e-version notes
 

Otherland

Volume Three

Mountain of Black Glass

Tad Williams

Original Copyright 1999
DAW Books ISBN 0-88677-906-5

Volume One Synopsis

Volume Two Synopsis

Foreword

First
EXILES IN DREAM

  1. A Circle of Strangers
  2. An Old-Fashioned Sound
  3. House of the Beast
  4. A Problem With Geography
  5. Tourist in Madrikhor
  6. A Rock and a Hard Place
  7. The Battle for Heaven
  8. House

Second
ANGELS AND ORPHANS

  1. Eyes of Stone
  2. God's Only Friends
  3. Quarantine
  4. The Terrible Song
  5. Tending the Herd
  6. Bandit Country
  7. Waiting for Exodus

Third
BROKEN GLASS

  1. Friday Night at the End of the World
  2. Our Lady and Friends
  3. Dreams in a Dead Land
  4. A Life Between Heartbeats
  5. Elephant's House
  6. The Spire Forest
  7. An Unexpected Bath
  8. Buried in the Sky
  9. Serious Games
  10. A Job with Unusual Benefits
  11. Dawn at the Gates

Fourth
SUNSET ON THE WALLS

  1. On the Road Home
  2. A Coin for Persephone
  3. Some Roadside Attractions
  4. Heaven's Plaything
  5. The Hall Wherein They Rest
  6. Trojan Horse
  7. A Piece of the Mirror
  8. To Eternity
  9. The White Ocean

Afterword

This is still dedicated to you-know-who,
even if he doesn't. Maybe we can keep this a secret
all the way to the final volume.

Acknowledgements

The list of the Kind, the Helpful, and the Patient who have contributed to the OTHERLAND books now includes the following excellent souls: Barbara Cannon, Aaron Castro, Nick Des Barres, Debra Euler, Arthur Ross Evans, Amy Fodera, Sean Fodera, Jo-Ann Goodwin, Deb Grabien, Nic Grabien, Jed Hartmann, Tim Holman, Nick Itsou, John Jarrold, Katharine Kerr, Ulrike Killer, M. J. Kramer, Jo and Phil Knowles, Mark Kreighbaum, LES.., Bruce Lieberman, Mark McCrum, Joshua Milligan, Hans-Ulrich Möhring, Eric Neuman, Peter Stampfel, Mitch Wagner, Michael Whelan, and my friends on the Tad Williams Listserve and the message boards of the Tad Williams Fan Page and the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Interactive Thesis.

As always, I am especially grateful for the support and encouragement of my wife Deborah Beale, my agent Matt Bialer, and my editors Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim.

Confusion to our enemies!

For more information, visit the Tad Williams website 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
Synopsis

Paul Jonas still seems to be adrift in time and space. He has recovered most of his memory, but the last few years of his life remain a blank. He has no idea why he is being tossed from world to world, pursued by the two creatures he first knew as Finch and Mullet, and he still does not know the identity of the mysterious woman he keeps encountering, and who has appeared to him even in dreams.

He has survived a near-drowning only to find himself in the Ice Age, where he has fallen in with a tribe of Neandertals. The mystery woman appears to him in another dream, and tells him that to reach her he must find "a black mountain that reaches to the sky."

Not all of the cave dwellers welcome the unusual stranger; one picks a quarrel that results in Paul being abandoned in the frozen wilderness. He survives an attack by giant cave hyenas, but falls into the icy river once more.

Others are having just as difficult and painful a time as Paul, although they are better informed. Renie Sulaweyo originally had set out to solve the mystery of her brother Stephen's coma with her friend and former student !Xabbu, a Bushman from the Okavango Delta. With the help of a blind researcher named Martine Desroubins, they have found their way into Otherland, the world's biggest and strangest virtual reality network, constructed by a cabal of powerful men and women who call themselves The Grail Brotherhood. Summoned by the mysterious Mr. Sellars, Renie meets several others who have been affected by the Grail Brotherhood's machinations—Orlando Gardiner, a dying teenager, and his friend Sam Fredericks (who Orlando has only recently discovered is a girl), a woman named Florimel, a flamboyant character who calls himself Sweet William, a Chinese grandmother named Quan Li, and a sullen young man in futuristic armor who uses the handle T4b. But something has trapped them within the network, and the nine companions have been forced to flee from one virtual world to the next on a river of blue fire—a virtual path that leads through all the Otherland simulation worlds.

The newest simworld is much like the real world, except that Renie and her companions are less than a hundredth of their normal size. They are menaced by the local insects, as well as larger creatures like fish and birds, and the members of the group become separated. Renie and !Xabbu are rescued by scientists who are using the simulation to study insect life from an unusual perspective. The scientists soon discover that, like Renie and !Xabbu, they are trapped online. Renie and !Xabbu meet a strange man named Kunohara, who owns the bug world simulation, but claims he is not part of the Grail Brotherhood. Kunohara poses a pair of cryptic riddles to them, then vanishes. When a horde of (relatively gigantic) army ants attacks the research station, most of the scientists are killed and Renie and !Xabbu barely escape from a monstrous praying mantis.

As they flee back to the river in one of the researchers' aircraft, they see Orlando and Fredericks being swept down the river on a leaf. As they attempt to rescue them, Renie and !Xabbu are pulled through the river gateway with them, but the two groups wind up in different simulations.

Meanwhile, in the real world outside the network, other people are being drawn into the widening Otherland mystery. Olga Pirofsky, the host of a children's net show, begins to suffer from terrible headaches. She suspects that her online activities might have something to do with it, and in the course of investigating her problem, begins to learn of the apparently net-related illness that has struck so many children (including Renie's brother.) Olga's research also draws the attention of a lawyer named Catur Ramsey, who is investigating the illness on behalf of the parents both of Orlando and Fredericks, since in the real world both teenagers have been in a coma ever since their entrance into the Otherland network.

John Wulgaru, who calls himself Dread, and whose hobbies include serial murder, has been an effective if not one hundred percent loyal employee of the incredibly wealthy Felix Jongleur, the man who heads the Grail Brotherhood (and who spends most of his time in his Egyptian simulation, wearing the guise of the god Osiris.) But in the course of killing an ex-member of the Brotherhood at Jongleur's orders, Dread has discovered the existence of the Otherland network, and has even taken over one of the sims in Renie's marooned company. As his master Jongleur is caught up in the final arrangements for the Otherland network—whose true purpose is still known only to the Brotherhood—Dread busies himself with this new and fascinating puzzle. As a spy among Sellars' recruits, Dread is now traveling through the network and trying to discover its secrets. But unlike those in Sellars' ragtag group, Dread's life is not at risk: he can go offline whenever he wishes. He recruits a software specialist named Dulcie Anwin to help him run the puppet sim. Dulcie is fascinated by her boss, but unsettled by him, too, and begins to wonder if she is in deeper than she wants to be.

Meanwhile, a bit of Dread's past has surfaced. In Australia, a detective named Calliope Skouros is trying to solve a seemingly unexceptional murder. Some of the terrible things done to the victim's body are reminiscent of an Aboriginal myth-creature, the Woolagaroo. Detective Skouros becomes convinced that there is some strange relationship between Aboriginal myths and the young woman's death she is investigating.

Back in the Otherland network, Renie and !Xabbu find themselves in a weird, upside-down version of the Oz story, set in the dreary Kansas of the original tale's opening. The Otherland simulations seem to be breaking down, or at least growing increasingly chaotic. As Renie and !Xabbu try to escape the evil of Lion and Tinman—who seem to be two more versions of Paul Jonas' Finch and Mullet—they find a pair of unlikely allies, the young and naive Emily 22813 and a laconic gypsy named Azador. Emily later reveals that she is pregnant, and says Azador is the father. Separated from Azador during one of the increasingly frequent "system spasms," they escape Kansas, but to their surprise, Emily (who they had thought was software) travels with them to the next simulation.

Orlando and Fredericks have landed in a very strange world, a kitchen out of an ancient cartoon, populated by creatures sprung from package labels and silverware drawers. They help a cartoon Indian brave search for his stolen child, and after battling cartoon pirates and meeting both a prophetic sleeping woman and an inexplicable force—entities that are really Paul Jonas' mystery woman and the network's apparently sentient operating system, known as the Other—they escape the Kitchen and land in a simulation that seems to be ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, their former companions, the blind woman Martine and the rest of the Sellars' recruits, have hiked out of the bug world to discover themselves in a simulation where the river is made not of water but air, and where the primitive inhabitants fly on wind currents and live in caves along vertical cliffs. Martine and the others name the place Aerodromia, and although they are nervous about trying it at first, they soon discover that they can fly, too. A group of natives invite them to stay in the tribal camp.

Paul Jonas has passed from the Ice Age into something much different. At first, seeing familiar London sights, he believes he has finally found his way home, but soon comes to realize that he is instead traveling through an England almost completely destroyed by Martian attack—it is, in fact, the setting of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Paul now realizes that he is traveling not just to worlds separate in time and space, but to some that are actually fictitious. He meets a strange husband and wife called the Pankies, who seem to be another guise of his pursuers Finch and Mullet, but offer him no harm. (Paul is also being pursued by a special software program called the Nemesis device, but he is not yet aware of it.) Then, when Paul and the Pankies stop at Hampton Court, Paul is led into the maze by a strange man and then shoved through a gateway of glowing light at the maze's center.

On the other side Paul finds himself in the setting of Coleridge's famous poem, Xanadu, and the man who brought him there introduces himself as Nandi Paradivash. Nandi is a member of a group named The Circle, who are working against the Grail Brotherhood. Paul finally learns that he is not insane, nor caught in some kind of dimensional warp, but is rather a prisoner in an incredibly realistic simulation network. But Nandi has no idea why the Brotherhood should be interested enough in Paul—who worked in a museum and remembers his other life as being very ordinary—to pursue him throughout Otherland. Nandi also reveals that all the simulations through which Paul has been traveling belong to one man—Felix Jongleur, the Grail Brotherhood's chairman. Before Nandi can tell him more, they are forced to separate, Nandi pursued by Kublai Khan's troops, Paul passing through another gateway into yet another simworld.

Things are no less complex and confusing in the real world. Renie's and !Xabbu's physical bodies are in special virtual reality tanks in an abandoned South African military base, watched over by Jeremiah Dako and Renie's father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo. Long Joseph, bored and depressed, sneaks out of the base to go see Renie's brother Stephen, who remains comatose in a Durban hospital, leaving Jeremiah alone inside the base. But when Joseph arrives at the hospital, he is kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a car.

The mysterious Mr. Sellars lives on a military base, too, but his is in America. Christabel Sorensen is a little girl whose father is in charge of base security, and who despite her youth has helped her friend Sellars escape the house arrest her father and others have kept him in for years. Sellars is hiding in old tunnels under the base, his only companion the street urchin Cho-Cho. Christabel does not like the boy at all. She worries for the feeble Mr. Sellars' safety, and is torn by guilt for doing something she knows would make her mother and father angry. But when her mother discovers her talking with Sellars through specially modified sunglasses, Christabel is finally in real trouble.

Martine, Florimel, Quan Li, Sweet William, and T4b have been enjoying the flying world, Aerodromia, but things get uncomfortable when a young girl from the tribe is kidnapped. Martine and the rest don't know it, but the girl has been stolen, terrorized, and murdered by Dread, still pretending to be one of Martine's four companions. The people of Aerodromia blame the newcomers for the disappearance, and dump them all into a labyrinth of caverns they call the Place of the Lost, where they find themselves surrounded by mysterious, ghostly presences which Martine, with her heightened nonvisual senses, finds particularly upsetting. The phantoms speak in unison, telling of the "One who is Other," and how he has deserted them instead of taking them across the "White Ocean," as promised. The voices also identify the real names of all Martine's company. The group is fascinated and frightened, and only belatedly realizes that Sweet William has disappeared—evidently to protect the guilty secret of his true identity. Something large and strange—the Other—abruptly enters the darkened Place of the Lost, and Martine and the others flee the horrifying presence. Martine searches desperately for one of the gateways that will allow them to leave the simulation before either the Other or the renegade Sweet William catches them.

At the same time, Orlando and Fredericks discover that the Egyptian simulation is not a straightforward historical recreation, but a mythical version. They meet a wolf-headed god named Upaut, who tells them how he and the whole simworld have been mistreated by the chief god, Osiris. Unfortunately, Upaut is not a very bright or stable god, and he interprets Orlando mumbling in his sleep—the result of a dream-conversation Orlando is having with his software agent, Beezle Bug, who can only reach him from the real world when he dreams—as a divine directive for him to try to overthrow Osiris. Upaut steals their sword and boat, leaving Orlando and Fredericks stranded in the desert. After many days of hiking along the Nile, they come upon a strange temple filled with some terrible, compelling presence. They cannot escape it. In a dream, Orlando is visited by the mystery woman also seen by Paul Jonas, and she tells them she will give them assistance, but as the temple draws them closer and closer, they find only the Wicked Tribe, a group of very young children they had met outside the network, who wear the sim-forms of tiny yellow flying monkeys. Orlando is stunned that this is the help the mystery woman has brought them. The frightening temple continues to draw them nearer.

Paul Jonas has passed from Xanadu to late 16th Century Venice, and soon stumbles into Gally, a boy he had met in one of the earlier simulations, and who had traveled with him, but Gally does not remember Paul. Seeking help, the boy brings him to a woman named Eleanora; although she cannot explain Gally's missing memories, she reveals that she herself is the former real-world mistress of an organized crime figure who built her this virtual Venice as a gift. Her lover was a member of the Grail Brotherhood, but died too soon to benefit from the immortality machinery they are building, and survives now only as a set of flawed life-recordings. Before Paul can learn more, he discovers that the dreadful Finch and Mullet—the Twins, as Nandi named them—have tracked him to Venice: he must flee again, this time with Gally. But before they can reach the gateway that will allow them to escape, they are caught by the Twins. The Pankies also make an appearance, and for a moment the two mirror-pairs face each other, but the Pankies quickly depart, leaving Paul alone to fight the Twins. Gally is killed, and Paul barely escapes with his life. Still trying to fulfill the mystery woman's summons from his Ice Age dream, he travels to a simulation of ancient Ithaca to meet someone called "the weaver." Still shocked and saddened by Gally's death, he learns that in this new simulation he is the famous Greek hero Odysseus, and that the weaver is the hero's wife, Penelope—the mystery woman, again. But at least it seems he will finally get some answers.

Renie and !Xabbu and Emily find that they have escaped Kansas for something much more confusing—a world that does not seem entirely finished, a place with no sun, moon, or weather. They have also inadvertently taken an object from Azador that looks like an ordinary cigarette lighter, but is in fact an access device, a sort of key to the Otherland network, stolen from one of the Grail Brotherhood (General Daniel Yacoubian, one of Jongleur's rivals for leadership). While studying the device in the hopes of making it work, !Xabbu manages to open a transmission channel and discovers Martine on the other end, trapped in the Place of the Lost and desperately trying to open a gateway. Together they manage to create a passage for Martine and her party, but when they arrive, believing they are being pursued by a murderous Sweet William, they find that it is William himself who has been fatally injured, and grandmotherly Quan Li who is really the murderer Dread in virtual disguise. His secret revealed, Dread escapes with the access device, leaving Renie and the others stranded, perhaps forever, in this disturbing place.

OTHERLAND
Mountain of Black Glass

Foreword

As she spoke, the flame of the oil lamp repeatedly drew his eye, a wriggling brightness that in such a still room might have been the only real thing in all the universe. Even her eyes, the wide dark eyes he knew so well, seemed but a detail from a dream. It was almost impossible to believe, but this was unquestionably her, at last. He had found her.

But it couldn't be this simple, Paul Jonas thought. Nothing else has been.

And of course, he was right.

 

At first it did seem as though a door, long closed, had finally opened—or rather, with Paul still reeling from the horror of the boy Gally's death, it seemed he had reached the final round of some particularly drawn-out and incomprehensible contest.

The wife—and, most thought, widow—of long-lost Odysseus had stalled her suitors for some while with the excuse that before considering another marriage she must finish weaving her father-in-law's shroud. Each night, when the suitors had fallen into drunken sleep, she had then secretly unpicked her day's work. Thus, when Paul had come to her in the guise of her husband, he had found her weaving. When she turned from the loom he saw that the design was one of bird shapes—bright-eyed, flare-winged, each individual feather a little miracle of colored thread—but he had not looked at it long. The mysterious creature who had come to him in so many guises and in so many dreams, who in this place wore the form of a tall, slender woman of mature years, now stood waiting for him.

"There is so much that we must talk about, my long-lost husband—so very much!"

She beckoned him to her stool. When he had lowered himself onto it, she knelt with careful grace on the stone flags at his feet. Like everyone else in this place, she smelled of wool and olive oil and woodsmoke, but she also had a scent that seemed to Paul particularly her own, a whiff of something flowery and secretive.

Oddly, she did not embrace him, did not even call back the slave-woman Eurycleia to bring wine or food for her long-lost husband, but Paul was not disappointed: he was far more interested in answers to his many questions. The lamp flame flickered, then stabilized, as though the world drew breath and held it. Everything about her called to him, spoke of a life he had lost and was desperate to regain. He wanted to clutch her to him, but something, perhaps her cool, slightly fearful gaze, prevented it. He was dizzied by events and did not know where to start.

"What . . . what is your name?"

"Why, Penelope, my lord," she said, a wrinkle of consternation appearing between her eyebrows. "Has your trip to death's dusky kingdom robbed you even of your memories? That is sad indeed."

Paul shook his head. He knew the name of Odysseus' wife already, but he had no interest in playing out a scenario. "But what is your real name? Vaala?"

The look of worry was rapidly becoming something deeper. She leaned away from him, as though from an animal that might at any moment turn violent. "Please, my lord, my husband, tell me what you wish me to say. I do not wish to anger you, for then your spirit might find no rest at all."

"Spirit?" He reached his hand toward her but she shied away. "Do you think I'm dead? Look, I'm not—touch me."

Even as she moved gracefully but decisively to avoid him, her expression suddenly changed, a violent alteration from fear to confusion. A moment later a deep mournfulness came over her—a look that seemed to have no relationship to the prior reactions. It was startling to see.

"I have kept you with my womanish worries long enough," she said. "The ships strain at their anchor ropes. Bold Agamemnon and Mcnelaus and the others impatiently await, and you must sail across the sea to distant Troy."

"What?" Paul could not make sense of what had just happened. One moment she had been treating him as though he were her husband's ghost, the next she was trying to hurry him off to the Trojan War, which must be long over with—otherwise, why was everyone so surprised to see him still alive? "But I have come back to you. You said you had much to tell me."

For a moment Penelope's face froze, then thawed into yet another new and quite different expression, this one a mask of pained bravery. What she said made almost no sense at all. "Please, good beggar, although I feel certain that Odysseus my husband is dead, if you can give me any tale at all of his last days, I will see that you never go hungry again."

It felt as though he had stepped onto what he thought was a sidewalk only to discover it was a whirling carousel. "Wait—I don't understand any of this. Don't you know me? You said that you did. I met you in the giant's castle. We met again on Mars, when you had wings. Your name was Vaala there."

At first his sometime wife's face curdled into a look of anger, but then her expression softened. "Poor man," she said tolerantly. "Shouldering just a few of the many indignities that tormented my resourceful husband has driven away your wits. I will have my women find a bed for you, where my cruel suitors will not make your life a misery. Perhaps in the morning you can offer me better sense." She clapped her hands; the aged Eurycleia appeared in the doorway. "Find this old man a clean place to sleep, and give him something to eat and drink."

"Don't do this to me!" Paul leaned forward and clutched at the hem of her long dress. She jerked away with a momentary blaze of real fury.

"You go too far! This house is full of armed men who would be only too happy to kill you in hopes of impressing me."

He clambered to his feet, not certain what to do next. Everything seemed to have crashed down around him. "Do you really not remember me? Just a few minutes ago you did. My real name is Paul Jonas. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Penelope relaxed, but her formal smile was so stiff as to look painful, and for a moment Paul thought he saw something terrified fluttering behind her eyes, a trapped creature struggling for escape. The hidden thing faded; she waved him away and turned back to her tapestry.

Outside the chamber he put his hand on the old woman. "Tell me—do you know me?"

"Of course, my lord Odysseus, even in those rags and with your beard so gray." She led him down the narrow stairs to the first floor.

"And how long have I been gone?"

"Twenty terrible years, my lord."

"Then why does my wife think I am someone else? Or think I'm just now leaving for Troy?"

Eurycleia shook her head. She did not seem overly perturbed. "Perhaps her long sorrow has sickened her wits. Or perhaps some god has clouded her vision, so she cannot see you truly."

"Or maybe I'm just doomed," Paul muttered. "Maybe I'm just meant to wander around forever."

The old woman clicked her tongue. "You should be careful of your words, my lord. The gods are always listening."

 

He lay curled on the packed earth of the kitchen floor. The sun had set and the cold night wind off the ocean crept through the huge, draughty house. The ash and dirt on the floor were more than offset by the welcome heat of the oven, which pulsed out at him through the stone, but even being warm when he might have been outside, chilled to the bone, was not much comfort.

Think it through, he told himself. Somehow you knew it wouldn't be so easy. The serving woman said, "Maybe a god has clouded her vision." Could that be it? Some kind of spell or something? There were so many possibilities within this world, and he had so little real information—only what Nandi Paradivash had told him, with many deliberate omissions. Paul had never been much good at solving puzzles or playing games as a child, far happier just daydreaming, but now he felt like cursing his childhood self for slackness.

No one else was going to do it for him, though.

As Paul thought about what he had become—a thinking game-piece, perhaps the only one, on this great Homeric Greece game board—a realization came to him, muffled and yet profound as distant thunder. I'm doing this all wrong. I'm thinking about this simworld like it's real, even though it's just an invention, a toy. But I need to think about the invention itself. What are the rules of how things work? How does this network actually function? Why am I Odysseus, and what's supposed to happen to me here?

He struggled to summon up his Greek lessons from school days. If this place, this simworld, revolved around the long journey of Homer's Odyssey, then the king's house on Ithaca could only come into it at the beginning of the tale, when the wanderer was about to leave, or at the end when the wanderer had returned. And as realistic as this place was—as all the simworlds he had visited were—it was still not real: perhaps every possible contingency could not be programmed in. Perhaps even the owners of the Otherland network had limits to their budgets. That meant there would have to be a finite number of responses, limited in part by what the Puppets could understand. Somehow, Paul's appearance here had triggered several contradictory reactions in the woman currently called Penelope.

But if he was triggering conflicting responses, why had the servingwoman Eurycleia immediately recognized him as Odysseus returned in disguise from his long exile, and then never deviated from that recognition? That was pretty much as it had been in the original, if his long-ago studies had served him properly, so why should the servant react correctly and the lady of the house not?

Because they're a different order of being, he realized. There aren't just two types of people in these simulations, the real and the false—there's at least one more, a third sort, even if I don't yet know what it is. Gally was one of those third types. The bird-woman, Vaala or Penelope or whatever she's really called—she must be another.

It made sense, as far as he could think it through. The Puppets, who were completely part of the simulations, never had any doubt about who they were or what was happening around them, and apparently never left the simulations for which they had been created. In fact, Puppets like the old serving woman behaved as though they and the simulations were both completely real. They were also well-programmed; like veteran actors, they would ignore any slip-ups or uncertainties on the part of the human participants.

At the other end of the spectrum, the true humans, the Citizens, would always know that they were inside a simulation.

But there was apparently a third type like Gally and the bird-woman who seemed to be able to move from one simworld to another, but retained differing amounts of memory and self-understanding in each environment. So what were they? Impaired Citizens? Or more advanced Puppets, some kind of new model that were not simulation-specific?

A thought struck him then, and even the smoldering warmth from the oven could not stop his skin pimpHng with sudden chill.

God help me, that describes Paul Jonas as well as it describes them. What makes me so sure I'm a real person?

 

 

The bright morning sun of Ithaca crept into almost every corner of the Wanderer's house, rousting the usurped king from his bed by the oven not long after dawn. Paul had little urge to linger, in any case—knowing the kitchen women were virtual did not much soften their harsh words about his raggedness and dirtiness. Old Eurycleia, despite her workday already having reached full gallop as she saw to the demands of the suitors and the rest of the household, made sure that he received something to eat—she would have brought him far more than the chunk of bread and cup of heavily watered wine he accepted, but he saw no purpose in rousing envy or suspicion in the household. He found himself chewing the crusty bread with some pleasure, which made him wonder how his real body was being fed. Despite the frugal meal and his best efforts to be unobtrusive, several of the maids had already begun to whisper that they should have one or another of their favorites among Penelope's suitors drive this filthy old man out of the house. Paul did not want to fight with any of the interlopers—even assuming he had been given the strength and stamina to outduel one of those strapping warriors, he was tired and depressed and wanted no part of any more struggles. In an effort to avoid controversy entirely he took his heel of bread and went out to walk on the headlands and think.

 

Whatever else the creators of this simulation might have planned, Paul thought, they had done a very fine job of capturing the Mediterranean world's astonishingly clear, bright light. Even early on this hot morning the rocks along the cliff seemed as crisply pale as new paper, the reflected glare so fierce that he could not stand too close to them. Even with the sun behind him, he had to shade his eyes.

I've got to learn the rules of this thing, he thought as he watched the seagulls wheeling below him. Not Greece, but the whole network. I have to make sense of it or I'll just wander forever. The other version of Vaala, the one that spoke first in my dream, then through the Neandertal child, said that I had to get to a black mountain.

"It reaches to the sky," she had told him, "covers up the stars. . . . That is where all your answers are." But when he had asked her how he could find it, she had answered, "I don't know. But I might know, if you can find me." And then the dream-version of Vaala had sent him here, to search for what seemed herself in another guise—but that was where the whole thing fell apart completely. How could she know . . . but not know? What could such a thing mean? Unless, as he had guessed the night before, she was neither normal person nor simulation, but something else. Perhaps she had meant that in different simulations she had access to different memories?

But this Penelope version of her doesn't seem to know anything at all, he thought sourly. She doesn't even know she's a version—doesn't know that she's the one who sent me here.

He stooped and picked up a flat rock and skimmed it out into the stiff ocean breeze; it splashed long seconds later at the base of the rough cliffs. The wind shifted direction and jostled him a step nearer the precipice, still healthily distant from the edge but enough to make his groin tighten at the thought of the long fall.

There's so much I don't know. Can I really die from something that happens here in a simulation? The golden harp told me that even though nothing was real, things could hurt or kill me. If this is all a simulation network, the message was tight about the first part, so I should assume it told the truth about the second part too, even though it doesn't make much sense. Nandi certainly acted as though we were both in real danger in Xanadu. . . .

A skirl of primitive music came from somewhere behind him, breaking his concentration. He sighed. Questions and more questions, seemingly without end. What was that other Greek myth, a many-headed, dragonlike creature—the hydra? Cut off a head and two more would grow from the stump, wasn't that how it had gone? He would have thought that meeting Nandi and the Venetian woman Eleanora would erase all the mysteries that plagued him, but the more he chopped away at the questions, the more rapidly he created a dense bouquet of new hydra-heads. It was like some tangled modernist tale about conspiracy theories gone out of control, a fable about the danger of paranoid thinking.

The flute shrilled again like a child trying to attract his attention. He frowned at the distraction—but it was all distraction these days. Even the messages apparently meant to help him were dubious. A dream-version of Vaala had sent him here to meet another version of herself that did not know him. He had received assistance from the golden harp he had found in a giant's castle, but it had not actually spoken to him until he was in the Ice Age, where the harp had become a gem.

So was the castle a dream, or another simulation? And who sent me that harp-message in the first place? If it was Nandi's people—they're the only ones I've heard of who might try to warn someone like me—then why hadn't Nandi ever heard of me? And who is this bird-woman Vaala, and why am I so bloody, painfully certain I know her?

Paul took the last of his bread from a fold of his tattered robe, chewed and swallowed it, then continued along the hillside, wandering in the general direction of the insistent flute. As he followed the hill path down, the music was submerged in an angry baying which rapidly grew louder. It had only just begun to intrude itself on his distracted thoughts when a quartet of huge mastiffs burst into view, speeding up the trail toward him in full cry, red mouths wide, voices full of excitement and bloodlust. He halted in surprise and sudden fear and took a few steps backward, but the hill behind him was steep and without shelter and he knew he could not hope to outrun these four-legged monsters.

As he bent, clawing the ground for a branch to use as a weapon and slow down the inevitable for at least a few moments, a loud whistle shrilled across the hillside. The dogs pulled up a dozen meters from Paul, circling and barking angrily, but came no closer. A lean young man appeared from around a stone farther down the hill and examined Paul briefly, then whistled again. The dogs snarled as they retreated, unhappy at giving up a kill. When they reached the young man he gave the nearest a light smack on the flank and sent them all trotting back down the slope. He beckoned for Paul to follow, then lifted a flute to his lips, turned, and sauntered back down the path after the swiftly-vanishing dogs, tootling away merrily if not exactly musically.

Paul had no idea what any of this was about, but was not about to offend someone who was on good terms with such large, hostile animals. He followed.

A flat area between the hills came into view around the next bend, a great open space with a few buildings on it, but what Paul at first took for another large dwelling, a crude version of the palace upon the hill, turned out to be a compound for animals—specifically swine. A large walled area had been sectioned off into sties, and each open-roofed apartment had a contingent of several dozen pigs. Hundreds more lolled around outside the sties in the wide space between the compound's walls, as indolent as rich tourists on a Third World beach.

The young man with the dogs had disappeared somewhere, but an older man with a slight limp now appeared from the shade of one of the compound's higher walls, the sandal he was repairing still dangling from his broad hand. His beard was almost completely gray, but his heavy upper body and corded arms suggested he retained most of the vigor of his younger days.

"Come, old fellow," he called to Paul. "You were lucky that my boy was with the dogs when they went after you. I'm glad of it, too, of course—don't need any more problems around here, and it would have been a shame to see you chewed up and swallowed. Come have some wine with me, and you can give me any news you have."

This man and his speech rang a bell of some kind for Paul, but he could not tell what it reminded him of; once again he cursed himself for having paid so little attention to Homer when he'd had it, first at Cranleigh, then again at university.

Still, how was I supposed to know? I mean, yes, if someone had warned me, "Say, Jonas, one day you're going to get chucked into a live version of The Odyssey and have to fight for your life there," I would probably have hit the books a bit harder. But who could have guessed?

"You are kind," he said aloud to what he guessed must be the chief swineherd—the pork production foreman, as it were. "I didn't mean to upset your dogs. I'm afraid I'm a stranger here."

"A stranger? From that ship that landed at Phorcys' Cove, I'll be bound. Well come, then—all the more reason. Never let it be said that Eumaeus did not offer hospitality to a stranger."

Paul felt sure he had heard the name, but simply knowing he should recognize it was absolutely no help at all.

The swineherd's hut was modestly appointed, but it was still pleasant to get out of the sun, already quite hot long before noon, and to let the dry dust settle. The watered wine Eumaeus offered was also welcome. Paul took a long swallow, then a second, before he felt ready to make conversation.

"So tell me the truth, stranger," Eumaeus said. "You are from that Phaecian ship that stopped in the cove barely long enough to take on fresh water from the spring, are you not?"

Paul hesitated, then nodded. There had definitely been something in The Odyssey about the Phaecians—he remembered that much, at least.

"You come at a sad time, if this is your first visit to Ithaca." Eumaeus belched and rubbed at his stomach. "In other days I could have offered to dine you on fatted hog, but all I have to spare is suckling pig, and a lean, small one at that. The suitors who are encamped in my master's house are emptying his larders. Still, beggars and strangers come in Zeus' name, and you will not go away hungry."

The swineherd continued to ramble on in this vein for no little time, emphasizing the viciousness of Penelope's unwanted suitors and the shame of how the gods had treated his master, Odysseus. Paul dimly remembered that he was supposed to be disguised in some way—one of the gods had changed Odysseus' face so he could return to his home without his enemies realizing it was him—and wondered why the slave Eurycleia had been able to recognize him but the swineherd could not.

After perhaps an hour of preliminary chat his host slaughtered two young pigs and cut up their flesh to roast on sticks over the fire. Despite the swineherd's kindness, Paul found himself growing impatient and angry. I could spend weeks wandering around here, with all the noble old servants rhapsodizing about their noble missing master, but meanwhile I'm going to be sleeping on the floor in my own house. He caught himself and grinned tightly. In the house of the character I'm playing. But the fact remains, I have to do something.

Eumaeus served him barley meal and skewers of roasted pork. As he ate, Paul made desultory conversation, but he did not remember enough of the epic to be able to say much that interested the swineherd. After a while, assisted by the food, several generous bowls full of wine, and the afternoon heat, he and Eumaeus lapsed into a surfeited silence not much different than that of the animals outside. A dim memory tickled at Paul.

"Doesn't the king have a son? Tele . . . something?"

"Telemachus?" Eumaeus belched gently and scratched himself. "Yes, a fine lad, the very image of his father. He has gone to search for our poor Odysseus—I believe he has snuck away to see Menelaus, his father's comrade at Troy." As he went on to describe Telemachus' ill-treatment at the hands of the suitors, Paul could not help wondering if the son's absence was part of the simworld's scenario, or whether it might somehow be more personal. Was it supposed to have been Gally? The thought was painfully sobering, and for a moment Paul was looking at himself as though from outside—lolling in the reek of an imaginary swineherd's cottage, drunk on watered wine and unwatered self-pity. It was not a pleasant sight, even in his imagination.

Don't be stupid, he told himself. The system wouldn't have any way of knowing Gally was traveling with me unless he came into this simulation with me, and he didn't. The bastards killed him in Venice. Whatever his confusion about his own state, it was hard to doubt what had happened to Gally—the horrible, shocking finality of it had been too great.

But as he thought about the boy, he began to wonder again how the whole system worked. There were Citizens and Puppets, that was clear, but did everyone else, the Gallys and the Penelopes, fall into a single category? The bird-woman was here, but there was also a version of her on Mars. And what about the one that appeared to him in dreams? If there were somehow multiple versions of her, could they never coexist, never share their knowledge with each other? They must have some common thread, otherwise how could the Neandertal dream-spirit have known about her other self here in Ithaca?

And what about his pursuers, those two ghastly creatures that had hounded him from simulation to simulation. Were they real people?

The last moments in Venice came back to him, the bizarre confusion of events—Eleanora, a real woman, but appearing as a ghostly spirit in her own simulation, the Finch-thing and Mullet-thing, tracking him down again, heartless and inexorable as some kind of virus . . . and the Pankies.

My God, where do they fit in? Paul wondered. They looked like Finch and Mullet, but they weren't—sort of like the different versions of my bird-woman. But there's only been one version of her in any simulation I've been in, either a real character, like Penelope, or sort of a dream version. The Pankies and their doubles both showed up at the same time in Venice. . . .

It was hard to forget the strange expression that had crossed Undine Pankie's vast, flabby face—something almost automatic, so instinctive as to seem mechanical. Then she and her tiny husband had simply left—walked off, vanishing into the catacombs like two actors who had discovered themselves to be in the wrong play.

It was odd how often important things—especially having to do with the mystery woman—seemed to happen around the dying and the dead. The Venetian crypts, the dying Neandertal boy, the exhumed cemetery on the Western Front. Death and the dying. Although there had been the maze at Hampton Court, too. Mazes and cemeteries—what was it with these people, anyway?

An idea began to tickle at him. He sat up, suddenly more sober than he had been a few minutes earlier, "Tell me something, good Eumaeus," he began abruptly. If these things were machines, that was all the more reason why there should be rules, logic . . . answers. It was up to him to discover what they were. "Tell me how people in your country ask the gods for help."

 

Penelope rebuffed him again that evening, starting the audience as though Paul were the kindly beggar she had sent away the day before, but then veering rapidly into a wife's tragic leave-taking, bidding him farewell on his journey to Troy with many promises as to how she would keep his home and his possessions safe, and would raise his infant son to proper manhood.

I've definitely done something to catch her in a loop, he thought. It was hard to watch the woman he had chased for so long weeping bravely over something that bore no relationship to current reality, even the skewed reality of the simulation network, but it confirmed him in his intentions. I could go on like this forever, he decided, and it wouldn't change anything.

"Why can your spirit not rest, my lord and husband?" she asked suddenly, changing tack again. "Is it that your bones lie unmourned on some distant beach? That the gods who opposed you have tried to hide your name and your deeds? Do not fear—not all gods are your enemies, and there are those who will avenge you. There are others who will bring your memory and good name back from those foreign lands. A man waits to speak to me even now, to tell me of your life and deeds while you have been far from me, and someday your son, sensible Telemachus, will be able to avenge your wrongful death."

He felt a moment of interest until he realized that the man she spoke of was himself, that she had folded that version into this scenario where he was his own ghost.

I was right the first time, he thought miserably. This could go on and on. I started this loop, somehow—I have to end it. A chilling thought came to him: But what if this is all there is to her? What if she's just a broken machine—nothing more than that?

Paul shook it off—he simply couldn't afford to consider the possibility. The quest to find this woman was almost the only thing that gave his life meaning. He had to believe that his recognition of her meant something. He had to believe.

 

Two more days passed.

Gripped by a strange sort of loyalty, Paul gave Penelope one last chance to recognize the truth, such as it was, but again, after oscillating through Paul-as-ghost and Paul-as-beggar, she once more settled on the idea he was about to leave for Troy and would not hear otherwise. Time after time she bade him a sadly loving farewell, then moments later began her leavetaking all over again. The only thing she did not seem to consider, he noted, was the scenario that all the other Ithacans seemed to be performing—that his character, Odysseus, had returned in secret, much aged, but alive and well, from the Trojan War. He thought that was probably significant, but wasn't certain how. In any case, he was now determined to smash the puzzle rather than to waste the rest of his life trying to solve it.

The ancient slave Eurycleia, he was unhealthily gratified to discover, still regarded him with the true belief of a faithful folktale servant. When he had finished telling her what he wanted, she recited his instructions back to prove she had them memorized.

Avoiding the brawl of suitors and the backstairs treachery of the maids and house slaves, he spent the rest of his time walking the island, the dream-Ithaca. He visited Eumaeus again; then, following the swineherd's directions, he took a long walk through the bee-droning hills to a small rustic temple on the far side of the island. The place gave every indication of having been ignored a long time: a faceless, time-rounded statue standing in a niche dusted with the remains of long-dead narcissus flowers, surrounded by cypress branches so dry they had lost their scent.

As he stood praying before the forgotten shrine in the hollow of the hillside, the air heavy and silent but for the constant breathing of sea, he prayed aloud for himself too, just to be on the safe side. True, this was all a simulation, the painstaking creation of people as human as himself, so for all intents and purposes he was praying to some team of gear engineers and graphic designers, but his boss at the Tate had often warned him never to underestimate the sneakiness and self-obsession of artists.

 

 

He woke disoriented from a dream about Gally, and for a moment could not remember where he was.

He groped around. Sand lay beneath him, and there was a faint, dying light in the west where the sun had gone down behind the hills. He had fallen asleep on the beach, waiting.

The lost child in his dream had worn the guise of the still-unmet Telemachus, a handsome, dark-ringleted youth who nevertheless wore Gally's urchin squint. The boy had been rowing a small boat on a dark river through drifting mists, calling Paul's name. The urge to reach out to him had been powerful, but some dream-paralysis had prevented Paul from moving or even answering as the boy faded into a cloud of white nothingness.

Helpless tears were on his cheeks now, cool in the evening wind off the ocean, but through his misery he felt a kind of vindication: surely this dream of Gally on the river in the lands of Death must mean he was doing the right thing. Paul sat up, his wits returning with sleep's retreat. The beach was empty but for a few fishermen's boats, their owners long since gone to their evening meals. Sea and sky were quickly becoming a single dark thing, and the fire he had built with so much labor earlier in the afternoon was now guttering. Paul sprang forward and fed it with cypress twigs as he had been told, and then with larger pieces of driftwood until the flames began to mount high again. By the time he had finished, the sun was entirely gone, the stars blazing from a sky undulled by the pervasive ambient light of Paul's own age.

As if they had been waiting for everything to be correctly arranged, voices now came to him down the beach.

"There, where the fire is burning—see, mistress?"

"But this is most strange. Are you certain it is not bandits or pirates who have made a camp there?'

Paul stood. "This way, my lady," he called. "You don't have to worry about bandits."

Penelope came out of the darkness, shawl wrapped tightly around her, the firelight revealing her look of deep unease. Eurycleia, older and shorter of leg, nevertheless followed close behind.

"I have brought her, master," the slave announced. "As you asked."

"Thank you." He was certain there was something more poetic he should say, but he had no skill for this sort of thing. His personal translation of Homer would just have to be the utilitarian sort.

Penelope laughed nervously. "Is this some conspiracy? My oldest and dearest servant, have you betrayed me to this strange man?"

"So you still don't recognize me?" Paul shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I won't hurt you, I promise. I swear it by all the gods. Please, sit down." He took a breath. It had seemed so sensible when he had planned it—his decision to stop fighting the simulation, to enter instead into its spirit and thus find a painless way to jog this woman back into sanity, to make her useful to him, as her own alter ego had clearly intended her to be. "In fact," he said, "I'm going to ask the gods for help."

Penelope gave one sharp glance to Eurycleia, then settled herself gracefully on the sand. Her dark shawl and darker hair, the few strands of gray invisible in the starlight, surrounded the pale, mistrustful face with a mantle of shadow. Her wide eyes seemed holes cut directly into the night.

The slave woman handed Paul a bronze knife wrapped in a cloth. He produced a bundle of his own and unwrapped the spindly hindquarters of a butchered black sheep—the wage he had earned from Eumaeus' brother-in-law for an afternoon's work fixing a paddock. It seemed a paltry sacrifice to Paul, but Eumaeus—to whom he had gone first in hope of pig flesh to sacrifice—had assured him that a black ram was the only correct choice, and Paul had bowed to the man's clearly superior knowledge.

While Penelope watched in silent trepidation, Paul made a pyre of sticks atop the fire, then did as Eumaeus had told him, cutting the meat and fat away from the ram's thighs. He placed the bones on the pyre and the flesh and fat on top of them. Within moments the sacrifice was sending up plumes of greasy smoke, and as the wind changed direction, he caught not only the alluring scent of cooked meat, but something deeper, older, and altogether more disturbing—the smell of burnt offerings, of ransom paid in fear, the scent of human submission to a powerful and pitiless universe.

"I do not understand," Penelope said faintly. Her great eyes followed his every move, as though he were a wild beast. "What are you doing? Why am I here?"

"You think you don't know me," Paul replied. He tried to keep his voice even but he was beginning to feel an odd elevation, something he had not expected. The dream of poor, dead Gally, the snapping flames on the windy beach, the woman whose face had so long been his only talisman sitting across the fire from him, all combined to make him feel as though he might at last be on the brink of something real—something important. "You think you don't, but the gods will bring back your memory." He felt certain now that he was doing the right thing. The exhilarated rush in his head proved it. No more drifting—he was instead seizing the simulation by its own rules and making it work for him. "They will send someone who will help you remember!"

"You are frightening me." Penelope turned to Eurycleia, who Paul felt sure would reassure her, but the slave looked as unhappy as her mistress.

"Then just tell me what I need to know." Paul stepped back from the fire and spread his arms. The wind tugged at his thin garment, but he felt only the heat of the flames. "Who are you? How did we get here? And where is the black mountain you told me about?"

She stared at him like a cornered animal.

It was hard to be patient when he wanted to shout. He had waited so long—had been pushed and tugged and flung from place to place, always passive, always the one acted upon. He had stood by helplessly while the boy, his only real friend in this bizarre universe, was killed before his eyes. Now that helplessness was finally ending. "Then just tell me about the black mountain. How do I find it? Do you remember? That's why I came here. That's why you sent me here!"

She crouched lower. A strafing of sparks leaped out of the fire and swirled away on the wind.

"No? Then I have to ask the gods." He would use the logic of her own world against her. He would make something happen.

As he lowered himself to the sand, Eurycleia piped up nervously. "Surely that is sheep's flesh, my lord. A black ewe, my lord?"

He began to slap his hands against the ground in slow rhythm, striking the sand with his palms as old Eumaeus had instructed him. "It's a ram. Quiet—I have to remember the words."

The slave woman seemed restless and upset. "But such a thing is an offering to. . . ."

"Sshhhh." He slowed his beat upon the ground, and then intoned in rhythm.

"Hail to thee. Invisible,
Aedoneus, son of Chronos the Eldest,
Brother of Zeus the Thunderer, Hail!
Hail to thee, Lord of the Dark Pillars.
Hades, Monarch of the Underworld,
King of the Silent Realm,
Hail.
Take this flesh. Lord of the Fertile Depths,
Take this offering.
Hear my prayer. . . ."

He paused. He had invoked the God of Death, which surely in this place was as good as any graveyard or dying Ice Age child.

"Send me the bird-woman!" he shouted, still drumming the tattoo on the sand. "Tell her I want to speak to her—I want this woman Penelope to see her!" The words seemed awkward, out of keeping with the poetry of the invocation, and he reached to summon the dream-woman's own words. "Come to us! You must come to us!"

Silence fell. Nothing happened.

Furious, Paul began to drum another tattoo on the sand. "Come to us!"

"M–My lord," Eurycleia stuttered, "I thought you meant to ask the help of Athena the Counselor, who has long looked favorably on your family, or of great Zeus—I thought perhaps even you meant to beg forgiveness of ocean-lord Poseidon, who many say you have somehow offended, and who thus murderously hindered your journey back to us. But this, master, this. . . !"

The last beat of his fingers upon the sand continued to reverberate—a noiseless echo that he could nevertheless feel pulsing away into the deeps. The bonfire flames seemed to have slowed, as though their light traveled to him through deep water, or along some kind of hindered and decaying transmission.

"What are you saying?" His impatience was tempered by a throb of worry—the slave's fear was powerful and genuine. Her mistress Penelope seemed beyond terror, her features slack and still except for her eyes, which stared feverishly from the winding-sheet white of her face. "What are you trying to tell me, old woman?"

"Master, you should not offer prayers for . . . such things as this to . . . to the Earthbound!" Eurycleia gasped, fighting for breath. "Have your years . . . in foreign lands robbed you of your . . . of your memory?"

"Why shouldn't I? Hades is a god, isn't he? People pray to him, don't they?" The feeling in his stomach was rapidly becoming a deep, nauseating chill.

The old slave flapped her hands, but she seemed to have lost the ability to speak. The earth beneath Paul's feet seemed taut as a drum, a breathing membrane pulsing to a slow, distant rhythm. But the pulse was growing stronger.

It's not a mistake—I know it's not a mistake . . . is it?

Even as he felt the clutch of doubt, she was there.

Her counterpart Penelope lurched to her feet, staggering backward on the suddenly unstable sands as the bird-woman's form took shape in the smoke, a monochrome angel in wispy gray, the vast wings trailing away into invisibility. The apparition's face was curiously formless, like the rain-eroded statue of the Earth Lord himself in its niche on the other side of the island. But still, from her expression of disbelieving shock, Penelope in some way recognized her own image, even in this insubstantial duplication.

The smoky face turned to him. "Paul Jonas, what have you done?"

He didn't know what to say. Everything he had planned, all he had thought might happen, was coming unstuck. The surface of the earth now seemed only a skin over some impossibly deep pit, and something moved there, something as vast and inescapable as regret.

The angel shivered, roiling the smoke. Even in this spectral form, he could clearly see the lines of the bird-woman from the giant's castle, and despite his terror, he ached for her. "You have called out to the One who is Other," she said. "He is searching for you now."

"What are you talking about?"

"You have called to him. The one who dreams it all. Why did you do that—he is terrible!"

Through his confusion, Paul finally realized that he had been listening for long moments to Penelope moaning in terror. She had fallen to the ground and was throwing sand on her own head, as though she would bury herself. He pulled her upright, in part wanting to help, but also furious that her recalcitrance should have brought him to this. "Look! This is her!" he shouted at the smoke angel. "You sent me to her, but she couldn't tell me where to go. I wanted her to tell me how to reach the black mountain."

The apparition was no more willing than Penelope to meet her double's eyes: when Paul thrust his erstwhile wife toward her, the angel twitched away, a ripple passing through her entire body and deforming her wings. "We do not. . . ." The face of smoke writhed. "We should not. . . ."

"Just make her tell me. Or you tell me! I can't stand this anymore!" Paul could feel a growing presence, simultaneously beneath his feet and behind his eyes, a pressure building all around that made the very air seem about to burst. "Where is your bloody black mountain?" He shoved Penelope toward the apparition again, but it was like trying to force together two repelling magnets. Penelope tore free from him with animal strength and fell to the sand, weeping.

"Tell me!" Paul shouted. He turned to the angel. "Why won't she tell me?"

The specter was beginning to dissipate. "She has told you. She has told you what she knows in the only way she can. That is why I sent you to her. She is the one who knows what you must do next."

Paul grabbed at her, but the angel was truly smoke: she dissolved in his clawing fingers. "What does that mean?" He turned and seized Penelope instead. He shook her, his anger threatening to overspill, the bursting tension of the night like a great dark blood clot in his head. "Where am I supposed to go?"

Penelope screamed in pain and terror. "Why do you do this to me, my husband?"

"Where do I go?"

Penelope was weeping and shuddering. "To Troy! You must go to Troy! Your comrades await you there!"

Paul let go of her, staggering as though he had been struck with a great stone, the realization a searing pain in his heart.

Troy—the only thing she had said that did not speak of the end of the story, the only answer that did not fit with the rest of the simulation. Through the cloud of confusion caused by his presence, Penelope had been telling him what he needed to know all along . . . but he hadn't listened. Instead he had brought her here, the woman he had sought for so long, and then tortured her, after promising the gods he would not harm her. He had called up something none of them dared face, when she had already told him several times what her other self could not.

Whatever he had summoned from the dark regions below, it was he himself who was the monster.

His eyes blurry with tears, Paul turned from the fire and stumbled away across the drumhead sands. He tripped on the huddled form of Eurycleia, but did not stop to find out if she was alive or dead. The thing that had frightened even the winged woman seemed very near now, achingly so, as close as his own heartbeat.

Searching for me, she said. He tripped and fell, then wobbled to his feet again like a drunken man. The Earthbound, they called him. He could feel the breathing vitality of the soil beneath him. A part of him, a tiny, distant part, shrilled that it all had to be illusion, that he must remember he was in some kind of vast virtual game, but it was a pennywhistle in a hurricane. Every time his feet met the ground he felt the dark thing's presence, as alarming and painful as if he ran on a hot griddle.

A disjointed idea sent him hurrying along the beach to the fishermen's boats. He grabbed the nearest and shoved it down the slick strand, filling the air with panicky curses when it stuck, until at last it skimmed free into the shallow tide. He clambered up over the side and in.

Not touching the earth anymore. His thoughts were like a deck of cards knocked from a table. Big thing. Dead thing. But it can't find me now. It was impossibly strange, whatever it was—could a mere simulation do that?

He lifted the oar in the bottom of the boat and began to drive himself out onto the wine-dark sea. He looked back, but all he could see of the beach was the dying flame of his fire. If Penelope and Eurycleia were still there, they were lost in shadow.

The waves grew higher, lifting the front of the small boat with every swell, setting it down again with a smack. Paul set aside the oar so he could get a better grip on the sides of the boat.

Troy, he thought, clutching at prosaic things in the grip of great horror. A black mountain. Is there a mountain near Troy. . . ?

Another swell almost knocked him overboard and he gripped the boat even more tightly. Although there were no clouds above him, nothing-between him and the diamond-bright stars, the waves were lashing the little craft harder and harder. One passed beneath him and lifted the entire boat up, up, until he thought it would spin him over and dump him out. As he pivoted slowly at the top of his rise, he saw that a wave of unnatural shape was rising before him, higher than any others, a dark mass touched with luminescence at its edges—a figure ten times his own height, the ocean itself taking the form of a bearded man with a crown. For a moment he thought that the thing the angel had called Other had found him, and he gave himself up to despair.

A thunderous voice made the bones of his skull quiver. "Wily Odysseus," it boomed, "mortal man, you know that I, Poseidon, am sworn to destroy you. Yet you leave the safety of your island home and return to my domain. You are a fool. Your death is deserved."

The great sea-king lifted his hand. The waves now rushing toward Paul's boat were like mountains. Paul felt his frail craft lifted, slowly at first, then jerked up into the air and tossed high.

He clung to the hull as he spun, and could hold no thought except, I am a fool, it's true—a bloody, miserable fool. . . .

The ocean, when he fell from the heights and struck it again, seemed hard as stone. His boat burst into fragments and Paul was sucked down into crushing wet blackness.

First:
EXILES IN DREAM

"For the sake of persons of . . . different types,
scientific truth should be presented in different
forms, and should be regarded as equally
scientific, whether it appears in the robust form
and the vivid coloring of a physical illustration or
in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolic
expression."

—James Clerk Maxwell,
address to the Mathematics
and Physics Section, Brit. Assoc. for the
Advancement of Science, 1870

CHAPTER 1
A Circle of Strangers

NETFEED/NEWS: Net Gadfly Claims "Digital Divide" Still a Problem

(visual: African school children watching wallscreen)

VO: Ansel Kleemer, who styles himself "an old-fashioned gadfly" who has devoted his life to being an irritant to economic and political power-players, is launching another protest to bring UN Telecomm's attention to the "digital divide " that Kleemer says is becoming a permanent gulf in world society,

(visual: Kleemer in office)

KLEEMER: "It's simple, really—the net simply replicates world economic inequality, the haves versus the have-nots. There was a time when people thought information technology would bring advantages to everyone, but it's clear that unless things change, the net will continue to be like everything else—if you can afford it, you'll get it. If you can't, who cares about you?"

 

It was only a hand, fingers curled, protruding from the earth like a swollen pink-and-brown flower, but she knew it was her brother's hand.

As she bent and grasped it, she felt it move slowly, sleepily beneath her fingers, and was thrilled to know he lived. She pulled.

Stephen emerged from the clinging soil bit by bit—hand and wrist first, then the rest of his arm, like the root of a stubborn plant. At last his shoulder and head burst free in a shower of dirt. His eyes were closed, his lips curled in a tight, secretive smile. In a desperate hurry now to wrest him loose completely, she pulled harder, drawing out his torso and legs as well, but somehow his other arm, hidden from her view, still anchored him to the earth.

She yanked hard but could not pull the last inches of him out into the light. She planted her feet, bent her back, then put an even greater effort into another pull. The rest of Stephen abruptly jerked free of the ground, then stopped. Clutched in his trailing hand was another small hand whose owner still lay beneath the soil.

Increasingly aware that something was wrong, Renie kept pulling, frantic to dislodge Stephen, but now a chain of small dirty shapes lifted from the soil like the plastic pop-beads she had played with in her own childhood—a score of little children all connected hand to hand, the last still partially immured in the earth.

Renie could not see well—the sky was growing dark, or she had rubbed dirt into her own eyes. She made one last effort, the very hardest pull she could manage, so that for a moment it seemed she was in danger of tearing her own arms out at their roots. The last of the children came free of the soil. But this child's hand held another hand as well, only this last childish fist was the size of a small car, and the wrist loomed from the earth like a vast tree trunk. The very earth trembled as this last monstrous link in the chain, perhaps annoyed by Renie's insistent pulling, began ponderously to dig its way upward out of the dark, gelid soil toward the light of the surface.

"Stephen!" she screamed, "let go, boy! You must let go. . . !"

But his eyes remained tight shut and he continued to cling to the chain of other children, even as the earth heaved and the vast shape beneath it continued to rise. . . .

 

Renie sat up, gasping and shivering, to discover herself in the thin, unchanging gray light of the unfinished simworld, surrounded by the sleeping forms of her companions—!Xabbu, Florimel, Emily 22813 from the crumbling Oz simworld, and the armored silhouette of T4b stretched on the ground beside them like a fallen hood ornament. Renie's movement woke !Xabbu; his eyes flicked open, alert and intelligent. It was a surprise, as always, to see that gaze housed in an almost comical baboon face. As he began to rise from where he lay curled near her side, she shook her head.

"I'm okay. Bad dream. Get some more sleep."

He looked at her uncertainly, sensing something in the ragged tone of her voice, but after a moment shrugged a sinuous monkey-shrug and lay down again. Renie took a deep breath, then rose and walked across the hillside to where Martine sat, blind face turned to the skies like a satellite dish.

"Do you want to take a turn sleeping, Martine?" Renie asked as she sat down. "I feel like I'm going to be awake for a while." The complete absence in the environment of wind and ambient sound made it seem as though a thunderstorm was imminent, but they had been here for what seemed several days now without any weather whatsoever, let alone a storm.

Martine turned toward her. "Are you all right?"

It was strange, but no matter how many times Renie saw her companion's bland sim face, when she turned away again she could hardly remember it. There had been plenty of similar-looking sims in Temilún whose faces were nevertheless full of life and individualism—Florimel had one, and even the false Quan Li had looked like a real person. Martine, though, seemed to have been given something out of a default file.

"Just a bad dream. About Stephen." Renie pawed at the oddly-textured ground. "Reminding myself how little I've done for him, perhaps. But it was a strange dream, too. I've had a few like it. It's hard to explain, but I feel like . . . like I'm really there when they're happening."

Martine nodded slowly. "I think I have had similar types of dreams since we have been on this network—some in which I felt I was seeing things that I have only experienced since I lost my sight. Perhaps it is to do with the change in our sensory input, or perhaps it is something even less explicable. This is a brave new world, Renie, in many ways. Very few humans have experienced such realistic input that was not actually real—very few who were not completely insane, that is."

Renie's smile was a sour one. "So we're all more or less having a continual schizophrenic episode."

"In a way, yes," Martine said thoughtfully. "The kind of thing usually reserved for madmen . . . or for prophets."

Like !Xabbu, Renie almost added, but was not sure what she meant. She looked back toward the rest of their comrades, and specifically to where !Xabbu lay curled, his slender tail pulled up near his muzzle. By his own standards, the Bushman was no more a mystic than he was a theoretical scientist or a philosopher: he was simply working with the laws of the universe as his people knew them.

And after all, Renie had to admit, who's to say they're wrong and we're right?

The silence stretched for a minute, then another. Although the strangeness of the dream still clung to her thoughts, especially the jangling terror of its last moments, she felt a kind of peace as well. "This backwater place we're in," she said at last. "What do you think it is, really?"

Martine frowned, considering. "You mean, do I think it's what it seems to be—something the Grail people haven't finished with yet? I don't know. That seems the most likely explanation, but there are . . . sensations I get from it, things I cannot describe, that make me wonder."

"Like what?"

"As I said, I cannot describe them. But whatever it might be, it is definitely the first place of its sort I have entered, so my speculations do not mean much. It could be that because of the system the Grail Brotherhood employs, any unfinished place would give off the kind of. . . ." again she frowned, ". . . the kinds of . . . intimations of vitality this place has." Before Renie could ask her to explain further, Martine rose. "I will take you up on your kind offer, Renie, if it still holds. The last few days have been impossibly difficult, and I find I am much wearier than I thought. Whatever else this place is, at least we are able to rest."

"Of course, get some sleep. We still have a lot ahead of us—a lot to decide."

"So much had to be said simply to bring each other up to date." Martine's smile was wry. "I am certain Florimel and T4b were not entirely unhappy we did not have time for their personal histories."

"Yes. But that's what today's for, whether they like it or not." Renie noticed she had dug a little trench with her fingers into the strange, soapy ground. Remembering the dream, she shivered and filled it in. "They're going to have to tell us. I won't stand any more secrets like that. That might be what killed William."

"I know, Renie. But do not be too fierce. We are allies trapped in a hostile environment and must take care of each other."

She fought down a small twinge of impatience. "Yes, of course. But that's all the more reason we have to know who's watching our backs."

 

 

T4b and Florimel were the last to return. By the time they appeared around the curve of the hillside, trudging toward the otherwordly campfire across terrain whose surface hue shifted subtly from instant to instant like the colors on an oil slick, Renie was beginning to feel nervously suspicious about their long absence. Still, even though they were the last two maintaining a mystery about their identities, they also seemed a fairly unlikely pair of allies—a fact underscored as T4b clanked into camp and blurted out their news, clearly irritating Florimel.

"Saw some kinda animal, us," he said. "Got no shape, seen? Just, like . . . light. But all bendy."

At first glance, Florimel's sim appeared little different than the one Martine wore, a woman of the Atascos' Temilún simworld, with a strong nose and a dark, reddish-brown complexion not unlike the Maya; but just as two people might wear the same clothes to totally different effect, where Martine's guise gave an impression of blankness that belied her dry wit and careful empathy, Florimel's small sim seemed to have the coiled intensity of a Napoleon, and her face did not look unfinished or general in the same way Martine's did.

Just another mystery, Renie thought wearily, and probably not one of the important ones.

". . . It wasn't an animal in any normal sense of the word," Florimel was saying. "But it's the first phenomenon we've seen that wasn't obviously part of the geography. It was very fluid, but T4b is correct—it was made of light, or was only partially visible to us. It appeared almost out of nowhere and moved around as though it were looking for something. . . ."

"Then it just zanged out, like into an airhole," T4b finished.

"A what?" Renie turned to Florimel for clarification.

"He means it just . . . well, it did seem to step into a hole in the air. It didn't simply vanish, it. . . ." She stopped and shrugged. "Whatever happened, it is gone."

!Xabbu had finished poking up the fire. "And what else did you see?" he asked.

"Saw too much zero, me," said T4b, levering himself down to a seat by the campfire. The reflected flames made unusual, almost textured patterns on his armor.

"We saw a lot more of this," Florimel elaborated, gesturing to the hillside on which they stood. "A thousand variations, but all much the same. . . ."

"Don't touch me!" Emily stood up and moved away from T4b.

"Didn't. You're dupped and trans-upped," he growled. "Trying to bring friendly, me, all it is." If a warrior-robot could be said to sulk, he was clearly doing so.

Florimel let out a great sigh, as if to underscore what she had been forced to put up with all day. "Everywhere was like this—unfinished, disordered, silent. I do not like it, to tell you the truth." She made a dismissive gesture. "What was perhaps interesting, though, is that we found no sign of a river or anything similar, not even a river-of-air, as we had in the last place."

"William liked flying in that river so much," Martine said suddenly. "He was laughing and laughing. He said it was the first thing he'd found in the whole network that made him think the money was worth spending." Everyone fell silent for a moment. Sweet William's stiffened virtual body was only a short distance away, concealed in a sort of pit on the far side of a knoll swirling with evanescent colors. No one looked in that direction, but everyone was clearly thinking about it.

"So, no river," Renie said. "!Xabbu and I didn't find any trace of one either. Pretty much everything else we saw was as you said—more of the same. We didn't see anything I'd call an animal, though." She sighed. "Which means there isn't any obvious and easy way to travel through and out of this simworld."

"There is not even a way to know which direction we should take," Florimel added. "There is no sun, no sunrise or sunset, no directions at all. We only found our way back because I left a trail of broken . . . sticks, I suppose you would call them . . . behind us."

Like bread crumbs, Renie thought. Isn't that from "Hansel and Gretel"? We're living in a bloody fairy tale—except our story, like this world, hasn't been finished yet . . . and we might not be the folks who are going to be around at Happily Ever After time. Out loud, she said, "We had !Xabbu's nose and sense of direction, although I have to admit I was a little nervous—it all just looks the same to me."

"Did you find food?" asked Emily. "I'm very hungry. I'm going to have a baby, you know."

"Oddly enough," said Florimel, saving Renie the trouble, "we realized that, yes."

 

 

Once she had decided to do it, Florimel appeared impatient to start. They had barely settled themselves around the fire pit before she declared, "I was born in Munich. In the early '30s, during the Lockdown. The part of the city where my mother lived was an industrial slum. We shared a small rebuilt warehouse with a dozen other families. Later, I would realize that it was not all bad—many of the families were political, some of the adults were even wanted by the police for things they had done at the beginning of the Guestworker Revolt, and I was taught a great deal about how the world truly works. Too much, perhaps."

She looked around as though someone might want to ask a question, but Renie and the others had been waiting too long to learn something of this companion-stranger to interrupt her.

Florimel shrugged and continued at a brisk pace. "For my mother, it was definitely too much. When her man, who may or may not have been my father, was killed in what the authorities called a riot, but was truly more of an attempt to round up and incarcerate large elements of the social fringe, she fled Munich entirely and moved to the Elz Valley in the Black Forest.

"You may or may not remember the name Marius Traugott—he has been a long time dead, now. He was a teacher, a holistic healer, I suppose a mystic. He rode the wave of superstition at the end of the last century to fame, bought one of the last stands of the old forest, which had been privatized by the Reutzler government, and founded a retreat he called Harmony Camp."

"Was that one of those, what is the name. . . ?" Renie tried to remember the news stories. "Is that the Social Harmony religion?"

Florimel shook her head. "No, not really. One of Traugott's very early disciples split from him and started the Social Harmonist Army in America, but we were nothing like them, believe me—although many people did call our Harmony Camp a religious cult. But whatever you call it, cult, commune, social experiment, it does not matter. My mother was one of the converts, and when I was just a few years old she became a member, giving away the few things she owned for a narrow bed in a bunkhouse and a seat at the foot of Doctor Traugott.

"Despite a diet made entirely of raw, living vegetables and plant material, Traugott died only a few years later at age eighty. Harmony Camp did not fold up or fall apart, though. Several of his lieutenants kept it going, and although it went through periodic shifts of philosophy, some fairly extreme—for a while when I was about twelve, people at the camp armed themselves against a feared crackdown by the government, and at one point some of the more mystical members were trying to beam messages to the stars—it remained more or less what it had been under Doctor Traugott. For me, it was simply home. We children ate together, slept together, sang together. Our parents did the same—lived communally, I mean—but the two groups were largely separate. The children were all taught together, with a rigorous stress on philosophy, health science, and religious thought. It is not entirely surprising that I became interested in medicine. What is more surprising is that when I was old enough, the Harmony Camp Foundation actually spent the money to send me to the university in Freiburg. It is less surprising if you know that the group mistrusted outside doctors and mainstream medicine, and that up until then we had only one nurse to minister to almost six hundred people.

"I will not bore you with how my years at university changed me. Meeting young people who did not call their mothers 'Sister-in-God,' and who had grown up sleeping in a bed of their own in a room of their own was like being introduced to creatures from another planet. Not surprisingly, I came to view my up- bringing differently than before I left Harmony Camp, to be more critical of what I had learned, less accepting of the truths of Doctor Marius Traugott. What may surprise you, however, is that I still returned home when my schooling was finished. Even though I had no formal doctor's degree, I had learned enough to become the chief medical authority of Harmony Camp.

"I feel I must explain this, or you will all misunderstand, as people generally do. It is true that Traugott's ideas were largely nonsense, and that many of the people drawn to his doctrines, and thus to the commune, were those without the strength or resources to compete in the great commercial struggle outside the gates. But did this mean they had no right to live? If they were foolish, or credulous, or simply tired of trying to climb up a ladder that had many times already proved too slippery for them, did that mean they were without value?

"My mother was one such, you see. She had chosen to turn her back on the politics of the street, but she did not want simply to replace that with the values of the bourgeoisie, either. What she wanted was a bed, a safe place to raise her daughter, and the company of people who did not shout at her that she was ignorant or spineless because she was frightened to go out and throw bricks at police.

"My extended Harmony Camp family were mostly kind people. They were frightened of many things, but if fear makes people hateful, it had not yet risen to a sustained pitch with them. Not then. So after university I busied myself with helping them, and although I no longer blindly accepted Harmony Camp's guiding beliefs, I had no qualms about trying to make the lives of its people better. And I did make things better—very quickly, too. I was fortunate enough to have made a friend in school whose father was an executive in a large medical supply company, and at his urging—and much to my surprise—the company donated us some excellent equipment.

"Listen to me." She snorted. "I have already taken too long to get to the point. I started out to tell you of my life at Harmony Camp only because it explains much about me in a few words. But I also wanted you to know that my mother was taught, in part by her own experiences in Munich, in part by Doctor Traugott, to fear the modern life of instant communications and imaginary worlds—in short, the life of the net. I learned to partake freely of that life in my university days, but a part of me still feared it. It was the opposite of all we had been taught to revere, the raw, the tangible, that which lived. When I underwent my quiet rebellion against Marius Traugott's teachings, I undertook to face that which I feared, and I began to spend almost as much time connected to the information world as all but the most die-hard enthusiasts among my university friends. When I returned to Harmony Camp, I even had a showdown with the council, threatening to leave if they did not agree to allow me at least one line which could handle greater bandwidth than voice-only. I told them I could not be their doctor without one, which was only partially true. My blackmail worked.

"So I opened up Harmony Camp to the net. No one touched that system station but me, and after a while the council became less uneasy. Eventually, it was all but forgotten, although I would eventually pay for my pleasures, and pay very heavily. But at the time, once my own initial absorption with the novelty of it began to fade, even I used it only seldom. I kept in touch with a few friends from the university. I did my best to stay current with general medical information. On rare occasions I experimented with some of the other things the net had to offer, but my work at Harmony Camp kept me very busy. In many ways I was almost as disconnected from the modern world as you, !Xabbu, in your early life on the Okavango.

"What changed it was my child, and a man named Anicho Berg."

"My mother died in an accident—as yours did, Renie. It happened in the winter, twelve years ago. The heater in the cabin she shared with some of the older Harmony Camp women malfunctioned and they were asphyxiated. There are far worse ways to die. In any case, though, for the first time I began to feel that my fellow communards were perhaps not family enough—that with my mother dead, I lacked any deep personal connection to the world, even to my own life, if that makes sense.

"It was not very difficult for a woman in her forties to begin thinking about bearing a child. It was even less difficult for a woman with medical training and control over the health services of several hundred people to arrange an artificial insemination. I considered briefly just a parthenogenetic cloning of one of my own cells, but I did not want simply another version of myself. I took what I knew to be several healthy sperm samples from different donors, unfroze them, and mixed them together.

"Considering the clinical nature of her conception, you may be surprised to know that I bore my daughter Eirene full-term, and that she was beautiful to me beyond anything I can say. You may be less surprised to learn that someone who had spent her entire life in communal living found herself fiercely jealous and protective of her child.

"I could not continue living in Harmony Camp without allowing her to join the other children in their communal schooling, and I had no wish to leave—it was the only home I had ever really known. But I made sure that I taught her, too, and that I was not an essentially uninvolved figure like my own mother, who had been only a small degree more loving and intimate to me than any of the other Sisters-in-God. I was Eirene's mother, and she knew it. I told her every day. She felt it."

Florimel's clipped narrative came to a startlingly sudden halt. It took a moment before Renie realized that the woman was struggling with tears.

"Excuse me." She was clearly embarrassed. "We are coming to the things that are very hard for me to say, even to remember.

"Anicho Berg was not at first anything to fear. He was a thin, serious young man who had been part of Harmony Camp for a long time, since his youth. At one point he and I even had a short affair, but that meant little because none of us went outside the commune for our relationships, and although we were not one of those groups that emphasizes free love, neither had Doctor Traugott been anti-sex—he was much more concerned with people's dietary habits and bowel movements. We were normal, healthy people. Many of us had our flings over the years, and some married. But something in Anicho was ambitious, and could not bear things in the commune to be as they were and himself just one of many. He began to take more power on the council, which was not difficult—few at Harmony Camp wanted power of any kind. Had we not retreated from the world where such things were important? But perhaps by making ourselves a peaceful flock, we thus became an irresistible lure to a cunning predator. And that is what Anicho Berg was.

"I will not stretch out this portion of the story, because it is sad and unsurprising. Those of you, like Martine, who are familiar with the newsnets may have even heard of Harmony Camp's messy ending—a shoot-out with the authorities, several people dead, including Berg, and several others arrested. I was not there—Berg and his cohorts had driven me and Eirene away months before. Ironically, it was my possession of net gear that Anicho used to make me unpopular—what was I doing, he demanded to know, late at night when others of the commune were abed? Using electricity, talking with strangers and thus generally up to no good, was his insinuation. I am sad to say that in the climate he and his friends fostered, my fellow communards believed it.

"Again I have gone on longer than I intended. I suppose it is that I have kept this quiet for so long I had almost forgotten it, as though these events happened to a stranger. But now that I speak of it the wounds are once more fresh.

"What I was doing, of course, and what rapidly took over my entire life, was trying to find out what was wrong with my daughter. For like so many others, as we all now know, she had been struck down suddenly and terribly by a mystery disease. I had no idea at first it could have anything to do with the net, because at first I thought that she had only ever used my connection under my supervision. I was a fool, of course, and knowing that I was not the first busy parent to realize that does not make it any the less painful. Eirene was fascinated, and used every opportunity when I was out doing my rounds in Harmony Camp to explore the virtual world beyond the camp walls. I only discovered later, by tracing the records of my account, how far she had roamed. But at first I only knew that my daughter had succumbed to something as abrupt and brutal as a stroke, and that doctors far more knowledgeable than me could do nothing for her.

"But even as I was forced to have more and more dealings with hospitals and clinicians and neuromedical specialists, Berg and others had begun to make the people of our commune fear the outside world. These things happen, I suppose, with closed societies. Even large, open societies are prone to waves of paranoia, but because of their nature, the paranoia usually dissipates.

But in a tight community like Harmony Camp, especially when some among the group are fanning its embers, paranoia can smolder and smolder until it bursts into flame. Berg and his closest followers, many of them young men who had joined in only the last few months, began to target those with influence, trying to force them either to join Berg or to stay silent. In other circumstances, I might have resisted, might even have led the opposition to hold onto what was, after all, my home. But I could not care about anything except finding a cure for Eirene. Hours of every day, all through the night, I roamed the net—a path that eventually, after two years, led me to the Atascos' make-believe world.

"But long before that I found my home changing into something I did not recognize. When I actively began to fear for my safety—which I did not care about for my own sake, but rather because of Eirene—I left Harmony Camp.

"I make it sound easier than it was. I was frightened of Anicho Berg by then, and I went through quite vigorous steps to make sure no one knew I was leaving until I was gone, and I also did my best to cover my tracks. I was instantly denounced as a traitor, of course, the more so because I took much of the expensive medical equipment with me, but I had no choice, since I also took Eirene out of the local hospital so that I could care for her myself after we went into hiding. We moved to Freiburg, the only other place I knew, and where I felt there was a lessened chance of encountering any of the Harmony people. What I did not know was that as paranoia rose higher in Harmony Camp, Anicho Berg used my escape to denounce me as a proven spy. When Berg himself was killed by federal police, in what began as little more than a land-usage dispute but quickly became a small but violent war, several of his disciples escaped the camp's collapse, convinced that I had sold them out to the government.

"So I have been in hiding ever since, with very little contact with the outside world. I do not know whether Berg's disciples are still hunting for me, holding me responsible for their leader's death, but I would be surprised if they have given up—they are not very imaginative types and do not take in new ideas easily, especially if giving up their old ideas means facing up to the fact that they have been led astray.

"I can do nothing about that. I may still be able to do something about Eirene. And if not, then I have no reason to go on living . . . but I will at least try to spit in the face of the people who have done this to her before I die."

 

The dramatic ending of Florimel's recitation left everyone stunned into silence. Renie found herself obscurely ashamed at the German woman's ferocity, as though somehow her own sincerity in trying to solve the riddle of her brother's illness had been cast into doubt.

One thing had been nagging at her, though. "But if you're hiding," Renie asked at last, "if you're worried that those people are still after you, why did you tell us your name?"

"I told you a first name only," Florimel said, then made an odd face, half scowl, half smile. "And in any case, what makes you think that is my real name? Did you go on the net to begin this search using your own name? If so, then I have lost some respect for you."

"No, of course I didn't," Renie said, nettled.

Little Emily leaned forward, eyes wide. She had paid far more careful attention to Florimel's story than anyone would have expected, although Renie wondered how much someone who apparently had only experienced life within one simulation of the network could make of such a tale. But the girl's question was a sharp one. "What about your baby? How could you leave her behind?"

Florimel, who knew the girl's recent history from Renie's tales of New Emerald City, looked at her as though she guessed what caught at Emily's interest. "My daughter?" She hesitated. When she finally spoke, some defensive barrier had dropped, and for a moment the unhappiness and vulnerability were clear, even on her sim face. "I have not left her behind. I told you that I brought my equipment with me when I escaped Harmony Camp. It is very fine equipment. She is connected to me, both of us sharing a telematic circuit. We are yoked to a throughline onto this network. So I know where she is, at least—that she lives. I can feel her in her terrible sleep, and . . . and she is always with me. . . ." Florimel drew a shaking hand across her face.

Martine broke the long, painful silence. "I sensed a second person," she said quietly, wonderingly. "I wondered how it could be, and to tell the truth, this was all so new to me I was not certain I was right, but I sensed another person with you from the very first."

"Where my real body lies, she lies beside me, in my arms." Florimel looked away, unwilling to meet the eyes of the others. "The machines keep our flesh healthy, our muscles functional. Eirene is with me, you see." She took a deep breath. "And when she leaves me . . . I will know. . . ."

It was T4b and Emily, oddly enough, who reached out to touch her. Florimel did not resist, but neither did she give any sign she was even aware of them. After perhaps half a minute unspeaking, she got up and walked away from the fire, out across the incomplete landscape, until she was little more than a small, dark figure against the eternal gray.

 

After Florimel's story, it was hard even to nudge T4b into speech. He answered Renie's questions at first only in sullen monosyllables. Yes, his name was Javier Rogers, as the voice of the Lost had announced, although he'd never liked it. Yes, he lived in the suburbs outside Phoenix, but he was actually from So-Phee—he pronounced it like the girl's name—from South Phoenix, Central Ave, the streets.

"Not no sayee lo 'burboy, me," he insisted.

Under further prodding, a rather strange and interesting story emerged, piece by garbled, Goggleboy-slanged piece. Despite his name he was half-Hopi, his mother a young reservation woman who had fallen in love with a truck driver. Her decision to run off with the man, Renie could see pretty clearly, had been the last romantic thing to happen to her: she and her lover had shortly thereafter begun a descent into drink and drugs, pausing only briefly along the way to bring several children into the world, of which Javier had been the first. After dozens of incidents, a sad list of drug-fueled batterings, petty crimes, and neighbors' complaints, social services had stepped in and taken the Rogers children away from their parents. Mama and Papa Rogers barely seemed to notice, so caught up were they in pursuing their own downward spiral. The younger children had been fostered to a family Javier had not liked, and after clashing several times with their new foster father, he had run away.

Several years on the South Phoenix streets had followed, running with Chicano and Amerind Goggleboy gangs, particularly one called "Lou Hisatsinom" or "Old Ones," named after an ancient Arizona tribe who predated even the Hohokam. The gang had a big old Krittapong Multiworx station in an abandoned apartment downtown, and they spent a lot of time on the net. Los Hisatsinom had a quasi-mystical bent, which T4b would only describe as "deep fen, man, deep and deepest," but they also kept themselves busy with the much more pragmatic occupation of buying discard or demo cartridges from Mexican charge factories and smuggling them across the border to sell in the black gear markets of Phoenix and Tucson.

Eventually, of course, and almost inevitably (although he clearly did not think of it that way) T4b was arrested, a "minor card" as he put it, stopped while driving a van full of stolen merchandise without even the mitigation of possessing a driver's license. Because of his age he spent some time in a juvenile institution before being fostered, not to a family, but to a special halfway-house program for young offenders. When that had proved relatively successful, and he had been straight and more or less out of trouble for half a year, they released him to the custody of his father's parents, a couple in late middle age who had only seen their grandchild once in ten years. Grandma and Grandpa Rogers had belatedly tried to get custody of the younger children, but failed, and had received Javier instead as a sort of consolation prize. They were less than certain about inheriting a Goggleboy with a scalp-to-toe tracery of luminous subdermals, not to mention an arrest record, but they made the best of it. They put him back in school and bought him an inexpensive console, so he could put his Goggleboy tapping-and-napping skills to some use, perhaps even find a career someday.

It quickly became clear—and here for the first time T4b spoke expansively if, as always, somewhat opaquely—that he was a natural. ("Major hammerhead netboy," was how he described himself.) His grandparents began to feel that maybe their gamble was going to pay off. Things were not really that simple, of course—one of the main attractions of the net was that he could still run with his old Goggleboy crowd, even if only virtually—but it was true that young Javier had begun to feel a freedom and a sense of possibility he hadn't known before. "Magic big," he called the experience, providing a bit of poetry. But as he went on to explain, it was only when his friend Matti succumbed to a mysterious illness that he had made the net his full-time crusade.

"I have never heard of anyone your age being affected by the Grail Brotherhood's online virus, or whatever it is," said Florimel. "The illness that has taken my Eirene."

"So?" T4b glowered. "Calling me duppy?" His unchanging mask of Kabuki-warrior ferocity and his spiky, formfitting armor made it hard to think of him as someone named Javier, but it was not difficult to sense the insecure street kid underneath it all.

In fact, thought Renie, that's what they all wear anyway. Whether they're on my street in Pinetown or wherever it is he comes from—"So-Phee"—most of them are so armored up that they can barely move. But here in VR you can actually see it.

"No," Florimel told him calmly, "I am not calling you anything." Finally telling her own story seemed to have taken some of the edge off her approach; she sounded, Renie thought, almost human. "I'm just trying to get information which may be important to all of us. How old was this Matti when it happened?"

T4b stared at her, then abruptly turned away, going from frightening robot to spike-studded child in moments. Renie wondered whether they were asking for the right person's age.

"Please answer. It might help us, T4b," said Martine. "We are all here for the same reasons, or at least we are all in the same danger."

T4b mumbled something.

"What?" Renie resisted the urge to shake him, mostly because there were few spots on him that were safe to touch. She had never been good with people playing hard-to-get. "We can't hear you."

T4b spoke in a gust of anger and shame. "Nine. He nine. But wasn't nothing weird—not like that William. No babybouncer, me."

"William said he meant and did nothing wrong," Martine said, her voice so soothing Renie found herself nodding like a comic bystander. "I believed him. And I believe you, too."

Renie thought she saw Florimel mouth the words, Speak for yourself, but she was distracted by T4b's reaction.

"Don't understand nothin', you." He grabbed a handful of the not-earth and crushed it into translucent powder in his servo-motored fist. "Matti, he was crash—he knew all stuff nobody here know. All over the net, he going here, going there. For a micro, he was outmax. Whatever got him had to be far far dire. So got all matrixed and went lookin' for it, me." He proceeded to describe a search across the net that seemed to have taken him months, culminating in the discovery of one of Sellars' golden gems near a tribute wall in a VR park frequented by the youngest Goggleboys, like Matti.

Renie was wondering whether Javier Rogers' grandparents were rich, and if not, how he could afford to stay online so long; she was also growing curious as to who was taking care of T4b's physical body right now. Suddenly Emily spoke up with a question that Renie herself had occasionally been tempted to ask.

"So," the young woman asked, her tone half-contemptuous but ever so slightly flirty as well—a change, because she had been treating T4b like the plague since he had arrived—"what are you supposed to be, anyway? Some kind of spaceman?"

Florimel hid a snort of laughter, but poorly.

"Spaceman?" asked T4b in high dudgeon. It was an old-fashioned word, and he repeated it as though she had asked him whether he was a farmer or a janitor. "Not no sayee-lo spaceman. This a Manstroid D-9 Screamer Battlesuit, like outta Boyz Go 2 Hell!" He looked around, but no one responded. "Boyz Go 2 Hell?" he tried again. "Like with the Ballbuster Bugs and the Scorchmarkers. . . ."

"If it's an interactive game," Renie said, "you've got the wrong crowd, I'm afraid. If Orlando and Fredericks were here, I'm sure they'd recognize it."

"Don't even know Manstroid Screamer. . . ." he muttered, shaking his great metal head.

"I have a question, too," !Xabbu piped up. "Is that mask the only face you have in this place, or is there another underneath?"

T4b stared at him in stunned silence. "Underneath. . . ?"

"Underneath the mask," Florimel said. "Have you even tried to take it off?"

He had swiveled to face her now, but did not react to what she said, only stared as though in a dream. At last, slowly, his spike-gauntleted hands crept up to the flared sides of the battle-mask, sliding up and down the polished edges until one of his fingers slid into a slot below one of the finny protuberances. He found the corresponding slot, then pressed them both. A loud click was followed by the front of the mask swinging up out of the way like a medieval knight's face shield.

The face that peered out from beneath was simply that of a brown-skinned teenager with long black hair and startled eyes. Even the runic Goggleboy designs picked out on his cheeks, neck, and forehead in faintly luminous subdermals could not disguise how ordinarily homely and normal a face it was. Renie did not doubt that she was seeing a very convincing simulation of the true Javier Rogers.

Only a few seconds passed before T4b flinched beneath the weight of their collected gazes and clicked the mask back into place.

 

 

The fire had burned down. They had talked and talked until they had fallen into a surreal timelessness unusual even for this place.

". . . So this is what it all comes down to," Renie said at last. "Do we try to explore this place and find a way out? Or do we search for the lighter that . . . I want to say Quan Li, but it wasn't Quan Li, of course. Do we search for that lighter instead, which could bring us some control over our environment?

"How we gonna hunt something like that?" T4b asked. Like Florimel, he seemed to have lost a little of his abrasiveness after confession. Even his rigorously unintelligible Goggleboy patois had shifted a little closer to normal speech. "Need one to find one."

"We may not." Renie turned to !Xabbu. "That's why I gave it to you to open a gateway for that monster—hoping that if you did it, it would make some impression on you. Do you think there's any way you could find that gateway again? By . . . dancing, or by doing anything at all?"

!Xabbu looked worried, an oddly natural expression for a furrowed baboon brow. "I found it difficult even when I had the lighter in my hand, Renie. And as I have told you, the dancing, the searching for answers, is not like ordering something in the mail. It is not a foolproof delivery system."

"Nothing is foolproof for us these days." She couldn't even smile.

"Perhaps I could help." Martine spoke slowly. "I have learned things myself since I have been in this place, and since !Xabbu and I . . . connected through the access device, I suppose you could say. Perhaps together we could find that gateway again and open it." She turned her blind eyes to Renie. "I think it would be a great gamble, but if you are all in a gambling mood, there are few enough opportunities left to us."

"Let's vote on it," Seeing the faces of her companions, Renie relented. "If you're not too tired, that is. I suppose we could wait until tomorrow."

"Could we not wait in any case?" Martine asked. "I mean, would it not be good to explore this unusual part of the network first, no matter what?"

"But if we wait, we give that bastard a greater chance to escape," Renie pointed out. "Not to mention the fact that you and !Xabbu may lose whatever insight you have—you may just forget, like trying to remember some stranger's name three days after they tell it to you."

"I am not certain that is a good analogy," said Martine, "but there is perhaps something in what you say."

"Very well, then, Renie," Florimel said, amused and disgusted. "We will have no peace until we give you your vote. I assume I know what you and !Xabbu will say. For me, I say we stay here until we know more about this place."

"But. . . ." Renie began.

"Is it not enough we are voting?" Florimel asked. "Do you need to harangue those who disagree with you?"

Renie frowned. "You're right. I'm sorry. Let's go on."

"I want to vote, too," said Emily suddenly. "I know I'm not one of your friends, but I don't have anywhere else to go, and I want to vote." She said it as though it were a treat.

Renie was uncomfortable with the idea of putting someone who might not even be fully real on an equal footing with the rest of them. "But, Emily, you don't know all the things we know—you haven't been through everything. . . ."

"Don't be mean!" the girl said. "I heard everything you've said since we've been here, and I'm not stupid."

"Let her," rumbled T4b, recovering from the embarrassment of showing his naked face. "Prejudiced, you, somethin'?"

Renie sighed. She didn't even want to begin discussing the ins and outs of Emily's possible status, since it would have to be done in front of the girl herself. "What do the rest of you think about Emily voting?"

Florimel and Martine nodded slowly. "You remember what I have said, Renie," !Xabbu reminded her quietly.

Which is that he thinks she's real, Renie thought. Which should carry some weight, after all—he hasn't often been wrong about anything. "All right, then," she said aloud. "What do you think we should do, Emily?"

"Get out of here," the girl said promptly. "I hate this place. It's not right. And there's nothing to eat."

Renie could not help but notice that she had been resisting a vote in her own favor, but was still not entirely comfortable about its source. "Okay. Who else?"

"I'm afraid I agree with Florimel, instead," said Martine. "I need rest—we have come through a very frightening time."

"We all have!" Renie caught herself. "Sorry. I'm out of line again."

"That was my thought, too," Florimel told Martine. "I don't want to go anywhere yet—if nothing else, I need to build up some strength. Remember that you were here for a day before we got here, Renie. Perhaps after the rest of us have had a chance to recover, and to get to know this place somewhat. . . ."

"So we come down to you, T4b." Renie turned to the spiky, fire-glinting shape. "What will it be?"

"Fen—that dup tried to six us! Say we catch her, me, and vile her up good." T4b curled a mailed fist. "Don't let her get away, what it means."

"I'm not at all sure it's a 'her,' " Renie said, but inside she was pleased: that made it four to two to follow the spy—and, more importantly, Azador's lighter. "So that's it, then."

"No." !Xabbu raised one small hand. "I have not made my vote yet. Florimel said she assumed I would vote as you did, Renie. But I do not."

"You . . . you don't?" She felt nearly as astonished as if he instead of Quan Li had turned out to be a murderous stranger.

"When I look at our friends, I see that they are very tired, and I would like to see them rested before we run to danger again. But more importantly, Renie, whatever hid behind Quan Li's face, it frightens me."

"Of course it does," Renie said. "Don't you think I'm frightened, too?"

!Xabbu shook his head. "That is not what I mean. I . . . felt something, saw something. I do not have the words. But it was as though for a moment I felt the breath of Hyena, out of the old tales—or worse. There is a deep, hungry darkness in that one, whatever it is. I do not wish to rush toward it. Not yet, anyway, not until I can think about what I saw, what I felt. I vote we wait."

Renie was more than a little stunned. "So . . . so that makes it three to three. . . . What do we do, then?" She blinked. "Is that the same as if I were outvoted? That doesn't seem fair."

"Let us say instead that we will take the vote again soon." Martine patted Renie's hand. "Perhaps we will feel differently after we have had another night's sleep."

"Night?" Florimel laughed flatly. "You ask for too much, Martine. But just sleep will be enough."

Martine's smile was sad. "Of course, Florimel. I forget sometimes that for others it is not always night."

CHAPTER 2
An Old-Fashioned Sound

NETFEED/NEWS: Gruhov Denies He Implanted Russian Leader

(visual: Gruhov coming out of fast-food restaurant)

VO: Although he is avoiding the media, renowned behaviorist Doctor Konstantin Gruhov has flatly denied that he implanted a control chip in Russian President Nikolai Polyanin under orders from high officials in Polyanin's lame-duck Russian government, and that his being called suddenly to the Kremlin during the president's recent illness was merely a coincidence. . . .

(visual: Gruhov in university garden, prerecorded statement)

GRUHOV: ". . . Really, it is preposterous. It's hard enough simply trying to keep someone from shoplifting—how could you hope to control a politician. . . ?"

 

Waiting to die, as Joseph Sulaweyo discovered, was surprisingly like waiting for anything else: after a long enough time, your mind began to wander.

Long Joseph had been lying in darkness on the floor of a car with his face covered by some kind of sack for what seemed at least an hour as his kidnappers drove slowly through the streets of Durban. The hard shin of the man who had snatched him from in front of the hospital was pinning Joseph's arm against his side, and the even harder barrel of the gun rested against the top of his head like the beak of a murderous bird. The sack itself was foul and close, with the ammonia-stink of old, sweaty clothes.

It was not the first time in his life that Joseph had been abducted by armed men. Twenty years earlier a rumor of cuckoldry had led one of the neighborhood hard men and his cousins to drag Joseph out of his house and bundle him into a truck, then drive him to a shebeen one of the men owned on the far side of Pinetown. Guns had been waved around and Joseph had been slapped a few times, but at least a dozen witnesses had seen him dragged from the streets and knew who had done it. The whole thing was mostly a face-saving display by the husband of the whispered-about wife. Joseph had been much more afraid of a bad beating than of being killed.

Not this time, he thought to himself, and felt cold all over. Not these men. The kind of people Renie got onto, they don't bother with no hitting and yelling. Take you out to the edge of the township and just put bullets into you.

Beyond a swift, partially whispered conversation as he was being forced into the car, his two captors had not spoken. The man driving seemed in no hurry, or perhaps was trying to avoid being noticed. Whatever the case, Joseph had at first been frightened rigid, but had found that he could not sustain such an extreme pitch of fear. After going round and round with the imminence of his own death dozens of times, he began to slip into a kind of waking dream.

This what Renie feel like, down in the dark? He shifted on the car floor, his back arched uncomfortably. The man with the gun shoved him, more in irritation than in threat. Just wish I could see her again, one more time. Tell her she's a good girl, even though she drive me crazy with her nagging.

He thought of Renie's mother, Miriam, who had nagged him, too, but who had also loved him up sweet as honey. Once, when they were first together, he had stripped naked and waited for her on the front room couch. She had laughed when she came in and saw him, saying, What will I do with a crazy man like you? What if my mother had been with me?

Sorry, he had said, but you have to tell her I am just not interested.

Miriam had laughed so hard. That night, as they lay together on top of the sheets, the old fan only barely pushing the hot air around the room, he had told her that she was going to marry him.

Might as well, she had said, and he could hear her smile, there in the dark beside him. Otherwise you'll probably just keep bothering me.

They had made Renie in that bed, and Stephen, too. And Miriam had slept with him there the last night she spent at home, the night before that terrible day when she did not come back from the department store. That had been the last night they lay together belly to belly, with her snoring in his ear the way she did—the way that sometimes when his head ached had made him crazy, but which he would now give anything to hear again. He would have slept beside her in her hospital bed in her last days, but she was too badly burned. Even a slight movement of the mattress, just setting down a magazine near her arm, had made her whimper.

Goddamn, it is not fair, he thought, then continued with an unusual leap of perspective. Especially for poor Renie. First her mother, then her brother, now her foolish father gone and get himself killed, and she has nobody. He entertained a brief fantasy of managing to escape when the car reached its destination, a sprint for freedom that would take the kidnappers by surprise, but the unlikeliness of it was too heavy a weight for his reverie to bear. Not these men, he told himself. People burn down a whole flat-block just to tell someone like Renie to shut up and leave things alone, they not going to make any mistakes. . . .

Without warning, the car slowed and then stopped. The driver switched off the engine. Long Joseph's body turned to ice in an instant—it was all he could do to keep from pissing himself.

"I don't go any farther," the driver said, the seat between them muffling his voice so that Long Joseph had to strain to make out his words. "You get me?"

It seemed a strange thing to say, but before Joseph could think about it, the man with the gun made a noise, almost a grunt, and pressed the barrel hard against his neck. "Get up," he told Joseph gruffly. "Don't do anything foolish."

Tripping and staggering, grudgingly assisted by his captors, Long Joseph at last managed to clamber out of the car and onto his own two feet again, lost in the dark sack covering his head. He heard a distant shout echoing as though down a long street. The car door slammed shut, the engine started, and it rumbled away.

Someone yanked the bag off, pulling at his hair in the process so that despite everything he yelped in anger and surprise. At first the dark street and its one flickering streetlight seemed shockingly bright. Tall, graffiti-tattooed walls loomed on either side. Half a hundred meters down the street a fire burned in a metal drum, surrounded by a small crowd of figures warming their hands, but before he could even contemplate calling out to them the gun jabbed his backbone.

