapped in furs and the little girl he had seen earlier. Mouths open, both had gone completely still, like startled squirrels. Between them lay a small boy, apparently being tended by the older girl, wrapped in hides so that only his head was exposed. His dark hair was matted on his forehead, and his eyes had rolled back beneath the trembling lids, so that the firelight spilling through the tent flap exposed two slightly pulsing slivers of white.

Paul knelt and gently touched his hand to the boy's forehead. He ignored Birdcatcher's angry murmur and kept his hand in place as the child weakly tried to turn his head away; the flesh seemed as hot as one of the stones on which the People cooked their food. When the boy, who looked to be nine or ten years old, brought up a feeble hand to push at Paul's wrist, he let go and sat up.

He stared at the small, pale face. This was another way in which this entire mad dream was disastrously unlike a good old-fashioned story. In flicks, in science fiction tales, one of the visitors from the future always knew modern medicine, and could make a jury-rigged defibrillator out of palm fronds, or whip up a quick dose of penicillin to save the ailing chief. Paul knew less about doctoring a child than had his own mother and grandmother, who at least had been raised in the fading tradition of women's special wisdom. Penicillin? Didn't it grow on moldy bread, somehow? And who was to say the child had an infection anyway, and not something far more difficult to cure, like a heart murmur or kidney failure?

Paul shook his head in frustration. He had been a fool even to offer to see the child, although he doubted that he had given the boy's father any false hope. He could feel Birdcatcher breathing on the back of his neck, could sense the man's tension as though the air in the immediate vicinity threatened a sudden storm.

"I don't think. . . ." Paul began, and then the ill child began to speak.

It was little more than a whisper at first, the barest scratchings of breath across dry lips. Paul leaned toward him. The boy twitched and threw back his head, as though fighting to shake loose some invisible thing that clung to his neck, and his rasping voice grew louder.

". . . So dark . . . so cold . . . and all gone, all gathered, gone through the windows and doors and across the Black Ocean. . . ."

Some of the People gasped and whispered. Paul felt a shudder run up his spine that had nothing to do with the spear pressed against his back. The Black Ocean . . . he had heard that phrase before. . . .

". . . Where are they?" The boy's grimy fingers scraped at the tent floor, snatching at nothing. "All I have is the dark. The voice, the One . . . took them all away through the windows. . . ."

His voice dropped back to a whisper. Paul leaned closer, but could make out nothing more in the fading, rustling speech which eventually became too quiet to hear. The fretful movements subsided. He stared down at the boy's pale features. The sagging mouth again seemed nothing but a conduit for wheezing breath. Paul had just lifted his hand to touch the child's forehead again when the boy suddenly opened his eyes.

Black. Black like holes, black like space, black like the inside of a closet door after it swings shut. The gaze roved a moment, unfocused, and someone behind him cried out in fear. Then the two pupils fixed on him and held him.

"Paul? Where are you?" It was her voice, the painful music of so many dreams. Hearing it here, in this shadowed place, he thought his heart would stop from the shock. For a long moment he could not breathe. "You said you would come to me—you promised." Trembling, the boy reached up and caught at his hand with a grasp stronger than he ever could have imagined from such small fingers. "Before you can find the mountain, you must find the wanderer's house. You must come to the wanderer's house and release the weaver."

Catching his breath at last, gasping it in like a man surfacing from ocean depths, he pulled away, struggling to fight free of the child's grip. For a moment the boy half-rose from the bed, hanging onto Paul like a fish on a line, but then his hold slipped and he fell back, silent and limp, his eyes shuttered once more. He had left something in Paul's hand.

After he uncurled his fingers, Paul had only a shivering moment to stare at the feather lying on his palm before something struck him explosively on the side of his head, tumbling him to his knees. There was a noise and stir at his back that seemed as distant as an old rumor, then something heavy collapsed onto him and fingers curled around his throat.

He could not see who he was fighting and did not care. He thrashed, trying to shake free of the vicious, unfair weight on top of him. Everything was stripes of light and dark and a wash of incomprehensible noise, but the roaring blackness in his head was fast blotting out all of it. He struggled with a force he did not know he had, and one of the strangling hands slipped from his neck. When it could not find its hold again, it gripped and gouged at his face instead. He tried to claw it away, then threw himself forward, struggling toward air as though he were in deep water—but his breathlessness went with him and could not be shaken loose. Something sharp scraped along his side, leaving a cold trail, and a little of his madness went away at the painful touch.

He rolled until he felt something stop him, men tried to get to his feet. The thing that clutched his face lifted away again, and once more something cold and sharp jabbed at his side. Paul threw himself forward and the thing restraining him gave way. The light changed as he fell forward, and the noises around him now came with echoes.

Something bright was right beside his head. He was filled with a fury, a frustrated rage that he somehow knew had long been trapped inside him, and had only now escaped. When he understood that the bright something was the blaze of the small camp-fire, that he had smashed his way out of the tent, he rolled toward it and tipped the murderous shape clinging to his back into the stone ring. Screaming as the elk in the hunters' pit had screamed, it let go of him and scrambled up and away, beating at the places where the fire had caught. But Paul was no longer interested in mere survival: he leaped across the campfire and pulled his enemy down, caring nothing for the flames that scorched his own skin. For a brief moment he saw Birdcatcher's terrified face beneath him. Something round and heavy and hot was in his hand—a stone from the firepit, a part of him realized, a cold, remorseless part. He raised it up so he could smash Birdcatcher and everything else back into darkness, but instead he himself was struck, a sudden and surprising blow to the back of his head that sent a jolt like an ungrounded electrical wire along his backbone and threw him down into nothing.

 

 

The voices seemed to be arguing. They were small voices, and far away, and they did not seem terribly important.

Was it his mother and father? They did not argue much—usually the older Jonas treated Paul's mother with deference bordering on contempt, as though she were a poorly-made object that could not stand even ordinary handling. But every now and then his father's air of benign disinterest would vanish, usually when someone outside the house had rejected one of his ideas, and then there would be a brief flurry of shouting followed by silences that lasted hours—silences which had made the younger version of Paul feel that everyone in the house was listening for him to make a noise and thereby spoil something.

On those very few occasions when his mother stood up for herself and argued back, still in her fumbling, apologetic way, the shouting would not last any longer, but the silences might stretch for a day or more. During those long, deadly days, Paul stayed in his room, unwilling even to go out into the silence, calling up maps of faraway places on his screen instead, making plans for escape. In the endless middle hours of a still afternoon, he sometimes imagined that the house was a toy snow globe—that outside his room the corridors were slowly filling with clouds of settling, silent white.

The voices went on arguing, still distant, still unimportant, but he had noticed in an offhand way that they were both male. If one was his father, then perhaps the other was Uncle Lester, his mother's brother, a man who did something to help banks make contacts overseas. He and Paul's father disagreed famously about politics—Uncle Lester thought that anyone who voted Labor understood nothing about the way the world really worked—and sometimes would argue semicordially for hours, while Paul's mother nodded and occasionally smiled or made a face of mock-disapproval, pretending to be interested in their extravagant assertions, and while Paul himself sat cross-legged on the floor in the corner looking at one of his mother's precious books of reproductions, old-fashioned books on paper that her own father had given to her.

There was one in particular Paul had always liked, and listening now to his father and Uncle Lester argue, he saw it again. It was by Bruegel the Elder, or at least he thought it was—for some reason he was having trouble summoning names just now—and showed a group of hunters marching down a snowy hillside, returning to a feast in the town below. The painting had moved him in ways he could not quite describe, and when he had gone to university, he had used it as the default on his wallscreen; on nights when his roommate had gone home to his family, Paul would leave it on all night, so that the white snow and the colorful scarves had been the last thing he saw before falling asleep. He did not know why it had become such a favorite—just that something about the conviviality of it, the shared life of the villagers in the picture, had moved him. An only-child thing, he had always supposed.

Thinking of that picture now, as the argument grew louder and then softer in slow waves, he could almost feel the sharp cold of Bruegel's snow. White, all white, sifting and settling, turning all the world uniform, covering up all that would otherwise cause pain or shame. . . .

Paul's head hurt. Was it thinking about the cold that had done it, or the continuing prattle of those people arguing? In fact, who were those people? He had thought one of them might be his father, but the other certainly could not be Uncle Lester, who had died of a heart attack while on vacation in Java almost ten years back.

In fact, Paul realized, more than his head hurt. His entire body was being bounced, and every bump was painful. And the pain itself was touched with frost.

Even as he thought this, he dropped for half an instant straight down and thumped onto something uncomfortably solid. Solid and cold. Even through the dizziness, the heavy-headedness, he was sure of that. The ground was very, very cold.

". . . With his blood," one of the voices was saying. "That brings a curse. Do you want the curse of a man from the dead lands?"

"But that is Birdcatcher's spear," another said. "Why do we give it to this one?"

"Not give, leave. Because Riverghost's blood is upon it, and we do not want him drawn back to our place by his blood. Mother Dark Moon said so. You heard her speak."

The cold was growing worse. Paul began to shiver, but the motion made his bones feel as though they were grinding together on their raw ends, and he let out a whimper of discomfort.

"He wakes. Now we go back."

"Runs Far, we leave him too close to our place," the second voice said. "It would be better to kill him."

"No. Mother Dark Moon said his blood would curse us. Did you not see how just a little of it made Birdcatcher ill? How it called out to the bad thing in Birdcatcher's child? He will not come back."

Paul, his head pulsing, aching like one great bruise, still could not decide how exactly he should go about opening his eyes, so he felt rather than saw someone bending down and bringing a face close to his.

"He will not come back," Runs Far said next to his ear, speaking almost as though for Paul's benefit, "because Mother Dark Moon has said that if he comes back, then it is he who will be cursed, not us. That the People will kill him then without fear of his blood."

The nearness of the man grew less, then something thumped down beside Paul. He heard a rhythmic noise that, after a few moments, he realized was the People's footsteps crunching away.

Some idea of what had happened was beginning to come back, but what was coming even more swiftly was the freezing cold. A vibrato of shivers ran through him, and he doubled up like a blind worm, huddling into his own body for warmth. It did no good—the cold was still touching him all the way down one side, sucking the life out of him. He rolled over so that he was facedown, then struggled until his knees were under his belly. He set his hands flat and tried to lift himself up. A wave of nausea and dizziness ran through him, and for an instant blackness came and drove even the cold away—but only for an instant.

As the inner darkness receded, Paul opened his eyes. At first nothing changed. The night sky stretched above him, an unimaginable, velvet black, but as his vision returned, he saw that this black was pierced with merciless, glittering stars. The uppermost edge of a wide yellow moon peered from behind the trees on one side of the hilltop. Beneath the sky lay a hillside, all whiteness, so that the world seemed to have been reduced to the simplest of dichotomies. And Paul himself was the only other thing in the world, trapped between black and white.

Why me? he wondered sorrowfully. What did I do, God?

A wind came down on him. It only lasted a moment, but that moment was like knives. Paul shuddered violently and dragged himself to his feet. He swayed, but managed at last to find balance. His head was throbbing, his bones felt broken. He tasted metal, and spat out a dark glob of blood that made a tiny hole in the white hillside. A sob hitched his breathing. A distant howl—like a wolf's, but much deeper—rose and fell, echoing across the white moonscape, a terrifying, primordial sound that seemed to mark out his hopeless loneliness.

They've left me to die. He sobbed again, furious and helpless, but swallowed it down. He was afraid to cry in case it might knock him to his knees. He didn't know whether he'd be able to get up a second time.

Something long and dark lay in the snow by his feet, bringing back Runs Par's words. Birdcatcher's spear. He stared, but could only make sense of it at the moment as something to lean on. He wrapped the fur cloak more tightly—what kind of death sentence had they passed, that he had been left his clothing?—then bent carefully. He almost overbalanced, but steadied and began the intricate process of picking up the spear while his legs threatened to buckle and his head suggested that it might explode. At last he wrapped his hand around it, then used it to push himself back upright.

The wind freshened. It stabbed and scraped.

Where do I go? For a moment he considered following the footsteps back to the cave. If he could not persuade them to let him back in, perhaps at least he could steal their fire, like the story Dark Moon had told. But even with his head full of blood and broken crockery, he knew that was foolishness.

Where should he go? Shelter was the answer. He must find some place where the wind could not reach him. Then he would wait until it got warmer again.

Until it gets warmer. It struck him as so blackly funny that he tried to laugh, but could only summon a wheezing cough. And how long will that be? How long is an Ice Age, anyway?

He began to trudge down the hillside, each step through the deep snow a small, exhausting battle in a war he had no real hope of winning.

 

The moon had climbed above the tree line, and now it hung full and fat before him, dominating the sky. He did not, could not, think of what he would have done had the night been moonless. As it was, he still failed to recognize many of the treacherous deep spots in the silvery snow in time to avoid them, and each time he fell into a hole it took longer to extricate himself. He was shod in some kind of thick hide turned fur-side-in, but his feet were so cold anyway that he had begun to lose track of them some time ago. Now it seemed his legs ended several inches above his ankles. It didn't take a university education to tell him that was a bad sign.

Snow, he thought, stumbling hip-deep in the stuff. Too much snow. This and other maddeningly obvious thoughts had been his companions for the last hour. It took strength to chase them away, to stay focused, and he did not have enough strength left to spare.

Snow—snow-white, snow-drop, snow-drift. He picked up a foot—he wasn't quite sure which one—and put it down again, sinking through the crust. The wind bit at his face where the cloak sagged away from his cheeks. Snowdrift.

Drift was the word, all right. That was all he'd ever done. Drifted through life, drifted through school, drifted through his job at the Tate Gallery, making the same tired jokes over and over for ladies' luncheon parties. He had thought once that he would become something, be a person who made a difference. As a child, he had wrestled with the idea without even realizing it, unable to envision what that someday person would do, who that person would actually be. Now, as if some God of Underachievers had noticed his directionlessness and mandated a punishment to fit his crime, he had apparently been condemned to drift through time and space as well, like a man lost after closing time in an endless museum.

Yes, that was exactly what he had done—drifted. Even here in this cold, primitive place, with his memory returned—or most of it—he had allowed others to choose his directions. The People had dragged him from the river when he could not free himself, and had decided that he was . . . what had Runs Far said? . . . a man from the dead lands. And he had acceded, just as ineffectually full of self-pity as if someone had set down a briefcase on the last empty seat in the Underground, forcing him to stand.

Riverghost, they called him. They were more right than they knew. Certainly everywhere he had been since this mad ride began, he had floated like a homeless spirit. And everywhere he had been, he had found himself at one point or another adrift in a river, as if it were all the same river, a perfect metaphor for his unguided life, the same river over and over. . . .

A sudden memory cut through Paul's wandering thoughts. "They will look for you on the river." Someone had said that to him. Had it been a dream, one of his strange, strange dreams? No, it had been the voice from the golden crystal—in his dream it had been a singing harp, but the crystal had spoken to him here in the Ice Age. "They will look for you on the river," the crystal had told him. So it was true—the river did mean something. Perhaps that was why he could not escape it.

Paul paused. Through the pain and confusion something else struck him, not a memory, but an idea. It filled him with a painful clarity that for that instant pushed everything else away. He had drifted and drifted, but no longer. If he were not to float and tumble forever like a leaf in the wind, he must take some control.

The river is where I pass from place to place. He knew it with certainty, though the thought had not come to him until just this second. The Looking Glass land, Mars, here—I came in from the river each time. So if I look for it. . . .

If he looked for it, he had a direction. If he found it, things would change, and he would come closer to some sort of understanding.

He struggled to remember how the People's hunting party had traveled, tried to make sense of the moon's position, but he had never learned to do such things in his other life and felt a fraud even trying here. But he did know that water found the lowest places. He would continue downhill. He would go down, and he would get out. He would not drift. He would not drift any more.

 

The moon had passed most of the way across the black reaches above him, but still not far enough to suggest that dawn would be coming soon. Every step was an agony now, each surge forward coming only after he made promises to his body he doubted he could ever keep. The only solace was that he had traversed the steepest part of the hillside; as he tottered through the shrubby, snow-covered trees, the ground before him was almost level.

But even such a small slope was difficult in these conditions. Paul stopped, leaning on the spear, and thanked Birdcatcher for having stuck him with it, thereby rendering it taboo with Paul's own blood. Then he wondered if that were really so. Runs Far and Dark Moon's interpretation of what might be dangerous had resulted in Paul not being killed in the first place, and then being dumped with warm clothes and a spear. Perhaps in their own way the two of them had been trying to give him a chance.

No sense in wasting it. He took a deep breath and limped forward.

Strange to think that he might well owe his life to a pair of Neandertals, contemporaries of his own incredibly distant ancestors. Stranger still to think of these people—of the People—living their lives in something like normality until he had stumbled onto them. Who were they, really? Where was he?

Paul Jonas was still considering this when the wind shifted and the smell of death washed down the hillside onto him.

His skin tightened with the sudden thrill of fear, and every hair on his head stood on end. The stink was more than rotting flesh, it was laced with animal musk and urine and dirt and blood, too. It was despair. It was the end of the road. He twisted to look behind him, and a dark shape on the hillside behind him abruptly froze, so that for half an instant he thought his own dark-hindered eyes had fooled him, that the shape was only a rock. But then another shadow moved farther up on the slope; as it turned its head, muzzle sniffing at the shifted wind and the new smells it brought, Paul saw eyes glint yellow-green with reflected moonlight.

The wind became brisker, blowing the horrid tang past him again, and all his muscles tensed as his hindbrain sent out the most primitive of alarms. Even in the grip of mounting panic, he knew that it would do no good to run. Another heavy four-legged shape was coming slantways across the hillside. If they had not attacked him yet, these nameless beasts, it was because they weren't sure what kind of thing he was either, how dangerous he might be. But if he fled . . . Even Paul, who had seen fewer wild animals growing up than most suburban children, felt certain that would be the universal signal for dinner is served.

Turning then and taking a careful step forward, then another, continuing to walk despite the knowledge that those huge dark shapes were behind him and drawing closer, was perhaps the bravest thing he had ever done. He felt an absurd urge to whistle, like someone in a cartoon keeping up a brave front. He wished he were a cartoon, an unreal creation that could survive the most terrible damage and then pop back into shape, whole and ready for another adventure.

The wind changed direction once more, blowing into his face, and Paul fancied he could hear a deep growl of approval from the hillside as the things caught his scent again. He had only one chance, and that was to find a place where he could make some kind of stand—a cave, a tall boulder, a high tree to climb. No wonder the People made their home in holes in the mountainside. His vacations limited to sunny places with beaches, and an occasional trip to the Scottish Highlands or the Cotswolds, he had never truly understood the horrible, helpless solitude of Outside. But now he was as Outside as he could imagine being.

The snow was shallower here, and although he could now walk a little faster, the footing had grown even more treacherous, as though a sheet of ice lay beneath the snow. Paul cursed silently, but kept his legs moving. He could not afford to slip. As far as the creatures behind him were concerned, Falling Down would undoubtedly come under the same heading as Running Away.

Something moved on the right side of his field of vision. As carefully as he could, he tilted his head to look. The shadow was padding along the snowfield, pacing him, only a long stone's throw away. Its shaggy head and back were doglike, but it seemed wrong somehow, distorted. Steam drifted up from its jaws in little clouds.

The ground beneath him was almost entirely flat now, but even the stunted trees were becoming scarce. He could see nothing before him but unfigured whiteness—no stones, no shelter. He looked back over his shoulder, wondering if he could circle around and move back up the hillside to some of the rocks he'd passed earlier, but the pair of shapes crisscrossing on the slope behind him killed that idea in an instant. There were three of them, all somehow the wrong shape or size, a hunting pack.

Trying to look back while walking forward was a mistake. Paul stumbled, then skidded. For a horrible moment he thought he was going to go completely over, but a scrabbling lunge with the butt of Birdcatcher's spear kept him partially upright, although he banged one knee down on the surprisingly hard ground. It would have been terribly painful if he had not been almost frozen through; instead, he felt nothing but a new weakness in the joint. The three shapes, now close together again, stopped to observe his struggles, eyes pale gems hanging in the darkness, winking on and off behind the curtain of their smoking breath.

Even with his hand, it was hard to find purchase on the slick ground beneath the dusting of snow. As he labored to push himself up, he realized that it was ice, an entire sheet of ice, onto which he had fallen. The initial outrage at this further indignity was pushed aside by a burst of unexpected hope.

The river. . . ?

As if sensing his tiny revival of spirit and wanting to put a quick end to it, the nearest of the three shapes abruptly loped toward him, covering the distance effortlessly. It moved so much more quickly than he had expected that it was only a dozen meters away when Paul suddenly realized what was happening and raised his spear.

"Hey! Get back!" He waved his free arm violently, then jabbed at the dark shape with the spear, hoping that it did not recognize the sheer terror in his shrill tones.

The beast stopped, but did not retreat. It regarded him with lowered head, and a deep, pulsating growl shook the air between them. It was then, with a shock like a physical blow, that Paul realized what had seemed so very wrong about these things. The creature was some kind of hyena, but far, far too big—as tall at the shoulders as a small horse, its body broad and thick-boned. The steaming jaws were wide enough to close around his whole torso.

The beast growled again, a powerful rumble he could feel in the center of his bones. The sound jellied his legs, and Paul had to fight to remain upright. The wind brought the stench of dead meat and musk back down on him. His heart, already beating too fast, seemed to be running downhill, in danger any moment of a fatal tumble.

Cave hyena. The name came back to him abruptly, something he had seen in a documentary, or in a natural history exhibition—as if it mattered what this horrible monster was called. Cave hyena, the stalker of the Ice Age plains, a walking death machine that no man had faced for five hundred centuries.

Paul took a shaky step backward. The hyena moved a matching pace toward him, head still low, eyes glowing will-o'-the-wisp green. Its two companions paw-crunched down the hillside and fanned out on either side with the unhurried nonchalance of contract assassins. Paul lifted the spear and waved it again. He tried to shout, but could make no sound except a choking gasp.

The river! he thought wildly. I'm on the river! But what good would it do him now? He had no idea how to use it to travel from one place to another, and he knew he could no more outrun these monsters than he could saddle one of them and ride it at Ascot.

The nearest hyena growled again, then lunged forward. As the creature came toward him at a slow trot, he dropped to his knees and did his best to brace the spear against the slick ground. The thing shambled down on him, picking up speed, slower than a normal hyena, but far faster on snow than Paul was.

Perhaps it did not see the spear against Paul's tattered clothes, or perhaps it did not know what a spear was. Mouth so wide he could feel its breath like the heat from a furnace vent a full second before it reached him, the hyena drove onto the spearhead with a shock that almost tore Paul's arms from their sockets. He grunted with pain and hung onto the shaft as he felt the spear crunch through muscle and gristle. The thing let out a howl of pain and crashed into him. He was flung sideways, as though he had been hit by a car, and the spear was almost torn from his frozen grasp as the hyena stumbled past. Paul was jerked straight out onto his belly and dragged an agonizing distance across the ice before the spear worked loose from the animal's flesh.

Stunned, Paul lay on his face for a second, trying to remember which were his arms and which were his legs. He heard a noise like a pistol shot, and for a mad moment thought that, as in Peter and the Wolf, a huntsman had come to save him with a big gun. Then he lifted his head and saw the wounded hyena suddenly slide backward into a black hole in the white ground.

A snarl from behind spun Paul around. The other two beasts were loping forward on their thickly muscular legs. He staggered to his feet, slipping and skidding, and in hopeless despair raised the spear above his head to swipe at them. There was another explosive pop, then another, and the very ground beneath him shot out radiating crooked black lines, so that for a moment it seemed he stood at the center of a spiderweb. The ice shuddered and settled. He had a moment to wonder why one of his legs seemed shorter than the other, and was also suddenly even colder than it had been—or hotter, perhaps; it was hard to tell—and then the ice beneath him collapsed and the hungry black water sucked him down.

CHAPTER 7
Grandfather's Visit

NETFEED/BUSINESS: Krellor Dumps MedFX

(visual: Krellor with Vice President Von Strassburg)

VO: Uberto Krellor has sold his multimillion dollar MedFX medical supply company, one of the last remaining members of his Black Shield family of companies, to the Clinsor Group, which now becomes the world's largest supplier of medical equipment to clinics and hospitals. Krellor, who lost billions when the nanotechnology industry suffered customer confidence setbacks, has now sold off most of his holdings to satisfy his creditors.

(visual: Krellor and Hagen at Swiss Olympic pavilion in Bucharest)

But though his fortunes are down in other ways, Krellor has recently remarried his former wife Vila Hagen. Their troubled first marriage made them almost permanent fixtures in the tabnets.

KRELLOR: "It's not a sell-off, it's a reorganization—do you understand nothing? Now please leave us alone, we are trying to enjoy our honeymoon. "

 

For all the time they had spent in the simulation together, it was still a shock when Renie opened her eyes to find the baboon's face only inches from her own.

"Are you well?" !Xabbu stroked her arm solicitously. "We have crash-landed. Like in a film."

Renie was not entirely sure that she was well: Her head hurt, the world seemed badly off-kilter, and she was having terrible problems moving her limbs. The last of those problems was solved when she managed to unhook the safety harness that was holding her against the crumpled wall of the dragonfly-plane; the second became more comprehensible when she then rolled down into the cockpit—the dragonfly was apparently standing on its nose.

"We're alive," she decided.

"Just barely." Beneath her, half-wedged into the wreck of the instrument panel, Cullen was struggling furiously to free himself. "I mean, just barely by the simulation's standards. Christ! Look at this!" He slammed the shattered panel with his fist. "Ruined."

"Will you forget about your stupid toy plane?" Lenore was in a worse position than Cullen—the copilot's seat had crumpled forward, along with a good piece of the plane's floor, pinning her against the panel. She also sounded far more frightened than her colleague; the unsteady edge to her voice made Renie's headache worse. "Get me out. Now!"

"Come give me a hand," Renie called to !Xabbu. She turned to find that he had vanished from the plane's ruined cabin. "!Xabbu?"

"Get me out of here!" demanded Lenore.

Renie hesitated. The two scientists needed help, but she was suddenly terrified that she might lose the little man, her friend, and be truly alone in this place.

"God damn you, bitch!—you help me!" Lenore shrieked.

Renie whirled, shocked, but the look on the woman's well-simulated face blew her anger out like a candle: Lenore Kwok was in the grip of real, twitching panic.

"We'll get you out," Cullen said, despite still being trapped himself. "Calm down, Lenore."

"Shut up!" She scrabbled frantically at the wreckage that restrained her.

Renie hurriedly began shifting the bits of cabin that had settled around Cullen, marveling again at the complexity and realism of the simulation. Even the broken things broke in convincing ways.

"What are you doing?" Lenore shouted.

"You've got more things on top of you than he does," Renie explained as gently as she could. "If I can get him loose, he can help me. I don't think I can do it myself."

"Where's that goddamn monkey?" The woman's eyes roved wildly around the cabin, as though !Xabbu might be hiding from her,

"I don't know. Just try to be calm, like Cullen said."

"You don't understand!" Lenore was wild-eyed, breathing harshly. "I can't feel my legs! They won't move!"

"Oh, for God's sake," said Cullen. "That's just panic, Lenore—power of suggestion. It's a simulation, and right now it's holding you in one position. Nothing's happened to your legs. Don't be stupid."

Renie gave him a hard look. "Cullen, please shut up."

"Here, see!" !Xabbu had appeared in the hatchway, originally a respectable opening in the belly of a simulated plane, now occupying a tower-window position several yards above them. "It is a thorn from a plant." He dropped something down to Renie, who caught it as much in self-defense as anything else. It looked a bit like a smooth antelope horn, as long as her outstretched arm and nearly as wide, tapering to a point at one end. She tried to bend it, but could not. "This might work," she told !Xabbu as he clambered in beside her.

With the thorn as a lever, she was able to bend back a large enough portion of the instrument panel to allow Cullen to slide free. As he stretched and rubbed his sore joints, his partner's panicked demands began again.

"All right, all right," he said. "You're really scanbound, Kwok, you know that?"

"Let's just try to help her." Renie found what seemed a good fulcrum-point for the lever and began to work at pulling back the copilot's chair.

"Don't waste your energy. There's an easier way." Cullen clambered up the floor until he located a panel door. Taking the thorn from Renie, he pried open the door and pulled out a metal box with a handle. "See? Because of Kunohara's stupid rules, we have to have damn virtual repair kits in our damn virtual planes. Is that insane, or what?" He climbed back down the upraised floor and took a wrench from the tool kit, then removed the nuts that held the copilot seat to the floor. The crash had crumpled the dragonfly's framework; it took several kicks before he could knock the seat off its tracks.

A few more minutes of surprisingly hard work permitted them to pull Lenore free.

"I . . . I still can't move my legs," she said in a quiet little ghost-voice. Renie liked this new tone even less.

With help from !Xabbu's agile feet and hands, they managed to haul her up to the hatchway and then carefully lower her three body-lengths down to the ground. The dragonfly had crashed headfirst, auguring into the forest floor like a World War I biplane; the delicate wings had fallen forward over the buried nose and its shiny, cylindrical tail pointed toward the sky.

"I can't walk," Lenore murmured. "My legs won't work."

"That's shit, utterly," Cullen snapped. "Look, in case you've forgotten, we were about, oh, I'd guess thirty minutes ahead of that Eciton swarm, and it's going to raise hell at the Hive if we don't warn them." He paused. A more uncertain look moved swiftly across his long face. "Not to mention that we're in front of it ourselves."

"Oh, my God." Renie, immersed in the problem of getting Lenore out of the broken plane, had completely forgotten the army ants. "Oh, Jesus Mercy, they'll eat us. Oh, God, how horrible."

"They won't eat us," said Cullen disgustedly. "They'll just keep us from warning the Hive, and we'll lose more money than I can imagine having to reprogram and rebuild. This is a simulation—you seem to keep forgetting."

Renie looked at him, then at !Xabbu, who arched his eyebrows, an odd expression of simian fatalism. She agreed; there was no point wasting time on argument. "Right, it's a simulation. But let's get going, okay?"

With Renie and !Xabbu's help, Cullen hauled Lenore into a piggyback position. "How are your legs?" he asked. "Is there pain?"

"I can't feel them now . . . I just can't make them work." Lenore closed her eyes and clung tightly to Cullen's neck. "I don't want to talk. I want to go home."

"We're working on it," said Renie. "But any information might. . . ."

"No." Lenore's surliness had become childlike. "I'm not going to talk about it anymore. This is so stupid. None of this is happening."

Which, Renie reflected as they began making their way through the forest of grass, was as unhelpful a comment as anything she could remember hearing recently.

 

Cullen, despite carrying Lenore's extra weight, was at first determined to lead their small party as well. Renie was reluctant to surrender control, but before she and the entomologist could battle it out, !Xabbu pointed out that he was undoubtedly best suited to go first. After Cullen had been assured that !Xabbu had long experience with hunting and tracking, and thus that it made scientific sense, he told the Bushman in which direction the Hive lay and !Xabbu got down to the business of finding a way through the ground-jungle.

It was one of the strangest and most surreal journeys Renie had ever taken—which, considering the nature of what she had experienced in the last few months, was saying a great deal. The world from insect height was an astonishing place, full of frightening yet fascinating things. A caterpillar that she would not have looked at twice in the real world was now a shining, living psychedelic object the size of a bus. As she and the others filed carefully past it, the caterpillar moved a pace forward along the leaf it had been stripping and the step rippled through all its legs, stem to stern, like a chorus-line kick. When the long lockstep was over, the vertical jaws began working the leaf again, making a racket much like the box-cutting machine in a factory where Renie had held a summer job.

As they hurried toward the Hive, they passed through an entire safari park worth of chitinous wonders—aphids clinging to plant stems like zero-gravity sheep grazing in an upside-down meadow, mites burrowing in decaying plants with the single-mindedness of dogs searching for buried bones, even a leafhopper that jumped away as they approached, catapulting nearly into orbit with an audible twang of exoskeletal flexing. If it had been the same proportional size to her in real life, Renie marveled, it could have leaped directly to the top of the tallest building in downtown Durban.

At one point, !Xabbu carefully led them around a spider-web—an incredible work of engineering when seen from this perspective, but the thought of stumbling into it gave Renie the shivers. She looked back at it nervously several times but never saw any sign of its manufacturer.

The vegetation was fascinating, too, each plant a revelation of complexity. Even the mold, whose surface was a riot of shapes disguised in ordinary life by its tiny size, was worth marveling over. The very earth had to be looked at anew, since what seemed the flattest trail to a normal human eye could contain deep, slippery-sided pits and uncountable other obstructions to travelers of insect size.

But despite the unceasing spectacle, the memory of what was behind them was never out of Renie's thoughts. !Xabbu picked his way through the microjungle with great skill, finding pathways where she knew that she would have been completely stymied, but she still feared that they were not traveling fast enough. Cullen could not move easily with Lenore on his back; watching his pace grow ever slower, Renie struggled to beat down irritation and fear. Even !Xabbu's patient expertise frustrated her, since his manner was so calm that he did not seem to be hurrying, although she knew he was.

 

They halted, instinct freezing them in place, as a shadow thrown by a bird high above them momentarily eclipsed the sun.

"I can't go on like this," Cullen gasped when the shadow had gone. He let Lenore slide to the ground and stood over her, sucking air. "You're too heavy, Kwok."

"I'll carry her for a little while." Renie did not want an argument between Cullen and Lenore, or any delay at all that could be avoided. "We can't stop. Those bloody ants will kill us, virtually or otherwise." She bent and tried to coax Lenore to climb onto her back, but the sullen, silent entomologist was no more use than an infant. Renie swore, then grabbed her and flung her over her shoulder like a sack of meal.

"Come on, while I can stand it," she said, voice tight with effort.

As they stumbled on, Renie found herself wishing, not for the last time, that the simulation were not quite so amazingly realistic. Lenore's weight hung in exactly the same awkward way it would have in RL: just keeping the scientist balanced on her shoulder and putting one foot in front of the other was an exhausting job.

Winged insects in flight for their lives began to hum past overhead, the first tangible evidence of the Eciton swarm. It was horribly frustrating to watch them zooming by, going in the same direction, but at ten or twenty times the human's walking speed. Renie's back was aching. She contemplated, then regretfully discarded, the idea of just dropping the Kwok woman on the ground and legging it as fast as she could, unencumbered. Lenore appeared to be in shock, and Renie knew that if the simulation itself was frighteningly realistic, its effects had to be treated with the same degree of seriousness: This woman's affliction was just as crippling as if they were fleeing for their lives in a real jungle.

"There!" shouted Cullen. "I can see it!"

Renie stepped up beside him. They had reached the summit of the center spine of a fallen palm frond. From this comparatively high place, lifted above the leaf mold of the forest floor, they could at last see the Hive's windows glinting from the distant hillside. "How far is that, in RL distance?" she panted. "If we were normal size? A few meters? If only. . . ."

"Yeah," Cullen said, "if only." He began to trot down the other side of the leaf, leaving Renie to stagger forward again, still balancing Lenore.

They were crossing a relatively clear patch of ground at the base of the rise on which the Hive was situated when the first ground-level refugees from the swarm began to spill out of the vegetation behind them. A long-legged spider stilted past, tall as a house. Smaller but even less pleasant animals followed, boiling out of the jungle in a wash of agitated noise.

"We can't outrun them." Renie staggered even as she spoke and almost fell, then lowered Lenore to the ground. A fly skimmed over their heads, making a noise like a small jet helicopter. "We have to find someplace safe. High ground."

"Are you crazy?" Cullen demanded, then pointed at the Hive. "That's millions worth of code standing there."

"Jesus Mercy! You don't get it, do you?" A part of Renie knew screaming was not good strategy, but she didn't care. "This is not about gear, this is about staying alive!"

!Xabbu had noticed their absence and was hurrying back toward them. A centipede, a shiny, sinuous thing which a moment before had been in full flight, suddenly side-wound toward him and struck, but the small man in the baboon body jumped to safety, narrowly eluding the rounded, fanged head. His baboon sim bared its fangs and dropped into defensive posture. The centipede hesitated, then turned and paddled on, its instinctive desire to hunt muted by the swarming death behind it.

"We have to climb something," Renie shouted to !Xabbu. "We'll never make it back in time."

"That's . . . that's irresponsible." Cullen sounded uncertain now. Another shadow wheeled overhead, yet another antbird preying on the scurrying refugees.

"Here." !Xabbu stood at the base of a fern, beckoning, "If we climb this plant, we can reach a place they will not go, I think."

Renie bent and heaved Lenore up onto her shoulder. She had taken a few steps when something smacked hard against her back and knocked her off balance. As she struggled to regain her footing, Lenore thrashed in her arms, pummeling Renie's back with her fists.

"Put me down! Put me down!"

Renie let her slide to the ground, but took care not to let her tumble helplessly, and received a flailing fist against her ear for her trouble. "What the hell are you playing at?" she growled.

Lenore had curled up like a woodlouse. Cullen strode over. The racket of fleeing insects was growing louder, and the flood of refugees was beginning to widen, threatening the place they stood. "God damn it, Kwok, what are you doing?"

"Leave me alone," Lenore did not look up at him. "I don't want to do this anymore."

Cullen reached down to grab her. Her legs still did not move, but she thrashed furiously from the waist up and managed to land a hard blow on his face. Swearing, he let her drop. "You're scanned! What is this?"

"You must hurry!" !Xabbu called from a position high up the fern stem. "I can see the ants!"

"We're not going without Lenore!" Cullen looked like someone who was watching his house burn down. "I mean, I can't just leave her here." He took the woman's arm, but she shook him off. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded.

"This is just so . . . stupid!" she wailed. "It's stupid, and it hurts! And I'm not going to do it anymore." She opened her eyes wide, staring with an almost mad intensity. "It's not real, Cullen—none of this is real. It's a game, and I'm not going to play this stupid game anymore." She slapped hard at his hand. He withdrew it.

"Right," said Renie. "You deal with her if you want." She turned and hurried across the open space toward !Xabbu and the sanctuary of the fern. A beetle veered from the leading edge of the oncoming throng and ratcheted past in front of her, creaking like a sloop in full sail. She paused, bouncing in place until it had passed, then sprinted forward.

"I can't just leave her!" Cullen shouted after Renie.

"Then don't! Stay!" Renie reached the bottom of the stalk and grabbed at the thick fibers that covered it like a pelt, scrabbling with her boots until she had pulled herself off the ground. When she reached the first place where she could stand, she turned to look back. Cullen was shouting something at Lenore—impossible to hear above the mounting din—but she had curled back into a fetal ball and was paying no attention. Again he tried to lift her, which brought her to life, gouging and elbowing. Renie shook her head and resumed climbing.

"Up here." !Xabbu shinnied down the stalk toward her, moving as easily in his baboon form as Renie would on a broad staircase. "Put your foot on this place—yes, there. Why will that Lenore woman not come?"

"Shock, I guess—I don't know." Renie's foot slipped and she dangled by one arm for a moment, kicking in heart-freezingly empty air, but !Xabbu reached down with both hands and clutched her wrist, giving her the courage to look for a foothold. When she had found one, and was again firmly set, she saw Cullen reach the base of the stalk and begin to climb.

The noise grew louder, rising until it was like the roar of the ocean in a narrow cove. The sky was filling with hopping and flying insects of all sizes. Some skimmed so close that their wing-tips scraped the outer fronds of the fern, making the leaves dance. The horde on the ground grew even more numerous. Diving ant-birds snatched some of them, but nothing slowed the exodus.

Renie and !Xabbu reached a point midway up the fern where the distance to the next jutting stem was too great for Renie to climb without exceptional difficulty, so they moved away from the central stalk and into the folded gully of a leaf. As they stepped onto it, the curling frond swayed alarmingly, bounced by the breeze rather than by the inconsequential weight of the tiny humans.

Cullen appeared behind them, talking to himself. "She'll be all right. It's just . . . she'll be pushed offline. The system's locked, anyway."

Looking at his pale, worried face, Renie no longer felt any urge to argue with him.

They made their way across the leaf's hairy surface until they were near its outer edge and could see Lenore in her white jumpsuit curled on the ground far below, like a discarded grain of rice. Staring, Renie felt !Xabbu's hand close on her arm. She looked up to follow his pointing finger.

A short distance from them lay a small tree which had fallen some time in the past and been partly subsumed by the forest floor, so that the gray-brown of its bark showed in only a few places through the moss and the grasses that had grown over it. From Renie's and !Xabbu's perspective, it was as tall and long as a line of hills.

The Eciton army had reached the top of the log, and swarmed along its summit like soldiers on a captured ridgetop. The first few scouts were even now climbing back up from their forays to the ground, and as Renie watched, the first pseudopod of ant bodies boiled down and made contact with the forest floor again. The entire log disappeared beneath a living carpet of ants; moments later, the swarm was extruding tendrils of troops out across the open space Renie and the others had just vacated.

"It's not real," Cullen said hoarsely. "Remember that. Those are numbers, little groups of numbers. We're watching algorithms."

Renie could only stare with horrified fascination as the ants flowed forward. One of the leading scouts approached Lenore's unmoving form and stood over her, probing with his antennae like a dog sniffing a sleeping cat, then turned and hurried back to the nearest arm of the swarm.

"The simulation kicks us out when something happens." Cullen was almost whispering now. "That's all. It's a game, like she said. Kunohara's goddamn game." He swallowed, "How can she just lie there?"

!Xabbu's grip on Renie's arm tightened as Lenore was surrounded by antenna-waggling workers.

"Use the defense spray!" Cullen shouted. The tiny figure did not respond. "Damn it, Kwok, use the Solenopsis spray!"

Then, suddenly, she did move, struggling to crawl away on elbows and useless legs, but it was too late.

From the corner of her eye, Renie saw Cullen flinch. "Oh, my God," he said, "she's screaming. Oh, Christ. Why is she screaming? It's just a simulation—there's no pain function. . . ." He trailed off, gape-jawed and ashen.

"She's just frightened," Renie said. "It must be . . . it must be horrible to be down there, even if it's only a simulation." She found herself praying that her own instincts were wrong. "That's all."

"Oh, God, they're killing her!" Cullen leaped up and almost overbalanced. !Xabbu grabbed his jumpsuit leg, but the baboon's mass was too small to do much good. Renie grabbed the scientist's flight-suit belt and pulled him away from the edge. "We have to," he babbled, "we can't. . . ." Cullen fell silent, still staring.

Below, the worker ants had finished. Lenore's sim had been small; they did not have to call one of the large submajors to carry the pieces back to the swarm.

Cullen put his face in his hands and wept. Renie and !Xabbu watched silently as the rest of the swarm eddied past.

It took the better part of an hour before the last stragglers vanished. The flow of ants had gone on so long that Renie could not sustain either horror or fascination. She felt numbed.

"It was a shock, that's all." Cullen had apparently recovered his self-possession. "Lenore's gone offline, of course—it was just so dreadful to watch." He peered over the edge of the leaf at the arid field of destruction. "I hadn't expected it to be . . . to be that bad."

"What were you shouting about?" Renie asked. "Some kind of spray?"

Cullen pulled a silvery wand from the pocket. "Chemical defense spray from Solenopsis fugax—robber ants. We imported it, so to speak, to give us a little protection in the field. Everyone at the Hive carries one when they're doing fieldwork." He dropped the tube into his pocket and turned away from the rim of the leaf. "Solenopsis is a European ant, really, so I guess in a way it's cheating."

Renie stared at him, momentarily speechless. Only someone living in a fantasy world—or, she supposed, someone who was a scientist to the core—could watch what had just happened to his colleague and still be talking as though the whole thing were only an experiment gone slightly sour. But there seemed no point in arguing—she could prove nothing. "We'd better get moving again," she said instead. "The swarm must be far away by now."

Cullen looked at her, expression blank. "Get moving where?"

"To the Hive, I suppose. See if we can salvage something so we can get out of here."

!Xabbu looked up. "We should go back to the river."

"I don't know what either of you are talking about," Cullen said. "The simulation's wrecked. I don't understand you people anyway—you act like this was all real. There's no point in going anywhere. There's nowhere to go."

"You're the one who doesn't understand." She began walking toward the stem of the leaf, their route down. "In fact, there's a lot you don't understand, and I really don't have the time or strength to explain now, but even you must have noticed that things have gone pretty seriously wrong. So if you want to survive to see RL again, I strongly suggest you shut up and get moving."

 

It was like walking across a battlefield, Renie thought, far worse than it had looked from atop the leaf. Where the Eciton swarm had traveled, the microjungle was absolutely empty of any living thing but plants, and only the largest of those had survived undamaged: At ground level the ants had left behind only skeletonized stems and a scattering of tiny, unrecognizable fragments of matter.

Cullen, who was leading them up the hillside toward the Hive, had been silent since Renie's explosion—more likely because he believed she was dangerously crazy, Renie suspected, than because he trusted her judgment about what was going on.

She didn't even know exactly what to believe herself. Had they really seen a woman brutally killed by giant ants, or had they only watched the playing out of a simulation, an imaginary human form dismembered by imaginary insects, with the human dropping out of the puppet body like Stephen or one of his friends when they lost a combat game?

But of course, the last time Stephen had played an online game, something had changed, and he had never come back. Who could say for certain that Lenore had made it back to RL either, or that Renie or !Xabbu or the young entomologist stalking tight-lipped in front of them would survive a similar piece of bad luck?

!Xabbu descended from a quick foray up the curling length of a creeper. "The ants have passed on. I cannot see any of them near the Hive building."

Renie nodded. "That's one less thing to worry about. I hope we can fly one of those planes—it's a long, long walk back to the river, and even if we don't run into the ants again, I don't fancy our chances."

!Xabbu looked thoughtful. "We know that something is wrong with this network, Renie. And now it seems that it has gone wrong for others besides just us."

"It does seem that way."

"But what could make this happen? Our friends could not go out of this Otherland place—could not go offline, I mean—and now these people cannot either, and they have nothing to do with our search, as far as I can see."

"There's something gone seriously weird with the whole system." Renie shrugged. "I can't even guess. We don't have enough information. We might never have enough information, because from what Sellars said, there's never been a system like this."

"Oh, shit." Cullen had paused at the crest of the lower hill. Before him, the Hive lay open and plundered.

The great windows across the front had been smashed inward, likely by the sheer weight of the ant swarm. The ants had carried out all kinds of objects, but seemed to have rejected many of them, seemingly at random: The promontory in front of the building was littered with virtual objects from inside, sections of walls and bits of furniture and specimens from the museum being among the more recognizable. There were less pleasant remnants as well, bloodless bits of the simulated bodies the Hive's human inhabitants had once worn, strewn all across the landscape. Torn or snipped from the original owners, they looked less real than they had when part of a sim, like a scattering of doll parts, but it was still horrible. Cullen stared at it so bleakly that it seemed he might never move again.

Renie took his arm and urged him forward. They passed through one of the sliding hangar doors, which had been pried upward until it had crumpled, and thus allowed them more than ample headroom. Now it was Renie who felt her insides go cold and heavy. The Hive's small air force, perhaps because of the planes' resemblance to insects, had been shredded by the Eciton army. Only a few recognizable pieces remained, and these were not enough to cobble together a patio chair, let alone a flying machine.

Renie wanted to cry, but would not indulge herself. "Are there any other planes?"

"I don't know," Cullen said bleakly. "Angela's hopper, maybe."

"What's that? Where is it?"

"Renie?" !Xabbu stood at the hangar door, looking out over the debris-carpeted hillside. His voice was strangely pitched. "Renie, help me."

Alarmed, she turned and sprinted to his side. Something very large was making its way steadily up the slope toward them, a bright green thing the size of a construction crane. It swiveled its triangular head from side to side as though searching aimlessly, but it was stalking steadily toward them.

"It is him." !Xabbu spoke in a hushed, clench-throated whisper. "It is Grandfather Mantis."

"No, it's not," She wrapped her hand around his slender baboon foreleg, trying to stay calm despite the terror spiking sharply inside her, rattling her heart in her rib cage and squeezing out her breath. "It's . . . it's another simulation, !Xabbu. It's just a regular praying mantis." If something the relative size of a Tyrannosaurus could be in any way regular, she thought wildly. "It's another one of Kunohara's bugs."

"That's not fair." Cullen's voice was fiat. "That's a Sphodro-mantis Centralis. They're not indigenous to this environment—they're from Africa."

Renie thought this was pretty rich coming from the man who'd brought in European robber-ant spray, but with the mantis a few dozen paces away and closing, it didn't seem like a good time to discuss VR ethics. She tugged at !Xabbu's furry arm. "Let's get out of here."

"Unless it's supposed to have come in on a ship," Cullen murmured. "That's how they got to the Americas in the first place."

"Jesus Mercy, will you shut up? Let's—" She broke off. The mantis had turned its head toward them, and now began striding faster up the hillside, scythelike forearms extended, a vast machine of razoring clockwork. "What do those things eat?" Renie asked faintly.

"Anything that moves," said Cullen.

She let go of !Xabbu and shoved Cullen several steps back into the depths of the hangar. "Let's go! You said there was a plane or something—Angela's plane, you said. Where?"

"Her hopper. On the roof, I think. Unless she took it."

"Right. Come on!" She looked back. "!Xabbu!" she shrieked. "What are you doing?" The baboon was still crouching beneath the crumpled hangar door as if waiting for death. She sprinted back and picked him up, a not inconsiderable effort after the long day carrying Lenore.

"It is him, and I have seen him," he said into her ear. "I cannot believe this day has come."

"It is not a 'him,' and it certainly isn't God, it's a giant monkey-eating bug. Cullen, will you get goddamn going? I don't know how to get to the roof—you do."

As if suddenly waking from a dream, the entomologist turned and ran toward the back wall of the hangar with Renie a step behind him. As they reached the door that led inside, the simulated metal of the hangar door gave a protesting screech. Renie looked back. The mantis had almost entirely forced its way in, and was pulling its long abdomen and back legs through the gap. The head pivoted in a horrible, robotic fashion as the blank green domes of its eyes tracked their flight.

The door into the complex was unlocked, and slid open at a touch, but there was no way to bar it behind them. !Xabbu stirred in her arms. "I am all right, Renie," he promised. "Put me down!"

She let him clamber down, and they all sprinted toward the door at the far end of the corridor.

"Why don't we just . . . go there?" Renie asked Cullen as she dodged bits of simulated debris. "You don't have to do things like walk and run here, do you?"

"Because it's not working, damn it!" he shouted. "I tried. Kunohara turned off the protocol or something. Just be glad we had elevators made for this thing in case he ever changed his mind about how many corners we could cut in here."

The elevator was on their floor, its doors partially open, but Renie's moment of hope was quickly ended: the doors themselves were bowed outward, as though something inside had tried to smash its way free. As they stared, something large and dark heaved and the parted doors clanked and quivered. One of the ant soldiers had been trapped inside, and was battering the elevator to pieces.

Cullen shouted with frustration and fear as he slid to a halt. They all turned at a loud grinding noise in the corridor behind them. The wedge-shaped head of the mantis had pushed open the door from the hangar, and the doorframe itself was crumpling as the creature forced the rest of its massive body through the opening.

"Stairs! Back there!" Cullen pointed at a branching hallway back down the corridor.

"Let's go, then!" Renie grabbed at !Xabbu's furry arm in case he was struck by another bout of religious devotion. The mantis tore away the last pieces of the doorframe; as they ran toward it, the huge green thing stepped into the corridor and rose until its antennae brushed the high ceiling, a giant museum display come to murderous life. Renie and the others reached the cross-corridor and turned the corner so fast they skidded and almost fell on the slippery floor, but Renie knew the monster could cover the distance to them in only a few strides. She let go of !Xabbu and began to sprint.

"Hurry!" she screamed.

Her friend was on all fours, matching her pace, Cullen a few steps behind as they slammed through the doors and into the stairwell. Renie cursed when she saw that the staircase was too wide to be a deterrent to the pursuing monster, but she prayed that steps might slow it down. She eased her own pace a little and shoved Cullen ahead of her in case he might suddenly remember a better route.

They had only reached the second landing when the mantis knocked the doors spinning off their hinges below them. Renie looked down as she leaped up onto the next set of stairs, but wished she hadn't. The creature had begun climbing straight up the middle of the stairwell, bracing itself with long, jointed legs against both stairs and walls. Its blank, headlight eyes watched her hungrily, so close it seemed she could reach down and touch the armored head.

"Try the doors!" she screamed up to her companions. !Xabbu rattled the latch of the third landing door as they dashed past, but it was firmly locked.

"It's only a few more floors to the roof," Cullen shouted.

Renie shifted herself into a more careful gear, struggling to avoid slipping. She doubted that any one of them would survive a tumble—their pursuer was only a couple of meters beneath them, filling the stairwell like a demon rising from the infernal pit.

Then, for a moment, the creature actually reached past her—the end of a vast green leg rose and touched the staircase wall above her head. Terrified, Renie could only throw herself down against the stairs and crawl underneath it, positive that at any moment one of the forearms would close on her like a giant pair of pliers, but the mantis slipped its hold and sagged, then fell back half a floor before it got a grip against the stairwell again, and she began to feel they might actually outrace it to the roof.

Jesus Mercy, she thought suddenly. What if the way onto the roof's locked, too?

As she staggered onto the last landing. Cullen was rattling the bar of the door with no effect. She could hear the creature clambering toward them again, a leathery creaking and popping like the world's largest umbrella being unfurled.

"It's locked!" Cullen screamed.

Renie threw herself against the door, slamming the bar. It popped open, revealing a broad vista of late afternoon sky. Not locked, just jammed. It was a prayer of thanksgiving. She stepped to the side as Cullen stumbled backward through the doorway, !Xabbu at his feet and tugging him. The great green head of the mantis rose up out of the shadows of the stairwell behind him like a tricornered moon. A leg scraped across the stairwell landing as it sought a firm foothold. "Where's the bloody plane?" she shouted at Cullen.

The scientist regained his equilibrium and looked around, his eyes panicky-wide. "Over there!"

Renie slammed the door closed behind him and took the thorn from her belt. She jammed it through the handle, knowing as she did so that it was a straw in a hurricane, then sprinted after the others toward a wind-wall that ran halfway across the gray roof, hiding whatever might be on the far side. "Are you sure it's there?" she shouted. Cullen said nothing, running flat out. As if in answer, something went pop behind her. The thorn shot past, skipping along the rooftop, followed by the grating sound of another doorframe being wrenched loose.

As they reached the edge of the wind-wall, she heard the door burst outward. Despite the overwhelming fear, Renie was also furious. How could an insect be so single-minded? Why hadn't it given up long ago? Surely a real mantis in the real world wouldn't behave in this monster-movie fashion? She half-suspected Kunohara—some kind of horrible payback he had built into his simulation for those who ignored Nature's power.

On the far side of the wall, with the panorama of the oversized forest looming above and beyond, Cullen was already dragging the tarp from a lumpy object not much larger than a minibus. Renie and !Xabbu each snatched at a corner and pulled; the covering slid away to reveal an expanse of brown, yellow, and black enameling—a six-legged monstrosity shaped like a sunflower seed.

"It's another damn bug!"

"A Semiotus. All our vehicles look like bugs." Cullen shook his head sadly. "Angela didn't get out, I guess." He thumbed the latch panel and the doors swung upward. The entomologist pulled down the steps and Renie clambered into the snug cockpit.

As !Xabbu swung up behind her, a shadow fell across them. Renie whirled to see the mantis step around the edge of the wind-wall, massive legs lifting and falling with the terrible precision of sewing machine needles, head swiveling high above the hopper. Cullen stood frozen at the base of the ladder as the great head descended toward him. In the stark, timeless moment, Renie could hear air hissing through the spirucules along the creature's side.

"That spray," she tried to call, but only huffed a little air through a throat clenched shut by terror. She found her voice. "Cullen, the spray!"

He took a stiff pace backward, fumbling in his pocket. The head tilted as it followed him, smooth as if on oiled bearings. The great scythelike arms came up and extended past him on either side with terrible deliberation, until the tip of one touched the side of the ship with a faint metallic ping. Cullen held up the cylinder in a trembling hand, then blasted a spattering stream into the blank triangular face.

The moment exploded.

The mantis juddered back, hissing like a steam compressor. The arms snapped down as they retracted, smacking Cullen to the ground, then the creature crabbed backward several steps, sawing at the air and its blinded eyes. Renie saw !Xabbu swing back down to the ground and grab Cullen by the collar; the entomologist's arm remained behind, lying on the roof as if discarded in a forgetful moment, still swaddled in a jumpsuit sleeve that now gaped raggedly at one end.

"You are not Grandfather Mantis!" !Xabbu shrilled at the monster as he struggled to drag the scientist away. "You are only a thing!"

In the depths of the nightmare, operating on pure instinct, Renie scrambled down to help; as the mantis convulsed above them they heaved Cullen into the plane and pulled down the door. Renie could see their pursuer through the side window, still ratcheting in place like a broken toy, but becoming less manic and more purposeful by the second.

There was no blood where Cullen's arm had been. She grabbed and squeezed anyway, not sure what the rules were for near-mortal virtual injuries, and screamed, "How do we make this hopper fly?"

Cullen's eyes fluttered open. "It . . . hurts," he said breathlessly. "Why should it hurt. . . ?"

"How do we fly the damn plane? That thing's coming back!"

In wheezing monosyllables, Cullen told her, then passed out. She left !Xabbu looking for something to bind his wound, then thumbed the buttons he had mentioned in what she hoped was the right order. The vehicle shuddered as its wings rotated out from under the wingcase, then vibrated into swift-beating life. Renie managed to get the legs moving to turn the head of the vehicle away from the wall and out toward the edge of the building. As the hopper swiveled, the scarecrow form of the mantis heaved into view before the viewscreen, groping toward them.

Renie said a silent prayer, pulled back on the wheel, and gave the hopper all the throttle she could. It jumped, slamming !Xabbu and Cullen back against the padded cabin wall and rattling Renie in her pilot's seat, then skimmed upward just out of reach of the mantis' last, stabbing clutch.

Within moments the wreckage of the Hive was far below. Renie tugged the wheel a few times, once beginning an alarming dive, then at last found what she wanted. They banked and then flew on into the towering forest, toward the setting sun.

"That was not Grandfather Mantis," !Xabbu said solemnly behind her. "I forgot myself—I am ashamed."

Renie began to shiver, and for a moment feared she might never stop. "Bugs," she said, still shuddering. "Jesus Mercy."

CHAPTER 8
Fighting Monsters

NETFEED/PEOPLE: "One Angry Man" Dies

(visual: Gomez answering reporters' questions in front of courthouse)

VO: Nestor Gomez, who referred to himself in court as "just one angry man," died in a hospice in Mexico City, aged 98. Already in his sixties and retired from his factory job at the time he first came to fame, Gomez was celebrated as a hero by many after he machine-gunned a car full of young men in a rest stop outside Juarez, Mexico, he claimed that the youths had been harrassing him.

(visual: charred wreckage of car)

Even more controversial than the killings was an eyewitness claim that Gomez set fire to the car while some of the wounded victims were still alive. His Mexico City trial ended in a hung jury. Two subsequent trials also failed to reach a verdict. Gomez was never tried in America, even though all five victims were Americans.

(visual: Gomez being greeted at airport in Buenos Aires)

For years after the incident, he was a featured speaker at meetings of anti-crime groups in many countries, and the expression "to Gomez" became synonymous with violent and even excessive retribution. . . .

 

"It seems scanny," Fredericks said, enjoying the shade of a grass stem. "I mean, I know we don't need to eat or anything, but it just doesn't seem like morning without breakfast."

Orlando, feeling vastly more comfortable than he had during the worst of the fever, shrugged. "Maybe there's a coffee bar down the river someplace. Or a puffed rice plantation."

"Don't even talk about it," Sweet William grumbled. "No coffee, no fags—that means ciggies, just so you nice Yank boys don't get confused—this is hell, as some Shakespeare bloke said, nor am I out of it."

Orlando grinned, wondering what William would think if he knew one of the Yank boys was really a girl. But for that matter, how did they know Sweet William wasn't a girl himself? Or that Florimel wasn't a boy?

"So what do we do?" Quan Li asked. "Where do we go? Should we not look for the others?"

"We can do anything that we want." Florimel was just returning from a scouting trip up the riverbank, with T4b hissing and clanking at her side. "But we had better stay off the water for a while. The fish are feeding."

Even the stories the others had told him about the splashing frenzy that had sunk their leaf-boat could not dim Orlando's good mood. He clambered to his feet, still a little weak, but better than he'd been in days, and brushed the dust from Thargor's coarse-woven loincloth. It was funny how when you looked close enough—or got small enough—even dirt had its own dusty residue. Dirt particles so small he couldn't even have seen them when he had been his normal size bumped together and were ground down finer still. He supposed it would go on, smaller and smaller, until you got down to the size of molecules, and even there you would find bits of micro-lint in the molecular wrinkles. Utterly scanbark, as Fredericks liked to say. . . . "Do we have any idea of where Renie and her friend—Kobbu, whatever his name was—where they might be?" Orlando asked. "I mean, did anyone see them after they went in the water?"

"They are still alive."

Everyone turned to look at Martine, who was huddled against the stones—grains of beach sand if Orlando and the others had been normal size—that the travelers had piled to make a windbreak for their night's shelter. Her sim looked a little less ragged and careworn today, although Orlando wondered if he might be projecting some of his own heightened spirits. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"I . . . can just tell. I can . . . feel them, I suppose." Martine rubbed at her face so hard it seemed to change shape, and for the first time Orlando saw what seemed like a true measure of her blindness: he didn't think a sighted person would make a gesture that seemed so private. "There are not words for these things, but I have always used nonvisual methods to work with information, yes? You understand? That is how my system is designed. Now I am getting things I never have before, new and very strange information. But slowly—too slowly, because it is a painful process—it is starting to make some sense." She turned toward Orlando. "You, for example. You are sounds, yes—I can hear your clothes rubbing skin, and your heart beating, and you breathing, with a little, how would you say, bubbling in your lungs from your sickness. I can smell the leather belt you are wearing, and your own person-scent, and the iron of the sword. It is rusting just a bit, by the way."

Orlando looked down, embarrassed. Thargor would never have let his sword go untreated after a prolonged immersion. He scooped up a handful of fine micro-sand and began rasping the blade clean.

"But that is only part," Martine continued. "Now I have other information coming to me, and there are not names for it. Not yet, anyway."

"What do you mean?" asked Quan Li worriedly. "What is coming?"

"I mean that what I experience, I cannot put into words yet. It is as if you tried to describe color to someone blind like me." She frowned. "No, that is not correct, because there was a time when I could see, and so I remember colors. But if you tried to describe 'red' or 'green' to someone who had never seen any colors at all—how would you do that?

"You, Orlando, I can feel also as a set of ripples in the air, but they are not ripples, and it is not air. They are things that tell me an Orlando-shaped thing has to be somewhere nearby. And I feel this forest as . . . numbers, in a way. Little hard things, millions of them, pulsing, talking to one another. It is so hard to say." She shook her head, pressing fingers against temples. "The whole of this network—it is for me like being in a river of information. It tosses me, and spins me, and it almost drowned me. But I am beginning to understand a little of how to swim."

"Ho dzang!" said Fredericks, a drawn-out exhalation. "But far scanny, too."

"So you're sure that Renie and the baboon-man are still alive?" Orlando asked.

"I can . . . yes, feel them. Faint, like a very distant sound. I do not think they are close, or perhaps I am only sensing some . . . residue." Her face went slack in sadness. "Maybe I have spoken too soon. Perhaps they are gone, and I sense only where they once were."

"So you can tell us all apart with . . . what, sonar?" Florimel sounded angry, perhaps a little frightened, too. "What else do you know about us? Can you read our minds, Martine?"

The blind woman spread her hands as if to ward off a blow. "Please! I know only what I sense, and that has no more to do with what truly goes on in your thoughts than someone who looked at your face would see, or someone who heard your voice."

"So calm down, Flossie," Sweet William said, grinning.

"My name is not 'Flossie,' " The look on her virtual face would have curdled milk. "It is a bad joke, if it is a joke."

"But who are you?" Orlando asked. "Who are any of you?" The others turned toward him. "I mean, I still don't know who any of you are. We have to trust each other, but we don't know anything about the people we're supposed to trust."

Now it was William's turn to be sour. "We don't have to do anything. I, for one, am not planning on making a career out of this lark, and I don't care what dreary, dreadful things you all used to do with your spare time."

"That's not good enough," Orlando said. "Look, I'll tell you the real truth. My name is Orlando Gardiner. I'm fifteen years old."

"Not for another three months," said Fredericks.

"Just a teenager? What a surprise." William rolled his eyes.

"Shut up. I'm trying to do something." Orlando took a breath, getting ready. "I'm almost fifteen years old. I have progeria. It's a disease, and it's going to kill me pretty soon." As when he had confessed to Fredericks, he felt a certain exhilaration, the cold splash of a long-dreaded jump from the high board. "Don't say you're sorry, because that's not what's important." William arched an eyebrow, but remained silent; Orlando hurried on. "And I've spent years on the net, doing gaming, and I'm really good at it. And for some reason I stumbled onto this whole thing, and I don't know anyone who's sick because of it, but it's what I'm going to do now, and . . . and it's more important to me than anything else has ever been."

Finished, he felt a flush heating his real skin, and hoped that it would not call forth a twin on his virtual face. No one spoke.

"My name's Sam Fredericks," his friend said at last into the uncomfortable silence. "And I'm fifteen, too—but I really am fifteen." Fredericks smiled almost shyly at Orlando. "I'm here because Gardiner brought me here. But I'm just as trapped as if I were here to save somebody. Fenfen, I guess I am here to save somebody. Me. Us."

Orlando, despite the embarrassment of having his age corrected, did not point out Fredericks' omissions. He—or she—would wear the face he wanted, as would all the others.

"And I am Martine Desroubins," the blind woman said. "I am a researcher. I have been blind since I was eight. An accident. I live by myself, in the Haut-Languedoc in the southern part of France, near Toulouse. I came with Renie and !Xabbu and Murat Shagar Singh, who was killed when we entered the Otherland network." She nodded her head as if to punctuate the dry recitation. Orlando heard the empty places in what she said, but again did not question.

"Far scanning, this." T4b had his arms crossed across his spiky chest. "You wanna know my ID for what? You with netnews?"

"Good God. I can speak clearer English than that," Florimel said, "and it is not my native language."

"Just tell us what you're doing here," Orlando pleaded. "What's your real name?"

"Ain't telling no names." He glowered, insofar as a cartoonish chrome battle-mask could be made to glower. "Here for my shadow, me—my zizz."

"What does that mean?" asked Quan Li.

"A friend he hangs around with," translated Orlando, who had a young suburbanite's fascination with Goggleboy-speak.

"Not no friend," T4b said indignantly. "He my shadow—we from the box together!"

"They're, um, sort of in the same gang," Orlando explained to the group's only certified grandmother. "So, T4b, what happened to your friend?"

"Came to this scan palace to find out, didn't I?" the robot said. "My zizz's in the hospital. Found him almost sixed on the floor at his cot. Thought it was charge-burn, but he was togged into like the mamapapa net."

Orlando was feeling increasingly ludicrous, but he soldiered gamely on with his translation. "He says his friend is in the hospital, just like Renie's brother. At first when they found him, they thought it was charge damage, but he was connected to the regular net."

"In fact, isn't 'T4b' a kind of charge, my dear BangBang?" asked Sweet William.

"You ain't dupping." The robot's voice took on a kind of sullen rapture. "Far tasty jolt, T4b. Go to heaven, straight. My name, my fame, see?"

"Lord help us," William said. "He's a chargehead. That's just brilliant, isn't it?"

T4b brandished a spiny fist. "Brilliant this, funny-boy."

"Oh, stop it." The high spirits with which Orlando had begun the morning were beginning to fade, and the sun was not all the way into the sky. "Quan Li?"

"Hasn't everyone heard my poor story already?" She looked around, but no one spoke. "It was my granddaughter." Quan Li fell silent for a long moment. "Jing, ray pretty little kitten, my dear one. She, too, fell into . . . into a sleep, like Renie's brother, like . . . like this man's friend. I have tried long and hard to discover the reason." She seemed uncomfortable to have everyone listening to her. "I live in New Kowloon, in Hong Kong," she added. "Is that not enough to say about someone like me? I am very, very old."

Orlando smiled, but he doubted she could be as shy and polite as she acted—it could not have been easy to push forward until she found this place, with her whole family telling her it was pointless and foolish. "Who else?"

"I am only doing this because the river is not yet safe," said Florimel. "At other times, I will not be convinced to talk when there are things to do, and I do not think it is particularly important who we are." She said the word with mocking emphasis. "You know my name. My last name is not important. I am originally from Baden-Württemberg. My home now is outside Stuttgart."

Orlando waited, but there was no more forthcoming. "Is that all?"

"What else do you need to know?"

"Why are you here?" It was Fredericks who asked this time. "And where did you learn to do those things you did to Orlando? Are you a doctor or something?"

"I have some medical training, but I am not a doctor. It is enough to say."

"But why are you here?" Orlando prompted.

"All these questions!" Florimel's sim face drew its eyebrows together in a fierce frown, "I am here because a friend became ill. You may ask more questions, but you will get no more answers."

Orlando turned to the man in black. "And you?"

"You know all you need to about me, chuck. How did Bang-Bang, in his infinite wisdom, put it—'My name, my fame?' Well, this is what you get—this name, this face. And just because you've contracted some exotic, soap-opera illness and we're all sorry for you doesn't get you any more than that." The teasing edge of Sweet William's normal tone was gone. He and Florimel both appeared ready to fight rather than to divulge more about themselves.

"Well, it's better than nothing, I guess. So now what do we do?" Orlando turned his gaze out to the roiling green river. "Go downstream? And if we're going back on the river, how? Our boat, the leaf—it sank."

"Perhaps we should try to find Renie and her friend," said Quan Li. "They may need our help."

"I hardly think that a bunch of people the size of orange pips should waste too much time wandering around searching for other tiny people who may or may not be there in the first place," declared William. "You lot might enjoy being eaten by something, but I like my pleasures, especially the masochistic sort, more refined."

"We need to stay close to the river, don't we?" Fredericks asked. "That's how we get out of this place and into another simulation."

"Well, I'm all in favor of getting out of this place, as fast as frigging possible," William said.

"First smart thing, you." T4b nodded vigorously. "Let's get flyin'. Don't want no more sayee lo fish-swallowing, me."

"Just like that?" demanded Orlando, outraged. His own vulnerability had made him sensitive. "We just take off, and maybe leave Renie and her friend hurt, or lost?"

"Look, sweetness," William growled, "first off, you are going to have to learn the difference between real life and one of your action-adventures. For all we know, they're dead. For all we know, some horrible earwig the size of a bus may come around the corner any second and pinch all our heads off, and we'll be dead, too. Really dead. This is not a hooray-for-elves! story,"

"I know it's not a story!" But even as he spoke, Orlando regretted that it wasn't. If he were really Thargor, and this were the Middle Country, it would be time for some serious smiting. "That's the point. We're in trouble. Renie and her friend are in this with us. And in case you didn't notice, there aren't a whole lot of us to spare."

"I think what Orlando says makes sense," Quan Li offered.

Fredericks and T4b now joined the argument, although it was hard to hear what either was saying in the general din. Orlando fought an urge to stick his fingers in his ears—were any of these people grown-ups?

"Stop!" Martine's voice was hoarse. The others paused, halted as much by the evident pain beneath her words as what she was saying. "Perhaps we can find some sort of compromise. We will need a boat, as Orlando has said. Perhaps some could begin building such a boat, while others looked for our two missing friends."

"Dzang, yeah. I can work on a boat," said Fredericks. "I did it when we were on the island, it worked, too, didn't it, Orlando?"

"Oh, sure. It stayed above water for nearly half the trip."

Fredericks rewarded him with a punch on the shoulder.

"That is fine," said Martine. "For me, I feel that I should be among those searching for the others, I would be little help with building."

Quan Li volunteered to accompany her, as did Florimel. After much argument, Sweet William and T4b decided to help gather material to build the boat. "After all," William pointed out, "there's not a lot of difference between getting eaten up while searching or getting eaten up while doing construction."

"We will return before the sun goes down," Martine promised.

"Yes, but if you do come back after dark," William said, "Try not to make noises like a giant bug or we might stick you with something sharp by accident."

Building the raft of reeds with Fredericks had been one thing—Orlando had been deathly ill through most of that process, and what little work he had done, Fredericks had directed. Now he felt himself again, and found he was part of a very fractious four-person committee. Fredericks wanted to build another raft, but William pointed out—quite correctly, Orlando had to admit—that even a large raft was not going to be heavy enough or deep-bottomed enough to keep them afloat on the river. At their size, even the river's milder moments of choppiness would be like a terrible storm at sea. But Fredericks proved stubborn, as he often did. He felt that the raft experiment had worked once—although, as Orlando had earlier pointed out, even that conclusion depended on how you read the data—and that they did not have the equipment or materials to build anything more complicated. Orlando had to agree with him on the latter point.

The disagreement rapidly degenerated into a bout of mutual recriminations until T4b accidentally made the best suggestion of the afternoon and a plan began to develop. During the course of one short-lived moment of calm discussion, the robot Goggleboy said that what they really needed was their old leaf back. A few minutes later, when Orlando had given up for a bit on mediating between Fredericks and Sweet William, and was staring up at the vast trunk of a tree looming over the riverbank like a cylindrical cliff-face, T4b's words came back to him.

"Hold on," he said. "Maybe we do need our leaf back. Or another leaf."

"Sure we do," William said, rolling his eyes. "And at the first thumping it will go over, just like the last one, and we'll all swim the rest of the way back to the real world. Won't that be fun?"

"Just listen. We could make a raft, like Fredericks said, but put it inside a leaf—like a deck. That would give it some . . . what do you call it?"

"Kitsch value?" suggested William.

"Structural integrity. You know, it would brace it. And then we could make some outriggers, like they have on Hawaiian canoes. Pontoons, is that the word? That would keep it from tipping over."

"Hawaiian canoes?" William smiled despite himself, Pierrot lips quirking at the edges. "You truly are a mad boy, aren't you? What, do you spend all your time living in fantasy worlds?"

"Think it's good, me," said T4b suddenly. "Make one sixing boat, no dupping."

"Well, maybe." William raised an eyebrow. "Pontoons, is it? Suppose there's no harm trying it. No harm till we drown, that is,"

 

The sun was high overhead, already past the meridian and heading for its setting point somewhere on the far side of the river. Orlando was discovering how far he still had to go before he'd be at even his normal level of fitness. The tactor settings were either simply lower here, or some of Thargor's more superhuman characteristics didn't translate into the Otherland network. Certainly the barbarian's famous indefatigability was absent: Orlando was dripping with virtual sweat and exhausted by very real aches in every joint and muscle.

Fredericks was not any more cheerful, or at least his sim face looked red and uncomfortable. He stood up from where he was forcing in the last crossbeam, wedging it into the leaf by using a piece of sand big as his two fists as a hammer-stone. "We're ready for the mat, now."

Orlando gestured to T4b, then climbed gingerly over the edge of the leaf and down onto the beach. They had chosen a smaller leaf than the one that had brought them here, but even so it had taken them a large part of the morning just to drag it down to the river's edge, and Orlando felt as if he had been chopping with his sword for days to cut enough of the bamboolike grass shoots to weave the frame.

William, piecing together the last fibers of the coarse mat, had been forced to saw the tiny shoots used in its manufacture with a jagged stone, and did not seem to have enjoyed his task, either. "Whose bloody idea was this?" he asked as Orlando and T4b trudged up. "If it was mine, take this heavy thing and hit me with it."

Orlando no longer had the strength or breath for jokes, even the stupid ones that had helped him through the hard work earlier. He grunted, then bent and grabbed one edge of the mat. After a moment, T4b leaned over with an answering groan and found a handhold of his own.

"Oh, for God's sake, you sound like a couple of Tasmanian washerwomen." William struggled up from his seated position and walked to the far side. "You pull, I'll push."

Together they wrestled the mat over the curled edge of the leaf; then, with a great deal of swearing, shoved it more or less into place.

"Finished, true?" asked T4b hopefully.

"No." Fredericks sucked his lower lip thoughtfully. "We need to tie this down. Then we need to cut something long enough to make Orlando's pontoons."

"They're not my pontoons," Orlando growled, "I don't need any damn pontoons. They're for the boat."

William rose, a pitch-black scarecrow, his tassels and fringes fluttering in the breeze off the river. "You two tie the mat down. I'll go look for some more bloody reeds to make the outrigger thingies. But when you get done resting, Orlando my chuck, you can come cut them down. You're the one who brought a sword to the picnic, after all."

Orlando nodded a weary assent.