"Turn around and walk. Through there." He was shoved toward a doorway in one of the walls. At the gunman's direction Joseph pulled the door open and stepped through into blackness. He flinched, positive that any second the bullet would slam into the back of his skull. When something clicked, he jumped. A moment later he realized he was still alive, but that controlling his bladder was no longer an option. He was ridiculously glad he hadn't had much to drink in the last few hours—at least he would die with only a small show of cowardice.

A fluorescent light spasmed on overhead. He had been brought to some kind of garage or storage room, empty but for a few cans of paint and some broken chairs, the kind of place someone whose small business had failed might rent to keep his equipment in until he could sell it off. Joseph saw his own shadow stretched against the floor with his kidnapper's flung alongside it.

"Turn around," the gunman said.

Long Joseph did, slowly. The dark-skinned black man who stood before him wore what surely had once been a nice overcoat, but which was stained, as was the white shirt he wore beneath. His hair had been expensively cut at some point, but had not been tended recently. Even Joseph, one of the world's less observant people, could see that the man was nervous and upset, but the gun in the fellow's hand kept him from saying anything about it. "Do you recognize me?" the kidnapper asked.

Joseph shook his head helplessly—although now that the man mentioned it, there was something vaguely familiar. . . .

"My name is Del Ray Chiume. Does that mean anything?" The gunman shifted from one foot to the other.

Long Joseph frowned, still frightened, but now puzzled, too. "Del Ray. . . ?" It came to him a moment later. "You used to see my daughter Renie?"

"That's right!" The man laughed explosively, as though Joseph had conceded a hard-fought point. "And do you know what your daughter has done to me? Can you even guess?"

Joseph watched the gun go up and down, up and down. "I don't know nothing that you are talking about."

"She's ruined my life, that's what she's done." Del Ray paused in his back-and-forthing to wipe the sleeve of his overcoat along his damp forehead. "I've lost everything because she couldn't leave well enough alone!"

"I don't know what you are talking about." Joseph gathered his courage. "Why you kidnap me? You going to kill me because my daughter break up with you or something?"

Del Ray laughed again. "Are you crazy? Are you crazy, old man? That was years ago. I'm a married man! But my marriage is over because of your daughter. I've lost my house, everything. And it's all her fault!"

Renie, Long Joseph decided, had clearly been keeping a lot to herself. And she had the nerve to criticize his behavior. He was beginning to feel that there was a good chance he was going to live after all, and he was torn between an urge to collapse and a desire to shout out his joy and fury. This was no hard man. Long Joseph knew this type. This Del Ray fellow was some kind of businessman, the kind who turned down your loan application with a sneer, but when push came to shove and he wasn't on top anymore, had no balls. "So are you going to shoot me, then? Because if you are not, then put your damn gun away, but don't keep waving it around like you some kind of Mafia hitman."

"Hitman!" Del Ray's laugh was theatrically bitter. "You don't know shit, old man. I've met the bloody hitmen. They came and had a talk with me—that was before they burned my house down.

One of them had fists as big as your head—biggest, ugliest Boer you ever saw. Face like a bag of rocks. You know what they said? Told me if I didn't do what they wanted, they were going to rape my wife and then kill her, right in front of me." Del Ray suddenly burst into tears.

Long Joseph was taken aback—how did you deal with a weeping man with a gun? In fact, how did you deal with a weeping man of any kind? "Why would they do a thing like that?" he asked, almost gently. "Why they so angry at you?"

Del Ray looked up suddenly, his eyes bright, madly intent. "Because of your daughter, that's why! Because Renie dragged me into something I didn't want to know about, and my wife's left me, and . . . and. . . ." The tears returned. He sank to the floor and sat, legs stretched in front of him, like a toddler who had fallen down. The gun lay on the floor between his knees.

"So you going to shoot me?" Long Joseph asked. "You been waiting around in front of that hospital just to shoot me?" He considered for a moment. "Or you waiting to shoot Renie?"

"No, no." Del Ray wiped his sweat-shiny face with his sleeve again. "No, I have to talk to Renie. She has to tell these people what they need to know so I can stop hiding."

Joseph shook his head, unable to keep up with the man's logic. "I can't tell nothing to Renie. She is not here. I just come to see my son, and that's what I'm going to do. Unless you going to shoot me." He had allowed a sneer to creep onto his face—now that he thought back on it, he had never liked this high-talking fellow very much, and had been openly glad when Renie got shed of him.

Del Ray's hand suddenly snapped up, the gun clutched in it once more, the alarmingly large black hole pointing right at Long Joseph's face.

"You are crazy," Del Ray said. "You don't know how lucky you are it was me got you first. My brothers and I have been watching out for you or Renie for days and days, but if I can watch that place, so can the hitmen. Do you think for a second you can just walk in and see your son without them knowing? These people won't just kill you, old man, they'll torture you first to find your daughter—and then think what they'll do to her."

Joseph frowned. "I don't understand any of this talk. It all sound crazy to me—crazier than what Renie says, even." He blinked, trying to remember how it had been when he could talk to someone and make them understand him, and he could understand them in turn. It seemed like years. "Put that gun away, man. Just tell me what happened."

Del Ray stared at him for a moment, then looked at his own outstretched arm and the gun trembling in his fist. He tucked the pistol into his coat pocket.

"That is good," Joseph said. "Much better. Now tell me what happened to you." He looked around the dimly lit garage, then back to Del Ray Chiume's wide-eyed, sweaty face. "But can we go somewhere? I truly need a drink."

 

 

It was not good to think too much about things, Jeremiah was discovering.

When there was no one to talk to but yourself and nowhere to visit but the same echoing rooms, when you saw no sun, and had listened to the radio voices babble about a world that had nothing to do with you until you wanted to scream, when you had heard little else except the breathing and amplified heartbeats of two people who for all intents and purposes had left you behind in another country, it was bad to spend too much time letting your mind wander.

There had been times during the years he had worked for the Van Bleecks, first for both of them, Doctor and Doctor, but most of the time for Susan alone in her long widowhood, that Jeremiah Dako had thought, I would give everything I have for just a little time to rest and think. Acting as secretary, housekeeper, cook, and chauffeur for a brilliant, cantankerous, absentminded old woman, he had done a job that two younger men would have found arduous, but Jeremiah had prided himself on his ability to take anything life (or Susan Van Bleeck's dubious skills of organization and personal punctuality) could throw at him and keep going, venting his frustration only in small steam-valve gusts of bad temper and irritable over-solicitousness. He had given up his own social life for it, had been out of the bars and club scene so long that on the few occasions he found himself with a night off and his mother otherwise engaged, he not only didn't recognize any of the people he met, but could not understand the music or the clothing, as though an entire generational shift had happened while he wasn't looking.

But even if he had little interest anymore in investing the hard work of maintaining a social life, had weighed the pros and cons and reconciled himself largely to celibacy and—much more frightening—perhaps a solitary old age, he had not entirely given up his dreams. In all those years of fiercely hard work, he had never regretted anything except the lack of rest, of time to think. The worst thing about middle age, he had discovered, was that if you weren't careful, your life sped past at such a breakneck pace that an entire year could sneak by and leave no important memories.

So he had yearned through all the years with Susan for a little time to himself, real time and real leisure, not the annual week of taking his mother to play the slot machines at Sun City (while himself hoping for a brief and discreet romance, which had indeed happened a couple of times, a happy encounter at a casino bar after Mama's bedtime, the memory of which would carry him through the rest of the year.) Jeremiah had longed for time to think, to read, to regain at least a little of the young man he had been back in school, when he had felt that living in the world should be synonymous with changing the world. What of all the books he had used to read, the big thoughts, African history, sexual politics? He had been lucky in the Kloof years if he found time to check the traffic reports and download an occasional recipe.

So here he was, after all these years and in this most unexpected way, with nothing to do but read and think, with no company but his own, with no demands on his time and attention that could not have been fulfilled by a four-year-old child. He had exactly what he had wanted for so long. And he hated it.

 

Now that Long Joseph had—for lack of a better term—escaped, one of the things that Jeremiah found himself thinking about far more often than he would have liked was the terrible responsibility of being the only person looking out for Renie's and !Xabbu's safety. There had been little need for worry thus far: although their heart rates had spiked several times, nothing had crested above the military's own warning system levels, so he had to assume they were experiencing the normal ins and outs of virtual existence. Not that there was anything actually normal about any of this.

It was nothing new, of course. Throughout his years as Doctor Van Bleeck's companion and protector the responsibility of her safety had weighed on him heavily. Durban had suffered several waves of carjackings and kidnappings, including a year-long reign of terror by one gang of young thugs who routinely murdered drivers just so they could steal a particular automotive op-sys bubble chip that was then drawing a high price on the black market. Twice Jeremiah had escaped in high speed chases from threats that he felt were very serious indeed, and once he'd driven away from a crossroad with three hoodlums still clinging to the hood, trying to break the expensive, shatter-resistant glass with tire irons. When the last of the young criminals had tumbled to the pavement and Jeremiah had begun to turn the car back toward home, a shaken Susan had instead asked him to drive her to the hospital. Her heart was beating so swiftly, she later told him, that she had been positive she was going into cardiac arrest.

Even thinking back on that now, he felt cold. There were so many dangers in the world—so many crazy, desperate people!

A deeper and more subtle chill spread through him, a deep un-happiness that made him feel sick to his stomach. Here he stood in this vast underground fortress worrying about how someone had once almost hurt Susan, ignoring the fact that she had been hurt, and that in the end he had failed in his duty to her as completely as anyone could fail. Men had broken into the house and had beaten Susan Van Bleeck so badly that she died. All the things Jeremiah had done for her over the years, the dramatic and the domestic, had all come down to that. He had failed to protect her, and they had killed her.

And now he had been planted with ultimate responsibility for two more people—people he could not speak to, could not even see. But if something went wrong, if their hearts stopped, or if someone cut the power to the military base one night while Jeremiah slept, their deaths would still be his fault.

It made him want to follow Renie's father, to flee into the big world outside and leave the responsibility to someone else. But of course there wasn't anyone else, which made the duty even more miserable, more impossible to escape.

Jeremiah was thinking some variant of these thoughts—his mind had been traveling in rather unhappy circles in the days since Long Joseph's midnight departure—when the phone rang for the first time.

 

It was such an astonishingly unexpected noise that at first he did not even know what it was. The incredibly old-fashioned handset slung in its metal cradle on the huge concrete pillar beside the control panels had long ago lost even its initial novelty and become merely another object in his visual field, something that would have attracted his attention only if it had disappeared, and then perhaps not for days. When the insistent ringing began, a purringly metallic tone quite unlike anything he'd ever heard, it sounded five or six times before he even understood where it was coming from.

Decades of secretarial reflexes summoned into operation, for a moment he seriously contemplated answering it—he even had a brief vision of himself picking up the handset and saying "Hello?" like someone from a costume drama. Then the full magnitude of the thing came to him and he sat frozen in fear until the ringing stopped. His pulse was just beginning to return to normal rates when the ringing started once more.

The phone rang every five minutes for the next half hour, then stopped again, apparently for good.

After the worst of the surprise was over, he was able to put it aside, even smile at his own reactions. Obviously Martine and Singh had reconnected the telecom lines, otherwise Long Joseph wouldn't have been able to access the net, even in receive-only mode. So if there was a working line, phone calls could get through, too, even random ones. Someone had triggered a number that just happened to belong to Wasp's Nest—perhaps some autodialing machine, perhaps a simple mistake. It would be foolish to pick it up, of course, but even if he did, probably not fatal. Not that he would touch the phone if it happened again—Jeremiah was tired and worried, but not stupid.

It seemed much less academic when the phone rang again four hours later, then rang back every five minutes for another half hour, then stopped again. Even so, he did not panic. It meant nothing, and never would unless he himself answered it, and there was no reason to do that.

The phone continued to ring, sometimes after intervals as short as two hours, sometimes after a hiatus as long as eight hours, or once ten—always the same phone, always with the same, persistent pattern of five minute retries. If it was just gear, Jeremiah decided, just mechanical, then anything so aggressively upsetting must be Satan's own autodialer. But what if it wasn't?

Try as he might, he couldn't imagine anything good that the phone might represent—someone at Power or Communications trying to find out why an abandoned base was sucking from the grid at a greater rate than it had in years, perhaps? Or something even more sinister, the same mysterious people who had mauled Susan and burned down Renie's house and God knew what else? He could not think of anyone they knew who might even guess they were in this place, so there was no reason at all to answer, which should have made the whole thing easier. Still, the constant repetition was maddening. He tried to turn off the phone's ringer, but the ancient device had no external control. An attempt to remove the entire phone from the pillar was equally useless: he wrestled with the frozen bolts for the better part of an afternoon and managed nothing more than to scrape his knuckles bloody, until in a fit of frustrated fury he beat at the phone with the inadequate wrench, dimpling the several layers of bland gray-green paint but not even denting the heavy iron cover.

It went on. The phone rang every day, usually several times a day, and each time it did, he flinched. Sometimes he woke up from his sleep to the sound of the phone, even though he was now sleeping on the far side of the underground base, completely insulated from its noise. But by the end of the first week he heard it anyway, even in his dreams. It rang and rang and rang.

 

 

"Man, you gone a long time. You just get one bottle of wine?" Joseph rolled down the sack and squinted at the label. At least Del Ray had gotten him Mountain Rose as he had asked, which might taste like cat-piss but had a reliable kick.

"It's all yours. I don't drink wine," Del Ray said. "At least I don't drink the kind of wine they sell around here. I got myself a beer." He brandished a bottle of Steenlager.

"You should get that Red Elephant." Joseph upended the squeeze bottle and took a generous swig. "That's a good beer." He settled on the garage floor with his back against the wall, unmindful of oil stains on his trousers. An hour ago he had been certain he was going to get a bullet in him, not wine, so he was in a very, very good mood. He had even forgiven Renie's old boyfriend for kidnapping him, although he had not entirely given up the idea of punching him a good one in the face, just on principle, to let him know that it wasn't smart to mess with Long Joseph Sulaweyo. But not as long as this Chiume fellow still had that gun tucked in his pocket. "So what is all this foolishness you getting up to?" Joseph asked, smacking his lips. "Why you running around all tooled up like some kind of Pinetown rude boy?'

Del Ray, who had only taken the first sip of his beer, scowled. "Because there are people trying to kill me. Where's Renie?"

"Oh, no." For once Joseph had right on his side, he felt quite sure. It was a novel feeling and he intended to enjoy it. "You don't come kidnapping and mistreating me and then expect me to answer all your questions."

"I've still got the gun, you know."

Long Joseph waved his hand airily. He had this young fellow's number. "Then shoot me. But if you not going to shoot me, then you better tell me what cause you to go snatching people off the street when they are minding their lawful business."

Del Ray rolled his eyes but did not pursue it. "It's your daughter's fault, and if you don't know about it, you ought to. She came to me, after all. I hadn't talked to her in years. I was married . . . I was married. . . ." He fell silent for a long moment, his face morose. "My life was going very well. Then Renie called up with some crazy story about a virtual nightclub, and now it's all gone to hell."

After Del Ray's explanation of Renie's request and their meeting on the Golden Mile, the younger man fell silent, staring at his beer. "These three fellows came to talk to me," he said at last. "And everything started to get very, very bad."

Joseph noted with alarm that there were only a few swallows left in his bottle. He put the cap on and put it on the floor, tucking it just out his line of sight to make it last a bit longer. "Who come talk to you? You said some Boers?"

"Two of them were Afrikaaners. One of them was a black man. The main man, the big ugly white fellow, told me that I had been asking questions that didn't concern me—that I had made some important people very unhappy. They wanted to know who Renie was, and especially why she was talking to some French woman named Martine Desroubins. . . ."

"You are joking. All this about that French woman?"

"You had better believe it's true. I told them I didn't know anything about her or any of that, that Renie was just an old friend who'd asked me a favor. I shouldn't have told them anything, but they scared me.

"They came back a little later and told me Renie wasn't living in the shelter anymore—that you'd moved. They said they needed to speak to her, that they were going to explain to her she would be better off leaving this whole thing alone. So I. . . ."

"Wait just one minute!" Long Joseph sat up and almost knocked over his squeeze bottle. Despite his rising anger, he snatched it up protectively. "You the one who tried to sell Renie out, I remember now. You traced her phone call. . . !"

"I . . . I did."

"I should knock off your head!" His words belied his secret pleasure. This proved exactly what Joseph had always believed about men like Del Ray, university-educated, fancy-suited. "You lucky you still have that gun."

"Damn it, I didn't want to! But they knew where I lived—they came to my front door! And they promised they weren't going to hurt her."

"Yeah. Believe an Afrikaaner policeman when he say that."

"These weren't police. These weren't anything like police. But they weren't just criminals either. They had to have found out about me from someone high up in UNComm, because they didn't just know I'd been talking to Renie, they knew what I had done for her, who else I'd spoken to, what files I'd accessed. And the phone-tracing gear—I came in to work one day and found someone had put it on my system. No, they weren't just some ordinary bonebreakers. They were connected."

"So you sold Renie out," said Joseph, unwilling to be lured from his moral high ground. "You made it so we had to run away."

Del Ray had lost the urge to fight back. "I made it worse for myself. They told me if I didn't find her, they'd kill my wife. And when I couldn't find her, they got me fired. Then they burned down our house."

Long Joseph nodded sagely. "They burn our house up, too. I barely pull Renie out in time."

The younger man was not even listening. "It was something about this Martine woman—they kept asking me why Renie was talking to her, whether I had hooked them up." He shook his head. "They burned my house down! If they hadn't started the dogs barking, Dolly and I would have both burned to death. It was so fast—some kind of incendiary grenades, the police said."

Long Joseph said nothing, but he was impressed. These were the kind of people you saw on the net shows. He felt more important just by dint of the fact that they were after him. He finished the wine, gave the bottle a make-sure squeeze; then, as though it were one of the grenades that had burned Del Ray Chiume out of his home, he lobbed it into the corner of the garage. Del Ray flinched at the clatter.

"Dolly left me. She went back to her family in Manguse. I've been staying at friends' places, this garage thing of my cousin's, wherever. They don't seem to be looking for me very hard right now, but I'm not stupid enough just to walk back into my old life and say, "Here I am! Come kill me!"

Long Joseph was judging whether he should stay seated and enjoy the heavy, satisfying warmth of the first bottle of Mountain Rose or try to use Del Ray's unquestionable guilt as a lever to make him get another bottle. "So why you come and grab me?" he asked. "Why you come down with your gun like some kind of Mafia man? Why not just let me see my boy?"

Del Ray snorted. "You must be crazy, old man. You weren't going to walk in and see your son without anyone noticing. You're lucky I saw you first. You should thank me—if those thugs had gotten you, you'd be in a ditch right now, covered in petrol, and they'd be holding a lit match over you, asking if you had anything else you wanted to tell them."

Joseph shuddered at the image, which was not much different than what he himself had been thinking just a short hour earlier, but he was not going to admit it in front of this suit-and-tie fellow. "So now what?"

The younger man's eyes gleamed, as though he had been asked to describe the plot of a story he had long planned to write. "I need Renie to tell these people what they need to know. If she's been talking to this Martine woman, she needs to tell them she won't do it anymore. She has to leave this woman alone! That's what they're angry about. Then everything will be fine. Then I can have some kind of life again."

Even Long Joseph, whose comprehension of the scope of Renie's troubles was vague, had a feeling that Del Ray was being overly optimistic. Not that it mattered. "It is not so easy," he said aloud. "Not so easy at all. Renie is not around here. It is much more complicated, what she and I are doing, and we cannot just change things because some Afrikaaner hoodlums come and threaten you." He looked at Del Ray's worried face and shook his head with all the grave regret of a prophet regarding the sinfulness of mankind. "After I see my boy, we will think about what to do for you."

"After. . . ? What in hell are you talking about, old man?" Del Ray sat up straight and bumped his head against a shelf. "That hospital is under quarantine! And even if it wasn't, if you walk up to that front door again those bastards are going to tear your heart out!"

Joseph was calm, certain. "Then you going to have to think of some way to get us inside, boy."

"Us? Us?

"That is right. Because I came to see my son, and if I don't get to see him somehow then I am not going to take you to Renie or that Martine woman. You spend the rest of your life hiding in a closet. So you better start thinking." He sat back, smiling the world-weary smile of a seasoned adventurer. "You can work on your idea while you go get me another bottle of wine."

CHAPTER 3
House of the Beast

NETFEED/FASHION: Couture Is Kiss of Death to Street Fashion

(visual: Goggleboys on street corner)

VO: The rush by upscale fashion houses to embrace streetwear has backlashed—at street level. Retail chains like Packrat and Cloz say that "Chutes" are dying on the shelves, and that kids now favor the trim silhouette of aerosol-delivered latex.

(visual: Betchy Barcher of Cloz in front of aerosol display)

BARCHEK: "It's taken us a few weeks to get the ship turned around, but now we've got latex everywhere. Kids want "Sprays," and that's all there is to it."

 

The desert evening was mild, the sands empty and still, yet Orlando Gardiner was being dragged forward by a compulsion as powerful as hurricane winds. His friend Fredericks had shown surprising strength and resourcefulness, but with the breaking of the great urn Fredericks' strength had gone, and now he too was being drawn helplessly toward the looming temple and the terrifying thing that slept inside it.

Whether or not they felt the same compulsion, the little yellow monkey-children of the Wicked Tribe clearly felt something: shrieking their dismay, they clung to Orlando like baby bats. He wore so little clothing in his Thargor guise that most of them clutched bare flesh, a living cloak of tiny pinching fingers that would have been excruciating if Orlando had not had far greater worries.

Something horrible is in that temple, and it's pulling us in. I asked that goddess for help, and all we got were these stupid monkeys. It doesn't make any sense! But nothing in Otherland ever made much sense.

Does it even matter? I'm dying, whether that . . . thing gets us or not.

He took a grudging step forward, then another. The monkeys scrambled around to his back in a leggy, tweezering mass, keeping the width of his body between them and the temple. They were terrified of the place, which was perfectly logical, but why on earth had the goddess thought these children could help?

"Run away now, 'Landogarner!" one of them squeaked in his ear. "Big Bad Nothing live there. All the gear is crazy. Run away!"

Orlando was already working so hard to resist he did not waste time explaining that at this moment he could no more run away than he could compose an opera in Turkish. Just as he realized that the yellow microsimian had used the word "gear," reminding him that there was actual machinery behind this madness, he stumbled on something half-buried in the sand. It was a piece of the broken pot which had imprisoned the Tribe, a section with only one visible carving on its surface—a feather in a rounded rectangle.

"Walk into the darkness," the goddess Ma'at had told him. "You will see my sign." But her sign so far had brought him only miniature monkeys, a dubious boon. He forced himself to stop anyway, bracing against a pull that felt like a window had been blown out of a jet in high-atmosphere flight, then managed to scoop the ceramic fragment into his numbed fingers before surrendering to the temple once more.

"What you do with that?" the monkey nearest his head demanded. "That from the Lady."

"You . . . know her?" Orlando was exerting a tremendous amount of energy to slow himself, but that meant Fredericks had moved several paces ahead and the distance between them was widening.

"She talk to us in the dark. Tell us stories!" The monkey handover-handed up into the Thargor sim's dark hair. "You truly best turn 'round, 'Landogarner."

"Malocchio abbondanza!" shrilled another monkey fearfully. "Lady said stay away from that!"

"I'd . . . love . . . to stay away," Orlando grunted through clenched teeth. His head was hammering so badly it felt as though some artery might explode like a blocked pipe. "I . . . I can't. It's . . . pulling us toward it." He took a deep, shaky breath. All he could see of Fredericks now was his friend's back as he trudged forward, bowed and helpless. "You said . . . 'gear'. . . ?"

"Gear all crazy there," said the passenger in his hair. He suspected it was Zunni, but it was hard to think properly with all the noise in his head. "Like big what-is-a-callit—singalarity."

"Singularity?" If he had not been so close to screaming, he would have laughed. "Like a black locking hole? Is that what you mean? This is virtual, damn it!" His voice was so raggedly unpleasant that some of the monkeys fluttered free. It was bizarre to see them circling in the air—it felt so much like he was being sucked down a giant drain that he could not understand why they were not tugged straight toward the temple as well. "Ohhhh," he groaned, finding it more and more difficult to speak. "Doesn't it . . . pull you, too?"

Zunni, if that was who it was, went on as though he hadn't spoken. "Singularity? All the arrows point one way? That not right?"

"Too inside out!" another one chirped. "Not get small like that."

Orlando could not make sense of anything and no longer had the strength to care. He realized he was clutching the piece of pottery so hard his fingers had turned white.

"You go there, but you don't want to go?" The little yellow shape was too close for him to focus on it. It flittered before his eyes, fuzzily insubstantial as an angelic vision. "Then you have to go through and bounce."

"Uh-uh, Zunni," one of the others said. "Not bounce." This one's voice was so high as to be almost inaudible, the lisping tones of a child too young even for school. "Wanna go 'round. Do Gavvy Well."

"She means 'Gravity Well,' " said Zunni confidingly. "That a game, okay?"

The facade of the red stone temple now loomed above Orlando like a cliff face, impossibly tall, impossibly harsh and imposing, and still the monkeys chittered among themselves. Fredericks was right, he thought despairingly. It is like talking to breakfast cereal. . . .

"Better run fast, 'Landogarner," one of the other little creatures told him at last. "That the best thing."

"Only thing," said another. "Misteriosofabuloso. Need the best tricks."

"I can't . . . run," he gritted. "I told you. It's . . . it's got me."

Zunni rappelled down his forehead on a strand of hair and poked at his cheek. "No, run toward thing. Run fast. Think fast thoughts, maybe."

"Zunni, you a big dumb itipoti!" another monkey squealed. "That never work. Tell him just run fast."

"Think fast stuff, too," Zunni whispered, a tiny, dangling co-conspirator. "Big Bad Nothing gone all asleep—maybe he fooled."

Orlando was almost weeping with the effort of slowing his forward march. The shadowed entrance to the temple stood before him, a wide black spot in the facade like the hole left by a missing tooth. Fredericks was a pale shape several meters ahead, almost absorbed by the darkness. "I don't understand," he panted. "Run toward it? Run?"

"We help," Zunni promised. She clambered onto his shoulder, then dropped onto his back, out of sight, but he could still hear her voice. "We help you come out fast, like Gravity Well. Here—we push!"

And suddenly the entire fluttering force of the tiny simians centered itself between his shoulder blades and gave him an astonishingly hard shove. He was propelled forward in a stumbling flurry of arms and legs, struggling just to keep his feet beneath him. Everything before him swirled, as though for the first time Otherland's latency could not approximate real life, but he quickly realized it was even stranger than that: the doorway, the huge sandstone blocks of the walls, even Fredericks turning in astonished slow motion, all were abruptly flattened and stretched, rolling themselves into a tunnel down which he plummeted. Orlando snatched at Fredericks as he sped past him—through him—beyond him. . . . For a moment he felt the hard piece of feather-scribed clay clutched in one of his hands like a shield, and his friend's fingers gripping his other hand, then all sense of his physical self dropped away and he was only an eye plummeting down an endless well, an ear that heard nothing but the rushing of endless wind.

I'm inside it, was all he had time to think, then an image burst upon him, sudden and vivid, a picture that drew itself on his mind rather than his sight- Hidden within the temple, he suddenly knew beyond doubt, but also encompassing that temple somehow, like a shadow bigger than the object which cast it, was the monstrous black pyramid of his desert dream. . . .

. . . The pyramid . . . the house of the beast. . . .

Something struck him with an impact like a bomb—a great, shuddering blow, as though he were a hammer that had just smashed down against a titanic anvil, a deep reverberating tone like the sound of a world being born . . . or ending. . . .

Doom. . . !

The tunnel around him shimmied and broke apart into opalescent smears.

First step, he dimly realized, his thoughts distant as the voices of migrating birds invisible in the night sky. I've taken the first step into the temple . . . into the dark. . . .

The thunderous concussion faded. The shivering, gleaming light reformed. He was a child again, following his mother home from the well, watching the sway of her hips and the jerry can balanced on her head. Something rustled in the dry grass and he saw the red-and-brown skin of a snake snap out onto the path before him. His mother turned in fear, her eyes wide, but the snake was between them. . . .

Now he was in the back seat of a car, driving along the coast, with his parents arguing in the front and his sister beside him, grinning and jabbing him with the neck of her headless doll. He kicked at her, but she stayed out of reach, and although he cried out to his parents, they were busy with their conflict. As the car rounded a bend in the highway the sun bounced its reflection off the water, and for a moment he was dazzled by the light that silhouetted his parents' faces. . . .

His two younger brothers had crawled out of the tent. His mother was yelling, which wasn't helping her soothe the sick baby in her arms, but the bad thing was that his mother was really frightened because it was night outside and dark and his father still wasn't back yet. He pushed out of the flap and past the nervous goats, who rang their bells and bleated. The night sky was huge and endless, running away in all directions, and the stars were fierce, and he called his brothers' names over and over. . . .

But I don't have any brothers, he thought. And those aren't my parents, are they?

Everything began happening all at once.

A shack high up in a valley between the hills, and his bicycle lying in a ditch beside the front path, the wheel rusted to the forks because he had left it there all winter, to win an argument with his father that his father didn't even know they were having. . . .

The place in the long front hallway where his mother's and older sister's pictures sat on a table, with a vase of flowers just between them, and where sometimes, on holy days, his grandmother burned a candle. . . .

Playing in the river before the rainy season returned, with nothing but mud far down the banks. His cousin and one of the other village children were wrestling, and they slipped down and for a moment they disappeared into the sludge, frightening him, but then they came up again laughing, with everything the same fecal brown except their shining eyes and teeth. . . .

They were taking down his uncle's flag now that evening had come, and he was rigidly at attention, hoping his uncle would notice how straight he was standing. . . .

Doom. . . .

Second step. The smears of light fragmented into smaller, more rigid pieces, shards of lives, thousands of bright, jagged insights like broken windows—a high mountain trail, following the horses, watching the brilliant tassel of a blanket . . . a sharp bark as his dog heard something in the next apartment, where no one was supposed to be home . . . his baby brother's crying face, fat and red and completely without understanding why it had been pushed down in the sandbox . . . a pair of new shoes set carefully on his folded communion suit. . . .

And all the time a great dark something was moving beneath these glinting bits, as though he, the observing eye, were a diver floating just beneath the surface while something impossibly large, something too big and traveling too deep to be fully comprehensible, passed slowly, slowly beneath him. It did not know he was there, and his fascination with it was almost as great as his naked terror, but nothing in the universe could have been more exposed than he was, a worm without even a hook, floating above the great shadow. . . .

Doom. . . .

This third step brought the dark, as though the Big Nothing passing beneath him had risen and, without realizing it, accidentally swallowed him whole. Dark surrounded him now, permeated him, but it was a darkness that burned, the darkness inside the oven after the door has closed.

He screamed, but there were no words. He knew no words. There were flashes of light, but they had no more meaning than the burning darkness. He was not only bodiless but nameless. He had no brothers, no sisters, no fathers, no mothers, only pain and confusion. He was a singularity, one infinite point at the center of everything, and all that surrounded him was finite. He turned himself inside out over and over again.

The oscillations came faster now, hotter now, faster and hotter and he could not he tried but there was no sense or sound or sight or anything but fast and hot and. . . .

Faster hotter faster hotter broken-backed jerking scratch needle white heat can't stop strike out no no more no make it no faster hot stop make no it won't it too stop hurting not why understand no hot make faster inside stop inside hotter outside stop make faster no make hotter it stop. . . .

Stopmakeitstopitwon'twhywon'titmakeit. . . .

And then something finally did. Something blue, something quiet, something clingingly cool poured over and made everything slow down, slow down, blessed creeping syrupy slow frost that held him and covered him and let his deep black empty heart go slow, go so very slow, until it beat only once in an age, once in an aeon, once when everything began and then again when everything would finally stop. . . .

Doom. . . . The fourth step.

And with that singular and potent reverberation came nothingness. And it was welcome.

 

He came up nameless, out of fundamental blankness into another, lesser blackness, a still place with no time except now. He only knew it was a place because he had a sense of himself as an individual thing, and thus a dim feeling that anything that existed must exist in a place, but he was in no hurry to know where he was, or even who he was. With the acceptance of personal existence came a certain commitment, he knew, and he did not wish anything so strenuous or permanent just yet.

The blackness, although it encompassed everything, nevertheless had a shape, a shape he had seen before, wide at the bottom, narrow at the top—a mountain, a cup emptied and then turned over, a pyramid. . . . He was in the darkness—of the darkness—but he could still feel the impossible geometry of the black form, the vertices both converging and simultaneously extending upward in parallel, forever.

And as he felt himself alive and tiny and for this moment unnoticed in the heart of the black pyramid, something began to sizzle in the emptiness. When he saw the torn place moving before him, he realized that what had ripped the darkness was light, a fizzing irregular glow like a Fourth of July sparkler. . . .

. . . His parents' balcony, him with a cripplingly bad respiratory infection and too sick to go down to the fireworks, even those on the compound's green, but his parents having their own show just for him on the balcony, so he could watch it from his bed. . . .

The jagged place tore more widely, light spilling out now. For a moment—only a moment—he was disappointed to see the beautiful darkness compromised so easily and so carelessly. But as he floated in all that black he could not look away from the light, which was spreading before him, becoming a field of regular shapes, angled lines, a grid that turned inside out from white lines on black to black lines on a white. . . .

. . . Ceiling. . . .

. . . And he came to realize he was lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling of some institutional room, all insulated tile and easy-clean surfaces.

Hospital. The word came to him after a moment, and with it the slowly dawning realization that he must have awakened—that he must somehow have been thrown out of the network and back into his body. Another thought came to him tardily, and he braced himself for the pain that . . . that . . . (the name finally came) that Fredericks had described, but after long moments of looking up at the acoustic tiles, it still had not arrived. He had, however, become aware of two other presences on either side of the bed, leaning over him, which could only be his mother and father. A quiet joy filled him as he opened his eyes.

The shape on his left side was hidden by shadow, so deeply hidden that he could not see it, only feel it. What he perceived was sentience, but also emptiness and the cold that came with it. It was not a pleasant feeling.

The shape on his right had a head that was nothing but light.

I've been here, he thought. But it was an office, not a hospital. When I first . . . when I first came through. . . .

Hello, Orlando, said the thing with the face made invisible by its own brilliance. It spoke with his mother's voice, but it was not his mother, not by any stretch of imagination. We have missed you. Although we have not been very far from you.

Who is "we"? He struggled to rise but could not. The thing on his left side moved, the chilly shape he could not quite see; for a heart-stopping moment he was terrified that it would touch him. He turned away violently, but the light on the other side was blindingly bright, so he was forced to turn his face back toward the acoustic tiles. A small thing was crawling there, a tiny thing, perhaps a bug, and he pinned his attention to it.

"We," in the sense of "I," the not-his-mother continued. "You," I suppose it could even be said. But of course that would not be strictly accurate either.

He could make no sense of that. Where am I? What is this place?

The thing of light hesitated. A dream, I suppose. Perhaps that would be the best explanation.

So I'm talking to myself? So this is all in my head?

The cold fire rippled. He realized the shape was laughing. As if angered by this, the shadowy thing on his left periphery shifted. He thought he could hear it breathing, a slow, somnolent sound from a long way away. No, no, the shape on his right said. Nothing so simplistic. You're talking to yourself, yes, but that's because that's where words come from.

Am I dead?

That word doesn't mean much in this particular conversation. The glow rose a little, the fierce radiance bringing a tear to Orlando's right eye. He blinked as it continued. You are between. You are near a boundary. You are halfway between Heaven and Hell—a place which, medieval theology aside, has nothing to do with Earth at all.

Are you . . . God? Even in his distraction and disconnection, a part of him did not believe it. It all seemed too pat, too simple. The cold thing on the other side of him leaned closer, or seemed to—he felt a chill shadow inch across him, and he shut his eyes tight, terrified that he might see what stood there.

The voice that went with the radiant face was kind. Here's the question, Orlando. It's kind of a Sunday School question. . . .

Eyes tightly shut, he waited, but the silence went on. Just as he was about to risk everything and open his eyes, the soft voice spoke again.

If God is all-powerful, then the Devil must be nothing more than a darkness in the mind of God. But if the Devil is something real and separate, then perfection is impossible, and there can be no God . . . except for the aspirations of fallen angels. . . .

Orlando strained to hear as the voice, which had grown steadily fainter, whispered the last word. As if he might hear better with his vision restored, he opened his eyes to. . . .

Blackness, complete and absolute and containing nothing but. . . .

Doom. . . .

 

 

For the second time in what seemed a very short span, he appeared to be back in a hospital. His eyes were tight shut, and the idea that those same odd bookend figures might still be sitting over him meant he was in no hurry to open them, but Orlando could tell that he was flat on his back, restrained by sheets or something equally binding, and someone was dabbing at his forehead with a cold, damp cloth.

Also contributing to the hospital theory was the fact that he felt absolutely dreadful.

"He just blinked," said Fredericks in the excited tone of someone who has been watching for something a long time.

"Oh, God," Orlando groaned. "I'm still . . . alive, then? God, that locks utterly."

"That's not funny, Gardiner."

As he opened his eyes a second sarcastic remark died on his lips. It was not Fredericks cooling his brow, but a round Egyptian woman with dark skin and an impatient expression. "Who are you?" Orlando asked.

"Just hush your mouth." She sounded far more Deep South than Nile Delta. "You were almost dead, boy, so I think you'd better keep still for a bit."

Orlando looked to Fredericks, hovering behind her, and mouthed, Who is she? His friend shrugged helplessly. The room decor gave no clues—the walls were whitewashed mud brick, the ceiling white plaster, and there was no furniture in the room other than whatever kind of lumpy, pillowless bed was beneath him.

The woman put a gentle but firm hand against his chest and pressed him back onto the rustling mattress. When he tried to resist, he realized that some kind of rough blanket had been tucked around him very tightly: his arms were virtually pinned against his sides.

"What's going on?" he blustered, frightened to be so helpless. "Are you planning to make me into a mummy or something?"

"Don't be stupid." She dabbed a last time and then stood up, fists on her full hips. Even with Fredericks wearing his slight-bodied Pithlit sim, she only came up to his shoulder. If Orlando had been vertical, the Thargor body would have towered over her. "You aren't a king, you're just an ordinary god like your friend here, and you're not even dead. You just don't rate mummification, boy. Now say your prayers and then get some sleep."

"What are you talking about? Who are you? What's going on here?"

"You were really sick again, Orlando." Fredericks looked to the woman as though asking permission to speak, but she did not look away from her patient. "When we came through . . . when we were out of that temple place . . . you were. . . ."

"You were acting like a crazy person," the woman said matter-of-factly. "Hootin' and hollerin' and carrying on something terrible. You tried to kick your way through the wall of somebody's house, and then you tried to walk across the Nile."

"Oh, my God. . . ." Orlando shuddered. "But how did I get here? And why won't you tell me who you are?"

The woman squinted at him as though judging whether he was worth the effort of serious conversation. "Watch that cursing, boy. My name is Bonita Mae Simpkins. My family call me Bonnie Mae, but you don't know me that well, so for now you can call me Mrs. Simpkins."

The headache which had been merely excruciating at first was getting worse every moment. Orlando could feel his eyelid twitching badly, but that was the least of his worries. "I . . . I want to get some answers, but I feel pretty impacted," he conceded.

"You're not well, boy, that's why. You need more sleep." She frowned, but her touch was gentle on his forehead. "Here." She drew something from a fold of her baggy white cotton dress. "Swallow this. It'll make you feel a little better."

Under the pressure of that gaze, he did not argue, but dry-swallowed the powdery ball. "What is it?"

"Egyptian medicine," she said. "They make a lot of it from crocodile poop." For the first time she allowed herself a quick smile at Orlando's horrified expression. "But not this. Just willow bark. Another few thousand years, I 'spect they'll call it aspirin."

Orlando was not as amused as Mrs. Simpkins, but he had no strength left to tell her so. He lay back. Fredericks squatted beside him and took his hand. "You'll be okay, Gardiner."

Orlando wanted to remind his friend that okay was the one thing he would never, ever be, but already something was dragging him down, like river weeds tangling the legs of a drowning man.

 

He felt a little better the next time he woke, and after some bargaining was even allowed to sit up. All his nerves felt like they were coming back to life. Whatever was stuffed in his mattress felt as bristly as horsehair, and the light streaming in through the doorway of the room splashed with almost painful brightness against the white walls.

When Mrs. Simpkins wandered off briefly to another room, he called Fredericks over. "What's going on?" he whispered. "What happened with the temple and how did we get here? Where is here, anyway?"

"It's someone's house." Fredericks looked over his shoulder to make sure the formidable Mrs. S. was not in sight. "Pretty big, too. She was telling the truth, though—you were scanned out. A bunch of guys with, like, clubs were going to kill you, but she calmed you down."

"But where are we? It's still Egypt, right? How did we wind up here?"

Fredericks' face was unhappy. "Egypt, yeah, but I don't really know the rest. After we reached the temple place—I really thought some kind of monster was going to come out of there and just utterly devour us or something—I guess I blacked out, then I just kind of . . . woke up again. And you were gone. But we were near the edge of the river, and there was like this big city around us. And then I heard people shouting, and I went to look, and it was you, and you were standing in the river, scanning majorly, shouting something about God's offices."

"I don't remember any of that," said Orlando, shaking his head. "But I had some really weird . . . I don't know, dreams, experiences . . . about that temple place." He had a sudden, worried thought. "Where are the monkey kids?"

"They're here. They just won't come inside—that woman scares them. They were all climbing around on you when you were still sleeping, the first afternoon, and she chased 'em out with a broom. I think they're living in a tree in the open place out there—what's it called, a courtyard?"

"I don't get any of this. . . ." Orlando said. "I mean, what's someone named Bonnie Mae doing in ancient Egypt. . . ?"

"There weren't a lot of folk named Orlando Gardiner laboring to build Pharaoh's pyramids either," said a sharp voice from the doorway. "Now were there?"

Fredericks started back guiltily. "He's feeling better," Orlando's friend asserted, "so he was asking some questions."

"Well he might," Mrs. Simpkins said. "Well he might. And I s'pose I might have a couple myself. Like, where you got this, and why you were hanging onto it so tight there are still finger marks in the clay?" She held up the piece of broken pot, waving the feather design in front of Orlando's face. "Talk to me, boy. The good Lord don't care for liars—He cannot abide those who do not tell the truth."

"Look," Orlando said, "no offense, but why should I tell you anything? I don't know who you are. I mean, thanks for taking care of us and giving us a place to stay, but maybe we should just get going now, let you have your house back." He tried to climb to his feet, then had to try even harder to avoid falling down. His legs felt overcooked, and even the effort of steadying himself brought his breath fast and frequent.

Bonita Mae Simpkins' laugh was mirthless. "You don't know what you're talking about, boy. First off, you couldn't walk around the corner yet without your friend helping you. Second, in another hour it's going to be dark, and if you're outside, you'll get torn to pieces. You ain't the Daniel of this lion's den."

"Torn to pieces?"

"You tell him," she said to Fredericks. "I don't take well to being argued with these days." She folded her arms across her broad chest.

"There's . . . there's some kind of war going on," Fredericks said. "It's not very safe outside at night."

"Not very safe?" the woman snorted. "The Lord has given you a gift for understatement that is truly miraculous, youngster. The streets of Abydos are full of abominations, and that's the truth. Creatures with the heads of vultures and bees, men and women who throw lightning and ride in flying boats, scorpions with human hands, monsters you can't even imagine. It's like the Final Days out there, like the Book of Revelations, if the good Lord will forgive me saying so about a place that ain't no more than a poor copy of His universe in the first place, no more than the work of sinful men." She fixed Orlando with an agate eye. "And what's more, from what I understand, all this craziness is your fault, boy."

"What?" Orlando turned to Fredericks, who shrugged and looked sheepish. "What is she talking about?"

"Well," his friend said, "you remember Oompa-Loompa? The guy with the wolf head? Apparently, he sort of started some kind of revolution."

"Osiris is gone at the moment, but his lieutenants Tefy and Mewat are wrathful creatures," said Mrs. Simpkins. "They are going to do their level best to get things back under control before their boss comes back, and to creatures like them, that means a lot of pain and a lot of killin'—and they've already done a goodly amount. So don't tell me what you're going to do or not do, boy."

Orlando could only sit for a moment in horrified silence, trying to make sense of it all. The angle of the light on the far wall had changed already, the shadows creeping up the whitewash, and with the woman's words still echoing in his thoughts he could almost feel the held breath of a community waiting fearfully for darkness to come. "So . . . so what are we supposed to do? What's all this mean to you . . . Ma'am?"

Mrs. Simpkins grunted, signifying her approval of a more respectful Orlando. "What it means to me is more than you're ready to hear yet, boy, but you came stomping through the tomb-builders' neighborhood with the feather of Ma'at clamped in your hand like it was your last friend, and I mean to know why."

"How do you know about . . . about her?"

"Who's asking the questions, boy?" She glared at him. Orlando felt certain she could crack a walnut between those eyebrows if she wanted to. "Not only do I know about her, my husband Terence died in Osiris' dungeons to protect her secrets, and eight more of my friends have died here, too. So you can understand I'm a little bit short-tempered about the whole thing. Now you better talk to me."

Orlando took a breath. Self-preservation screamed at him not even to think about asking another question, but he had been under sentence of death too long to be easily cowed. "Just tell me who your friends are, please. Why are you here?"

Bonita Mae Simpkins also took a breath. "I'm praying for patience, boy." She closed her eyes as though it were the literal truth. "We are the Circle, young man, and we are going to send every one of these sinners and false gods down to hell on the express elevator. Now, s'pose you start talking."

CHAPTER 4
A Problem With Geography

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: IEN, Hr. 4 (Eu, NAm)—"BACKSTAB"

(visual: Kennedy wrestling with crocodile)

VO: Stabbak (Caroius Kennedy) and Shi Na (Wendy Yohira) must make their way to the Amazon rain forest in pursuit of a chemical coveted by the evil Doctor Methuselah (Moishe Reiner). 5 principal Yanomamo aboriginals needed, plus extras. Flak to; IEN.BKSTB.CAST

 

"No, that feels quite ordinary." Florimel opened her eyes. "Everything feels just as it does in real life. Sharp feels sharp, soft feels soft, hot feels hot, even when the fire is artificial. In fact, it is becoming a bit uncomfortable."

"Sorry." Renie moved the smoldering stick away from Florimel's bare shin. She tested it near her own hand; the heat did indeed feel quite realistic. "So even in this place, we're still getting almost perfect simulation."

"But we still do not know the whys and wherefores," said Martine, frowning. "We have quite different equipment, all of us. Renie, you and !Xabbu do not even have telematic implants. But we are all getting input that seems equally sophisticated."

"Not at first," Renie remembered. "!Xabbu used to say that his sense of smell was disappointingly limited, that he thought it was because they hadn't built much into the military VR system we were using. But I haven't heard him complain about it lately. Maybe he's just gotten used to it."

Martine seemed about to say something, but instead an odd expression crossed her face, what Renie thought of as her satellite-tracking look, as though information was being beamed to her from the black distances of space.

"There he is," said Florimel, climbing to her feet. "We can ask him."

Renie turned to see !Xabbu's familiar shape poised on the brow of a nearby hill, as though he had stopped to watch them. "They're back quickly. I wonder where Emily and T4b are."

"Fighting," said Florimel dryly. "Hitting each other with their school bags, perhaps. It is hard to tell sometimes if they are worst enemies or teenage lovers."

"Well, if Emily is looking for a stepfather for her baby, the choices are pretty limited in this group." She squinted. "Why is !Xabbu just standing there like that?" A breath of chill hurried through her, and she raised her arm to wave at the unmoving monkey shape. "!Xabbu?"

"It is not him," said Martine in an odd, choked voice.

"What?"

"It is not him." Martine was also squinting, her sightless eyes squeezed shut like someone suffering a bad headache. "I cannot tell who or what it is you are seeing, but I can tell you it is not !Xabbu."

Even as Renie scrambled to her feet, the baboon on the hill made a slight movement—whether backward or to the side was hard to tell—and was gone.

The spot where he had stood was quite empty, the unfinished land open and uninhabited around them as far as they could see, a rumpled crazy quilt with no folds or prominences substantial enough to hide anything.

"Where did he go?" Renie wondered. "There's nowhere to disappear to."

"Unless like the thing T4b and I saw the other day," Florimel suggested, "it merely stepped through the air and vanished."

"But what was it, then? What did you think it was, Martine?"

"I am sorry not to be more useful," the French woman said, "but I cannot guess. I know only that its pattern was not !Xabbu's. What I 'see' is too hard to describe. But I can tell you that it seemed both more complicated and less complicated than one of us."

"Was it like those ghost-children you described?" Renie asked. "One of those?"

"No. Those felt like people, whatever they were in fact. This seemed like an opening into something else, as though the thing you saw as !Xabbu were a kind of glove-puppet, and I was sensing the hand underneath."

Florimel made a harsh noise. "I cannot say I like the sound of that. Something from the Grail Brotherhood, come looking for us? Perhaps even the false Quan Li, come back again in a different shape?"

Martine shook her head, rubbing at her eyes as if she had tired herself out staring at something. "I think not. Perhaps it was just a strange quirk of this environment. A reflection, perhaps—a sort of echo of the real !Xabbu."

Renie suddenly needed to share the eerie thought that had gripped her. "Maybe it's something this . . . this place is doing. Watching us, analyzing us, making copies of us."

"Double-goers," said Florimel, pondering. "No, that is not right. Double-goers. Double-goers."

Renie was confused. "What do you mean?"

"I think you know the German word, but the software forces a translation."

"I can say it," Martine said with a small smile, "because I am speaking English. There is a paradox for you, no? The word Florimel is saying is 'doppelgangers.' "

Renie nodded. "I've heard it, yes. But I don't like the idea." She shivered and looked around. "I know we already took a vote, and I'm not trying to reverse the outcome, but I never liked this place much and I feel even more that way now." What she didn't say, and perhaps didn't need to say now that her companions had come to know her, was that she was feeling intensely the pressure to do something—the need was thumping in her like a drumbeat.

"We know, Renie," said Martine kindly. "But we cannot do anything until the others return, in any case."

Renie started to say something, then had a sudden, vivid recollection of a ghost story she had been told by her grandmother in which the spirit of someone who was dying appeared at that same moment to his loved ones far away. For a moment her terror was so great she could not speak.

 

She felt such powerful relief when !Xabbu and the others eventually came trooping back that she could only give the man in the baboon sim a hug, then reach out to touch him from time to time as he and the others made their report.

". . . The truth," he said, "is that we have found nothing in any of four directions we have tried, except for some small strangenesses, like the animal T4b and Florimel saw yesterday, and a few things I myself have discovered."

"Monkey-man tripped on some air," explained T4b, vastly entertained.

"That is not what happened," said !Xabbu, his dignity perhaps a bit bruised. "What I found is that just as there are places where the land does not feel right, or where we can reach through things that seem to be before us, there are also places where the air has grown solid. At least, it is thicker than air should be, as though it were . . . I cannot find a word. As though it were . . . becoming something."

"What does that mean?" Renie was so relieved !Xabbu and the others had returned safely that she was finding it difficult to concentrate.

"Some of this place is invisible to us, and some of it that we should be able to touch, we cannot touch." He lifted his hands to show he had no better answer.

"We cannot completely trust our senses, that seems to be the lesson," said Florimel briskly. "That has been true all over the network, although in different ways."

"But it's not the same here, and you know it." Renie found Florimel easier to like after her confession, but there was still something in the woman's manner that occasionally rubbed her wrong. "We had an experience here that you should know about, !Xabbu." She quickly told him of the phantom baboon. He seemed more disturbed by it than she had expected, which made her remember her own fears.

"So you saw something with my shape," he said, nodding slowly. "But it would not speak to you."

"Speak? It didn't even move until just before it vanished." She didn't like his morose expression. Had she tripped him up with something that recalled one of his grimmer beliefs? "Martine thinks it might be a reflection of a sort."

"Like an echo, or a mirage," the blind woman said. "Perhaps a mirage is the better metaphor, because of the way it bends light."

"Perhaps." The man in the monkey sim was subdued.

"Maybe it's something like what happened to us on the boat with Azador," Renie said suddenly. "That disruption when everything seemed to be falling apart, going strange." That didn't really explain anything, she realized, just stated another instance of their ignorance.

"It isn't more monkeys, is it?" asked Emily, clearly apprehensive. The reference to Azador had caught her attention. "Maybe Lion sent more monkeys to get us."

Renie bit back a sharp reply. She very much doubted it had anything to do with New Emerald City, which was the only simulation Emily knew, but her idea wasn't any more farfetched than anyone else's.

This is truly like being in a children's story, she thought unhappily. There doesn't seem to be any logic to it, no rules—literally anything could be true. How are we supposed to accomplish something under these conditions?

It was another question—she was building quite a stack of them—without an answer.

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"This is Martine Desroubins, resuming my journal. Considering how much more leisure we have had since entering what Renie refers to as "The Backwater' or 'Patchwork Land' it would seem I might have been more frequent in my entries, but other than the summation of two days ago, describing the events of our coming through to rejoin Renie and !Xabbu, things have been too hectic.

"We can make no sense of this place. The mysteries grow deeper with every day. Not only is the environment all but empty of anything resembling animal life, and very sparsely vegetated, the entire landscape seems to be undergoing processes of random change that have little to do with imitating real geography. Other than a general separation of ground and air, which mostly stay in their respective places, the flux is constant. In fact, I have ceased asking my companions to explain what they see, since it is so often different than what my senses tell me. They are living in an unstable but more or less comprehensible arrangement of hills and valleys, with things that resemble trees and boulders and other natural objects scattered about the landscape. For me, it often seems that my companions and I are in a place where the edges are always in transition—the ground swirls upward in plumes that they cannot see, the air is so thick in places that I would assume it blocks the light, except that they say it does not, and in any case, the light comes from every direction and no direction.

"Still, I cannot say it is upsetting to me—I do not feel panic, as I did so strongly in those final hours in the Place of the Lost. The changes are slow, and feel as though they are in keeping with the environment. I am learning to read the information that comes to me so that I am no more discommoded than the others.

"There are reasons for concern, however. Earlier today, Renie and Florimel saw what they thought was !Xabbu watching us from a distance. I saw nothing like the Bushman's 'shape'—what I think of as his insignia—but rather a strange, complex apparition that seemed oddly larger than the amount of virtual territory it displaced. My senses are still new, and I cannot describe it more clearly than that. Later, as we were all going to sleep beside the fire, T4b saw something he thought was Emily, some distance from our camp. Worried for her, he went toward it without noticing that the real Emily was sleeping only a few meters away on the far side of Florimel. The false Emily disappeared before our youngest companion reached it.

"What does all this mean? And how do this simulation and these phenomena relate to the bizarre dislocations where the entire network system seems to break down? I have no idea. In a way, though, it is perhaps a good thing we are in such an unusual spot. It minimizes our differences at a time when we are all tired, frightened, and short-tempered, and when there is genuine disagreement between us. Losing Orlando and Fredericks has been difficult enough, but although the hope is small, as long as they are merely missing there is always a chance we may see them again. But watching William die and discovering that Quan Li was not who she seemed have been terrible blows.

"Oddly, the changes in Renie have not been what I would have expected. She has always been volatile, and I would have guessed that our complete and utter failure so far to solve any of Otherland's riddles would have pushed her farther into anger and impatience. Instead she seems to have found a well of strength within herself, and has taken losing a vote on what we should do with good grace—even more surprising considering that the deciding vote cast against her came from her friend, !Xabbu.

"Something in her experiences has . . . I cannot think of the proper word. Broadened her? Deepened her, perhaps. She has always been a young woman of poise and sharp wits and courage, but with a certain brittleness as well. Now, although she is not by any means completely changed, she seems calmer in her spirit. Perhaps this is !Xabbu's influence. It would be tempting to suggest that as the representative of a simpler, more ancient way of life he has changed her with his simple, ancient wisdom, but that would be to grossly underestimate the man. His wisdom, what I have seen of it, is never simple, and although some of it comes from the thousand generations of his people's past, much of it has also come from being an intelligent young man raised on the extreme fringes of what the world calls 'civilization'—that is, knowing all his life that most of what the world considers important has nothing to do with him at all.

"In fact, I think !Xabbu by far walks the most difficult path of all of us, trying to reconcile a culture whose ways have been tested and settled a hundred centuries ago with a world of technological change that is almost cancerous in its constant growth and evolution. This place we are staying could be a metaphor for how what !Xabbu terms our 'city-world' must feel to him.

"He has had another effect on Renie as well, although I do not know whether she is entirely aware of it. I cannot tell whether he is in love with her—one of the things I undoubtedly miss because of my blindness is the way someone looks at someone else—but there is no question he is devoted to her. Neither can I tell for certain whether she loves him, but she is a different person when he is absent—much of what I perceive as her newfound inner peace is undercut. At times, hearing them speak of each other in the language of cheerful but casual companionship, I want to grab one of them—usually Renie—and give that person a shake. But must they not discover whatever is there in their own time? In any case, the differences between them are very great, so perhaps I am half-hoping for something that might turn out to be a tragic mistake. Nevertheless, there are certainly moments I wish for a fairy godmother's wand. I think if I had one, I would make a magical mirror, so both could see themselves as the other sees them.

"And what of me, in all this? As usual, I speak of others, think of others, observe or consider or—occasionally—manipulate others. Always I am outside. What does a fairy godmother do when she is not blessing babies or magicking up a coach and dress for Cinderella? Does she perhaps sit outside the ring of the campfire, watching over the others as they sleep, talking quietly to herself?

"If so, then it seems I am a natural.

"Someone is stirring, I hear. It is T4b, which means my time at the sentry post seems to have come to an end already. I will continue this soon, I hope. . . .

"Code Delphi. End here. "

 

 

The shriek was clearly human, yet so strangely pitched that for the first instant of sudden consciousness Renie wanted nothing to do with it. As she sat up, bleary with sleep, the confusion of dream still clinging to her, she found herself wishing against all good sense that she had not heard it, that she could just drop away back into unconsciousness and let someone else deal with it.

After her eyes popped open, it took a long moment before she realized that something else was wrong, too.

"It's dark!" she shouted. "How did that happen? Where's the light?"

"Renie! There is a big hole here!" one of the others called. "Somebody fell in!"

She rolled onto her side and saw by the dim firelight that a huge black space now stretched on the far side of the fire, where previously there had been ground. "Who is it?"

"Martine!" Florimel said hoarsely. "I can't see her, but I can hear her!"

T4b was shouting, too, ragged cries in which Renie could make out no words. "Jesus Mercy," she snapped at him as she scrambled toward the edge of the hole, "that's not helping any!" Despite the sudden and unprecedented arrival of night, she thought she could see something moving in the depths, faint shadows of red and black: the weird transparency of the soil was allowing through a smear of firelight. "Martine?" she called. "Can you hear me?"

"I am here, Renie." The blind woman's voice was tightly controlled. "I am clinging, but the dirt is very loose. I am afraid to move."

Renie saw Florimel on the far side of the broad pit, but she knew more than the two of them would be needed. "Help us, !Xabbu, T4b!" Renie said. "She can't hang on long."

"My hand!" T4b sounded quite stunned, almost drugged.

Renie had no idea what he was talking about, but !Xabbu was now standing beside her. "Lower me in," he said. "I will hold her as we pull her out."

Florimel, a little wild-eyed, shook her head emphatically. "You are not strong enough!"

"I am strong," !Xabbu said. "Only my body is small."

Renie did not want to waste time arguing. She was inclined to trust !Xabbu, although the idea of lowering him into the dark was frightening. "If he says so, it's true. Come over here and help me, Florimel. T4b, are you going to help or not?"

The Goggleboy only made a strange gulping sound. He was crouched on the far side of the pit, a spiny shape like a large cactus.

With Renie and Florimel each holding one of his thin legs, !Xabbu walked himself over the edge on his hands, headfirst into the hole. When he had reached the limit of their armspan he still could not touch Martine, who despite her measured responses was clearly miserable. Renie and Florimel brought !Xabbu up again, then with great care lowered themselves to their knees and crawled toward the hole so they could lie flat on the ground, side-by-side with their shoulders protruding beyond the rim. "We really need you, T4b!" Renie called. Her voice seemed to go straight down into the dark, flat and dead. "We need someone to hold onto us!"

A moment later a hand closed on one of her ankles and Renie sighed in relief. !Xabbu climbed over her and Florimel, then clambered down their arms as though they were vines, allowing them at the last to clasp their hands around his ankles. Even his small weight felt as though it could drag them over the edge, and Renie's voice was breathless as she asked, "Can you reach her?"

"I am not. . . ." He paused, then an instant later said, "I have her. Hold on, Martine. Take one of my hands, but do not let go with your other yet." When he spoke again, Renie could tell he had turned his head toward the surface. "But how can you two pull us out?"

With the strange, soapy earth of the place in her mouth and nose, her arms stretched until it felt as though they might tear loose at any moment, Renie was no longer merely frightened, but terrified. She and Florimel had no leverage at all, and every moment it was getting harder and harder to support !Xabbu's weight without adding Martine's as well.

"T4b!" she shouted. "Can you pull us back?" There was no response, so Renie gently moved her leg, afraid that if she kicked too hard he might let go. "Can't you pull us back?"

A small voice said, "I can't. It's already hard to hold on."

"Emily! That's you back there?" Renie had to push away her panicked fury at T4b—this was no time for it. She struggled to keep her voice firm, but she could feel her composure swiftly unraveling at the edges. "T4b, God damn it, if you don't help pull us back, Martine and !Xabbu are going to fall! Come help us!"

For a long moment nothing changed. Renie could almost feel her arms stretching like warm taffy, getting longer and thinner. She knew she could not hold any longer—something would have to give way. Then a large, painfully spiky hand closed on the back of her jumpsuit and began to pull. Renie barely had time for a gasp of relief before it turned to a hiss of anguish as Martine's full weight swung free.

For an instant her shoulders and elbows seemed full of burning rubber and she was certain she would lose her grip—as in her dream, it felt as though she were trying to pull the entire world inside out. Then the hand on her back tugged her far enough away from the rim that she could bend her knees and dig her elbows into the dirt. A few more moments and she could flex her spine and begin to apply leverage of her own.

Martine came over the top, scrambling, and actually crawled across Florimel in her desperate fight to get out of the pit. !Xabbu, who had swung to the side to let her climb out, followed a few seconds later. The four of them collapsed into a panting heap.

"Thank you. Oh, my God, thank you." Martine's voice, thickened by dirt, was little more than a choking murmur; Renie had never heard the blind woman so emotional.

"We must move away," said !Xabbu, rising on all fours. "We do not know there will not be more collapses here."

When they had stumbled and crawled back through the unfamiliar darkness to the embers of the campfire, Renie abruptly sat up. "T4b? What in hell happened to you? Why didn't you help us when I asked?"

"He's still by the hole," Emily said, more interested than disapproving. "I think he's crying."

"What?" Renie got to her feet, balance shaky. "T4b—Javier? What's going on?"

"He tried to help me. . . ." Martine said, but Renie was already walking toward the huddled shape of the warrior-robot, mindful of the pit a few steps away.

"Javier?" He did not look up, but even in the half-light she saw his shoulders stiffen. "T4b, what is it?"

He turned the scowling battle-mask toward her, but his words were those of a shocked, frightened youth. "M–my hand . . . my lockin' hand!" He raised his left arm toward her. For a moment, she thought he had sustained some terrible fracture, that it had been bent away from her at a sickening angle; it took a few moments more before she realized that his hand was simply gone, neatly removed at the base of the wrist. The battle-gauntlet ended with a kind of gray flatness like a piece of lead, but with a faint suggestion of shimmer.

"What happened?"

"He was coming to replace me on sentry duty." Martine edged toward them, giving a wide berth to the place where the ground had opened. "All of a sudden, as I was walking away, the earth just . . . disappeared in front of me. No, that's too simple, it was more like an entire area of air and land just . . . changed. Like some kind of invisible field core-sampled the whole thing." She was breathing hard, still recovering from the shock of her ordeal. T4b pulled the affected arm in close to his body and rocked back and forth as though he held an injured child. "If I hadn't been blind," Martine continued, "I think I would have just walked into it in the dark, but because I sensed something was wrong I stopped on the edge and struggled for balance. T4b pulled me aside, but I think his other hand must have crossed the plane where the ground and air were still changing, because he let out a scream. . . ."

"Yes! I heard him," Renie said, remembering the terrible cry that had woken her.

". . . And when I tried to go to him, I stumbled and rolled over the edge." Martine stopped, trying to calm herself.

Renie shook her head. They'd have to try to figure it out later. "Florimel!" she called. "You're our doctor. We need you right now!"

 

As with everything else in this bizarre and unique environment, T4b's injury and the unexpected nightfall followed no normal patterns.

Their Goggleboy companion had lost his hand, but as far as anyone could tell, only its virtual analogue: T4b still felt a hand at the end of his wrist (although he said it felt "sayee lo max," and described it as feeling "all electricity") even though no one else could feel it, and it did not seem to exist as far as the environment was concerned either. After the initial shock there was no pain, and the gray space at the end of his wrist where the amputation had occurred retained its faint gleam. Whatever the earth-hollowing effect had been, inspection proved that it had also removed a segment of Martine's baggy clothing as neatly as a swipe from a laser-scalpel.

Although they huddled long talking it over before they eventually went back to sleep, the darkness was still present when the last of them awakened, and Renie among others began to think that they were in for a night at least as long as the gray twilight of their first days in the place.

"And we cannot even guess how long this next part is going to last," Florimel pointed out, "because we might have missed the first six months of that gray light."

"I'm frightened!" Although she had played a surprisingly brave part in Martine's rescue, Emily had quickly reverted to her status as the group's official malcontent. "I want to go away from here now. I hate this place!"

"I don't want to seem to be taking advantage of a bad situation," Renie said, "but I think we should vote again. The dark is bad enough—we'll be out of this imitation firewood soon, and it won't be fun looking for more—but if pieces are just dropping out of the environment. . . ."

Martine nodded. "I cannot help wondering what would have happened to me if I had walked into that space before it took poor T4b's hand. Would I still exist? Would my virtual body be gone, but my mind still be trapped online somehow, a kind of ghost?" The idea seemed to trouble her deeply.

"It does no good to think of it," Florimel said. "But there is no need for argument, Renie—not as far as I am concerned. This place has won your argument for you. We must leave."

"If we can leave," Martine pointed out. She seemed both smaller and less remote, as though the brush with possible oblivion had changed her. "Don't forget, it was never anything but an idea of Renie's, that we might find our way out of this place without the Grail Brotherhood's object."

Renie stared at the textured semitransparencies of the firelight. "If needing and wanting to get out will make it easier, then it definitely just got much easier."

 

"It is no use." !Xabbu sounded as dispirited as Renie had ever heard him. What must have been hours had passed, and he and Martine had tried everything they could imagine, even going so far as to make all the company link hands around the fire and concentrate on the idea of a golden-shining gateway—Florimel had scornfully called it a "seance"—all to no effect. "You have put your trust in me, Renie, you and the others, but I have failed you."

"Don't be silly, !Xabbu," Martine said. "No one has failed anyone."

He touched her arm with his long fingers, a gesture of appreciation for her kindness, then walked a short distance away and crouched with his back to the fire, a tiny, mournful figure.

"The problem is that there is no way for !Xabbu and me to explain to each other what we know," Martine quietly told Renie. "He and I . . . touched before, somehow, when we were all apart, but it was through the gateway the Brotherhood's object had already opened. Neither of us can use words to say what we felt, what we learned. We are like two scientists who do not have any common language—the barrier is too great to share our discoveries."

Florimel shook her head glumly. "We should sleep. In a while, if it is still dark, I will try to find more firewood."

Renie looked at T4b, who was sleeping now, exhaustion and shock having finally outworn the adrenaline; Emily also had taken refuge in unconsciousness. She tried to think of something optimistic to say but couldn't; she had not dared to consider what might happen if they could not reopen the gateway. A wave of unhappiness and fear swept through her. Even worse was the sight of her friend !Xabbu looking so defeated. She made her way across the untrustworthy ground toward him. When she reached his side she had still not thought of any useful words, so she sat beside him and took his small hand in hers.

After a long silence, !Xabbu abruptly said, "Many, many years ago there was another with my name. He was one of my people, and he was called Dream, the same as my parents named me, after the dream that is dreaming us." He paused as if Renie might respond, but she could feel nothing except a painful, heavy congestion around her heart and did not trust herself to speak.

"He was a prisoner, as my father became a prisoner," !Xabbu continued. "I know his words not because my own people remembered them, but because he came to know one of the few Europeans who studied my people's ways. One day this white scholar asked my namesake why he was so unhappy all the time, why he sat quiet, with his face in shadow. And the man called Dream told him, 'I am sitting, waiting for the moon to turn back, so that I might return to the place of my people and hear their stories.'

"At first the scholar thought Dream was speaking of going back to his family, and he asked him where they were, but Dream said, 'I am waiting for the stories that come from a distance, for a story is like the wind—it comes from far away, but we feel it. The people here do not possess my stories. They do not speak things that speak to me. I am waiting until I can turn around in my path, until the moon turns back, and I am hoping that someone on the path behind me, someone who knows my stories, will speak a story I can hear on the wind—that listening I can turn around in the path . . . and that my heart will find a way home.

"That is how I feel, Renie—as that man also named Dream felt. It came to me when I did my dance that I should not try to be something I am not, but must do as my people do, think as my people think. But it has made me lonely. This world does not seem to me a place where I can understand the stories, Renie." He slowly shook his head, dark eyes lidded.

His words pierced her. Her eyes filled with tears. "You have friends in this world," she said, stumbling a little on the words. "People who care for you very much."

He squeezed her hand. "I know. But even the friends of my heart cannot always feed the Greater Hunger."

Another long silence crept by. Renie heard Martine and Florimel speaking softly a few meters away, but the words seemed meaningless, so much did she long for something to ease the small man's sorrow. "I . . . I love you, !Xabbu," she said at last. The words seemed quite stark, hanging in the darkness. She didn't know what she meant, and was suddenly frightened of something she could not entirely identify. "You are my best and closest friend."

He rested his furry head against her shoulder. "And I love you, Renie. Even the sharpest pains of my heart are less when you and I are together."

The moment seemed difficult to Renie. He had taken it so calmly, so matter-of-factly, that she almost felt insulted, even though she herself was not sure how she had meant that fateful word. But I don't know what he means by it either, she realized. In a way, we're from so far apart, we still hardly know each other.

Feeling awkward, she let go of his hand and touched the rough thing that had been rubbing at her wrist. "What's this?"

"My string." He laughed quietly as he unknotted it. "Your string, I mean, that you gave me from your boot. A precious gift." His mood had lightened, or else out of kindness to her he pretended that it had. "Would you like to see another story told with it? I can bring it back to the fire."

"Maybe later," she said, then hoped she hadn't offended him. "I'm tired, !Xabbu. But I loved the stories you made it tell earlier."

"It can do other things, too. Oh, such a clever piece of string! I can count with it, and even do more difficult things—in some ways, the string game can be like an abacus, you know, telling many complicated ideas. . . ." He trailed off.

Renie was so absorbed in wondering what this latest, confusing interlude between the two of them might mean that she did not realize for a moment that !Xabbu was lost in thought; there was an even longer pause before she suddenly understood what it was he was considering. "Oh, !Xabbu, could you use it that way? Would it help?"

He was already moving on all fours back toward the fire, taking the easier, animal way of moving in his haste. She felt a twinge of worry at his growing facility with baboon-movement, but it was pushed away by a dangerous upwelling of hope.

"Martine," he said, "put out your hands. There, like that."

The blind woman, a little startled, allowed him to arrange her hands with palms facing each other and fingers extended. He quickly looped the string over them, then thrust his own fingers in and moved them rapidly. "This shape is called 'the sun'—the sun in the sky. Do you understand?"

Martine nodded slowly.

"And see, here is 'night.' Now, this means 'far,' and this . . . 'near.' Yes?"

Anyone else, Renie felt sure, would have asked him what the hell he was talking about, but Martine only sat quietly for a moment, her face distant and distracted, then asked him to do it again more slowly. He did, then showed her figure after figure, moving his hands through what seemed to Renie like a series of simple pictures, but she knew him well enough to know that this was only the beginning—the building blocks of the string game.

After perhaps two hours had passed, !Xabbu stopped talking. Martine had fallen silent some time earlier. Florimel and Renie took turns poking up the remains of the fire, more for their own cheer than any need of !Xabbu's or Martine's: except for occasional wiggles of her fingers when she did not understand something, or a gentle touch by !Xabbu when she had made a mistake, the two of them were now communicating entirely through the string.

 

Renie awoke from a light doze; dream-images of nets and fences that somehow let things out rather than kept them in were still running in her brain. She could not at first understand what caused the yellow light.

The sun came back. . . ? was the first coherent thought that crossed her mind, and then she realized what she was seeing. Heart speeding, she clambered to her feet and hurried to wake Florimel. Martine and !Xabbu sat facing each other on the ground, both with their eyes shut, totally still except for their fingers, which moved slowly now in the web of string, as though making only the most minute adjustments.

"Get up!" Renie shouted. "It's the gateway, the gateway!"

T4b and Emily both came clawing up from sleep, amazed and frightened. Renie did not bother to explain, just urged them to their feet; with Florimel's help she shoved them toward the shimmering rectangle of cold fire before going back for Martine and !Xabbu. For a moment she hesitated, as though getting their attention might somehow break the circuit and dismiss the glowing gate, but it could not be helped. Any escape that did not include !Xabbu and Martine was not an escape they could take. When she gently shook them, they seemed to awaken from a dream.

"Come on!" she said. "You did it! You brilliant, brilliant people!"

"Before you get too happy," Florimel growled from beside the gateway, "remember that they have opened a doorway so we can chase a murderer."

"Florimel," Renie said as she helped Martine toward the golden light, "you are absolutely right. You can be in charge of security on the other side. Now shut up." She watched as the others stepped through, disappearing one by one into the brilliant light. As Martine vanished, Renie reached down and took !Xabbu's hand.

"You did so well," she told him.

As she stepped into the gateway, she looked back at the odd country that had sheltered them, even stranger now in the glaring, flattening light. Something moved near the fire—for a moment she thought she saw a human shape, but then decided it was just the wind kicking up sparks.

But there is no wind here, she remembered, then the dazzle enfolded her.

 

 

Nemesis.2 transitioned from the unstable appearance of flame to briefly inhabit something more like the shape of the creatures who had just vanished. As the icon representing the connection-point through which they had traveled shimmered and dwindled, Nemesis.2 prepared to give up shape altogether, but it still could find no coherent response to the organisms that had just departed.

It had observed them for a number of cycles, far longer than any observation it—or its more complete parent—had spent on any other anomaly, and although it had never found the right cues, the "XpauljonasX" cues that would trigger retrieval, still there had been something in their information-signature that had arrested its interest, kept it rolling through a kind of stasis loop. To the extent that Nemesis.2 could be spoken of as having feelings—which would at best be a grotesque form of anthropomorphism—it should have felt relief that they had released it from the unsatisfying, unresolved situation. But instead, a strong draw on its hunter-killer subroutines was urging it to follow them, to stay near them and study them until it had finally decided once and for all whether to ignore them or remove them from the matrix.

Nemesis.2 would already have followed the organisms and their strangely confusing signatures—and could at any time, since the way they had gone was as clear to it as footprints on new snow would be to a human—but this node itself was anomalous as well, and more than that, it was resonant of the greater anomaly that had so puzzled and intrigued (again, using human words to describe the needs of a sophisticated but unliving piece of code) the original Nemesis device, and which had led in part to it diminishing and multiplying itself, the better to serve multiple needs.

Nemesis.2, or at least the original version of the program, had not been created to hesitate. That it did so now, torn between immediate pursuit of the anomalous organisms and further investigation of the anomalous location in which it found itself, was perhaps indicative of why some programmers, even those who wrote code for the prestigious Jericho Team that had created Nemesis, liked to say of the products of their imagination and labor, "Just because you can tell it what to do doesn't mean you can tell it what to do."

Nemesis.2 analyzed, measured, and analyzed again. It considered, in its cold way. A drift of a few integers, and it decided. Because it did not think, even if it had been told that it had begun a course of action that would ripple out from this moment and change the universe forever, it could not have understood.

Even if it could have understood, it would not have cared.

CHAPTER 5
Tourist in Madrikhor

NETFEED/NEWS: Another House Collapse Blamed on Nanotech

(visual: Chimoy family camping in front yard)

VO: The Chimoy family of Bradford, England, are only the latest who are seeking damages against DDG, Ltd. manufacturers of Rid Carpet, a nanomachine-based carpet and furniture cleaner that they say destroyed their house.

(visual: foundations of Chimoy house)

In another blow to the stumbling nanotechnology industry, solicitors for the Chimoys allege that an imperfection in the Rid Carpet cleaning product allowed the dirt-eating nanomachines to continue far past the point at which they should have shut themselves off, and that the tiny eating machines went on to devour the carpet, the floor, the family cat, and most of the frame of their modest semidetached, which eventually collapsed. . . .

 

Christabel had discovered that if she held open the little door where the cleaning machine came out and vacuumed up all the dirt from the floor, she could hear what Mommy and Daddy were saying in the living room downstairs.

When she had been really little, not like now, she had been scared of the suckbot, which was her father's name for it (which always made her mother say, "Mike, that's icky.") The way it just popped out and crawled around the room on its little treads and lifter-legs, red lights blinking like eyes, had always made her think of the trapdoor spider she had seen at school. Many nights she had woken up crying after dreaming that it had come out and tried to suck the blankets off her bed. Her mother had explained many times that it was only a machine, that it only came out to clean, and that when it wasn't vacuuming, it wasn't waiting just on the other side of the little door but was at the far end of the duct downstairs, sitting on its base unit, charging.

The idea of the little square machine sitting quietly in the dark, drinking electricity, had not made her feel any happier, but sometimes you just had to let your parents think that they'd made things better.

Now that she was a big girl, she knew it was just a machine, and so when she had the idea of lifting the door to see if she could hear the fight her parents were having, she had hardly been scared at all. She had poked her head right into the dark place, then after a while she had even opened her eyes. Her parents' voices sounded far away and metal-y, like they were robots themselves, which she didn't like, but after she had listened for a while to what they were saying she almost completely forgot about the horrible little box.

". . . I don't care, Mike, she had to go back to school. It's the law!" Her mother had been shouting earlier, but now she just sounded tired.

"Fine, then. But she's not moving a step out of this house other than that, and she gets taken there and picked up afterward."

"Which means me, doesn't it?" Christabel's mommy sounded like she might start shouting again. "It's bad enough you're never home these days, but now I'm expected to become a jailer for our child as well. . . ."

"I don't understand you," Daddy told her. "Don't you care? She's having some kind of . . . relationship with a grown man—you heard it yourself! Some kind of bizarre softsex thing for all we know. Our little girl!"

"We don't know any of that, Mike. She's got those funny glasses, and I heard a voice coming out of them, saying her name. . . ."

"And I told you, these are not the standard issue Storybook Sunglasses, Kaylene. Someone has modified them—somebody has built some kind of short-range transponder into them."

"Go ahead and cut me off. Don't let me talk. That'll make sure you win the argument, won't it?"

Something crashed and glass broke. Christabel was so startled and frightened that she bumped her head on the hinged door, then tried not to move in case they had heard her. Had Daddy thrown something? Jumped out a window? She saw someone do that once on the net—a big man who was being chased by police. She expected a lot more shouting, but when her father spoke he sounded quiet and sad.

"Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry. I didn't even see it there."

"It's just a vase, Mike." It was a little while until her mother said the next thing. "Do we have to fight about this? Of course I'm worried, too, but we can't just . . . arrest her. We don't really know for certain anything's wrong."

"Something's wrong, all right." He didn't sound angry anymore either, just tired. Christabel had to hold her breath to hear what he was saying. "Everything's just gone to hell around here, honey, and I'm taking it out on you. I'm sorry."

"I still can't believe it—this place is so safe, Mike. Like something out of an old book. Neighborhoods, kids playing in the streets. If we were in Raleigh-Durham or Charlotte Metro, I wouldn't ever have let her out of my sight, but . . . but here!"

"There's a reason it's like this, Kaylene. It's a backwater—all the important action's Rim stuff, on the West Coast or the Southwest. This base would probably have been closed years ago, except that we had one old man we were supposed to keep an eye on. And he got away. On my watch, too."

Christabel hated the way her daddy's voice sounded now, but she could not stop listening. Listening to your parents like this was like seeing a picture of someone naked, or watching a flick you knew you weren't supposed to, with blood and heads being cut off.

"Honey, is it that bad? You never talk about your work, and I try not to bother you about it when you're home—anyway, I know it's all secret—but you've been so upset lately."

"You have no idea. My balls, not to put it too gently, are in a vise. Look, let's say your job, your real job, not just the day-to-day bullshit, was to make sure no one robbed a certain bank. And for years not only didn't anyone rob it, nobody even parked illegally in front of it, so that everyone thought you had the easiest job in the world. And then one day, when everything seemed just like any other day, someone not only robbed the bank, they took the whole damn building. Now, if you were that bank guard, how would you feel? And what do you think it would do to your career?"

"Oh, God, Mike." Her mother sounded scared, but she also had that whispery sound when she wanted to kiss Daddy, but he was busy doing something and wouldn't let her. "I didn't realize it was that bad. That strange old man. . . ?"

"That old bastard, yeah. But I can't tell you any more, honey—I really, really can't. But this stuff with Christabel is not happening at a good time, let's put it that way."

There was a long quiet.

"So what should we do about our little girl?"

"I don't know." There was a clink of glass. Daddy was picking up whatever he'd broken. "But I'm scared to death, and the fact that she won't tell us anything about it makes it worse. I've never thought of her as a liar, Kaylene—never thought she would keep a secret like that."

"It scares me too."

"Well, that's why the house arrest. She's not going anywhere without one of us around except to school until we get to the bottom of this. In fact, I'm going to go talk to her again now."

The last thing Christabel heard as she scrambled away from the cleaning machine's door was her mother say, "Go easy on her. Mike. She's just a little girl."

 

As she lay on the bed with her eyes closed, pretending she was still taking her nap, she could hear her daddy's footsteps coming up the stairs, clump, clump, clump. Sometimes, when she was waiting for him to come up and tuck her in and kiss her good night, she felt almost like the princess in Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the handsome prince to get through all the scratchy thorns. Other times it was like being in a haunted house, hearing a monster get closer and closer.

He opened the door quietly, then she felt him sit down on the edge of the bed. "Christabel? Wake up, honey."

She pretended that she was mostly asleep. She could still feel her heart beating fast, as though she had run a long way. "What?"

"You look very pink," he said, worried. "Are you coming down with something?" He laid his big hand across her head. It felt cool and hard and very, very heavy.

"I'm okay, I guess." She sat up. She didn't want to look at him because she knew he was giving her a Serious Look.

"Look, Christabel, honey, I want you to understand something. All of this about the Storybook Sunglasses—your mommy and I aren't angry at you because we think you're bad, we're upset because we're worried. And it makes us very unhappy when you won't tell us the truth."

"I know, Daddy." She still didn't want to look at him, not because she was scared, but because she knew if she saw his face she would start crying.

"So why won't you just tell us what's going on? If you have a friend your own age and you're just playing around, changing your voices or something, we won't be angry. But if it's someone grown-up—well, then we need to know about it. Do you understand?"

She nodded. His fingers touched her chin and lifted her face until she had to look at him, his big wide face, his tired eyes, the bristly whiskers. It was the whiskers—Daddy always shaved every morning, except on Saturday, and sometimes he shaved twice in a day if he and Mommy were going out to dinner—that made her stomach swim around and her face get hot all over again.

"Has someone touched you? Has anyone done anything to you?"

"N–no." Christabel began to cry. "No, Daddy!"

"Just talk to me, kiddo. Just tell me what's going on with those glasses."

She tried to answer, but at first could only make sucking noises like the vacuum. There was snot coming out of her nose, so she tried to wipe it away with her sleeve. Her daddy pulled a tissue out of the Zoomer Zizz box and gave it to her. When she could talk, she said, "I can't tell you. It's a secret, and. . . ." She shook her head because she couldn't explain. Everything was so terrible, everything. Mister Sellars was with that bad, scary boy, and she couldn't get away even to explain to him that her parents had the sunglasses, and because she was lying she was making her mommy and daddy so sad, and her daddy looked so tired. . . . "I can't."

For a moment, she thought he was going to get angry again like he had the first night—that he might yell or break some of her toys, the way he'd thrown Prince Pikapik against a wall and smashed up his insides so now the otter would only walk in little limping circles. But the red in his cheeks was very bright, as bright as when he and Captain Ron had too many drinks and said things about the cheerleader girls on the wallscreen that made Christabel feel funny and nervous.

"All right." He stood up. "This isn't the Middle Ages, Christabel, or even thirty years ago—I'm not going to give you the kind of smacking my daddy used to give me when I wouldn't own up to the truth. But you will tell us where you got those, and you won't go out to play, or watch the wallscreen, or go to Seawall Center, or any of the things you like to do—we'll keep you home until high school, if we have to—until you stop playing these stupid games."

He went out and shut the door behind him. Christabel started crying again.

 

 

The man who stood glowering before him was so large that he blocked most of the light in a tavern room that did not have much to spare. Tattoos covered his face and most of his visible skin, and small animal bones were knotted in his bushy beard. He raised a hand like a bear's paw and set it on the table, which creaked audibly.

"I am Grognug the Unlovable," he rumbled, "slayer of the ogre Vaxirax and several other monsters nearly as infamous. I make it my business to kill at least one man every day with my bare hands, just to stay in practice. I give preference to those who sit on my personal stool without asking." Teeth that had clearly never undergone any process as effeminate as brushing could not be said to flash; instead, they made a brief and mossy appearance. "And who are you, little man?"

"My . . . my name is Ka–turr of Rhamzee," the other stammered, "swordsman for hire. I am . . . a stranger here, and do not know. . . ."

"It is good to hear your name before I yank off your head," Grognug interrupted, "so that the bards will be able to add today's victim to the long list. The bards keep very close track of my career, you see, and they are sticklers for detail." Grognug's breath was expertly rendered, and explained the rest of his fatalistic soubriquet: the VR scent-effect would have convinced almost anyone that they were standing downwind from sun-warmed road-kill.

"Heh." Ka-turr slid his stool back. "Actually, I was just leaving."

Ten seconds later Catur Ramsey was sitting splay-legged in the shadowy street outside, laughter still echoing from the door behind him. Even he had to admit that his swift exit, ending in a pratfall, had probably been worth a chuckle or two. "Jesus!" he said. "What is it with this place? That's the third bar I've been chucked out of!"

"First off," said the voice in his ear, "it's a tavern, not a bar. You gotta get this stuff straight, that's part of the problem. Everyone always picks on the virgins."

"I told you I should have been something else instead of a sword fighter—a thief, or a wizard, or something. A medieval accountant, maybe. Just because I'm pretty tall and I've got this jumbo can opener hanging off my belt, everyone keeps picking fights with me."

"Yeah, but this way if you find a fight you can't run away from, at least you got a chance of survivin' it," Beezle pointed out in his thick Brooklyn dialect. "And at the rate you're goin', you'll find one of those pretty soon. . . ."

Ramsey picked himself up and dusted off the knees and seat of his heavy wool breeks. His sword, which he had not yet dared to draw from its scabbard, thumped against his thigh. Not only had its dangling bulk already proved a problem when running away from bar fights, it had some bizarre name which he had already forgotten.

"What's this thing called again? Slamhanger or Hamslammer or something?"

Beezle sighed, a disembodied Jiminy Cricket floating in Ramsey's ear. "It's called Slayhammer. It comes from the Temple of the Wailing God, in your home country of Rhamzee, beyond the borders of the Middle Country. How do you ever keep track of your legal stuff? You got a memory like a sieve, buddy."

"I make notes. I sit at a desk and talk to my office system. I have paralegals. I don't usually have to crawl through the stinking gutters of the ancient city of Margarine to do my research."

"Madrikhor. You know, if you want me to laugh at your jokes, you should turn up my conversational sensitivity a little so I'd get 'em faster."

Ramsey scowled, but could not help being a tiny bit amused by what a complete and utter disaster this was turning out to be. "Nah. You might as well save your energy for finding me someplace new to get beat up."

 

Coming here had seemed an obvious idea at first, especially when most of the initial leads, all so promising, had proved themselves to be little better than mirages, receding and then fading as he approached. Beezle had made much information available about Orlando's last few months, but trying to follow up on any of it had been surprisingly difficult. The TreeHouse people, in part because of their own tragedy—several children of network users struck down at the same time, apparently with Tandagore's Syndrome—rebuffed all of Ramsey's quiet overtures. Smelling a lawsuit, perhaps, none of the engineers at Indigo Gear would admit even talking to an Orlando Gardiner, although one of the recruiting officers admitted having given him a scholarship. Ramsey had a feeling that were it not for the possible disastrous publicity of welshing on a deal with a kid in a coma, Indigo would already have withdrawn that scholarship and wiped all records off the books.

The last and best hope for information about Orlando's recent activities had been the Middle Country, but even here dead ends abounded. After requests to examine network records had been met with a polite but unmistakable go-slow policy, such that finding what he wanted the normal way would have taken a couple of years, he was forced to begin a search from the inside. But not only had his entry into the simworld made him feel at least as stupid as he had feared it would, it had made him feel stupid in some ways he hadn't even anticipated, as his sore tailbone now attested.

Beezle had first taken him to what had once been the site of Senbar Flay's magical tower, but the building was gone now, removed from what according to Beezle had been permanent non-status on the Middle Country's books. Testimony to the speed of virtual urban renewal, another wizard's castle already stood in its place, a small, jeweled fantasy of Moorish minarets. Attractive starter chateau for sorcerers, Ramsey had imagined the real estate listing. There were even rumors of a sentry-djinn guarding the premises, which the lawyer had no intention of trying to prove or disprove. It was clear there was nothing to learn from this particular site. The child who had once played the wizard's character was still in the same place—on life-support in a Florida hospital—but as far as the Middle Country was concerned, Senbar Flay was now history.

A ride into the distant Catspine Mountains that used almost a week of his pathetically sparse personal time furthered Ramsey's run of disasters. Xalisa Thol's mound, the place where Beezle said the whole thing had begun, was gone, too. The local inhabitants talked nervously about the night it had disappeared, of a blizzard of ice that had kept everyone indoors and the snow wolves that had made it seem a good idea not to hurry out right after the storm ended.

So Ramsey had returned to Madrikhor, hoping to turn up something the old-fashioned way. In real life he had walked into some of the ugliest neighborhoods of Washington and Baltimore seeking information in personal injury cases, so how bad could playing gumshoe in a virtual fairy tale be?

Worse than he had expected, as it turned out. Even the most unpleasant inhabitants of the Edwin Meese Gardens housing project had never tried to shove a basilisk into Ramsey's codpiece.

 

He was in a small, down-at-the-heels tavern named The Reaver's Posset, finishing his cup of mead (and counting his lucky stars that he had not invested more in the taste-simulation aspects of his gear) when a figure lurched up to his carefully chosen seat in one of the darker corners. It had been a long, frequently painful day, and the Posset was in one of the dingier neighborhoods of Madrikhor, so when the stranger stopped before him and then another unfamiliar figure stepped in beside the first, Ramsey sighed and braced himself for another thrashing.

"Ho!" said the taller of the two, a muscular, square-jawed fellow with a long mustache. "We hear that you seek information."

"And we have information to sell, forsooth," said his companion, a wiry little orange-haired man, a moment later. There was something oddly similar about their voices, although the little man's was a bit higher.

"Oh?" Ramsey tried not to show any interest. In a city full of people playing elaborate games, nothing would have surprised him less than someone wanting to take some of his money, but nothing would have surprised him more than getting something useful in return. "What makes you think this information of yours is something I want to pay for?"

"Gadzooks, and have you not been asking all over the Adventurer's Quarter for tidings of Thargor, the dark one?" said the large fellow. "Well, forsooth, it is Belmak the Buccaneer and his companion, the Red Weasel, who stand before you. We can help you."

There was a pause, then the little one piped up, "For gold, of course."

"Of course." Ramsey nodded gravely. "Give me an idea of what you know and I will give you an idea of what I might pay." He was feeling less worried about a thrashing now, although he was still fairly certain his time was being wasted. If the real people behind these comic-opera swashbucklers turned out to be even of driving age, he would be very surprised.

"We will take you to someone who can tell you where Thargor is," said the Red Weasel, winking roguishly. He appeared to hurt himself doing so, or perhaps a cinder from the fire blew into his eye, because he spent the next few moments alternately blinking and rubbing at it. When he had finished, his companion abruptly sprang into movement, as though he had been waiting for some cue.

"You must follow us, yea and verily," the mustached fellow announced. "Fear not that harm will come to you, because you have the word of Belmak, who has never yet played a man false,"

"What do you think, Beezle?" Ramsey subvocalized. "It's the first lead we've had since we've been here. You ever heard of either of these guys?"

"Don't think so, but people change characters around here sometimes." The invisible bug seemed to be thinking it over. "Might as well try it. I'll just cross-file the information on every-thing we've done so far today, so that if we have to drop off, we don't need to redo a bunch of stuff next time."

"Very well," Ramsey said out loud. "Lead on. But no tricks." It was almost impossible not to fall into the b-flick melodrama of the place.

Either both Beimak and the Red Weasel were much the worse for drink or they came from some distant place where the ground was quite a different shape, because neither of them could walk particularly well. They were also completely silent, and as they led Ramsey through the slick, cobbled alleys of the Adventurer's Quarter beneath a light drizzle, he tried to figure out what was bothering him about the two of them.

"I confess that I do not recognize your names, noble heroes," he said. "Perhaps you could tell me something of yourselves. I fear I am a stranger here."

Belmak the Buccaneer walked three more steps, then turned back to Ramsey. His companion staggered on a few more paces before stopping, like a man carrying a bowling ball in each trouser leg. Oddly, he did not turn as Belmak spoke.

"We are famous not just in Madrikhor, but in Qest and Sulyaban as well, and all the cities that look upon the Great Ocean. Famous." He fell abruptly silent.

"We have had many adventures, forsooth," the Red Weasel added, still facing in the other direction. He and Belmak then resumed their uneven progress.

"Beezle, what's with these guys?" Ramsey whispered.

"I don't think it's 'guys,' buddy," the bug answered. "I think it's 'guy.' Like, one person trying to run two sims—and without very good gear."

"Is that why he's having so much trouble making them both walk?" Ramsey felt a laugh begin to bubble inside him.

"That ain't all—you notice they can't walk and talk at the same time either?"

It was too much. A great huff of amusement almost doubled him up, and he found himself struggling not to dissolve completely into giggles. Like mechanical figures on a medieval clock tower, Belmak and the Red Weasel turned slowly to face him.

"Why dost thou be laughing?" asked the Red Weasel.

"N–nothing," Ramsey said, wheezing. "I just remembered a joke."

"Gadzooks, then," said Belmak. "Verily," he added. With a last suspicious look, he turned back around. The Red Weasel followed suit, then they both set off once more, awkward as toddlers in snowsuits. Ramsey ambled after them, wiping at his eyes, still in danger of collapsing back into giggles, and so was not aware of the stone horse trough standing in the road until he smacked it with his knee.

As Ramsey hopped and swore, Belmak paused to observe. "It is a dangerous city, Madrikhor," he commented.

"Yes," the Red Weasel agreed a moment later. "Forsooth."

 

After following the two adventurers for over an hour, at an incredibly slow pace that Ramsey felt sure he could have improved on walking backward, their odd inability seemed nowhere near as charming. Catur Ramsey found himself fighting irritation with every plodding step.

Just my luck this Gardiner kid wasn't into science fiction. Why couldn't he have been obsessed with some scenario where everyone had little personal atomic rocket-cars or something?

As midnight approached, the city was no less lively than during the daylight hours, but had merely taken on a different kind of life. In a virtual world full of thieves, murderers, and practitioners of black magic, and with many of them the alter egos of people who were up past their bedtimes, it was no surprise if Madrikhor changed as darkness fell from faux-Medieval heartiness to febrile mock-Gothic. It was hard to find a shadowy spot without someone hiding in it, a dark corner where someone was not conducting a transaction or a betrayal just beyond the glow of the streetlamp. The shapes that hurried past along the windy streets wore billowing cloaks, but the outlines that could be seen were fantastical, and many of the eyes glinting from deep hoods shone with a light that did not seem particularly human.

It's more like Halloween than anything else, Ramsey thought. Like Halloween every night of the year. Although he was tired and beginning to get cranky, he could not entirely disapprove. One of the few consistent things about his childhood had been the holidays, which had a certain sameness no matter where his family had celebrated them. Sometimes they had been living in an actual neighborhood instead of on a military base, and those Halloweens had been the best of all.

A dark, cape-flapping figure leaped across the alley above his head, from one rooftop to another, and he suddenly missed those Halloweens, the happy terror of well-known streets gone dark and mysterious, of familiar faces made strange by masks and makeup. He found himself wishing he had been more interested in things like role-playing when he was a kid, that he had found a place like the Middle Country when he had still had the trick of immersive belief. Now he could only be a tourist. Like Wendy and her siblings growing up and losing Never-Never Land, he had gone beyond the point where he could get back, but he could come close enough to feel something of loss.

 

If The Reaver's Posset had been in one of Madrikhor's less prepossessing neighborhoods, it was a beauty spot compared to the place Belmak and the Weasel now led him. They were not even truly in the city anymore, but had wandered out into a kind of extended poverty-village, miles long, whose houses appeared to be built of the flimsiest and least valuable materials, and which huddled against each other like the cells of a beehive someone had sat on.

"What the hell is this, Beezle?" he whispered. "Where are we now?"

"Hangtown. Orlando didn't come here much."

"It's a ghetto!"

"That's what you get with laissez-faire economies, even the imaginary kind."

Ramsey blinked, wondering if he had discovered a socialist bias in Beezle's programming. "It is dangerous?"

"As far as this gameworld goes," the bug replied, "what isn't? But yeah, it's not real nice. Zombies, dark kobolds, lots of thieves and cutthroats down on their luck, of course. I think they have some kind of a werewolf problem out near the dump, too."

Ramsey made a face and quietly drew Slamheller or whatever it was called out of its scabbard.

Belmak paused long enough to deliver the message, "Fear not, we are almost there."

"Yea," added his companion, "and verily." They both sounded out of breath.

Beezle's remark about werewolves came back as it became more and more clear to Ramsey that he was being led to what could only be the aforementioned dump, a mountain of rubbish with several dependent foothills that covered the equivalent of several city blocks in the middle of Hangtown. Fires smoldered everywhere, most of them spontaneous ignitions in the rubbish. The medieval trash was genuinely dispiriting, even for a virtual environment, the preponderant articles being muck and bones and broken pots. Except for a few figures scavenging among the piles, barely visible even by the red light of the low flames, the area was deserted; Ramsey could see no reason he should be brought to such a place.

He lifted the sword whose name he could never remember. "Is this an ambush or something? If so, I wish you would have pulled it off a few miles back and saved us all this walking."

"No . . . ambush," said the Red Weasel, clearly even more winded than Ramsey. "The place . . . lies yonder." The red-haired man pointed to a dark clump at the base of one of the rubbish hills; from Ramsey's perspective it looked like just another pile of trash, but as he squinted he saw something moving in front of it, dimly outlined by fireglow. He lifted the sword before him and began marching across the spongy ground. Belmak and his small companion could not keep up the pace and fell behind; within moments they were barely visible.

The clump turned out to be a cottage, if a word so often used in fairy tales could be applied to a structure that was little more than a shed made of old boards and chunks of broken stone. Rags stuffed in the cracks to keep out the wind, or perhaps the ubiquitous dirty smoke, gave it the appearance of a doll losing its stuffing. Standing in the opening (which would have been the doorframe if there had been a door) was a tall figure wearing, as did so many in this city, a long black cloak with a hood.

Ramsey strode determinedly toward this apparition. He'd been online about two hours longer than he'd planned already, his feet were hurting, and if he waited much longer he was going to miss even the chance to get take-out food from the place downstairs. It was time to get some answers and then, if this new venture was as pointless as he suspected, get out of the simworld.

"So here I am," he said to the silent shape. "Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee are back there a ways, but they'll be coming up before long. I've walked a damn long way for this, so who are you and what information have you got to sell?"

For a long moment the dark figure was statue-still. "You forget yourself," it said then, the voice deep and impressive. "No one speaks thusly to the great enchanter . . . Dreyra Jarh!" The stranger threw his arms up in the air; as the sleeves billowed around long, pale hands, lightning turned the entire Hangtown dump into a flash-photograph. Thunder exploded overhead, making Catur Ramsey's ears pop.

In the pinwheeling dark after the bright light, Ramsey made a dizzy try at finding his balance, managing it finally by using the sword in his hand as the third leg of the tripod. His initial alarm was ebbing swiftly. "Yeah, that's pretty good," he said aloud. He could not see well enough yet to make out his adversary, so he hoped he was facing in the right direction. "And that was probably a pretty expensive trick—probably cost you a month's allowance, or a few weeks' worth of running around here collecting bonus points or whatever. But if you had more than one or two tricks like that, I don't think you'd be out here in the middle of nowhere, now would you? You'd have a place like that big old wizard's castle I saw the other day."

Dreyra Jarh paused, then slowly pulled back his hood, exposing a shaved head and a long thin face of corpselike whiteness. "Okay, Gardiner, you win. Let's talk."

Gardiner? Ramsey was about to explain, then thought better of it. "Yeah, let's talk."

 

The house of Dreyra Jarh, Ramsey decided, was probably one of the few realistic examples of actual Medieval Living to be found in all of the Middle Country. The ambience was not improved by the dried, flattened cakes of manure which the enchanter used to keep his fire stoked, but under the circumstances such fuel made sense: this was not a society which would have paper or even wood to throw away. He hoped it was not also an omen about the quality of Dreyra Jarh's information.

Perhaps in a last effort at one-upsmanship, the enchanter had settled onto the only seat in the one-room shanty, a tall but rickety stool, leaving Ramsey to settle on the floor—or more precisely, on the flat, pounded earth. The firelight revealed a tiny, spade-shaped beard of sky-blue on the end of Dreyra Jarh's chin, a foppish detail that suggested he had once seen better days, or at least that the person behind the character lavished more time on his grooming than his home furnishings.

"Beezle," Ramsey murmured without moving his lips, "have you ever heard of this guy? Why does he think I'm Orlando?"

"Heard of him? Hell, yeah, I've heard of him. He and Thargor have had more run-ins than you could count, but he used to be doin' a lot better than this. He used to have a whole country, y'know? Like, he owned it. That's when he was the Wizard-King of Andarwen. But he lost that to some demon in a dice game. The last time Thargor bumped into him, he still had a big old estate, and everything on it—servants, pack of hounds, you name it—was made out of living glass." Beezle considered for a moment. "I'd say he's had some hard times since then."

Ramsey could not suppress a snort. "I guess so."

"You are Orlando Gardiner, aren't you?" The enchanter, for all his bony, hardened look, sounded almost plaintive. He had a slight accent, something Catur Ramsey couldn't quite put his finger on. "I'll put a Table of Judgment seal on everything that happens in this room if you want. Dupping not, swear I won't tell. But I need to know."

Ramsey hesitated, but he knew that even after weeks of investigation, he could not lie convincingly enough about this environment to pull off the deception. "No, I'm not. I've just been asking around about his character, Thargor."

"Damn!" Dreyra Jarh stood up and stamped in frustration. "Locking mother of uttermost damn it all!"

"So that's why you brought me out here?" Ramsey asked when the other had calmed a little. "Just because you thought I was Orlando Gardiner?"

"Yes," said the wizard sullenly. "Sorry." The apology didn't sound very convincing.

After walking a half-dozen virtual miles through some of the least charming sights that Madrikhor had to offer, Ramsey was not going to be put off so easily. "What did you want to say to him?"

The thin face turned suspicious. "Nothing."

"Look, I'm not just interested in Thargor, I'm interested in Orlando Gardiner, too. I'm working for his family—doing some investigating."

"Working for his family? Why?"

"First off, I'm the one asking questions—and here's why." Ramsey took a clinking purse out of his tunic. He had only planned to make it stretch through another couple of fact-finding missions, anyway. "I'll give you this if you help me out. All of it—twenty gold emperors."

"Imperials." But the wizard who had once ruled an entire nation was obviously interested. "Just to talk to you?"

"As long as you're reasonably interesting." Ramsey set the money-sack beside his knee. "Tell me if he says anything obviously false, Beezle, will you?" he murmured. Aloud, he asked, "Why did you want to talk to Orlando Gardiner?"

Dreyra Jarh settled back onto his stool, long hands draped in his lap. "Well, he's been around a long time, like me. We've been enemies, kind of. . . ."

"Enemies?" Catur raised an eyebrow.

"Not in real life! Just here. In the Middle Country. We've had some big contests, seen? I've tried to destroy him, he's tried to destroy me. We've never sixed each other, but we've gone back and forth, each won a few. . . ."

"That's a lie right there, buddy," Beezle said loyally. "Orlando never lost to this guy at anything."

". . . But then he got toasted by some low-grade sport demon, and the Table denied his appeal, and he was gone."

Ramsey nodded. Accurate so far, to the extent it mattered. "And?"

"And there were all kinds of rumors that before he left, he was asking about some golden city—something nobody in MC had ever heard of before. But then he was gone, seen? So I never found out for posdef what the ups were."

At mention of the golden city Ramsey grew very still. The sullen noises of the fire seemed unnaturally loud, the rundown hovel even smaller than it had been.

"Then I found this jewel thing," Dreyra Jarh continued. "One of my zombie minions brought it to me from where they were excavating for me at the site of the lost Catacombs of Perinyum. Zombie minions don't care about jewels or that kind of thing—they make pretty good workers. Then, when I examined it, it kind of . . . I don't know, opened up. . . ."

"Yes?" It was hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. "So. . . ?"

Before the enchanter could resume, Ramsey was jolted by Beezle's voice in his ear again. "Hey, buddy, there's someone coming. . . !"

Ramsey climbed to one knee, trying to drag his sword free of the scabbard, a far trickier procedure than was apparent in adventure stories. He was still struggling to disentangle the hilt from the folds of his tunic when Belmak the Buccaneer and his companion the Red Weasel appeared in the doorway, wheezing in perfect unison.

"Gadzooks!" Belmak appeared to feel this was enough to state their case; he resumed struggling to catch his breath. After long moments had passed, the Red Weasel looked up beside him.

"The stranger moves . . . like the wind!" The Weasel made a broad gesture, trying to show how windily Ramsey had outpaced them, and how manfully they had struggled to keep up.

The corpse-skinned enchanter wiggled his fingers impatiently. "That's fine. We're talking. Lock it and rocket, okay?"

Belmak stared. "What?"

"You heard me, go on. Why don't you go down to Ye Tavern and wait for me."

"We just got here!"

"It won't kill you. Go on."

Belmak and the Red Weasel looked like it might indeed kill them. In a sudden fit of sympathy, Ramsey took a coin from his purse that he was pretty sure was smaller than an Imperial and flipped it to the Red Weasel, who almost caught it. Somewhat mollified, the adventurers recovered the coin and went clumping back out into a night lit by garbage-fueled fires.

"You can't use zombie minions for everything," an embarrassed Dreyra Jarh said by way of explanation. "And I'm a bit short of resources lately. . . ."

"Just finish the story. You found a gem."

The enchanter wove a tale much like what Ramsey knew of Orlando's. He had been obsessed by the golden city, so different had it been from anything else he had ever seen in the Middle Country, and so positive was he that it signified some quest that only the elite players would have a hope of successfully pursuing. But the quest had been fruitless, and he had exhausted every option both within the simworld and outside, in RL, trying to track the place down. He had used his position as one of the Middle Country's paramount enchanters to turn the simworld upside down, searching everywhere, questioning everyone, mounting expeditions to every dimly-remembered bit of virtual archaeology in the entire game environment.

"It broke me," he explained sadly. "After a while I was spending Imperials I didn't even have. But I didn't find it I kept thinking that maybe Orlando did, that that's how come he went off the system, but I couldn't get in touch with him." The wizard tried to make his voice casual, and failed. "So . . . so did he?"

Ramsey was half-lost in thought, trying to put pieces into a recognizable shape. "Hmmm? Did he what?"

"Did he find the city, man?"

"I don't know." After a few more questions, Ramsey stood up, irritated to discover that even sitting down for too long in a virtual environment could prove just as uncomfortable as in real life. He tossed the pouch into Dreyra Jarh's lap. "You must have information on some of the resources you used," he suggested. "Research trails, like that?"

"Huh?"

"Just . . . records of things you did, trying to find the city."

"I guess." The enchanter was counting his earnings. It was clear that while he was happy to have the money, he wasn't going to be able to buy his country back with it, or even hire too many more zombie minions.

"Tell you what," Ramsey said, "If you let me have access to all your records, strictly privately, I'll arrange to get you a lot more than that bag of funny-money." He tried to figure out the true age of Dreyra Jarh's role-player. "How about a thousand credits? Real-world money. That ought to buy you a lot of spells. And maybe you could even get some decent gear for that poor guy running those Belmak and Weasel sims."

"You want to give me . . . money? To see what's on my system?"

"I'm a lawyer. You can work it however you want to—a contract, anything. But yes, I want access to everything you did. And do you still have the golden city or the gem?"

Dreyra Jarh snorted. "Chance not. Whole thing went pffftt. Gone. Ate a little hole in my storage, too, like it had never been there at all. You'll see."

Before he remembered that he could simply drop offline, Catur Ramsey had walked a fair distance back along the edge of the vast rubbish mounds. He was caught up in his thoughts, aware of little except the possible significance of what he'd just learned.

Whatever had happened to Orlando had happened to others, too. But for some reason it hadn't gone as far with all of them. The kid playing Dreyra Jarh was flat broke and not very happy about it, but he sure wasn't comatose.

Ramsey found himself standing a few hundred yards from a shack only slightly larger and more inviting than the enchanter's hovel. The sign swinging above the entrance proclaimed it Ye Tavern at the Dump. Two familiar faces stood in the doorway.

When he recognized Ka-turr of Rhamzee, Belmak the Buccaneer shouted for him to come join them.

"No thanks," Ramsey called. "I've got to go. You two take it easy."

Just before the dump, Madrikhor, and the entirety of the Middle country vanished, Catur Ramsey saw first Belmak, then the Red Weasel, wave good-bye in sequence.

 

 

Dread parked the Quan Li sim in a dark, quiet place and left it sitting there like a marionette with slack strings. Although there was much, much more of this newest simulation world to investigate, he had explored enough already to know that there was no shortage of places of concealment—knowledge that warmed his predator's heart. Also, with Sellars' troop of misfits left behind, there was no longer a need to pretend that the sim was always occupied.

Thinking of them and the way they had jumped on him, like jackals on a lion, he felt a brief and salty pang of hatred, but he quickly pushed it away. He was after a bigger enemy, and the idea that had kindled inside him was far more important than those small people and the small irritation they had caused.

With a single command he was offline, stretched on a comfortable massage-couch in his Cartagena office. He thumbed a couple of Adrenex tablets from his dispenser and swallowed them, then downed the contents of the squeeze bottle of water he had set beside the couch before beginning this most recent session. He switched the music in his head from the Baroque strings and phase-shifted bonebass that had seemed appropriate for exploring the new simworld to something quieter and more contemplative, more appropriate for the scenes of the hero beginning his great work—magnum opus music.

It would all be so, so sublime. He would execute a stroke so bold and audacious that even the Old Man would be stunned. Dread did not know the how yet, but he could feel himself drawing closer, as he felt the presence of his quarry when he was hunting.

He checked to see if Dulcie Anwin had returned his reminder call. She had. When he rang her again she picked up quickly.

"Hello." He kept his smile small and cheerful, but the dark something inside him, fed by the adrenals, wanted to grin like a jack-o'-lantern . . . like a skull. "Did you enjoy the days off?"

"God, did I!" She was dressed all in white, a conservative but stylish slant-suit that emphasized the new, golden gleam a day's sunbathing had lent to her pale skin. "I'd forgotten what it was like just to do things around the apartment—read my mail, listen to some music. . . ."

"Good, good." He kept the smile, but he was tired of the small talk already. It was one of the few things he liked about men—some of them actually kept their mouths shut unless there was something to say. "Ready for work?"

"Absolutely." Her return smile was bright, and for a moment he felt a twinge of suspicion. Was she playing some game of her own? He had not been paying very much attention to her in the last few days before he put her on hiatus. She was a dangerous, weak link, after all. He added some slow pinging tones to his internal music, like water dripping on rocks, and smoothed the momentary wrinkle out of his calm, confident mood.

"Good. Well, there have been some changes. I'll bring you up to date on them later on, but I've got something important for you to do first. I need you in your gear-master mode for this, Dulcie."

"I'm listening."

"I'm working on something, so for the moment I don't want you using the sim, but I've built a box routine within the simulation and there's something there I'd like you to look at. It looks like a plain old lighter—you know, the old-fashioned kind for cigarettes and things—but it's more. A lot more. So I want you to study it. Do everything you can to figure out how it works and what it does."

"I'm not sure I understand," she said. "What is it?"

"It's a device to manipulate gateways in the Otherland network. But I'm pretty sure it has other uses, too. I need you to find out."

"But I can't get into the sim and try it out that way?"

"Not yet." He kept his voice level, but he did not like having his directives questioned. He took an unobtrusive deep breath and listened to his music. "And there's one other thing. It'll have some kind of tags for its home system, but even if it doesn't, I want you to figure out where it comes from."

She looked doubtful. "I'll try. Then what?"

"We'll signal it destroyed, or lost, or whatever. If it acts as a discrete object, it might be that it will continue to operate."

She frowned. "If it's working now, wouldn't it just be easier to keep using it until someone notices, instead of taking the chance of turning it off for good?"

He took another deep breath. "Dulcie, this thing belongs to one of the Old Man's cronies. If somehow those Grail bastards realize someone has it, they may be able to figure out who. And if they figure out who, then within about ten minutes an urban combat team will come through your door with bang-hammers and you'll be gone so quickly and so thoroughly your neighbors will think you spontaneously combusted. This will happen in the real world, not in some VR network. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I do, yes." This time, she was properly quiet and respectful.

"Good. Check in with me every three hours, or if you find anything interesting." He broke the connection.

He sat back on the couch, lit himself a thin black Corriegas cigar, and thought about the time when he could hunt in RL once more. He found himself considering what it would be like when red-haired, backtalking Dulcinea Anwin was no longer useful. He could be in New York in a few hours. . . .

But even this familiar and entertaining sort of speculation could not long keep his mind off his new plans. And when I'm a god. he thought, what will I hunt then? Other gods?

The idea was deliciously amusing.

CHAPTER 6
A Rock and a Hard Place

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: Psychopathically Violent? You Bet!

(Review of interactive game "Poison Heart Mother IV— Mother Knows Best.")

VO: ". . . But thank God the people at U Suk Gear have gotten over that brain bubble they went through with PHM HI, where players actually lost points for maiming, raping, or slaughtering innocent civilians. Box that! Ultravile IS ultravile, seen? You start differentiating kills and pretty soon characters are having to stop and think all the time—and that's fun? Chance not. . . ."

 

Paul Jonas clung to a spar of his ruined boat and tried to keep his head above the surface of the violent sea. He barely knew where the sky was, let alone how to find distant Troy, and he still knew nothing of the black mountain. His enemies now included gods, and he had failed the few friends he had.

If misery were money, he thought, trying to cough out the brine before the next wave hit, I would be the richest man in this whole bloody imaginary universe.

 

The night seemed to stretch on forever, a thing not of minutes and hours but of thousands of half-breaths snatched between the battering of waves. He had neither the strength nor leisure to indulge in a review of his failures—the one thin blessing of his predicament. At best, when he found strength enough to lift his face a little higher above the waterline than usual, he slipped into microsleeps, brief moments of darkness, fragments of dream. In one, his father leaned down, giant-high as he towered over his son, and said in a tone of muted disgust, "If you just write in any letters you want, you're not really solving the puzzle, are you?" His father's glasses threw back the light, so that Paul could see no eyes, only fluorescent bars reflected from overhead.

In another, Paul held something shiny in his hand. When he saw it was a feather, he felt a brief moment of happiness and hope, although he had no idea why that should be, but the feather proved to be more insubstantial than a butterfly wing; even as he tried to keep his dream-hand steady, the bright blue-green thing crumbled into iridescent powder.

What have I done? he thought as consciousness returned and waves slapped him. Even if this place is just a simulation, why am I in it? Where's my body? Why am I being trotted through a bizarre quest I can't even understand, like some trained dog being made to act out Shakespeare?

There was no answer, of course, and even his desperate review of questions was beginning to become an exercise in horror. Perhaps there was no because at all, only an endless catalog of whys. Perhaps his suffering was just an accident.

No. Eyes closed against the stinging salt, jounced by the waves like a highwayman's hostage tied across a horse's saddle, he reached for belief. No, that's me floating again. I made a mistake, but I tried to do something. Better than floating, drifting. Better.

Tortured the woman, another part of him pointed out in unanswerable rebuttal. Made Penelope fear for her life. That's better? Maybe you should just go back to being useless again.

It was no use arguing with yourself, he learned as the night crawled along, waves splashing him over and over like some endless slapstick sketch from Hell's own music hall. Misery always knew all the weak spots. Misery always won.

 

Things looked a little better when the dawn came, at least in a spiritual sense: Paul had come to terms with his inner voices and achieved a sort of detente. He had agreed with himself that he was the scum of the universe, but had pleaded special circumstances of amnesia, terror, and confusion. No final decision would be reached, it seemed. Not yet.

How things actually looked, to his actual brine-smarting eyes, was a different story. The empty ocean stretched in all directions. His arms were so cramped that he did not think he could let go of the boat-timber now even if he wanted to, but he assumed that state of affairs wouldn't last forever. Eventually he would drop away and accept the full embrace of the waters he had spurned for so long.

He had grown quite familiar, even comfortable, with his coming death by drowning when he saw the first sign of land.

At first it appeared to be only another tiny white point on the horizon, one of a million wave crests, but it came to loom clearly and plainly even above the highest of swells, growing slowly upward toward the almost cloudless blue sky. Paul stared at it with the absorption of an idiot or an artist for most of an hour before he finally realized he was looking at the top of an island mountain.

Detaching one arm from its death grip on the spar took a long painful time, but at last he was able to start paddling.

The island grew nearer far faster than it should have, and the part of him that had not completely surrendered to the moment guessed it was the system speeding up parts of the experience to get to what its designers likely thought of as the good stuff. If that was true, Paul did not mind the dilution of reality at all, and would have been happy if there was even more of it.

He could see now that the crest of the mountain was only the highest point of a range of spiky hills above a natural harbor. The city was a proud thing, all stone battlements and white clay houses along the hillside, but the current was drawing him past the harbor and its broad causeway to another landing spot, an area of flat, pale beach and rock pools. The ocean's slow, smooth pull made him feel for the first time in a while that the designers, or others, were actually looking out for him. What he could see of the olive-clad hillsides and the distant city, the quiet peace of it all, made his eyes fill with helpless tears. He cursed himself for being soft—it had been only a day since he had left Ithaca—but could not ignore the mighty wash of relief.

The tide skimmed him safely past a large stone standing a few hundred meters off the gentle coast, and when the obstruction was gone Paul was surprised and delighted to see human forms on the nearest beach—young women by the look of them, slim and small, with masses of black hair, their pale clothes fluttering as they went through the steps of some kind of game or dance. He was just about to hail them, so as not to wash up in their midst and startle them into running away, when suddenly a cloud rolled in front of the sun and mountain, beach, and ocean all grew dark. The girls stopped their play and looked up, then a brutal crash of thunder rolled across the sky and sent them scrambling for the shelter of caves above the rock pools.

Paul had only an instant for astonishment—only a minute earlier the sky had been completely clear—then black thunderheads swept over him, turning the world a seething gray and throwing down rain that felt as hard as gravel. A wind blew up out of nowhere, battering the wave tops into froth. Paul and his spar were jerked sideways by a change in the current, sliding parallel to the beach for a moment, then away from it, and no amount of paddling or screaming his frustration at the rumbling sky made any difference as he was tugged back toward the open sea. Soon the island had vanished behind him. Beneath the thunder, like the deepest bass pedal of a church organ, he could hear the laughter of Poseidon.

 

When the storm died down he was surrounded by open sea once more. The moment of hope and its snatching away seemed so obvious in retrospect and so much in keeping with everything else that had happened to him that it was hard even to feel outrage. In any case, he had little strength left for anything but clinging to the spar, which seemed more than ever to be a mere postponement of the inevitable.

I don't know what I've done, but there can't be any crime dreadful enough for me to be punished this way.

His fingers were cramping badly, and even changing position every few moments did not make the pain less. With each successive crash of cold, salty water, each rise and plummet between waves, he felt his grip growing weaker.

"Help me!" he shouted at the sky, spitting mouthfuls of ocean. "I don't know what I've done but I'm sorry! Help me! I don't want to die!"

As his numb fingers slipped from the wood, the sea around him suddenly calmed. A figure shimmered into view, insubstantial but unmistakable, the suggestion of wings a cloud of flickering light that haloed her entire form as she hovered above the now-gentle swell. He stared, helpless, not entirely sure that he had not in fact let go, that this was not just a last confusing vision granted to a drowning man.

"Paul Jonas." Her voice was quiet and sad. "I do not belong here, It . . . hurts me to be in this place. Why do you not come to us?"

"I don't know what any of this means!" he spluttered, fighting angry tears. Despite the gentling of the waves, his hands were still knotted in cramp. "Who are you? Who's 'us'? How can I come to you if I don't know where you are?"

She shook her head. A shaft of sunlight pierced her, as though she were a glass vase. "I do not know the answers to these questions, and I do not know why I do not know them. All I know is that I feel you in the darkness. All I know is that I need you, that what I am cries out to you. Ideas, words, broken visions—there is little more."

"I'm going to die here," he said with weary bitterness. He slipped and tasted brine, then dragged himself back until the spar was under his chin again. "So don't get your hopes up . . . too high."

"Where is the feather, Paul?" She asked it as she might question a child who had lost his shoes or his coat. "I have given it to you twice. It was meant to help you find your way, to keep you safe—perhaps even lead you through the shadows of the One who is Other."

"The feather?" He was stunned. It was as though he had been told that locating the pencil given to him on the first day of primary school would determine his university degree. He racked his brain. He barely remembered the first feather—it was as distant as an object in a dream. He guessed it had disappeared somewhere on Mars, or perhaps even earlier. The second, pressed into his hand by the sick Neandertal child, he thought he had left behind in the cave of the People. "I didn't know . . . how was I to know. . . ?"

"You must know I can only give it to you three times," she said solemnly. "You must know that, Paul."

"Know that how? I don't understand any of this! You talk like this was a fairy tale. . . ."

She did not reply, but unwrapped something from the vapors of her ghostly being. The sea breeze snatched it from her fingers, but Paul closed his fist on it as it flashed past. It was a scarf or veil, light as gossamer, glimmering with its own faint light. Woven into the fabric was a stylized feather in shining greens and blues and other colors so faint that they seemed to come and go as the light changed. He stared at it stupidly.

"It may help you," she said. "But you must come to us soon, Paul. I cannot stay here—it hurts. Come soon. It grows harder to see you through the gathering shadows and I am afraid."

Hearing that forlorn tone he looked up and met her dark eyes, the only things in her entire smoky form that seemed entirely real. The sky darkened again. A moment later he saw someone else in her place—the same woman, but younger, and dressed in clothes that, although they still seemed somehow old-fashioned, were clearly millennia advanced on Homeric Greece. As she stared back at him, her curly hair merging into the jacket and long dark skirt, the simple white blouse setting off her mournful gaze, he felt a shock so profound he almost slipped from the floating spar again. This vision of her was so different, so unreal, and yet real in a way none of the others had been, that for a moment he could not remember how to breathe.

Half a dozen swift heartbeats hurried through his chest as she stared at him, this achingly familiar stranger, her expression one of deep, helpless longing. Then she was gone, leaving him alone on the open sea once more.

 

In a last moment of clarity before fatigue and misery and confusion again overtook him, Paul used the scarf to secure himself to the spar, looping it beneath his arms and tying it in a clumsy knot. Whatever else it might be or represent, it was substantial enough to save his life. The muscles of his arms writhing, he let go of the timber at last.

As he bobbed on the ocean he slid in and out of sleep, but the dreams that came to him this time were far more focused, and at first painfully familiar—a forest of dusty plants, the clanking rage of a mechanical giant, the endless, heartbreaking song of a caged bird. But this time other ominous threads ran through the tapestry, things that he did not remember ever dreaming before which set him twitching in his half-slumber. The giant's castle surrounded him like a living thing, and in every wall there was an unblinking eye. A cloud of beating wings enveloped him, as though the air itself had come to explosive life. The final noise, which startled him up out of darkness, was the explosive crash of breaking glass.

Paul shook himself awake, still up to his chin in cold seawater, in time to hear the distant concussion of thunder fading away. The setting sun was in his eyes, a broad, dazzling smear of gold on the face of the waves. He was still condemned to the ocean. His disappointment only lasted moments: as his eyes became used to the glare, he saw the island.

It was a new land—not the jutting, wide country from which the storm had swept him, but a small, forested rock, lonely in the expanse of darkening sea. He paddled toward it, awkwardly at first because of the long scarf binding him to the spar, but then with increasing facility. He had a moment of panic when he saw the rough shore, the rocks jutting from the coastal waters like Gorgon-struck ships, but luck or something more complicated caught him with a shoreward tide and pulled him harmlessly past them. Soon he felt rough sand beneath his feet and was able to drag himself onto the beach. Shivering, his fingers so numb and cold that he might have been using animal paws, he picked loose the knot and looped the feather-veil around his neck, then crawled to a spot where the sand was white and dry before collapsing into deepest and most dreamless sleep.

 

It was the nymph Calypso who awakened him. At first, as she stood with the morning light behind her, black hair moving as slowly in the wind as kelp in a sea current, he thought that the bird-woman had returned. When he saw Calypso's startling, coldly perfect beauty and realized that this was not the creature of his dreams, he was both disappointed and relieved.

He rose to his feet, the pale sand of the beach covering him all over in a fine crust, and followed when she beckoned. She sang as she led him through meadows full of irises—a song of almost impossible sweetness, a thing of flawlessly contrived unreality.

Her cave was nestled in a grove of alders and cypresses, its mouth bearded with grapevines. The sound of running water joined her song, and the two melodies twined, the crystalline chiming of sweet springs and her soft, clear voice lulling him into a waking sleep, so that for long moments he could not help wondering if he had finally drowned and was being gifted with some last vision of paradise.

When she offered him ambrosia and sweet nectar, the sustenance of immortals, he ate and drank, although her singing alone seemed almost enough to feed him. When she touched him with long cool fingers and led him to the springs to bathe the salt from his skin, then led him into the deeper shadows of the cavern to her bed of soft rushes, he did not resist. A part of him knew he was being unfaithful, although to what or whom he had no idea, but he had been lonely for a long, long time, lonely in a way no human creature should be, and his spirit was starving. And when in that long cool time of whispers and beading sweat, as the distant noise of the sea played counterpoint to their urgent sounds, Paul cried out and felt himself falling away, he would not let himself wonder into what sort of void he had spent himself, what kind of illusion.

He could not turn away from comfort, whatever might lie behind it.

 

 

You are mournful, clever Odysseus. What ails you?" He turned to see her gliding across the sand, hair streaming. He turned back to his contemplation of the endlessly rolling afternoon sea. "Nothing. I'm fine."

"Nevertheless, you are heavy of heart. Come back to the cavern and give me love, O sweet mortal—or even, if you wish, we will stay here and make the soft, fragrant sands our bed." She ran a cool hand across his sunburned shoulders, then let her fingers trail downward to the small of his back.

Paul found himself suppressing a flinch. It was not that there was anything wrong with being stranded on a paradise island with a beautiful goddess who wanted to serve his every need and make love half a dozen times a day, but although he had welcomed the opportunity to rest and be comforted, his heart was still hurting, and other parts of him were beginning to smart a little as well. Whoever had designed this part of the virtual Odyssey—which had covered something like half a dozen years of the fictional character's life, if Paul remembered correctly—was either a simpleminded, inexhaustible lecher or had not given the whole thing much thought.

"I think I'd like to be alone for a while," was what he said out loud.

Her charming pout could have caused cardiac arrest in someone whose sexual interest was a little less numbed. "Of course, my beloved. But do not stay long away from me. I ache for your touch."

Calypso turned and almost floated back up the beach, moving as smoothly as if she slid on oiled glass. Whoever had created this exemplar had given her the long-legged figure of a netshow hypergirl and the voice and presence of a Shakespearean actress, the kind of fantasy female that should have satisfied any heterosexual man for an eternity.

Paul was bored and depressed.

The thing of it was, he realized, he was . . . nowhere. He wasn't home, not what he thought of as home, anyway—half-decent job, some half-decent friends, a quiet Friday night on his own from time to time when he could just vegetate in front of the wallscreen and didn't have to pretend to be witty. He wasn't getting any closer to finding home, either, or to answering any of the riddles of his current existence.

But there had been that last moment with the bird-woman, that flash of another existence. He had heard a name drift through his head, or almost had, but it had left little trace in his memory, and was mixed up with other names he had heard—Vaala, Viola. Something kept bringing Avila up to the surface, but he knew that couldn't be right—wasn't that a saint, Saint Theresa of Avila? She had been, as best Paul could remember, a medieval hysteric who inspired more than a few pictures and statues. But he knew that his own vision, the girl in her old-fashioned clothes, was just as important to him as Saint Theresa's vision of The Lord. He just didn't know what it meant.

The distant moan of Calypso's song came floating to him through the sandalwood-scented air. He felt a weirdly twinned shudder of longing and revulsion. No wonder visionaries like Theresa had to lock themselves away in convents. Sex was so . . . distracting.

He had to get away, that was clear. He had experienced all the benefit that rest and virtual companionship could give, and if he had to live for years on this island, as the real Odysseus had, he would be worn away like a child's coloring crayon long before it was over, not to mention brain-dead on top of it. But the question was, how? His single timber had been swept back out to sea. There was no boat on the island, or any wood that was not attached to a heartbreakingly beautiful tree of some kind. He supposed he could try to build a raft, but he was completely unqualified to do so, not to mention the fact that the nymph Calypso watched him with the proprietorial care of a tabby guarding a catnip mouse.

But I have to keep moving, he realized. I said I wouldn't drift anymore, and I can't. I'll die if I do. It wasn't an exaggeration, he knew: if he did not actually keel over dead, a part of him, a vital part, would certainly wither and perish.

The nymph's song grew louder, and for all his disinterest and weariness, he felt a certain stirring. Better to go now, he decided, so that for once she might let him sleep through the night.

Wincing, he stumbled back across the sands.

 

The morning sun had only just begun to filter through the cypress branches when the strange thing happened.

Paul was sitting on a stone in front of the cave's entrance, having just finished choking down yet another nectar-and-ambrosia breakfast—which he now suspected Calypso was giving him as a sort of performance enhancer—and wondering if he had the strength to walk across the island in search of some fruit or anything else that even distantly resembled real food, when the air before him began to glare and pulse. He could only stare stupidly as the harsh white light spread; it remained strangely contained at first, then abruptly took on a roughly human, but featureless, shape.

The apparition hung in the air before him, wriggling. The childish voice that came through it was so unexpected that for a few moments he could make no sense of what it was saying: "Mira! Man, op this! Like Shumama's Shipwreck Show!" It swiveled and then seemed to see him, although it was impossible to tell which way the blank whiteness of its head was facing. "Hey, you Paul Jonas?" It made his last name sound like it started with "Ch."

"Who . . . who are you. . . ?"

"No time, man. El Viejo, he got words for you. Mierda, who that?" It turned to look at Calypso, who had appeared in the entrance to the cavern, an oddly blank look on her beautiful face. "You shoeboxin' with that? Ay, man, you lucky." It shook its shapeless head. "Pues, the old guy, he wants to know why you ain't movin', man? You found them others?"

"Others? What others?"

The apparition hesitated, tilting its head like a dog listening to a distant sound. "He said you found the jewel, vato, so you must know." He made it sound like four words or one long one, joo-el-vah-toe, and it took Paul a moment to catch up.

"The golden thing? The gem?"

"Yeah, 'course. He said you gotta fly, man. No clock to stay in one place—all the big stuff's going down."

"Who said this? And how am I supposed to get out of here. . . ?"

The shining thing either did not hear him or did not care about his questions. It flickered, flared brightly, then evaporated. The island's spirit-haunted air was still.

"The gods have taken pity on you at last, faithful Odysseus," said Calypso suddenly. He had forgotten her, and now her voice made him jump. "It makes me sad, though—they are hard-hearted and jealous. Why should Zeus interfere when one of the immortal number takes a human lover? He who wears the aegis has taken dozens, and given them all children. But he has sent the divine messenger, and thus his will must be done. I am frightened to resist him, for fear I may incur the Thunderer's wrath."

" 'Divine messenger'." Paul turned to face her. "What are you talking about?"

"Hermes—he of the golden wand," she said. "I knew, as we immortals know the shape of things ahead, that someday he must come, bearing an Olympian order to end our love-tryst. I did not think it would be so soon."

She looked so sorrowful that for a moment Paul felt something like real affection for her, but he reminded himself—not for the first time—that she was a collection of code, no more, no less, and that she would be saying and doing the same things no matter who wore the guise of lost Odysseus. "So . . . so that's what he was saying?" he asked. "That Zeus wants you to let me go?"

"You heard shining Hermes, messenger of the gods," she said. "The immortals of Olympus have given you enough trouble—it will do you no good to set yourself against the Thunderer's will in this."

Inwardly he was rejoicing. It had been some kind of messenger, certainly (and a decidedly odd one at that), but from the person who had sent Paul the earlier gem-message, who he strongly doubted had anything to do with Mount Olympus. Calypso, however, had simply incorporated it into her world, as Penelope had tried to reconcile Paul's confusing presence within hers. He had experienced an attempt by someone—someone outside the system?—to communicate; Calypso had seen a decree from the Lord of the Gods.

"I am sad if I must leave you," he said with what he thought was necessary hypocrisy, "but how can I do it? I don't have a boat. It's miles and miles to anywhere—I can't swim that far."

"Do you think I would send you away without gifts?" she asked him, smiling bravely. "Do you think that immortal Calypso would let her lover drown in the wine-dark sea, unhelped? Come. I will take you to the grove and give you an ax of fine bronze. You will build yourself a raft that may carry you across Poseidon's domain and on your way, so that the gods can lead you to your destiny."

Paul shrugged. "Okay. I guess that sounds reasonable."

 

Calypso produced the promised ax—a huge, double-headed thing that nevertheless felt as light and well-balanced in Paul's hand as a tennis racket—and other bronze tools, then led him to a grove of alders, poplars, and tall firs. She paused as though she would say something to him, but instead shook her head wistfully and glided back up the path toward her cave.

Paul stood in the grove for a moment and listened to the sea wind breathing in the treetops. He had little idea how to go about building a raft, but there was no use worrying about it. He would do the best he could—he could certainly start by cutting down a few trees.

It was surprisingly easy work. Despite his lack of experience, the ax bit deep with every stroke; it seemed only moments before the first tree began to shudder, and its fall came so suddenly that Paul was almost caught by the wider branches. He paid better attention next time, and soon had brought down over a dozen of the straightest and most slender trees. As he stood contemplating them, pleasantly out of breath but uncertain as to what to do next, something rustled in the undergrowth. A quail hopped out of the leaves and onto a stone. The little bird stared at him with one eye, then turned its head, topknot bobbing, so it could fix him with the other.

"Strip off the branches and make the logs smooth," the quail said in the voice of a mischievous girl-child. "Didn't your mother and father teach you anything?"

Paul stared. It was not the strangest thing he had encountered, but it was still a bit surprising. "Who are you?"

She made a little chirping sound of amusement. "A quail! What do I look like?"

He nodded his head, conceding the point. "And you know how to build a raft?"

"Better than you do, it seems. It's a good thing Calypso herself brought you here, because you didn't even ask permission from the dryads before you chopped down their trees, and they'll all have to find new homes now." She flicked her tail. "After you strip off the branches, you need to make all the trunks the same length."

Deciding that it was a poor idea to look a gift-quail in the mouth, he bent to work. With the olive-wood handle that felt as though it had been carved for his hand alone, he found the work went as quickly as felling the trees, and soon he had a nearly identical row of logs.

"Not bad," his new companion said. "But I'm not sure I'd let you make a nest for me. Now let's get back to work or you're going to lose the light."

Paul snorted at the idea of taking orders from a small brown-and-white bird, but under the quail's patient instruction the raft came together in short order, a sturdy little craft with a mast and a half-deck and a rudder, and with a sort of wall of plaited branches all around the side to keep the sea from washing unimpeded across the deck.

Calypso appeared later in the day with a great roll of heavy, shiny cloth to use as a sail, but otherwise Paul worked alone, with only the little bird for company. Between her clever suggestions and the almost magical tools, the work proceeded at an amazingly swift pace. By late afternoon there was only the rigging left to do, and as he lashed the various bits into place with the quail hopping back and forth to stay out of his way, lending advice interspersed with mild avian insults, he became aware of an unfamiliar sensation, the warmth of accomplishment.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. This whole thing has been set up to help useless sods like me do what they need to do without violating the simulation's rules—I'm pretty sure there wasn't any magical quail in the original, because the real Odysseus probably could have thrown together the ancient Greek equivalent of an aircraft carrier out of a couple of feathers and a stick. . . .

Thinking of feathers, he checked to make sure the scarf was still tied about his waist. If he knew anything about these kinds of things, he was pretty sure he shouldn't lose this last version of the bird-woman's gift.

Bird-woman . . . I'm going to have to think of some better name for her. Sounds like a comic-book heroine.

After the quail's suggestion of chopping down a few more small trees to use as rollers proved a good one, he was at last able to ease his raft down to the white beach, where Calypso appeared again.

"Come, Odysseus," she said. "Come, my mortal lover. The sun is almost touching the waves—this is no time to set out on a dangerous journey by sea. Spend one last night with me, then you can leave on the morning tide."

Without realizing it, he waited to hear from the quail, who had followed him down to the sand. "She is kind, but sometimes she is headstrong," the bird said in a voice he alone seemed able to hear. "If you stay the night, she will cover you with such kisses that you may forget tomorrow you mean to leave. Then the gods will be even angrier with you."

Paul was amused in spite of himself. "And what do you know about kisses?"

She stared at him for a moment, then with an irritated waggle of her tail she scurried behind a rock. For a moment he was sorry he had not thanked her properly, then remembered he was responding to an amalgam of code, however charming. This led him to think about what Calypso offered, and what the goddess herself almost certainly was as well.

"No, my lady," he said. "I thank you, and I will never forget my time here upon your fair island." Paul wanted to smack himself—bad as he was at it, it was still hard not to fall into flowery, epic language. "Anyway, I need to go."

Sorrowfully, Calypso bade him good-bye, giving him skins of wine and water and food she had prepared for him. Just before he could push the raft out into the water, the little quail came pottling back around the rock and hopped up onto the timbers. "And where are you going?" she asked.

"Troy."

The bird cocked her head to one side. "You have gone all topsy-turvy, noble Odysseus—perhaps you have hit your head. I'm certain your wife expects you home to help her look after your fledgling, not clumping around fighting with Trojans again. But if you insist, you must remember to keep the setting sun on your right hand." She hopped down. He thanked her for all her help, then slid the raft off the rollers into the water, climbed on, and began to push away from shore with the long pole he had made.

"Farewell, mortal!" called Calypso, a tear gleaming prettily in her eye, her hair billowing like storm clouds around her too-perfect face. "I shall never forget you!"

"Watch out for Scylla and Charybdis!" piped the quail, naming what Paul's dim, spotty memories of Homer suggested were some dangerous rocks. "Otherwise, they will take you as a serpent takes an egg!"

He waved and slid out into the open sea, everything around him now turned to beaten copper by the setting sun.

 

Night at sea in the Age of Heroes was a much different thing on a boat than floundering in the water, clinging to a piece of flotsam. The sky was black as tar and the moon merely a sliver, but the stars seemed ten times as bright as anything he had ever seen. He understood how the ancients might have thought them gods and heroes looking down on the deeds of men.

Toward the night's longest, darkest hour he found himself full of doubt once more. It was hard to remember the boy Gally and his terrible death without thinking that everything else, even his own hopes and fears, were rendered meaningless by it, but even at his lowest ebb, Paul had understood that it was pointless to think that way for long; he was even less willing to do so now. The ship responded to his fumbling control—the sails and rigging seemed as magical as the boat-building ax—the night air was tangy with salt, the waves actually gleamed in the starlight, and three times now he had been briefly surrounded and paced by dolphins, whose swift beauty seemed a kind of blessing. Paul could not lose his unhappiness and guilt, but he could at least put them to one side. He was rested, and he was on his way again, in search of Troy and whatever destiny held.

Destiny? Paul laughed out loud. Good God, mate, listen to yourself. It's a gameworld. You've got about as much destiny as a bleeding pinball—ping, there goes Jonas again. Oops, now he's gone that way! Ping!

Still, it couldn't hurt to feel good, at least for a little while.

 

The first hint that perhaps he had been a little too quick to trust his fragmented memory of the classics came with the gray light of dawn, presaged by a slow but steady increase in the current—a current that he had not even noticed until now, but which was clearly tugging his boat astray despite the bellying sail pulling in a slightly different direction.

He had been so busy steering the raft between the occasional tiny, rocky islands, and trying to think through the confusing things he had been told by the bird-woman—his angel, as he was now beginning to think of her—that he had given scarcely any thought to the little quail's warning, but as the current began to assert itself and a low but definite roar made itself heard, he suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

Hang on for a bit, he thought, that Scylla and Charybdis—were they just rocks? Wasn't one of them actually a whirlpoolsomething that sucked down boats and ground them up like a waste disposal swallowing kitchen debris? And, he suddenly realized as the deep roar mounted, wouldn't something like that sound just like this?

He let go of the tiller and made his way forward, hanging onto the mast with one hand as he strained to see what was ahead. Releasing the rudder allowed the little craft to give in to the pull entirely, and its lurch to the west almost pitched him off the deck. In the morning mist ahead lay two rocky islands with only a few hundred meters between them, the one on the left a tall, jagged spike of mountain jutting up from the sea, its top shrouded in black clouds. Where the waves crashed against its somber flanks, it looked rough enough to peel the sides off a modern battleship, and Paul was definitely not sailing in a modern battleship. But frightening as that was, it was toward the other, lower island that the raft was bearing. The side facing on the strait curved in a rough semicircle, like a sunken amphitheater; at the center of the curving bay the waters swirled around and around with incredible violence and then tunneled downward, creating a spinning cylindrical hole in the ocean wide enough to gulp an office building.

The wind was rising. Suddenly dotted with fear-sweat despite the chill morning, each drop a cold pinpoint against his skin, Paul lunged back along the sloping deck toward the tiller. He yanked back on it until the raft was on a course that would take it closer to the sharp-pointed rocks on the left: there was at least a chance of missing those, but once he came within the compass of the maelstrom, nothing could save him. The wood of the rudder groaned as the current continued to pull the raft sideways, and as he clung to the tiller, he prayed that the quail had known as much about shipbuilding as it had seemed to.

One of the braces snapped with a disheartening twang as the raft entered the strait; the unsecured yard began to flip from side to side and the sail popped in and out. No longer aided by the wind, the raft began to slide toward the whirlpool side. After a moment of helpless panic, Paul thought of the feather veil at his waist. He quickly untied it, then knotted it to hold the tiller as straight as he could before rushing to the mast. The yard was swiveling as the winds changed, and he caught more than a few hard blows to the arms and ribs, but at last managed to pull it back to its proper position, then drag the brace around the yard and secure it, tying the best knot he could under the circumstances. It would not have impressed most sailors, he felt sure, but he couldn't care less. The swirling black waters of Charybdis were getting closer by the second.

He scrambled back to the stern. The veil had already been stretched and loosened by the pull of the current, and he had to lean hard on the tiller to bring the front of the raft back toward the spiky rocks on the eastern side, then hold on with all his might as his beleaguered craft touched on the outermost ring of the whirlpool, which was agony on his battered ribs. Paul closed his eyes tight, gritted his teeth, then screamed as hard as he could, a noise that vanished without trace in the roar of the waters. The tiller jerked, then slowly began to turn against his grip, as though some massive hand were twisting the rudder. Paul bellowed his anger and fear again and hung on.

It was impossible to tell how much time had passed when he first felt the whirlpool's grip begin to lessen.

Exhausted and so weak in the knees he could barely stand, he opened his eyes to see the battlement cliffs of the mountain-island leaning out above his head, so near he could almost have touched them from the edge of the raft. He barely had time to make sure that his course would keep him off its rugged flank when something swung down from above—impossibly long, with fangs flashing in its business end. Paul did not even have time to shriek as the serpentine shape struck at him, but his legs buckled and dropped him to the deck so that the attack missed him, but the thing—a sort of tentacle made of rough, cracked leather—hit the mast and snapped the stout log as though it were a piece of uncooked spaghetti. The mouth at the tentacle's end snatched up the sail from the flinders of the mast and shook it viciously; in a second little bits of cloth were filtering down all around, swirling in the wind; Paul might have been fighting to keep his balance in a particularly unpleasant snow-globe.

He barely had time to reach down for his ax before the great snaky thing was grabbing for him again. If it was a tentacle, the rest of the body was somewhere high above on the rock face, in the dark cavern from which this limb extended; if it was not a leg but a neck, the face at the end of it was eyeless and noseless. Whatever it was, dripping jaws large and toothy as a great white shark's clacked at the end of that huge rope of scaly muscle. Paul stumbled back and swung the ax as hard as he could. A brief moment of joy as it sunk deep into flesh was shattered as the thing jerked back, the ax still lodged in its hide, and lifted him three meters off the deck. Pinkish slime frothed from the deep wound and spattered his face. For an instant he was paralyzed, trying to decide whether to cling to his only weapon or drop away from the snapping teeth, then the ax-blade ripped free and he fell hard onto the logs he had so carefully cut and shaped.

The thing twisted away, whipping from side to side in obvious pain, banging against the rocky cliffs and spraying froth everywhere, its jawed end half-severed from its long stem. Through the burning pain of his injuries he felt a fierce, mindless joy at seeing it crippled and suffering. Then five more identical mouths, each on its own serpentine neck, slithered down from the cavern above.

The next moments passed in a kind of roaring, turbulent dream. The eyeless heads darted at him. He managed to duck the first, then the second stabbing strike. He sliced scaly hide from one of them, but a third snapped at him from behind and almost caught him. The sail was gone and the broken mast offered little shelter, but he slid across the froth-slicked deck and planted his back against it anyway, swiping continuously back and forth with the ax as the heads paused and then lunged, searching for a way through the whirl of razor-sharp bronze. He chopped into a jaw and the mouth drew away, hissing through the sudden fount of bubbling pink, but it did not retreat very far.

He was growing tired rapidly, despite the magical lightness of his weapon, and the heads were no longer striking rashly. They swayed like cobras, waiting for a chink in his defense.

The roar of Charybdis had been growing louder for some time. Paul's only fleeting thought had been that he was probably now being drawn into the whirlpool, too, just so the gods could make certain that he was doomed, but he could not help noticing that the sound had changed to a deep, gurgling bellow, Like nothing so much as the world's biggest ogre slurping soup. Then, as Scylla's heads bobbed, waiting for the ax in his weary hands to slow just a little, the crashing noise of the whirlpool abruptly stopped and the seas became still.

Paul had only a few heartbeats to experience the immense, eerie silence—he could actually hear the wet wheeze of Scylla's multiplied breath and the splash of waves against the rocks—then with a roar easily as loud as before, Charybdis suddenly vomited up the ocean she had been swallowing, a great geyser of seawater that burst through the surface and fountained hundreds of meters in the air. The blind, fanged heads hesitated as the first sheets of white-and-green water began to splash down, then the underwater force of the whirlpool's reversal heaved Paul's raft up into the air as violently as if it had been flung from a catapult. Scylla's mouths snapped in vain before the waters covered them, but he was already gone. The great wave carried the raft rushing down the strait; as the little craft spun, Paul had only an instant to grasp for the tiller. His hand closed on the veil.

Black rocks appeared to whirl around him, and the sea was first above, then below, then above him again. White foam flew past as he rose into the air above even the cliffs of the strait, so that for a long moment he could see the ocean and islands twirling below him as he floated at the end of the veil, no longer tethered by gravity. Then the wave threw him down again and he smashed against the ocean's back once, twice, skipping like a stone before a last impact dashed all the thoughts out of his head.

CHAPTER 7
The Battle for Heaven

NETFEED/NEWS: "Armored" Toddler Survives Dangerous Plunge

(visual: Jimmy with father and stepmother)

VO: Three-year-old Jimmy Jacobson, already the focus of a well-known "tug-of-love" custody battle two years ago between his mother and father, apparently survived a fall from a fourth-floor window due to biological modifications. His father, Rinus Jacobson, who has custody of the child, claims that he has strengthened the boy's skeleton and hardened his skin by the application of "simple biological science."

(visual: Rinus Jacobson at press conference)

JACOBSON: "I have done it myself. This invention will be a great help to parents everywhere. All can do what I have done to protect the little ones, now that I have perfected the method."

VO: Jacobson plans to sell the engineered bio-organisms, which he claims work in conjunction with a standard ultraviolet sun lamp to strengthen developing skin and bones.

JACOBSON: "It creates a, how would you call it, a rind. Like the skin of a rhinoceros. This child will never scratch his knees or scrape his face. "

VO: Staffers from the Child Protection Agency, not to mention neighbors, are skeptical, and an investigation is underway.

(visual: anonymated neighbor)

NEIGHBOR: "Let's put it this way—even if he did make it work, and the kid's certainly looking kind of stiff, then we wouldn't be surprised if Jacobson threw him out the window to test it. . . ."

 

It had been a while since Orlando had spoken for such a long time, and he was not in very good condition. By the time he had reached the part of his recent history where he and Fredericks had first entered the harbor at Temilún, he was feeling much as he had been feeling then—tired and sick.

Bonita Mae Simpkins said very little, interrupting only to get an occasional clarification on some piece of netboy slang or to grouse at him for spending too much time on details interesting only to teenagers. She had offered nothing yet of her own, but her very reticence was making Orlando feel more trusting. Whoever she was, she was certainly not trying to sweet-talk him into betraying confidences.

A flaming wick in a bowl of oil colored the room with flickering yellow light and long shadows. Outside, the imaginary Egypt had grown dark, and from time to time strange sounds drifted to them through the hot desert night. As Orlando told of the Atascos' death and the flight from their throne room, a terrible, sobbing wail from somewhere nearby made him stop and fall silent, heart beating. Fredericks, sitting on the foot of the bed, was also pale and nervous.

"Don't worry, boy," Mrs. Simpkins told him. "Before he went, Mr. Al-Sayyid made sure that this house was protected. You could say it has charms on it, but that's heathenish, and what he did's more scientific. But nothing's coming in—not tonight, anyway."

"Who's Mr. Al-Sayyid?"

"You're not done talkin' yet, and I haven't started. Keep going."

Orlando shrugged and tried to pick up the tale. He moved quickly through the escape from Temilún and their travels in the miniature world, grimacing when Fredericks insisted he explain how he had fought with a giant, homicidal millipede. It wasn't so much that Orlando was embarrassed—he had acquitted himself fairly well, he thought—but it was clearly the sort of swashbuckling detail this stern woman did not want to hear. He hurried on to their sojourn in the cartoon world, then was forced to repeat the tale of what had happened to them in the Freezer several times while Mrs. Simpkins asked a number of shrewd questions.

"So that was her, too—the feather-goddess? You're sure?"

Orlando nodded. "It . . . it feels like the same person. Looked like her, too, sort of. Who is she?"

His questioner only shook her head. "And the other thing, the thing you only felt—what your friend here called 'the actual factual Devil'? Tell me about that again."

He did, or tried to, but it was hard to put the experience into words, as difficult as describing really intense pain—something he had done enough times for people who wanted to understand but couldn't—to know it never really worked. "So, was it the devil?" he asked when he had finished, although he felt pretty sure he knew what this woman with her frequent talk of the Lord and Jesus would say.

She surprised him. "No, I don't think it was. But it may be something almost worse. I think it's a kind of devil that mortal men have made, men so full of pride they think they are God Himself."

"What do you mean?"

Again she would only shake her head. "It's too much to talk about all at once. Anyway, you're tired, boy—just look at the state of you. You need some sleep."

Orlando and Fredericks both flinched as something that was not a dog whined and barked in the street just outside the window. "I'm not going to sleep for a while," Orlando said truthfully. "Tell us where you're from. You promised."

"I did no such thing." She stared at him hard, but he had seen enough of her to know she was not angry, only considering. She turned to Fredericks. "I suppose you want to hear, too."

Orlando's friend nodded his head. "It would be nice to know something for a change."

"All right. But I don't want any questions until I'm done, and if you open your yaps before then, you can just watch me walk away." She scowled to show she meant business. "And I'm not going to say anything twice.

"My husband Terence and I belong to the Revelation Church of Christ, down in Porterville, Mississippi, and we are proud to do the Lord's work. You have to understand that first of all. We're what you might call muscular Christians—that's what our pastor says, anyway. We work hard for Jesus and we're not much on that airy-fairy nonsense like church picnics and car washes. We come to church and we sing and we pray, and sometimes we do get loud. Some people call us holy rollers, 'cause when the Lord lays His hand on one of us, we start to shout and talk about it a little."

Orlando found himself nodding, almost mesmerized by the rhythm of her voice, even though he had only the faintest idea what she was talking about. His parents had only taken him to church once, to a cousin's wedding, and didn't go much themselves except for chamber music, when one of the local places of worship was used as a concert hall.

"And we don't hold with judging people all the time either," she said in a tone that suggested Orlando might have been just about to suggest they did. "Our God is all-powerful, and He will show people the truth. What might be in their heart afterward is between them and the Lord. You understand me, you boys?"

Both Orlando and Fredericks hastened to indicate that they did.

"Now, the Lord never gifted me or Terence with children—it just wasn't His plan for us, but I'd be lyin' if I told you I never wondered or questioned why. But we both had a chance to work with plenty of 'em, Terence teaching shop at the local middle school, me working in the emergency room at the hospital in De Kalb. It's sad, but a whole lot of the children I saw were in bad shape. If you don't think you need the Lord in your heart and your life, you never saw a bunch of children been in a school bus crash start coming into the ER by twos and threes. That'll test you.

"Anyway, that's none of it to the point. What I'm trying to say is that we had plenty of things in our lives, God had already given us our work to do, and we had nieces and nephews, too, so if we wondered sometimes why the Lord never gave us our own baby to raise, we didn't wonder long. Then Mr. Al-Sayyid came to First Revelation.

"He was this little dark-colored man, and when Pastor Winsallen first brought him up to introduce him, I thought he might be collecting for one of those backward foreign countries you only hear about when they have an earthquake or something. He had a nice voice, though—very proper, like that English gentleman you see on the net in all those imitation beef commercials, you know the one? Anyway, this Mr. Al-Sayyid told us that he was a Copt. I didn't know what that was—at first, I thought he meant he was a policeman, which was kind of funny because he wasn't much higher than my shoulder and I'm not all that big. But he explained that he was from Egypt, and the Copts were a Christian religion, even if we hadn't heard of 'em. He gave a little talk about the group he belonged to, called Circle of Fellowship, which did all kinds of charitable work in poor countries, and then Pastor Winsallen collected some money, just like I figured.

"But it was afterward that we found out the whole truth. Pastor Winsallen asked Terence and me if we would stay and talk after the rest of the congregation went home, so of course we stayed. We were thinking he would ask us to put this little man up at our place, and I was in a fret because I had all my mother's things still packed in boxes in the guest room and it hadn't been aired out or anything. I suppose I was also a little worried because I'd never had a foreign person in my house and I didn't know what kind of food he'd eat or anything. But that wasn't what the pastor wanted at all."

Mrs. Simpkins paused, considering. For a moment she almost smiled, a twist of the mouth that might have been embarrassment. "That was the strangest night of my life, I can tell you. See, turned out that not only was this Mr. Al-Sayyid's group a lot bigger and more . . . unusual than he'd let on before, but Pastor Winsallen knew some of them from his days at the university and was looking to help them out. But that wasn't what was strange, no, not by a long yard. Mr. Al-Sayyid began telling his story, and I swear n sounded like something out of the worst kinds of science-fiction nonsense. It got dark outside, he talked so long, and I thought I was in some kind of dream, the things he said were so unbelievable. But there was Pastor Winsallen—Andy Winsallen, who I've known since he came in to have his broken leg fixed when he was thirteen—just nodding his head at all of it. He'd heard it before and he believed it, you could tell.

"You know some of what Mr. Al-Sayyid said to us, because it was said to you, too—these Grail people, and all the harm being done to innocent children—but there was more. Mr. Al-Sayyid told us that his Circle group, which was made up of people from all kinds of faiths working together, thought that the Grail folk were using children somehow to make their immortality-machines work, and that they would have to keep using more and more of them, because even though the project had only gone on for a few years, some of the children had died already, and these people planned on living forever and ever."

"Does that mean that Sellars was one of those guys, Orlando?" Fredericks asked suddenly. "One of these Circle of Fellowship or whatever they're called?"

Orlando could only shrug.

"I never heard of your Sellars before now, if that means anything," Mrs. Simpkins said. "But what was even stranger still, Mr. Al-Sayyid told us that night, was that one of the people in the Circle—the real group doesn't have any "Fellowship" in its name, that was just one of their charities—was a Russian fellow, a scientist, I guess, and he had told the other Circle folk that he thought these Grail Brotherhood people . . . that they were drilling a hole in God."

Orlando waited a moment to make sure he'd heard correctly. He glanced over at Fredericks, who looked as though he'd just been struck on the head with a good-sized rock. "Drilling a hole in. . . ? What kind of scanbark is that? I mean, no offense, but. . . ."

Bonita Mae Simpkins laughed, a quick slap of sound. "That's what I said, boy! Not quite those words, but that's pretty much exactly what I said! I was surprised Pastor Winsallen didn't call it blasphemy, but he just sat there looking serious. I don't know what that young man got up to while he was away at college, but it wasn't like any preacher-teaching I've ever heard of." She laughed again. "Mr. Al-Sayyid tried to explain it to us. He had such a nice smile! He said that even with all the differences between our faiths—he and his Coptic friends, we Revelation Baptists, the Buddhists and Moslems and whatnot, all the other kinds of religions they had in their Circle group—there was one thing we all had in common. He said we alt believed that we could get in the right state of mind, I guess, and touch God. I'm probably saying it wrong, because he was a very good speaker and I'm not, but that's more or less the size of it. We reach out for God, or the infinite, or whatever people want to call it. Well, he said, some of the people in the Circle had been feeling that something was . . . wrong. When they prayed, or meditated, or whatever it was they all did, they could feel something was different in the . . . in the place they went to, or the feeling that they got. In the Holy Spirit, we Revelation folk would say. Like if you walk into a room you know real well, you can feel sometimes if someone else's been in it?"

Orlando shook his head. "I don't think I'm getting any of this. My head hurts. Not from what you're saying," he hastened to explain. "Just because I'm sick."

The woman's smile was almost gentle this time. "Of course you are, boy. And I'm just talking and talking. There's really not much more to explain about that, anyway, because I don't truly understand what they're saying myself. But you get some sleep now, and we'll think about where we're going to go tomorrow."

"Where we're going to go?"

"I told you, this is a war zone. Those miserable creatures, Tefy and Mewat—the ones who work for Osiris—are pretty busy putting down this uprising. But after they do, I can promise you they're gonna be going house to house, rounding up whoever they want to call sympathizers, scaring everyone as bad as they can so it doesn't happen again. And you boys stick out like two real sore thumbs. Now get some sleep."

 

Orlando slept, but it was not very restful. He found himself floating in a black sea of troubled, feverish dreams which washed across him in waves, as though he were once again trapped in the temple. Images of various childhoods, none of them his own, followed one after the other, interspersed with cryptic visions of the black pyramid a vast and silent observer looming over everything.

Oddest of all, though, were dreams that were not of children or pyramids, but of things he could not remember seeing when either awake or dreaming—a castle surrounded by clouds, a jungle full of heavy, flowered branches, the shrieking of a bird. He even dreamed of Ma'at, the goddess of Justice, but not as she had appeared to him before, with feather and Egyptian garb: the dream-version was something kept in a cage, a winged creature that seemed more bird than human, with only feathers to cover her nakedness. The only thing the same was sadness, the deep, mourning look in her eyes.

He woke to flat morning light on the white walls. His head still hurt, but it felt a little clearer than the night before. The dreams had not completely left him: for the first moments of consciousness he was both in a bed in Egypt and pitching and rocking on rough seas. When he groaned and swung his legs off the pallet, he almost expected to feel cold water.

Bonita Mae Simpkins poked her small, black-haired head around the doorframe. "Are you sure you're ready to be up and around, boy? Do you want a pot?"

A first attempt had convinced him he was not yet ready to sit up. "A what?"

"A pot. You know, to do your business in."

Orlando shuddered. "No, thanks!" He considered for a moment. "We don't need to do that here, anyway."

"Well, some folks prefer to do things the normal way when they're having a long stay in VR, even if it doesn't make any real difference." She had put down whatever she had been doing, and now walked into the room. "Mr. Jehani—he was one of the other fellows—said it was easier on the mind if you just pretended you were still in the real world, and kept drinking, and eating, and even. . . ."

"I get it," said Orlando hurriedly. "Where's Fredericks?"

"Sleeping. He sat up half the night with you. You made a powerful fuss." She flattened her hand on his forehead, then straightened. "You were talking about Ma'at in your sleep. The goddess with the feather."

Orlando's decision to ask Mrs. Simpkins what she made of his dreams was interrupted by a cloud of small yellow flying things that whirled in through the doorway and settled on his arms and legs and on various other surfaces in the sparsely-decorated room.

"Awake! 'Landogarner awake!" Zunni cried happily, and rose from his knee to turn a little somersault in the air. "Now we set off big fun-bomb!"

"Kabooom!" shouted another monkey and pretended to explode, flinging itself into some of its companions and setting off a wrestling match that rolled down Orlando's stomach, tickling horribly.

"You get off him, you creatures," said Mrs. Simpkins irritably. "The boy is sick. Just because this is ancient Egypt doesn't mean they don't have brooms, and if you don't want me to take one to the whole lot of you, you'll go perch on that chair and mind your manners."

Watching the Wicked Tribe immediately do as they were told was one of the most astonishing things Orlando had ever seen. His fearful respect for the little round woman went up another notch.

Fredericks came in, rubbing puffy-lidded eyes as he delivered his news. "There's a bunch of people shouting outside."

"Fredericks!" called the monkeys. "Pith-pith the mighty thief! Play with us!"

"There is indeed," said Mrs. Simpkins. "If Orlando feels strong enough, we're going up to have a look."

After getting slowly to his feet, Orlando was pleased to discover he felt reasonably able. He followed her out into the hallway with Fredericks and the monkeys close behind. The house was bigger than Orlando had guessed—the hallway alone stretched almost fifteen meters—and the beautiful wall paintings of flowers and trees and a marsh full of ducks suggested it must belong to someone important.

"Yes, it does," his guide said when he asked. "Or it did. To Mr. Al-Sayyid, who was an undersecretary in the palace—a royal scribe."

"I don't understand."

"Because I never finished explaining. All in due time."

She led them down the hall, through a set of family apartments, and finally to an airy, pillared room which seemed to have been the master bedroom, but showed no signs of recent habitation. A door off this room opened into a pretty walled garden with trellises of flowers and a pond; Orlando was quite surprised at how much like a modern garden it seemed. They did not linger, but followed Mrs. Simpkins as she stumped up a series of ramps that led to the roof, which was flat and surfaced with dried mud spread like plaster. An awning had been erected at one end, and cushions and stools and a neat small table made of painted wood arranged in its shade showed that this was probably a favorite spot on warm days.

Orlando noted these details in passing, but was more immediately arrested by the sight of the city itself spreading away on all sides. Beyond the gardens and walls of the villa—which was even larger than he had suspected—lay other, similar properties, surrounded by a broad belt of smaller houses on narrower streets, extending outward right to the river's edge. Even from so far away he could see naked people clambering in the mud along the river-banks, perhaps making bricks to build other villas. Although hundreds of boats and ships still plied its waters, the Nile was clearly at very low ebb and the mud flats were wide.

But the most interesting views were in the direction away from the river. In the extreme western distance, set neatly atop the spine of the mountains that ran parallel to the broad Nile, was what appeared to be a beautiful city of temples and palaces, so starkly white that it shimmered like a mirage even in the mild morning sunlight.

"Abydos," said Mrs. Simpkins. "But not like in the real Egypt. That's the home of Osiris. He's as close to an 'actual, factual devil' as I hope any of us are likely to see."

Closer, clinging to the foothills like barnacles on the upturned hull of a boat, were many more temples in many different styles; between the temple hills and Orlando's balcony viewpoint lay more of the city and its houses, box after box of pale mud brick like an overambitious display of rectangular crockery.

The mild afternoon breeze changed direction and a roar of voices suddenly drifted to the rooftop, the more impressive because it came from such a distance. A vast crowd of people were gathered around a particular building on the outskirts of the temple hills, a huge pyramidal shape made of piled slabs; it looked older than almost any of the structures with which it shared the hilltops. Orlando could not make out the reason they were surrounding the building, or even how many people there were, but it was not a quiet or peaceful crowd; he could see it surge and then fall back in waves, as though something held it loosely bound.

"What's going on?" Fredericks asked. "Is it something to do with all the trouble in the streets when we got here?"

"It is," Mrs. Simpkins agreed, then shouted so suddenly that Orlando and Fredericks both jumped, "You monkeys, get back on this roof!" The yellow miscreants fluttered back to the shadow of the awning, protesting. "That's the temple of Ra there in the middle of that crowd," she explained, ignoring the Tribe, "—see, that thing that looks like two sets of stairs pushed together? Your friend is in there."

"Our friend?" Orlando couldn't make sense of any of it. The light bouncing from the numberless rooftops of the mud brick city was making his headache worse.

"You mean the wolf-head guy?" asked Fredericks. "Upsy-Daisy, or whatever his name is?"

"Upaut, yes," said Mrs. Simpkins a little sourly. She didn't like jokes much, except for her own. "His rebellion hasn't worked out, but he's taken sanctuary in Ra's temple, Tefy and Mewat can't defile the temple of such an important god by just snatching him out of there—certainly not without their master's permission, and Osiris isn't back yet. But just in case, a lot of the working people and some of the lesser gods who are on Upaut's side have joined up into sort of a human wall to keep the soldiers away from the temple. So it's a standoff, for now."

Orlando was definitely feeling the effects of too much bright light. "So that's where he wound up. That's . . . um . . . that's interesting. But you said we had to get out of here in a hurry, and I don't feel too good anyway, so why are we standing here staring at some temple?"

"Because," said Mrs. Simpkins as she took his elbow and turned him toward the ramp, "that's where you're going."

 

 

Despite the fact that it was his own form that looked back at him from the mirror-window—the hard planes of his face as they had looked a century earlier, the silvery hair a little long but immaculately styled—Felix Jongleur felt as humiliated as he ever had in the dark days of his childhood, when he would kneel on the floor listening to the senior boys discuss his imminent punishment. He was unused to wearing any body but that of Osiris the God, even less accustomed to leaving his own virtual domains, and he did not like changes in his routine.

But there was nothing to be done about it. One did not become the oldest and arguably most powerful man on Earth without learning some of life's harsher lessons, and one of them was that there were times when pride must be put aside. He took a deep breath, or rather a series of cybernetically-controlled pumps did it for him, but just before he stepped through, a flash in the corner of his vision signaled a call on one of the emergency lines.

"What is it?" he demanded of the priest-engineer who appeared in the window. "I'm about to have a crucial meeting."

"The . . . system," stammered the bald acolyte, unprepared for his master's particularly snappish tone, "Set, I mean. He . . . it . . . there is a problem."

"Again?" Jongleur's irritation was mixed with a healthy dose of fear, but he would not show that to one of his minions. "Tell me."

"Set has been in K-cycle now for forty hours. We've never had one go much beyond half that long before."

"How are the other indicators?"

The priest tried to find a respectful way to shrug, and ended up looking as though he were having a small seizure. "They are . . . mostly normal, O Lord. Things are running smoothly. There have been some small perturbations, but nothing beyond what we've been experiencing the past few months. But this K-cycle, Lord. . . ."

Jongleur had a sudden moment of almost irrational terror that this low-level functionary might be seeing the temporary sim of mortal man in white tailored suit, but a quick check reassured him that the priest was experiencing the full glory that was Osiris. "Yes, yes, the length of the cycle is unusual. But we are approaching the Ceremony and making many unusual demands on the system. Watch the indicators—let me know if anything changes dramatically. But unless we have some kind of complete meltdown, I don't want to be bothered in any way for the next hour. Is that absolutely clear?"

The priest-engineer's eyes grew wide. "Yes, my Lord. Thank you, O He Who Makes the Grain Spring from the Earth. . . ."

Jongleur ended the connection as the man broke into the first bars of the Grateful Leavetaking.

 

One thing Jongleur had to grant to his Grail Brother—Jiun Bhao had undeniable style. His virtual home showed none of the ostentation of others in the Brotherhood, no Gothic-fortress-perched-on-impossible-cliffs or Caligulean excesses of decor (usually accompanied by an equally Caligulean want of decorum.) Neither was it falsely modest: the financier's node presented itself as a graceful agglomeration of broad pale walls and subtle tiling, with dark accent lines so uncommon as to arrest the eye when they appeared. Here and there a work of art was set with seemingly casual offhandedness—a delicately painted Tou-ts'ai porcelain of a water-bearer, a droll bronze of a muzzled bear trying to eat a piece of fruit—but the overall effect was of clean lines and space. Even light and shadow had been artfully arranged, so that the height of the ceilings or the length of the cross-corridors could not easily be gauged.

In keeping with the lack of ostentation in his house, Jiun Bhao wore a gray-suited sim that reflected the truth of his well-preserved ninety years; as he appeared in the central courtyard and came toward Jongleur, they might have been two dapper grandfathers meeting in the park. Neither extended a hand. There was no bow. The intricacy of the relationship obviated the need for such things.

"You do me great honor, my friend." Jiun Bhao gestured to where two chairs waited beside a whispering fountain. "Please, let us sit and talk."

Jongleur smiled and nodded. "It is I who am honored—it is too long since I have visited your home." He hoped the tacit admission of the change in their relative status would start the meeting off on the right foot. It was arguable as to which of the men was richer or wielded greater power in the real world—Jiun Bhao held entire Asian economies in the palm of his hand. The only rival to either of them was Robert Wells, but the American had never tried to build an empire of the sort both Jongleur and Jiun had constructed. But until now, Jongleur's position as the chairman of the Brotherhood had given him an undeniable edge, at least in anything to do with the Grail. Until now.

For some moments, both men merely sat and listened to the water. A small brown sparrow appeared from the indeterminate upper spaces of the courtyard, alighting on the branch of an ornamental plum tree. Jiun regarded the bird, who stared back at him in turn with the boldness of well-simulated innocence.

"I am reminded," Jiun said as he turned back to Jongleur. "I hope you are finding time lately for peaceful contemplation, my friend. These are hectic days." The financier spread his upturned hands in a gesture of surrender. "Life is a wonderful thing—it is only when we are too busy living it that we sometimes forget this."

Jongleur smiled again. Jiun might be only a little more than half his own age, but he was certainly no fool. Jiun was wondering whether Jongleur was up to the job, here at the most critical point, and was both making a quiet inquiry and perhaps suggesting that he did not find the grasping Americans particularly sympathetic. "It is during times like this that I remember why we began this project, so long ago, old friend," Jongleur replied carefully. "Quiet moments, when what we have and what we have made can truly be appreciated."

"It is a good thing to share such a moment with you. As I said, this visit is a great honor." Jiun spoke as if he himself had not all but demanded it, however well-disguised the suggestion might have been. "May I offer you any refreshment?"

Jongleur waved his hand. "You are too kind. No, thank you. I thought that you might like to know that I will announce a date for the Ceremony tomorrow, when we meet with the rest of the Brotherhood. The final step—or the first true moment, one might equally say—is only days away."

"Ah." Jiun Bhao's eyes were misleadingly mild, but even this simulation of his face was a marvel of subtle expression. Rumor suggested that in the early days he had ordered the deaths of competitors without ever speaking a word, signing the warrants by nothing more than a look of tired indulgence. "Splendid news. Then I take it the . . . inconsistencies of the operating system are now a thing of the past?"

Jongleur flicked nonexistent lint from his virtual suit to cover a moment of consideration. "There are one or two details still being pursued, but I promise they will have no bearing on the success of the Ceremony."

"That is good to hear." Jiun nodded slowly. "I am sure the rest of the Brotherhood will be pleased by your announcement. Even Mr. Wells."

"Yes, of course. He and I have had our disagreements," said Jongleur, amused at how the company and surroundings led one almost automatically to decorous understatement, "but we still share a single goal. Now we are ready to achieve that goal."

His host nodded again. After a moment of silence during which Jongleur watched several small fish in blurry movement beneath the rippling surface of the fountain, Jiun said, "I have a small favor to ask of you, old friend. An imposition, I am sure, but I pray that you will consider it."

"Anything."

"I am deeply interested in the Grail process itself, as you know. I have been so ever since the first day you told me of your researches—do you remember? It is astonishing to contemplate how quickly the time has passed."

Jongleur remembered only too well—Jiun Bhao and his Asian consortium had been a crucial bloc in the initial financing; behind the screen of polite discussion, the bargaining had been even more vicious than usual. "Of course."

"Then you will understand my wish. Since the Ceremony is such a splendid occasion—unprecedented, really—I would ask you for the boon of perspective."

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"I would like to be last. So that I may observe the splendor of our accomplishment before being caught up in it myself. Otherwise, the excitement will doubtless be so great that I will regret afterward all the details I have missed."

For a moment Jongleur was off-balance. Did Jiun suspect some kind of double cross? Or—and here was a truly disturbing thought—did the Chinese magnate, with his vast resources, know something that even Jongleur did not know? But to hesitate could only fuel suspicion, if Jiun was feeling such a thing. "Of course. I had planned that we would all partake of the Ceremony together, but no favor is too great for one who has given me . . . and the project, of course . . . so much timely support." Jiun inclined his head. "You are a true friend." Jongleur wasn't quite sure what exactly he had bargained away, but he did know what he had received in return—an all but ironclad promise of Jiun's backing in any contest with Wells. He had come prepared to give away much more, and not certain that he would gain what he wanted even so.

They made small talk for the rest of the hour, speaking of grandchildren and great- and great-great-grandchildren in the benevolently vague manner of hunters evaluating different generations of foxhounds. There was no more talk of business, as everything important had been settled. Several more sparrows took up places on the branch beside the first, finding it comfortable to sit and even to sleep in a room where the only noise was the murmur of water and the equally soft conversation of two aged men.

 

 

What are you talking about?" Orlando demanded as Bonita Mae Simpkins led him, Fredericks, and the cloud of tiny, sulphur-colored primates down the stairs again. "We're not going there—into the middle of a bunch of soldiers! That scans, lady!"

"You best not get too snippy with me, boy," she said. "Or you'll find yourself without any friends in this town at all."

"Look, it just doesn't make any sense—you said we can't let those Osiris-guys catch us, so why should we go right to them?" He turned to Fredericks, who shrugged, clearly just as confused.

"If you'd learn a little patience, you'd be better off." Mrs. Simpkins tilted her head. "He's here."

"Who's here?" Orlando asked, but she was already bustling off down the main hallway. He and Fredericks followed her, the cloud of monkeys trailing behind like a visual representation of an embarrassing noise. They all stopped in the doorway. Limping up the long ramp that led from the front gate to the elevated main floor of the house was one of the oddest looking people Orlando had ever seen, a tiny man barely three feet tall with thick, misshapen limbs. His face was even stranger, broad fishy mouth and bulging eyes so grotesque he seemed to be wearing a mask, but despite all this deformity even a brief glimpse of him revealed a quick intelligence and a strange, mocking glint in the exaggerated stare.

"It's kind of you to come," said Mrs. Simpkins, then astonished both Orlando and Fredericks by bowing to the bizarre dwarf. "We are in your debt."

"Not yet," he replied, then revealed his huge, horselike teeth in a grin. "But I'll let you know when you are!"

"This," she said to the youths beside her, "is Bes. He's an important god—and a kind one."

"A household god," he demurred, "—a minor deity of hearth and home."

"These are Thargor and Pithlit," she said, with a warning look at each. "They are warrior gods from a small island in the Great Green."

"Warrior gods?" Bes turned his goggling stare on Fredericks. "Must have been a small island indeed—this skinny one looks as though he would fight to get to the back of a battle, not the front, Now are you going to invite me in, or keep me out here in the midday sun until I am as scaly as Sobek?"

She ushered him into the hallway and down to the largest room of the private apartments. "It's generous of you to help us," she said.

"I have only said I would consider it, little mother." The dwarf continued to examine Orlando and Fredericks, but seemed almost not to notice the monkeys, who had clustered on Orlando's shoulder and were watching the new arrival with unhidden fascination. "First this pair must answer at least one of my riddles." He whirled in place, surprisingly graceful, then stopped. "Now tell me—who am I?" Bes dropped to all fours and lifted his rump in the air, then began to crawl around the room backward, emitting busy, farty little noises. The monkeys laughed so hard several of them tumbled down Orlando's front and had to hang onto his belt to keep from falling. Even Orlando had to smile. Mrs. Simpkins merely rolled her eyes.

The dwarf stopped and looked up. "Do you not recognize Khepera the dung beetle, the only deity in the heavens who is brown at both nose and nethers?" He shook his head. "What do they teach young gods these days?" Bes rolled onto his back and let his limbs go limp, then arranged his hands decorously across his chest and closed his eyes. "Tell me this one, then. Who am I?" After a long moment, one pudgy hand crept free and finger-walked down to his crotch, where it grabbed and squeezed.

Embarrassed, but still amused, Orlando could only shake his head.

"By the swinging udders of Hathor, do you not recognize our lord Osiris? Who else could be dead and yet still lust?" The disgust in his voice made Orlando realize suddenly that this riddle-game was in deadly earnest—that their salvation might hinge on it. Before he could ponder the meaning of the dwarf's riddle about Osiris, the tiny man had bounced up onto his feet. "I will give you one last chance. Tell me who I am."

He lifted his hands to his curly hair and spread the fingers like ragged ears, then screwed up his face into a broad, toothy gape before throwing back his head to bay like a sick dog. The Wicked Tribe, vastly amused, began to do the same, so that the room echoed with shrill yips. "Ah, me!" the dwarf moaned. "Although it is daylight, my head is muddled, so I will howl at the sun instead of the moon!"

Fredericks suddenly laughed. "It's Oompa-Loompa!"

"Upaut," said Orlando gratefully. "That's Upaut."

"Well," Mrs. Simpkins began, "if we've had enough of these games. . . ."

Bes raised a bushy eyebrow. "That one was too easy, I think. Let us try one more." He paused for a moment, waiting for the Tribe to fall silent, which they at last reluctantly did, then lifted his hands and covered both eyes. Through some ventriloquial trick, his voice seemed to come from everywhere in the room except his own broad mouth.

"I am lost in darkness," he sighed. "I am sealed in a coffin, wandering in darkness and cold forever. . . ."

"I know that one, too," Orlando said. "And it's not funny."

The dwarf dropped his hands. "Ah, so you were correct, little mother. They do know something." He turned back to Orlando. "You speak the truth. It is not much of a joke." He spread his arms as if in a gesture of welcome, then abruptly did a backward flip, landing solidly on his bandy legs near the doorway of the chamber. "Let us go, then. The temple of Grandfather Ra awaits us."

"Just a minute," Orlando growled. The energy which had allowed him to get out of bed and walk to the roof was beginning to flag, and he was having trouble keeping his temper. "How are we going to get through all those soldiers? And why do we want to go there in the first place?"

"You have to get out of here," Mrs. Simpkins said in the sudden quiet. "I told you—this place isn't safe for you or anyone who's helping you."

"But why don't we just go down the river to the next gateway, or whatever they're called. Why won't anyone tell us anything? We still don't know what you're doing here, let alone why we have to go join some stupid revolution."

She nodded her head. "You're right, boy. I owe you the rest of my story. I'll tell you what I can when we're on the way. But Tefy and Mewat have boats full of soldiers all over the Nile during the daytime, and at night you'd never be able to get down there in the first place before something ate you—if you were lucky."

Fredericks spoke up. "But why go there?"

"Because it's the only gateway you can reach," she said quietly. "And Bes is the only one who can get you there."

"Not if we stand here all day like old, constipated Taueret, waiting in the water lilies for her bowels to move," observed Bes.

Mrs. Simpkins fetched a thick white robe which she threw over Orlando's shoulders. "That'll keep the sun off you, boy. You're still not well." At her direction, but not without a few muffled squeals of protest, the squadron of monkeys climbed underneath the robe. "Let's not turn this into any more of a circus than we have to," she said.

But that, Orlando reflected sourly as he followed the surprisingly nimble dwarf out the door and across the villa garden, was exactly what they most resembled.

"Hey, if we have to go to this temple and see Wolf Boy," Fredericks said brightly, "maybe we can at least get your sword back, huh?"

Orlando was already feeling tired as he watched Bes climbing the garden wall, apparently with the idea of taking them out some less obvious way. "I can hardly wait," he said.

 

 

It was at times like this, reflected the man who was both Felix Jongleur and Osiris, Lord of Life and Death, that the life of a supreme being felt more than a little lonely.

The meeting with Jiun Bhao had been heartening, but the effects had not lasted long. Now, as he lay in the eternal blue nothing of his system's base level, he was already beginning to wonder what kind of Mephistophelian bargain the Chinese financier had secured. Jongleur was not used to making deals whose fine print he had not read.

More worrisome, though, was the latest news on the Other, which continued to run deep in K-cycIe and showed no signs of changing any time soon. No one else in the Brotherhood had any idea how unstable the system beneath the Grail Network truly was, and as the days approaching the Ceremony dwindled away, Jongleur was coming to feel he might have made a terrible mistake.

Was there a way to detach the network from the Other and substitute another system, even at this late date? There were things Robert Wells and his Jericho people at Telemorphix had developed that might work, although some functionality would certainly be lost in the changeover—slower response times, at the very least, and perhaps a price to pay in the dumping of some of the less important bits of memory as well, not to mention that the Ceremony itself would have to be postponed still further—but the essential functions of the network would surely be saved and the completion of the Grail Project could go forward. But did he dare? Wells was as desperate for the Grail's success as Jongleur was himself, but that still did not mean he would sit back and allow the chairman of the Brotherhood to admit defeat quietly. No, the American would rescue the project then make all the political capital of it he could. The prospect was galling. But not to do so would be to risk everything, absolutely everything, on a system that was daily proving itself to be unpredictably, unknowably strange.

He moved uneasily, or would have, had his body not been restrained in a porous microfilament webbing, drifting in the viscous fluids of his life-preserving chamber. For well over a hundred years he had kept his own counsel, but it was hard at times like this not to wish that things were different.

Jongleur's brain again sent a signal for movement to dispel nervous energy, and again the signal arced into nothingness. He longed for bodily freedom, but more specifically, he longed for the soothing environs of his favorite simulation. Still, there was business to take care of first.

With a thought, he opened a communication window. It was only short moments until Finney's face appeared in it, or rather the vulture head of its Egyptian incarnation, Tefy. "Yes, O Lord?"

Jongleur paused, taken aback. "Where is the priest? What are you doing there?"

"Seeing to your interests, O Lord of Life and Death."

"You have interests of mine to see to, certainly, but I don't. . . ." A sudden suspicion clutched him, and with it a shiver of anticipation. "Is it Jonas? Have you got him?" A more reasonable, but still hopeful interpretation occurred to him. "Or have you simply tracked him into my Egypt?"

The vulture head dipped. "I regret to say that we do not know his present whereabouts at all, master."

"Damnation! Then why aren't you out looking for him? Have you forgotten what I can do to you any time I wish?"

A vigorous shake of the beak. "We forget nothing, Lord. We are just . . . seeing to some details, then we will be on the trail again. Will you grace us with your presence soon?"

Jongleur shook his head. "Later. Perhaps. . . ." he consulted the time readout, the numbers showing GMT, still the marker of global imperium long after the English sea empire had shrunk to a single dreaming island, ". . . perhaps not today, though. It would be too distracting with all these meetings."

"Very good, Lord."

Felix Jongleur hesitated. Was that relief he saw in his servant's inhuman expression? But such concerns could not be as significant as the decision he had to make, and time for that decision was running short. He cut the connection.

So . . . was it time to give up on the Other? Time to trigger the Apep Sequence? He could do nothing, of course, unless he received assurances from Wells, and that would mean throwing his entire system open to the Telemorphix engineers. Jongleur shuddered at the thought. Tomb robbers. Desecrators. But was there an alternative?

Again he found himself wishing for one person, just one, whose counsel he trusted. Long ago he had held a hope that the half-Aboriginal boy Johnny Wulgaru might become such—his intelligence and complete lack of sentiment had been obvious from the first time Jongleur had seen him in the so-called Private Youth Authority in Sydney, a warehouse for damaged children. But young Dread had proved too wild to be completely tamed, and too much a creature of his own predatory appetites ever truly to be trusted. He was a useful tool, and at times like now, when he seemed to be behaving himself, Jongleur even considered that he might be given a little more responsibility. Except for the worrisome matter of the air hostess, a homicide which Jongleur's agents suggested had been filed by the Colombian police and Interpol as unsolved and unlikely to change, there had been no signs of bad behavior. But an attack dog, it was now clear to him, could never become a trusted companion.

He had also once thought Finney might be someone worthy of the gift of Jongleur's confidence, despite his strange relationship with the nearly subhuman Mudd. But the night of broken glass had changed that—had changed everything.

Jongleur sighed. In the tower stronghold high above Lake Borgne the web of systems adjusted, flashing messages of imaginary muscular movement to his brain, gently shifting the O2/CO2, ratios, imitating to near perfection the experience of embodiment, but still, somehow, falling just ineffably short.

CHAPTER 8
House

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: Sepp Oswalt Killed in Accident

(visual: smiling Oswalt in front of DP audience)

VO: Sepp Oswalt, the genial host of "Death Parade," died while shooting an episode of the show when a distraught construction worker who had been threatening to destroy a building accidentally tipped a crane-load of steel beams onto Oswalt and his camera crew. Although Oswalt and his crew were killed, the building's drone security cameras caught the bizarre accident, and the footage will appear as part of the Sepp Oswalt tribute on his last completed "Parade" episode.

 

The gateway did not stay open long. Within seconds after Renie had stepped through with !Xabbu's hand still clutched tightly in her own, the pane of light flared and then vanished, leaving them dazzled into darkness. Emily cried, "I can't see!"

"We are in a large room." Martine sounded exhausted—Renie could only guess what the effort of opening the passage had done to her and !Xabbu. "It is very high and very long, and I sense many obstacles on the floor at our level, so I suggest none of you move until I have time to map things out."

"There's a little light," Renie said, "but not much." The initial dazzle was fading. She could make out the edges of otherwise formless things and vague gray splotches high overhead. "There are windows up there, I think, but it's hard to tell. They're either partially curtained or they're just a really strange shape."

"Martine, is there anything else we need to know about?" Florimel asked sharply. It seemed she was taking Renie's half-in-jest commissioning of her as security officer seriously.

"Not that I can tell. I cannot sense whether the floor is solid all the way to the walls, so I suggest we stay in one place." The French woman was obviously thinking of her own recent fall, and Renie heartily agreed.

"Let's just sit down, then. Are we all here? T4b?" When he responded with a preoccupied grunt, she lowered herself onto what felt like a carpet. "Well, it's certainly something different than the last place, but it would be nice to know more."

"I am going to break something," !Xabbu suddenly announced from a short distance away.

"What are you talking about?"

"There is furniture here—many of the shapes are chairs and tables. I am going to break up one of them and see if I can make a fire." The little man seemed to take a long time, perhaps looking for the right sort of wood, but at last everyone heard splintering. !Xabbu returned, saying, "Much of it is broken already, it seems." He set at the lengthy task of spinning one piece against another.

Mindful of the fact that she had more or less accepted—or perhaps demanded—the responsibilities of leadership, Renie made a quick, crawling tour around her troop. Martine was busy trying to make sense of the new environment. Florimel was waiting for something unpleasant to happen and did not want her concentration disturbed. Renie thought of something she wanted to ask Emily, but before she went to the girl, she stopped to exchange quiet words with T4b.

"It's back," he said wonderingly, and held up his left hand so she could see it silhouetted against one of the gray windows. It seemed a little translucent, although it was hard to be sure in such dim light, but he was right: it was undeniably back. She reached out to touch it, then snatched her fingers back.

"It . . . tingles. Like electricity."

"Pure tasty, huh?"

"I guess." She left him admiring his restored digits and crawled to where the girl sat by herself. "Emily?" The girl did not reply. "Emily? Are you all right?"

She turned slowly. "It's funny," she said at last. "For a moment, I didn't think that was my name."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. It just didn't seem like my name. It didn't . . . feel right."

Renie had no idea where to go with that, so she left it. "I wanted to ask you if you still have the gem Azador gave you."

Emily hesitated. "My pretty thing? That my sweet pudding gave me?"

It was hard to hear that self-absorbed bastard Azador described as a "sweet pudding" and not laugh out loud, but Renie managed. "Yes. I'd like to look at it, if I could."

"Too dark."

"Well, I'd like to hold it, then. I promise I'll give it back."

The girl reluctantly passed her the stone. Emily was right—it was indeed too dark to see much. Renie rolled it in her fingers, feeling the hard, many-faceted weight of it. "Did it ever do anything?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know—change. Talk to you. Show you pictures."

Emily giggled. "That's silly! How would it do that?"

"I don't know." She handed it back. "Can I look at it again when we have some light?"

"Okay." Emily was still amused by the idea of a talking gem. Renie crawled back toward the others just as a small flame began to grow beneath !Xabbu's ministering hands.