"And why don't you come with me, BangBang," William continued. "That way if something with too many legs comes sneaking up on me, you can bash it with your big metal fists."

The robot shook its head, but rose unsteadily and limped after the departing death-clown.

Orlando watched them go with something less than complete satisfaction. Sweet William was right about one thing, anyway: if this were an adventure game, Orlando could have relied on allies with definable and helpful powers—swiftness, agility, strength, magical abilities. As it was, except for Martine's new input, the group's only real skills seemed to be at dressing funny.

He slumped, waiting for the inevitable summons from Fredericks, but in no condition to anticipate it. A pair of giant flies swooped and barrel-rolled like vintage planes above a bit of drying something-or-other a short way up the beach. The noise of their wings made the air vibrate until it was almost impossible to think, but there was a kind of beauty in them, too, their glossy bodies rainbowing as they caught the sun, their swift-beating wings an almost invisible iridescence.

Orlando sighed. This whole Otherland thing locked, basically, if it were a game, the rules would be defined, the moves to victory comprehensible. Games made sense. How had little Zunni from the Wicked Tribe put it? "Kill monster, find jewel, earn bonus points. Wibble-wobble-wubble." Not much like real life, maybe, but who wanted real life? Or even this bizarre variation? No rules, no goals, and no idea even of where to begin.

"Hey, Gardino, are you going to sit there working on your tan, or are you going to help me finish this?"

He stood, sighing again. And what had they learned so far, that would take them any closer toward their objectives? That they were trapped in the Otherland network, somehow. That they needed to stay alive until Sellars could get them out again. That somewhere, in one of who could guess how many simulations, a guy named Jonas was running around, and Sellars wanted them to find him.

"A needle in a haystack the size of a locking galaxy," Orlando muttered as he clambered onto the leaf.

Fredericks frowned at him. "You shouldn't sit in the sun so long. You're getting woofie in the head."

 

Another hour had passed, and none of the others had returned. The sun had sunk behind the pinnacles of the trees, throwing vast fields of early night across the riverbank. The leaf-boat lay in front of them, and the local weather was almost chilly. Orlando, grateful for the relief, was dragging another long reed back toward the boat, for use as a barge pole in shallower waters, when something big came hissing out from under a pile of stones. Fredericks shouted a horrified warning, but Orlando had already seen the dark blur at the corner of his vision. He threw himself sideways, rolled and came up without the reed, but with his sword in his hand and his heart hammering.

The centipede was at least a half-dozen times as long as Orlando was tall, dusty brown and covered with bits of crumbling earth. came toward him in strange, sidewinding fashion, forcing him to give ground. Except for movement, it was hard to distinguish the creature from the background; Orlando was grateful there was still a little daylight left.

A shudder ran through the creature, a ripple of its armor plate and for a moment the centipede's entire front end lifted from the ground. Orlando thought he could see pistoning spikes just below its mouth, and had a sudden, maddeningly distant memory that these creatures were poisonous. The front limbs dropped and the beast rushed forward on dozens of segmented legs, bearing down on him like a fanged monorail. Orlando could hear Fredericks shouting something, but he had no attention to spare. Years of Thargor-experience rolled through him in half a second. This was not the kind of high-bellied creature you could get under, like a gryphon or most dragons. But with all those legs, it would strike sideways very quickly, perhaps faster than he could matador out of the way.

With a noise like a small stampede, the centipede was on him. Orlando sprang from a crouch even as the thing's front legs tried to hook him toward its mouth. He clambered up onto the head, then had time enough for one stabbing blow to what he hoped was the creature's eye before it kinked in fury and threw him to the side. He landed heavily and scrambled back onto his feet as quickly as his throbbing muscles could manage. Fredericks was atop the leaf, watching in agony, but Orlando could think of no way his friend could help him without weapons.

As he backed away, the huge bug bent itself in a semicircle, following him with its front end even as the rest of its body held in place. Unlike the mostly anthropomorphic creatures of the Middle Country, it gave off no suggestion of feeling or thought at all. It was simply a hunter, a killing machine, and he had walked too near its hiding place at sundown.

Orlando reached down and grabbed the barge pole he had dropped, a rigid stem of grass twice his own length. He doubted it was strong enough to pierce the centipede's armor plating, but it might help to keep the creature at bay until he could think of something else to do. The only problem, he quickly discovered, was that he could not support the pole and hold his sword, too. He let the stem droop as the centipede began another sidewinding charge, and shoved the blade through his belt.

He managed to raise the pole just enough to jab it at the centipede's head. It lodged so hard against the creature's mouth parts that if Orlando had not dug the butt-end into the earth behind him, he would have slid right up the stem into the poison fangs. It bent, but did not snap. The centipede, arrested by something it could not see, rose clawing toward the sky until its first three pairs of legs were off the ground. The reed straightened and popped free. Released, the beast thumped heavily back to the ground, hissing even louder.

Orlando dragged the stem backward, looking for a new position to defend. The far end of the reed had been chewed to pulpy splinters. The centipede lockstepped toward him again, more cautiously this time, but showing no signs of going away to look for a more compliant meal. Orlando cursed weakly.

"I see the others!" Fredericks was shouting. "They're coming back!"

Orlando shook his head, trying to get his breath back. Unless their companions had kept some big secrets, he couldn't imagine any of them making much difference. This was pure monster-killer work, and Orlando was one of the best. Or was it Thargor who was one of the best. . . ?

Jeez, listen to me, he thought blurrily, dragging the pole up into a protective posture again. Sharp things clashed in the shadows of the centipede's mouth. Can't tell the difference between one kind of not-real and another. . . .

He jabbed at its head, but this time he could not get the reed seated against the ground. The bug shoved forward and the long stem slid to one side off the dirty-brown carapace, catching between two of the driving legs like a stick in bicycle spokes. Orlando hung onto the pole as it jerked and flung him through the air to one side; he landed hard enough to squeeze the breath from his body. The great multilegged shape swiveled into a tight turn, rippled forward a half-dozen steps, then reared over him, legs hooking inward like two hands' worth of giant, snatching fingers, Orlando scrabbled backward, but it was a hopeless attempt at escape.

The centipede lifted and stretched farther, its killing parts locked in place above him like some horrible industrial punch-press. Fredericks' distant voice was now a meaningless shrill, fast disappearing in a rising wash of pure sound, a great storm, a slow explosion, but all somewhere far away and meaningless as Orlando struggled to lift the heavy stem one last time. In this moment of slow time, Death was upon him. The universe had nearly stopped, waiting for that ultimate second to tick over.

Then the second crashed upon him with blackness and wind. A cold thunder blasted down from above, a vertical hurricane that blew him flat and filled the air with stinging, blinding dust. Orlando screamed into dirt, knowing that any moment he would feel poison spines hammer down into his body. Something struck his head, throwing stars into his eyes, too.

The wind lessened. The darkness grew a little less. Fredericks was still shrieking.

Orlando opened his eyes. He squinted against the swirling dust, astonished to discover himself still alive in this world. Stones as big around as his thigh rolled past him as an impossibly vast black shape, like a negative angel, rose into the sky overhead. Something slender and frenetic and comparatively tiny writhed in its talons.

Talons: It was a bird, a bird as big as a passenger jet, as a shuttle rocket—bigger! The explosive force of its wings, which had pinned him at the base of an invisible column of air, suddenly shifted as the bird tilted and vaulted away, the centipede still struggling helplessly in its claws, on its way to feed a nest full of fledglings.

"Orlando! Orlando, hey!" Fredericks was keening softly, far away, unimportant compared to the awesome sight of a certain, inescapable death being sucked away into the evening sky. "Gardiner!"

He looked up to the bluffs above the beach, where Sweet William and T4b had dropped their bundles of reeds to stare in astonishment after the swift-rising bird. He turned to Fredericks, and the boat, but they were gone.

A heart-stopping instant later he saw that they were only displaced, that the new leaf-boat they had so laboriously built in one place was now quite a way distant. It took a moment for his dazed mind to put together the information and realize that the leaf was on the river, blown into the water by the bird's flapping wings, and was drifting slowly out toward the strong current. Fredericks, alone on board, was leaping up and down, waving his arms and shouting, but already his voice was growing too faint to understand.

Befuddled, Orlando looked up to the bluffs. The two figures there had finally seen Frederick's situation, and were making their way down the mossy bank as swiftly as they could, but they were a minute's run away at least, and Fredericks was only a score of seconds from the current that would sweep him away forever.

Orlando picked up the barge pole like a javelin and dashed along the beach. He sprinted toward a headland, hoping he might be able to extend the long stem to Fredericks, but when he got there, it was clear that even with three such poles he would not be able to reach his friend. The leaf caught for a moment in an eddy, buffeted between the faster current and the small backwater below the headland. Orlando looked at his friend, then back at T4b and Sweet William, still distant and small as they ran toward him across the strand. He turned and scrambled down the headland, got a running start, and flung himself off into the backwater.

It was a near thing, even in reasonably warm water. Orlando had almost run out of strength, and was wondering what had happened to his legs (which he could no longer feel) when Fredericks reached down and plucked the floating barge pole from the water. Orlando was just deciding that traveling to a virtual universe to drown seemed a long way around for a person with a terminal illness, when the centipede-chewed end of the pole slapped down next to him, nearly braining him.

"Grab it!" Fredericks shouted.

He did, then his friend helped him struggle over the edge of the leaf onto the mat they had spent much of the afternoon weaving. Orlando had strength only to huddle down out of the evening wind, shivering, as water drizzled off him and the river swept them away from the beach and their two astounded companions.

 

 

"It's yours, Skouros," the captain said. "It's Merapanui. On your system even as we speak."

"Thanks. You're a mate." Calliope Skouros did not say it like she meant it, and to avoid any accusations of subtlety, she curled her lip as well. "That case has been history so long that it smells."

"You wanted one, you got one." The sergeant made a wiping-her-hands gesture. "Don't blame me for your own ambition. Make a last pass, call the witnesses. . . ."

"If any of them are still alive."

". . . Call the witnesses and see if anyone's remembered anything new. Then dump it back in the 'Unsolved' list if you want. Whatever." She leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. Skouros wondered if the sergeant's cornea-reshaping had been less than she'd hoped for. "And, speaking on behalf of the entire police force of Greater Sydney, don't say we never give you anything."

Detective Skouros stood up. "Thank you for this rubber bone, O glorious mistress. I wag my tail in your general direction."

"Get out of my office, will you?"

"It's ours and it's impacted," she announced. The pressure vents on her chair hissed as she dropped her muscular body onto the seat.

"Meaning?" Stan peered at her over the top of his old-fashioned framed lenses. Everything about Stan Chan was old-fashioned, even his name. Calliope still could not understand what parents in their right minds would name a child "Stanley" in the twenty-first century.

"Impacted. Suctioning. Locked up. It's a rotten case."

"This must be that Merapanui thing."

"None other. They've finally kicked it loose from the Real Killer investigation, but it's not like they were doing anything with it over there. It's already five years old, and I don't think they did anything but look it over, run the parameters through their model, then throw it out again."

Her partner steepled his fingers. "Well, did you solve it already, or can I have a look at it, too?"

"Sarcasm does not become you, Stan Chan." She kicked the wallscreen on, then brought up a set of branching box files. The case file popped to the top of the activity log, and she spread it out on the screen. "Merapanui, Polly. Fifteen years old. Living in Kogarah when she was killed, but originally from up north. A Tiwi, I think."

He thought for a moment. "Melville Island—those people?"

"Yep. Homeless since she ran away from a foster home at thirteen. Not much of an arrest record, other than vagrancy-related. A few times for shoplifting, two offensive conducts. Locked up a couple of days once for soliciting, but the case notes suggest she might actually have been innocent of that."

Stan raised an eyebrow.

"I know, astonishing to contemplate." Calliope brought up a picture. The girl in the stained shirt who stared back had a round face that seemed too large on her thin neck, frightened wide eyes, and dark, curly hair pulled to one side in a simple knot. "When she was booked."

"She seems pretty light-skinned for a Tiwi."

"I don't think there are any full-blooded Tiwi any more. There's damn few of us full-blooded Greeks."

"I thought your grandfather was Irish."

"We made him honorary."

Stan leaned back and brought his fingertips together again. "So why did it get pulled out of the dormant file by the Real Killer crew?"

Calliope flicked her fingers and brought up the scene photos. They were not pretty. "Just be glad we can't afford full wraparound," Calliope said. "Apparently the type and number of wounds—a big hunter's knife like a Zeissing, they think—were similar in some respects to Mr. Real's work. But it predates the first known Real murder by three years."

"Any other reasons they gave up on it?"

"No similarities besides the wound patterns. All the Real victims have been whites of European descent, middle-class or upper-middle. They've all been killed in public places, where there was at least theoretical electronic security of some sort, but the security's always failed in some way. Put that damn eyebrow down—of course it's weird, but it's not our case. This one is."

"Speaking of, why did you ask for this Merapanui thing in the first place? I mean, if it isn't a prostitute getting offed by a client, it's a crime of passion, a one-shot. If we want casual murders, we got streets full of them every day."

"Yeah?" Calliope raised a finger and flicked forward to another set of crime scene snaps, these from an angle that showed all of the victim's face.

"What's wrong with her eyes?" Stan asked at last, rather quietly.

"Couldn't say, but those aren't them. Those are stones. The killer put them in the sockets."

Stan Chan took the squeezers from her and enlarged the image. He stared at it for a dozen silent seconds. "Okay, so it's not your usual assault-whoops-homicide," he said. "But what we still have here is a five-year-old murder which had a brief moment of erroneous fame when it seemed like the perp might be an important killer who's been splashed all over the newsnets. However, what it really is, Skouros, is some other cop's leftovers."

"Succinct, and yet gloriously descriptive. I like your style, big boy. You looking for a partner?"

Stan frowned. "I suppose it beats cleaning up after cake dealers and chargeheads."

"No it doesn't. It's a shit case. But it's ours,"

"My joy, Skouros, is unbounded."

 

It was never an easy choice on office days between taking the light rail or driving the underpowered e-car the department leased for her, but though urban traffic insured that driving was slower, it was also quieter.

The auto-reader was picking its way through the case notes, making bizarre phonetic hash out of some of the Aboriginal and Asian names of the witnesses—not that there were many witnesses to anything. The murder had happened near a honeycomb beneath one of the main sections of the Great Western Highway, but if the squat had been occupied before the murder, it was empty by the time the body was discovered. The people who lived in such places knew that there was little benefit in being noticed by the police.

As the details washed over her again, Calliope tried to push all the preconceptions from her mind and just listen to the data. It was almost impossible, of course, especially with all the distractions that came from the tangled traffic streams humping along in fits and starts beneath the bright orange sunset.

First off, she was already thinking of the killer as "he." But did it have to be a man? Even in her comparatively brief career, Calliope had worked homicide in Sydney long enough to know that women, too, could end another's life, sometimes with surprising violence. But this bizarre, iron-nerved, obsessive play with the body—surely only a man would be capable of such a thing. Or was she sliding into prejudice?

There had been a time only a few years back when some group in the United States—in the Pacific Northwest, if she remembered correctly—had claimed that since the majority of social violence was caused by men, and because there were certain genetic indicators in some males that might indicate predisposition to aggression, male children bearing those indicators should be forced to undergo gene therapy in utero. The opposition groups had shouted long and loud about the proposed law being a kind of genetic castration, a punishment for the crime of simply being male, and the whole debate had degenerated into name-calling. Calliope thought that was too bad, actually. She had seen enough of the horrifyingly casual bloodshed caused almost entirely by young males to wonder if there wasn't something to what the bill's proponents had to say.

When she mentioned it to him, Stan Chan had called her a fascist lesbian man-hater. But he had said it in a nice way.

It was certainly true that she had to avoid making assumptions without the facts, but she also needed to try to wrap her mind around the person, needed to find the perp before she could find him—or her. For now she would have to trust her instincts. It felt like man's work, of the most twisted sort, so unless she stumbled on overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the person they were seeking would remain a him.

But beyond the assumption of a male perp, not a lot stood out, at least in the way of unifying themes. There had been no trace of sexual assault, and even the violence-as-sex aspect seemed oddly muted. In many ways it appeared to be more ritual than rape.

Ritual. The word had a vibration, and she had learned to trust the part of her that felt those kinds of resonance. Ritual. She would file that away.

Other than that, there was little to go on. The murderer was not as thorough in his avoidance of physical evidence as the Real Killer, but Polly Merapanui's death had found her effectively out-of-doors, the only shelter being the concrete overpass, an area scoured by wind so that no useful traces remained, even to the department's hideously expensive For Vac particle-sucker. The perp had worn gloves, and if Polly had fought, she had not carried away any trace of her murderer beneath fingernails.

If only the old superstition were true, Calliope thought, not for the first time in her homicide career—if only dying eyes actually retained an image of what they last saw.

Perhaps the killer believed that ancient superstition. Perhaps that explained the stones.

The voice of the auto-reader droned on, emotionless as a clock. The sign indicating her exit swam into view, a distant smear above the river of taillights. Calliope edged toward the left lane. No physical evidence, a victim that most would agree was as inconsequential as a human being could be, a handful of useless witnesses (mostly itinerants and uncooperative relatives) and a truly disturbing modus operandi that had never been seen again—Stan was right. They had someone else's bad case, with what little juice it had once possessed sucked out of it.

But the girl, who had possessed nothing in life except life, was not entirely inconsequential. To declare that would be to declare that Calliope Skouros herself was inconsequential, for what had she chosen to do with her own days and nights except defend the resentful and avenge the unwanted?

Thai's inspiring, Skouros, she told herself, leaning on her horn as some idiot on his way home from four or five after-work beers cut her off. But it's still a shit case.

 

 

Fredericks was crouching in what would have been the prow if the leaf were a proper boat, staring out over the rapidly darkening water. The river had carried them to this point without too much violence, but Fredericks had a firm grip on the fibers of the mat anyway. Watching his friend's head waggle from side to side with the motion of the water had begun to make Orlando feel queasy, so he was lying flat on his back, looking up at the first prickling of stars in the sky.

"We've lost them all," Fredericks said dully. This was not the first time since they had been swept away that he had made this doomful remark. Orlando ignored him, concentrating instead on convincing himself that his scanty clothes were drying, and that the air was actually warm. "Don't you care?"

"Of course I care. But what can we do about it? It wasn't me who got stuck on this stupid boat."

Fredericks fell silent. Orlando regretted his words, but not to the point of retracting them. "Look, they know which way we're going," he said at last by way of apology. "If we . . . whatever you call it, go through, we'll just wait for them on the other side. They'll find a way to get down the river; and then we'll all be in the next simulation together."

"Yeah. I guess so." Fredericks turned to face Orlando. "Hey, Gardiner?"

Orlando waited a few seconds for Fredericks to finish the sentence, then realized his friend wanted conversation. "Yeah?"

"Do you . . . do you think we're going to get killed?"

"Not in the next few minutes, if we're lucky."

"Shut up. I'm not spanking around, I mean it. What's going to happen to us?" Fredericks scowled. "I mean . . . I don't know, I miss my parents, kind of. I'm scared, Orlando."

"I am, too."

As the darkness thickened, the immense trees sliding past on either side became an unbroken wall of shadow, like the cliffs surrounding a deep valley.

"Valley of the Shadow of Death," Orlando murmured.

"What?"

"Nothing." He dragged himself upright. "Look, we can only do what we're doing. If there were a simple way to get out of this, one of us would have found it already. Remember, Sellars made it hard to get here, so even if they seem like the Scanmaster Club sometimes, Renie and the others must be pretty smart. So we just have to hang on until we solve it. Pretend it's one of the Middle Country adventures."

"Nothing in the Middle Country ever really hurt. And you couldn't get killed. Not for real."

Orlando forced a smile. "Well, then I guess it's about time old Thargor and Pithlit had a serious challenge."

Fredericks tried to return the smile, but his was even less convincing.

"Hey, what do you look like?" Orlando asked suddenly. "In RL?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"I just wondered. I mean, are you tall, short, what?"

"I don't want to talk about it, Orlando. Ordinary-looking, I guess. Talk about something else." Fredericks looked away.

"Okay. You still haven't ever told me where 'Pithlit' comes from. The name."

"I said I don't remember."

"Fenfen. I don't believe you. So tell me."

"I . . . well. . . ." Fredericks met his eyes defiantly. "If you laugh, even a little, you're impacted to the utmost."

"I won't laugh."

"After a character in a book. A kid's book. A stuffed animal, sort of, named Piglet. When I was little I couldn't say it right, so that's what my parents called me. When I started doing the net—well, it was sort of my nickname. Are you laughing?"

Orlando shook his head, teeth firmly clamped. "No. Not. . . ." He broke off. A noise which had been rising for many seconds was now clearly audible above the rush and roar of the water. "What's that?"

Fredericks stared. "Another bug. It's hard to tell. It's flying really low."

The winged thing, coming rapidly after them from upstream, had dropped so close to the river's surface that one of its feet broke a wavelet into white foam. The insect tipped and wobbled, then seesawed up to a higher level before regaining its course. It skimmed past them at an angle, showing itself to be almost half the size of their boat, then banked steeply a long distance downstream and began to fly back toward them.

"It's going to attack us," Fredericks said, fumbling for the barge pole.

"I don't know. It seems injured or something. Maybe sick. . . ." Orlando's attention was captured by something in the waters beneath the veering insect. "Look! It's that blue sparkly stuff!"

Fredericks stood and balanced unsteadily, intent on the low-flying bug. He raised the pole up above his head as it approached, as though to knock it out of the sky. "Jeez, are you scanned to the utmost?" Orlando dragged him down. Fredericks had to let go of the pole to keep from falling, but saved it from bouncing overboard after he had fallen to his knees. "That thing's ten times your size." Orlando chided him. "You hit it with that, you'll just get knocked into the water."

The insect hummed closer. As it neared, already banking, Orlando crouched on all fours, ready to drop to his belly if it flew too low. The creature was some kind of tropical beetle, he saw, its rounded brown shell touched with yellow. As it swept past, Orlando saw that the forward part of the wingcase had lifted, and that something was moving there, wiggling. . . .

". . . Waving?" he said in astonishment. "There's a person in there!"

"It's Renie!" shouted Fredericks as the insect buzzed past. "I'm sure it's her!"

The glimmer was all around them now. The waters seemed to froth with glowing sky-blue. Upstream, the flying insect was making a wide turn, but Orlando could hardly see it. The very air was full of dancing light,

"They found us!" Fredericks bounced up and down. "They're flying in a bug! How can they do that?"

"I don't know," Orlando shouted. The noise of the river had grown to an endless wash, and blue light was leaping from his skin. The dark shadow of the flying insect was overhead now, pacing them, and it also flew through sprays of blue tracer-fire. "We'll ask them on the other side. . . ."

And then the roaring overwhelmed them, and the light filled everything, and they passed through into another place.

CHAPTER 9
The Hollow Man

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: I Loved The "Papa Diablo," Could Have Done Without The Warm Gaipacha.

(Restaurant review of Efulgencia's World Choir, Oklahoma City, USA.)

(visual: "Iguana con Bayas" on a serving platter)

VO: ". . . My other major complaint with EWC would not perhaps be a problem for other diners. EWC is one of the last to get on the "random restaurant" dining loop, and their use of it is aggressive—there must have been six changes of connection during our meal, which hardly leaves enough time to ask the new arrivals what restaurant they're in, let alone what they're eating, what they think of it, or anything else, before they've vanished and the next party has popped in. Now, I never enjoyed this sort of thing even when it was a novelty, but clearly EWC is looking for a younger, crunchier, scorchier type of customer than yours truly—the pop-eyed, batter-fried iguana is another giveaway. . . ."

 

The light was going fast. Renie, who had not felt confident for a single moment since the hopper had lifted into the air, began fumbling on the instrument panel for the insect-plane equivalent of headlights. Realizing how many switches she could flick which would not be in her best interest to flick, she gave up and concentrated on maneuvering the little flyer through the overwhelming, monstrous forest.

"He still seems to be alive," !Xabbu said from his crouch at Cullen's side. "Since there is no blood, it is hard to tell how much damage he sustained when that creature pulled his arm off. I have knotted his coat around the wound, in any case, and he is sleeping again now."

Renie nodded, mostly intent on avoiding a fatal piloting error. It would be easy to mistake a shadowy tree limb for part of the greater darkness, and from the perspective of their own skewed measurements, the ground was several hundred feet below them. She had contemplated trying to fly higher, to reach a place above the treetops, but she didn't know whether this plane could be expected to fly safely at an altitude of what would be equivalent to thousands of feet, and in any case she liked her chances of not hitting anything better down here, where the trees were mostly trunk.

"Are you sure he said the river was in this direction?" she asked.

"He said west. You heard him, Renie."

She nodded, and realized her teeth were locked so tight her jaw hurt. She unclenched. She had received enough glimpses of the sunset through the trees until just a little while ago that she actually felt confident that they were flying west, but she needed something to worry about, and whether they were headed in the right direction was—in total contrast to all their other difficulties—a problem of almost manageable size.

As they sped on through the evening, she gained enough confidence that she could almost enjoy the spectacle. Once they skimmed past a squirrel big as an office building, which turned a vast, liquid brown eye to watch them. Other insects, a large moth and a few mosquitos, fluttering along on errands of their own, passed the hopper without a second glance, like bored commuters pacing on a station platform. The moth was beautiful at this size, covered with a feathery gray pelt, each faceted eye a cluster of dark mirrors.

The distance between trees had grown wider, as much as a quarter-minute or more now separating each gargantuan trunk. Tendrils of mist drifted upward from the ground, twining among the branches and obscuring vision, but before Renie could add this to her catalogue of worries, the forest finally dropped away behind them. A strip of beach flashed past, then nothing lay below but gray-green water.

"The river! We're there!" She didn't dare take her hands off the wheel to clap, so she bounced in her padded seat.

"You have done well, Renie," !Xabbu said. "Shall we look for the others?"

"We can try. I don't know that we'll find them, though. They might have got back on the boat and headed on downstream." She tipped the hopper into a long, gradual turn. It was much less smooth in flight than the dragonfly, which had a wider wingspan, and it juddered as the wind shifted, but she had not hurried the turn, so she was able to straighten the little craft out again and head it along the river's flow. It was true that these virtual planes were made for scientists to use, not professional flyers, but she was still proud of herself.

She flew on for a few minutes, but it quickly became obvious that she would not be able to spot the others unless they were on the water or very well exposed on the beach. She was looking for a place to land, with the idea of continuing the search in full daylight, when !Xabbu sat up and pointed.

"What is that? I see a leaf, but I think I see something pale moving on it."

Renie could not make out much more than a dark shape bobbing on the water. "Are you sure?"

"No, but I think so. Can you fly this airplane closer to the river?"

She was surprised by how quickly the little craft hopped forward when she gave it some throttle. They dipped down, almost too low, and Renie cursed as they clipped the top of one of the river swells. It took her a few moments to fight the hopper back into submission. She skimmed past the leaf, not quite so low this time.

"It is them!" !Xabbu said, excited. "Or at least some of them. But they looked frightened."

"We must look like a real bug."

As she began her turn, !Xabbu said, "The water is strange here. The blue lights, as we had before."

"We should get them to the beach if we can." Renie started back upstream. With !Xabbu's help she managed to get the door open. Air rushed in, wild as an animal, bouncing them in their harnesses. Cullen groaned from behind his straps. Renie got her hand out the window and waved as they swooped past the startled faces on the boat.

"Turn back!" she shouted into the wind.

Whether they did not hear her, or had no way to steer, the leaf-boat did not change course. The current bore it on, and by the time Renie had completed another turn upstream and was heading back toward them, they had already reached the onset of the glimmering waters.

Renie pulled the door shut. "How many of them are there?"

"I could only see two."

She considered for only a moment. "If they can't stop, we have to go through with them. Otherwise, we might never find them again."

"Of course," said !Xabbu. "They are our friends."

Renie wasn't sure she was quite ready to call their fellow refugees friends, but she understood !Xabbu's impulse. Being lost was a lonely thing even in a world that made sense. "Right. Here we go—"

They were almost level with the boat when snakes of neon-blue light began to arc along the windshield. As a flurry of sparks streamed from the wing, Renie had a frightening memory of the last Ares space mission, the one with the faulty shielding that had burned up on reentry. But this was cold fire, it seemed—foxfire, will-o'-the-wisp.

The world beyond the windshield went completely blue, then completely white. She felt a moment of still, weightless peace . . . then everything went abruptly and horribly upside down. The windows blew out and they were whirling in blackness, flipping end over end through a roaring tumult so loud that Renie could not hear her own scream.

End over end became a centrifugal blur. The roar increased, and for a few merciful instants, Renie lost consciousness. She floated back toward awareness, touched it, but did not take a firm grasp as she felt the spinning slow. The plane shuddered, then they struck down with a grinding rasp and a series of violent impacts that ended in a thump like a small explosion.

Black and cold were all around her. For long moments, she was too stunned to speak.

"Renie?"

"I'm . . . I'm here." She struggled upright. She could see nothing but a faint gleam of stars. The shape of the plane was all wrong, somehow, but she could not think about it. Things were pressing painfully against her, and something cold was creeping up her legs. "We're in water!" she shouted.

"I have Cullen. Help me to pull him out." !Xabbu's slender baboon fingers touched hers in the dark. She followed his arm to Cullen's clothing, then together they pulled the injured man up the sloping floor toward the opening and the wide night sky. The water was thigh-high and rising.

Renie dragged herself out through the crooked doorway, then leaned back and got a firm hold on Cullen before pulling him out into the waist-deep water. The air was strangely charged, tingly as in a storm, but the black sky seemed clear. The current tugged at her so that she had to brace herself as !Xabbu scrambled out, but the river was surprisingly shallow; Renie decided they had crashed on the edge of a sandbar or some other kind of underwater shelf. Whatever it was, the river remained shallow all the way to the shadowy bank. Stumbling, they carried Cullen onto land, then dropped into a heap.

Renie heard a creaking noise and looked back toward the plane, but could make out only a shapeless darkness protruding above the waters. The shadow lurched with the current, groaning with a sound more wooden than metallic, then slid off the bar and down into the waters.

"It's gone," she said quietly. She was beginning to shiver. "The plane just sank."

"But we are through into another place," !Xabbu pointed out. "Look, the big trees are gone. The river is a true size again."

"The others!" Renie suddenly remembered. "Hello! Hello! Orlando? Are you out there? It's us!"

The land all around seemed flat and empty. No answer came back except the liquid murmur of the river and a lone cricket who seemed to have been on hold until just this moment, and now began sawing determinedly at his two-note song.

Renie called again, !Xabbu joining her, but their only reply came from Cullen, who began to mumble and thrash weakly on the bank. They helped him sit up, but he did not answer their questions. In the darkness, it was hard to tell if he were truly conscious or not.

"We have to get him some help," she said. "If this is another simulation, maybe things are different here—maybe he can get offline." But she did not feel hopeful even as she said it, and wondered for whose benefit she was speaking. She and !Xabbu got Cullen to his feet, then guided him up the riverbank. At the top of the rise they found an open field, and in the distance, much to Renie's joy, a vast array of orange lights.

"A city! Maybe that's where Orlando and the rest have headed. Maybe they didn't know we were coming through with them." She got an arm around Cullen. !Xabbu took the point, a few paces ahead as they stumbled through tangled growth toward the lights. He stopped to riffle in the vegetation at their feet.

"Look, this is corn." He waved an ear in front of her face. "But all the stalks have been smashed to the ground, like an elephant or a herd of antelope have passed through here."

"Maybe it was," she said, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. "And you know something? As long as it wasn't giant bugs, I don't care what did it." She looked around. The flat fields extended away on all sides into the darkness. "But it would be nice to know where we're supposed to be, I guess."

!Xabbu, now a few dozen yards ahead, had stopped. "Whatever knocked this corn down has knocked over the fence as well," he said, "See."

Renie reached his side and let Cullen sit, which the entomologist did in swaying silence. Before them a heavy chain-link fence that looked to have been a dozen feet high now lay stretched across the broken corn like a snapped ribbon. "Well, at least we won't have to go looking for a gate." She bent to grab a rectangular metal sign, still held to the fence by one bent bolt. When she had twisted it free, she tilted it until it caught the light of the prairie moon.

"TRESPASSERS WILL BE EXECUTED'' it proclaimed in huge black letters. At the bottom, in smaller print, was written: "By Orders of His Wise Majesty, the Only King of Kansas."

 

 

"Your turn now," said Long Joseph. He stared out over Jeremiah's shoulder, eyes roving. "All them signs, no problem."

Jeremiah Dako put down his book. "Signs?"

"Yeah, those what-are-they—vital signs. Still the same. Heart going fast sometime, then slow, but everything else the same. If I watch anymore, I'm going crazy."

Despite having just been on watch for six hours, Long Joseph Sulaweyo followed Jeremiah back into the lab. As Jeremiah confirmed that all the various monitors—body temperature, respiration, filters, hydration, and nutrition—were as Long Joseph had said, Renie's father paced along the gallery, looking down on the silent V-tanks. His footsteps sent dry echoes scurrying through the cavernous room.

As Long Joseph crossed in front of him for the dozenth time, Jeremiah pulled off the headset and slapped it down on the console. "Good God, man, would you go do that somewhere else? It's bad enough I have to listen to you going pad, pad, pad around the place all night, but not here, too. Believe me, no one wishes more than I do that there was something here for you to drink."

Long Joseph turned, but more slowly than usual. His growl was a ghost of its former self. "What you doing, watching me sleep? Following me around at night? You come after me, try to get mannish, I'll whip you. That's the truth."

Jeremiah smiled despite himself. "Why is it that people like you always think that every homosexual you meet is dying to get you into bed? Believe me, old man, you are not my type."

The other glowered. "Well, that pretty damn sad for you then, because I the only one here."

Jeremiah laughed. "I promise I'll let you know if you start to look good."

"What, something wrong with me?" He seemed genuinely insulted. "You like those little soft fellows? Pretty-boys?"

"Oh, Joseph. . . ." Jeremiah shook his head. "Just go do something. Go read a book. The selection is not very good, but there are some interesting ones."

"Read books? That's like eating mielie pap—it start out bad, then it get no better." Joseph took a deep breath and let it out slowly, overburdened by the mere thought of literature. "Thank God there is some net, that's all I say. If we had no net, I would have to kill myself right now."

"You should not watch it so much. We are not supposed to use any more power than we have to—that Martine woman said it made it easier to disguise the power we were stealing if we kept it to a minimum."

"What are you talking about?" Long Joseph had found his outrage again. "We running those . . . those big tank things there." he waved at the wire-festooned sarcophagi, "and all this nonsense 'round here," his irritated swipe took in the computers, the lights, and Jeremiah himself, "and you worrying about me getting a few drops off the net?"

"I suppose you're right." Jeremiah picked up the headphones again. "Well, why don't you go watch some, then. Let me do my tests."

A minute later, Long Joseph's spare shadow fell across him again. Jeremiah waited for the other man to say something. When he did not, Jeremiah pulled off the headphones; it had been days since they had heard Renie or !Xabbu speak, in any case. "Yes? Come back for a recommendation on some reading material?"

Long Joseph scowled. "No." He was not looking at his companion, but rather at everything else, as though he tracked something which had both the power of flight and the wandering indirection of a goldfish.

"Well, what is it?"

"I don't know." Long Joseph leaned on the railing, still staring up into the four-story expanse overhead. When he spoke again, his voice had risen in pitch. "I am just . . . I don't know, man. I think I am about gone crazy."

Jeremiah slowly put the headphones down. "What do you mean?"

"It just . . . I don't know. I can't stop thinking about Renie, thinking about my boy Stephen. And how there's nothing I can do. Just wait while all this foolishness go on."

"It's not foolishness. Your daughter's trying to help her brother. Someone killed my Doctor Van Bleeck over this. It's not foolishness."

"Don't get angry. I didn't mean. . . ." Long Joseph turned to look at Jeremiah for the first time. His eyes were red-rimmed. "But me, I doing nothing. Just sit in this place all day, every day. No sun, no air." He raised his fingers to clutch his own throat. "Can't breathe, hardly. And what if my Stephen needs me? Can't do him no good in this place."

Jeremiah sighed. This was not the first time this had happened, although Long Joseph sounded more distressed than usual. "You know this is the best thing you can do for Renie and for Stephen. Don't you think I'm worried, too? My mother doesn't know where I am, I haven't visited her for two weeks. I am her only child. But this is what we have to do, Joseph."

Long Joseph turned away again."I dream about him, you know.

Dreams all strange. See him in water, drowning, I can't reach him. See him going away, up one of those escalators, don't even see his face, but I'm going down, too many people and I can't get after him." His broad hands spread, then gripped the railing. The knuckles stood up like tiny hills. "He always going away. I think he is dying."

Jeremiah could think of nothing to say.

Long Joseph sniffed, then straightened, "I only wanted a drink so I don't have to think so damn much. Think about him, think about his mother—all burned up, cryin', but her mouth wouldn't work right, so she just made this little sound, hoo, hoo. . . ." He wiped angrily at one eye. "I don't want to think about that no more. No more. That's why I wanted a drink. Because it is better than killing myself."

Jeremiah stared intently at the displays on the console in front of him, as if to look up, to turn his gaze onto the other man, would be to risk everything. At last Long Joseph turned and walked away. Jeremiah listened to his steps receding around the gallery, slow as an old-fashioned clock striking the hour, followed by a hiss and muffled thump as the elevator door closed behind him.

 

 

There are people coming, Renie." !Xabbu touched her hand. "More than a few. The voices I hear are women's voices."

Renie held her place, breathless, but the only sound in her hear-plugs was the wind soughing through broken cornstalks. Cullen staggered to a stop beside her, as volitionless as an electronic toy separated from its controlling signal.

"We have no idea who they are," she said in a whisper. "Or what this place is, except that it's some kind of imaginary United States." She wondered if they had somehow wandered back into the Atascos' alternate America. Would that be bad or good? They knew the place already, which would be a definite advantage, but the Grail Brotherhood would be scouring its every virtual nook and cranny looking for the people who had fled Temilún.

Now she could hear what !Xabbu had detected almost a minute earlier—voices approaching, and the sound of many feet tramping through the devastated cornfield,

"Get down," she whispered, and pulled Cullen onto his knees among the shielding stalks, then eased him onto his stomach with !Xabbu's help. She hoped the wounded entomologist had enough sense left to keep quiet.

The sounds grew nearer. A good-sized party was passing them, perhaps headed for the damaged fence. Renie strained to hear their conversation, but caught only a few disjointed fragments that seemed to be about the merits of treacle pudding. She also heard several references to someone named Emily.

Something rustled beside her, an almost inaudible scrape among the leaves near her head. She turned to see that !Xabbu had disappeared. Frightened, she could only lie as silently as possible while the invisible group crunched past a few meters away. Her hand rested on Cullen's back, and she did not notice for long moments that she was rubbing in circles the same way she had done many times to soothe a frightened Stephen.

The voices had just stopped two dozen meters away when !Xabbu appeared again beside her, popping out of the cornstalks so suddenly that she almost shouted in surprise.

"There are a dozen women fixing the fence," he said quietly. "And a strange thing, a mechanical man, that tells them what to do. I think they will be working there a good time, though—the section of fence they must lift is very large."

Renie tried to make sense of this. "A mechanical man? A robot, you mean?"

!Xabbu shrugged. "If robots are the things I have seen on the net, like our friend T4b, no. It is hard to explain."

Renie gave up. "It doesn't matter, I guess. Do you think we should. . . ."

!Xabbu's small hand abruptly flicked out and lightly touched her lips. By moonlight she could see little more than his silhouette, but he was frozen in a posture of alarm and attention. A moment later she heard it: something was moving toward them, swishing through the trampled vegetation with little regard for stealth.

Although they had no reason yet to suppose the inhabitants of this simulation to be hostile, Renie still felt her heart speed. A thin shape pushed through into a small clear space nearby, separated from them only by a single row of bent stalks. Moonlight revealed a very young Caucasian woman with wide dark eyes and a ragged short haircut, dressed in a crude smock.

As Renie and !Xabbu watched, she dropped into a crouch, lifted the hem of her garment, and began to urinate. As she did so, she sang tunelessly to herself. When she was certain that the puddle forming was moving away rather than toward her feet, the girl reached into the breast pocket of her smock, still humming and murmuring, and pulled out something no bigger than a grape which she lifted up above her upturned face until it caught the moonlight, then inspected with the ritualistic air of someone doing something important for the hundredth or perhaps even thousandth time.

The moon's soft light glinted for a moment on the facets. Renie gasped—a strangled little noise, but enough to startle the young woman, who hurriedly thrust the tiny golden gem back into her pocket and looked around wildly. "Who's there?" She stood up, but did not immediately retreat. "Who's there? Emily?"

Renie held her breath, trying not to make the damage any worse, but the young woman was more curious than fearful. As she scanned the surrounding vegetation, something caught her eye. She moved toward them with the caution of a cat approaching a new household appliance, then abruptly leaned forward and pulled the corn to one side, revealing Renie and the others. The girl gave a squeak of surprise and jumped back.

"Don't scream!" Renie said hurriedly. She scrambled up onto her knees and held her hands out placatingly."We won't hurt you. We're strangers here, but we won't hurt you."

The girl hesitated, poised for flight and yet with curiosity again taking the upper hand. "Why . . . why do you have that with you," she said, jutting her chin at !Xabbu. "Is it from Forest?"

Renie didn't know what would be the proper thing to say, "He's . . . he travels with me. He's friendly." She took a risk, since the girl did not seem to mean them immediate harm. "I don't know what forest you're talking about. We're strangers here—all of us." She pointed to Cullen, who was still lying on the ground, almost oblivious to what was going on. "Our friend has been hurt. Can you help us? We don't want to make any trouble."

The girl stared at Cullen, then darted a worried glance at !Xabbu before returning to Renie. "You don't live here? And you're not from Forest? Not from the Works either?" She shook her head at the wonder of it all. "More strangers—that's two times just during Darkancold!"

Renie spread her hands. "I don't understand any of that. We are from somewhere else entirely, I'm pretty sure. Can you help us?"

The girl started to say something, then tilted her head. In the distance, voices were calling. "They're looking for me." She wrinkled her forehead, pondering."Follow us back. Don't let anyone else see you. You're my secret." A sly look stole over her face, and she suddenly looked far more a child than an adult. "Wait at the edge of the corn when we get there. I'll come back and find you." She took a step away down the row, then turned back to stare in gleeful fascination. "More strangers! I'll come find you."

"What's your name?" Renie asked.

"Emily, of course." The young woman made a clumsy mock-curtsey, then laughed, mischievous, strangely febrile.

"But you were calling for Emily when you heard us—your friend, someone." The voices were getting louder. Renie stepped back into the shadows and raised her whispering voice so it would carry. "Is your friend named Emily, too?

"Of course." Confused, the girl narrowed her eyes as she backed toward those who were searching for her. "Silly. Everyone is named Emily."

 

They did not wait long at the edge of the cornfield. Renie had scarcely had sufficient time to note the huge factory silos and jerry-built buildings, like a township on the industrial outskirts of Johannesburg, and to worry again about Cullen's condition, when Emily's slender shadow crept back across the open dirt toward them.

!Xabbu reappeared at Renie's side at just that moment, but had no time to tell her what he had seen on his brief scouting expedition before the girl reached them, talking in a quiet but nonstop babble of excitement.

"I knew it would be a day for things to happen today, I knew it! Come on now, follow me. We had treacle pudding, see, two days in a row! And it wasn't Crismustreat, because we had that already, just a few days ago—we always count the days in Darkancold until Crismustreat, of course, but I can't remember how many days it's been since." The girl, showing little more than basic concern for stealth, led them across a vast yard littered with the angular shapes of parked machinery. She took only a short breath before continuing. "But there it was, treacle pudding again! And the happymusic wasn't that falalala, so I knew it wasn't Crismustreat come around again, and anyway it would have been much too early. And then we had that incoming—terrible bad, that one was—and I thought maybe that was the strange thing that was going to happen today, but it was you! Think of that!"

Renie was able to understand very little, but knew there was probably vital information to be had. "Where did you get that thing from? That little . . . gem or jewel?"

Emily turned and looked at her, eyes squinty with suspicion. A moment later, as if the wind had changed, she seemed to decide the newcomers were trustworthy. "My pretty thing. He gave it to me. He was my other surprise, but he was the first one. You're the second one. And treacle pudding twice this month!"

"Who was . . . he?"

"The other stranger, silly. I told you. The strange henry."

"Henry? That was his name?"

Their guide sighed, full of theatrical suffering. "They're all named Henry."

Emily, it became clear at last, was actually Emily 22813. All the women who lived and worked in this place were called Emily—or "emily," since it was used as a descriptive term for a woman as well. And all the men were henrys. Emily 22813 and her workmates—Renie guessed from the size of this factory farm that there must be hundreds here—spent their days planting and tending beans and corn and tomatoes.

"Because that's what the king wants us to do," was Emily's only explanation of why she and her fellows were working in what seemed to Renie to be slave-labor conditions.

The place itself, as far as Renie could decipher, was named "Em Rell," which she guessed was derived in some way from the name for the women: She could not come up with any other associations with the United States in general or to Kansas, a place she knew of only as being part of the farming heartland of North America.

Em Rell, or whatever it was, seemed strangely deserted. None of Emily's coworkers were to be seen, no sentries moved among the stationary tractors and haphazard stacks of empty crates. Unimpeded, Renie and the others passed into the glow of the orange lights that were strung on every pole and wire, and across the great yard, until Emily stopped them in front of a barn, a huge structure that dwarfed even Renie's outsized former home, the Durban civic shelter. It looked like a jet hangar surrounded by drifts of grain dust. "There's a place in here where you can sleep." Emily pointed them to iron stairs which clung to one outside wall. "Up there, in the loft. No one ever looks."

!Xabbu scampered up the ladder, popped in and out of the un-screened window, then swiftly descended. "It is full of equipment," he said. "It should be a good place to hide."

With Emily's help, they boosted the sagging Cullen up the steps. As they maneuvered him through the wide loading window, Emily said "I have to go now. We have a little sleep-extra tomorrow, because of the fence. If I can, I'll come back to see you in the morning. Good-bye, strangers!"

Renie watched the lithe form quickstep down the stairs and vanish into the shadows beside one of the long, low barracks. A side door opened and closed as Emily slid back inside. A moment later a strange, rounded shape appeared at the far end of the barracks. Renie ducked back into the windowframe, where the moonlight could not reach her, and watched the figure totter past. It made a faint whirring noise, but she could see little more of it than a pale glow of eyes before it rounded the corner of the barracks and was gone.

The loft itself, although it stretched across only the shorter span of the barn, was longer than the street on which Renie lived in Pinetown and full of potential sleeping places. They settled in a protected niche close to the window and the stairs. !Xabbu found long burlap sacks stuffed with heavy aprons; a few of these sacks, laid out behind a pile of anonymous boxes which provided a fence between their resting place and the window, made a good bed for Cullen; the young scientist's eyes were already closed as they dragged him onto it. They pulled out more sacks and made themselves as comfortable as they could. Renie would have loved to puzzle over the day's happenings with !Xabbu, but sleep was tugging hard at her, so she let it drag her down.

 

Emily came as promised, earlier in the morning than Renie would have preferred. As she sat listening to the young woman's chatter, Renie decided that she understood what people meant when they said they would be willing to sell their souls: she would have traded that article away in a heartbeat for one cup of decent coffee and a couple of cigarettes.

I should have had Jeremiah put caffeine into the dripline at decent intervals, she thought sourly. Well, next time. . . .

The cup of liquid Emily had smuggled out of the workers' cafeteria—"brekfusdrink" she called it, apparently all one word—was gaggingly and most definitely not coffee. It had an odd chemical taste, like unsweetened cough syrup, and even the small sip Renie took before hurriedly handing it back made her heart race. She reminded herself that the girl meant it as an act of kindness.

After Emily had breathlessly recounted all the events of their discovery and rescue the night before, with just as much guileless enthusiasm as if Renie and !Xabbu had not experienced them firsthand, she told them she would be released from her work detail early today to see the "medical henrys"—a regular checkup that from her brief description sounded more like veterinary medicine than the sort Renie was used to—and that she would try then to slip in and visit them. Outside, the grating, scratchy recordings of what Emily called "happymusic" had begun booming from the compound's loudspeakers. Already chafing at the idea of spending an entire day stuck in the loft and subjected to that din, Renie questioned the girl about this place to which the river had delivered them, but Emily's vocabulary was very basic and her viewpoint narrow. Renie garnered little new information.

"We don't even know if Orlando and the others made it through," Renie said crossly after the young woman had left."We don't know anything. We're just flying blind." This brought Martine to mind, and gave her such a sharp and surprising sense of regret at having lost contact—after all, she hardly even knew the French woman—that she missed part of what !Xabbu was saying.

". . . look for this Jonas man. And we must believe that Sellars will find us again. He is without doubt very clever."

"Without doubt. But what is his angle, anyway? He seems to have gone to a lot of trouble just to save the world."

!Xabbu frowned for a moment, puzzled, then saw the irritated joke in her words. He smiled. "Is that what all city-people would think, Renie? That someone would never do something unless for himself or herself to profit?"

"No, of course not. But this whole thing is so strange, so complicated. I just don't think we can afford to take anyone's motives for granted."

"Just so. And perhaps Sellars is close to someone who has been harmed by the Grail Brotherhood. No person who is traveling with us has explained all the reasons they are here."

"Except you and me." She took a deep breath. "Well, actually, I'm not entirely sure about you. I'm here for my brother. But you never even met him, not really." She realized it sounded like she was questioning his motives. "You've done far more than any friend should have to, !Xabbu. And I am grateful. I'm sorry I'm in such a foul mood this morning."

He shrugged gracefully. "There is no fence around friendship, I do not think."

The moment hung. !Xabbu at last turned to see to Cullen, who had not yet shown any sign of waking. Renie moved to the window to wrestle her demons in silence.

When she had arranged a few of the boxes nearby so she could look out with little chance of being seen, she settled in, chin propped on fists. Below her, the vast compound had swung into its working day. The happymusic gurgled on, so limpingly out of time it made it difficult to think clearly; Renie wondered if that were one of its purposes. No men were in sight, but herds of slow-walking women, all in near-identical smocks, were being led back and forth across the compound's open space at regular intervals, each band under the guardianship of one of the strange mechanical men. !Xabbu had been right—they did not resemble any of the robots she had seen on the net, either the real-world industrial automata or the gleaming human duplicates on display in science fiction dramas. These seemed more like something from two centuries earlier, roly-poly little metal men with windup keys in their backs and rakish tin mustachios anchored to their permanently puzzled, infantile faces.

The novelty value of what was going on below soon waned. The fat white sun rose higher. The loft began to grow uncomfortably warm, and the air outside turned hazy and as refractive as water. In the distance, shimmering now only because of the scorching sun, was the city whose lights they had seen the night before. It was hard to make out details, but it seemed flatter than it should for such a size, as though some plains-striding giant had topped it as offhandedly as a boy decapitating a row of dandelions. But even so, it was the only thing that gave the horizon any shape; except for a suburb-wide patch of pipes and scaffolding nestled against the city's outskirts, apparently a gargantuan gasworks, the flat-lands stretched away on all other sides, a quilt of yellow-gray dirt and green fields, devoid of verticality. It was fully as depressing as the worst squalor to be found in South Africa.

What's the point of all that amazing technology if you build something like this? She was doomed this morning, it seemed, to a succession of miserable thoughts.

Renie wondered if they should head for the city, depressing as it looked. There was little to be learned on this vegetable plantation, or at least Emily did not seem capable of telling them much—surely they could get better information in the distant metropolis. The only duties they could remotely claim were to find their companions and look for Sellars' escaped Grail prisoner, and they were doing neither at this moment, stuck in a loft which was rapidly turning into an oven.

She scowled, bored and unhappy. She didn't want coffee anymore. She craved a cold beer. But she would murder for a cigarette. . . .

 

Despite the day's grim and monotonous start, two things happened in the afternoon, neither of them expected.

A little past noon, when the air seemed to have become so densely hot that inhaling it was like breathing soup, Cullen died.

Or at least that seemed to be what had happened. !Xabbu called her over from her perch by the window, his voice more confused than alarmed. The entomologist had responded very little all morning, sliding in and out of a deep doze, but now his sim was inert, curled in the same fetal position in which he had last been sleeping, but stiff as the exoskeletal corpse of a spider.

"He's dropped offline at last," Renie said flatly. She wasn't certain she believed it. The rigidness of the sim was disturbing: propped on its back, unnaturally bowed, it looked like the remains of some creature dead and dried by the roadside. Their fruitless examination over, she eased the sim back into the position in which it and the real Cullen had finally ceased working in tandem.

!Xabbu shook his head, but said nothing. He seemed far more disturbed by the loss of Cullen than she was, and sat for a long time with one baboon hand resting on the sim's rigid chest, singing quietly.

Well, we don't know, she told herself. We don't know for sure. He could be offline now, having a cool drink and wondering about the whole strange experience. In a way, it wasn't that different from RL, really. When you were gone, you left no certainty for those who stayed behind, only an unsatisfactory choice between blind faith or finality.

Or he could have just lain here next to us while his real body wasted away from shock and thirst—until it killed him. He said that he was going to be stuck in his lab until someone came in, didn't he?

It was too much to think about just now—in fact, it was getting harder to think every moment. The oppressive heat had continued to mount, but now there was suddenly a new, stranger heaviness to the steamy air, with an electrical tingling quality—almost a sea-smell, but as if from an ocean that just happened to be boiling.

Renie left !Xabbu still keening quietly over Cullen's sim. As she reached the window, a curtain of shadow fell on it, as though someone had put a hand over the sun. The sky, a withering flat blue only moments before, had just turned several shades darker. A stiff wind was stirring the dust of the compound into erratic swirls.

The four or five convoys of emilys down below stopped as one, and stood staring open-mouthed at the sky while their mechanical overseers whirred and ratcheted at them to move. Renie was momentarily revolted by the women's passive, bovine faces, then reminded herself that these were slaves, as many of her own people had once been. They were not to blame for what had been done to them.

Then one of the emilys suddenly shrieked "Incoming!" and broke from her flock, hurrying toward the apparent security of the barracks. At least half the others began to run also, scattering in all directions, screaming, some knocking each other down in panicked flight. Puzzled, Renie looked up.

The sky was suddenly darker, and horribly alive.

At the center of the mass of thunderheads which had sprung from nowhere and now clustered almost directly above the compound, a vast black snake of cloud began to writhe. As Renie gaped, it jerked back like a tugged string, then stretched down again for a moment until it almost touched the top of one of the silos. The wind was swiftly growing stronger; smocks drying on the long clotheslines began to whip and snap with a noise like gunshots. Some of the garments tore free of the line and flew, as though by snatched by invisible hands. The very air shifted, all within seconds, hissing at first before deepening into a roar: Renie's ears spiked with pain and then popped as the pressure changed. All around her the light turned a faint, putrid green. Wind howled even faster across the yard, bringing a horizontal blizzard of grain dust.

"Renie!" !Xabbu called from behind her, surprised and fearful, barely audible above the growing roar. "What is happening. . . ?"

Lightning shimmered along the thunderheads as the black snake contorted again, an idiot dance between earth and cloud that looked like ecstasy or pain. The word that had been at the back of Renie's head for half a minute suddenly leaped forward.

Tornado.

The funnel of air writhed once more, then reached down, plunging earthward like the dark finger of God. One of the silos exploded.

Renie flung herself back from the window as a hailstorm of debris clattered along the side of the barn. Bits of roof tile skimmed past her head and shattered against the packing crates. The sound of the wind was dense and deafening. Renie crawled until she felt !Xabbu's hand touch hers. He was shouting, but she could not hear him. They scrambled on their hands and knees toward the rear of the loft, looking for shelter, but all the while something was trying to suck them back toward the open window. Stacks of boxes were vibrating, walking toward the window in tiny, waddling steps. Outside, there was blackness and blur. One of the piles of crates tottered, then tipped over. The boxes bounced once, then were lifted invisibly and yanked through the open window.

"Downstairs!" Renie screamed into the baboon's ear.

She could not tell if !Xabbu heard her above the jet-turbine wail of the tornado, but he tugged her toward the stairwell leading down to the barn floor. The crates had been pulled to the window and were being sucked out. For long instants a cluster of them would stick and the wind in the loft would drop; then the clot would shift loose and spring out into the howling darkness and the wind would do its best to suck Renie and !Xabbu back again.

Grain sacks and tarpaulins flapped toward them like angry ghosts as they half-crawled, half-tumbled down the stairs. The suction was less on the barn floor, but static electricity sparked from the tractors and other equipment, and the great doors leading to the fields were pulsing in and out like lungs. The building shuddered down to its very foundation.

Renie did not remember afterward how they made it across the floor, through the multi-ton pieces of farm equipment shifting like nervous cattle, through the buzzard of loose paper and burlap and dust. They found an open space in the floor, a mechanic's bay for the tractors, and slid over the edge to drop to the oily concrete a few feet below. They huddled against the inner wall and listened as something monstrously powerful and dark and angry did its best to uproot the massive barn and break it to pieces.

It might have been an hour or ten minutes.

"It's getting quieter," Renie called, and realized she was barely shouting. "I think it's going past."

!Xabbu cocked his head. "I will know that smell, next time, and we will run to a hiding place. I have never seen such a thing." The winds were now merely loud. "But it happened so fast. 'Storm,' I thought, and then it was upon us. I have never seen weather change so swiftly."

"It did happen fast." Renie sat up a little straighter, easing her back. She was, she was only now realizing, bruised and sore all over. "It wasn't natural. One moment, clear skies, then—whoosh!"

They waited until the sound of the winds had died completely, then climbed out of the bay. Even in the protected ground floor of the barn, there had been damage: the huge loading doors had been knocked askew, so that a triangle of sky—now blue again—gleamed through the gap. One huge earth grader, in a space nearest to the loft, had been tumbled onto its side like a discarded toy; others had been dragged several yards toward the upstairs window, and lighter debris was strewn everywhere.

Renie was surveying the damage in wonder when a shape slipped in through the damaged loading doors.

"You're here!" Emily shrieked. She ran to Renie and began patting her arms and shoulders. "I was so frightened!"

"It's all right. . . ." was all Renie had time to say before Emily interrupted.

"We have to run! Run away! Braincrime! Bodycrime!" She grabbed Renie's wrist and began tugging her toward the doors.

"What are you talking about? !Xabbu!"

!Xabbu loped forward and for a moment there was a strange tug-of-war between the baboon and the young woman, with Renie the thing being tugged. Emily let go and began patting at Renie again, bouncing up and down with anxiety. "But we have to run away!"

"Are you joking? It must be chaos out there. You're safe with us. . . ."

"No, they're after me!"

"Who?"

As if in answer, a line of wide, dark shapes appeared in the doorway. One mechanical man after another stumped through the door, all surprisingly swift, and all buzzing like beehives, until half a dozen had fanned out into a wide circle.

"Them," said Emily redundantly. "The tiktoks."

Renie and !Xabbu both thought of the stairs to the loft window, but when they turned they found that mechanical men entering from another part of the barn had already flanked them. Renie feinted back toward the loading doors, but another one of the clockwork creatures stood wedged in the gap there, cutting off escape.

Renie fought down her fury. The stupid girl had led her pursuers right to them, and now they were all trapped. Any one of the mechanical guards had to weigh at least three or four times as much as Renie did, and they also had the advantage of numbers and position. There was nothing to do except hope that whatever happened next would be better. She stood and waited as the buzzing shapes closed in. A foam-lined claw closed on her wrist with surprising delicacy.

"Bodycrime," it said with a voice like an ancient scratched recording. The black glass eyes were even emptier than those of the praying mantis had been. "Accompany us, please."

The tiktoks led them out of the barn into a scene like a medieval painting of hell. The skies had cleared, and once more the sun beat down. Bodies of dead and injured humans, mostly women, lay everywhere in the harsh light. Walls had collapsed, smashing those huddling against them under rubble. Roofs had torn free and swept down the street like mile-a-minute glaciers, grinding everything in their path to jelly and dust.

Several of the tiktoks had been destroyed as well. One seemed to have been dropped from a great height; its remains lay just outside the barn, a sunburst of shattered metal plates and clock-springs thirty feet wide. At the point of impact, part of its torso still held together, including one arm; the hand opened and closed erratically, like the pincer of a dying lobster, as they were marched past.

It did not matter that Renie believed most if not all of the human victims to be animated puppets. The destruction was heartrending. She hung her head and watched her own feet tramping through the settling dust.

The tornado had missed the farming camp's railyard, although Renie could see the track of its destruction only a few hundred yards away. She and !Xabbu and Emily 22813 were herded onto a boxcar. Their captors stayed with them, which gave Renie pause. Clearly there were fewer functioning tiktoks, or whatever they were called, than there had been half an hour earlier: that six of them should be delegated to guard the two of them—and Emily, too, although Renie doubted that the girl meant much in the larger scheme of things—must mean their crime was considered serious indeed.

Or perhaps just strange, she hoped. The mechanical men were clearly not great thinkers. Perhaps the presence of strangers was so unusual in their simulation that they were having a bit of organizational panic.

The train pulled out of the railyard, rattling and chugging. Renie and !Xabbu sat on the slatted wood floor of the boxcar, waiting for whatever would happen next. Emily at first would only pace back and forth under the dull black eyes of the tiktoks, wringing her hands and weeping, but Renie persuaded her at last to sit down beside them. The girl was distraught, and made almost no sense, mixing bits of babble about the tornado, which she seemed hardly to have noticed, with mysterious ramblings about her medical examination, which she seemed to think was the reason she was in trouble.

She probably said something about us while she was being checked, Renie decided. She said the doctors were "henrys"—human men. They're probably a bit more observant than these metal thugs.

The train clacked along. Light flickered on the boxcar's inner wall. Despite her apprehension, Renie found herself nodding. !Xabbu sat beside her, doing something strange with his fingers that at first completely puzzled her. It was only when she woke from a brief doze, and for a moment could not focus her eyes correctly, that she realized he was making string figures with no string.

The trip lasted only a little more than an hour, then they were hauled out of the car by their captors and into a bustling and far bigger railyard. The large buildings of the city Renie had seen earlier loomed directly overhead, and now she could see that they had seemed strange because many of the tallest were only stumps, scorched and shattered by something that must have been even more powerful than the tornado she and !Xabbu had experienced.

The tiktoks led them across the yard, through the gawking throng of worker-henrys in overalls, then loaded Renie and her companions onto the back of a truck. The flatbed took them not into the heart of the blasted city, but along its outskirts to a huge two-story building which seemed entirely made from concrete. They were taken from the truck and into a loading bay, then led into a wide industrial elevator. When they were all inside, the elevator started down without a button being pushed.

The elevator descended for what seemed like minutes, until the soft buzzing of the tiktoks in the elevator car began to make Renie claustrophobic. Emily had been weeping again since they had reached the loading dock, and Renie feared that if it went on much longer she would start screaming at the girl and not be able to stop. As if sensing her distress, !Xabbu reached up and wrapped his long fingers around hers.

The doors opened into blackness, unclarified by the elevator's dim light. Renie's neck prickled. When she and the others did not move, the tiktoks prodded them forward. Renie went slowly, testing the ground with a leading toe, certain that at any moment she would find herself standing at the edge of some terrible pit. Then, when they had taken perhaps two dozen paces, the sound of the tiktoks suddenly changed. Renie whirled in panic. The mechanical men, round shadows with glowing eyes, were backing toward the elevator in unison. As they stepped in and the doors closed, all light went with them.

Emily was sobbing louder now, just beside Renie's left ear.

"Oh, shut up!" she snapped. "!Xabbu, where are you?"

As she felt the reassuring touch of his hand again, she became aware for the first time of the background noise, a rhythmic wet squelching. Before she could do more than register this oddity, a light bloomed in the darkness ahead of them. She began to say something, then stopped in astonishment.

The figure before them lolled in a huge chair, which Renie at first thought was carved like an ornate papal throne; it was only as the greenish light grew stronger, pooled on the seated figure, that she could see the chair was festooned with all kinds of tubes, bladders, bottles, pulsing bellows, and clear pipes full of bubbling liquids.

Most of these pipes and tubes seemed to be connected to the figure on the chair, but if they were meant to give it strength, they were not doing their job very well: the thing with the misshapen head seemed barely capable of movement. It turned toward them slowly, rolling its head on the back of the chair. One of the eyes on its masklike face was fixed open as if in surprise; the other gleamed with sharp and cynical interest. A shock of what looked like straw protruded from the top of the head and hung limply down onto the pale, doughy face.

"So you are the strangers." The voice squelched like rubber boots in mud. It took a deep breath; bellows flapped and farted as it filled its lungs. "It is a pity you have been caught up in all this."

"Who are you?" Renie demanded. "Why have you kidnapped us? We are just. . . ."

"You are just in the way, I am afraid," the thing said. "But I suppose I'm being impolite. Welcome to Emerald, formerly New Emerald City. I am Scarecrow—the king, for my sins." It made a liquid noise of disgust. Something appeared from the shadows near its feet and scampered back and forth, changing tubes. For a moment, in her numbed astonishment, Renie thought it was !Xabbu, then she noticed that this monkey had tiny wings. "And now I have to deal with this wretched young creature," the shape on the chair went on, extending a quivering gloved finger at Emily, "who has committed the worst of all bodycrimes—and at a very inconvenient time, too. I'm very disappointed in you, child."

Emily burst into fresh sobs.

"It was her you were after?" Renie was trying to make sense of this. Emerald City—Scarecrow—Oz! That old movie! "What are you going to do with us, then?"

"Oh, I'll have to execute you, I'm afraid." The Scarecrow's sagging face curled in a look of mock-sadness. "Terrible, I suppose, but I can't have you running around causing trouble. You see, you've showed up in the middle of a war." He looked down and flicked the winged monkey with a finger. "Weedle, be a good boy and change my filters, too, will you?"

CHAPTER 10
Small Ghosts

NETFEED/SPORTS: Tiger on a Leash

(visual: Castro practicing with other Tiger players)

VO: Elbatross Castro is only the latest player with a troubled offcourt history to agree to a tracking implant as part of the terms of his huge contract—a device that lets his team know where Castro is at any moment and even what he's eating, drinking, smoking, or inhaling—but he may be the first to have used jamming equipment on the implant, thus raising a difficult legal issue for the IBA and his team, the Baton Rouge GenFoods Bayou Tigers, last year's North American Conference champions. . . .

 

While her mother was looking at some kind of fake person, Christabel turned away from her and scrunched up against the mirror. Wearing her dark glasses indoors, she thought she looked sort of like Hannah Mankiller from the Inner Spies show. "Rumpelstiltskin," she said as loud as she dared. "Rumpelstiltskin!"

"Christabel, what are you doing, mumbling into the mirror? I can't understand a word you're saying." Her mother looked at her as the fake person continued to talk. Another person in a hurry walked right through the fake woman, who went all wobbly for a moment, like a puddle when you stepped in it, but still did not stop talking.

"Nothing." Christabel stuck out her lower lip. Her mother made a face back at her and turned to listen to the hologram some more.

"I don't like you wearing those indoors," Mommy said over her shoulder. "Those dark glasses. You'll bump into something."

"No, I won't."

"All right, all right." Her mother took her hand and led her farther into the store. "You must be having one of those difficult phases."

Christabel guessed that Difficult Faces meant sticking out your lip, but it might also mean not taking off your Storybook Sunglasses. Mister Sellars had said her parents mustn't find out about the special glasses. "My face isn't difficult," she said, trying to make things better. "I'm just listening to The Frog Prince."

Mommy laughed. "Okay. You win."

 

Normally, Christabel loved to go to Seawall Center. It was always fun just to get in the car and go out of the base, but the Seawall Center was almost her favorite place in the world. Only the first time, when she had been really little, had she ever not loved it. That time she had thought they were going to the "See Wol Center." "Wol" was the name Owl called himself in Winnie-the-Pooh, Christabel's favorite stories, and she had waited all day to see Owl. It was only when she started crying on the way back about not seeing him that Mommy told her what the name really was.

The next time it was much better, and all the other times. Daddy always thought it was dumb to drive all the way there, three quarters of an hour each way—he always said that, too, "It's three quarters of an hour each way!"—when you could get anything you wanted either at the PX or just by ordering, but Mommy said he was wrong. "Only a man would want to go through life without ever feeling a piece of fabric or looking at stitches before buying something," she told him. And every time she said that, Daddy would make a Difficult Face of his own.

Christabel loved her Daddy, but she knew that her mother was right. It was better than the PX or even the net. The Seawall Center was almost like an amusement park—in fact, there was an amusement park right inside it. And a round theater where you could see net shows made bigger than her whole house. And cartoon characters that walked or flew along next to you, telling jokes and singing songs, and fake people that appeared and disappeared, and exciting shows happening in the store windows, and all kinds of other things. And there were more stores in the Seawall Center than Christabel could ever have believed there were in the whole world. There were stores that only sold lipstick, and stores that only sold Nanoo Dresses like Ophelia Weiner had, and even one store that sold nothing but old-fashioned dolls. Those dolls didn't move, or talk, or anything, but they were beautiful in a special way. In fact, the store with the dolls was Christabel's favorite, although in a way it was kind of scary, too—all those eyes that watched you as you came in through the door, all those quiet faces. For her next birthday her mother had even told her she could pick out one of the old-fashioned dolls to be her very own, and even though it was still a long time until her birthday, just coming to Seawall Center to look and wonder which doll she should pick would normally have been the definite best part of the week, so good that she wouldn't have been able to get to sleep last night. But today she was very unhappy, and Mister Sellars wouldn't answer her, and she was really afraid of that strange boy, whom she had seen again last night outside her window.

 

Christabel and her mother were in a store that sold nothing but things for barbecues when the Frog Prince stopped talking and Mister Sellars' voice took his place. Mommy was looking for something for Daddy. Christabel walked a little way into the store, where her mother could still see her, and pretended to be looking at a big metal thing that looked more like a rocketship from a cartoon than a barbecue.

"Christabel? Can you hear me?"

"Uh-huh. I'm in a store."

"Can you talk to me now?"

"Uh-uh. Kind of."

"Well, I see you've tried to reach me a couple of times. Is it important?"

"Yes." She wanted to tell him everything. The words felt like crawly ants in her mouth, and she wanted to spit them all out, about how the boy had watched her, about why she hadn't told Mister Sellars, because it was her fault she couldn't cut the fence by herself. She wanted to tell him everything, but a man from the store was walking toward her. "Yes, important."

"Very well. Can it be tomorrow? I am very busy with something right now, little Christabel."

"Okay."

"How about 1500 hours? You can come after school. Is that a good time?"

"Yeah. I have to go." She pulled off the Storybook Sunglasses just as the Frog Prince got his voice back.

The store man, who was pudgy and had a mustache, and looked like Daddy's friend Captain Perkins except not so old, showed her a big smile. "Hello, little girl. That's a pretty good-looking machine, isn't it? The Magna-Jet Admiral, that's state of the art. Food never touches the barbecue. Going to get that for your Daddy?"

"I have to go," she said, and turned and walked back toward her mother.

"You have a nice day, now," said the man.

 

Christabel pedaled as fast as she could. She didn't have much time, she knew. She had told her mother that she had to water her tree after school, and Mommy had said she could, but she had to be home by fifteen-thirty.

All of Miss Karman's class had planted trees in the China Friendship Garden. They weren't trees really, not yet, just little green plants, but Miss Karman said that if they watered them, they would definitely be trees some day. Christabel had given hers extra water on the way to school today so that she could go see Mister Sellars.

She pedaled so hard the tires of her bicycle hummed. She looked both ways at every corner, not because she was checking for cars, like her parents had taught her (although she did look for cars) but because she was making sure that the terrible boy wasn't anywhere around. He had told her to bring him food, and she had brought some fruit or some cookies a couple of times and left it, and twice she had saved her lunch from school, but she couldn't go all the way to the little cement houses every day without Mommy asking a lot of questions, so she was sure he was going to come through her window some night and hurt her. She even had nightmares about him rubbing dirt on her, and when he was done, Mommy and Daddy didn't know who she was any more and wouldn't let her in the house, and she had to live outside in the dark and the cold.

When she reached the place where the little cement houses were, it was already three minutes after 15:00 on her Otterland watch. She parked her bike in a different place, by a wall far away from the little houses, then walked really quiet through the trees so she could come in on a different side. Even though Prince Pikapik was holding 15:09 between his paws when she looked at her watch again, she stopped every few steps to look around and listen. She hoped that since she hadn't brought that Cho-Cho boy any food for three days, he would be somewhere else, trying to find something to eat, but she still looked everywhere in case he was hiding in the trees.

Since she didn't see him or hear anything except some birds, she went to the door of the eighth little cement house, counting carefully as she did every time. She unlocked the door and then pulled it closed behind her, although the dark was as scary as her dreams about the dirty boy. It took so long for her hands to find the other door that she was almost crying, then suddenly it pulled open and red light came out.

"Christabel? There you are, my dear. You're late—I was beginning to worry about you."

Mister Sellars was sitting in his chair at the bottom of the metal ladder, a small square red flashlight in his hand. He looked just the same as always, long thin neck, burned-up skin, big kind eyes. She started to cry.

"Little Christabel, what's this? Why are you crying, my dear? Here, come down and talk to me." He reached up his trembly hands to help her down the ladder. She hugged him. Feeling his thin body like a skeleton under his clothes made her cry harder. He patted her head and said "Now then, now then," over and over.

When she could get her breath, she wiped her nose. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's all my fault."

His voice was very soft. "What's all your fault, my young friend? What could you possibly have done that should be worth such suffering?"

"Oye, weenit, what you got here?"

Christabel jumped and let out a little scream. She turned and saw the dirty boy kneeling at the top of the ladder, and it scared her so much she wet her pants like a baby.

"Quien es, this old freak?" he asked. "Tell, mija—who this?" Christabel could not talk. Her bad dreams were happening in the real world. She felt pee running down her legs and began to cry again. The boy had a flashlight, too, and he shined it up and down Mister Sellars, who was staring back at him with his mouth hanging open and moving it up and down a little, but with no words coming out."

"Well, don't matter, mu'chita," the boy said. He had something in his other hand, something sharp. "No importa, seen? I got you now. I got you now."

 

 

Of course I understand being careful," said Mr. Fredericks. He held out his arms, staring at the green surgical scrubs he had been forced to don. "But I still think it's all a bit much." Jaleel Fredericks was a large man, and when a frown moved across his dark-skinned face it looked like a front of bad weather.

Catur Ramsey put on a counterpoint expression of solicitude. The Frederickses were not his most important clients, but they were close to it, and young enough to be worth years of good business. "It's not really that different from what we have to go through to visit Salome. The hospital's just being careful."

Fredericks frowned again, perhaps at the use of his daughter's full name. Seeing the frown, his wife Enrica smiled and shook her head, as though someone's wayward child had just spilled food. "Well," she said, and then seemed to reach the end of her inspiration.

"Where the hell are they, anyway?"

"They phoned and said they'd be a few minutes late," Ramsey said quickly, and wondered why he was acting as though he were mediating a summit. "I'm sure. . . ."

The door to the meeting room swung open, admitting two people, also dressed in hospital scrubs. "I'm sorry we're late," the woman said. Ramsey thought she was pretty, but he also thought that, with her dark-ringed eyes and hesitant manner, she looked like she'd been through hell. Her slight, bearded husband did not have the genetic good start his wife enjoyed; he just looked exhausted and miserable.

"I'm Vivien Fennis," the woman said, brushing her long hair back from her face before reaching a hand out to Mrs. Fredericks.

"This is my husband, Conrad Gardiner. We really appreciate you coming."

After everyone, including Ramsey, had shaken hands, and the Gardiners—as Vivien insisted they be called for the sake of brevity—had sat down, Jaleel Fredericks remained standing. "I'm still not sure why we're actually here." He waved an impatient hand at his wife before she could say anything. "I know your son and my daughter were friends, and I know that something similar has happened to him, to . . . Orlando. But what I don't understand is why we're here. What couldn't we have accomplished over the net?"

"We'll get to that." Conrad Gardiner spoke a little sharply, as though he felt a need to establish his own place in the hierarchy. Fredericks had that effect on people, Ramsey had noticed. "But not here. That's part of why we wanted to see you in person. We'll go outside somewhere."

"We'll go to a restaurant. We don't want to say anything about it here," Vivien added.

"What on earth are you talking about?" Fredericks' thunder-head frown had returned. "You have lost me completely."

Ramsey, who was practicing the silence that he generally found useful, was intrigued but also worried. The Gardiners had seemed quite level-headed in the few conversations he'd had with them, deadly serious in their desire to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Fredericks in person, but also secretive. He had trusted them on gut instinct. If they turned out to be conspiracy-mongers of some kind, UFO cultists or Social Harmonists, he would quickly begin to regret his own role in persuading his clients to fly out from Virginia.