The Bushman took three broken table legs and held their splintered ends in the fire until they caught, then handed one to Renie and one to Florimel, keeping one for himself. As the flames multiplied, yellow light reached out to the walls, revealing the room around them. It was as large as Martine had suggested, a huge, high-ceilinged hall like something from a manor house—Renie could almost picture the bejeweled nobility from some costumed net extravaganza waving their fans and gossiping beneath the now-dusty candelabra. Large pictures hung on the walls, but either the torchlight was too dim or the pictures too old: only vague shapes were visible within the cumbersome frames. Bits of furniture stood here and there around the carpeted floor, as though the place had once been a reading room, or an oversized salon, but as !Xabbu had reported, much of the furniture was broken, although the villains seemed to be extreme age and neglect rather than violence.

Florimel stared up at the distant ceiling. "It is monstrously big. Like a train station! I do not think I have ever been in a room so large. What sort of palace must this be?"

"Some kinda scan-ass Dracula house," opined T4b. "Saw this in Vampire Sorority: Utter Suction, me."

"T4b's right about one thing," Renie said. "It's not the cheeriest place I've ever seen. Do you think the whole thing's a ruin? More important, is it deserted?"

Emily suddenly got up and moved closer to the rest of the group. "I know what kind of place this is." Her voice was tight. "There are eyes in the walls."

"Martine, is there anyone around?" Renie asked. "Someone watching us?'

"Not that I can tell." The blind woman shook her head. "The information is very static here. It seems to have been deserted for a while, just as it appears."

"Right." Renie stood up, holding her torch high. "Then I think we might as well start exploring. We're never going to find Quan Li—the spy, I mean—if we just sit here."

No one was thrilled by the idea, but no one raised any useful objections either. !Xabbu broke legs off a few more collapsed chairs to use as spare torches, then put out the campfire, leaving a small burned spot in the ancient carpet that made Renie feel obscurely shamed. They headed out across the shadowy room.

"Stay close together," Renie warned. "We have no idea what this simulation's supposed to be—T4b could be right. There could be vampires or anything."

"Eyes," Emily repeated quietly. Renie asked her what she meant, but the girl only shook her head.

It took them perhaps a quarter of an hour of cautious exploration to cross the great hall. They stopped to examine many of the crumbling artifacts on the way without adding much to their understanding. The furniture and ornamentation seemed like something out of the Baroque era in Europe, but there were other elements that seemed likely to be of an earlier time, and some—like a plaque bearing an unconvincingly-rendered carving of a railroad train—definitely from later. Renie also spotted what looked like a row of dusty electric lights along the top of one of the walls, but it was too dark to be sure.

They stepped through the tall, wide doors at the room's far end, Florimel walking point with T4b flexing his new hand at her side, Martine and Emily behind them. Renie and !Xabbu brought up the rear, and so were the last to learn that the room on the far side, except for the shapes of its high windows—more and smaller—and its furniture—less of it, and with a vast wooden floor instead of the thick carpeting—was much like the first.

"Whoever used to live here," Renie noted, "must not have liked being crowded."

The three pictures in this room were hung closer to the floor, only a few meters above the parquet, and Renie paused to examine them. Two of them contained what looked like hunting scenes, highly stylized. The hunters appeared human, if oddly archaic, but the animals they were riding did not quite look like horses, as though painted from hearsay by someone who had never actually seen one.

The picture in the middle was a vast portrait study of a person who might have been either male or female: it was hard to tell because the subject was wrapped head to foot in a dark robe which blended into the blackening background. The hood was pulled so low over the sitter's face that only a pair of sharp, glittering eyes, a prominent nose, and an unsmiling mouth were visible in its shadowy folds.

Renie wished she had not stopped to look.

This second vast room had doors on all four sides. After walking all the way across to the farthest door and finding what appeared to be another hangar-sized chamber beyond it, Renie and the others trooped back across to one of the side entrances. The corridor outside ran parallel to the great halls, and although it. too, was lined with pictures and busts in shadowy niches, it was of more human dimensions, only a few meters wide and the same distance high; no vote was needed to settle which route the company preferred.

"Any suggestions on a direction?" Renie asked Martine.

The blind woman shrugged. "No difference that I can perceive."

"Then let's follow this hallway back in the direction we came from. That way, if we don't find anything, we'll at least be staying in the general area of the first room, since we know a gateway can manifest there."

It was a good plan, but after half an hour or so of tramping down the corridor, past locked door after locked door, and after a few entrances into and depressed exits from more huge, deserted rooms, Renie had begun to wonder if they would be able to remember which of these chambers had been their starting point. The decorations were no real help; most of the pictures were so faded and encrusted with dirt that they could have been anything. The busts uniformly portrayed old men, vaguely Caucasian, but with enough small variety in their features and enough dust caked in the crevices of the old dark stone that she would not even have sworn to that distinguishing fact.

After perhaps an hour, the monotonous trek was finally alleviated by Martine's announcement that she sensed a change in the information.

"What sort of change?" Renie asked. "People?"

"No. Just . . . force being applied. It is hard to explain, and anyway it is too far away to tell for certain. I will let you know when we get closer."

A few minutes later the blind woman stopped them and pointed to the corridor wall on the opposite side from the gigantic rooms they had first explored. "There. In that direction. I think it is the river."

"The river?" Florimel squinted at the wall; it seemed to pulsate gently, an illusion of the flickering torchlight. "You mean the river river? The one that runs through all the simulations?"

"I do not know, but that is how it feels. It is a torrent of change, that is all I can say for certain, and it is that way."

They began trying doors on that side of the corridor, but it was not until after at least a dozen attempts that they found one unlocked. They trooped through another large room, this one lined along the walls with gallery benches, as though it had once been used for some kind of performance. Most of the seats had collapsed. An empty space in the middle of the room where the dust was thick as icing sugar gave no indication of what the spectators might once have watched.

On the other side of a door at the room's far end they found a broad walkway, bounded on the near side by a wall not unlike the corridor they had been following, but on the far side by an ornate wooden railing. The passage was still roofed, but there was no wall behind the railing. Beyond they could see only darkness; the noise of moving water rose faintly from the void.

Renie tested the railing carefully before leaning her weight against it. The torchlight found nothing to bounce off, either across or below. "Jesus Mercy," Renie said. "It's a long way down to the river—must be at least ten floors below us."

"Don't be leaning out," T4b told her anxiously. "Just six that right now."

"I'm tired," said Emily. "I don't want to walk anymore."

!Xabbu fingered the railing. "I could climb down and see what is there."

"Don't you dare." Renie looked at the others. "Can we make it a little farther? If we turn right here we'll be heading pretty much back toward where we started."

The group agreed without much enthusiasm, although Emily continued to make her own feelings very clear. Renie did her best to be patient—the girl was pregnant, after all, or seemed to be, and they had made her walk for perhaps two hours—and concentrated instead on trying to make sense out of what they had seen so far.

"Could this be some version of Buckingham Palace or the Vatican?" she asked Martine quietly. "I mean, it's so huge!"

Martine shook her head. "It is like no place I have seen or heard of, but it seems to be bigger than either of those."

Their torches still illuminating nothing but darkness beyond the left-hand railing, their ears full of the urgent but muffled rush of water, they did not at first notice that the walkway was widening—that the wall on the right side and its row of doors had begun to curve away from the rail. When the difference had become something like a dozen meters, the companions suddenly reached a second railing that curved in from the wall side, then bent to run parallel to the first.

They stopped and looked around nervously. Although the wall that contained the doors and niches, now as familiar as a doddering uncle, continued to curve away from them to the right, the walkway beside it had run out, walled off by the second railing. Beyond, darkness lay on that side almost as deep as on the left, broken only by a few faint squares of light far in the distance. The twin railings stretched away in front of them along either side of a tongue of carpeted walkway, lonely as a trestle bridge over a gorge.

!Xabbu had already wandered past the security of the widest part, making his way cautiously out onto the carpeted spit, his torch held high despite his animal gait. "It is just as solid as it has been," he said. "And seems to be in good repair."

"Not going there," Emily said, shuddering. "Don't want to."

Renie was not particularly inclined to do so either, but she was struck by a sudden thought. "Hang on a moment. Those lights, out there." She pointed to the faintly glowing rectangles far along the right side of the great empty space.

"They are windows," said Florimel. "Why do you care?"

"They're lit windows," Renie replied. "The first lights other than our own we've seen."

"So? They are too far away even to make out properly. We did not bring binoculars."

"But there might be a crossing up ahead," Renie said. "Or this open space might only go on for a little while, then another hallway might curve out to meet it on the far side. Either way, it's the first sign of anything alive except ourselves."

The debate that followed was tense, and would have run longer except that everyone was tired. Although Martine and !Xabbu agreed with Renie, and even Florimel reluctantly admitted that it made sense to explore a little farther, Emily and T4b objected so desperately that they forced a compromise: if nothing important was discovered when Martine's undefined but so far quite reliable sense of time told her half an hour had passed, they would turn around and retrace their steps back to less nerve-racking parts.

As the little troop made its way out onto the walkway, which was of safe width and guarded by strong railings, T4b was so clearly miserable that Renie began to regret her own firmness of purpose. She remembered what Martine had said about the river-of-air—about how difficult it had been to get T4b to step out with the others and trust the wind currents—and wondered if he might be phobic.

Oh, well, she thought. Better to find out now. Might be crucial up the line somewhere.

The hulking battle-robot took a route directly down the middle of the three-meter pathway and would not walk even a step to either side, treading the rock-solid path as carefully as if on a trampoline. He shook off Renie's attempts at supportive conversation with animal sounds of discomfort.

They had gone scarcely a hundred paces when Martine abruptly clutched Renie's elbow. "I feel something," she whispered.

Renie waved the others to a stop. "Tell us."

"Something . . . someone. Maybe more. Up ahead of us."

"We're lucky to have you, Martine." Renie considered. The walkway was a bad spot to get into a fight, but the whole point of the exercise had been to find other people, perhaps learn something about this environment. In any case, why should it be someone hostile? Unless it was the Quan Li thing. . . . That gave Renie another moment's pause—it would be horrible indeed, with all of them tired and dispirited, to have to deal with the lithe, cat-quick creature that half a dozen of them had struggled vainly to subdue back in the last simulation. But it seemed unlikely that given a two-day head start their enemy would be lurking here in the middle of nothing when he or she had the Grail's access device.

No, Renie felt certain that the thing they sought would either be gone entirely or would have at least found a more comfortable part of the simulation. It wouldn't be waiting for them because it could have no idea they were coming.

Florimel agreed, although not without some reservations. After a bit more whispered argument they started forward again, this time without conversation of any kind.

They had reached something like an island—a space where the railings curved outward on either side and the floor spread, a great oval widening of the walkway like the silhouette of a python with its dinner half-digested—when Martine touched Renie's arm again.

The island was clearly meant as a place for conversation and conviviality. The railings were higher here and lined everywhere except across the walkway by tall, dusty cabinets; the open, carpeted floor was cluttered with overstuffed sofas and chairs. Even as her heart sped with anxiety and anticipation, Renie could picture the lords and ladies of the ballrooms having something like formal picnics here—perhaps in daylight, when they could see the river running far below.

Martine pointed toward a cabinet along one rail, a huge affair covered with ornate carvings, its brass door handles now black with age. The company moved quietly toward it. When they had arranged themselves in a semicircle a few meters away, Renie said loudly, "We know you're in there. Come out—we won't hurt you."

There was a pause, then the doors banged open so swiftly that one splintered off its top hinges and sagged loose. Emily screamed. The figure that leaped out of the shadowy interior was brandishing something long and sharp, and Renie had a moment to curse her own stupid certainties before the stranger stopped, blinking in the torchlight, and raised the huge knife before him.

"I have little beside the clothes I wear," the young man declared breathlessly. "If you want them, you won't get them cheaply." The stranger was very thin, and it was hard to tell which was paler, his thatch of white-blond hair or his milky skin: if his eyes had not been dark, Renie would have thought him an albino. He waved the knife again, a wicked-looking thing as long as his forearm. "This is Gristleclip, whose fame you doubtless know, and I will not hesitate to use it!"

"Gristleclip?" Renie was almost startled into a laugh.

"We do not mean you any harm," said !Xabbu.

The young man's eyes widened briefly at the talking monkey, but he did not lower his knife—which, as Renie looked closer, appeared despite its impressive size to be something best used for chopping vegetables. "He's right," she said. "You can put your knife away."

He squinted at her, then surveyed her companions. "Where are your weapons?" he asked, a little surprised but still suspicious.

"Want weapons, you?" T4b, despite still moving like a high-wire artist in a stiff breeze, brandished a huge, spiked fist. "Op this, knife-boy."

"Stop it," Florimel told him. "We have no weapons and we want nothing from you," she told the stranger. "We are lost, that is all."

The pale young man's look of suspicion was not entirely gone, but he appeared to be considering their words. The knife sagged a little; Renie thought it must be quite heavy. "Are you from the Sunset Windows Wing?" he asked. "I do not recognize your clothes."

"Yes, we're from far away." Renie tried to sound like she was agreeing without committing herself and the others to anything. "We don't know where we are exactly, and we . . . we heard you in the cabinet. We'd appreciate any help you can give us—we'll do what we can for you in return."

His breathing now slowed, the youth stared at her hard for a moment, then carefully slid his knife into the sash at his waist. He was dressed in what Renie imagined a seventeenth century peasant would wear on his day out, all grays and browns, a blouse-like shirt with billowing sleeves over a pair of breeches, and shod in the kind of soft boots that she thought were called moccasins. "Do you swear you mean no harm?" he asked. "Swear by the Builders?"

She had no idea who the Builders might be, but she knew she and her companions had nothing against this skinny young man. "We swear."

He let out a last deep breath and deflated even farther, if such were possible. He was scarecrow thin; Renie found his willingness to stand up to a half-dozen strangers quite impressive. He surprised her then by turning to the cabinet and its sagging doors. He leaned into the shadowy interior and called, "Come out, Sidri," then turned a stern glance on Renie and her companions. "You gave your word."

The girl who stepped out was as thin and pale as her protector, wearing a long gray dress draped by a surplice figured with embroidered flowers. Renie guessed she must be the youth's sister, but he announced, "This is my betrothed, Sidri, a novice of the Linen Closet Sisters. I am Zekiel, an apprentice cutlerer—or rather I was an apprentice." There was quiet pride in his voice, and now that his beloved had appeared, he did not take his eyes from her, although she kept her own snow-lashed gaze downcast. "We are fugitives, you see, because our love was forbidden by our masters."

T4b groaned. "Not another sayee-lo fairy-story! Just want to get back on the ground, me."

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"As usual, it seems, when we find ourselves in a new simulation, we also find ourselves thrown in among people and events as complicated as anything we might find in the real world. There are differences this time, however, both good and bad. We now have a goal, which is the recovery of Renie's access device, and as I mentioned in my last weary entry, !Xabbu and I have also discovered an ability to manipulate the system by ourselves, if only in the smallest of ways. I do not have words for it—the entire process was to find a way to communicate without such things—but it has given me ideas I must carefully consider. In any case, we have entered this simulation world in pursuit of a murderer, and what little we have learned has not improved our chances of overcoming this enemy, let alone the greater villains, the Grail Brotherhood.

"Still, it is useless to worry beyond the point of careful planning, and the simulation itself is not without interest. The single large and long-deserted room which was my only experience of it during my last journal entry has proved to be only one of many such rooms. We have walked for hours through corridors and other enormous chambers, and only at the very end did we find any other living creatures—a boy named Zekiel and his lover, the girl Sidri. We have camped with them, for lack of a better word, on a wide space in a walkway high above the river, and we have all talked for hours. They have run away from their own people, which is a relief because at least now we know there are people in this echoing ruin. In fact, Zekiel says that the two of them came to this part of the house, as he calls it—a bit of an understatement for such a mammoth structure—precisely because it was deserted. They feared Sidri's religious Order would try to reclaim her, since novices are given to the Sisterhood in a kind of bond-slavery, and may not marry or leave the Order. The pair are searching for a place where they believe they can live together freely, another part of the house called the Great Refectory, which as far as I can tell they know only by ancient rumor.

"Hearing them speak I cannot help wondering at how shot through with myth and story are all the parts of Otherland we have seen. It seems an odd obsession when one considers who built the place. I had never thought of billionaire industrialists and political tyrants as being interested in the structure of folktales, but I suppose I have not truly known many of either.

"Neither Sidri nor Zekiel can be much beyond fifteen or sixteen years old, but they are the products of a more or less medieval system, and clearly consider themselves to be of adult age. Sidri's Order, the Linen Closet Sisters, apparently have some kind of ceremonial duties caring for . . . well, linens. Zekiel's own guild, centered around a place called the Cutlery, maintains edged instruments from what seems by his description to have been an antique and very extensive kitchen complex. In order to protect himself and his ladylove from bandits and monsters, both of which he claims with great certainty haunt the corridors of this abandoned part of the house, he has stolen one of the ceremonial blades—a large chopping knife with the charming name of 'Gristleclip.' For this crime, he believes he is now a wanted criminal, and I cannot doubt he is right.

"As for us, the outsiders, we still have no idea of the true size of this building or what lies beyond it. Both Sidri and Zekiel seem slightly mystified by the question, so perhaps their sharply proscribed, feudal upbringing has kept them from traveling or even inquiring. For what it is worth, we have seen signs of technologies as modern as the late nineteenth or very early twentieth century, but from Zekiel's descriptions it seems most of the residents live like early settlers in the Americas, surviving off the bounty of the house and its grounds with the same innocent rapacious-ness with which the European colonists exploited the endless natural resources of their new continent.

"Just in our short hours of conversation, we have heard Zekiel—who is more knowledgeable, because his existence has been less sheltered—casually mention at least a dozen different groups that share the house. Some he calls 'tribes,' which seems to mean that their significant characteristic is where they come from, rather than what they do—Zekiel calls his Cutlery people a 'guild,' but he has referred to others by names such as 'the Sunset Windows Tribe' or 'the Upriver Pools Tribe.' The river does indeed seem to run through this entire simulation, or at least through this immense building, which is apparently all Zekiel knows. It serves to tie the various cultures together, although its flow seems to be from the top of the house to the bottom, and thus it is convenient only for downriver journeys. Most long river trips apparently end in an even longer hike back.

"Fish live in the river, and there are fishermen who spend their lives catching them. Other sources of meat are available as well, cows and pigs and sheep, which as far as I can tell are pastured in rooftop gardens, suggesting that Zekiel and Sidri are not the only people in this house who have never left the property. Has there been a plague here, I cannot help wondering? Are these folks the descendants of survivors who barricaded themselves into this great house, as in Poe's 'Masque of the Red Death,' and then never went out again? It is a strange, Gothic place, of that there can be little doubt. The idea of hunting for the person who pretended to be Quan Li through such a labyrinth fills me with unease. I cannot even guess what the mile after mile of shadowed hallways must feel like to my companions, who are not as intimate with darkness as I am.

"The discussion is breaking up. I think everyone wants sleep, although we can only guess at what the true time might be, even by the standards of the network. T4b and Emily in particular have found this a difficult day. We will continue our explorations tomorrow.

"But I cannot help wondering who made this bizarre place, and for what purpose he or she meant it. Is it a pure diversion, a Victorian folly writ large in virtual space, or was one of the Brotherhood preparing a suitably grandiose home in which to spend eternity? If the second is true, the house's creator must be someone with whom I share more than a few similarities, for the only real difference between entombing oneself in this vast ruined maze and burying oneself as I have in my underground burrow—unarguably a cave, despite its amenities—is a difference of degree, and of money. Otherwise, I would guess that the simulation's creator and I have much in common.

"I find that a very disturbing thought. "Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

But you think you have heard of such a person?" Renie asked. "A newcomer?"

Zekiel brushed his pale hair from his eyes. "I remember hearing something, Mistress, but I cannot be certain. A stranger, a woman, who said she came from one of the Attic tribes? I heard it in passing, while we were preparing for the Trooping of the Knives, and I paid little attention. People often come from far away, especially to the Library Market."

"Yes, some of the other Sisters mentioned a stranger," Sidri added quietly. Even after an evening and night spent in their company, she still had not looked anyone full in the face. "They said she must bring bad luck, because a young woman from the Upper Pantry Clerks ran away the night she arrived and has not been seen since."

The time had come to separate—Zekiel and Sidri to continue their journey away from all that they knew, Renie and the others to travel toward the place the young lovers had fled. Renie looked at the pair, colorless as creatures bred in a cavern, but so absorbed in each other and their plans that she knew she and her own companions were no more than an incident in these lovers' story.

"So if we find this Library Market," Florimel said to Zekiel, "we can ask questions there? No one will think us odd?"

He looked at her for a moment, then turned his gaze on T4b and !Xabbu. A smile creased his long face. "You will not be ignored, that is certain. Perhaps you should try to find some clothing in one of the big empty rooms—scavengers often do well in such old places, and I think these have not been searched before."

Renie could not understand how people could live full-time in a single house, however large, yet leave an entire wing unexplored for generations, but the ins and outs of the simworld were of less interest to her just now than the very real possibility that they might find the spy.

Zekiel and Sidri stood awkwardly for a moment at the edge of the walkway island, their path stretching before them. "Farewell," said the pale young man. "And thanks to you."

"We have done nothing," Martine told him. "You have helped us, though, and told us many useful things."

He shrugged. "It has been nice to spend time among people and to hear friendly voices. I do not think we shall be so lucky again for a while." As he spoke, Sidri reached for his hand and clutched it, like someone chilled by watching a funeral procession. Still holding hands, they turned and began to walk away.

"But where is this house?" Renie called after them.

Zekiel paused. "I was only a cutlerer," he said. "That is a question better asked of the Library Brothers, who understand the workings of the universe."

Frustrated, Renie let out a sharp breath. "No, where is it? Where in the world?"

Now Sidri, too, was looking at her in surprise, as though Renie had begun quizzing them about differential calculus. "We do not understand your questions," the young woman said shyly.

"Where . . . Let's put it this way. When you get to the end of the house, what is there? What do you find?"

Zekiel shrugged. "The sky, I suppose. The stars."

They waved and set off again, leaving Renie to try to work out where the conversation had gone off-track.

 

They found clothes two floors below, in a room that had obviously not been explored recently, since even the cobwebs were empty and clotted with dust. Chest after chest stood stacked in dangerously unstable piles that nevertheless had survived the years without tumbling. Renie and the rest of the company tried to be careful, but their first attempts set one such tower swaying, then the whole thing came down in a series of thunderous crashes.

"Well," Renie said, "everyone for miles is going to know someone's in here now."

Florimel pulled a heavy blanket from the wreckage of a sprung chest, unfolding it to expose an unreadable monogram interlaced with a stylized picture of a lantern. "From what the young man told us, no one would be much surprised to know someone was scavenging." She wadded the blanket and heaved it to one side.

Renie found a pile of foundation garments in one of the other trunks and lifted out a corset that was positively knobby with whalebone. "I know clubs in the Golden Mile back home where you would be the hit of the night in this, Florimel. Actually, there are lots of clubs where T4b would be pretty popular wearing it, too." She found a long blue skirt with a pattern of golden leaves and held it up, taking a couple of steps to see how the fabric moved, then frowned. "This feels too much like a game of dress-up," she said. "But we're not just trying to fit in—we're trying to catch a murderer."

"I have not forgotten," said Florimel.

"So what are we going to do if we find . . . her, him, whatever it is?"

Florimel was trying on a once-colorful cape, although from what Renie had seen of Zekiel's and Sidri's clothes, Florimel's Temilún peasant garb was not likely to raise any eyebrows in this world- "If we find the spy without him knowing we are here, we will try to take him by surprise," she said. "If not, plans will mean little. He is not the kind to surrender. We will have to overcome him by force."

Renie did not like the sound of that. "You seem very sure it's a 'he.' "

Florimel's lip curled. "It is a man, although I cannot pretend I guessed until we fought with him. That kind of hatefulness feels different when it comes from a woman."

"Whatever it is—he is—he scared me to death."

Florimel nodded somberly. "He would have killed us all if it suited him, without a second thought."

"Renie!" !Xabbu called from the other side of the mountain range of boxes and chests. "Come and see!"

She left the German woman unpacking a case full of what looked like opera gloves. !Xabbu was perched on the open lid of a huge steamer trunk, T4b standing stiffly before him in a huge gray robe, belted at the middle with a braided length of white and green strands. His robot helmet seemed ridiculously out of place, like a UFO perched on a mountaintop, but when she suggested he take it off, the young man balked.

"She is right," !Xabbu said quietly. "We must not attract too much attention. Our lives will be at stake."

T4b looked helplessly to Emily, but she only grinned, enjoying his discomfort. With a shrug that seemed to convey his surrender to an unfair universe, he carefully removed the masked helmet. His hair was pressed to his head in realistically sweaty ringlets around his long, sullen face. On either side, above his ears, a long streak of white ran through the black.

"Coyote stripes," was his defiant answer to Renie's question—apparently the current height of Los Hisatsinom fashion.

"Here, let me rub some dust on your face," she said.

T4b caught at her hand. "Whatcha doing, you?"

"Do you really want to walk around this old-fashioned place with those glowing subdermals shouting, I'm probably a warlock or something, so you better burn me at the stake'? No? I didn't think so."

He grudgingly allowed her to dirty his face and hide the Goggleboy designs. "So what about my helmet?" he demanded. "Chance not I'm leaving it here."

Florimel leaned around the nearest stack of boxes. "Turn it upside down and it will look like you are collecting for some charity. Perhaps people will throw money in it."

"Wild funny," he growled.

Martine, who wore peasant clothes like Florimel's, had not bothered to augment her wardrobe; as Renie pulled a skirt over the bottom half of her jumpsuit, the blind woman slid down from her seat on a box. "If you are all ready, we should move on. Half the day is gone, and people are always more suspicious of strangers who arrive by night."

"How can you even tell what time of day it is?" Renie asked.

"The place has rhythms," Martine replied. "And I am getting to know them. Now let us continue."

 

Zekiel's directions had been very general—half a day's walk in more or less one direction, and a dozen floors downward—but even before they reached the level of the river's passage through the house they began to see signs of human habitation. Flat stones had been placed in the middle of some of the wider corridors and used as fireplaces, although everything but the scorch marks had been removed from the sites; they could hear murmurings from some of the ornately screened ventilation ducts that might only have been wind, but could just as easily have been faint voices.

Renie also noticed something she could only distinguish because of its long absence from their lives: the growing scent of a human habitat, a scent both heartening and disturbing—heartening because it confirmed they were getting nearer to where the people were, disturbing because Renie suddenly realized she was reacting to her own full-blown sense of smell.

But when I was first in the network—when I still could feel my mask—we could barely smell anything. I was just talking the other day about how !Xabbu complained about it.

She asked him. He continued to pace on all fours beside her as he considered. "Yes, that is true," he said at last. "It was very frustrating, but I have not felt that way for some time. In fact, it seems as though now I learn much from what my nose tells me." He wrinkled his narrow forehead. "But perhaps it is an illusion. Have I not read during my courses at the Poly that after a long time in a virtual environment the brain begins to construct information for itself to make things seem more normal?"

"You were a good student," Renie said, smiling. "But that still doesn't seem enough to explain this." She shrugged. "But what do we know, really? There's never been an environment like this before. Still, we should have a better idea of how it works by now—how we can be kept online, and how things like neurocannulas, or even something as obvious as a mask, can be kept from us." She frowned, thinking it through. "In fact, that's the strangest thing about this environment. It could send information through a direct neural connection to tell the brain there is no neural hookup, no shunt. That makes sense. But you and I have a different, more basic kind of access which doesn't bypass our own senses, just adds to them. So how can we be fooled?"

They still had no answer for the question when the party descended the last bend of another exhaustive length of staircase to discover they had finally reached the river. The water, which had been a murmur in their ears for the last three floors of the descent, flowed past them along a mossy stone trough thirty meters across and flush with the floor, as though some ancient Roman aqueduct had been buried in the foundation. A lantern, the first light they had reached not of their own making, hung from a small dock that jutted from the hallway at the base of the stairs. The water was almost invisible in the weak light, rushing away into the shadows on their right.

"Upriver, then," Renie declared. "If the rest of what those two said is also true, we should have only about another hour's walk to reach the part of the house where people are." She stopped, aware of the incongruity. "Jesus Mercy, how big is this place?"

The architecture fronted by the hallway was more varied than the rooms which they had encountered above, as though more modification had been done to the parts of the building that lined the river. Doors opened off the hall as they had higher up, and were visible along the dim walkway on the river's far side as well, but there were also places where the walls had been knocked out, perhaps to improve the view, or elaborate additions had been built outward so that they jutted above the surface of the river, with the blocked hallway detouring along a catwalk that hung only a few meters over the gurgling waters.

As they made their way around one such obstruction, stopping to peer into the riverside windows at the room's empty interior, a boat with a lantern dangling from its bow slid past them on the far side of the river. Renie turned, startled by the movement, but the two shapes huddled in the small vessel only waved, then went back to paddling. Within moments the craft had slipped away into darkness.

Signs of habitation began to show more frequently now, and in places they could even see the lights of fires and lanterns burning on the far side of the river. More occupied fishing boats appeared; some simply drifted past, but others moved purposefully from one side of the river to the other as though searching for something. Renie could hear music and voices in some of the upper apartments, scratchy jigs played on stringed instruments, people shouting or laughing.

About a thousand meters past the first lantern, by which point they were walking through what was for all intents and purposes a small harbor town, albeit contained inside a larger structure like a ship in a bottle, Renie saw something she had not seen in several days.

"Daylight!" She pointed to windows high above them. The slanting sunlight spilled down across the clutter of jerry-built apartments which had been grafted onto the original halls, and which leaned so close above the river on both sides that it almost seemed the residents could reach across the water to borrow a cup of sugar. The huge windows and the wall in which they were situated were almost completely hidden by the crowding roofs of shanties. "I'm going to go have a look."

Only !Xabbu chose to join her, the others opting instead for a rest, seating themselves on barrels along a deserted wharf. Renie and the Bushman mounted a set of rickety stairs that wound in and out from one landing to the next, connecting perhaps two dozen shacks in its twenty-meter climb. People were obviously at home in some of the dwellings, and once as she passed an open door, a woman in a black bonnet and dress actually looked up from her sewing and met Renie's eyes. She did not seem surprised by strangers on the stairs, even though one of the strangers was a monkey.

The last landing still left them well below the nearest window, and Renie was about to content herself with just the glimpse of true daylight—she could see clouds drifting past, and the sky was a reassuringly normal blue—when !Xabbu said, "Over here!" He had found a ladder balanced against the back of the topmost apartment, a way to get up onto the roof, someone's refuge from the rest of the crowded shantytown. As she followed him up the rungs sagged alarmingly beneath her weight, but she was hungry now to see the world . . . or at least whatever world they had been given.

!Xabbu reached the top of the ladder and turned to the window, then frowned in puzzlement. Renie joined him, a couple of rungs below, eager to see the rest of the house and its grounds, or at least the part which lay below them.

Her first disconcerting realization was that they were not above much of the house at all, but only partway up one of the lower structures. The sky was real, but it was visible only between two other wings of the building, both of which rose far above their vantage point—higher even than the distance Renie and her companions had descended since leaving Zekiel and Sidri. The other disturbing thing was that there were no grounds to be seen whatsoever, except for a few glimpses lit by angling sunlight of roof gardens nestled between cupolas, or even one tucked into the wreckage of an ancient, broken dome. Instead, the house continued as far beyond the window as she could see, a stunning conglomeration of halls and towers and other structures for which she had no names, all connected in a labyrinthine whole, rooftops and chimneys spreading away and growing smaller and smaller with distance, an undifferentiated, choppy sea of gray and brown shapes that at last grew dim in the fading golden light.

"Jesus Mercy," Renie murmured. She could think of nothing else to say, so she said it again.

 

She was reluctant to share her discovery with the others, although her better sense told her that whether the house had an ending or not made little difference to either their hunt or their chances for escaping the simulation; it was only after Florimel had asked a series of increasingly irritated questions that she told them exactly what she had seen.

". . . And it looked like we could walk for months without reaching the outside," she finished. "Like a city, but all one building."

Florimel shrugged. "It makes little difference."

T4b, his sangfroid restored by a long time on level ground, said, "These sayee lo Grail-hoppers got too much time, too much money. I had something like this network, be making something bold tasty, me—no dupping."

Florimel rolled her eyes. "Let me guess . . . half-naked Gogglegirls with gigantic breasts, and plenty of loud music and guns and cars and charge, yes?"

T4b nodded vigorously, impressed by her perceptiveness and taste.

The byways along the river were beginning to fill with people abroad on errands both personal and commercial. Renie was relieved to see that she and her friends were not quite so unusual as she had feared: some of the locals were as pale as Zekiel and Sidri had been, but overall there was a fairly wide range of colors and sizes, although she had seen none yet she would call black. Of course, she remembered, her own current sim was not all that dark-skinned either. Even !Xabbu's current form did not seem to stretch convention too far, since Renie saw animals being driven to market, and even a few riding on their owners' shoulders, pigeons and a rat or two, that were clearly pets. In fact, as they followed the river shore which had widened out now into a boardwalk lined with makeshift peddlers' shops selling caps and rope and dried fish, Renie and her companions were quickly becoming just part of the crowd.

They stopped and asked an old man repairing a fishing net for directions to the Library Market, and although he seemed amused at the idea of someone not knowing where that was, he cheerfully instructed them. Wide hallways perpendicular to the boardwalk now opened into the main corridor at regular intervals, like the intersections of major streets, and when Renie and the others reached a particularly wide boulevard marked at the corner by a round-eyed bird carved on a wooden sign, they turned and headed away from the river, struggling through the thick crowd.

Black Owl Street was roofed with timbers, apparently a late addition, but was even broader than the boardwalk and more upscale as well, lined with shops and taverns and even restaurants. Some of the busy crowd wore clothes as antiquely idiosyncratic as those of Renie and her friends, but others, particularly men, were garbed in what to Renie seemed a nineteenth century style. black frock coats and trousers, or the same clothes in only slightly more imaginative hues of dark blue or dark brown, like counting-house employees in a Dickens novel. She half-expected to see Ebenezer Scrooge fingering his watch chain and cursing the rabble.

Lost in people-watching, Renie was brought up short by Martine's hand on her arm.

"Just a moment. . . ." The blind woman cocked her head, then shook it. "No, nothing."

"What did you think you heard? Or felt?"

"Something familiar, but I cannot be sure—it was fleeting. There are so many people here that I am finding it hard to process the information."

Renie lowered her voice, leaning toward Martine's ear. "Do you think it was . . . you know who?"

Martine shrugged.

The company was beginning to spread a little in response to the Brownian movement of the wide, crowded corridor. Just to be on the safe side, Renie and Florimel pulled the companions back together. The crush was abetted by people entering from side channels, some pulling wagons piled high with goods, many the apparent product of extensive poaching: Renie doubted that people in this squatter society would be building ornate candelabra from scratch, and even if they were, she somehow doubted it would be someone as shifty-eyed and dirty-fingered as the man she was currently watching.

Almost without realizing it, they reached their destination. The corridor widened so abruptly that the walls simply seemed to have disappeared, and the ceiling retreated to a point that must have been far higher than the top rung of the ladder Renie had climbed earlier. The space they found themselves in was as large as four of the huge upstairs ballrooms put together, and as crowded with people as any of the hallway-streets outside. But it was the bookshelves that were truly impressive.

Shelves lined the Library from floor level all the way to the ceiling, dozens and dozens of shelves mounting upward until, like an art-class perspective exercise, they seemed to have no space left between them. Every single one was jammed from one side to another with books, so that the walls of the vast room had become abstract mosaics tiled in multicolored leather book spines. Enormously long ladders stood in some places, stretching many meters from the floor up the vertical facing of the book-cliffs; other, smaller versions dangled between one row of higher shelves and another, perhaps simplifying the journeys of scholars or clerks who had to move back and forth between the same spots many times. But in some spots along the immense shelves the only way to get to certain locations appeared to be along frighteningly crude rope bridges, one strand for the feet, the other chest high, the long, sagging cables rooted on platforms built in the room's corners. It was not the only use of rope: from the floor to a height of perhaps two stories the shelves were protected from theft and depredation by nets of knotted silk, so that the books could be seen but not touched or removed. The steep vertical shelves were acrawl with people in gray robes—the Library-tending monks Zekiel had mentioned. Quietly purposeful as bees on a honeycomb, these dark-robed figures repaired the book net where a cord had frayed or a knot had been cut, or moved carefully along the upper walkways. At least two dozen leaned out from ladders at various points along the shelves, wielding long-handled dusters. Both the monks and the Market-going throng appeared largely oblivious to each other.

"It is amazing," Florimel said. "I cannot guess how many books are here."

"I believe seven million, three hundred four thousand and ninety-three is the most recent total," said an unfamiliar voice. "But most of those are stored in the lower catacombs. I doubt there are a fifth that many in this room."

The smiling man who stood beside them was young, plump, and bald. As he turned to gaze fondly at the shelves, Renie saw that all his hair except a single broad tuft on the back of his skull had been shaved. His gray robe and odd coiffure left little doubt of his profession.

"You're one of the monks?" Renie asked.

"Brother Epistulus Tertius," he replied. "This is your first time at the Market?"

"It is."

He nodded, looking them over, but she could see neither calculation nor suspicion in his open, pinkish face. "May I tell you something of its history, our Library? I am afraid I am very proud of it—I still cannot get over the idea that a boy like me from the Stovewood Scavengers should have come to such a wonderful place." He spotted !Xabbu and suddenly looked worried. "Or am I keeping you from your marketing?"

Renie wondered if he thought they were looking for a buyer for the baboon. She examined the monk carefully, trying to see whether the face of the thing that had pretended to be Quan Li might be hiding behind the benevolent exterior, but she could think of no reason why their enemy should bother to change his appearance if he had remained, nor could she find any evidence that this man was more than he seemed. Certainly, a friendly insider was the best thing to find in any unfamiliar place. "That's very kind," she said aloud. "We would love to learn more."

 

". . . And here are the greatest treasures of all." Brother Epistulus Tertius gestured reverently. "These are the books which our Order has translated. The wisdom of the ancients!"

In the context of the hundreds upon thousands of books ranged above them, tended by scores of gray-robed brothers, it seemed like the punchline to a joke. The crystal reliquary on the table before them contained scarcely two dozen volumes. One had been opened, as if for display. In beautifully-drawn letters, almost lost among the profusion of illuminations around capitals and in the margins, she could read the words, ". . . particular Care must be taken not to perforate the Liver during cleaning, or the flavours of the Bird will be spoyled. Seasonings, such as Shrew-Wort and autumn Carpet Buttons, may be Employed, but must be Added with a Cautious Hand. . . ."

"It's a recipe," Renie said. The Market crowd jostled past, kept from bumping the holy relics themselves only by a low wooden fence set directly in the carpeted floor. Engaged in haggling and gossip, none of them seemed particularly intent on leaping over the barrier to snag the holy cookbook.

"Perhaps, perhaps!" Their guide was cheerful. "There is so much we have left to discover. Now that we have learned the alphabet of the Solarium People, there are surely two or even three more volumes that will yield up their secrets."

"Do you mean that all of these books," Florimel waved her hand at the looming shelves, "are in unknown languages?"

"Certainly." The monk's smile did not lessen. "Oh, they were clever, the ancients! And so many of the languages are completely forgotten. And then there are codes—so many codes, some of them uniquely clever, some quite senseless and mad. And even though many of the codes are doubtless quite comprehensible, they are tied to other books which are somewhere in the Library—but of course we cannot know which books, because we do not understand the code in the first place." He shrugged, happy possessor of a job for life.

Florimel said, "That is very interesting, Brother Epistulus, but. . . ."

"Please, I am only Epistulus Tertius—my master, God willing, will live many years more, and then there is yet another before me in line to shoulder his great burden."

". . . But can you tell us anything about the house itself? What is beyond it?"

"Ah, you will want to talk to one of my brethren with a greater specialty in matters philosophical," he said. "But first, I would like to show you my own specialty. . . ."

"Op this!" called T4b, an unfamiliar tone in his voice. Renie turned to see him crouching on the floor a short distance away, surrounded by children. One of them had tugged back the sleeve of T4b's robe and discovered his gleaming hand; the teenager was cheerfully pretending to grab them, keeping the children squealing in excitement and mock fear. He looked so happy that although Renie did not like him attracting attention, she was reluctant to say anything. Emily stood behind him, watching the game, her narrow face lost in thought. Martine was closer to Renie than to Emily, T4b, and the children, but seemed even less connected to the group, head bowed, her mouth working silently, her eyes staring down at nothing. Renie wanted to go to her and see if she was all right—the blind woman seemed to be having a reaction like that which had first gripped her on their entry into the Otherland network—but !Xabbu was touching Renie's arm, silently asking for attention, and the monk was trying to get them all to follow him toward other treasures.

". . . And of course we are no farther in dealing with these missives than we are with the books themselves," Epistulus Tertius was saying to Florimel, "but we have had a breakthrough lately on the datal notations on some of the Far Eastern Porch Civilization lists. . . ."

A movement above her drew Renie's gaze. Several of the dusting monks were leaning out from the shelves above, eavesdropping on their brother's words and examining the newcomers. Like Epistulus Tertius they all had shaven heads, but in all other ways seemed a different species altogether, a younger, smaller, and livelier group, doubtless due to the demands of their task. They clung to the treacherous ropes seemingly without fear, and moved with the certainty of squirrels. Several of them wore the cowled necks of their robes over their mouths and noses as protection against dust, leaving only their eyes and the dome of their heads visible. One young man near the end was observing the newcomers particularly intently, and for a moment Renie almost felt she recognized him, but even as she watched he seemed to grow bored, and shinnied back up onto a higher shelf and out of sight.

Brother Epistulus Tertius was insistent, and after a few minutes they found themselves being led through the milling crowds toward the vault where the researching of antique correspondence was carried out. The monk talked in a nonstop rush of facts about the Library, most of them meaningless to Renie. She found herself instead watching the various denizens of the house as they went about their business, the black-smudged Coal Scuttle Boys larking on an afternoon's holiday, the various Kitchen guilds making arrangements with the itinerant sharpeners, the jugglers and musicians that gave the whole thing the air of a Renaissance carnival. It was only as they reached a doorway out of the Market Square and into the monastery halls—a section of the endless bookshelves that swung outward to reveal a tiled hallway into which Epistulus Tertius was beckoning them—that she realized why the dusting monk looked familiar.

If you saw a monk you assumed it was a man, but if someone shaved off black hair, and pulled a robe up until it mostly covered the face. . . .

"It's him!" she said, almost shouting. "Oh, my God, it's him—I mean her! That monk up on the bookshelf—it was Quan Li's sim!"

Her companions turned from Brother Epistulus Tertius, startled into a flurry of questions, but !Xabbu's was by far the most chilling.

"Where is Martine?" he asked.

They quickly retraced their path across the Market, but the blind woman had vanished.

Second:
ANGELS AND ORPHANS

"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are
at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where
the one ends, and where the other begins?"

—Edgar Allan Poe,
The Premature Burial

CHAPTER 9
Eyes of Stone

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: GCN, Hr. 5.5 (Eu, NAm)—"HOW TO KILL YOUR TEACHER"

(visual: Looshus and Kantee hanging from wall in razor-lined room over vat of fire)

VO: Looshus (Ufour Halloran) and Kantee (Brandywine Garcia) have destroyed Jang the assassin, but are trapped now by Superintendent Skullflesh (Richard Raymond Balthazar) in the Detention Dungeon. Casting 2 dungeon attendants, 4 corpses. Flak to: GCN.HOW2KL.CAST

 

Detective Calliope Skouros tilted the viewing lens away from her face and sighed. The display pinched the bridge of her nose. Her head was beginning to hurt. It was time to contemplate having another drink and saying the hell with it for the night, or possibly for good.

For the third straight evening she had spent hours of her own time using the department account to comb the vast data resources of the IPN, trying to find something that would take her another step forward on the Polly Merapanui case. She had run victim Polly's own data every which way, all the mind-numbing trivia in the original case file and every useless bit she and Stan Chan had added to it with their own investigation. She had run the Woolagaroo angle through the informational meat grinder as well, hoping against hope it had come up in someone's M.O., been used as a nickname, anything, but with no luck.

Calliope's father had used to tell a joke, one she only dimly remembered. It had something to do with a wildly optimistic child who, when given a huge pile of horseshit as a cruel gift, had spent hours digging through it, reasoning, "There has to be a pony in here somewhere!"

Well, that's me, she thought. And up to this point, I'm seriously short of ponies.

 

Stan had a little pile of builder toys on his desk, cheap automata he had bought from a sidewalk vendor that would take any materials given them, like sand or sugar cubes or (in this instance) toothpicks, and turn them into odd little structures. His builders had gotten to a tricky point; he did not even say hello when Calliope swept into the room.

The door slamming shut behind her knocked the tiny structure apart. He looked up grumpily as the headless bug-things began the process all over. "Jeez, Skouros, what's your problem? You look happy—that can't be good."

"We've got it!" She dropped into her chair and slid in behind the desk like a cargo plane coming in for a landing. "Come and look!"

Her partner made a face, but sauntered over to stand behind her shoulder. "Are we going to explain what it is we've got, or do we just wait until symptoms develop?"

"Struggle to not be an asshole for just ten seconds, Stan. Look at this. I've been trying to get some kind of hit on 'Woolagaroo' for days, without luck. But it's the damn department search that's been locking me up!" She brushed her hand across the screen and a flurry of print danced behind, as though following her fingers.

"The search?"

"The gear, Stan, the gear! It doesn't do automatic phonetic matches—this stuff is from the Stone Age, I swear. I searched 'Woolagaroo,' and all I got back was hundreds of last names and town names with similar spellings, none of them right, and none of them anything to do with our case as far as I could see. But then I started wondering whether the searcher they make us use was as old and useless as everything else around here, and I put in a few soundalike variants of my own, figuring it might be in there but spelled wrong—that it had gone in originally as hearsay, or been misspelled by the arresting officer. Hell, I didn't know how to spell it properly until I got those articles from Professor Jigalong."

"You're taking an even longer time than usual to get to the point, Skouros." But she had him, she knew; Stan was trying hard to sound casual.

"So I threw in a bunch of variants—'Woolagaru,' 'Wullagaroo,' see? Like that. And look what came back."

"Wulgaru, John—aka 'Johnny,' 'Johnny Dark,' 'John Dread,' " he read aloud. "Okay, so you've found someone with an extensive juvenile record. Nasty little bastard, from the looks of him. But he's got no arrests in years—which, with his quick start in life, means he's probably dead. And that last known address is ridiculously old, too."

"Yes! And he fell off the map less than a year before Polly Merapanui was killed. The same year!" She couldn't believe he was trying so hard not to see it. Calliope felt a moment of worry—had she been after this too long? But in her heart she knew better.

"So you've got a similarity between this guy's name and something that Reverend What's-his-name's wife said about an Aboriginal fairy tale, and the guy disappeared, or at least stopped getting arrested under that name, within a few months of our murder." He pushed his glasses up his nose—like many other things about him, his look was decidedly old-fashioned. "Thin, Skouros. Real thin."

"Well, my doubting friend, how thin is this?" She waved her fingers and another window full of text drifted up like a carp rising to the surface of a pond. "Our young friend Wulgaru did time in the Feverbrook Hospital juvenile facility when he was seventeen, on the violent ward—'threat to himself and others' is the official catchall."

"So?"

"So did you actually read our case file? Polly Merapanui was there at the same time, a brief stay after a half-hearted suicide attempt."

Stan was silent for a long moment. "Damn," he said at last.

 

Her partner was unusually reserved on the drive out to Windsor, but he did point out that it would have been faster just getting the records sent to the office. "It's not like either of them are still living there, Skouros."

"I know. But I'm different than you, Stan. I need to go there, have a look at the place. Get a feeling for it. And if you give me any 'women's intuition' bullshit, you can walk back. This is my car."

"Touchy." His eyebrows rose briefly. Stan Chan was so deadpan that he made Calliope feel like some kind of circus freak—The Incredible Sweating, Shouting Woman. But he was a solid bloke, and his strengths meshed well with hers. Good Cop/Bad Cop was less important in most investigations than Excited Cop/Cautious Cop, and even though she occasionally got tired of playing her role—it would be nice to be the cool and collected one, just for once—she couldn't imagine working better with anyone else.

From the name, she had half-expected Feverbrook Hospital to be some castle monstrosity of turrets and cupolas, the kind of building best viewed under the lowering clouds of an electrical storm; instead, while it was indeed a remnant of an earlier architectural style, that style was from the earlier part of Calliope's own century, a look she tended to think of as "Strip-Mall Whimsical." The buildings were scattered about the grounds like a child's collection of blocks, except where they were piled high and awkwardly at the center of the complex to form what must be the administration buildings; most were painted in cheerful pastels, with ornamentation in bold primary colors—railings and awnings and annoying little decorations that served no obvious purpose. The effect was of something designed first to lure, then soothe and delight, the slow-witted. Calliope wondered how intentional that had been.

The hospital director, Dr. Theodosia Hazen, was a slim, tall, middle-aged woman whose graciousness seemed as practiced as yoga. She glided out of her office as soon as the detectives were announced, a smile of noblesse oblige tilting the corners of her mouth.

"Of course, we are happy to help," she said, as though Calliope or Stan had just asked. "I've had my assistant pull the records for you—we could have sent them!" She laughed at the silliness of it, as though the detectives had told a slightly naughty joke.

"Actually, we'd like to look around a bit." Calliope lit up a smile of her own and was pleased to see the other woman caught off-balance. "Has the hospital changed much in the last ten years?"

Dr. Hazen recovered quickly. "Do you mean structurally or operationally? I've only been the director for two years, and I like to think we've improved our management processes in that time."

"I don't know what I mean, exactly." Calliope turned to look at Stan Chan, who had clearly already decided that there were no bonus points for him in getting between his partner and the director. "Let's walk and talk, shall we?"

"Oh." Dr. Hazen smiled again, but it was reflex. "I hadn't . . . You see, I've got such a lot to do today. . . ."

"Of course. We understand. We'll just wander around on our own, then."

"No, I couldn't let you . . . that would be terribly rude of me." The director smoothed her gray silk pants. "Let me just have ever such a quick word with my assistant, then I'll be right with you."

The grounds were certainly nothing to complain about; even the most stiff-legged and disoriented of the patients did not, in the airy Sydney noontime, seem anything to be frightened of, but Calliope was still having trouble shaking her Gothic mood. As Dr. Hazen pointed out this or that fixture, her tone as bright as the day, they might have been touring the grounds of some particularly Bohemian private school. Still, Calliope reminded herself, most of these young people belonged in the category of dangerous-to-somebody, even if that somebody was only their own sad selves; it was a bit difficult to fall in with the director's breeziness.

As they passed through a long lavender courtyard surrounded by roofed walkways, Calliope found herself studying the inmates with a little more attention. After all, the murder victim Polly Merapanui had definitely been here, and every investigative cell in Detective Skouros' body suggested that the girl had met her murderer here as well.

The hospital population, at least in this semirandom sample, seemed to contain only a few Aboriginal patients, but as she looked at the disaffected faces of all colors, at eyes tracking on any movement for lack of something better to do, Calliope could not help remembering pictures she had seen of cattle stations in the outback, portraits of the local Aboriginals who had lost their land and their culture—people with nothing left to do but stand in the dusty streets and wait for something that was never going to happen, without even an inkling of what that something might be.

The hospital also had rather a lot of armed guards, muscular young men talking to each other more often than to the inmates. Each wore a shirt with the Feverbrook corporate logo, as though they were roadies for a touring band; each had a stun-baton holstered on his hip.

Dr. Hazen noticed her staring. "They're hand-coded, of course."

"Sorry. . . ?"

"The batons. They're hand-coded, so that only the guards can use them." She smiled, but it was the tight sort that weather announcers wore when assuring viewers the hurricane wouldn't be as bad as expected, but that they should lock themselves in their cellars anyway. "We are a secure facility, Detective. We do need guards."

"I don't doubt it for a moment." Calliope squinted against the glare off a large pastel something-or-other that might have been a cement bench or a currently waterless fountain. "What's the building over there?"

"Our media center. Would you like to see it?"

The center was open-plan, a large space like an old-fashioned library with plenty of individual carrels, and with wallscreens placed at intervals around the perimeter on both levels. There were attendants here, or nurses, or whatever you called someone who worked in a secure hospital, but the guards seemed to outnumber them two to one. Calliope caught herself getting angry at being part of a society that put a higher priority on housing and stifling problem kids than on curing them, but pushed it aside: she herself was a link in the chain, and how much time did she usually spend worrying after the fact about the people she had arrested, or even their victims? Not that much, really. In any case, she had something more specific to do here than mourn the ills of human culture.

Many of the inmates were clearly linked into various media, some by remote connections, others by more old-fashioned means. They sat in chairs by themselves, some of them far from either console or wallscreen; they might have been sleeping, or thinking, but there was something about the way they shuddered, about the movement of their lips, that made Calliope ask.

"They're doing therapy-mods, most of them," Dr. Hazen explained, and then hurried to add, "We don't give them 'cans if they don't already have them, but if they've got them already—and almost all those who come in here with charge damage do—then we might as well put the holes to some use."

"Does it work?"

"Sometimes." Even the director couldn't muster much of a positive tone on that one.

Stan had wandered closer to one of the carrels to watch an Asian girl who looked about thirteen. She was clearly hooked into some kind of simulation: her hands were jerking back and forth as though she were trying to keep an angry dog away from her throat.

"Are they online?" Calliope asked. "Like, on the net?"

"Oh, my God, no," laughed the director nervously. "No, everything here is in-house. These are not young people who can be given free access to the outside world. For their own good, I mean. Too many dangerous influences, too many things that even healthy adults have trouble assimilating."

Calliope nodded. "We'd better see those files now."

The dark-skinned woman who met them on their return to the administration complex seemed almost youthful enough to be one of the hospital's inmates, but Dr. Hazen introduced her as her assistant. The young woman, who seemed to have adopted a nervous, downcast gaze as a counterpoint to her employer's crisp demeanor, murmured something to the director that Calliope could not hear.

"Well, if that's what we have, Miriam, then that's what we have." Dr. Hazen pointed them toward her office. "There's not much, apparently."

A quick survey of the wallscreen demonstrated the truth of this. Polly Merapanui had a reasonable file containing the minutiae of her stay—medicine and dosages, doctor's notes, a few comments about how she interacted in group therapy or how she responded to various work assignments. There were even a few words written about her "difficult" relationship with her mother. The last comments indicated she had been released to a halfway house in Sydney.

For Johnny Wulgaru, aka Johnny Dark, aka John Dread, there was only an admission date and the date on which he was returned to a standard juvenile correctional facility.

"What is this?" Calliope demanded. "Where's the rest?"

"That's all there is," said the director airily. "I can't manufacture information for you, Detective Skouros. Apparently he had a fairly quiet stay here—six months and out, no disciplinary problems." She was watching Stan Chan out of the corner of her eye as he rolled through the records on either side of Wulgaru's. "Please," she said to him suddenly. "We've given you what you came for, cooperated fully—that other information has nothing to do with your case. It's private."

Stan nodded but did not step away from the station.

"I'm finding it hard to believe that someone with a sheet in the police system as long as your leg came in here and waltzed out half a year later without attracting any attention at all." Calliope took a breath—it would do no good to antagonize this woman. "Surely you can understand our problem with that."

The doctor shrugged. "As I said, I can't manufacture information for you."

"Then is there anyone here who remembers him? One of the doctors—even one of the guards?"

The director shook her head emphatically, "There's been a complete staff turnover since this hospital was sold five years ago. To tell the truth, Lieutenant, there were some problems here before, and the new owners felt it was best to begin with a clean slate. You can do that with a private hospital—no unions." It was hard to tell whether she thought that was a good thing or not, but Calliope guessed the former.

Miriam leaned forward and whispered in the director's ear.

"Surely not?" said Dr. Hazen. Her assistant nodded. "Miriam says there's one person here from that time—Sandifer, one of the gardeners." She looked a bit stone-faced. "Apparently I hired him without realizing he'd worked here a few years earlier."

"Let's talk to him," said Calliope.

"I'll have Miriam get him. Detective Chan, I've already asked you once—would you please get out of those people's files?"

 

Calliope had been expecting a whiskery old fellow in an ocker hat, but Sandifer turned out to be a husky, fairly nice-looking man in his late thirties who wore his hair in the dramatic fashion of a decade earlier. Calliope could visualize him playing in some kind of revival band and referring to his work at the hospital as "my day job." He was reticent until Calliope managed to persuade Dr. Hazen she wanted to interview him without the director's stifling presence.

In an unused office, Sandifer loosened up. "You working on a case?"

"No, of course not." Calliope was already tired of Feverbrook Hospital. "We're just driving all over talking to people because we get bored hanging around the police station. Did you know a patient who was here about five years ago named John Wulgaru?"

Sandifer stuck out his lower lip, thinking, and shook his head.

"Johnny Dark?" Stan chimed in. "John Dread?"

"Johnny Dread!" Sandifer barked a laugh. "Oh, yeah, I remember Johnny-boy."

"What can you tell us about him?"

Sandifer sat back, enjoying himself. "What can I say except that I'm glad I never met him outside. He was a doubtless psycho, tell you for free."

"What makes you say that?"

"His eyes, just for one thing. You know what fish eyes look like? How you can't even tell if they're alive or not unless they're moving? That was Johnny-boy. Scariest little sonofabitch I ever saw, and some of the kids that come through here are pretty lockin' scary, tell you for free."

Calliope felt a quickening in her pulse, and only barely resisted looking at her partner. "Do you have any idea what happened to him after he left here? More importantly, do you have any idea where he is now?"

"No, but it shouldn't be too hard to figure out."

"Why is that?"

Sandifer looked from her to Stan and back again, trying to figure out if he was being set up for some kind of trick. "Because he's dead, lady. He's dead."

 

 

The voices in her head were silent now, but Olga was still having trouble pretending things were normal. It's like I've been to another world, she thought. Nothing in my old life will ever feel the same again.

The real world still looked much as it always had, of course, and corporate headquarters, a building she had visited many times for job reviews or company functions, was no exception. It had the same high ceilings as ever, the same employees scuttling like minor priests in a great cathedral, and here in this executive's corner office, the same face on the wallscreen that she had been living with, and living behind, for so many years.

The sound was off, but Uncle Jingle's dance filled the huge wallscreen behind the desk, Uncle moving through a silent sweep with baggy pants flapping, turn after turn so swift that even the animated birds, coded for flocking, were having trouble keeping up with him. Even with her old self almost gone, Olga Pirofsky could not help taking note of the character's skillful movements. That new girl was running him, the one in Mexico—or was it New Mexico? Wherever she was based, she was good. Roland had been right.

I'll never be the new girl, not anywhere, not ever again, Olga thought, and although it was not a very surprising realization—she was, after all, at an age when anyone would have at least begun to think about retirement—it still brought her up short. For a moment she could almost convince herself to ignore what had happened in the night, the voices that had come to her and changed everything. For a moment she felt herself worrying about the children she had entertained for so many years, and worrying about how much she would miss them. But the children that mattered most now were inside her, and if their voices were muted for the moment, there was still no ignoring them. Everything had changed. From the outside, it might seem like just another day in the world, Uncle Jingle spinning in his same circles and a hundred professionals behind the scenes working to make it so, but Olga knew that nothing would ever be the same.

 

The company vice president—Famham, Fordham, she couldn't remember the name and would have no reason to care the moment she left the office—wound up his call, snapping a brisk farewell to an invisible someone. He grinned at Olga and nodded to show her that he was finished.

"I don't know why I'm smiling." He shook his head, bemused by his own madcap unpredictability, then rearranged his features into an imitation of concern. "We here at Obolos Entertainment are going to miss you, Olga. The show won't be the same without you, that's for sure." She was just old-fashioned enough to dislike hearing her first name in the mouth of a man almost twenty years her junior, but also old-fashioned enough not to make an issue of it, even today when she had nothing left to lose. But Olga didn't want to waste a lot of time with insincere pleasantries either—she had several things still to do, and some of them frightened her even more than accepting semipermanent medical leave from Uncle Jingle's Jungle.

"I'll miss the place," she said, and realized it was true. "But I don't think it's good for me to do live netfeeds any more—not with this problem." She felt more than a little treacherous calling it a problem, since it was now dazzlingly clear to her it was something much greater and stranger than that, but here in the normal world it was easier to speak a language the locals could understand.

"Of course, of course." On the screen behind Fordham or Farnham, Uncle Jingle had finished his dance and now was telling a story, with many broad hand gestures. "Needless to say, we are all wishing you a speedy recovery—not to hurry you back to work, however!" He laughed, then seemed a trifle irritated when Olga did not join him. "Well, I can't really think there's too much we need to do—these exit interviews are largely a formality, of course."

"Of course."

He scanned her file briefly on his shimmery desk, reiterating several facts about her medical leave package that she had already heard at several other interviews; after lobbing a few more homilies, he brought the audience to a merciful close. Olga could not help wondering what out-of-date concept this meeting served—would this once have been, in its original incarnation, a chance to pat-search the hired help as they left, to make sure no family silverware was going with them? Or did O.E. Corp. really believe its own marketing babble: "Your friends for life!"

Olga let the sourly amusing thought slide past. Was it always this way, no matter the power of the madness or glory visited on a person—the continual resurgence of the mundane, the petty? Had Joan of Arc wondered, on those occasions when her voices temporarily fell silent, if such and such a tower was as tall as another she had seen, or whether she looked fat in her armor?

 

It had happened only two nights before.

Olga had left both the Uncle Jingle character and the show half an hour early because her head was hurting so badly. It had been a while since she had experienced one of the headaches, but this one had been terrifying in its intensity, as though her skull were a hot, thin-shelled egg out of which something was trying to force itself. Even after a double dose of painblockers she had not fallen asleep for hours, and when sleep had come she had been beset by monstrous dreams full of images that she could not now remember, but which along with the continuing pain had several times shocked her into wakefulness.

She had awakened again sometime in that coldest, emptiest hour of the night, between three and four, but this time the pain was gone. She had found herself regarding the dark and quiet around her from an oddly dispassionate frame of mind, as though whatever had been causing the headaches had finally hatched from its egg, crawled out her ear, and vanished. She did not feel restored to her old self, however, but rather that as peace had returned, something else had been lost.

Without quite knowing why, she had walked across her house without switching on any lights, ignoring even the plaintive, questioning yips from Misha, and slipped into her deep station-chair. When the fiberlink was in place, she did not enter the Obolos system, or even the deeper levels of her own. She sat in darkness and felt the emptiness all around her, felt it fizzing on the other end of the fiberlink, so close it seemed that it could touch her any time it wished.

And then it had touched her.

The first moments had been a horrifying plunge into absence, into the empty dark, a cartwheeling fall without possibility of rescue. Fleetingly she had thought, "Dying—this is death," before giving herself up to the black pull. But it had not been death, or else the afterlife was strange beyond the dreams of anyone's religion.

They had come to her slowly at first, the children—their lives separate and precious, each one a miracle as individual as a snowflake caught on a mittened palm. She had experienced each life—had been each child—so thoroughly that the part of her that had been Olga Pirofsky was barely present at all, a shadowy form clinging to a school fence, staring in as the little ones ran and laughed and danced at the center of everything. Then the trickle became a stream, lives washing through her so swiftly that she could no longer differentiate between them—a moment of family togetherness here, an object of intense wondering scrutiny there, each gone almost too swiftly to register.

The stream became a flood, and Olga had felt the last shreds of her own identity blasted away as the rush of youthful lives forced its way through her, faster and faster. In the last moment the inundation was so powerful that hundreds, perhaps thousands of individual moments became a single thing, a sensation of loss and desertion so powerful that it seemed to engage the very cells of her being. The flow of lives had combined to become a single, drawn-out, silent scream of misery.

Lost! Alone! Lost!

The voices had captured her completely, powerful and secret as a first kiss. She was to belong to them alone.

She had awakened on the floor, lying in an awkward tangle. Misha was barking fearfully beside her head, each sound sharp as a knife blow. The fiberlink lay coiled like a shriveled umbilicus beside her. Her face was still damp with tears, and her womb ached.

 

Unable to eat, unable to offer any real solace to terrified Misha, Olga had tried to convince herself that she had experienced some kind of nightmare—or, more plausibly, a nightmare coincident with one of the terrible headaches. If she had been trying to convince someone else she might have been able to make it sound reasonable, but every excuse met the transcendent power of the experience and dropped away.

Had someone dosed her with some kind of bad gear—what was it called? Charge? But she had accessed nothing. Olga could not bring herself to use the fiberlink again just yet, although she could somehow sense that there was more she needed to learn, that the children wanted to speak to her again. She brought her system records up on the wallscreen instead, and proved to her own satisfaction that she had not even moved past the maintenance level of her own system, let alone opened a line into the larger net.

So what had it been? She had found no obvious answer, but knew she could no more ignore it than she had been able to ignore the headaches. If those mysterious ailments had been the precursor to this experience, then at least they made more sense now. Perhaps there must always be pain when you touched something far larger than ordinary life.

Touched, she had thought, a cup of cooling tea undrunk in her hands. That's what's happened. I've touched something. I've been touched. And just as the prophets of old had left behind worldly things and especially worldly distractions, Olga had come to see on that gray morning that she, too, must make herself right. Could she go back to work with the children in Uncle Jingle's audience, selling them toys and clothes and breakfast cereals that screamed when you swallowed them? She could not. It was time to make some changes, she had decided. Then she would go back to listen to the voices again, to find out what the children wanted of her.

 

It was a call she had to make, but Olga had been dreading it far more than she had worried about leaving her job.

As soon as she returned home and put down Misha's food, she walked into the parlor and shut the door behind her. She paused, bemused—who was she trying to hide this from, anyway? Misha, gobbling so fast in the kitchen that little bits of dog food lay scattered all around the wide bowl? What was the shame in telling a man, even a nice man like this one, that she had made a mistake?

Because she hadn't made a mistake, of course. Because she was about to lie to him. Because she couldn't imagine any way she could explain what had happened to her, couldn't share the way it felt, how true and correct she knew it was. She also realized she might be losing her mind, but if so, she didn't particularly want to share that with the nice young man either.

Even as Catur Ramsey's office number was ringing, she realized that it was way past six; she was enjoying a moment of relief at the idea that she would only have to leave a message when his face appeared on her screen. It was not a recording.

"Ramsey." His eyes narrowed slightly: she had not opened visual link from her end so he was facing a black screen. "Can help you?"

"Mr. Ramsey? It's Olga Pirofsky."

"Ms. Pirofsky!" He sounded genuinely pleased. "I'm really glad you called—I was going to try you this afternoon, but things have been pretty hectic. I have some very interesting new developments to discuss with you." He hesitated. "Actually, I think I'd prefer to go over them with you in person—you never can tell these days who might be listening." As she opened her mouth to speak, he hurried on. "Don't worry, I'll come to you. Do me good to get out again—I've been living behind this desk. When would you be available?"

She wondered what his news was, and for a moment actually found herself hesitating.

Don't be weak, Olga. You've been through a lot, and one thing you know how to do is be strong.

"That . . . that won't be necessary." She took a breath. "I've . . . I'm going to be taking some time off." It wouldn't do any got to lie—lawyers, like police, could find things out easily enough couldn't they? "I'm having some more medical problems and need to get away from stress. So I don't think we should talk any more." There. She felt as though she had finally dropped a large stone she had been carrying all afternoon.

Ramsey was clearly surprised. "But . . . I'm sorry, have you had bad news? About the medical condition?"

"I just don't want to talk about these things anymore." She felt like a monster. He had been so kind, not at all what she had expected from a lawyer, but she knew that more important things called her, even if she wasn't yet exactly sure what they were. There was no sense involving anyone else, especially a decent, rational man like Catur Ramsey.

While he was still struggling to find a polite way to ask what was wrong with her, she told him, "I have nothing more to say," and broke the connection.

She disgusted herself by having a little cry afterward, something she had not done through even the worst pain of the headaches. She was surprised at how lonely she felt, and how frightened. She was saying good-bye, but she had no idea where she was going.

Misha stood in her lap, bouncing on his tiny back feet, trying desperately to reach her eyes and lick away the tears.

 

 

The janitor Sandifer's information had come from a doctor who had been on the Feverbrook staff before the hospital was sold. The janitor had run into the doctor at a mall, and in the course of a cursory discussion of old times the doctor had said that the young man who called himself John Dread had died. Calliope got the impression they had been talking about him in the way that people talked about a famously dangerous dog in their old neighborhood.

Before she and Stan had even reached their car in the institution's parking garage, Calliope had tracked down the doctor, who was now retired. He agreed to see them.

As they climbed the ramp onto the motorway, the little car whining quietly, Stan reclined his seat a notch. "I hate to say this, Skouros, but I think you're right. Don't get me wrong—it doesn't mean anything, because this case is so old it stinks and all we're doing is wasting our time—but someone in that hospital helped Johnny-boy's records to disappear. I mean, they weren't even smart about it. I couldn't find anyone but new arrivals with files as empty as that."

"But why would someone bury his records? Because he killed somebody after he got out?" Calliope scowled into her rearview mirror. Several cars were stuck in the access lane behind her and were clearly not enjoying it. "That makes no sense—half the people in that place either killed somebody or tried to, and it's not like the hospital is claiming miracle cures."

"I'll bet you fifty we never find out." He leaned forward and began fiddling with the air controls.

Calliope took the bet, but mostly out of Stan-thwarting reflex: she wasn't feeling very lucky.

 

They met Doctor Jupiter Danney at his local Bondi Baby, a particularly garish chain of 24-hour coffee shops whose chief claim to fame was ultrabright decor and a huge ocean holograph, complete with surfers, which filled the middle of the restaurant. (You could dine waist-deep in the ocean if you wanted, but the roar of the breakers made it hard to have a conversation.)

Dr. Danney was a thin man in his middle seventies, and clearly aspired to nattiness, although his antiquated necktie pushed the whole look into eccentricity. He smiled as they approached the dayglo orange table. "I hope you don't mind meeting me here," he said. "My landlady would put the worst possible construction on a visit from the police. Besides, they do a very nice senior-price dinner, and it's getting to be that time of day."

Calliope introduced herself and Stan, then ordered an iced tea. Her attention was momentarily engaged by the attractively sullen waitress, who had a tattoo that covered one cheek from eye to mouth and looked like she might have spent some time living on the street. She returned Calliope's stare boldly. When the detective's attention had refocused, Dr. Danney was already finishing his curriculum vitae.

". . . So after I left Feverbrook, I spent a few years in private practice, but it was really too late for me to start over."

"But you knew John Wulgaru at Feverbrook, is that right?" She was distracted again, this time by a holographic surfer wiping out badly at the periphery of her vision. This was exactly the kind of place she hated—why were people so afraid to go somewhere and just talk?

"Oh, yes. He was my prize patient, I suppose."

"Really? There was nothing to show that—there was almost nothing on file about him there at all."

Dr. Danney waved a negligent hand. "You know how these corporate places are—they certainly aren't going to waste space with records they don't need. I'm sure they purged a lot of files when they took over."

"They might have, if they thought he was dead." The waitress appeared and clunked down drinks for everyone before sauntering off; Calliope heroically ignored her, eyeing Danney over the top of her glass. "According to you, he is dead."

The old man showed her his very good teeth. "Not according to me—I never examined the body or anything. Heavens, no. But when I tried to do some follow-up, that's what I was told. The juvenile authority records said he died—goodness, what was it, a year later, two years?—after he left the hospital."

Calliope made a mental note to find out exactly what records these were supposed to be. "Why were you interested in following up? Especially when you were already in private practice."

"Why?" He glanced at Stan Chan, as though Calliope's partner might want to answer the question for him. Stan looked back blankly. "Well, because he was such a rare thing, I suppose. I felt like someone who had discovered a new animal. You might turn it over to the zoological society, but you would still want to go see it every now and then."

"Explain, please." She poured half a packet of sugar in her tea, then decided to indulge herself and emptied the rest in, too.

Dr. Danney blinked his eyes. It took him a moment to respond. "It's just . . . I saw a lot of things in clinical practice, Detective. Most of the children that I dealt with—these were children who had severe problems, please remember—fell into two broad categories. Some had been so crushed by the cruelty of their upbringing that they would never think or act like a normal member of society—they were missing key components of personality. The others were different, either because their childhoods had been slightly less harrowing, or they were a bit smarter, or tougher, whatever it might be. These had a chance. These could at least theoretically lead normal lives, not that many of them ever would."

"And John Wulgaru fit into which category?"

"Neither. That was what was so interesting about him. He had the worst childhood you can imagine, Detective—mother a prostitute, mentally unbalanced and a serious abuser of drugs and alcohol. She had a series of brutal, violent partners who abused the boy. He got thrown into the institutional system early. He was beaten and raped there, too. Every element was in place to create a completely savage sociopath. But there was something more to him. He was smart, for one thing—God Almighty, he was smart." The doctor's dinner came, but for the moment he just let it sit, "He went through the standard intelligence tests I gave him with ease, and although there were holes in his understanding, he had a very good grasp of human behavior as well. Most of the time the sociopathic personality only understands others enough to manipulate them, but John had something that I would almost call empathy, except that you can't have an empathic sociopath—it's a contradiction in terms. I suppose it was just another expression of his intelligence."

"Sandifer, the custodian, said that he was frightening."

"He was! Even when he was demolishing the logic problems I gave him, it wasn't because he enjoyed them or because he wanted to impress me. He just had to do well at those things because he could. Do you see what I mean? It was like dealing with an artist or a mathematics wunderkind—he was driven to perform."

"And why was that frightening?" Calliope gave a stern glance to Stan Chan, who was beginning to make a little cabin of toothpicks on the table.

"Because he didn't care a jot about anyone or anything. Well, that's not entirely true, but I'll come back to that in a moment. But John Wulgaru certainly had no love in his heart for anyone. When he bothered with feelings about people at all, I would guess that what he felt was a sort of detached contempt. And he was physically quick, too—reflexes like an athlete, although he wasn't all that large. He'd look at me across the desk, and I could see that if it took his fancy, he could snap my neck before I could even move. The only thing stopping him was that it was a lot of trouble to go through—the punishment would be irritating, he would lose privileges—and I hadn't done anything to make him particularly angry. But to see that kind of brain sitting across from you, not only a quicker, sharper brain than your own, but knowing that he could kill you if the whim took him, and him knowing you knew, and being amused by it—well, it wasn't like working with a human, even the troubled ones I was used to, not really. It was like being the first scientist to study an alien predator."

Calliope felt her pulse quickening again. This had to be Polly's killer. Was he really dead? For the sake of society, she had to hope so, although it would make closing the case more difficult and less satisfying.

"And you kept records of all this?" she said.

"I did, but most of them were in his file on the hospital system. I might still have some of my own note files at home."

"It would be a huge favor if you could look for us." This felt like a break, although she could not say why. But someone had managed to lose Johnny Wulgaru's records, and even if it had been an accident, she couldn't think of any better reason for wanting to see them. "Just out of curiosity, did he seem interested in myths at all? Aboriginal myths?"

Dr. Danney narrowed his eyes, then chuckled, but it did not have much humor in it. "Funny you should ask that." The sullen waitress thumped the calculatedly old-fashioned little tray with the bill in it down on the table. In the moment's pause, the old man patted at his pockets, then laboriously drew out his wallet. "I suppose I should be getting back," he said. "I mean, if you want me to look for those files." He opened his wallet and examined its contents.

Calliope took the hint. "Let us buy the meal, Doctor. We're very grateful for your help." She would never get petty cash back for this case, so she was buying it herself. She flicked a glance at Stan, but his smile told her exactly how small the chances were that he was going to kick in.

"Kind, very kind." Dr. Danney flagged the waitress down and ordered dessert and coffee. When the server had finished rolling her eyes at the interruption of her journey to some other table, and had trundled on her way, the old man sat back and smiled expansively. "Very kind indeed. Now, where was I. . . ?"

"Aboriginal myths."

"Ah, yes. You said 'interested.' No, he wasn't interested in them. He thought they were a waste of time."

Calliope had to work to keep her disappointment from showing. She had been waiting for Danney to pull a last rabbit out of the hat, but instead the only thing inside had been the lining.

"The reason for that," Danney went on, "was because his mother went on about them all the time. That's what he told me, anyway. Her own mother—his grandmother, whom he never knew—was one of the respected elders, a storyteller. Even though Wulgaru's mother had run away from home to live in Cairns, she still harped on about the old stories—the Dreamtime and so on. It made him furious when I asked about them. He clearly associated them with his mother. I stopped asking after a while."

Calliope found she was leaning forward. It was there after all! She had known it, somehow, and there it was. At that moment she would have bet everything she had that they had identified Polly Merapanui's killer.

"I said that John didn't care about anyone or anything," the old man said. "That wasn't true, of course. Negative emotions are emotions, too, and he hated his mother. I think if she had survived he would have killed her one day, but she died when he was still quite young, while he was with one of his first foster families. Drug overdose. Not very surprising. He used to call her 'the Dreamtime bitch.' "

A holographic wave broke nearby, sending substanceless spray across the next table, and causing Stan Chan to jerk and tip over his toothpick structure. He made a face and swept the toothpicks into a pile where they lay like small discarded bones, the remnants of a miniature cannibal feast.

CHAPTER 10
God's Only Friends

NETFEED/NEWS: Squirt Goes Sour

(visual: first Dada Retrieval Collective "Sea Squirt" broadcast)

VO: A group of information terrorists calling themselves the "Sea Squirt Squad" unleashed their first action in their campaign to "kill the net. " The massive information dump into one of the central networks did not work out quite as its engineers planned. Instead of blanketing family-oriented net channels with raw pornography and downing feed-servers on other parts of the net, the data dump passed largely unnoticed except for some accidental re-scrambling of adult interactives, which drew user complaints,

(visual: anonymated Blue Gates customer)

Customer: "If they'd just been dumping more naked people on the net, that would have been chizz. But the dim bastards locked up the naked people we already paid for. . . ."

VO: The unrepentant terrorists released a sound bite,

(visual: DRC member wearing Telemorphix tote bag as a mask)

DRC: "Rome didn't crumble In a day, did it? Give us a chance. "

 

"Bes!" a child called. "Mother, look, it's him!" The tiny, ugly fellow slowed so abruptly that Orlando almost tripped over him. As Bes grinned his grotesque grin and raised his hand as if to bestow a blessing, the little girl's mother lifted her up above the garden wall, angling the child toward the procession to intercept even more of the domestic god's radiant presence.

The company in which Orlando found himself was already fairly conspicuous, since besides the god Bes and Orlando's own massive barbarian sim, it featured Bonita Mae Simpkins, Fredericks, and a flock of tiny yellow monkeys—but Bes had chosen to lead them all boldly down the narrow streets of Abydos in the glaring sunlight.

"Shouldn't we be . . . hiding or something?" Orlando asked. Several more people leaned out of the houses to wave to Bes, who returned their greetings with the cheerful nonchalance of a returning hero. Orlando leaned closer to Mrs. Simpkins. "Going through back alleys? Instead of just utterly walking down the middle of the road?"

"Bes knows what he's doing, boy. They love him here—a lot more than they love Osiris and all his Western Palace lackeys. Besides, all the soldiers are busy surrounding the Temple of Ra, not wandering around in this part of town."

"Right. Surrounding the temple. Which is where we're going." Orlando turned to Fredericks, who at least had the good grace to share his confusion. "So because we want to avoid the soldiers, we're going where all the soldiers are. . . ?"

The woman snorted. "You have all the faith of a mud puppy, child. How do you get through life?"

For a moment, Orlando was stung. He wanted to lash out at her, to point out that she didn't have an illness like his, so she didn't have much right to be smug about how people got through their lives, but he knew she didn't really mean it that way. "Just talk to me, Mrs. Simpkins," he said heavily. "I need some answers."

She darted a quick look at him, perhaps hearing something in his tone. Her hard smile disappeared. "Call me Bonnie Mae, boy. I think it's time."

"I'm listening . . . Bonnie Mae."

Fredericks was walking close beside them, anxious to hear whatever was said. The monkeys had lost interest, and were following Bes like a fluttering yellow cape as the little god capered for the children trotting out of the houses to line the impromptu parade route.

"I told you how Mr. Al-Sayyid came to our church, didn't I? And about Pastor Winsallen, how he had us come meet the man afterward, and they explained about this Circle group of theirs?"

"Yeah," Fredericks said, "but you said something really strange about God—that they were drilling a hole in Him, or something."

She smiled. "That's what I said, because that's what they told me. More or less. And I can't really explain because I didn't completely understand it myself, but they said that people in religions all over the world had been noticing something when they prayed—or meditated I guess if they were those Eastern folk. Something was breaking through into the part of them that touched God."

"Like it was a . . . a place?" asked Orlando, mystified. The sun was beginning to tire him. They had moved into a less cheerful part of town—the natives here were poorer, and while they still greeted Bes respectfully, some covert glances were being cast at the god's followers.

"Like it was a place. Or maybe not. Anyway, it doesn't matter, boy—if it's true or if it isn't, what you or I think isn't gonna have a lot to do with it. A lot of very smart people believe it. But all I needed to know was that these Grail people were using innocent children to make some kind of immortality machine, like out of one of those science fiction things the kids rot their minds with. Doesn't take any religion at all to know that's wrong.

"So we joined the Circle, and Pastor Winsallen helped us raise some money to go stay with Mr. Al-Sayyid and his friends at one of their special training centers. We told the congregation we were going to do some missionary work with the Copts, which was true in a way. Anyway, the Circle people got us fitted up and sent us here, although I guess they didn't really send us anywhere. Hard to remember, sometimes—it feels like we're somewhere. Mr. Al-Sayyid and some of his friends like Mr. Jehani, who was a Moslem gentleman, were Egyptologists, so they had set themselves up here, but there are Circle people in lots of different Otherland worlds.

"It was pretty exciting in those first days—behind enemy lines, like something you dream about when you're a kid, but doing the Lord's true work. The Circle had the whole thing set up—the place you've been staying, that was one of our safe houses, I think you call it. We had a few, since Mr. Al-Sayyid had a good job in the palace. We had other Circle people coming through, updating us on what was going on outside—there's no way to communicate from one of these worlds to another, see, unless you're one of the so-called Grail folks."

She took a deep breath and wiped sweat from her brow—the sun was high now and the day was becoming uncomfortably hot. Orlando wondered what she looked like in real life. Her small, round, nondescript Egyptian sim fit her personality, but he of all people knew there was no judging people by what they looked like in VR.

"So there we were," she continued. "Doing research, I guess—the Circle's a big organization, and we were only foot soldiers, you might say. That's how I first heard about the woman with the feather, the one they call Ma'at here. She's in other worlds, too, as far as we can tell. Maybe she's one of the Grail folk, or maybe she's just something the engineers put in more than once—people tell me that these gear folk are big ones for jokes. But she's not the only one. Tefy and Mewat, those goons who work for Osiris? They're in lots of worlds, too. People call them the Twins because they always show up together. There are probably others as well—we never finished our research. The poop kind of hit the fan, as a matter of fact."

Bes had led them on a winding route through the town's close-quartered streets, but they had turned their backs on the river some time ago; because he was already fatigued, Orlando could not help noticing that they were now going uphill more often than not, heading toward the highlands—the gods' own turf. He would have been worried, but he had enough to do in this heat just walking and trying to pay attention to Bonnie Mae's story.

"You see, the biggest mystery of all is the Other. Do you know that name? I know you know what I'm talking about, boy, because you've had a closer look than most people. 'Set,' the Egyptians here call it, but it's got a lot of names in a lot of different simulation worlds. See, that thing is the key, somehow—at least, that's what all the big thinkers in the Circle believe. They think it's some kind of artificial intelligence, but it's also the system that operates the whole network. I won't try to explain, because you young people probably know more about this stuff than I do, but that's what they think. They guess that the Grail people may have tried to create some entirely new kind of life, y'see? And maybe that's the strange effect the people in the Circle felt—a blasphemy-wave, is what Mr. Jehani called it. He had a real nice sense of humor for an Islamic fellow. He was killed by some horrible thing with a hippopotamus head when Upaut's revolution went wrong.

"See, we made a mistake, and you young people would do well to pay attention. We made too many friends—we had to, because something changed a few weeks ago. No one could go offline anymore. So we were stuck, trying to get some answers.

"We figured any enemy of the Grail—and the Grail means Osiris here in this world, because if he's not Grail Brotherhood I don't know who is, he lives like some kind of Roman emperor up there—any enemy of them must be a friend of ours. So when your wolf-friend came along, we let ourselves get a little too familiar with him. But of course he was nutty as a bag of cashew brittle. We should never have gone near him.

"A group of our folk were meeting with him in one of our other houses when Tefy and Mewat and a mess of their devil-creatures crashed in. Mr. Jehani was killed. So was Mister Al-Sayyid, but they tore him up so badly that I don't think they even knew who they'd got. Wolfman escaped with some of his followers and a couple of other people from the Circle, but my poor Terence wasn't so lucky." She paused; Orlando expected to see tears, or hear a hitch in her voice, but when she continued, there was no sign of either. "It's just like the old Christian martyrs—my Terence knew what could happen when he came here. He put his faith in the Lord, just like I do every day. They took him to one of their cells, and I don't even want to know what happened to him. But he stayed strong. He was strong. If he'd given them anything more than name, rank, and serial number, I wouldn't be here today, and that safe house wouldn't have been safe for you.

"They dumped his body in one of the public squares. I couldn't go and take it, of course—didn't dare show any interest at all. It just lay there for days. Sims don't rot, but that didn't make it any belter—worse . . . worse in some ways." Here she paused again, and now Orlando could begin to grasp the kind of control Bonita Mae Simpkins exercised over herself. When she resumed, she still sounded almost normal. "And I know he's dead, dead for real. Something's changed in this place. But I knew right away. It's like waking up and knowing you're somewhere different than you should be, even before you open your eyes. I lived with that man twenty-three years. I knew that he was gone."

She walked in silence for a while. Fredericks, who had been listening avidly, turned away with a miserable expression on his face. Orlando tried to watch the monkeys swirling around Bes, hoping for a bit of distraction.

Noticing him, a pair of yellow apes peeled off from the squadron and fluttered back, squeaking. " 'Landogarner! Why you walk slow, slow, slow?"

He wanted to hush them, but Mrs. Simpkins reached up her hand and the pair lit on her finger. "Goodness, children," she said, her voice a little ragged but otherwise strong, "you do go on. Aren't your mommas and daddies missing you?"

Zunni—Orlando had recognized her voice—looked up at Bonnie Mae, her tiny eyes wide. "Don't know. We go on fun trips lotsa time. They know we always come back."

Mrs. Simpkins nodded her head. "Of course they do."

The streets were emptier here, in what Orlando was coming to realize must be the mortuary district. The few residents, tomb caretakers and their families, also recognized Bes, but their reception of him was more muted, in keeping with the environs. The streets themselves were even narrower, little more than paths between the blocky stone buildings, the undistinguished resting places of civil servants and shop owners, as though there was even less room tor the dead in Abydos than there was for the living.

But if this simulation is supposed to be the Egyptian afterlife, Orlando wondered, then who's supposed to he in the tombs? He couldn't think of an immediate answer, and was distracted by the little company turning off the street of sepulchres and into a tunnel.

As the tallest of the group, Orlando had to stoop a little to keep his head from brushing the unfinished granite ceiling, but otherwise there was no impediment. The tunnel was clean and the desert heat had baked it dry. The light became fainter as they got farther from the opening, but there was still quite enough to see, although most of the side corridors were pitch dark.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"Worker's tunnel," Bes called over his shoulder, his voice echoing faintly. "They run through the tomb and temple district like rat holes—each of these openings leads to another part of the complex."

"And we're going to get into the Temple of Ra this way?"

"If something large and unpleasant doesn't eat us first."

The little god had scored on him again: despite his weariness, Orlando was ashamed of how badly he'd let his Thargor repartee slip since he'd been in the Grail network.

As they turned into the first of what proved to be many branching corridors, Bes withdrew a lighted oil lamp from his loose but limited garments. Orlando and Fredericks had seen the cartoon Indian in the Kitchen do the same trick, and said nothing. The Wicked Tribe, who had achieved a level of Zen acceptance far beyond anything that Orlando could ever aspire to, pretended to be moths, enacting several tragicomic mock-immolations around the lamp flame.

What seemed almost an hour passed with corridor replacing corridor, each one as hot, dry, and empty but for a thin film of sand as the one before. Just as Orlando was beginning to feel certain he would never make it to the end of the journey, his breathing harsh and his legs so tired they felt rubbery, Bes led them through another entrance and stopped. He held the lamp out before him, a height only slightly above Orlando's knees, to reveal a small chamber. Most of the floor was missing, although the straight edges of the five-meter-square hole showed that this was not an accident.

"Down there," said Bes, grinning. "That's where we go. Straight down about twenty cubits, but into water. Problem is, there's no coming back that way—the walls are slick as polished amber. A protection against temple raiders and tomb thieves. So you'd better be certain you want to go."

"You mean we're supposed to . . . to jump?" asked Fredericks, who had been silent for some time.

"If you prefer, you can just sort of fall." The little god smirked. "The walls are this wide apart all the way down—that's to make sure people can't brace themselves and climb back up—so you don't have to worry much about scraping the sides."

Fredericks looked worried. "Can't you just . . . fly us down? Use your god powers or whatever?"

Bes laughed raucously. "God powers? I am a god of the hearth, patron of dung and whitewash and menstrual blood. You are the war god, aren't you—one of those deities who hurries to wherever the drums and trumpets are sounding? So why don't you fly us down?"

Orlando was too busy catching his breath. Fredericks was on his own.

"We . . . we have a flying chariot," he said at last. "That's what we have. Back home."

Mrs. Simpkins shot him a look. "They're not very important gods, Bes. Be nice to them."

The yellow monkeys, who had swooped into the hole the moment they saw it, now rose from the darkness like a cloud of burning sulphur.

"Long way down!" they whooped. "Motto grosso windy wind! Then wet wet splash splash!"

"Don't be 'fraid, 'Landogarner! Crocodiles be may pequeno baby ones!"

"Crocodiles?" said Fredericks in alarm.

"They're making that up," said Bonnie Mae, swatting at the overexcited monkeys with her hand. "Let's get going."

Bes was amused by the whole thing. "They must fight unusual wars on those small islands in the Great Green," he said to Fredericks, leering. "Face-slapping, piss-your-loincloth, girly wars. . . ."

"Hey!" Fredericks said, fluffing himself up to look bigger, not really necessary when his potential opponent was the size of a cocker spaniel.

"Stop it." Orlando was tired and had no strength to waste on such silliness. "Let's go. How far do we have to swim once we're in the water?"

Bes turned to him, still grinning. "Not far, not far. But you won't come back this way, as I said. You still interested?"

Orlando nodded wearily.

The leap, when it came, was a sort of relief—an escape from gravity, at least for a few moments. The water at the bottom was warm as blood. There was very little light. Fredericks splashed down beside him seconds later, and they floundered in place until Bes and Bonnie Mae Simpkins plunged in.

"Again!" squealed the monkeys, circling above the water.

"So," Orlando gasped some minutes later as Bes tugged him up onto a stone walkway, "if there's no way back, how are you going to get out after you take us there?"

"He's Bes, boy," said Mrs. Simpkins.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Orlando growled. The tiny man had a grip like a longshoreman; Orlando wiggled his hand to renew the circulation.

"It means that even Squinty and Bonebreaker will think twice about trying to keep me somewhere when I wish to leave." Bes shook himself like a dog, scattering water from his beard and matted hair. "They know that if they harm me or even try to hold me, they will bring the people down on them in a way that will make Upaut's little uprising look like a pleasure barge excursion."

"He's talking about Tefy and Mewat," said Bonnie Mae quietly.

Orlando nodded. He was saving his strength again. Even the few moments' hard swimming to stay afloat in the tepid water had tired him, and his muscles ached.

The little man produced another lamp from thin air, then led them through another series of corridors.

"What is he, anyway," Fredericks whispered, "—the god of hey-is-that-a-Iantem-in-your-loincloth?"

Orlando grunted with laughter, although it hurt a little.

The corridors widened. The lamp's flame began to flutter in a thin breeze.

"The Breath of Ra," Bes said, scowling for a moment before choosing a direction.

"Which is. . . ?"

"Just the air that moves through the Temple of Ra. I suspect it has something to do with all these tunnels and the different air temperatures." He grinned at Orlando's expression. "I may be a mere household god, boy, but I'm not an idiot."

Orlando found himself almost liking the ugly little man. "So what do you do? I mean, how does a household god spend his time?"

"Mostly arguing with more important gods." Bes' homely face turned serious. "For instance, when one of the Hathors determines that it is time for a child to die, the mother will plead for me to intercede. Or sometimes I am pulled into a neighborhood dispute—if a man lets his animals trample his neighbor's yard, he just might wake up and discover that I have come in the night and made his animals sick."

"Sounds kind of petty."

The dwarf's glance was shrewd. "We can't all be war gods, now can we?"

They trudged on. Orlando could no longer remember what he had felt like earlier in the morning—that wonderful, if illusory, sensation of health that had seemed to run through him instead of blood. No one else appeared to be having a good time in these hot corridors either. Even the monkeys were drooping a bit, following a more or less straight course, fanned out in a tiny "v" behind Bes like geese flying south for the winter.

At last the little house god led them up a long incline that ended in what seemed to be a solid wall of stone incised with hieroglyphs. He made them all stand back from the wall, then touched a succession of characters so swiftly that it was impossible to follow what he'd done. After a moment of stillness the wall rumbled outward in a wide arc. Something huge and terrifying and pale blue stepped through into the lamplight, filling the doorway. Shrieking, the Wicked Tribe scattered in all directions.

For a moment, Orlando thought he was faced again with one of the monstrous gryphons of the Middle Country, but this creature was much bigger, and though it had the same leonine body, its head carried heavy-boned human features. It seated itself on its hindquarters, completely blocking the doorway, and lifted a paw the size of a truck tire. "Bes," the voice rumbled, making Orlando's bones jiggle. "You bring strangers."

The little god walked forward until he stood just beneath the vast foreleg like a chubby nail waiting to be hammered. "Yes, Dua. How goes the siege?"

The sphinx leaned forward to examine Orlando, Fredericks, and Bonnie Mae in turn. Although its size and deep, musky smell were terrifying, it was curiously beautiful, too: the vast features were those of a living person, but only barely—it had a strange, stony look, as though it had already become part statue. "The siege?" it growled. "Well enough, for an exercise in foolishness. But I am not here to promote wars in heaven—or to discourage them either. I am here to protect Ra's temple. And you, little Bes? Why are you here?"

The dwarf bowed. "To bring these guests together with friends of theirs. To see what I can see. You know, this and that."

The sphinx shook its massive head. "Of course. I should have known. I will let you pass, and the strangers, too, but they are none of them what they appear. I will hold you responsible for what they do here, little god." Dua's head swung forward like the jaws of a steam shovel, until it hung only inches from Fredericks' own pale, bug-eyed features. "Do not forget, care of this temple belongs to me and my brother Saf. We will not see it harmed either from the outside or the inside."

Dua stepped out of the way to let them pass.

"You have just met Tomorrow," said Bes cheerfully. "His brother Yesterday is just as friendly to visitors."

"I bet it's not worrying about defiling the temple that's keeping those bad guys outside," Fredericks said in a shaky whisper when they had put a few bends of the corridor behind them. "It's not wanting to get turned into pastrami by that bruiser."

"Don't underestimate Tefy and Mewat either, boys," said Bonnie Mae. "They got more than strength going for them, and even the sphinxes won't get into a tussle with them if they can help it." She shook her head. "But Dua and Saf won't let the temple be taken without a fight either. It's not going to be pretty when it comes."

"And this is what you led us into?" Anger brought back a little of Orlando's strength. "Thanks a lot!"

"You'll be gone before it happens," she said wearily. "It'll be the rest of us staying behind to clean up."

Feeling a little ashamed, Orlando fell silent. Moments later, they stepped through a brightly painted archway into the first strong light they had seen since entering the tunnels hours before.

The centerpiece of the Temple of Ra was a single beam of sunshine that knifed down from the ceiling scores of meters above, slicing through the smoky, dust-laden temple air like a searchlight through fog. Although the effect was starkly arresting, the rest of the titanic room was not in complete darkness—lamps burned in niches all along the walls, helping to illuminate the painted floor-to-ceiling scenes of Ra's heroic flight through the daytime sky on his solar barque, and his even more heroic journey through the underworld during the dark hours of night, where he battled the serpent Apep before his eventual dawn victory.

But, of course, this was not ancient Egypt—it was the Otherland network's version of ancient Egypt. There were many things stranger and more fascinating than even such an impressive building, and Orlando had already realized that the sphinx Dua was more representative than he was exceptional. Bonita Mae Simpkins had said earlier that at night the streets of Abydos were full of monsters. Orlando decided that if she thought the people in here were normal, she had probably been living in Abydos a bit too long.

There were ordinary Egyptians, of course, everything from children carried in their parents' arms to soldiers who seemed to have deserted from Osiris' army (many of whom had about them the faintly haunted air of people who still were not certain they'd backed the right horse.) These plain folk had spread bedrolls all around the edges of the temple's gigantic main chamber, turning the perimeter of the room into something like a campground, or one of the shantytowns Orlando was always seeing on the news. But this was a rebellion of gods as well as mortals, and those gods were strange and wonderful in their multiform designs—women with antlers growing from their curly black hair, or with the narrow heads of serpents or birds in place of normal human features. Some of the gods and goddesses were distinguishable as such only by their size or a certain golden glow to their skins, but others had gleaming thunderbolts hovering above their heads or wore curling ram's horns. Some had even taken on the full form of animals, like one large and particularly impressive cow, perhaps eight feel tall as she stood on her hind legs, with wide brown eyes of great sensitivity and understanding. Or at least that was what Orlando felt very strongly about her, even though she was over two dozen meters away and not even looking in his direction, which led him to suspect that inspiring empathy and trust might be part of her goddess-skills.

Their former traveling companion, the wolf-headed god Upaut, sat above it all on a high-backed chair on a platform near the center of the great chamber. The wolf's face was solemn, his long muzzle resting on his hand as he listened to three young women crouching by his feet who were singing him quiet hymns. Several other gods appeared to be trying to get his attention for reasons of their own, perhaps discussions of siege strategy, but with no visible luck. Orlando's sword, which the wolf-god had hijacked, was nowhere to be seen.

"Can you find your own way now, little mother?" Bes asked Bonnie Mae, jerking Orlando back to their present reality once more. "Or is there someone you'd like me to sniff out?"

"No. I've seen the others," she said. "Thank you."

"You are welcome, but you're not rid of me yet." The dwarf did a funny little step, spun, and started away. "I'm in no hurry to go home," he called over his shoulder. "Besides, there are enough people here that someone will probably be calling on me to bless a marital bed or a birth before too long. I'll come find you before I leave."

Mrs. Simpkins led them across the tiled floor—broadly skirting Upaut's chair, Orlando noticed with some relief: he wasn't quite ready to deal with the volatile god just yet. She led them unerringly through the squatter camp along one wall of the temple, as though it were a regular part of her morning commute, directing them at last to a group of people in the shadows near the corner of the room, a knot of mortals huddled beside the cyclopean blocks of the temple wall. The Wicked Tribe, revived now by the sights and sounds of the temple, flew ahead and circled lazily in the air above the little camp.

Bonnie Mae took Orlando and Fredericks each by an arm. "These are friends," she said. Bonnie Mae's other comrades, four in all, examined the two newcomers with weary interest. "I won't tell you their names just now," she continued, "because there are too many ears here, but I hope y'all will believe me."

No one seemed inclined not to, or perhaps they simply did not have the strength to question. A grim anticipation hung in the air. as though they were all prisoners waiting to become martyrs—which, Orlando reflected nervously, they just might be.

One of Mrs. Simpkins' friends, who wore the near-naked sim of a girl child, plucked at Bonnie Mae's sleeve. "Some of the godlings think the Twins won't wait any longer," she announced in a voice much older than her appearance. "The word is they'll wait until nightfall, then attack."

"This is Kimi," Bonnie Mae told Orlando. "She's from Japan, and I'm still not quite sure what her religion is—some cult, wasn't it, dear? As far as the Twins . . . well, if that's what they're going to do, then that's what they're going to do. But it doesn't give us long to get these two out." She sighed and turned back to Orlando and Fredericks. "I should introduce you to the others." She pointed to the two sitting beside Kimi, both wearing male Egyptian sims, one old, one young and smiling cheerily. "That's Mr. Pingalap there, and that's Vasily."

"So all these people are in the Circle?" Orlando had a horrible feeling that, siege and political intrigue aside, this was going to be like some weird religious camp.

Mrs. Simpkins nodded. "Yes. Mr. Pingalap is a Moslem, like Mr. Jehani was. Vasily is from Russia, and he . . . he has a very interesting background."

"She means I was a criminal," the youth said, smiling even more brightly. "Until I realized that the Final Days were upon us—that the Christos would be coming back. I did not want to face His terrible wrath. It would be horrible to burn forever."

Fredericks smiled weakly and moved back a step. Orlando stayed put, but made a mental note to keep distant from the Russian man—Vasily had the same feverish light in his eye as Upaut, and Orlando had learned the hard way what that meant.

"Now, I'm afraid I don't know this last gentleman's name," Bonnie Mae went on, drawing Orlando's attention to the man at the far edge of the little camp. The stranger looked up from a piece of tile of some sort, which he had covered with black marks with the stick of charcoal he held like a pencil. His sim was older than Vasily's but younger than Mr. Pingalap's, slender and anonymous.

"Nandi, Mrs. Simpkins," he said. "Nandi Paradivash. I have just arrived from one of the other simulations and your comrades have been kind enough to bring me up to date." He nodded kindly but briskly at Orlando and Fredericks. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. You will forgive me, but I am trying to make some calculations about the gateways."

Something drifted down into Orlando's hair, tugging at him like cobwebs: a few members of the Wicked Tribe were looking for a place to roost. Several more dropped and clung to Fredericks' shoulders. "So now what do we do?" asked Orlando.

Mrs. Simpkins settled herself beside the others. "At the moment, I just want to find out the news from my friends—we all haven't seen each other since this siege started. Then we'll try to figure out what y'all should do."

"Chizz." Orlando put his back against the wall and slid to the floor, extending his long Thargor-legs. A part of him bridled slightly at the idea that all these grown-ups were going to decide between them what he should do, but at the moment he did not have the strength to be too offended. He plucked a yellow monkey that was crawling ticklingly along his neck and held it up so he could see its tiny face.

"Which one are you?"

"Huko. You got hairs all up in your nose, bra."

"Thanks for the report. Can you get Zunni for me? Or what's that other one's name—Kaspar?"

"Zunni right there." Little Huko pointed toward a spot on Orlando's own head that he couldn't see, somewhere just north of his left ear. Orlando gently moved his finger to the spot and called for her. When he felt her perch on the end of his finger, he brought her forward.

"Zunni, I need to ask you some questions."

Her eyes went wide. "Time to have big mister fun, 'Landogarner?"

"Not quite yet. I want you to tell me what happened to you after . . . after the last time we were all together in my 'cot. Back in the real world—in RL? You were going to take us to someone named 'Dog,' remember?"

"Dog! Dog!" Huko, who was hovering maddeningly close to Orlando's ear, let out a little yelp of mourning. "Dog gone!"

"Doggie all dead, now," said Zunni. She sounded genuinely sad, the first time he had heard anything like it from any of the Wicked Tribe. "Big Bad Nothing got into him and made him scared so he went dead."

Orlando shook his head; a couple of Tribe monkeys fell off, grabbing handholds in his hair at the last moment and swinging back and forth before his gaze. "What does that mean? What exactly is the Big Bad Nothing?"

The children's communication skills still left something to be desired. It took the better part of an hour to piece together the Wicked Tribe's story. Fredericks came to sit cross-legged beside Orlando, which halved the amount of unwanted monkey-attention that Orlando had to endure and made questioning them easier.

The flightiness of the Tribe, metaphoric and actual, was not the only problem. They spoke a language of their own, and despite having spent most of his own young life online, Orlando found himself unable to make sense of half the things they said. These little ones, almost every one the product of a TreeHouse family—a near-certain guarantee of eccentricity to begin with—had been moving through the interstices of the world telecommunication grid since before they could even remember. They saw the world of virtuality quite differently than Orlando did. The Tribe did not worry much about what the virtual environment was supposed to represent, since they had developed a casually dismissive response to imitation reality before they had been old enough to talk. Instead, they were much more involved with what it was. Even the Otherland network, no matter how amazingly realistic it might seem to adults, was to them just a more complex than usual assembly of markers and props and subroutines—or, as the Wicked Tribe described these workings, according to their shared experiences and disinterest in real-world labels, things that were like (other things) which were themselves like (other things), unless they were more like (those other things from that time before.)

Orlando felt like he was trying to discuss philosophy in a foreign language when he had barely mastered, "Do you have a rest-room?"

Still, with work he found himself getting at least a small sense of their experiences in the network, although he was certain he was missing important details that he could not recognize amidst the babble that seemed almost the stream-of-consciousness of some kind of group mind. The Tribe had gone through many of the same things he and Fredericks had, at least at first—the feeling of being pulled into a void, and of being examined, even stalked, by some large and sinister intelligence, the entity they called the Big Bad Nothing. After that, instead of waking up in a simulation as Orlando and Fredericks had found themselves in Temilún, the Tribe children had experienced a long interval of sleepy darkness. Something had tried to communicate with them, apparently in some way they either could not entirely understand or could not explain to Orlando, but they retained images of oceans to be crossed and others like themselves who were waiting for them. After a while, a more comprehensible entity had come to them—the one they called the Lady.

The goddess Ma'at had spoken to them soothingly, like a mother would, and seemed to have promised she would do her best to help them, that they should not be frightened, but she could tell them nothing about where they were or what was happening.

But by this point some of the younger Tribe members had been very frightened indeed. Things got worse when one of the littlest, a girl called Shameena, had begun to shriek in terrible pain. The screaming had stopped after a short time, but the little monkey had gone still and silent and she never moved again. Orlando guessed she had been pulled offline by concerned parents. Remembering Fredericks' experience, and thinking of that horror being visited on a very young child, Orlando was coldly furious.

There was not much more to the Tribe's story. They had waited, soothed by occasional visits from the Lady, drowsing like caged animals, until Orlando and Fredericks had broken the urn and set them free. How or why they had come to be inside it was impossible to discover.

"But how did you take us past the temple?" Orlando asked.

"That was major, major bad," said Fredericks, shuddering. "Never anything like that again. Never. I'd rather someone pulled my plug out than ever do that again."

Zunni made a face, clearly irritated by these older comrades' inability to understand even the simplest things. "Didn't go past, went through. Too strong to go away. Have to go at it, then through before things close again. But you went slow, slow, slow. Why you do that?"

"I don't know," Orlando admitted. "Something happened while I was . . . in there, I guess, but I'm not sure what it was." He turned to Fredericks. "It was like children were talking to me. No, like they were inside of me. Millions of 'em."

Fredericks frowned. "Scanny. Do you think it's the kids like Renie's brother—the ones that are in coma. . . ?"

"Can you boys come over and talk to us?" Bonnie Mae called. "Mr. Paradivash has some questions he'd like to ask you."

Orlando sighed. He'd been hoping to get a little rest—every muscle was throbbing and his head felt as heavy as the stone blocks of the temple—but he and Fredericks crawled over to join the others.

"Mrs. Simpkins has told me your story, or what she knows of it," the stranger said. "But I have some queries of my own, if you will indulge me."

Orlando couldn't help smiling at his overly precise way of talking, but instead of being asked about their experiences with the goddess Ma'at, or their first meeting with Sellars, the man called Nandi seemed primarily interested in how they'd entered and exited each simworld they visited. Some of it was vague in Orlando's memory—it was disturbing to realize how often he'd been sick—but Fredericks helped him over the rough places.

"What are you so interested in this stuff for?" Orlando asked at last. "Where are you from?"

"I have been in many parts of the network," Paradivash said without a trace of bravado. "Most recently I escaped from one of Felix Jongleur's simulations, although more by luck than my own skill, it must be said." He shrugged. "I was a prisoner in Xanadu, but a sort of earthquake started an uprising among the more superstitious of Kublai Khan's guards, and since the Khan himself was not present, things got rather out of hand." He shrugged. "But this is not important. What matters is that we may have been wrong about two, perhaps even three crucial things, and we in the Circle cannot afford any more mistakes."

The young man named Vasily stirred. "You should put your trust in God, friend. He is watching us. He is guiding us. He will make sure that His enemies are brought low."

Nandi Paradivash smiled wearily. "That may well be, sir, but He has never yet objected to His faithful servants trying to help themselves, and it is equally certain that some who have waited for God to save them have found themselves less central to His plan than they thought they were."

"That is close to blasphemy," Vasily growled.

"Enough." Bonnie Mae Simpkins turned on the young man like a grumpy mother bear. "You just keep your mouth shut for a bit, then you'll get your turn. I want to hear what Mr. Paradivash has to say."

"It is this." Paradivash stared at the piece of tile, thick with writing. "We had assumed that when the Grail Brotherhood sealed the system a few weeks ago, that was their final step—that they had finished what they planned and now meant to reap the rewards. It was a reasonable guess. They alone had freedom of the system, while other users were banned, or—if they were already on the system like our Circle members—they were somehow trapped online. But the Grail Brotherhood have not finished, it seems. One crucial aspect of their plan remains incomplete, although we know it only by the coded designation, 'the Ceremony.' "

"These Grail people must have spent like, centuries hanging out in the Palace of Shadow," Fredericks whispered to Orlando, citing a particularly melodramatic part of their old Middle Country simworld. "They just keep throwing utter creepy all around."

Orlando was fighting hard to overcome his fatigue. This seemed like real information, the first he had been given in a long time. "You said there were two crucial things. No, three. What are the others?"

Paradivash nodded. "One is the involvement of this person Sellars. He is no one we know, nor have I ever heard of him before this, at least not by that name. It is curious—someone who claims to be opposed to the Brotherhood, and who has spent so much time and energy on this project, but has not contacted the Circle. I do not know what to think."

"Are you saying he's dupping?" Fredericks was angry, something Orlando hadn't heard for a while. "Just because he's not playing the game the way you think he's supposed to?"

The older man named Pingalap stirred. "Who are these young people, these strangers, to come and question us?"

Nandi Paradivash ignored his Circle comrade, but held Fredericks' stare for a long moment. "I do not know what to think, as I said. But it troubles me."

"Number three?" Orlando prompted. "Third mistake?"

"Ah. That is perhaps one we will be pleased to discover, if true." Paradivash held up his scribbled-upon tile. "Since the network has been sealed, we have believed the gateways between simulations, at least those which are not permanently linked to other worlds by the river, were operating at random. This has made it cruelly hard to plan, or even to communicate between Circle groups in different parts of the network. But I am no longer sure it is true—there may be an arrangement that is simply more subtle than we could grasp. With the information I myself have gathered, and that which you two have given me, it is possible I can finally discern the pattern which now controls the gates. That would be a major victory, if true."

Orlando considered. "And it if is true? What good will it do you?"

Paradivash looked up from his calculations. "You must have noticed that many of these simulations are breaking down in some way or other—collapsing into chaos, as though the system were going through some phase of instability. What you may not know is that the dangers here are real. The closing-off of the network from the outside did not happen all at once—it took the better part of two days. Before the last chinks were shut, it became clear from those who had been offline that the perils of this place were no longer just virtual. Several members of our organization who have been killed in simulations have also died in real life."

Something Orlando had long expected was now confirmed. He felt a cold lump in his stomach, and avoided looking at Bonnie Mae Simpkins. "So what good will figuring out the gates do us?"

The stranger gave him a hard look, then turned his eyes back to his figures. "It will allow us perhaps to stay a step ahead of the worst destruction—to stay alive as long as possible. Because otherwise there is no hope at all. The Ceremony is coming, whatever it is. The Grail Brotherhood have launched their endgame, and we have nothing yet with which to counter it."

Orlando looked at the man, who seemed to have stepped through some mental gateway of his own and was already miles away. Little yellow monkeys stirred uneasily on Orlando's shoulder.

We 're going to get herded like animals, he could not help thinking. From world to world until there isn't anywhere else to run. Then the killing will really start.

CHAPTER 11
Quarantine

NETFEED/FASHION: Mbinda "Bored by the Street"

(visual: Mbinda's fall show—runway models)

VO: Designer Hussein Mbinda says that changes in street fashion will have little effect on his line. He continues to emphasize flowing fabrics, as in his most recent "Chutes" collection, but says that he's interested in color and shape, not street cred.

(visual: Mbinda backstage at Milan runway show)

MBINDA: "I'm bored by the street—you can only spend so much time thinking about people who don't even have the sense to get out of the cold."

 

For a moment Renie thought she had actually screamed—caught in the tail end of a dream in which both Martine and Stephen were sealed in some kind of barrel that was rapidly sinking into the depths of a dark river, Renie herself unable to reach them no matter how hard she swam—but when she opened her eyes, the girl Emily was rocking back and forth beside her and T4b was still sleeping, his head lolling on his wide, armor-bulked chest. The angled light revealed acne scars on his dusty cheek; Renie wondered why any teenage boy would choose to have that feature made part of his virtual presence.

She was furious with herself for falling asleep, although since she and the two young people had returned first after hours of fruitless searching for Martine, there was nothing better to be done at present. Still, to have allowed weariness to tug her down while Martine remained lost seemed a form of betrayal.

So many people needing help, she thought with more than a little bitterness, and we haven't helped one of them yet.

Renie brushed reflexively at her eyelids and wondered about her real face under the bubble-mask in the V-tank. Was sleep crusting the corners of her eyes? Collecting around the inner edges of the mask like tailings from a mine? It was a disgusting thought, but oddly fascinating. It was hard not to think of her own body as something completely separate from her now, although it must be responding to her neural commands, flexing when she made her virtual joints flex to lift something, thrashing in its vat of plasmodial liquid when she felt herself to be running through the insect-jungles or freight yards of the Otherland network. It made her feel sorry for her body, as though it were something discarded—a toy with which a child had grown bored.

She shook off the gloomy thoughts and sat up, struggling to remember in which of the gigantic house's countless rooms she had landed. It came to her after only a moment's survey of the spare, functional furniture, the long table and several dozen chairs, and the icons propped in niches along the wall, each illuminated by its own candle,

The Library Brothers. Their executive dining room or whatever you'd call it.

Brother Epistulus Tertius had been horrified by their companion's disappearance, although he seemed a little doubtful that it had been a kidnapping—perhaps not a very common happenstance in this enclosed, semifeudal society. He had rounded up several of his fellows to help search the Library precinct, and had sent another to request an interview with Brother Custodis Major on the subject of the dusting monk Renie suspected had been their enemy in disguise. Epistulus Tertius had also kindly insisted that Renie and the other newcomers use the Library Cloisters as their base of operations.

Renie struggled to focus on the problem. Every moment that Martine was in the monster's hands the risk increased. She looked at Emily and wondered why the Quan Li thing had not snatched her instead of Martine, as it had back in the unfinished simulation. Merely a case of opportunity, or for some purpose more complicated? Did that mean there was a chance the thing would keep Martine alive?

Steps clattered in the hallway outside. T4b stirred and made a drowsy questioning noise as Florimel and !Xabbu entered.

"Any news?" Renie was relieved to see them back safely, but she could tell already by their postures and expressions what Florimel's headshake confirmed. "Damn! There must be something we can do—they can't have just vanished."

"In a place like this?" Florimel asked heavily. "With thousands of rooms? I am afraid that is just what they can do."

"The young monk wants us all to come to the . . . what is the word?" !Xabbu wrinkled his brow. "Abbot's chambers. He seems very concerned."

"Brother Epistulus Tertius," Florimel said. "My God, what a mouthful. We could just call him 'E3'—our friend over there could make him an honorary Goggleboy."

Renie smiled politely and glanced at T4b, who was rubbing at his face sleepily. "We must take any help offered," Renie said as Emily sat up, looking as groggy as T4b. "Should we bring everyone?"

"Do we dare separate?" asked Florimel.

 

Despite the fact that it was a large room, the abbot of the Great Library seemed almost too big for it, a wide man with small sharp eyes and a charming smile that came with surprising swiftness to his heavy features. But however nice the smile, after greeting them and waving Renie and Florimel over to his vast desk—the others stayed behind on a bench near the door—the man the other monks respectfully addressed as Primoris had not had much opportunity to use it.

"A terrible thing," he told Renie and her companions. "We have labored hard to make our market a safe place for travelers. Now two people are waylaid in a week! And by one of our own acolytes, if what you say is true."

"Posing, Primoris," said Brother E3 hurriedly—Florimel's joke would now not leave Renie's mind, and she silently cursed the German woman. "Someone posing as one of our acolytes."

"Well, we shall get to the truth of this. Here is Brother Custodis Major now." The abbot lifted a meaty hand and beckoned. "Come in, Brother, and lighten our gloom. Have you found the young villain?"

Custodis Major, who although he looked to be in his sixties at least, still had a beard that was primarily red, shook his head. "I wish it were so, Primoris. There is no trace of him except some clothing." He placed a small bundle on the abbot's desk. "Kwanli—that is his name—has been with us only two weeks, and none of the other acolytes know him well."

"I belive that," Renie said, "especially if they haven't noticed he's a woman."

"What?" The abbot frowned. "This criminal is a woman? I have never heard of such a thing."

"It's a long story." Renie had not taken her eyes off the pile of clothing. "May we look through those things?"

The abbot spread his hand, granting permission. Florimel stepped in front of Renie and began gently to unfold the cloth; Renie swallowed her pride and let her do it. There was little enough to examine, a rough tunic and a pair of woolen hose raddled with small snags. "Those aren't what she was wearing when I saw her," Renie said.

Brother Custodis Major lifted a bushy red eyebrow. "This is the Library, not the Gaol Halls, good lady, and these are not the dark days after the Upper Shelf Fire. My boys have a change of clothes so that when the fullers come, they can send their garments to be cleaned."

"What is this?" Florimel held up her finger with a tiny chip of something white on the end. "It was in the cuff of the sleeve."

Epistulus Tertius was the most nimble of the three monks. He leaned in, squinted, and said, "Plaster, isn't it?"

Brother Custodis Major was slower to speak. After examining the chip for a long moment, he said, "I do not think it comes from the Library. See, it is figured, and the only plaster we have here is on the flat walls in the Cloisters—the Library is wood and stone."

Renie could not help clapping her hands together in fierce joy. "Something! That's something anyway!" She turned to the abbot. "Is there any way we could find out where it comes from? I know it's a big house, but. . . ."

The abbot again lifted his hand, this time to forestall more questions. "I'm sure we can." He lifted a fabric-covered tube from behind his desk and spoke into it. "Hello? Hello, Brother Vocus?" He lifted it to his ear; when no answer came, he shook the hose, then began the whole process over again. At last he said, "Someone has apparently left my speaking-tube disconnected downstairs. Epistulus Tertius, will you go and find Brother Factum Quintus? I believe he'll be cataloging in the Tile Halls today."

The abbot turned back to the outsiders as the young monk vanished through the door. "Factum Quintus is our expert on decorative building materials, although his knowledge is by no means limited so narrowly. He has done some wonderful work on crenellations, too—he enabled us, in fact, to identify what were then called The Semicircular Apse Documents as being from another source entirely. When they are translated someday, his name will be memorialized in them." His smile transformed his face like a fluffy cloud floating across the sky. "A good man."

Renie smiled back, but inside she could feel her engine racing. She wanted to do something, and only the knowledge that Martine's life was in their hands helped her calm the unhelpful internal voice that demanded immediate action, whether appropriate or not.

Factum Quintus appeared at last, silent and sepulchral as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Round-faced Brother E3 (Renie winced at the thought—it was starting to become automatic) stood huffing in the doorway behind him, as though he had been forced to carry the other monk all the way to the abbot's chambers on his back. Not that it looked like much of a job: Factum Quintus was quite the thinnest person Renie had seen in a long time, with a face like a fish staring head-on through the glass wall of a tank. He barely gave her and the others a glance, although she felt sure it was the first time he had seen a baboon in the same room with the abbot.

"You wanted me, Primoris?" His voice was as raw as a teenager's, although he looked to be in his early thirties.

"Just have a look at this, if you please." The abbot gestured at the fleck of plaster that Florimel had set on the refolded tunic.

The skinny monk stared at it for a moment, his face almost completely empty of expression, then reached into the neck of his robe and withdrew a rectangle of thin crystal on a length of chain. He settled this on his nose like a pair of spectacles—there was a niche cut in the center for the purpose—and tilted it back and forth as he leaned over the white spot making little lip-smacking noises. After a long perusal he straightened.

"It is a bit of ballflower. Yes, yes. A patch, I should imagine, something to fix a piece of exterior carving from one of the older turrets." He lifted the chip on his fingertip to examine it again. "Hmmmm—ah! Yes. Do you see the curve? Quite distinctive. Haven't seen one in a bit—fooled me for a moment. Thought it might be from one of those quoins they found when they stripped the Seashell Facade." Hugely magnified behind the crystal bar, his eyes appeared even more piscine than before. "May I keep it? Like to have a look at the plaster mix." He set it back on the folded clothes, then delicately licked the finger that had held it. "Mmmm. More gypsum than I would have expected."

"That's all fine," said Renie, speaking slowly to keep her impatience in check, "but can you tell us where it's from? We're looking for someone—that fragment was found in his clothes." The abbot and Epistulus Tertius gave her a strange look over the reswitched pronoun, but Renie did not bother to explain. "We're in a hurry—this person has kidnapped our friend."

Factum Quintus gazed at her musingly for a moment, his finger still pressed against his tongue, then abruptly turned and walked out of the abbot's chamber. Renie stared, aghast. "Where is he going. . . ?"

"Epistulus Tertius, will you follow him?" said the abbot. "He is a bit . . . distracted by nature," he explained to Renie and the others. "That is why he will never be Factum Major. But he is extremely clever, and I am sure he is thinking about your problem."

Moments later Epistulus Tertius was back at the chamber door, even more red-faced than before (and, Renie felt sure, growing increasingly sorry he'd befriended these strangers.) "He's gone to the crypts, Primoris."

"There." The large abbot sat back in his chair, like a piece of cargo in its stays. "He is looking for something to help you with your problem."

An awkward silence fell on the room. The abbot and brothers Custodis Major and Epistulus Tertius, who should have been used to stillness, fidgeted and looked at the walls. Renie and her companions were no more at ease, except for !Xabbu and Emily. !Xabbu was doing his best not to appear too human, since they had not encountered a single talking animal in this simulation, and was currently perched on the back of the bench beside T4b's head, picking imaginary nits from the Goggleboy's skunk-striped hair, much to T4b's annoyance and the girl's amusement.

"If we're waiting," Renie said, "can you at least tell us something about this place? How big is it? It seems huge."

The abbot looked up and smiled. "The Library? Ah, yes, I suppose it is big, although there are only two other Libraries within pilgrimage distance, so we have little to compare it to."

"No, I mean the house itself." Renie remembered the sea of rooftops. "It just goes on and on like a city, from what I've seen. How big is it?"

The abbot looked to Brother Custodis Major, then back at her. "City. I do not understand."

"Leave it alone, Renie," said Florimel. "It doesn't matter."

"How far from here until it ends?" Renie asked the abbot. God knew when they'd get a chance to have a normal conversation with anyone here again. "To the place where there isn't any more house?"

"Ah." The big man nodded slowly. "I understand. You have had some religious instruction, perhaps? Or there are legends of such things in the part of the House you come from? No one knows what lies beyond the House, of course, because no one has ever seen it and returned to tell about it, just as no one has come from beyond death to tell us of what they found. Those who believe in the Lady of the Windows would dispute me on both counts, of course, but the House is full of strange ideas and cults. We of the Library Brotherhood are only comfortable with facts."

"So it has no end? None at all? The . . . this house just goes on forever and ever?"

"There are those who say that the Builders are still out there somewhere, of course." The abbot spread his hands, as though admitting an unpleasant truth. "They believe that at some unimaginable distance there is a place that is . . . not-House would be the only way I can explain it. That out at the very edge of things, the Builders are still building. But the Builder cults have diminished during my lifetime—a long stretch of peace and prosperity will have that effect."

Before Renie could even begin to wrap her mind around the idea of a house that was an entire world—that literally had no edge, no ending—tall, skinny Brother Factum Quintus stalked back into the room, arms now full of rolled papers and parchments whose ends stuck out in all directions, so that he looked like a sea urchin on stilts.

". . . It's actually very interesting when you think about it," he was saying, as if he had never stopped the original conversation. "Most of our research in the Sanctum Factorum is about the original building of things—we have paid so little attention to the repairs, which have their own styles quite as fascinating and individual. Of course, there are records of some of the refurbishments, but far too few." Unable to see past the parchments, he bumped into the abbot's desk and stood there for a moment, a piece of flotsam balked by a seawall. "Yes, yes. There is a monograph there waiting to be composed, a genuine gift to learning that could be made," he went on, although everyone else in the room must have been invisible to him, but he had evidently started this monologue while by himself anyway.

"Brother Factum Quintus," the abbot said gently, "you are babbling. Please put those down—the table is just in front of you."

The scrolls cascaded to the tabletop like a pile of jackstraws, Factum Quintus' narrow, bug-eyed face was visible once more. He was frowning. "Ballflowers, though—those are also to be found in the Neo-Foundationist period ruins, and I worry whether we should consider those parts of the House as well. We would have no repair orders, though, since those early folk were evidently a people without letters or numbers."

"I think we can dismiss the Neo-Foundationists for now," the abbot told him. "Come, brother, show these good people what you have found."

Factum Quintus began unfurling his collection of documents, spreading one yellowed, curling sheet atop another and directing various onlookers to hold down various corners until the abbot's desk had entirely disappeared beneath an autumnal mulch of what could now be seen as building plans, working orders, and hand-lettered invoices. They spanned what seemed centuries, from naive illustrations margined by mythical creatures, without a single truly straight line in the whole drawing, to quite modern-looking blueprints with each duct and ornament carefully included.

The gawky monk was in his element, and kept up a running commentary as he leafed backward and forward through the layers. ". . . Of course that would be in the Sunrise Attics, several days away, and upstream at that, so it seems unlikely. But those repairs done to the Spire Forest could certainly qualify, and I'm sure . . . hmmm, yes, here, quite high gypsum content, so that's definitely possible."

Renie stared at the great pile of documents. "Aren't you worried about something happening to them?" She thought the monks seemed rather cavalier for an order of book-protectors. "What if one of them got torn?"

"It would be a tragedy, of course," said Epistulus Tertius, who had returned to his normal, albeit still pinkish, shade. He narrowed his eyes. "Goodness, you don't think these are the original documents, do you?" He and Brother Custodis Major shared a quiet chuckle, and even the abbot smiled. "Oh, no. These are copies of copies. Rather old, some of them, and still valuable, of course—even in this modem age it is difficult to make good copies of the original documents without risking damage."

Factum Quintus had quietly continued his own monologue, paying no attention to the conversation going on around him, and now lifted his finger as though he had reached a significant point. "If we imagine that this person has come within the last few days from the place this plaster fell—and it seems likely, or the plaster would have been dust by now—then I suppose we can narrow it down to two places," he said. "This bit has probably come from either the Spire Forest or the Campanile of the Six Pigs."

"That's wonderful." Renie turned to the abbot. "Do you have a map so we can figure out how to get there?" She looked down at the table, layers deep in plans of every type. "I suppose that's a silly question."

Before the abbot could answer her, Factum Quintus suddenly said, "Actually, I can show you both places. I am fired with the idea of doing some useful work on facade repair." He shook his head. His eyes were remote, but a light was in them. "It is almost entirely unexplored territory."

"Are these places so far away?" Florimel asked him.

"No one has even dreamed of doing a categorical survey of repair work," he murmured, focused on glories only glimpsed by others. "Yes. Yes, I will go and at least make a beginning."

The abbot cleared his throat. Brother Factum Quintus took a moment to register it.

"Ah," he said. "If you, Primoris, and Brother Factum Major will allow it." His face took on a slightly sullen look, a child denied a sweet before dinner. "I can't imagine what harm a quick trip to look at some of the trefoils in the Spire Forest would do. I am months ahead of schedule on that tile work—I have finished Hipped Roofs entirely and have done most of the preliminary cataloging for Sloped Turrets as well."

The abbot looked at him sternly, but if Factum Quintus had something of the child in him, his elders seemed to indulge that child. "Very well," the abbot said at last. "If Brother Factum can spare you, then I will give my permission. But you must do nothing to endanger yourself. You are a servant of the Library, not a member of the Corridor Guards."

Factum Quintus rolled his large eyes, but nodded. "Yes, Primoris."

"Thank God," said Renie. It was like letting out a long-held breath. "Then we can go. We can go look for Martine."

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"I do not know if I am even speaking loud enough this time to leave a record that can be found later. I dare not speak any louder. He is gone, but I do not know when he will be back.

"He is the most terrifying person I have ever met.

"He took me so easily. I had only a moment to recognize that something was wrong—dear God, despite my senses that should have told me he was close by! But he found a combination of factors—noise and the heat of a brazier and the confusing movement of children laughing and running—and he was upon me before I knew it. I was knocked to the ground and his arm closed around my neck and within moments he had choked me unconscious. I'm sure the people around us only saw somebody fall and someone else try to help. He would have every excuse to pick me up and carry me. Maybe he even let someone else do it, a Good Samaritan bearing me away to doom without knowing it. He knocked me down and squeezed me silent in an instant, just with the pressure of his arm. He is shockingly strong.

"And it was Quan Li's arm across my neck. Somehow, that makes it even more dreadful. He inhabits the body of someone we thought we knew, like an evil spirit. Like a demon.

"I must stop and think. I do not know how long I can safely speak.

"I am in a room, deserted like some of those we explored earlier, but very small, hardly a half-dozen meters from side to side, and with only one obvious entrance, a door in the far wall. I do not know whether we are still in the great house—I woke up here, and remember nothing of how I came—but it feels much the same. Ancient furniture is stacked in the corner, except for one chair he moved into the center of the room, and in which he was sitting not ten minutes ago, telling me cheerfully about the terrible things he could do to me any time he wanted. My hands are tied above my head with some kind of cloth, and the cloth is knotted to something I cannot quite sense, a lamp fixture perhaps, or an empty water pipe. He has at least tied me so that I am seated on the floor—my arms hurt, but I could be in a worse position, especially if he leaves me here for a long time.

"I am frightened. It is all I can do . . . not to cry. All that keeps me from complete collapse is the knowledge that the others will be looking for me. But that makes me frightened for them—very frightened.

"He is a monster. The human kind, yes, but that is much more terrible than some creature built of code, programmed to act out but no more burdened with choice than an automatic door—step on the pad, break the beam, the door opens or closes. But this is a man. He thinks and then he acts. He enjoys the terror—oh, how he enjoys it. The quiet way he speaks proves it to me—he fears to let his own joy get the better of him.

"Oh, God, I am so frightened. . . !

"No. That will do me no good. If I am to live, I must keep thinking. I must think every moment. I must remember every detail. He could be back any time, and who knows what fancy will have taken him then? He spoke to me when I awakened here—he said many things. If this monster has a weakness, it is that he likes to talk. There is a great silence in his life, I suspect, around this most important thing to him, and so when he can speak to those who he knows will not live to violate his secrecy, his enforced silence, he can let himself go. And since he has opened himself to me, of course, that means . . . oh, God. No, I cannot think about such things—it will freeze me. I must think hard about where I am, what is happening, what I might do to escape. . . .

"But he is proud, this creature—proud like Lucifer, who wanted too much. Please let me make him pay for his pride, for his contempt. Please. . . ."

 

"I will continue now. I am ashamed by my own tears, but I am not good at being helpless. What I am good at is remembering, and I will do my best to repeat what he said. The first thing he told me was, 'Don't bother to pretend. I know you're awake,' This was scarcely something I knew myself at that moment. 'I heard your breathing change. If you give me trouble, I won't kill you, but I'll make you wish I had. You know I can do that, don't you? This whole simulation network is very realistic, and that includes pain. I know—I've been experimenting.'

"I said that I heard him. I tried to keep my voice steady. I do not think I succeeded.

" 'Good,' he said. "That's a start. And if we're going to work together, it's important that we understand one another. No tricks. No bullshit.' He had abandoned the Quan Li voice entirely—whatever filters had been used were turned off. It was a masculine voice, with what I thought was a mild Australian accent, a cultured overlay on something that was stronger and earthier.

" 'What do you mean,' I asked him. 'Work together?'

"He shook his head—at that moment, the only movement in the room. 'Sweetness,' he said, 'I'm disappointed in you. I'm not a stranger on the street, I know you. I've been traveling with you for days and days. I've slept next to you. I've held your hand. And if anyone knows the clever tricks you can do with your sonar or whatever it is, it's me.'

" 'So?' I asked him.

" 'So I've got a little problem to solve and I may not be able to do it myself. See, I'm not one of those old-fashioned blokes, too proud to get help from a woman.' He laughed, and the most ghastly thing was that if you had not heard the words on either side, you would have thought it the laugh of a charming, cheerful man. 'You aren't going to force me to explain all the tricks I can use to convince you, are you? I'm very good with sharp things.'

" 'I've noticed,' I said, half in anger, half hoping just to keep him talking.

" 'You mean Sweet William?' He smiled, reminded of a pleasant memory. 'I did rather spread his insides around, didn't I? That was the knife I took from the flying girl. Pity I couldn't bring it into the next simulation—you wouldn't any of you have laid a hand on me then. Or if you did, you wouldn't have got it back with all the fingers still on it.' He chuckled again. 'But don't worry. I've been knocking around this simulation long enough to take care of that problem.' He lifted a wicked-looking knife out of his belt. It had a finger guard, like the basket hilt of a saber, but the blade was short, thick, and heavy. 'Nice, this,' he told me. 'Cuts bones like they were breadsticks.'

"I took a breath, suddenly feeling that almost anything would be better than having him come near me with that ugly thing. 'What do you want from me?'

" 'Simple, Sweetness. I want you to help me figure out the lighter. Oh, and just to save us both time and trouble, don't think I'm so stupid that I'm going to let you handle it, or even get near it. But you're going to use some of those special perceptions of yours to make sure that I'm getting every last bit of good out of my little windfall.' His broad grin on Quan Li's face was like seeing the skull beneath the skin. 'I'm a greedy bloke, you see. I want it all.'

"Then, despite his professed reluctance of a moment before, he spent several minutes describing in loving detail a grotesque catalog of human body functions and how they each could be made to yield unbelievable pain, assuring me that all this and more could happen to me if I resisted him or tried any tricks—the complete master-villain's litany, as in a bad netshow. But the eager tilt of his shoulders as he talked, the slow curling and uncurling of his fingers, kept reminding me that this was real, that he was not another construct, but a psychopath set free in a world without penalties. Worse still, he promised me that first he would take Renie and the others and do all those things to them as I watched.

"I have never wanted someone dead before, but as I heard him speak in flat, conversational tones of how he would keep little Emily screaming until her larynx gave out, I had fantasies of my anger turned into some kind of energy, leaping out from me to burn him into dirty ash. But whatever new abilities this network has given me, they are passive ones. I could only listen as he talked on and on, heaping prospective cruelty on prospective cruelty until it all became a murmur and I lost the words.

"When he had finished—when, I suppose, he had exhausted his momentary passion—he told me he was going out, and. . . .

"God help me, he is coming back. He is dragging something . . . or someone. God help us all!

"Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

This is the most foolish thing I can even imagine," Del Ray whispered. Long Joseph had invoked seniority, so Del Ray was wedged far back into the corner behind the dumpster while Joseph was near the outside edge.

"And you are the most cowardest man I ever see," Long Joseph replied, although he was more than a little nervous himself. He wasn't worried so much about Del Ray Chiume's Boer hitmen, who still had the faint air of make-believe about them—they sounded so much like something from an entertainment that Joseph couldn't help considering them in that light. But he knew that a hospital quarantine was enough of a serious situation that if they were caught they would go to jail, at least for a while, and he was beginning to feel he should get back to the place where Renie and the others were.

"I should have shot you when I had the chance" Del Ray muttered.

"But you didn't," Long Joseph pointed out. "Now shut that mouth."

They were huddled behind the trash containers in the Durban Outskirt Medical Facility's garage, a place only sparsely occupied with parked cars because of the quarantine. Del Ray, faced with Joseph's relentless lobbying, had called in a few family and neighborhood favors: if everything went just right, they would be able to get inside. Which as Del Ray kept pointing out, would be the least difficult part.

Long Joseph didn't care. The cabin fever that had spurred him to escape from the Wasp's Nest military base had subsided during his wanderings, and the thirst that had troubled him at least as badly had been slaked several times over. With his mind working a little more clearly now, he was beginning to suspect that if he went back without having accomplished anything besides drinking a lot of Mountain Rose, Renie and the others might think poorly of him.

Even that Jeremiah, he will look at me down his nose. The thought was hard to bear. It was bad enough to have your daughter think you were an irresponsible fool, but to have that womanish fellow thinking the same thing—somehow that made it worse.

But if he came back with news of Stephen, perhaps even news of an improvement in his condition, the whole thing would look much different.

"Oh, Papa," Renie would say. "I was worried, but now I'm glad you went. That was so brave. . . ."

He was jolted from his imaginings by a sharp elbow in the rib cage. He started to protest, but Del Ray had his finger to his lips, begging Joseph for silence. The elevator was coming down.

The orderly emerged from the elevator doors pushing a heavy cart full of packaged medical waste—gauze, sharps, and emptied chemical ampoules. As he trundled it toward the disposal chute at the far side of the underground space, looking like a lost astronaut in his bulky Ensuit, Del Ray and Joseph slid out from behind the dumpster and hurried toward the elevator. With a burst of speed, Del Ray got his fingers in the door just before it closed; the elevator dinged, but the orderly did not hear it through his heavy plastic mask.

When they were inside and the car was traveling back up, Del Ray fumbled the surgical scrubs out of the paper bag. "Hurry up," he hissed as Joseph laboriously transferred the contents of his pockets, including a squeeze bottle half-full of wine the color of cough syrup. "For God's sake, just put it on!"

By the time the door clanged open on the second floor, their own clothes were in the bag and they were both wearing institutional garments, although Long Joseph's showed an alarming amount of calf above his white socks. Del Ray led him quickly down the hallway, which by good luck was deserted, and into the orderlies' changing room. Ensuits hung on hooks all down one wall like the discarded cocoons of giant butterflies. A pair of men were talking and laughing in the shower, just out of sight around a tiled partition. Del Ray took Joseph by the elbow, ignoring the older man's mumble of irritated protest, and shoved him toward the wall of environment suits. Despite some fumbling with the closures, in less than a minute they had them on and were back out in the hallway again.

Del Ray was struggling to reach his pocket and had to stop and unseal the suit to get his hand into his surgical scrubs. He pulled out the folded map his cousin had drawn for them. It was not the most reliable-looking of documents: the cousin was no draftsman to begin with, and his tenure as a hospital custodian had been brief, ending with an argument with his supervisor over punctuality, something that Del Ray's cousin apparently hadn't been any better at than drawing.

"You see a man called Nation Uhimwe," the cousin had told them, "the head custodian, you feel free to stop and punch his head."

According to the map, Long-Term Care was on the fourth floor. After a whispered argument, Del Ray prevailed in his determination to stay out of elevators as much as possible, where their homemade badges might not survive close scrutiny. He led Joseph to the nearest stairwell.

At the top they peered around the door before stepping out into the corridor. A small group of doctors or nurses—everyone looked much the same in the slightly opaque Ensuits—crossed the hallway a few yards ahead, talking with their heads together, bound for another part of the floor. Del Ray led Joseph to a water fountain, then had a moment of panic when he realized it was impossible to drink through the plastic masks, so it made a very poor alibi. After a moment's agonized consideration he pulled the older man into a side corridor where there was likely to be less traffic; a few moments later another pair of hospital workers passed the spot where they had just stood.

As Del Ray held his cousin's map up to the off-white fluorescent lights, trying to orient himself, Joseph watched in irritation. The younger man was clearly not the kind of lion-heart that should undertake a job like this, he reflected. He was a businessman, and should never have started waving guns and driving kidnap cars around in the first place. Joseph thought he himself had handled the whole thing quite well. He was barely nervous at all, for one thing. Perhaps just a bit. And now that he thought about it, a drink would help steady his nerves, so that when Del Ray went to pieces Joseph would be ready to step in and take charge.

A moment's consideration told him that it would not be a good idea to take off his mask and have a swig right there in the hallway where anyone coming around the corner could see him. Del Ray was still turning the raggedy paper from side to side, squinting, so Joseph took a few steps down the hall, heading toward an open door. It was shadowy and silent inside, so he stepped in and tugged at the seal along the base of his mask, trying to find the bead Del Ray had shown him that would cause the top part to let go of the bottom. He found it at last and scrunched the mask up so that even though he could no longer see, he could reach his mouth. A mighty swallow nearly emptied the squeeze bottle, and he was just debating whether to finish it off or to keep it in reserve for further emergencies when someone moved on the bed at the far end of the room, startling Joseph so much that he dropped the bottle.

He kept his head admirably: despite his alarm, he managed to catch up to the bottle before it stopped spinning. As he grasped it, he stood to see a heavy Afrikaaner woman shoving herself away from her pillows, struggling to sit up.

"I've been ringing and ringing for ten minutes," she said, her scowling face full of pain and annoyance, and looked Joseph up and down. "You took your time, didn't you? I need help!"

Joseph stared at her for a moment and felt the wine turning to warm gold in his stomach. "You do, yes," he said, backing toward the door, "but there is no cure for ugly."

"Good God!" Del Ray said when he saw him, "where the hell have you been? What are you grinning about?"

"Why we standing around in this hall?" Long Joseph asked. "Time to get going."

Del Ray shook his head and led him back into the main corridor.

For a small local hospital, Durban Outskirt seemed to squeeze in a lot of rooms: it took them another ten minutes to find Long-Term Care. Despite how important it was they avoid embarrassing meetings, Joseph was outraged on behalf of his son and himself that there were so few staff.

"All shooting drugs and having sex," he muttered, "like on the net. No wonder they can't cure nobody."

Del Ray at last found the proper corridor. Three-quarters of the way down, past a dozen open doors, each one leading like the mouth of a tomb to a chamber full of dim, tented bodies, was the room with Sulaweyo, Stephen in the little name rack beside the door, beneath three others.

At first it was hard to tell which of the four beds was Stephen's, and for a grim moment Joseph almost did not want to know. He suddenly could not help feeling it would be better just to turn back. What would be accomplished? If the boy was still here then the doctors hadn't done anything to make him better, as Joseph had known in his heart of hearts that they wouldn't. He wanted very badly to have another drink, but Del Ray had already made his way down to the far bed on the left side and was waiting for Joseph there.

When he reached it, Long Joseph stood for several moments, looking down and trying to make sense of what he saw.

At first he felt a kind of relief. It was all a mistake, that was clear. This couldn't be Stephen, although his name was on the little screen at the end of the bed, so perhaps they had cured him after all, just forgotten to change the names and whatnot. But as Joseph stared at the emaciated figure in the oxygen tent, the arms curled on the chest, hands clenched in bony lists, knees drawn up beneath the covers so that the thing on the bed almost looked like a baby inside a pregnant woman's stomach that he had seen in a magazine photo, Joseph saw the familiar shape of the face—the curve of his mother's cheek, the broad nose that Joseph had often told Miriam was the only proof she had that she hadn't been stepping out on him. It was Stephen.

Del Ray, standing beside him, was wide-eyed behind the steamy mask.

"Oh, my poor boy," Joseph whispered. At that moment, all the wine in the world would not have quenched his thirst. "Oh, sweet Jesus, what have they done to you?"

Wires trailed from patches on Stephen's forehead like creeping vines; others were taped to his chest or tangled around his arms. Joseph thought he looked like he had fallen down in the jungle and the plants had begun to swallow him up. Or like the life was being bled out of him into all those machines. What had Renie said? That the people were using the net and all those wires and such to hurt the children? Joseph thought for a moment of tearing them all loose, of grabbing fists full of wires like dry grass and just yanking them free so that the quietly humming machines wouldn't suck out any more of his boy's life. But he could not move. As helpless as Stephen himself, Joseph could only stare down into the bed as he had stared into his wife's coffin.

That Mfaweze, he remembered, that damn funeral director, he wanted to tell me I shouldn't see her. Like I hadn't seen her the whole time she was in this very same damn hospital, all burned up. He had wanted to kill the funeral man, kill somebody, had only wrestled down the big black charge of hateful electricity inside himself by getting so drunk he had not been able to walk out of the church when the service was over and had just sat for an hour after everyone else had left. But now there wasn't even a Mfaweze to hate. There was nothing but the shell of his son, eyes closed, mouth slack, his whole body curling like a dying leaf.

Beside him, Del Ray looked up in alarm. A shape had appeared in the doorway, wide-hipped and dark-faced, the Ensuit not disguising the fact that it was a woman. She took a few steps forward and then stopped, staring at the two of them.

Joseph felt too empty to speak. A nurse, a doctor—she was nothing. She could do nothing. And nothing mattered.

"Can I help you?" she demanded, her voice distorted by the mask.

"We're . . . we're doctors," Del Ray said. "Everything's under control here. You just go on about your business."

The nurse surveyed them for a moment longer, then took a step back toward the door. "You are not doctors."

Long Joseph felt Del Ray stiffen, and somehow this was enough to start him moving. He took a step toward the woman, lifting his big hand and pointing a finger at her masked face.

"You just leave him alone," he said, "Don't you do that boy any more harm. Take those wires off him—let him breathe!"

The woman stepped backward until she was practically falling into the bed of the patient behind her. "I am calling security!" she declared.

Del Ray caught at Joseph's arm and yanked him away from the nurse and toward the door. "Everything is all right," Del Ray said idiotically, and almost ran into the doorjamb. "Don't worry. We're just going."

"Don't you touch him!" Joseph shouted at her, clutching at the doorframe as Del Ray tried to tug him through and into the corridor. Beyond her he could see the outline of Stephen's oxygen tent, like a sand dune, desolate, lifeless. "Just leave that child alone!"

Del Ray jerked him once again, even harder, and Joseph slid out into the corridor as his companion turned and sprinted toward the stairwell. Joseph walked after him in a kind of dull dream, only speeding to a trot when he was halfway down the corridor. His chest was heaving, and even he himself could not tell whether he was about to laugh or cry.

 

The nurse stepped over to examine the patient's tent and monitors even as she pulled the pad from her pocket. It was only after her first call was completed, to a black van with mirrored windows which had been stationed more or less permanently in the front parking lot for weeks waiting for just this call, and after she had allowed a good five minutes more to make sure that the intruders would escape the building, that she called hospital security to report a breach of quarantine.

CHAPTER 12
The Terrible Song

NETFEED/ADVERTISMENT: Uncle Jingle Is Near Death!

(visual: Uncle Jingle in hospital bed.)

JINGLE; "Come closer, kids." (coughs) "Don't be scared—ol' Uncle Jingle doesn't blame you. Just because I'm going to (coughs) DIE if we don't sell enough stuff during the Critical Condition Month sale at your local Jingleporium, I don't want you to feel bad, I'm sure you and your parents are doing . . . all you can. And anyway, I'm not afraid of that . . . that big darkness. I'll miss you, of course, but hey, even ol' Uncle has to go sometime, right? Don't even waste a thought on me lying here in the shadows, wheezing and sad and lonely and dying . . . (whispering) . . . too bad, though—those prices are utterly, utterly low. . . !"

 

Paul woke with an aching head, an even sharper pain in his arm, and his mouth half full of brine.

He spat up a great deal of seawater, then groaned and tried to stand, but something was twisting his arm behind his body. It took him a few moments before he could make sense of his position. The feather-veil was still looped around his wrist, a wet tangle binding him to the tiller. The force of Charybdis' watery eruption, which had lifted his little boat on a great jet of tide, had also crashed him back against the ocean so powerfully that he was lucky his arm had not been torn out of the socket.

He released himself with small movements, trying to be delicate with elbow and shoulder, which both felt like they had been injected with something caustic. The ship was reassuringly stable, the only motion a slight rocking. The sun stood high overhead, hot and steady, and he was desperate to get back under his shelter.

But, as he realized when he could sit up straight, there was no shelter anymore. Only the mast still stood upright on the deck, and of that only the bottom half. The sail had snagged on the edge of the raft, but most of it was now floating in the water; the rest of the mast, still attached to the sail, trailed a few meters behind the raft. Of the remainder of Calypso's gifts, the jars of water and food, no sign remained except a pale shape that might have been one of the urns bobbing on a distant swell a hundred meters beyond his reach. Other than the twin silhouettes of Charybdis and Scylla's peak, now so far behind him they were only pastel shadows, he was surrounded by a featureless circular horizon of water.

Murmuring with weariness and pain, Paul tied the veil around his neck and set himself to the agonizing task of reeling in the heavy sail. He tugged the splintered mast on board as well, although the effort made his arm ache like a rotten tooth, then pulled up an edge of the sodden canvas and crawled beneath it. Within moments he fell into exhausted sleep.

 

When he crawled out from beneath the sail, he was not certain whether the sun being lower meant that he had slept for only a few hours or had slumbered the clock 'round and had lost a full day. Nor, he realized, did he care.

Knowing the drinkable water was gone made his mild thirst seem worse than it was, but it also set him thinking about his real body again. Who was taking care of it? Obviously they were feeding and hydrating him sufficiently—he was far less interested in eating or drinking than would have been the case otherwise. But what were they doing with him? Were nurses or other attendants watching over him with compassionate concern? Or was he stuck in some kind of automated life support, little more than a prisoner of the shadowy Grail Brotherhood that Nandi had mentioned? It was strange to think of his body as such a separate thing, something not really connected to him. But it was connected, of course, even though he could not feel it in any direct way. It had to be.

The whole muddle was a little like his only experience with hallucinogenic drugs—an ill-fated, ill-conceived attempt back in his schooldays to be like his friend Niles. Niles Peneddyn, of course, had taken to the world of consciousness-alteration with the same insouciance he approached everything else, from sex to Alpine skiing—as a series of lighthearted adventures that would someday make entertaining vignettes for his autobiography. But that was the difference between them: Niles sailed through life and past danger, but Paul wound up vomiting seawater, dragging broken mast and sodden sailcloth behind him.

Psilocybin for Niles had meant new colors and new insights. For Paul it had meant an entire day of panic, of sounds that hurt his ears and a visual world that had slipped beyond comfortable recognition. He had ended the experience curled in his dormitory bed with a blanket over his head, waiting for the drug to wear off, but at the peak of the experience he had been convinced that he had gone mad or even comatose, that his own body was out of his reach and he was doomed to spend decades prisoned in one tiny, walled-off section of his mind while his material form was wheeled around in a nursing home pushchair, dribbling helplessly down its chin.

In fact, he thought, I should be terrified of that right now. His body was no longer his to control, after all, his psilocybin nightmare made real—or virtual, anyway. But the world around him, false though it might be, seemed so genuine that he did not feel that same sense of claustrophobic terror.

He had been idly watching Calypso's urn bobbing on the waves, but it was only as he let the memories drift away that he realized something was wrong: it was a very strange shape for an um, and in fact seemed to be draped across a collection of flotsam in a most un-ceramic way. He rose, wincing as he pushed himself upright, and squinted into the angled sun.

The urn was a body. It was such a strange realization, the conceptual expansion of his current world from solitary to double-occupied, even if one occupant might be a corpse, that Paul needed long moments to grasp the situation and engage his sense of responsibility. It would have been different if there had been an obvious, easy way to reach the body, but the assaults of Scylla and Charybdis had not only destroyed the mast but also denuded his little craft of everything useful, including his long-handled oars. If he were going to perform a rescue, or more likely formalize the need for a burial at sea, he would have to swim.

It was a depressing, miserable thought. His arm was certainly sprained if not broken, the other castaway was almost certainly dead and probably hadn't been a real person to begin with, and God only knew what kind of Homeric monsters roamed these deeps. Not to mention that big fellow with the beard, Poseidon, programmed for some nasty dislike of the Odysseus sim Paul was currently inhabiting.

More importantly, he was feeling the need to go forward. Despite the setbacks, he had survived the journey to this point and was more than ever determined to get to Troy, whatever that might mean. He was struggling hard to take his fate back into his own hands—how much effort could he afford to waste on other things? How many wrong paths could he afford to take?

Paul sat and stared at the silent, motionless figure as the sun inched down the heavens toward evening.

 

In the end it was the paradox of need that decided him. If his own helplessness felt so great and so painful, how could he simply turn his back on another person? What would that make him? How could he even judge what was true self-interest in any case—what if the floating figure turned out to be another Nandi . . . or Gally?

Besides, he thought ruefully as he lowered himself over the side, it's not like it's that easy to tell who the real persons are back in the real world either. You just have to do what's right and hope for the best.

Despite the relatively short distance it was a hard, painful, and frightening swim; Paul had to keep lifting his head to make sure he was going in the right direction, resisting the small waves which wanted to tug him aside into green nothingness. When he finally reached the body and its floating bier, he grabbed the nearest timber—splintered scrap from someone else's wrecked boat—and hung on until he regained his breath. The victim was no one he recognized, which was not terribly surprising—a man dark as Nandi but much larger. The stranger wore nothing but a kind of skirt of rough cloth with a bronze knife shoved under the waistband; his exposed skin had the sun-reddened look of a plum. But most importantly, his chest rose and fell with shallow breath, which eliminated Paul's easy option of swimming back unencumbered to the raft, secure in the knowledge that he had done his best.

Clinging to the flotsam with his good hand, but still using his other arm far more extensively than was sensible, Paul first knotted together the ends of the feather-veil and looped it around the man's chest under his arms, then drew the stranger's knife and slipped it into his own belt. He pushed his own head through the loop, taking the veil in his teeth like a horse's bit, and gently slid the man off the wreckage and onto his back. It made an awkward configuration.

The trip back was even more harrowing than the trip out, but if sea monsters or angry gods lurked beneath the waves, they contented themselves with watching Paul's struggling, agonized, mostly one-armed progress. The veil dug painfully at the comers of his mouth, and the stranger seemed to come close to wake-fulness several times, contorting himself and dragging at Paul's already less-than-Olympian crawl stroke. At last, after what seemed an hour fighting through the swells, each wave heavy as a sandbag, he reached the side of the raft. With a last heroic effort he dragged the stranger up onto the deck, then slumped beside him, gasping. Tiny prickles of light like infant stars swam before his eyes against the deepening blue of the sky.

 

She came to him in the dream, as she often did, but this time without the urgency of other visitations. Instead he saw her as a bird in a forest, flitting from tree to tree while he followed beneath her, imploring her to come down, afraid against all logic that she would fall.

Paul woke up to the gentle roll of the raft. The body that he had so laboriously brought back through the waters and wrestled onto the deck was gone. He sat up, sickly certain that the stranger had rolled off the raft and drowned, but the man was sitting on the other side of the deck, his muscled, darkly-tanned back to Paul. He had the broken top of the mast and a hank of sail on his lap.

"You're . . . you're alive," Paul said, aware that it was not the most perceptive opening he could have chosen.

The stranger turned, his handsome, mustached face almost a mask of indifference. He indicated the objects "If we make a small sail, we can reach one of the islands."

Paul was not quite ready to begin a conversation about boat repair. "You . . . when I saw you I thought you were dead. You must have been floating there for hours at least. What happened?'

The stranger shrugged. "Caught in that damned riptide outside the strait, smashed against the rocks."

Paul started to introduce himself, then hesitated. He was certainly not going to give his real name to this stranger, and even the name "Odysseus" could bring trouble with it. He struggled to remember what the ancient Greeks had made of words with "j" in them. "My name is . . . Ionas," he said at last.

The other nodded, but seemed in no hurry to reciprocate. "Hold this sail so I can cut it. What's left we can use to make a shelter, I do not want to spend another day in the sun."

Paul crawled forward across the deck and held the heavy cloth straight while the stranger sawed at it with his knife, which he had apparently reclaimed while Paul was sleeping. Nothing was said about the changes of possession, but the sharp and shiny fact of it was like a third person between them, a woman that they could not both have. Paul studied the man, trying to decide how he fit in. Although there had been much variation among Odysseus' subjects on Ithaca, the stranger still seemed too dark to be Greek, and he had the first mustache Paul had seen since entering this simulation. He decided from the man's careless skill with blade and sailcloth that the stranger must be a Phoenician or a Cretan, one of the seagoing peoples whose names still held a dusty place in Paul's memories from school.

They rigged the makeshift sail as the last light faded from the sky, using the broken piece of mast as an improvised yard, lashing it crossways to the rest of the mast with strips of cloth. As the cool breezes rose, the stranger made a crude tent with the rest of the sail, although there was no longer an immediate need.

"If we bear that way," the stranger said, frowning at the first stars of the evening, then pointing to the starboard side, "we'll hit land in a day or so. We just don't want to go anywhere near. . . ." He stopped and looked at Paul, as though he had only just remembered the other man's existence. "Where are you bound?"

"Troy." Paul tried to look at the stars as though he could make sense of them, but had no more idea at that moment of where Troy was than he knew where his real, mundane and beloved England might be.

"Troy?" The stranger cocked a jet-black eyebrow, but said nothing more. Paul thought he might be considering taking the raft for himself—perhaps he was a deserter from the Trojan War, Paul suddenly thought, and had to struggle not to glance at the knife which rested back in the man's waistband. The stranger was at least three inches taller than Paul and a couple of stone heavier, and all of it looked like muscle. He suddenly felt apprehensive about going to sleep, despite the tug of fatigue, but reminded himself that the stranger had not harmed him after the rescue, when he had the chance.

"What is your name?" Paul asked suddenly.

The other looked at him for another long moment, as though the question were a strange one. "Azador," he said at last, with the air of settling someone else's argument. "I am Azador."

 

It was a good thing, Paul reflected, that he had grown used to his own company, because Azador was not exactly a fountain of conversation. The stranger sat in silence for nearly an hour as the stars wheeled through the immense blackness above and around them, responding to Paul's sleepy comments and questions with grunts or the occasional laconic non-answer, then at last he stretched out on the deck, pillowed his head on his arm, and closed his eyes.

Paul had also recently had the company of Calypso, and if most of the conversation had been sweet nothings or passionate exhortations, that was still much better than nothing, so he was more bemused than annoyed by the stranger's silence. Perhaps it was an accurate reflection of the ancient mind, he thought—the behavior of an era before social chatter.

It was not much longer before he fell asleep himself, needing neither blanket nor pillow in the balmy night. The slow, sky-wide pinwheel of stars was the last thing he saw.

 

He woke in the last dim hours of darkness, uncertain at first of what had brought him up from sleep. Gradually he became aware of a strange, soft melody as many-threaded as Penelope's tapestry, so faint at first that it seemed almost an exhalation of the sea and its luminous foam. He listened in sleepy absorption for a long while, following the rise and fall of the individual components, the strands of melody that emerged and then fell back into the greater chorus, until he suddenly realized that he was listening to the sound of voices singing—human voices, or something much like them. He sat up and discovered Azador was also awake, listening with head cocked to one side like a dog.

"What. . . ?" Paul asked, but the stranger raised his hand; Paul fell silent again and they both sat, letting the distant music wash over them. Because of the other man's obvious tension, what had seemed strangely beautiful at first seemed almost menacing now, although it had grown no louder: Paul found himself fighting an urge to put his hands over his ears. A weaker but more frightening inclination began to make itself felt as well, a whisper of suggestion that he might slip over the side into the comfortable waters and make his way toward the voices and thus discover their secret.

"It is the sirens," Azador said abruptly. In contrast with the distant melodies, his voice seemed harsh as a crow's. Paul found himself disliking the man just because he had spoken while the voices were singing. "If I had known we were even this close, I would not have slept."

Paul shook his head, befuddled. The distant music seemed to cling to his thoughts like spiderwebs. "The sirens. . . ." He remembered now—Odysseus had sailed near them, making his men first stop their ears with wax while he himself stood tied to the mast so he could hear their fabled melodies without casting himself into the water.

The water . . . the black water . . . and ancient voices singing . . . singing. . . .

Paul decided to focus on other distractions, anything to keep his thoughts away from the seductive, disturbing music floating across the black sea. "Have you been here before?"

Azador made another of his unhelpful sounds, then relented a little. "I have been many places."

"Where are you from originally?"

The stranger snorted. "Not here. Not this stupid ocean, these stupid islands. No, I am looking for someone."

"Who?"

Azador fixed Paul with a look, then turned back toward the singing darkness. "The wind is carrying us past them. We were lucky."

Paul reached down and slid his fingers between two of the planks, anchoring himself against the pull that, although weak, still troubled him. A part of him wanted to try to make sense of how this effect might work, to puzzle out the whys and wherefores of virtual sirens—he dimly felt there was something crucial to be discovered—but then, as the lure of the music grew a little less, a stronger, deeper emotion took a grip on him, an unexpected mixture of awe and delight.

Whatever this is, he thought, this network, this . . . whatever . . . it is really quite a magical world.

Somewhere in the failing darkness, perhaps with intent, perhaps as mindlessly as crickets scraping in the hedgerows, the sirens continued to create their terrible song. Safe now from its pull, Paul Jonas sailed slowly through a warm night in the ancient world, and for a little while gave himself over to wonder.

 

Azador was, if anything, even less forthcoming in the light of the following day: those of Paul's questions he did not deflect with a shrug or an uninformative grunt he simply ignored.

For all his recalcitrance, he was a useful companion. He knew far more than Paul did about the simple, impotent things that for the moment made up their world: wind and tides and knots and wood. He had managed to salvage enough torn ends of rope from the sail to splice together new braces, giving them far more control over the raft, and had also rigged a corner of unused sailcloth as a dew catcher, so when the sun rose they had water to drink. Later in the day the stranger even managed to catch a shining fish with a swift stab of his arm into the bottle-green waters off the raft's port side. They had no fire, and Paul as usual did not feel particularly hungry, but despite a certain queasiness there was still something marvelous about eating the raw flesh. Paul found that he was almost enjoying himself, an unusual sensation.

As he relished a cupped palm full of dew-water, taking a first tiny sip to sluice the fish taste from his mouth before letting the rest pour down, he had a sudden vision of himself doing the same thing, but somewhere else entirely. He closed his eyes and for a brief moment could see plants all around him, thick as a tropical jungle. He felt a trickle of sweet water going down his throat, then more water splashing against his face . . . a woman's voice, laughing. . . .

Her voice, he suddenly knew. The angel. But it was nothing that had ever happened to him—not in the parts of his life he could remember.

The unlikeliest of things broke his concentration, and the memory blew away like smoke.

"Where are you from, Ionas?" Azador asked.

Dragged from what seemed an achingly significant memory, faced with an actual question from his taciturn companion, Paul goggled for a moment. "Ithaca," he managed to say at last,

Azador nodded. "Did you see a woman there, a dark-skinned woman? With a monkey for a pet?"

Nonplussed, Paul could only tell the man truthfully that he had not, "Is she a friend of yours?"

"Hah! She has something of mine and I want it back. No one takes what is Azador's."

Paul sensed an opening, but was unsure of how to keep the conversation going, and unsure also whether there was any point to it. Did he really want to know the precoded life story of some Phoenician sailor in a virtual Odyssey? The chances that a castaway would have anything useful to say to him were almost nil. In any case, there were more present and practical uses for Azador's sudden talkativeness.

"So do you know this part of the ocean?" Paul asked. "How long will it take us to get to Troy?"

Azador examined the fish skeleton eye to eye, like Hamlet considering the skull of Yorick, then flicked it high in the air over the side of the raft. A gull came down out of the sun, appearing as if from nowhere, and snatched it before it touched the water. "I don't know. The currents are bad, and there are many islands, many rocks." He squinted out across the water for a moment. "We must make a landing soon anyway. This broken mast will not last long before it splits, so we need more wood. Also, I must have meat."

Paul laughed at the serious way he said it. "We just had a fish—although it would have been nice to cook it."

"Not fish," Azador grunted in disgust, "meat. A man needs meat to eat or he will not remain a man."

Paul shrugged. It seemed like the least of their problems, but he was not going to argue with a fellow who knew how to splice rope and catch dew.

 

The beginnings of foul weather were blowing up in the late afternoon, a pall of clouds moving swiftly out of the west, when they caught sight of the island and its tall hills thick with vegetation. As the tiller and compromised mast creaked at the raft's crossways lurch into the wind, they could see no obvious signs of human habitation, no gleam of stone walls or whitewashed clay houses; if there were fires burning anywhere, they were lost in the deepening mist and clouds.

"I do not know this place," Azador said, breaking an hour's silence. "But see, there is grass high on the hills." He grinned tightly. "There will be goats, perhaps, or even sheep."

"There might be people living there, too," Paul pointed out. "We can't just take somebody's sheep, can we?"

"Every man is the hero of his own song." Azador replied—somewhat cryptically, Paul thought.

They beached the raft and made their way up through the rocky hills as the clouds drew closer. At first, it was a pleasure simply to be off the ocean and onto dry land, but by the time that they could again see their craft on the rocky strand below, looking small as a playing card, thunder was murmuring overhead and a few fat raindrops had begun to fall. The stones grew slick beneath Paul's feet, but Azador's half-naked figure ranged up the hills ahead of him, agile as one of the goats he sought, and Paul could only curse quietly and struggle along after him.

After more than an hour had passed, with rain falling heavily now and lightning cracking across the sky, they reached the summit of the hill, climbing up out of a grove of beech trees that shivered in the rising wind to find themselves knee-deep in rough grass. The rocky spine of the hill thrust up before them in a last ridge, a massive outcropping several hundred meters across, fenced by wind-twisted pines. A huge hole, the entrance to a cave, opened into the stone ridge like the door of a misshapen house. It tugged at Paul's memory, and as the grass swished in the wind and sawed at his legs and the rain spattered down, he suddenly felt that they were terribly exposed.

Azador had already taken a step toward the opening when Paul reached out and grabbed his muscled arm. "Don't!"

"What are you talking about?" Azador glowered. "Do you want to stand here until the lightning comes down and cooks you? Who pissed in your head and told you it was brains?"

Before Paul could explain his premonition, something rustled in the grove of trees behind them, a faint but growing noise that was not the wind. Paul looked at Azador. Without a word, they both dropped onto their bellies in the grass.

The rustle became a rattle. Something big was moving through the grass stems only a stone's throw away. Lightning flashed, momentarily turning the twilight world white and black; when the crack of thunder followed a few seconds later, Paul flinched.

Azador lifted himself onto his elbows and pulled the stems wide so he could see. Thunder roared again; in the silence afterward, Paul heard a surprising sound. Azador was quietly laughing.

"Look," he said, and smacked Paul on the shoulder. "Look, you coward!"

Paul raised himself up a little way so he could peer through the space Azador had made. A flock of sheep was moving past them, a river of patiently suffering eyes and dripping, drooping wool. Azador had just clambered to his knees when they heard a new sound, a deep but distant thump. Azador froze, but the sheep seemed undisturbed and trotted on across the plateau toward the cave. The sound repeated, louder this time, then again, like the slow beating of a huge bass drum. Paul had time only to wonder why the ground was trembling when lightning painted the sky white again and their raft appeared, sailing toward them above the treetops.

Azador stared at the apparition, his jaw slack with shock. His hand crept up his chest as if it had a will of its own and made the sign of the cross. The thumping grew louder. The raft continued toward them, bobbing just above the top of the trees as though the swaying branches were ocean waves. Thunder followed the lightning, then lightning blazed afresh.

The man-shaped creature that crunched out of the trees, carrying their raft above his head, was the biggest living thing Paul had ever seen. Although the monster's legs were massively broad compared to human proportions, its knees were nevertheless as high above the ground as a tall man's head. The rest of the body, while of more ordinary dimensions, was still huge: the top of the creature's shaggy head loomed seven or eight meters in the air. Azador gasped something that was lost in the thunder, and Paul suddenly realized that his companion's head was visible above the grass. He shoved Azador to the ground even as the monstrous creature paused, still holding the raft high, and turned in their direction. The giant's mouth was full of broken teeth, its beard a wet tangle matted across its chest, but as it peered between the grass stems, it was the single eye big as a dinner plate that told Paul what they faced.

Again the lightning flared. The huge eye was staring right at the spot where they hid, and for a moment Paul was certain it had seen them, that any instant it would lumber toward them to twist their bones from their sockets. As they crouched in frozen terror the eye blinked, slow as a bullfrog blink, and then the Cyclops took a crunching step, then another, but away instead of toward them, trudging on toward its cave.

Paul was still holding his breath as the thing paused to prop the raft against the rock face, an ambulatory carpet of sheep crowding around its ankles. It bent and lifted away a stone that had bottle-stopped the shadowed mouth of the cave, then let the silent sheep file in. When they had cleared the doorway, the monster tossed the heavy, timbered craft in after them as though it were a tea tray, then followed.

When they heard the stone grind back into place, Paul and Azador leaped up and ran back into the trees as fast as their wobbly legs would carry them.

 

Paul lay huddled in the bottom of a culvert filling with rainwater. His heart was still racing but no longer felt like it might actually explode. His thoughts were a jumble.

"The bastard . . . has our . . . our boat!" Azador was so breathless he could hardly speak.

Paul lifted his chin out of the water and crawled a little way up the slope. Despite the terror, something else was tugging at him, something to do with Azador . . . and how he had crossed himself. . . .

"Without it, we will die on this stupid island!" Azador hissed, but he had recovered himself and sounded more angry than frightened.

. . . But this wasn't even just ancient Greece, this was Homer's Greece, and therefore about a thousand years before . . . before. . . .

"Jesus Christ!" Paul said. "You aren't from here at all! You—you're from outside!"

Azador turned to stare at him. With his curly black hair plastered to his head by the rain and his mustache draggled like otter whiskers, he looked a little less boldly handsome. "What?"

"You aren't from Greece—not this Greece, anyway. You're from outside the system. You're real!"

Azador regarded him defiantly. "And you?"

Paul realized he had given away whatever advantage the knowledge might have gained him. "Shit."

The other man shrugged. "We do not have time for such things. That big bastard will use our boat for his fire. Then we will never get away from here."

"So? What are we going to do, go knock on his cave door and ask for it back? That's a Cyclops. Didn't you read The Odyssey? Those things eat people the way you eat goats!"

Azador looked irritated, whether at the mention of reading or the reminder of the goat meat he was not eating. "He will use it for his fire," he repeated stubbornly.

"Well, if he does, he does." Paul was struggling to think carefully, but the thunder was rattling his skull and he still had not recovered from the spectacle of a very ugly man as big as a two-story house. "Even if we could roll that stone out of the way, we couldn't get inside, in time to stop him. But maybe he'll just add it to the woodpile. Or maybe he'll want to salvage some of the cloth and the ropes." He let out a shuddering breath and took another. "But we couldn't do anything about it anyway—Christ! You saw the size of that thing!"

"Nobody takes what is Azador's," the other man said harshly. This time Paul thought it sounded less like a code of honor than a symptom of insanity. "If you will not help me, I will wait until he comes out, then cut his hamstrings." He took his knife and waved it in the general direction of the top of the hill. "We will see how tall he is when he is lying on his belly."

Clearly Azador was going to get himself killed if Paul did not offer an alternative, but just as clearly there were not many alternatives to offer. If they remained on the island, it was only a matter of time until the thing came upon them in a place from which they couldn't escape. It might even have relatives—wasn't there something in The Odyssey about all the Cyclops living on the same island? They desperately needed an idea, but Paul doubted he was going to be able to come up with anything good. "We could build another raft," he offered.

Azador snorted. "We will cut down trees with my knife? And what will we use for a sail, this diaper I am wearing?" He pointed at himself, then at Paul's tattered chiton. "Or your little towel?"

"All right, all right!" Paul slumped back against the muddy side of the culvert. The rain was softening a little, but it was still like having someone drum their fingers against his head—not that he was brimming with brilliant plans anyway. An honors degree in Humanities might be a useful thing as far as recognizing various mythological monsters, but it was not all that helpful when facing them in the flesh. "Just let me think."

 

In the end, he could think of no better idea than to adapt Odysseus' original scheme to their own slightly different situation.

"You see, they were inside and needed to get out" he told Azador, who was not at all interested in the scheme's classical antecedents, and was busy lashing the hilt of the knife into the split end of a long deadfall branch. "We need to get in, but we also need him to be sleeping when we do it. It's a pity we don't have any wine."

"You are right there."

"I mean like Odysseus had—to give to the monster to make him sleepy." He clambered to his feet. His heart was hammering at the thought of what was to come, but he struggled to keep his voice casual. "Speaking of which, he must be sleeping by now—it's been dark for an hour."

Azador hefted the makeshift spear, satisfying himself with its balance, then stood. "Let's go and kill the big bastard."

"No, not like that!" Paul felt a sick panic sweep over him: it wasn't the greatest plan in the world to begin with. "Didn't you hear what I was saying? First we have to get the door open. . . ."

His companion snorted. "I know—do you think Azador is stupid? Go now." He began to scramble up the side of the culvert.

They stopped on their way back to the hilltop to search for fallen logs of the appropriate width; eventually they found one that seemed acceptable, although it was narrower than Paul would have wished. It was just short enough for the muscular Azador to lift and carry, which he did after handing over his bladed spear. "If you lose my knife," he informed Paul with ceremonial dignity, "I will pull off your balls."

The rains had stopped, and although the long grasses outside the cave slapped wetly against their legs, the skies were clear and the moon gave them enough light to see the silhouetted bulk of the ridgetop before them. Azador moved to one side of the door, struggling to keep the log from dragging on the ground as Paul picked up rocks. When Azador was in position, Paul took another deep breath, then began to hurl the missiles against the stone that blocked the doorway.

"Ho! One-Eye!" he shouted as the rocks rattled against the door-stone. "Come out, you fat bastard! Give me back my boat!"

"Ow! Idiot!" Azador growled as one of the stones caromed from the door and bounced off his leg.

"Come out, One-Eye!" Paul bellowed. "Wake up! You're ugly and your mother dresses you funny!"

"I have never heard such stupid insults," Azador hissed, but then the great stone in the doorway creaked and grated as it slid to one side. The dying light of a fire inside made the opening glow like the mouth of hell. A vast shape moved in front of the embers.

"Who mocks Polyphemus?" The voice boomed across the hilltop. "Who is out there? Is that one of my shiftless cousins?"

"It is Nobody!" Paul's voice, already a songbird trill in comparison to the giant's rumbling bass, had suddenly become embarrassingly squeaky. As the Cyclops moved out onto his doorstep, the stench of wet fleece and rotting meat wafted out with him; Paul struggled against the powerful urge to scream and run. Remembering that Azador was within the giant's reach and that it was his job to distract the monster gave him back a little courage, but not much. "I am Nobody, and I am a ghost!" he screeched as impressively as he could, crouching low in the grass. "You have taken my ghost-ship, and I will haunt you until the end of your days unless you return it."

Polyphemus leaned forward and swept his head from side to side, his eye like a wide headlamp as it reflected the moonlight. "A ghost called Nobody?"

Paul had remembered something about Odysseus using that name, and although he couldn't quite remember why he had, it had seemed like a good touch. "That's right! And if you don't return my boat, I will haunt the hair off your head and the skin off your bones!"

The giant snuffled, great inhalations of air like a blacksmith's bellows. "For a ghost, you smell much like a man. I think I will find you tomorrow when it is less trouble, and eat you then. Perhaps with a little mint sauce." He turned back into the doorway.

In despair, Paul leaped up. "No!" He snatched up a stone as big as a grapefruit and ran toward the cave before flinging it as hard as he could. It struck the giant in its thatch of filthy hair and must have bounced off its skull, but the giant only turned slowly, a single shaggy brow lowering over the great eye. "Come and catch me, if you think you're so clever!" Trembling with terror, he stood in place, showing himself to the monster. "Maybe I'll go visit your mother instead—I hear she loves to meet strangers." He waved his arms in a manic semaphore. "Not just meet them either, from what everyone tells me."

The Cyclops growled and took a couple of steps toward him, looming like the prow of a battleship, stinking like a rendering plant. It was all Paul could do to remain upright. "What kind of little madman are you?" the monster thundered. "You can say what you want about my mother—the old whore never gave me a bone she hadn't sucked the meat and marrow from first—but you have woken me up and wasted my sleeping time. When I catch you, I will stretch you between trees like sheep's gut and play a very unpleasant tune on you."

Almost hysterical with fear, Paul saw a movement in the shadows behind the Cyclops—Azador. Paul began to do a mad dance, darting from side to side through the wet grass, leaping and waving his arms. The giant stepped nearer, the saucer eye now narrowing in a squint, "Does it have the foaming-sickness?" Polyphemus wondered aloud. "Perhaps instead of eating it, I should grind it into paste and spread it on the rocks around the meadow to keep wolves away from the sheep."

Although he wanted to keep the diversion going, the stink and the horrible bulk of the thing coming toward him were too much for his faltering courage. Paul snatched up the spear and bolted back across the grass toward the forest, praying he had given Azador time, that the man was not foolishly trying to drag out the heavy raft himself.

The ground shook to a pair of heavy steps, and Paul felt his heart climb up toward his throat.

A dream . . . I've been in this dream before . . . and the giant's going to reach down and grab me. . . .

But the steps did not continue. When Paul reached the shelter of the trees a moment later, the huge shadowy shape was still watching. Then it turned and trudged back to the cave. There was a rumble and screech as it pushed the rock back in front of the doorway—was there a hesitation, a moment's pause? Paul held his breath. Only silence greeted him. Nerves like wires crisping in an electrical fire, he staggered back into the deeper shadows.

 

"I got the log into the doorway," Azador said when he had caught his breath. "It did not sound like the door closed all the way."

"Then all we can do is wait until he falls asleep." Paul actually wished that they could wait a great deal longer than that. The idea of creeping into the ogre's cave, with its escape-preventing walls and stench of putrid flesh, was paralyzing.

Why do I keep getting thrown into folktales? he wondered. Awful ones at that—-like the worst things the Brothers Grimm ever imagined.

He eyed Azador, who was already settling himself against the sides of the depression, obviously planning to get some sleep. It was a good idea, but Paul's mind was full of flittering thoughts, and behind it all was the great fear of what they were about to do, too great to let him rest. He turned his attention to the mystery man beside him, who seemed to know much about the simulation but nothing about its source.

"Where are you from, anyway?" he asked quietly.

Azador opened one eye and frowned, but said nothing.

"Look, we're stuck here. We have to trust each other. Why are you in this network?" A sudden thought struck him. "Are you part of the Circle?"

His companion snorted his contempt. "A tribe of gorgio priests and fools." He spat.

"Then . . . then do you have something to do with the Grail people?" He only whispered the words, mindful of what Nandi had told him about the eavesdropping machineries of the network's masters. "Are you part of the Brotherhood?"

Azador's expression changed from scorn to something cold and reptilian. "If you ask me that again, then when the time comes that I have to save you from One-Eye, I will let him eat you." His tone had no hint of joking. "They are pigs."

"Then who are you? What are you doing here?"

The mustached man sighed, an exhalation of irritation. "I told you. I am looking for a woman who has something of mine. No one takes Azador's gold and walks away with it. I will find her, no matter in what world she hides."

"She took your gold?"

"She took something of mine."

The hair on Paul's neck lifted with a sudden memory. "A harp? Was it a golden harp?"

Azador stared at him as though he had begun to bark like a dog. "No. A cigarette lighter." He rolled over, deliberately turning his back to Paul.

A cigarette lighter. . . ? Paul kept thinking the universe around him could not become more strange, but he kept being wrong.

 

He woke from a shallow, unsatisfying sleep to find Azador kneeling over him, the blade-end of the makeshift spear near his throat. In the filtered moonlight the man's face looked hard as a mask, and for a moment Paul was quite convinced his companion intended to kill him.

"Come," Azador whispered. "It will be dawn in another hour."

Paul climbed to his feet, grogginess and disorientation a thin curtain in front of naked terror. For the first time in a while he thought longingly of coffee—If nothing else, the ritual of making some would postpone what was to come.

He followed Azador up the hill, sliding a step backward on the muddy ground for every few steps forward. The storm had passed, and when they reached the grassy hilltop, they stood beneath a sky dazzlingly full of stars. Azador held a finger to his lips—quite unnecessarily, thought Paul, who was already frightened almost into immobility by the idea that he might step on a twig and wake the monster.

They moved slower and slower as they approached the door of the cave, until it seemed that time itself had become something thick, weighty. Azador leaned into the shadows, then bobbed up, teeth bared in a mirthless grin, and beckoned Paul forward. The log had indeed kept the stone from sealing the doorway: a crescent of orange light revealed the gap.

The smell was even worse than Paul had remembered, meat and animal musk and sour sweat. His stomach had been squirming since he woke; as they stepped over the log and squeezed through the narrow space into the cave, it was all he could do not to vomit.

The monster's snores were deep and wet. Paul almost went limp with relief, and was equally heartened to see their raft leaning intact against a stone, but before he had time to savor the feelings Azador led him across the uneven floor. The cavern was high, and the dim glow of the embers did not penetrate every cranny, but he could see the great bulk of the Cyclops near the far wall, lying like a mountain range beside the fire. The sheep were crammed into a wooden pen that took up almost half of the large chamber. Stacked near it were the giant's implements, oddly domestic—buckets of pitch and a pair of shears that although bigger than normal must have been small and delicate as a surgical instrument in the Cyclops' oversized grasp.

Distracted by his observations, Paul kicked something which rolled across the stone with a heart-stopping clatter. Some of the sheep moved nervously, and for a moment the tone of the ogre's snores changed; Paul and Azador stood frozen until the rhythm stabilized again. The human skull, which had come to a halt upside down, teetering on its cranium, seemed to look back at them with grave if inverted amusement.

The job was Azador's now, and Paul would have liked nothing better than to stay near the door while his companion got on with it, but shame and something like loyalty forced him on. He groped his way forward a few inches at a time until he stood near the monster's feet, each one as long as he was tall and almost the same distance across, the skin more leathery and wrinkled than an elephant's hide. Azador inched around toward the creature's head, clearly torn as to which of his planned targets to strike, the lidded eye or unprotected throat. The Cyclops lay on his back with head tilted and a massive arm draped across his forehead: the angle was not good for reaching either spot. Azador climbed onto a rock shelf that brought him above the level of the giant's head, looked at Paul for a moment, then gripped the spear tightly and bent his knees before jumping down onto the Cyclops' chest.

As he sprang, one of the sheep bleated in alarm. The giant moved only a little, rolling in his heavy sleep, but it was enough for Azador's blade to miss the pit of the throat and tear down the side of the giant's neck instead.

Polyphemus woke, roaring like a jet engine, and slapped Azador off his chest. Paul's companion flew across the room, thudded into a corner, and did not rise-Still roaring, his voice so loud in that closed place that it seemed he would shake the entire cavern into stone-dust, Polyphemus rolled onto his knees and then rose to his full height.

His great, shaggy head swung around and his eye fixed on Paul, who took a stumbling step backward.

I was right, he thought as the giant's bloody hand reached out to close on him and crush him into paste, it really wasn't a very good plan. . . .

CHAPTER 13
Tending the Herd

NETFEED/NEWS: US, China to Cooperate on Antarctica Archaeology

(visual: Antarctic site seen from the air)

VO: The discovery of an archaelogical site on the Antarctic Peninsula, previously believed to have been uninhabited until recent history. . . .

(visual: Chinese and American envoys shaking hands in Ellsworth)

. . . has brought the two most prominent feuding nations of the Zurich Accord together in a rare show of cooperation.

(visual: Chinese Cultural Minister Una at press conference)

Una: "This historic find must be protected. I know I speak for the entire Chinese people when I say that we will work happily and vigorously with the United States and other Zurich nations to keep this unique piece of human history safe so that it can be properly explored and documented.

 

It was hard to watch the little kids running around on the playground with their nice Mamapapa-type clothes and their clean faces and not wonder what that would feel like. But although he could imagine a boy like him doing those kind of things, he could never imagine himself doing it—not Carlos Andreas Chascarillo Izabal. Not Cho-Cho.

He saw her come close to his hiding place, wandering by herself. He looked to make sure that the two teachers were still standing in the shade near the classroom, then he rattled the bushes. She didn't hear him, so he rattled them louder, then whispered as loud as he dared, "Hey, weenit! You deaf?"

She looked up, startled, and even when she recognized him she still looked frightened. It made him angry, and for a moment he thought of just leaving and telling El Viejo he hadn't found her. "Come here," he said instead. "I gotta ask you something, m'entiendes?"

The little girl turned and checked the teachers, just as he had done. He found himself admiring her just a bit: for a little rich white girl, she wasn't all stupid. She wandered closer to the fence, but still kept a short distance away, as though he might reach out and grab her.

"What?" she asked; then, "Is Mister Sellars sick?" She looked really worried.

Cho-Cho made a face. "He ain't sick. He wants to know how come you don't come see him or nothing?"

She looked like she wanted to cry. It made Cho-Cho want to hit her, but he didn't know why. Probably just because the old cripple liked her so much, had him running errands to see how she was doing, like she was some kind of princess or something.

"My . . . my daddy took the Storybook Sunglasses. He says I shouldn't have them." A nearby shriek made her jump. One of her classmates had grabbed another kid's sweater, but was running off with it in the opposite direction, away from the fence, a couple of kids chasing after him. "He's trying to find out why I have . . . why I have them . . . and he won't let me go out and play or anything until I tell him."

Cho-Cho frowned. "So you getting all punished? 'Cause you won't tell them where the glasses from?"

The little girl—he could never remember her name right, even when the old man said it all the time: Crystal Ball or something stupid like that—nodded. Cho-Cho wasn't surprised she was keeping her mouth shut, since where he grew up nobody told their parents anything about what really happened, if they even had parents, but he thought it was pretty interesting that she wasn't folding up right away. Rich little girl like that, he would have thought she'd give up as soon as they started the whippings, and they must have started those already.

"I'll tell El Viejo," he said.

"Does he want me to come see him?" she asked. "I can't—I'm grounded."

Cho-Cho shrugged. He was just doing his job. He wasn't going to waste time telling her all kinds of cheerful shit to make her feel better.

"La caridad es veneno," his father had always said, his poor, stupid, crazy father—Charity is poison. "It makes you weak, boy," was the explanation. "They give it to us like they give poison to rats. We're the rats in the walls, understand? And they want to make us weak so they can kill us."

Carlos Sr. could tell his family not to take handouts from the government or the church, but the problem was, he couldn't keep a job. He was a hard worker and a pretty smart one (one of the reasons it was still better to get fruit picked by hand), and if the man in the truck chose him to go to the citrus fields outside Tampa for the day, all morning that truck man would be thinking about what a good choice he'd made, because Carlos Sr. would be storming up and down the rows, filling twice as many orange or grapefruit bins as anyone else. But then someone would look at him funny, or one of the foremen would ask him a question that felt like an insult, and then someone would be lying on the ground with a bloody nose. Sometimes it was Carlos Sr., but usually it was the other person. And that would be that. Another job lost, another field where he couldn't work until they had a different man on the truck, a different foreman.

But he didn't take charity, as he was always pointing out. Carlos Jr.—never called Carlito, "little Carlos," because for some reason that, too, would have been an insult to his father—heard the speech so many times he could have recited it for him.

Carlos Sr.'s wife was not such a stickler for integrity, although she was never stupid enough to let her husband know that some of what she brought home to the honeycomb underneath Highway 4 to help feed their five children was not merely earned from her job at a grocery store, where she mopped the floors when things spilled and carried boxes from one side of the warehouse to the other, but in fact came from the very charity he hated, in the form of state assistance to indigent families. Food vouchers.

It wasn't that Carlos Jr. particularly disagreed with any of his father's philosophical positions. At a very basic level, he even understood and agreed with Carlos Sr.'s distrust of helping hands; neither would he have liked to be known as "Carlito," so he felt no loss there. His objection to his father was far more basic. He hated him. Carlos Sr.'s bullying and bragging would have been more tolerable if the Izabal family had lived a life of even middle-of-the-road poverty, but they were poor as dirt. The father's comparison of their position to that of rats was horrifyingly true.

Carlos Jr. considered himself a man by the time he was eight. Did he and his friends not bring in at least as much to their families as their benighted, hopeless fathers? What difference was there between what others earned by sweat and what they earned by thievery, except that the latter was less work and infinitely more exciting? When he first met his friends Beto and Iskander and they tried to call him Carlito, he hit Iskander in the eye and kicked Beto so hard that the smaller boy had run home crying. His reasons for not using that name were different than his father's, but his determination was just as great. He had nothing against nicknames, though. Later, when Iskander started to call him "Cho-Cho" after a brand of rice candy that he particularly liked to shoplift, he accepted the name graciously.

He and Beto and Iskander did a lot of things together, most of which were meant to put money in their pockets, candy in their sweaty fists, and dermal patches on whatever areas of their skin could be spit-scrubbed clean enough for the chemical transfer. They had a business, that was the truth of it, with diverse interests, some of which were as interesting and inventive as anything conceived by people with college degrees. In fact, they were busy with one of their projects—"tending the herd," as they called it—on the night the terrible thing happened.

The International Vending Corporation had come up with a new twist on the basic concept of food and drink delivery, something they rather preciously named "Walkabots"—vending machines on silent tank treads that covered entire neighborhoods, directed by simple codes to move from place to place. IVC did not expect to make even as much money from them as from simple stationary machines, but the big boxes were also mobile advertisements, playing up-tempo advertising jingles and greeting customers (once they came within range of the infrared eye) with cheerful canned chatter. It didn't take long for Cho-Cho and his friends (and hundreds like them in every major city) to realize that the machines could be physically removed to other neighborhoods, so that the IVC service people could not locate them (something a simple chip could have prevented if the vending machine executives had been a little less naive.) Once the machines were set roving on their new turf, the profits could then be safely harvested by Cho-Cho and his tiny business consortium until the box ran out of goodies. After they had jammed the credit slots which most people would have otherwise used, each machine still took in enough old-fashioned coin to deliver a tidy little profit at the end of each day.

Within a couple of months they had a free-range herd of Walkabot vending machine's operating all over Tampa, so many that Cho-Cho and his friends had to surf the tramline for hours every night to collect all their takings. They were living so high that Cho-Cho even got himself an aspirational, Goggleboy-type neural access shunt installed in a dirty backroom surgery by a street-corner can man, but they all knew that the time was short—the IVC people were busy snatching back every machine they could get their hands on—so they were pushing the enterprise as far and as fast as they could.