"I know we sound mad," said Vivien, and laughed. "We wouldn't blame you for thinking it. But just wait until we've all had a chance to talk, please. If you still think so, we'll pay for your trip here."

Mr. Fredericks bristled. "Money is not the issue. . . ."

"Jaleel, honey," his wife said. "Don't be stuffy."

"But first," Vivien continued as though the tiny sitcom had not happened, "we'd like you to come see Orlando."

"But . . ." Enrica Fredericks was taken aback. "But isn't he . . . in a coma?"

"If that's what it is." Conrad's grin was bitter. "We've been. . . ." He broke off to stare at something in the corner, where the coats had been piled in a heap on the one unused chair. The stare went on too long; the others turned, too. Ramsey couldn't see anything there. Gardiner rubbed at his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Sorry, I just thought. . . ." He let out a long breath. "It's a long story. I thought I saw a bug. A very particular bug. Don't ask—it will take too much time, and I'd rather explain later. It'll be easier if you just go on thinking we're crazy for now."

Ramsey was amused. His clients exchanged a covert look between themselves, then Mrs. Fredericks stole a glance in Ramsey's direction. He gave a little head-shake, silently saying don't worry about it. In his not-inconsiderable experience with the deranged, the genuine loonies were not usually the ones who suggested that what they were doing must seem insane.

"You don't have to come with us when we go see Orlando," said Vivien, rising. "But we'd like you to. We'll only stay a minute—I'm going to be spending the evening with him after we've all finished."

As they moved out into the hospital corridor, the women fell in beside one another, the men paired up behind them, and Ramsey took up the rear, this shielded position enabling him to forget his dignity long enough to try a subtle skating motion on the paper hospital shoes.

He hadn't been getting out enough, there was no question about it. Ramsey knew that if he didn't make a point of doing a little less work, he would wind up at the least shocking some client by bursting into inappropriate laughter in a serious meeting, as he'd almost done a few times in the last weeks, or at worst pitching over dead at his desk some day, as his father had done. Another decade—less, now—and he'd be in his fifties. Men still died from heart attacks in their fifties, no matter how many modern medications and cellular retrainers and cardiotherapies there might be.

But that was the thing about work, wasn't it? It always seemed like something you could just put down, or trim the excess from, or ignore if things got bad enough. But when you got up close to it, things were different. It wasn't simply work, it was the tortuous mess of the DeClane Estate, which had become a dreadful gallows soap-opera that had paralyzed three generations. Or it was old Perlmutter trying to win back the company he had built and then lost in a boardroom mugging. Or Gentian Tsujimoto, a widow trying to win compensation for her husband's poorly-treated illness. Or, as in the case of the Frederickses, it was an attempt to make some kind of legal sense out of their daughter's stunningly mysterious illness, if only because some sense was better than no sense at all.

So, when he told himself he had to cut back on work, which people was he going to say "I'm sorry" to? Which trust for which he had labored to be worthy all his working life, which important connection or fascinating puzzle or heart-rending challenge, would he give up?

It was all very well to say it, and he certainly didn't want to follow his father into the first-class section of the Coronary Express, but how did you start throwing away the most important parts of your life, even to save that life? It would be different if he had anything much outside the office worth saving himself for. . . .

Half of Decatur "please-call-me-'Catur-it's-what-my-mom-called-me" Ramsey was hoping that the Gardiners' portentous hints would lead to something as intriguing as the California couple had made it sound. A career case. The kind of thing that put you not just into the law books, but wove you into the fabric of popular culture like Kumelos or Darrow. But the part of him that had spent way too many nights staring at a wallscreen so cluttered with documents his eyes ached, dictating until he was hoarse while trying not to choke on the occasional hasty mouthful of take-out Burmese, could not help but hope that the Gardiners were in fact, and against his own estimation, complete and utter loons.

 

When they had donned the head-coverings and stepped through the sonic disinfectant, Mr. Fredericks had another attack of irritation. "If your son is suffering from the same thing that's affected Sam, why is all this necessary?"

"Jaleel, don't be difficult." His wife was finding it hard to conceal her anxiousness. Ramsey had seen her at her daughter's bedside, and knew that underneath the smart clothes and composed features she was clinging to normality like a shipwreck victim to a spar.

"It's okay," Vivien said, "I don't blame you for wondering. Your Salome is in a slightly different situation."

"What does that mean?" asked Mrs. Fredericks.

"Sam, not Salome." Her husband did not wait for her question to be answered. "I don't know why I ever let Enrica talk me into that name. She was a bad woman. In the Bible, I mean. What kind of thing, to name a child?"

"Oh, now, honey." His wife smiled brightly and rolled her eyes. "The Gardiners want to see their boy."

Fredericks allowed himself to be led through the air lock corridor and into the private room where Orlando Gardiner lay under a plastic oxygen tent like a long-dead pharaoh in a museum case.

Enrica Fredericks gasped. "Oh! Oh, my God. What's. . . ." She put a hand to her mouth, eyes wide in horror. "Is that . . . going to happen to Sam?"

Conrad, who had moved to stand at the foot of Orlando's bed, shook his head, but said nothing.

"Orlando has a disease," his mother said. "He had it long before any of this happened. That's why he's here in the aseptic wing. He's very susceptible to infection at the best of times."

Jaleel Fredericks' frown now had a different character, that of someone watching a terrible wrong at one remove, a netfeed/news report of a famine or terrorist bombing. "An immune system problem?"

"In part." Vivien reached her hand into the glove built into the tent and caressed Orlando's almost skeletally thin arm. His eyes were only white crescents between the lids. "He has progeria. It's an aging disease. Someone slipped up in the genetic testing—they must have. But we could never prove it. We knew it had been in my side of the family a few generations back, but the chances were so small it would be in Conrad's, too—well, when his tests came back negative, we never thought about it again." Her eyes returned to her son. "If I had known, I would have had an abortion." Her voice tightened. "And I love my son. I hope you understand that. But if I went back in time and had the choice again, I would have ended the pregnancy."

A long silence was broken by Jaleel Fredericks, his deep voice softer now. "We're very sorry."

Orlando's father actually laughed, short and harsh, a strangled sound that was clearly not meant to have come out. "Yeah, so are we."

"We know you've been suffering, too," Vivien said. "And we know how hard it must have been for you to leave Sam, even for a day, to come out here." She removed her hand from the glove and straightened up. "But we wanted you to see Orlando before we all talked."

Mrs. Fredericks still had one hand over her mouth; her mascara, fashionably exaggerated, was beginning to run a little at the corner of her eyes. "Oh, the poor boy."

"He's a wonderful kid." Vivien was having trouble speaking. "I can't tell you how brave he's been. He's been . . . different all his life. Stared at when he goes out. And he's known since he was little that the chances of him living . . . even long enough to be a teenager. . . ." She had to stop. Conrad looked at her from the foot of the bed, but did not move to comfort her. It was Enrica Fredericks who at last stepped forward and put a hand on her arm. Orlando's mother made a visible effort to gather herself. "He hasn't deserved any of this, and he's dealt with it so well that . . . that it would break your heart just to see it. It's all been so unfair. And now this! So I . . . so we wanted you to understand about Orlando, and about what a rotten deal he got. When we explain why we called you."

Catur Ramsey took it upon himself to break this silence.

"Sounds like it's time for us all to go somewhere and talk."

 

"So," Enrica Fredericks said, "this menu looks lovely." Her good cheer was as brittle as old glass. "What do you recommend, Vivien?"

"We've never been here before. We picked it at random out of a directory. I hope it's okay."

In the silence, the snapping of the awning overhead was quite loud. Ramsey used his wineglass to pin down his napkin, which was threatening to blow away, and cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should jump right in, so to speak."

"That's why we're sitting outside, too," Conrad said suddenly.

"You've lost me again," Fredericks replied. He squinted at the menu. "I think I'm going to have the sea bass." He called the skulking waiter over from where he was huddling out of the wind. "Are you sure this is Pacific sea bass?"

When they had ordered, and the waiter had hurried back to the warmth of the indoor portion of the restaurant, Vivien began to speak.

"The problem," she said, tracing a near-transparent circle of white wine on the tabletop, "is that kids today don't write anything down. They talk—God knows, they talk—and they go places together on the net, but they don't write anything down."

"Yes?" said Fredericks.

"We've had a really hard time figuring out what Orlando's been up to," Conrad Gardiner said. "on the net. But we think that's what's wrong with them both."

"That's not possible." Enrica Fredericks' voice was flat. "It doesn't work that way. Our doctor told us. Unless someone . . . someone ran some charge on them." Her face was pinched and angry. "That's what they say, isn't it? 'Ran some charge'?"

"That may be it," Vivien said. "But if so, it's some kind of charge the doctors haven't heard of. Anyway, you'd have to abuse it seriously for years to have that effect—no, even then it wouldn't be the same. Look, you said it yourself—you can't unplug Sam. She screams, she fights, you have to plug her back in. The same thing's true with Orlando, except that he's been so sick we can only tell the reaction by what happens to his vital signs. We've checked with neurologists, neuropsychologists, charge-addiction treatment centers, everything. No one's ever heard of anything like this. That's why we contacted you."

The salads and hors-d'oeuvres arrived. Ramsey frowned at his bruschetta. Maybe it was time to start taking this health stuff seriously. There was a list a mile long for heart transplants, even with the new generation of clonal replacements. He would have been better off ordering a green salad.

He pushed away the bruschetta.

"Forgive me for being impatient," said Jaleel Fredericks, "but it seems to be my role in this particular gathering. What is the point? We know all this, although not the details."

"Because we all know that something has happened to your Sam and our Orlando, but we don't think it's an accident."

Fredericks raised an eyebrow. "Go on."

"We've done our best to open up all Orlando's files on his system. That's why it's so frustrating that kids don't even use mail any more, like we did. There are pathways, but no records to speak of. And to make things more difficult, his agent has been removing files. In fact, that's one of the things we're worried about."

Ramsey sat forward, intrigued. "Why is that?"

"Because it's not supposed to happen," Conrad said. He was drinking only water, and he stopped to take a long swallow. "We froze the house system when this happened—well, all of Orlando's part of it, anyway. The only way his agent could be moving files against our wishes is with Orlando's permission, and . . . well, you saw him. So why is it that the thing is still removing files and destroying others? It's even hidden itself, so we can't turn it off without killing the whole system and losing any evidence we've got of what happened to Orlando. In fact, the thing's gone AWOL entirely. The robot body it uses around the house is gone, too. That's what I thought I saw in the hospital." He shook his head. "The whole thing is creepy."

"But I don't understand," Enrica said plaintively. "Why would any of this happen? If someone's hiding files, or destroying them, or whatever, what reason could there be?"

"We don't know." Vivien toyed with a celery stick. "But we saw enough before the files disappeared to know that Orlando was in touch with some strange people. He was . . . he is a very, very smart kid. Spent all his time on the net. So we want to find out where on the net he's been, what he's been doing, and who he's been doing it with. And we don't want anyone to know that we're trying to find out, which is why we're sitting outdoors at an unfamiliar restaurant."

"And from us. . . ?" Fredericks asked slowly.

"We want your files. Sam and our son were doing something together. Someone or something has corrupted our system, against our express orders. Yours may still be untouched—and in any case, you owe it to yourselves to find out, even if you think we're nuts. But we want your files. Or Sam's, to be perfectly accurate." Vivien fixed him with a surprisingly fierce gaze. "We want to find out who did this to our son."

Vivien and Jaleel stared at each other. Their partners looked on, waiting for the outcome, but Ramsey already knew what it would be. He sat back, caught in a mix of elation and despair. Not loonies, then. And with a really interesting puzzle that might turn out to be nothing, but certainly could not be ignored. It would, of course, mean a lot of research, a ton of detail, and a variety of very difficult problems to solve.

It seemed he was going to be spending a lot more time at work.

 

 

Olga Pirofsky put the last melon in the bag, then took her groceries up to the express counter. You could have anything and everything delivered, but there was still something to be said for actually handling a piece of fruit before you bought it. It kept you in touch with something from human history that was now almost lost.

She walked home down Kinmount Street, as she always did, making her way under the great elevated tracks that carried the maglev commute train south to Toronto. Juniper Bay was basking in sunshine today, and the warmth felt good on the back of her neck.

She stopped, as she had told herself she wouldn't, (but knew that she would) in front of the children's store. An array of holographic youngsters played decorously in the window, and handsome phantom babies modeled handsome baby outfits. It was early in the afternoon, so most of the real children were in school somewhere; only a handful of mothers and fathers with strollers were inside the store.

Olga watched them through the window as they moved with perfect assurance from display to display, stopping occasionally to soothe a cranky infant, or to share a joke or a question with each other, living completely in the now—a now in which happy parenthood would go on forever, with the small provision that anything bought last month would already be too small. She wanted to hammer on the window and warn them not to take anything for granted. She had thought once that she would be one of those people, one of those frighteningly blithe people, but instead she felt like a homeless spirit, watching in envy from the cold.

A floater—a toy that constantly changed its magnetization, making it hard to keep it between two accompanying paddles—bumbled past, being tossed between two of the holographic tykes. But I'm not a ghost, she realized. Not really. These imaginary window-children are ghosts. Uncle Jingle and his friends are ghosts. I'm a real person, and I've just bought some melons and tea and twelve packs of dog food. I have things to do.

Not entirely convinced, but at least having manufactured the strength to pull herself away from the children's store, she continued her walk home.

Someday I won't he able to leave, she thought. I'll just stand and stare through that window until winter comes. Like the Little Match Girl.

She wondered if that would be a bad way to go.

 

"We'll come back and help Princess Ape-i-cat later, kids. But first, Uncle Jingle needs you to take a walk with him over to Toy-world!"

The Pavlovian cheers came back, filling her hearplugs. Uncle Jingle dismissed a quick mental image of leading her charges through a snowy railyard onto windowless boxcars. It was silly, thinking that way—these were just commercials, just harmless capitalist greed. And if it wasn't harmless, it certainly was part of the world they lived in. It was most of the world they lived in, or at least it felt like that sometimes.

"We're going to sing the 'Let's Go Shopping' song," she said, spreading her arms in a gesture of excitement, "but first I want you to meet someone. Her name is Turnie Kitt, and she's the newest member of The Kasualty Klub! She's very educational, and she'll show you why!"

The kids—or their online avatars—jumped up and down, whooping. The Kasualty Klub was a favorite toy series, and all its grisly members, Compound Ken, Decapitate Kate, and others even less savory, were a serious hit. The new tie-in episodes would begin soon, and Uncle Jingle was not looking forward to them at all. As Turnie Kitt began to explain how after her limbs had been twisted off, she would fountain lifelike blood until pressure was applied, Uncle Jingle hit the four-hour wall and ceased to be Olga Pirofsky.

*    *    *

. . . Or rather I stop being Uncle Jingle, she thought. It's hard to remember where the line is, sometimes.

A voice buzzed in her hearplugs. "Nice show, Miz P. McDaniel'll take 'em from here."

"Tell Roland I said 'break a leg.' But tell him not to do it in front of that group, or they may pull it off to watch his lifelike blood fountaining."

The technician laughed and clicked off. Olga unplugged. Misha was sitting across the room from her, head cocked on one side. She wiggled her fingers near the floor, and he came forward to be scratched on the white spot beneath his chin.

She hadn't had any recurrences of the headaches lately. That was something to be grateful for. But as though they had been the first thin end of a wedge driven into the core of her being, the mysterious pains had split her open. More and more often in these last weeks, she found that the show upset her, its flashier and more commercial aspects seeming little different than the slaughters of animals and slaves the ancient Romans had used to spice up their entertainments. But the show had not changed any, Olga had: the bargain she had once struck with herself, where her disapproval about content would take second place to the joy of working with kids, was beginning to come apart.

And even though the head pains had been absent, she could not forget them, or the revelation that had struck her on that day. She had talked to her new doctor about it, and to the show's medical people, and they had all reassured her that online headaches were not unusual. They seemed to have forgotten that just weeks before they had been testing her for brain tumors. She had found the common link, they told her, and should be happy it was so easy to remedy. She was spending too much time online. She should seriously think about some time off.

Of course, the undercurrent was plain: You're gelling a bit old for this anyway, aren't you, Olga? The Uncle Jingle gig is a young person's job, all that bouncing and singing and strenuous, cartoony overacting. Wouldn't you be happier leaving it to someone else?

Under other circumstances, she would have wondered whether they might not be right. But these were not normal headaches, any more than Compound Ken's little specialty was a bumped shin.

Olga got up and wandered to the kitchen, ignoring the pins and needles of four hours in the chair. The groceries still sat in the bag on the counter. Misha, who was very firm about routine, stood by her feet, waiting. She sighed and emptied a pack of food into his bowl.

If your doctors didn't believe you, what then? She had begun calling around, of course, checking with various other medical (and sort-of-medical) people, and with the Interactive Performer's Guild. She had asked Roland McDanìel to ask retired performer friends if they had ever experienced something similar. She had even broken her own rule about using the net in her free time to begin to examine articles and monographs on net-related disabilities. A nice young man in neurobiology at McGill University had responded to her questions by giving her a list of a whole new series of possibilities, apparently unrelated specialty disciplines that might have some bearing on her problem. So far, not a single thing had proved useful.

She left Misha making little snarfle noises over his bowl and went to lie down on the couch. Her special chair, as festooned with wires as an execution device, stood in silent reproach. There was more research to be done—far more. But she was so tired. Maybe they all were right. Maybe it was her work. Perhaps a long vacation was just what she needed.

She grunted, then swung her legs off the couch onto the floor and stood up. On days like these, she felt every year of her age. She walked slowly to the chair and climbed in, then hooked herself up. Instantaneously, she was in the top level of her system. The company supplied her with the very best equipment—it was a pity, really, that they had to waste it on someone who cared so little about modem machinery.

Chloe Afsani took a while to answer; when she did, she was wiping cream cheese off her upper lip.

"Oh, I'm sorry, dear. I've interrupted your lunch."

"Problem not, Olga. I had a late breakfast—I'll survive a little while longer."

"Are you sure? I hope I'm not adding to your work load too much." Chloe was now a manager in the network's fact checking department, a hive of plugged-in people in sightless rows that had made Olga more than a little nervous when she had gone to ask her favor. Chloe had been a production assistant on the Uncle Jingle show when she first broke in to the business—a "junior blip," as she termed it—and Olga had been a confidante during the breakdown of the younger woman's first marriage. Even so, Olga had hated to ask the favor—it always made friendship seem like a trade agreement.

"Don't worry about it. In fact, I've got some good news for you."

"Really?" Olga jumped a little at an odd sensation, then realized it was only Misha climbing into her lap.

"Really. Look, I'm sending you everything, but I can give you the basics now. It was a pretty broad subject area, because there have been so many vaguely health-related things written about net use. Ergonomics alone, thousands of hits. But the more you narrow it down, the easier it gets.

"I'll cut to the chase. There have been a ton of supposedly net-related illnesses, chronic stress, disorientation, eyestrain, pseudo-PTSS—I've forgotten what they actually call it—but the only thing that would be what you're talking about—in other words, the only thing that might be other than just you working too hard—is something called Tandagore's Syndrome."

"What's a Tandagore, Chloe?"

"The person who discovered it. Some guy in Trinidad, if I remember right. Anyway, it's kind of controversial—not fully accepted yet as a distinct thing, but they're talking about it in a few researcher SIGs. In fact, most doctors and hospitals don't use the term. That's in part because there are so many different variations, from headaches to seizures, all the way up to comas and one or two deaths." Chloe Afsani saw the look on the other woman's face. "Don't worry, Olga. It's not progressive."

"I don't understand what you mean." Misha was nudging her stomach in a very distracting way, but Chloe's words had struck a chill into her. She stroked the little dog, trying to quiet him.

"You don't go from one symptom to a worse one. If you have this—and no one's saying you do, sweetie, in fact I'll explain why I doubt it—and you're getting headaches, then that's probably as bad as it's going to get for you."

The thought of spending the rest of her life going from one of those bolts of brilliant, sickening pain to the next was more frightening in some ways than the possibility of just dying. "Is that the good news?" she asked weakly. "Is there a cure?"

"No cure, but that wasn't the good news." Chloe smiled a sad smile. Her teeth seemed to have gotten whiter since she had gone into management. "Oh, Olga sweetie, am I making things worse? Just hear me out. You probably don't have this in the first place, because something like ninety-five percent of the sufferers are children. And, what makes it even more likely that you don't have this, and that what you've got instead is just a bad, bad case of need-a-vacation, is the fact of where you work."

"What does that mean?"

"Here's the good news at last. Tandagore's Syndrome appears to be net-related, right? That is, the one common element, not counting the mostly-children angle, is heavy net usage."

"But I use net equipment all the time, Chloe! It's my job, you know that!"

"Let me finish, sweetie." She said it as she might to a cranky child. "Out of all the cases of all the kids that the research engines could find, not a single one of them had ever been a participant on the Uncle Jingle show, or any of the spin-offs. I cross-collated the WorldReach medical files with the network's, so I know. Think about that. There have been millions of kids over the years who've participated, and not a single one has ever become sick in this particular way."

"So you're saying. . . ."

"That when they figure out what it is, it'll probably be some kind of glitch in transmission signals, maybe, or something like that—something that interferes with brainwaves, maybe. That's what Tandagore thinks, according to the articles. But whatever it is, it sure isn't in our transmission signals, is it? Ipso facto—an important term for someone in my department to know, don't you think?—you don't have Tandagore's Syndrome."

Olga petted Misha and tried to make sense of it all. "So you're saying that I don't have something I never heard about until today?"

Chloe laughed, but there was a little frustration beneath it. "I'm saying that this Tandagore thing is the only possibility other than plain old stress, or things your doctor already looked for. Your doctor says you're fine. You can't have Tandagore because no one connected even remotely with the show ever has, so it must be simply overwork and too much worrying." Chloe smiled brightly. "So stop worrying!"

Olga thanked her with more heartiness than she felt and clicked off. Misha had fallen asleep, so even when she unplugged, she remained in the chair. The sun had gone down behind the train tracks, and the living room had fallen into shadow. Olga listened to the sounds of the birds, one of the reasons she lived in Juniper Bay. Big enough to have link stations that could handle major throughput, small enough still to have birds. There were none left in Toronto except pigeons and seagulls, and someone on the news-nets had said all the surviving pigeons were a mutant strain anyway.

So it was either simple stress, or it was a Whatsit Syndrome she couldn't have. Chloe was young and smart and had the best commercial research engines at her disposal, and she said so. Which meant the rest of Olga's own research could be avoided. Why didn't she feel better?

From the far side of the room, the Uncle Jingle figure looked back at her, black button eyes and xylophone teeth. His huge smile was really a kind of smirk, wasn't it? If you really studied it.

It's strange, she thought. If there have been a million cases of this stuff and not a single one was someone who had hooked into the show. I mean, it's hard to find a kid out there who hasn't been plugged into Uncle Jingle at some time or other.

The room felt cold. Olga suddenly wished the sun would come back.

In fact, that seems more than a little strange. That seems . . . very unlikely.

But what could it mean except coincidence, that lots of kids were having problems from being on the net, but no one who'd ever been involved with her own show? That there was something extra-good about their equipment? Extra-healthy?

Or . . . She pulled Misha closer. The dog whimpered and nailed his paws, as though dogpaddling in some dream-river, then settled again. The room was getting quite dark now.

Or the other way around? So bad that someone didn't want anyone to make a connection between the two?

That's silly, Olga. Stupid. Someone would have to be doing it on purpose, then. You've gone from headaches to paranoia.

But the monstrous idea would not go away.

CHAPTER 11
Utensils

NETFEED/NEWS: Plug or Play, Charge Addicts Told

(visual: waiting room in Great Ormond Street Hospital)

VO: England's first-ever Liberal Democrat government has given that country's charge addicts a choice: either have their neurocannulas—"cans" as the addicts, or "heads," call them—permanently sealed with a polymer glue, or accept a software device known as a "gearfilter," which will block any unacceptable programming, and can also be set to dispense helpful subliminals. Under new law, all registered addicts must agree to one of these two options if they wish to keep their benefits. Citizens' rights groups are furious. . . .

 

As the blue light died, water was suddenly everywhere around them. In some incomprehensible fashion they were in the middle of it but still dry, rushing forward through damp air as though the river had curled into a tube around them. The noise was so loud that when Orlando shouted, not only could Fredericks not hear him, he could not hear himself.

They rocketed through a curve at high speed, then the front of the leaf-boat plunged downward. Orlando grabbed desperately for a handhold, but could feel himself lifting free of the boat, floating backward even as they fell.

The light changed. An instant later they slammed down into something that shook them so hard that it was only a few dazed moments later, when he felt himself beginning to sink, that Orlando realized they had landed in more water. Within moments he had lost the leaf-boat completely. The river or waterfall or whatever it had become was pounding down almost on top of him, roiling the surface so badly that he could not understand which way was up. He finally caught a glimpse of Fredericks floating face-down a short distance away, but even as he tried to call to him, his friend was caught up by the surging waters and pulled beneath the surface.

Orlando took a deep breath and dove after him, then turned until he saw Fredericks' motionless form drifting down. The water was brilliantly clear, and all the lake bottom he could see was a bright and featureless white. Orlando kicked hard, thrusting himself toward his friend. He managed to get one hand wrapped in the cowl of Fredericks' Pithlit robe, then struggled toward what he guessed was the surface, a darker spot in the middle of a leaning ring of whiteness.

It seemed to take days. Fredericks' limp weight was the single heaviest thing he had ever lifted. At last, with his breath turning to fire in his chest, he broke the surface and heaved Fredericks' head above water. His friend took a racking breath, then coughed out what seemed like gallons. He appeared strange in some way Orlando could not immediately define, but it was impossible to look too carefully with waves slapping at both their faces. Orlando kicked to keep them above the surface, but the cataract was still thundering down only a few meters away and he was losing strength rapidly. A brief but depressing glimpse between waves showed him that the white walls or shore above the waterline appeared smooth as glass.

"Can you swim?" he gasped. "I don't think I can hold you up."

Fredericks nodded miserably. "Where's the boat?"

Orlando shook his head.

Fredericks began a weary crawl-stroke toward the nearest wall. Orlando did his best to follow, and regretted, once again that he had never had swimming lessons. Swimming in Otherland was nothing like when Thargor stroked his way across a deep tarn or castle moat in the Middle Country. For one thing, Thargor didn't get tired this easily.

He caught up to Fredericks, who was pawing hopelessly at the smooth white wall. "What is this?" his friend moaned. "There aren't any handholds."

Orlando looked up. Above them, the sheer wall rose for several more meters, and above that. . . . "Oh, fenfen," Orlando said, then a wave slapped him in the face and he drank more water. It was fresh, not salt, which made sense. "Not again!" he said when he could breathe.

"What?"

Orlando pointed. The cataract was pouring down from a long silver pipe connected to the while wall, with two odd crenellated circles flanking it. Faucet. Taps. They were in a sink. Hanging in the air far overhead, glowing like the moon, and seemingly only slightly smaller, was a vast lightbulb.

"No!" Fredericks moaned. "This is so impacted."

 

The bad news was that their boat, or something dark that seemed to be their boat, was trapped at the bottom of the sink, battered beneath the stream of water sluicing down from the titan faucet. The good news, as they discovered a few moments later, was that it seemed to have blocked the drain and the water in the sink was rising.

"If we just stay afloat, it'll lift us over the top." Fredericks swung sopping hair off his face and turned to Orlando. "Are you okay? Can you make it?"

"I don't know. I guess so. I'm really tired." His friend still looked odd—simplified somehow—but Orlando could not summon the energy to try to figure out what was wrong.

"I'll help when you need it." Fredericks felt the porcelain. "This is so barking. It's like being stuck in the deep end of the pool forever."

Orlando had no more breath to waste.

Slowly, the water inched up the walls of the sink. When he felt his rhythm working properly for a moment, his legs moving without too much pain, Orlando looked up. The angle of the sink walls made it hard to see anything much below the ceiling, but there was still something decidedly strange about the place, and it was nothing as straightforward as the disproportionate size. The shadows fell oddly, and both the lightbulb and sink seemed inexplicably unreal, although there was nothing ghostly or insubstantial about either of them. Even the water seemed to move too slowly, and with none of the absolute realism it had possessed in other parts of the network.

He looked at Fredericks, and finally realized what had been bothering him. His friend's features, while still three-dimensional, had become somehow flatter, as though rendered with much less sophisticated animation gear than they had encountered elsewhere in the Otherland network. But what did it mean?

It was only when the Indian brave—a comic savage with an impossibly red face, a nose like a sausage, and rolling eyes-climbed up onto the edge of the sink and peered down at them that Orlando realized they were stranded in some kind of cartoon.

"Ugh," the Indian said. "You seen papoose?"

Fredericks goggled at the stranger. "This can't be happening."

"Can you help us out?" Orlando shouted. "We're drowning!"

The Indian stared at them for a moment, his fierce but simple expression absolutely unreadable, then reached into his buckskin vest and produced, from nowhere, a length of rope. His arms bending in ways that jointed appendages did not bend, he quickly threw a loop around one of the faucets, then tossed the other end down to them.

It was not a swift process, but with the Indian pulling and Orlando and Fredericks keeping their feet flat against the slippery porcelain wall, they managed to climb the last few meters to safety. Orlando clung to the chilly faucet in gratitude.

"So? Palefaces seen papoose?" The Indian had stowed the rope, and now stood with arms folded across his chest. Orlando couldn't remember exactly what a papoose was, but he was not going to let a potentially friendly contact go to waste.

"No. But we owe you our lives. We'll help you look." Fredericks shot him a look, but Orlando ignored him. "What can we do?"

The Indian looked down into the sink. "Better come back to teepee. Soon water reach top, spill over, make big lake on floor."

Fredericks was looking Orlando up and down. "You look really weird, Orlando. Like a Captain Comet play figure or something."

Orlando looked down. His torso was indeed an exaggerated, upside-down triangle. He could only imagine what Thargor's features must look like in this shorthand form. "Yeah, well, you look pretty scanny, too," he pointed out. "Like some kind of Uncle Jingle reject. Your feet don't even have toes."

The Indian seemed to find their conversation either unintelligible or irrelevant. He turned and began walking along the edge of the sink, then suddenly leaped down into apparent nothingness.

"Jee-zus!" Fredericks stared. "He just jumped!"

"Come on." Orlando limped after their rescuer.

"Are you. . . ? What, you're going to jump off, just because he did? He's some kind of construct, Orlando!"

"I know. He's an old-fashioned cartoon. Just look at this place. It's all a cartoon, Fredericks, an animated drawing. Like from the last century."

"I don't care. We could go that way instead," Fredericks pointed. On the far side of the sink, a long smooth wooden counter led away, a clutter of shelves at the back hidden by shadow. "At least we can see where we'd be going."

"Yeah, but he went that way."

"So?"

"So we don't know our way around. So let's get going, before we lose the only person since we've been in this impacted network who's done anything nice for us."

Fredericks clambered to his feet, streaming water."I will never, never let you talk me into anything again. Ever."

Orlando turned and limped toward the place where the Indian had disappeared. "Fair enough."

 

The cartoon brave had not, as it turned out, jumped to his doom. Below the edge of the sink, only a body-length down, stood a small table—small by the standards of the environment, although to Orlando and Fredericks it was at least an acre wide—cluttered with an array of boxes and bottles. Beyond the table, squatting in the corner like a particularly fat black dog, stood some kind of impossibly antique-looking stove. Red light showed through the slits in its grille.

The Indian was standing in front of one of the boxes, a rectangular cardboard shape that loomed twice his own height. Painted on its cover was a stylized tent, and above it the words "Pawnee Brand Matches."

"Come to my teepee," he said, gesturing toward the box. "We smoke peace pipe."

Fredericks shook his head in disgust, but followed Orlando. The Indian reached the box and stepped into it, right through the surface, as though the heavy cardboard were permeable as air. Orlando shrugged and did the same, half-expecting to bump his face against the flat picture of the tent, but instead suddenly found himself inside a three-dimensional and surprisingly spacious version of the painted teepee. Fredericks followed a moment later, eyes wide. A campfire burned at the center of the conical space, the smoke twining upward to the hole at the top where the tentpoles came together.

The Indian turned and gestured for them to sit, then lowered himself to face them. A woman came forward from the shadows, equally bright red and exaggerated of feature, and stood beside him. She wore a deerskin blanket and a single feather in her hair.

"Me named Chief Strike Anywhere," the Indian said. "This my squaw, Dispose Carefully. Who you, palefaces?"

As the squaw brought them blankets to wrap around their wet, cold virtual bodies, Orlando introduced himself and Fredericks. Strike Anywhere grunted his satisfaction, then called for his wife to bring the peace pipe. As he filled it with something from a pouch—also produced from nowhere—Orlando began to wonder how he would light it, since the Chief himself, judging by his pale wooden neck and round crimson head, seemed to be an old-fashioned match. A bemused vision of the chief rubbing his head against the floor and bursting into flame was proved wrong when the pipe began to smoke without introduction of any visible incendiary.

The smoke was hot and foul, but Orlando did his best to hold it in. As Fredericks struggled to do the same, Orlando wondered again about the strange capacities of the Otherland network. How sophisticated would it have to be to reproduce the sensation of inhaling heated smoke? Would that be easier than simulating the gravity of being spurted out of a giant faucet, or more difficult?

When they had all sucked on the pipe, Strike Anywhere handed it back to his wife, who performed a sleight of hand to make it vanish again. The chief nodded. "Now us friends. I help you. You help me."

Fredericks was distracted by the bowl full of berries that Dispose Carefully was setting in front of him, so Orlando took it on himself to continue the conversation. "What can we do to help you?"

"Bad men take my papoose, Little Spark. I hunt for him. You come with me, help find papoose."

"Certainly."

"Help kill bad men."

"Uh . . . certainly." He ignored Fredericks' look. They were only cartoons, after all. It wouldn't be like helping to kill real people.

"That good." Strike Anywhere folded his arms on his chest and nodded again. "You eat. Then you sleep little. Then, when midnight come, we go hunting."

"Midnight?" Fredericks asked around a mouthful of berries.

"Midnight." The cartoon Indian smiled a hard smile. "When all of Kitchen awake."

 

 

It was the same nightmare; as always, he was powerless before it. The glass broke, showering outward into the sunlight like a spray of water, each piece spinning like a separate planet, the cloud of iridescence a universe that had lost its equilibrium and was now flying apart in high-speed entropic expansion.

The cries echoed and echoed, as they always did.

He woke, shuddering, and brought his hand to his face, expecting to feel tears, or at least the sweat of terror, but his own features were hard and cold beneath his fingers. He was in his throne room in the lamplit great hall of Abydos-That-Was. He had fallen asleep and the old nightmare had returned. Had he cried out? The eyes of a thousand kneeling priests were on him, startled stares in frozen faces, like mice caught in the pantry when the light is switched on.

He rubbed his mask of a face again, half-believing that when he took his hands away he would see something else—but what? His American fortress on the shore of Lake Borgne? The inside of the tank that kept his failing body alive? Or the house of his childhood, the chateau in Limoux, where so much had begun?

The thought of it brought him a sudden picture, the reproduction of David's drawing that had hung on the back of his bedroom door, Napoleon the First crowning himself emperor while a disconsolate pope looked on. What an odd picture to have in a child's room! But he had been an odd child, of course, and something in the grandeur of the Corsican's unstoppable self-belief had caught his imagination.

It was strange to think of the old house again, to see so clearly his mother's heavy curtains and thick Savonnerie carpets, when all of it—and all of the people except him—were so many, many years gone.

Felix Jongleur was the oldest human being on Earth. Of that he felt certain. He had lived through both World Wars of the previous century, had watched the foundation and decay of the Communist nations of the east and seen the rise of the city-states along the Pacific Rim. His fortune, established first in West Africa, in bauxite and nickel and sisal, had grown with the years, spreading into industries of which his hommes des affaires father, Jean-Loup, could never have even dreamed. But though his fortune was self-renewing, Jongleur himself was not, and as the century and the millennium waned, the bolder news agencies readied their obituaries, with the emphasis on the mysteries and unfounded assertions that had clouded his long career. But the obituaries remained unused. In the decades after the turn of the new century, he had abandoned day-to-day use of his dying body in favor of an existence in virtual space. He had slowed his physical aging by, among other things, experimental cryogenic techniques, and as the facilities of virtuality had improved—in large part because of research funded out of his own fortune, and the fortunes of like-minded folk he had gathered around him—he had found himself reborn into a second life.

Like Osiris in truth, he thought. The Lord of the Western Horizon, slain by his brother, then resurrected by his wife to live forever. The master of life and death.

But even in the sleep of gods, there could be bad dreams.

"Great is he who brings life to the grain, and to green things," someone was singing nearby. "O, Lord of the Two Lands, he who is mighty in worship and infinite in wisdom, I beg that you hear me."

He took his hands away from his face—how long had he been sitting this way?—and frowned at the priest who writhed on his belly at the bottom of the steps. Sometimes the rituals he had designed annoyed even him. "You may speak."

"O, Divine One, we have received a communication from our brethren in the temple of your dark brother, the burned one, the red, raw one." The priest bumped his face against the floor, as though even to speak of that entity pained him. "They wish most urgently to drink of your wisdom, O Great House."

Set. The Other. Jongleur—no, he was fully Osiris again; he needed the armor of godhood—straightened on his throne. "Why was I not told at once?"

"They have only now spoken to us, Lord. They await your divine breath."

No one would interrupt his meditations for a problem germane only to the simulation—it was unthinkable—so he knew it must be the engineers.

Osiris gestured, and a window opened before him in the air. For half an instant, he could see the anxious face of one of the technicians from the Temple of Set, then the image froze. The technician's voice fizzed and died, then crackled into life again, like a radio signal during sunspot activity.

". . . Need a greater . . . readings are . . . please give us. . . ." The voice did not come back.

The god was perturbed. He would have to go to them. He would have none of his usual time to prepare. But it was not to be helped The Grail—everything—depended on the Other. And only he, of all the Brotherhood, realized how precarious a foundation that was.

He gestured again. The window disappeared. A score of priests carrying something huge and flat came hurrying forward from the shadows at the back of the great hall. The other priests struggled to get out of the way, but some could not and were knocked down and then trampled by those carrying the ponderous burden. Osiris took a breath to calm himself, to find the peaceful center where problems were solved and death itself had been so often outwitted, as two score of priests raised the polished bronze mirror before him, groaning beneath its immense weight.

Osiris rose, and watched himself rise, observing with a little satisfaction even in this moment the majesty of the Lord of the West standing before his throne. He walked forward until he could see nothing but his own brazen reflection, paused for one last moment, then stepped through.

*    *    *

The temple was deserted except for half a dozen men in desert-pale robes. The priest-technicians were so upset that none of them remembered to kneel as Osiris appeared, but the god put aside his displeasure for the moment. "I could not understand your message. What is wrong?"

The chief engineer pointed to the door of the tomb chamber. "We can't get through. It . . . he . . . won't let us."

Osiris thought the man seemed curiously intense, his energy almost feverish. "Are you speaking metaphorically?"

The priest shook his head. "He's resisting communication, but his readings are very, very low. Frighteningly low." He took a breath, and ran his hands through hair that did not grace the shaven-headed sim. "It started about an hour ago, a real fast downturn. That's why Freimann was trying to communicate—just to see if he was capable of it, or if he was . . . I don't know what you'd call it. Sick." Again the quaver in the priest's voice, as though at any moment he might burst out laughing or weeping.

"Someone other than me spoke to him?"

The head shake was more emphatic now. "Freimann tried. I told him we should wait until you got here. But he was top of the onsite CoC and he overruled me. He got on the direct line and tried voice communication."

"And nothing happened."

"Nothing? No, something definitely happened. Freimann's dead."

The god shut his eyes for a brief moment. So this was the reason for the technician's overexcited state. Would he have to deal with two emergencies at the same time, a tantrum by the Other and a mutiny among his hired lackeys? "Tell me."

"Not much to tell. Just . . . he opened the line. Asked if . . . if the Other was there. Did it . . . did he, sorry . . . did he want something. Then Freimann made a funny noise and just . . . stopped. His sim went rigid. Kenzo dropped offline and found him on his office floor, bleeding from the nose and the corners of his eyes. Profound cerebral hemorrhage, as far as we can tell."

Osiris swallowed an involuntary curse; it seemed inappropriate to bring other deities into his own godworld, even in name only. "Is someone taking care of it?"

"It?" A strangled laugh escaped the technician. "You mean Freimann? Yes, security has been called in. If you mean the other 'it,' none of us are going near him. We've been convinced. He doesn't want to talk to us, we don't want to talk to him." The laugh again, threatening to turn into something else. "This wasn't in the job description, you know."

"Oh, pull yourself together. What is your name?"

The priest seemed taken aback—as if a god had time to memorize every one of his worshiper's names. "My real name?"

Behind the mask of the deity, Osiris rolled his eyes. Discipline was breaking down entirely. He would have to think of a way to stiffen this whole department. He had believed he had hired tough- minded types. Obviously, he had underestimated the effect of daily contact with the Other, "Your Egyptian name. And make it quick, or security will have to drop by your office, too."

"Oh. Oh. It's Seneb, sir. Lord."

"Seneb, my servant, there is nothing to fear. You and the others will remain at your positions." He had been tempted to give them all the afternoon off while he dealt with the Other's latest bit of bad behavior, but he didn't want them talking to each other, reinforcing their fears and comparing notes. "I will speak with him myself. Open the connection."

"He's closed it, sir—Lord."

"I realize that. But I want it open, at least on our end. Do I make myself clear?"

The priest made a shaky obeisance and scuttled off. Osiris drifted forward until he hung before the great doors to the tomb chamber. The hieroglyphs incised in the dark stone glowed, as if aroused by his presence. The doors swung open.

Inside, the subtle cues of a throughputting connection were gone. The black basalt sarcophagus lay as cold and inert as a lump of coal. There was none of the usual charged air, none of the feelings of standing before a portal into a not-quite-comprehensible elsewhere. The god spread his bandaged arms before the great casket.

"My brother, will you talk to me? Will you tell me what is paining you?"

The sarcophagus remained a mute lump of black stone.

"If you need help, we will give it to you. If something is hurting you, we can make it stop."

Nothing.

"Very well." The god floated closer. "Let me remind you that I can also give pain. Do you wish us to make it more difficult for you? You must speak to me. You must speak to me, or I will cause you even greater unhappiness."

There was a subtle change in the room, a tiny adjustment of angles or light. As Osiris learned forward, he heard the voice of Seneb, the priest, in his ear.

"Lord, he's opened. . . ."

"Shut up." Idiot. If these were not such difficult positions to fill properly, I would have him killed this instant. The god waited expectantly.

It rose up as if from some unimaginable distance, a shred of voice from the bottom of a deep, deep well. At first Osiris could hear it only as a sussuration, and for a moment he feared he had been mistaken, that he was listening to the movement of the sands of the endless desert outside. Then he began to hear words.

". . . an angel touched me . . . an angel . . . touched me . . . an angel . . . touched . . . me. . . ."

Over and over, the refrain went on, as scratchy and remote as something played on a gramophone back in Felix Jongleur's childhood. Only the bizarre lilt to the painfully inhuman voice demonstrated that the words were supposed to have a melody. The god stood listening in amazement and confusion and more than a little fear.

The Other was singing.

 

 

In his dream he thought it was an airplane, something from a history-of-flight documentary, all struts and guywires and canvas. It passed him, and someone in the cockpit waved, and there was a smiling monkey painted on the plane's side, and even though it was flying away now, the sputtering noise of the engine got louder and louder. . . .

Orlando opened his eyes to darkness. The noise was right next to him, and for a moment he thought the dream had followed him, that Renie and !Xabbu were flying toward him and would take him back to the real world. He rolled over, blinking blearily. Chief Strike Anywhere was snoring, and it did indeed seem as loud as a small plane. The Indian's outsized nose was bouncing like a balloon in the stream of his exhaled breath. His squaw lay curled beside him, snoring in coloratura counterpoint.

It's a cartoon. It still hadn't quite sunk in. I'm living in a cartoon. Then the dream came back to him.

"Fredericks," he whispered. "Where's Renie and !Xabbu? They came through with us, but where are they?"

There was no reply. He turned to shake his friend awake, but Fredericks was gone. Beyond the empty bedroll, the flap of the teepee fluttered in the wind of the chief's noisy slumbers.

Orlando clambered to his knees and crawled toward the flap, heart suddenly pounding. Outside, he found himself surrounded by boxes and bottles, and although he could not easily make out the labels in the near-dark (the lightbulb had been dimmed so that it barely shone) he could hear the sound of loud snores coming from some of them as well. To his left, the facing wall of the kitchen cabinets led up to the sink, as invisible from his position as the top of a tall plateau. There was no sign of Fredericks there, and no visible way for him to have climbed it. Containers of various kinds blocked Orlando's view to the other side of the table. He walked forward, stepping carefully past a wrapped bar of something called Blue Jaguar Hand Soap, which rumbled rather than snored.

He saw the glow first, a faint red light outlining the edge of the table like a miniature sunset. It took him a moment to make out the dark silhouette. Was it Fredericks? What was he doing standing so close to the edge?

Orlando was suddenly very frightened for Fredericks. He hurried forward. As he sprinted past a jar of Captain Carvey's Salts of Magnesia, a groggy voice demanded, "Hark at that! Who goes there? What bell is it?"

There was something odd in his friend's posture, a slump in the shoulders, a rubberiness to the neck, but it was Fredericks, or at least the current cartoon version of him. As Orlando drew nearer, slowing because he was afraid he might stumble over something so near to the edge of the dark tabletop, he could hear a faint voice that at first he thought was Fredericks talking to himself. It was barely audible, a murmur that rose and fell, but within a few steps Orlando knew that such a sound could not be coming from Sam Fredericks. It was a deep, harsh voice that hissed its sibilants like a snake.

"Fredericks! Get back from there!" He approached very slowly now, not wanting to startle his friend, but Fredericks did not turn. Orlando put a hand on his shoulder, but there was still no response.

". . . You're going to die here, you know," the hissing voice said, now quite clear, although still pitched very low. "You should never have come. It's all quite hopeless, and there's nothing you can do about it, but I'm going to tell you anyway." The laugh that welled up was as ludicrously melodramatic as the chief's snores, but it still set Orlando's heart pattering again.

Fredericks was staring down into the red glow beyond the table-top, simplified Pithlit-face slack, eyes open but unseeing. Scarlet light glimmered in the depths of the black iron stove, and flames licked at its grille like the hands of prisoners clutching prison bars. But something more substantial than the flames was moving within the stove.

"Hey, wake up!" Orlando grabbed Fredericks' arm and pinched. His friend moaned, but still gazed slackly at the stove and the dancing flames.

"And there you are," the voice crackled up from the stove. "Come to save your friend, have you? But it won't do any good. You're both going to die here."

"Who the hell are you?" Orlando demanded, trying to pull Fredericks away from the brink.

"Hell, indeed!" said the voice, and laughed again. Suddenly Orlando could see the shape that had been camouflaged by the flames, a red devil from some ancient book or opera, with horns and a tail and a pitchfork. The devil's eyes widened, and he flashed his teeth in an immense, insane grin. "You're both going to die here!" He was dancing in the heart of the stove, stomping up the tongues of fire like he was splashing in a puddle, and although Orlando knew that it was all a simulation, and a particularly silly one at that, it did not stop the rush of fear that ran through him. He grabbed Fredericks firmly and dragged him away from the edge, and did not let go until they were stumbling back toward the teepee.

"I'll be seeing you again!" the devil shouted gleefully. "You can bet your soul on that!"

Fredericks pulled away from him as they reached the tent door, rubbing his eyes with his balled fists. "Orlando? What's . . . what's going on? What are we doing out here?" He swiveled to examine the now-silent tabletop. "Was I sleepwalking?"

"Yeah," Orlando said. "Sleepwalking."

"Scanny."

 

The chief was awake, sharpening a huge tomahawk on a stone wheel that had apparently come out of thin air, like so many other things, since it had certainly not been in the teepee before. He looked up from the hail of sparks as they entered. "You awake. That good. Midnight soon."

Orlando wouldn't have minded a bit more sleep, but each bit of Otherland seemed to have its own cycles of time. He and Fredericks would have to catch up whenever they found a chance.

"I just realized Renie and the rest didn't come through," he said quietly to Fredericks as the chief and his squaw began packing things into a deerskin bag. "I mean, we would have seen them in the sink, right?"

"I guess so." Fredericks' expression was morose. "But how could that be? They went through like the same time we did."

"Maybe there are different levels on the river. Maybe flying through sends you somewhere different than sailing through."

"But then we'll never find them! They could be anywhere!"

Chief Strike Anywhere stepped toward them and pointed to Orlando's sword. "You have big knife. That good. But you," he said to Fredericks, "no knife. That bad." He handed Fredericks a bow and a quiver of arrows.

"Pithlit never uses a bow," Fredericks whispered. "What am I supposed to do with these?"

"Try to shoot only people that aren't named Orlando."

"Thanks a lot."

The chief led them to the tent flap. His wife stepped forward to hold it open. "Find Little Spark," she said. "Please find."

She was not in the least like an actual person, but the tremor in her ridiculous pidgin English was real, and Orlando's chill abruptly returned. These people thought they were alive. Even the cartoons! What kind of madhouse were they stuck in?

"We'll . . . we'll do our best, ma'am," he said, and followed the others out onto the tabletop.

 

"Jeez," he gasped. "This is hard. I never realized how strong Thargor was."

Fredericks started to say something, then clamped his jaw shut as the rope swung them out from the table leg, so that for a moment they were spinning over empty darkness. Strike Anywhere had long before outsped them in the downward climb, and they had no idea if he was even still on the rope.

The rope swung back, and after a few unpleasant thumps against the table leg they resumed their careful descent. "I still feel like Pithlit," Fredericks said, "but he was never that strong to begin with."

"I took this stuff for granted," Orlando said between deep breaths. "Can you see the ground yet?"

Fredericks looked down. "Yeah. Maybe."

"Tell me you do even if you don't."

"Okay. Almost there, Gardino."

A few more minutes did in fact bring them into safe dropping distance. The shadows beneath the table were deep and dark, and they could see the Indian only by the gleam of his eyes and teeth. "Have canoe here," he said. "We go on river. Plenty faster."

"River?" Orlando squinted. A curving line of water stretched before them, curiously circumscribed when logic suggested it should have spread into a flat puddle. Instead, it held its shape and flowed merrily by along the floor, past the battlements of the kitchen counter on one side, coiling away past the iron stove in the other direction. Where it passed the red-gleaming stove, the water seemed to steam faintly. Orlando hoped they weren't going in that direction. "Why is there a river here?"

Strike Anywhere was wrestling a birchbark canoe out of the shadows. He emerged from beneath the table, turned the canoe over and put it on his head, then began to carry it toward the gleaming river as Orlando and Fredericks scrambled after him. "Why river?" His voice echoed inside the canoe. He seemed confused by the question. "Sink overflow." He gestured to where a cataract of water was pouring down the front of the cabinet, pooling at its base, and extending a tongue of river in each direction. For water that was falling such a distance, it did not splash very much. "Sink always overflow."

Orlando decided he was not going to figure out the whys and wherefores of this place so easily; it would be better just to concentrate on what happened next. Still, his Thargor-training made him very uncomfortable with not knowing the ground rules.

Strike Anywhere helped them into the canoe, prestidigitally produced a paddle, and edged the craft out onto the river.

"And who are we following?" Orlando asked.

"Bad men," the Indian said, then brought a long, unjointed finger to his lips. "Talk quiet. Kitchen waking up."

It was hard to see anything by the lunar light of the bulb far overhead. Orlando settled back, watching the shadows of counter and cabinets slide past.

"What are we doing this for?" Fredericks whispered.

"Because he helped us. Someone stole his kid." The memory of Dispose Carefully's tragic eyes seemed an unanswerable argument.

Fredericks apparently did not feel the same way. "This is stupid, Orlando. They're just Puppets!" He lowered his head and spoke into Orlando's ear, unwilling to state this harsh fact loud enough for the Puppet nearest them to hear. "We've lost the only real people, maybe, in this whole impacted place, and instead of looking for them, we're risking our lives for . . . for code!"

Orlando's rebuttal died on his tongue. His friend was right. "It just . . . it just seems like we should do this."

"It's not a game, Gardiner. This isn't the Middle Country. It's a whole lot weirder, for one thing."

Orlando could only shake his head. His faint and entirely inexplicable belief that they were doing the right thing did not lend itself well to argument. And in fact, he thought, maybe he was just kidding himself. The simple fact of being able to move around without feeling like it would kill him had obscured some of the harsher facts, and he had quickly fallen into the gaming mode of taking any challenge, of building sudden and apparently pointless allegiances. But that was game logic—this, their situation, was not a game. Actual lives were at stake. The people they were contending against were not the Table of Judgment, a claque of moonlighting engineers and role-playing idiot savants. Instead, unless Sellars had made the whole thing up, the masters of Otherland were incredibly rich, powerful, and ruthless. In fact, they were murderers.

And what was Orlando's response to this threat, and to being separated from the only other people who understood the danger? Getting sidetracked into a search for a lost cartoon baby with a cartoon Indian through an animated kitchen. Fredericks was right. It didn't make a lot of sense.

He opened his mouth to admit his own stupidity, but at that moment the chief turned and brought finger to lips once more. "Sssshhhhh."

Something was bobbing on the water just in front of them. The Indian did not give it a look as he steered the canoe silently past it; his attention was fixed farther ahead. Orlando had time only to notice that the floating object was a waterlogged box, sinking rapidly, and that the faint smudge of words painted on it advertised some kind of floor wax, then his attention was diverted by the sound of slow, labored breathing.

"What's that?" Fredericks asked nervously.

A shape gradually materialized on the river before them—an extremely odd shape. Strike Anywhere paddled forward until they were within a few feet of it, but Orlando still could not make out exactly what was floating on the water beside them. It was a hinged object, like an open oyster shell, but another shape, scrawny and bent, stood inside it, like the famous Venus Orlando had seen in so many advertisements and on so many nodes.

It was some kind of turtle, he realized finally, but it was naked, and standing in its own open shell. Even more ludicrously, it was blowing against the raised half-shell, as though to force itself forward.

"That is so tchi seen," Fredericks murmured. "It's . . . it's a turtle."

The scrawny figure turned toward them. "I am not," it said in a dignified but very nasal voice. It produced a pair of spectacles from somewhere and balanced them on the end of its beaklike nose, then examined the newcomers carefully before speaking again. "I am a tortoise. If I were a turtle, I would be able to swim, wouldn't I?" It turned back and blew out another great shuddering breath, but the shell did not move forward even a centimeter. Instead, the canoe slid alongside, and Chief Strike Anywhere backed water to hold them there.

"That not work," he observed evenly.

"I've noticed," said the tortoise. "Any other useful comments?" His dignity was more than a little pathetic. Wearing nothing but his baggy bare skin, and with his head wobbling slightly at the end of his wrinkled neck, he gave the impression of an old bachelor caught outside in his pajamas.

"Where you going?" Strike Anywhere asked.

"Back to shore, as quickly as possible." The tortoise frowned. "Although I would have thought I'd be closer by now. My shell, though water-repellent, does not appear well-suited for river travel."

"Get in boat." The chief paddled a little closer. "We take you,"

"Very kind!" The tortoise nevertheless examined him a moment longer. "Back to the land, you mean?"

"Back to land," the Indian affirmed.

"Thank you. You can't be too careful. A large jar of Great White scouring powder offered me a ride on its back a little earlier. 'Just grab my fin,' it insisted. But the whole thing didn't feel . . . right, if you know what I mean." The tortoise stepped from the velvety interior of its shell into the canoe, then leaned back and recaptured the floating carapace. The chief angled the canoe toward the shore at the base of the cabinet.

The tortoise began to step into its shell, then noticed Orlando and Fredericks watching. "It would be a little more polite," it said carefully, "if you would turn your backs while I dressed. Failing room to do that, you might at least avert your eyes."

Orlando and Fredericks stared at each other instead, and as the tortoise pulled his outer covering back on, making fussy little noises as he adjusted it, they fought mightily against the laugh that immediately began to bubble between them. Orlando bit his lip hard, and as he felt it sting, suddenly wondered how much of his virtual behavior the suppressor circuits in his neurocannular implant were actually suppressing in RL. Was he biting his real lip right now? What if his family, or the hospital people, were actually listening to all the things he was saying, watching all the things he was doing? They would really wonder what was going on. Or they would think he had scanned out utterly.

This, which started out as an unhappy thought, suddenly struck him with its absurd side as well, and the long-withheld laugh burst out of him.

"I hope you are enjoying yourself," the tortoise said in a frosty tone.

"It's not you," Orlando said, gaining control again. "I just thought of something. . . ." He shrugged. There was no way to explain.

As they neared the bank of the river, they could see something sparkling on the shore and hear faint but lively music. A large dome stood on the floor just at the water's edge. Light streamed out of it through hundreds of small holes and a variety of odd silhouettes were passing in and out of a larger hole in the side. The music was louder now, something rhythmic but old-fashioned. The strange shapes seemed to be dancing—a group of them had even formed a line in front of the dome, laughing and bumping against each other, throwing their tiny wiggling arms in the air. It was only as the canoe drew within a stone's throw of the bank that its crew could finally see the merrymakers properly.

"Scanbark!" Fredericks whistled. "They're vegetables!"

Produce of all types staggered in and out of the main door of the dome beneath a large illuminated sign which read "The Colander Club." Stalks of leek and fennel in diaphanous flapper dresses, zucchini in zoot suits, and other revelers of a dozen well-dressed vegetal varieties packed the club to overflowing; the throng had spilled out onto the darkened linoleum beach in cornucopiate profusion, partying furiously.

"Hmmph," the tortoise grunted disapprovingly. "I hear it's a very seedy crowd." There was not the slightest suggestion of humor.

As Orlando and Fredericks stared in amazed delight, a sudden, hard impact shivered the canoe and tipped it sideways, almost tumbling Orlando overboard. The tortoise fell against the railing, but Fredericks shot out a hand and dragged him down into the bottom of the boat where he lay, waggling his legs violently in the air.

Something struck the boat again, a jarring thump that made the wood literally groan. Strike Anywhere was fighting to keep the canoe afloat in the suddenly hostile waters, his big hands whipping the paddle from one side of the canoe to the other as it threatened to overturn.

As Orlando struggled for balance in the bottom of the canoe, he felt something scrape all the way down the keel beneath him. He scrambled onto his hands and knees to see what had happened.

A sandbar, he thought, but then: A sandbar in the middle of a kitchen floor?

He peered over the side of the pitching canoe. In the first brief moment he could see only the agitated waters splashing high, glowing in the lights from the riverside club, then something huge and toothy exploded up out of the water toward him. Orlando squealed and dropped flat. Huge jaws gnashed with a loud clack just where his head had been, then banged against the edge of the canoe hard enough to rattle his bones as the predatory shape fell back into the water.

"There's something . . . something tried to bite me!" he shouted. As he lay, shivering, he saw another vast pair of jaws rise on the far side of the canoe, streaming water. They opened and then clashed their blunt teeth together, then the thing slid back down out of sight. Orlando groped at his belt for his sword, but it was gone, perhaps overboard.

"Very bad!" Strike Anywhere shouted above the splashing. The canoe sustained yet another heavy blow, and the Indian fought for balance. "Salad tongs! And them heap angry!"

Orlando lay beside Fredericks and the feebly thrashing tortoise in the bottom of the canoe, which was rapidly filling with water, and tried to wrap his mind around the idea of being devoured by kitchen utensils.

 

 

Dread was reviewing the first batch of data from Klekker and Associates on his southern Africa queries, and enjoying the solid bodily hum of his most recent hit of Adrenax, when one of his outside lines began blinking at the corner of his vision. He turned down the loping, percussive beat in his head a little.

The incoming call overrode his voice-only default, opening a window. The new window framed an ascetic brown face surmounted by a wig of black hemp laced with gold thread. Dread groaned inwardly. One of the Old Man's lackeys—and not even a real person. It was the strangest kind of insult. Of course, Dread considered, with someone as rich and isolated as the Old Man, maybe he didn't even realize it was an insult.

"The Lord of Life and Death desires to speak with you."

"So he wants me to come visit the film set?" It was a reflexive remark, but Dread was irritated with himself for wasting sarcasm on a puppet. "A trip to V-Egypt? To whatever it is, Abydos?"

"No." The puppet's expression did not change, but there was a greater primness in its speech, a tiny hint of disapproval at his levity. Maybe it wasn't a Puppet after all. "He will speak to you now."

Before Dread had more than an instant to be surprised, the priest winked out and was replaced by the Old Man's green-tinged deathmask. "Greetings, my Messenger."

"And to you." He was taken aback, both by the God of Death's willingness to dispense with formalities, and by the knowledge of his own double game, emblemized by the documents even now sitting on the top level of his own system. The Old Man couldn't just pop in past the security and read them while the line was open, could he? Dread felt a sudden chill: it was very hard to guess what the Old Man could or couldn't accomplish. "What can I do for you?"

The strange face peered at him for a long moment, and Dread suddenly very much wished he had not answered the call. Had he been found out? Was this the lead-up to the horrible and only eventually fatal punishment that his treachery would earn?

"I . . . I have a job for you."

Despite the odd tone in his employer's voice, Dread felt better. The old man didn't need to be subtle with someone as comparatively powerless as he, so it seemed unlikely he knew or even suspected anything.

And I won't be powerless forever. . . .

"Sounds interesting. I've pretty much tied up all the loose ends from Sky God."

The Old Man continued as though Dread hadn't spoken. "It's not in your usual . . . field of expertise. But I've tried other resources, and haven't . . . haven't found any answers."

Everything about the conversation was strange. For the first time, the Old Man actually sounded . . . old. Although the bandit adrenals were racing through his blood, urging him either to flee or fight, Dread began to feel a little more like his normal, cocky self. "I'd be glad to help, Grandfather. Will you send it to me?"

As if this use of the disliked nickname had woken up his more regular persona, the mask-face abruptly frowned. "Have you got that music playing? In your head?"

"Just a bit, at the moment. . . ."

"Turn it off."

"It's not very loud. . . ."

"Turn it off." The tone, though still a bit distracted, was such that Dread complied instantly. Silence echoed in his skull.

"Now, I want you to listen to this," the Old Man said. "Listen very carefully. And make sure you record it."

And then, bizarrely, unbelievably, the Old Man began to sing.

It was all Dread could do not to laugh out loud at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. As his employer's thin, scratchy voice wound through a few words set to an almost childishly basic tune, a thousand thoughts flitted through Dread's mind. Had the old bastard finally lost it, then? Was this the first true evidence of senile dementia? Why should one of the most powerful men in the world—in all of history—care about some ridiculous folk song, some nursery rhyme?

"I want you to find out where that song comes from, what it means, anything you can discover," the Old Man said when he had finished his creaky recital. "But I don't want it known that you're doing the research, and I particularly don't want it to come to the attention of any of the other Brotherhood members. If it seems to lead to one of them, come back to me immediately. Do I make myself understood?"

"Of course. As you said, it's not in my normal line. . . ."

"It is now. This is very important."

Dread sat bewildered for long moments after the Old Man had clicked off. The unaccustomed quiet in his head had been replaced now with the memory of that quavering voice singing over and over, "an angel touched me . . . an angel touched me."

It was too much. Too much.

Dread lay back on the floor of his white room and laughed until his stomach hurt.

CHAPTER 12
The Center of the Maze

NETFEED/ADVERTISEMENT: ELEUSIS

(visual: happy, well-dressed people at party, slo-mo)

VO: "Eleusis is the most exclusive club in the world. Once you are a member, no doors are closed to you.

(visual: gleaming, angled key on velvet cushion in shaft of light)

"The owner of an Eleusis Key will be fed, serviced, and entertained in ways about which ordinary mortals can only dream. And all for free. How do you join? You can't. In fact, if you're hearing about Eleusis for the first time, you'll almost certainly never be a member. Our locations are secret and exclusive, and so is our membership. So why are we advertising? Because having the very, very best isn't as much fun if no one else knows about it. . . ."

 

His first thought, as he struggled toward the surface of yet another river, was; I could get tired of this very quickly. His second, just after his head broke water, was: At least it's warmer here.

Paul kicked, struggling to keep afloat, and found himself beneath a heavy gray sky. The distant riverbank was shrouded in fog, but only a few yards away, as if placed there by the scriptwriter of a children's adventure serial, bobbed an empty rowboat. He swam to it, fighting a current that although gentle was still almost too much for his exhausted muscles. When he reached the boat, he clung to its side until he had caught his breath, then clambered in, nearly turning it over twice. Once safely aboard, he lay down in the inch of water at the bottom and dropped helplessly into sleep.

 

He dreamed of a feather that glittered in the mud, deep beneath the water. He swam down toward it, but the bottom receded, so that the feather remained always tantalizingly out of reach. The pressure began to increase, squeezing his chest like giant hands, and now he was aware also that just as he sought the feather, something was seeking him—a pair of somethings, eyes aglitter even in the murky depths, sharking behind him as the feather dropped farther from his grasp and the waters grew darker and thicker. . . .

 

Paul woke, moaning. His head hurt. Not surprising, really, when he considered that he had just made his way across a freezing Ice Age forest and fought off a hyena the size of a young shire horse. He examined his hands for signs of frostbite, but found none. More surprisingly, he found no sign of his Ice Age clothes either. He was dressed in modern clothing, although it was hard to tell quite how modern, since his dark pants, waistcoat, and collarless white shirt were all still dripping wet.

Paul dragged his aching body upright, and as he did so put his hand on an oar. He lifted it and hunted for a second so that he could fill both of the empty oarlocks, but there was only the one. He shrugged. It was better than no oar at all. . . .

The sun had cleared away a bit of the fog, but was itself still only directionless light somewhere behind the haze. Paul could make out the faint outlines of buildings on either side now, and more importantly, the shadowy shape of a bridge spanning the river a short distance ahead of him. As he stared his heart began to beat faster, but this time not from fear.

It can't be. . . . He squinted, then put his hands on the boat's prow and leaned as far forward as he dared. It is . . . but it can't be. . . . He began to paddle with his single oar, awkwardly at first, then with more skill, so that after a few moments the boat stopped swinging from side to side.

Oh, my sweet God. Paul almost could not bear to look at the shape, afraid that it would ripple and change before his eyes, become something else. But it really is. It's Westminster Bridge!

I'm home!

 

He still remembered the incident with a burn of embarrassment. He and Niles and Niles' then-girlfriend Portia, a thin young woman with a sharp laugh and bright eyes who was studying for the Bar, had been having a drink in one of the pubs near the college. They had been joined by someone else, one of Niles' uncountable army of friends. (Niles collected chums the way other people kept rubber bands or extra postage stamps, on the theory that you never knew when you might need one.) The newcomer, whose face and name Paul had long since forgotten, had just come back from a trip to India, and went on at length about the scandalous beauty of the Taj Mahal by night, how it was the most perfect building ever created, and that in fact its architectural perfection could now be scientifically proved.

Portia suggested in turn that the most beautiful place in the world was without question the Dordogne in France, and if it hadn't become so popular with horrible families in electric camping wagons with PSATs on the roof, no one would dare question that fact.

Niles, whose own family traveled extensively—so extensively that they never even used the word "travel," any more than a fish would need to use the word "swim"—opined that until all those present had seen the stark highlands of Yemen and experienced the frightening, harsh beauty of the place, there was no real reason to continue the conversation.

Paul had been nursing a gin and tonic, not his first, trying to figure out why sometimes the lime stayed up and sometimes it went to the bottom, and trying equally hard to figure out why spending time around Niles, who was one of the nicest people he knew, always made him feel like an impostor, when the stranger (who had presumably had a name at that time) asked him what he thought.

Paul had swallowed a sip of the faintly blue liquid, then said: "I think the most beautiful place in the world is the Westminster Bridge at sunset."

After the explosion of incredulous laughter, Niles, perhaps hoping to soften his friend's embarrassment, had done his best to intimate that Paul was having a brilliant jape at the expense of them all. And it had been embarrassing, of course: Portia and the other young man clearly thought he was a fool. He might as well have worn a tattoo on his forehead that said "Provincial Lout." But he had meant it, and instead of smiling mysteriously and keeping his mouth shut, he had done his best to explain why, which had of course made it worse.

Niles could have said the same thing and either made it a brilliant joke or defended it so cleverly that the others would have wound up weeping into their glasses of merlot and promising to Buy British, but Paul had never been good with words in that way—never when something was important to him. He had first stammered, then muddled what he was trying to say, and at last became so angry that he stood up, accidentally knocking over his drink, and fled the pub, leaving the others shocked and staring.

Niles still tweaked him about the incident from time to time, but his jokes were gentle, as though he sensed, although he could never really understand, how painful it had been for Paul.

But it had been true—he thought then, and still did, that it was the most beautiful thing he knew. When the sun was low, the buildings along the north bank of the Thames seemed fired with an inner light, and even those thrown up during the intermittent cycles of poor taste that characterized so much of London's latter-day additions took on a glow of permanence. That was England, right there, everything it ever was, everything it ever could have been. The bridge, the Halls of Parliament, the just-visible abbey, even Cleopatra's Needle and the droll Victorian lamps of the Embankment—all were as ridiculous as could be, as replete with empty puffery as human imagination could contrive to make them, but they were also the center of something Paul admired deeply but could never quite define. Even the famous tower that contained Big Ben, as cheapened by sentiment and jingoism as its image was, had a beauty that was at once ornate and yet breathtakingly stark.

But it was not the kind of thing you could describe after your third gin and tonic to people like Niles' friends, who ran unrestrained through an adult world that had not yet slowed them down with responsibility, armed with the invincible irony of a public-school upbringing.

But if Niles had been where Paul had just been, had experienced what Paul had experienced, and could see the bridge now—the dear old thing, appearing out of the fog beyond all hope—then surely even Niles (son of an MP and now himself a rising star in the diplomatic service, the very definition of urbane) would get on his knees and kiss her stony abutments.

 

Fate turned out to be not quite as generous a granter-of-wishes as it might have been. The first disappointment—and as it turned out, the smallest—was that it was not, in fact, sunset. As Paul paddled on, almost obsessed with the idea of docking at the Embankment itself, instead of heading immediately to shore in some less auspicious place, the sun finally became visible, or at least its location became less general: it was in the east, and rising.

Morning, then. No matter. He would climb ashore at the Embankment as planned, surrounded no doubt by staring tourists, and walk to Charing Cross. There was no money in his pockets, so he would become a beggar, one of those people with a perfunctory tale of hardship that the begged-of barely acknowledged, preferring to tithe and escape as quickly as possible. When he had raised money for tube fare, he would head back to Canonbury. A shower at his flat, several hours of well-deserved sleep, and then he could return to Westminster Bridge and watch the sunset properly, giving thanks that he had made his way back across the chaotic universe to sublime, sensible London.

The sun lifted a little higher. A wind came out of the east behind it, bearing a most unpleasant smell. Paul wrinkled his nose. For two thousand years this river had been the lifeblood of London, and people still treated it with the same ignorant unconcern as had their most primitive ancestors. He smelled sewage, industrial wastes—even some kind of food-processing outflow, to judge by the sour, meaty stench—but even the foulest odors could not touch his immense relief. There on the right was Cleopatra's Needle, a black line in the fogs that still clung to the riverbank, backdropped by a bed of bright red flowers fluttering in the breeze. Gardeners had been hard at work on the Embankment, to judge by the yards and yards of brilliant scarlet. Paul was reassured. Perhaps there was some civic ceremony going on today, something in Trafalgar Square or at the Cenotaph—after all, he had no idea how long he'd been gone. Perhaps they had closed the area around Parliament, it did seem that the riverbank was very quiet.

Growing out of this idea, which even as it formed in his mind quickly began to take on a dark edge, was a secondary realization. Where was the river traffic? Even on Remembrance Sunday, or something equally important, there would be commercial boats on the river, wouldn't there?

He looked ahead to the distant but growing shape of Westminster Bridge, unmistakable despite the shroud of mist, and an even more frightening thought suddenly came to him. Where was the Hungerford Bridge? If this was the Embankment coming up on the right, then the old railroad bridge should be right in front of him. He should be staring up at it right now.

He steered the rowboat toward the north bank, squinting. He could see the shape of one of the famous dolphin lampposts appear from the fog, and relief flooded through him: it was the Embankment, no question.

The next lamppost was bent in half, like a hairpin. All the rest were gone.

Twenty meters before him, the remains of this end of the Hungerford Bridge jutted from a shattered jumble of concrete. The girders had been twisted until they had stretched like licorice, then snapped. A ragged strip of railroad track protruded from the heights above, crimped like the foil from a candy wrapper.

As Paul stared, his mind a dark whirlpool in which no thought would remain stationary for more than an instant, the first large wave lifted the rowboat up, then set it down again. It was only as the second and third and fourth waves came, each greater than the one before, that Paul finally tore his eyes from the pathetic northern stub of the bridge and looked down the river. Something had just passed under Westminster Bridge, something as big as a building, but which nevertheless moved, and which was even now stretching back up to its full height, on a level with the upper stanchions of the bridge itself.

Paul could make no sense of the immense vision. It was like some absurd piece of modernist furniture, like a mobile version of the Lloyds Building. As it splashed closer, moving eastward along the Thames, he could see that it had three titanic legs which held up a vast complexity of struts and platforms. Above them curved a broad metal hood.

As he stared, dumbfounded, the thing stopped its progress for a moment and stood in the middle of the Thames like some horrible parody of a Seurat bather. With a hiss of hydraulics that Paul could hear clearly even at this distance, the mechanical thing lowered itself a little, almost crouching, then the great hood swiveled from side to side as though it were a head and the immense construct was looking for something. Steel cables which hung from the structures above the legs bunched and then dangled again, making whitecaps on the river's surface. Moments later, the thing rose back to full height and began stilting up the river once more, hissing and whirring as it moved toward him. Its passage, each stride eating dozens of meters, was astoundingly swift: while Paul was still locked in a kind of paralysis, his joy turned to nightmare in mere seconds, the thing sloshed past him, going upstream. The waves of its passage bounced the little boat roughly, thumping it so hard against the riverwall that Paul had the breath smashed out of him, but the great mechanical thing paid no more attention to Paul and his craft as it passed than he himself would have given to a wood chip floating in a puddle.

Paul lay across the rowing bench, stunned. The mists were thinning as the day grew brighter. He could see Big Ben clearly for the first time, just beyond the bridge. He had thought its top was shrouded in fog, but it was gone. Only a scorched stump protruded above the shattered rooftops of Parliament.

The waves subsided. He clung to the railing and watched the metal monstrosity stalk away down the river. It stopped briefly to uproot some wreckage where the stanchions of Waterloo Bridge had once stood, pulling the great muddy mass of cement and iron from the depths with its steel tentacles, then dropped it again like a bored child and disappeared into the fog, heading toward Greenwich and the sea.

 

 

There were other mechanical monsters, as Paul learned in the days ahead, but he also learned he did not have to work much to avoid them. They did not bother with individual humans, any more than an exterminator who had finished his job would waste time crushing a lone ant on the walkway. But in the immediate hours afterward, he expected to be seized and smashed by one of the gigantic machines at any moment.

Certainly, they had already proved their capacity for destruction. London, or what he could see of it from the river, was a wasteland, the damage far worse than anything it had suffered since the days of Boudicca. The giant machines had smashed and burned whole blocks of streets, even leveled entire boroughs, in what seemed purely wanton destruction. And he knew that the worst was hidden from him. He could see a few bodies scattered in open spaces on the riverbanks, and many more bobbed past him on the river current in the days that followed, but when the wind suddenly turned toward him the smell of death became truly dreadful, and he knew that there must be thousands and thousands more corpses than he could see, trapped in underground stations that had become vast tombs or crushed in the rubble of fallen buildings.

Other incursions had been more subtle. What he had thought in the first hour were red flowers on the Victoria Embankment instead proved to be an alien vegetation. It was everywhere, waving scarlet stems filling up the verges and the traffic islands, swarming over deserted gardens, festooning the remaining bridges and lampposts; for miles at a stretch, the only things moving other than Paul and the river were fronds of the red weed swaying in the rotten wind.

But as shocking as it was to see London in its death throes, other and even stranger surprises awaited him.