On the night the terrible thing happened, little Beto had located an unshepherded machine in Ybor City, an impressive new model with a holographic display of a fizzing drink being poured from a bottle hovering like a halo above a two-and-a-half-meter plasteel box. Beto was delirious with pleasure—he declared this would be the king of their herd—and despite Cho-Cho's reluctance to kidnap such an unusual-looking machine without investigating it first, he let Beto and Iskander have their way. In a matter of moments they had jacked it up onto the machine-rustling dolly which they had liberated from an auto garage and were heading across town.

The IVC Model 6302-B was meant to solve the problem that had plagued the last generation of mobile machines; many others beside Cho-Cho and his friends had discovered how to kidnap the mobile dispensers, and the company was sick of being a laughingstock. The worried executives at International Vending Company did not realize that they had made things dramatically worse.

As Cho-Cho and his partners took advantage of a late-night lull in traffic on the expressway to get their machine across—they were only boys, after all, and could not possibly have lifted such a large machine up the stairs to the pedestrian walkway—the Model 6302-B crossed the border of its designated vending area, which set off its defensive systems. An alarm as loud as an ambulance siren began to shriek, warning lights to strobe, and a theoretically harmless vegetable dye with ultraviolet trace elements sprayed from ports along the side of the drink machine to mark the machine rustlers.

Iskander was hit in the eyes by the dye. Terrified by the screaming alarm and his sudden blindness, he staggered away from the machine. Cho-Cho had also been sprayed in the face, and was rubbing his eyes frantically when Beto screeched in terror. Cho-Cho cleared the worst of the dye in time to see Iskander frozen in the headlights of an oncoming truck. They barely saw the impact, but the wet thump was so shocking that Cho-Cho let go of the heavy vending machine, still howling its warning cry as it teetered atop the dolly. A moment later it began to tip, the weight far too great for Cho-Cho to stop it even when he realized what was happening. Little Beto, wide-eyed as he stared at the spot where Iskander had been only a moment before, did not even see the huge box toppling on him. He disappeared beneath it without a sound.

Stunned, Cho-Cho had stood frozen for long moments. The car that had hit Iskander had stopped several hundred yards up the expressway, and other headlights were appearing now, slowing at the sight of the huge blinking machine lying on its side in the middle lane. Cho-Cho's muscles if not his wits returned to his control; he bolted into the darkness of the roadside, almost tripping on the dolly which was rolling slowly down the sloping expressway toward the shoulder.

The International Vending Company sustained such a blizzard of negative publicity, the tabnets straggling to outdo each other with stories about how a "killer machine" had chased one child to its death on a freeway and killed another outright by crashing his skull, that within a month of the accident they declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold their assets to another firm. Although Cho-Cho would experience other tragedies—his mother and younger sister were asphyxiated a year later when a trucker running his engine to stay warm during an evening's layover underneath the freeway accidentally filled their honeycomb with carbon monoxide—that night had already done much to form his expectations of life.

We are the rats in the walls, was the only thing of his father's that he kept when he ran away, making his way up the East Coast in search of cooler summers and less vigilant police. They will trap us, poison us. They want us dead.

 

Cho-Cho watched the little girl walk away with her head down, slow and sad like he had just told her he was going to burn up her house or something. Why had the old vato ever got involved with her in the first place? The old guy was weird, but he was pretty smart in his way—he knew lots of shit, that was for sure—so why did he get a little puppy dog like this to help him?

Because he hadn't had any other choice, the boy suddenly realized. He would have taken a street-smart animal like Cho-Cho if he could have, but they hadn't met in time. When they did, he had sent the little girl back to Mamapapa-land pretty quick.

This put a little spring in Cho-Cho's step as he made his way back through the walking park just beyond the school, but he still remembered to keep to the trees and stay out of sight of the paths. He was getting a little tired of eating the military rations the old cripple Sellars kept stacked in the tunnel, but he wasn't that tired of it—it was a lot better than not eating, and it also beat getting meals on trays in one of those kiddie jails, which was where he'd go if they caught him. If he was lucky, of course, and they didn't just take him out back of the base and shoot him instead—"snipe hunting," the azules called it. You couldn't trust the people who ran things. They talked all nice on the net, everyone said, but he knew they didn't like rats at all.

Sellars was different, but Cho-Cho still wasn't sure why. In fact, he wasn't sure about anything where the man in the wheelchair was concerned. The old cripple was hiding from the army men, but doing it right underneath an army base. He was keyed into some kind of crazy part of the net that Cho-Cho had never seen—better than the best games or anything—but he wanted Cho-Cho to be the one to go, even though they could never quite make it work right, or at least not for very long. And he was always mumbling, like Cho-Cho's ahuela in the mountains outside Guatemala City, who his dad had taken him to see once—a horrible sweaty boat ride that lasted days, just to meet an old lady living in some Indian village who didn't even have any teeth, and who kept a scrawny monkey on a leash right in her little house. She had seemed glad to meet her grandchild, but he couldn't understand her language and his father couldn't be bothered to translate much of what she said. He knew he would never as long as he lived forget the smell of that place, boiled corn and monkey shit.

It wasn't much different living with Sellars, although gracias a Dios there was no monkey. But the things the old man mumbled, even if they were in a language that Cho-Cho could actually speak, still didn't make any sense—he talked to himself about his garden, like he still had a house of his own, and mumbled words like "platforms" and "Ay-eye structures" like even if he didn't have a house, he was going to build one. Which was pretty funny, because if ever there was an old vato who couldn't even lift a hammer, let alone use one, it was Sellars. He had arms like broomsticks and had to work so hard to breathe sometimes, even with that "oxygen nation" stuff he kept boiling all the time like some kind of ugly soup, that Cho-Cho sometimes couldn't even sleep for listening to him wheezing and coughing.

It was funny, though. He didn't want the guy to die, even if he was an old cripple. Not just because then he'd be on his own hiding from the army men, and the mu'chita probably wouldn't even bring food no more. There was also something strange about the way Sellars talked to him that he couldn't quite understand. It was almost like the old man liked him or something. Cho-Cho knew better, of course. People like Sellars, white people with houses of their own—or who had once had houses of their own, anyway—didn't like street rats. They said they did if someone was doing a net story on how sad it all was, or if the government or the church was opening some fancy caridad place, but people like that didn't really want to spend time with a dirty little kid with teeth knocked out and sores on his arms and legs that wouldn't stop oozing.

But Sellars was definitely strange. He talked softly and called Cho-Cho "Señor Izabal." The first time he did it, Cho-Cho almost kicked him right out of his chair, but it wasn't a joke, or at least not the kind Cho-Cho was used to. And Sellars thanked him for bringing him things. For a while Cho-Cho had been sure the guy was some kind of babybouncer—why else get friendly with a little gatita like that Christy Bell or whatever her name was?—and so he kept a sharp piece of metal he'd found in one of the base trash cans right in his hand when he went to sleep, his fingers curled around the sticky tape handle. But Sellars never did anything.

So was he just un anciano loco? But if he was, how did he get into that amazing place—a world better than the net, a world Cho-Cho had seen with his own eyes or he wouldn't have believed it? And why would Sellars only bring him online after he'd fallen asleep? He must have some lockoff big station he didn't want Cho-Cho to see, something worth monster cambio. The whole thing was so strange that it had to mean money somewhere, and Cho-Cho wasn't going to miss out. When you were a rat, you had to take what you could get, any time you could get it. Besides, he had to figure it out just so that if the burned-up old man died, Cho-Cho El Raton could still get back to that place on the net, to that utter tasty, wild place.

 

 

"So her father has the sunglasses. . . ." Sellars tried to keep his voice even, but it was shockingly bad news. It had been a dreadful gamble, but at the time he had done it, there had been no other choice—it was either give her the device or risk having her constantly coming to prearranged meetings at his hiding place, and how long could one hope to keep that up with a child before attracting notice?

Cho-Cho shrugged. "Is what she said." He was being unusually opaque today, even by his own standards. At the best of times the boy moved in a permanent dark cloud of suspicion and reflexive anger, but that meant he was fairly easy to read. Sellars had often brooded on the hopelessness of his own cause, but never more so than when he considered that his only real-world allies were the primary-school daughter of the man hunting for him and a boy only a few years older who hadn't slept in a house in years—a boy who at the moment was chewing the corner off a foil sack of RTE pudding so he could suck out the contents like a chimp with a marrowbone.

Sellars sighed. He was so tired, so very tired, but this latest crisis could not wait. It might even be too late already—the Storybook Sunglasses would hold up under a standard examination, but if someone researched the components, which Sellars had assembled over two years of stealthy mail fraud and fiddling with the base's records, they would realize that the receiving range for the device was very short indeed. Even if Christabel did not break under what must be terrible pressure, her father and his staff would know that whoever was narrowcasting to the sunglasses must be almost on top of them. Or beneath them.

If he had been the type to shudder he would have done so. Next up the line would be Yacoubian, and—although Christabel's father and his other subordinates might not know it—the entire weight of the Grail Brotherhood. The whole thing would be over in hours from the moment the deduction was made, so quickly that Sellars might not have a chance to do more than destroy himself and his records. In fact, the process might be in the chain at this very moment.

He steadied himself by thinking of his Garden, of the virtual plants twining and tangling. Nothing was ever simple, but that was true for his opponents as well as for himself. He would have to do something, that was all, and the obvious point of attack would be Christabel's father, Major Michael Sorensen. If Sellars had possessed the strange operating system the Brotherhood used, he could just reach out and hypnotize the man when he was next online, manipulate his mind. The sunglasses could be made to disappear, the entire subject to be forgotten. Of course, first he would have to be willing to interfere with the man's mind, to risk Christabel's father's sanity and perhaps even his life.

Sellars looked at Cho-Cho, whose grubby face was at the moment made grubbier still by the chocolate pudding smeared on his chin. Was there a difference between using innocents like Christabel—or even this child, who compared to Sellars himself was definitely an innocent—and mucking about in the mental plumbing of an adult?

"It comes down to choices, Señor Izabal," he said aloud. "Choices, as my friend Señor Yeats would have been the first to point out. . . .

". . . An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress. . . .

". . . And coats don't get much more tattered than you and me, do they?"

Cho-Cho stared at him, rubbing his mouth and transferring pudding freely to wrist and forearm. "Huh?"

"A bit of poetry. I have a choice to make. If I make the wrong one, something very, very bad will happen. If I make the right one, something very bad might happen anyway. Have you ever had to make a choice like that?"

The boy regarded him from under long lashes, an animal quietly preparing for defense or night. At last he said, "All the time I have to think, is like that—bad one way, bad the other. They always get you in the end. Siempre."

Sellars nodded, but he felt something much like pain. "I suppose they do. Now listen carefully, my young friend, and I'll tell you what to go back and say to the little girl."

 

 

It felt like four whole days had passed since she came home from school instead of only four hours, but all she could do was think about what the terrible boy had told her. She didn't even know for sure if Mister Sellars had really said that. What if the boy Cho-Cho was telling a lie? What if Mister Sellars was really sick, and the boy just wanted to do bad things? She saw someone on the net once saying that children like that boy didn't believe in the law, which she knew meant that they would steal and hurt people. He had pushed her down, hadn't he? Told her he was going to cut her?

She desperately wanted to go and ask Mister Sellars, really ask him his own self, but her mother was just a few steps away from the kitchen table, and even so she kept looking over her shoulder all the time, like she thought Christabel might try to sneak away.

She had been doing her homework, but all the thoughts had her so confused that she couldn't do her fractions right, couldn't remember which was the denumerator and which was the nominator or anything, and so she had just put in numbers and erased them, over and over.

"How are you doing, honey?" her mom asked, using her sweet voice, but she sounded worried, like she did all the time these days.

"Okay," Christabel told her. But she wasn't okay. She was afraid that her daddy wouldn't come home on time. She was even more afraid that if he did come home on time, something so bad might happen that nothing would ever be okay ever again.

 

It didn't help that her daddy was in a bad mood when he came in, swearing because he had kicked over a watering can on the porch that shouldn't have been there. Mommy apologized, then Daddy apologized, but he still wasn't in a good mood. He barely said hello to Christabel before he went into his study and closed the door.

Christabel looked at the clock on the wall above the sink and saw that there were only ten more minutes to go. She poured herself a glass of water but didn't drink any, and stared at the cartoons on the refrigerator, even though she'd seen them all before.

"I'm going to go talk to Daddy," she said at last.

Her mother looked at her carefully, like she did when Christabel said she didn't feel good. "He may just want some quiet time, sugar."

"I want to talk to him." She wanted to cry, but she couldn't let it show. "I just want to talk to him, Mommy."

So suddenly it almost startled Christabel into a squeak, her mother kneeled down and put her arms around her. "Okay, honey. Go knock on the door and ask him. You know how much we love you, don't you?"

"Sure." Christabel did not feel very good, and hearing about how her mommy and daddy loved her made it worse. She slipped out of her mother's arms and walked down the hall to the study.

It was only because she knew that just a few minutes were left that she managed to knock on the door, because it felt like she was standing outside a dragon's cave or a haunted house, "Daddy, can I come in?"

For a second he didn't say anything. When he did, he sounded tired. "Sure, baby."

He had poured himself a drink out of the are-you-going-to-have-one-this-early-Mike? bottle, and was sitting in his spinny chair with reports open all over the wallscreen. He looked up, and although he had started shaving again, something about his face seemed old and sad and made her heart hurt even more. "What is it? Dinner?"

Christabel took a deep breath. She tried to remember the words to a prayer, to pray that Mister Sellars had really sent her the message, that it wasn't just from the awful boy with the bad teeth, but all she could think of was Now I lay me down to sleep, which didn't seem right.

"Daddy, do . . . do you still have my Storybook Sunglasses?"

He turned slowly to face her. "Yes, I do, Christabel."

"Here?"

He nodded.

"Then . . . then. . . ." It was hard to talk. "Then you have to put them on. Because the man who gave them to me wants to talk to you." She looked at the corner of the wallscreen, which said 18:29 in white numbers. "Right now."

Daddy's eyes went wide and he started to ask something, then he looked at the time and took his keys out of his coat pocket. He unlocked the bottom drawer of the desk and took out the black plastic Storybook Sunglasses. "I'm supposed to put them on. . . ?" he asked her. His voice was very quiet, but there was something in it that really scared her, something hard and cold, like a knife under a bedsheet.

It was even worse when they were on, because she couldn't see his eyes anymore. He looked like a blind man. He looked like a bug, even, or a space alien.

"I don't know what. . . ." he started to say, then stopped. For a moment, there was silence. "Who are you?" he said at last, his voice angry and hissing like a snake, and because he was still facing her, for a moment Christabel had the terrible idea that he was asking her.

After a moment he said, in a different voice, "Christabel, you'd better leave the room."

"But, Daddy. . . !"

"You heard me. Tell your mother I'm going be a little late working on something."

Christabel got up and moved toward the doorway. Everything was quiet for few seconds, but as she closed the door she heard her father say, "All right, then. Show me."

 

He didn't come out.

An hour went by. Christabel's mother, who at first had been angry in a making-fun-of-it-way, began to get really angry. She went and knocked at the office door but Daddy didn't answer. "Mike?" she called, and rattled the door, but it was locked. "Christabel, what was he doing in there?"

She shook her head. She was afraid that if she said anything, she'd start crying so hard she'd never stop. She knew what had happened—the terrible boy had done something to the sunglasses. He'd killed Christabel's daddy. She lay facedown on the couch and buried her head in the pillow while her mother walked back and forth across the living room.

"This is ridiculous," Mommy was saying. She went back to the door. "Mike! Come on, you're scaring me!" There was a terrible sound in her voice, small but getting bigger, like a piece of paper tearing at the edge that would soon rip all the way through. "Mike!"

Now Christabel did begin to cry, soaking the pillow. She didn't want to look up. She wanted it all to go away. It was all her fault. All her fault. . . .

"Mike! Open this door right now, or I'm calling the MPs out!" Mommy was kicking the door now, great thumps like a giant's footsteps which only made Christabel cry harder. "Please, Mike, please—Oh, God, Mike. . . !"

Something clicked. Her mother stopped shouting and kicking. Everything was quiet.

Christabel sat up, rubbing her eyes, feeling tears and snot running down her lip. Daddy was standing in the open doorway of the study, the sunglasses in his hand. He was as pale as an egg. He looked like he had just come back from outer space, or from monster land.

"I'm . . . I'm sorry," he said. "I've been. . . ." He looked down at the sunglasses. "I've been . . . doing something."

"Mike, what's going on?" Christabel's mother said. She sounded only a little less scared.

"I'll tell you later." He looked at her, then at Christabel, but there was no anger or anything like it on his face. He rubbed his eyes.

"But what . . . what about dinner?" Mommy laughed, sharp and high. "The chicken is dry as a bone."

"You know," he said, "suddenly I'm not very hungry."

CHAPTER 14
Bandit Country

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: Treeport Sues Wiggers

(visual: Treeport visiting children in hospital)

VO: Clementina Treeport, often called "The Saint of St. Petersburg" for her work with Russian street children, is suing the power wig group How Can I Mourn You If You Won't Stay In Your Hole? over their use of her name and image in their release "Meat Eats Money, Children Are Cheap," which proposes that street children might be a useful substitute for expensive vat-grown meats. The lyrics to the release seem to suggest that Treeport and her Golden Mercy hospice are trafficking in children for just this purpose. Treeport has not made a public comment, but her attorney states she is, "definitely very unhappy about this."

(visual: Cheevak, soundmaster for HCIMYIYWSIYH?, in front of release promo)

CHEEVAK: "No, we're level with Clemmy. We think she's ho dzang on this. It's, like, tribute, seen? She's a forward thinker, we tell for true."

 

Renie was wrestling with an odd puzzle, one that frustrated her programmer's mind as much as it engaged it.

How do you engineer kindness?

They were taking their leave of the Library Brothers after a brief and restless night's sleep and an early breakfast in the Brothers' Refectory. Renie could not help wondering a little at the generosity the monks had shown them—something that went beyond mere reparation for their own accidental role in Martine's disappearance. It seemed unusual that coded creations should so thoroughly attempt to do good for strangers, and Renie was wondering how such a thing could come to be.

It's not like anger or something, where you could just program a hostile reaction to any deviation from normal routine, she thought as she clasped the abbot's hand in farewell. Brother Epistulus Tertius, standing beside him, actually looked a little teary, although Renie had no doubt he was just as happy to stay home. I mean, it's hard enough simply to define kindness, let alone try to make it part of a response pattern on any level beyond stock phrases.

The abbot leaned toward her and said quietly, "You will take good care of Brother Factum Quintus for us, won't you? He's quite brilliant, but a little . . . childlike in some ways. We would hate for anything to happen to him."

"We will treat him as one of us, Primoris."

The abbot nodded and let go of her hand. The others finished up their good-byes, all of Renie's party clearly a bit mournful except for !Xabbu, who was doing his best to appear nothing more than a monkey. The kindness of the Library Brothers was one of the few examples of genuine warmth they had encountered, and it was hard to leave it behind even though Martine's need took precedence over everything. Only gawky Factum Quintus seemed distracted, humming to himself as he paced back and forth, clearly anxious to be moving.

Genuine warmth—there I go again. How can it be genuine? These people aren't really people at all—they're code. She frowned. A neural net kept trying different strategies until it found successful ones, but how could you even make sure that kindness would be a successful strategy? Sometimes kindness was rewarded with treachery, just as the Quan Li thing had taken advantage of the Brothers' hospitality.

For the first time Renie had a genuine urge to get her hands on the inner workings of the Grail network, this so-called Otherland. She had presumed that what the Brotherhood had made with all its money and resources was simply a larger and more complex version of a normal simulation network—more details, more choices, more complicated "histories" for the created objects. But she was beginning to wonder if there wasn't something larger and stranger going on.

Wasn't there something in complexity theory about this kind of system? She watched golden dust drift through a shaft of light, struggling to remember her long-ago classes. Not just that they can go bad, like Sick Building Syndrome, but that they can evolve, too—get more and more complex and turbulent, then take a sudden leap into a different state. . . ?

"Renie?" Florimel could not entirely keep the sharpness of impatience out of her voice, but by her standards, it was a friendly inquiry. "Are you going to stand there staring at the bookshelves all morning?"

"Oh. Right. Let's get going."

She would put it away until later, but she promised herself she would not forget.

 

The Library Market, which seemed to be a permanent fixture, was in full swing; it took them the better part of an hour to get away from the worst of the crowds. Renie could not shake the feeling that they were being watched, although she found it hard to believe that the Quan Li thing, its disguise now revealed, would risk approaching them again so soon. Still, her flesh crawled as though they were being observed by some all-seeing eye. In Martine's absence, she would have liked to discuss it with !Xabbu, but her friend was still maintaining his pose as a simple animal and there was no chance for a quiet escape down a side passage for a conversation: Factum Quintus was setting a brisk pace, despite an almost nonstop monologue about the various architectural sights and the materials and methods used to create them.

The company returned to the line of the river and followed it for no little time, through settlements both poor and prosperous. As minutes became an hour, then more, Renie began to have doubts about their guide. It seemed unlikely that the person masquerading as Quan Li would have carried her so far from the scene of the kidnapping.

Factum Quintus stopped the procession. "This must seem a long journey," he told them, as if he had read her thoughts. "You see, it is simpler from our level to climb to the Campanile of the Six Pigs. Easier, but farther, yes. We can come back along the upper stories to the Spire Forest. So we are going to the farthest site first. The Campanile is not without interest in itself, though, so. . . ."

"A friend of ours is in terrible danger." Renie could not bear another lecture on masonry at the moment. "We don't care about what's interesting. Every hour may be critical."

He raised a long, thin hand. "Of course. Critical. I am just apprising you of my method." He turned with bony dignity and set out along the riverwalk again.

Florimel dropped back from where she had been walking between T4b and Emily. "I am glad you said what you did, Renie. I am relieved to know we are not just accompanying this monk on a walking tour."

Renie shook her head. "We haven't even thought about what we'll do when we find her. If we find her."

"It is bad to worry too much without information. We should wait until we see the situation."

"You're right. It's just . . . I'm on edge. I keep thinking somebody's watching us."

"I have the same feeling." Florimel grinned sourly at Renie's expression. "It is not surprising, really. I think you and I are much alike—always we worry about everyone else. Always it is our responsibility to make sure others are safe." She reached out and gave Renie a tentative pat on the arm, a strangely awkward gesture. "Perhaps that's why we have had conflict. It is hard for two people both accustomed to the same position to sort things out."

Renie wasn't entirely sure if being told she was like Florimel was actually a compliment, but she decided to treat it as one. "You're probably right. But you've been feeling . . . that feeling, too? That we're being watched, even followed?"

"Yes. But I have seen nothing. I regret very much that Martine is not with us. I would say that I feel blind without her, but I fear it would sound like a bad joke."

Renie shook her head. "No, it's true."

"I will go back now, with the young ones. I feel more comfortable when I am close to them."

At first Renie thought the other woman meant she would be more comfortable because of T4b's size and impressive armored physique, but realized a moment later that she was talking about something quite different. "I feel the same way. Responsibility—it's tiring sometimes, isn't it?"

Again Florimel smiled, a little softer now. "We would not know what to do without it, I think."

A short time later Factum Quintus led them around a bend in the river and onto what seemed for a moment to be the opening of a sort of cave of polished marble, its huge, flat white floor cluttered with small buildings.

"The Grand River Stairs," the monk announced. "It is shocking how long it has been since I have visited this."

Renie saw that the broad landing did indeed mark the bottom of an immense staircase whose shadowed interior wound up and away from the river. The more recent structures on either side of it, slapdash constructions of wood and rough stone, almost swallowed the splendor of the stairs.

"But . . . but people have built all over it," said Renie, surprised. "Look, they've even built little huts on the stairway itself."

Brother Factum Quintus goggled at her shrewdly, and for a moment a look of amusement quirked his angular, ugly face. "And who is to prevent them?" he asked mildly. "The House is for those who live in it, surely. Surely. The Builders, if such exist, have never protested against later residents."

"But you love old things. Doesn't it make you sad to see them built over like this?" Renie was missing something, but she couldn't tell what. "Shouldn't it be . . . preserved or something?"

The monk nodded. "In an ideal House, we brethren would perhaps pick and choose where people could live. Yes, preserving the finest sites for study." He appeared to consider it for a moment. "But perhaps that in itself would lead to abuses—only the House itself is perfect, while men are fallible."

A little chastened, Renie could only lower her head and follow as Factum Quintus led them up the stairs, which were grossly narrowed by various flimsy constructions secured to the walls and the sweeping marble banisters. Only a few of these hovels were obviously occupied, but Renie could see lights and hear voices in the depths of the pile. It was something like a colony of coral, she thought. Or, to give it a more human shape, like one of the shantytowns or honeycombs of Durban.

People will find a place to live, she thought, and that's all there is to it.

The stairway dwellings became more infrequent as they climbed, and by the time they had mounted what Renie guessed to be three or four tall stories, the stairwell was pristine. The carvings now revealed were splendid, like something out of a Baroque church, although only a fraction were of things Renie could identify—human shapes, but other less familiar forms as well, and many objects whose models she could only guess.

"Who made this?" she asked.

Factum Quintus was clearly happy with the question. "Ah. Yes, well, I know there are many who believe this to be the actual work of the Builders themselves, but that is an old wives' tale. The House is full of such nonsense. The stairwell is ancient, of course—dating perhaps as far back as the First Crockery Wars or earlier—but certainly it was created within recorded history." He pointed at the balustrade. "See? There was gilt there once. Long gone, of course, long gone. Scavenged and melted down for coins or jewelry, no doubt. But the earliest building we know of happened long before such decoration. Ages ago. All stone it was, quarried blocks, joined without mortar—fascinating stuff. . . ." And with that he was off again on another discursive ramble, rattling off facts about the House as Renie and the others trudged after him up the stairs.

The morning turned into afternoon. Although they eventually left the great staircase behind, it was not before they had climbed much farther than the few stories Factum Quintus had implied. Renie found both her spirits and her feet dragging. Only !Xabbu, with his quadrupedal advantage, seemed to find the climbing and walking easy.

Florimel still traveled with the air of one prepared to be sprung upon at any moment, although the feeling she and Renie shared had eased. T4b and Emily followed close behind her. The youthful pair had spent much of the day in quiet conversation. Emily's initial antipathy to the boy seemed to have eased considerably, and Renie wondered how long it would be until they were, in the old-fashioned phrase, "going steady," whatever that might mean in this bizarre universe, in this bizarre situation. She found herself missing Orlando and Fredericks, the other two teenagers, and wondered where they were, if they were even alive. It was a shame that Orlando, with the illness Fredericks had described, was missing out on this small chance for romance, since Emily certainly seemed ripe for some kind of relationship.

Her brother Stephen's small face and insolent grin suddenly came to her thoughts, bringing with it a pang of sorrow. Unless something changed dramatically, Stephen wouldn't even get the chance to be a teenager. He would never fall in love, never experience the joys and sorrows it brought, nor any of the other bittersweet pleasures of adulthood.

Renie could feel tears forming and overspilling. She reached up quickly to wipe them away before any of the others noticed.

 

"The Campanile of the Six Pigs is just a few stories above us now," Factum Quintus announced. He had halted the group in a great circular gallery whose wall was entirely covered by a single faded mural, figures being born out of clouds and flashing sun, striving and gesticulating in great muddled figure-groupings before being subsumed into the cloudstuff as the curving picture began again. "We should pause and rest, because there is one last climb. Very nice balusters coming, by the way." He looked around the group; his large eyes were wide, as though he still could not quite believe the company he was forced to keep. "And perhaps you would like to discuss strategy, hmmm? Something like that?" He spread his robe and sat, folding his long legs beneath him like a piece of campground furniture.

Not being able to talk to !Xabbu was beginning to chafe, and Renie particularly did not want to plan an assault on the Quan Li thing without his input. She looked at her friend helplessly. He stared back, his distress mutely obvious.

"One other matter," began Factum Quintus as the others slumped to the ancient carpet, which had been bleached to nearly nothing over the years by the sun that angled in through the gallery's high windows, so that its design was now little more than a pastel swirl. "Oh, mark that," he suddenly said, distracted by the base of the wall. "A figured plaster skirting. I have never seen that noted in any of the designs. And clearly added on later, too. I shall have quite a laugh at Factum Tertius. . . ."

"You said 'one other thing'?" Renie tried to keep her voice pleasant, but her patience was rubbing thin. For one thing, she was worried about them chattering on like a picnic party when the Quan Li thing might be close by. "One other thing?" she prompted.

"Ah. Yes." The monk steepled his fingers on his knees. "I suspect that the ape can talk, and if it is staying silent for my benefit, there is no need."

Renie was stunned, but managed to say, "Baboon. He's a baboon. They're monkeys." What she really wanted to say was that !Xabbu was a man and a very fine one at that, but she had not lost all her caution. "Why do you think such a thing?"

"Monkey, ape. . . ." Factum Quintus shrugged. "I have watched you passing significant glances all afternoon. It is like watching the two lovers whose tongues have been cut out in that play . . . what was it?" He frowned. "Love's Larder Lessened, something like that, an old Kitchen melodrama—very popular with the Market crowd. . . ."

!Xabbu sat up on his haunches. "You are right, Brother," he announced. "What do you intend to do about it?"

"Do?" Factum Quintus seemed to think the question stranger than !Xabbu's human voice. "What should I do? Is it heretical for monkeys to speak where you come from? Is that why you have run away?" He smiled. There was more than a trace of self-satisfaction. "Because it is as clear as a glazier's dream that you are from some very distant part of the House. Hmmm. Perhaps even from one of the wild Preserves that legends tell of, the huge gardens wide as entire wings. Yes, indeed. Perhaps you have never even seen the interior of the House before, eh?"

Florimel stirred nervously. "What makes you say these things?"

"It is as clear as a . . . it is obvious. Things you say. Questions you ask. But it means nothing to me. Primoris has sent me to help you. There are many marvelous sights to see. If you were some demon creature from another House entirely, I would not care as long as you offered me no harm, and did not molest the wallpaper or chip the pilasters."

They had underestimated him, Renie realized. Although it made her nervous to see how easily they had been recognized as foreigners, it also gave her a little hope for their own quest as well. Brother Factum Quintus was not quite the idiot savant she had assumed; perhaps he would indeed help them find Martine, and even be some use getting her free again.

Silence fell in the wake of these revelations, but it did not last long. Factum Quintus stood, a process similar to a marionette being jerked upright. "I will explore the Campanile while you plan your strategies." he said.

"You?" Florimel asked suspiciously. "Why?"

"Because I am the only one your kidnapper does not know," he said. "Yes, that is right. I do not think I have ever met any of the dusting acolytes—we use more experienced hands in the crypts. Wouldn't trust the small ones among the parchments, do you see?" He shook his head; clearly it was a grim thought. "So if I happen to come across this . . . person you seek, I have a chance of being allowed to walk away. Everyone in the Library knows Brother Factum Quintus is mad for old structures. They're right, of course." His smile was crooked.

Renie found herself unexpectedly moved. "Be careful. He . . . he is small, but very, very dangerous—a killer. Several of us together could not hold him."

The monk drew himself up to his full gangly height. "I have no intention of scuffling with a bandit. I need these hands undamaged, to feel lacquer and test wood grain." He started toward the gallery's far doorway. "If I'm not back by the time the sun goes below the window. . . . Well, trouble, I suppose."

"Just a moment," Florimel called after him, "you can't just. . . ." But Factum Quintus was gone.

 

What must have been close to an hour spent imagining different scenarios and how they might respond to them did little to assuage the small company's mounting worry. The longer the monk was gone, the more it seemed certain they would have to go looking for him, and the more Renie felt they'd made a serious mistake not giving more consideration to the martial side of things.

They had no weapons and had not obtained any at the Library Market when they had the chance, although she had no idea what they would have used for money or barter. Still, just to throw themselves at Sweet William's murderer when he had nothing to lose except his place online, but they stood to lose everything, was too foolish for words.

They had just decided to break up some of the furniture they had seen back down one of the near corridors, so that they would at least have clubs, when they heard a sound at the door where Factum Quintus had vanished. A moment of heart-racing panic eased when the monk appeared in the doorway, but his expression was strange.

"The Campanile . . . it is occupied," he began.

"Is Martine there?" Renie demanded, clambering to her feet.

"Don't get up!" Factum Quintus lifted his hands. "Truly, it is better if you don't."

Florimel's voice held the same dull horror Renie was feeling. "What is it? What has happened to. . . ?"

The monk abruptly lunged forward, flinging himself to the ground in a ludicrous motion that Renie only realized had been involuntary when the other figures began crowding through the doorway after him. There were at least half a dozen, and Renie thought she could see more in the room just beyond. Their clothes were an assortment of coats and furs and scarves so filthy and ragged that they made the borrowed garments of Renie's troop look like dress uniforms. Most were men, but a few women stood with them, and every one of the strangers had at least one weapon and an unpleasantly gloating expression.

The tallest man, whose thick beard gave him even more of a piratical air than the others, stepped forward and leveled what looked like a flintlock pistol at Florimel, who was the closest person standing. He had a chest almost as wide as a door and not a single visible tooth. "Who are you?" she asked the bearded man coldly.

"Bandits," Factum Quintus groaned from, his spot on the floor.

"And you are meat for Mother," the bearded man said, swiveling the pistol from Florimel to the other companions. His rasping laugh was echoed by his cohorts; many of them sounded even less stable than he did. "It's festival night, y'see. The Mother of Broken Glass needs blood and screams."

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"I cannot even whisper. These silent, subvocalized words will only be retrievable by me, yet I think I will not live to collect them. And if I do not, what will it matter? I will pass from the world like a shadow. When this creature Dread kills me and my heart stops, or however the virtual death will manifest itself in reality, no one will find my body. Even should someone search for me deep in the Black Mountains, they will never pass the security systems. My empty flesh will lie entombed forever. I thought earlier that I had much in common with the person who had built this vast house, but perhaps it is the Brotherhood's master, the one my captor says appears only in the guise of a mummified Egyptian god, who is my true soul mate. Lying for eternity in a huge sepulchre of stone—that is what my unwillingness to enter the world has gained me.

"These death thoughts will not leave me, and it is not only the presence of my murderous captor sleeping in the chair only meters away, the stolen Quan Li sim even more deceptive in the false innocence of slumber. No, death is even closer to me than that.

"What he brought back from his errand was a corpse. He trundled it through the door with all the casual good cheer of a salesman wrestling a heavy sample case into someone's living room. Perhaps because that is what he has brought me—a sample.

"It is the body of a young woman which sits propped against the wall beside me. I think it must be the girl of the Upper Pantry Clerks who Sidri said had run away, but I cannot be sure. The creature has . . . done things to the body, and for once I am thankful that my senses are not visual. The outer silhouette alone, the altered shape of the thing as it sits with splayed legs and sagging head, is enough to tell me I do not want to know any more. The only saving grace is that it does sag—it is apparently not the frozen sim of a murdered user, but the corpse of a purely virtual person. Still, I have only to remember the sound of Zekiel and Sidri as they talked of their doomed, overwhelming love for each other, or the pride in the voice of Epistulus Tertius as he described his Library, to wonder what would separate the horror and death-agony of one of these Puppets from that of an actual person. I am sure it would be just as terrible to witness; which is doubtless why my captor has turned a harmless Puppet with well-simulated fears and hopes into the mangled trophy he has dragged back, like a cat displaying its prey.

" 'Just cleaning up,' he told me as he set the thing in place and arranged the floppy limbs. He is a monster, truer to the black heart of evil than any invented ogre or dragon. The only thing that keeps hopelessness at bay is my desperation to see this creature punished. It is a slim hope, but what hope is not if the long run is taken into account? 'Happily ever after. . . ." is only true if the story stops at that moment. But real stories never do—they end in sadness and infirmity and death, every one.

"Oh, God, I am so terrified. I cannot stop talking about what I feel coming. Without laying a finger on me since I have come here, he has tormented me until I feel like rats crawl beneath my clothes. I must . . . I must find the center again. All my life since I was plunged into darkness, I have sought the center—the place where a blind person knows what is what. It is the unknown and perhaps never-ending outskirts where fear takes hold.

"He wanted to know how we had followed him to the House simulation. I did not tell him our secret, of course—he can terrify me until I weep and beg, but I cannot let him turn me traitor. Instead I said that another gateway had opened in the same place as that through which he escaped and that we all went through. I could tell from body and voice that he did not entirely believe me, but the truth is so incredible—a baboon used a piece of string to show me how to summon the portal—that I have no fears he will guess it.

"With the mute example of his victim slumped against the wall, so close I could reach out and touch her with my foot if I wished, he produced the lighter from his pocket and reminded me that I was only useful if I could help him learn its secrets. I suspect he has examined the instrument in some detail already—perhaps even received advice of some kind, because for all his predator's intelligence he does not seem particularly schooled in technical matters—and much of what he asked at first seemed meant to test me, as though he would make sure I was giving him my honest best. Its shape and energy signature was so clear to my senses that I did not even need to face in its direction to know it was the same device on which I had spent so much time in the patchwork world—a thing of mostly locked potentialities, cryptic and powerful.

" 'One thing seems clear,' I told him. 'There are not many such objects on the network.'

"He leaned forward. 'Why do you say that?'

" 'Because there would not be a need for them. These Grail people have built the most phenomenal virtual network that can be conceived. Surely they have direct neural connections, and their interface with the network is such that they can make things happen simply with a thought or at most a word. The Brotherhood, at least here, must be gods of a sort.'

"The monster laughed at that, and told me something of his patron, the Lord of Life and Death also known as Felix Jongleur. Contempt fueled his description, and he spoke at surprising length. I sat silently so that I did not disrupt him—it is new information, and there is much in it to consider. At last he said, 'But you're right—I can't imagine someone like the Old Man needing something like this. So who would? Why?'

"I did my best to consider the problem—I might lie to him about how we arrived, but he had made it clear what would happen if I failed to give him answers to this question. 'It must be one of two things,' I said. 'It may be a guest key of some sort—an object given to a short-term visitor, if you see what I mean—or it may belong to someone who is more than a guest, but who spends little time in the network,' I explained. 'For most of the Grail Brotherhood, all the commands would surely be second nature, like whistling for a hovercab or tying one's shoes.' Despite my terror and disgust, I think I began to become a bit excited—I am someone who craves answers, and it is hard for me not to follow a trail once I have found it. For that brief moment, it was almost as though the monster and I were partners, researchers sharing a goal. 'This could well belong to someone who spends less time on the network than the others, but still has the right to access everything. Perhaps he or she also has many other codes and commands to remember in everyday life, and so it is simpler to keep the entire Otherland access system in one package, to be picked up online and then put away again.'

"The creature, who had told me that his master hated the name 'Dread'—and who in doing so had thus told me his name, which we had not known—nodded slowly. 'Either way,' he said, I'm betting that even if this device gets loaned to guests, the letter on it isn't just to make it look like an old-fashioned lighter—it's a monogram of the person who had it made.' His voice was still light, but I heard the hard, uncaring tone that was never far from the surface. 'Which should make it a lot easier to find out who it belongs to.'

" 'Why do you care about that?' I could not help asking. 'I thought you wanted to know how to use it.'

"He went still then. I cannot explain what my senses show me, but it was as though he turned cold all over—a change that may have been purely my own imagination as I realized I had gone too far. It was only the fact that I was still useful that saved me then, I know.

" 'Because I have plans,' he said at last. 'And they're none of your business, sweetness.' He stood up abruptly and walked to the corpse of the Upper Pantry Clerk, which had begun to slide down the wall. He put his fingers in her hair and jerked the body upright. 'You're not paying attention, nuba,' he said to the cadaver—it might have been her name, or some word the system did not translate. 'Martine is working hard to prove how clever and useful she is—you should listen.' He turned, and I could feel the grin stretching his face, hear the way it changed his voice. 'Girls can be so foolish sometimes,' he said, and . . . and laughed.

"Horrified, my heart once more knocking at my ribs, I did my best to offer more observations about the lighter—wild speculation mostly, which in my panic I did my best to justify. At last he said, 'Well, I suppose you've earned a little rest, my sweet Martine. You've worked hard, and in fact you've earned more than that. You've earned another day!' He eased himself into the chair where he still remains. 'And Daddy needs some sleep, too. Don't get into any trouble.'

"Then he was gone, or at least the sim stopped moving. It is possible he has indeed gone offline to sleep or perform other tasks, or else that he simply naps inside Quan Li's body like some ghastly parasite.

"Can he have been the only one in the sim for all this time, all these weeks? It is hard to imagine he would trust another, but if not, how does he live? Where is his real, physical body?

"These questions have no answers now, and I doubt I will survive to discover the truth, but I have earned one more day—the monster still needs me. I cannot help thinking of my own body, tended by micromachines in my cavern home, separated from the rest of the world by mountain stone as surely as I am separated from it by the toils of the network. And what of the others, Renie, !Xabbu and the rest—and what of their bodies? What of their caretakers, Jeremiah and Renie's father, themselves imprisoned in a mountain just as I am, but without even the solace of having chosen it?

"It is odd to realize that I have friends. I have had coworkers and lovers—sometimes one became the other—but just as the mountain protects me, I have protected myself. Now that things have changed, it no longer matters, because they are lost to me and I to them,

"God, it seems, is fond of jokes. Or someone is, anyway.

"Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

It didn't matter what he did, or where he went, or how thoroughly he pretended not to think about it. He was thinking about it. He was waiting for it.

The netfeed news flickered on the tiny instrument console screen, a ceaseless roll of disasters and near-disasters. Even isolated as he was, it was hard not to feel that things were getting worse in the world outside: the news rumbled of mounting Chinese-American tensions, and also of a feared mutation of the Bukavu 4 virus, deadlier and faster-spreading. Smaller miseries crowded in close behind, industrial disasters, terrorist attacks on incomprehensible targets, the camera-drones transmitting pictures of the latest carnage within seconds. The net throbbed with simple, everyday murders as well, with earthquakes and other natural catastrophes, even a decommissioned satellite which had failed to destruct, instead hitting a near-orbital passenger jet like a bomb as it reentered the atmosphere, incinerating seven hundred eighty-eight passengers and crew. All the commentators gravely commented how lucky it was that the plane was only half full.

Not all the netfeed was bad, of course. The media had the almost reflexive skill of self-perpetuation, knew as a bird knows it must migrate that they had to temper what would otherwise be an unremitting flow of bad news with pleasant stories—charity events, neighbors helping neighbors, criminals foiled by a quick-thinking bystander with a homemade stun-baton. The net also offered dramas, sports, education, and every kind of interactive environment imaginable. All in all, even with the primitive equipment which was all he had for access, it should have been enough to keep anyone occupied.

But all Jeremiah Dako was doing was waiting for the phone to ring.

 

He knew he should have found a sledgehammer and smashed the thing off its pillar days ago, but he had worried that somehow whoever or whatever was on the other end would know that something had changed, that the sudden alteration would signal life when Jeremiah and his charges needed secrecy. He had also had a less definable fear that even if he destroyed the ancient telephone, the ring would simply move to one of the base's other receivers. In a nightmare he had seen himself destroying all the equipment in the base, even shattering the controls to the V-tanks, only to find the chilling burr of the phone still coming out of empty air.

He woke sweating. And of course, the phone had been ringing again.

It was growing hard to concentrate on his work. Two helpless people were relying on him, but Jeremiah was consumed by a sound, a mere electronic signal. If it had only settled into a regular pattern he might have been able to cope, putting himself on the opposite side of the base, out of earshot, during the appointed times, but it was as randomly cruel as a snake crushed by a wheel but still alive. There might be nothing for hours, to the point where he thought he would be granted an entire day without hearing it, then it would start ringing again a few minutes later and continue on for hours, a dying creature emptying its venom into anything that ventured near.

It was making him quite mad. Jeremiah could feel it. It had been difficult enough to keep his spirits up after Joseph's defection, with only the V-tanked living dead for company, but with books and naps—something he had never had time for in the past—and a rationed dose of net, he had been getting by. But now this endlessly, crazily persistent device was all he thought about. Even when he was most occupied, caught up by something on the net to the point that he momentarily forgot where he was, a part of him was still tensely waiting, like a battered child who knows another assault will come. Then the shattering, clanging noise would return. His heart would beat and his head would pound, and he would all but hide beneath the desk until it stopped again.

But not today. Not ever again.

He was waiting for it, of course—he was always waiting for it these days—but this time he was going to do something. Perhaps it was dangerously foolish to answer it, but he could not take the miserable feeling of being probed at anymore, could not cope with the growing obsessive madness. And a thought had been gnawing at him until between that and the anticipatory fear of the sound, there was little room left for anything else.

What if he had to answer it to make it stop?

It had only been a casual idea at first. Perhaps it was some kind of automessager, programmed for random retries. Perhaps all that was needed—all that had been needed all along—was for someone to answer the call and either accept its message or demonstrate that the line was not equipped to carry information more complex than audible sound. Perhaps if he'd only picked it up the first time, that would also have been the last time.

He'd laughed when he'd thought that, a hollow wheeze of bitter amusement that felt like it might turn into something much uglier and more painful if he wasn't careful.

But maybe that's not all that will happen, another voice had whispered. Perhaps it's some kind of hunter-killer gear, one of those things you see on the net, and it's just trying to get into the system here. Maybe one of those Grail people has sent it to kill the V-tanks.

But if so, a more sensible inner voice suggested, then why send it to an audio phone? And what harm can it do over audio lines, even if I pick it up? Jeremiah didn't know much about technology, but he knew that someone couldn't send gear that would drip out of an old-fashioned phone and go crawling across the floor. He dimly remembered that Renie and the others had been talking about people like Renie's brother being struck down while using a low-cost station, but even so, that was a station, for God's sake, not an antique telephone!

The idea of answering, despite its attendant worries, had begun to grow over the last forty-eight hours. Every flinch-inducing ring of the phone bell had given the idea strength. He had actually meant to pick it up the last time it had rung, but the ring had sounded like the scream of a sick animal echoing in his ears, and his courage had failed. Now he was waiting again. He could do nothing else. He was waiting.

 

Jeremiah had dropped into a half-sleep, nodding over the V-tank console. When the phone rang, it was as though someone had poured a bucket of ice water on his head.

His heart was beating so swiftly he thought he might faint. Idiot, he told himself, trying to force his legs to lift him from the chair, it's just a phone. You've been letting yourself be panicked by a twitch of electric current. No one knows anyone is here at all. Phones ring all the time. Just pick it up, damn you!

He edged toward it as though afraid to startle the thing. The ring sounded for the third time.

Just pick it up. Reach out your hand. Pick it up.

His fingers closed on the rectangular handset just after the fourth ring. He knew if it rang again under his hand, it would feel like an electrical shock. He had to take it off the cradle.

It's just a phone, he told himself. It's nothing to do with you.

There's a spider on the other end, a voice whispered in his mind. Forcing poison through the lines. . . .

Just a phone. A fluke. Pick it up. . . .

He squeezed it and lifted it to his ear but said nothing. He felt himself swaying, and put out his free hand to the pillar. For a moment he heard only static, and relief began to climb through him. Then someone spoke.

It was a voice distorted, if not by mechanical means then by some incomprehensible malformation. It was the voice of a monster.

"Who is this?" it hissed. A second passed, then two. His mouth worked, but even if he had wanted to answer, he could not have. "Is it Joseph Sulaweyo?" Buzzing, crackling. It did not sound human at all. "No, I know who you are. You are Jeremiah Dako."

The voice began to say something else, but Jeremiah could not hear it above the roaring in his ears. His fingers had turned lifeless as carved wood. The handset slipped from his grasp and clattered to the cement floor.

CHAPTER 15
Waiting For Exodus

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: "Concrete" Revival

(visual: explosions)

VO: The popular linear drama "Concrete Sun, " which finished its run only weeks ago, is already being turned into a musical comedy. Writers Chaim Bendix and Jennifer Spradlin are preparing a stage version for the opening of the new theater at the Disney Gigaplex just being completed in Monte Carlo.

(visual: Spradlin superimposed over footage of man throwing a dog into a hovering helicopter)

SPRADLIN: "It's got everything—doctors in trouble, pets, diseases—how could it not make a great musical?"

 

Feeling more like a teenager than he had in some time, Orlando waited for the grown-ups to decide what they were all going to do. He was tired—exhausted—but too nervous to sleep and bored with sitting in one place. With Fredericks worriedly following, he set out on a slow journey around the Temple of Ra. Unsurprisingly, the Wicked Tribe insisted on coming. After a negotiation punctured by many high-pitched shrieks of "Not fair, not fair," Orlando wangled the concession that they remain perched on him or Fredericks at all times.

For any ordinary people, simply walking through the temple would have provoked continuous astonishment—even the architecture could only have been possible in a virtual world, the unsupported stone ceiling so high that it could have held Skywalker jets stacked like cordwood—but Orlando and Fredericks had been veterans of online fantasy worlds long before they had come to the Otherland network: they barely glanced at the magical carvings that flowed with life, the talking statues dispensing cryptic wisdom, or even the multiplicity of gods and goddesses, animal-headed and otherwise, who wandered the vast besieged temple, apparently as stifled and apprehensive as the two teenagers.

As the pair turned away from a fakir who had created twin serpents of red-and-blue fire, then set them to battling on the floor before a group of fascinated children, the monkeys began to complain loudly about not having any fun. The Wicked Tribe were still doing what they had been ordered to do, namely stay perched on Orlando and Fredericks and keep relatively quiet, but they were growing restless.

A large crowd had formed around Upaut's throne at the center of the room and Orlando found himself drawn toward it. A group of priests in white robes crouched before the wolf-god, already well into some ritual, chanting and knocking their heads against the stone flags; Upaut ignored them, gazing off into the air with the expression of a weary philosopher. Some of the siege victims crowded around the throne were calling out to him, demanding to know what was being done to protect them from the attack everyone seemed sure was coming, but the wolf had mastered the attitude of heavenly royalty if nothing else; their shouts went unanswered.

As Orlando led Fredericks to a spot between a bare-chested man with a child on his shoulders and a minor tutelary deity with the head of a goose, someone touched his arm. He turned to see Bonnie Mae Simpkins.

"Don't you say anything to that wolf," she quietly warned him. "He's got everyone in enough trouble. Goodness only knows what he'll do next."

"Who are those priests?" Orlando asked. "Are they his?"

"They belong to the temple, I suppose." She frowned at having to discuss heathen practices. "They're priests of Ra. You can tell by those gold disks. . . ."

"But if this is Ra's temple, where is Ra? Isn't he the . . . the big guy around here? Egypt, I mean?"

"Ra?" She shook her head. "He used to be, but he's pretty much retired now. Kind of like one of those Mafia things, I s'pose, where the old don isn't dead yet." She frowned. "Don't look at me funny, boy, I watch the net like anyone else. Osiris is the old fellow's grandson. He's the one who really runs things. They all give lip service to Ra, but all the old fellow does is sail through the sky in his boat, being the sun, or whatever the story is. But they still have to respect him, at least in public." Bonnie Mae's expression became something altogether grimmer. "That's why they'll wait until night before they do anything, when Ra is in the underworld. Why are you grinning? You think that what's going to happen here is funny?"

He didn't, not really, but the sudden notion of an Egyptian Mafia in linen skirts and heavy black wigs was hard to suppress. "Do you think they're going to attack tonight?"

"Nobody knows. But there are rumors that Osiris is coming back soon, and Tefy and Mewat sure won't want him to know about this—doesn't look good for them at all. So it seems likely. But we'll get you out of here before that, boy. Both of you."

"Yeah, but what about you and the others?" Fredericks asked.

Instead of answering, Bonnie Mae suddenly bent down and caught one of the Wicked Tribe, who had shinnied down Fredericks' robe to the floor. "I oughta find a tiny little stick to whup you with," she told the squirming primate before placing it gently back on Fredericks' shoulder.

"Didn't mean to!" it shrilled. "Fell!"

"Likely story." Bonnie Mae paused for a moment, then reached out and squeezed both boys' arms before heading back to the corner of the Temple where the Circle kept their camp.

"I don't like this waiting. . . ." Fredericks began. A hoarse voice interrupted him.

"Ah! It is the gods from the river!" Upaut had spotted them, and was beckoning them toward his throne with long, hairy fingers. Orlando turned and caught Bonnie Mae's eye where she had stopped again; the look she sent back to him was full of helpless worry.

He and Fredericks stepped forward until they stood before the throne. Lifted by the high chair, Upaut's head towered almost three meters above them, but even at that distance Orlando could see that the wolf-god did not look good: his eyes were red-rimmed and his ceremonial wig sat slightly askew, partially covering one of his ears. He held a flail and a spear in his hands, and tapped the flail nervously against the side of the throne, a continuous and rather irritating beat. Fredericks stared at it as if hypnotized as the wolf leaned toward them, sharing a too-wide grin and carrion breath.

"Well, now!" His jollity sounded a bit hollow. "You have come to see me—and look! As I promised, I am leading heaven against those who have wronged me!"

Orlando nodded, trying to summon a smile.

"And you have come all the way here to join me—good, very good! It was the gift of your boat which brought me back from exile, after all. I shall be sure that your trust in me does not go unrewarded—your names will echo forever in the halls of heaven." He looked around the room. Perhaps reminded of his situation, he said in a slightly less emphatic voice, "You have come to join me, yes?"

Orlando and Fredericks exchanged a look, but there was little to be done. "We are here to defend the temple, yes," Orlando lied. "And help you in the fight against those two—against . . . against. . . ."

"Taffy and Waymott," said Fredericks helpfully.

"Good, good," Upaut grinned, showing every tooth. He apparently cared little for the correct pronunciation of his enemies' names, or else had simply stopped listening to most of what was said to him. "Excellent. When the time is right, we shall burst from the temple like Grandfather Ra appearing on the eastern horizon and our enemies shall wail and throw themselves in the dust at our feet. Oh, they do not suspect our power! They do not know how mighty we are! They will weep and beg our forgiveness, but we are stern, and will punish dreadfully all who raised arms against us. We will reign a million years, and all the stars will chant our praises!

"Supreme one, beautiful in adornment,"

he abruptly sang, booming out the hymn to himself,

"Your armor bright as the barque of Ra
Mighty in voice, Wepwawett He Who Opens the Way,
The master in the West,
To whom all turn their faces—
You are mighty in majesty. . . !"

As the priests of Ra somewhat raggedly took up the tune—most of them appearing a little less than wholehearted—Orlando realized that the "we" Upaut claimed would do all those things was Upaut himself, and that the wolf-god was as deranged as a box of worms.

When the hymn had stuttered to a halt, and just before Upaut could start the second verse he seemed eager to commence, Orlando hurriedly asked him, "Do you still have my sword?"

"Sword?" The huge yellow eyes squinted for a moment in thought. "Sword. Hmmm. Yes, I think I may have put it somewhere—have a look behind the throne. Not really the weapon of a king, you see. Oh, armor bright as the barque of Ra" he crooned quietly to himself as his head nodded forward. His eyes closed even farther, until they were only slits.

Orlando and Fredericks sidled around the throne until they were out of his sight, then paused briefly to roll their own eyes in a silently shared opinion of the wolf-god. They quickly discovered Orlando's sword, or more accurately Thargor's sword, in an unpleasant pile of chicken bones and bits of hardened candle wax which had been swept behind the throne. Orlando lifted it up and sighted along the blade. Except for a few notches and dings that had not been there before, it was substantially unharmed, the same sword which Thargor had carried in his earliest adventures as a barbarian immigrant in the decadent south of the Middle Country.

As they started back toward the Circle's encampment in a wide swing meant to keep as much distance between themselves and the throne as possible, the monkeys (who had been uncharacteristically silent during the audience with Upaut) began to dance on.

Orlando's shoulders. Fredericks' own passengers immediately leaped across to join them.

"Mighty in smell, Wolfman!"

they sang, growling an imitation of Upaut's voice between arpeggios of giggles,

"He Who Gets In the Way,
To whom all turn their backs—
You are mighty in stupidity. . . !"

Orlando and Fredericks tried to shush them, but the monkeys had been forced to keep still too long. Orlando hurried his steps; as he glanced back, he was relieved to see that Upaut seemed completely sunk in his own thoughts, oblivious even to the priests at his feet. The wolf-god's long muzzle tilted slowly up and down as though he were just now scenting something that had already vanished.

 

An extremely large creature was stretched near the bronze front doors of the temple, the only thing in sight that seemed in scale with the massive portal. Even if the recumbent figure had not been so huge, Orlando could not have helped noticing it, since it occupied the middle of a large clear space—an oddity in itself with the temple so crowded. At first he thought it was Dua, the lavender giant who had met them on their way in, but this sphinx's skin was faintly orange, the color of sunset on stone. Saf, as his brother had named him, was no less impressive than his twin, the statuesque human head topping a leonine body the size of a small bus. The creature's eyes were closed, but as Orlando and Fredericks skirted the edge of the crowd, trying to work their way through the tangle of brown bodies, its nostrils flared; a moment later the dark eyes opened and fixed on them. Although the sphinx watched them without expression, and did not move even a paw in their direction, they still hurried to put several layers of the crowd between themselves and that serene but terrifying gaze.

Orlando had to stop for a moment and catch his breath. He decided he would rather battle six red gryphons than either one of the Temple of Ra's guardians.

Fredericks might have been reading his thoughts. "Those things are a major shiver."

"Pah!" someone else said. "It's all shit—make-believe for idiots."

It took a moment before Orlando recognized the young man who had been introduced to them earlier as Vasily. Other than the slightly rakish way he had combed back his sim's dark hair and his cock-of-the-walk stance, his Egyptian sim looked like many others in the great room.

"What is?"

"This." Vasily made a broad gesture encompassing all of Egypt, or perhaps even the whole of the network. He fell in beside Orlando and Fredericks as they started to walk again. "This old rubbish. Pharaohs, temples, pyramids. Shit and Godlessness."

Looking around at the profusion of animal-headed deities, Orlando thought that godlessness was hardly the problem—if anything, the place had rather an excess of them—but he said nothing: there was something about the young man that made him nervous. Fredericks was looking at the newcomer with interest, though, and Orlando suddenly felt a pang of jealousy. "What would you do with a network like this?" he asked, in part to cover his own confusion.

Vasily scowled, then reached up to capture one of the Wicked Tribe, who had flown near his head on a reconnaissance mission. He examined the little monkey for a moment, then flicked it away in a dismissive manner that made Orlando angry. "Something better than this," the Russian youth said as the spurned monkey swooped back to Fredericks' shoulder, cursing shrilly and indignantly in a language Orlando did not recognize. "Something that would show the true glory of our Lord, not this shit. Egypt is dirt—it's a waste of space." His frown abruptly relaxed as a woman with the head of a bird walked past, talking anxiously to a group of white-robed priests. "Why does a stork stand on one leg?"

Orlando was caught by surprise. "Huh?"

"It's a joke, stupid. Why does a stork stand on one leg?" Vasily wiggled his fingers impatiently. "Give up? Because if he lifted it off the ground, he'd fall down!" He snorted with laughter.

Fredericks laughed, too, which set off another little depth charge of jealousy inside Orlando, but it was alleviated slightly when Fredericks leaned over and whispered in Orlando's ear, "He's so scanny!"

Vasily scooped up a small stone and began tossing it high in the air and catching it, first in one hand, then the other; after a while he began catching it behind his back, which required him to stop in the middle of the temple floor, forcing others to walk around him. Orlando did not stop to wait for him, and after a moment Fredericks followed, but it did not seem to matter much to Vasily, who was totally absorbed in his game. Orlando could not help wondering how old Vasily really was and what kind of crimes he'd been involved in: he'd heard that some of the Russian gangs used kids as young as ten or eleven.

Bonnie Mae Simpkins was waiting for them with the little-girl sim of the woman named Kimi. She asked if they'd seen Vasily.

"Over there." Orlando cocked a thumb. "He's playing with a rock."

Mrs. Simpkins knitted her formidable brow. "I suppose I'll have to get after him, then—the men wanted him to help. They want you boys, too, both of you."

"Help where?"

"At the gateway. Nandi's trying to find out if this idea of his works." She pointed down the wall to the far corner. "You go along there, where that door is. They're waiting for you. But not you, monkeys," she told the Wicked Tribe, who flapped and chattered their protests. "You can just come with me and stay out of the way." Her fierce look drew even the most reluctant monkeys toward her like a magnet. With the tiny yellow creatures settled on her shoulders, she started away toward Vasily, then paused. "You all be careful, now," she told Orlando seriously.

"I really don't have a good feeling about any of this, Gardiner," Fredericks whispered when the others had vanished into the crowd. "It's going to be dark soon. You know something bad's going to happen then, don't you?"

Orlando could only shrug.

Both the doorway in the corner of the great chamber and the small room behind it were deep in shadow as Orlando and Fredericks stepped through, but not for long. Something flickered and then began to glow beyond another door on the room's far side, drawing the pair on. In the farther room, Nandi Paradivash and the old man called Mr. Pingalap stood bathed in the golden light of a gateway. For a moment Orlando's heart rose, but as he and Fredericks hurried forward Nandi lifted a warning hand.

"Don't come too close! I hope you left the monkeys in some other place. We are waiting to see if anything is going to come through."

They stopped. All four stood silently until the gateway glimmered and then died, leaving only a small oil lamp to illuminate the windowless stone room.

"You let it close. . . !" Orlando protested.

"Quiet, please." Nandi raised his hand, then turned to Pingalap. "How long?"

The old man shook his head. "About thirty seconds, I would guess."

"We're trying to gauge the length of what we call the flare," Nandi explained, "—how long the gate will stay open without people passing through it—not unlike the sensor in an elevator, do you see?" He showed a little smile. "More importantly, though, we are also trying to determine how long before a randomized gateway shifts its connection to a new simulation—other people's experiences suggest it cycles almost directly after each use. We are nearing our answers, but there is still one important experiment left to perform. We can open a gateway here any time we want—the problem is, unless my guess about the larger cycle is correct, we can't know what simulation it's opening up to." He turned back to his companion. "Are you ready, sir?"

Mr. Pingalap nodded, then—to the surprise and embarrassment of both Fredericks and Orlando—stripped off his linen garment, which was as long as a bedsheet and only slightly narrower. He stood naked while Nandi tore the garment in half and knotted the two ends together, then the old man took the improvised rope and tied it around his waist.

Seeing the astonishment of the onlookers, Nandi smiled. "Mr. Pingalap is going to go through, but if he can't come back, what he discovers will do us little good."

"But there must be rope around here somewhere. . . ." said Fredericks, who was trying hard not to stare at the old man's well-simulated and quite wrinkly nakedness.

"But do you see," Pingalap said a little crossly, "rope from this simulation will not exist in the next, whereas the clothes I wear will travel in some form." He smiled as if to make up for his bad temper. His few remaining teeth were an interesting variety of colors, none of which was white.

"I get it," Fredericks said.

"But I thought you said you knew which place the gateway was going to open to," Orlando protested. His dream of getting out and getting on with this exhausting adventure while he still had the strength suddenly seemed foolish.

"I think I do," said Nandi calmly. "But until we check, I won't know what part of the cycle we're in, so I won't know which of my guesses about what's coming next I am testing. Are you quite ready, Mr. Pingalap?"

The old man nodded and shuffled to the center of the room where the lamplight glinted on a solar disk carved across the floor. The trailing length of linen cloth looked bizarrely like a bride's veil. Nandi followed him to the edge of the carving, then turned to the teenagers.

"Will you two take the end and hold it? I had planned that Vasily would help, but it seems he has wandered away."

"Wouldn't it be better if we tied it around us, too?" Orlando asked.

"Better in terms of security, but it would give him no room to move. He may have to take a few steps to be able to see anything useful. Just hold please, and pull him back when he gives two sharp tugs."

"Two sharp tugs!" echoed Mr. Pingalap cheerfully. He saw how Fredericks and Orlando averted their eyes; his breathy chortle as he gestured to his withered flesh was so high-pitched that it could have come from one of the Wicked Tribe. "The body itself is illusion—and this is not even a real body!"

Orlando did not explain that their reaction was as much aesthetic as modest. Nandi Paradivash made a few broad signals with his hand and a shimmering golden rectangle opened atop the solar disk. Mr. Pingalap stepped through, and Nandi quietly began to count.

"Hold tight," he cautioned between numbers. "We do not know what he will find."

Orlando adjusted his grip, but the length of cloth hung limp.

"Where is it you two wish to go, by the way?" Nandi asked. "If we are unlucky, Pingalap is at your destination right this moment and we will have to wait for the gateway to cycle through again. But out of all the possible simulations, it does not seem likely yours would be the first we try."

Orlando had a moment of sudden blankness. Fredericks nudged him and whispered, "Walls."

"Right. Priam's Walls—that's what the lady in the Freezer told us."

Nandi frowned, more in distraction than at Orlando's words, but a moment later he turned and said, "Priam's Walls? Troy?"

Orlando shrugged, uncertain.

"That is a strange coincidence," said Nandi. "No, I doubt it is coincidence. . . ."

He was interrupted by Mr. Pingalap's sudden appearance in the gateway. Looking no worse for wear—but no better either, Orlando thought—the old man shuffled out of the rectangle of fiery light. As he began to speak, the gate flickered behind him, then vanished.

"It was like the Potala," he reported, "—a huge palace in the highest mountains. But it was not the Potala. It looked too . . . too. . . ."

"Too Western?" Nandi asked. "That is likely Shangri-La, then." He looked down at the handful of tiles on which he had scribbled his notes. "Let us try again and see what we find."

Another gateway was summoned. As it smoldered into being, Orlando heard a loud wash of sound from the temple's great chamber, voices raised in alarm, people running. Mr. Pingalap vanished into the golden glow and the length of cloth abruptly snapped tight. Orlando was jerked forward; behind him, he could feel Fredericks stumble as he fought for balance.

"Hang on!" Orlando called as he was dragged nearer to the gateway. "Pull!"

"Don't pull him out," Nandi warned. "He will let us know—he is counting also, and he must have time to make observations."

"Observations?" Orlando shouted. "Something's trying to swallow him!"

Nandi reached out to help steady them. A moment later, Orlando was surrounded by a distracting cloud of yellow—the Wicked Tribe, swarming like bees. By the time Nandi had reached twenty in his slow count, Orlando felt what he thought was something jerking on the cloth rope through the steady pull. He threw all his Thargor-weight against it and yanked hard, half-expecting to drag some terrible monster through the gateway who had gulped the old man like a fishhook, but instead the venerable Pingalap popped out of the golden rectangle as suddenly as a cork from a bottle. The countervailing pressure gone, Orlando and Fredericks tumbled backward, Orlando landing on top of his friend.

The Wicked Tribe whirled delightedly above them like stars over a cartoon head injury. "Again!" they squealed. "Pull, pull, fall down! Again!"

"It was some sort of wind tunnel." Mr. Pingalap gasped. He was crouching as though he had just finished a marathon, his wispy hair sticking straight up and an expression of bliss on his face. "A canyon, in truth, but the wind caught me and dragged me right off the edge. I am glad you had me anchored!"

Nandi frowned at his calculations. "It should have been Prester John's African kingdom—could it have been that?"

The old man slapped his bony knees and straightened up. "I don't know. I saw nothing except rocks and trees.—I was busy flying like a kite at the end of a string."

"We'll have to do it again," Nandi said.

The Tribe had finally begun to settle. "What that shiny thing was?" Zunni asked, perching on Orlando's nose so that she was only a banana-colored blur. "Why door there, then no door?"

Orlando realized that the Tribe had never seen one of the gateways, and as he levered himself back upright, wondered again how the children had gone straight to this Egyptian simulation and been imprisoned, while he and Fredericks and everyone else connected through the Blue Dog Anchorite man had wound up in Bolivar Atasco's Temilún.

How . . . or why. . . ?

The thought was interrupted. Bonnie Mae Simpkins entered the chamber, Kimi and sullen Vastly in tow. "There's something happening at the front door," Bonnie Mae told Nandi worriedly. "The soldiers outside are all shifting around, and that big sphinx thing—what's his name, Saf?—is standing up now. He's not saying anything, but he's standing there like he's waiting. I don't like it." She saw the monkeys draped across Orlando and her eyes narrowed. "There you little monsters are. I'm going to put you rascals in a sack."

"Run away, run away!" the monkeys squealed, rising in a yellow cyclone and rushing past her, through the antechamber and back out into the temple's great hall.

"This is not funny!" Bonnie Mae shouted after them. "You all come back here!" For the first time since Orlando had met her she sounded genuinely frightened, but the monkeys had managed to get out of earshot quickly enough to escape the compelling force of her voice. "They're just kids—they don't understand this is dangerous," she said helplessly. "Vasily, Kimi, come help me catch them."

The two women hurried out, but Vasily stopped at the far door, gazing into the main chamber. "The fighting will start soon," he called back. The dreamy way he said it made it sound like he couldn't wait.

"All the more reason to help them find those children," Nandi shouted to him. "We have no time for distraction here." He turned and patted Mr. Pingalap on the shoulder. "Forward, please." As Orlando and Fredericks took up positions once more, wrapping the cloth around their fists for a better grip, the slender man summoned up another gateway. "Step through!"

As the naked old man disappeared into the light, Nandi told Orlando, "It is most strange you should be bound for Troy. I met a man who was also going there, or at least to another part of the same simulation. A very strange man indeed. Do you know someone named Paul . . . what was it?" He fingered his lip, trying to remember but clearly distracted by what was going on around him. "Brummond?"

Orlando shook his head. He looked to Fredericks, but his friend only shrugged: it was apparently not a name Orlando had missed during one of his illnesses.

A few seconds later Mr. Pingalap returned, bearing news of what Nandi seemed to think was the Prester John simulation he had mentioned earlier. He brightened a little. "I may have the pattern correctly now—it is a bit wider oscillation than I had guessed, that is all. The next one should be Kalevala, and then a place that I have never visited, but which my informants call the Shadow Country—apparently it is almost completely dark all the time." He frowned and shuffled his tiles full of calculations. "Even if we cycle through as fast as we can, and I am correct about everything else, it will take us almost an hour before we can open the gateway to Troy."

As the old man ran out his lifeline and stepped through the newest gateway like a very scrawny astronaut going for a space walk, Nandi suddenly said, "No, it was not Brummond—that was the first name he gave, but not his true name. I should have remembered, but my mind is very full just now. It was Jonas—Paul Jonas."

Orlando almost let go of Mr. Pingalap's rope. "Jonas! That's the one Sellars told us to look for!" He turned to Fredericks. "Wasn't that it? Jonas?"

Fredericks nodded. "Sellars said Jonas was a prisoner of the Brotherhood. That he helped him escape, I think."

Two jerks on the cloth rope reminded them of their duties; they reeled in Mr. Pingalap, who reported that he had seen acres of snowy forest and men in carts pulled by huge reindeer, which report pleased Nandi. "Kalevala, that's good." His expression darkened as he turned back to Orlando and Fredericks. "So the man I met was freed by your mysterious Sellars? Jonas told me he was being pursued by the Brotherhood, but he had no idea why. Did Sellars tell you why the Brotherhood imprisoned this man?"

"Sellars didn't tell us fenfen, really," Orlando said. "Didn't have time—somebody killed Atasco in the real world, and we all had to run."

Nandi's response was swallowed by a huge echoing clang that shook the floor and made them all jump. Outside the small chamber voices rose in screams and cries of fear.

"It begins." Nandi's face was grim. "That is bad. We have even less time than I had hoped."

Vasily bolted into the gateway room, feverish with panic and excitement. "They are breaking down the door! It is war! The Brotherhood is coming!"

"It is not the Brotherhood." There was an edge of quiet anger in Nandi's voice. "It is something happening just in this simulation and most of the participants are Puppets. Just help find those children. You will do the Circle no good if you get yourself killed."

Vasily did not seem to hear him. "They are coming! But the Lord has seen them, seen all the blasphemy, and there will be blood!" A series of ringing impacts filtered in from the great chamber, like someone striking a huge gong. Vasily darted back out into the main part of the temple.

Nandi shut his eyes for a moment; when he opened them, he wore a look of studied calm. "We work with the tools we have." He turned to Mr. Pingalap. "I think we must try one more time to confirm that I have not misunderstood some larger pattern, then we will start opening and closing gateways as fast as possible."

The old man sketched a little bow. He stepped into the newly opened gateway as a violent, grinding screech pierced the air, followed a moment later by a terrible crash that shook the very floor-stones. After a moment's silence the screaming began again.

"It sounds like the temple doors have been thrown down," said Nandi. He saw Orlando's glance dart toward the door of the chamber. "Keep your grip," he cautioned. "We do not know for certain what is happening out there, but Mr. Pingalap needs you here."

"But why don't we just go through one of these things?" Fredericks pleaded. "We can do all this testing somewhere else, can't we?"

Nandi paused in his count. "It is not so simple. . . ."

"What do you mean?" Orlando was tired of being treated like a child. "Should we just wait here until they come and kill us? All these gateways open somewhere!"

"Yes," Nandi snapped, "and many of them to somewhere far worse than this." He stared hard at Orlando, and that momentary fierceness made him someone quite different—a warrior, a crusader. "You young people do not know what is in my heart—what I must consider. Many of the simulations are in deadly chaos and most of these gateways lead to worlds that now have only one working gate. If I take us to one of those worlds and that gateway shuts off also, then what? Even if we survive, we will have lost the fight!" He reached for some kind of equilibrium and found it. "This is what I was brought here to do," he said more softly. "I did not think I would have to solve such critical problems so fast, but it is my task and I will do it."

He was interrupted as Mr. Pingalap hurried back through the gateway. "I do not like that place," the old man announced, "but I think it is your Shadow Country—dark, it was very dark. Some faint lights, and things moving—large things, I think." He wrapped his bony arms across his thin chest.

"Then we must start cycling as fast as we can," Nandi declared. "You boys must go find Mrs. Simpkins and the others. Convince them to come back now. Be assured that if I can think of a place to take them all, I will. There is no point in unnecessary sacrifice—this is not our struggle anymore."

"Convince them?" Orlando was struggling to understand, but it was hard to be patient. "Can't you just order them or something?"

"If I could order them, our fellowship would not be a Circle." Nandi's face grew all too human for a moment, tired and frightened, but he managed a weak smile. "This is our great task, you see. Everyone has their own part to play. And this is my portion of that task." He turned and made the hand gestures to summon a new gateway.

 

The temple had gone strangely quiet.

Orlando and Fredericks moved cautiously out of Nandi's gateway chamber and across the darkened antechamber beside it until they stood in the doorway. They knew they had to find the other members of the Circle, but it was impossible to ignore what was going on at the far end of the enormous hall.

The patch of sky visible where the bronze doors had once loomed was night-dark, but the front of the chamber was now illuminated by hundreds of torches held by soldiers who filled the temple porch, rank upon rank. They were not the only ones who had come calling. A phalanx of weird, leathery men stood just inside the ruined doors, all of them shiny bald and covered in ill-fitting gray skin. Each wore a thick piece of plated armor around his torso from neck to groin that seemed somehow part of his body; each held a ponderous mallet, a thick handle of wood with a stone head. The temple's besieged inhabitants had retreated from the front of the temple until they were squeezed in a mass against the walls opposite the shattered doorway. Only the massive sphinx Saf stood before the invaders, but by himself he had created a standoff.

"So the fear of Osiris has proved greater than respect for Grandfather Ra," said a harsh voice near Orlando's knee. The ugly little domestic god Bes clambered up onto a ceremonial stand beside him, clearing away a lovely vase by toppling it to the floor before seating himself. In the nearly silent temple, even the sound of the clay shattering sent panic rippling through the crowd, but the besiegers and the sphinx remained as motionless as a wall painting. "See—they have brought the creatures of night into the temple of the sun." Bes pointed to the silent, leathery figures in the doorway. "Tortoise-men! I had thought them all slaughtered by Set in the red desert long ago. But now Tefy and Mewat have set them loose in the heart of Abydos—they have cast down the very doors of Ra's house." He shook his head, but the expression on his homely face seemed almost as intrigued as appalled. "What times these are!"

The tableau was so charged with potential violence that Orlando could not take his eyes off it. He reached for Fredericks' arm and found his friend almost vibrating with tension. "What. . . ?" Orlando began, but never finished the question.

The wall of soldiers parted, the torchbearers falling back into a line on either side until they had created a path of red-lit shadows leading up to the doorframe and its gigantic broken hinges. Two figures walked slowly up that path toward the temple. Something about them seized at Orlando's heart: as fearsome as were the soldiers and the stiffly silent tortoise-men, that dread was nothing compared to the sudden weight of illness and doom he felt at the sight of the two mismatched shapes. Many of the temple's defenders seemed to feel it, too, moaning and struggling to move even farther back, but they were pinned by the chamber's far wall and there was no room left for retreat. A woman lost her balance, screamed shrilly, and was sucked down into the close-packed crowd as though by quicksand. As she vanished beneath the crush of legs, the temple fell nearly silent once more.

"Orlando," said Fredericks in the breathy voice of someone trying to wake up from a bad dream, "Orlando, we . . . we have to. . . ."

The two figures stepped through the doorway. One was so grotesquely fat it seemed a miracle he could stand unaided, let alone move so gracefully. A hood around his head at first seemed to be a monk's cowl, but was actually part of his skin; the rest of his massive body was clothed only in a loincloth, making it easy to see the oily scales that covered him, black, blue, and gray, patchy with disease. A long swollen tail dragged behind the cobra-man like dead flesh.

The shape beside was only slightly less horrific, a tall but stooped figure with the protruding chest of a bird, and with feet that might have been human except that the toes stretched and curled into long talons. But if the rest of the vulture-man was just ugly, it was his face that was truly ghastly: his elaborate hooked beak might have once been a human face before something had melted flesh and bone and stretched the nose and jaw outward like putty. But where either human or bird would have eyes, the creature had only malformed flesh and empty sockets.

"Stop," the sphinx rumbled in a voice so deep that the soldiers all took a step back. Even the tortoise-men swayed a little, like reeds in a stiff breeze.

The vulture-thing smiled slowly, showing teeth at the hinge of his beak. "Ah, yes, the guardian known as Yesterday," he said in a bizarrely sweet voice. "How appropriate, loyal Saf, since you clearly fail to understand how things have changed."

"The Temple of Ra is the holy of holies, Tefy," the guardian replied. To Orlando at that moment, watching from the doorway, the sphinx's great bulk seemed the one thing holding the universe in place. "That does not change. That will never change. You and Mewat have overstepped your authority by assaulting the house of the Highest. Turn and flee this moment, and perhaps your master Osiris will intercede for you with his grandfather. If you stay, you will be destroyed."

Cobra-man Mewat laughed, a hoarse wheeze, and a glint appeared in the darkness of Tefy's empty sockets. "That might be, Saf," said the vulture-man. "You and your brother are old and powerful, and we are but young godlings, however high in our Lord's favor—but we are not fools enough to pit ourselves against you," He lifted his hands, the fingers long and thin as spider's legs, and clapped them together. The sound was picked up and echoed by the tortoise-men, who beat fists against bellies to make their shells echo to a slow drumbeat.

Saf crouched a little lower, as though preparing to spring. Muscles writhed like river current beneath his stony skin. The terrified crowd groaned and lurched backward yet again, surging against the chamber wall like a wave against a breakwater. People caught in the crush screamed for help, dull, muffled sounds that did not last long. "If you will not stand against me, carrion-eater, then who shall?" Saf growled. "I will crush your tortoise-men like Bast in a nest of rats."

"No doubt," said Tefy calmly. "No doubt." He began to back toward the doorway. Mewat, after showing his mouthful of crooked fangs in a sneer, followed him.

"They're going!" Fredericks exulted in a strangled half-whisper. Orlando, too, was feeling vastly relieved at the retreat of vulture and cobra until three tall figures stepped past the pair and through the temple doors.

"Oh, this impacts," Orlando murmured. "This impacts plus."

The three gods—and there was no doubt they were gods: larger than mere humans, they moved with the grace of dancers and the swagger of outlaw bikers—arrayed themselves before Saf, who rose to sit on his hindquarters, his head towering above everything except me temple roof. The drumming of the tortoise-men grew louder.

"Interesting," Bes said from his seat atop the dais, as calm as if he were watching an arm-wrestling match in a corner bar. "I wonder what Tefy and Mewat gave away to bring in the war gods."

"War gods?" But Orlando did not really need confirmation—one had only to look at the leader, a huge, bull-headed creature, to know it was true. Long and sharp as it was, the bull-man's curved sword was less frightening than were his naked arms, so thick with muscle he looked as though he could have twisted the temple doors off their hinges by himself. The other two attackers, a man and a woman, appeared no less formidable. The male god had gazelle horns jutting from his head; flickers of lightning played up and down his arms and crackled around the head of his war club. The goddess was the tallest of the three, dressed in a pantherskin and deftly balancing in one hand a spear that could skewer a dozen men at once. Orlando suddenly realized why Bes had treated their own claim of being gods of war with such droll contempt.

"Mont I can understand," the dwarf god went on. "He's the bull fellow, and he's got problems at home—wife running around with Amon like a bitch in heat, people talking behind his back. But Anth and Reshpu? Of course, she always likes a fight, and Reshpu's a new god—perhaps he's trying to make a name for himself. The harpers would sing forever of someone mighty enough to kill one of the great sphinxes."

"Can't anyone stop them?" Orlando demanded. The crowd was groaning like a wounded animal, trapped, terrified, mesmerized. The war gods feinted at the sphinx and the watchers exclaimed in terror. In a blinding instant, a bolt from Reshpu's hand crackled upward toward the ceiling, then dissipated with a snap of burning air. "Why don't you do something?"

"Me?" Bes shook his oversized head. "I was going to go home, but it's too late now. What I'm going to do instead is stay out from underfoot while the bigger children play." He slipped down from the stand, then hurried away along the wall, his bandy legs carrying him deceptively quickly.

"Where are you going?" Orlando screamed after the little god.

"One of the excellent things about my size," Bes called over his shoulder, "is that there are many fine hiding places available to me, O godlet from beyond the Great Green. Urns are my specialty." He vanished into the shadows at a trot.

A bellow of anger followed by another electrical flare dragged Orlando's attention back to the battle at the front door. Anth and Reshpu had attacked simultaneously; the goddess had sunk her spear into Saf's mountainous flank before dancing back, but the gazelle-horned god had not been so lucky and was caught squirming beneath the sphinx's paw. Lightning flared again; Saf pulled back his scorched claws, allowing Reshpu to crawl out of reach. Mont charged in, swinging his scimitar at the sphinx's face before dodging a swiping blow which would have hurled him against the wall. His sword bit at Saf's neck. No blood followed when Mont snatched the blade free, but the sphinx let out a rumbling cry of pain that made the air pulse. The tortoise-men beat their chests until it became a continuous thunder.

"They're going to kill him!" Fredericks shouted over the tumult. "We have to get out of here!"

"We have to find Bonnie Mae." Heart pounding, Orlando scanned for the others, but in the lamplight it was a nearly impossible task. The crowd at their end of the room was less tangled and compacted, but it was still a thicket of brown Egyptian faces and bodies and pale clothing, a chaotic mass of humans and petty gods struggling not to be crushed, trying to flee somewhere in a temple with few such places left.

Orlando grasped Fredericks by the arm and had just pulled his friend a few steps out onto the floor of the great chamber when a black cloud rushed through the demolished doorway. For a moment Orlando thought that Tefy and Mewat were pouring in poisoned smoke, and he felt his already racing heart falter.

I'm too tired for this. . . . was all he could think.

"Bats!" someone shrieked, but they were only half right. The cloud was full of darting black shadows, but something else flew there, too—thousands of terrible pale serpents with translucent dragonfly wings, hissing like steam.

What had already been madness now became something else entirely. Ragged screams filled the air. The temple, already shadowy, became darker still as the cloud of flying things blocked the light from the wall torches. Shrieking people were running everywhere with no sanity or plan, as though trapped in a burning building; others had already been swarmed by bats and flying snakes and lay writhing on the floor covered with crawling, biting things.

A shape that might have been a woman barreled into Orlando from the side and knocked him sprawling before disappearing into the chaos. As he stood up, one of the besieging soldiers appeared before him, aiming at his stomach with a short stabbing-sword; Orlando had only a moment to react. Off-balance and unable to jump back, he fell forward instead, twisting so that the thrust only sliced the skin of his chest. He had almost forgotten his own sword, clutched in his hand so long the grip was sweaty, but his hard-won fighter's reflexes led him to an unthinking backhand blow into the soldier's unprotected legs behind the knee. The man screamed and fell forward. Orlando took the soldier's head off with a two-handed swipe, then batted away the sudden attack of a winged thing with the flat of his blade.

Before he could locate Fredericks, two other soldiers loomed out of the shadows. Loyalty tugged at them when they saw their comrade dead at Orlando's feet, but their faces were as disoriented as most of the others Orlando had seen, and after a moment they slipped back into the melee. Even Tefy and Mewat's troops seemed overwhelmed by the ghastly scene.

As Orlando waded into the crowd, he saw several people screaming on their backs with winged snakes wrapped around their heads, striking again and again at their faces. One bloodily wounded man crawled toward Orlando, his hand raised in a plea for help, but the two soldiers Orlando had seen earlier grabbed at the man's torn garment and pulled him back, stabbing his sides. Before Orlando could even react, another red-spattered body landed at his feet, nearly headless. The tortoise-man who had just killed the mother with its ugly stone-headed club now backed a screaming boy-child against the wall and raised the dripping cudgel once more. The leathery creature's face was expressionless, the eyes half-lidded, as though it could find scant interest in the nightmare scene.

Tired as he was, Orlando could not stand by while such a horror took place. He found his balance and took a loping stride toward the silent killer, bringing the broadsword around in a sweeping two-handed blow meant to separate bald head from lumpy body. At the last instant the creature saw him; as it straightened and turned his stroke caromed off the top of its shell, and although the tip of his blade struck the creature's face, smashing the eye socket and tearing away tissue and bone, the tortoise-man did not even stagger. Worse still, it made no sound despite the terrible wound, but turned slowly to face him.

Every muscle in the sagging Thargor-body ached; Orlando had to struggle to keep his trembling legs straight beneath him as he squared off against this newest adversary. Had he been in the Middle Country, the sagging-skinned monster would not have frightened him, but there was something in the thing's ruined face and remaining yellow eye that told him it had no sense of self-preservation—it would try to kill him even with all its limbs severed from its body—and he knew if he failed, he would not be bounced back to the real world. Also, every second that passed increased the chances that he would lose Fredericks and the others forever.

He gathered his strength then lunged forward. As he had feared, the point of his blade scraped then bounced off the shell covering the creature's midsection. Its return stroke was slow, but not as slow as he could have hoped: Orlando felt the wind of the great stone as it whipped past his face. He stumbled back and tried to catch his breath. The thing advanced.

He ducked beneath another swinging cudgel blow and grappled with the monster but its strength was frightening. He had time only to try one jab into the crevice in the thing's shell at the groin, but the space was too tight and the flesh at the leg joint was hard as an old boot. As he spun free, the tortoise-man switched hands with its cudgel—a dishearteningly clever move from a creature of such slow inhumanity—and caught Orlando a glancing blow on the shoulder with the stone head that almost knocked him to his knees. A flash of pain shot down his arm, and his fingers went numb. His sword clanged to the stone and he had to pick it up with his other hand. His wounded arm hung uselessly; he could not even make the fingers close.

As the tortoise-man turned and shuffled toward him again, the cracked face still with no expression except what might have been the ghost of a green-gray smile, Orlando backed away. He could turn and bolt for the back chamber—he could be there in seconds. Whatever gateway was open he could step through before anyone could stop him and be gone from all this. Wherever he landed, he would be alive. His last weeks or months of life would be his to spend, not wasted in this hopeless struggle.

But Fredericks would be lost. The monkeys—all the children—would be lost.

Something heaved in his chest and Orlando's eyes blurred. Even surrounded by what seemed like the end of the world, he was ashamed of his own tears. He lifted the heavy sword in his left hand, grateful that at least he could swing it—Thargor had labored through years of practice to be ready for just such a need—but knowing it would do him little good. The tortoise-man brought the club around in another rocketing sweep, so fast that Orlando had to jump back. He cut at the club handle but the wood was hard as iron. He crouched low to swing at a leg, but although the blade bit, only a gray trickle breached the wound and the creature almost caught him with a downstroke.

A cloud of bats so thick as to be almost a solid thing dropped down between them, hiding them both for a moment in chittering darkness. When they spiraled up again, Orlando realized that the tortoise-man was slowly driving him toward the melee, where his back would be completely unprotected and there would be bodies beneath his feet. He knew he would not last another minute in those circumstances. Gambling on a last attempt to reach the silent creature's neck, he feinted, the movement made soggy by weariness, and then rolled underneath the snapping backswing to climb the creature's plated belly. He could not bring the sword to bear at such close quarters so he dropped it, risking everything to wrap his hands around the tortoise-man's wattled neck before it could think to crush him between club and shell. The thing flailed as his thumbs found the place its windpipe should be, but its hide was too thick: he was hurting it, but he could not crush the leathery neck. It rammed one of its arms against Orlando's throat and began bending his upper body back, struggling for an angle to smash out his brains.

Again a cloud of shrieking darkness descended, wreathing the combatants in a chaos of velvet wings and claws, but Orlando, laboring for breath against the horny bar of the creature's arm, had already nearly lost the light. One of the winged serpents dropped out of the bat-swarm and coiled around his head, an almost certainly final indignity. Gasping, operating on pure vindictive reflex, he took a hand from the tortoise-man's neck, then snatched the serpent and shoved it into his enemy's shattered eye.

The tortoise-man abruptly loosed its grip, staggering back in slow, arm-waving distress as the serpent's tail whipped and lashed, the rest of its body already chewing halfway into the skull. As the tortoise-man dropped its club and tumbled to the floor, Orlando grabbed his sword in his good hand, steadying it with the hand now tingling with returning feeling, and put all his weight behind the blade to shove the point into the creature's throat.

The tortoise-man did not die quickly, but it died.

Orlando was on his knees sucking for air, feeling certain he would never, ever get enough of it into his burning lungs, when he heard Fredericks screaming his name from the front of the temple. He dragged himself to his feet and waded toward the shattered door. Bloody madness and dying innocents were all around him, but he was in a desperate hurry and lifted his sword only to slap away winged serpents or knock grasping hands and claws from his ankles. Still it took him long minutes to drag his exhausted body across the temple, a journey through the worst corner of hell.

The terrible dance of combat at the front door had slowed but not ended. The goddess in the pantherskin lay in a crumpled heap against one of the walls, an arm and both legs twisted at hideous angles, her spear broken across her, but the sphinx was dragging one foreleg and was covered with cuts and gouges that leaked sand instead of blood. The god Reshpu had his antlers dug into one of Saf's sides; small lightnings crackled there, blackening the tawny skin. Bull-headed Mont, ribboned with bloody wounds and with both eyes swollen shut, clung with his great arms to the sphinx's throat.

As Orlando cleared the worst of the slaughter, stepping out into the clear space where the besieged sphinx had crushed anything that had come too close, he saw something that made him forget the temple guardian's heroic struggle in an instant.

Framed between the twisted bronze hinges which were all that remained of the great doors stood Tefy and Mewat. The bloated cobra-man held a small, struggling figure; his vulture-headed companion was examining it as though for purchase.

"Orlando!" Fredericks' shriek was cut off by a flick from Mewat's blunt, scaly finger. Orlando's friend sagged in the cobra man's grip, knocked senseless. Fear washed out over Orlando like winter wind.

Tefy looked up, beak curling in a dreadful smile.

"Citizens," he purred. The word might have described some particularly tasty treat. "Look at this, my beautiful brother—not just one Citizen, but two! Just when all nice little visitors should have gone home, we find them still roaming in our network, up far past their bedtimes. We wonder why, don't we?" Tefy reached out a long finger to stroke Fredericks' slack face; the claw scratched the skin, drawing blood. "Oh, yes," Tefy said happily as he licked the talon with his purple-black tongue, "we have so many questions!"

Third
BROKEN GLASS

Two Gates the silent House of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd Iv'ry this, that of transparent Horn:
True Visions thro' transparent Horn arise;
Thro' polish'd Iv'ry pass deluding Lies.

—Virgil's Aeneid,
translated by John Dryden

CHAPTER 16
Friday Night at the End of the World

NETFEED/NEWS: Anford to Undergo More Tests

(visual: Anford at campaign rally, waving and smiling)

VO: President Rex Anford is slated to undergo more tests, although the White House staff still declines to explain the exact nature of his illness, or even to confirm that the chief executive is ill. Rumors have dogged the course of the Anford presidency, his infrequent appearances and moments of public confusion leading to rumors that he is suffering from a brain tumor or degenerative muscular disorder. The White House claims this latest round of tests is merely part of a routine medical checkup, and doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital are, as usual, silent on the state of the president's health. . . .

 

Her wallscreen held a six-meter-square collage of files. Her living room was littered with an afternoon's and evening's worth of snacks and empties and notes. In a tiny apartment the clutter piled up quickly. Calliope surveyed the mess and made a logical Friday night decision.

I should get out of here for a while.

It wasn't like she was getting anything useful done—that hey-it's-the-weekend feeling had settled into the back of her mind over an hour earlier like a bored, lazy relative who tired everyone out just by being there. And it wasn't as though she'd been devoting a lot of attention to her private life lately either.

A memory of the sullen waitress at Bondi Baby suddenly woke a desire in her for pie and coffee. Or just coffee. Or perhaps just a seat at the edge of the holographic ocean and a chance to flirt with Little Miss Tattoo. She looked at the wallscreen whose printed words suddenly seemed as impenetrable as top-secret military code and flicked her fingers to shut it off. Calliope stared out the window at the stately curve of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, an arc of lights like a pictorial representation of a Bach fugue. Sometimes she found the view itself to be enough to ease her craving for contact with the real world, but not tonight. She was definitely going out. No one could work all the time.

The apartment elevator was incredibly slow. The trip down from the 41st floor to the parking garage seemed to take months. When she reached the bottom and stepped out, a whoop of laughter and a murmur of other voices came echoing to her. A troop of homeless people had paused in their migrations to have what sounded like a party outside the garage gates. Calliope was not looking forward to trying to get the car out without letting any of them in. This was a depressingly common experience, since the neighborhood itself was fairly poor. In fact, as Calliope's friends had pointed out to her several times, other than the view, there weren't a lot of nice things to say about her apartment. A police detective did not earn a huge salary, and if said detective was determined to look out at the bridge and the harbor, she either had to accept an apartment in a pretty seedy part of town, or an apartment so small you couldn't swing a cat in it (Calliope fortunately had no urge to own a cat for any purpose at all), or—if she was sending part of her paycheck every month to her widowed mother in Wollongong—both.

After much sawing back and forth, she had just backed the car out of the incredibly narrow parking space when she realized she had left her wallet and pad upstairs. There wasn't enough room in the garage to leave the car out without blocking anyone else who might want to pass, and she certainly wasn't going to leave it on the street while those people were having their Homeless Festival or whatever it was. Swearing in a way that would have left her old-fashioned father pale and shaking had he heard it, she laboriously injected the car back into the original parking slot and trudged across the garage to the elevator, her brief, winged moment already a bit bedraggled.

Both wallet and pad were sitting on the small tansu stack near the door. As she leaned in to snatch them up, she saw the "urgent message" light blinking on the wallscreen. She was tempted just to leave it and go, but her mother had been ill and one of the neighbors had been going over to check on her in the afternoon. Surely she would have called hours ago if there had been anything wrong. . . ?

Calliope cursed and stepped back in, cueing the message. It was only her semi-friend Fenella inviting her to a drinks party next week. Calliope stopped the message halfway through—she knew how it would go—and cursed herself for giving the woman her priority code in a moment of weakness the year before, when Fenella had been trying to set her up on a date with an out-of-town friend. Fenella was a politician's daughter and liked to be at the hub of power, even if it was just running a dyke arts salon: every invitation was to an "event," although Calliope had discovered that "event" just meant a party with photographers where the guests didn't know each other. She headed back down.

Somewhere around the twentieth floor she realized she had left her car keys on the table where the wallet and pad had been.

By the time she made it back up the elevator, any last bit of interest in going out had been crushed, a casualty of the invisible (but clearly omnipresent and all-powerful) God of Work. After a brief period of glowering at the apartment, since it had been a major player in the conspiracy against her Friday night, she waved a bowl of pseudoberry crumble, spooned the last of the ice cream on top of it, and—with extremely bad grace—brought the Merapanui files back up on the wallscreen.

 

If the final compilation of files on John Wulgaru had been printed out on paper, they would barely have filled fifty pages—a pathetically and even suspiciously small amount of information considering the boy had spent most of his life in one institution or another. Over half that material had come from Doctor Danney's fragmented case notes, and a good proportion of those notes were useless for Calliope's purposes, little more than scores and dry observations of various behavioral tests.

A search of various record banks had turned up a few other pages here and there, including a solitary death notice found in one of the backwaters of the police system, now appended to his few remaining sheets from the criminal justice files (John Wulgaru, aka etc., had been hit by a car while crossing a street in the Redfern district, and thus his case was to be marked closed.) But all in all there was very little, as though someone with a crude but fairly thorough grasp of government information systems had done their best to remove any record of his existence and had mostly succeeded.

The death notice caught her attention, and although the date given for the fatal accident was depressing—if it were true, John Wulgaru had died more than half a year before the Merapanui murder, which would certainly qualify as an alibi—there was something else about the notice that nagged at her like a loose tooth, but although she shuffled back and forth through the various documents until the flasher for the evening news appeared on the wallscreen, she could not put a finger on it. She clicked off the flasher, deciding she would download the news later. As she had surveyed the death notice, which mentioned that Wulgaru had no surviving relatives, a new thought had suddenly arisen and she was afraid she might lose it.

Calliope had a hearty dislike of the term "intuition," which she thought was usually what people called good detective work if it was done by someone the rest of the department didn't like much, especially female cops. What the hell was intuition anyway? Guesswork, really, and a surprising amount of police work had always been just that. You had to get the facts first, but often what put them together was that eye for subtle yet familiar patterns that all good law enforcement people developed after a while.

But Calliope had to admit at least to herself that she sometimes went a step farther, getting hunches on things based on perceptions so ephemeral that she couldn't even explain them to Stan. That was one of the reasons she was so much more hands-on about detective work than he was: she needed to touch things, smell things if she could. And she was having such a moment just now.

She brought up the pictures of the suspect again—three of them, each in its own way quite useless. The juvenile authority processing picture was of a young boy, his Aboriginal heritage obvious in his dark skin and close-curled hair, but with unexpectedly high cheekbones and a pronounced Asian shape to the watchful eyes. Beyond that the likeness revealed little. She had seen abused children enough to know the look—closed, as impenetrable as a wall. A child full of secrets.

The only remaining booking photo from his reentry into the system as a young adult was even less useful. Due to some equipment malfunction, missed at the time, the camera's focal length had gone off slightly and the face was blurry—it looked like one of the flawed experiments from the early days of photography. Only a certain faith would connect the shadowy presence (booking number superimposed at the bottom of the frame) with the stone-faced little boy of the earlier picture, and not a witness in the world could identify the person in the photo beyond color of skin and rough shape of head and ears.

The last picture was from Dr. Jupiter Danney's own files, but here as well fate had conspired to keep John Wulgaru's true likeness a secret. The picture had been shot over the shoulder of a dark-haired girl—Calliope could not help wondering if it might be Polly Merapanui, but Danney had not remembered and the notes held no clue—but the young man seemed to have moved just as the picture had been taken. Instead of a face, there was only a blur of motion, a glint of feral eye and smear of dark hair, with all else as liquid as dream, as though some demonic presence had been caught just as it dematerialized.

Devil-devil, the minister's wife had said. Devil-devil man.

The absurdly melodramatic thought nevertheless sent a chill through her, and for a moment she could almost believe she was not the only person in the tiny apartment. She barked an order at me system to close the blinds, cross with herself for doing so but suddenly wanting to be a little more private.

Calliope went back to the juvenile picture again, to the boy with a face like a shuttered house. Little Johnny. Johnny Dark.

It was obvious once you saw it, but she would have trouble explaining where the idea came from, or—more importantly—what she thought this intuition proved even if it were true. John Wulgaru's mother claimed he had been fathered by what the juvenile justice report called "a Filipino boatworker with a criminal history"—which meant a pirate, Calliope knew damn well, one of those human predators who waylaid boats and small ships on the Coral Sea, pilfered the cargo, even took the hijacked craft itself if it was worth the risk of a black market sale in Cairns, then machine-gunned the sailors and passengers to make sure there were no witnesses. Calliope had been a police officer in this part of the world long enough to know what a "boatworker with a criminal history" was, and she had also seen eyes shaped like little Johnny's many times: it wasn't just a rumor that the boy had an Asian father.

So little Johnny's Aboriginal last name didn't come from Daddy's side. His mother Emmy's real last name, the few remaining social worker reports agreed, was Minyiburu, although she was better known by various Anglo-sounding aliases, the most frequent being "Emmy Wordsworth." So where did "Wulgaru" come from? It might have been from one of the men who serially shared her life, an attempt to legitimize her boy through a stepfather's name, but from what the report had to say about her short-lived, violent liaisons—none mentioned as being with Aboriginal men of any sort, anyway—Calliope had a strong hunch that the name had come from somewhere else.

So where would that be? Why would his Aboriginal mother give her boy the name of a monster from her people's folklore?

Calliope was considering this, and feeling a vague certainty beginning to form that even the most scornful could have labeled intuition and she would not have been able to argue, when the other nagging concern, the one about the death notice, suddenly came clear to her and blew the question of Johnny's name out of her mind like a strong, cold wind.

 

She was so full of what she had just discovered that when the call was picked up on the other end she was only mildly bemused by the fact that her partner appeared to have been processed through some kind of reverse-time machine that had taken twenty years off his age. It wasn't until she noticed the acne that her scattered thoughts rearranged themselves into some kind of sense. She struggled to remember Stan's older nephew's name, but it came at last.

"Hi, Kendrick. Is your uncle there?"

"Oh, yeah, Ms. Skouros." He seemed to be watching something above her, and did not look away even when he shouted, "Uncle Stan!" It took Calliope a moment to realize she must be in a window at a corner of the wallscreen.

"So how are things with you?" she asked the boy. "School going well?"

He made a face and shrugged, not willing to take his eyes completely off whatever was banging and screaming on the other part of the screen. That was pretty much it for conversation, but he was a polite young man and did not simply ignore her: they both sat waiting patiently until Stan Chan arrived, at which point Kendrick evaporated from her view, moving to get a better angle on the wallscreen.

"What's up, Skouros?" Stan was wearing one of his horrible weekend shirts, but Calliope bravely resisted the urge to comment.

"Working. And you're babysitting. For a Friday night, this pretty much locks, Stan. At least one of us should definitely be having a date."

"I did have a date."

She raised an eyebrow. "You're home early, then." Stan refused to be drawn into further discussion on the subject, so she said, "It doesn't matter anyway. I found something. I was ready to give up and go out, go drinking or something, but I made myself work a little longer—you might try that sometime, Stan—and I think I hit paydirt."

Now it was Stan's eyebrow that tilted up. "Paydirt? Is that from a flick or something?"

"Shut up. I think I've had a big breakthrough. Shit—now I am talking like a flick. Here, I want to show you something. I'm putting it on your screen."

His eyes flicked up as his nephew's had done, examining the document; he had his little I'm-not-impressed quirk to his mouth, but he was reading carefully. "So?" he said when he had finished. "It's a report by some guy named Buncie to his parole officer that he met our Johnny on the streets of Kogarah. It's years old, Skouros—what's the point?"

"Damn, Stan, I wish you would read the files. Didn't you check out the notice of death?"

For a moment she saw a flash of defensiveness. "We only got them this afternoon, Skouros, after I was officially clocked out. Do I have to apologize for not being on the job twenty-four hours of every day?"

"I'm sorry." Behind him on the couch, she could see his younger nephew wrestling with Kendrick over something or other, could hear their breathy laughter. There were better things than work to do on a Friday night. "You're right, Stan. Sorry. Do you want me to save this until Monday?"

He laughed. "After calling me up in the middle of 'Romeo Blood: DEATH PACT SEVEN—The Return of Scourge' and making me miss the arch-villain's careful explanation of all the things he's going to do to destroy the world, so now I'm going to have to have it repeated to me by these two couch monkeys? Chance not, Skouros. You better have come up with something worthwhile, that's all I got to say."

"Okay, Right. Well, this guy Buncie told his parole officer. . . ."

"Why do we have that anyway?"

"Turned up in the cross-check. If someone was editing out Johnny Wulgaru stuff, they missed it. Anyway, Buncie claims he had a conversation with Johnny on September 26th, about nothing much—Buncie said our boy 'much sliced him,' didn't give him a lot of respect. The kind of thing that sticks in a street beast's mind."

"So? Or have I said that before?"

"You have, Stan. Come on, take your eyes off Romeo Blood for a second. That's two whole weeks after the date of death on the death notice!"

Stan shrugged. "I saw that. But Buncie-boy has probably got charge damage like crazy, and the statement was made a year after the fact. I think it's more likely he got his dates wrong."

"I thought so, too, Stanley." She couldn't resist a small note of triumph. "But I checked, just to make sure . . . and you know what? Buncie might have a skull so pounded by bad gear he wouldn't know when he last saw his own mother, but he was in prison until three days after the date when Johnny Wulgaru is supposed to have died. So either he made the whole thing up for no conceivable reason, he was talking to a ghost, or somebody falsified a death notice. Me, I don't think little Johnny Dread died before Polly Merapanui. I think he killed her, and you know what else I think? I think the bastard's still alive."

Stan was silent for a long moment. His younger nephew asked him something Calliope couldn't quite hear, but Stan ignored him.

"Know something?" he said at last. "You should swear off going out for good, Skouros. You do your best work when you're home feeling sorry for yourself and spilling ice cream on your sweater." As she looked down to see the glob of white she had completely missed slowly oozing its way into the fibers, Stan continued. "You are one smart person, partner, and that is the truth. Now I'm going to watch the end of the Romeo Blood program, 'cause I think any moment now they're going to start blowing up all kinds of stuff."

"Is that all?"

"Well, even though I love you, I'm still not going to work through another weekend. But on Monday I think we start to hunt Johnny Dark for real. Okay?"

She smiled. It felt good. "Okay."

It was only after she broke the connection that she remembered she had forgotten to tell Stan her idea about the name.

 

 

On a sunny day like today, with the shop banners moving in the breeze along Spring Street, the windows full of artsy animated displays and the sidewalks a continual parade of interesting-looking people, Dulcie Anwin remembered again what it had felt like when she first moved to New York.

Her mother, who had no idea that her daughter had already lost her criminal virginity while still a student hacker at Stevens Institute (a swift slide from stealing tests to a credit card scam that kept her in the kind of clothes her roommates couldn't afford), could never understand why her daughter would leave the relative safety of Edison, New Jersey, for a dangerous, dirty place like Manhattan. Ruby Anwin had carefully constructed what she thought of as an exciting life for herself in the suburbs—friends who were musicians and artists and philosophy professors, lovers who became husbands, or some who simply stayed lovers, including one or two women just pour épater le bourgeois—and couldn't understand why her only child would want something more. The idea that a permissive upbringing could lead to rebellion had occurred to Ruby, of course, and she had feared raising a daughter who might become a religious zealot or a slot-eyed Republican, concerned only with material goods. In fact, since all she knew of her daughter's current profession was that she worked with information technology and traveled a lot, she was quietly convinced that Dulcie had veered toward the latter. What had never occurred to her was that a child raised in a household in which her own high school teachers were doing drugs in the downstairs bathroom during her mom's parties might need to go even farther afield to find her individuation.

Born into an earlier generation, Dulcie might have become a political extremist, a bomb builder, someone willing to sacrifice her own life—and those of occasional bystanders—in an assault against the System. But when Dulcie had begun to discover who the secret masters of the world truly were, instead of rebelling against them, she had gone to work for them.

So when her mother said with the aggressive cheerfulness that was her hallmark, "Dulcie, honey, I know you're busy, but why don't you come visit for a week anyway? You can do your work here. I have a system, you know—I don't live in the Stone Age," Dulcie couldn't tell her the truth. She tried instead to explain it away in terms of bandwidth, and business calls coming in at weird hours from other parts of the world, and all her reference material being at home, and even in terms of needing proper security: her own system was almost alive, teeming with evolving antivirals, tiny A-Life gear that adapted and learned and changed. But the truth was that if she wanted to, she could get a fast enough link from her mother's house to work off her own system from there. The reason she didn't go home for more than a few hours at a stretch, even after eight years of living only a short drive away, was that she didn't want to. Her mother made her feel like a little girl, and Dulcie had spent far too much time building credibility with international criminals to like that feeling very much.

 

The piece in the gallery window had caught her eye, and she was standing in a ray of sunshine, squinting against the glare and wondering whether she shouldn't be wearing sunblock, when her pad beeped.

The artist had taken a group of little builder toys—the kind you could buy in any souvenir store or on most street comers—and put them into an intricate grid made of glass pipes. But what gave the piece its jolt was that he had supplied them with building materials too large to be manipulated within the narrow confines, thus frustrating the monomaniacal automata completely.

Is that supposed to be some comment on modern life? she wondered. The pad beeped again, this time with a second tone—a priority signal. She felt her heart speed a little. She felt pretty certain she knew who it was.

He was not transmitting visuals, but his voice, even with slight distortion, was unmistakable. "I have to talk to you."

She stilled the hammer of pulse as best she could. Why did he have this effect on her? It was like something at the pheromone level, if pheromones could travel over satlinks from Colombia to New York, something subliminal that made her feel she was being stalked by an interested male despite the lack of any outward signs. Whatever the cause, it was something she could not understand and did not entirely like.

"I'm outside at the moment." She couldn't assume he was getting visuals on his end. "I've got you on my pad."

"I know. Go home. I need to talk to you now."

The voice was flat, and Dulcie bristled at the tone of command—one of her early stepfathers had tried the Dad Voice on her, as she thought of it, and had received permanent contempt as his reward. But she had another response as well, a more placatory urge. He was her employer, after all. He was a man used to dealing with men—stupid men, or at least men who needed to be ordered around, from what she'd seen. And was that an undertone of real need in his words, something he did not want to let her see? Was that why he had blanked the picture?

"Well, you've probably saved me spending a lot of money," she said, keeping her tone light. The little builders in the gallery window were trying to get a stainless steel pin around an S-bend in their pipette, something that wasn't physically possible for them, but they weren't giving up; she had a feeling if she came back the next day they'd still be shoving the same pin at the same bend, still without result. "I was about to indulge in some serious shopping. . . ."

"I'll call you in thirty minutes," he said, and was gone.

 

The palm-reader at the main street entrance was even slower than the one on her own door. The thing was ridiculously old, and miserable in chilly weather when you had to take off your glove to operate it.

As she wrestled her bags through the door, someone called a greeting to her. She looked up to see the guy with the artistic haircut who lived a few doors down from Charlie, waving as the elevator door hissed closed.

The bastard. Did he ever think I might want to use it, too?

Every time she wondered about the life she had chosen for herself—hurrying home on a Friday evening, not to get dressed to go out somewhere, but to take a call from an international terrorist—she thought of how pleased her mother would have been to see her hooked up instead with somebody like Mister Elevator Wave, and it all fell back into perspective. She knew that type only too well. He would be big on personal freedom when it came to things like getting his own way—oh, the Bohemian clichés that would be flung around then!—but it would be quite a different story if someone was having a loud party upstairs when he wanted to work, or if she wanted to go somewhere he didn't.

Dulcie waited for the elevator, hating a man with whom she had never spoken.

But the thing was, she thought as she got out on her own floor, what other kind of man was she going to meet? She worked too hard, even when she was on the road, and when she came back to New York she barely ever had the energy to go out. Was that her range of options—criminals and neighbors?

Even someone like Dread, someone who was at least interesting—how could you have a relationship with someone like that? It was stupid. Even if there had been a spark of some kind, even if her own strange feelings were in any way reciprocated, what future could there be?

Still, even a fling had its attractions.

She stood waiting for her own door to recognize her, wondering if she'd gone too far now ever to turn back, to be a normal person. Was it just the adrenaline? Surely she could get that somewhere else—skydiving, jaywalking on freeways, something. The whole thing had seemed so exciting when she had first started, but that's what people always thought before everything went bad. Dulcie wasn't stupid: she knew that. Was it all worth it?

It was the dreams that were unsettling her, she told herself as the door grudgingly decided to let her in. The bad dreams. There was nothing very mysterious about them. Her little cocker spaniel, Nijinsky—her mother's choice of name; Dulcie had called him "Jinkie"—the one who had been hit by a car when she was ten, was suffering. She didn't know how or why exactly (in the dream there was no car, no blood on the little dog's muzzle as there had been in real life) but she knew she had to put Jinkie out of his misery. "End his suffering," as her mother had said. But in the dreams there was no veterinarian's office either, no smell of alcohol and pet hair. In her dreams she had a gun, and as she touched the barrel to the little dog's head, he rolled his eyes toward her without seeing, responding only to the feeling of the metal bumping against his skull.

It didn't take a Park Avenue specialist to tell Dulcie what the dream was about, that it was not Jinkie she was dreaming about, but a Colombian gear monkey named Celestino. She had been pleased with herself for how easily she had done the deed—a neat, quick performance, like swatting a spider with a rolled-up newspaper—and she had been proud of how little it had affected her. But night after night she saw Jinkie's small body trembling with fear as she approached. Night after night she woke up sweating, calling for the lights in a shaky voice.

It happens, Anwin, she told herself. So you thought you'd get off lightly—you didn't. But the world is full of innocent little children getting killed every day, starved, raped, beaten to death, and you're not losing sleep over them. Why worry about a lowlife like Celestino? He was putting every other person in that operation at risk. You were a soldier, and he was a risk to everyone. You did your job.

Which might be true—she wasn't quite sure anymore—but there were moments, especially at two in the morning, when the idea of working for a normal company and being married to a man whose idea of wild behavior was making love on the living room couch instead of in the bedroom seemed to have its charms.

Packages shed, Jones purring in and out around her ankles, Dulcie made herself a drink. She was irritated with herself, both for her self-indulgent mood and for hurrying home just because Dread had ordered her to. She had just finished adding soda to the scotch when the calm voice of the wallscreen announced a phone call.

"I'll be brief," he said when she opened the connection. Whatever he had been doing lately, whether online or in Cartagena, must be agreeing with him: he looked sleek and happy, like a well-fed panther. "First, expand for me a bit on your report."

"The virtual object—the lighter?" She took a sip of her drink, trying to summon her thoughts. She should have gotten her notes up directly on coming through the door, but a schoolgirl rebelliousness had sent her to the scotch first. "Well, as I said, it's hard to tell without having the object in its matrix to experiment with. It's a very nice simulation of an old-fashioned lighter. . . ."

He waved his hand dismissively, but did not lose his grin. She wondered why he seemed so speedy—from what she knew of the shared account, an account she had not used recently because he was so busy with it himself, he was in the network about sixteen hours a day or more, which must be exhausting. "I know I didn't make it easy for you," he said. "Don't waste my time with the obvious—I've got your report. Just explain what you mean by 'can't reverse without breaking the hard security.' "

"It means I can't reverse-engineer the thing just from the copy I made."

"You made a copy?" The snap of sudden chill was familiar now, but it didn't get any more pleasant.

"Look, this thing of yours is hot, in more ways than one. It's a live object. I can't just bang on the buttons until something happens, especially if you don't want anyone to know you've got it."

"Go on."

"So I had to copy it off to my system, where I've got the tools. Not that it was easy—I had to crack about five levels of encryption just to get the low-level functions to replicate. But there are levels beyond that I couldn't copy—couldn't even access. I'm going to have to do some major work just to get to them."

"Explain to me."

His tone was more agreeable now. She liked that. He did need her. There was a reason her price was high, and she didn't want him to forget that reason. "This thing is at root an effector—it sends positional information out, and interprets what comes back from the matrix. That's just for the low-level functions, like moving the user through the network. Basic stuff. Actually, strictly speaking, I guess you should call it a 'v-fector,' since all the information it deals with is about a virtual space. It's not describing the user's real position, just their position within the network. Right?" She hurried on as he nodded. "But with this system, nothing is simple, and certainly not access to even the most basic kinds of information. See, we found out a long time ago that most of the network is security-banded, to keep users who aren't owners from doing anything they shouldn't. So even the positional information coming to this device from the matrix is shielded—it's like with those areas around top-secret military test grounds in the real world, where you can't buy a map anywhere for miles because they don't want people trying to figure things out from what's shown and what's not shown. To be able to get that information, I'll have to pretend I'm one of the people who's supposed to receive it—and I'm guessing that's only these Grail people. They all have passwords or some other kind of access, and I have to learn how to mimic that, especially if you want me to mess with the protocols enough to show it inactive while still keeping it active."

"So what you're saying is that it needs more work." His expression was distracted, as though he was adding this information to a much larger whole. "You need more time."

"Yeah." She hoped he didn't think she was just stalling. "I did manage to find a way to corrupt the telemetry, which means that even if someone tries to turn it off before then, the system won't be able to find it. I've sent you the instructions on how to do it. But after you do it, you won't be able to use the thing until we switch it back. If the telemetry is wrong, none of the other functions will work right either. For all intents and purposes, once you change those settings, you have a dud effector."

Dread nodded. "I see."

"Whoever this belonged to must be an idiot," Dulcie said, pleased to have reestablished her credentials. "Either that, or it's taking them a hell of a long time to realize it's missing. They could have found the device any time if they'd tried. I mean, it's a hot v-fector, for God's sake—it's just been sitting there waiting for the network to ask where it is."

"Then maybe I should do what you said—change the telemetry. I'll think about that." He cocked his head as though listening to faint music. The smile came back, but it was a bit more natural this time, less stretched and gleeful. "I've got some other important things to discuss with you, Dulcie. I'm closing down the Cartagena office. 'Sky God' is now officially boxed, and the Old Man's got some other jobs he wants me to do."

She was still nodding, but caught by surprise. Both relief and loss were pulling hard on her at the thought that this man would be leaving her life. She opened her mouth but for a moment could think of nothing to say. "That's . . . well, congratulations, I guess. It's been a pretty wild ride. I'll finish up my work on the v-fector and send it along. . . ."

One of his eyebrows crept up. "I didn't say my project was finished, did I? Just that I'm closing down the Cartagena office. Oh, no, there are a lot of loose ends I still have to deal with." The grin, flashbulb-white this time. "I want you to come to Sydney."

"Sydney? Australia?" She could have kicked herself for saying something so stupid, but he did not waste energy with the obvious put-down, waiting instead for an answer to his request—a request that suddenly seemed to her far more complicated than she could easily understand. "I mean . . . what do you want me to do? You . . . I haven't used the sim for a week or so."

"I need your help," he said, "and not just with this device. This is a very complicated project I've begun. I want you to . . . help keep an eye on things." He laughed. "And then I can keep an eye on you, too."

She flinched, just perceptibly, but there was none of the menace in his voice he had used when warning her to keep her mouth shut. A thought came to her, a surprising, frightening, altogether overwhelming thought.

Maybe . . . maybe he wants to spend time with me. Personal time.

She covered her confusion with another long, slow sip of her scotch and soda. Could that even be true? And if it was, would she be a fool to go? He fascinated her in a way no one else had—would she be a fool not to go?

"I'll have to think about it."

"Don't think too long," he said. "Train's pulling out." She thought she detected a slackening in his good cheer, weariness perhaps. "You'll be paid your regular contractor's rates."

"Oh! Oh, no, that's not what I . . . I just meant it's not easy to . . . to pick up and. . . ." She bit her lip. Babbling. Chizz, Anwin, just chizz. "I just have to think about arrangements."

"Call me tomorrow." He paused. "I've been working with another contact of mine, doing research on this lighter, but all the time I've been working with her I kept wishing it was you instead." His smile this time was odd, almost shy. "Enjoy your Friday night." His image winked off the wallscreen.

Dulcie downed the rest of her drink in one long swallow. When Jones jumped into her lap, she scratched the cat behind the ears by reflex, but if it had been another cat entirely she would not have noticed. Outside the windows the sun vanished, the stone and cast-iron canyons of Soho darkened, and lights began to come on all over the city.

 

 

Through the whole strange progress of the last few days, Olga Pirofsky had been almost numb. If a part of her was positive that she had found her purpose, something that would finally give the rote repetitions of work and home-life meaning, another part of her was still capable of seeing that from the outside this would all look like madness. But no one outside could feel what she had felt, experience what she had experienced. Even if this wasn't madness, even if it was, as it seemed to be, the most important thing she could ever do, she understood now the allure of lunacy in a way she hadn't even in the sanitarium in France.

The voices arguing inside of her scarcely touched the outside.

She had gone on making arrangements, sending mail, informing the necessary functionaries, moving through her life with the slow caution of someone who has been badly bruised. The only time Olga had cried again was when the people came to take Misha away.

They were a childless couple, both in management of some kind, fairly young in years by Olga's standards, but already a near-complete sketch of their own middle age. She had picked them from the three or four inquiries because the man had a kind sound to his voice, something that had reminded her inexplicably of her lost Aleksandr.

After she had told them she was moving, they had showed the good taste not to ask too many more questions, and although Misha had been his usual suspicious self, they had seemed to like the little dog very much.'

"He's just zoony," the woman said, using an expression Olga didn't recognize, but which seemed to mean cute. "Look at those ears! We'll give him such a good home."

As they loaded him into the dog carrier, Misha's eyes had bulged at the horror of Olga's treachery and he had leaped against the barred door until she was terrified he would hurt himself. His new owners assured her that he would soon be happy again, eating out of his very own bowl in his new house. Misha's sharp bark was only cut off by the closing of the air seal on the car door. When the shiny machine had disappeared around the corner, Olga finally realized that tears were streaming down her face.

 

She was thumbing down the pressure strip on the last of the boxes when a squeal outside brought her to the attic window. A little way down the street a compact hover-runner packed with teenagers was making dizzyingly small circles under one of the bright white streetlamps, the girls in the back seat screaming and laughing. A boy loped out of a nearby house and climbed in among them, provoking more laughter. The car straightened out, but not before an overcompensated turn took the hover-runner over a flower bed. As the car picked up speed and skimmed away, a brief but colorful display of decapitated blossoms sprayed from under the skirts into the gutter.

Just another Friday night at the end of the world, Olga thought, but she did not know exactly what she meant, where the words had come from. It had been weeks since she had paid much attention to the news, but she didn't think things were much worse than usual—wars and murders, famine and pestilence, but nothing extraordinary or apocalyptic. Her own life might be changing, might even be winding down into some inexplicable darkness, but surely everything else would go on? Children would grow up, teenagers would misbehave, and generation after generation would march on—wasn't that the point of everything she had done with her life? Wasn't it the point of what she was doing now, the only point? The children were what mattered. Without them, mortality was a bleak pratfall with nobody laughing.

She pushed the thought away, just as she had pushed away the desperation in little Misha's bark. It was better to be numb. If a great task had been set before her, she could not afford to feel pain. There would be much more to come, but she would square her shoulders and bear up. That was one thing Olga had learned to do, one thing she did well.

She slid the last of the boxes into place, almost all her worldly goods stored like the effects of a dead pharaoh put aside for the afterlife—and, she thought, with about as much chance of getting used by their owner again—then closed and locked the attic.

 

For a while the voices had been curiously silent.

In the first days after she had left her job, Olga had spent most of every day in the station-chair, link in place, waiting for guidance. But whether she hovered in the lowest level of her own system, bathing in gray light like a frog half-submerged in a lily pond, or roamed through the active strata of the net, the voices still did not speak to her again. No matter what she did, the children remained absent, as though they had moved on to some other and more interesting playmate. The desertion left Olga frightened and heartsore. She even began to monitor the Uncle Jingle show again—fearful that she might somehow incur another one of the murderous headaches, but even more terrified that she had thrown away what life she had over some kind of hallucination. It was strange to see Uncle's clownish tricks and songs from her new distance, to see him as something almost sinister, a white-faced Pied Piper, but although watching the show only made clear to her how unlikely it was that she could ever go back, nothing else happened. No pain in her skull like a jagged blade, but no children either—at least none who were not part of Uncle Jingle's shrieking Krew.

Every evening she had connected to the system and stayed there, Misha curled in her lap, until fatigue drove her to her bed. Every morning she woke up in the wake of turbulent but unremembered dreams and returned to the chair. It was only at the end of the first week of her new life that something changed.

That night, Olga fell asleep with her fiberlink in place.

Slipping out of the gray nothingness of the first-level system into slumber was as gentle and unnoticed as the turn to twilight, but instead of entering the blurry carnival of the freed subconscious, she found herself floating through silent, empty space, adrift in a chill, featureless void like a dark little moon. She could not help noticing that her thoughts were far too clear and complete for a dream. Then the visions began.

At first she saw little—only a shadow within the greater shadow—but gradually it became a mountain, impossibly tall, black as the night that surrounded it, thrusting high against the stars. It frightened her, but she was drawn to it through the frozen dark, pulled toward its negative brilliance as helplessly as a moth to a tongue of flame. But as the mountain loomed ever higher, she suddenly felt the children gathering around her in an invisible flock. The deep, killing cold eased, although she knew somehow that the zero chill was only held at bay.

Suddenly, with the fluidity of more ordinary dreaming, the mountain was no longer a mountain but something more slender—a tower of slick black glass. Dawn or some other cool light touched the sky and edged back the night, and she could see that the tower rose from water, like a castle surrounded by a moat, like something in the stories her mother had told her long ago.

The children did not speak, but she could feel them drawing close around her, frightened but also hopeful. They wanted her to understand.

The last thing she saw before waking up was a spark from the rising sun, a line of fire along the tower's smooth obsidian skin. But in the final moments she had also heard the children's voices again, which had eased her heart like wind in tree branches after a sweltering afternoon.

South, they whispered to her. Go south.

 

Olga surveyed her packing. Her shoulders hurt and her back throbbed from the bending, but the dampness of her blouse and the hairs sticking to the back of her neck were a pleasant indicator of things accomplished; even the aches proved that she was finally doing something.

It was strange to see how little she needed after so many years of living with things. It was like traveling with her family again, and with Aleksandr, only the important things carried along because the road was not kind to clutter. Now she was leaving decades of her life behind, taking only two suitcases. Well, three.

The chair had of course gone back to Obolos, but Olga had saved more than a little money over the years: beside the big bag with her clothes and the smaller one with her toiletries stood a slim little case about the size of an old-fashioned children's picture book. Inside was a top of the line Dao-Ming travel station, something the young man at the store had assured her in a faintly condescending way would allow her to do anything she could possibly want. It had taken a while to get him to produce the machine—he clearly thought she might be planning no more than a few phone calls to relatives while she vacationed, or perhaps writing an old woman's travel memoirs—but eventually money stimulated his attention. She had been firm but reticent, though she had allowed herself a polite smile when he told her that Dao-Ming meant "Shining Path," as though that might be a factor in whether she bought it. There wasn't really any way to make sense of the voices, and she herself did not know why she thought she needed such a powerful station, but she had reached a place where a certain kind of faith seemed more important than any other considerations.

With the button of the telematic jack she had also bought now in place on her neck, she could finally feel content: the children could speak to her when they wished. A channel was always available now, and every night she laid her dreams open to them. They had told her many things, some she remembered on waking, some that faded, but always they whispered for her to go south, to find the tower.

She would trust them to help her on the way.

A horn blared outside. Olga looked up in surprise, wondering how long she had been lost in thought. That would be the cab to take her to the Juniper Bay train station for the first part of a journey whose ultimate length and destination she could not guess.

The driver did not get out to help her until she had dragged the luggage down to the sidewalk. While he flopped the two suitcases into the trunk, she went back to check that the door was locked, although she strongly doubted she would ever be coming back. When she got into the back seat and reminded the man of her destination, he grunted and pulled away from the curb. Olga turned and watched her house dwindling until it was obscured by a tree.

A car was coming slowly down the road toward them. As it passed, Olga's attention was caught by its driver. A glint of streetlight through the windshield lit his somehow familiar face for just a moment. He was staring straight ahead, and it took her a moment to summon up the profile from her memory.

Catur Ramsey. At least it had looked like him. But surely after she had told him she didn't want to talk, surely after he had left all those messages and she had not replied, he wouldn't come all the way up here?

For a moment she hesitated, thinking perhaps she should go back and at least speak to the man. He had been kind, and if it was truly him, it seemed terribly cruel to drive away and leave him to knock on the door of an empty house. But what could she say? How could she explain? She couldn't. And she might have mistaken the face anyway.

Olga said nothing. The cab reached the end of the street and turned, leaving both her house and the man who might or might not be Catur Ramsey behind. Olga Pirofsky, despite being wrapped in the strange, invisible security of the voices and their plan for her, could not help feeling that something grave had just happened, some slippage of universal forces that meant far more than she could understand.

She shook off the disturbing idea and settled back in the seat, wrapping herself in her coat. All done now. Choices made, no turning back. Without even quite realizing it, she began to sing quietly as the streetlights gleamed past the windows.

". . . An angel touched me . . . an angel touched me. . . ." She had never sung it before. If asked, she could not have said where she had learned it.

CHAPTER 17
Our Lady and Friends

NETFEED/NEWS: Faces Red at Blue Gate

(visual: Blue Gate Family Fun advertisement)

VO: The virtual amusement park known as Blue Gate spent millions on one of (he biggest launch parties in the history of the net. Seems they should have spent a little more on research. Apparently almost a quarter of the customers trying to buy tickets for the first day's festivities found themselves in the Blue Gates node instead—a single letter, but a world of difference.

(visual: Koxanna Marie Gillespie, Blue Gate Family Fun customer)

GILLESPIE: "It's a porn site—but it's spelled almost the same. I'm really shocked! My kids came to me and said. 'We were looking for Widget Weasel, but we found a dark room with a lot of people with no clothes on. . . .' "

VO: Gate Family Product Industries, sponsors of the Blue Gate amusement park, are negotiating with Blue Gates Adult Playground for the rights to their name, but the adult-oriented node is reportedly holding out.

(visual: Sal Chimura O'Meara, owner of Blue Gates Adult Playground)

O'MEARA: "Are you kidding? It's going to cost them major, baby. Wild credits. "

 

The forced march up the stairs to the Campanile of Six Pigs was not a pleasant one. Their bandit captors were armed not just with swords and knives, although there were plenty of those on display, but also with antique guns. The blunderbusses, as Renie supposed they were, had huge bell-shaped mouths and convoluted shapes that made them look more like musical instruments than anything else, but she did not doubt they would do terrible damage when fired. The man behind her, who seemed to do nothing but giggle and hiccup, kept bumping his against her back every few steps, so that she felt sure any moment a jiggle of contact would set it off and that would be the last thing she ever felt.

Worse, in a way, was the stink of liquor that hung over the bandit party like a fog. They seemed giddy with dark amusement, heedless, a volatility that suggested that no compromise or bargain, no matter how much they might benefit, would interest them.

This did not stop Florimel from trying. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded of the huge, bearded leader. "We have done you no harm. Just take what you want from us, although we have nothing worth stealing."

The toothless giant laughed. "We are the Attic Spiders. We decide what is worth taking. And we have a use for you, missy. Yes we do."

The man guarding Renie giggled even more shrilly. "The Mother," he said, almost to himself. "It's her day. Be her birthing-day gift, you will."

Renie suppressed a shudder. The gun barrel bumped against her back again and she almost leaped up onto the next step.

Even before they climbed the final flight, they could hear what sounded like a riotous party above them—tuneless singing, the scraping of a fiddle, many boisterous voices. The Campanile was a vast open space, hexagonal, with arched windows opening to the late afternoon sky in all six walls. In the angle of each wall was a statue of a standing pig wearing human clothes; one was dressed as a greedy priest, another as an overly fashionable lady, each of the six apparently a satire on some different human folly. A cluster of giant bells so covered with verdigris that it seemed doubtful they'd been rung in years hung from the center of the roof. Two or three dozen more bandits were cavorting beneath the bells, swigging from jugs or metal goblets, bellowing boasts and imprecations. Two men with faces covered in blood were wrestling on the stone tiles, and a few of the others had paused to watch them. At least a dozen of the party-goers were women, dressed in the bosomy style of a Restoration comedy, as cacklingly drunk and foulmouthed as the men. When the revelers noticed Renie's captors they let out drunken cries of pleasure and welcome, staggering forward to surround the returning bandits and their prey.

"Eee, they look fat and healthy," one slattern said as she leaned forward and poked terrified Emily with a crooked finger. "Let's roast 'em and eat 'em!"

As others cheered her suggestion—a rough joke, Renie prayed—T4b puffed up like a blowfish and put himself between Emily and the crowd. Renie leaned forward and grabbed his robed elbow, clutching his hidden spikes by accident. "Don't do anything stupid," she whispered, wincing as she massaged her injured palm. "We don't know what's going on here yet."

"Know these dirt-hoppers better not go touching," the youth growled. "Take some heads off, me."

"You're not in a gameworld now," Renie began, but was interrupted by a high, lazy voice from the back of the crowd.

"My lads and lassies, you simply must move. I can see nothing of these newcomers. Clear away, there. Grip, let me see what you and your wastrels have fetched home."

The ragged, reeking crowd parted, so that Renie and her friends had a direct view to the far side of the Campanile and the two people sitting there.

At first she thought the long, slender figure slumped in the high-backed chair was Zekiel, the runaway cutlerer's apprentice, but this one's pallor came from powder, largely sweated away at forehead and neck, and the white hair was an ancient periwig, slightly askew.

"Mother preserve me, but they are an odd-looking lot." The pale man's finery seemed no newer or cleaner than that of any of the other bandits, but the fabrics were brocades and satins; his languid movements caught gleams of the afternoon light. He had a narrow face, handsome as far as Renie could tell, but with cheeks heavily caked in rouge and a sleepy, careless expression. A smaller man in a harlequin's costume slumped on a cushion at his feet, apparently sleeping with his head against one of the pale man's legs. The harlequin's colorful mask had been pushed down until only his cheeks showed in the eyeholes. "Still," the tattered dandy said, "odd or not, none of them seems capable of flight, so they will serve our purpose. Grip, you and your cutthroats have done well. I have saved four barrels of the best, just for you."

Renie's captors let out a howl of joy. Several of them bolted to the far side of the Campanile to open the casks, but enough remained, weapons raised, to remove any thought of trying to escape just yet.

The masked harlequin stirred and swiveled his head from side to side, then seemed to realize after a moment the reason he could see nothing. He raised his finger with the controlled concentration of a brain surgeon and pushed the mask up his nose until his eyes appeared in the slots. The eyes narrowed, and the man in the patchwork clown costume sat up.

"Well, well," he said to Renie. "So you are still on your grand tour, are you?"

The pale man on the chair looked down at him. "Do you know the sacrifices, Koony?"

"I do. At least we've met." He lifted the mask away, revealing black hair and Asian features. Renie's first dreadful thought, that they had been delivered straight to the Quan Li creature, slowed her realization of where she had seen the face before.

"Kunohara," she said at last. "The bug man."

He laughed, sounding almost as drunk as the bandits. "The bug man! Very good! Yes, that is me."

The pale man sat a little straighter in the chair. His voice, when he spoke, had a dangerous edge. "This is rather tedious, Koony. Who are these people?"

Kunohara patted the other man on his silk-sheathed knee. "Travelers I have met before, Viticus. Do not worry yourself."

"But why do they call you by another name? I do not like that." Viticus now sounded petulant as a child. "I want them killed now. Then they will not be so tiresome."

"Yes! Kill them now!" Those of the Attic Spiders whose mouths were not full of drink took up the chant. Renie jumped in startlement as something grasped her leg, but it was only !Xabbu climbing from the floor into her arms.

"My thought is that we should try to stay alive until they fall asleep from their liquor," he whispered in Renie's ear. "Perhaps they will chase me if I flee, giving the rest of you some time. . . ?"

The thought of !Xabbu, even in his swift baboon body, being chased through an unfamiliar place by gun-wielding thugs made Renie's throat clench with fear, but before she could say anything a deep, vibrating hum filled the room. The bandits fell silent as the sound reached a loud ringing tone and then dropped away once more.

"There is our sign," said the pale leader. "The bells have rung. The Mother is waiting." He began to say something else, but was taken by a fit of coughing. It went on far longer than seemed normal, ending in a tubercular hack that bent him double in his chair. When it had finished and he was regaining his breath, Renie saw a spot of blood flecking his chin. Viticus pulled a dirty handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped it away. "Bring them," he wheezed, flipping a limp hand toward Renie and her companions. Immediately the Attic Spiders surrounded them again.

As they were herded from the Campanile, past a marble pig wearing the mortarboard of a scholar and an expression of swollen self-esteem, Kunohara sidled up to Renie.

"He is consumptive, of course, the White Prince," he said, as though continuing some casual conversation. "Quite impressive that he should have made himself a ruler over this crude lot." He had dropped the harlequin mask somewhere, and now made a goggling face at !Xabbu, who was still crouched in Renie's arms, exactly as if !Xabbu had been a real monkey in a zoo. If Kunohara was not drunk he was doing a very good imitation.

"What are you talking about?" Renie asked. She heard a sharp voice and turned to watch T4b; the youth was not handling the jostling contact well, but Florimel had moved close to him and was speaking softly. The bandits led them down a flight of stairs, then through an arched doorway into a long, dark corridor. Some of the Attic Spiders carried lanterns, which threw shadows up the walls and onto the carved ceiling.

"Viticus, the chieftain," Kunohara continued. "He is a scion of one of the richest families, those who have their great houses along the Painted Lagoon, but even among those old and strange dynasties his habits were too controversial, and he was forced into exile. Now he is the White Prince of the Attics, a byword for terror." He belched, but did not apologize. "A fascinating story, but the House is full of such things."

"Is this your world, then?" !Xabbu asked.

"Mine?" Kunohara shook his head. "No, no. The people who made it are dead, although I knew them. A writer and an artist, husband and wife. The man became very rich because of a net entertainment he devised—something called 'Johnny Icepick'?" Kunohara swayed a little as he walked and bumped against the gun of Renie's escort, the same man who had prodded her up the staircase to the Campanile. "You will move a little farther back. Bibber," Kunohara directed.

For once the bandit did not giggle—Renie thought she even heard a quiet grunt of resentment—but he obeyed.

"In any case, the man and his wife took their money and made the House. A labor of love, I suppose. It is one of the few places in the network I will truly miss—a quite original creation."

"You'll miss it?" Renie said, wondering. "Why?"

Kunohara did not answer. The troop of bandits and prisoners now turned down another corridor, just as empty as the first, but dimly lit from above. Skylights in the roof, constructed of something bluer and more opaque than ordinary glass, turned the dying afternoon light into something like the bottom of the sea.

"Are they going to kill us?" Renie asked Kunohara. He did not reply. "Are you going to let them?"

He looked at her for a moment. Something of the sharpness she had sensed in him at their first meeting was gone, dulled by something more than just alcohol. "If you are still here, then you are part of the story, somehow," he said at last. "Even though I am not, I confess to being interested to see what will happen."

"What are you talking about?" Renie demanded.

Kunohara only smiled and slowed, so that Renie's part of the procession passed him by.

"What did that mean?" Renie whispered to !Xabbu. "Story? Whose story?"

Her friend, too, had taken on a distracted look. "I must think, Renie," he said. "It is strange. This is a man who could tell us much, if only he would."

"Good luck." Renie scowled. "He's a game-player. I know the type. He loves all this, being the only one who knows."

The thought was interrupted by Brother Factum Quintus, who had angled his way between the other prisoners until he reached Renie and !Xabbu. "I have never been here before," he said, almost in wonderment. "This corridor is on no map I have seen."

"Map!" Behind them, Bibber allowed himself a full chortle. "Hark at that! Map! As if the Spiders need a map. All the Attics are ours." He began to sing in an off-key warble.

"Who's that lurking on the stair,
Weaving webs as fine as air,
To catch the foolish unaware?
Bow down to the Spiders!"

Other drunken voices chimed in. As they turned again into yet another dark hall, half the company was singing, banging their weapons together, making a din like a circus parade.

"Here and there on silent feet.
Leave the bitter, steal the sweet,
Death to every foe we meet,
Bow down to the Spiders. . . !"

The blue-lit hallway was lined with massive mirrors in heavy frames, each one taller than a man, each draped with a dusty, sagging piece of cloth that did not entirely hide the reflection of the bandits' lanterns. Factum Quintus leaned out, craning his gawky neck to look at these objects more closely. "It is the Hall of Shrouded Mirrors," he said at last, breathlessly. "A myth, many thought. Wonderful! I never thought I would live to see it!"

Renie, with some difficulty, restrained herself from pointing out that he might not outlive the experience by much.

A weary voice called from somewhere back in the line, "Do not go rushing in, my bravos. There are observances to be made, you know." The company slowed as they reached the end of the corridor and its draped mirrors; as Viticus walked forward his outlaw tribe parted to let him pass. "Where is Koony?" he asked when he reached the front.

"Here, Viticus." The man in the harlequin suit stepped out of the crowd. He seemed tired and distracted now. Renie wondered what that might mean.

"Come along, then, old fellow. You wanted to see how we honor the Mother, didn't you?" The pale chieftain strode through the door at the end of the hall with Kunohara beside him.

Renie and the others now found themselves hemmed in the midst of the unwashed bandits, who gleefully poked and prodded them. "Do you think Kunohara will protect us?" Florimel asked softly. Renie could only shrug.

"I don't know what he'll do. He's strange. Maybe we should. . . ."

Her sentence was never finished. As if at some signal, the entire crowd of bandits surged forward through the door at the end of the corridor, carrying Renie and the others with them. After jostling their way with much show of evil temper through the bottleneck of a small but high-ceilinged anteroom, the bandits spread out into the wide space on the far side, a rectangular chamber even larger than the Campanile, full of chill air. Windows lined the two long sides, although the glass had been smashed from every one on the left and several on the right as well, starting at the far end of the room. Through these gaping apertures the rooftops, turrets, and spires of the House could be seen stretching endlessly into the distance, tinged a dull red by the last of the setting sun. Cold wind blew in across the few remaining spikes of glass that clung to the frames. Those windows still unbroken were of stained glass, huge multicolored squares, their subjects hard to discern by the dying light, although Renie thought she saw faces.

Their captors marched them forward until they had almost reached the far end of the room, where Viticus kneeled before an oil fire smoking in a wide bronze bowl while Hideki Kunohara stood a short distance away, watching. On the far side of the fire a shadowy shape loomed higher than a man, lit in a weirdly glinting manner by the flames, its silhouette somehow rough and unstable. The tall, seated figure, robed and hooded, had hands clasped on knees and a face shrouded by the sagging hood. Renie had a terrified moment before she realized that the thing was a statue; a fear almost as deep returned when she realized it was composed entirely of shards of broken glass.

Most of the bandits had held back, unwilling to approach the idol too closely, but the bearded giant Grip and a dozen more pushed Renie and her companions down onto their knees.

Pale Viticus turned from the thing of glass. His eyes were hooded as though he could barely keep himself awake, but there was still somehow a bright watchfulness to him. "It is the Mother's day," he said, examining Renie and the others. "All praise her. Now, which of these shall be her gift?" He turned to Kunohara. "It is sad, but we can only give her one in the proper way." He gestured to the nearest unbroken window, whose picture was entirely unrecognizable now that the sun had vanished behind the far rooftops. "Even so, in a few more years we will have no more windows, and we will have to find another spot. . . ." He paused as a cough shook him, then dabbed at his lips with his soiled sleeve. "We will have to find another place to bring the Mother of Broken Glass her gifts." He squinted, extending a languid finger toward T4b. "We have not given her a man the last two years—she will thank us for this strapping fellow, I think."

Grip and one of the other bandits seized T4b by his arms and dragged him toward the first intact window. The teenager fought uselessly: when his sleeve fell back and exposed his glowing hand, Grip started and leaned his head away, but still maintained his hold.

"No!" Florimel struggled with her own captors. Beside her, Emily let out a cry of true terror, ragged as a death rattle.

"It is only a little time to fall," Viticus assured T4b. "Only a moment of cold wind, and then you will have nothing to fear ever again."

"Kunohara!" Renie shouted. "Are you going to let this happen?"

The harlequin crossed his arms on his chest. "I suppose not." He turned to the bandit chieftain. "I cannot let you have these people, Viticus."

The powdered man regarded the prisoners, then Kunohara. He seemed more amused than anything else. "You are being dreadfully boring, Koony. Are you certain?"

Before Kunohara could reply, the bandit named Bibber stepped forward, face contorted in fury. "Who's this little dung-monkey to say no to the White Prince?" He leveled his blunderbuss at Kunohara, trembling with outraged traditionalism. "Who is he to tell the Spiders how to honor the Mother?"

"I don't think you should do that, Bibber," said Viticus mildly, but the bandit was so outraged he paid no attention to the chieftain whose honor he was defending. His finger curled on the trigger. "I'll blow this little crease-wipe clean out of the House. . . !"

Kunohara made a small gesture and both Bibber's arms suddenly burst into flame. He immediately dropped to the floor, shrieking and thrashing, surrounded by an ever-widening circle of nothing as his comrades hurried to get away from him. Kunohara waved his finger and the flames were gone. The bandit lay curled beside his forgotten gun, stroking his forearms and weeping.

Kunohara laughed quietly. "It is good, sometimes, to be one of the gods of Otherland." He still sounded a bit drunk.

"Can we use none of them?" Viticus asked.

Kunohara eyed Renie's companions. Emily was crying. T4b, reprieved, had sunk to his knees again in front of the window. "The monk?" the harlequin said, half to himself. "He is not one of you, after all," he pointed out to Renie. "He is . . . well, you know what I mean."

Renie was outraged, although what he said was technically true. "Brother Factum Quintus has just as much right to live as we do, whether. . . ." She paused—she had been about to say whether he's a real person or not, but realized that might not be the kindest or the smartest thing to bring up, "It doesn't matter," she said instead. "He is one of us."

Kunohara turned to Viticus and shrugged.

"So, then," said the White Prince. "Grip?"

The giant bent and scooped whimpering Bibber up from the floor. He took a step to one side to get around T4b, then—with Bibber already squealing in unbelieving horror as he realized what was happening—got a good hold on his captive and heaved him through the stained glass window, which exploded outward around him.

The scream went on for long seconds, growing fainter all the way down. In the silence that followed, a few remaining pieces of glass slid from the frame and chinked to the floor.

"Thank you, Mother, for all you have given me," Viticus said, bowing toward the statue of glass shards. He bent and with his long fingers tweezed up the pieces that had sprayed from the shattered window, then tossed them onto the statue's lap. For a moment it seemed to swell a little, a trick of the guttering firelight.

Renie, frozen in shock at the callous murder, suddenly felt the cold room grow colder still, although the wind had not risen. Something was changing, everything somehow shifting sideways. For a moment she was certain it was another of the bizarre hitches in reality, like the one they had experienced when they had lost Azador on the river, but instead of the entire world shuddering to a halt the air only became thicker and colder, clingy as fog. The light changed, too, stretching until everything seemed farther away from everything else than it had been only instants before. Some of the bandits cried out in fear, but their voices were distant; for a moment Renie felt certain the statue of the Mother was coming to life, that it was about to step down from its plinth, claws creaking open. . . .

"The window!" gasped Florimel. "Look!"

Something was forming in the very place where only seconds before Bibber had plunged to his death, as though the stained glass were growing back to cover the gaping hole. A pale blur in the middle became a rough sketch of a face. A moment later it grew clearer, a faint, smeary image of a young woman, dark eyes staring blindly.

"The Lady. . . ." someone cried out from the crowd behind Renie. All sound was distorted—it was impossible to tell whether the words were spoken in joy or horror.

The face moved in the cloudy plane that filled the frame, sliding from corner to corner like something trapped. "No!" it said, "you send me nightmares!"

Renie felt !Xabbu clinging, his head only inches from her own, but she could not speak; nor could she take her gaze from the suggestion of a face surrounded now by a halo of dark hair.

"I do not belong here!" Her indistinct gaze seemed to take in Renie and her companions. "It hurts me to come here this time! But you summon me—you send me my own nightmares!"

"Who . . . who are you?" Florimel's voice was barely audible, as though someone had gripped her throat in strong fingers.

"He is sleeping now—the One who is Other—yet he dreams of you. But the darkness is blowing through him. The shadow is growing." For a moment the face grew even dimmer; when it reappeared, it was so faint that her eyes were little more than charcoal smudges on the pale oval of her face. "You must come to find the others. You must come to Priam's Walls!"

"What do you mean?" Renie asked, finding her voice at last. "What others?"

"Lost! The tower! Lost!" The face dwindled like a cloud torn by high winds. After a moment there was only the square hole where the window had been, a gaping wound opening into night's deeps.

 

It was long moments before Renie could feel anything again. The deep cold had gone, replaced by the lesser chill of the wind swirling in the turrets outside. Outside, evening had turned into night; the only light remaining in the high chamber was the inconstant flicker of the oil fire.

The bandit chieftain Viticus was sitting flat on the floor as if blown there by a great gale, his rouged face slack with surprise. "That . . . that is not what usually happens," he said softly. Most of the rest of the bandits had fled; those who remained were facedown on the floor in positions of supplication. Viticus hoisted himself onto his trembling legs and purposefully dusted his breeches. "I think it likely we will not come here again," he said, and walked to the doorway with careful dignity, although his shoulders were tensed as though he expected a blow. He did not look back. As he passed through, the remainder of his Attic Spiders clambered to their feet and hurried after him.

!Xabbu was tugging at Renie's arm. "Are you well?"

"Enough, I guess." She turned to look for the others. Florimel and T4b were both sitting on the floor, and Factum Quintus lay on his back talking to himself, but Emily was in a limp tangle near the far wall, just beneath one of the broken windows. Renie hurried to her side and reassured herself that the girl was still breathing.

"She's just fainted, I think," Renie called over her shoulder to the others. "Poor child!"

"Priam's Walls, is it?" Hideki Kunohara was sitting cross-legged beneath the jagged likeness of the Mother, his expression distant. "You are indeed in the center of the story, it seems."

"What are you talking about?" Florimel snapped, regaining a little of her composure. She came to join Renie at Emily's side, and together they turned the girl until she was resting in what seemed a more comfortable position. "That means Troy, does it not? The fortress of King Priam, the Trojan War—no doubt another one of these damned simulations. What does it mean to you. Kunohara, and what do you mean, 'center of the story'?"

"The story that is taking place all around you," he said. "The Lady has appeared and given you a summons. Quite impressive, even I have to admit it. You are wanted in the maze, I suppose."

"Maze?" Renie looked up from Emily, who was beginning to show signs of waking. "Like with the Minotaur?"

"That was in the palace of Minos, in Crete," Florimel said. "There was no maze in Troy."

Kunohara chuckled, but it was not a particularly pleasant sound. Again Renie felt something wrong about him, a certain febrile wildness. She had thought it was liquor, but perhaps it was something else—perhaps the man was simply mad. "If you know so much," he said, "perhaps you can answer all your own questions, then."

"No," Renie said. "We're sorry. But we are confused and frightened. Who was that . . . that. . . ?" She gestured at the window where the face had appeared.

"It was the Lady of the Windows," Brother Factum Quintus said behind her, his voice full of awe. "And I thought I had experienced the full run of marvels, today. But there she was! Not just an old tale!" He shook his head as he sat up, as oddly articulated as a stick insect. "They shall be talking of this at the Library for generations."

He seemed to have missed entirely the fact that they had almost been hurled to their deaths, Renie thought sourly. "But what did she want, this . . . Lady? I couldn't make any sense of it at all." She turned to Kunohara. "What in hell is going on around here?"

He lifted his hands and spread them, palms up. "You have been summoned to Troy. It is a simulation, as your comrade said, but it was also the first simulation the Grail Brotherhood constructed. Near the heart of things."

"What do you mean, 'the heart of things'? And how do you know so much—you said you weren't part of the Grail."

"I am not part of the sun either, but I know when the afternoon turns hot, or when night is coming." Pleased with this epigram, he nodded.

Florimel growled, "We are tired of riddles, Kunohara."

"Then Troy will hold many disappointments for you." He slapped his thighs and stood, then sketched a mocking bow to the statue of the Mother before turning to face them once more. "In truth, you cannot afford bad temper—you curse riddles, but where does wisdom come from? Have you solved those I posed for you earlier? Dollo's Law and Kishimo-jinl Understanding may well be important to your own part of the story."

"Story! You keep saying that!" Renie wanted to hit him, but could not rid herself of the memory of Bibber's horrified face, of the flames Kunohara had summoned which had momentarily engulfed him. In an unreal world, who could say what was real? Kunohara had called himself one of the gods of Otherland, and in that he was correct.

"Please, Mr. Kunohara, what does this mean?" said !Xabbu, reaching for Renie's hand to calm her. "You speak of a story, and the woman—the Lady of the Windows—spoke of someone who dreamed of us. Dream is my name, in the language of my people. I thought we were in a world purely of mechanical things, but now I am not sure it is true. Perhaps there is a greater reason I am here, I wonder—a greater purpose. If so, I would like to know it."

To Renie's surprise, Kunohara looked at !Xabbu with something like respect. "You sound a bit like the Circle people, but more sensible," the bug man said. "As far as dreams, I do not know—there is much in a network this complicated that cannot be known by anyone, even the creators, and there were also many details that the Brotherhood kept hidden from the rest of us. But as to what I said about story, surely you have seen something of that. The entire network has lost its randomness, somehow," he paused, musing, ". . . or perhaps randomness itself is only a name for stories we have not recognized yet."

"You are saying that something is guiding the network?" Florimel asked. "But we knew that already. Surely that is the Grail Brotherhood's purpose—it is their invention, after all."

"Or perhaps the operating system itself. . . ." Renie suggested. "It must be very complicated, very sophisticated."

"No, I mean something even more subtle is at work." Kunohara shook his head impatiently. "My idea is not something I can explain, perhaps. It does not matter." He hung his head in mock-sorrow. "The fancies of a solitary man."

"Please tell us!" Renie was frightened he might disappear again, as he had done to them twice before. Despite his sarcasm, his discomfort at the situation was palpable—this was not a man who felt comfortable with others.

Kunohara closed his eyes; for a moment, he seemed to be talking to himself. "It is no good. A story-meme? Who would do such a thing. Who could do such a thing? You cannot infect a mechanism with words."

"What are you talking about?" Renie reached to touch his arm, but !Xabbu's warning squeeze stayed her. "What's a . . . a story-mean?"

"Meme. M-E-M-E." He opened his eyes. His expression had grown tight and angrily mirthful. "Do you wish to go to Troy?"

"What?" Renie looked around the little company. T4b was cradling Emily, who was still only half-conscious. Factum Quintus was across the chilly room, apparently oblivious to their conversation as he inspected the frame of one of the broken windows. Only Florimel and !Xabbu were paying close attention.

"You heard me—or you heard the Lady of the Windows. You have been invited, or commanded, or implored. Are you going? I can open a gateway for you."

Renie slowly shook her head. "We can't—not yet. Our friend has been kidnapped. Will you help us get her back?"

"No." Kunohara now seemed distant, glacial, but the half-smile remained. "I have spent too much time here as it is—intervened, broken my own rules. You have your part in this story, but I do not. None of it concerns me."

"But why won't you just help us?" Renie said. "All you give us are these irritating riddles, like something out of a . . . a story."

"Look," said Kunohara, ignoring her troubled expression, "I have done more than I should. Do you want honesty from me? Very well—I will be honest. You have set yourself up against the most powerful people in the world. Worse than that, you have invaded their own network, where they are more than people—they are gods!"

"But you're a god, too. You said so,"

Kunohara made a scornful noise. "A very small god, and with very little power outside my own fiefdom. Now be quiet and I will tell you the honest truth. You have set yourself an impossible task. That is your business. Somehow you have stayed alive so far, and that is interesting, but it is nothing to do me with me. Now you ask me to intervene—to join you, as though I were some friendly spirit standing by the path in a children's tale. But you are not going to succeed. The Brotherhood may destroy themselves someday with their own cleverness, but that will have nothing to do with you. Instead they are going to capture you, either here or in the real world, and when they do, they are going to torture you before they kill you."

He swiveled from one member of the company to another, swaying a little, but making eye contact with each of them, some for the first time. "When it happens, you will tell them anything they want to know. Should I give you information from the privacy of my own mind so that you can give it to them? Should I provide you a tale of how I helped you work against their interests, so that you may tell it to them between screams?" He shook his head, staring down at his own hands; it was hard to tell who was the target of his disgust, Renie and her companions or himself. "I told you—I am a small man. I want nothing to do with your imaginary heroism. The Brotherhood are far, far too strong for me, and I exist here and enjoy my freedom of the network only because I am not an impediment. You think I speak in riddles just to torment you? In my way, I have tried to help. But should I lay down everything I have for you, including my own small life? I think not."

"But we don't even understand those things you told us. . . ." Renie began. An instant later she was talking to nothing but cold air. Kunohara had vanished.

 

"You're safe," Renie told Emily. She felt the girl's forehead and checked her pulse, knowing as she did so that it was a pointless exercise with what was at best a virtual body, and which might not even belong to an actual human being. How could you tell if code was seriously ill, anyway? And what if the code claimed to be pregnant? The whole thing was crazy. "You're safe," she said again. "Those people are gone."

With FIorimel's help she got Emily into a sitting position. T4b hovered nearby making attempts at assistance that wound up interfering more than helping.

"Say my name," the girl requested. Her eyes were still almost shut; she sounded like someone half-dreaming. "Did you say it? I can't remember."

"You are. . . ." Florimel began, but Renie, remembering what the girl had said before, grabbed Florimel's arm and squeezed, shaking her head.

"What do you think your name is?" Renie asked instead. "Quick, tell me your name."

"It is . . . I think it is. . . ." Emily fell silent for a moment. "Why are the children gone?"

"Children?" T4b sounded frightened. "Those raggedy ma'lockers, they hit her? She funny?"

"What children?" Renie asked.

Emily's eyes flicked open, scanning the room. "There aren't any here, are there? For a moment I thought there were. I thought the room was full of them, and they were making lots of noise . . . and then they just . . . stopped."

"What's your name?" Renie asked again.

The girl's eyes narrowed as though she feared a trick. "Emily, isn't it? Why are you asking me that?"

Renie sighed. "Never mind." She sat back, letting Florimel finish checking the girl for any sign of damage. "So here we are."

Florimel looked up from her ministrations. "We have much to talk about. Many questions to try to answer."

"But finding Martine still comes first." Renie turned to the monk, who was inspecting the statue of the Mother with rapt fascination. "Factum Quintus, do you know how to get to that other place from here? The one you said we'd check second?"

"The Spire Forest?" He was bending at the waist, a gaunt shape like a drinking-bird toy, his nose only inches from the glass-shard face of the Mother. "I suppose so, if I can find the main Attic throughway. Yes, that would be best. We can't be more than a few hundred paces away in a straight line, but we will have to find a route, and the Attic is a bit of a maze." He turned to face her, his expression suddenly intent. "Hmmm, yes. Speaking of mazes. . . ."

"I'm sure you want to know what that was all about," Renie said wearily. "And as you can tell, we need to talk about it ourselves." She wondered how much it would be permissible to tell Factum Quintus without threatening the monk's sanity. "But our friend comes first, and it feels like we've wasted hours."

"There are unfamiliar stars in the sky," !Xabbu said from his perch on the windowsill. "I cannot recognize any of them. But it is true the sun has been down for some time now."

"So let's move." Renie stood, realizing for the first time since they had been captured how sore and exhausted she was. "Martine needs us. I just hope we find her in time."

As T4b helped Emily to her feet, Florimel turned to Renie, speaking softly. "One thing we have learned—no approach without a plan next time. And we must succeed. Even if we rescue Martine, we will be helpless if we do not recover the lighter as well."

"Amen." Renie nervously watched !Xabbu teetering on the windowsill, trying to remind herself that in this world he wore the body of a monkey, and clearly had a monkey's balance and climbing skills. But it was still hard to watch him leaning out into the cold night air through which a man had just fallen to his death a few minutes earlier. "!Xabbu—we're going."

As he hopped down, Florimel said, "But I have to admit Kunohara's words haunt me. If he had not been here, we would have been helpless in the hands of those quite ordinary bandits. How are we going to strike at the masters of this network? What chance do we have?"

"It's not what chance do we have," Renie replied, "it's what choice do we have."

Silent then, they turned and followed the others out the door, leaving the room of broken windows to the night and the wind.

CHAPTER 18
Dreams in a Dead Land

NETFEED/PERSONALS: Don't Even Bother. . . .

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

M.J.: "No, don't apologize. I don't want to hear it—I HATE weaklings. Don't even bother to tell me why you haven't called. If you're not man enough . . . or woman enough . . . then just save your breath and crawl away. Oooh, I'm angry. The things I would do to you if you called me—terrible, terrible, painful, embarrassing things. . . ."

 

Paul felt small as a mouse, a cornered thing squeaking out its fast moments of life. As the Cyclops' massive hand stretched wide he stumbled backward, terror draining the strength from his legs.

Nothing around you is true, the golden harp had told him, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you. . . .

Kill me, he thought dazedly, groping on the cavern floor for something to use as a weapon. The giant's roar was so throbbingly loud his own thoughts seemed about to blow away. Going to kill me—but I don't want to die. . . !

He found the monster's shears, far too short and heavy to be a useful weapon. He heaved them up and flung them as hard as he could, but Polyphemus only swatted them away. Somewhere behind the Cyclops lay Azador, knocked aside by a blow, his skull probably crushed. The great stone that sealed the cavern had not been pushed all the way closed, but Paul knew he could not wriggle through the narrow space before the monster caught him.

He snatched at something that felt like a rock, but it was too light; only after he had bounced it uselessly off the Cyclops' broad chest did he see it was a human skull.

Mine. . . ! The thought swirled past like a spark. The next fool who tries that—he'll use mine. . . .

The vast hand slammed down, narrowly missing him. Paul tripped and staggered back. The Cyclops leaned closer, blood from Azador's failed attack on the monster's neck and hand, his growling, gap-toothed mouth stinking of rotten flesh, and the difference between real and virtual shrank to absolutely nothing.

Paul heaved up a pitch bucket and threw it at the Cyclops' face, hoping to blind him. The bucket fell short and broke on the creature's breastbone instead, covering his mighty chest in black ooze, but the giant was not even slowed. Paul sprang to the side and dodged behind their raft, which was leaning against a cavern wall near the fire. Polyphemus flung it aside as though it were paper; it crashed down on the far side of the room, timbers cracking. The monstrosity's lips curled in pleasant anticipation as Paul fled again, backing into a corner, his only weapon a deadfall branch from the pile of firewood. Both of the giant's enormous hands came up, hemming him in, and Paul smacked uselessly at the dirty, squat fingers.

Suddenly, the Cyclops lurched upright, bellowing out a scream which threatened to burst Paul's eardrums as he swatted at something behind him. Azador stumbled back from the Cyclops' leg, the shears which Paul had flung earlier now quivering in the monster's thick calf muscle. The giant made a move toward this new attacker, then turned to peer with his vast, bloodshot eye at Paul, who still cowered in the corner. Polyphemus shambled to the wall of the cavern and snatched up his shepherd's staff, a slender tree trunk half-a-dozen meters tall, shod in bronze, then whirled with surprising speed and swung it at Azador, who had only an instant to fall to his belly as the log hissed toward his head. Polyphemus lifted the staff high, intending to spear him like a fish.

Desperate, Paul threw the piece of wood he had been holding, but it bounced harmlessly off the Cyclops' back. He sprang forward and heaved up the giant's wooden dinner bowl, but realized it would be no more of a distraction than the firewood. The Cyclops jabbed at Azador, forcing him to roll out of the way again and again, but he was running out of room to maneuver, Paul's helpless terror was so great that it took a moment for him to realize that he was standing on something that was burning his foot.

The Cyclops had raised the staff to pin Azador against the cavern wall when Paul put his foot against the shears wagging in the monster's calf and shoved them farther into his leg. The giant roared and turned, swatting at Paul with the back of his hand, but Paul had expected the blow and was able to duck beneath it before flinging the bowl full of burning coals into the monster's face.

He had hoped only for a moment's distraction, to blind the creature long enough for them to make a try for the cavern entrance. He had not expected the pitch splashed on the creature's face and body to ignite, crackling up the creature's beard and setting it ablaze.

Flames enveloped the Cyclops' head. The creature's shriek of pain was so loud that Paul sank to the earth and clutched his head. Polyphemus turned and shoved his way through the front doorway, sending the great stone spinning; Azador pulled Paul out of its path just before it wobbled to a halt and crashed to the cavern floor.

For long moments Paul could only lie curled on his side. His skull felt like it had been smashed to pieces inside his head, and he could hear nothing but a single insistent tone. When he looked up, Azador stood before him, bloody but alive. He was speaking, but Paul could not make out a word.

"I think I'm deaf," Paul said. His own voice seemed to come from the other side of a vast space, faint as a whisper, all but subsumed by the painful ringing.

Azador helped him up. They looked at the open doorway, both wondering how long until the giant would return with flames extinguished, burned and vengeful. Azador gestured to the raft, clearly wanting to seize it, but Paul only shook his head as he staggered toward the cavern entrance. There was no knowing how long the giant would be gone: to remain a moment longer would be suicidal folly. He could not hear the other man, but he knew Azador was cursing his cowardice.

The first light of dawn was in the sky outside, revealing the giant's track where it had smashed its way through the trees, perhaps stumbling in search of water. They followed along the line of destruction, but stayed hidden in the trees on either side. The path zigzagged down the hill toward the ocean far below.

 

They found the Cyclops facedown on a shelf of stone, wreathed in smoke like a defeated Titan flung blazing to Earth from Mount Olympus. Flames burned fitfully in the sheepskin garment, fanned by the wind. The creature's head still smoldered, a lump of black ruin atop the shoulders. It was quite dead.

Paul slumped down on the stone beside it, so happy to be alive and underneath the sky once more that he burst into tears. He could not make out Azador's scornful words, but it was easy to read the other man's expression.

 

Even with the monster destroyed they could not get off its island, nor were they in much of a hurry to do so.

They spent the first day simply recovering from the struggle, sleeping and nursing their aching bodies. Most of their wounds were little worse than cuts and bruises, but Azador's ribs had taken a hard blow and although his hearing had returned, Paul was burned on his feet and in several places on his hands and chest where the coals had touched him. As the sun fell down the sky toward evening, Azador suggested they sleep in the giant's shelter, but Paul did not want to spend any more time in that reeking den than necessary. To Azador's disgust he insisted that they make their campsite in front of the cave instead, exposed to the elements but breathing clean air.

Azador caught and killed one of the Cyclops' sheep, which had strayed all across the hilltop after their master's death. For Paul the smell of roasting meat was a little too reminiscent of what they had just survived, but Azador ate with gusto. By the time he had finished his meal he seemed quite recovered, and even grudgingly congratulated Paul for his quick thinking.

"That was good, the fire," he said. "Bastard went up like a torch—foof." Azador wiggled his fingers to mime names. "And now we eat his meat."

"Please, no," said Paul, nauseated by the choice of words.

 

The raft was too large to carry down to the water so they reluctantly dismantled it into a half-dozen smaller pieces, carefully saving all the rope for later use, and dragged them out of the cave and down to the beach for repair.

"He was a big strong bastard, I give him that," grunted Azador as they trudged along the hillside with a length of bound logs. "The way he carried it up over his head like that—when I saw it coming over the trees, I thought it was Saint Kali the Black."

Paul stumbled on a root and almost let go of his end. "Saint who?"

"Saint Kali. She is special to my people. We carry her in her boat down to the ocean every year." He saw that Paul was staring at him. "A statue. On the saint's day she is carried to the water. She is called Black Sarah, too."

Paul had been astonished not by the outlandishness of the ritual, but because Azador was sharing something of himself. "She's. . . ." He paused. "Who are your people, anyway?"

Azador lifted an eyebrow. "I am Romany."

"Gypsies?"

"If you like." Azador himself did not seem to like, because he was silent for the rest of the trip to the beach.

They were able to use the giant's own tools, although they found them heavy and clumsy. Of particular use was a bronze knife with a scalloped edge, long as a sword but twice as wide, handy for sawing at tree branches. Over the course of two days, slowed by an occasional rain shower or their own aching muscles, the two men managed to reassemble the raft and fashion a new mast from the pliant trunk of a young tree, but it was much harder work than Paul's first round of boatbuilding. More than once he found himself wishing that Calypso's magical ax had survived the attack of the monster Scylla.

On the evening of the second night, with plans to cast off again at dawn and leave the island of Polyphemus behind, they held a celebratory feast.

Besides the luckless animal whose leg was crackling on a spit above the flames, Azador selected several more of the giant's fattest sheep to take with them on the raft. The thought of a fresh stock of meat put him in a good mood. As their fire leaped high into the air, sparks whirling above the trees, he did a dance and sang a song whose words the machineries of the network could not or did not translate. As the gypsy grimaced through some of the more difficult steps, his face locked in a scowling concentration that was nevertheless oddly joyful, Paul found himself warming to the man.

The mutton and the Cyclops' last jug of sour but potent wine might have put Azador in a buoyant mood, but his tongue was no looser than usual. When he had finished dancing and eating, he rolled himself onto his side without further conversation and went to sleep.

 

The winds were up and the sea was restive all the next day after they cast off, and their rebuilt raft responded to it as to a new and ardent lover. Disturbed by the constant pitching, Paul spent most of the day crouched on the deck with his arms around the mast, wondering how a virtual experience could cause such profound discomfort to his inner ear. The winds calmed a little at sundown, and as a balmy evening settled on them Paul found himself feeling much better about everything. Azador steered by the stars, using a dead reckoning method that Paul had read about in books, but which had never seemed of any more practical use than mummification or alchemy. Now he was extremely grateful to have a companion who knew such antiquated things.

"Will we reach Troy soon?" he asked as the moon ran behind the clouds and the ocean and sky darkened. The rush and murmur of the sea and the great starless emptiness around him was like being inside a vast seashell.

"Don't know." Azador sat at the back of the raft, one hand lightly on the tiller, perched above the waves as calmly as if he sat on a mat in his own home. "Depends on many things."

Paul nodded as though he understood, but it was only to save the now familiar—and generally unrewarded—effort of getting Azador to explain. Weather, he guessed, and navigational uncertainty.

Sometime after midnight Azador lashed the rudder into position and took his turn sleeping. The moon had gone for good now and the black sky was afire with stars. Paul watched them pass through their slow dance above his head, so close it seemed he could reach up to them and freeze his fingers against their cold light, and vowed that if he ever found his way home he would never take the heavens for granted again.

 

In the late morning of their third day since leaving Polyphemus' island they saw land again. Another squall had passed over them just after sunrise, forcing them to furl the sail, and the sea had been unruly ever since. Azador was struggling with the ropes, trying to find a healthy tautness of sail. Paul was kneeling at the front of the raft, holding one of the lines but mainly feeling queasy, when he saw something dark on the horizon.

"Look!" he said. "I think it's another island!"

Azador squinted. A column of sunlight sharp as a knife blade suddenly sliced down through the toil of clouds, making the distant green hills glint across the dark water.

"Island, yes," Azador agreed. "Look at her, winking at us like a beautiful whore."

Paul thought that seemed a little harsh, but he was too happy to have sighted it to care. He was much less sad and fearful now that the raft was rebuilt and he had a strong, skilled companion, but he was still growing a little tired of the monotony of the Homeric seas—a bit of dry land would be a good thing. He thought of berries, and even bread and cheese if there was a town or city below the distant green slopes, and his mouth watered. It was odd that he seldom felt hungry, but could still feel the desire for food very strongly, could think of tastes and textures with great pleasure and longing. Undoubtedly a byproduct of his body being kept alive on machines—drips and tubes providing his nutrients, most likely. But it would be good on that day when he was not only back in his own England, but back in his real body once more as well. Like the star-sprayed skies, it was something he would never again take for granted.

As the day wore on past noon and they drew nearer to the island, the clouds drifted away; although a mild breeze remained, the sun soon warmed the skies and sea, and Paul felt his mood becoming even more optimistic. Azador, too, seemed to catch a little of the feeling. Once, turning quickly, Paul almost caught him smiling.

The island growing before them rose at its center to a collection of steep grassy hills which took the sun like green velvet. A mile or more of white sand lay before them along the water's edge, curiously mimicked in the blankets of white flowers that covered many of the hillsides, thick as snow. Streams and rivulets glittered in the meadows, or splashed down from the rocks of the highest hills, the cataracts making more spots of white. Paul saw no human inhabitants, but thought he saw regular shapes that might be low buildings atop some of the lesser hills. In truth, it would have been astonishing if there had not been some sign of the works of men, for the island was the loveliest he had seen in this whole imaginary Mediterranean world. Even the scents that the wind had brought them for some time now, blossoming trees and wet grass and something less definable, something pungent as perfume but somehow also as subtle as the spray from a waterfall, made Paul feel that for this moment anyway, life was good.

As they dragged their raft through the gentle surf and onto sand fine as bone ash, Paul realized that he was laughing with pleasure.

He and Azador raced up the slope to the first meadow, bumping and shoving like schoolboys let out early. Soon they found themselves hip-deep in soft bushes covered with thick white flowers, the petals as translucent as smoked glass. The flower field stretched away for almost a mile, and they waded into it with their hands above their heads so as not to damage the beautiful blossoms more than they needed to. The scent was even stronger here but harder to define, as heady as an ancient brandy. Paul thought he could happily stay in this place, experiencing only this one glorious scent, for the rest of his life.

Halfway across the field their raft seemed not just a long distance away but a long time away as well, something from another life. People appeared in the doorways of the long white houses on the hills before them and began to walk slowly down the path to meet them. By the time the islanders had reached the edge of the flowering meadow, where they waited for Paul and Azador, they were laughing, too, with the sheer joy of the meeting.

They were handsome folk, men, women, and children, all tall, all shapely. Their eyes were bright. Some were singing. Little boys and girls took Paul and his companion by the hand and led them back up the winding road to their village, its broad roofs and white walls shining in the sun.

 

"What is this place?" Paul asked sleepily.

The smiling, dignified old headman of the village nodded slowly, as though Paul's question contained the very essence of wisdom. "The Island of Lotos," he said at last. "Treasured of the gods. Jewel of the seas. Welcomer of travelers."

"Ah." Paul nodded, too. It was a lovely place. All those names were understatement, if anything. He and Azador had been fed a meal more sumptuous and delectable than even the nymph Calypso's ambrosia. "Lotos. Lovely name." And familiar, too, an exotic word that tickled his mind pleasantly but did not compel further consideration.

Beside him, Azador nodded even more slowly. "Good food. Everything is very, very nice."

Paul laughed. It was funny that Azador should say that, since there hadn't been any meat to eat at all, only bread and cheese and honey and berries and—oddly but somehow appropriately—the white flowers that shrouded the hillsides. But it was good to see the gypsy man enjoying himself, his usual dour expression gone, as though carried away by the warm breeze. Several of the local girls had already noticed Azador's dark good looks and now sat around him like the acolytes of a great teacher. Paul might have been jealous, but he had a fan club of his own only slightly smaller than the gypsy's, all watching his every move and hanging on his words as though they had never seen his like before, nor had even imagined such a paragon could exist. It was good, Paul decided. Yes, things were good.

 

He was having trouble keeping track of time. He dimly remembered that the sun had vanished more than once, perhaps slipping behind clouds, but darkness had been as pleasurable as daylight and he had not minded. Now it was dark again. Somehow, when Paul had not noticed it, the sun had set. A fire had been lit in a ring of stones on the bare ground, even though the beautiful city was all around them, but that just made things feel more homely. Many of the Lotos people were still entertaining the newcomers, although others had finally wandered off, doubtless to their lovely, comfortable houses.

Azador disentangled himself from the long limbs of a dark-haired, comely young woman and sat up. The woman protested sleepily and tried to pull him back down again, but Azador wore an intent expression.

"Ionas," he said. "My friend, Ionas."

Paul stared for a moment before he remembered it was the name he had given himself. He laughed—it was funny that Azador should call him that.

Azador waved his hand, trying to concentrate despite the caressing hands of the woman. "Listen," he said. "You do not know it, but I am a very clever man."

Paul had no idea what he meant, but it was pleasantly amusing to listen his friend's voice. The slightly halting English was exactly how an Azador should talk.

"No, stop laughing," Azador said. "The Brotherhood, those bastards—I am the only person ever to escape from them."

Puzzled, Paul tried to remember exactly who the Brotherhood was, but he felt so good that it seemed like a waste of time to think too hard. "You got away from someone . . . escaped. . . ?" he said at last. "Is that the woman? The one with the cigarette monkey and the lighter?" Something was wrong about that sentence, but he couldn't figure out what.

"No, not the woman, she is nothing. Never fear, I will find her soon and take back what is mine." Azador waved his hand.

"I am talking about the Brotherhood—the men who own this place, and all the others."

"The Brotherhood." Paul nodded his head gravely. He remembered now, or thought he did. A person called Nandi had told him about them. Nandi . . . the Brotherhood . . . something about the subject nagged at him, but he gently pushed it away. The wide ivory moon sliding along the sky behind a thin net of clouds was so beautiful that for a moment Paul forgot to listen to what Azador was saying.

". . . They do not simply use the few children they have stolen," Azador was saying when the moon disappeared behind a thicker cloud bank and Paul's attention returned.

"What are you talking about?"

"The Grail people. The Brotherhood. It is strange to think about now. It seemed so important." Azador laid his hand on the dark-haired woman's brow. She pulled it to her mouth, kissed it, then gave up on persuasion and slid back down to sleep curled beside him. "They took the Romany first, of course."

"The Romany. . . ."

"Gypsies. My people."

"Took them first for what?" It was nice to talk to Azador, Paul reflected, but it would be good to sleep, too.

"For their machines—their live-forever machines." Azador smiled, but it was a little sad. "It is always the Romany, of course. No one likes us. I do not mean here. Here on this island, everyone is kind, but outside. . . ." He drifted for a moment, then made an effort to recover himself. Paul too tried to concentrate, although he was not sure why Azador's words were any more important than the night birds and the distant sound of the ocean. "In any case, they took our young ones. Some disappeared, some were taken, some . . . some the parents turned a blind eye, telling themselves that although they never heard from them anymore, the money from the companies meant that the children were alive and well and giving satisfaction with their work."

"I don't understand."

"They use the children, Ionas. This network, it is made with the brains of children. Thousands they have stolen, like my people, and thousands more they have crippled, who they control with their machines. And then there are the million never-born."

"I still don't understand." He was almost angry with Azador for making him think. "What are you talking about?"

"But they could not hold me—Azador escaped." The gypsy seemed almost not to remember Paul was there. "Two years I have been free in their system. At least I think it is that long—it was only when I had the lighter that I knew what time it was in the real world."

"You escaped from . . . from the Brotherhood?" He was trying as hard as he could, but the scent of the night pressed down on his eyelids like a cool, gentle hand, urging him to sleep.

"You would not understand." Azador's smile was kindly, forgiving. "You are a nice man, Ionas, but this is too deep for you. You cannot understand what it is to be sought by the Grail Brotherhood. You are trapped here, I know. It has happened to many others besides you. But you cannot imagine what it is like for Azador, who must travel without being discovered, always one step ahead of the bastards who own all this." He shook his head, moved by his own bravery. "But now I have found this place, where I am safe. Where I am . . . happy. . . ."

Azador lapsed into silence. Paul, quite satisfied not to have to think anymore, let himself drift down into comfortable darkness.

At some later point the sun was up, and Paul again took a meal with the island's handsome, friendly inhabitants, savoring the sweet blossoms and other wonderful dishes. The light on the island was oddly inconstant, sliding almost unnoticeably from bright day to darkness and back, but it was a small enough irritation when weighed against the deep satisfactions of the place.

During one of the intervals of bright sunshine he found himself staring down at something that seemed inexplicably familiar, a piece of shimmering cloth bearing the emblem of a feather, a pretty thing that had fallen to the ground. Having admired it for a moment, he was about to walk away, following a group of singing voices—the islanders loved to sing, another of their many charming habits—but he could not quite bring himself to leave the cloth behind. He stared at it for what seemed a long time, although it became harder to see as the sun dipped behind a cloud again. A cool breeze sprang up and ruffled it. Paul leaned down and picked it up, then stumbled off again in pursuit of the singers, who were now far out of sight but not yet inaudible. Even the feeling of the soft, slippery weave was somehow familiar, but although it was clutched in his hand, he had already nearly forgotten it.

 

He did not remember lying down to sleep, but he knew somehow that he was dreaming. He was back in the giant's sky-castle, in the high room full of dusty plants. Somewhere far above him he could hear the sound of birds murmuring in the treetops. The winged woman stood close, her hand on his arm. Leaves and branches surrounded them, a bower of green, intimate as a confessional.

The dark-eyed woman was not sad now, but joyful, full of a bright and almost feverish happiness.

"Now you can't leave me," she said. "You can't ever leave me now."

Paul did not know what she meant, but was afraid to say so. Before he could think of anything to say at all, a chill wind slid through the indoor forest. Paul knew without understanding how he knew it that someone else had entered the room. No, not just one. Two.

"They're here!" she gasped, breathless with sudden alarm. "Butterball and Nickelplate. They're looking for you!"

Paul could only remember that he feared them, but not who they were or why. He looked around, trying to decide which way to run, but the bird-woman clutched him harder. She seemed younger now, little more than a girl. "Don't move! They'll hear you!"

They both stood frozen like mice in the shadow of an owl. The noises—leaves rustling, stems snapping—came from either side. Paul was filled with a deep, heart-thudding horror at the idea that the two searchers were closing on them like pinching fingers, that if they stayed a moment longer they would be trapped. He grabbed the woman by her arm, conscious despite his terror of the avian frailty of her bones, and pulled her deeper into the thick greenery, searching for another way out.

For a moment he could hear nothing but the crunch of fallen branches and the whip and smack of leaves, but then a wordless cry was raised somewhere behind him and echoed by another. equally cold voice. An instant later he crashed through the last of the vegetation and against the hopeless obstacle of a blank white wall.

Before he could turn back to the sheltering jungle a vast eye appeared in the wall, blinking slowly, red-rimmed and implacably cruel.

"The Old Man!" the woman beside him howled, but her cry was swallowed by the deep rumble of a voice more inhuman than the roar of a jet engine.

"BEHIND MY BACK!" It was so loud that Paul's eyes filled with helpless tears. Birds sprang into the air, squawking in terror, loose feathers sifting down like multicolored snow. The winged woman fell to the ground as though she had been shot. "BUT I SEE YOU!" the voice bellowed, and the eye widened until it seemed bigger than the room. "I SEE EVERYTHING. . . !"

The floor shook with the voice's power. Staggering to stay upright, Paul leaned down to pull the woman to her feet, but when she turned, her look of panic was gone, replaced by one of stern intensity.

"Paul," she said. "You must listen to me."

"Run! We have to run!"

"I do not think I can come to you again in this world." Even as she spoke, the huge, dusty garden grew faint. The roar of the Old Man's voice faded to a wordless rush of sound. "It pains me to be in a place where I have a reflection. It pains me terribly and makes me weak. You must listen."

"What are you talking about. . . ?" He remembered now that he was dreaming, but he still could not understand what was happening. Where was the horrible Eye? Was this another dream?

"You are trapped, Paul. The place you now are—it will kill you, as surely as would any of your enemies. You are surrounded by . . . by distortion. I can hold it back, but only for a little while, and it will take most of my strength. Take the other one with you—the other orphan. I may not be able to come to you again, with or without the feather."

"I don't understand. . . ."

"I can only hold it back for a little while. Go!"

Paul grabbed at her, but now she was fading, too, not into darkness but into a dull half-light, Paul blinked, but the ugly gray light did not disappear, was not replaced by anything better.

He pushed himself up onto his elbows. All around him lay the dreariest view imaginable, nothing but mud and stunted leafless trees, made even more depressing by the pale dawn light. Things that at first he took to be more excrescenses of the muddy earth slowly revealed themselves to be pathetic shelters made of sticks and stones and lopsided bricks. More disturbing still were the scrawny human figures, tangle-haired and toothless, seated like nodding beggars or lying in the mud, limbs slowly moving as though they swam through the deepest and thickest of dreams. Everything was muck and misery—even the clouds smearing the gray sky were thick and damp as mucus.

Paul clambered to his feet, knees trembling. It was hard to hold up his own weight—how long since he had stood? Where was he?

Distortion, the bird-woman had said. The meaning came slowly, horribly.

I've been . . . here all along? Sleeping here? Eating here?

For a moment he thought he would be sick. He choked back the burning liquid that had risen in his throat and began to stagger blindly downhill, searching for the sea. She had told him to take the other with him—what had she said? The other orphan? She must mean Azador, but where was he? Paul could hardly stand to look at the mewling, whispering human shapes that lolled among the crude shelters. And he had thought them beautiful. How could such a madness happen?

Lotus-Eaters. It floated to the surface of his memory and popped, like a bubble. The flowers. I should have realized. . . !

But even as he slid through the muddy wreck of a village the wind changed direction and the scent of the white blossoms came down the hillside. The breeze that carried their sweet, pungent odor was warm—everything was growing warmer. The sun appeared, and the clouds instantly evaporated above him, revealing the great seamless blue sky beyond.

Paul stopped, arrested by the bright, whitewashed stone of the village, the orderly paths and walled gardens, the bright-eyed people gathered in the shadows of the olive grove, sharing talk and song. Had it simply been a nightmare, then—the decay, the mud?

There was no other answer, surely. The heady, perfumed air from the meadows had simply woken him to the truth again. It was impossible to see such beauty surrounding him again and regret the loss of such a dreadful vision, even as its last cold strands still troubled his thoughts.

Azador, he thought. I was looking for Azador. But surely I can find him later at the evening meal, or even tomorrow. . . .

Paul realized he was clutching something in his hand. He stared at the veil, once pristine, now so spattered and smeared with gray mud that the embroidered feather was almost hidden. He suddenly heard the woman's voice again as clearly as if she stood at his shoulder.

"I can hold it back, but only for a little while, and it will take most of my strength. . . ."

He did not want to lose the safety of the stately village and the warm sun, but he could not forget her voice—how apprehension had made her words harsh and jagged. She had been pleading . . . begging him to think, to see. The muddied feather was in the palm of his hand, the fabric creased where he had clutched it.

The sky began to darken, the village to dissolve back into ruination, as though some evolutionary wheel had been sped forward to the end of time or back to the pathetic precursors of civilization. Paul pulled the veil tight against his chest, terrified that the magic of false beauty would overcome him again, leaving him trapped and blind forever, a prisoner of the mire.

"Azador!" he screamed, struggling to keep his footing on the foul, muddy hillside. "Azador!"

He found his companion in a tangle of bodies, the wet, naked forms intertwined like mating snails. He leaned down and grabbed the gypsy by a slippery arm and dragged him loose from the pile. As thin, bruised arms reached up to pull them both back down, Paul gave a shout of disgust and kicked at the nearest muddy figure. The arms all jerked in unison, like the polyps of a startled anemone.

At first Azador hardly seemed to understand, and allowed himself to be propelled down the hill toward the beach and their raft, but as Paul coaxed the raft out past the first set of breakers and the scent of the lotos-flowers grew less, the other man tried to fling himself into the surf and swim back to shore. Paul grabbed him and held on. Only the fact that Azador was still in the grip of the flower-spell, frail and trembling, allowed Paul to withstand the man's increasingly manic struggles.

At last, as the island dropped out of sight below the horizon and the winds washed the air clean of anything but sea tang, Azador stopped fighting. He dragged himself away from Paul and lay sprawled on the deck of the raft, dry-eyed but sobbing, as though his heart had been yanked from his body.

CHAPTER 19
A Life Between Heartbeats

NETFEED/ART: Thank God She's Not Pregnant Again

(Review for Entre News of staging by Djanga Djanes Dance Creation)

VO: ". . . Those who suffered as I did through the entirety of the occasionally fascinating but generally excruciating spectacle of Djanes' pregnancy and delivery, including the unintentionally hilarious final moments, with choreographed doctors and technicians slipping in blood and fecal matter, will be pleased to know that although her subject matter is still unabashedly self-absorbed, Djanes will be giving us a little more of the terpsichorean and a little less of the cloacal in her new piece titled, 'So I waited in front of the restaurant for about three hours, Carlo Gunzwasser, you pathetic little man'. . . ."

 

Orlando was so tired he could barely stand. One arm dangled at his side, almost broken by a blow from a tortoise-man's club. Except for the rumbling, growling breath of the sphinx fighting for its life, the shadowy temple was almost silent: the few survivors of the siege were whimpering in dark corners or hiding behind statues, but to little avail. The air was nearly empty of flying creatures now, but only because most of them had settled down to feed—the temple floor was dotted with writhing piles of bats and serpents clumped in the rough shapes of human beings.

But dying sphinxes and winged serpents were the least of Orlando's problems.

The larger of the two grotesqueries before him was dangling his unconscious friend Fredericks like a gutted fish. Mewat's snaggle-toothed smile showed how much the bloated cobra-man was enjoying himself, reveling in the power he and eyeless Tefy wielded. Despite all the fearful things Orlando had seen and survived, these two filled him with a terror he could barely resist, a chest-squeezing panic that made his heart stumble. He dredged up what felt like his final reserves of strength and lifted his sword, hoping that in the guttering torchlight his enemies could not see how it trembled. "Let her go," he said. "Just let me take her away. We don't have any argument with you."

Tefy's vulture-beaked grin pulled wider still. "Her?" He peered at Fredericks' male Pithlit-the-Thief sim. "So it is masks and costumes, is it? But—let her go? I think not. No, it is you who will come with us, or we will peel her apart in front of you. Do you want that? You and the rest of your people must have noticed by now that there is no escape from the network—that what happens to you here will be all too real."

Orlando took a step closer. "I don't care. If you hurt her I'll take at least one of you with me. I've already sixed one of your turtle-boys." He felt no need to add it had almost drained his last strength to do so.

Fat Mewat goggled his eyes in enjoyment and let out a loud, rolling belch. "Ooh, aren't you a wicked lad?" he hissed at Orlando. "Aren't you, now?"

A loud impact from just behind him made Orlando jump. He whirled to see the door sphinx Saf being dragged to the ground by the bull-headed war god Mont, who clung to the sphinx's neck like a terrier. Antlered Reshpu drove his prongs into Saf's side again and the great sphinx let out a long, low moan like wind rushing down a deserted street. The massive guardian struggled back onto his lion's legs once more, but he was clearly losing strength.

"It is nearly finished here." Tefy stilted a step closer to Orlando. "You and your people have lost. If you come along without struggling, we will release your friend—we will need only one of you, after all. You see, when we take you to our hidden place you will tell us all that you know and wish you had more to tell."