Within hours of his encounter with the first metal giant, Paul began to understand that this was not his London, but the city as it might have been generations before his birth. The shop signs he could see from his boat were written in funny, curling script, and advertised services that seemed hopelessly quaint: "millinery," "dry goods," "hosiery." The few cars still recognizable as such were ridiculously old-fashioned, and even the human corpses putrefying in the street seemed oddly antique—most noticeably those of the women, who were dressed in shawls and ankle-length skirts. Some of these nameless dead even wore hats and gloves, as though death itself were an occasion that must be met in formal dress.

 

Hours passed after the shock of seeing the first invader before Paul realized what place he had actually found.

He had steered the boat to a deserted jetty across from Battersea in order to rest his aching arms. In another London—in his London—the famous power station that had dominated this part of the riverfront was long gone, and the municipal authorities were building cloud-piercing fibramic office towers on the spot, but in this London the station itself apparently would not be built for decades yet. But since some terrible conflict seemed to have slaughtered almost everyone, the power station would probably never be built. It was all so confusing!

The sun was dipping low in the west, which softened the ragged skyline and made the destruction a tiny bit more tolerable, and for a long moment Paul just sat in as much personal stillness as he could muster, trying not to think about what lay all around him. He shut his eyes to further the process, but the feeling of imminent doom was so strong he could not keep them closed. At any moment, one of those grotesque, skyscraping machines might appear on the horizon, a tripod remorseless as a hunting beast, hood swiveling until it caught sight of him. . . .

Tripods. Paul stared at the brown water of the Thames swirling around the jetty, but he was no longer seeing it. Tripods, giant war machines, red weeds growing everywhere. There was a story like that, wasn't there. . . ?

It came to him like a blast of cold air, not as the satisfying answer to a question, but as the unwelcome beginning of an even more frightening problem.

Oh, God. H. G. Wells, isn't it? War of the Worlds, whatever that thing is called. . . .

It was one of those works he felt he knew quite well, even though he hadn't actually read the book or seen any of the numerous adaptations (several versions of which, both interactive and straight, were available on the net.) But there was, he felt quite sure, no version like this. Because this was not a version. This was horribly real.

But how can I be somewhere that's also a made-up story?

Even a moment's contemplation of this made his head hurt. There were far too many possibilities, all of them utterly mad. Was it a make-believe place, based on a famous story, but constructed just for him? But that was impossible—he had already decided it was ridiculous to imagine someone building an entire Ice Age set, and how much more mind-numbingly expensive would this London be? And when he considered how many different places he had seen already . . . no. It was impossible. But what other answers were there? Could this be some real place, some London in another dimension that had been invaded by space aliens, and which Wells had somehow tapped into? Was that old author's device, the alternate universe, really true?

Or was it something even stranger—one of those quantum things that Muckler at the gallery was always raving about? Had the fact of Wells' invention caused this place to come into being, a branching of reality that did not exist until the man from Bromley first set pen to paper?

That only led to more questions, each more boggling than the last. Did every made-up story have its own universe? Or just the good ones? And who got to decide?

And was he himself, already missing part of his past, now caught in some ever-ramifying journey, into dimensions farther and farther from his own?

At another time he might have laughed at the idea of a multiple universe run on the basis of editing decisions, but nothing about his situation was in the least bit funny. He was lost in a mad universe, he was impossibly far from home, and he was alone.

 

He slept that evening in a deserted restaurant near Cheyne Walk. It had been looted of everything remotely resembling food, but he was not feeling particularly hungry, especially when every change of wind brought the smell of putrefaction from some new quarter. In fact, he could not remember the last time he had felt truly hungry, and could but dimly remember the last time he had eaten, but the thought only raised more questions, and he was very tired of questions. He pulled drapes from the windows and wrapped himself in them against the cold from the river, then slid down into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

As he made his way up the Thames the next day, moving faster because of a pair of oars he had salvaged from another abandoned boat, he found that he was not the only human being in this ruined London. From the river, and during the course of a few cautious landings before the sun began to set again, he saw nearly a dozen other people, but they were as wary of contact as rats: all of them either ignored his cry of greeting or actually fled on seeing him. Thinking of how everything edible had been taken from the restaurant and the shops he had explored on either side of it, he wondered if these people did not have good reason to shun other survivors. And survivors they clearly were, all of them ragged and blackened with dust and soot, so that at a distance he could not have guessed the ethnicity of any of them.

He found an entire community at Kew the next day, several dozen people in tattered clothes, living in the royal gardens. Paul did not come ashore, but hailed them from the river and asked for news. A small deputation came down to the water's edge and told him that the aliens—the "machine creatures" as these survivors called them, had largely moved away from London, pursuing their inscrutable aims northward, but there were still enough left behind to make life in the city a very hazardous thing. They had themselves come to Kew Gardens only a week ago from Lambeth, which had been almost completely destroyed, and had already lost a few of their party who had been caught on the open green when a tripod had appeared and stepped on them, apparently by accident. When the Kew survivors had finished trapping and eating the last of the squirrels and birds, they told Paul, they planned to move on.

It was good to talk to other people, but there was something in the way they inspected him that made Paul uncomfortable. One of the men invited him to join them, but he only thanked them and rowed on.

The oddest thing, he thought as he made his way up the river toward Richmond, was that his memory of War of the Worlds was that the Martians had proved susceptible to Earth diseases, and had died within a few weeks of beginning their campaign of devastation. But the survivors at Kew had said the first Martian ships had arrived in Surrey over half a year ago. Paul was curious about this variance from the Wells story, and picked up scraps of newspaper dated in the last days before the Martian invasion when he came across them, but of course there was nothing available to tell him the current date. Civilization had come to a halt on the day the Martians came.

In fact, that was the strange thing about the whole situation. Unlike the other stops on his involuntary pilgrimage, this post-invasion England seemed to have reached a kind of stasis, as though someone had played an endgame, then left without removing the pieces from the board. If London was any example, the country, perhaps the world, was completely in the hands of the invaders. The creatures themselves had left only a token force. The tiny residue of human survivors were scrabbling just to survive. It all felt so . . . empty.

This spawned another thought, which began to grow as the day went on, as Paul passed and called out to a handful of other scavenging humans with no result. All of the places he had been since he had somehow lost his normal life were so . . . so old. They were situations and scenarios that suggested a different era entirely—the turn of the century H. G. Wells novel, the strange Boy's Own Paper version of Mars—another and quite different Mars than the one which had spawned these invaders, which was an interesting thought in itself—and the Looking Glass place where he had met Gally. Even his dimmest memories seemed to be of an antique and long-concluded war. And the Ice Age, that was just plain ancient. But there seemed another common element as well, something that troubled him but that he could not quite name.

 

It was the fourth day, and he was just east of Twickenham, when he met them.

He had just passed a small midstream island, and was working his way alongside an open green space on the north side of the river, a park of some kind, when he saw a man walking aimlessly back and forth on the bank. Paul thought he might be another of those whose minds had been permanently deranged by the invasion, because when he hailed him, the man looked up, then stared at him as though Paul were a ghost. A moment later the man began to leap up and down, waving his arms like a spastic flagman, shouting over and over again: "Thank goodness! Oh, heavens! Thank goodness!"

Paul steered closer to the riverbank as the stranger ran down toward him. Caution long since having gained the upper hand over his desire to commune with living humans, Paul stayed a little way out into the water while he made a hasty examination. The middle-aged man was thin and very short, perhaps not much more than five feet in height. He wore spectacles and a small mustache of the sort a later generation would identify with German dictators. But for the ragged state of his black suit, and the tears of apparent gratitude in his eyes, he might have just walked away from his desk in a small, stuffy assurance firm.

"Oh, thank the good Lord. Please come help me." The man pulled a kerchief from his waistcoat pocket and used it to mop his face. It was impossible to tell what color the cloth had once been. "My sister. My poor sister has fallen down and she cannot get up. Please."

Paul stared at him hard. If he was a robber, he was a very unlikely-looking one. If he was the front man for a gang of thieves and murderers, they must be very patient to set bait for the infrequent river travelers. Still, it did not pay to be hasty these days. "What happened to her?"

"She has fallen and hurt herself. Oh, please, sir, do a Christian good deed and help me. I would pay you if I could." His smile was sickly. "If it meant anything. But we will share what we have with you."

The man's sincerity was hard to doubt, and it would take a gun to equalize the difference in their sizes. He had not showed one yet, and Paul had been in range for quite some time. "All right. Let me just tie up my boat."

"God bless you, sir."

The small man bounced from foot to foot like a child waiting to use the toilet as Paul waded ashore, then made his rowboat fast. The man beckoned to him to follow, and set out up the bank toward the trees in a strange, awkward trot. Paul doubted that before the invasion the man had ever gone faster than a walk since he had been a child at school.

As if the memory of former dignity suddenly returned with the presence of a stranger, the man in the black suit abruptly slowed and turned around. "This is so very kind of you. My name is Sefton Pankie." Walking backward now, and in imminent danger at any moment of tripping over a root, he extended a hand.

Paul, who had decided some time back that since he couldn't trust his own mind, he certainly couldn't trust anything else he encountered, shook the man's hand and gave a false name. "I'm . . . Peter Johnson."

"A pleasure, Mr. Johnson. Then if we've done that properly, do let us hurry."

Pankie led him up the hill, through a patch of the ubiquitous red Martian grass that held the hilltop like a conqueror's flag, and down the other side into a copse of beech trees. Just when Paul was beginning to wonder again if the stranger might be leading him into some sort of ambush, the small man stopped at the edge of a deep gulley and leaned over.

"I'm back, my dear. Are you all right? Oh, I hope that you are!"

"Sefton?" The voice was a strong alto, and more strident than melodious. "I thought certain you had run off and left me."

"Never, my dear." Pankie began to make his way down into the gulley, using tree roots for handholds, his lack of coordination again apparent. Paul saw a single figure huddled at the bottom and swung down to follow him.

The woman wedged in a crevice at the bottom of the gulley had lodged in a difficult and embarrassing position, legs in the air, dark lacquered hair and straw hat caught in a tangle of loose branches. She was also extremely large. As Paul made his way down to where he could see her reddened, sweat-gleaming face, he guessed that she was at least Pankie's age, if not older.

"Oh, goodness, who is this?" she said in unfeigned horror as Paul reached the bottom of the gulley. "What must you think of me, sir? This is so dreadful, so humiliating!"

"He's Mr. Johnson, my dear, and he is here to help." Pankie squatted beside her, stroking the expanse of her voluminous gray dress like the hide of a prize cow.

"No need to be embarrassed, Ma'am." Paul could see the problem clearly—Pankie's sister weighed perhaps three times as much as he did. It would be hell just getting her shifted loose, let alone helping her back up the steep slope. Nevertheless, he felt sorry for the woman and her embarrassment, doubly worse because of its indelicacy—already he was beginning to absorb the Edwardian mores of this place, despite their irrelevance in the face of what the Martians had done—and bent himself to the task.

It took almost half an hour to get the woman disentangled from the branches at the bottom of the gulley, since she shrieked with pain every time her hair was tugged, no matter how gently. When she had finally been freed, Paul and Sefton Pankie began the formidable job of helping her up the hill to safety. It was nearly dark when, all extremely disheveled, dirty, and soaked in sweat, they finally stumbled onto the level area at the top.

The woman sank to the ground like a collapsing tent, and had to be persuaded over some minutes to sit up again. Paul built a fire with dry branches while Pankie hovered around her like a tickbird servicing a rhino, trying to clean the worst of the dirt from her with his kerchief (which Paul thought must be a record for pointless exercises.) When Paul had finished, Pankie produced some matches, clearly a treasured possession at this point. They put one into service with lip-biting caution, and by the time the sun had disappeared behind the damaged skyline on the far side of the river, the flames were climbing high into the air and spirits were generally restored.

"I cannot thank you enough," the woman said. Her round face was scratched and smeared with dirt, but she gave him a smile clearly intended to be winsome. "Now it may seem silly, after all that, but I believe in proper introductions. My name is Undine Pankie." She extended a hand as though it were a dainty sweetmeat for him to savor. Paul thought she might be expecting him to kiss it, but decided that a line had to be drawn somewhere. He shook it and reintroduced himself under his hastily-assumed name.

"Words cannot express my gratitude," she said. "When my husband was gone so long, I feared he had been set upon by looters. You can imagine my horror, trapped and alone in that terrible, terrible place."

Paul frowned. "I'm sorry—your husband?" He turned to Pankie. "You said you needed help to save your sister." He glanced back to the woman, but her look was one of perfect innocence, although there was some poorly-hidden irritation to be seen.

"Sister? Sefton, what a curious thing to say."

The small man, who had been busy with a futile attempt to reorder her hair, gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Is, isn't it? I can't imagine what got into me. It's this invasion thing, don't you know. It has quite rattled my wits."

Paul accepted their explanation—certainly Undine Pankie showed no signs of guilt or duplicity—but he was obscurely troubled.

 

Mrs. Pankie recovered herself quite rapidly after that, and spent the rest of the evening holding forth about the terror of the Martian invasion and the horrors of living rough in the park. She seemed to give these burdens about equal weight.

Undine Pankie was a garrulous woman, and before Paul finally begged leave to lie down and sleep, she had told him more than he had ever wanted to know about life among the petit bourgeois of Shepperton, both pre- and post-invasion. Mr. Pankie, it turned out, was a chief clerk in the county surveyor's office—a position his wife clearly deemed beneath his due. Paul could not help feeling that she thought that, with diligence and artful politicking, this might one day be remedied—which, unless the Martians reopened the surveyor's office, he thought was unlikely. But he understood the need to cling to normality in abnormal situations, so as Mrs. P. described the perfidy of her husband's unappreciative supervisor, he tried to look properly saddened, yet optimistic on Mr. Pankie's behalf.

Mrs. Pankie herself was a homemaker, and she mentioned more than once that she was not alone in thinking it the highest position a woman could or should aspire to. And, she said, she ran her house as a tight ship: even her dear Sefton, she made very clear, knew "where to toe the line."

Paul could not miss Mr. P.'s reflexive flinch.

But there was one great sorrow of Undine Pankie's life, which was that the Lord had seen fit to deny her the joy of motherhood, that most sublime of gifts a woman could give to her husband. They had a fox terrier named Dandy—and here for a moment she became muddled, as she remembered that they did not have a fox terrier, any more than they had a house, both of them having been incinerated by a sweeping blast from a Martian heat-ray that had devastated their entire block, and which the Pankies had escaped themselves only because they had been at a neighbor's, trying to get news.

Mrs. Pankie halted her account to weep a few tears for brave little Dandy. Paul felt the tug of the grotesque, to have seen so much ruin, and then to see this huge, soft woman crying over a dog while peering at him from the corner of her eye to make sure he saw how helplessly sentimental she was. But he, who had no home or even idea of how to reach it—how was he to judge others and their losses?

"Dandy was just like a child to us, Mr. Johnson. He was! Wasn't he, Sefton?"

Mr. Pankie had started nodding even before her appeal. Paul didn't think he had been listening very closely—he had been poking the fire and staring up at the red-washed tree limbs—but clearly the man was an old hand at recognizing the conversational cues that led up to his own expected bits.

"We wanted nothing more in this world than a child, Mr. Johnson. But God has denied us. Still, I expect it is all for the best. We must rejoice in His wisdom, even when we do not understand His plan."

Later, as Paul lay waiting for sleep, with the twinned snores of the Pankies beside him—hers hoarsely deep, his flutingly high—he thought she had sounded like she might very well be a little less tolerant if she ever met God face-to-face. In fact, Undine Pankie sounded like the kind of woman who might give Him a rather unpleasant time.

She scared Paul badly.

 

It was strange, he thought the next morning as the boat floated up the Thames, how the tiniest hint of normality could push away the worst and most unfathomable horrors and fill up the day with trivia. The human mind did not want to work too long on vapors—it needed hard fuel, the simple simian things, catching, grasping, manipulating.

It had been less than a day since he had met the Pankies, and already they had turned his solitary odyssey into a kind of punter's day trip. Just this moment they were wrangling over whether Mr. Pankie could catch a fish with a thread and a safety pin. His wife was of the strong opinion that he was far too clumsy, and that such tricks should be left to "clever Mr. Johnson"—the last said with a winning smile that Paul thought had more in common with the lure of a flesh-eating plant than with a normal human facial expression.

But the fact was, they were here, and he had been so subsumed in their relentless, small-minded normality that he had not thought about his own predicament at all. Which was both good and bad.

When he had arisen that morning, it was with more than a little distress to find the Pankies spruced up to the limits of their meager abilities and, as they put it, "set to go." Somehow the idea had developed, with no help from Paul, that he had offered to take them upriver, in search of something more closely resembling civilization than this park on the outskirts of Twickenham.

Mrs. Pankie's attempts to convince him of the benefits of company—"it will be almost like a holiday, won't it, like a jolly children's adventure?"—were almost enough in themselves to send him fleeing, but the couple's need was so naked that he could not turn them down.

But as they had made their way down the riverbank to his boat, which happily was still where he had left it, an odd thing happened. He had gone ahead to pull it all the way onto the shore—the idea of wrestling Undine through the water and trying to boost her into a rocking boat being more than he could bear—and when he turned to watch them coming down the bank, the two shapes, one massive and one small, sent a boll of terror through him, a rush of fear so sudden and so powerful that for a moment he thought he was having a heart attack.

The things in the castle! He saw them clearly in those shapes on the riverbank, the two dreadful creatures that had been following him so long, the large hunter and the small, both heartless, both remorseless, both more terrifying than any mere human pursuers should be. And now they had caught him—no, he had delivered himself to them.

Then he blinked, and the Pankies were again just what they appeared: two unfortunate denizens of this unfortunate world. He squinted, steadying himself on the railing of the boat. Now that the panic had subsided, the situation did not feel the same as when his two stalkers had come close before: on those occasions he had felt naked fear from their mere proximity—a sensation as tangible as chill or nausea. But here, until he had seen the resemblance in the silhouettes, he had felt no alarm at anything except the possibility that Undine Pankie might talk all night.

And surely, if these people were his enemies, they could easily have taken him when he slept. . . .

Mrs. Pankie leaned on her hardworking little husband and waved, holding her crushed hat firmly on her head as the wind freshened- "Oh, look at the boat, Sefton. What a noble little craft!"

It was coincidence, he decided, that was all. One that had struck him on a very tender place, but a coincidence all the same.

*    *    *

But if the Pankies were not his enemies, he thought as the greenery of Hampton Wick slid past on the north bank, they had certainly managed to distract him, and that might be harmful in the long run. The fact was, he had a goal of sorts, and he had not come a whit closer to it as far as he could tell since crossing into this other England.

Her voice—the voice of the bird-woman in his dreams—had spoken to him through the Neandertal child and told him what to do. "You said you would come to me," she had chided him. "The wanderer's house. You must find it, and release the weaver."

But who or what was the weaver? And where in this or any other world could he find something as vague as "the wanderer's house"? It was like being sent on the most obscure scavenger hunt imaginable.

Maybe I'm the wanderer, he thought suddenly. But if so, and I found my house, then I wouldn't need anything else, would I? I'd be home.

Unless I'm supposed to find my house, but find it here in this other London?

The prospect of actually doing something was intriguing. For a moment he was tempted to turn the boat and begin rowing back toward the crippled heart of London. Certainly the house in Canonbury that contained his flat would have been built by this time—most of his street was Georgian—but it was an open question as to whether there was anything of it left. And according to all accounts, the dead were much more numerous in the center of the city.

It seemed, the more he thought about it, a rather long chance—"wanderer" could mean so many things. But what other ideas did he have. . . ?

"He's muddled it again, Mr. Johnson. Stop it, dear, you'll just break the thread! Really, Mr. Johnson, you must come and help my Sefton."

Paul sighed quietly, his thoughts again scattered like the flotsam bobbing on the brown river.

 

The Thames narrowed as they approached Hampton Court, and for the first time Paul saw something almost like normal English life. As he soon discovered, the people here had followed in the wake of the tripods' original march, and a community of the dispossessed had begun to form a few months after the invasion. These refugee villages were even heralded by the unusual sight of smoke; the residents boldly tended their campfires and transacted their barter in the open, protected by a mile-wide perimeter of sentries with signal mirrors and a few precious guns. But Paul guessed that they had hiding places prepared—that, like rabbits grazing on a hillside, they would be gone to cover at the first hint of danger.

Mrs. Pankie was delighted to see a few small settlements at last, and when they made their first stop at one of them, she climbed out of the boat so quickly that she almost turned it over.

A man with a snarling dog on a rope leash traded them a heel of bread for news from the east. When Paul told him what he had seen only days before in the middle of London, the man shook his head sadly. "Our vicar in Chiswick said the city'd burn for its wickedness. But I can't see where any city could be that wicked."

The man went on to tell him there was actually a market of sorts at Hampton Court itself, which would be the best place to go for news and a chance for the Pankies to hook on with one of the local communities. " 'Course, no one takes in any what can't pull their weight," the man said, casting a dubious eye at Undine Pankie. "Times are too hard, they are."

Mrs. Pankie, rapturous at the mere thought of being able to set up housekeeping once more, ignored him. Sefton gave a curt little nod as they parted from the man, as though he realized his wife had been insulted, but was too much of a gentleman himself to acknowledge it.

The palace appeared shortly past a sharp bend in the river, its forest of turrets crowding up into the thin sunlight. There were a disappointingly small number of people ranged on the lawns above the Thames, but when Paul brought the boat in and helped hand Mrs. Pankie ashore, he was told by a woman sitting on a wagon that the market itself was in the Wilderness behind the palace.

"For that's what happened when we were in sight of the river before, and one of them Martian dreadnoughts came sailing past," she said, pointing to the Great Gatehouse, which had been smashed to blackened rubble. For yards in front of the fallen walls, the ground was as smooth and shiny as a glazed pot.

Mrs. Pankie hurried ahead through the grounds. Her husband struggled to keep up with her—like the bear her shape resembled, she was deceptively quick—but Paul decided on a more leisurely stroll. He passed several dozen people, some with what seemed their entire families loaded onto haywains. Others drove racy little traps and gigs that might once have been evidence of prosperity, but were now only flimsier methods of transportation than the farm wagons. No one smiled or did more than nod in return to his greetings, but these market-goers seemed far more ordinary than any of the other survivors he had met. Just the fact of having a market to go to, after so many black months, was enough to lift spirits. The Martians had come, and humanity was a conquered race, but life continued.

As he made his way across the cobbled parking lot toward the Tiltyard Gardens and the crowd of people he could see there, he reflected that whether this was the place the dream-woman had spoken of or not, it was at least an England, and he missed England. A terrible fate still hung over the heads of these people, and those who were here had already suffered terribly—whenever he began to forget the abnormal conditions, he saw another market-goer with missing limbs or terrible burn scars—but building a life out of the destruction he had seen at least had a purpose. He could not say as much for the rest of his journey to this point.

In fact, he realized, he was tired—tired of thinking, tired of traveling, tired of almost everything.

Leaving the red brick walls behind and crossing through into the greenery of the so-called Wilderness, actually a precise garden of hedges and yew trees, raised his spirits a little, even though here, too, patches of the scarlet alien grass had taken root. The market was in full swing. Piles of produce filled the backs of wagons, and barter was brisk. Everywhere he looked someone was vigorously denying the obvious truth someone else was promoting. If he squinted his eyes, it looked almost like a country fair from an old print. He could not see the Pankies anywhere, which was not entirely a tragedy.

As he stood surveying the crowd, which might have contained as many as two or three hundred people, he noticed a dark-haired, dark-complected man who seemed to be looking back at him with more than idle interest. When Paul's gaze met his, the newcomer dropped his eyes and turned away, but Paul could not shake the idea that the man had been watching him for some time. The dark-skinned man stepped past a pair of women haggling over a dog in a basket—Paul was not positive for what the animal was being sold, but he had a notion, and hoped Undine Pankie did not see—and vanished into the crowd.

Paul shrugged and wandered on. Other than his Asiatic features, which even in this earlier time were not impossibly rare, the man had seemed no different than anyone else, and he certainly had not triggered the kind of response Paul had come to associate with danger from his pursuers.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the Pankies. Mrs. P was in tears, and her husband was trying, rather ineffectually, to soothe her. For a moment, Paul thought she had seen the dog transaction and been reminded of poor cooked Dandy.

"Oh, Mr. Johnson, it's too cruel!" She clutched at his sleeve and turned her wide face up to him imploringly.

"Perhaps they only want to raise it as a guard dog. . . ." he began, but the woman was not listening.

"I've just seen her—just the age our Viola would have been, if she hadn't. . . . Oh, it's cruel, it's cruel."

"Here, now, Mrs. Pankie." Sefton looked around nervously. "You're making a scene."

"Viola?"

"Our little girl. She was just the image! I wanted to go speak to her, but Mr. Pankie wouldn't let me. Oh, my poor little girl!"

Paul shook his head. "Your little girl? But you said you had no. . . ."

"Made up," said Sefton Pankie firmly, but Paul thought he heard panic in the man's voice. "A lark, really. We made up a child, you see—named her Viola. Isn't that right, Mrs. Pankie?"

Undine was sniffling and wiping at her nose with her sleeves. "My dear Viola."

". . . And this girl over by the hedges, well, she looked like we'd imagined . . . imagined this daughter might look. You see?" He produced a smile so sickly that Paul wanted to look away. Whatever this was, madness or duplicity, it felt like a glimpse into something he should not see.

Mrs. Pankie had stopped crying, and seemed to have realized she had overstepped herself. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Johnson." Her smile was no more reassuring than her husband's. "You must think me a fool. And I am—I'm an old fool."

"Not at all. . . ." Paul began, but Sefton Pankie was already hustling his wife away.

"She just needs some air," he said over his shoulder, ignoring the fact that in the open gardens there was nothing but. "This has all been terribly hard on her . . . terribly hard."

Paul could only watch them stagger off into the crowd, the large leaning on the small.

 

He was standing by the tall hedges that marked the outside of the famous maze, chewing on some skewered meat that the man selling it had sworn up and down was goat. The vendor had exchanged these viands and a mug of beer for Paul's waistcoat, a price that though high did not seem at the moment out of line. Paul had drained off the beer in one swallow. A little comfort seemed very important just now.

His thoughts were whirling about, and he could not bring them to any order. Could it be as simple as it seemed—that the Pankies, in their insularity, had invented a story-child to fill their childless years? But what had they meant when they said the girl was just the age their Viola would have been, if she hadn't. . . ? Hadn't what? How could you lose—presumably to death—a child you had made up in the first place?

"You are a stranger here."

Paul jumped. The dark-skinned man was standing in the archway that formed the entrance to the maze, a serious expression on his face, his brown eyes wide.

"I . . . I am. I'm sure a lot of folk are. There isn't a market like this for miles and miles."

"No, there is not." The stranger gave a brief, perfunctory smile. "I would like very much to speak with you, Mr. . . ?"

"Johnson. Why? And who are you?"

The man answered only the first question. "Let us say that I have some information that might be of use to you, sir. To someone in . . . special circumstances, at any rate."

Paul's pulse had not returned to normal since the stranger had first spoken, and the careful words the man chose did not slow it any. "Then talk."

"Not here." The stranger looked grave. "But we will not go far." He turned and indicated the maze. "Come with me."

Paul had to make a decision. He did not trust the man at all, but as he had noticed earlier, he had no visceral fear-reaction to him, either. And, like Mr. Pankie, although not to the same degree, the stranger was not of a size to be very threatening. "Very well. But you still haven't told me your name."

"No," said the stranger, gesturing him through the turnstiles, "I have not."

As if to allay Paul's worries, the stranger kept at least a yard of physical distance between them at all times as he led him between the hedge-walls of the maze. Instead of offering revelations, though, he made small talk, asking Paul the state of affairs elsewhere—he did not know, or pretended not to know, where in England Paul had come from—and telling him in turn about the post-invasion rebuilding in the area around Hampton Court.

"Human beings, always they build again," the stranger said. "It is admirable, is it not?"

"I suppose." Paul stopped. "Listen, are you going to tell me anything real? Or were you just trying to get me in here so you can rob me or something?"

"If I were only robbing people, would I speak to them of special circumstances?" the man asked. "Because very few can have such understanding of those words as you, I am thinking."

Even as a premonitory chill ran down his spine, Paul finally realized what the very faint touch of accent was: the stranger, despite flawless English, was Indian or Pakistani. Paul decided the time had come to brazen it out.

"Suppose you're right. So what?"

Instead of rising to the bait, the stranger turned and walked on.

After a moment, Paul hurried to catch up. "Just a little farther now," the man said. "Then we can talk."

"Start now."

The stranger smiled. "Very well. I will tell you first that your traveling companions are not what they seem,"

"Really? What are they, then? Satan cultists? Vampires?"

The dark man pursed his lips. "I cannot tell you, exactly. But I know they are something other than a very nice, jolly couple from England." He spread his hands as they turned the hedge-corner and found themselves at the heart of the maze. "Here we are."

"This is ridiculous." Paul's anger fought hard to overcome a sickly, growing fear. "You haven't told me anything. You've dragged me all this way, and for what?"

"For this, I am afraid." The stranger lunged forward and grabbed Paul around the waist, imprisoning both his arms. Paul struggled, but the man was surprisingly strong. The light at the center of the maze abruptly began to change, as though the sun had suddenly changed direction.

"Halloo!" Mrs. Pankie's shrill cry came from a few passages away. "Halloo, Mr. Johnson? Are you there? Have you found the middle, you clever man?"

Paul could not get enough air to call for help. All around him, a yellow glow was spreading, making the benches and hedges and gravel path dim into buttery transparency. Recognizing the golden light, Paul intensified his struggles. For a moment he got a hand loose and grabbed at the dark man's thick black hair, then the other got a leg behind his, pushed him off balance, and forced him stumbling backward through the light and into sudden nothingness.

Second:
VOICES IN THE DARK

May she flow away—she who comes in the darkness,
Who enters in furtively
With her nose behind her, her face turned
backward—
Failing in that for which she came!

Have you come to kiss this child?
    I will not let you kiss him!

Have you come to injure him?
    I will not let you injure him!

Have you come to take him away?
    I will not let you take him away from me!

—Ancient Egyptian Protective Charm

CHAPTER 13
The Dreams of Numbers

NETFEED/DOCUMENTARY: "Otherworld"—The Ultimate Network?

(visual: Neuschwanstein Castle, with fog rising from the Alpsee)

VO: What kind of world would the richest people on Earth build for themselves? BBN has announced that they are preparing documentary on the "Otherworld" project, a simulation-world much whispered about in virtual engineering circles. Does it exist? Many say that it is no more real than Never Never Land or Shangri-La, but others claim that even if it has been decommissioned, it did exist at one time, and was the single greatest work of its type. . . .

 

It did not think. It did not live.

In fact, it possessed no faculty that had not been given to it by its creators, and at no point had it approached the crucial nexus at which it might—in the classic science-fictional trope—become more than the sum of its parts, more than simply an amalgam of time and effort and the best linear thinking of which its makers were capable.

And yet, in its growing complexity and unexpected, yet necessary, idiosyncrasy, and with no regard for the distinctions made by the meat intelligences which had created it, the Nemesis program had discovered a certain autonomy.

 

The program had been created by some of the best minds on the planet, the J-Team at Telemorphix. The full name of the group was Team Jericho, and although their patron and mentor Robert Wells had never made entirely clear what walls they were meant to bring tumbling down with this or any of their other projects, they nevertheless went at their assigned tasks with a certain esprit de corps common to those who considered themselves the very best and brightest. Wells' chosen were all gifted, intense, and frighteningly focused: there were stretches, in the searing heat of deadline, when they felt themselves to be nothing more than incorporeal minds—or, for brief moments, not even full mentalities, but only The Problem itself, in all its permutations and possible solutions.

Just as its creators were largely unconcerned with their own bodies—being content even at the best of times to dress them carelessly and feed them negligently, but when a project due date loomed, likely to ignore the demands of sleep and hygiene almost entirely—the Nemesis program was largely detached from the matrix in which it operated, the Grail Project (or, as those few who knew the whole truth called it, Otherland). Unlike the majority of inhabitants of that particular binary universe, which had been grown from artificial life templates to mimic the actions of living creatures, Nemesis was designed to mimic real-world organisms only insofar as it was necessary for smooth movement and inconspicuous surveillance, but it did not consider itself a part of the environment any more than a bird of prey considered itself part of the branches on which it occasionally came to rest.

Moreover, a hardwired obsession with the being of things rather than their seeming directed it, an impulse quite different from that which had been built into the other aggregations of code that imitated life throughout the network. Nemesis was a hunter, and although lately its need to hunt in the most efficient manner had brought it to contemplate certain changes in its mode of operation, it still could no more act as the normal artificial life objects within the Grail Project could act than it could spring free into the open air beyond the electronic universe.

Nemesis occupied its own reality. It had no body, and hence no bodily concerns, even when the cloud of values that accompanied it changed to create a new and convincing organism-imitation inside a simulation. But the mimicry of life was only for the benefit of observers—Nemesis itself was not in or of the simulations. It moved through them, above them, over them. It propagated through numerical space like a coherent fog, and was no more aware that it was simulating an endless array of bodies that would appear realistic to VR-abetted human sensory organs than rain could be aware it was wet.

Since the code-switch had been thrown, since the first command had, like lightning above Castle Frankenstein, brought it to its approximation of life, Nemesis had pursued its intractable needs in the linear fashion its creators had designed—search for anomalies, determine greatest/nearest anomaly, move toward it and examine for points of comparison, then, inevitably, move on, the quest still unsatisfied. But the whirling chaos of information that was the Otherland network, the sea of shifting values that humans, although they had created it, could scarcely comprehend, was not entirely what Nemesis had been programmed for. In fact, the difference between the conceptual map of Otherland which Nemesis had been given and the Otherland through which it moved were so different that the program had come close to being paralyzed in its very first moments by this simple and most basic paradox: If the search is for anomalies, and everything is anomalous, then the starting point is also the ending point.

But without knowing it, the fallible meat intelligences of the Telemorphix J-Team had given their creation more flexibility than they intended. In the ganglionic mesh of subroutines, the drive to hunt, to move forward, found the necessary distinctions that would allow it to treat Otherland as an undiscovered country, which thus freed it from its reliance on the original conception. It would find the pattern of this new, anomalous version of the matrix, and then look for anomalies to that pattern.

With this flexibility, however, came newer and greater complexity, and the realization that even after bypassing the initial problem, the task as constituted could not be completed. The smaller anomalies of the system, the kind which Nemesis had been created to examine, were too many: Nemesis as originally constituted could not inspect and consider them all as fast as new ones arose.

But it was not an impossible disparity. The J-Team, those deities that Nemesis could not imagine, and hence could not worship or even fear, had only failed in their estimates by a smallish factor. Thus, if some degradation of perception could be allowed without spoiling the ultimate success of its hunt, Nemesis could divide itself for greater coverage. Although the program had no perception of an "I," a controlling intelligence at the center of itself—a convenient illusion that its creators universally shared—it nevertheless operated as a central control point, a processing nexus. Subdividing that control point would reduce its capacities in each subordinate unit, but would allow faster processing of the gross inspections.

There was another factor arguing for subdivision as well, a strange thing which had come to the Nemesis program's notice and sparked its cold interest. During its timeless hours of movement and inspection, as it floated on the number-winds and learned from their shape and force, it had become aware of something else, something so far from the conceptual map of the environment it had originally been given as to briefly constitute a new danger to the Nemesis program's logical integrity.

Somewhere—another metaphor that meant nothing to the program, since information space had no recourse to physical distance or direction, except to simulate them for humans—somewhere on the distant edge of Otherland, things were . . . different.

Nemesis did not know how they were different, any more than it knew how something in a universe without spatial distance could be far away, but it knew that both things were true. And, for the first time, Nemesis felt a pull that could not entirely be explained by its programming. It was another anomaly, of course, something the human creators had not known of or even suspected, but this anomaly was of such a different order to those which drew the program's hunting attention that it should most likely have gone unnoticed, as something which does not move at all is invisible to certain predators. But something about this distant "place," where things were different, where the currents of numerate existence moved in a new and—to Nemesis—incomprehensible way, had caught its attention, and now had become the closest thing to an obsession that a soulless, lifeless piece of code could entertain.

So, of the many subordinate versions of itself it would create, while committing a kind of suicide-by-diminishment of its central self, Nemesis had decided it would designate one carefully-constructed subself to go in search of this Greater Anomaly, to fare outward on the currents of information toward that unimaginably distant no-place, and—if it could—to bring back something resembling Truth.

Nemesis did not think. It did not live. And only someone who did not understand the limits of simple code, the chill purity of numbers, would dare to suggest that it might dream.

CHAPTER 14
Games In The Shadows

NETFEED/NEWS: Pheromones Join List of Controlled Substances

(visual: ants head-to-head, rubbing feelers)

VO: The same chemicals insects use to transmit information, and which human retailers have apparently been using to influence customers to buy, and even to convince them to avoid competitors' products, will be much more strictly regulated according to the UN's new guidelines, despite protests from the US, French, and Chinese governments.

(visual: Rausha at lectern in front of UN logo)

Victor Rausha of the UN's Department of Consumer Protection announced the regulatory changes.

RAUSHA: "It's been a long, uphill battle against some very powerful lobbies, but consumers—citizens—must have the right to make up their minds without subliminal prompting of any sort, and olfactory cueing is known to be particularly powerful. If food retailers are allowed to make their customers hungry, then what is to stop police forcing citizens to be obedient, or governments forcing them to be grateful? Where does it stop?"

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"I used to love the rain. If there is anything I miss because I have lived so long in my home beneath the ground, it is the feeling of rain on my skin.

"Lightning, too—that bright slash in the sky, as though for a moment the universe of matter had been torn open to reveal the transcendent light of eternity. If there is anything I miss because of the way I am, it is the sight of God's magnificent face peering through a crack in the universe."

"My name is Martine Desroubins. I can no longer continue my journal by normal methods, as I will explain, so I am subvocalizing these entries into . . . into nothingness, for all I know . . . in the hope that someday, somehow, I will be able to retrieve them. I have no idea what sort of system underlies the Otherland network, or the extent of its memory—it may be that these words will indeed be lost forever, just as if I had shouted them into a high wind. But I have made a ritual of these summations, these self-reflections, for too many years to stop now.

"Perhaps someone else will pull these words out of the matrix someday, years from now, when all the things that concern me now, that frighten me so, will be past history. What will you think, person from the future? Will the things I say even make sense? You do not know me. In fact, even though I have kept this journal all my adult life, sometimes I still find myself listening to the thoughts of a stranger.

"Am I speaking to the future, then, or like all the madwomen of history, am I only mumbling to myself, alone in a vast personal darkness?

"There is no answer, of course."

 

"There have been times before this when I have gone days without keeping this journal—weeks even, during illnesses—but never has the empty time hidden changes as astonishing as what I have experienced since I last set out my thoughts. I do not know where to begin. I simply do not know. Everything is different now.

"In a way, it is wonderful that I can even take up my journal once more. For a time, I feared I would not think coherently again, but as the days—or the illusion of days—go by in this place, I am finding it a little easier to suffer the stunning wash of input that is Otherland, or as its creators call it, the Grail Project. My physical skills, too, have improved somewhat, but I am still childishly clumsy and confused by the world around me, still almost as helpless as when I first lost my sight twenty-eight years ago. That was a terrible time, and I had sworn never to be so helpless again. God makes a point of calling one's bluff, it seems. I cannot say that I approve of His sense of humor.

"But I am not a child any more. I wept then, wept every night, and begged Him to give me back my sight—give me back the world, for that is what it seemed I had lost. He did not help me, and neither did my fretting, ineffectual parents. Helping was beyond their power. I do not know whether it was beyond His."

"It is strange to think of my mother and father, after so long. It is stranger still to think that they are still alive, and at this moment are living perhaps less than a hundred kilometers from my physical body. The distance between us was already so great, even before I crossed over into this inexplicable Otherland—this imaginary universe, this toy of monstrous children.

"My parents meant no harm. There are worse summations you can make of people's lives, but that is small comfort. They loved me—they still do, I am sure, and my separation from them probably causes them great pain—but they did not protect me. That is hard to forgive, especially when the damage was so great.

"My mother Genevieve was an engineer. So was my father Marc. Neither of them got on well with other people; both felt more comfortable with the certainties of numbers and schematics. They found each other like two timid forest creatures and, recognizing a shared outlook, decided to hide from the darkness together. But you cannot hide from darkness—the more lights, the more shadows they make. I remember this well from the time when there was still light for me,

"We scarcely went out. What I remember is sitting in front of the wallscreen every evening, watching one of the science fiction shows they loved so much. Always linear dramas—interactives did not interest them. They interacted with their work and each other and, marginally, with me. That was quite enough commitment to the world outside their own heads. As the wallscreen flickered, I colored in coloring books, or read, or played with building toys, and my parents sat on the overstuffed couch behind me smoking hashish—'discreetly' is how they once phrased it—and chattering to each other about some silly scientific mistake or piece of illogic in one of their beloved shows. If it was one they had seen before, they would discuss the mistake again just as cheerfully and exhaustively as they had the first time they had spotted it. Sometimes I wanted to scream at them to be quiet, to stop talking nonsense.

"They both worked at home, of course, most of their contact with colleagues coming through the net. That had undoubtedly been one of the most important things for them about their chosen profession. If it had not been for my school, I might never have left the house at all.

"My parents' lack of engagement with the outside world, at first largely a bemused disinterest, began to sour over the years. My mother in particular became more and more fearful of all the hours when I was out of her sight, as though I were some daring child astronaut who had left our safe spaceship home, and the quiet streets of the Toulouse suburbs were an alien landscape full of monsters. She wanted me back on board as soon as school was over. By the time I was seven years old, if there had really been such a science-fiction thing as a teleport machine to bring me instantaneously from my classroom back to the living room, she would have bought one, no matter how expensive.

"In the early part of my childhood, when they were both working, they might even have been able to afford such a device if it had existed . . . but things went wrong. My father's casual cheeriness was a mask over a kind of stunned helplessness in the face of any complication. One unpleasant executive hired in above him eventually drove him from a company he had helped found, and he was forced to settle for a lower-paying job. My mother's job vanished through no fault of her own—the company lost its contract with AEE, the European Space Agency, and her entire division was eliminated—but she found it almost impossible to go out and look for a new one. She made excuses and stayed home, living more and more on the net. My parents clung to their house in the quiet suburbs, but as months went by, they found it very expensive. The stoned discussions sometimes grew tense and accusatory. They sold their expensive processing station to a friend and replaced it with a cheap, second-hand model made somewhere in West Africa. They stopped buying new things. We ate cheaply, too—my mother made soup by the gallon, grumbling like a princess forced to be a scullery maid. Even now, I equate the scent of boiling vegetables with unhappiness and quiet rage.

"I was eight when the offer came—old enough to know that things were wrong at home without having the slightest ability to change anything. A friend of my father's suggested that my mother might be able to find work at a certain research company. She wasn't interested—nothing except a very bad fire would have driven her out of the house at that point, I think, and I am not sure even of that—but my father followed up, thinking perhaps he could find some extra part-time work there.

"That did not happen, although he went through several interviews and got to know one of the project managers fairly well. This woman, who I honestly think was trying to do my father a favor, mentioned that although they did not need any more engineers at present, they did need test subjects for a particular project, and the company funding the research paid very well.

"My father volunteered. She informed him that he did not fit their requirements, but from what she could see on his application form, his eight-year-old daughter did. It was an experiment in sensory development, funded by the CHnsor Group, Swiss-based specialists in medical technologies. Was he interested?

"To his credit, my father Marc did not instantly say yes, although the amount being offered was nearly as much as his wages for a year. He came home in a rather disturbed mood. He and my mother carried on whispered discussions all through the evening's linear dramas and louder ones after they had put me to bed. I discovered later that although neither of them were firmly for or against the idea, the shifting disagreement spawned by the offer brought them closer to separation than anything else in their marriage. How typical of them—even when they were having the worst argument of their lives, they did not know what they wanted.

"Three nights later, after a few calls for reassurance to the pseudo-academic organization being paid to perform the study—I do not exaggerate or insult here, since there were few universities left even then who did not owe their souls to corporate sponsorship—my parents had convinced themselves it would be all for the good. I think, in their strange and unsocialized way, they had even begun to believe that something important might come out of it for me personally, something more than simply money for the family—that some hidden aptitude of mine would emerge in the testing, and I would prove to be an even more exceptional child than they believed me to be.

"They were right in one sense—it did change my life forever.

"I remember my mother coming into my room. I had left early and gone to bed with a book because their strange, almost . . . somnambulistic, that is the word—their somnambulistic squabbling of the preceding days had made me nervous, and I looked up guiltily when she came in, as though I had been caught doing something wrong. The paint-thinner smell of hashish clung to her ragged jumper. She was a little dopey, as she often was by that time of the night, and for a moment, as she tried to think of how she wanted to explain the news to me, her slow inarticulacy frightened me. She seemed something not quite human—an animal, or some kind of alien doppelganger from one of the netshows that had run as background through my childhood.

"As she explained their decision I grew even more frightened. I was going to stay by myself for just a little while, she told me, and help some people with an experiment. Nice men and women—strangers, was what she really meant—were going to take care of me. It would help my family, and it would be interesting. All the other girls and boys in my school would be jealous of me when I came back.

"How could even a woman as self-absorbed as my mother have thought this would do anything but fill me with dread? I cried all night and for days afterward. My parents acted as though I were merely afraid of going off to summer camp or the first day of school, and told me that I was making a fuss over nothing, but even they must have realized there was something questionable about their parenting. They gave me my favorite desserts every night and went two weeks without smoking hash so they could save the money to buy me a new outfit.

"I wore the new coat and dress on the day I traveled to the institute. Only my father went with me on the plane to Zurich—at this point my mother could not even go down to drop a parcel in the corner letter box without hours of preparation. When we landed, on a day so gray that I have never forgot its dull metallic color through all the intervening darkness, I felt sure that my father was planning to abandon me, as the father of Hansel and Gretel had left his children in the forest. The people from the Pestalozzi Institute met us in a big black car, exactly the kind of vehicle little girls are instructed never to get into. It all seemed very secretive and ominous. What little I saw of Switzerland on the trip to the institute frightened me—the buildings were strange and there was snow on the ground already, although it had been pleasantly warm in Toulouse. When we got to the complex of low buildings, surrounded by gardens that must have been cheerful in a more cheerful season, they asked my father if he wished to spend the first night with me before the experiment began. He already had his ticket back that evening, more worried about leaving my mother alone than leaving me. I cried and would not kiss him good-bye.

"Strange, strange . . . the whole thing was strange. I asked my parents later—no, demanded that they tell me how they could send a young child away like that. They could offer no reason except that it seemed a good idea at the time. 'Who could ever imagine this would happen, dear?' is what my mother said. Who indeed? Perhaps someone who thought about things beyond the wallscreen and the living room.

"Oh, it makes me so angry even now.

"In their way, the workers at the Pestalozzi Institute were very kind. They worked with many children, and the Swiss do not love their sons and daughters less than other people do. There were several counselors on staff whose entire job was to help the subjects of research—for almost all the institute's work was with childhood development—feel comfortable. I remember a Mrs. Fuerstner who was particularly kind. I often wonder what happened to her. She was no older than my mother, so she is probably alive today, perhaps still in Zurich. I think it is safe to say she is not working for the institute, however.

"I was given a few days to become used to the idea of my new surroundings. I shared a dormitory-type room with many other children, most of whom spoke French, so I was not lonely in the ordinary sense of the word. We were well fed, and our keepers provided every kind of toy and game. I watched science fiction programs from the net, although they seemed curiously lifeless without my parents' running commentary.

"At last Mrs. Fuerstner introduced me to Doctor Beck, a golden-haired woman who I thought as pretty as a storybook princess. As the doctor explained in her sweet, patient voice about what I would be asked to do, I found it harder and harder to believe that anything bad would happen. Such a beautiful lady would never try to hurt me. And even if some mistake were made, I knew that Mrs. Fuerstner would not allow me to come to harm. You see, I had always been protected—although not in the most important ways, I later realized—and now these good people were assuring me that at least in that regard, nothing would change.

"I was to be part of an experiment in sensory deprivation. I am still not certain exactly what the institute thought it would learn from these exercises. At the hearings, they said they had been commissioned to study baseline biological rhythms, but also to examine how environmental factors affect learning and development. What use this would be to a medical and pharmaceutical multinational like the Clinsor Group was never made clear, but the Clinsor people had a huge research budget and many interests—the Pestalozzi Institute was only one of the many beneficiaries of their largess.

"It would be a sort of unusual holiday, Doctor Beck explained to me. I would be staying by myself in a very dark, very quiet room—like my room at home, but with its own bathroom. There would be plenty of toys and games and exercises to keep me occupied, but I would have to do them all in the dark. But I would not be alone, the doctor explained, not really, because she or Mrs. Fuerstner would always be listening over the speakers. I could call them any time and they would speak to me. It would only be for a few days, and when it was all over, I would get as much cake and ice cream as I could eat, and any toy I wanted.

"And my parents, she did not bother to add, would get paid.

"It seems silly to say this now, falsely significant, but as a child I had never been particularly afraid of the dark. In fact, if this were a story, I would begin my journal entry that way—'As a child, I was never afraid of the dark.' Of course, if I had known that I would be spending the rest of my life in darkness, I might have resisted that first descent.

"Much of the information the Pestalozzi Institute gathered from me and the other child subjects of their sensory-deprivation testing was essentially redundant. That is, it only confirmed that which had already been discovered in adult subjects, people who had been a long time underground, in caves or lightless cells. Child subjects displayed a few differences from adults—they adapted better in the long run, although they were also more likely to be adversely affected in their long-term development—but such obvious findings seem a very small result for such an expensive program. Years later, when I went back and read the company researchers' testimony from the lawsuit, I was furious to see how little wisdom the loss of my happiness had gained.

"At first, as Doctor Beck had said, it was very simple. I ate, played, and went about my days in the dark, i went to sleep in total darkness, and woke up in the same black nothing, often to the sound of one of the researchers' voices. I came to rely on those voices, and even, after a while, to see those voices. They had colors, shapes—things that I cannot easily describe, just as I cannot describe to my current traveling companions how my perceptions of this artificial world differ from theirs. I was getting my first taste of the synaesthesia brought on by narrowed sensory input, I suppose.

"The games and exercises were simple things at first, sound-identification puzzles, things that tested my time-sense and memory, physical routines to see how darkness affected my balance and general coordination. I'm sure that what I ate and drank and excreted were also being monitored.

"It was not long until I began to lose all grasp of time. I slept when I was tired, and if the researchers did not wake me, might sleep for twelve hours or more—or, just as likely, for forty-five minutes. And, not surprisingly, I awakened from these slumbers with no sense of how long I had been away. This in itself did not trouble me—it is only with age that we learn to fear loss of control over time—but other things did. I missed my parents, ineffectual though they were, and without being able to explain it, I think I had even begun to fear I would never be returned to the light.

"This fear proved prophetic, of course.

"From time to time Doctor Beck let me talk to one of the other children over the audio channel of the blanked wallscreen. Some of them were in isolated darkness as I was, others were in the light. I do not know what the researchers learned—we were children, after all, and although children can play together, they are not conversationalists. But one child was different. The first time I heard his voice, it frightened me. It hummed and quacked—in my mind's eye the sound had a hard, angular shape, like an ancient mechanical toy—and its accent was nothing I had ever heard. In retrospect I can say that the sounds came from a voice synthesizer, but at the time I created quite fearful mental pictures of what or who would have such a tongue in its head.

"The strange voice asked me my name, but did not offer its own. It sounded hesitant, and there were many long pauses. The whole matter seems strange to me now, and I wonder whether I might have spoken to some kind of artificial intelligence, or some autistic child whose deficits were being improved upon by technology, but at the time I remember being both fascinated and frustrated by this new playmate, who took so long to speak, and spoke so strangely when the words finally came.

"He was alone, he said. He was in darkness, too, as I was, or at least he did not seem to be able to see—he never spoke of vision, except in half-learned metaphor. Perhaps he was blind, as I am now blind. He did not know where he was, but he wanted to come out—he said that repeatedly.

"This new playmate was only with me a few minutes the first time, but on later occasions we spoke longer. I taught him some of the sound-only games the researchers had used on me, and I sang him songs and told him some of the nursery rhymes I knew. He was curiously slow to understand some things, and so quick with others as to be alarming—at times it seemed he was sitting with me in my pitch-black room, somehow watching everything I did.

"On our fifth or sixth 'visit,' as Doctor Beck called them, he told me that I was his friend. You cannot imagine a more heartrending admission, and it will stay with me always.

"I have spent many days of my adult life trying to find that lost child—following the institute's records down every fruitless alley, tracking everyone who was ever involved with the Pestalozzi experiments—but I have had no luck. Now I wonder if it was a child at all. Were we perhaps the subjects of a Turing test of some kind? The training ground for a program that might someday be able to smoothly fool adults, but at this early stage could only flounder through conversations with eight-year-olds, and not very well?

"Whatever the case, I did not speak to him again. Because something else happened.

"I had been in darkness for many days—over three weeks. The institute's researchers were ready to bring my portion of the experiment to a close within another forty-eight hours. Thus, I was being given a particularly complex and thorough set of final diagnostic tests—delivered with pseudomaternal sweetness by Mrs. Fuerstner—when something went wrong.

"Depositions from the lawsuit are unclear, because the Pestalozzi people themselves are not certain, but something went gravely wrong in the institute's complex house system. I experienced it at first as the loss of Mrs. Fuerstner's soft, bewitching voice in mid-sentence. The hum of the air-conditioners, which had been a constant part of the environment, suddenly stopped as well, leaving behind a silence that was actually painful to my ears. Everything was gone—everything. All the friendly sounds which had made the darkness seem something less than infinite had ended.

"After a few minutes, I began to feel frightened. Perhaps there had been a robbery, I thought, and bad men had taken Doctor Beck and the others away. Or maybe some kind of big monster had got loose and killed them, and was now sniffing up and down the corridors, looking for me. I rushed to the thick, soundproofed door of my quarters, but of course with the system power gone, the door locks were frozen. I could not even lift up the hatch of the blackout slot where my meals were delivered. Terrified, I screamed for the doctor, for Mrs. Fuerstner, but no one came or answered. The darkness became dreadful to me in a way it had not in all the days before, a thing, thick and tangible, I felt it would take my breath, squeeze me until I choked, until I gasped in blackness itself and filled up with it, like someone drowning in a sea of ink. And still there was nothing—no noise, no voices, a silence like the tomb.

"I know now, from depositions, that it took nearly four hours for the institute's engineers to get the system up and running. To little Martine, the child I was, forgotten in the dark, it could have been four years.

"Then, at the last, as my mind wandered along the brink of an abyss, ready at any moment to tumble into a disassociation more permanent and total than any mere blindness, something joined me.

"Suddenly, and with no warning, I was no longer alone. I felt someone beside me, sharing the darkness with me, but it was not a relief to my terror. That someone, whoever or whatever it was, filled the emptiness in my apartment with the most dreadful, indescribable loneliness. Did I hear a child crying? Did I hear anything at all? I do not know. J do not know anything now, and at the time I was probably mad. But I felt something come and sit beside me, and felt it weeping bitterly in the smothering black night, a presence that was empty and cold and utterly alone, the single most terrible thing I have ever experienced. I was struck dumb and rigid with utter terror.

"And then the lights came on.

"Odd, the small things on which life hinges. Reaching an intersection just after the traffic light has changed, going back for a wallet and thus missing a plane, walking into the revealing glow of a streetlight when a stranger is watching—small happenstances, but they can change everything. The institute's system crash alone, massive and inexplicable as it was, should not have been enough. But one of the infrastructure subroutines had been incorrectly coded—the matter of a few misplaced digits—and the three apartments on my wing had been left out of the proper start-up procedures. Thus, when the system came up and the power went on, instead of the dull, slow-brightening glow of the transition lights, little more than a sliver of moon on a black night, our three apartments received the full thousand-watt nova of the emergency lights. The other two apartments were empty—one had not been used for weeks, the other's resident had been taken to the institute's infirmary a few days earlier because of chicken pox. I was the only one who saw the emergency lights come up like the blazing stare of God. Saw them for an instant, that is—the last thing I ever saw.

"It is not physical, they tell me, all of them—more specialists than I can remember. The trauma, bad as it was, should not have been permanent. There is no discernible damage to the optic nerve, and the tests indicate that I do actually 'see'—that the part of my brain that processes vision is still processing and responding to stimuli. But, of course, I don't see, no matter what any test may indicate.

" 'Hysterical blindness' is the old term—another way of saying that I could see if I wanted to. If that is true, it is only an academic truth. If I could see by wanting to, then I would not have spent all my years in blackness—could anyone believe anything else? But that one burning instant drove all memory of how to see from my mind, blasting me into permanent blackness, creating in an instant the woman I am today as surely as Saul's new self was created on the Damascus road.

"I have lived in darkness ever since.

"The lawsuit was long—it took almost three years—but I remember little of it. I had been thrust into another world, as surely as if I had been enchanted by an evil fairy, and I had lost everything. It took a long time until I began to make a new world in which I could live. My parents won several million credits from Clinsor and the Pestalozzi Institute, and put almost half of it away for me. That money put me through special schools, and when I became an adult, it bought me my equipment, my home, and my privacy. In a way, it bought me my distance from my parents, too—there is nothing I need from them anymore.

"There is more to say, but the time has gone so fast. I do not know how long I have sat here whispering under my breath, but I can feel the sun beginning to rise in this strange place. In a way, I have started over here, just as I have started this new diary, spoken into nothingness with only the faintest hope that someday I can retrieve it. Was it the English poet Keats who called himself 'one whose name is written in water'? So. I will be Martine Desroubins, the blind witch of a new world, and I will write my name on air,

"Someone is calling me. I must go.

"Code Delphi. End here. "

 

 

It was a melodic sequence of chiming tones that spawned fractal sub-sequences even as the main theme repeated. The sub-sequences threw off subsidiary patterns of their own, creating layer after layer, until after a while the whole world became a mesh of sound so complex it was impossible to pick out one tone, let alone one sequence, from the whole. Eventually it became a single note with millions of harmonics moving in it, a streaming, shimmering, resonating F-sharp that was probably the sound of the universe beginning.

It was Dread's thinking music. Next to the chase, and the occasional adrenal boost, it was his only drug. He did not use it indiscriminately, hungrily, as a chargehead might canline a streamed pop of 2black, but rather with the measured calm of a junkie doctor rigging up a hit of pure pharmaceutical heroin before going back to work. He had cleared the afternoon, hung a digital "Do Not Disturb" sign on his incoming lines, and now he was lying on his back in the middle of the carpet of his Cartagena office, a pillow behind his neck and a squeeze bottle of purified water at his side, listening to the chorus of the spheres.

As the single tone seemed to grow smoother and less complex—because, paradoxically, the iterations were growing exponentially, he felt himself rising up out of his body and into the empty silver space he sought. He was Dread, but he was also Johnny Wulgaru, and he was something else as well, something eerily close to the Old Man's Messenger of Death—but he was more. He was all those things, grown to the size of a star system . . . empty, full of blackness, and yet charged with light.

He felt the twist smolder up out of dormancy, a hot point at the very center of his being. Even as he floated in the silver nothingness of the music, he felt his own strength grow. He could reach out now, if he chose, and twist something far more complex and powerful than a security system. He had a glimpse of the earth lying below him, shrouded in darkness but for a spherical tracery of electronic pathways, a capillary array of tiny lights, and felt—in his silvery, music-maddened grandeur—that if he desired it, he could twist the whole world.

Somewhere, Dread felt himself laughing. It was worth laughing about. Too much, too much.

But was that how the Old Man felt? Was that what the Old Man's kind of power felt like, all the time? That the world was his, to do with as he wished? That people like Dread were just tiny spots of light, less significant than fireflies?

Even if so, Dread was not bothered. He was wrapped in his own silver smugness and did not need to envy or fear the Old Man. All would change, and very soon now.

No, he had other things to consider now, other dreams to dream. He let the single pulsing tone take him out of himself again. The twist warmed him as he returned to the cool, silvery place, the place where he could see far ahead and consider all the small things he needed to do along the way.

Dread lay on the bare office floor and listened to his thinking music.

 

She took an irritatingly long time to answer the call. He had already tapped in on the sim line and knew that the Otherland travelers were sleeping. What was she doing, taking another one of her showers? No wonder she was obsessed with her cat—she was practically one herself, constantly grooming. The bitch needed a little discipline . . . maybe the creative kind.

No, he reminded himself. Remember the silver place. He brought up a little music—not the thinking music (he had used his week's allotment, and he was very stern with himself about such things) but a faint echo, a quiet tonal splashing like water dripping in a pool. He would not let irritation spoil things. This was the thing he had been waiting for all his life.

Although the call carried his signature code, her voice came on without visuals. "Hello?"

Silver place, he told himself. The big picture. "It's me, Dulcie. What, did you just get out of the bath again?"

Dulcie Anwin's freckled face popped into view. She was indeed wearing a terrycloth robe, but her red hair was dry. "I just left the picture off when I answered the phone earlier, and forgot to turn it back on."

"Whatever. We've got a problem with our project."

"You mean because they've split up again?" She rolled her eyes. "If things go on this way, we'll be the only sim left. With the barbarian boys gone, we're down to four—five, counting ours."

"That's not the problem, although I'm not very happy about it." Dread saw a shadow move in the kitchen door behind her. "Is there someone there with you?"

Puzzled, she turned to look. "Oh, for God's sake. It's Jones. My cat. Do you honestly think I'd be having this conversation with you if someone else was here?"

"No, of course not." He turned the splashing music up a little louder, creating an annoyance-soothing calm for himself out of which he could produce a smile. "I'm sorry, Dulcie. A lot of work on this end."

"Too much work, is my bet. You must have been planning the . . . the project we just finished for months. When did you last take some time off?"

As if he were some poor, downtrodden middle-manager. Dread was inwardly amused. "Not for a while, but that's not what I want to talk about. We have a problem. Not only can't we bring in a third person to help drive the sim, we can't even use two people anymore."

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I guess you haven't been paying attention." He tried to make it sound light, but he was not happy to have to point out something so obvious, especially in light of what he was going to ask her. "This Martine—the blind woman. If she is telling the truth, and I see no reason to doubt it, then she's a real danger to us."

Dulcie, as though realizing she had been caught napping, now abruptly put on her professional face. "Go ahead."

"She processes information in ways we don't understand. She says she senses things in the virtual environment that you and I—or the rest of the Sky God refugees—can't feel. If she hasn't noticed yet that our sim is being inhabited by two different people, it's only a matter of time until she works through that white-noise problem of hers and it becomes clear to her."

"Ah." Dulcie nodded, then turned and walked back toward her couch. She sat down and lifted a cup to her lips and took a sip before speaking. "But I did think of that."

"You did?"

"I figured that the worst thing we could do would be to suddenly change whatever subliminal cues we're giving off." She took another sip, then stirred whatever was in the cup with a spoon. "She might already have developed a signature for us, and just accept it as what our sim gives off. But if we change again, then she'd notice something different. That's what I thought, anyway."

Some of Dread's early admiration for Dulcinea Anwin returned. Complete bullshit, but pretty good for something she'd thrown together on the spot. He couldn't help wondering if she'd sit there so calm and self-satisfied if she ever saw him in his true skin—was made witness to his true self, when all the masks were thrown aside. . . . He wrenched himself from the distracting line of thought. "Hmmm. I see what you mean. That makes sense, too, but I'm not sure I buy it entirely."

He could see her decide to try to consolidate what her quick thinking had bought her. "You're the boss. What do you think we should do? I mean, what are our options?"

"Whatever we're going to do, we should make a quick decision. And if we don't go on with things as they are, the only other option is for one of us to take over the sim full time."

"Full time?" She almost lost her hard-won composure. "That's. . . ."

"Not a very appealing idea, I know. But we may have to do it—in fact, you may have to do it, since I've got so bloody much to do. But I'll think about what you said and call you back later. This evening, 2200 hours your time, right? The sim should be asleep then, or we can wander it off from the group to take a leak or something."

Her poorly-hidden irritation amused him. "Sure. 2200 hours."

"Thanks, Dulcie. Oh, a question. Do you know many old songs?"

"What? Old songs?"

"I'm just curious about something I heard. It goes. . . ." He suddenly didn't want to sing to her—it would feel like he were surrendering a little of his edge to someone who was, after all, his subordinate. He chanted it instead: " '. . . An angel touched me, an angel touched me. . . .' Like that. Over and over."

Dulcie stared at him as though he might be engaged in some particularly devious trick. "Never heard it before. What got you so interested?"

He gave her his best smile—his I'd be happy to give you a ride, sweetness smile. "Nothing much. It sounded familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. 2200 hours, then." He clicked off.

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"It was only the river. Strange how even with ears as sharp as mine, ears augmented by the best sound-carrying equipment lawsuit money could buy—which are now processing information from what is apparently the best sound-generating equipment that Grail Brotherhood money can buy—I can still be fooled by the noise of running water.

"I have been thinking about this new journal, and I realize that I have begun it on a very pessimistic note. I am hoping that someday these entries can be retrieved, but to spend so much time talking about my own history seems to assume that someone other than myself will be the one to hear these thoughts. That may be pragmatic, but it is not the right spirit. I must pretend that I will one day rescue these thoughts myself. When I do, I will want to be reminded how I felt right at this moment.

"I cannot say much about coming through into this network, because I remember so little. The security system, whatever it was, seems to me of the same character as the program that captures children, the deep-hypnosis gear which Renie described so horrifyingly from her experience in the virtual nightclub. It seems to operate at a level below the subject's consciousness, and to cause involuntary physical effects. But I remember only a sense of something angry and vicious. Clearly it is a program or neural net whose sophistication and power dwarfs the things I know about.

"But since entering the network I have gradually found my way back through the awful, battering noise, both real and metaphorical, to a kind of sanity I feared I would never find again. And I can do things I never could do before. I have passed beyond the confusion into an entirely new realm of sensory input, like Siegfried splashed by the dragon's blood. I can hear a leaf fall, the grass grow. I can smell a drop of water trembling on a leaf. I can feel the very weather in its complicated, semi-improvisational dance, and guess which direction it will step next. In a way, it is all quite seductive—like a young eagle standing on a branch and spreading its wings against the open wind for the first time, I have the sensation of limitless possibility. It will be hard to give this up again, but of course I pray that we will succeed, and that I will live to do so. I suppose at such a time I would give it all up happily, but I cannot imagine such a thing convincingly.

"In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine success. Four of our number have been pulled away from us already. We have no way of knowing where Renie and !Xabbu have gone, and my sense of them being here, in this particular place, has sharply diminished. Orlando and his young friend have been swept away down the river. I do not doubt that the boys, at least, have passed through into one of the uncountable numbers of other simulations.

"And so we are five. The four who are lost are perhaps the four I would have preferred to stay with—Renie Sulaweyo in particular, despite her prickliness, has become almost a friend, and I find that I miss her very much—but, to be fair, perhaps that is only because I do not know the other four well yet. But they are a strange group, especially in contrast to the openness of !Xabbu and Renie, and I am not entirely easy with them.

"Sweet William is the strongest presence, but I would like to believe his sour irony hides that oldest of clichés, a kind heart. Certainly when we returned to the beach and found him and T4b, there was little question that William was devastated to have seen Orlando and Fredericks taken away. He feels, to my new and as yet not completely understood sensitivities, curiously incomplete. There is a hesitancy to him at times, despite his brash manner, like someone who is afraid of discovery. I wonder what his refusal to discuss his real life hides.

"The old woman, Quan Li, appears less complex, but perhaps she only wishes it to seem that way. She is solicitous and quiet, but she has made some surprisingly good suggestions, and she is certainly stronger underneath than she pretends. Several times during the afternoon, when even tough-minded Florimel was ready to quit the search for Renie and !Xabbu, Quan Li managed to find the resources to push on, and we could only be shamed into following her. Am I reading too much into things? It is not surprising that someone from her culture and generation might feel the need to hide her abilities behind a mask of diffidence. Still . . . I do not know.

"Florimel, who is as aggressively private as William, troubles me most of all. On the surface, she is all business, terse and almost contemptuous of the needs of others. But she herself seems at other times to be barely holding together, although I doubt anyone else would notice that but me. There are such strange fluctuations in her . . . what is the word? Affect, I think. There are such odd but subtle changes in her affect that at times it seems like she is a multiple personality. But I have never heard of a multiple personality pretending to be only one person. From what I understand, in true multiples each internal personage revels in its chance to become dominant.

"Still, my ability to understand all that I perceive is still limited, so perhaps I am mistaken, or am overinterpreting small oddities in her behavior. She is strong and brave. She has done no wrong and much good. I should judge her on that alone.

"Last of this small group, which may contain all that are left of Sellars' desperate attempt to solve the Otherland enigma—after all, we can only hope that Renie and the others have survived—is the young man who calls himself T4b. That he is a man is also an assumption, of course. But certainly there are times when his energies and presentation feel decidedly male to me—he has a barely-hidden swagger sometimes that I have never seen on any woman. But he can be careful, too, in a curiously feminine way, which is why I assume he is younger than he pretends. It is impossible to discern age or anything else from his street dialect, which forces a few short words to serve a variety of meanings—he might be as young as ten or eleven for all I can tell.

"So here I am, with four people who are strangers, in a dangerous place surrounded by, I have no doubt, even more dangerous places. Our enemies must number in the thousands, with immense power and wealth on their side, and the controls to these pocket universes in their hands. We, in contrast, have already seen our number halved in just a few days.

"We are doomed, of course. If we even survive to reach the next simulation, it will be a miracle. There is danger everywhere. A spider the size of a truck caught an insect a few meters from me just yesterday afternoon—I could hear the fly's vibrations change as the life was sucked out of it, one of the most chilling things I have ever experienced in worlds real or virtual. I am so frightened.

"But from here on I will continue this journal as though that were not true, as though I believed that someday I might again move through the familiar spaces of my home and think about these moments as something in the past, as part of a heroic but diminishing time.

"I pray to God that may be true.

"Now someone is stirring. I must go, returning to this strange voyage. I will not say good-bye to you, my journal-of-the-air. I will only say, 'Until I see you again.'

"But I fear it is a lie.

"Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

The cat, with her usual queenly indifference to everything not directly Jones-related, was grooming herself in Dulcie Anwin's lap. Her mistress was psyching herself up for a confrontation. At least, that was what the first glass of that not-great Tangshan red had been about. The second glass—well, perhaps because the first had not made her ready enough.

She didn't want to do it. That was really what it came down to, and he would have to understand that. She was a specialist, had spent more than a dozen years refining her skills, had received on-the-job training that your average gear hack couldn't even imagine—the recent job in Cartagena had been perhaps the bloodiest, certainly for her personally, but by no means the oddest or most far-flung—and it was ridiculous for him to expect her just to shove that aside and become a full-time babysitter for a hijacked sim.

And for how long? Judging by the wandering way this whole thing was going, those people might be a year stuck in this network, if their life-support held up. She would have to give up even the pretense of a social life. She hadn't had a date in almost six weeks as it was, hadn't gotten laid in months, but this would be ridiculous. In fact, the whole thing was ridiculous. Dread would have to understand that. He wasn't even her boss, after all. She was a contractor—he was just one of the people she worked for, when she chose. She had killed a man, for Christ's sake! (A brief moment of worry squeezed her at this last thought. There was something rather jinxlike about that accidental juxtaposition.) She certainly didn't have to curry favor like some little mouse of a junior assistant.

Jones' increasingly energetic grooming was beginning to annoy her, so she dumped the cat off her lap. Jones shot her a look of reproach, then sauntered away toward the kitchen.

"Priority call," announced the wallscreen voice. "You have a priority call."

"Shit." Dulcie drained the last of her wine. She tucked her shirt into her pants—she wasn't going to be answering the phone in her robe any more; that was just asking not to be respected—and sat up straight. "Answer."

Dread's face popped onto the screen, a meter high. His brown skin had been scrubbed, his thick unruly hair pulled back in a knot behind his head. He also seemed more focused than he had earlier, when half the time he had seemed to be listening to some inner voice.

"Evening," he said, smiling. "You're looking well."

"Listen." She barely took a breath—no point in beating around the bush. "I don't want to do it. Not full-time. I know what you're going to say, and I'm certainly aware that you have lots of important things to do, but that still doesn't mean you can force me to take over the whole thing. It's not the money either. You've been very, very generous. But I don't want to do this full-time—it's been hard enough as it is. And although I will never say another word about it to anyone no matter what happens, if you insist, I'll have to resign." She took a deep breath. Her employer's face was almost entirely still. Then another smile began to grow, a strange one; his lips quirked up in a wide curve but never parted. His broad white teeth were entirely hidden.

"Dulcie, Dulcie," he said at last, shaking his head in a mockery of disappointment. "I called you back to say that I don't want you to take over the sim full-time."

"You don't?"

"No. I thought about what you said, and it makes sense. We risk making a more noticeable change. Whatever pattern we're showing by having two of us doing it, the blind woman may have already decided it's just the way our sim acts."

"So . . . so we're going to keep on splitting the job?" She snatched for something to help regain her emotional balance—she had leaned so far in anticipation of an argument that she was in danger of falling over. "But for how long? Is this just open-ended?"

"For the present." Dread's eyes seemed very bright. "We'll see what happens in the long run. And, in fact, you may have to take a little larger share of sim-time than you've been doing, especially in the next few days. The Old Man's put me onto something, and I have to get him some answers, keep him happy." The smile again, but smaller and more secretive. "But I'll still be taking over the puppet on a regular basis. I've got used to it, see? I kind of like it. And there's some . . . some things I'd like to try."

Dulcie was relieved, but also felt she was missing something. "So, then that's it, right? Things just kind of go on as they have. I do my job. You . . . you keep paying me the big credits." She knew her laugh didn't sound particularly convincing. "Like that."

"Like that." He nodded and his picture vanished.

Dulcie had several long seconds to feel herself relaxing, then his face popped on again without warning, forcing her to stifle a squeak. "Oh, and Dulcie?"

"Yes?"

"You won't resign. I just thought I should point that out. I'll treat you well, but you won't do anything unless I tell you to. If you even think about quitting, or telling anyone, or doing anything unusual with the sim without my permission, I will murder you."

Now he showed the teeth, and they seemed to spring out from his dark face and fill the wallscreen like a row of grave markers. "But first we'll dance, Dulcie." He spoke with the dreadful calm of the damned discussing the weather in hell. "Yes, we'll dance. My way."

Long after he had clicked off, she was still wide-eyed and shivering.

CHAPTER 15
A Late Crismustreat

NETFEED/DOC/GAME: IEN, Hr, 18 (Eu, NAm)—"TAKEDOWN!"

(visual: Raphael and Thelma Biaggini in front of burning house, crying.)

VO: The controversial contest/documentary continues with tonight's Part Five. Contestant Sammo Edders follows up his successful (and ratings-busting) arson on the Biaggini's house with an attempt to kidnap the three Biaggini children. Smart money has the rapidly destabilizing Raphael B. committing suicide long before the tenth and final episode. . . .

 

Renie stared at the hollow man, at his nodding head of straw, and her fear was washed away in a surge of indignation. "What do you mean, execute us?" She pulled herself free of the girl Emily's clinging grip. The idea that this lolling thing, this clownish figure from an old children's movie, should threaten them. . . . "You're not even real!"

The Scarecrow's one mobile eye squinted quizzically and a weary smile twisted his sock-puppet mouth. "Whoa, there. Hurt my feelings, why don't you?" He raised his voice. "Weedle! I said change these wretched filters!" The rather nasty-looking little ape scampered forward, wings twitching, and began to pull at one of the mechanical devices attached to the throne. "No, I changed my mind," Scarecrow said, "get those damn tiktoks back in here first."

!Xabbu stood on his hind legs. "We will fight you. We have not come through so much just to lay down like dust."

"Oh, my God, another ape." The Scarecrow settled back in its throne, rattling the welter of pumps and tubes. "As if Weedle and his little flymonk pals weren't enough. I should never have saved them from Forest—it's not like they're grateful or anything."

A door hissed open and a half-dozen tiktoks stepped forward out of the darkness and into the light.

"Good," sighed the Scarecrow. "Take these outsiders away, will you? Put them in one of the holding cells—make sure the windows are too small for the baboon to get out."

The tiktoks did not move.

"Get on with it! What's your problem?" Scarecrow hoisted himself forward, sack head wobbling. "Oil dirty? Overwound? What?"

Something clicked, then a low whistle hummed through the small underground chamber. A new light flickered in the shadows, a shimmering rectangle that revealed itself to be a wallscreen in a frame of polished tubing, with dials and meters all along its lower edge. For a few seconds there was only static, then a dark, cylindrical shape began to form in the center of the screen.

"Hello, Squishy," it said to the Scarecrow.

Emily screamed.

The head on the screen was made entirely of gray, dully-gleaming metal, a brutal, pistonlike thing with a small slot for a mouth and no eyes at all. Renie felt herself drawing back with instinctive revulsion.

"What do you want, Tinman?" The studied boredom of Scarecrow's words did not completely mask a nervous undercurrent. "Given up on those little dust-devils of yours? Keep throwing 'em at me if you want. I eat 'em like candy."

"I'm rather proud of those tornadoes, now that you mention it." The metal thing had a voice like the buzz of an electric razor. "And you have to admit they're demoralizing to your meat-minions. But I called about something else, actually. Here, let me show you—it's cute." The bantering, inhuman voice took on a note of command. "Tiktoks, do a little dance!"

Horribly, all six of the windup men began to stumble through a series of clanking, elephantine steps, looking more than ever like broken toys.

"I located and usurped your frequency, my dear old friend." As Tinman laughed its grating laugh, the door inside its mouth slid up and down several times. "You must have known it was only a matter of time—the tiktoks were really supposed to be mine, after all. So, Uncle Wiggly, I'm afraid we're in one of those game over situations which you player-types know so well." It indulged itself in another scraping chuckle. "I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to waste time on the standard 'now I have you at my mercy' speech. Tiktoks, kill them now. All of them." The tiktoks abruptly ended their dance and took a juddering step into the center of the room, jackhammer arms raised. Emily waited with the stunned fatalism of a born slave; Renie grabbed her and dragged her back against the wall. Tinman swiveled the blank curvature of its head, following the movement. "Tiktoks, wait," he ordered. "And what are these, Scarecrow? Your charming guests, I mean."

"None of your business, fender-face," wheezed the Scarecrow. "Go ahead and make your play."

Renie stared at the goggling, idiot faces of the mechanical men and wondered whether she could dodge past them, but it was hard to weigh the chances of successful escape when the room's periphery was in darkness. Was the way they had come in still open? And how about Emily? Would she have to drag the girl with her, or could she leave her behind, gambling that she was only a sim? Could she do it even if she knew so for certain? The suffering in these simulation worlds seemed very real—could she condemn even a Puppet to torture and death?

Renie reached down for !Xabbu's hand but felt nothing. The baboon had disappeared into the shadows.

"Tiktok, examine that woman," Tinman ordered.

Renie straightened, hands raised to defend herself, but the mechanical man lumbered past her and lifted its clawlike hands toward Emily, who moaned and shrank back. It swept its pincers slowly up and down the length of her body, never closer than a few inches, like airport security running density-detectors over the pockets of a suspicious passenger. Emily turned her face away, weeping again. A few moments later the tiktok stepped back and its arms dropped to its rounded sides.

"Goodness," said Tinman, as though he had read the information directly from the tiktok's internal workings. "Goodness, gracious me. Could it be?" The buzzing voice had a peculiar cracked resonance—perhaps surprise. "My enemy, you astonish me. You have found . . . the Dorothy?"

Emily sank to the floor, limp with fright. Renie moved near her, the protective impulse the only thing that made sense in this entire, incomprehensible drama.

"Piss off," Scarecrow wheezed, clearly fighting for breath. "You can't have. . . ."

"Oh, but I can. Tiktoks, kill them all except the emily," he rasped. "Bring her to me immediately."

The four clockwork men nearest the Scarecrow's throne turned and began to shuffle toward him, spreading into a crescent formation. The other two turned to face Renie and Emily where they stood in the shadows against the wall.

"Metal boy, you are so stupid that I'm beginning to get bored." Scarecrow shook his ponderous head, then hawked up something unpleasant and spat it into the corner. When the mechanical men reached the base of his throne, he raised his gloved hand and pulled a hanging cord.

With an immense, booming clang, as though an immense hammer had struck an appropriately sized anvil, the floor all around his throne abruptly fell away beneath the tiktoks. They dropped out of sight, but Renie could hear them pinballing downward for three or four long seconds, banging against the metal walls.

"Tiktoks, bring the emily to me!" Tinman ordered the two remaining mechanical men. "I may not be able to get you, Scarecrow, but you can't do anything to stop them either!"

Renie didn't know if that were true or not, but she did not wait to find out. She threw herself forward, hands extended, and thumped her palms against the nearest tiktok's chest. The creature was heavy, and only rocked, but one of its cylindrical legs swiveled in an unsteady step backward, protecting its balance.

"Weedle!" shouted the Scarecrow. "Puzzie, Malinger, Blip!"

Ignoring this nonsense, Renie bent her knees and wrapped her arms around the tiktok's barrel torso—she could feel the grinding vibration of the thing's gears right through to her bones—and shoved again, pushing with all the strength in her long legs. A foam-padded pincer found her arm, but she jerked her wrist free just before the claw could close, then heaved again, struggling to keep her weight low and her legs extended. The tiktok tilted, forced into another backward step to keep upright. The claw groped for her again, but she gave one last shove and jumped free. The thing took a rolling drunken step and its gear noises rose to the whine of an angry mosquito. It teetered at the edge of the pit that had opened around the Scarecrow's throne, then toppled and was gone.

Renie had only a heartbeat to savor her triumph before another pair of padded claws closed on her side and shoulder, pinching her so hard in both places that she yelped in shocked agony. The second tiktok did not hesitate, but shoved her across the concrete floor toward the open trench where the others had gone. Renie could only scream panicky curses and thrash at the thing behind her with useless backhand blows.

"!Xabbu?" she cried. "Emily! Help me!" She tried to dig in her heels but could not slow herself. The pit yawned.

Something surged past her and the pressure on her shoulder abruptly eased. She craned and saw that something small and simian had wrapped itself around the tiktok's face. The mechanical man was flailing at it, but its short arms were not able to do effective damage.

"Xabbu. . . !" she began, then suddenly several more monkey shapes dropped down out of the darkness overhead. The tiktok jerked its other arm free to flail at its attackers. Released, Renie fell to her knees and crawled away from the pit, fiery pain coursing along both sides.

The tiktok was now stumbling, blind and beset, but its flailing defense took a toll. One of the monkeys was batted from the air and fell limply to the ground. The tiktok took a few awkward steps, then seemed to find its balance. Another monkey was struck down with a horrible wet crunch as the tiktok began to move slowly toward Renie again. She could not see in the darkened chamber whether either of the two battered shapes was !Xabbu's.

Abruptly, and without warning, the chamber, the struggling tiktok, the monkeys, and the Scarecrow enthroned amid his clutter of life support, all turned inside out.

 

It seemed to Renie that a million camera flashes all blazed at once. The small pools of light became black, the shadows flared into blinding color, and everything jerked and stuttered simultaneously, as though the universe had slipped a sprocket. As she felt herself wrenched into a thousand pieces, Renie screamed, but there was no sound, only a vast low hum that ran through everything like a foghorn buried deep in the heart of the world.

Her sense of her body was gone. She was whirled in a vortex, then spread thin over a thousand miles of nothing, and all that remained to her was the single point of consciousness that could do nothing more than cling to the bare idea that it existed.

Then, as suddenly as everything had happened, it stopped. The bleeding colors of the universe ran backward, the negative became positive, and the chamber was restored.

 

Renie lay gasping on the floor. Emily was stretched beside her, whimpering, arms wrapped around her head in a futile effort to keep the chaos at bay.

"Jesus H. Christ," slurred the Scarecrow. "I hate when that happens."

Renie dragged herself up onto her knees. The remaining tiktok lay in the middle of the chamber, its arms twitching slowly back and forth, its pocket-watch innards apparently disrupted past recovery. The two surviving monkeys hovered over it, wings whirring at hummingbird speed, staring fearfully around the room as though everything might go mad again any second.

The screen from which Tinman's eyeless face had watched them now displayed only a confetti-shower of static.

"That's been happening too often lately." The Scarecrow propped his head between two hands and furrowed his burlap brow. "I used to think it was Tinman's doing, like the tornadoes—it's a bit too advanced for Lion—but he wouldn't have chosen that timing, would he?"

"What's going on here?" Renie crawled to examine both monkey corpses—neither of them were !Xabbu. "Are you all crazy? And what have you done with my friend?"

Scarecrow had just opened his mouth to say something annoyed when a small shape appeared at his shoulder.

"Stop!" The baboon reached down and grabbed one of Scarecrow's larger hoses firmly in his long fingers, then followed its length until he gripped the tube just where it entered the straw man's body at the neck. "If you do not let my friend go free," !Xabbu said, "and the girl Emily, too—I will pull this away!"

Scarecrow craned his head. "You are definitely out-of-towners," he noted pityingly. "Weedle! Malinger! Come get him."

As the flying monkeys shot toward the throne, !Xabbu wrenched the tube free. A wisp of cotton batting floated free of the end; as the monkeys caught him and pulled him up into the air, it swirled lazily in their wake.

They dropped !Xabbu from a few feet up. He landed, crouching, at Renie's feet, baffled and defeated. Scarecrow lifted the tube in his soft fingers and waggled it. "Stuffing refill," he explained. "I was a little less tightly-packed than I prefer. Things have been busy lately, personal grooming suffers—you know how it is." He looked down to Weedle and Malinger, who had landed by his booted feet and now were picking fleas off each other. "Call the other flymonks, will you?"

Weedle leaned back his head and made a high-pitched whooping noise. Dozens of winged shapes suddenly swept down from the darkness overhead, like bats disturbed in their cavern roost. Within seconds, Renie and !Xabbu were pinioned head and foot by dozens of clinging monkey hands.

"Now, leave the emily on the floor—I want to talk to her—and take the other two to the tourist cell, then come right back. Be sharp about it! The tiktoks are going to be out of service, so everybody's pulling double shifts until further notice."

Renie felt herself lifted into the darkness, wrapped in a cloud of vibrating wings.

"Not all of you!" the Scarecrow bellowed. "Weedle, get back here and reattach this stuffing-duct. And change my damn filters!"

 

 

The door clanged shut behind them, a solid, permanent sound.

Renie looked around their new accommodations, taking in the institutional, mint-green paint that covered walls, ceiling, and floor. "This isn't quite how I imagined the Emerald City,"

"Ah, look," someone else said from the far end of the long cell. "Company."

The man sitting in the shadows against the wall, who seemed to be their only cellmate, was slim and good-looking (or at least his sim was, Renie reminded herself.) He appeared as a dark-skinned Caucasian, with thick black hair brushed back in a slightly old-fashioned style, and a mustache only slightly less extravagant than the metal ones the tiktoks' wore. Most astonishingly, though, he was smoking a cigarette.

The sudden leap of longing at the sight of the glowing ember did not smother her caution, but as she swiftly reviewed the facts—he was in here with them, so he was probably a prisoner too, and therefore an ally; it wasn't like she was going to trust him or anything, since he might not even be real—she found herself coming to the conclusion she had hoped to reach.

"Do you have another one of those?"

The man raised one eyebrow, looking her up and down. "Prisoners get rich from cigarettes." He seemed to have a slight accent to his English, something Renie couldn't recognize. "What is in it for me?"

"Renie?" !Xabbu, not understanding the treacherous lure of even noncarcinogenic cigarettes, reached up to tug her hand. "Who is this person?"

The dark-haired man did not seem to notice the talking baboon. "Well?"

Renie shook her head. "Nothing. We have nothing to trade. We came here like you see us."

"Hmmm. Well, then you owe me a favor." He reached into a pocket on his chest, pulled out a red pack of something called Lucky Strikes, and shook one out. He lit it off his own and held it out. Renie crossed the cell to take it, !Xabbu trailing behind."You have the gear to taste that?"

She was wondering the same thing. When she inhaled there was hot air in her throat, and a feeling of something filling her lungs. In fact, she could almost swear she could taste the tobacco. "Oh, God, that's wonderful," she said, blowing out a stream of smoke.

The man nodded as though some great truth had been revealed, then slipped the cigarettes back into the pocket of his overalls. He wore the same factory-issue boiler suit that she had seen on all the other henrys in Emerald, but he did not strike her as one of those domesticated creatures. "Who are you?" she asked.

He looked irritated. "Who are you?"

Renie introduced herself and !Xabbu under the same assumed names as she had given in Kunohara's bugworld—after all, she told herself, the stranger had only given her a cigarette, not donated a kidney. "We just stumbled in," she said, assuming that if this man were not one of the bovine residents of the simworld, their outlander status must be obvious. "And apparently that's a crime around here. Who are you and how did you wind up here?"

"Azador," the stranger said.

Confused by his accent, Renie at first thought he had said "At the door," and she turned to look. He corrected the misunderstanding.

"I am Azador. And I am here because I made the mistake of offering advice to His Wise Majesty the King." His smirk contained an entire world's worth of world-weariness. Renie had to admit that he had quite a handsome sim. "You are both Citizens, yes?"

Renie looked at !Xabbu, who was sitting on his heels well out of Azador's reach. The monkey-sim's returned glance was inscrutable. "Yes, we are."

The stranger did not seem interested in gleaning more details, which left Renie feeling she had made the right decision. "Good. As am I. It is a shame that, like me, you have had your freedom stolen from you."

"What's with this place?" She suddenly remembered Emily. "The scarecrow-man—the king—he has our friend. Will he hurt her?"

Azador shrugged: he could take no responsibility for the foibles of others."They have all gone mad here. Whatever this place once was, it has fallen apart. You see this in bad simulations. It is why I offered my advice." He stubbed out his cigarette. Renie recalled that her own was burning down, unsmoked; she drew on it again as Azador continued. "You know the film of Oz, do you not?"

"I do, yes," Renie answered. "But this doesn't seem quite right. It seems much . . . much bleaker. And this is Kansas—Oz wasn't in Kansas, it was somewhere else, wasn't it?"

"Here, it did not start this way." He took out another cigarette, then changed his mind and tucked it behind his ear. Renie found herself watching it avidly, even with one burning between her fingers. She didn't like that feeling. "I told you," Azador went on, "the simulation has fallen apart. It has two connected locations, Oz—which I think was also a book, for reading—and Kansas, the American state. They were like the two ends of the hourglass, you see, with a slender part between them where things could pass back and forth."

!Xabbu was inspecting the cell with solemn attention. Renie thought he seemed upset.

"But something went very wrong on the Oz side," Azador said. "I have heard terrible stories—murder, rape, cannibalism. I think it has been all but abandoned now. The three men—the Citizens—who were first playing the characters of Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, all brought their respective kingdoms through to the Kansas side."

"So it's some kind of war game?" she asked. "How stupid! Why recreate something sweet like Oz just to make it into another shoot-em-up?" How typical of men, she wanted to add, but didn't.

Azador gave her a lazy smile, as though he read her thoughts. "It did not start quite that way. The Tinman, the Lion—they are not those who originally began the game. They came in from outside, just as you did. But they have taken over the simworld, or nearly so. Only the Scarecrow fellow had a strong enough position to resist them, but I think he will not last much longer."

"And that other stuff? For a moment, it seemed like the whole simulation turned upside down or something. Did you feel that?"

!Xabbu had climbed to the top bunk of the bed nearest the wall, and was examining the tiny, screened window. "Do you remember what Atasco said?" he asked. "When that thing ran across the room, that thing made of light?"

Renie went cold at the mention of the murdered man's name, but Azador seemed to be paying little attention. "I don't. . . ."

"He said that he thought the system was perhaps growing too fast. At least, that is what I remember. Or growing too big, perhaps. And Kunohara said. . . ."

"!Xabbu!"

Now Azador did take notice. "You met Kunohara? Hideki Kunohara?"

"No," Renie said hurriedly. "We met someone who knew him, or claimed they did."

"The bastard found me in a flesh-eating plant—a 'pitcher plant,' I think it is called." Azador's indignation sounded very real. "He lectured me, as though I were a child, on the complexity of nature or some nonsense. And then he left me there, standing in foul-smelling liquid that was doing its best to digest me! Bastard."

Despite her worry, Renie was hard-pressed not to laugh. It did sound rather like the odd, self-satisfied little man they had met. "But you got away."

"I always do." Something dark passed behind his eyes. He changed the moment by taking the cigarette, he had stashed behind his ear and elaborately applying the flame of a chunky silver lighter to it. When he had put the lighter back in his pocket, he rose and walked slowly past her toward the cell door, where he stood humming an unfamiliar song. She suddenly felt sure that he had spent lots of time in places like this, either in VR or plain old RL.

!Xabbu crept down from the upper bunk and leaned in close to Renie's ear. "I said those names on purpose," he whispered. "To see what he would do."

"I wish you hadn't." More anger seeped through her quiet tone than she had intended. "Let me handle the cloak-and-dagger stuff next time." !Xabbu gave her a surprised look, then moved to the far corner and crouched there, examining the floor. Renie felt terrible, but before she could do anything about it, Azador had strolled back to their end.

"I will go mad if I stay here any longer," he said abruptly. "We will escape, yes? I have knowledge that will give us our freedom. A plan of escape."

Renie looked around, startled. "Are you sure you should say things like that? What if the cell's bugged?"

Azador waved his hand dismissively. "Everything is bugged, of course. It does not matter. The Scarecrow creature does not have enough subjects left to review the tapes—miles and miles of tapes! The technology of this Kansas simworld is strictly twentieth century—have you not noticed?"

"If you have such a good plan," !Xabbu asked, "why are you still here?"

Renie had been wondering how the stranger knew so much about the Scarecrow's security procedures, but she had to admit that the Bushman's question was a good one too.

"Because this escape needs more than one person," Azador said. "And now we have two people and a very smart monkey!"

"I am not a monkey." !Xabbu frowned. "I am a man."

Azador laughed. "Of course you are a man. I was making a joke. You should not be so sensitive."

"You," !Xabbu suggested darkly, "should perhaps make better jokes."

 

 

Although he would tell them no other details of his plan, Azador insisted they must wait until evening before attempting their escape—although how the man would tell the time in a cell whose only window looked out onto a horizontal airshaft, Renie could not guess. But she welcomed the opportunity to rest. Both their tornado-thrashed sojourn in Kansas and their dragonfly-crashing venture through Kunohara's bugworld had entailed one life-or-death struggle after another, all of them exhausting and painful.

!Xabbu was immersed in a self-sufficient silence that Renie knew was in part due to hurt feelings, and Azador was sitting with his eyes closed, whistling tunelessly but quietly. She found herself for the first time in a long while able simply to sit and think.

Not least of what occupied her was their mysterious cellmate. Azador had proved unwilling to be drawn out on the subject of his own background, or what brought him to this simworld or to the Otherland network in the first place. If he was not a living, breathing Citizen, he was a Puppet that had been constructed with great care to seem like one—he spoke of the network and its illusions with every sign of a knowledge so intimate as to border on contempt. He was also quite impressive, in his way, and not just because of his handsome sim—Renie could almost imagine the word "swashbuckling" applied to him—but at times he seemed to show a different side, flashes of someone vulnerable, even haunted.

But why waste time thinking about this stranger when there were so many other things to consider, so many life-or-death problems still unsolved?

Well, for one thing, girl, she told herself, you're a bit randy. It's been too long between men—way too long—and this constant danger, all this adrenaline, it's getting to you.

She looked at the bulge of the package in Azador's pocket, was sorely tempted to ask for another cigarette. Surely anything that helped her relax would be a good thing? She felt like one of the Tiktoks, wound far beyond its optimum tension. But she did not like the way she was thinking about cigarettes again, as though they were somehow just as important as the quest to save her brother. She had hardly thought about them in two days—was it going to start all over again now? She hadn't eaten anything since entering the network, and she wasn't obsessing about that.

With strong effort, Renie forced her mind away from distractions, back to the problems at hand.

Instead of their entrance into the network bringing answers, the mysteries had only deepened. Who was this Circle group Kunohara had mentioned—were they really the same people who had helped !Xabbu leave the Okavango to attend school? If so, what could it mean? Did !Xabbu know more than he was telling? But if so, why admit he knew anything about the Circle at all? She dismissed this newest line of thought, too. The entire Grail Brotherhood thing was so broad and so confusing, and there was so much she did not know, that at some point it began to seem like someone's street-corner rant, all absurdist self-referentiality and throbbing paranoia. She should stick to the big ideas.

But what were the big ideas, exactly? What had they learned? Anything? Kunohara had seemed to insinuate that there was some kind of conflict going on between the Grail people and this Circle group. But he had also suggested that both sides might be wrong, and that the system was somehow more than they realized. Could that, and the other things they had seen—Atasco's scuttling anomaly, the false creatures and effects catalogued at the Hive, the bizarre breakdown in the Scarecrow's throne room—be indicators of a system in trouble?

A sudden thought jabbed her like a long, cold needle. And if Stephen is tied up in this system somehow, if he's been sucked into it in some way, and the whole thing goes down—what then? Will he wake up? Or will he be trapped in a dying . . . whatever it is? Machine? Universe?

Without thinking, she looked to !Xabbu as though the little man could protect her from the chilling thought that she had not spoken aloud. He was holding his hands before him, wiggling his fingers—doing the string game without string again, she realized. His thin back was turned toward her.

She needed this man, she realized in a rush of affection, this sweet, clever person hidden behind a monkey's shape. He was her best friend in the world. Astonishing to consider—she had known him less than a year—but it was true.

Renie worked the lace of her boot free, then slid closer to !Xabbu.

"Here," she said, handing him the cord. "It's easier with real string, isn't it?"

He turned it over in his small hands. "Your boot will not stay on. That is not safe." He furrowed his brow in thought, then lifted the bootlace to his mouth and bit it through with sharp teeth. He handed back half the lace. "I do not need a long piece. My fingers are smaller now."

She smiled and retied her boot. "I'm sorry I spoke that way to you earlier. I was wrong."

"You are my friend. You want what is best for me—for both of us." It was astonishing how serious a baboon face could look. "Would you like to see me work the string?"

Azador, seated against the wall a few meters away, glanced over at them for a moment, but his eyes were distant; he seemed lost in thought.

"Certainly. Please show me."

!Xabbu tied a knot in the section of bootlace and stretched it into a rectangle, then his fingers moved rapidly in and out, plucking at the strands like a pair of nesting birds, until he held between his palms a complex, geometrical abstraction.

"Here is the sun. Can you see it?"

Renie was not sure, but she thought the diamond shape near the middle of the design might be what he meant. "I think so."

"Now the sun sinks low—it is evening." !Xabbu moved his fingers and the diamond moved down toward the line of horizon, flattening as it went.

Renie laughed and clapped her hands. "That's very good!"

He smiled. "I will show you another picture." His monkey fingers moved quickly. Renie could not help noticing how much his movements resembled someone using squeezers to input data. When he stopped, he had made a completely different design, with a tight nexus of strings in one of the upper corners. "This is the bird called the 'honey guide.' Can you see him?"

Renie caught her breath, startled. "You said that name before." It seemed important, but she needed long moments before she remembered. "No. Sellars said it. When we met him in Mister J's, and you were . . . unconscious. Dreaming, whatever. He sent a honey guide to bring you back from wherever you had gone."

!Xabbu nodded his head solemnly. "He is a wise man, Sellars. The honey guide is very important to my people. We will follow him for great distances until he leads us to the wild honey. But he does not like to lead humans to the honey—we are too greedy. Ah, see now, he has found some!" !Xabbu wiggled his fingers and the small spot in the corner moved agitatedly from side to side. "He is going to tell his best friend, the honey badger." !Xabbu quickly made another picture, this time with a large shape at the bottom and the small shape at the top. "They are such close friends, the honey guide and the honey badger, that my people would say they sleep under the same skin. Do you know the honey badger, Renie?"

"It's also called a ratel, isn't it? I've seen them in zoos. Low to the ground, claws for digging, right?"

"Mean bastards," Azador said without looking up. "Take your fingers off if you give them a chance."

"They are very brave," !Xabbu said with deliberate dignity. "The honey badger will fight to protect what is his." He turned back to Renie. "And the little bird is his best friend. When the bees have finished making the honey, and it is dripping golden inside the tree or in the crevice of a rock, the honey guide comes flying out of the bush, calling, 'Quick, quick, it is honey! Come quick!' " As !Xabbu repeated the words, this time in his own clicking language, he made the small upper figure vibrate again. The larger one remained immobile. "Then his friend hears him, and feels that there is no better sound, and he hurries after the bird, whistling like a bird himself, calling, 'See me, o person with wings! I am coming after you!' That is a wonderful sound, to hear friend calling to friend across me bush." !Xabbu worked the strings with his agile fingers, and now the lower shape was moving too, and as the smaller figure became tiny, so did the larger shrink away, as though the honey badger hurried after its guide.

"That's wonderful," Renie said, laughing. "I could see them!"

"They are the closest friends, honey guide and honey badger. And when the honey badger comes to the honey at last, he always throws some out on the ground for his friend to share." He let the string fall slack between his fingers. "As you do for me, Renie. We are friends like that pair, you and I."

She felt something catch in her throat, and for a split-instant thought they were no longer locked in an institutional cell, but stood again beneath the ringed moon in !Xabbu's memory-desert, exhausted and happy from their dancing.

She had to swallow before she could speak. "We are friends, !Xabbu. Yes, we are."

The silence was broken by Azador loudly clearing his throat. When they turned toward him, he looked up, feigning surprise. "No, do not mind me," he said. "Carry on."

!Xabbu turned back to Renie and his mouth curled in a shy smile that wrinkled the baboon muzzle. "I have bored you."

"Not at all. I love your stories." She did not know what else to say. There were always these strange watersheds with !Xabbu, and she had no idea what they might be leading to—a deeper and more familylike friendship than she could imagine? True love? At times she felt there was no human model for what their relationship might be. "Tell me another story, please? If you don't mind." She looked over to Azador. "If we have enough time."

Their cellmate, now engrossed in his quiet whistling again, made a vague hand gesture, bidding them amuse themselves however they pleased.

"I will tell you another story with the string game," !Xabbu said. "We use it sometimes to teach stories to the children." He suddenly looked abashed. "I do not mean to say that I think you are a child, Renie. . . ." He examined her face and was reassured. "This is a story of how the hare got his split lip. It is also a story of Grandfather Mantis. . . ."

"May I ask you a question before you start? Mantis—Grandfather Mantis—is he an insect? Or an old man?"

Her friend chortled. "He is an insect, of course. But he is also an old man, the oldest of his family, and the eldest of the First People. Remember, in the earliest days, all the animals were people."

Renie tried to figure this out. "So is he tiny? Or big?" She could not help remembering the terrible, razor-limbed monstrosity that had stalked them through the Hive. From the look that passed across his long face, she could see !Xabbu remembered, too.

"Grandfather Mantis rides between the horns of the eland, so he is very small. But he is oldest and cleverest of the First People, the grandfather of the Elder Race, so he is very big, too."

"Ah." She examined his expression, but could see no mockery. "Then I suppose I'm ready for the story."

!Xabbu nodded. He quickly brought his fingers apart and began to move them in and out, until another many-angled pattern had formed. "In the early days, there was a time when Grandfather Mantis was sick, and almost felt himself to be dying. He had eaten biltong—that is dried meat—that he had stolen from his own son, Kwammanga the Rainbow, and when Kwammanga found out it was gone, he said 'Let that biltong be alive again in the stomach of the person who has stolen from me.' He did not know it was his own father. And so the biltong became alive again in the stomach of Grandfather Mantis, and gave him a terrible pain."

!Xabbu's fingers flexed and the picture rippled. A shape near the middle wriggled from side to side, so that Renie could almost see Grandfather Mantis writhing in his agony.

"He went to his wife, Rock-Rabbit, and told her he felt himself to be very ill. She told him to go into the bush and find water, so that by drinking he would soothe himself. Groaning, he went away.

"There was no water close by, and Mantis walked for many days, until he came at last to the Tsodilo Hills, and in their heights he found the water he had been seeking. Drinking deeply, he felt better, and decided he would rest a while before returning to his home."

The baboon hands moved through a succession of shapes, and Renie saw the hills rise and the water shimmer. A short distance away, Azador had stopped whistling and seemed to be listening.

"But back in Grandfather Mantis' kraal, everyone was frightened that he had not returned, and they feared that if he died they would never see him again, for no one of the Early Race had ever died before. So his wife Rock-Rabbit sent her cousin, the hare, to go and look for him."

For just a brief moment Hare made his appearance in the net of string, then bounded off.

"Hare ran in Mantis' footprints all the way to the Tsodilo Hills, for he was a very swift runner, and reached them by nightfall. When he had climbed the hills, he found Mantis sitting beside the water, drinking and bathing the dust from his body. 'Grandfather,' said Hare, 'your wife and your children and all the other First People send to ask how you are. They fear that you are dying, and thus that they will never see you again.'

"Mantis was feeling much better, and he was sorry that all the others were worried. 'Go back to them and say that they are foolish—there is no true death,' he told Hare. 'What, do you think that when we die, we are like this grass?' He lifted a handful of grass. That we die and, feeling ourselves to be like the dry grass, turn into this dust?' He lifted the dust in his other hand and flung it into the air, then pointed at the moon, which hung in the night sky.

"Grandfather Mantis himself had caused the moon to be, but that is another story.

" 'Go and tell them,' he said, 'that as the moon dies but then is made new, so too in dying they shall be made new. And thus they should have no fear.' And so he sent the Hare back down out of the hills, bearing his message.

"But Hare was of the sort who believes himself very clever, and as he ran back toward the kraal of Grandfather Mantis and his family, he thought to himself, 'Old Mantis cannot be certain of this, for does not everything die and turn to dust? If I give them this foolish message, they will think me foolish, and I shall never find a bride, and the other people of the Early Race will turn away from me.' So when he reached the kraal, where Rock-Rabbit and all the rest were waiting for him, he told them, 'Grandfather Mantis says that dying we will not be renewed like the moon, but instead like the grass we will turn into dust.'

"And so all the people of Mantis' family told all the other First People what Hare told them Grandfather Mantis had said, and all the First People were filled with great fear, and wept and fought among themselves. Thus, when Mantis himself came back to his home, with his bag of hartebeeste skin over one shoulder and his digging stick in his hand, he found everyone full of sadness. When he learned what the Hare had said, and which was now being spoken as the truth by all the First People in the world, he was so angry that he lifted his digging stick and struck the Hare, splitting his lip. Then he told Hare that none of the bushes or grass of the veldt or rocks of the desert pans would ever keep him safe, and that his enemies would always seek him and find him.

"And that is why the hare has a split lip."

The last string picture vibrated for a moment between !Xabbu's outstretched hands, then he brought his palms together, making it disappear.

"That was lovely," Renie would have said more, but Azador abruptly stood.

"Time to go."

 

Renie's arms were starting to hurt. "This doesn't make any sense."

"It does not make sense to you," Azador said airily. "Just keep your hands pressed flat."

Renie muttered a curse. The position, facing the wall with her arms spread wide, pushing against the cold cement, was unpleasantly reminiscent of being arrested. Azador was lying on his stomach between her feet with his hands also pressed against the wall, parallel to hers but just above the floor. "All right," she said, "you've convinced me you're out of your mind. What now?"

"Now it's what's-your-name's turn—monkey man." Azador craned to look over his shoulder at !Xabbu, who was watching with a certain lack of enthusiasm. "Pick a spot as close to the center as possible—where the middle of an V would be if our hands were on the ends. Then hit it."

"It is a very hard wall," !Xabbu pointed out.

Azador's laugh was a grunt of irritation. "You are not going to break it down with your little hand, monkey man. Just do what I say."

!Xabbu slid in so that his head was against Renie's stomach, just below her breasts. It made her uncomfortable, but her friend did not hesitate. When he had chosen his spot, he struck with the fiat of his hand.

Before the smack had finished echoing from the cell's hard surfaces, the section of wall demarcated by their extended arms had vanished, leaving a blank white surface on all the exposed edges. With nothing left to support her, Renie stumbled forward into the next cell.

"How did you do that?" she demanded.

Azador's smile was infuriatingly self-satisfied. "This is VR, Ms. Otepi—all make-believe. I just know how to make it believe something different. Now that part of the wall thinks it is no longer a wall."

!Xabbu had sidled through, and was looking around the empty cell, an exact replica of the one they had just left. "But what good has this done us? Must we do this through every wall until we are outside?"

Azador's pleased expression did not change. He walked to the new cell's door. One tug of the handle and it slid sideways, open to the hallway. "No one bothers to lock the empty cells."

To cover her irritation at the man's success—her first impulse had been to say "That's cheating!", which she knew would have been a marvelously stupid remark—she slid past him and peered into the hallway. There was nothing but mint-green cement and closed doors all the way to the turning of the corridor on both sides, the monotony broken only by posters depicting the Scarecrow—a healthy, vibrant, stern Scarecrow—proclaiming "10,000 Munchkins Dead—For What? Remember Oz!" and "Emerald Needs YOU!"

"There's no one out there—let's go." Renie turned to Azador. "Do you know how to get out of here?"

"There is a service bay at the back of the cells. There may be guards, but there will be fewer than at the front, where all the government offices are."

"Then let's do it." She took a few steps, then looked at !Xabbu. "What's wrong?"

He shook his head. "I hear something . . . smell something. I am not sure."

A flat boom broke the stillness, so faint as to be almost inaudible: someone might have dropped a book on a table a few rooms away. The sound was repeated a few times, then silence fell again.

"Well, whatever it is, it's a long way away," Renie declared. "We'd better not wait for it to get here."

Not only the corridor before their cell, but all the corridors were empty. The sound of their hurrying footsteps—or hers and Azador's, since !Xabbu's feet made only the faintest noise-rebounded eerily from the long walls as they ran, and made Renie uneasy. "Where is everybody?"

"I told you, this place is falling apart," said Azador. "The war has been going on for years—Scarecrow has only a few minions left. Why do you think we were the only prisoners? The others have been set free and then sent to fight in Forest, or in the Works."

Renie did not even want to know what "the Works" was. First Atasco's realm, then the destruction of the Hive, now this. Would these simworlds simply crumble into virtual dust, like the veldt grass of !Xabbu's story? Or would something even more sinister replace them?

"Go slow," !Xabbu said. "I hear something. And I feel something, too—it is tapping in my chest. Something is wrong here."

"What the hell does that mean?" Azador demanded. "We're almost at the loading bay. We are sure as hell not just going to stop."

"You should trust him," Renie said. "He knows what he's talking about."

Moving more cautiously, they rounded a corner and found themselves at a nexus of corridors. In the middle of the open area lay a tall man with a long green beard and a pair of smashed green spectacles. An antique rifle of some kind lay beside him. He was clearly dead: several things that should have been inside him had oozed out onto the floor.

Renie fought an urge to vomit. Why did people have innards in this simulation, but not in the bugworld?

Azador took a wide route around the body. "The loading bay is just another hundred meters this way," he whispered, pointing to where the wide corridor bent sharply. "We can. . . ."

A scream of pain rattled through the corridor, so fierce that Renie's knees went weak. Even Azador was clearly shaken, but the three of them went cautiously to the bend in the corridor and peered around.

On the wide loading ramp at the end of the corridor, several more men with green beards and spectacles were fighting to the death to keep an army of tiktoks at bay. The greenbeards were supported in their struggle by a few even odder creatures—skinny men with wheels for hands and feet, a teddy bear with a popgun, other soldiers that seemed to be made entirely of paper—but the defenders were clearly outgunned, and several dozen of them had been destroyed. Only one of the tiktoks had gone down, although two or three others were staggering in circles with their insides blown out, but the green-bearded soldiers appeared to have exhausted their ammunition and were now using their long rifles exclusively as clubs. Sensing imminent victory, the buzzing tiktoks were swarming closer to the defenders, like flies around a dying animal.

"Damn!" Renie was almost as irritated as she was frightened. "Games! These people and their bloody stupid war games!"

"It will not be a game if those things get us," Azador hissed. "Turn back! We will go out another way."

As they returned to the places where the corridors crossed, and where the first defender's body they had encountered still lay, !Xabbu reached up to tug at Renie's hand. "Why is this dead one here, when the fighting is still at the entrance?"

It took Renie a moment to understand what he was asking, and by that time they had left the green-bearded corpse behind them. Their cellmate had turned right and was sprinting up the corridor.

"Azador?" she called, but he had stopped already.

Two more corpses lay near the wall at the next corridor branch—two bodies in three pieces, since the soldier's top half had been forcibly separated from his bottom half. Beside him lay the pulped remains of one of the flying monkeys. Loud simian squawking echoed from the side-corridor, more monkeys in pain and terror.

"We do not need to go that way!" said Azador in relief. "I have remembered another route." He started to move forward, and did not turn even when a very human, very female scream came bouncing down the passageway.

"Emily. . . ?" Renie shouted at Azador's retreating back, "I think that's our friend!"

He did not turn or slow down, even when she cursed at him. !Xabbu had already started down the corridor toward Emily's voice. Renie hurried to catch up.

They had just caught sight of a battle that, although now familiar, would never be less than bizarre—flying monkeys and mechanical men, struggling to the death—when Emily's slender form burst from the melee and came running toward them. Renie grabbed at her as she tried to run past and was almost knocked down. The girl fought like a tail-dangled cat until Renie wrapped her arms around her and squeezed as hard as she could.

"It's me, Emily, it's me, we're going to help you," she said, over and over until the girl stopped struggling and finally looked at her new captors. Her already panic-widened eyes grew wider.

"You! The strangers!"

Before Renie could reply, a monkey flew past them down the corridor, but not under its own power. It smacked against one wall, flopped bonelessly, and skidded.

"We have to go," Renie said. "Come on!" She took one of the girl's hands and !Xabbu took the other as they sprinted away from the unpleasant sounds of buzzing and claw-crunched monkeys. Azador was not in sight, but they turned in the direction he had gone. Emily, as though she had not been under tiktok attack only a few moments earlier, babbled happily.

". . . I didn't think you'd come back—or I didn't think I'd come back, really. The king, he had this machine do all these funny things to me—it was worse than anything the medical henrys ever do, made me feel all goosebumpy, and you know what?"

Renie was doing her best to ignore her. "Do you hear anything?" she asked !Xabbu. "Any more of those machine men ahead of us?"

He shrugged his narrow shoulders and tugged at Emily's hand, trying to get her to move faster.

"Do you know what he said to me?" Emily went on. "It was such a surprise—I thought I was in trouble, see, and that they were going to send me to the Bad Farm. That's the place you go when they catch you trying to steal from the food barn, like this other emily I know, and she went there for just a few months, but when she came back, she looked like she was way much older. But do you know what they said to me?"

"Emily, shut up." Renie slowed them now as they turned another corner. This one opened into a wide room with polished tile floors and shiny metal staircases leading to a mezzanine. More monkey corpses were scattered about the floor here, and also the bodies of a pair of tiktoks, which had apparently tumbled through the mezzanine handrail where it was bent like silver licorice. The windup men had smashed like expensive watches dropped onto pavement, but next to one of them, something was moving.

Emily was still prattling. "He told me that I'm going to have a little baby!"

It was Azador. A dying spasm from one of the tiktoks had fastened on his leg, and now he was struggling to pull himself free of the thing's locked grip. He looked up at their approach; his fearful expression quickly turned to one of annoyance.

"Get this thing off me," he growled, but before he could say more, he was interrupted by a shriek from Emily so loud that Renie flinched away from her in pain.

"Henry!" Emily skittered across the room and leaped over one of the smashed Tiktoks, then flung herself onto Azador. Her attack thumped him back against the floor so hard that his leg jerked free of the claw, tearing his overalls and leaving red weals on his ankle. Emily climbed on him like an overstimulated puppy and he could not push her away. "Henry!" she squealed. "My pretty pretty prettiest henry! My pudding-heart lover! My special Crismustreat!" She stopped, straddling his chest, as he looked back at her in stunned surprise. "Guess what," she demanded. "Guess what the king just told me. You and me—we made a baby!"

The high-ceilinged room fell silent in the wake of this revelation. After a moment, the dead tiktok made a clicking noise, and the claw that had held Azador's ankle ratcheted one final time, then froze again.

"This," said Renie at last, "is really, really strange."

CHAPTER 16
Shoppers and Sleepers

NETFEED/NEWS: Experts Debate "Slow-Time" Prisons

(visual: file footage of morgue attendant checking drawers)

VO: The UN is sponsoring a debate between civil libertarians and penologists about a controversial technique known as "slow-timing," in which prisoners' metabolisms are slowed by cryotherapy while they are simultaneously exposed to subliminal messaging, so that a twenty year prison term would seem to pass in months,

(visual: Telfer in front of UN)

ReMell Telfer, of the civil rights group Humanity is Watching, calls this further evidence that we have become what he terms a "people-processing society."

TELFER: "They say they want these prisoners to return to society more quickly, but they just want more manageable prisoners and faster turnaround. Instead of trying to prevent crime, we spend our money on more and more expensive methods of punishing people—bigger prisons, more police. Now they want to take some poor jerk who's stolen someone's wallet and spend half a million of the taxpayer's credits to put him in a coma. . . !"

 

Another pair of the voracious tongs leaped from the water and flung itself at them, the huge jaws snapping like a bear-trap. Chief Strike Anywhere managed to dodge the attack, but the tongs smashed against the birchbark rail as they fell back into the river and Orlando and the others were rattled violently in the bottom of the canoe.

Another shudder rolled Orlando on his belly and onto the knobby hilt of the sword he thought he had lost, then a shout of pain from the Indian made him sit up. One of the pairs of salad tongs had the chief by the arm and was trying to drag him into the river; as Orlando watched in horror, the arm began to stretch like taffy. He snatched up his sword and brought it down on the tongs as hard as he could, just behind the teeth. The impact shook him from his fingers to his spine, but the tongs let go of the chief, sent Orlando an evil look, then sank back into the roiling water.

Chief Strike Anywhere rubbed his arm, which had already snapped back to its former size and shape, then turned to renew the battle. A chorus of thin voices from close by made Orlando wonder if someone might be coming to rescue them, but it was only the vegetables on the shoreline, who had disassembled their conga line to crowd along the water's edge. Most were watching the attack on the canoe in thrilled horror, although some, particularly the stewed beets, seemed to find the whole thing wildly funny, and were shouting out useless, drunken advice indiscriminately to both boaters and predatory utensils.

Something thumped them at the waterline once more and the little boat shuddered. Orlando braced himself, then raised the sword over his head. He knew that any moment now the canoe would go over, and he was determined to take at least one of the hinged, blunt-headed creatures with him. Fredericks rose beside him, trying to fit an arrow to his bowstring even as the canoe seesawed briefly on the handle of one of the attackers, then dropped back into the water.

The ruckus from the shore was suddenly pierced by a scream of anguish.

Some of the vegetables in the front row, jostled by the gawkers behind them and the dozens more hurrying out of the upturned colander to see what was happening, had been forced out into the river. A little cherry tomato was wailing piteously, floating farther and farther from the riverbank. A head of lettuce, a flower lei still looped about its widest circumference, waded out after the tomato, shrieking.

Something split the water beside the lettuce. The head was tossed up into the air, then fell back. More jaws flashed and clacked shut—even at a great distance, Orlando could hear the fibrous crunching. As lettuce leaves flew everywhere, the whole school of tongs hurried to the vicinity. Panicked, the beachfront spectators began to blunder into each other as they fled the feeding frenzy, and in the chaos several more fell into the water. Bits of tomato pulp and bleeding beet now streamed from toothy jaws. A carrot wearing a barbecue apron was lifted up out of the water and snapped in half.

Within moments the water around the canoe had grown calm, while a stone's throw away the river's edge was a froth of snapping tongs and vegetable parts. Chief Strike Anywhere picked up his paddle and turned the canoe again toward the middle of the river. "Lucky for us," he grunted, "them like salad better."

"That's . . . that's horrible." Fredericks was leaning on the side of the canoe, fascinated by the murderous violence. A scum of pureed vegetables was quickly forming along the river's edge.

"It them fault," replied Strike Anywhere coldly. "They get tongs worked up in first place. Smell of vegetables make them crazy."

Orlando could not help feel sorry for the little cherry tomato. It had cried just like a lost child.

 

"No can take you to land that side," Strike Anywhere told the tortoise later, as they floated in the slow current at midstream. A little mist lay on the river here, so that the banks were almost invisible, the cabinets only dim shapes towering on either side. "Tongs very busy there for long time."

"I perfectly understand." The tortoise had only recently re-emerged from his shell, where he had retreated during the attack. "And I have no wish to be deposited on the other side, which is strange to me. Perhaps I will stay with you a while, if you don't mind, and then you can set me ashore later."

Strike Anywhere grunted and began to paddle again,

"We have got to get out of here, Orlando," Fredericks said quietly. "This all just scans too majorly. I mean, it would be bad enough just to get killed, but sixed by something out of a silverware drawer. . . ?"

Orlando smiled wearily. "If we help you find your papoose," he called to the chief, "will you help us to leave the Kitchen? We don't belong here, and we need to find our friends."

The chief turned, his long-nosed face shrewd in the dim bulb-light from above. "No can go back up faucet," he said. "Have to go out other end of Kitchen."

Before he could explain further, a sound came to them across the waters, a chorus of piping voices that Orlando thought for a moment might be survivors from the terrible vegetable massacre—except these voices were raised in intricate, three-part harmony.

"Sing we now, we rodents three,
Sightless all since infancy,
Can't see, but we sing con brio,
A blind, note-bleating fieldmouse trio."

A shape appeared in the fog, long and cylindrical, surmounted by three vertical figures. As it drew closer, it was revealed to be three mice in matching dark glasses, perched atop a bottle—which, with impossibly clever pink feet, they rolled beneath them like a lumberjack's log, never once losing their balance. Their arms were looped about each other's shoulders; the outside mouse on one end held a tin cup, the one at the other end a white cane.

"And ever since our mummy birthed us
We love to clean up every surface
Just pour enough to fill this cup
And wipe those stains and spills right up!"

"Three little mice, we like to sing,
But love to clean more than anything,
And if you use us, we suspect
You'll also find we disinfect!
A one-eyed bat could see it's true—
Blind Mice Cleanser will work for you!"

The tinny barbershop harmonies were so perfect and so completely silly that when the song was finished, Orlando could think of nothing to do but applaud; the tortoise did, too. Fredericks gave him an irritated look, but reluctantly joined in. Only Chief Strike Anywhere remained stoically silent. The three mice, still rolling the bottle beneath them, took a deep bow.

"Now available in Family Size!" squeaked the one holding the cane.

The word "family" may have touched a chord in the chief, or he might only have been waiting courteously for the mice to finish their song. He asked, "You seen bad men on big boat? With little papoose?"

"They could hardly have seen anything," suggested the tortoise. "Now could they?"

"No, we don't see much," agreed one of the mice.

"But we listen a lot," added another.

"We may have heard this particular tot." The third nodded gravely as he spoke.

"A big boat passed us."

"Two hours ago."

"They didn't seem to like our show."

"A baby was crying."

"We thought that was sad."

"And jeepers!—those men sounded pretty bad."

After a pause, the one with the cane piped up again. "They didn't smell too good, either," it said in a conspiratorial whisper. "Ot-nay oo-lay eon-clay, if you see what we're saying."

Strike Anywhere leaned forward. "Which way they go?"

The mice put their heads together and indulged in a great deal of quiet but animated discussion. At last they turned back, spread their arms, then began to do a chorus kick while still keeping the cleanser bottle revolving merrily beneath them—a very good trick, even Fredericks had to admit later.

"The shores of Gitchee-Goomee
May be shady, green, and nice,"

they sang,

"But except saying 'Hi!' to Hiawatha,
The trip's not worth the price.
The spot you seek is closer
—You can be there in a trice!—
Those kidnapping chaps
Have followed old maps
To the famous Box of ice."

The mouse with the tin cup waved it in a circle and added, "Don't forget—it's almost spring! Time to scrub your surfaces daisy-fresh!" Then the trio danced their pink feet so fast that the bottle swung around until its nose pointed away from the canoe.

As the current carried them off, Orlando noticed for the first time that not one of them had a tail.

Within moments they were lost in the mist again, but their high-pitched voices floated back for awhile longer, singing some new hymn to the glories of elbow-grease and shiny counters.

"Right, the farmer's wife. . . ." Orlando murmured, as the nursery rhyme came back to him. "Poor little things."

"What are you babbling about?" Fredericks frowned at him, then shouted, "Hey, where are we going?" as the chief began paddling with renewed and even increased vigor toward the unexplored farther shore.

"The Ice Box," explained the tortoise. "It is near the far end of the Kitchen, and a place of many legends. In fact, stories tell that somewhere inside it lie 'sleepers'—folk who have existed as long as the Kitchen itself, but always in slumber, and who will dream their cold dreams until Time itself ends if they are left undisturbed. Sometimes these sleepers, without ever waking, will predict the future to anyone lucky or unlucky enough to be nearby, or answer questions that otherwise would go unaddressed."

"Bad men no care about sleepers," the chief said, leaning into each stroke of the paddle. "Them want gold."

"Ah, yes." The tortoise laid a stubby finger alongside his blunt beak and nodded. "They have heard the rumors that one of the Shoppers themselves has left a cache of golden treasure in the Ice Box. This may be merely a fairy tale—no one I know has ever seen one of the Shoppers, who are said to be godlike giants who come into the Kitchen only when night is done, when all who live here are as helplessly asleep as those in the farthest depths of the Ice Box. But whether the gold is a myth or the truth, clearly these bad men believe it to be real."

"Help me out, Gardino," Fredericks whispered. "What the hell is an ice box?"

"I think it's what they used to call a refrigerator."

Fredericks looked at the unstoppable, mechanical movements of Chief Strike Anywhere as he paddled toward his lost son."This just scans and scans, doesn't it?" he said. "And then it scans some more."

At least another hour seemed to pass before they reached land—or floor, Orlando supposed. Clearly the size of the river bore very little relation to any kind of scale; based on the size of the sink and countertops they had already visited, the Kitchen would have to be a real-world room hundreds of meters wide for such a long water journey to make sense. But he knew it was no use thinking about it too much—the Kitchen, he sensed, was not supposed to be analyzed that way.

The spot the chief had chosen was a small spit of dry space near the base of a massive leg that might have belonged to a table or chair—the piece of furniture was too large to see properly in the dark. This side of the kitchen seemed darker than the other river-bank, as though they were a much greater distance from the overhead bulb.

"You stay here," the Indian said. "Me go to look for bad men. Me come back soon, we make plan." One of his longer speeches now finished, he carried the canoe out until the water was past his perfectly cylindrical chest, then climbed aboard with silent grace.

"Well," said the tortoise as he watched him paddle away, "I can't pretend to be happy I've been caught up in all this, but I suppose we must make the best of things. Too bad we have no way of lighting a fire—it would make the waiting a little less lonely."

Fredericks seemed about to say something, then shook his head. Orlando realized that his friend had been about to ask a question, but had been suddenly embarrassed by the idea of talking to a cartoon. Orlando smiled. It was funny to know someone so well, and yet not to know them at all. He had known Sam Fredericks for years now—since they had both been sixth graders—and still had never seen his face.

Her face.

As always, the realization startled him. He looked at the familiar Pithlit-the-Thief features—the sharp chin, the large, expressive eyes—and wondered again what Fredericks really looked like. Was she pretty? Or did she look like her usual Fredericks sims, except a girl instead of a boy? And what did it matter?

Orlando wasn't sure it did matter. But he wasn't sure it didn't, either.

"I'm hungry," Fredericks announced. "What happens if we eat something here, Orlando? I mean, I know it doesn't really feed us or anything. But would it feel good?"

"I'm not sure. I guess it depends on whatever it is that's keeping us on the system." He tried to consider that for a moment—how the brain as well as body might be locked into a virtual interface—but he was having trouble making his thoughts stay together. "I'm too tired to think about it."

"Perhaps you two should sleep," the tortoise said. "I would gladly keep watch, in case our friend comes back, or something less savory takes an interest in us."

Fredericks gave the tortoise a look not entirely devoid of suspicion. "Yeah?"

Orlando settled against the broad base of the furniture leg, which was wide as a grain silo out of one of those old Western flicks and made a reasonably comfortable backrest. "Come on," he said to Fredericks. "You can put your head on my shoulder."

His friend turned and stared. "What does that mean?"

"Just . . . just so you'll be comfortable."

"Oh, yeah? And if you still believed I was a guy, would you have said that?"

Orlando had no honest answer. He shrugged. "Okay, so I'm a total woofmaster. So lake me to Law Net Live."

"Perhaps I should tell you lads a story," the tortoise said brightly. "That sometimes helps to dig a path toward the Sands of Sleep."

"You said something about the Shoppers." Orlando had been intrigued, although he did not know if he had the strength to listen to an entire story. "Do you believe they're the ones who made you? Who made all the . . . the people in the Kitchen?"

Fredericks groaned, but the tortoise ignored him. "Made us? Goodness, no." He took his spectacles off and wiped them vigorously, as if the mere thought made him jumpy. "No, we are made elsewhere. But the Shoppers, if the stories are true, bring us here from that other place, and thus we spend our nights in the Kitchen, longing always to return to our true home."

"Your true home?"

"The Store, most call it, although I met a group of forks and spoons once who belonged to a flatware sect that referred to the great home as 'The Catalog.' But all agree that wherever that great home is, it is a place where we do not sleep unless we choose to, and in which the Bulb is beautiful and bright through a night which never ends. There, it is said, the Shoppers will serve us."

Orlando smiled and looked to Fredericks, but his friend's eyes were already closed. Fredericks had never been very interested in the hows and whys of things. . . .

As the tortoise droned quietly on, Orlando felt himself sliding into a sort of waking dream in which he and his fellow Kitchen-mates could live their cartoon lives without fear of being put back in drawers or cabinets, and in which all the violences of the night before were gone when darkness returned again.

Kind of like it would be if I lived here all the time, he thought groggily. It's funny—even the cartoons want to be alive. Just like me. I could live here forever, and not be sick, and never have to go into that hospital again, 'cause I will go there again, and next time I won't come out, maybe I won't come out this time the tubes and the nurses all pretending they're not sad but I wouldn't have to if this was real and I could live here forever and never die. . . .

He sat up suddenly. Fredericks, who perhaps against his or her better judgment had curled up against his shoulder after all, protested sleepily.

"Wake up!" Orlando shook his friend. The tortoise, who had lulled himself into a kind of gentle reverie, peered at him over the rim of his spectacles as though seeing him for the first time, then slowly closed his eyes again and dropped back into sleep. "Come on, Fredericks," Orlando whispered loudly, not wanting to drag the tortoise into this, "wake up!"

"What? What is it?" Fredericks was always slow as a sloth to wake, but after a few moments he apparently remembered that they were in a potentially dangerous place and his eyes popped open. "What's happening?"

"I figured it out!" Orlando was both elated and sickened. The full import of the thing—the dreadful bargain those people had made—was just becoming clear to him. It could never mean as much to Fredericks as it did to him, never be as personal to anyone else, but even with his own fears and obsessions screaming their empathy, the thought of what the Grail people were doing made him angry to the very core of his being.

"Figured what out? You're having a dream, Gardiner."

"No. I'm not, I swear. I just figured out what the Grail Brotherhood people want—what all of this is about."

Fredericks sat up, annoyance turning to something like worry. "You did?"

"Think about it. Here we are, and we've already been in a bunch of these things—these simworlds—and they're just as good as the real world, right? No, better, because you can make anything, be anything."

"So?"

"So why do you think they made these places? Just to run around in, like you and I run around in the Middle Country?"

"Maybe." Fredericks rubbed his eyes. "Listen, Orlando, I'm sure this is utterly important and everything, but could you just tell me in a few words?"

"Think about it! You're some majorly rich person. You have everything you want, everything money can buy. Except that there's one thing you can't do, no matter how much money you have—one thing money can't buy, that makes all the houses and jets and everything worthless.

"They're going to die, Fredericks, All the money in the world can't stop that. All the money in the world won't help you if your body gets old and dies and rots away. Until now."

Now his friend's eyes were wide. "What are you saying, exactly? That they're going to keep themselves from dying? How?"

"I'm not sure. But if they can find a way to live here, in this Otherland place, they don't need bodies any more. They could live here forever, Fredericks, just like they've always lived—no, better! They can be gods! And if they had to kill a few kids to get it, don't you think they'd be willing to pay that price?"

Fredericks gaped. Then his mouth closed and his lips rounded. He whistled. "Tchi seen, Orlando, you really think so? God." He shook his head. "Scanny. This is the biggest thing ever."

Now that he understood the stakes for the first time, Orlando was also realizing that he hadn't known how frightened he could be. This was the black, black shadow of the golden city. "It is," he whispered, "it really is. The biggest thing ever."

 

 

The dark-skinned army man behind the desk was not the normal, friendly Corporal Keegan that usually sat there. He kept looking at Christabel like the waiting room of an office was not the place for a little girl, even if it was her dad's office and he was just on the other side of the double doors. Corporal Keegan always called her "Christa-lulu-bel" and sometimes gave her a piece of candy from a box in his drawer. The man at the desk now was all scowly, and Christabel did not like him.

Some people just made mean faces at kids. It was scanny. (That was Portia's word, and Christabel wasn't entirely sure what it meant, but she thought it meant stupid.) And it was stupid. Couldn't the man see that she was being extra special quiet?

She had a lot to think about, anyway, so she just ignored the scowly man and let him go back to working his squeezers. A lot to think about.

The boy from outside was what she had to think about, and Mister Sellars. When the boy had come into Mister Sellars' tunnel and frightened Christabel so bad, he had been waving a sharp thing and she had been really, really sure he was going to hurt them both with it. And he had even waved it at Mister Sellars and called him bad names, like "freak," but instead of being scared, Mister Sellars had just made a kind of funny quiet laugh and then asked the boy if he wanted something to eat.

Christabel had seen a show on the net once where a bunch of people were trying to catch the last tiger somewhere—she didn't remember if it was the last tiger in the world or just in that place, but she remembered it was the last—because the tiger had a hurt leg and broken teeth and it would die if it tried to live in the outside by itself. But even though the tiger's leg was so hurt that it could barely walk, and they were offering it food to try to get it to go in a special trap, it still wouldn't come near them.

That was the look the strange boy had given Mister Sellars, a you-won't-catch-me look. And he had waved the knife around again and yelled really loud, scaring Christabel so bad she would have peed her pants again if there was anything left to pee. But Mister Sellars hadn't been scared at all, even though he was so thin and weak—his arms weren't any bigger than the boy's arms—and was in a wheelchair. He just asked him again if he wanted something to eat.

The boy had waited a long time, then scowled just like the man at the desk was doing, and said "What you got?"

And then Mister Sellars had sent her away.

That was the hardest thing to think about. If Mister Sellars wasn't afraid of the boy who was named Cho-Cho, if he didn't think the boy would hurt him, why did he send her away? Did the boy only hurt little kids? Or was there something Mister Sellars was going to do or say that he didn't want Christabel to hear, only the boy? That made her feel bad, like the time when Ophelia Weiner had said she could only have three people to her slumber party, her mom's rules, and had invited Portia and Sieglinde Hill and Delphine Riggs, even though Delphine Riggs had only gone to their school for a few weeks.

Portia said afterward that it was a dumb sleepover, and that Ophelia's mom made them look at pictures of Ophelia's family at their house in Dallas where they had a pool, but Christabel had still felt very sad. And having Mister Sellars send her away so he could talk to the boy and give him something to eat made her feel the same way, like things were different.

She wondered if she could take out the Storybook Sunglasses and say "Rumpelstiltskin" and then ask Mister Sellars why he did it, but even though she really, really wanted to, she knew it would be a very bad idea to use them here, right in her daddy's office with that man looking over at her with his face like a rock. Even if she whispered ever so quiet, it was a bad idea. But she really wanted to know, and she felt like crying.

The door to her daddy's office room suddenly opened, like it had been pushed open by the loud voice that was talking.

". . . I don't really care, Major Sorensen. Nothing personal, you understand, but I just want results," The man talking was standing in the doorway, and the man behind the desk jumped up like his chair had caught on fire. The man who said he didn't care wasn't as tall as her daddy, but he looked very strong, and his coat was tight across his back. His neck was very brown and had wrinkles on it.

"Yes, sir," her daddy said. Two more men stepped out of the office and moved to either side of the door, like they meant to catch the man with the brown neck if he suddenly fell over.

"Well, then get it handled, damn it!" the man said. "I want him located. If I have to throw a cordon a hundred miles wide around this base and institute house-to-house searches, I will—I consider finding him that important. You could have done whatever was necessary before he had time to find a hiding place, and I would have made sure General Pelham backed you all the way. But you didn't, and there's not much point in stirring up a hornet's nest now. So, do it your own way . . . but you better get it done. You read me?"

Her daddy, who was nodding his head as the man spoke, saw Christabel over the man's shoulder and his eyes opened wide for a second. The man turned around. His face was in such a frown that Christabel was certain he was going to start yelling at everyone to get this little kid out of here. He had a gray mustache, much smaller and neater than Captain Ron's, and his eyes were very bright. For a moment he stared at her like a bird would look at a worm it wanted to eat, and she was scared all over again.

"Aha!" he said in a growly voice. "A spy."

Christabel pushed herself back into the chair. The magazine she had been holding fell onto the floor with the pages open.

"Ohmigod, I scared her." Suddenly he smiled. He had very white teeth, and his eyes crinkled up when he did it. "It's all right, I'm just kidding. Who are you, sweetie?"

"My daughter, sir," her daddy said. "Christabel, say hello to General Yacoubian."

She tried to remember what her daddy had taught her. It was hard to think with the man smiling at her. "Hello, General, sir."

"Hello, General, sir," he said, and laughed, then turned to the man who had been sitting at Corporal Keegan's desk. "You hear that, Murphy? At least someone connected with this man's army gives me a little respect." The general came around the desk and kneeled down in front of Christabel. He smelled like something she smelled on cleaning day, like furniture polish maybe. From close up, his eyes were still like a bird's eyes, very bright, with pale flecks in the brown. "And what's your name, honey?"

"Christabel, sir."

"I'll bet you are your daddy's pride and joy." He reached out and took her cheek between his fingers, just for a moment, very gentle, then stood up. "She's a beauty, Sorensen. Did you come down to help your daddy work, honey?"

"I'm not quite sure why she's here myself, sir." Her daddy walked toward her, almost as though he wanted to be close in case she said something wrong so he could stop her. Christabel did not understand why, but she felt scared again. "Why are you here, baby? Where's your mommy?"

"She called the school to say Mrs. Gullison was sick, so I should come here. She's shopping in the town today."

The general smiled again, showing almost all his teeth. "Ah, but a good spy always has a cover story." He turned to her daddy. "We're due back in Washington in three hours. But I'll be back beginning of next week. And I'd love to have some definite progress. I recommend that to you highly, Sorensen. Even better, I'd like to come back and find you-know-who under full guard in a suicide watch cell, ready for questioning."

"Yes, sir."

The general and his three men headed toward the door. He stopped there after the first two went through. "Now you be a good girl," he said to Christabel, who was trying to get the idea of a suicide watch out of her mind, and wondering who would wear something like that. "You mind your daddy, you hear me?"

She nodded.

"Because daddies know best." He gave her a little salute, then walked out. The scowly man went out last, looking very spyflick, like if he didn't keep watching carefully, Christabel's daddy might run up behind the general and hit him.

After they all left, her daddy sat on the desk and stared at the door for a while. "Well, maybe we should get you home," he said at last. "Mommy ought to be back from shopping by now, don't you think?"

"Who are you supposed to find, Daddy?"

"To find? Were you listening to that?" He walked over and messed up her hair.

"Daddy, don't! Who are you supposed to find. . . ?"

"Nobody, sweetie. Just an old friend of the general's." He took her hand in his. "Now come on. After the day I've just had, I think I can take a few minutes off work to drive my daughter home."

 

 

It was odd, but the thing that awakened Jeremiah Dako was the silence.

The oddity was that as one of only two people roaming through a huge, abandoned military base, he should have been startled by anything except silence. Living in the Wasp's Nest with only Long Joseph for company was most of the time like being the last inhabitant of one of the ghost townships that dotted the southern Transvaal, where the Tokoza Epidemic had emptied the shantytowns so quickly that many of the fleeing residents left even their few miserable possessions behind—cooking pots, cardboard suitcases, tattered but wearable clothing—as though their owners had all been snatched away in a second by some dreadful magic.

But even the deserted Transvaal worker stations had been open to wind and rain and the incursions of wildlife. Birdsong could still be heard echoing through the dusty streets, or rats and mice scrabbling in the rubbish dumps.

The Wasp's Nest, though, was a monument to silence. Shielded from the elements by uncountable tons of stone, its machineries largely stilled, its massive doors so tightly sealed that even insects could not slip in and the air vents so finely-screened that no visible living organism could enter, the base might have been something from a fairy tale—Beauty's castle, perhaps, where she and all her family slept, powdered in the dust of centuries.

Jeremiah Dako was not a fanciful man, but there were times in the eternal night of indoor living, when his companion Joseph Sulaweyo had finally slipped into fitful sleep—a sleep that seemed plagued by its own malign fairy folk—when Jeremiah stared at the vast cement coffins that were now his responsibility and wondered what tale he had stumbled into.

He wondered, too, what the Author expected him to do.

I'm one of the ones they don't talk about much in the stories, he decided on a night when the readings were unremarkable and the hours went by slowly. It was only a slightly painful realization. The man holding the spear by the door. The one who brings in some magical something-or-other on a velvet pillow when someone important calls for it. One of those people in the crowd who shouts "Hooray!" when everything ends happily. I've always been that man. Worked for my mother until I was grown, worked for the doctor for twenty-four years after that. I might have run away from it all for beautiful, beautiful Khalid if he had asked me, but I would have wound up keeping house for him, too. I would have been in his story, that is all, instead of the doctor's or my mother's, or right now this crazy thing with machines and villains and this big empty building under a mountain.

Of course, a spear-carrier role was not entirely without rewards, and neither was this multistory ghost town. He had time to read and to think now. He had not had much time for either since he had gone to work for the Van Bleecks. All his spare time had gone into assuring his mother's comfort, and although Susan would not have begrudged him the occasional quiet hour spent reading or watching the net while she was deep in her researches, the mere fact of her trust had spurred him on to great—and almost always unnoticed—efforts. But here there was literally nothing to do except to watch the readouts on the V-tanks, and make sure the fluid levels stayed topped up. It was no more difficult than maintaining the doctor's expensive car—which was now parked in the lowest of the Wasp's Nest parking lots, and which would be gathering dust if he didn't go up there every few days to clean it with a soft cloth and agonize over the ruined grill and cracked windshield.

He sometimes wondered if he would ever get to drive it again.

Jeremiah, despite not liking the fellow very much, would have been willing to devote more of his leisure time to conversation with Long Joseph, but Renie's father (who had never been exactly warm) was growing increasingly remote. The man spent hours in brooding silence, or vanished into the farther reaches of the base and returned with his eyes reddened by tears. Jeremiah had liked it better when the fellow was just nasty.

And Jeremiah's every attempt to reach out had been rebuffed. At first he had thought it was only the man's pride, or perhaps his hopeless, provincial prejudice against homosexuality, but lately he had come to realize that there was a knot in Long Joseph Sulaweyo that might never be untied. The man lacked the vocabulary to define his pain except in the most obvious ways, but more critically, he did not seem to understand that there could be an alternative, if he would only try to find the answers within himself. It was as though the entire twenty-first century had passed him by, and he could imagine emotional pain solely in the primitive ways of the prior century, only as something to be raged against or endured.

Lately, as though the inner turmoil were coming to a rolling boil, Long Joseph had taken to walking incessantly, not only vanishing for long journeys through the base—Jeremiah had thought at first he was searching for alcohol, but surely he had given that up by now?—but even pacing in a most maddening way when they were in the same room, always moving, always walking. In the past few days Joseph had even begun singing to himself as he did so, filling the long silences between irregular conversation with a tuneless murmur that was starting to make Jeremiah feel like someone was poking him repeatedly in the back of the head. The songs, if that was what they were, did not seem to have any application to Long Joseph's situation. They were just old popular standards, repeated over and over again, sometimes—bereft of their original melodies and with the lyrics mumbled or even turned into nonsense syllables—just barely, though irritatingly, recognizable.

Jeremiah honestly did feel sorry for the man. Joseph had lost his wife in a horrible, lingering way, his son was all but dead with a mystery illness, and now his daughter had gone away into danger, although she remained cruelly, deceptively near. Jeremiah understood that Long Joseph was hurting badly, and that the absence of anything to drink had removed one of the man's few emotional crutches, but that did not mean that the mumbling and the pacing and the incessant idiot crooning were not soon going to make Jeremiah far more crazy than Long Joseph could ever aspire to be.

Thus it was that when he awakened in the middle of the night, several hours before he was due to take his next shift from Renie's father, the silence—the absence of even the distant whisper of Joseph's songs—startled him.

Jeremiah Dako had dragged the military-issue camp bed down to the underground lab in part because he had been working longer and longer shifts watching over the V-tanks, filling in for Long Joseph when the man was late returning from one of his rambling walks around the complex—or sometimes when he did not come back at all. At least, that was the reason he cited, not without some heat, when Joseph Sulaweyo demanded to know his reasons for moving a bed into the lab.

But in a dark part of his imagination, he had also begun to lose trust in Long Joseph. Jeremiah feared that, in a fit of despondency, the other man might actually do something to damage the tanks or the processing equipment that made them run.

Now, as he lay in the darkness of the office he had chosen as his makeshift bedroom, listening to a very unfamiliar silence, he felt a cool wind of fear blow through him. Had it finally happened, then? Or was he just strung too tightly himself? Being trapped for weeks in a deserted underground base, listening to the echoes of his own footsteps and the mumbling of a crazy man, was not the way to keep anyone mentally healthy. Perhaps he was jumping at shadows—or at innocent silences.

Jeremiah groaned quietly and got up. His heart was beating only a little more swiftly than it should, but he knew he would not get back to sleep until he saw for himself that Long Joseph Sulaweyo was sitting in the chair in front of the tank readings. Or perhaps off using the toilet—even Jeremiah occasionally left the room on his own shift to answer a call of nature or to make coffee, or even just to get a little cold air in the face from one of the ventilation ducts.

That was probably it, of course.

Jeremiah slipped into the pair of old slippers he had found in one of the storage lockers—a comfort that made him feel at least a little bit at home—and walked out to the catwalk to look down at the level that contained the control panels.

The chair was empty.

Still very deliberately staying calm, he headed for the stairs. Long Joseph had gone to the kitchen or the toilet. Jeremiah would just watch the tanks until he got back. It was not as though there was ever much to do beyond the quite predictable work of topping up the water and other liquids on schedule, and flushing out the waste system and slotting in new filters. And what could be done anyway, short of pulling Renie and !Xabbu out of the tanks—against Renie's express wishes—unless there were a full-scale emergency? The communication system had gone bad the first day, and had proved itself beyond Jeremiah's skills to fix. So even if Long Joseph had wandered off, it wasn't as though he were leaving the helm of a ship in the middle of a sea battle or something.

All the readings were normal. Jeremiah checked them twice just to make sure. As his eye swept along the station for the second time, he noticed the faint light of the drawscreen. The stylus lay beside it, the only thing on the station not at right angles to something else, a single and minor note of disorder, but for some reason it made Jeremiah shudder as he leaned forward to read the screen.

I CANT TAKE NO MORE, the note read, the labored handwriting black against the glow of the screen. I AM GOING TO BE WITH MY CHILD.

Jeremiah read it two more times, trying to make sense of it as he fought the strangling sense of alarm. What did the man mean, with his child? With Renie? Did he think he could join her just by climbing into the tank? Jeremiah had to restrain the urge to throw the great lids open, to make sure the madman had not climbed into the plasmodal gel beside his unconscious daughter. There was no need for him to touch the V-tanks, he knew. The readings on Renie's tank, on both of them, were normal—one set of vital signs in each.

A darker meaning suddenly occurred to him. Jeremiah stood up, suddenly very afraid.

If he thought his boy Stephen had died—if he had suffered one of his bad dreams, perhaps, or his depression had just beaten him down until the difference between comatose and corpse seemed nil. . . .

I have to go and look for him, the mad bastard. Jesus save us! He could be anywhere in here. He could just go up to the top story of the lab and throw himself off.

Reflexively, he looked up, but the floors above the lab were silent, and nothing moved on any of them. The great snake-tangle of cables above the V-tanks was also unchanged, although for a moment one of the cable troughs, dangling unused, looked unpleasantly like a hanged man.

There was no body on the floor either.

"Good God," Jeremiah said aloud, and wiped his brow. There was no helping it: he would have to look out for him. It would take a while, but not forever—the base was sealed, after all. But he would have to leave the tanks unsupervised, and that he did not like. Perhaps because of his own apprehension, the sleepers within seemed terribly vulnerable. If something happened to them while he was chasing after that crazy fellow. . . ! He could not bear the thought.

Jeremiah went back to the station and hunted through the settings until he found the one he remembered—something Martine had demonstrated two weeks ago, which felt like years back, now. When he changed the output line, the sound of twin heartbeats (!Xabbu's slower, but both strong and not unduly agitated) bounced out of the public address system and filled the high laboratory chamber: bi-bom, bi-hom—bi-bom, bi-hom, slightly out of synch, with Renie's lapping the Bushman's by the seventh or eight beat.

It would probably send Long Joseph absolutely mad if he heard it, make him positive something had gone wrong, but at this moment Jeremiah did not give a damn.

"Joseph! Joseph, where are you?"

As he searched the huge building, trudging through the deserted halls with the ping-pong of twin heartbeats echoing around him, Jeremiah could not help but remember coming back to the doctor's house on that awful night. The lights had been out, which was normal, but even the security lights along the fence had been dark; from the moment he had turned onto the wide cul-de-sac and seen the house's shadowy silhouette, he had been terrified. And each moment of walking through the silent corridors, calling the doctor's name without reply, had only intensified the fear. As dreadful as it was, finding Susan Van Bleeck lying battered on me floor of the laboratory had almost been a relief—at least the horror had a shape now. it could get no worse.

Except of course it had been worse, when he had returned to the hospital after dropping Renie off, to find orderlies around her bedside, unhooking the life support.

And now, forced by that man's idiocy to wander in his slippers through this cavernous place, as if reliving that dreadful night, not knowing when he might stumble on a body. . . . He was even more angry than he was frightened. If he found Joseph Sulaweyo, and the man had not killed himself, Jeremiah would give him the thrashing of his life, no matter whether the other man was bigger or not.

The idea of giving a man a beating because he had failed to commit suicide pried loose from him a nervous and entirely involuntary gasp of laughter. It was not a pleasant sound.

He checked the most obvious places first. Joseph's own bed in the communal bunkroom was deserted, the tangle of blankets on the floor the only knot of disorder in an otherwise empty place. The kitchen, where the man had searched with such insane diligence for something to drink, was also empty. Jeremiah forced himself to open the pantries and the walk-in freezer, and even to look in the cabinets, despite his fear that he might pull one back to find Joseph's corpse leering at him, mouth foaming with some horrid industrial cleaning fluid. But the kitchen too was silent and uninhabited.

He worked his way systematically through all the living quarters and the offices, opening everything bigger than a file cabinet drawer. It took him the better part of two hours. The sound of Renie's and !Xabbu's heartbeats accompanied him, still quietly calm, but with just enough variation that after a while it became almost reassuring: it made him feel a little less alone.

Bi-bom . . . bi-bom. . . .

His search of the living and working quarters finished, Jeremiah continued up to the parking lot, in case the mad fool Sulaweyo had tried to run the Ihlosi's engine and kill himself with carbon monoxide, not realizing that he would run out of gas long before he could fill half a million cubic meters of garage, even were it not ventilated. But the car was empty, untouched since its last cleaning, as battered and useless for the moment as Jeremiah felt. He opened the door and got a pocket torch out of the glove compartment, then continued on through the garage, shining the light up into the dark spaces behind the dangling lights on the extremely small chance that Joseph might have dragged himself up into the girders somehow to hang himself.

The garage levels were much faster to check, and all four were empty. Jeremiah stopped in the uppermost for a rest and a think, listening to the percussive echo of the heartbeats, now quadrupled and more by the stony walls. It made no sense—he had checked everywhere. Unless the man had climbed into one of the tanks. If he had drowned himself in the fluid, it would explain the lack of any extra vital signs.

Jeremiah shuddered. The thought of Irene Sulaweyo, unaware in that viscous blackness of her father's body floating only a few inches away. . . .

He would have to check. It was horrible, but he would have to look. He wondered if just opening the tank would be enough to pull the sleepers out of their virtual dreams. And if Joseph was not there, and the experiment were aborted for nothing. . . ?

Troubled and still fearful, Jeremiah made his way over to the largest ventilation duct to get some air to clear his head. It worked, but not in the way he had planned.

The ventilator's screen was lying on the floor.

Jeremiah stared at it stupidly for a moment, then up to the open end of the great square tube, a dark hole into nothing. Jeremiah directed the torch beam back to the floor and saw that a handful of bolts had been set carefully in the middle of the screen.

The duct was big enough for a man, but narrow enough that someone, if they went carefully, could use their own shoulders and legs to brace themselves as they climbed upward. If that person were very determined. Or a little mad.

The amplified heartbeats were quieter here at the far side of the garage, away from the speaker. Jeremiah leaned his head into the duct and shouted Joseph's name, and heard his own voice rattle away and die. He shouted again, but there was still no reply. He wriggled his head and upper body into the duct and aimed the torch upward. A few cobwebs trailed at the first juncture, tethered only at one end, as though something had squeezed past them.

As he stared, Jeremiah thought he heard a sound breathe down the duct, a faintly musical hooting—perhaps a muffled voice trying to call out despite an injury. He strained to listen, but the sound was very quiet, and he cursed the heartbeats that had until only a few moments ago kept him such good company. He tucked the torch into his pocket and dragged himself all the way up into the duct so that he could block out the public-address noises with his own body.

And now he could hear it, the murmuring sound. A second later he knew what it was. Somewhere far away, up and along many lengths of plasteel pipe, the wind that swept down the Drakensbergs in the early morning was blowing across the other end of the open duct.

Long Joseph had gone to be with his child, Stephen. Not metaphorically—not by killing himself—but literally. Of course. Joseph Sulaweyo was a very literal man.

Oh, my Lord, what will happen now? Jeremiah climbed awkwardly back out of the duct. The heartbeats of those he guarded still echoed through the cavernous garage, slow and even, as though nothing had changed.

The bloody, bloody fool. . . !

CHAPTER 17
In The Works

NETFEED/MUSIC: Horrible Animals to Split

(visual; clip from '1Way4U2B')

VO: Twins Saskia and Martinus Benchlow, founding members of My Family and Other Horrible, Horrible Animals, performers of one of last decade's biggest hits, '1Way4U2B', but who had gone a while without cracking the charts, have decided to go their separate musical ways,

(visual: M. B. and manager at Gimme Awards after-party-party)

M. BENCHLOW: "Saskia, she's great, but I needed to go a separate direction, less commercial. Money didn't come into it, seen? I'm tired of flurry. I really, really love jazz, all that history. I have a trumpet, follow? I know every tune Neil Armstrong ever played. And I need to explore that. She had her own silver cloud she needed to tine, but we're still related. . . ."

 

It was hard to have an intelligent thought about the scene before her—the stranger Azador on the floor amidst a wreckage of tiktoks, the girl Emily twittering like a bird as she covered him with obviously unwanted kisses—and Renie didn't have time to wait for such a thought to show up anyway. Corpses from New Emerald City's dwindling army of flying monkeys and green-bearded soldiers were scattered through the corridors of the Scare-crow's headquarters. Other defenders were dying at that very moment just a few hundred meters away, trying to hold the loading bay against rampaging tiktoks, and danger was increasing by the second. Still, she could not simply ignore what she had just heard.

"You . . . you had sex with her?"

Azador scowled as he wrestled free of the girl. "Perhaps. What is it to you?"

"She's a Puppet, isn't she?" Although with Emily just a few meters away, as joyful as a puppy to have rediscovered her beau, it was hard to believe that.

"Yes?" Azador climbed to his feet. "So? And what do you care about the sexual habits—or, let us be blunt, masturbatory habits—of others? Would you care to discuss your own sexual life?"

"But . . . but she's just a . . . a program. How could you do it? How could you take advantage of her?"

Azador shook his head, recovering a little of his self-assurance despite the girl wrapped around his shin, kissing his knee. "You cannot have it both ways. Is she a program? Or did I take advantage of a young woman?"

Renie turned to !Xabbu for some kind of support, but the baboon was no longer paying attention. "I hear more of those machine men coming." He pointed across the wide, tiled floor. "From that direction."

"We have to go out the front way." Azador tried without success to pull his leg free of Emily's clinging grasp. "God damn it!" He lifted his hand.

"If you hit her," Renie said sharply, "I'll kill you."

Azador stared at her for a long second. "Then you get this silly bitch away from me. Quickly, or we will all be killed."

Renie pulled the protesting Emily loose. The girl wailed, "But our baby. . . !"

"Is never going to get born if we don't move." A sudden thought hit her. "What did that horrible tin man say? 'You've discovered the Dorothy,' something like that? Is that what they were talking about—this baby?"

Azador was not interested in discussion. He was already legging it across the broad room, heading for a corridor at right angles to the one !Xabbu had warned would disgorge attackers. Renie swallowed a curse and jogged after him, with !Xabbu four-legging beside her. Emily needed no urging to follow the mustached man.

It's one thing to say you'd kill him, girl, Renie thought, but he's big, and you don't have any weapons. She berated herself for not having pilfered one of the antique rifles from the dead soldiers, although from what she'd seen at the loading bay, she doubted any of them had ammunition left.

Azador was not making the pace easy, and Renie was still sore from the many calamities in Kunohara's world and this twisted version of Oz. He led them on a winding route through the building, down corridors that seemed dead-ends, but which proved to have doors hidden in alcoves. Renie wondered again how he knew so much about this particular simworld. Not to mention his little trick for changing a wall into a door, she remembered.

Who the hell is this fellow?

The Scarecrow's palace, an endless functionalist warren of concrete walls and linoleum floors, could have doubled for a municipal structure in Durban, or indeed anywhere in the Third World. It had clearly once been occupied, even feverishly busy—old-fashioned printouts and other papers lay scattered everywhere, making footing treacherous, and there were enough desks and chairs to seat hundreds just in the sections they traversed, although at least half of them seemed built for people of much smaller than normal size—but now the building was as empty as the Hive after the ant swarm had passed through it.

Entropy, she told herself. Isn't that the word? As though these things were filled up once, and then just allowed to run down, fall apart. But they had been in only three simulations so far. It was a bit early to be making judgements.

Azador stopped in front of a wide double-door and strained against it. The doors opened a crack, but something seemed to be blocking them on the far side. Renie fell in beside him to add her strength; even Emily pushed, staring at her beloved as she did so as if he were singlehandedly parting the Red Sea. The image seemed even more appropriate a moment later when the doors suddenly crashed open and a gush of something scarlet poured through. For a moment Renie could only see it as a nightmarish wash of blood, but it was dry, and whispery, and when she scooped it in her hand she found it was. . . .

"Confetti. . . ?"

They waded through the drifts of paper dots, then vaulted over the tumbled desks which had been piled on the far side. A banner, which dangled in their faces as they clambered over the furniture, read "We'll Miss You, Jellia Jamb! Happy Retirement!" in huge painted letters.

"This is the reception hall." Azador surveyed the stacks of folding tables which barred two of the room's other three entrances. "Someone's tried to barricade the place."

"Pretty pitiful job they made of it," Renie observed.

"Not many defenders left," Azador pointed out. As Renie started toward the unblocked door, he shouted, "No! Do not do that!"

Irritated, she spun. "Who are you to give me orders?"

"It is not orders. They have pushed things in front of other doors, but not those. We are expected to go through. Perhaps there is a trap on the other side."

Despite her dislike of the man, she was filled with shame. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"Let me go," !Xabbu suggested when they reached the door. "I am light and fast."

Renie shook her head. "Not until we open the door. Azador, is there a way to go around this one, like the way you got us out of the cell?"

He examined the walls in silence for a moment, then shook his head. "Not this room, no. This is not—what is the word?—snap-on code. Someone made this specially. It may have been nice at one time."

Renie looked at the huge, windowless, mint-green space and doubted that was so. Her eyes lit on the banner. "Hang on." She dragged the length of heavy paper from the wall, then approached the door cautiously and looped it through the handle. After giving the ends of the banner to Azador, she took one of the folding chairs—this place really could have been a Pinetown social hall!—and approached the door from the side. She reached out with the folded chair and pushed the latch on the door handle until it clicked, then Azador yanked on the banner and the door swung open.

Nothing exploded. No cloud of gas or rain of needle-sharp spikes flew out at them. !Xabbu approached the doorway cautiously, his muzzle close to the ground, head bobbing like a mongoose stalking a snake. Renie said a silent bit of childhood prayer for the little man's safety.

Seeing nothing immediately wrong, the baboon took a careful few steps forward, out of sight. Renie held her breath. An instant later, he scampered out again, fur erect along his spine. "Come quickly!"

The room was empty except for a pile of old clothes lying in the middle of the floor, festooned with coils of tubing. Renie was about to ask !Xabbu what had excited him when the bundle of old clothes lifted its flat, shriveled head. Emily squeaked and backed toward the door.

". . . help. . . ." it murmured, a tiny dry sound that faded even before it had finished.

"Jesus Mercy, it's the Scarecrow." Renie took a few steps forward, then hesitated. Hadn't this thing wanted to kill them? But on the other hand, perhaps it could tell them how to get out of this place. Otherwise, they were reliant on Azador, and she was becoming less comfortable with that thought by the minute. "What can we do?" she asked the wrinkled thing on the floor.

A single finger rose and pointed limply toward one of the doors set in an otherwise featureless wall. She could only hope the thing still had enough brains to know which door was which.

"I hear the metal men," !Xabbu announced. "Very loud. Close now."

Renie snatched up the Scarecrow, trying not to trip over the spaghetti tangle of tubing. The King of Kansas twisted weakly in her grasp—a remarkably unpleasant sensation, like cradling a burlap snake.

All this kind of takes the shine off that nice Oz flick, Renie could not help thinking.

The door opened easily; inside, a stairwell led upward. Emily, her face frozen somewhere between awe and repulsion, snatched up a stray handful of tubes and one of the Scarecrow's booted feet, which had tumbled loose during the swift collection, and followed Renie, closely trailed by Azador and !Xabbu.

Something like a boiler room waited at the top of the stairs, pipes cross-connected in a tight grid beneath the ceiling and running up and down the walls. A single chair that might have come from the cockpit of an ancient airplane sat in front of a spot on one wall where all the pipes curved around the imitation wood cabinet of the wallscreen.

Scarecrow's head fluttered. He wobbled his hand toward a pipe that ended at right angles to the rest, its protruding nozzle a little more than a meter off the floor. Scarecrow summoned all his strength to take a breath. Renie leaned close to hear his voice whispering out.

". . . in chest. . . ."

She looked at the nozzle, then at the limp twist of overalls and flannel shirt that stretched between ribbon legs and empty head. She slid his nearly empty torso onto the nozzle between two buttons of his shirt, impaling him like some medieval torture victim, then held him in place. Nothing happened. One of the Scarecrow's hands flapped toward a flywheel. When Azador turned it, a hissing sound filled the room.

The Scarecrow's torso began to swell first, then his head slowly inflated, too. His legs straightened, unrolling themselves until his overalls were tight as sausage-skin. At last the King of Kansas forced himself away from the nozzle with jointless, balloon arms, and turned stiffly to face Renie and the others. He took his finger from the hole in his chest and let some air leak out until he was a little closer to his old baggy self, then plugged the opening with some spare straw from his lost foot.

"I've got bladders like you couldn't imagine," he said by way of explanation, his voice high-pitched and tight. "I can fill them with air in a pinch—and it's definitely Pinch City around here." He winked, but his head was so round that the eyelid couldn't fully close. "This won't work for long, but it will last until I can make certain neither of those bastards gets to take over Emerald—unless one of them wants to pitch his pup-tent on rubble and hot ashes, that is."

"What are you talking about?" Renie stepped forward, half-tempted to yank the straw stopper back out again. "You're going to burn the place down? What about us?"

Scarecrow waved a hand. His grin, which pulled his inflated features even tighter, actually squeaked. "Wouldn't be very generous after you saved me, would it? Fair enough, I'll let you get out first. But you'd better go now, because I've got another few minutes, tops. These Farmer John overalls don't make for a real tight pressure seal, if you know what I mean."

"We don't know how to get out of here," Renie said. "Is there . . . is there a crossing place? Like on the river?"

"A gateway?" The Scarecrow's scalloped smile widened. "Don't you even know what they're called? You really are out-of-towners, aren't you?"

"I know what a gateway is," Azador said tightly. "And I know there is one here in your palace."

"Palace!" The Scarecrow wheezed and thumped his knee with a gloved hand. A tiny puff of strawdust flew up. "That's a good one. You should have seen my 'cot in the real Emerald City—that was a palace! This—Christ, I think it's an engineer's rendering of an old National Guard armory or something. We got it cheap when we were setting the whole thing up."

"But there's a . . . a gateway here?" Renie pressed him,

"Was. Or rather still is, if you don't mind wading through about two hundred more of those goddamned mechanical men. It's in my throne room, behind the wallscreen. But Tinman's wind-ups have got it now—they have just about everything. Why do you think I dragged my sorry behind all the way over here?" He lifted a few of his tubes and rattled them sadly. "I can't believe after all this time, it's over."

"I hear the clicking men close by," !Xabbu announced. "In the big room beneath us."

"They won't get in here," Scarecrow said dismissively. "Once those doors are closed, it would take them days to break through."

"So how do we get out?" Renie demanded.

The Scarecrow, his neck still a bit overfull, had to turn his whole body to look at her. "I'll have to think about that. And you want a gateway, right?" He cupped his shapeless chin with one hand and set his forefinger against his pale temple.

"God damn it!" Azador shouted from the corner of the room. "Get this creature away from me!"

Renie turned to see Emily take a step backward, lip quivering. The girl finally seemed to have realized her attentions were unwanted. Renie interposed herself between the two of them. "Just stay close to me," she told the girl.

"But he was my special henry," Emily said tremulously. "He called me a pretty little pudding."

"Yeah?" Renie shot Azador a disgusted look. "Well, here's some news from RL—sometimes men are full of shit."

The subject of this description rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest.

The Scarecrow clapped his flabby palms together. "Ah! Of course! You can go to the Works. There's a gateway there, where the River runs through the treatment plants."

"The Works?" Azador asked. "That is where the Tinman is strongest."

"Yeah, but he's not watching his own backyard, he's watching here. . . . Where the endgame is playing out." The King of Kansas was beginning to deflate. His puffy features took on a worried expression. "But you can't let him catch this girl. If he gets the Dorothy, the whole game's over."

"This is a game to you?" Renie shook her head in frustration. "All of this, people dead, suffering, and it's still just a game?"

Scarecrow was struggling now to hold his head upright. "Just? Are you uttermostly scantagious? I've barely been out of this simulation for two years—long enough to change my fluids and filters back in RL and that's about it. I've lost at least fifteen percent of my bone-mass, for God's sake, atrophied muscles, you name it! I've given everything I had to this simworld, and held onto it even after those whatever-they-are floated in from some other simulation and bumped out my partners. Now I'm going to blow up me and this whole building so that Tinman bastard and his fat crony don't get their hands on it—which means it will take me weeks to figure a way back in—and you say it's 'just a game'?" He rubbed his slack face. "You're the one who's out of her mind."

"Have you been out recently? Offline?"

He squinted at her. "Not for a couple of days. But I guess I'll get a little vacation now, like it or not. Why do you ask?"

Renie shrugged. "No particular reason." But she thought, You've got a surprise coming, fellow, then realized how callous that was. This person's life might be at risk—they still had no idea what the apparently changed rules of Otherland meant. "No, that's not true," she said. "There's an important reason. We think something might be wrong with the entire network. People have . . . have been having very strange problems. Unable to go offline. And . . . things that happen here might be affecting them offline, too." There was no way to explain her worries quickly, but she had to try to warn him. "I think if I were you, I would try to get offline the regular way before I committed virtual suicide."

The Scarecrow opened both eyes wide in a look of mock-astonishment, but behind him, Azador appeared disturbed. "Ooh, thank you, little lady. And when I happen into your world, I'll be sure to give you a bunch of unneeded advice, too." He turned to Azador, as though deciding that he was the only one worth addressing. "There's an airshaft running above this room—just behind that grille, there. You can follow it all the way to the roof if you want, or down to the basement, although you probably don't want to get stuck in a vertical shaft if you can help it. Got me?"

Azador nodded.

"Once you're out, you can make your way across the city to the river, and reach the Works that way. Or do whatever the hell you want. But you'd better get going, 'cause I can't wait forever. About fifteen minutes after I see the last butt disappear into the airshaft, this place is going to go up like a United Nations Day fireworks show. I can't wait any longer than that. I'm falling apart."

!Xabbu walked forward and stood on his hind legs before the straw man, who was sagging badly. "Can you not breathe more air into yourself?" the Bushman asked.

"I don't think the seams on this body would hold through another fill-up, and if they rip before I do what I want to do, it's all over. So get the hell out of here, will you?"

"Just tell me one thing," !Xabbu said. "What is the Dorothy you spoke of? You said we must keep the girl safe."

"Part of the way this simworld is set up." Scarecrow's voice was growing squeaky and thin. "Post-apocalyptic. Nuclear war. Survivors can't breed. Lots of Auntie Ems, Uncle Henrys, all sterile. So the myth of a girl-child who will be born to one of the emilys. The Dorothy, get it?" He peered from sunken, painted eyes at !Xabbu, who clearly did not. "Oh, go on," he trilled. "Get out of my face." He flicked on the wallscreen, which displayed a vision of New Emerald City under siege, a few of its squat buildings on fire and tiktoks rumbling through the damaged streets like two-legged tanks.

As first !Xabbu then the others struggled into the ventilation duct, Scarecrow raised his flabby arms high. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe," he declaimed in a helium squeal. He appeared to be talking to himself, or to the screen. "Attack ships on fire off the shores of the Nonestic Ocean. I watched magic blunderbusses flash and glitter in the dark near Glinda's Palace. All those moments will he lost in time, like tears in the rain." His head sagged with an audible hiss of escaping air. "Time . . . to die. . . ."

Last into the vent, Renie paused to try once more. "Scarecrow—whoever you are—I'm not just making this up. I think people might be dying from things that happen online. Really dying. There's something very wrong with the network."

The straw man had exposed a hidden panel in the wall, and with great effort was using his wobbly fingers to throw toggle switches, one after the other. "Jeez," he sighed. "You sure know how to screw up a good exit speech."

"But this is important!"

He shut his eyes and clapped his gloves over the place where ears would have been. "Is someone talking? Because I'm not hearing anything. . . ."

Renie sighed and turned to crawl after the others.

 

Minutes later they tumbled out of the vent and onto the gravel-strewn roof. It was day outside, but just barely. The sky was restless with ugly black clouds, and the hot, damp air smelled of electricity—Renie guessed there had been more tornado attacks while they had been inside. A steady trickle of sweat dripped between her breasts and down her stomach.

The river appeared to be a good distance into the Works, a dark clot of storage tanks, industrial piping, and lumpish low buildings. After a hurried argument, they decided to make their way across the railyard and then cross the Works at as direct an angle as possible, spending only as much time on Tinman's territory as they had to on their way to the river. Although they could see small knots of dispirited henrys being herded by tiktoks near the front of Scarecrow's concrete palace, the service yard below them was empty, so they clambered down a drainpipe to the ground and sprinted toward a siding away from the main line where several railway cars had been abandoned.

They were sheltering behind the tall wheels of a flatcar, and had just recovered their breath—or !Xabbu had, and the others were getting closer—when a loud but muffled whump knocked the ground from underneath them. Even the massive flatcar bounced, its wheels scraping against the track; for a terrifying moment Renie thought it might tip over and crush them all.

When the earth had stopped shaking, they crawled past the end of the flatcar and looked back. The innermost section of the Scarecrow's headquarters had been completely leveled, and much of the rest was hidden by a rising cloud of dust and dark smoke. Bits of ash and debris were beginning to filter down around them in a fine rain.

"Jesus Mercy," Renie said. "He did it. He blew himself up."

"So?" Azador spat. "Only idiots waste their time on games. We will go now, while Scarecrow's enemy is trying to find out what has happened." As if to illustrate his words, those Tiktoks not caught in the blast had already begun swarming toward the ruined palace, beams from their belly-lamps crisscrossing in the murk. "We will slip through the Works without Tinman even noticing us."

"How do you know about the Works anyway?" Renie demanded. "In fact, how do you know so much about this whole simworld?"

Azador shrugged. "I get around." He scowled. "Enough with questions. If I were you, I would be nice to me. Who took you out of that cell? Who knows the secrets of this place? Azador does." He pulled out a cigarette and felt for his lighter.

"We don't have time for that." Renie pointed at the sky. "Look at those clouds—there could be another tornado any moment, and we'd be caught in the open."

Azador grimaced, but tucked the cigarette behind his ear. "Fine. So lead the way."

Like it's some kind of treat for me, Renie thought. Thanks so much, Mr. Azador,

 

Crossing the vast railyard took more than an hour. The open spaces were particularly perilous, and several times they reached shelter only moments before they would have been spotted by one of the roving gangs of mechanical men. As the sky grew darker, orange safety lights smoldered into life around the yard, throwing boxcars and switching stations and derelict engines into stark relief. Renie could not see why Scarecrow and his friends had wasted processing power on a place like this, even if they did get the ingredients cheaply. She could understand building Oz—but a Kansas railhead?

That was one of the differences between the rich and everyone else, she decided. These Otherland people could lavish money and attention on anything that struck their fancies. Unlike ordinary people, they could afford to be crazy.

The fugitives stopped to catch their breath in a covered freight car. The murk from the destruction of the Scarecrow's headquarters had spread across the horizon, although it was hard to tell where the cloud of dust left off and the threatening skies began.

Despite the growing darkness, the air was hotter now than it had been half an hour before.

Shielded from spying eyes by the freight car's walls, Azador had lit a cigarette, and was blowing smoke rings at the low ceiling. He was also pointedly not talking to or even looking at Emily 22813, who crouched a short distance away, watching his every move with naked misery.

"He knows things," !Xabbu said quietly to Renie. "Even if you do not like him, we should discover whether he can help us find our friends. To remain separated from them, I think, will only endanger us all."

Renie watched as Emily sidled over toward Azador, her hand balled in a pale-knuckled fist. At first Renie thought the girl was going to hit him (which did not bother her in the least, except for the possibility of violent reprisals) but Emily only thrust her hand in front of Azador's mustached face. Something glittered in her outstretched palm.

"Do you see?" Emily asked him pleadingly. "I saved it. You told me not to lose it, and I didn't lose it."

"Of course," Renie breathed, staring at the small golden object. "I completely forgot about it. He gave it to her, didn't he? That's what she said." She stood. "Where did you get that, Azador?"

He did not look at either of the women. "Get what?"

"That gem. Where did it come from?"

He rounded on her, smoke streaming from his mouth and nostrils. "Who are you? Who are you, crazy woman? I do not have to answer your questions! I go where I want, I do what I please. I am of the Romany, and we do not tell our stories to gorgio."

"Romany?" Renie ransacked her memory. "You mean a gypsy?"

Azador snorted and turned away. Renie cursed herself for her impatience. !Xabbu was right—they could not risk losing what he might know. It burned like fire to apologize, but she knew it had to be done. "Azador, I'm sorry—I do ask too many questions. But we are strangers here and we don't know what to do. We don't know all the things you know."

"That is the truth," he muttered.

"So help us! You're right, you don't have to tell us anything, but we need your help. This place—this Otherland network—do you know what is happening here?"

He looked at her from the corner of his eye, then took a long drag on his cigarette. "What always happens. Rich idiots play games."

"But that's not true any more. The system is . . . changing somehow." She wondered how much she could tell him without giving away their own situation—they could not assume he had come by the gem innocently, "You heard what I said to the Scarecrow. I know you did. I'll ask you the same question. Have you tried to go offline?"

He turned to face her. Emily shrank back against the wall of the freight car as if something passing between them might burn her. "I heard what you said to the Scarecrow," he said at last. "Yes, I have tried."

"And?"

He shrugged and brushed his thick hair back from his face. "And it is like you said. I could not leave. But for me it is okay," he added carelessly. "I am in no hurry."

"You see?" She dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged. "We need to share information."

Azador hesitated, then his face seemed to close, like a door shutting. "No. Not so easy. And anyway, we cannot spend time here talking, talking. Maybe when we are through into the next place."

So he planned to go with them. Renie wasn't sure how she felt about that, but perhaps Azador was keeping his secrets for that very reason, as a bargaining chip against desertion.

"Okay." Renie stood. "Then let's get on the road."

 

The outer edges of the sprawling railyard gradually became more and more tangled with pipes and tanks and electrical wires, as the yard—unobtrusively at first—metamorphosed into the Works.

The pipes which snaked through the railyard to service the rolling stock with water and fuel, and to draw off or load various fluid cargoes, now became a more prominent part of the landscape. Large pipes became larger still, and systems of ducts and conveyors were lashed together in bigger and bigger aggregations until massive bundles of pipe seemed to replace trains as the things attended, as the object of all fears and desires.

The mottled sky, which sagged above Emerald's railyard like a dripping blanket, was first divided into quadrants by hanging wires and the everpresent pipes, then subdivided into smaller and smaller sections as the infrastructure thickened overhead, until a last it was only a suggestion of fitful movement in the chinks between clustered ducts. Even the ground, which had been flat, heat-cracked muck in the railyard, seemed with each step they took to become something more befitting the Works, first growing a skin of rough concrete, then sweating out pools of stagnant water and rainbow-shimmering oil. The only congruity between what they had left and where they were traveling was how the sullen character of the now almost invisible skies was artificially duplicated in the cavernous Works—the thunder of the deep-gurgling pipes, the water misting down from decaying seals and faulty joints, even blue-white arcs of electricity that mimicked the lightning, spasming where the insulation had worn away from the bundled wires.

Moving into these knotted caverns of dirty plastic cable and corrosion-roughened metal was unpleasantly like being swallowed by something. In fact, Renie reflected wearily, their entire experience in the network had been like that. The problems they thought to solve, the tragedies like Stephen's they meant to avenge, had once seemed such clear-cut things, but instead she and the others had been drawn deeper and deeper into the games and idiosyncratic obsessions of Otherland's builders, until it was hard to tell what was even real, let alone what was important.

The forest of vertical cylinders and the artificial skies of horizontal tubing at least provided many places to hide, which was fortunate: as they learned within a short while of entering the Works, they were by no means its only inhabitants.

Once underneath the tangle of pipes, they saw surprisingly few tiktoks—the large, clumsy mechanical men were perhaps not well suited for maneuvering through the sometimes cramped spaces—but they discovered that the Works was home to many other clockwork creatures, also more or less humanoid, but far smaller and shoddier. Many of these, like antique toys, seemed only a cheap tin shell over gears and springs, split vertically with their two halves held together by bent metal tabs. The crude colors with which their features and uniforms had been painted on made them seem even more unpleasantly soulless than the tiktoks.

As they hid behind a trunk of several intertwined vertical pipes, Renie watched one of the crude toys totter past their hiding place—flat eyes unmoving, mouth drawn as an emotionless line—and could not help shuddering. It was not only the things themselves that disturbed her, but the thought of what kind of person Tinman must be to have such empty, pointless subjects, virtual or not.

There were a few humans, too, henrys and emilys, all shaven-headed and wrapped in oil-stained rags; Renie guessed they had been impressed from the Scarecrow's population. Most of them carried heavy burdens, some laden so terribly that she could not understand how they managed to walk, but even those with nothing to carry looked only downward. They trudged through pools of dirty water and staggered around obstacles without glancing up, as though they had covered their routes so often that vision was no longer necessary.

"Which way do we go?" Renie asked in a whisper, barely audible above the dripping of water on asphalt. They were deep in the shadow of a group of concrete columns, each as wide as a very large, very old tree. The fibrous catacombs of the Works stretched monotonously away on every side. "We need to find the river."

Azador frowned. "It will be . . . that way." He pointed, but he did not sound certain.

!Xabbu was up on his hind legs, sniffing, doglike head bobbing up and down. "I can tell nothing by my nose," he confessed. "It is all too much the same—the worst of city smells. But the wind feels a little more cool from that direction." He gestured, his thin hairy arm at a right angle to what Azador had just indicated.

Renie looked at Azador's slitted eyes and realized they had reached a crisis of leadership. She trusted !Xabbu's instincts and training, but the gypsy, if that was truly what he was, might leave them any moment—might simply, in his irritation, decide to follow his own direction. Could they afford to let him go and give up on what he might be able to tell them? If he had demonstrated only the trick in the cell, she might have said yes, but there was the unexplained matter of Sellars' gem as well.

"Okay," she said to Azador. "Take us there." She hoped !Xabbu would understand.

Outside, the sun had gone down, or the stormy skies had thickened to complete impenetrability, because the Works was growing dark. Beneath the arbors of pipe and twisted cable, sickly green-and-yellow lights glowed into half-life behind cracked panels, augmented by an occasional sparking flash of electricity. Groans and faint shrieks echoed through the damp corridors, ghostly with distance, as though nightfall was bringing the Works to its fullest life.

Renie hated the place. Reminding herself that it was nothing but displayed lines of code did not do much good, since she still did not know whether she and !Xabbu could survive an online death. All she knew for certain was that she had seldom wanted to get out of a place more.

 

They were in one of the few large and open spaces, a joining of several tunnels, like a catacomb constructed of wires, when the figure stepped out of the darkness immediately in front of them.

Renie's heart, which had threatened for a moment to stop beating, found its rhythm again when she saw it was only one of the henrys, a stumbling, tattered figure with a metal canister slung across his shoulders. Before they could step back into the shelter of one of the cross-corridors he looked up and saw them. His eyes bulged in his pale, sparsely-bearded face. Renie stepped forward, raising a finger to her lips.

"Don't be frightened," she said. "We're not going to hurt you."

The man's eyes grew even wider. He tilted back his head and swallowed, his Adam's apple moving so violently it distended his neck, then he threw open his mouth to reveal some kind of loudspeaker jammed deep between his jaws, and Renie saw with horror that what she thought was beard were silver wires protruding through his cheeks. An earsplitting mechanical siren howled from the speaker, so loud that Renie and the others staggered back with their hands over their ears. The henry stood helplessly, vibrating from the sheer volume, as the sound whooped and screamed out of his throat.

They could only run. All around, answering alarms began to sound, their tones a notch less urgent but still horribly loud. An emily turned the corner in front of them, saw them dashing toward her, and let out her own inhuman shriek, as raucous as the first. Moments later two of the shoddy tin men appeared a little farther down the dripping corridor, and their own warning klaxons rose to a hysterical pitch as well.

Tracking us, locating us, Renie realized. Emily was stumbling; Renie grabbed the girl and dragged her along as she followed Azador into a side-passage. They'll swarm to where the loudest are, until they have us surrounded.

Another tattered human stepped into their path, too suddenly for Renie to identify it as male or female. Even as the spectral creature dropped the heavy bag it had been carrying and yawned its mouth open, Azador knocked it to the ground with his shoulder. As they rushed past, skinny arms and legs waggled helplessly in the air, and a broken siren-throat ratcheted instead of screamed.

We're just running, she realized. Nowhere. This will get us killed. "!Xabbu!" she shouted. "Lead us to the river!"

Her friend did not answer, but bounded ahead of them, tail high, and began to run on all fours. He sprinted around a dividing of the ways, slowed until he was sure they were still behind him, then accelerated again.

The alarm screams were rising on all sides now, and even though the Works-dwellers who stepped into their path did not try to stop them, or even to avoid being shoved aside, they all shrieked louder when Renie and the others pelted by, a sonic arrow pinpointing the direction of their flight. The din was maddening.

Now there were faces coming toward them at every turning, the haunted stares of the humans, the empty, chipped grimaces of the tin creatures, even the dark bulk of a few tiktoks. Soon the very crush of metal bodies and wasted flesh would seal off the avenues of escape, one by one.

Emily slipped in an oily puddle and stumbled again, this time pulling Renie and herself to the ground. As they struggled upright, !Xabbu hopped frantically in place, swiveling his muzzle from side to side.

"I smell nothing, but I think it is there." !Xabbu jutted his head toward one of the narrow ways. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, despite the chaos all around them. He worked his fingers in the air for a moment as though trying to grasp something, then opened his eyes again. "It is there," he said. "I feel it to be true."

The uneven passage was rapidly filling with tin toys, all shambling toward them like sleepwalkers. "They've got between us and the water," Renie said, heart sinking.

Azador looked at her, then at !Xabbu, then spat on the ground. "Follow," he growled. He sprang forward and slammed into the first wave of the metal things. His rush knocked them back like bowling pins, smashing one to the ground where it split into two nutshell halves and a clutter of gears. Renie led Emily forward, trying to keep the girl behind Azador's broad back.

The whining shriek of dozens of mechanical throats was now louder than a jet engine. Renie felt rough, hard hands trying to close on her, and she lashed out in a blind rage, shoving and punching. For a moment Emily went down beside her, but Renie fought her way through the confusion of shapes and found the girl's slender arm, then pulled her onto her feet. Now even Emily was flailing around her in panic, slapping at the tin creatures with open palms, her mouth contorted in a scream that Renie couldn't hear.

Renie staggered forward, numb and depleted, her fists and arms bloody. Yet another flat, enameled face rose before her, buzzing as it gave the alarm. She kicked its rounded midsection and tipped it over. Beyond it was nothing but Azador and darkness.

He turned a face that was now a sheet of red toward them and beckoned with a shaking, bloody hand. The corridor ahead was empty, a trail of dimly flickering lights leading away into darkness. They had broken through.

"Jesus Mercy," Renie choked. "Are . . . are . . . you. . . ?" She heard a clattering noise behind them and turned. The tin things which had not been completely disabled were rocking like overturned beetles, struggling to rise, to resume the chase. Renie's stomach tightened. "Where's !Xabbu?"

"Hurry!"

Renie whirled to see the welcome baboon shape, which had appeared like a sacred spirit in the corridor ahead. "We are almost at the river!" he called.

They hobbled after him. Within moments the claustrophobic passages opened out and the conduit columns suddenly stretched dozens of meters higher. The wide, black mass of the river lay before them. The loading dock was empty, the creatures and people who had been there, Renie felt sure, summoned to form part of the mob through which they had just fought. She could hear the survivors behind them, still bent on pursuit, howling and dragging themselves along on bent limbs.

"Is the gateway here somewhere?" she asked, struggling to get her breath back.

"Don't be a fool," Azador growled. "We will never live to find it."

"Then we need a boat."

Two large container ships lay at anchor, one with its cargo nets hanging half-unloaded, bulging with crates of people-feed and crankcase lubricant. Renie and the others ran down the dock looking for something more their size, and found it in the shape of a small river tugboat, not much more than a barge with rubber bumpers. They clambered aboard. Renie found a barge pole and used it to unhook the tie line, then Azador got the engine started and they chugged slowly out onto the dark river.

Behind, a crowd of howling humans and mechanical people had reached the dock, but their dreadful voices were already growing fainter as the barge pulled for the middle of the river.

Azador hung on the wheel, grim and silent, with hands bloodier than his face. Emily collapsed in the bow, weeping. With !Xabbu's help, Renie got her into the cabin and onto the thin pallet which had served as the barge captain's miserable bed.

Even as Renie whispered soft words to the girl, words both of them could barely hear because their ears were still ringing painfully, something crackled beside them. What Renie had thought was a mirror suddenly began to radiate grainy light, then the eyeless face of the Tinman appeared on the screen.

"So," it said cheerfully, "you outsiders are all still alive—and the special one, the wee mother-to-be? Lovely, lovely. Little bundle of joy unharmed, too? Excellent! Then I believe my line is supposed to be: 'Surrender the Dorothy!' " The gate in its mouth clacked up and down as the Tinman vented its horrible, buzzing laugh. "Good, yes? But of course I hope you won't really surrender, and spoil the fun. . . ."

Renie snatched up the barge pole and hammered the screen into shards and powder, then sank to the floor, exhausted and fighting back tears.

CHAPTER 18
The Veils of Illusion

NETFEED/BIOGRAPHY: "The Man in the Shadows"

(visual: slow-motion footage of Anford speaking at convention)

VO: Rex Anford, sometimes referred to as the "Commander-in-Absentia" or "The Gray Man," is the subject of this biography, which traces his rise from small-town obscurity through his emergence in the new Industrial Senate as a representative for ANVAC, General Equipment, and other low-profile, big-money corporations, and to his eventual election as President of the United States. The controversial issue of his health is discussed, and experts analyze file footage in an attempt to diagnose what, if any, medical problems he might have. . . .

 

A swirl of colors grew out of the blinding golden light—black, ember-red, and at the last a deep neon blue just shading toward ultraviolet that seemed to enter him like a vibration—then Paul was through, still tangled in the grasp of the man who had kidnapped him. He struggled to protect himself, then realized that his opponent was not fighting, but only holding him passively. He set his hands against the man's chest and shoved. The thin, dark-skinned man stumbled backward, then threw out his arms and regained his balance.

The level ground beneath the stranger's heels extended only another few yards behind him before dropping away down a steep, grassy slope. Far below, a river threaded its way through the narrow canyon, foaming through descending cataracts until it wound out of sight. But Paul did not stop to admire the stunning view of water and hills and tangled trees, the skies so sunny the world almost sparkled. His attention was focused on the interloper who had stolen him from the England of the Martian invasion—a distorted version of his home, but still the closest he had found to what he had lost.

"Now," the stranger began, smiling, "Of course I owe you an apol. . . ." His eyes widened and he took a startled step backward as Paul sprang toward him.

Paul did not hit the stranger squarely, but he wrapped his arms around him and together they tumbled down the slope in a single rolling knot. For all Paul knew, they might bounce from some precipice and plunge to the distant valley floor, but he did not care. Chased and mistreated for unfathomable reasons, he finally had his hands on one of his tormentors and would take the man down with him, even if neither of them survived.

There was no precipice. They arrived at the bottom of the hill with a spine-jarring thump, but with several more descending slopes still between them and the valley floor. The impact threw them apart and they lay for a moment where they landed, struggling for breath. Paul was the first to move, rolling over onto his stomach to crawl toward his enemy, who saw him and scrambled to his feet.

"What are you doing?" The stranger danced back from Paul's swiping grab. "Are you trying to kill us both?"

For the first time, Paul noticed that the stranger was no longer dressed in the tattered Edwardian suit he had worn before. Somehow—by magic, for all Paul could tell—he had acquired a shiny waistcoat and pair of baggy pants that might have come from an Arabian Nights pantomime. Paul flicked a glance down and saw that he was dressed the same way, with silky pantaloons and his feet in thin, pointed slippers, but he had no interest in stopping to wonder what it meant.

"Kill us both? No," he gasped, and dragged himself upright. "I'm just trying to kill you." His ribs ached from the fall and his legs were weak. Still, he knew he would fight to the end if necessary, and felt a little pleasure at that realization—the warmth of someone who had not been good at games in school, and who had shied away from fights, realizing that he wasn't a coward after all.

Yes, I'll fight, Paul thought, and it changed how he thought of himself, of his situation. I won't just give up.

"Stop, man," the stranger said, lifting his hands. "I am not your enemy. I have tried to do you a kindness, but I have been terribly clumsy."

"Kindness?" Paul wiped sweat from his forehead and took another step forward, but did not press the attack. "You kidnapped me. You lied to me, and then you shoved me through that, that. . . ." He waved his hand toward the hill above, and the place they had arrived, ". . . whatever it is. What sort of kindness is that?"

"As I began," the man said, "I owe you an apology, and here it is—I am very, very sorry. Will you strike me once more, or will you let me explain?"

Paul eyed him. In truth, he was not looking forward to grappling with the stranger again. Despite his thin frame, the man's body had felt hard and resilient as braided leather, and unlike Paul, he did not seem injured or even winded. "Explain, then."

The stranger sat himself cross-legged on the ground. "I saw you in that market. You did not seem to belong, and I watched you. And then I saw your companions. They were not what they appeared to be, but you did not seem to notice."

"Not what they appeared to be. You said that before. What does that mean?"

"I cannot say, exactly." The stranger's smile appeared again, a broad and self-effacing thing so sympathetic that Paul felt he should not trust it on principle. "They had the appearance of an average Englishman and Englishwoman, of the type that should be in that place, but something in them, some shadow beneath the seeming, spoke to me also of hunting beasts. My lord Shiva put it in my head that they were not what they appeared, and that you were in danger." He spread his hands, palms upward. "So I took it on myself to get you away."

Paul remembered his own moment of fear. The Pankies had indeed resembled the creatures who hunted him. although they had demonstrated no other similarities. His distrust of the stranger eased a little. "Then why didn't you just warn me? Why drag me through—what was that, anyway? What are these things that take us from one place to another?"

The stranger gave him an odd look. "Gateways? Portals, doors, they are called those things, too. What do you call them?"

Now it was Paul's turn to frown. "I don't call them anything. I don't even know what they are."

The stranger stared at him for a long moment, his deep brown eyes intent. At last he shook his head. "We must speak more. But we must also move through this place to another gateway, for this is the country of the fiercest of my enemies and I cannot stay long." He rose, then extended a hand toward the distant waters. "Will you come with me? There will be boats down below, and we can speak as we go upon the river."

If the man intended to harm him, he was going at it in a very roundabout way. Paul decided he would stay on guard, but give him a chance. Perhaps he could give Paul some information. Anything that might dispel the cloud of ignorance and confusion that had been surrounding him for so long would be worth almost any risk.

"Very well," he said. "If you will answer my questions honestly."

"I will answer as much as I am allowed. Some secrets there are that have been given into my care, and those I may not tell anyone, even at the cost of my soul."

Paul had no idea what that was supposed to mean. "Who are you, then?" he asked.

"I am Nandi," the stranger said, and touched his palms together in front of his chest. "Nandi Paradivash, at your service. I am sorry our meeting has been so upsetting. And you are. . . ?"

"Paul," he said without thinking, then inwardly cursed himself for using his real name. He tried to summon another name, but could only think of the madman who had dragged him through the palaces and deserts of Mars; he hoped Nandi had not met him. "Paul Brummond. And I have another question. Where the hell are we?"

Nandi did not appear to have noticed anything amiss with Paul's name. "I am surprised," he said. "You are English, are you not? Surely you should recognize one of the catechisms of an English school career."

Paul shook his head. "You've lost me."

"Ah? 'Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;' "the stranger declaimed, " 'And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.' You see, there are the forests, trees—sandalwood, spruce—can you not smell them? And we will soon be upon the River Alph, traveling, perhaps, through 'caverns measureless to man. . . .' "

Paul felt something tickling his memory. "The River Alph. . . ?"

"Yes." Nandi nodded, smiling again. "Welcome, Mister Paul Brummond . . . to Xanadu."

 

The hillsides were glorious with wildflowers, tiny static explosions of yellow and white and pale powdery blue, and the soft breezes did indeed waft exotic scents. As they made their way down to the river, from slope to ever-lower slope, Paul found that he was struggling to hang onto his wariness. It had been a long time, if ever, since he had been in a place this lovely, and at least for the moment he felt almost safe. His protective reflexes, coiled like springs, began to relax a little.

"It is indeed beautiful," Nandi said as if reading his thoughts. "Those who constructed it did their work well, but it is not an Oriental place at all. It is a representation of an idea—an Englishman's idea of an Asian paradise, to be accurate."

At first Paul thought that "those who constructed it," was another religious reference, like the man's citation of Shiva, but after a few moments he realized what he had heard. "Those . . . who constructed this place?"

Nandi watched a bright green bird streak overhead. "Yes. The designers and engineers."

"Engineers? People?"

Now the stranger turned. "What do you ask, Paul?"

He hesitated, torn between the need to blurt out everything, his fear and ignorance, and the urge toward secrecy which was part of his armor—and woefully thin armor it had been. "Just . . . just tell me what this is. This place."

"This simulation, do you mean? Or the network?"

Paul's legs turned wobbly. He took one staggering step, then had to sit down. "Simulation? This is a simulation?" He flung up his hand and stared at it, then took it away and stared at the valley in all its intricacy. "But it can't be! It's . . . it's real!"

"Did you not know?" Nandi asked. "How could that be possible?"

Paul shook his head, helpless, reeling. A simulation. Someone had implanted him, then covered it up. But there were no simulations as perfect as this. It simply wasn't possible. He closed his eyes, half-certain that when he opened them all would be gone, and he would be back in the giant's grinding-house again, or Humpty-Dumpty's Castle. Even those insanities made more sense than this. "It can't be."

Nandi crouched at his side, his face full of concern and surprise. "You did not know you were in a simulation? You must tell me how you came here. This is more important than you realize, Paul Brummond."

"I don't know how I got here—and anyway, it's not Brummond. I lied." He no longer cared enough to deceive. "My name is Paul Jonas."

His companion shook his head. The name meant nothing to him. "And you do not know how you came here?"

Numbed and listless, Paul told him all that he could remember—the worlds seemingly without end, the unanswered questions, the frightening blackness that covered his recent past. It was like listening to someone else talk. When he had finished, Nandi let his chin fall to his chest and closed his eyes, as if for some perverse reason he was taking a nap; when he opened his eyes again, he was clearly troubled.

"And all this time, Paul Jonas, you have been pursued through the creations of my enemy. That must mean something, but I cannot imagine what it is." He stood. "Come. We must hurry to the river. The longer we spend here, the greater the danger, I suspect."

"Your enemy—you said that before, too." Paul began to follow the slender man down the hill again. "Who is this enemy? Do you mean he owns this place?"

"We shall not speak of him. Not here." Nandi Paradivash put a finger to his lips. "Old folktales say that to name a demon is to summon it, and that might prove true for us as well. Who knows what name or words may trigger a search agent?"

"Can we talk on the river? I . . . I have to know more."

"We will speak, but be careful what words you choose." He shook his head in wonderment. "I should have known that He who dances the Dance would not put His hand upon me and point me toward a stranger for no reason. A few moments of Maya, of illusion, and almost I forgot the smoke of the burning-ground that was in my nostrils when I learned truly to serve Him."

The beauty of Xanadu impinged on Paul more than ever as they covered the last mile down to the riverside. Knowing what he knew, he could ignore nothing: this delicately scented flower, that tree, the grass rustling soft beneath his feet—all false. Constructs. But there could be no simulation of life so faultless. He did not consider himself anything like an expert, but he was no hermit either. He had seen the much-touted "photorealistic" VR environments out of China advertised all over the net, and his friend Niles had even let him try out one of the government's better simulation engines, an embassy dinner with lifelike opportunities for political gain or loss. Paul had been very impressed by the experience—the puppet actors who could actually make conversation, the small objects like silverware that vibrated convincingly if you pinged them on the edge of a plate—but even last year's state-of-the-art had been miles, no, light-years behind this!

"The people in these . . . simulations," he asked. "They aren't real either?"

"Some of them are," Nandi said. "This was built for rich and powerful people to use, and they and their friends can appear here like gods taking mortal forms. But most of the people, as you call them, are Puppets. Things without souls. Machinery."

The words of Professor Bagwalter in the Martian simulation came back to him, and now Paul understood them. The man had been a participant—a Citizen—and had wanted to know if Paul was one, too. But if that was true, then maybe the bird-woman, Vaala. . . ?

"Am I the only person you have met in here who has lost his memory?"

Nandi smiled a little. The river was now just before them, submerged stones making lacy white Vs on the rough jade surface. "You are not merely that, you are the only person I have ever heard of who did not know he was in a virtual environment." He led Paul down to a short, sandy stretch of beach. A tiny dock that seemed to have been carved from a single piece of white stone lay partially hidden by a strand of cattails. Tugged by the current, a small but elegant boat bobbed at the end of its painter like a dog waiting to be walked.

Nandi gestured Paul to the seat at the front of the boat. "Please," he said, "I will be your steersman, as Krishna became Arjuna's charioteer. Do you know the Bhagavad Gita?"

"I have a copy," Paul said. "Back home, wherever that is." He did not add that it had been a gift from one of his more disastrous girlfriends, shortly before she had tipped over into what Paul considered religious mania. His last meeting with her had been some months afterward, when he had seen her playing a drum and chanting in the Camden Town tube station, blind behind the goggles that flooded her senses with some chargelike mantra.

"Ah, good." Nandi smiled. He unhooked the boat's painter and guided them out onto the flowing river. "Then you will understand me when I compare you to Arjuna, a brave man—a great hero!—in need of advice and wisdom."

"I didn't read it carefully, I'm afraid." In fact, he hadn't read it at all, and the only thing he remembered from the entire episode was that Krishna was a god, or perhaps just God, and he thought that if this Nandi was assigning himself the role of Krishna, he was getting a bit above himself.

Listen to me, he thought. I sound like my grandmother.

The landscape slid past, precious and perfect. Far down the valley, past many bends of the river, a cloud of spray lifted high above the water, crowned by a brilliant rainbow. Paul tried to remember the famous Coleridge poem, but could not get any farther than: "In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. . . ."

"Can you talk to me now?" he asked. "The sound of the river should keep anyone from hearing us."

Nandi steered them past one of the rocks and its white arrowhead wake. "It is more than sound we must fear. Every word you speak is translated through several kinds of virtuality engines, and that, too, leaves traces. The people we seek are the masters of this place, just as Trimurti is the master of the real world, and both rule their domains to the smallest mote of dust, the most minuscule flash of subatomic forces. That is why the error of these people is so great—they seek to make themselves gods."

"You keep saying 'they' or 'these people.' Who?"

"A group of men—and some women, too—who have declared themselves the enemies of everything. They name themselves the Grail Brotherhood, misusing the old myth for their own purposes—stealing the story, it could be said. They have built this place, and they live here and disport themselves like the eldest sons and daughters of Heaven. Not all of this network is as pleasant as this—no, much of it is even worse than anything you have seen. Simulations of slavery and cruelty and sexual debauchery, they have made them all."

"But who are you? I mean, how did you come to be involved in all this?"

Nandi eyed him for a moment, considering. "This much I can tell you. The Grail Brotherhood have touched things, harmed things, that they do not even understand. And so it is that some have come together to oppose them. We are the Circle." He held up his hand with his fingers rounded into a ring, and peered through it with one bright, brown eye. The effect was almost comical. "Where you find us, there you will find safety, at least as much as we can give, for clearly you are an enemy of our enemy."

"Why?" The fear that he had suppressed came rushing back. "Why should people like that care about me? I'm no one! I work in an art museum, for Christ's sake."

The boat was picking up speed as the river narrowed, the cliffs now looming high above their heads. Shaded by a drooping willow tree, a deserted teahouse stood on a rock promontory overlooking the water like a piece of delicate jewelry left behind by a giant. It was almost too beautiful, Paul thought, fighting down his panic. For the first time, he saw how this place could be, must be, unreal.

"I do not know why you have drawn their attention," Nandi admitted. "It is likely to do with the time you cannot remember. But those who chased you through several simulations—I cannot doubt they are agents of the greatest of the Brotherhood, since those were all his places. As is this."

"They all belonged to one person? Mars, that Alice in Wonderland thing, all of them?"

"Wealth is not one of the things he lacks." Nandi's smile was sour. "He has built dozens of these."

"What is his name?"

The dark-skinned man shook his head. "Not here. When we pass through to another place, I will tell you, but there is no sense in uttering words that surely would be among the first his agents would investigate, since only those from outside the system could understand that this place has a human creator." Nandi glanced up sharply at a movement on the heights above, but it was only a shepherd leading a flock of sheep across a high ridge. The man did not look down, although several of the sheep did. Paul realized it was the first person other than themselves they had seen since entering Xanadu.

"Agents," he said aloud. "So those two . . . things following me from one simulation to another were agents? Of this Brotherhood person?" He frowned. "Do you think that couple, the Pankies, were agents, too? They didn't have anything like the same effect on me. And I spent a night sleeping next to them, but nothing happened."

"Again, I cannot say." Nandi spent several moments concentrating on guiding the boat between the rocks, which were growing more numerous. When a clear stretch of water was before them, he continued. "We have studied these people, but still our knowledge is small—after all, they have labored hard and spent much money to keep their works hidden. But something was wrong with those two, that man and woman. I felt the hand of my God touch me." He said this as simply and with as much conviction as he might have explained being the first to see a parking space in front of the off-license. "If you do not trust the gods—if you do not trust God—then you have rejected yourself."

Nandi again devoted himself to his steering. Paul sat back on the polished bench and watched the green hills and raw rock faces slip past. It was difficult to find a place even to begin thinking about all this. It would have made a fairly dubious plot in a flick, let alone being acceptable as the course for his actual and only life. But it made a horrid kind of sense, too: once you accepted a simulation this good, it answered many of his other questions.

He even felt a moment's disappointment as he realized that he had not seen the beginning of history in the Ice Age, but only someone's coded dramatization of it. Still, the People, whatever they truly were, had not only seemed real to Paul, but if they were Puppets they seemed awfully self-sufficient ones, fully engaged with their own pretend world, with their fears and triumphs and folklore. Perhaps, he reflected, even imaginary people just needed a story of their own—something that made sense out of things.

But if it had all been code, all make-believe, then what about the woman who had spoken to him through the sick Neandertal child? The winged woman who came to him in dreams? She had begged that he find her. . . .

It was too much to work out all at once.

"If these people are so powerful," he asked, "then what are you and your friends in this Circle thing going to do? And why do you care, anyway, if a bunch of rich bastards have private orgies on their VR network?"

"If only it were that, Paul Jonas." Nandi lifted the dripping paddle from the water so he could turn to face him. "I cannot tell you all that would answer you properly, but you must trust me when I say that I believe what they are doing threatens everything. Everything. And even if you doubt my belief, it is a fact that they have hurt and killed many to build this thing of theirs, this . . . theater of Maya. And they will kill many more to keep it secret as long as necessary. In fact, from what you have told me, they are trying to kill you as well—or to do something worse to you."

The fear came back, goose-pimpling his flesh, and he had to suppress the urge to scream at the unfairness. What had he done to offend people like that? He mastered himself. "You haven't told me what you plan to do about it."

"Nor can I," Nandi said. "And not just for the sake of secrecy. You have enough problems, Paul. You do not need the burden of knowing what we know. It is one less thing they will work to make you confess if you are ever captured."

"You talk like this is a war!"

Nandi did not smile this time. "It is a war." After a moment's silence, he added: "But although they think themselves gods, they are merely human. They make mistakes. They have made some already, and they will make more, no matter how many forms they wear, no matter how many lives they build for themselves in this place. It is as Krishna said to Arjuna: 'Do not grieve for the life and death of individuals, for this is inevitable; the bodies indeed come and go, but the life that manifests in all is undying and unhurt, it neither slayeth or is slain.' This is a central truth of the world, Paul. Krishna spoke of what you might call the soul or the essence. Now these Grail criminals, as they seek to ape the gods, they are caught in a lesser version of this same great truth, a shadow cast by its shining light. You see, they cannot shake off what they are, no matter how many times they change their skins."

"I don't understand."

"Look at this man, our chiefest enemy. You have been in many of his simulations, the dreamworlds that he has fashioned for himself. What do they have in common?"

Paul had thought something similar himself not long ago, and he struggled to summon the memory. "They're . . . they seem very old. The ideas, I mean."

"Exactly." The charioteer was pleased with his Arjuna. "That is because he is an old man, and longs for the things of his youth. Here, I will tell you something. He was born in France, this man I will not name, but was sent to a school in England during the Great War, because his family wanted him away from the fighting that tore France. He was a lonely child in that foreign country, fighting to be like the others, and thus the things of his boyhood are all those bits of Englishness he tried so hard to embrace-Lewis Carroll, H. G. Wells, the comic magazines of travel to other planets. . . ."

"Hold on." Paul leaned forward. "Do you mean to tell me this man was alive during the Second World War?"

Nandi was amused. "I refer to the First World War, in fact."

"But that would make him . . . That can't be. No one's that old."

"He is." The gentle smile vanished. "He has made the preservation of his own life an object of religious devotion, and he treasures his memories as the myths of that religion. He cannot truly share it, though—the childhood to which his virtual worlds are shrines is one that no other living human remembers. If he were not so unreservedly evil, it would almost be possible to feel sorry for the man."

The boat abruptly dropped away beneath them for a moment, and Paul had to stop thinking in order to hold onto his seat and not be jounced overboard when the small craft smacked down into the water again.

"The river is more dangerous here, just before the caverns," Nandi said, backing water furiously with his paddle. "We will talk more when we are in a safer place."

"What caverns. . . ?" Paul asked, then whooped in surprise as the boat dipped again, then slid between two rocks and passed over yet another cataract.

For the next several minutes he clung with both hands to the sides of the boat as Nandi expertly steered them past obstacle after obstacle and the river sank ever deeper into the fold of the canyon. The cliff walls now rose up so steeply on either side that only a sliver of sky could be seen, and its light died a quarter of the way down the rock face.

"We will miss seeing the pleasure dome," Nandi called over the tumult of the waters. "There is a tributary that passes by the front gates, but I assume you do not wish to linger and admire our enemy's handiwork, or meet his henchmen."

"What?" Paul could make out only a few words.

"There!" Nandi pointed. "Can you see it?"

The mist that Paul had wondered at earlier now covered most of the river before them, billowing into the air in a sparkling cloud. Through it, at least half a kilometer ahead and partially blocked from view by the cliffs, he could see a forest of white-and-gold minarets like the battlements of the dream castle he had seen when he climbed the great tree. It was almost impossible not to admire the painstaking artistry that had gone into this place. If it was all the work of human hands, as Nandi had said, then they had been very skilled hands indeed.

"Are there people in there?" he asked. "I mean, real people?"

"Just a moment," his companion called above the noisy river. They rounded a bend and Paul saw a gaping black mouth in the cliff face, swallowing the river down. He had time for only a surprised and wordless shout, then the bottom dropped out from under them again and the boat slid down a roaring flume into chilly darkness.

For long seconds he could see nothing, and could only cling to the bench, positive that they would be smashed against unforgiving stone or upended in the violent currents. The boat surged up and down, and skewed abruptly from one side to the other without warning, and none of Paul's desperate, bellowed questions were answered. The blackness was absolute, and the horrible thought began to grow that Nandi had been thrown overboard, that he was rushing into oblivion alone.

The boat left the water again, free-falling for what seemed to Paul's shrieking imagination like ten seconds, but was probably less than one, then splashed down in a great drenching spume of water. Paul clutched the rail until he could feel that the boat was at last nosing into calmer waters. The rush of the cataract began to quiet behind them.

"Sometimes it is exhilarating to wear flesh," Nandi's voice said in the darkness. "Even virtual flesh."

"I . . . I didn't enjoy that," Paul replied. "Wh–where are we?"

"In caverns measureless to man, as the poem says. But wait. You will see."

"S–see?" His teeth were chattering, and not just from fear: the summery heat outside had not penetrated here. In fact, it was terribly, terribly cold. "See h–how?"

Something made a wet, scratchy sound behind him, then light blossomed out of the void. Nandi had produced and lit a lantern, and now hung it from the boat's high, curved stern, so that it threw its creamy radiance all around.

"Oh," said Paul. "Oh. . . ."

The black river had widened again, and now extended an arrow's flight on either side of them, flat as a velvet tablecloth except for the diminishing waves from the cataract. An immense tunnel of ice surrounded the river, its ceiling fifty meters or more above their heads. But this was not just an ice cave—it was a crystalline abstraction of infinite variety.

Huge pillars like translucent candles stretched from floor to ceiling, aggregated from trickles of water frozen and refrozen over the centuries, and diamond-faceted blocks as big as houses lay piled along the bank as though by gigantic hands. Everything was covered by a net of hoarfrost—tiny, delicate traceries of white, draped like the finest spidersilk. Ice bridges stretched across the river in gleaming spans, and where the ice on the tunnel walls had cracked and fallen away, steep ice slopes now angled down to the water's edge. Even as Paul and Nandi watched, a small piece sheared loose from one of the walls ahead of them, rolled slowly down the bank, and splashed into the River Alph; only as they approached it did Paul realize that the chunk bobbing near the frozen riverbank was half as wide as the Islington house that held his flat.

"It's . . . the whole th–thing is m–magnificent," he said.

Nandi heard the shiver in his voice. "There are blankets under the bench, I think."

Paul found two, sumptuous things with a rich sheen, embroidered with fanciful animals playing musical instruments. He offered one to Nandi, who smiled and shook his head. "I do not much feel either cold or heat," Nandi said. "In the place where I last lived, I became accustomed to the elements."

"I don't remember the Kublai Khan poem," Paul admitted. "Where do these caves go?"

"On and on. But the river itself crosses through them and empties into the sea. And long before that, we will have passed through the gateway."

"I don't understand how any of this works." His attention was momentarily diverted as a block of ice the size of a London hover-cab fell from the ceiling and splashed noisily into the river a hundred meters ahead. A few seconds later, the ripples set their small craft rocking. "These gateways—why are they in the water?"

"It is a conceit. There are other gateways, too, of course. Most of the simulations have dozens, although they are hidden—only those who travel with the permission of the simulations' owners are given the tools to locate gateways. But the people who built this gigantic network wished to have some common thing that would tie it together, and so through every simulation, the River runs."

"What river?"

"It is different in different places—in some it is not even a river, but part of an ocean, or a canal, or even something stranger, like a lava stream or a miles-wide flow of mercury. But always it is part of the greater River. I suppose it would be possible, given enough time—more than the lifetime of even someone like our chief enemy, though—to pass all the way down the river, crossing through every simulation, until like the famous serpent with its tail in its mouth, the river met itself again and you had returned to the place you started."

"So there's always a gate on the river, in each simulation." Paul, with the blanket wrapped around him, was feeling better, and each piece of information was like food to a starving man.

"Two, at the very least—one at either end of the river's passage through that simulated world."

"But there are others, too—like that one in the Hampton Court maze that you pushed me through."

Nandi nodded. "Yes. I had been there several days, and had seen one or two people go into the maze who never came out again—members of the Brotherhood or their employees, perhaps. So I investigated. All the gates, even the river gates, allow the privileged user to go where he or she chooses, and unlike those at either end of the river, the others do not lead through the network in any particular order. But almost all the gates have a default setting, usually into another world belonging to the same master. However, I am pleased to say, we will reach one soon which will take us out of this man's domains entirely."

"How do you know all this?" The frustration was building inside him—there was so much to learn before the most important questions could even be framed.

"We of the Circle have studied these people and their works for a long time. And although I have only entered this network recently, I am not the first of my kind to come here." Nandi spread his hands as if offering Paul something. "Men and women have died to learn the things I am telling you now."

Almost without his knowledge, Paul's fingers had stolen to his neck. "If I'm in a simulation, though, I must be able to go offline. So why can't I find the plug? Why can't I just pull the damn thing out?""

His companion looked grave. "I do not know how you came here or why, Paul Jonas, or what keeps you here. But at the moment, I cannot leave either, and I cannot tell you the reason for that. It does not affect me—I knew I could not leave until I had accomplished what I was sent to do, in any case—but it must be affecting others. But this is part of why we have dedicated ourselves to opposing these people. I know it is a cliché of the worst sort," he made a mocking face, "but the Grail Brotherhood have tampered with things they do not fully understand."

A piece of the cavern wall had slid down into the river in front of them, filling the water with chunks of ice, and Nandi concentrated his energies on steering them through. Paul huddled in his blankets, fighting the vague but definite feeling that time was short—that there were things he should be asking, and that he would regret it greatly later if he didn't think of them now.

He thought of the woman, the only thing that had made sense to him in all this madness until now. Where did she fit into all this?

But should I tell this man everything, absolutely everything? What if he's really working for those Grail people himself, and he's just toying with me? He looked at Nandi's narrow, sharp features and realized he had never been able to tell anything useful about anyone by looking at them. Or what if he's just a madman? Maybe this is a simulation, yes, but maybe all this Grail stuff is some mad conspiracy theory? How do I know that he's not a Puppet himself? Maybe this is part of the ride.

Paul tugged the blanket closer around him. That kind of thinking did no good. A few days ago, he had been lost in a kind of fog; at least now he had the basis for rational thought, for making decisions. He could doubt anything and everything, but what Nandi Paradivash said made sense: if he, Paul Jonas, was not stark raving mad, then only some kind of simulation gave a rational framework to all that he had experienced. But simulations of this level, actually indistinguishable from reality, had to be something new. Only people with the kind of power Nandi was talking about could afford this kind of quantum leap.

"What do they want?" he asked suddenly. "These Grail people, what do they want? This kind of thing—it must cost trillions. More, whatever that would be. Quadrillions."

"I told you, they wish to become gods." Nandi reached out with his long-handled oar and poked away a small boulder of floating ice. "They wish to live forever in worlds of their own devising."

"Forever? How are they going to manage that? You, me, we've both got bodies somewhere, right? You can't live without a body, no matter what your brain thinks it's doing. So what good is all this? It's just an incredibly expensive game. People like that, they don't need anything, except for more time."

"If I knew all the answers to what you have just said, I would not have had to come here." The ice behind them, he resumed his measured paddling.

Paul pulled the blankets aside and sat forward. "So you don't have answers? What are you doing here? I've told you lots of things. What can you tell me?"

Nandi was silent for a long time, his paddle dipping and emerging, over and over, its gentle slurp the only sound troubling the air of the great ice cave.

"I was a scientist," he said at last. "A chemical engineer. Not an important one. Merely I managed a research department of a large fibraware company in Benares, which is better known as Varanasi. Have you heard of it?"

"Varanasi? It . . . it was some kind of important city in India. There was an accident there, wasn't there? Something toxic?"

"Benares was and is the holiest city of all. It has always existed, a jewel of sanctity on the banks of the Ganges. But when I was a scientist, I did not care about this, I did my job, I had friends from work and school, I roamed the streets, both the real streets of Varanasi and the virtual byways of the net. There were women and drugs, and everything else with which a young man with money can occupy mind and body. Then the accident happened.

"It occurred at a government lab, but it could just as easily have happened somewhere else. The lab was a small place by the standards of government interests, far smaller even than my own corporate facilities. So small."

In the silence, Paul said: "So this was the accident I heard about?"

"Yes. A big, big mistake. But it was really just a small thing that happened in a small lab. A failure of containment for one viral agent. The lab worked often with such things, as we all did, and all potentially lethal viruses were engineered to be unable to replicate beyond a few cycles, enough for study but no more. But an improper procedure had been used in developing this viral agent, or the genetic manipulation itself was deliberately sabotaged, or perhaps the virus itself developed a mutant resistance to the safeguards. No one knows. A centrifuge malfunctioned. A receptacle cracked. Everyone in the lab was killed within minutes. Containment was broken because one woman from the front office survived long enough to reach the fences, within yards of a busy city street. An automatic alarm from the facility probably saved the lives of millions. As it was, two hundred thousand died in a month, most in the first few days, before a virus-killer could be engineered. The army shot thousands more as they tried to break out of quarantine."

"God, yes, I saw that. On the newsnets. It was . . . it was terrible." Paul was aware of the monstrous inadequacy of the response, but could think of nothing else to say.

"I lived in that quarantine. It was street by street. My mother and father lived only two blocks away—two blocks!—and I could not go to them. They died with the flesh melting from their bones and were burned in a pit with hundreds of others. For one month the block in which I lived became a jungle. People who think they are going to die within hours. . . ." Nandi shook his head. There was something terrible in his eyes as they peered from the shadows cast by the lantern. "I saw terrible things. The children, who could not defend themselves. . . ." He paused, seeking words; when he continued, his voice was thick and hoarse. "I cannot speak of it, even now. I myself did terrible things as well, greedy, mad things. I did them for fear, for hunger, in what I thought was self-defense. But the worst of my crimes was that I watched what others did, but did not stop them. Or at least I thought that was my worst crime."

The light in the cavern had changed in some subtle way, bringing the other man's face into sharper focus. Paul saw that there were fissures in the ceiling ahead; a few rays of daylight stabbed down from above like searchlights, columns of bright fire dousing themselves in the River Alph's dark waters.

"I had long before rejected the religion of my parents," Nandi abruptly continued. "I had no need of such benighted superstition—was I not a man of science, an enlightened creature of the twenty-first century? I survived the quarantine by existing in a mindless state, throwing off my intellect entirely. But when the quarantine was lifted, and I walked past the bodies stacked on the street corners, waiting for the government to come and haul them away, then my intellect returned and I began to think I might have made a very grave error in how I had built my life. As I continued through the streets, through the smoke of the burnings and the rubble of the fires and explosions—for during the chaos of the quarantine parts of the city had become something like war zones—my heart began to perceive that there was a wound in the material world that no amount of science could heal, that in fact science itself was only the helpful lie told to a dying man.

"Then I reached my parents' block, and the pit where the bodies had been burned. Someone told me what had been done there, and for a while I was lost again, walking in darkness. I cast myself down into the pit and I swam there, weeping, in the ashes of the dead, the stench of their burned bones and fat in my nose, the oil and soot of their carbonized forms painting me black. And then the hand of God reached into me, and touched me."

Paul realized he was holding his breath. He let it out. A vapor, it hung in the air over his head, slowly turning invisible.

"The words of old wisdom came to me then," Nandi continued slowly.

"The world has Maya and its veils, which is to say illusion, as its material cause—the illusion that permits souls to enact their dance of good acts and evil acts, and thus to turn the wheel of incarnation. But that is only the material cause of the world. Shiva, he who is the dance, is the first cause, that which always was and always will be. It is said: Thus it is that as the First Cause-sometimes called 'The Terror' and 'The Destroyer'—dances upon the darkness, demonstrating his five acts of creation, preservation, destruction, embodiment, and release, he contains in himself both the life and death of all things. So for this reason his servants dwell in the cremation ground, and the heart of his servant is like the cremation ground, wasted and desolate, where the self and its thoughts and deeds are burnt away, and nothing remains but the Dancer himself."

His face seemed to have changed, to have become something hard and sharp as a stone knife. His eyes glinted with a cold light that made Paul distinctly uneasy.

"So at that moment, as I lay in the ashes of the dead, I gave myself to Shiva—to God. And by doing it I found a science that all the works of humanity can only approximate. All that happens, happens because God wills it. All is part of the dance. So although it is my lot to combat the Grail Brotherhood, I also know that they can have no success that does not glorify Heaven. Do you understand, Paul Jonas?"

Paul was too stunned to reply for a moment. He could not tell if he had just been told something profound or had endured the ravings of a religious maniac, a man driven mad by tragedy. "I don't think I do," he finally replied. "Not really."

"You are wondering what sort of lunatic accompanies you, are you not?" Nandi smiled a tired smile. In the growing light, he looked a little less frightening. "In the cremation pit where my parents had been burned I learned what my greatest crime had been. My sin had been that I believed that I was the measure of the universe. Years later, when I returned to another cremation ground, preparing myself in the Shivaite manner—becoming an aghori, we would say—for this task, I came to see that even those children of the quarantine, so horribly abused and murdered before my eyes, were a part of the body of God. Even their murderers were God, and thus were doing God's work."

Paul's head felt overloaded, his thoughts heavy. "I still don't understand any of that, or if I do, I don't agree with it. If murder is God's work, then why are you bothering to fight against these Grail people?"

"Because that is my task, Paul Jonas. And out of my actions, my resistance, more of God's wishes will become visible and manifest. The Grail Brotherhood, too, are doing God's work, as am I, although they do not believe it and doubtless think the opposite is true. And I am sure the same is so for you, too."

A short while earlier, miserable at the thought of being hunted, Paul had rejected the idea of his own importance. But now, hearing this man describe him as just another cog in Heaven's implacable machinery, he found himself swinging in the other direction. Some prideful thing in him, something that he could not dislike or even separate from himself, rejected the idea. "Are they all like you, then?" he finally asked. "The people in the Circle? Are they all Shiva-worshipers?"

For the first time, Nandi laughed. "Oh, goodness, no. Or perhaps I should say, 'Oh, heavens, no.' We are from all different faiths and disciplines. All we share is our knowledge of the Eternal, and the will to devote our lives to serving it."

Paul could not help smiling. "Ecumenicals. My grandmother always said that you folks were the biggest danger there was."

"Pardon?"

"Nothing. A bit of family humor." Paul looked up. The ice was growing a little thinner on the cavern walls here, the air a bit warmer. He let the blanket sag and stretched his arms. "So what next? For us, I mean. Where are we going?"

"To the next simulation," his companion replied, still paddling tirelessly, his slender arms moving with an almost mechanical motion. "Where I will tell you the name of the man who is my enemy and, it appears, yours. And then I just go my own way."

"What do you mean?"

Nandi's face was set hard again, locked like a door. "You cannot travel with me, Paul. I was meant to meet you, that I am certain, but we are not to travel together long. You have your own role to play, whatever that may be, and I have mine. None but one of the Circle can go where I am going. I am sorry."

The shock was powerful and surprisingly painful. After a vast stretch of loneliness, he had finally found someone to call a companion, if not yet a friend, and now that human connection was going to be severed immediately. "But . . . but where will I go? Am I just going to roam through these simulations forever?" He felt his eyes filling with tears and blinked angrily. "I'm so tired. I just want to go home. Please, help me. I want to go home."

Nandi's expression did not soften, but he took one hand off the paddle and touched Paul's shoulder. "You will find a way, if it is God's will."

"I don't care about God's will! I don't care about the Brotherhood, or your Circle, or any of this. I don't belong here."

"But you do belong here. I do not know how, but I know." Nandi squeezed his arm, then withdrew his hand.

Paul turned, unwilling to show the other man his need any longer, and stared at the river stretching before them. The tunnel walls glowed in the distance, the ice afire with deep golden light. "Is that the gateway?" he asked.

"No, only the sun of the outside world. But the gate is not far beyond."

Paul cleared his throat; then, still looking out at the dark water and the approaching daylight, said: "There's a woman who comes to me in dreams."

"In dreams you have here? In this network?"

"Yes. And I saw her in at least one of the simulations."

He related all that he could remember, the words spilling out, from the first dreams to the most recent. He described meeting her in the flesh in the Mars simulation. He repeated what she had told him when she had spoken through the Ice Age child. "But none of it makes sense," he finished. "Go to the wanderer's house and release the weaver—that could mean anything."

Nandi was silent for a long time, thinking. The light began to grow, throwing long stalactite shadows across the ceiling of the cave. Then, for the second time, the dark-skinned man began to laugh.

"What's funny?"

"I suppose it is only that for so long we Indians envied the very Britishness that had been thrust upon us by our conquerors, but which we were never fully allowed to enjoy. Now it seems that an education at the university in Varanasi gives one a better grounding in the classics than an education in England itself."

"What are you talking about?" Paul tried to restrain his anger, but this was his life the man was laughing at. Pathetic though it was, and at the moment full of gaps, it was all he had.

"I suspect you are looking for Ithaca, my friend Paul. The wanderer's house is in Ithaca."

The cave mouth was before them, spilling light, turning the river's surface into gilded foil. Paul had to squint. . . ?"

"Goodness, man, did you not read Homer? The English school system is in even greater disarray than I thought." Nandi now appeared to be enjoying himself. He applied the paddle to the water with dispatch, slipping them through the rocks that thronged the cave's opening and out into what at first seemed like the brightest, most blazing sun Paul had ever experienced. Moments later, as his dazzled eyes finally began to adjust, he saw the flat plane of the ocean lying dark and still in the distance, at the end of the river's cursive track across a forested plain. He also noticed that something seemed to be wrong with the color of the water just ahead. Then the first arrow struck.

Paul gaped in amazement as the shaft shivered to visibility in the boat's prow, only inches from his hand. It might have been a completely new and original object for all the sense his mind could make of it. A moment later another arrow smacked into the wood next to it, then Nandi cried out behind him.

Paul turned. A side stream, perhaps the tributary Nandi had mentioned earlier, rushed in from one side here, crossing through a forest of pines to join the Alph. Two boats were racing toward them on this smaller river, a hundred meters back but closing fast, each sped by half a dozen oarsmen. The archers standing in the prow of the leading boat wore silks whose bold, shimmering colors reflected the bright sun. One drew his bow, then released the string. An instant later something buzzed past Paul's head.

Nandi was slumped forward on the bench, a slender black shaft jutting from his thigh, his loose pants already sodden with blood. "It appears the Khan was in residence after all," he said. His face had gone yellowish with the shock, but his voice was strong. "These, I think, are after me, not you."

Paul crouched as low as he could without actually hiding behind Nandi. The two pursuing boats had left the sidestream and now coursed down the Alph directly behind them. Several more arrows whisked past, missing only because the current was rough and all three craft were pitching. "What difference does it make who they're after?" Paul demanded. "They'll kill us both anyway! How far to the gateway?"

Nandi clenched his teeth, squeezing his jaw so tight that tendons stood out on his neck and veins bulged in his forehead, then broke the arrow off just above the skin. "It is too far to reach it without being shot like rabbits. But if I am not here, I think things will go differently for you." He crept to the edge of the boat, still holding his head low.

"What are you talking about?"

"I knew we would part, but did not realize it would be so quickly," Nandi replied. "The place you seek is not in the next simulation, or even close, but with luck you will find your way there. It is Ithaca you are looking for, I am almost certain." He lurched over the side, but caught the rail with his hands and hung from the boat's rail with his legs already in the water, tipping the small craft sideways.

"Nandi, what are you doing?" Paul tried to drag him back, but the slender man pushed his reaching fingers away.

"I am not committing suicide, Paul Jonas. The Khan's soldiers will have a harder time catching me than they think. Stay in the boat. The current will take you through." Another flurry of arrows whickered past overhead. "Your enemy's name is Felix Jongleur—do not underestimate him!"

He let go and threw himself backward, flinging out his arms to make a great splash. By the time he surfaced Paul was twenty yards downstream, and could only watch helplessly as Nandi Paradivash swam to shore and limped into the trees.

The first boat backed water furiously when it reached the spot where he had disappeared, then slid to the shallows so the soldiers could leap out to pursue him, but the second boat did not slow. The archers on board, who had waited while those in the first craft tried their luck, now had a chance to demonstrate their own art; as Paul lay huddled in the bottom of the little boat arrowheads spattered against it like hailstones, splintering the wood all around him.

He only saw a brief glimmer of blue overhead, a gleaming, shimmering azure like a cloud of uneven light, then something made the hairs on his arms stand up from his skin, sparking, and he passed out of Xanadu.

CHAPTER 19
A Day's Work

NETFEED/NEWS: Pilker Calls for New Legislative House

(visual: Pilker in front of Capitol Building)

VO: The Reverend Daniel Pilker, leader of the fundamentalist Christian group Kingdom Now, is suing the United States, demanding that a fourth house of legislature be formed.

PILKER: "We have a House of Representatives, an Industrial Senate. We have every kind of special interest group that there is making their voices heard. But where is the representation for God-fearing Americans? Until there is a Religious Senate as well, which can make and interpret laws specifically with God in mind, then a large part of the American people will remain disenfranchised in their own country. . . ."

 

The suburbs slid past and were replaced by the hills and their towns, commuter havens side-by-side with failed developments empty as museum displays in the white morning. The mild shadows grew ever smaller as the sun climbed toward noon, as though the bright light in the sky could even evaporate darkness. "So, we couldn't have done this with a call?"

"I need to see this place, Stan. I just do. One of those things."

"Just explain this again—Polly Merapanui came from way up north. She was a street kid in Kogarah, got killed under a Sydney highway. So why exactly are we going to the Blue Mountains, which isn't any of those places?"

"Because she lived there." Calliope pulled around a truck full of broken concrete pieces, which was moving about as fast as might be expected. "For almost a year after she moved down from Darwin. You know that—it's in the files."

"Just trying to get my head wrapped around it." He pursed his lips, watching another dust-dry town slide past the windows. "We couldn't have made a phone call? It's not like I'm desperate for police-related things to do on my infrequent days off, Skouros."

"As if you had a life. Anyway, her stepmother doesn't have a line. No access."

"Quality folk."

"You are a snob, Stan Chan."

"Just trying to entertain myself on the long drive."

Calliope opened the window. The heat had eased a bit; a light breeze riffled the yellow grasses along the hillsides. "I just need somewhere to start, Stan. I need . . . I don't know, a feeling, something."

"These people didn't even see her during the two years before she died. And if her momma don't got no line at the cot, then baby wasn't even calling home, was she?"

"You are the least convincing slang user I've ever heard. No, they didn't see her, didn't hear from her, except for one or two freeline messages to the place where her stepmother worked. But they knew her, and nobody we've found in Kogarah could say the same."

"Did you ever think this might be a lot of trouble for a bad case?"

Calliope expelled her breath with an angry huff. "All the damn time, Stan. Just let me try this and if nothing happens, we'll discuss bagging the whole thing. Okay?"

"Okay. Are we there yet?"

"Shut up."

 

The foothills had become mountains, bold headlands of weathered rock, whiskery with blue gum and evergreen. Calliope's underpowered car had dropped back behind even the cement truck now, and made noises as it climbed like a walking toy trapped in a corner.

". . . Look, Stan, I'm just saying that someone doesn't do what this guy did—the stones in the eye sockets, all those stabs and cut wounds—unless he either had a grudge, or he's a real textbook sadist, and those kind don't stop at one when they've had success. So either there's someone in her past we need to find out about, or we've got an unrecognized serial killer out there. Nobody in Kogarah knows of any grudges there, not even any boyfriends. Checking the IPnet, we've got nothing either." She finished her squeeze bottle and dropped it over her shoulder into the small rear seat.

"So we look for what? Someone who followed her to the big city from out here, stalked her for two years, then slashed her? A stretch, Skouros."

"I know it's a stretch. Damn it, was that the tumoff for Cootalee?"

"She mixed on the streets, she fixed on the streets, she got sixed on the streets."

"Christ, Stan, will you quit talking like a cop? I hate that shit."

"How do you want me to talk?" He fell silent as she made what was doubtless an illegal u-turn across two lanes of empty freeway and a dirt center divider. " 'Calliope Skouros, you have captured my heart. I love you madly. Please let me take you away from all this homicide-related sordidness. . . '?"

"Oh, that would work out well—a Greek lesbian and a Sino-Australian fairy-boy."

He bared his very good teeth in his sunniest smile. "I'll have you know that I am exclusively, and perhaps one could even say enthusiastically, not a fairy-boy."

"Like that really improves the odds, Chan." She shot him a sudden, worried look. "You were joking, weren't you? You haven't been carrying around some hopeless crush on your unobtainable partner, have you?"

"Joking."

"Oh. Good."

She drove for a while in silence, waiting for Cootalee, advertised but not yet delivered. She fiddled with the car system, but after a while turned the music down again. "Okay, here's an old one," she said.

"Adam and Eve and Pinch Me went down to the river to bathe. "Adam and Eve fell in and drowned—which one of the three was saved?"

"Are we there yet?"

"Come on, Stanley, which one?"

"Which one what?"

"Which one of the three was saved?"

"What are my choices again?"

"You're just being an asshole, aren't you? Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. "

"I would guess . . . Adam."

"No! Pinch Me!—ouch! God, you're a shit, Chan."

"You just missed the Cootalee offramp."

"I think it's only fair to tell you," she said fifteen seconds later, as she laid tracks across another center divider, "that the engagement is definitely off."

 

"She's gone?"

The woman peering around the door of the trailer had the aggrieved look of someone unfairly accused. "I told you. She took off a month ago."

"Where?" Calliope looked at Stan Chan, who was inspecting the blocks placed underneath the trailer as though they were a feat of engineering rivaling the Pantheon. The woman, in turn, was watching Stan Chan with great distrust, as though at any moment he might snatch those same blocks of oil-scummed wood and run away with them.

"How should I know? I didn't know the bitch, but her goddamn dog kept me awake all the time. Good riddance."

"You see," Stan said a few minutes later, as they motored slowly out of the trailer park. "Quality folk."

"I hope her employer has some idea," Calliope said glumly. "Or you're going to start looking awfully right about coming up here. For once in your life."

The address from the files, listed as Polly Merapanui's stepmother's place of employment, turned out to be a modest house on the far side of Cootalee. A huge gum tree stretched its branches over most of the yard. A pair of dark-skinned children were squirting each other with a hose in its patchy shade, shrieking, while a small brown dog barked and circled them in a paroxysm of joyful excitement.

The door was opened by an Aboriginal woman wearing glasses and an apron. She wiped her hands dry on the apron as she examined Calliope's identification, then said, "Come in. I'll get my husband."

The man who emerged from the back room buttoning his shirt wore his curly black hair in a puffy, incongruously young style. A long, narrow beard made him look like something out of the Flemish school. "Hello, officers. I'm Reverend Dennis Bulurame. What can I do for you?"

"We have this address listed as the place of employment for Lily Ponegarra, also known as Lily Merapanui. We wanted to talk to her."

"Ah. She's not here, I'm afraid, but she did work for me. Well, for the church. Come into my study. You might just grab that chair and bring it with you."

Reverend Bulurame's study was a smallish room which contained little more than his desk, an inexpensive wallscreen, and a number of posters advertising church events—sales, concerts, carnivals. "Lily cleaned for the church, and sometimes for us, too."

"You say it in the past tense," Calliope pointed out.

"Well, she's gone. Left town. She met a man, is what happened." He shook his head and offered a rueful smile. "There wasn't much to tie her here, anyway. It's not like the church job was making her rich."

"Do you know where she's gone? The name of the man?"

"Billy, Bobby, something like that. That's all I know—probably not too helpful, am I right? And she didn't say where she was going, just that the two of them were going away. She apologized for not giving two weeks' notice, I'll say that. Is she in trouble?"

Stan Chan was examining the posters. He had to step to one side to let the reverend's wife through the door with a tray of lemonade and three glasses. "No. We just wanted to ask her some questions about her daughter."

"Her. . . ?" It took a moment. "Polly? After all this time?" Bulurame shook his head. "Terrible. But I'd almost forgotten. Strange, that something so dreadful could slip into the background. Lily was devastated. That girl was all she had."

"Nobody ever caught him, did they?" said Mrs. Bulurame. "That devil-devil man who killed her."

"Have you made an arrest?" The reverend leaned forward. "Is that why you're here? Preparing a case?"

"No, I'm afraid not." Calliope took a drink of lemonade, which could have used more sugar. She unpuckered and asked him, "Did either of you know Polly?"

"Not really. Saw her in the street or down at the store occasionally, but Lily hadn't come to work for us then. In fact, it was partly because the murder hit her so badly that I decided the church could use some regular cleaning, if you know what I mean. Give her something to do. She wasn't in good financial shape either. There are some people who did well out of the second Land Settlement Bill, Officer, but others like Lily who . . . well, they just let it slip through their fingers." The clear implication was that the reverend and his wife were among those who had done the sensible thing and invested their Settlement money in a nice house and a home station to get them all the netfeeds.

Calliope sighed inwardly. They were going to hear very little of interest from this pleasant, self-satisfied man, she felt sure. She forced herself to work through the rest of the questions as Stan Chan sipped lemonade and acted as though he found nothing more fascinating in all the world than advertisements for bake sales. The results were as disheartening as she had suspected: the Bulurames knew nothing of any boyfriends the daughter might have had, and couldn't even tell them if the stepmother had any friends still in town who would know something of the family's history.

"Lily didn't go out much," the reverend explained. "That's why this man—well, I don't think it was a spiritual relationship, if you know what I mean. She's almost a little simple, Lily is, bless her—I worry that she's easily led about."

Calliope thanked him for his time. He did not get up. As his wife was letting them out the door, and Stan was looking sour at the prospect of having to dodge past the hose-waving children, Calliope turned back.

"You said 'that devil-devil man,' Mrs. Bulurame. What did you mean, exactly?"

The reverend's wife opened her brown eyes wide, as though Calliope had ventured a complete non sequitur—perhaps asked her if she liked to skydive naked. "Oh! Well, it's . . . it's just like that story, isn't it?"

"Story?"

"I heard it when I was a little girl, from my grandmother. About the Woolagaroo. The devil-devil man with crocodile's teeth.

Someone made him, carved him out of wood, but he had stones for eyes. Just like what happened to poor little Polly."

 

An hour and a half later, all other leads dry as the backroad dust that had settled on Calliope's department car, they drove back out of Cootalee.

"Woolagaroo," she said. "Do you know anything about Aboriginal folklore, Stan?"

"Sure. In fact, it was an important part of my police academy training, Skouros. We spent hours every day reading about the Bunyip and How the Kangaroo Learned to Jump. If we had time after that, we sometimes squeezed in a little pistol-range work. Wasn't it like that for you, too?"

"Oh, shut up. I'll take that as a no." She put on the music, a modern piece by someone whose name she could never remember, downloaded off a late-night show. The music filled the car, sparse and bittersweet, like something played beside a Japanese ornamental pool. Stan Chan closed his eyes and reclined his seat.

Woolagaroo. Calliope silently tasted the word. Devil-devil. Stones for its eyes, just like the old story, she said.

It was nothing, of course. But it was a little better quality of nothing than anything else so far.

 

 

But since you are an attorney, Mr. Ramsey, surely you of all people can understand that we don't give out our performers' home lines or any other private information. That would be unheard of. Impossible." Even as she shot him down, the public relations woman's smile did not change. In fact, with the shimmering, animated Uncle Jingle poster covering the entire wall behind her, and the inset window featuring the live feed from the show, her fixed professional grin was about the only thing on Catur Ramsey's wallscreen that wasn't moving.

"I'm not asking for her home code, Ms. Dreibach. But I have a matter of great importance to discuss with her, and she hasn't answered a single one of my messages through any of the other channels."

"That is her right, isn't it, Mr. Ramsey?" The smile lost a little of the rictus quality—she was perhaps a tiny bit concerned. "If this is a legal issue, shouldn't you be contacting our legal department directly?"

On the live feed, Uncle Jingle was being swallowed by a whale, or something that would certainly have been one if cetaceans were made of bricks. Ramsey had watched enough of the Uncle Jingle show during the past week to know that this creature was called the Walling Whale. Uncle Jingle's melodramatic terror was not entirely comfortable to watch. What did kids really think of this stuff, anyway? "Maybe I haven't made myself clear," he said, tearing his eye away from the miniaturized spectacle."Olga Pirofsky has done nothing wrong. My clients have no complaint with either Uncle Jingle's Jungle or the Obolos Entertainment Corporation. We simply want to talk to Ms. Pirofsky about something very important to my clients, and I'm asking for your help because she isn't answering my messages."

Ms. Dreibach patted her helmet of glossy hair. She looked relieved, but not entirely convinced. "I'm glad to hear that, Mr. Ramsey. Obolos is the world leader in children's entertainment, you know, and we don't want to see unfounded rumors of some kind of legal problems all over the nets. But I don't think I can do anything to help you. I can't force one of our employees to take your call, after all."

"Look, is there anything you can think of? Could someone hand-deliver a message for me? Assure Ms. Pirofsky that she might be able to help my clients with a very important matter, at no cost to herself except a few minutes for my phone call?"

"Well. . . ." The public relations woman had weathered her tiny storm of doubt, and now appeared to be thinking about potential tradeoffs down the line. "We'd hate for you to go away thinking that we don't do our best here at 'The Happiest Place on the Net.' I could give you the office line for the show's director, I suppose. Perhaps she . . . oops, it's a he this week!" She made a "silly-me" face that took ten points off her IQ and added almost that many years to her age. "Perhaps he could give your message to Olga. To Ms. Pirofsky."

"Thank you. That would be wonderful, Ms. Dreibach. I can't tell you how helpful you've been."

She went still again as she consulted her directory. On the wall behind her, Uncle Jingle turned a cartwheel that never ended, spinning around and around and around.

The call came in at a few minutes before ten o'clock, just as he was thinking he might actually be ready to go home. He sighed and sank back into his chair. "Answer."

The incoming line was voice-only. The voice itself sounded very, very tentative, with a faint trace of accent which he had never noticed on the Uncle Jingle show. "Hello? Is there someone there named . . . Ramsey?"

"Decatur Ramsey, Ms. Pirofsky. That's me. Thank you so much for returning my call. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy. . . ."

"What do you want?"

So much for formalities. The director had as much as said that she was an odd bird. "I'm an attorney—I hope they told you that. I'd like to ask you some questions on behalf of my clients."

"Who are they?"

"I'm not at liberty to disclose that just now, I'm afraid."

"I have done nothing to anyone."

"No one's saying you have, Ms. Pirofsky." Jesus, he thought, this woman isn't just regular odd—she sounds frightened. "Please, just listen to the questions. If you don't want to answer them, all you have to do is tell me so. Don't get me wrong—you will be doing my clients a huge favor if you do help. They are dealing with a very, very difficult problem, and they're desperate."

"How can I help them? I don't even know who these people are."

He took a breath, praying to the God of Depositions for patience. "Just let me ask you the first question. Are you familiar with something called Tandagore's Syndrome?"

There was a long silence. "Go on," she said at last.

"Go on?"

"Let me hear all the questions, then I'll decide if I'm going to answer you."

Catur Ramsey was half-convinced that he'd stumbled onto some kind of lunatic—the kind who believed that the government had a bunch of little green men stashed away somewhere, or that the intelligence agencies were beaming messages into their brains—but since his clients' own case was pretty damn strange, there was at least a remote chance he might be onto something.

"I can't really ask you the rest of the questions unless I know the answer to the first," he explained. "I suppose they would go something like, 'Do you know someone who has it? If not, why are you interested in this and other related medical conditions?' See, Ms. Pirofsky? Like that. But I need to get that first answer."

There was an even longer silence this time. He began to think she had soundlessly cut the connection when she abruptly asked, in a voice little more than a whisper, "How . . . how did you know I was interested in the Tandagore sickness?"

My God, he thought. I've scared this poor woman almost to death.

"It's no secret, ma'am—I mean, Ms. Pirofsky. Nothing shady. I'm researching these syndromes for my clients. I've been contacting lots of people who have asked the mednets for information, or have written articles, or even who have just had undiagnosed illnesses in their family that resemble the Tandagore profile. You're not the only person I've contacted, by any means." But you're certainly one of the most interesting, he did not say aloud, since you work on the net itself, and directly with children. You're also one of the most ridiculously damn difficult to get hold of.

"I've been having these terrible headaches," she said, then hurriedly added, "oh, God, you're going to think I'm a crazy person. Or that I have a brain tumor or something. But I don't. The doctors say I'm fine." She fell silent for a moment. "You're going to think I'm even crazier, but I can't talk to you about this on the phone." She laughed nervously. "Have you noticed how hardly anyone says 'phone' any more? I suppose that means I'm really getting old."

Ramsey struggled to sort through the clutter of ideas. "You don't want to talk on . . . on the phone. Is that right?"

"Maybe you could visit me?"

"I'm not sure, Ms. Pirofsky. Where are you? Somewhere near Toronto, right?" He had found a newsnet snippet on her from five years back, a minor personality piece from a small net magazine.

"I live. . . ." She stopped again, and several seconds of silence followed. "Oh, no. If you saw my name, looking into this Tandagore thing, then that means . . . that means anyone can find out." Her voice got smaller at the end, as though she had stepped away from the speaker, or toppled down a hole. "Oh, God," she murmured. "I have to get off. I can't talk."

"Ms. Pirofsky, please. . . ." he began, but the connection clicked off.

He sat staring at the dark screen for some moments before he brought his wallpaper back up, wondering what he could give up to make time for a visit to Canada, and wondering how he would feel about that if the woman turned out to be as unstable as she sounded.

 

Jaleel Fredericks was one of those people who gave the impression you'd just dragged him away from something really important—that even if you were calling to tell him his house was burning down, he'd be a little surprised you'd bothered him when there were things that truly deserved his attention.

"Forgive me, Ramsey, but I'm tired," he said. "What this comes down to is that you don't really have anything yet. Am I right?"

"Basically." It was bad strategy to equivocate with Fredericks, but you couldn't let him run roughshod over you, either. He was a good man, Catur Ramsey had long ago decided, but he was used to folding people into shapes that suited him. "But you have to clear the brush before you can start building the cabin."

"I'm sure." He frowned as his wife said something offscreen. "That's not what he's calling about." Fredericks turned his attention back to the attorney. "She says she's been trying to get the authorization for those records you wanted, but it may be a few more days. And did you get that stuff of Sam's she sent you."

"No problem. And yes, I got those files, but I haven't had a chance to look through them yet. I'll get back to you at the beginning of the week, let you know what all this research amounts to."

As he was waiting for the Gardiner family's number to pick up, Ramsey watched the stream of cars sliding past on the elevated freeway three floors below his office window, the rain-slick asphalt streaked with reflections from the headlights. He knew he should have asked the Frederickses to authorize a trip up to Toronto, but the idea of explaining the Uncle Jingle woman to Jaleel Fredericks was less than appealing. He wasn't sure himself why he felt there might be something worth pursuing there.

He only had to wade halfway through the incoming call filter before Conrad Gardiner picked up. He was Ramsey's age, perhaps even a bit younger, but he looked ready for retirement, his face barely animated.

"What can we do for you, Mr. Ramsey?"

"I was just curious about something. Do you still have that problem with your son's agent and the missing files?"

"Yes. We've had two different companies in to see what they can do, but no results." He shook his head slowly. "I can't believe all that stuff has just been mailed right out of our system by . . . by a program. Gear, making its own decisions." His laugh was not a happy one. "Well, that's the twenty-first century for you, isn't it?"

"What was its name?"

"You mean Orlando's agent? I don't know. It was 'something something PsAI'—a Pseudo-Artificial-Intelligence, you know? Old, but expensive when we got it. I suppose I could look it up."

"Actually, I was wondering if Orlando had a name for it. You know, a nickname? People, especially kids, often do that."

"Jesus, you're kidding." Gardiner was taken aback. "I really can't remember. Vivien!"

His wife walked into the room, just barely visible on Ramsey's screen. She was taking off her coat; he guessed she'd been at the hospital. Her husband passed the question on to her, and she said something Ramsey couldn't hear.

"Beezle Bug," Gardiner reported. "That's right. I'd forgotten. He's had it since he was a little kid." His mouth twitched, and he turned away for a moment. When he had mastered himself, he asked: "What do you want to know that for, anyway?"

"Just wondering," Ramsey said. "An idea. I'll tell you about it another time."

He broke the connection, then sat back to think, watching the cars leave snail trails of light on the freeway below.

It was midnight by the time he got home. Third time that week, and it was only Thursday.

 

 

It was almost worse that he knew it was a dream.

Such visions were all that ever came to him in the bloodless darkness that was now the closest he came to sleep—the same tired images, the same recycled shames and horrors. They might be broken apart and then sifted together in strange combinations, but they were still the very ones that had visited him for years, some for over a century.

Even Felix Jongleur's ghosts were growing old.

The three senior boys stood before him, blocking the stairway and any chance of escape. Oldfield had the collar of his white shirt turned up, and held a cigarette cupped in his hand. Patto and Halsall, who had been waiting for their turn, followed Oldfield's gaze. The three stared at him like Macbeth's witches.

"What are you looking at, Jingle-Jangle?" Oldfield demanded.

"Little sniveler," added Halsall. "Sniveling Frog bastard."

"Juggles wants to join in," Patto said, grinning. "He wants a puff on your fag, Oley."

It was all so predictable—history and fantasy splashed together in an untrustworthy mix. The part of Jongleur's ancient brain that stood at a critical distance from the dream-stage recognized that the stairwell and landing were not from the Cranleigh School residence but his childhood house in Limoux, and that the dream-Patto had almost entirely lost his true features, and looked instead like a man Jongleur had known (and whose business he had ruined) back at the turn of the most recent century, almost ninety years later than these imperfectly remembered school days.

But for all its repetitions, the humiliation of this dream and others like it did not become less.

The English boys were on him now, like jackals on a fallen antelope. Halsall wrenched his arm behind his back while Oldfield grabbed at his crotch and twisted until he screeched with pain and sucked in air and smoke from the stolen cigarette. He could feel it again, that horrible taste; each breath was a red fire going down his throat. He choked until he almost vomited.

"Parley-voo, Juggles." Patto twisted his ear. "Parley-voo, you sodding Frenchie spy."

But instead of kicking him as they usually did, they snatched his elbows and pulled him around, facing him toward the end of the second floor landing. Toward the window.

That doesn't belong here! he thought, and suddenly the tired old dream filled him with a surprising panic. Not that! Not the window!

But he was being hurried toward it, his arms pinioned. The window grew larger before him, round and without any kind of grille or crossbars, backed by what his dream-self knew to be a profound blackness, a poisonous dark abyss, from which he was protected only by the thinnest sheet of glass.

He knew that he did not ever, ever, ever want to find out what was on the far side.

They can't do this to me, he thought in terror. They think I'm a boy, but I'm not, I'm old—I'm old! They can't. . . .

He was shouting it in the dream, too, telling them he was too frail, but Oldfield and the others only laughed louder, then shoved him toward the window. Shrieking, he struck the hard surface, but instead of the glass breaking, it was he, ancient, dry, and brittle, who shattered into a thousand pieces.

The dreams, the truth, his memories, shattered, mixed together, and flung. . . .

. . . Showering outward into the sunlight like a spray of water, each piece spinning like a separate planet, the cloud of iridescence a universe that had lost its equilibrium, now flying apart in high-speed entropic expansion.

The cries echoed and echoed, as they always did, but this time they were his.

 

He awakened in blackness, without even the virtual lamplight of Abydos to soothe him. For a brief moment he was actually in his body and nothing else, but the horror was too much and he plunged back into his system. A blind, helpless thing, a slug wrapped in gauze and mylar, floating in a dark tank—he shuddered at the thought of having to exist as he truly was. He pulled on his machinery as though it were armor.

Once into the system, the world's oldest man did not bring up the full glories of his custom-made Egypt, but raised instead a much simpler virtual world that held nothing but dim and source-less blue light. Jongleur basked in it, caressed by subliminal sonics, and tried to calm the great fear that gripped him.

The young could not understand the horror of being old. That was nature's way of protecting them from uselessly harmful knowledge, just as the atmosphere around the Earth created a blue sky that shielded humanity from constant exposure to the naked unconcern of the stars. Old age was failure, limitation, marginalization—and that was just the beginning. Because every moment was also a step closer to nothingness, as Death drew ever nigh.

Felix Jongleur had dreamed of a faceless, shadowy figure all through his childhood, the Death that his father had told him "waits for us all," but it was when his parents sent him away to that ghastly school in England that he had finally learned what it looked like. One night, as he leafed through a tattered newspaper one of the upperclassmen had left behind in the dormitory cabinet, he had seen an illustration—"an artist's rendition" the caption read, "of the enigmatic Mr. Jingo,"—and had known at once that this was the face of what hunted him through his dreams far more implacably than even the crudest older boys had ever stalked him in the Cranleigh halls. The man in the picture was tall, wrapped in a dark cloak, and wore a tall, old-fashioned stovepipe hat. But it was his eyes, his mesmeric, staring eyes, and his cold grin which had caused young Felix's heart to race with recognition. The article, the explanation of who the artist's lurid drawing represented, had been gnawed away by rats and would thus forever remain a mystery; only the picture had survived, but that had been enough. Those eyes had watched Felix Jongleur ever since. As all the intervening decades had rolled past, he had lived under the gaze of those amused, soul-empty, terrifying eyes.

They waited. He—it—waited. Like an unhurried shark beneath a failing swimmer, Mister Jingo had no need to do anything else.

Jongleur fought now against the morbidity that sometimes grew on his isolated mind like an opportunistic parasite. It would all be easier if only one could believe in something outside oneself—something loving and kind, a counterweight to that hideously patient gaze. As his mother's sisters had done. Positive that Heaven waited for them—a place apparently identical to Limoux, except that good Catholic spinsters no longer had to put up with aching joints and noisy children—they had been the picture of security, even on their deathbeds. Not a one of them had left life with anything other than calm, even cheerful, acceptance.

But he knew better. He had learned the lesson first from his father's sad, tired face, then learned it again and more brutally in the jungle of English public school. Beyond the sky there was no Heaven, but only blackness and abounding space. Beyond one's own self there was nothing to trust, nothing upon which to rely. Darkness waited. It would take you when it wished, and no one would lift a finger to save you. You could scream until you thought your heart would burst, and someone would merely push a pillow over your face to muffle your cries. The pain would go on. No help would come.

And Death? Death, with his top hat and hypnotist gaze, was the greatest bully of all. If he did not take you from behind and unawares, if in some way you managed to avoid him and grow strong, he merely stood in the shadows and waited until time itself dragged you down. Then, when you were old and weak and helpless, he would stalk you as brazenly as a wolf.

And this the young, in their magnificent stupidity, could never understand. For them, death was only a cartoon wolf, something to be mocked. They did not see, could not know, what it would be like in that day when the monster became real—when straw, or wood, or even walls of brick would not save them.

Jongleur shuddered, something his attenuated nervous system reported rather than felt. His only solace was that since he himself had been old, he had watched three generations of youth inherit this dreadful realization and then go before him, dragged screaming out of their shattered houses into the night while he himself still avoided those smiling jaws. Genetic therapy, vitamin-flooding, low-dose triggerpoint radiation, all the tricks available (unless you had Jongleur's almost limitless assets and Jongleur's seminal ideas) could only delay death a little. Some, the luckier and the wealthier, had recently lived into a second decade past their first century, but they were still children compared to him. As the others all fell, as his own grandchildren and great- and great-greatgrandchildren had been born, aged, then succumbed, one after the other, he alone had continued to cheat Mr. Jingo's patience.

And God or whatever willing, he would do so forever!

 

Felix Jongleur had faced night-terrors for more than two long human lifetimes. He knew without looking at the chronometer, without reference to any of the information he could summon with little more than a thought, that outside his fortress the last hour before dawn lay heavy on the Gulf of Mexico. The few fishing boats that he allowed in Lake Borgne, his private moat, would be loading up their nets. Police in surveillance labs in Baton Rouge would be nodding off in front of their monitors, hoping that the morning shift would remember to bring them something to eat. Fifty kilometers west of Jongleur's tower, in New Orleans, a half-dozen or more tourists would be lying in the gutters of the Vieux Carre, missing their money cards, key cards, and self-respect . . . if they were lucky. Some less fortunate might wake up drugged, with a hand gone and the wrist hastily cauterized so the thieves could avoid a murder charge (most rental car companies had abandoned palmprint-readers, but a few still held out.) And some of the gutter-flung tourists would not be lucky enough to wake up at all.

The night was almost gone.

Felix Jongleur was angry with himself. It was bad enough that he should float in and out of sleep without realizing it—he did not remember drifting off—but to wake up, heart aflutter like a frightened child, because of a few familiar and now-tiresome dreams. . . .

He would do some work, he decided. That was the only good solution, the best way to spit in the face of the man with the tall hat.

His first impulse was to return to Abydos-That-Was, to review recent information from the comfort of his god-throne, surrounded by the attentions of his priests. But the nightmare, and especially its unusual juxtaposition of elements, had unsettled him. His home suddenly did not feel secure, and although the great house that his physical body never left was more heavily defended than most military bases, he still felt the urge to have a look around, if only to assure himself that all was as it should be.

Anchored by seven subterranean floors (a hundred-plus vertical feet of fibramic cylinder, which had been literally screwed into the delta mud), Jongleur's tower reached another ten stories up from water level into the foggy air above Lake Borgne, but the great tower was only part of the vast complex that covered the artificial island. An engineered mass of rock about fifty kilometers square, the island housed only slightly more than two thousand people—a very small town by numbers alone, but more influential than most of the world's nations put together. Jongleur was only slightly less a god here than he was in his virtual Egypt: with a subvocalized word, he brought up the battery of video images that detailed every corner of his domain. All over the tower and the surrounding buildings, wallscreens became one-way windows in an instant, and words and numbers superimposed on the surveillance pictures began to fly past him like sparks.

He started on the outside and worked his way in. The east-facing perimeter cameras brought him the first hints of sunrise, a reddish glow above the Gulf, still dimmer than the tangerine lights dotting the oil rigs. The guards in two of the perimeter observation towers were playing cards, and a few were not fully in uniform, but the squadrons in all six towers were awake and alert, and Jongleur was satisfied; he would memo the commanders about keeping a watch on discipline. The rest of the defenders of his domain—the human defenders, in any case—slept in their bunks, row upon row upon row. Their quarters and parade grounds alone took up almost half the artificial island on which the tower stood.

He moved his inspection inward to the tower itself, flitting from viewpoint to wallscreened viewpoint over scores of rooms and dozens of corridors like some magical spirit that lived in mirrors. The offices were mostly empty, although a skeleton crew was in place taking overseas requests and pulling information off the nets for the morning shift to examine, A few custodial workers at the end of their shift, local men and women who had no idea how closely they had been examined before being hired, were waiting on the esplanade for the shuttle boat that would take them around to their quarters on the island's far side.

His executive staff had not come in yet, and their offices stood hushed and dark except for the glow of electronic displays. Above the executive offices were the first of the tower apartments, reserved mainly for visiting dignitaries: the few of these treasured and envied living spaces that had been fitted as permanent residences were awarded to only the very luckiest of Jongleur's entire worldwide operation.

Jongleur's remote eye discovered the bathrobed president of one of his larger Ukrainian subsidiaries sitting on one of the tower apartment balconies, looking down at the lake. Jongleur wondered if the man might be awake so early because he was jet-lagged, and then remembered he had a conference scheduled with the fellow later in the day. It would take place through intermediary screens, of course; the Ukrainian executive, one of the richest and most powerful men in his entire country, would doubtless wonder why, after coming all this way, he should not meet his own employer in person.

The man should count his lucky stars that he didn't have to see his master face-to-real-face, Jongleur thought. The Ukrainian would take away an image of his employer as an eccentric, security-obsessed old man, instead of discovering the unpleasant truth—that their founder and leader was a monstrous thing, held together by medical pressure-wrappings, continuously submerged in life-preserving fluids. The visiting executive would never have to think about how his employer's eyes and ears had been pierced by electrodes connected directly to the optic and auditory nerves, how his skin and even muscle grew more jelly-soft hourly, threatening to slide free at any moment from bones thin and weak as twigs.

Jongleur's thoughts did not linger long on the familiar horror of his own condition. Instead, his disembodied inspection flitted up through the private apartments to the lowest floors of his own inner sanctum, where it touched briefly on the quarters of his various bodyguards and technicians, on the hardware rooms where the most important machines were serviced, and on the chamber locked behind three separate pressure-doors and two guard stations where the tanks lay in their padded cradles. His own life-support tank, a capsule of black, shiny plasteel, bulked like a royal sarcophagus at the center of the room, its tentacles of bundled and multiply redundant cables stretching away on all sides. Three other tanks shared the huge circular room with his, the smaller and less central capsules that belonged to Finney and Mudd, and—close by his own resting place—that other and most significant oblong, as large and gleamingly opaque as his own.

He did not want to look at that other tank for very long.

Neither did he wish to carry his inspection any farther. The topmost floor, as always, remained out of bounds, even—perhaps especially—for him. The master of Lake Borgne had decided long before this day he did not ever again want to look into the suite of rooms at the top of the tower. But he had also known that if it remained available to him he would be unable to resist, that just as an aching tooth draws a probing tongue, he would torture himself if he did not do something. He had thus reprogrammed his surveillance system, and locked that part of it away behind a code he did not have. Unless he specifically asked his security manager to reprogram it—and he had fought against that temptation a thousand times—it would remain as black to him as the emptiness between stars.

Reassured to see the rest of his fiefdom safe and secure, and not wishing to dwell any longer than necessary on what floated in the fourth tank, or what remained at the pinnacle of the tower, he called up his virtual domains and continued his inspection there, in the worlds he had created.

On the Western Front near Ypres, the battle of Amiens raged on. The man for whom the trenches had served as a prison was gone now, but the simulacra who fought and died there went on doing so regardless, as they had before the prisoner had arrived. When this most recent version of the battle had ended, the corpses would rise from the mud again, as if in mockery of the Day of Judgment; the shattered bodies would be remade, the shrapnel drawn back together and reassembled into murderous shells, and the battle would begin once more.

On Mars, the warrior Rax people of the High Desert had attacked the citadel of Tuktubim. The Soombar had made a temporary peace with Hurley Brummond in order to employ his fighting legion of Earthlings in the city's defense. It all looked to be great fun.

Old Chicago was celebrating the end of Prohibition with widespread public drunkenness, so that particular cycle was almost over. Atlantis had risen up from its recent watery grave, and was poised to begin anew. Looking Glass had already entered another cycle, red and white pieces at either side of the metaphorical chessboard.

Jongleur flicked through his worlds, choosing vantage points at random, adjusting if the initial view did not give him the information he sought. In one, the Spanish Armada had somehow survived the windstorms in the Channel, and the Spaniards were even now making their way up the Thames to sack London with their superior forces; he promised himself he would check back, perhaps even embody himself so he could see it firsthand, since he had missed the last time this rare outcome had occurred.

Another invasion of England, this one from H. G. Wells' version of Mars, was winding down to its conclusion. It seemed rather depressingly slow there. He wondered whether he would have to recalibrate the simworld.

In fact, he noticed as he moved through several more simulations, his virtual domains seemed in need of more attention than he had given them of late. Xanadu was all but deserted, the gardens of the Pleasure Dome looking particularly untended. Narnia remained under snow, as it had been for months, with no allegorical lion in sight to end the winter. That Hobbit world, constructed as a favor for a great-great grandnephew, had collapsed into total warfare, which was fine, but the technology seemed to have escalated beyond what he dimly remembered was appropriate. Machine guns and jet bombers, in particular, seemed a bit de trap.

There were other, more subtle problems in other simulations, but they still troubled him. The Asgardians were drinking heavily rather than fighting, and although it was not uncommon to see the explosive Norse temperament turn suddenly melancholy, even Bifrost looked dusty and untended. Elsewhere, in Imperial Rome, the last of the Julio-Claudians had been usurped by a commander of the Praetorian Guard named Tigellinus, which was an interesting twist, but most of the new emperor's facial features were missing. The leader of Rome's nightmare visage—eyes and nose absent, only smooth skin in their place—was reproduced on all the coins and official statuary, which was unsettling enough, but what was even more bizarre was that no one in Rome seemed to have noticed anything wrong.

Jongleur flicked through his other domains with increasing speed, and found things to concern him in nearly every one: Dodge City, Toyland, Arden, Gomorrah, and many more, all seemed oddly off-kilter, as though someone had minutely changed the essential gravity of every virtual world.

The old man was grimly pleased that he had been startled awake by a nightmare, and that he had made this inspection as a result. These were not simply playthings, these worlds—they were the birthrights of his godhood, the fields of Paradise in which his immortality would be spent. It would not do to let things go to seed.

It was as he flicked through one of the last of his created worlds, a comparative backwater based on a series of English comic stories from the era of his young manhood, that he saw the face that for so long he had hoped he might see, feared he might see.

The face was visible only for a moment, in the midst of a crowd of people in formal clothing, but the image flew to his eye like an arrow. He felt his ancient heart begin to rabbit as it had when he dreamed; more faintly, he perceived his real body thrashing slowly in its restraining harness, disturbing the thick fluids that surrounded it. He stared, forgetting for a moment that he could leap through the view and into the scene, to clutch and catch, but even in that moment of hesitation, the face vanished.

He flung himself into the simulation, snatching the first sim his system offered, but the one he had sought for so long, as if sensing his approach, had already fled the large room and dashed out the door into the crowded streets, there to disappear. He followed, but it immediately became clear there were too many people in the way, and too many avenues of escape. Pursuit was hopeless.

 

Bertie Wooster, Tuppy Glossop, and the other members of the Drones Club were more than a little startled by the appearance of a seven-foot polar bear in the middle of their annual dinner dance and charity fund-raiser. Discussion of the phenomenon was intense, and calls for bar service were immediately doubled. Several of the fairer sex (and, it had to be admitted, one or two of the manly contingent) went so far as to faint. But even those who had taken in the spectacle with a jaded eye, jiggling neat Scotch not one whit on its journey mouthward as the pale intruder galloped roaring across the floor and knocked half the band flying (gravely wounding a clarinet player in the process), found themselves indescribably disturbed when the polar bear fell onto its knees just outside the door in Prince Albert Road and began to weep.

CHAPTER 2O
The Invisible River

NETFEED/ART: Explosive Homage

(visual: wreckage of First Philadelphia Bank)

VO: The guerilla artist known only as "Bigger X" has claimed credit for the package-bomb which killed three and injured twenty-six at a branch of the First Philadelphia Bank last month.

(visual: file footage—broken showroom window, floral print body-bags)

The controversial Bigger X, who began by creating special coverings for bodies he had stolen from the morgue, then started poisoned-product scares in Florida and Toronto, has now claimed credit for three different murderous assaults. In the recorded message he sent to "artOWNartWONartNOW", he claims his work is an homage to such pioneers of forced-involvement performances as Manky Negesco and TT Jensen. . . .

 

Code Delphi. Start here.

"This is Martine Desroubins. I am resuming my journal. Much has happened since my last entry, two days ago.

"The first, and perhaps the most important thing, is that we have crossed into a new simulation. I will wait to describe this new place until I have told how we left the old one.

"The second is that I have learned something more about this virtual universe, and every piece of new information may be critical.

"I have reached a stage now where I can 'read' the physical information of our environment as well as I can decipher the signposts of the real-world net, and thus can move around here almost as easily as any of my sighted companions—in fact, in many ways my abilities seem to be blossoming far beyond theirs. Thus, I believe it to be my particular task to attempt to understand the machineries behind these worlds. As I said before, I am not optimistic about our chances of survival, let alone success, but as we improve our knowledge, our small odds at least become slightly larger.

"So much to tell! I wish I had found time earlier to whisper some of these words into the auditing darkness.

"Back in the last simulation, our company—now only Quan Li, T4b, Sweet William, Florimel, and myself—set out after Orlando and Fredericks. A faster pursuit would undoubtedly have been better, but it was almost evening when the river swept them away, and only fools would strike out across unknown territory in the dark—especially unknown territory where the spiders are the size of circus carousels.

"The men—I shall call them that for simplicity's sake—wanted to build another raft like the one which had been lost with our other two companions, but Florimel suggested strongly that whatever we might gain by traveling swiftly on the river would be lost with the time it would take to make the raft. She is clearly someone used to organizing things—in some ways she is like Renie, but without the openness, the willingness to admit fault. I sense that she is constantly frustrated by the rest of us, like someone forced to play a game with a less capable partner. But she is clever, there is no arguing that. She argued that we should follow the beach and riverbank as far as it would take us. That way, if Fredericks and Orlando had managed to get off the river themselves, or had been swept into some backwater, we would not be rushed helplessly past them.

"Quan Li agreed with Florimel, and at risk of polarizing our party along lines of apparent gender, I cast the deciding vote in favor of this plan. So we set out along the line of the river even as the morning sun appeared above the trees on the far bank. I did not see it, of course, but I could sense it in ways far beyond merely its heat on my face—even in a simulated world, the sun is the sourcepoint of many things.

"The first part of the journey went uneventfully, except for some bickering between Sweet William and Florimel, which Quan Li tried to discourage. Florimel said that if we did not find the two young men, we should attempt to capture a member of the Grail Brotherhood—catch one of them within a simulation—and then use force or its threat to gain information about the network, perhaps even to compel the prisoner to assist us. William thought this was asking for trouble—that it was far more likely we would not only fail, since we knew so little about their powers within the network, but that we would bring the entire Brotherhood down on our heads. Quan Li and William both seemed keen not to attract undue attention. Florimel was scornful of what she saw as timidity.

"T4b remained silent and uninvolved throughout, seeming more interested in maneuvering his spiky armor over the pebbles and clumps of dirt which to us were major obstacles. I cannot say I blame him for staying apart.

"Just before noon, after we had tracked the river through several broad curving turns, I found myself distracted by a strange but not entirely unfamiliar sensation. I realized I had felt that unusual vibrancy on the morning we were forced ashore by the feeding frenzy. I had been nearly mad then, overwhelmed by the new input, and so I could not immediately remember what the sensation had heralded.

"As the tingling grew stronger, my companions began to shout that a white figure was hovering above the water just a short distance away. I could not sense anything so mundane as color, and in fact the tingling seemed to be confusing me so badly that I could barely sense the apparition at all.

"Quan Li said, 'It is a man! The one who led us to T4b when the fish spit him out!' William shouted some admonition at the stranger to 'quit acting like bleeding Jesus, for Christ's sake' and to come ashore. I paid only small attention to this because I was trying literally to make sense out of the bizarre input. Unlike the swirl of organized information that characterized my knowledge of my companions' sims, the stranger was more an absence of information—like a black hole, which signals its astronomical presence by what does not come from it.

"After our encounter with what we eventually realized was one of the Lords of Otherland, I came to believe that what I sensed, or rather did not sense, was the work of very sophisticated gear—something which negated the signs of the user's virtual existence in much the same way that high-powered sound baffles can counteract noise by broadcasting contrasting, deadening tones. The question still remains why anyone, especially the master of a simulation as complex as the one we were in, should need such doubtlessly expensive camouflage. Perhaps these masters of virtual space do not always stay in their own kingdoms. Perhaps they wish to be able to wander through their neighbors' gardens and harems unnoticed.

"While I was still experiencing him as a puzzling lack of signal, the stranger briskly announced, 'I am Kunohara. You are guests in my world. It is bad form not to introduce yourselves to a host before you walk through his lands, but perhaps you are from someplace where courtesies are unfamiliar.'

"It was strange to me, since his voice seemed to issue from nowhere, like old-fashioned film music. To the others, the strangest thing was his position, floating half his own height above the flowing river.

"Predictably, Quan Li hastened to apologize for any breach of courtesy. The others were silent or subdued—even William, after his initial remark, kept his insolence in check. Kunohara, who the others tell me appeared as a small Asian man, floated toward the riverbank and came to a stop before us, then lowered himself to dry land. He proceeded to make several archly cryptic remarks-enjoying his private knowledge almost as a child would. I was paying less attention to what he said than to what he was—or rather, what he seemed to be. If this was one of our enemies, one of the powers of this virtual universe, I wanted to learn as much about him as I could, but most particularly I wanted to know how he manipulated the environment, since all of Otherland's controls were hidden from us. Perhaps he used the aspect-dampening gear just to prevent such discoveries. In any case, I gleaned very little.

"It soon became apparent that although we knew nothing of this Kunohara, he knew something of us. He knew we had fled Atasco's simulation—William, who had appointed himself ambassador, guardedly confirmed it—and alluded to companions of ours in such a way that it suggested he may have met one of our two missing groups, although he claimed to know nothing of their current whereabouts. 'Things are shifting,' he said, seeming to think that explained something. 'Most of the gates are random.' He then posed us a riddle which I shall try to remember verbatim.

"He said, 'The Grail and the Circle oppose each other. But both are circular—both have closed their systems, and would do the same with this new universe. But a place can be found where the two circles overlap, and in that place is wisdom.'

"Sweet William, with a little more restraint than he usually shows, demanded to know what all this meant. I recognized the name 'the Circle,' but with no access to my usual information resources, could only search my own overtaxed memory, without result—and still with no result as of this moment.

"Kunohara seemed to be enjoying his role as mysterious oracle. 'I cannot answer what,' he answered William. 'I can suggest a where, however. Atop the Black Mountain you will find a place the two circles are very close to each other.'

"Florimel spoke up, quite angry, and asked why he played games with us. Kunohara, who was still to me nothing more than a voice, laughed and said, 'Do not games teach children how to think?' With that he vanished.

"A furious debate ensued, but I did not take part. I was trying both to memorize his words and to think about the voice, hoping I might find some information there the others had not. I can only believe he was what he said—the owner of the world we were in. If so, he must be privy to many of the Grail Brotherhood's plans. He might even be one of them. But if he is one of our enemies, and he knows we oppose the Brotherhood—and if not, why bother to taunt us in such a strange way?—then the question remains . . . why did he take no action against us?

"I cannot make sense of it. These are strange people. It is true that the very rich, as some American writer once said, are not like you and me.

"With Kunohara gone, we continued along the river. As we marched, William pointed out, correctly but with mocking abrasiveness, that Florimel had missed her chance to overpower and threaten one of the Grail Lords. She did not hit him, but to me it felt as though she wanted to.

"The afternoon came on and slid past. I talked with Quan Li about Hong Kong and her granddaughter Jing, who is eight years old. She spoke movingly about the terrible pain Jing's sickness has caused for the whole family—Quan Li's son, who is a trans-shipper of raw materials, has taken a year's leave from his company so he can share time at the hospital with the child's mother, and Quan Li fears he will never build his business up again. She herself, she said, has been driven almost mad by what has happened to her only grandchild, and her conviction that it was something related to the net was at first looked on by the family as an old person's fear of technology, and later as a deepening and worrisome obsession.

"I asked her how she was able to remain online for such a long time, and she confessed shyly that she had emptied her savings—another sign to her son and daughter-in-law that she was unstable—and checked into an Immersion Palace, a sort of VR vacation spa on the edge of the Central District, for an extended stay. She said with what sounded like a rueful smile that this extra time in the Otherland network must be burning up the last of her retirement income even as we were speaking.

"William and Florimel had argued again, this time over what Kunohara had said—William called it 'rubbish' and was convinced it was meant to mystify us or even mislead us, that Kunohara was entertaining himself at our expense—and so neither of them was talking to anyone. I attempted to speak to T4b, about whom I feel I know less than any of the others, but he was very resistant. He did not seem angry but distant, like a soldier between one dreadful battle and the next. When I gently questioned him, he would only repeat what he had said before, that a friend of his had been affected by the same thing that had struck Renie's brother and Quan Li's granddaughter. When I asked him how he had found out about Atasco's world in the first place, he was vague, even elusive. He would not even say where he lived in the real world, except that it was somewhere in America. His conversation, though frustrating, leads me to suspect that despite his inarticulate ways, he is quite clever about getting around on the net. He also seems, more than any of the rest of us, impressed with the Grail Brotherhood and the 'strong line' they must have to build a place like this, which I assume means money and power.

"We were fortunate in our encounters with the local wildlife all day. We met a shorebird, an apparition large as an office tower, perched on stiltlike legs, but escaped it by dodging into a natural cave in the riverbank and waiting until it grew bored and crunched away. Later a large beetle of some kind forced us to scramble up the side of a gulley, like people caught in a narrow road when a truck wants to pass. The beetle paid us no attention, but we had so little room that I could trail my hand along its hard, pebble-grained shell as it passed, marveling again at the detail of these worlds.

"Late in the afternoon I began to sense a change in the river. What had been a moving chaos of information, complete with water sounds so complex they might have been the work of hundreds of modern improvisational composers all working simultaneously, began to develop . . . structures. It is hard to explain more clearly than that. What had once been almost completely random began to manifest certain congruencies, certain more definite patterns, like veins of crystal embedded in ordinary rock, and I had the first intimations of a greater and more complex structure somewhere close by.

"I told my impression to the others, but they saw no difference in the river beside us. This changed within minutes. Florimel was the first to notice the hint of something sparkling in the water, faint at first, like the bioluminescent algae churned up in a ship's wake, but mixed evenly throughout the river. Soon the glow was impossible for the others to miss. As for me, I sensed something very strange, what I can only call a curvature of space. The openness that I had sensed before me for so long, both on the river and on either side, seemed to be coming to an end, as though we had reached a spot where what lay before us moved into two dimensions. I still could perceive what I must call a metaphorical vanishing point, the sort of thing an artist might use to give the illusion of an extra dimension, but space itself did not seem to continue beyond that point. The others told me that the riverbank and river continued on into the visible distance, although the blue glow, which was now so bright that they said it actually reflected from their features, diminished sharply after a point some few yards ahead.

"When we reached the edge of the space I could perceive, something strange happened. One moment we were moving forward along the stony bank, single file, with Florimel in the lead. In the next step, Florimel was walking in the other direction, moving past Quan Li, who had been in line behind her.

"My companions were astonished, and took turns following Florimel through this strange, topsy-turvy effect. There was no sense of transition, no point at which they could feel themselves turning around. It was as though they had been edited like an old fashioned videotape, between one frame and the next—going, going, going, returning.

"I was less surprised than the rest. I had felt Florimel's essence—her information, as it were—disappear for a split-instant before reappearing in its inverted form. Apparently only my own heightened senses were capable of perceiving the microseconds in which this haunted-house effect took shape. But it made no difference. No matter how many times we tried, at whatever speed and in whichever combinations, we could not go any farther along the riverbank. I suppose that this must be a trick of the designers to limit the need for entry and exit points. I cannot help wondering if the nonhuman Puppets might not at this point receive some prefabricated memory of what had occurred on the far side of a barrier they would never actually perceive.

"This and other speculations, not to mention arguments, took the good part of an hour. Clearly, if we were to cross out of the simulation, it would have to be on the river itself. But just as clearly, if we were to build a boat, we would not be able to leave until well into the next day, since the sun was already setting in the west. We also had to decide whether we believed Kunohara's assertion that the gates—apparently the ways in and out of the various simworlds—had indeed gone 'random.' If so, time was less of a factor, since the chances we would find Renie and Orlando and the others on the far side would be small.

"Ultimately, we decided we could not take that risk. Florimel volunteered to lead us on foot through the shallower waters at the river's edge. Sweet William was not happy with this, and pointed out—with some justice—that we might find the river stronger or wider on the other side of the gateway, perhaps even be swept off to drown. He pointed out that we could not even be sure that the river on the far side would be water and not sulfuric acid, cyanide, or something equally unpleasant.

"I agreed with him and said so, but also said that if we were to have any chance at all of finding our lost companions, speed was the most important thing. I found myself impatient at the thought of another night in that place, although I did not say so. For the first time, I had begun to glimpse some of the structures beneath this new universe, as Kunohara had called it, and had felt a little of my earlier helplessness evaporate. I wanted to be moving on. I wanted to learn.

"The other three agreed with me, and so William reluctantly made it unanimous, with the proviso that he go alongside Florimel, so that if conditions proved hostile, one could help the other.

"We found a place where the bank dipped closest to the river's surface—there were no gentle slopes at our size—and with the aid of a grass shoot, clambered down into the water, remaining within arm's reach of the bank.

"It was no more than knee-deep, but the current was strong, and there was also an odd sensation of liveliness to the water, as though it were full of charged, vibrating particles. Quan Li told me that the visual effect was quite spectacular—'like wading through fireworks,' she said. It was less pleasant for me, since the energies being simulated were uncomfortably similar to the devastating input-overload I had experienced when I first came through into Otherland. I held onto Quan Li's elbow to keep my balance as we moved toward some kind of flat surface, a rippling plane which marked an end to the simulation. William and Florimel reached it and passed through—in an instant they were simply gone, their telltale signatures erased from my perceptions. Quan Li and I stepped through after them.

"The first thing I sensed on the far side, the perception of the very first moment, was a vast hollowing-out of space in front of me. Except for the river, which still flowed strongly beside us, I faced a tremendous emptiness where I had been surrounded by densely packaged information everywhere in Kunohara's world, The second thing I sensed was Florimel standing on the edge of this great emptiness, with William still a step or two behind her. To my surprise, she took several steps to the side, deeper into the river, as if to get a better view. The current yanked hard at her legs. She waved her arms desperately, teetered, and then was snatched away.

"Quan Li shouted in surprise and horror beside me. Sweet William grasped hopelessly at the spot where she had stood. I could feel Florimel's essence being washed down the river, could sense her struggling against the pull, and thus I was astonished to hear William's ragged voice say, 'Look at that! She's flying! What the hell is this about?'

"Even as we all watched, Florimel managed to regain some control and move herself toward the edge of what I still perceived as the river, but no one else seemed able to see. She pulled herself out of the flow into what seemed nothingness to me, and immediately her progress slowed. She began to fall, slowly at first, then faster.

"William screamed, 'Flap your arms, Flossie!', and what I at first thought was unbelievably cruel even from him proved good advice. When Florimel extended her arms, she pulled up, as though she had spread invisible wings. To our growing astonishment, she began banking and diving like a bird, describing great spirals in the apparently empty air before us. By the time a few minutes had passed, she had made her way back to us, and drifted on the wind just beyond where we stood, keeping herself aloft with occasional movements of her arms.

" 'It is wonderful!' she cried. 'Step off! The air will hold you up!'

"Now I perceived that what at first had seemed a great hollow space had its own sorts of information, but was far less static than the world we had just left. It required me to make a certain . . . recalibration, for lack of a better word, and a hurried discussion with the others helped me complete the picture. We stood on a promontory looking down into a vast stony valley, its bottom hidden in shadow far below. It was either twilight here, as it had been in Kunohara's world, or early morning. In either case, only blue-gray sky showed above the peaks that lined the valley. Ahead of us down the canyon we could perceive other small shapes, but distance made them obscure, even to my senses.

"The river had become a horizontal current of fast air, invisible to the others but not to me, a continuous slipstream running right through the canyon.

"After a little discussion, Sweet William and I both stepped off the precipice. As Florimel had found, if we spread our arms and thought of them as wings, we could adjust ourselves to the air currents—there were many breezes less powerful than the river-of-air that were nevertheless very useful—and float or even soar. Convincing Quan Li and T4b to abandon the safety of the promontory was harder. T4b in particular seemed to think his armor, despite being no more real than the valley or the air currents, might drag him down.

" 'Well, you should have thought of that before you dressed yourself up as a workshop bench, now shouldn't you have done?' William told him.

"At last we lured the other two out onto what seemed like treacherous air, T4b consenting to hold hands with Florimel and myself until he was certain it would work. This almost proved him right in his pessimism, because with our hands and his clenched in a human chain, we could not sail the winds. We began to drop, and had to let him go. T4b plummeted another hundred meters before he spread his arms and began to flap wildly, like a farmyard hen. To his immense relief he proved as buoyant as the rest of us, and within perhaps a quarter of an hour we were all swooping and playing on the breeze like angels amid the clouds of Paradise.

"William in particular seemed to enjoy himself. 'Bloody hell,' he said, 'finally something worth building this ridiculous place for! This is brilliant!'

"It fell to me to suggest we had better start exploring our new environment, since we didn't know how conditions might change. There might even be 'wind-floods,' I said, in which the river would overflow its banks and send us all crashing down the valley, banging against outcroppings of stone. The others agreed, and we set out like very unusual migratory birds.

"We did not have wings, invisible or otherwise, but our arms acted on the environment much as wings would have. However, we did not disrupt any larger area of information than our physical size warranted, so I concluded at last that our new environment was more a fantasy than a scientific extrapolation—even if we had been in a place of very low gravity, we would not have been able to effect such dramatic movement with the body surfaces we could present to the air currents, and would not have dropped so swiftly on those occasions when we stopped flapping our arms. This simworld did not attempt to be realistic. It was a dream of flying written large.

"In fact, I came to appreciate what I can only call the poetry of the place, and began to agree with William that here was something worth building such an expensive network in order to have. There was more to this new world than just stone and air. Unusual trees of unexpected colors—their leaves heather-purple, bright yellow, or even pale, heathery blue—grew directly out from cracks in the canyon walls, some with trunks almost completely horizontal, others starting that way but bending at their midpoint to rise parallel to the cliff face. Some were so broad and many-branched that an entire flock of people could have rested in them—and often did, as we later learned. There were other kinds of plant life as well, flowers as big as serving platters also growing out of cracks in the stone, hollow vines anchored to the cliffs, but with long tendrils which reached to the river, swirling in the wind-currents like ocean kelp. There were even round balls of loose vegetable matter that spun through the air like tumbleweeds, having no contact with the ground at all.

"In fact, the river of air seemed much like a normal terrestrial river, the center of many kinds of life. The floating plants, for instance, seemed most common just at the edge of the air-river—rolling along its 'banks,' as it were. Birds and insects of many kinds also hovered close to the strong currents, which seemed to carry a great deal of living matter in their invisible clutches, much of it apparently edible. I wished many times in those first hours that I had time to study this strange ecology properly.

"It soon became apparent that we had arrived during the morning, for before too long the leading edge of the sun appeared above the canyon-fencing peaks. As the air warmed, more creatures were drawn to the wind-river, and soon we were surrounded by a cloud of insects and birds and even stranger creatures. Some were rodents similar to flying squirrels, but others bore no relationship to any earth animals. One strange creature in particular was very common, a hollow thing shaped like nothing so much as a long furry boat, with tiny black eyes and webbed, paddling feet. Quan Li dubbed it a 'ferryman.'

"We flew for hours, pacing the river. The canyon remained largely the same all along, although we passed a few waterfalls—not air, as the river was air, but actual water spilling down the cliff faces. There were enough holes in the canyon wall that I began to wonder what kinds of larger creatures might also share this world, and in particular if there might be some less harmless than the birds and the ferrymen. My senses had not become familiar enough with this new environment to discriminate the signature of whatever might be lurking in the caves from the chaos of flying things and whirling air currents around me. Although ultimately my senses may prove more trustworthy here than those of my companions—for instance, in my being able to 'see' the river where they could not—I have the disadvantage of having to learn an entirely new set of indicators. This is something I will have to prepare for if we make it into other simulations. Especially in those first hours, I was like a bat suddenly released into a ticker-tape parade.

"The others, though, had only to depend on their natural senses, and once they had discovered the knack of flight, seemed to be enjoying themselves very much. William in particular was as cheerful in this new place as a small child, and it was he who named it 'Aerodromia.' For the moment, we had almost forgotten the serious nature of our problems, and about our lost companions, In fact, that first half-day in the new world was a bit like a holiday.

"It was late afternoon when we met our first Aerodromic humans. They were clustered on a horizontal tree near a vast waterfall, a tribe of perhaps two dozen. Some were bathing in the water, some were filling skin bags which they wore tied to wide belts. They grew still at our approach, and if I had not been with sighted companions, I might have missed them entirely, since the waterfall was for me a scene of much information confusion.

At Florimel's suggestion, we moved toward them in a slow and indirect fashion, trying to demonstrate that our intentions were peaceful. The people, who I am told have dark brown skins and sharp-boned features, like the Nilo-Hamitic races of Earth, watched us carefully, staring out of the waterfall mist like a troop of solemn owls. Some of the women pulled their naked children close. Several of the men lifted short, slender spears as we approached, but seemed in no hurry to use violence. We learned later that the spears are really harpoons, each one tethered to its owner by twenty or thirty meters of cable spun from human hair, the cables themselves more valuable than the weapons. Altogether, their level of civilization seemed to be somewhere between late Stone Age and early Bronze Age, although it quickly became apparent there was no metal among these people.

"One of the men, a wiry fellow with a graying chin beard, dropped off his branch and skimmed toward us with a grace that suddenly made us all conscious of how little we knew about flying. He spread his arms at the last moment to rise before us like a butterfly, and asked in quite comprehensible English who we were.

" 'We are travelers,' Florimel replied, earning a disgruntled look from William for taking the initiative. I cannot help wondering if this struggle for leadership is to go on forever. I sincerely hope it does not. 'We mean no harm,' she said. 'We are new to this place.'

"The chief or headman or whatever he was seemed to find this acceptable, and a short discussion ensued. Florimel asked him if he had seen any of our companions, and described the four we had lost, but he shook his head and said no strangers had passed through the valley for at least 'a dozen suns,' and none at all who matched the descriptions we gave. Then he invited us to come and meet with his folk. We of course agreed.

"Our hosts, we learned soon, were called the Middle Air People, a decorative rather than territorial description, since everything beneath the clouds and above the farthest depth of the canyons was apparently considered to be the Middle Air. In any case, this particular group of Middle Air People was one of the families of something named the Red Rock Tribe, although they were also a hunting flight. Again I had the sense of things it would take me months or years to understand properly.

"We were offered drink and food, and while we gulped the fresh, cold water and pretended to nibble at bits of what William claimed was dried ferryman, we had a chance to study the people more closely. Their clothes were made from skins and furs, presumably from creatures they had hunted, but there were buttons and some obviously decorative stitchery, so they were not primitive.

"When we had eaten, the entire family leaped from the tree near the waterfall and took to the air. We scrambled after them, and were quickly but discreetly shunted to a position near the children and more obviously diminished elders. It was hard to feel slighted. Even a moment watching the graceful, soaring arcs of the adult members of the family showed us how handicapped we truly were.

"We moved in a wide spiral down into the canyon and then downstream beside the river of air, flying for what seemed the better part of an hour. At last we reached the rust-colored outcroppings that were the source of the tribe's name, and found there a more established camp—the hometown of the entire Red Rock Tribe, complete with sleeping caves and the few belongings, such as large cooking pots, that the tribes did not carry with them during the day. I wondered at the paucity of their possessions, but after I watched one man sharpen a stone spearhead by flying swiftly downward while holding the edge of it against the rock face, so that the spearhead left a streak of stonedust down the vertical cliff, I realized that their environment must give them much that our own ancestors had been forced to do by long, back-breaking effort.

"There were several dozen other family groups already in camp for the night by the time our host led us in—perhaps as many as four or five hundred Middle Air folk altogether. Our family exchanged ritual greetings with many, then spent a long time gossiping with the nearest neighbors. It was something like being on one of those stony islands in the sea where many kinds of birds congregate to nest, chaotic at first inspection, but in reality very highly organized.

"As the sun began to set behind the cliffs on our side of the valley, fires were lit on almost every promontory and families gathered to eat and talk among themselves. Our own family roosted along the trunks and thicker branches of a cluster of trees which grew perpendicular to the cliff face, like outstretched hands. This seemed to be their particular territory here in the larger campground.

"When everyone had settled, and a fire had been lit on a wide slab of stone cradled on the forked trunk of one of the largest trees, a woman of the family sang a song about a child named 'Two Blue Winds' who ran away from home to become a cloud, much to his mother's sorrow. Then a young man did a dance that the other Family members found very funny, but which I found so gracefully athletic—in my mind's eye, I could see his information slithering and jumping like quicksilver on a tilting pane of glass—that I found myself growing tearful,

"As the evening sky lost the last of its color, the stars gleaming now against the black, our host, who is named 'Builds a Fire on Air,' began a long story about a man who ate one of the tumble-weeds—the people here call it 'Air-Spinner-Bush,' which is an accurate if not very poetic name—and was blown away down the river. He had numerous adventures in lands that seemed to be fantasies even in this fantastic place, like the Land of Three-Headed People and the Land of Birds with Eyes on their Wings. The tumbleweed-eater even visited the uncanny Land of Sideways Cliffs—this perhaps a description of real flatlands, perhaps out of racial memory, or else simply the most preposterous geography the Family could invent. At the end he found a beautiful wife and many 'fletches,' a word I still do not understand but which seems to indicate wealth, but was so traumatized by the experience that he swallowed a huge stone so he would never be blown away again, and thus lived out the rest of his life on the ledges of the cliff face, unable to fly.

"I could not tell if this was supposed to be a happy or sad ending. A little of both, perhaps.

"We were fed again, this time with fresh meat and fruits, and we all ate enough to be sociable. It is hard to tell what effect eating has on us in this virtual environment. Obviously it has no real impact on our physical bodies, but so many of our internal systems seem influenced by whatever keeps us here that it is hard not to wonder how complete the mind-body link is. Do we receive energy when we eat here, as in some old-fashioned game where one must not let one's reserves of strength drop too low? It is impossible to say. Sweet William has complained occasionally about missing the pleasure of eating, as has T4b in his less articulate way, but none of us has noticed any other physical penalty.

"After the story had ended we were shown to Builds a Fire on Air's cave, where his wives—or sisters, for all I could tell—made us comfortable.

"My companions fell asleep fairly quickly, but I found myself wakeful, thinking of all the things I had learned about myself and the network, pondering questions I still had no answers for. It is apparent, for instance, that we will never force our way back out the way we came in against the current of the air-river, so we are more-or-less doomed to look for another gate. I wondered, and wonder still, whether this is part of the plan of Otherland—whether the river's current is meant to carry visitors sequentially through the network.

"This, of course, leads me to wonder how large the network is, how many simulations all together, and of course, what chance we have of finding Renie and the others if we must search the thing at random.

"Later I had a dream, and thought I was back in the blacked-out corridors of the Pestalozzi Institute, searching for my parents while something in turn searched for me, something I did not want to find me. I woke from that in a cold sweat. When I could not immediately go back to sleep, it seemed a good time to catch up on this journal. . . .

"There is a great deal of noise outside all of a sudden. The others in the cave are rousing themselves. I suppose I should go and see what has happened. I hear anger in some of the voices. I will have to add to this entry later.

"Code Delphi. End here. "

 

 

It had started in the back of his mind, a slipped rhythm of the kind that gradually takes over a track and turns the music to its own purposes, a rogue vibe hijacking the entire piece. If he had been back in Sydney, he could have hunted in his normal way, and that would have gone a long way toward scratching the itch. But instead he was stuck in Cartagena for at least another week, tidying up the last loose threads of the Sky God project, and he dared not do anything that might draw more attention.

He had already been given cause to regret the cabin attendant, whatever her name had been. One of the other passengers on the plane from Sydney had witnessed their chummy conversation, and when the story of her disappearance had hit the nets, the passenger had felt obligated to call the authorities. Dread had been cool as Andes snow when the police came to the door of his hotel room, but even though the cabin attendant's body was long since disposed of, he had not liked the surprise at all.

The police seemed to have been reassured by their conversation with the man named "Deeds," and found nothing suspicious in either his story or his documentation. (Dread's aliases and documents were as good as the Old Man's money could buy, which was more than good, of course—his false passport was actually a real passport, albeit issued to an imaginary person with Dread's face and retinal prints.)

So nothing had come of it, but it had still been an unpleasant surprise. He was not particularly worried about the possibility of arrest—even if the Beinha Sisters could not pull the proper strings locally, the Old Man's contacts in the Australian Department of State were so powerful that if necessary, they could probably get him released and onto a diplomatic charter flight with a murder weapon still clutched in his bloody fist. But calling for help of any kind would have led to questions he did not want to or could not afford to answer.

The Cartagena police had ultimately taken their investigation elsewhere, but it was clear that no matter how powerful his urge, this was not a good time for Dread to slake his thirst for the hunt. Not in RL, anyway.

He had already tried the best versions of his particular obsession that VR had to offer—MurderWorld, Duck Duck Goose, Black Mariah, among the mainstream attractions, and some simulations that were themselves illegal, floating snuff nodes that were reputed to use involuntarily-wired human subjects. But even if some of the victims were real, as rumor strongly suggested, the output itself was dim and unsatisfying. A large part of the thrill of Dread's hunting was the feel of things—the blood-pumping, adrenaline-coursing, heightened reality that brought him the texture of a sleeve like a radar map of a new planet, the echoing, endless rasp of an indrawn breath, the flicker of desperation in the quarry's stare, bright as neon against night, when she saw the first hint of the closing trap. The net could offer only the thinnest, most threadbare imitations.

But the Grail Project. . . .

The idea had been forming at the back of his mind since he had stumbled onto the thing, since the moment he had realized there were hundreds, maybe thousands of lands within the network as intricate and sophisticated as the Old Man's Egypt and far less regulated. It had forced its way into his conscious thoughts soon after, and the recent interplay with Dulcie Anwin—Dread would be the first to admit he had enjoyed taking the self-possessed bitch down a couple of pegs—had really made it throb.

The thing was, these Otherland creatures not only behaved as though they were alive, they truly seemed to think they were. That made the whole idea even more delicious. He understood how his own Aboriginal ancestors had felt when they came across the ocean in their canoes and stepped forth onto Australia for the first time. An entire continent that had never known the tread of a human hunter! Creatures who did not know enough to fear man, to flee his stones and clubs and spears. And now Dread had found an entire world like that—no, an entire universe.

Confident, cocky, lazy, dead, a small voice reminded him. It would be a mistake to let himself explode into somefolie du grandeur—especially when the keys to the whole operation might someday be in his grasp if he only played things right. But that was a long way off—the Old Man would not easily be outwitted or outlasted. And Dread felt such a need right now. . . !

He reopened his connection to the Otherland sim, shutting off Dulcie's loop code and pulling the body on like a suit of clothes. He could feel the stone of the cave floor under his back, hear the breathing of the other travelers on either side of him, even and slow. He flexed his fingers, holding them up before his eyes, but he could not see them move. Very little light. That was good.

He levered himself up off the ground and waited until he was sure he was balanced before stepping over his nearest neighbor. Between him and the mouth of the cave lay the local chieftain, whatever his name was, and several of his immediate family.

They, too, seemed to be sleeping deeply, but Dread still used almost a quarter of an hour to cover the hundred yards, a journey as soundless as grass growing.

When he reached the mouth of the cave, he remained in its shelter for long moments as he surveyed the area, trying to make certain no one from any of the other family groups was up and wandering around. The thin crescent moon had already passed beyond the looming cliffs; the campfires had all burned down, and silence hung so heavily on the place that he could hear a bird's wings flapping far out in the darkness above the river of air. He moved quietly to the edge of the nearest promontory, then let himself drop into nothingness, counting to twenty through a heart-stopping freefall before he spread his arms and felt the air lift him.

Chimes, he thought. I want chimes. And running water.

The music, quiet splashing and the soft tang of metal on metal, rippled through him. He hovered for some minutes, letting the sound calm and center him, then mounted higher, back toward the roosts of the Middle Air People.

This was an amazing place, he thought. He was glad that he hadn't needed to share it with Dulcie for most of the day, since her next shift wouldn't begin until dawn. It made him feel like a child, this flying, this simworld—although not like the child he'd actually been, who had never experienced a moment of pure joy. Not until the first killing. But here, now, feeling the air wash over him, he felt stripped clean of everything earthly, a perfect machine, a thing of dark light and sweet music.

I'm a black angel, he thought, and smiled through the chimes in his head.

He had seen her as they flew in, a pale-haired womanchild taking care of younger siblings in the boughs of one of the great trees—a mutation, perhaps, an albino, or some other kind of genetic sport. More important than her arresting looks had been her age, young enough to control but old enough to be sexually attractive. Dread had no interest in hunting actual children, and felt a faint scorn for those who did, as though they had failed some test of personal integrity. It was similar to the scorn he had felt for those who pretended to practice his own special art, but who did it only in VR, and with simulated victims—they faced no reprisal, feared no law. They would not be chased, as he always was, by the tame pack mastiffs who hunted the hunter on behalf of the common herd.

He squeezed the chimes into something a bit more emphatic, a theme for a heroic and solitary predator. No, those pretend-killers were not really doing it right. They were broken machines, but he himself was an almost perfect device.

 

His soft but dramatic searching music had been playing quite a long time when he finally located her family's sleeping cave. He had paid close but unobtrusive attention to where everyone went as the evening had worn down, but the landmarks he had noted—the oddly-shaped outcropping, the stunted sailor's knot of a tree that clung to the cliff face—were hard to locate in full moonless dark. But he was full of the high airiness of the hunt, and that alone had convinced him that he could not fail; that alone had kept him at his task until he found what he sought.

She was sleeping between two smaller children, a faint shape recognizable only by the dimmest starsheen on her hair. He poised himself above her like a spider at the edge of a web, seesawing gently until he had his balance for the one permissible strike. When he was ready, his hands thrust down. One clamped around her larynx, the other dug beneath her and scooped her up, prisoning her arms even as she spasmed awake. His sim body was wiry-strong, and the grip on her throat kept her from uttering even a sound. In three steps he was out of the cave, leaving a cooling space between the two children, who slept on, oblivious.

She struggled in his arms until he slipped his fingers to the carotid and pinched off the blood flow; when she had gone limp, he threw her over his shoulder and stepped out—like the rest of her people, she was inordinately light, as though her bones were mostly hollow. This led him down several distracting avenues of speculation, so that he almost missed his footing in the dark. He ran quickly to the huge outcrop he had noticed earlier, a jut of stone like a broken bridge that stretched far out over the valley, beyond the tips of even the largest horizontal trees, then paused at the base, preparing himself. This was the most difficult part, and if he had miscalculated, any number of dire things might result.

Dread shifted the girl's weight forward a little, then added an insistent backbeat to the ringing music in his head, preparing himself, setting the scene. The sky seemed to crouch lower, expectant, watching.

The star, he thought. Me. The impossible chance. Backlight. Heroic silhouette. The camera in his mind saw everything, his poise, his cleverness, his courage. No stunt doubles. He alone.

He flung himself along the length of the promontory, pumping the virtual analogues of his own hard-muscled legs until he had reached sprinter's speed. The stone stretched before him, a dark finger pointing at an even greater darkness. It was hard to guess where the end was. Wait too long—disaster. Jump too soon—the same.

He jumped.

He had gauged it correctly, and sprang off the outcropping's farthest point. As he felt the air beneath him he extended his arms for more glide, doing his best to keep the girl balanced, but he could still feel himself beginning to sink. One person could not fly with the weight of two, even when the other was as small and slender as his captive. In a moment he would have to let her go, or he himself would be dragged down as well. He had failed.

He felt the wind stiffen. A moment later he was forced sideways, knocked head over heels, so that he had to pull his arms in and clutch the girl to him tightly. He had reached the river of air.

Dread's music swelled triumphantly. The river seized him in its grip and dragged him away from the camp of the Red Rock Tribe.

 

When she began to stir in his grasp, he fought his way out to the slower currents of the air-river, until he felt her weight begin to drag at him. Then, when he gauged the time was right, he let her go, then folded himself up to follow her down.

He had guessed correctly in this, too: Her innate reflexes saved her even before consciousness had fully returned. As she hovered, disoriented and frightened, trying to understand where she was and what had happened, he circled her in the darkness and began to talk.

Her throat still too bruised for speech, she could only listen as he described what was going to happen. When panic at last overwhelmed her, and she turned and fled away up the canyon, he gave her just a few moments' head start. A proper chase was one thing, but he knew it would be a very bad idea to let her actually beat him back to the nesting place of her people. After all, even bruised and terrified and confused, she was a better flier than he was.

It turned out to be a glorious chase. If she had kept on a straight course, she might even have outraced him, but in the dark she did not know quite who or what he was. As he had gambled, she chose evasive action, hurrying to a hiding spot and then, when he had flushed her out, swooping off to the next. At times he flew close enough to hear her terrified, hitching breath, and during those moments he did indeed feel himself to be a shadow-angel, an instrument of the cold side of existence, fulfilling a purpose that he alone of all mortals could even partially understand.

The pale-haired girl was tiring, her movements more and more erratic, but he guessed that they were also drawing close to the encampment. Dread had held his own excitement at bay for almost an hour, a prolonged foreplay that had pitched him to places that even the music in his head could only approximate. Images seemed to play out before his eyes, a reverse virtuality in which his most surreal and vicious thoughts were projected outward, onto the malleable darkness. Broken dolls, she-pigs eating their own young, spiders fighting to death in a bottle, butchered sheep, women made of wooden logs split and smoldering—the mind pictures seemed a halo around his head, filling his maddened vision like a cloud of burning flies.

The dog people, the screaming men, the child-eaters. Half-remembered stories told to him in an alcoholic slur by his mother. Faces changing, melting, fur and feathers and scales sprouting from the skins of people who had pretended normality, but stayed too long by the campfire. The Dreamtime, the place where the unreal was always real, where nightmares were literally true, where hunters took whatever shapes they wished. Where little Johnny could be whatever he wanted and everyone would worship him or run screaming forever. The Dreamtime.

As he spun himself above the failing, weeping quarry in a parabola that exactly graphed his own long-denied fulfillment, as he hung at the top of his rise and prepared to stoop, a blinding burst of light pierced his mind, an idea that had no words, and which would only begin to make a kind of sense later, in the calm after the killing.

This is the Dreamtime, this universe where dreams are made real

I will stand at the center of it, and I will twist it, and all of creation will fall down before me. I will be king of the Dream. I will devour the dreamers.

And as this thought flared inside him like a fiery star, he plunged down through the black winds and fastened on the flesh and thrilling blood and crumpled them into himself, hot as flame, cold as zero, a dark and forever kiss.

 

He had just enough presence of mind afterward to hide the body, or what was left of it, in a place that would keep secrets. He retained only her knife, a wicked piece of volcanic glass honed sharp as a straight razor, not out of sentiment—he was not a collector—but instinct. Virtual or not, he had missed having a blade close to hand.

He stopped to bathe in one of the waterfalls, cleaning away the traces and letting the sting of cold water bring him back to something resembling sanity, but as he sailed back through the drying winds he was still amazed by the vague but overwhelming idea that now filled him. When he reached the cavern where his companions slumbered he had a brief lapse of concentration, nudging one of them in the dark as he tried to reach his own sleeping spot. At the protesting murmur he froze, fingers hooked like claws, reflexively prepared to fight to the death—even in this made-up world there would be no net, no cage ever, not for this hunter—but his disturbed companion merely rolled over and went back to sleep.

Dread himself could not even approach the edge of rest. His skull seemed full of glaring light. He left the sim body on autopilot and called Dulcie to take over ahead of schedule.

There was so much to think about. He had found the Dreamtime, the true Dreamtime, not the ghost-ridden bush of his mother's babbled tales. So much to consider. He had no need for sleep, and felt like he never would again.

 

 

"CODE Delphi. Start here.

"Something very serious has happened. One of the Red Rock Tribe—not a member of the family who found us, but one of the others who shares this system of caves—has disappeared. Builds a Fire on Air came to tell us, and although he clearly regarded us with suspicion, he was courteous enough not to accuse us of anything. A young woman named Shines Like Snow vanished during the night, getting up and walking away from her family, apparently.

"Needless to say, and this Builds a Fire on Air did tell us, suspicion has fallen on our company. We are fortunate that such a disappearance is not unheard of—young women have run away with men from other tribes before, or been kidnapped, and sometimes one of the flying people suffers an accident or meets a large predator while out at night—but it is rare, and everyone is very upset.

"Besides my own sorrow on their behalf, I am troubled by what seems to be a half-memory of my own, that someone did rise in the night.

"As I think I said already, I lay awake thinking late after we had all bedded down in this cave. When, without noticing, I had finally drifted into a shallow half-sleep, I dimly sensed someone stirring. Later, minutes or hours for all I could tell, I heard movement again. I thought I heard a whispery intake of breath and a murmur that sounded a little like Quan Li's voice, but of course that means nothing, as it could have been her, but caused by someone bumping her, or even just as a response to a dream.

"However, I must think about this carefully because now it may prove significant. But a quick discussion among us after the chief left reveals that none of the other four admits getting up in the night, and there is nothing to suggest any one of them is lying. I may have dreamed it. But the whole thing is troubling, of course. I also doubt now I will get a chance to ask any of the questions I had so longed to have answered, since Builds a Fire on Air and his family are very preoccupied, and in any case it might only draw more attention to us as outsiders.

"As I look out past my companions, who are huddled nervously on the cavern floor, I can perceive the far side of the valley, a stark mass of relatively static information made fuzzy by the variables of morning mist. The stones themselves must be purple with shadow, since the sun has still not risen above the cliffs.

"We have a long way to go just to get out of this world, and if these people turn against us we will not be able to escape them, any more than we could outrace a group of aerialists across a high wire. Aerodromia is their world, not ours. We do not know how far down the river the next gate is, nor do we know where any others might be.

"I think when we first thought of coming to the Otherland network, we—at least Renie and Singh and I—thought that it was like other simulation networks, a place where one learns the rules once, then puts them to use. Instead, each of these simulations is its own separate world, and we are constantly being caught up and held back by the things we find here. Also, we have come not a bit closer to solving the problems that brought us. We were too ambitious. Otherland is having its revenge.

"Builds a Fire on Air is coming toward the cave again, this time accompanied by a half-dozen weapon-bearing warriors—I can feel the dead solidity of their stone spears and axes, different from the signature of flesh and bone—and an agitated man who may be the missing girl's father. The chief is himself uneasy, sorrowful, angry—I can sense these things emanating from him, distorting the information space that surrounds him. The whole thing does not bode well.

"So, again I am interrupted. It is our entire experience here, only written small. If our enemies knew, they would laugh—if they even cared enough to notice. We are so small! And me, storing up my thoughts against oblivion or an increasingly doubtful success. Each time I wonder if this will be the last time, the last entry, and these final words of mine will float on forever through information space, unheeded and unharvested.

"Builds a Fire on Air is gesturing for us to come out of the cave, others of the Middle Air People are gathering to watch. Fear sours the air like ozone. I must go.

"Code Delphi. End here."

CHAPTER 21
In the Freezer

NETFEED/NEWS: 44 Cops Nailed in Snipe Sting

(visual: Callan, Mendez, Ojee in custody)

VO: Forty-four California police officers were arrested in a wide-ranging sting operation. District Prosecutor Omar Hancock says the arrests prove that police are taking money from store-owners and even retailer's associations to remove street children, called "snipes," from downtown areas.

HANCOCK: "We have footage of these officers. We don't want this to get deep-sixed like the Texas and Ohio cases, so the footage has already been squirted all across the net. This is murder being planned—genocide you could even call it, and the murderers are the people we pay to protect us. . . ."

 

Orlando and Fredericks did not have much time to consider the implications of Orlando's realization. Even as they tried to imagine what mechanism the Grail Brotherhood might have discovered that would allow them to make the network their permanent and eternal home, Chief Strike Anywhere grounded his canoe beside them on the spit of dry linoleum.

"Found bad men," he announced. His dark face seemed even darker, as threatening as a thundercloud, but he spoke as calmly as always. "Time to get papoose."

The tortoise, who had slept through most of the discussion between Orlando and Fredericks, was roused. After fumbling for long moments in the depth of his shell, he at last located his spectacles and pronounced himself ready to go.

Orlando was less sure. Fredericks' earlier words about risking their lives for cartoons came back to him, made even more daunting now by the idea that he might have figured out something critically important about Otherland and the Grail Brotherhood, and that it would thus be doubly unfortunate if he and Fredericks didn't live to inform Renie, !Xabbu, and the others.

Still, he thought as he clambered into the canoe behind the cartoon Indian, a bargain was a bargain. Besides, if they did not help the chief, they would have to make their way across the Kitchen on foot, an unknown distance through unknown obstacles. They had already met the dreadful salad tongs—he had no urge to discover what other bizarre things stalked the floor tiles by night.

The chief paddled them quickly across the dark waters, the steady movement almost lulling Orlando back to sleep. The tortoise, whose calm might have had something to do with being covered in armor plating, did fall back into a thin, whistling slumber.

The river opened wide before them, until it seemed almost an ocean: the far bank was very distant, visible only because a few fires burned there. Orlando did not realize for long moments that the great pale expanse behind the fires was not the kitchen wall, but a vast white rectangle. It stood quite close to the river's edge, but loomed higher than even the mountainous countertops.

"Ice Box," pointed out Strike Anywhere.

"And the bad men are inside there?" Orlando asked.

"No." The chief shook his head emphatically. "Them there." He pointed with his paddle.

Hidden by darkness before, visible now only because the watch fires of the Ice Box threw them into silhouette, a forest of masts had appeared before Orlando and the others, sprouting from a shadowy bulk with a curving hull. Orlando swore quietly, surprised and alarmed. The chief backed water for a moment to slow their progress, then let the canoe drift silently. The huge vessel was mostly dark, but a few of its small windows glowed with lantern light—illumination Orlando had mistaken for reflections of the beach fires.

"It's some kind of pirate ship," Fredericks whispered, eyes wide.

As the chief paddled them closer to the galleon, Orlando wondered at the ship's odd silhouette: the tall masts and the tight-furled sails seemed normal, as much as he could tell, but the hull seemed unusually smooth, and there was a strange, handle-shaped loop near the stern that did not correspond with any representations of pirate ships he had ever seen. It was only when they were so close they could hear the murmuring of voices from the deck above that he could make out the row of ballast barrels hanging along the hull. The nearest read "CORSAIR Brand Condensed Brown Sauce." The smaller letters beneath implored him to "Keep your first mate and crew in fighting trim!"

The pirates' forbidding ship was a gravy boat.

As they pulled up alongside the huge vessel and lay silently against its hull, like a baby carrot or a sliver of turnip that had dropped from a serving ladle, Orlando whispered, "There must be a hundred people on board to crew a ship that big. How are the four of us supposed to. . . ?"

Chief Strike Anywhere did not seem interested in a council of war. He had already produced the out-of-nowhere rope that he had used to save them from the sink, and was making it into a lasso. When he had finished, he cast it expertly over one of the stern lanterns, pulled it taut, then began to make his way up the gravy boat's curving rear end. Orlando looked helplessly at Fredericks, duly noted the scowl, but slid his broadsword into his belt and followed the matchbox Indian anyway.

"I think someone had better stay with the canoe, don't you?" the tortoise whispered. "Good luck, lads, or break a leg—whatever it is one says when someone's going to fight with pirates."

Orlando heard Fredericks reply with something less pleasant than "good luck," then felt the rope go tight behind him as his friend began to climb.

Neither of them could ascend as swiftly as the cartoon Indian. By the time they had reached the stern rail and pulled themselves over, Strike Anywhere was already crouching in the shadows at the front of the poopdeck, fitting an arrow into his bow. Fredericks made another sour face, then took the bow the chief had given him from his shoulder and did the same. Orlando fingered the pitted edge of his sword and hoped that he wouldn't have to use it. His heart was beating faster than he liked. Despite the simworld's complete and total unreality, despite the dancing vegetables and singing mice, this felt a lot more dangerous than any of Thargor's Middle Country adventures . . . and probably was.

Most of the lights and all the voices were concentrated on the main deck. With the Indian in the lead, moving as silently as the best clichés suggested, they slid closer to the edge of the poop where they could sneak a look down.

"What is the range, Bosun?" someone inquired from the opposite end of the ship, in a voice of quite theatrical tone and volume.

A barefoot man in a striped shirt turned from his consultation at the main deck rail with another sailor to shout, "Two hundred, give or take the odd length, Cap'n." Both sailors were of singularly unattractive appearance, clothes stained, teeth few, their eyes glinting with malice.

"I shall descend from the foredeck," the oratorical voice announced. A moment later a shape in flowing black swept down from the forecastle and onto the deck just below their hiding place. The captain's footsteps had a curious syncopation; it was only when he reached the main deck that Orlando saw one of the man's legs was a wooden peg.

In fact, more than the captain's leg was artificial. His left wrist ended in an iron hook, and the other arm had an even stranger termination: as the pirate lord lifted a telescope to his eye, Orlando saw that he gripped the tube with some kind of metal clasper, an object unpleasantly reminiscent of the ravening salad tongs. But even these strange additions were less noteworthy than the captain's huge ebony mustachios, which sprouted beneath his hawklike nose, then corkscrewed down on either side of his sallow face to rest coiled, like weary vipers, on the white lace of his collar.

After having stared through the telescope for a few moments, the captain turned to his men, who stood at ragged attention around the mainmast, watching with gleeful anticipation. "We have reached the appointed hour, my sea-vermin, my filth of the foam," he declared. "Run up the Jolly Roger and then prime the Thunderer—we shall not waste time with smaller guns."

At his words a pair of younger corsairs, no less grimy and desperate for their youth, leaped to the rigging to raise the pirate banner. A handful of other men hurried onto the foredeck and began to roll a huge cannon back out of its gunport—a piece whose carriage wheels were as big as tables, and which looked as though it could fire an entire hippopotamus. As they cleaned the weapon, scouring the barrel with a broom twice the length of the sailor who wielded it, then poured in an entire sack of gunpowder, the pirate ship drifted ever closer to the shore. The Ice Box jutted above them like a high cliff.

The captain threw back his black cloak to reveal its blood-red lining, then stumped to the railing and lifted both his not-quite-hands to his mouth. "Ahoy the Ice Box!" he bellowed, his voice echoing and re-echoing across the water. "This is Grasping John Vice, captain of the Black Tureen. We have come for your gold. If you open the great door, we will leave the women and children untouched, and we will kill no man who surrenders."

The Ice Box stood silent as stone.

"We're in range, Cap'n," the bosun called.

"Prepare the boats and the landing crews." Grasping John hobbled a few steps closer to the great gun before striking a pose of stoic resignation. "And bring me the firing match."

Orlando felt Chief Strike Anywhere tense beside him. One of the pirates emerged from a bolthole somewhere with a bundle in his arms, only its tiny red head protruding from the blanket. The bundle was crying, a thin, small sound that nevertheless tugged at Orlando's heartstrings.

"All hands in place, Cap'n," the bosun shouted.

Several of the crew began to dance, arms folded, cutlasses out and gripped in their hairy fists.

"Wicked, wicked, wicked, we,"

they sang, dreadfully out of tune but in a cheerful jig-time,

"Bad we are as men can be,
Rotten work, we'll get down to it,
(If it's good, we didn't do it.)"

"Evil, evil, evil us,
Some are bad but we are wuss,
Dread deeds we perform with glee,
We aspire to infamy!"

The captain smiled indulgently, then beckoned with his hook. The sailor with the crying bundle skittered forward and delivered it into Grasping John's clasper. The bundle's noises intensified.

"Let us see if the Thunderer can melt yon stronghold's icy reserve, eh, my salt-flecked swine?" The captain flung the blanket aside to reveal a squirming, shivering baby match, a miniature version of Strike Anywhere and his wife. He clearly intended to scrape the infant's sulphured head on the rough deck, but before he could do so, something had leapt through the space near Orlando's ear and was shivering in the black sleeve of Grasping John's coat. For a moment the entire foredeck stood frozen and silent. The pirate captain did not drop the baby boy, but he did lower him for a moment to inspect the arrow lodged in his arm.

"A mysterious someone seems to be shooting things at me from the poop," he observed evenly. "Some of you filthy fellows hurry up there and kill him." Then, as a dozen unshaven, scar-faced pirates rattled up the gangway, and Orlando and Fredericks scrambled to their feet in cold-stomached anticipation, Grasping John took the baby and rubbed him down the length of the massive cannon barrel, so that the small head sparked and then flared. As the infant began to cry, the captain lifted him and lit the cannon's great fuse.

Groaning in fury and pain, Strike Anywhere vaulted off the poopdeck. He landed in a group of confused pirates, scattering them like bowling pins. In a moment he had reached the pirate captain and snatched the blazing child from the man's metal hands. He plunged the baby's head into the bucket used to cool the cannon barrel, then lifted out the weeping, spluttering infant and held him close against his chest.

Orlando turned from this drama as the first of the pirates reached the poop, avidly waving his cutlass. Then, in the next five seconds, several things happened.

Thargor-reflexes slowed but not gone, Orlando dodged a cutlass-blow, stepped aside, and swung his broadsword in a flat arc; he smacked the leading pirate in the back and sent him flying off the roof, even as the tattooed buccaneer behind him fell back down the steps with one of Fredericks' arrows in his striped midsection.

Chief Strike Anywhere took his dripping, screaming child and leaped over the railing into the water. Grasping John watched with dark amusement, curling a mustachio with the end of his hook.

The fuse on the Thunderer burned down, vanishing inside the barrel for a split instant before igniting the powder with a roar like Judgment Day. The cannon vomited fire and the carriage heaved backward against its chains. The entire ship rocked, so that Orlando, Fredericks, and their pirate attackers all fell flat.

The massive cannon ball hissed across the water and smashed into the huge handle of the Ice Box, breaking it off and denting the door.

For a moment after all this had happened, as the echoes of the Thunderer's eruption died away, everything was still. Then the Ice Box's massive door, tall as a mountainside, slowly swung open.

 

They were not, Orlando realized, in a very good position. Although at least half of Grasping John's crew were climbing into the boats, with the obvious intention of rowing ashore to attack the gaping Ice Box, most of the rest seemed content to concentrate on killing Orlando and Fredericks. The original half-dozen had been defeated, but another dozen or so were already scrambling up the gangway, brandishing sharp objects of various sorts.

Chief Strike Anywhere had disappeared over the side, having secured his wounded papoose and presumably no longer interested in the cartoon corsairs or anything else. The tortoise-guarded canoe lay out of sight below the railing of the Black Tureen, and even if they could fight their way to it through the mass of ugly buccaneers, the pirate ship had drifted far enough toward the beach that there was no guarantee the canoe was still at the larger ship's side.

Need a new plan, Orlando realized. Any plan at all, actually.

One of the last of the landing boats swayed in its davits as a snarling, swearing band of caricature sea-criminals struggled to lower it away. Orlando slammed aside a swiping attack by the first of the new pirates coming up the stairs, then shouted to Fredericks, "Follow me!"

His companion, who had either run out of arrows or the room to shoot them properly, was using his bow as an awkward sort of shield while fighting back with a cutlass liberated from one of their attackers. "Where?"

"The boats!" Orlando paused for balance, reminding himself that although he was much stronger than he would be in his own brittle-boned form, he did not have Thargor's superhuman muscles anymore. He grabbed at one of the mizzen lines and swung out over the heads of their jostling attackers, then dropped to the main deck. In too much of a hurry to see whether Fredericks had indeed followed him, he rushed to the landing boat and managed to shove the nearest pirate overboard before the man saw him. Of the three others, two were steadying the swinging boat, so Orlando engaged the third. Fredericks appeared at his side a moment later, and together they quickly dispatched Orlando's opponent. The other two, armed only with knives, considered the matter for a moment, then sprang down from the boat and disappeared in the direction of the foredeck. As Orlando and Fredericks had discovered, the cartoon pirates were less fearsome than they appeared, but the sheer weight of their numbers still made them dangerous.

"By the Toils of the Tortugas!" Grasping John bellowed from the foredeck, his cloak a-flap in the rising breeze. "They are escaping! Is there not a single man on this tiresome sauciére who can fight? Must I do it all myself?"

Orlando and Fredericks moved to either end of the jollyboat, then, at the count of three, both swung their swords and chopped at the ropes that held the boat suspended over the rail. The ropes, as almost everything else in the simulation, did not behave as their real-life equivalents would have, but parted with a satisfying twang as soon as the blades touched them. The boat dropped the dozen feet to the river, sending up a splash of white foam. Orlando could not at first decide whether it would be best to follow the other pirate boats toward the land at the base of the Ice Box, or to strike out deeper into the river. Fredericks pointed out a group of pirates rolling a heavy cannon toward the gunport on their side.

"Follow the other boats—he wouldn't fire at his own men," Orlando declared. They bent over their oars and swept in the direction of the beach, hurrying to catch up with the landing party. A few moments later, with the river's edge still a hundred yards away, a dark something cracked past over their heads and struck the boat just in front of them, flinging pirates and bits of pirates in every direction.

"Wrong again," Fredericks helpfully pointed out.

They sculled on, heads low. The cannon fired, and then fired again, the shells throwing up gouts of water on either side of them. When they saw the waters growing shallow, they tumbled overboard and swam for the beach.

As they emerged from the river, conscious that they were trapped between Grasping John's cannon and his invasionary force, they heard a flare of trumpets and a great shout. The defenders of Ice Box were streaming out through the broken door and onto the beach to meet the buccaneers. Orlando's relief was mixed with a certain amount of amazement, because a stranger force would have been hard to imagine.

The vanguard, a sort of literal cannon fodder, was a squadron of militant vegetables, the very antithesis of the partying tomatoes and beets they had seen earlier. Squash of many colors and shapes waved asparagus spears. Sullen-looking yams were backed by a line of huge eggplants, scowling purple things as terrifying as wild elephants. The leader of this martial salad was a handsome carrot waving a sword in the air and shouting, in a thin but dramatic voice, "For God and Saint Crisper!"

As the first of the vegetables met the pirate assault, more unusual defenders leaped down from the Ice Box, most of them freshly sprung from labels and packages. A pride of Scotsmen with kilts and claymores tootled bravely on bagpipes as they marched, setting the pace for a squadron of clowns (with their companion unit of attack-trained, overdressed poodles) and a horde of shining-eyed, red-cheeked children shrieking like harpies and waving sharpened serving spoons. There were salamis dressed as gondoliers who brandished their poles like quarterstaffs, growling bears off honey jars, and milk-bottle cows of many different sizes and shapes whose glassy fragility was offset by their curving translucent horns and sharp-edged hooves. A camel, a small troop of djinni on a flying carpet, and several others too distant or too obscure for Orlando to make out completed the defending force. There were even several flour-dusted and slightly nervous Quakers, perhaps acting as battlefield observers to make sure the combatants obeyed some Kitchen Conference's rules of war.

Orlando's pleasure at the defenders' emergence was quickly tempered when he realized that the Ice Box residents seemed to consider them just more pirates—he and Fredericks were nearly beheaded by pole-swinging gondola pilots before it became clear that the stripe-shirted sausages were singing "O sole mio" as a war cry rather than as a welcome. They decided to retreat to the outskirts of the battlefield, and not a moment too soon, for an explosion that cratered the linoleum in front of the Ice Box announced that Grasping John had resumed his shelling from the Black Tureen.

They found a shadowed nook at the base of a cabinet near the Ice Box but well-removed from the hostilities, then settled down to watch the battle in comfort and comparative safety.

Orlando had found it difficult from the beginning to understand the Kitchen's internal logic, and cartoon warfare proved just as incomprehensible. Some things seemed absolutely arbitrary: a hump on the camel's back, when thumped with a pirate's oar, simply popped up elsewhere on the camel, but a yam struck by a similar oar immediately became many little diapered baby yams. The salami-gondoliers, when "killed" by a hard blow or a swipe from a cutlass, fell into a row of neat slices. But the pirates, who were presumably made from condensed gravy, seemed quite solid, even when wet. In fact, there didn't seem to be any consistent order to any of it, which Orlando (who liked to know the rules) found particularly frustrating. People—if you could call them people—stretched or inflated or broke into pieces, but there was no death in the sense of someone being killed in their normal form and staying recognizably dead—even the pirates they had stabbed or chopped on the boat just sort of tumbled away. In fact, Orlando felt sure all these combatants, winners or losers, would be back in their old shapes tomorrow, whenever "tomorrow" came.

This would have been perfectly acceptable, and even quite interesting, but unlike their enemies, he and Fredericks had shown no tendency to stretch or bounce or otherwise adjust to the weirdness of the place and its dangers. Orlando severely doubted they would survive being diced by pirate swords, for instance, as had just happened to one of the eggplants. And if he or Fredericks died here in the cartoon world or in any of the others . . . then what?

It was a question that had to be answered, Orlando decided, but he hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way.

 

The Kitchen's night crept past and the battle raged on. The defenders at first fought a slow retreat to the very base of the Ice Box, where vegetable pulp spattered the white enamel as the last of the fighting eggplants laid down its life, then the tide turned and the defenders pushed the buccaneers back down the beach until the besiegers were knee-deep in the river, fighting for their lives. For hours neither side could win a decisive advantage. Attack met counterattack, back and forth, until most of the combatants were disabled or as dead as cartoons could be expected to become. The sagging Ice Box door had been pitted by cannonballs until it resembled a map of the moon, but Grasping John had long since run out of ammunition and the guns had fallen silent. Now the last defenders fought the final few pirates hither and thither through the julienned remains of their heroic comrades.

"How are we going to get out of here when this is over, Orlando?" Fredericks asked. "Without that Indian . . . Do we have to go all the way down the river?"

Orlando shook his head. "How would I know? I guess so. Unless there are other ways out. Didn't the tortoise say there are people in the Ice Box who can answer questions? 'Sleepers' or something?"

Fredericks gave him a hard stare. " 'No, Orlando. Possibility not. We're not going into that thing to go hunting for some even weirder cartoon monsters. Forget it."

"But that's how these things work, Frederico. You have to figure out what the rules are. You want information, you have to pay a price. Come on. If there was a way out of here and it turned out to be right next to us, wouldn't you rather take a little trouble to find that out than go all the way down to the end of the river, like you said?"

"A little trouble. That's fenfen. You always get your way, Orlando, and I always pay for it. You and your utterly brilliant ideas. If you want to go climbing around in that thing, go ahead, but nothing's going to get me in there."

"I rather think you're wrong," suggested a third voice.

Grasping John Vice stepped into view around the edge of the cabinet. The arm struck by the Indian's arrow was bandaged with a wide piece of white cloth, but there was no sign of blood. A flintlock pistol, screwed to his wrist in place of the clasping device, was leveled at the two of them. "You see, in part thanks to you two, I have very little crew left. So I'm afraid I will need some help hauling my gold out of the Ice Box." He leaned toward them with a theatrical leer. Up close, it was easier to see that he was not a real person—the sharp angles of his face were exaggerated, his features unwholesomely smooth, like a doll's.

"So your pirates won?" Orlando asked dully. He was furious with himself at being taken by surprise. The captain would never have gotten within fifty yards of the real Thargor without being noticed.

"It is what is called, I believe, a Pyrrhic victory." Grasping John gestured with his hook at the silent battlefield, littered with the remnants of attacker and defender. Nothing stirred. "Still, it means there will be many fewer with whom to share my rightful booty." He jabbed the pistol at them. "So get up. And you, man," he said to Orlando, "if you have anything warmer to wear than that absurd acrobat costume, I suggest you put it on. It is rather cold inside, I'm told."

As they waded through the slaw of the battlefield, Orlando scavenged a vest—Grasping John called it a "weskit"—and a pair of calf-length trousers whose pirate owner was no longer in the vicinity, having apparently been struck so hard by projectile puffed wheat that he had been blown right out of his clothing. With Captain Vice never more than a meter or two behind them, but also careful not to draw close enough to be attacked and disarmed, they mounted from the floor of the Kitchen onto the bottom shelf of the Ice Box. There the captain's words proved prophetic: The air beyond the door was indeed very cold, and despite his additional clothing, Orlando was shivering before they had been inside a minute.

The bottom shelf was as crowded with dwelling places as any other part of the Kitchen they had seen, but all the boxes, jars, and containers of various sorts were empty—a refrigerated ghost town. As they made their way down the main street between the boxes, the wind sighed through the open door, rustling a discarded napkin. They were able to climb onto the second shelf from the top of the tallest carton, whose now-deserted label read "Ship of the Desert—Fresh Dates," and whose humped resident Orlando had watched meet her tragicomic end on the battlefield below, broken in half when one of the pirates had produced a handful of straw and thrown it on her back.

The second shelf was as untenanted as the first. A row of cardboard egg cartons stood open and deserted, the brave soldiers once housed therein having flung themselves down from this very shelf onto the besiegers, when for a grim moment it had seemed that defense would fail and the pirates would storm the Ice Box itself. Several of the pirate victims of that kamikaze sacrifice still lay at the base of the Ice Box, halted inches short of their goal, embalmed in drying yolk.

They continued up two more shelves without seeing another living thing, a journey that took well over an hour, including several trampoline-hops across cellophane-wrapped bowls and a scary crawl along the loose handle of the meat and cheese drawer. Then, on the top shelf, near the back, Grasping John's quest was at last rewarded.

On a blue china plate lay a paper sack, from which spilled a child's Halloween plunder—gumdrops like brightly colored gems, peppermint sticks, paper-wrapped toffees . . . and a pile of gleaming gold coins. Grasping John staggered forward, his face alight with greed and triumph.

"It's just chocolate!" Fredericks whispered. "Those fake gold coins for kids!"

"The riches!" the pirate captain exulted. "Ah, sweet Fortune, the riches that are now mine! I will buy two ships—three! I will crew them with the worst and most dreadful mercenaries from under the sink and behind the rubbish bins, and we will plunder at will. I will be master of the entire Kitchen!" He used hook and pistol to grip and then lift one of the coins, which was proportionately as large as a manhole cover, and after threatening Orlando and Fredericks with his pistol to keep them crouching where they were, stumbled with it to the edge of the shelf where he could admire its glitter in the light of the Bulb.

"I always knew that a golden destiny awaited me," he crowed. He waved the coin in the air, then clutched it tight against his breast, as though it might sprout wings and try to fly away. "I knew it! Did not a soothsayer tell my mother that I would die the richest and most elevated man in all of the Kitchen?"

As he paused in silent rapture, a single noise broke the stillness, a brief tump like a knuckle rapping on a tabletop. Grasping John looked on all sides for the source, then turned his gaze down. A feathered shaft had sprouted from the center of the golden coin. The pirate captain's face wore an expression of mild surprise as he swiveled back to face Orlando and Fredericks. He tried to lift the coin again to examine it, but it was stuck in place. A dawning realization crept over him as he stared down at the butt of the arrow that had spiked the coin to his chest, then he swayed, took a step backward, and fell from the shelf, the gold foil glimmering for just an instant as he spun out of sight.

As Orlando and Fredericks watched in stupefaction, two hands grabbed the edge of the shelf where the pirate captain had stood, then a dark shape pulled itself up and onto the shelf, facing them.

"Bad man dead now," Chief Strike Anywhere explained.

Orlando scrambled to the edge and looked down. Far below. Grasping John Vice was a small, dark, and very still shape on the linoleum at the foot of the Ice Box. With his cape flared beneath him, he looked like a swatted fly.

"We . . . we thought you left," Fredericks stammered. "Is your baby all right?"

"Papoose in boat," the chief said, which didn't really answer the question. "We go now."

Orlando turned and made his way back across the shelf. "First I want to see if there are really any Sleepers, like the tortoise said. I have a question I want to ask them."

The Indian shot him a dubious look, but said only: "Sleepers up there," and gestured with his thumb to the ceiling of the Ice Box above their heads.

"What, up on the roof?" Fredericks asked.

"There must be a freezer compartment or something," Orlando decided. "Can we reach it from here?"

The chief led them to the side of the shelf where a series of small holes in the wall had apparently been designed to accommodate moving the shelf up or down. He led them in a short climb; then, when he was braced against the ceiling, he reached up over the top edge and tapped on something they couldn't see. "Here."

With help from the Indian, Orlando managed to climb past him until he reached a thin ledge that ran the length of a door which seemed only slightly less massive than the front of the Ice Box. As he crouched beside it, he could feel the cold beating out in waves. He looked down at the dizzying view and began to think this might be a very bad idea after all. The pirates had needed a giant cannon to open the big door. How could he and Fredericks hope to budge this thing without at least jackhammers and blasting caps?

With no real hope of success, he braced himself in the corner between the ledge and chilly wall, then inserted his sword into the crack running down the side of the door. The blade crunched through ice crystals, but met no other resistance. He pulled back on the handle, levering it in the crack, and was astonished to feel the door give ever so slightly.

"What are you up to, Gardiner?" Fredericks shouted from below. "We're hanging on the wall here, y'know, and we're about five inches from the edge, so there are utterly more comfortable things we could be doing."

Orlando was saving his breath for another pull. He jammed his heels against the frosty ledge and heaved. For a moment nothing happened except that he felt himself slide toward the rim of the narrow ledge, and had a brief but overstimulating vision of plummeting down to join Grasping John as a splotch on the floor. Then the freezer door creaked open. Its massive edge almost scraped him from his crouching-place as it swung past. A cloud of vapor slowly rolled out and surrounded him.

"I did it!" he shouted, and tried to pull himself in. The metal at the edge of the door was so cold that his skin stuck to it, the pain of tearing his hand free so distracting that he almost toppled over backward into nothingness. When he had his balance again he clung to the ledge, waiting for his heart to slow. "The door's open!" he called down to Fredericks. "Damn! It's cold!"

"Well, lock me twice, Gardiner," his friend called back. "What a surprise."

Orlando waved a hole in the unfurling mist. Just inside the door, the freezer floor was covered in an ankle-high layer of frost—cold on knees and hands, but nowhere near as bad as the frozen metal. It was dark inside: only the faintest light crept in from the Bulb suspended overhead. Orlando could not see the depths of the freezer—within a few steps, all was in shadow—but it seemed surprisingly large.

"Are you coming up?"

"All right! All right!" Fredericks' head appeared in the open doorway. "You never stop, do you? Why don't we just be glad we're alive and get out of here?"

"Because I think this Otherland place has rules, just like game worlds." Orlando clambered back to the edge and gave his friend a hand up. "I don't know what they are yet, but I bet it does, in its own way. And we have questions, don't we?"

"Lots of them," Fredericks admitted. "But the first one, which I never see you asking, is 'Why look for trouble?' "

"Where's the chief?"

"He thinks you're impacting majorly. He's not coming—I don't even know if he'll wait for us, Gardiner. In fact, I don't know. . . ."

"Ssshhh." Orlando held his finger to his lips. "Not so loud—it doesn't feel right. Anyway, we're here—let's look around."

Fredericks seemed about to argue, but caught a little of Orlando's suddenly somber mood and fell silent. When they stopped moving, the mist rose around them, so that their legs vanished and they seemed to be standing hip-deep in a cloud bank. Fredericks' eyes grew wide as he surveyed the white emptiness. Orlando had already felt it. The freezer was not quite like any other place they had been in the cartoon world. Behind the stillness lurked a sort of quiet attention, as though something, perhaps the very fog and ice, regarded them with dreamy interest.

Orlando began to walk deeper into the freezer, each footstep puncturing the frosty crust, disturbingly loud compared to the previous silence. His friend shook his head, but followed. Within a few steps the light of the open door was only a sheen in the mist behind them. Fredericks looked longingly back over his shoulder, but Orlando would not be swayed. As he adjusted to the strange twilight gloom, he began to see details he had missed before. He still could not discern either wall of the freezer, and the depths were still lost in fog and shadows, but he could see the roof—a smooth white surface lightly furred with frost, about three times his own height above them—and where all had been a pale blur he could now make out actual shapes in the mist before them, low mounds rising here and there from the icy floor, snow-covered lumps like the cairns of ancient dead.

As they neared one of the mounds, Fredericks slowed, his reluctance plain, Orlando could feel it too, the sensation of trespass. If the rest of the cartoon world seemed primarily designed to amuse its creators, the freezer seemed to be something else, a place that belonged to no one . . . something that had grown rather than been created.

They paused before the icy tumulus, surrounding themselves with a cloud of their own breath. Orlando was seized again by the feeling that they were in someone else's place, that they were aliens here. At last, he reached out and carefully wiped away a layer of rime.

As the popsicle wrapper appeared, it seemed at first a moment of comic anticlimax. The colors burst out as the frost was scraped aside, jarringly bright against the endless white that surrounded the mound. But beneath the words "Lucky Boy Fudge Pop" was a picture of a child, and the terrible clarity of the image made it seem more than just a piece of packaging art, that instead a real body had been pressed into the wrapper. The boy was dressed in shorts and a striped shirt and an odd cap that seemed of some much earlier era. His eyes were closed and his mouth sagged, ever so slightly down. At first Orlando thought this was somebody's dreadful joke—that they had wrapped their product with a picture of a dead child. Then the Lucky Boy moved, a slight flicker of eyelids, a minute flair of nostrils, and a thin, unhappy voice murmured in their ears.

"Cold . . . dark . . . Where. . . ?"

Orlando took a stumbling step backward and almost knocked Fredericks over. Without either of them noticing, they clasped hands and moved away from the tumulus.

"This is horrible," Fredericks whispered at last. "Let's go."

Orlando shook his head, afraid that if he spoke he would lose his nerve. He pulled Fredericks in a wide path around the mound, heading deeper into the freezer, but could not shake off the memory of the sleeping child. At last he disengaged himself and returned to smooth the frost back over the Lucky Boy's pale face, then returned to Fredericks. Silent, they walked on.

The mounds rose higher on all sides now, some as large as the carton-houses of the lower shelves, all made impenetrable and mysterious by their covering of ice. In some places, where the frost was thin, faces showed as through thick, dirty glass; they seemed mostly children, but there were also stylized animals and some less easily identified creatures, all sealed in cold slumber. Voices hung in the air, phantom murmurs that Orlando at first thought were only his imagination—faint cries for absent mothers, protests against the dark, swirling sounds as bodiless as wind crying down a chimney.

Surrounded by these pitiful, terrible voices, Orlando wasn't even sure any more what he was looking for; the thought of trying to question one of these sleepers, to drag them up into something like wakefulness, was repellent. He was beginning to think Fredericks had been right again, that coming to this place had been a dreadful mistake, when he saw the glass coffin.

It lay in the center of a circle of mounds, a translucent oblong silvered with frost but not sunk in a blanket of white like the rest of the freezer's occupants. It stood out as though it had been waiting—as though it were something they had been meant to find. The other voices grew quiet as they approached it. All of Orlando's hard-earned simworld instincts told him to expect a trap, and he could feel Fredericks' wire-tight tension at his side, but the place seemed to weave a spell around him. He found himself strangely helpless, unable to take his eyes from the object as he walked forward. It was with no more relief than he had felt on seeing the popsicle wrapper emerge that he realized it was a butter dish, the old-fashioned sort with a glass lid. In raised letters along the bottom, barely legible through the frost, was the legend "Sleeping Beauty Brand—Fine Creamery Butter."

Fredericks, too, seemed lost in a kind of hypnotized state, and did not resist or object as Orlando leaned forward and wiped a clear spot in the glass. Something was inside, as he knew there would be—not a picture, but a shape with all three dimensions, He cleaned a larger space so they could see her whole.

She wore a long, antique green gown trimmed with feathers and pearled with ice. Her hands had been folded on her breast, clutching the stem of a white rose whose petals had tumbled free and lay scattered on her throat and shoulders and in her cloud of dark hair. Her eyes were closed, the long eyelashes tipped in frost.

"She . . . she looks . . . so sad," Fredericks said in a strangled whisper.

Orlando could not speak. His friend was right, but it seemed a wholly inadequate word, like calling the sun warm, or the ocean wet. Something about the set of her mouth, the bleak fixity of her ivory features, made her seem a monument to quiet unhappiness; even in death, she was encased in her sorrow far more completely than she was encrypted by glass and ice.

Then her eyes opened—dark, amazingly dark, but occluded by frost, so that she peered through cloudy windows. Orlando's heart thumped. There seemed a terrible distance between those eyes and what they should see.

"You are . . . strangers," a voice sighed, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. "Strangers. . . ."

Fredericks gasped and fell silent. Orlando fought to make himself speak. "We . . . we are . . ." He stopped, uncertain of what mere words could explain. "We. . . ."

"You have traveled across the Black Ocean." Her face, like her body, remained motionless, and the dark irises remained fixed upward, starring at nothing, but Orlando thought he could feel her struggling somewhere, a bird trapped in an attic room. "But there is something in you that is different than the others." The mist rose for a moment around the glass coffin, obscuring their view. "Why have you come? Why have you wakened me? Why have you brought me back to this terrible place?"

"Who are you?" Orlando asked. "Are you a real person? Are you trapped here?"

"I am only a shadow," she sighed. "I am the wind in empty spaces." Great weariness dragged at her words, as though she explained something that could not possibly make any difference. "I am . . . the queen of air and darkness. What do you want of me?"

"Where. . . ." Fredericks was trying hard to master his voice, which wanted to squeak. "Where are our friends? We've lost our friends."

For a long time there was only silence, and Orlando feared she had dropped back into slumber, but the mists eddied a little and he saw that her dark eyes were still open, still staring at something unseeable. "All of you have been called," she said then. "You will find that which you seek as the sun sets on Priam's walls. But another waits for you, too. He is close, but he is also far away. He is coming."

"Coming? Who's coming?" Orlando leaned forward, as though proximity could make things clearer. "Coming when?"

"He is coming now." The words, spoken with a distant carelessness, sent a shiver through Orlando that had absolutely nothing to do with the frost. "He is already here. He is the One who dreams—we are his nightmares. He dreams you, too."

"What is she talking about?" Fredericks demanded, tugging at Orlando's hand in growing anxiety. "Who's coming? Here?"

"Let me sleep again, " the voice said, the faintest tone of petulance creeping in, a child dragged from her bed for some incomprehensible, grown-up purpose. "Let me sleep. The light is so far away. . . ."

"We'll find our friends at Priam's what?" Orlando asked. "Priam's walls?"

"He comes." Her voice was growing fainter. "Please let me go. Don't you understand? í have . . . lost . . . my. . . ." The rest of her words were too faint to hear. The lids slid back down to cover the great, dark eyes.

As they stood in silence, the mist rose again until the coffin was completely obscured. Orlando turned, but it was even hard to see Fredericks, though his friend stood only an arm's length away. For a long moment Orlando felt himself weighted down by a crushing sadness, a misery that for once was not his own, and it left him speechless.

"I think we should go," he began at last, then the light changed and things were immediately, inexplicably different.

"Orlando. . . ?" Fredericks' voice suddenly seemed very far away. Orlando reached out but his fingers, first probing, then frantically grabbing, touched nothing. His friend was gone.

"Fredericks? Sam?"

The mist around him began to glow, a diffuse gleam that turned the whole world translucent, as though he were trapped in the center of a piece of quartz. The light, which at first had only been a brighter whiteness, soured into an unnameable color, a hue that on a not-quite-imaginable spectrum where red did not exist would have fallen directly between purple and orange. A horrible electric fear pinned Orlando, sweeping away all sense of up and down, pushing away the walls and the floor so that the light itself became a void, an absence, and he was the only living thing left, falling endlessly in the terrible orange-lavender nothing.

Something wrapped itself around him—something that was the void, but was not the void. It spoke in his head. He became its words, and each word was a thing painful to shape, painful even to think, an inhumanly powerful howl of misery.

Angry, it said inside him. The thoughts, the feelings, became the entire universe, turned him inside-out, raw against the great emptiness. Hurt things, it said, and he felt how it hurt, and how it would hurt others. Lonely, it said.

The bit of him that still was Orlando understood suddenly, and dreadfully, that there was something more frightening than Death.

Black mountain. The words were also a vision, a black spike that stretched so high the very stars were shoved aside in the night sky, a terrifying vertiginous thing that grew up from impossibility into sheer blasphemy. Kill everything. My children . . . my children . . . kill everything.

And then it was gone, and the void turned inside out again with a silent clap like all the thunder that had ever been. Then the mist and the white burst into being around him once more. Orlando fell onto his face in the snowy floor and wept tears that froze hard on his eyelids and cheeks.

 

After a while, Fredericks was beside him—so abruptly and completely that it made a strong argument that his friend had been quite dramatically somewhere else. Orlando stood. They looked at each other. Even though they saw Pithlit and Thargor, the pretend-faces of a children's game, both could tell without uttering a word that the other had heard the same things, felt the same indescribable presence. There was actually nothing that could be said just then, or needed to be. Shivering and silent, they made their way back through the mounds, through the now-voiceless freezer, and at last staggered out to the place where the mists grew thin.

Chief Strike Anywhere was waiting at the freezer door. He looked at them and shook his head, but his large hands were gentle as he helped them onto the shelf below and then assisted them in the long climb down to the base of the Ice Box.

Neither of them could walk very well. The chief kept them from falling until the battlefield was a good distance behind them, then found a protected spot against the base of the counter where they could huddle, and built a fire before it. As they stared in dull stupefaction at the flicker of the flames, he got up and vanished into the darkness.

Orlando's thoughts were at first small and flat and without much meaning, but after a while the worst of the shock ebbed away. By the time the chief returned some time later with the tortoise, and carrying his blanketed baby sleeping in his arms—the top of Little Spark's head was blackened, but he seemed otherwise healthy—Orlando was at least able to muster a faint smile.

He fell asleep still staring at the fire, the flames a curtain that obscured, but did not entirely hide, the darkness beyond.

Third:
GODS AND GENIUSES

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with
Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.

    And particularly they studied the genius of each
city & country, placing it under its mental deity.

    Till a system was formed, which some took
advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to
realize or abstract the mental deities from their
objects; thus began Priesthood.

    Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

    And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had
order'd such things.

    Thus men forgot that All deities reside in
the human breast.

—William Blake,
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

CHAPTER 22
Inside Out

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: Ronnies Deny Non-Existence

(visual: DYHTRRRAR giving press conference, Luanda Hilton)

VO: The flurry group Did You Have To Run Run Run Away Ronnie? gave its first ever live press conference in Luanda, Angola, to refute the rumors that they are in fact software Puppets. The all-female group have been magnets for rumors ever since their first net appearances, and suspicious critics have called them "too contrived, too perfect," to be real. Ribalasia Ronnie, speaking for the group, read this statement:

R. RONNIE: "It's a shame when hard-working artists have to waste their time trying to prove that they're real people. . . ."

But the press gathered in Luanda were not an easy crowd.

REPORTER: "How do we know that you're not tookalikes selected to match the gear. . . ?"

 

Renie leaned on the railing where !Xabbu was perched and watched the dark, faintly oily river.

Another day, she thought, another world. God help me, I'm tired.

The Works was slipping away behind them, the tangle of pipe and pylon crowding along the bank infiltrated and then gradually replaced by cottonwood trees and sedge, the flicker of security lights supplanted by a waxing prairie moon. If she ignored the dull throb of pain from cuts and bruises, and the baboon shape her friend wore, she could almost convince herself she was somewhere normal. Almost.

She sighed. "This isn't going to work, you know."

!Xabbu turned, flipping his tail to the outside of the rail so he could face her. "What do you mean, Renie?"

"All of this." She waved her hand, encompassing Azador, sullen and silent at the wheel, Emily in fitful sleep in the cabin, the river and the Kansas night. "This whole approach. We're just being dragged—or chased—from place to place. From simulation to simulation. We're no closer to our goal, and we're certainly no threat to the bastards who got my brother."

"Ah." !Xabbu scratched his arm. "And what is our goal, then? I do not ask to make a joke."

"I know." She frowned and let herself slide down until she was sitting on the deck with her back to the gunwale, staring now at the opposite but equally dark and quiet riverbank. "Sellars told us to look for this Jonas person, but that's the last we've heard of Sellars. So how do we find Jonas, out of millions of virtual people? It's impossible." She shrugged. "And there are all kinds of new questions, too. What's-his-name, Kunohara, said that your friends in the Circle were tied up in this somehow, too."

"They are not my friends, exactly, if he was talking about the same group. They are people for whom I have respect, an organization of men and women who try to help others of their tribes, and who helped me. Or so I believed."

"I know, !Xabbu, I'm not accusing you of anything. I couldn't tell whether he meant they were helping the Grail people or fighting them, anyway. What did he say? 'Opposite sides of the same coin'?" She leaned her head back against the railing, overwhelmed by it all. They had been in this virtual universe so long! How was Stephen? Had there been any change in his condition? And how was her father, for that matter, and Jeremiah? It was almost impossible to consider that they might be only inches away from her. It was like believing in the world of spirits.

"If I would be making a guess," !Xabbu began slowly, "it would be that Kunohara meant the Grail people and the Circle are at war, somehow. But he did not think there was really much difference between them."

"Could be." She frowned. "But I'm tired of guessing at things. I want facts. I need information." Either the river was narrowing, she noted absently, or Azador was steering them closer to the bank: the trees loomed higher than they had only minutes before, their shadowy presence blocking more of the sky. "We need a map, or we need to know where Martine and the others are. Or both." She sighed. "Damn it, what happened to Sellars? Has he given up on us?"

"Perhaps he cannot get back into the network," !Xabbu suggested. "Or he can, but like us, he can only search without knowing."

"God, what a gloomy thought." She sat up, ignoring the protesting ache from her back and legs. "We need information, that's all there is to it. We don't even understand how this place works." She swiveled. "Azador!"

He looked up but did not answer.

"Fine, then," she said, dragging herself upright. "As you wish." She limped to the back of the tugboat, !Xabbu trailing after."It seems like a good time to talk," she told the man."What do you think?"

Azador took a last drag, then flicked his cigarette over his shoulder. "The river is getting smaller. Narrower, I mean."

"That's nice, but I don't want to talk about the bloody river. I want to talk about you and what you know."

He eyed her coldly. He had found some bargeman's coat, which hid the holes torn in his boiler suit and the dreadful bruises they revealed. Blood had dried on his face in patches. She could not help remembering how he had thrown himself into a crowd of their enemies. He might be irritating, but he was no coward. "You talk," he said. "Me, I don't talk. I am sick of talking."

"Sick of talking? What does that mean? What have you told us about yourself? That you're a gypsy? Do you want a medal for that? Help us, damn it! We are in trouble here. So are you!"

He turned up his collar, then took yet another cigarette and screwed it into the corner of his mouth below his dark mustache. Frustrated, Renie broke her own resolution and extended her hand. Azador smirked, but gave her one. Then, in what seemed an uncharacteristic act of courtesy, he insisted on lighting it for her.

"So?" she tried again. She disliked herself for giving in to her addiction so easily and so quickly. "Tell me something—anything! Where did you find cigarettes?"

"Things, objects, do not travel from one world to another," he said flatly. "I found these on someone's desk in New Emerald City." He smirked. "Munchkin goods are salvage under rules of war."

Renie ignored his joke, if it was one. "Objects do translate—I've seen it. Orlan . . . I mean, one of our friends had a sword in one simulation, then he had it in the next one, too."

Azador waved his hand dismissively. "That was someone's possession—like clothes. Those go everywhere the sim goes. And some of the things that travel," he pointed down to the deck, "like a boat, they go to the next simulation, but then they change. There is another thing like them in the next world, but . . . but different"

"An analogue," Renie said. Like the boat from Temilún that had become a leaf.

"Yes, that. But cigarettes, other small things—money or someone else's jewels that you have found—these you cannot carry from one world to another."

She had little doubt what he meant by "found" but knew better than to say so; it was much better to keep him happy and talking as long as he seemed willing. "How did you learn so much? Have you been in this network a long time?"

"Oh, very long time," he said offhandedly. "I have been many places. And I hear things at the Fair."

Renie was puzzled. "What do you mean, the fair?"

For the first time in the conversation Azador looked uncomfortable, as though he might have said more than he wished. But neither was he the type who would admit to second thoughts. "Romany Fair," he said, in a tone that suggested Renie should be ashamed not to have known already. She waited a moment for an amplification, but none came. Even with his present talkative mood, the man was not what anyone would call long-winded.

"Right," she said at last, "Romany Fair. And that is. . . ?"

"It is where the travelers—the Romany—meet, of course."

"What is it, another simworld?" She turned to !Xabbu, wondering if he were making any more out of this than she was. Her friend was perched on the stern rail. He did not seem to be listening, staring out at the files of trees slipping past on either side as the long, silvery "V" of the river narrowed behind them in the moonlit distance.

"It is not a place, it is . . . a gathering. It changes. The travelers come. When it is over, they leave, and next time it is somewhere else." He shrugged.

"And it's here in . . . in this network?" She had almost called it the Grail Project—she was having trouble remembering what information she had already let slip in front of him. Her head and muscles were still throbbing with the pain of their escape, God only knew what or who would try to kill them next, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of the lies and evasions that security demanded.

"Of course!" He was full of scorn that she could even imagine something different. "This is the best place—this is where all the rich people have hidden their greatest treasures. Why should we travelers settle for second-best?"

"You mean you and your friends roam around here at will, having little parties? But how did you get in? This place has security that kills people!"

Did she again see a moment's hesitation? A shadow? But when Azador laughed, his harsh amusement sounded genuine enough. "There is no security that can keep out the Romany. We are a free people—the last free people. We go where we want to go."

"What does that mean?" A sudden thought occurred to her. "Wait a moment. If you can all agree on a place to meet, then that must mean you can find your way around—you must know how to use the gates."

Azador looked at her with studied indifference.

"Jesus Mercy, if that's so, you have to tell me! We have to find our friends—people's lives depend on it!" She reached out to clutch his arm, but he shook her off. "You can't just keep it to yourself and let people die—little children, too! You can't!"

"Who are you?" He took a step away from her, scowling. "Who are you to tell me what I can do? You tell me I am a pig for what I did to that silly Puppet in there," he slashed a hand at the cabin where Emily lay, "and then, when I have already told you much, you order me to tell you more—order me! You are a fool." He stared at her, daring her to argue.

Renie tried to bite back her fury, which was as much at herself as at him. When are you going to learn, girl? she fumed. When do you figure out how to keep your mouth shut? When?

"I do not even know who you are," Azador went on, his accent thickening with his anger. He looked her up and down with insulting slowness. "A white woman pretending to be a black woman? An old woman pretending to be young and beautiful? Or are you even a woman at all? That sickness is common on the net, but not, thank God, among the Romany." He turned and spat overboard, narrowly missing !Xabbu, who stared back at him with an unreadable baboon expression. "What I do know is that you are gorgio. You are an outsider, not one of us. And yet you say, 'tell me this, tell me that' like you had a right to our secrets."

"Look, I'm sorry," Renie began, wondering how many times she would have to apologize to this man when what she really wanted to do was slap him hard enough to knock his mustache off his lip. "I shouldn't have spoken that way, but. . . ."

"There is no 'but,' " he said. "I am tired, and it feels like all my bones are broken. You are the leader? Okay, then you steer this ugly boat. I am going to sleep."

He let go of the wheel and stalked away around the cabin, presumably headed for the prow. Unpiloted, the boat pulled sharply toward the bank. Within seconds, Renie was so busy wrestling it back into the center of the river that she lost any chance for a parting shot, either dismissive or conciliatory.

"Next time, you talk to him," she suggested to !Xabbu. Her scowl felt as though it had been carved permanently onto her face. "I don't seem to be handling it very well."

Her friend slid down from the railing and padded over, then reached up to squeeze her arm. "It is not your fault. He is an angry man. Maybe he has lost his story—I think so."

Renie squinted. The river and the trees ahead of them were so dark as to be almost inseparable from the night. "Maybe we should stop. Throw out the anchor or whatever you do. I can hardly see."

"Sleep is a good idea." !Xabbu nodded his head. "You need rest. We all need rest. In this place, we never know when something will happen."

A variety of possible replies flitted through her head, some sarcastic, some not, but she didn't have the strength to waste on any of them. She throttled down the boat and let it drift toward the shallows.

 

Renie could feel the sun broiling her exposed skin. She groaned and rolled onto her side without opening her eyes, questing for shade, but there was none to be found. She threw her arm across her face, but now she was conscious of the sun's glare and could not ignore it. It poured down on her, as though some giant, sadistic child were focusing its rays with a titan magnifying glass.

Renie sat up, mumbling curses. The burning white disk was almost directly overhead, only thinly hidden behind a layer of dull gray cloud—there would be no shelter anywhere on deck. Also, either the anchor had slipped and they had drifted, or the river and its banks had mutated while she slept; Renie did not know which prospect was worse. The river had narrowed dramatically, so that less than a stone's throw separated them from the banks on either side, and the polite forest of cottonwoods had at some point become an insidious mesh of vegetation—a jungle. Some of the trees stretched up a hundred feet or more, and except for the open track of the river, she could not see more than a few yards into the undergrowth in any direction.

!Xabbu was standing on his hind legs by the rail, watching the jungle edge past.

"What happened?" she asked him. "Did the anchor come loose?"

He turned and gave her one of his odd but cheering baboon smiles, "No. We have been awake for some time, and Azador is driving the boat again."

The man under discussion was huddled over the wheel in the boat's stern, dark brows beetled and a fog of cigarette smoke drifting around him. He had thrown aside the coat. The bottom of his boiler suit was belted with a length of rope, since only a few tattered strands remained from the suit's top part. His sim was very tan and his chest and arms quite muscular. She turned away, irritated by his ridiculous good looks—it was adolescent to pick a sim like that, even if he looked like that in RL, which she firmly doubted.

"Anyway, it is good you are awake," !Xabbu added. "The girl Emily is unhappy, but she does not want to talk to me, and Azador will not speak to her."

Renie groaned again and levered herself to her feet, clinging to the railing for a moment while her calf muscles spasmed. She found it astonishing to contemplate her many aches and realize that what had struck her had not been metal fists and poorly-padded human bones, but a puddinglike substance merely pretending to be those things. Not that the results were any the less painful.

She limped to the cabin. The girl was sitting up on the bed, pressed into the corner of the tiny room as though afraid of small creeping things on the floor. Despite the sheen of sweat on her youthful skin, she was clutching the blanket tightly to her chest.

"Hello, Emily. Are you all right?"

The girl regarded her with wide, worried eyes. "Where's the monkey?"

"Outside. Do you want me to get him?"

"No!" Emily's rejection was almost a shriek; she regained her composure a little and laughed nervously. "No. He makes me go all funny. He's just like the Scarecrow's flymonks—all little and hairy and those pinchy fingers. How can you stand it?"

Renie thought for about two seconds of trying to explain !Xabbu's situation, then decided against it. If this girl was a Puppet, telling her anything about VR or aliases would just be confusing, or even needlessly cruel. Unless. . . .

"He's not really a monkey." Renie tried a soothing smile; it made her jaw hurt. "He's . . . he's under a spell. He's really a man—a very nice man—but someone bad turned him into a monkey,"

"Really?" Emily's eyes widened again. "Oh, that's so sad!"

"Yes." Renie settled on the edge of the bed and tried to get comfortable, but there didn't seem to be a throbless muscle in her entire body. "Was that all that was bothering you?"

"No—yes. No." As if exhausted by these changes of mind, Emily regarded her for a moment, then suddenly and quite spectacularly burst into tears. "What's g–going to h–h–happen?"

"To us?" Renie reached out and patted the girl's shoulder, feeling her small, birdlike bones through the thin shift. It was strange, finding herself again in the role of reassuring someone, of being a substitute mother; it also made it hard not to think about Stephen, but she didn't need any more pain today. "We've escaped from all those people who are chasing us. Don't you remember?"

"I don't mean that. What about m–me? What about the little baby in my t–tuh–tummy?"

Renie wanted to say something encouraging, but could think of nothing. What could she offer this girl, this creature coded for baby talk and helplessness? Even if she and !Xabbu escaped the simulation, it was almost certain that Emily would not transfer with them. And even if some fluke allowed it, could they afford to take her along? Go off to save the world accompanied by a pregnant, effectively half-witted child who needed constant attention? It didn't bear thinking about.

"It will be all right," was what she came up with at last, and hated herself for saying it.

"But it won't—it won't! Because my henry doesn't love me anymore! But he did, he did, and he gave me the pretty thing, and we did all the lover-games, and he said I was his pudding and now everything is . . . is bodwaste!" The strange amalgam seemed to be the worst word she knew. Immediately after uttering it, she collapsed face-first onto the bed, wailing.

Renie, with nothing to offer except sympathy and a reassuring touch, at last coaxed the girl back to something resembling normality. "The shiny, pretty thing he gave you," she asked when the weeping had quieted, "did he tell you where it came from?"

Emily's eyes were red-rimmed, her cheeks mottled, and her nose was running, but she was still irritatingly pretty. If Renie had retained any doubt that the creators of Kansas were men, she let it go now. "He didn't tell me anything, except that it was mine!" the girl moaned. "I didn't steal it—he gave it to me!"

"I know." Renie thought of asking to see the gem again, but did not want to excite her further. "I know."

When a sweaty and miserable Emily had finally slipped back into fitful sleep, Renie walked out to the stern. She felt a tug of addiction and wanted to ask for a cigarette, but she had already broken her own rule once. "She's really upset," she reported.

Azador flicked his eyes toward the cabin for a moment. "I noticed."

"These people may be Puppets," Renie added, "but they certainly don't think they are. I mean, that may all be code, but it's pretty damn convincing."

"These rich bastard gorgios got too much money for their own good. They hire too many programmers, try to make everything so perfect and real."

"But you liked how real she was before, didn't you?" She heard the anger beginning to creep into her voice and turned to the rail to inspect the ever-thickening wall of jungle foliage on the near bank. There was something faintly unnatural about the vegetation, but she couldn't quite decide why that was so. She turned back to Azador. "Don't you feel sorry for her at all?"

He let his lids droop, so that he viewed the river before him through hired-assassin slits. "Do you feel sorry for your carpet when you step on it? That is not a person, it is a machine—a thing."

"How do you know? This place—this whole network—is full of real people pretending to be characters. How do you know?"

To her surprise, Azador actually flinched. He fought to hold onto his mask of indifference, but for a moment she saw something very different in his eyes before he turned away and fumbled another cigarette into his mouth.

She was struggling to make sense of this reaction when !Xabbu's urgent call from the prow startled her just-settling thoughts into confused flight.

"Renie! Come here. I think it is important."

Her friend bounced excitedly on the railing as she walked toward him. She realized with more than a little worry that his movements seemed to become more simian daily. Was he simply growing more familiar with the baboon sim, or was the constant life and perspective of a beast beginning to affect him?

"Look." He pointed toward the shore.

Renie stared, but her mind was a jumble of confused ideas, all jostling for her attention. There was nothing obviously wrong along the riverbank. "What is it, !Xabbu?"

"Look at the trees."

She applied herself to examining the place he indicated. There were trees, of course, in all sizes, with thick creepers drooping between branches like the survivors of a constrictors' orgy on the morning after. Nothing seemed particularly noteworthy, except for a certain regularity to the forms—which, she abruptly realized, was what had bothered her a few minutes earlier. Although both the trees and vines had the realistic look of nature, they seemed to be spaced and connected at rather mechanical intervals. In fact, there were too many right angles. . . .

"It looks arranged." She squinted against the harsh sunlight, and as she did the shapes became more general. "It looks something like the Works. Except made out of plants."

"Yes!" !Xabbu bounced in place. "Do you remember what the Scarecrow said? That his enemies were in the Works, and in Forest."

"Oh, my God." Renie shook her head, almost—but not quite—too exhausted to be afraid. "So we've just drifted right into the other fellow's kingdom? What was his name?"

"Lion. . . ." !Xabbu said solemnly.

A thin hissing sounded all along the riverbank, and then a ghostly image began to flicker in the right-angled spaces between several of the trees—a parade of images, duplicated from tree to tree, identical and profuse. Each apparation was little more than a reflection in a rippled pool, so faint and smoky as to be barely visible, but Renie thought she saw a hard flash of eyes and a great, pale face. The hiss turned into a crackling rush, then the images faded, an army of ghosts all put to flight at the same instant.

"What the hell was that?" Azador called from the stern, killing the engine and slowing the tugboat to a drift.

Renie was trying to decide for herself what the hell that had been when she felt !Xabbu's small hand—his 'hairy, pinchy fingers,' as Emily had unkindly called them—close on her arm."See there," he said, his whisper not quite disguising his wonder and unease. "They come down to the water like a family of elands."

Several hundred yards ahead, a small, stealthy group of human figures had appeared from the shelter of the vegetation beside the river. Not yet having seen the boat, they crept down the bank to the water's edge. Some crouched to drink as others stood on guard against attack, nervously watching the jungle behind them and the nearest parts of the river. They were pale-skinned, dirty, and naked but for the ornaments they wore, which Renie guessed were some kind of hunting trophies: several wore tails swinging at their rumps, while others sported antlers on their brows, or ears dangling down beside their faces.

Renie crouched, then waved to Azador to do the same. He squatted beside the pilot's wheel to watch as the boat drifted nearer.

The tugboat had silently covered perhaps two thirds of the distance when an antler-crowned sentry saw them. He stared gape-jawed at the boat for a moment, then made a strangled barking noise. The other naked humans leaped up in confusion, costume-tails flipping from side to side, and shoved and bumped each other in bleating fear as they retreated into the jungle.

The boat swept on, now almost level with the spot where the humans had vanished. The sentry, last of the group, stopped at the edge of shelter to watch the boat drift past, ready to fight to defend his tribesfolk's retreat. His antlers appeared to be wriggling, which Renie thought at first was a trick of the dappled sunlight where he stood, but then she saw that what she had thought were prongs of horn were actually hands, grafted onto his head at the temples. His arms ended at the wrist, knobbed in scar tissue.

The fingers of these horrid imitation antlers twitched again as she slid past, and the sentry's eyes—all dark iris, with no white at all—met hers with the hopeless, terrified stare of a damned thing scuttling across the rubbish heaps of Hell. Then he showed her his tail of stitched-on skin as he bounded away into the dark dells of Forest.

 

 

Long Joseph Sulaweyo stood at the edge of the trees staring out onto the highway and felt as though he were waking up from a dream.

It had all seemed so simple in the night, with Jeremiah asleep and the high ceilings of that bloody damned Wasp's Nest place echoing back Joseph's every lonely footstep. He would go see his son. He would make sure that Stephen was still all right. Renie had said once that maybe Joseph had chased his son away, scared him into the coma or some foolishness, and although he had furiously rejected this bit of doctor nonsense, it had still sunk its hooks into him.

Stephen might even have come awake by now, he had told himself as he had rummaged together what small bits of possessions he had decided to take. How would that be if he did? How cruel? What if the boy woke up and his whole family was gone? And as Joseph had taken the last few bills from Renie's wallet—she wasn't going to need it, was she, down in that bathtub-with-wires?—it had all seemed to make a sort of magnificent sense. He would go and see the boy. He would make sure Stephen was all right.

But now, in the light of late afternoon, with bits and pieces of Drakensberg vegetation snagged in his trouser legs and fouling his hair, it seemed a different story altogether. What if Renie came out of that machine before he could get back? She would be angry—she would say he had just gone out to find something to drink, and had put them all in danger. But that wasn't true, was it? No, he had a responsibility to his son, and Renie was just his other child. She wasn't her own mother, whatever she thought sometimes. She wasn't his wife, to dog him about how to behave.

Long Joseph took a few steps out onto the hard shoulder. The night seemed to come early here: it was just a couple of hours past noon, but the sun had already dipped behind the mountain and a cold wind was sighing down the slope, strumming the trees and getting in under Joseph's thin shirt to devil his chest. He plucked the worst of the brambles off himself and wandered a little way up the road, stamping his feet to keep warm.

Renie didn't know how smart he was—she thought he was a fool, just like all children did about their fathers. But he would be down to see Stephen in Durban and back before she even knew he was gone. And what did she care, anyway? It wasn't like she was standing around waiting for him. Renie had left him behind, just like her mother and her brother had done. They all expected him to sit around waiting. Like he didn't have a life of his own.

He squinted up the empty hillside road, then down the other direction, as though closer inspection might reveal a bus that he had somehow missed.

 

The light was almost entirely gone. Joseph had been stamping so long and so hard that he couldn't decide any more which was worse, the cold in his toes or the ache in his feet from thumping them on the road. Only two cars and one truck had gone by, and although all had looked at the man by the side of the high mountain road with surprise, none of them had even slowed. His breath was beginning to show now, a chalky haze that hung before his face for a moment each time before the wind snatched it away.

He was just beginning to think about making a bed for himself somewhere in the brush, out of the chilly downdrafts, when a small truck appeared around the bend of the hill above him, headlamps surprisingly bright against the twilight. Without thinking, Joseph turned in the middle of the road and began waving his arms. For a moment it seemed the driver had not seen him in time—Long Joseph had a flashing vision of his body left broken and unnoticed in the bushes like a dead township dog—but then the lights veered toward the shoulder and the truck stopped, spurting gravel from beneath its wheels. The driver, a stocky white man in a shiny jacket, jumped out.

"What the hell do you think you're playing at, you crazy bastard?"

Joseph flinched at the Afrikaaner accent, but he was too cold to be choosy. "Need a ride."

The driver peered at him, then looked around, clearly wondering if Long Joseph might have confederates waiting to spring out and hijack his truck, or perhaps do something worse. "Ya? Where's your car?"

Long Joseph had a moment of sheer panic as he realized he'd invented no story to explain being here on this lonely mountain road. That government place—he was supposed to keep it secret, wasn't he?

The driver, worried by his silence, took a step back toward his truck. "How did you get here, then?"

An incident from Joseph's youth came back suddenly, like a blessing sent special-delivery from God. "Fellow was giving me a ride," he told the driver. "But we have a big fight. Argument, I mean. He threw me out the car."

"Ya?" The driver was still suspicious. "What were you arguing about?"

"I told him that rugby football was rubbish."

The other man laughed suddenly, a big deep chortle. "Goddamn! Well, I think you're full of kak too, but that's no reason to leave someone out to freeze to death. Get in. You aren't an escaped murderer, then?"

Long Joseph hurried toward the car, blowing on his hands. "No. But I almost kill my brother-in-law once when he wreck my car." It had actually been Joseph who had wrecked his sister's husband's car to start the fight, but it sounded better this way.

"You're all right, then, fellow. I almost killed mine, once, too. I still may do it."

 

The driver's name was Antonin Haaksbergen, and although he was undeniably an Afrikaaner bastard and therefore by Sulaweyo's Law already proved vicious and untrustworthy and a bigot, Long Joseph was forced to admit that he was not completely without redeeming features. For one thing, his small truck had a very good heater. For another thing, he didn't ask too many questions. But perhaps the most persuasive evidence came almost immediately, as they rounded the bend and left Joseph's hitchhiking spot behind.

"You want a drink, fellow?"

It was as though someone had opened a curtain and allowed sunshine to flood into a long-darkened room. "You have some wine?"

"You're not half-picky, are you? No, but if you're very nice to me, I might let you have a rid illy."

Joseph frowned, suddenly suspicious, wondering if he had exchanged the looming threat of one girly-man for another. "Rid illy?"

Haaksbergen reached into a compartment behind the seat and produced a can of Red Elephant beer. He handed it over to Joseph and took out one for himself, which he opened and placed in the holder on the dashboard. "I've been good all trip, and now I've got company, so I'm entitled, eh!"

Joseph nodded, the can already raised, the cool liquid running down his throat like rain onto parched desert hills.

"You like my truck?" Haaksbergen inquired, taking a sip of his beer. "It's nice, ya? The engine's a hydrogen-burner—quite good, and cheap to run, but I suppose if one of those little gimmicks fell out or something it would all blow up and take us with it. Still, that's life, eh. . . ?

"Good God, fellow, are you done with that already?"

 

The rest of the journey passed in a glorious, warm, liquid slide. The lights of the towns, more numerous near the bottom of the mountains, floated past the windows like tropical fish. By the time they had reached Howick, Long Joseph and Antonin ("my mother was Italian—what can you do?") were pretty much best friends. Even Haaksbergen's occasional remarks about "you blacks" or "your people," or his quiet disgruntlement at Joseph drinking most of the beer, seemed part of the frank exchanges of newfound brotherhood. Deposited in front of the railway station, the late-night crowd eddying around him, Long Joseph waved a cheerful good-bye as the truck hummed away up the main road.

A slightly muddled thumbing-through of his cash resources made it clear he would never make it to Durban by train, and in any case he had no urge at the moment to go anywhere. He found a bench inside the station, curled up, and fell into a sleep where even the dreams were bleared, as though seen through deep water.

He was rousted firmly but without too much unpleasantness by a private security guard a little before dawn, and when he could not produce a ticket, was herded out onto the street with the rest of the multiracial assortment of dossers and transients. He spent a part of his ready cash on a squeeze-bottle of Mountain Rose from a 24-hour liquor store, in part to kill the deeply unfamiliar feeling of having drunk too much beer the night before, in part to help him think.

The thinking ended in a nap on a park bench. When he woke, the morning sun was climbing overhead and the world had become unpleasantly bright. He sat for a moment, watching people who never looked back at him as they walked past, and rubbing at the sticky ooze which had somehow collected on his chin, then decided he had better get moving. No telling when Renie might come out of that thing and go barking mad if he was still gone.

He returned to the caged kiosk that jutted from the side of the liquor store like a machine gun turret, and passed some bills through the slot in return for another bottle of Mountain Rose, which left him with only enough money to take the bus a few kilometers—far too small a distance to be any help. He had a few swallows of wine, then with magnificent self-control closed the pressure seal, slid the bottle into his pocket, and walked with immense care back to the highway.

His third and last ride of the day was on the back of a produce truck. Squeezed between towers of wrapped and crated greenhouse fruits, he saw Durban rise before him, a cluster of oblongs dominating the Natal coastline. Now his busfare was enough to get him wherever he might decide to go. He toyed with the idea of returning to the shelter where he and Renie had lived and finding some of his cronies, Walter or whoever else might be around, and taking them with him to the hospital, but Renie had made it clear that the shelter was no longer safe, and the last thing Long Joseph wanted to do was get in trouble and have Renie able to tell him later that he was just as stupid an old man as she had suspected he was.

The idea that the trouble might be the sort which he wouldn't survive long enough to be shouted at by his daughter only occurred to him later.

 

He had walked back and forth between the bus stop and the front entrance of the Durban Outskirt Medical Facility perhaps a dozen times in two hours. It was only when he had actually reached the hospital that he remembered Renie saying there was some kind of quarantine, and indeed, no matter how long he watched the building, no one seemed to be going in and out except doctors and nurses. There were even guards at the door, private security men in padded black firefight suits, the kind of muscle that even the craziest drunk didn't bother to mess with. And even though his opinionated child might think he was a drunk, Long Joseph knew that he wasn't crazy.

He had swallowed down perhaps half the wine, but the rest was still sloshing in the bottle in his pocket, testament to his good sense and powers of restraint. There were other people on the street in front of the hospital this evening, too, so he knew that he wasn't being suspicious. But beyond that, he had reached a sort of blank wall in his own head, a big hard something that kept him from doing anything else. How could he see his son if there was a quarantine? And if he couldn't see him, then what? Go back, and face that womanish Jeremiah and admit it had all been a mistake? Or worse, go back and find Renie up and asking questions, and not even be able to give her news of her brother?

He wandered from the bus stop toward the small cluster of trees that stood on a knoll a few yards down from the medical facility's front door. He leaned against one of them and slapped his hand gently against the squeeze-bottle while he waited for an idea to come. The wall in his head remained firm, as heavy and unyielding as the helmeted men by the entrance. One of them turned in his direction for a moment, the face shield blank as an insect's eye, and Long Joseph stepped back into the trees.

That would be all he needed, wouldn't it? Have one of those weight-lifting Boer bastards notice him and decide to teach the kaffir a lesson. All the laws in the world couldn't stop one of those private thugs before he broke your bones—that was what was wrong with the country.

He had just found a safer spot, deep in the tree shadows, when a hand clamped on his mouth. Something hard pressed into his back, nestling against the knobs of his spine.

The voice was a harsh whisper. "Don't make a noise."

Long Joseph's eyes bulged, and he stared at the security guards, wishing now they could see him, but he was too far away, hidden in the dark. The hard thing prodded him again.

"There's a car behind you. We are going to turn around and walk toward it, and you are going to get into it, and if you do anything stupid I'm going to blow your insides all over the sidewalk."

His knees weak, Long Joseph Sulaweyo was spun around so that he faced out the far side of the stand of trees. A dark sedan waited at the curb, obscured from the medical facility by the copse, its door open, the interior dark as a grave pit.

"I'm taking my hand off your mouth," the voice said. "But if you even breathe loud, you are dead."

He still could not see his captor, only a dark shape standing just behind his shoulder. He thought wildly of all the things he might do, all the netflick heroisms he had ever seen, kicking guns out of villains' hands, immobilizing an attacker with a kung fu jab; he even thought for a moment of screaming and running, praying that the first shot would miss. But he knew he would do none of those things. The pressure on his spine was like the nose of some cold, ancient creature, sniffing for the kill. He was its prey, and it had caught him. A man couldn't outrun Death, could he?

The car door was before him. He let himself be bent double and shoved inside. Someone pulled