My people? Do they know about Renie and the others? Orlando could make no other sense of Tefy's words. The vulture-man knew Orlando was a Citizen, a real person—he couldn't think he was anything to do with this local insurrection in the Egyptian simworld.

No, he realized suddenly, they think we're part of the Circle. A group that actually was a threat to the Grail people, or meant to be. Was there some way he could use this to his advantage? The fear made it almost impossible to think, and he was so tired.

"Right," he said out loud. It was easiest this way—if they took him, they would be trading Fredericks for damaged goods. There was little chance he would live through an interrogation, and he had nothing much to give them in any case: he knew little of the Circle, and could not even be sure Renie and the others were still alive. "All right. Let her go. Take me."

Mewat extended a scaly hand. "Come here, then, my lad. Don't be afraid . . . you may even enjoy parts of it. . . ."

Allowed to sag until her feet touched the floor, Fredericks' eyes flickered open and surveyed Orlando blearily for a moment, then caught sight of Tefy's angular form.

"Run, Orlando!" Fredericks struggled uselessly, then was heaved up into the air again, hanging from Mewat's meat hook paw. "Just run!"

"They're going to let you go," said Orlando, trying to keep his friend calm. If there was any hope of getting out of this, they could make no mistakes. "Just don't do anything sudden, Frederico."

Fredericks thrashed helplessly. "They won't let me go! You're scanning major if you think they will!"

Orlando edged closer. "They said they would." He eyed Tefy, who was rubbing his impossibly long and bony fingers together, cheerful as a child at a birthday party. "Right?"

"Goodness, yes." The distorted beak pulled down in a look of wounded solemnity. "In our way, we are . . . men of honor."

Orlando took another step forward. The aura of terror around the pair beat at him like a stiff cold wind; it took all his courage not to turn and run. How could Fredericks stand it without shrieking?

"Now," he said as he came within just a few meters of Mewat, "let her go." He lowered the sword until it pointed at the thing's immense, pale, oily stomach.

"When I can touch you," the cobra-man said.

Fighting his terror, Orlando gave Fredericks the most significant glance he could muster. This would be delicate—how much pain could he cause this monster if he struck at that flabby hand?

A sudden impact made the floor vibrate and drew the cobra-man's gaze to the side. The great sphinx had tumbled again, and this time was writhing on the floor with the two war gods atop its chest.

"Dua!" The sphinx's bellow threatened to crumble the temple's walls. "Dua, my brother, I have fallen! Come to my aid!"

Orlando seized the moment, lashing at the hand that held Fredericks suspended. "Run!" he shouted. As Mewat jerked in startlement, Fredericks managed to twist free. Orlando leaped in with his blade to cover her escape, slapping at the snarling, jagged-toothed face, but Mewat deflected the blow with his wounded hand, then struck with terrible, unlikely speed, dashing the hilt from Orlando's grip. His partner Tefy stilted after Fredericks and snagged her in his long fingers before she had taken two steps.

A huge arm coiled around Orlando and pulled him suffocatingly close. He struggled, but there was no breaking that grip. Mewat's mouth brushed his ear.

"After you talk, and talk, and talk about what we want to know . . . I think I will eat you up." The thing belched again, engulfing Orlando in a fog of decay. Bright spots shimmered before his eyes, but they were only sparks against the rapidly encroaching blackness.

A booming voice echoed from the temple's stone walls. "I come, my brother!"

Orlando's captor paused. Out of the shadows at the back of the temple another huge shape was pulling itself across the floor. The second sphinx's back legs dragged uselessly, and a gush of desert sand leaked from its wounds in a dully sparkling trail.

"I have deserted my post, O my brother," it moaned, "for the first time since Time itself was born. " The skin that had been a faint sunrise lavender was now pale gray. "But I come to you."

Orlando's captor looked to Tefy, who held Fredericks entangled in his long pinions. They appeared to be communicating soundlessly, perhaps considering how safe this spot might be with two massive sphinxes about to join forces in a death struggle. Dua crawled through a phalanx of attacking tortoise-men toward his brother, almost oblivious to their blows. Several vanished beneath Dua's bulk with their mouths stretched wide, still voiceless in their death agonies. Screams and even stranger noises began to fill the shadowed temple again as the bats and serpents, disturbed at their feeding, whirled up like a storm of black snow.

"Now to our hidden place. . . ." Tefy declared when a shrieking gust of air from the temple's front doorway knocked him sideways and sprawling. Fredericks almost broke free, but Tefy quickly secured her and staggered to his splay-toed feet. The much chunkier Mewat had wobbled but held his balance. They could all hear a rising howl outside the temple, as if a tornado hovered overhead.

A soldier crawled in through the doorway, battered and bleeding.

"He is coming!" the man screeched. "The Lord Osiris is coming! He rides the bird Bennu, whose wings are the storm and the dark flame, and in his fury he strikes down even his own worshipers!" He fell face-down on the floor, sobbing.

The look of pure fear that flashed between Tefy and Mewat this time was much easier to interpret, but Orlando took little satisfaction from it. Even if the two servants were terrified of their master, the arrival of Osiris would surely only make things worse for Orlando and Fredericks. Hadn't Bonnie Mae Simpkins said that he was one of the highest Grail masters?

The swirling, shrieking winds rose to such a pitch that the humans still alive in the temple began dropping to their knees, bleeding from ears and nostrils. Suddenly a great stone large as a house fell from high in the ceiling near the front doorway and crushed a group of tortoise-men, then split into several huge chunks that tottered and fell, smashing others who had survived the first impact. Those who could still move tried to drag themselves away from the doorway. More massive stones vibrated out of the walls, tumbling to the floor like bombs. The war gods and a few tortoise-men fought on against the failing sphinxes, oblivious, but the world seemed to be ending around them.

As Orlando struggled uselessly against his captor's clammy grip, the howl of wind outside the temple increased to an even more frightening pitch. Orlando's ears popped, the pain sharp and hot. The entire front of the temple heaved, as though the stones were the belly of a single, gigantic living thing, then the wall collapsed inward.

He had time only to see an impossibly large shape in the night sky just outside, a black something big as a passenger jet with flapping wings outlined in flame, filling the ragged hole in the temple facade, then one of the huge door-stones cartwheeled past them, striking the cobra-man Mewat a glancing blow which threw him sprawling on top of Orlando.

For a brief instant, smothering beneath the monstrous weight, Orlando could feel the final darkness as close as a whisper in his ear. The roar of wind was stilled, replaced by a great pulsing silence. Something urged him to let go, to step away, that freedom and rest awaited him.

But I can't. . . . was his only thought. There was something he still had to do, although in the throbbing stillness he could not imagine what that thing could be.

A little air rushed back into his lungs, burning down his throat. The great mass of the cobra-man had pinned his head and shoulders against the stone floor; he was drowning in a foul-smelling, scaly blackness. He heaved, but there was no dislodging Mewat's limp bulk. He shoved with his arms, trying to push himself backward, but could find no room to get his elbows bent for leverage. The exertion brought up his own personal blackness again. The first saving breath had not been replaced, and now he could almost feel his rib cage collapsing.

I can't do it anymore. . . . Simply staying alive seemed a heavier weight than anything—a Titan's burden he had shouldered too long. I give up. . . .

It was only when he abruptly slid a few inches backward, just enough that he could finally suck in that second breath, that he realized something was pulling hard on his leg. The shift was enough to allow him finally to draw in his elbows so his rib cage could expand. Even with oxygen in his lungs it was a miserably hard, noxious job to worm his way backward from under Mewat's belly, but the search for light and air had his adrenaline pumping, and whoever had a grip on his ankle was still pulling. After a horrible, inching time he finally squirted out from beneath the blubberous stomach.

When he was out into the windy chaos of the shattered temple once more, wheezing and choking, he was startled to find it was not Fredericks holding his leg but the little domestic god Bes.

"The view isn't much better out here," the god informed him, grinning.

Orlando struggled onto his knees. The temple's front wall was gone. The giant bird shape had landed, though the fire-tipped wings were still spread and beating, driving fierce winds through the ruined hole where the temple facade had been. A pale figure was seated on its neck, mummy wrappings smoldering as they streamed and snapped, golden-masked face the embodiment of angry power. Orlando wanted nothing to do with it. He scrabbled on his hands and knees through the rubble until he found his sword, then suddenly remembered.

"Fredericks! Fredericks, where are you?"

"Over there," said Bes, looking up from his inspection of Mewat's huge, silent form. "You can probably help him if you hurry."

Orlando cursed the little god's blitheness and dragged himself to his feet, close to tears. This wasn't fair, any of it. He wanted only to be left alone. He wanted sleep. Didn't anyone care that he was a sick kid?

It was hard to see in the darkened temple, and hard to make sense of what he was seeing anyway, but after a moment he spotted Fredericks and Tefy rolling on the floor beyond one of the fallen door-stones. Whatever advantage the surprise of the great god's entrance might have given Fredericks was now gone: eyeless Tefy had wrapped his long fingers around Fredericks' neck and was forcing her head backward until it seemed certain her spine would break.

Every step Orlando took toward them increased his terror, as though the vulture-man were surrounded by some kind of poisonous fog, but Fredericks was helpless and needed him. He heaved his sword up in both hands and forced himself into a stumbling sprint, then spun into a flat, swinging attack that Thargor used for disembowling dangerous beasts. But he was not looking for a body blow, not with Fredericks struggling clamped between the creatures's bony legs.

"You!" Orlando screamed as he bore down on them. "You scanning, ugly . . . bird-faced mamalocker!"

Tefy looked up, blind gaze inscrutable, as the sword hissed inches above Fredericks' flailing hands. With all Orlando's momentum behind the blow Tefy's scrawny neck offered little resistance: the beaked head snapped free and flew end over end through the air like a misshapen football. As the bony body collapsed, Fredericks fought her way free, sucking air.

"You're alive!" she said when she could breathe again. "I thought that big slug sixed you!"

Orlando was so exhausted he could not speak. He put one hand on Fredericks' arm for support, then bent double until the black spots began to go away.

"You really don't have time for that," Bes called from nearby. As if in answer, Fredericks let out a sudden screech of disgust and terror.

Orlando laboriously straightened to look around. Tefy's body was scuttling away across the floor, fingers clawing at the tiles as it searched for its head. A few yards away, Mewat was beginning to drag himself upright despite a massive dent in his skull that had popped one of his reptilian eyes out onto his cheek.

"The gateway," Orlando gasped, pulling hard on Fredericks' arm. "We have to get to the . . . we have to . . . the gateway."

"What happened to the Circle people?" Fredericks asked as they staggered away from the temple's ruined doorway. "And the monkeys?"

Orlando could only shake his head.

"WHERE ARE MY SERVANTS?" a voice thundered from the doorway. Osiris seemed as large as either of the sphinxes, but unstable, as though not entirely made of matter. A sickly light oozed from between his bandages. "TEFY? MEWAT?"

Just keep going, Orlando told himself. Others were running too, shrieking and stumbling, besiegers and besieged both driven mad by the appearance of Osiris. Step, another step, another step. . . .

An angular shape loomed before them—it seemed to stretch to the distant ceiling. "You have done me wrong!" it screeched. Orlando, convinced Osiris had caught them, stumbled and nearly collapsed. Wolf-headed Upaut, abandoned by the few of his followers who still lived, stood atop his throne as though surrounded by floodwaters, his eyes glowing a baleful yellow.

It took Orlando a confused moment to realize that the wolf-god was not shouting at them, but at the billowing form across the temple's acres-wide floor. "Injustice! You took what was mine, Osiris! You mocked me!"

Orlando could not imagine anything more foolish than lingering near this idiot god. He tugged at Fredericks' arm and they lurched past the foot of Upaut's throne. The would-be usurper was almost dancing with indignation and rage, pointing at distant Osiris.

"But see! I have turned your land against you!" Upaut screamed, then a vast cloud of pulsing white light rolled toward him across the temple. Fredericks snatched Orlando by his long barbarian hair and jerked him away. As the glaring wave flowed across Upaut, the wolf-god's bellow became a brief, whistling shriek of agony. The throbbing glow gave off no heat; as it slowed and stopped just a half-meter away from them, Orlando was so bemused that he almost reached out to touch it, but Fredericks dragged him on until the light began to recede again, revealing the throne. Upaut still stood atop it, arms thrown out in righteous fury, but after a moment Orlando realized that the god was not moving. Scorched to carbon in moments, he was now a perfect wolf-headed statue of fine ash. A moment later the replica collapsed in a silent gray implosion, leaving only a tiny pyramid of powder on the seat.

Lit now only by the inconstant glare of Osiris' own person and the thin, distant radiance of stars, the ruined temple was full of crazy shadows. Figures appeared in front of them and disappeared; the floor was covered with dark obstacles. Orlando barely noticed. He clung to Fredericks' arm, conscious only of the need to put distance between himself and the terrible figure of the Lord of Life and Death.

Why did we ever think we could fight them? Orlando wondered. They are gods. They really are. We never had a chance.

A heart-stopping groan reverberated across the vast room, a sound like the timbers of a wooden ship being torn asunder—the death cry of one of the great sphinxes. More stones were toppling from the ceiling. The entire temple seemed ready to collapse.

Orlando and Fredericks reached the temple's far wall, their progress fearfully slow. Here, on the edge of things, bodies still moved, a living tableau of Hell's torments. Shadowy figures rolled on the floor, tearing at each other—temple dwellers, soldiers, tortoise-men, all tangled in a horizontal tapestry of destruction. Some of the shell-bodied creatures even seemed to be fighting among themselves, biting at each other's faces in ghastly silent combat.

As the two friends struggled to force their way through the door at the back of the temple, which was half-blocked by a dam of contorted bodies, the god's powerful voice again blasted through the temple, so loud he might have been standing right behind them.

"OF COURSE I'M BLOODY WELL ANGRY, YOU USELESS IDIOTS! AND PUT YOUR DAMNED HEAD ON WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!"

In another universe Orlando might have laughed, but nothing here was even remotely funny.

Something struck him, rattling his skull, and the floor abruptly rushed up to meet him. He felt Fredericks pulling at him, but he could not immediately remember how to make his limbs work. Only a meter away something that might once have been young Vasily from the Circle had been twisted into a terrible, almost shapeless knot. Fredericks got an arm around Orlando's chest and somehow he managed to find his feet, but he felt strangely disconnected, as though his head were floating free of his body . . . spinning in air like Tefy's vulture head. . . .

"Bonnie . . . Nandi. . . ." he murmured. They couldn't just leave them behind. And the Wicked Tribe. . . .

"Stand up, Gardiner!" his friend shouted. Fredericks dragged him forward, deeper into the room. "Somebody help us!" On the far side of the chamber a flicker of light suddenly became a wall of golden flame.

That means something, Orlando realized, but it was too hard to think. A whirlwind of black shapes came spinning toward him—bats or monkeys, monkeys or bats. He couldn't remember which was which, or why he should care.

"Help us!" Fredericks shouted again, but it was faint now, as though his friend had fallen down a deep tunnel.

The golden light was the last thing Orlando saw, a wavering gleam that held out against the dark for a long second after everything else was gone, but at last even that spot of brightness shrank and was extinguished.

 

 

There was no protocol for something like this, Catur Ramsey knew. It was like being the first delegation to an alien planet. When you were in the presence of parents whose child was dying, there were no words, no gestures, that could ever bridge such an incomprehensible gap.

He shifted, uncomfortably aware of the scratchy rattle of his disposable hospital sanitaries. It made no difference, though; he suspected he could have fired a gun in the air and the parents would still not have taken their eyes off their child's pale, wizened face.

Sunk deep in the slow machineries of the coma bed, with cheeks sunken and skull almost visible beneath the translucent skin, Orlando Gardiner resembled nothing so much as the corpse of some superannuated ruler put on display for public viewing. And yet he was still alive: some tiny flickering thing in the depths of his brain kept his heart beating. A tiny thing, yet when it ceased, so much would change. Ramsey felt guilty looking at the dying child, as though he were trespassing on something private—which in a way he was, perhaps the most private thing of all, the final and most solitary of journeys. Only the shiny button of the neurocannula, still planted in the boy's neck like a plug that might keep the last of his life from draining away, seemed out of place. It troubled Ramsey, reminding him of things he should say—things he did not want to say.

Orlando's mother reached out and touched the boy's slack face.

Her expression was so terrible that Ramsey could not watch any longer. He sidled to the door and stepped out into the hallway, full of guilt at his immediate sense of relief.

 

The hospital's Family Center did not make Ramsey a great deal more comfortable than the wards. It had been decorated in an aggressively cheerful style, which, although he understood the reasoning behind it, depressed him. The toys and holographic displays and bright, overstuffed furniture did not disguise the pain and fear that hung over a place like this, whatever the decor—you had only to look at the families huddling together waiting for visits, or pulling themselves together after such a visit, to see the truth. Instead the toytown furnishings merely made it seem that expressing that pain or fear would somehow be an expression of ingratitude. Be a team player, the teddy bear lamps and the cartoons flickering on the wallscreen seemed to urge. Smile. Watch what you say.

If that was the message, Vivien Fennis and Conrad Gardiner were not getting with the program.

"It's so . . . it's so hard." Vivien brushed a strand of hair from her eyes, heedless as a famine victim shooing a fly. "We knew it would happen. We knew it would only be a matter of time—progeria kids just don't last very long. But you can't live your life that way, waiting." She stared at her hands, fighting anger. "You have to go ahead as though . . . as though. . . ." Tears formed, and her anger seemed aimed at herself as she wiped them away. Her husband only stared, as though he were surrounded by a glass box and knew reaching out was useless.

"I'm so sorry." Ramsey did not reach out either, did not even offer her one of the tissues that sat in the middle of the table. It felt like it would be an insult.

"It's kind of you to come," Vivien said at last. "I'm sorry—it just doesn't seem important at the moment. Please don't give up on us. I'm sure it will mean something later, when . . . when we're a little less crazy."

"Did you find someone for us to sue?" Conrad Gardiner's joke was so dreadfully hollow, so hopeless, that Ramsey flinched.

"No, not really. But . . . but I have run across some strange things." It was time to tell them about Beezle, he knew. It might be too late to save their son—it was hard to look at the child and imagine otherwise—but how could he deny them the chance at communication? "I noticed that Orlando's neurocannula is still in place. . . ." he said, trying to find a way to raise the subject.

"Yeah, it drives the doctors crazy." Vivien laughed, a short dry rasp. "They're eager to take it out again. But we saw what happened the last time they tried. It was horrible. And even if that wouldn't happen now, why take the chance? Anyway, there's still brain activity." She shook her head at the strangeness of the idea. "Still. . . . And if it's a comfort to him somehow. . . ."

Conrad stood up so suddenly his chair caught on the carpet and toppled backward. Vivien started to rise, too, but her husband waved her off and staggered away from the table. He wandered seemingly at random for long seconds until he stopped in front of a tropical fish tank. He leaned against the glass, keeping his back to the room.

"Our own fish are all sick," Vivien said quietly. "We've hardly cleaned their tank in weeks. We've hardly done anything. We're living at this damned hospital, pretty much. But it's better than being somewhere else when . . . when. . . ." She swallowed hard, then smiled a smile that was as hard for Ramsey to look at as Orlando himself had been. "But you do what you need to, don't you? So what do you have to tell us, Mr. Ramsey? Don't wait for Conrad—I'll pass along anything important."

And now here it was, the moment in all its inevitability when the secret should be shared, but Catur Ramsey suddenly realized that he did not want to tell this brave sad woman anything about it. What could he offer them? A story that would be hard for anyone to understand or believe, let alone the parents of a boy who was clearly on the very edge of death? And even if he could convince them that Beezle's unlikely-sounding tale was true—that the software agent could talk to Orlando even in the depths of his coma, and that the boy himself was somehow trapped like a lost spirit in some kind of alternate universe—what if Beezle could not make contact with Orlando again, could not find the proper dream-window to reach him? How cruel would that be, to raise their hopes, confound all the thankless, miserable work they had done to come to terms with what was happening, and then not be able to deliver? It wasn't as though Ramsey himself had actually spoken with Orlando. It was all secondhand, all hearsay from a piece of gear that considered itself a talking bug.

Suddenly he felt paralyzed. It was too great a risk. He had thought that he had no other honorable choice, but now, seeing Vivien with grief heavy on her, as though Orlando's coma had lasted years instead of days, seeing her husband weeping quietly against the fish tank, he did not trust his earlier conclusion. One of the headiest things about his career, back in the early days, had been the godlike feeling of holding people's lives in his hands—confessor, interlocutor, sometimes even savior. Now he would have given anything to let the cup pass.

But can I really take away their only chance to say good-bye? Because I'm afraid it might be a mistake?

A small, cowardly part of him whispered, If you don't tell them today, you can always change your mind tomorrow. But once you speak, it's too late—you can't unsay it.

To his shame, he listened to that whispering part and found himself agreeing.

 

Vivien was trying to pay attention, but she was clearly having trouble concentrating. "So you're saying it was some kind of thing in this gameworld of his? Someone . . . lured him?"

Conrad had returned, but seemed willing to let Vivien ask the questions. He was making a pile on the table before him of tiny little pieces of tissue, tearing each one from the now-ragged larger sheet and then setting it down on top of the others.

"I suppose, although it's not really clear yet why someone would want to lure him or any of the other kids that might have run across this thing."

"This . . . picture of a city."

"Yes. But from what I can tell, someone went to a lot of trouble, and must have spent a lot of money, too—everything I can discover about this makes it seem like a lot of work went into it. But why? I still have no real idea."

"So someone did do this to Orlando." For the first time Vivien's voice had something like a normal tone—the tone of an outraged parent.

"Perhaps. It would be a strange coincidence otherwise, especially considering that Salome Fredericks is also in a coma, and she was helping Orlando look into it."

"That damned Middle Country—I hate that place! He practically lived there the last few years." Vivien suddenly began to laugh. "Monsters! My poor son wanted monsters he could kill. No surprise there, I guess, considering the real stuff he couldn't do anything about. He was very good at it, too."

"That's what everyone there tells me."

"So let's sue the bastards." She looked to her husband, who offered a ghost of a smile, acknowledging her return of his earlier serve. "Those Middle Country bastards. Let's make them pay. It won't bring Orlando back, but it may help some other kids."

"I don't really think they're the problem, Ms. Fennis." Ramsey had decided to avoid the painful subject of communication with Orlando, but here was yet another place where he did not feel comfortable. Everything he had discovered about Orlando's case so far screamed out like a tabnet shoutline—Worldwide Conspiracy! Science Fiction Plot to Steal Children! He couldn't really start talking about stuff like this to grieving parents until he had more proof. "Let me look into it a little more, then maybe next time we get together I can make some positive recommendations. Don't worry about the hours, please. The Fredericks are still paying me, and I'm doing some of it on my own time, too."

"That's very kind of you," Vivien said.

He shook his head, embarrassed. "No, I didn't mean it that way. It's just . . . it's caught me, that's all. I need to get to the bottom of it now. I hope if I solve it, it will . . . I don't know, bring you and your husband a little peace. But I couldn't stop caring about this if I wanted to."

He realized he'd said all he could say. He rose and stuck out his hand. Conrad Gardiner took it carefully, squeezed it for a moment, then let it go. Vivien's handshake was only a little more robust. Her eyes were shiny again, but her mouth was set in a firm line.

"I don't really care about suing anyone," she said. "Not unless they've done something wrong, not unless they hurt my boy somehow. But it's all just so strange. It would be nice to have some answers."

"I'll try to get you some. I truly will."

As he turned and headed across the colorful puppies-and-kitties carpet toward the exit, she left her husband at the table and walked with him. "You know the worst thing?" she asked. "We were ready for this—we really were, as ready as any parents could ever be for something so terrible and unfair. We had been getting ready for this for years. But we always thought we'd at least have a chance to say good-bye." She stopped somehow, as though she had struck some kind of invisible wall. When Ramsey hesitated she waved for him to go on, then turned to walk back to the husband who was waiting for her, waiting to return with her to the alien world of grief that normal people could not enter.

Ramsey took his own far different pain with him out through the lobby and into the parking lot.

 

 

It was hard to make his way back out of the darkness—harder than it had ever been. Something held him, not in a cruel way, but with a grip as elastic yet implacable as a spiderweb strung wide between the stars. He fought it, but it merely gave, and all the energy of his being burned uselessly; he fought on anyway, for a span that might have been centuries. After a while, it seemed pointless to continue struggling. How long could anyone fight the inevitable? Forever? Maybe someone else could, but he couldn't.

When he relaxed the darkness did not become deeper, as he had expected. Rather, the darkness itself began to glow, warming almost imperceptibly from ultimate black into some deep, polar range of violet, a light he could only feel, not see. Then something spoke to him—not a voice, and not in words, but he understood it, and understood that it was somehow separate from himself, or at least separate from the part of him that thought.

You have a choice, it said.

I don't understand.

There are always choices. That is the pattern beneath all things. Universes appear and disappear with each choice—and worlds are destroyed with every breath.

Tell me. I don't understand.

A place in the soft violet darkness began to glow a little brighter, as though the fabric of negation grew thinner there. He could see shapes for the first time, oblongs and angles that made no sense, but simply seeing them made him hungry for life again.

That is your choice, his voiceless, wordless adviser told him.

And as the imprecise vista became clearer, he realized that he was looking down on something from above. At first, the lines and odd shapes made him wonder if he hovered over some alien landscape, but then the shadows and brightnesses resolved themselves into a face, a sleeping face . . . his face.

Hospital, he thought, and the word seemed something icy and hard—a knife, a bone. That's me. Dying. His features, so strangely shriveled by his disease and yet so cruelly familiar, hung just on the other side of an imperfect barrier like a fogged window. Why are you showing me this?

It is part of your choice, it said. Look closer.

And now he could see the huddled, dark forms beside the bed, one of them extending a shadowy hand to touch the insensible mask of his face—his own face!—and he knew who they were.

Vivien and Conrad. Mom and Dad.

The presence, the companion that was not a companion—was in fact nothing but a certain illogical knowledge—said nothing, but suddenly he saw the choice before him.

I can go back and say good-bye. . . . he said slowly, or would have if there had been any words to speak, sounds to hear. I can go back and see them before I die—but I'll leave my friends behind, won't I? I'll lose Fredericks, and Renie, and Bonnie Mae, and the others. . . .

He could feel the presence beside him, silently assenting. It was true.

And I have to choose now?

No reply, but none was needed.

As he stared at the shadowy forms, a terrible loneliness swept over him. How could he not return to them, even if only for a last touch, a last sight of his mother's face before the final, dark door opened? But Fredericks and all the children, all those poor lost children. . . .

The time he had spent resisting the initial darkness was nothing to that which seemed to pass now as he hung between worlds, between something more subtle and complicated than simply life and death. It was an impossible decision, but it could not be avoided. It was the single most terrible thing imaginable.

But in the end he chose.

 

It took a while before Orlando realized he was dreaming now, just dreaming. At first the strange filtered light and the half-glimpsed shapes seemed almost a continuation of what had gone before, but then the blurriness lifted and he found himself staring at . . . a bear. The animal was sitting on its rump on wet gray concrete with its leather footpads extended. A collar of nearly white fur around its neck made a startling contrast to the rest of its black pelt.

Something bounced off the bear's chest. It snapped downward with its jaws, but the peanut had fallen away, skittering into the cement moat and out of reach. The bear's eyes were so piercingly sad that even though it was a dream of the remote past, Orlando found himself weeping all over again. Conrad's head appeared at the edge of his vision, poking in past the netting his parents used to keep Orlando safe from both bright sunshine and prying eyes.

"What's wrong, honey? Does the bear scare you? It's called a sun bear—see, it's friendly."

Something moved on his other side. Vivien's hand came through the netting and took his fingers, squeezed them. "It's okay, Orlando. We can go somewhere else. We can go look at some other animals. Or are you tired? Do you want to go home?"

He tried to find the words, but the six-year-old Orlando—far too old for a stroller if he had been a normal child, but condemned to one by his frail bones and easily overtaxed muscles—had not been able to explain the deep sadness of the bear. Even in this dream-version he still could not make his parents understand.

Someone tossed another peanut. The bear waved at it with its paws, and for a moment almost had it, but the peanut slithered down its belly and into the pit. The bear looked mournfully after it, then looked up again, bobbing its head, waiting for another throw.

"Boss?" someone said. Orlando looked down. He was holding a shelled peanut in his own bony, knob-knuckled little hand, a peanut he was afraid to throw for fear he would not even be able to make it across the moat, but the peanut was moving. Tiny legs had sprouted from its side and waved helplessly in the air. "Boss, can you hear me?"

He stared at it. Vivien and Conrad were still talking to him, asking if he wanted to see the elephants, or maybe something smaller and less frightening like the birds. Orlando did not want to lose them, did not want to miss what they were saying, but the squirming of the peanut was distracting him.

"Boss? Can you hear me? Talk to me!"

"Beezle?"

"I'm losing you, Boss! Say something!"

The peanut, the peanut's voice, his parents, the white-collared sun bear, all began to fade.

"Beezle? My parents, tell them . . . tell them. . . ."

But the dream had evaporated, and Beezle and his parents were gone—so completely vanished that he felt certain he had left them all behind forever.

 

The diffuse light made everything almost gray. This time there was no mechanized womb of an expensive hospital bed, no angers-eye-view of a dying boy, only the inconstant light of burning embers gleaming through translucent fabric.

The wind mounted outside, fretful and searching. Something was beneath him—a bed, but rough and unfamiliar. It felt like nothing so much as a pile of coats, as though someone had put him down in the spare room during one of his parents' parties and then forgotten to come back for him.

Orlando tried to sit up, but even the effort of trying almost pulled him back into oblivion once more. Dizziness so great he would have thrown up if it had not been too much trouble, if he had anything in him to throw up, swept over him.

Weak, he thought. So weak. I can't do this again—can I? Start over?

But he had to. He had made his choice. If he had lost his last moments with Vivien and Conrad, it had to be for something. He closed his eyes and tried to take inventory.

We were in the temple, he remembered. And what's his name, Osiris, came and broke down the walls. Then we were running for the back room and something hit me on the head. Did I make it through the gateway? All he could remember was light, flickering like the light on the fabric around this bed.

He slowly turned his head to one side. He could see dark walls beyond the thin cloth of the bed hanging: he seemed to be in a sort of cabin made of rough boards. The bit of the roof he could see was dry thatch. A brazier full of coals smoldered near the farthest wall. The energy it took to move his head exhausted him, and for a while he only lay, staring at the play of fire across the embers.

When he felt a little more strength returning, he shoved himself back until he found something soft and yielding behind his head. He steeled himself for the effort and pushed with legs that did not feel quite like his own until his head slid up onto whatever lay rolled behind him and tipped upward, so that he could see what was in front of him.

The cabin or hut was large, several meters wide, and almost entirely empty. The floor was pounded earth; light leaked in at the bottom edges. A graceful handled jug stood on the ground near him, and beside it lay a rolled cloth bundle. The only other objects in the room stood opposite the brazier—one very long spear and a few slightly smaller versions, a short stabbing-sword he had never seen but which seemed inexplicably familiar, and a huge round shield leaning against a weird figure like a truncated scarecrow.

The manlike shape was armor on a crude stand, the bronze polished until it glinted—a breastplate, some other pieces, and a helmet with a horsetail crest perched on top.

Orlando sighed. Fighting, then. Of course.

They don't need me for my smile or my sense of humor, he thought. Not much left of either of those, anyway.

So where was he? It looked old-fashioned, but he was too tired to think about it much. Troy? Had they been lucky with the gateway?

A shadow skimmed across the bottom of the Wall as something moved outside the hut. A moment later a man pushed open the door and stepped inside. He wore simpler armor than that which hung on the stand, boiled leather held together with rope and straps and buckles, and a kind of skirt made of leather strips. He dropped to one knee inside the doorway, his dark, bearded face turned down to the ground.

"Forgive me, Lord," the soldier said. "There are many who wish to speak with you."

Orlando could not believe it was all starting again so soon.

Where was Fredericks? Bonnie Mae and the others? "I don't want to see anyone."

"But it is the Great King, Lord." The soldier spoke nervously, startled by Orlando's refusal but determined to deliver his message. "He sends a messenger to say that the hope of the Achaians rests on you. And Patroclus also asks to see you."

"Tell them all to go away." Orlando managed to raise a trembling hand. "I'm sick. I can't talk to anyone. Maybe later."

The soldier seemed about to say something else, but instead nodded and rose to slip quietly back out of the cabin.

Orlando let his hand drop. Could he make himself do it all again? How? It was one thing to make a choice, another to have the strength to see it through. What if he couldn't? What if he didn't get any stronger?

Something scratched on the cabin wall, a quiet but insistent noise. Orlando felt a surge of indignation—hadn't he just told them all to leave him alone? He gathered his energy to shout, but found himself staring openmouthed instead as a small shape crawled in through the gap where wall and floor did not quite meet.

"You are confused?" the turtle asked, turning its head to fix him with an eye like a drop of tar. "Do not worry—I will tell you what you need to know. The Great King is Agamemnon, and he fears you are upset with him over the matter of a slave girl."

Orlando groaned. It was like another stupid Thargor adventure, but one he did not even have the energy to participate in. "I just want them to leave me alone."

"Without you, the Achaians cannot win."

"Achaians?" He closed his eyes and let his head sag back, but the voice of the turtle was not so easily silenced.

"The Greeks, we will call them. The federation that have come to conquer Troy."

So he had reached Troy after all. But he could not find any pleasure in the knowledge. "I need to sleep. Why do they want me? Who the hell am I supposed to be?"

There was a pause as the creature made its way to the section of dirt floor just beside his trailing hand. "You are Achilles, the greatest of heroes," it said, nudging his fingers with its cool, rough little head. "Aren't you pleased?" Orlando tried to sweep the turtle away, but with surprising nimbleness it moved just beyond his reach. "Great Achilles, whose deeds are legend. Your mother is a goddess! The bards sing of you! Even the heroes of Troy tremble at your name, and you have left the burned wrack of many cities behind you. . . ."

Orlando tried to shut out the lecturing voice, but even fingers in his ears would not silence it. He missed Beezle more than ever.

"Please leave me alone," he murmured, but apparently not loud enough for the turtle to hear. It continued on, reciting his fabulous history with the hideous cheer of a tour guide, even after Orlando had rolled over and pulled the bedding close around his head.

CHAPTER 20
Elephant's House

NETFEED/NEWS: It's Silly Season Again, Says Investigator

(visual: Warringer investigating at Sand Creek)

VO: The destruction caused by a satellite falling from orbit and the discovery of ancient habitations in the Antarctic have started a new round of what writer and investigator Aloysius Warringer calls "silly season journalism," bringing the UFO debate back into the public eye.

(visual: Warringer at home in front of wallscreen)

WARRINGER: "It happens every few years. We've been searching for intelligent life beyond our planet for decades and haven't found it, but any time something having to do with space comes up, the conspiracy theories come out of the woodwork. 'There are aliens and the government's hiding them!' Roswell, Sand Creek in South Dakota, all the perennials get trolled out. Meanwhile, what about the real questions? What about Anford's conspiracy with international anti-monetarists to return the country to the gold standard? What about the Atasco assassination? The continuing fluoridation of our water?"

 

"I can't believe you." Del Ray Chiume rolled his eyes in a theatrical way that made Long Joseph want to kick him. "How could you not know how to get back? What would you have done if you hadn't met me?"

"Met you?" Joseph pushed off from the wall, away from Renie's irritating ex-boyfriend, but two steps took him out into the drizzling rain and he quickly moved back beneath the cement overhang. They were drinking their coffee on the street. Even in this backwater sector of Durban, the restaurant proprietor had taken one look at Del Ray's stained, rumpled suit and Joseph's slightly lurching gait and asked them to take their coffee in travel cups and their business outside. If the man hadn't been black, Joseph would have called it racism. "Met you? You crazy? Seems to me you came at me with a gun, boy."

"Probably saved your life, too, although you've done your damnedest to make up for it." Del Ray cursed as hot coffee squirted out of the foam container and down his chin. "Why I let you talk me into going back to that hospital. . . ."

"I had to see my boy." Despite the misery of the experience, Joseph felt no qualms. That was why he had left that mountain place, after all. Why was it so surprising he didn't know how to find his way back—was he supposed to have made a map or something?

"Well, we're going to have to figure it out. It's up in the Drakensberg—you don't just walk around up there hoping to stumble onto some government base." He frowned. "I wish my brother would hurry up."

Joseph was looking at a black van parked at the far end of the street, the silver antenna strip above its windshield pounded underneath a torrent of water draining off one of the roofs. It was one of the fat ones people in Pinetown called a "pig," and it seemed a little rich for the neighborhood. He thought about pointing it out, but didn't want to send Del Ray off on another long speech about how foolish they'd been to go to the hospital, and how they were probably being followed by Boer hitmen. . . .

His thoughts were scattered as an old car pulled up beside them. Joseph felt a moment of alarm when he recognized it as the one into which he had been thrown before, then realized that of course it was the same car, and the same brother who had driven it. As Del Ray climbed into the front, Long Joseph opened the other door to find three small children playing a noisy game of I-smack-you, you-smack-me on the back seat. "What the hell is this?" he growled.

"You brought your kids?" Del Ray's voice soared high with irritation. "Gilbert, what are you doing?"

"Look, man, their mama's gone out." The brother, who Joseph was seeing properly for the first time, had the worn look of a man who had been babysitting all morning. "I don't have a choice."

"I'm not getting back there with no children," Joseph declared. Grumbling, Del Ray got out and slid in with his niece and nephews. By the time Joseph got his long legs properly folded under the dash—Del Ray's brother was short, and had the seat close to the wheel—they had driven past the spot where the black van had been parked, so Joseph didn't get a closer look at it.

"Look, I can't drive you and this old man around all day," Gilbert said. "I already spent enough time sitting around outside that hospital. Where are you going?"

"Yes, and nice to meet you, too," Joseph snarled. "Last time we spending any time together, you were perpetrating a crime on me. You lucky I don't call the police on you. Old man, is it?"

"Oh, please shut up," groaned Del Ray.

"Wasn't my idea," his brother said quietly. "I have a job."

"Don't start with me, Gilbert," Del Ray snapped. "Who got you that job, anyway? We're going to see Elephant. He lives over in Mayville." He gave directions, then slumped back, pausing to pull the two boys apart, but not before they had inflicted scream-provoking injuries on each other.

"Elephant!" Joseph shook his head. "What kind of name is that? I'm not going to no game park,"

Del Ray sighed. "Very humorous."

"I did an elephant in school, Uncle Del," the girl beside him announced. "I colored him all green and my teacher said that wasn't right."

"Your teacher is foolish, girl," Long Joseph called over his shoulder. "Schools are full of people who can't get no regular job, think they know everything. You can have any color elephant you want. You tell your teacher that."

"Look," snarled Gilbert, the car rocking on its aged springs as he negotiated a narrow turn, "don't start in telling my child to disrespect her teacher. You and my brother want to ran around playing Johnny Icepick, that's your affair, but don't start with my children."

"I'm just telling her to stand up for herself." Joseph was deeply wounded. "Don't blame me 'cause you not doing your duty."

"Oh, for God's sake," said Del Ray. "Everyone please just shut up."

 

Gilbert dropped them in front of Elephant's building, a warehouse tower built in the early part of the century, a right-angled pile of alternating brown-and-gray concrete slabs. Under the dark skies and cold rain, Joseph thought it was almost as depressing as the hospital. Del Ray thumbed the intercom and the downstairs door unlocked with a loud click.

There was no elevator, and Joseph was complaining vigorously by the time they reached the third floor. Some of the widely-separated doors had little nameplates next to them, but many more were blank. Every door, though, had some kind of additional security locks, and some were so festooned with chains and pressure bolts that it looked like terrible monsters must be imprisoned behind them.

"What good that going to do you when you inside?" Joseph asked. "How you going to lock all that nonsense?"

"This isn't a flatblock, it's storage." Del Ray was breathing only a little less heavily after the climb than Joseph. "People don't live in these, they just want to keep other people out." He corrected himself as they stopped in front of one of the featureless, nameless doors. "People don't live in most of these."

The door popped open almost immediately at his knock. It was nearly dark inside, so Joseph hung back to let Del Ray step through first while his own eyes adjusted.

"What is this?" he asked. "Looks all old-fashioned."

Del Ray shot him an irritated glance. "He likes it this way. Just don't start in with your usual charm, will you? He's doing us a favor—I hope."

The huge, windowless room was indeed like something out of one of the net dramas of Joseph's youth, one of those science-fiction things that had always filled him with scorn. It looked like an aging space station or a mad scientist's laboratory. Machinery covered every surface, and had colonized the room's other spaces as well, hanging in nets from the ceiling or piled on the floor in haphazard stacks. Everything seemed to be connected, thousands of individual conduits flowing together to share one electrical circuit; huge bundles of cables ran almost everywhere so that it was hard to find somewhere to put your foot down. There were so many little scarlet readout lights blinking and so many palely glowing dials and meters that even though only one ordinary source of illumination burned at the center of the room, a tall floor lamp with a crooked shade, the cavernous space was as full of twinkling light as a Christmas display in some Golden Mile shop window.

An ancient, peeling recliner stood in the middle of the lamp's glow. Its occupant, a large black man in a striped wirewool jumper, whose head was shaved except for a topknot like a bird's crest, sat hunched over a low table. He turned to peer at them for a moment before returning to whatever was in front of him. "Del Ray, utterly weird that you called," he said in a childish, high-pitched voice. "I was just thinking about you."

"You were?" Del Ray picked his way through the seemingly random piles of equipment; Joseph, following close behind, couldn't figure out what any of the machines were supposed to be or do. "Why?"

"Cleaning out some memory and found this thing I put together for a presentation a while back—remember that thing I did for your Rural Communications Project, the bit with the little dancing bullyboxes?"

"Oh, yes. That was a while ago." Del Ray pulled up beside the recliner. "This is Joseph Sulaweyo. I used to go out with his daughter Renie, remember?"

"Doubt not. She was fine." The chunky young black man nodded in appreciation. He glanced at Joseph but did not get up or offer his hand.

"How come you got a name like Elephant?" Joseph asked.

Elephant turned to Del Ray. "Why'd you tell him that? I don't like that name."

"You don't? But it's a term of respect," Del Ray said quickly. "You know, because an elephant doesn't forget anything. Because they're wise, and they get their noses into everything."

"Yeah?" Elephant wrinkled his forehead like a little boy who still wants to believe in Father Christmas.

Long Joseph thought he knew where the name came from, and it wasn't anything to do with respect. Not only was the young man's belly wider than his shoulders, he had the sagging skin and gray pallor of someone who didn't get outside in the sun very much. A mulch of food wrappers, squeeze bottles, and wave boxes surrounding the table testified to the truth of it.

"And I need a favor," Del Ray hurried on, "like I told you. And you're the only one I can trust to do it right."

Elephant nodded sagely. "Couldn't talk over the phone, you said. I hear that—man, your old bosses at UNComm, they're all over everything now. Can't fart without someone showing up at your door, talking about EBE."

"Electronic Breaking and Entering," Del Ray explained to Joseph, who could not have cared less. "Hacking, in an old-fashioned word. My man here is one of the world's true experts on data acquisition—legitimate, very legitimate, that's why he did so much work for us at UNComm!—but there's so much red tape, tollgates, you name it. . . ." He turned back to the large young man. "And now I need you to find something for me."

The respect due to his eminence now duly rendered, Elephant inclined his head. "Tell me."

As Del Ray passed along Long Joseph's fragmented recollections of the military base in the mountains, Joseph wondered idly if this fat young man might have any beer. He considered asking, but after weighing it against another annoying lecture from Del Ray, figured he would do better looking around on his own. The cavernous warehouse space seemed big enough to hide anything, including a refrigerator full of something pleasant, and anyway it was something to do. As he wandered off, Elephant was already making pictures appear in midair above the desk, a succession of bright shapes that threw long shadows from the equipment towers.

"Op that, man," Elephant said proudly. "Hologram display like this, you won't find another one in private hands south of Nairobi."

 

The huge horizontal refrigerator, which at first had filled Long Joseph with such glee, seemed to contain only soft drinks—row after row of squeeze bottles like Chinese soldiers awaiting inspection. Joseph finally found a single bottle of something called "Janajan" behind the plastic bags of components inexplicably stored alongside Elephant's cola reserves and pop-up wave packs. It had an irritatingly fruity taste, but it was still beer—it even had a tiny bit of a kick to it. Joseph nursed it slowly as he strolled through the artificial fairyland, not sure when he might get his next one.

He had no urge to hurry back to where Del Ray and his large friend sat huddled before the shining, cartoonish display. All this blinking-lights nonsense was what had taken his son from him. What use was it? Didn't even kill someone, like fire had killed his wife, so you could bury the dead and get on. Instead, it just turned them into a machine—a machine that didn't work, but you couldn't unplug it. The fat man was excited about his toys, but the whole thing left a sour taste in Joseph's mouth that no fruity beer could take away. Renie had tried to explain this kind of foolishness to him when she was studying, had dragged him to the school lab, full of excitement, to show him how people made the things he watched on the net, but even then he had found the whole thing strange and confusing, and he hadn't liked his young daughter showing him so many things he was ignorant about. Now that it had taken Stephen—and Renie, too, for that matter—he had even less interest. It all just made him thirsty.

"Joseph!" Del Ray's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. "Can you come over here?"

Long Joseph realized he had been standing in the middle of the room for long minutes, looking at nothing, slack as a rag doll. What's becoming of me? he thought suddenly. Might as well be dead. Just thinking about the next drink.

Even that realization just made him want the drink more.

"Hey," Del Ray said as he approached, lean face carnival-painted by the lights from Elephant's display, "I thought you said this place was a big secret, this military base."

Joseph shrugged. "That's what Renie told me."

Elephant looked up from a luminous snake's-nest of data. "It's called 'Wasp's Nest,' not 'Beehive.' "

"Yeah, that is right." Joseph nodded. "I remember now."

"Well, it is a secret, but someone's been checking into it." With a gesture of Elephant's meaty hand, another squirming tangle of shapes, numbers, and words appeared in the air before him. "See? Careful, very quiet, but they've been nibbling at the edges, looking it over."

Joseph squinted at the display, as meaningless to him as the most aggressive sorts of modern art. "That must have been that French woman, what her name, Mar-teen. She was all around, helping get it ready for Renie. And some other old man they were talking to, him, too."

"Within the last couple of days?"

"Don't know." He shrugged again, but he had an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, as though the fruit-flavored beer had been a little off. "But it seem like they were all done with that a while ago. That Mar-teen, she was with Renie and the little Bushman fellow, whatever they were doing, wherever they went."

"Well, someone has been sniffing around." Elephant sat back and folded his arms across his breasts. "Checking the communication lines, testing the links." He frowned. "Does that place have phones?"

"I think so. Yeah, that old kind you hold up to your mouth."

"I think someone's been trying to call." Elephant smirked as he turned to Del Ray. "I've got your maps for you, man, but I am utterly glad I'm not going anywhere near the place." He waved his arm and the bright visuals vanished so swiftly that it left a dark hole in the air where they had been. "Take it from me, there's nothing worse than pranking around with secrets that aren't quite secrets anymore."

 

 

He felt weak and ashamed, but that had not prevented him from coming. Even he sometimes needed relief.

He closed his eyes and felt the air wash over him, relaxing already under the ministrations of the silent slaves and their palm-frond fans. The bower of Isis was always cool, a refuge from the desert, from the noise of the palace, from the stresses of mastery. He felt a part of himself, a steely, cold part, resisting the urge to let go. It was hard to turn that part off—the habit of self-reliant command, of sharing his thoughts with nobody, was very strong, and more important than ever now in these last days—but even he could not go without forever. Still, he had waited long before returning this time.

Even with his eyes closed he knew she had appeared, her presence like a cool hand on his brow. Her scent, already strong simply because it was her room, became even more potent, cedar and desert honey and other things more subtle.

"My great lord." Her voice was the sounding of delicate silver bells. "You honor me." She stood in the doorway, slim as a reed in a gown of pale, moon-colored cotton, her feet bare. Her half-smile affected him as powerfully as a once-favorite song heard after years had passed. "Will you stay with me a while?"

He nodded. "I will."

"Then this is a happy day." She clapped her hands. A pair of slaves filtered in, quiet and swift as shadows, one bearing cups and a pitcher, the other a tray of sweetmeats. "Let me feed you, my husband," said Isis. "We will forget the world and its cares for a little while."

"For a little while, yes." Osiris leaned back on the couch, bidding his sentry-self to be silent, and watched the goddess pour him a cupful of foaming, golden beer, her every movement an unspoken poem.

 

". . . And so I returned to find that those two imbeciles had allowed a full-scale rebellion to flower in my absence—then, in an effort to cover up their own incompetence, they had even violated the temple of Ra and slain its guardians, Dua and Saf."

"Your anger must have been great, my husband." Her look of sympathy was perfect, containing nothing but intelligent regret for his discomfort.

"They are spending some time in the punishment circuits," he said. She frowned the tiniest frown at the unfamiliar word, but did not allow herself to be distracted from stroking his knee. "I will have to release them soon, though. Sadly, I still need them to find the man Jonas."

Isis shook her head, her shining pale hair swinging like a curtain. "I am sorry you must have servants who displease you, my lord. But I am even more sorrowful at the idea that others would rebel against your gracious rule."

Osiris waved the thought away. Here in this safe place he had allowed his wife to unwrap the mummy bandages from his hands, exposing the wan, deathly fingers with their gilt nails. "None of this is what truly upsets me. There are always those who resent the powerful—those who cannot build for themselves, who are not strong enough to take what they desire but still think that they should be given a share by those who can and are. Real peasants or automata—coded simulations—they are always the same."

A slight blankness passed over her face, but despite terms and concepts foreign to her, the warm sympathy of Isis did not flag. Her wide green eyes remained fixed on him as a flower follows the sun. She was the perfect listener, and no surprise: she had been designed that way. In her porcelain beauty he had resurrected something of his first wife Jeannette, dead for more than a century, and in her selfless solicitousness he had memorialized something of his mother as well, but those traits had only been imposed on Isis out of his own memory. She was entirely unreal, a singular piece of code, his only trustworthy confidante. She might not understand him, but she would never betray him.

"No," he said, "I am at a crossroads and I have a terrible decision to make. The clumsiness of my servants is only an irritation, one that I have dealt with already." He allowed himself to dwell for a moment, not without pleasure, on how he had swept down upon Ra's temple on the back of the immortal bird Bennu and ended the rebellion in a single instant. Servants and rebels alike had thrown themselves on their faces, weeping at the terror of his majesty. He had felt his own power as a real and tangible thing, seen it ripple out from him like the blast pattern of an explosion. And that was what Wells and the others—even canny Jiun Bhao—did not understand. They thought his involvement with his simulations an old man's hobby, a sign of weakness, but how could you prepare to live forever in a virtual universe if you did not become part of it? And how could you rule such a universe without caring about it?

The rest of the Grail Brotherhood, he suspected, would find eternity hanging upon them very, very heavily. . . .

Thought of the project returned him to his worries. Isis was waiting, as still as a pool in the high mountains.

"No," he said, "the problem is that I do not trust my own operating system—the Other, that thing you know as Set."

Her face clouded. "Dark he is. Lost and troubled."

He could not help a tiny smile of satisfaction. Even though she was nothing but code, she spoke sometimes in a way that transcended her own narrow universe. She was a well-made machine. "Yes. Dark and troubled. But I have come to rely on it . . . on him. His power is great. But now that the time of the Ceremony is almost upon us, he is more restless than he has ever been."

"You spoke of the Ceremony before. That is when you will come to live with me all the time?" Her face was shining, eager, and for a moment he saw something in her he had not seen before, a girlishness that came neither from Maman nor Jeannette.

"Yes, I will come to live here for all time."

"Then nothing must go wrong with the Ceremony," she said, shaking her head gravely.

"But that is where the problem lies. There may be no second chance. If something does go amiss. . . ." He frowned. "And as I said, Set has been restless."

"Is there no other magic you can use to perform the Ceremony? Must you rely on the Coffined One?"

Osiris sighed and leaned back. The cool stone room was a place of refuge, but his problems could not be avoided forever. "One other might be able to provide the magics I need—but he is my enemy, Ptah." Ptah was known to the rest of the world as Robert Wells, but Jongleur had slipped into the soothing rhythms of Osiris now and was reluctant to break the spell.

"That yellow-faced schemer!"

"Yes, my dear. But he is the only one who might be able to provide an alternative system. . . ." He checked himself. "He is the only one who might have a magic powerful enough that I can do without Set."

She slid from the couch to kneel by his feet. She took his hand in her own, her pretty face earnest. "You control dark Set, my husband, but you do not control Ptah. If you give him such power, will he not use it against you?"

"Perhaps, but neither of us, Ptah nor myself, wishes the Ceremony to fail. It must work, for all of us—we have waited too long, worked too hard, sacrificed too much . . . and too many." He laughed sourly. "But you are right. Afterward, if I made Ptah my confidant, if I used his power to insure the Ceremony and the continued functioning of the Grail Project—what certainty would I have that he would not turn it against me?" Speaking these worries out loud was both painful and glorious—the freedom, the relief, of letting his fears be witnessed, even by a creature constructed only of code, was almost overwhelming. "Ptah hates me, but he fears me, too, not least because of the things I have kept secret. What would happen if that balance changes?"

"You control Set, but you do not control Ptah," Isis repeated stubbornly. "Your enemy is like an asp, my lord. His yellow face hides a heart that is black and faithless."

"It is always good to speak with you," he said. "It is far too much of a gamble to hand this weapon to Wells . . . to Ptah. He will certainly use it against me—the only question is when. If you give a man eternity, then he has much time to scheme."

"I am glad that I have pleased you, my lord." She rested her head on his thigh.

He stroked her hair idly, thinking of things he might do to improve his position. "Jiun Bhao will not be the only one to hang back," he said, but almost silently, forgetting for a moment that his companion could not read his mind any more than a true person could have. He turned and spoke to her directly. "I myself will wait with Jiun . . . I mean with wise Thoth . . . and I will see. If the Other proves untrustworthy—well, I will have some temporary solution in place, and Thoth and I will solve the problem together. If the others suffer because of this, or even do not survive the Ceremony. . . ." He allowed himself a wintry smile. "Then Thoth and I will salute their sacrifice."

"You are most wise, my husband." Isis rubbed her cheek against his leg like a cat.

With the return of confidence, Osiris felt something stirring inside him, something that he had not experienced in many long years. He let his finger follow the curve of Isis' neck and trail down to the rough softness of her dress. He had not performed the physical act for almost a century, and even with the false vigor of virtuality the urge had not survived his loss of ordinary physical capability by more than a few decades. It was odd to feel it again.

And I'm such an old man, he thought. It scarcely seems worth it—all that sweat, all that bother, and for what?

But although nothing in his real physical form responded but a faint electrochemical glimmer from brain to ganglia and back, he still felt that almost forgotten pressure at the back of his mind, and found himself bending to kiss heavenly Isis on the nape of her neck. She lifted shining eyes to him. "You are strong, my lord, and beautiful in your glory."

He said nothing, but allowed her to climb back onto the couch and curl against him, her breasts pushing gently against his bandaged ribs, her perfumes a sweet cloud around him. She had her mouth against his ear, breathing, murmuring, almost silently singing. He began to forget himself in the seashell whisper of her endearments until her voice, her soft, unintelligible words, and everything else began to be subsumed by the rushing of his blood. All but the melody. . . .

His hand, gently pinioning her wrist, suddenly tightened. She cried out, more in surprise at first than in pain. "My lord, you are hurting me!"

"What is that song?"

"Song?"

"You were singing. What is it? Sing it to me so I can hear."

Eyes wide at the raggedness of his voice, she swallowed. "I did not. . . ."

He slapped her, rocking her head backward. "Sing!"

She began, falteringly, tears sparkling on her cheeks.

". . . An angel touched me, an angel touched me,
The river washed me, and now I am clean. . . ."

She paused. "That is all I know, my lord. Why are you so angry with me?"

"Where did you hear that?"

Isis shook her head. "I . . . I do not know. It is only a song such as my handmaidens sing, a pretty little song. The words came into my head. . . ."

In fury and terror he struck her again, toppling her from the couch onto the floor, but the silent slaves did not change their rhythms; the palm fronds continued to beat slowly up and down. Isis looked up at him, full of terror. He had never seen the expression on her, and it upset him almost as much as the song.

"How could you know that?" he raged. "How could you know it? You are not even part of the Grail system—you are separated, sealed off, a dedicated environment that no one else can access. It cannot be!" He stood, towering high above her. "Who has touched you? Have you betrayed me, too? Told them all my secrets?"

"I do not understand your words," she cried helplessly. "I am yours, my husband, only yours!"

He fell upon her and beat her until she could not speak, but even then her silence only goaded him on. A black terror was swirling inside him, as if a door into nothingness had swung open and he was being forced through it. His childhood nemesis stood waiting for him on the other side—the inescapable Mr. Jingo, full of mocking laughter. Lost in a dreadful darkness, Jongleur thrashed her until she was a thing of rags and sagging limbs, then fled her bower for the other worlds of his manufactured universe, all of them suddenly suspect, all of them without solace.

Silence fell in the cool stone room. The stolid slaves continued to wave their fans up and down, up and down, over the un-moving shape sprawled on the floor.

 

 

"I didn't think your brother give you this car in a million years," Joseph said after they had dropped Gilbert off. The entire ride back from Elephant's place had been spent in argument between the two brothers. Joseph had enjoyed that so much he had not even bothered to offer his own opinion, which was that the car was an ugly old thing anyway and should be replaced by something a bit more luxurious. It was amazing that something so large and clumsy should have so little room for Joseph's long legs.

"I gave him the down payment," Del Ray said grimly. "He owes me. And it's not like we can take a train to the Drakensberg—not that part of the mountains, anyway."

"Could have rented something nice. You got cards, don't you?" Renie had taken Joseph's away from him, something which still galled, but she had given him an ultimatum—if she had to earn the money and balance the books, she wasn't going to have him buying rounds for what she called his "lazy, drunken friends."

"No, I couldn't have rented one," Del Ray snapped. "All of my cards have been cut off. I don't know whether Dolly did it or . . . or those men who were after me. I don't have anything, damn it! Lost my job, my house. . . ." He fell silent, face set in a scowl that made him look years older. Joseph felt obscurely pleased.

They swung out onto the N3, entering the stream of traffic without trouble. The rain clouds had rolled through and the skies were clear. Joseph saw no sign of a black van, or of any van at all: the cars in their immediate vicinity were small commuter run-abouts and a few long-haul trucks. He relaxed a little, enough to feel the urge for a drink come drifting up. He fiddled with the car's music system and found a dance hall station. After reaching a tense compromise with Del Ray about volume, he settled back.

"So why you break up with my Renie?" he asked.

Del Ray glanced at him but said nothing.

"Or did she break up with you?" Joseph smirked. "You didn't have all them nice suits and such in those days."

"And I don't have them anymore." Del Ray looked down at his wrinkled trousers, dark at the knees with dust and smeared mud. He drove in silence for a few moments more. "I broke up with her. I left her." He gave Joseph a brief look of irritation. "What do you care? You never liked me."

Joseph nodded, still in a good mood. "No, you are right."

Del Ray seemed about to say something unpleasant, but paused. When he spoke, it was as if he were talking to someone else, a third passenger who might actually be sympathetic. "I don't really know why we broke up. I mean, it seemed like the right thing to do. I think . . . I just . . . I was too young to have a family, get into all that."

"What are you talking about?" Joseph squinted at him. "She didn't want no family. She wanted to study all that university foolishness."

"She had a child, or just as good as. I didn't want to be a father."

"Child?" Joseph rose higher in his seat. "What are you talking about? My Renie didn't have no child!" But a panicky voice inside him asked, Did you miss that, too? How much went past after her mama died, while you were trying to drink yourself to sleep every day?

"You ought to know," Del Ray said. "I'm talking about your son, Stephen. Renie's brother."

"What foolishness is this?"

"Renie might as well be his mother is what I'm saying. You weren't there most of the time. She raised him just like he was her own child. That's what I wasn't ready for, I suppose—having a little boy of my own while I was still just a boy myself. It scared me."

Joseph let himself relax. "Oh, Stephen. You just talking about Stephen."

"Yes." Del Ray's voice was full of sarcasm. "Just Stephen."

Joseph watched the hills slide past, the suburbs of Durban as strange to him as another continent, full of lives he could only imagine. It was true, Renie had tried to step in when Stephen's mother had died. Well, that was a woman's nature, wasn't it? It wasn't Joseph's fault. He had to earn a living, make sure they both had food to eat. And when he couldn't work anymore—well, that wasn't his fault either, was it?

A vision of Stephen in his hospital bed, the blurred shape beneath the plastic tent, made Joseph flinch. He leaned forward to fiddle meaninglessly with the music controls. He did not want to believe it was the same Stephen as the little boy who had climbed up the tree in Port Elizabeth that one time and then refused to come down until he found a monkey nest. It was easier to think of them as two separate people—the real Stephen and the terrible fraud in the bed, curled up like a dead insect.

When his wife Miriam had been lying in the burn ward, the light slowly fading from her eyes, he had wished that there were some way he could go down after her, follow her into death and then carry her back out to the world again. He had thought he would do anything, risk anything, suffer any pain to find her and bring her back. But there was nothing he could do, and that had been a far worse pain than anything he could have imagined. Drink? If the ocean had been wine, he would have drunk it down from shore to shore to make the hurting stop.

But wasn't that what Renie was doing? Going after Stephen, no matter how little hope there was, trying to find him and bring him back from death?

For a moment, as they moved out from behind a truck to change lanes, the afternoon sun stabbed through the windshield into Joseph's eyes, dazzling him. To think that there was so much love in her, growing on sorrow like a green vine curling up out of the ruin of a dead tree. It was as though the terrible secret of how Joseph had felt while Renie's mother lay dying had jumped from him to his daughter without words. It was a mystery, a great and terrible mystery.

He was silent for a long time, and Del Ray seemed to like it that way. The music played on, lively, bouncing rhythms, something to chase away care. Durban vanished into the late-afternoon gloom behind them.

 

 

They waited only two minutes after Gilbert's ancient sedan had pulled away from the warehouse building before spilling out of the black van. The three men, two black, one white, moved quickly. One pushed a card into the front door slot, overriding the palm-reader. They filed silently up the stairs. It took them only a few moments to find the door of Elephant's rented space.

One of the black men slapped an adhesion-cup of shaped hammer gel onto the door just above the handle, then all three stepped back. The contained explosion shattered the bolt and fried the door's internal electronics, but they still had to slam against it two times before it popped open.

Elephant had a spike into the warehouse's security camera-drones, which had given him almost a minute's headstart, plenty of time to dump his system memory (the resident memory only, since he had backups scattered on various nodes under various coded designations) and replace it with a carefully-constructed and legally irreproachable substitute. When the three men smashed through the door he was sitting with his hands held up in plain sight, a look of injured innocence on his round face.

All of which would have been fine if the trio had been a UNComm flying squad, as Elephant had expected. But Klekker and Associates had a much different agenda than UNComm, and—unfortunately for Elephant—a very different modus operandi as well.

They had already crushed two of his fingers before he even had a chance to tell them how willing he was to share whatever information they wanted about his earlier guests. He could tell these men were not the types to bargain, so he did not try to make a deal, but admitted that the information Del Ray Chiume and his friend had wanted was available to anyone with the skills to find it. Maps of the Drakensberg and information about an abandoned military base called "Wasp's Nest" was all he had given Chiume and the old man. It had been dumped out with the system memory, but Elephant hurried to assure the new arrivals he would be happy to find it again.

Klekker and Associates had made one mistake already, assuming that an old woman named Susan Van Bleeck was not going to survive the attack on her house. She had, at least temporarily, and that was an error they would not make twice.

Two small-caliber bullet wounds in the back of the skull did not make for much bleeding, but the red puddle was still slowly growing on the desktop beneath Elephant's head when the three men had gathered up the last of the things they wanted. One of them paused at the doorway to toss a small dispersive incendiary back into the cluttered room, then they went down the stairs, moving swiftly but without obvious haste.

The van was half a kilometer away before the building's fire alarms went off.

CHAPTER 21
The Spire Forest

NETFEED/ART: Artistic Suicide Challenge

(visual: Bigger X at Toronto arraignment)

VO: A guerrilla artist known only as No-1 has challenged the better-known forced involvement artist Bigger X to a suicide competition. No-1's broadside against Bigger X, which calls him a "poseur" because "he only works with other people's deaths," suggests a suicide competition between the two artists, to be broadcast live by "artOWNartWONartNOW." The one with the most artistically interesting suicide would be judged the winner, even though he or she would not he around to collect the prize. Bigger X, who is wanted by the police for questioning in a Philadelphia bombing, has not been available for comment, but ZZZCrax of "artOWNartWONartNOW" called it "an intriguing story."

 

"We have a short time left before the sun rises," said Brother Factum Quintus. "Renie, Florimel—perhaps you would accompany me?" He gestured to the stairs.

Renie looked at T4b, busy comforting Emily, who had been stumbling like a sleepwalker since their encounter with the Lady of the Windows hours ago. The pair were seated on a dusty, threadbare couch which looked like it might collapse under the weight of T4b's armored form at any moment, but otherwise the small tower room seemed safe enough. "You two stay here, will you?"

"We will not go far from them," the monk reassured her. "It is only a small distance. But if we do not want ourselves revealed to watching eyes, we should go before the sun rises."

!Xabbu hesitated only a moment, then joined the small procession as they mounted the stairs; Renie knew he was restraining himself, since in his baboon form he could have climbed much faster.

"This tower is on the edge of what is called the Spire Forest," Factum Quintus said. "A very fascinating part of the House." He was breathing a little heavily, but otherwise had weathered being kidnapped by bandits and the unexpected appearance of a religious revelation far better than Renie and her supposedly more hardened comrades. The monk had an almost childlike quality of being interested in everything, even the dreadful and the dangerous—a good trait in many ways, but Renie could not help worrying about his safety.

Oh, Jesus Mercy, she reminded herself, he's a bloody Puppet. Might as well start fretting about the characters in netflicks, too.

But the idea of Factum Quintus as an artificial being—not even a living creature, but an amalgam of coded behaviors—was hard to hold on to when those coded behaviors were walking beside her, slightly flushed, murmuring to themselves in pleasure over a newel-post.

"Why does it matter whether it is sunrise or not?" Florimel asked.

"Because the place we are going has many windows—and so do the other places. You will see." The monk paused on the landing, about to say something more, when suddenly the entire universe shrugged as though trying to dislodge something crawling on its back.

Renie had time only to think, Oh, not again. . . ! before everything went sideways.

In an instant her surroundings blurred, retreating in all directions as though she were being shrunk to the size of an atom, but at the same time they seemed to topple in on her, as though reality itself were enfolding and crushing her. For half an instant, a terrible, jagged bolt of pain passed through her, as though her nerves were the teeth of a comb being dragged along a rough brick wall. Then the pain vanished, and so did everything else.

 

She had experienced these reality-quakes before, but never one that had gone on so long. She had been floating in darkness for a long time—she knew her time-sense must be distorted, but she had been able to think about many things while the darkness persisted.

I feel . . . different. Than the other times. Like I'm actually somewhere. But where?

She could feel her body, too, which was unusual. As far as she could remember, in the earlier episodes she had always been bodiless—a floating mind, a witness to a dream. But now she had the sense of her self, a knowledge that extended all the way to her fingers and toes.

What is that called, that sense-of-the-body? Had the word gone, like so much of her university vocabulary and other minutiae, swallowed up afterward in the day-to-day of grading exams and trying to stretch limited resources into legitimate lessons? No, it's . . . it's proprioception. That's the word.

A small warm glow suffused her, satisfaction at having remembered. But with it came an increasing sense of something wrong, something different. Proprioception was indeed the word, and her proprioceptive senses were sending her strange messages. She had been in the network so long that it took a while before she finally understood.

I feel like I have a body again. A real body. My body!

She moved her hands. They moved. Strange currents beat at them, strange pushes and pulls buffeted her, but she was feeling her own hands. She touched herself, running her hands over her arm, her breasts, her belly, and was startled by how dazzlingly ordinary her body felt. Her fingers slid up to her face and encountered tubes . . . and a mask.

It's me! The thought was so bizarre she could not quite grasp it for a moment. The confusion of real and unreal had become a normal way of thinking, hard to put aside on such short notice, but the facts seemed indisputable: she was touching her own naked body. The bubble-mask with its dependent tubes and wires was again clamped to her face. The thought of what it all meant was slower, but when it finally arrived, it had the force of epiphany.

I'm . . . I'm back!

The strange flow of forces across her skin must be the gel in the V-tank, temporarily offline from the reality-mimicking circuits of the Otherland network and generating random patterns. That meant . . . that meant she could simply pull the inside release handle on the tank and step out! After all these weeks, the real world was only inches away.

But what if it was temporary? Or what if the same thing was not happening to !Xabbu, and he would be left behind in the network? It was hard to think—the excitement of the world that had seemed so far away now being so near was making her claustrophobic. How could she float here, deep in the unlit depths of the tank, while real air and real light were only a few movements away? Even seeing her father, the miserable old bastard, would be such a joy. . . !

The thought of Long Joseph brought with it the memory of Stephen and her excitement suddenly turned cold and heavy. How could she leave when she had done nothing for him? She would be free, yes, but he would still be stretched like a corpse in that horrible tent, wasting away.

Adrenaline sped through her like a brushfire. Whatever she was going to do, she might have only minutes or even seconds before this ended. She pushed at the inconstant gel, forcing herself toward one of the sides of the tank. Her hands encountered something hard and unevenly smooth—the tank's interior wall and its millions of pressure-jets. She curled her fingers into a fist and tried to find an area where the counterpressure was weaker, then rapped at the wall. A dull sound like a gong wrapped in a blanket came back to her, so quiet that she despaired anyone would ever hear it until she remembered that she was wearing not just a mask but hearplugs. She knocked again, over and over, and the more she did so without result, the stronger grew the urge to throw aside all responsibilities and simply open the tank. Escape. Escape would be so wonderful. . . .

"H–hello?" It was very hesitant but very close.

"Jeremiah? Is that you?" His voice in her ear brought his face with it, a pure spark of memory, as though he had suddenly appeared in the darkness beside her. "Oh, God, Jeremiah?"

"Renie?" He sounded even more surprised than she was, his voice shaking. "I'll . . . I'll let you out. . . ."

"Don't open the tank! I can't explain, but I don't want the tank opened. I don't know how much time I have."

"What's. . . ." He stopped, clearly overwhelmed. "What's happening with you, Renie? We weren't able to talk to you after the first few minutes you went in. It's been weeks! We had no idea what. . . ."

"I know, I know. Just listen. I don't know if this will do you any good, but we're still in the network. It's huge, Jeremiah. It's . . . I can't even explain. But it's strange, too. We're still trying to understand everything." And yet they understood almost nothing—how could she possibly relate what they had experienced? And how would any of it be of any use? "I don't know what I can say. There's something keeping us online—this is the first time I've been off the network or whatever it is since we first hacked our way in. There are other people involved, too. Damn, how can I explain? Somebody just told us we're supposed to go to Priam's Walls, which I think is some kind of simulation of the Trojan War, but we don't know why, or who wants us to go, or . . . or anything. . . ." She took a breath, floating in darkness, separated from life by a thin wall of fibramic crammed with micromachinery. "Jesus Mercy, I haven't even asked about you, about my father! How are you? Is everything okay?"

Jeremiah hesitated. "Your father . . . your father is fine." There was a pause. Despite her racing heart, Renie almost smiled. Clearly, he was driving Jeremiah crazy. "But . . . but. . . ."

She felt a sour tug of fear. "But what?"

"The phone." He seemed to be struggling for words. "The phone here has been ringing."

Renie could make no sense of this. "So? It's old technology—that's what phones used to do."

"No, it's been ringing, and ringing, and ringing." A burst of static swept through her hearplugs, almost obliterating the last repetition. His words jumped back, very clear. "So I answered it."

"You did what? Why in the name of God did you do that?"

"Renie, don't yell at. . . ." Another blizzard of noise swept through. ". . . Until I was going crazy. I mean, after your. . . ." Jeremiah's pause was his own this time, although more distortion soon followed. "Anyway, I . . . up . . . other end . . . said. . . ."

"I can't hear you! Say that again."

". . . it was . . . me . . . frightened. . . ."

"Jeremiah!"

But his voice had grown distant, like a bee buzzing in a paper cup several meters away. Renie shouted to him again, but it was too late: the connection was gone. Within moments she felt her sense of her surroundings diminishing as well, as though something had reached down and grasped her mind in powerful yet velvet-soft fingers and was drawing it right out of her body. She had time only to wonder what would have happened if she had actually left the tank, then she was sucked back into the void again. Darkness lasted only another instant, then the world—the virtual world—reassembled itself around her in a fluttering explosion of particulate color, like a tumbled card-tower flocking back together, until the stairs were beneath her feet once more and Brother Factum Quintus' face was before her, lips still parted in preparation for speech.

"In fact. . . ." was all he had time to say before Renie astonished him by sagging and then collapsing onto the stairs.

 

"So Factum Quintus didn't feel anything," Renie said quietly. She had passed off her collapse as a dizzy spell, and the monk had already begun to mount the stairs again. "For him, it was like it didn't happen. He just turned off and then turned on again."

"That is no doubt because he is a Puppet," Florimel whispered—caught up as Renie was in the strange courtesy of not letting Factum Quintus suspect he might be artificial. "My experience was more like yours. Of all these . . . spasmic occurrences I have been through in this network, this was the strangest. I felt myself back in my own body. I . . . I felt my daughter beside me." She hesitated, then abruptly turned to follow the monk.

"What happened to me was different," !Xabbu said, padding along at Renie's side. "But I would like to think about it for a little while before I tell you."

Renie nodded. She was still too shaken by the brief moment of return to want to talk much at all. "I don't know that we can make any sense of it anyway. Something's happening—I can't believe it's normal when everything goes crazy like that. But what it all means. . . ."

Renie fell silent as they stepped up onto the landing, which turned out to be the entrance to the top of the tower. The room was only a few meters wide, an octagon with a window of thick, old-fashioned leaded panes in each wall. The sky outside was cobalt blue, but already at the edges night was beginning to burn away; a faint glow of dawn outlined the strange horizon.

But horizon, Renie decided, could not really be the right word. What horizon they could see was only the most distant parts of the House still visible—she could not help wondering for a moment whether the House-world curved like the natural globe, or was as flat as it was apparently infinite—but all around them stood the much more absorbing vista of the Spire Forest. It was obvious what had occasioned the name. Unlike Renie's other view of the House, which had been mostly flat rooftops, cupolas, and domes, what surrounded their tower windows was a profusion of vertical shapes in astounding variety—windowed obelisks, clock towers, attenuated pyramids and needle-thin spikes, Gothic protrusions clotted with dark carvings, even vast crenellated belvederes so ornate they looked like entire castles perched in the sky. Even in the dim light, Renie could count hundreds of the spires looming far above the House's sea of roofs.

"I know the names of some, but not all," Factum Quintus said. "Many of the older names are lost forever, unless we find them perhaps in the translation of old books. That tall thin one is Cupboard's Dagger. Nearer is Weeping Baron's Tower, and closer still is one called Jelliver's Heart, for reasons no one knows. I think that more elaborate shape in the distance might be the Pinnacle of the Garden Kings—yes, it seems to have the famous carbuncles, much argued about in their day—although it is too dark to be sure."

"And . . . and our friend is in one of these?" she said at last.

"It seems likely. And her abductor as well, which is why we want to see rather than be seen, and thus needed to arrive here while darkness remained. But there is another serious problem, I'm afraid." Brother Factum Quintus' worried look, though sincere, did not entirely overshadow the fascinated gleam in his eyes as he surveyed the garden of spikes just warming into three-dimensionality with the sun's first rays. "The piece of figured plaster that began this search tells me your friend's captor has likely passed through the long corridors built during the Alliance of Chambers era, which link most of these towers. It stands to reason that a criminal would pick one of these high spots as a lair—an 'eyrie' would be a better term, perhaps—since they are remote and yet still close to the Library. But as to which of all these actually contains your friend . . . I'm afraid I have no idea at all."

 

"That's ridiculous," Renie told them flatly. "It's too risky." She was exhausted, desperate for sleep, but this had to be dealt with now. "We can't afford to search with anything less than our full numbers. That's how that monster got Martine in the first place, when she fell behind us—culled her from the herd like a lion taking an antelope."

"But what he says makes sense, Renie. . . ." Florimel began.

"No! I can't accept it."

!Xabbu sidled across the floor of the dusty chamber, not quite upright, but not on all fours, blurring the difference between his real inner self and his sim body in a way that always made her nervous. "I appreciate that you are concerned for me, my friend, but I believe it is the best way."

Her fatigue was making her stupidly stubborn—it was hard to argue with !Xabbu's logic—but Renie would not let go easily. "So we're supposed to just let you go off by yourself? Not just after a murderer, but climbing around hundreds of feet above the ground?"

"Can we six this so I can get some 'zontal?" T4b snarled. "He's a monkey, seen? Monkeys climb."

Helplessly looking for allies, Renie turned to Factum Quintus, who shrugged. "It is not my argument," he said. "But as I told you, it will take us days to walk up and down corridors and stairs, searching all these towers on foot, and in very few of them would we be able to reach the upper rooms without warning any occupants."

Renie clenched her teeth, biting back an angry reply that would convince no one. It was useless to antagonize her friends. The most pressing argument of all was one she could not make, not without announcing her own selfishness: she was terrified she might lose !Xabbu. After all they had experienced together, she could not imagine where she might find the strength to go on without him. With Stephen as good as dead, the small man was the closest thing she had to loving family.

"We are tired, Renie." Florimel was clearly finding it difficult to keep resentment out of her voice. "We must sleep."

"But. . . ."

"She is right," !Xabbu said. "I will not change my mind, but it may look different to you after you have rested. I will take first watch—I shall not go anywhere until it is dark, in any case, so we can sleep through as much of the day as we need."

"I don't want to sleep." It was Emily, her voice tremulous. "I want to go home. I . . . I hate this place."

Renie fought for patience. "You've been in worse."

"No." The girl sounded quite certain. "It makes me feel sick to be here. It's bad for my baby, too."

Renie wondered if there was something going on that they did not understand, but had no strength to pursue it. "I'm sorry, Emily. We'll leave as soon as we can get our friend Martine back."

"Don't want to stay here at all," Emily grumbled, but quietly, like a child back-talking a parent who had already left the room.

"Sleep," Florimel grunted. "Sleep while you can."

The minutes of silence that followed were not restful ones, and the sleep Florimel recommended seemed impossibly distant. Renie realized she was clenching and unclenching her fists. She could sense !Xabbu looking at her, but she did not want to meet his eyes, even when he sidled closer.

"There is a story my people tell," he said to her quietly. "Perhaps you would like to hear it?"

"I would enjoy hearing it, too," announced Brother Factum Quintus, "—oh, that is if I am not being rude!" he added hurriedly, but he was clearly abrim with anthropological interest. Renie could not help wondering in what sort of scholarly archive !Xabbu's tale might end up, another thread in the strange tapestry that was the House. "And if the others don't mind, of course."

T4b groaned in a way that confirmed for Renie once and for all that he truly was a teenager, but despite the noise of protest, did not actually object.

"Does what we others think matter at this point?" Florimel grumbled.

"It is a good story," !Xabbu assured them. "One of my people's favorites. It is about Beetle and Striped Mouse." He paused and settled himself in a comfortable position, sitting on his haunches. They had drawn the chamber's heavy curtains—unlike the tower room above, it had only one window—but a thin spear of morning light had found its way through a gap in the fabric. Floating dust shimmered in the beam like silver.

"Beetle was a very beautiful young woman," he began. "All the young men would have tried to make her their own, but her father Lizard was a sour old man and did not want his daughter to leave him. He put her in his house, a hole deep under the earth, and would not let her out into the sunlight. He would let no man court her.

"All of the First People went to Grandfather Mantis to complain, saying that it was unfair for old Lizard to keep a lovely young woman like Beetle hidden away so that none of their sons could marry her and her beauty was not shared. Grandfather Mantis sent them away, saying he must consider what they said.

"That night, Mantis had a dream. He dreamed that Lizard had taken the moon down into his hole in the earth as well, and that without it in the night sky, the First People were lost and terrified. When he awakened, he decided that he could not allow Lizard to hide his daughter away.

"Mantis sent for Long-Nosed Mouse, who was a beautiful fellow, and told him what had happened. 'It is for you to find the place she is hidden,' Grandfather Mantis said. Long-Nosed Mouse was one of the best of all the First People at finding things, so he agreed, and went in search of Lizard's daughter.

"When at last Long-Nosed Mouse came near the hole in the earth, Beetle saw him. In her excitement, she could not help herself. She called out, 'Look, look, a man is coming!' Her father heard this cry, and when Long-Nosed Mouse entered into the earth, Lizard fell upon him in the dark and killed him.

" 'Who shall tell a father what he may and may not do?' said Lizard. He was so proud and happy he did a dance. Beetle wept.

"When Mantis heard what had happened he was sad and afraid. The kinsmen of Long-Nose Mouse heard also, and one by one they went down into Lizard's hole to avenge their brother, but Lizard lay hidden until each one was lost in the dark tunnels, then fell upon him and killed him. Soon all of the men of the long-nosed mice had been slain. Their wives and children set up a great cry of mourning so loud that it pained Grandfather Mantis, so loud that he could not sleep for three days.

"When at last he fell asleep, he had another dream, and when he awakened from it he called all his people together. 'In my dream I have seen Lizard killing the long-nosed mice, and that is something that cannot be. In my dream I have spoken to myself, and I have thought much, and I find that it is the Striped Mouse who must now go and save the young woman, Beetle.'

"Striped Mouse was young, quiet, and clever, and he knew that the dreams of Mantis could not be ignored. 'I will go,' he said and set out. But when he came to the place where Lizard lived, and where so many had fallen before him, Striped Mouse thought, 'Why should I go down that hole into the dark, when I know Lizard is waiting? I will dig a hole of my own.' And so he did, scratching his way into the earth, for the Striped Mouse is a good digger, until he came at last into the tunnel where Lizard lay in wait. But because he had been quiet and clever. Striped Mouse had dug his own hole in behind the place where Lizard was, and so he was able to fall upon Lizard from behind. Long they fought, until Striped Mouse at last began to win out.

"Lizard shouted in fear and unhappiness, 'Why do you kill me? Why do you raise your hand against me?'

" 'I am, by myself, killing to save friends,' cried Striped Mouse, and with that Lizard fell dead before him. Striped Mouse found Beetle, and although she was frightened he led her forth out of the hole and into the light. As he did that, a wonderful thing happened, for all the long-nosed mice who had fallen came back to life, crying 'I am here!' Each stepped out into the sunlight behind Striped Mouse and Beetle, each one carrying a fly-whisk, which he lifted over his head like a flag. Striped Mouse was very proud as he walked beside Beetle, and happiness was great inside both of them, because he already felt himself to be the husband of the young woman, and she felt herself to be his utterly.

"When they reached Mantis, he got up and followed them. As they came to the village where the long-nosed mice had lived, waving their fly-whisks, the grass of the plain began to wave, too. All the wives and children of the long-nosed mice came rushing out, making glad cries to see that their men were alive again, and Grandfather Mantis watched with amazement and joy, not a little surprised by how well he had dreamed."

Oddly enough, Renie did feel more relaxed as !Xabbu finished his story, but she could not entirely free herself of nagging worries. "It was a lovely story," she told him, "but I'd still like to try to think of some other way to search for Martine."

Even after all this time, it was still a little hard to read the baboon expressions, but he seemed to be smiling. "But that is what my story is about, Renie. Some tasks can only be done by one person—by the right person. I feel that I am that person. And sometimes, as the story also tells, we must all trust in the dream that is dreaming us."

There was nothing to argue with—no crevice into which she could get the fingernails of logic—and exhaustion was weighing heavily on her. Renie yawned, tried to speak, but yawned again.

"We'll talk about it when you wake up . . . when you wake me up for my turn at sentry," she said, starting to stumble over her words.

"You sleep now," he said. "Look—the others are sleeping already."

She did not bother to look. She could hear the steady rasp of Florimel's breath a meter away, and the longer she listened, the more it seemed to pull her down, down, down.

 

"He's what!" She shook off the lethargy of waking, her heart suddenly tight as knotted wire in her chest. "The bastard! He told me we would talk about it some more!"

"He waited until dark, but he was determined, Renie." Florimel had been the final sentry, and thus the only one to see !Xabbu leave. He had never wakened Renie. "You could not have stopped him—you could only have made it more difficult."

Renie was furious, but she knew that Florimel was right. "I'm just . . . what if we lose him, too? We're falling apart, fragmenting. . . ."

Florimel took her arm in a tight grip. Afternoon light was leaking in through the drapes: it was easy to see the other woman's face, hard to ignore her anger. "The others are waking up. They do not need to hear such things from you of all people."

"But you know I'm right." Renie shook her head. This was the problem with holding so tightly onto control as everything pulled harder and harder against it—when things began to slip, the temptation simply to give up was very strong. "Quan Li and William and Martine already gone, not to mention Orlando and Fredericks—and now !Xabbu. What's the point? Is it going to come down to you and me arguing about which cliff we should jump off?"

Florimel's laugh was sudden and unexpected. "It would probably be a long argument, Renie. I'm sure I would be a much better judge of cliffs."

It took a moment for Renie to realize Florimel had made a joke—the German woman was turning into a regular comedienne. Renie felt a bleak amusement of her own. Perhaps as the group shrank, everyone would begin to take on new roles. What would be next, T4b as the group's diplomat? Emily as the sergeant-at-arms? "I don't think I'll have the energy to argue, Florimel," Renie said at last, and did her best to smile. "Tell you what—I promise I'll let you pick the cliff."

"Bravely spoken, soldier." Florimel smiled back and patted her on the shoulder. Her clumsiness with the friendly gesture made Renie suddenly like her more than she ever had before.

"Right," she said. "So we wait. Jesus Mercy, I hate waiting! But if we can't do anything about !Xabbu, we can at least plan what we want to do when we hear from him, I suppose."

"Why are we here?" Emily said groggily from the bench, where she had pillowed herself in what seemed a fairly uncomfortable way on T4b. "I don't want to be here anymore."

"Of course you don't." Renie sighed. "But the rest of us are having such a lovely time, we thought we'd stay."

 

Renie's improved spirits did not last long. Although they used the time waiting for !Xabbu's return to scavenge a few weapons—splintered table legs and heavy curtain rods for clubs and spears, even a ceremonial sword found hanging neglected in an alcove in one of the lower halls—there was only so much planning and preparation they could do. As evening passed into night, and night itself stretched on and on with no sign of the man in the baboon sim, the tightness in Renie's chest became overwhelming.

"I told you we shouldn't have let him go by himself!"

Florimel shook her head. "He has many towers to investigate. And even if something happens to him—and of course we all pray it does not—that would not make his plan wrong. The rest of us cannot go where he can go, wearing that body."

Renie knew it was true, but that did nothing to alleviate the helplessness, the terrible, despairing pressure building inside her. "So what do we do? Just sit here until doomsday, knowing that monster probably has both of them now?"

Factum Quintus looked up. "Unlike your monkey friend, we do not need darkness to search," he said. "In fact, we will do better in daytime, since we will be able to see which hallways are full of undisturbed dust—I have noticed a few such in our exploration this evening."

"So if !Xabbu isn't back by dawn," Renie said, "we can start looking." It was amazing how much relief came from the simple notion of doing something.

"Then let us all try to get some more sleep now," Florimel said. "We have been working hard since your friend left us and we are still tired. We do not know what a search will lead us to."

"Talkin' smart," T4b agreed. "Like wearing a car, this armor."

"So take it off," Renie growled.

"You crash for total?" T4b said, shocked. "Like, fly around dangling my churrol"

Emily giggled. Renie waved her hand in disgust and went back to sharpening the end of her curtain rod on the exposed stone wall.

Night crept on, but no one could sleep. !Xabbu did not return. At last, everyone had run out of things to do, and sat, wrapped in silent thoughts and worries. Outside, the moon passed slowly over the Spire Forest, as though trying not to prick itself on the thorny towers.

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here. "Something strange and frightening has happened. Even now I find it difficult to speak, but I doubt I have much time so I must use this chance.

"The monster who had impersonated Quan Li, the thing that calls itself 'Dread,' has been working me hard, exploring the nature of the access device. Some of his questions are so strange and unexpected that I am certain now he is consulting outside sources as well—not surprising since, unlike us, he can leave the network and then return to his stolen sim whenever he pleases. But there has been an edge to his explorations as well. I think it likely that he is using the outside knowledge in large part to test me—to make sure I am giving him legitimate data. Fortunately, although I lied about how we came to the House, I have been honest in all my other discussions of the access device. He is too frighteningly clever for me to risk trying to trick him, and I do not fool myself he will keep me alive an instant longer than suits him.

"But no, this is not what I wished to record. In my upset state, I have gone about these thoughts wrong-way 'round, since Dread is not the subject. When I awakened a little while ago from a short, exhausted sleep, he had disappeared again, perhaps to confer with his other sources, and I was alone. Or so I thought.

"As I went through my groggy ritual, checking more in reflex than in hope to see if I was still securely tied to the fixture above my head and that the thing itself was still firmly attached to the wall, I only slowly became aware that something in my prison room was different. It did not remain a mystery for long, though. There were now two corpses leaning against the wall, sharing my captivity.

"My heart sank, and I found myself praying that the new body was only another sim, and not one of my own companions who had been captured or even killed trying to find me. But as I concentrated, I discovered something very, very strange. The first corpse was still the familiar virtual cadaver of the young woman Dread had killed. The second body, though, seemed to be her twin. Everything about this second unmoving form mirrored the first-shape, dimension, position. Somehow, Dread had murdered a victim just like the other, then propped her up in identical pose while I was sleeping. But how? And why?

"Then the second corpse began to speak.

"I screamed. I should be used to the madness of this network by now, but even though I knew the first body was virtual, it was still a corpse to me, and the second was just as cold, just as still. Until it began to talk. And the voice—it might once have belonged to the original Puppet, the sad, dead young woman of the Upper Pantry Clerks, but it was being used now by someone unused to speech, a sound midway between an automated reader and a stroke victim. I cannot reproduce it. I will not try, for even to think about it makes me queasy.

" 'Help . . . is . . . needed,' the corpse said. 'Flowpatch, Reroute. Help.'

"If I made a sound in response, it must have been a moan. I was shocked, caught completely by surprise.

"It said again, 'Help is needed,' with exactly the same intonation. 'Unexpected feedback. Danger of subroutine overwhelming central directive.' It paused as a shiver or something similar passed through it. The plump arms moved in random ways, and one of the hands thumped against the twin corpse beside it. 'Help is needed.'

" 'Who . . . who are you?' I managed to ask. 'What kind of help do you need?'

"The head rotated toward me, as though it had not known where I was until I spoke. 'Speech is secondary functionality. Subroutines are confused. Nemesis Two needs clarification, or reroute of. . . .' It then spewed out a string of numbers and designations that must have been programming code, but they were mixed up with other lumps of barely comprehensible noise that didn't sound like any gear-scripts I have ever encountered. 'Nemesis One has been made nonfunctional by operating system problem,' it said slowly. 'No contact, X abort threshold X cycles. Nemesis Three still operant, but has closed on the greater anomaly, no contact, X abort threshold X cycles. For White Ocean read Sea of Silver Light. Strong pull. Nemesis Three operant, but must be considered nonfunctional.' Despite the strange, mechanical voice, there was something in its words that suggested a kind of devastation, like the deceptively ordinary speech of someone who has survived a terrible disaster. 'Nemesis Two caught in expanding subroutine loop. Cannot prosecute X Paul Jonas X search. Help is needed.'

"I took a breath. Whatever it was, it did not seem like it meant to harm me, and the name 'Paul Jonas' had set me tingling. Sellars had spoken of a man named Jonas—was this something Sellars had created to find him? Or something of the Grail's? Whatever it was, it was clearly having problems. 'Is . . . is Nemesis Two—is that you?' I asked.

"It tried to stand, or at least that's what I think it did, but the attempt did not work. The copied corpse flopped onto the floor of the small room, face-first. One of the jerking hands touched me and I quickly pulled my legs away from it. I could not help it.

" 'Cannot detach,' it said. 'Nemesis Two cannot detach from observation. Anomaly is folded here. Not X Paul Jonas X . . . but not NOT X Paul Jonas X. Nemesis Two cannot detach.' It lay, hapless as a beached whale. I swear that its inhuman voice was plaintive. 'Help is needed.'

"Before I could say anything else, it vanished. One moment it was there, thrashing slowly, then the next it simply was not, and I was alone with the original corpse sim once more.

"Whatever it may be, I feel as though I have been visited by a restless spirit. If it is some program meant to find the man Jonas, then Otherland itself has been too much for it, as I am beginning to feel it is for all of us. Like a trained laboratory rat whose pleasure button suddenly begins to dole out electrical shocks, the thing seems to be throwing itself at something it cannot understand and is helpless to avoid.

"I hear noises—Dread is returning. Perhaps this will be the time I can no longer keep him interested. I am not sure I care. I am so tired of being frightened. . . .

"Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

"Could you be wrong?" Florimel asked Brother Factum Quintus. The group was sitting in a dispirited huddle on the stair landing. "Could the monster be keeping our friend somewhere other than the Spire Forest? Perhaps the piece of plaster was a false clue?"

Renie spoke up before the monk could answer. "Why would there be such a thing? The murderer didn't know we were coming, and he couldn't have known we would be able to find someone like Factum Quintus to tell us so much from that one little piece."

After eliminating all the hallways whose undisturbed dust suggested that they had not been traversed by anyone for a long time, the company had begun to force one tower door after another, eliminating every possible hiding place before moving to the next structure. The remoteness of the Spire Forest, which according to Factum Quintus had been deserted for decades except for bandits and a few runaways and eccentrics, had left them with a less daunting task than it had seemed at first, but although they had mustered up their courage to force open door after door, each time with weapons ready and hearts thumping, through the whole of the morning and afternoon they had found nothing but empty rooms. The one or two which had shown any hint of recent occupation had still clearly been deserted for years.

"I am sorry we have not found your friend." Factum Quintus spoke a little stiffly; the long day's work had clearly worn him out. "But that does not change what the ballflower fragment tells me. They were not in the Campanile of Six Pigs, so they must be somewhere here. Or at least the hiding place must be here—whether this person you seek is still using it, who can say?"

That was too depressing a thought for Renie to entertain. The only hope they had was that the Quan Li thing had not bothered to move its lair since taking Martine. "They HAVE to be here. They have to be. Besides, if they're not, then where in hell is !Xabbu?"

"Maybe he had an accident," Emily said. "Fell or something."

"Shut up, Emily," Florimel said. "We don't need suggestions like that."

"Just trying to help, her," muttered T4b.

Renie resisted an impulse to put her hands over her ears. There must be something they were missing, something obvious. . . . "Wait!" she said suddenly. "How do we know he hasn't found some way to move ABOVE the floor—on ropes or something?"

The others looked interested, but Factum Quintus frowned. "Hmmm. It is an ingenious idea, but think back on those halls we eliminated from our search—there were no ropes remaining behind, and the walls themselves were dusty, too. Surely it would be hard for someone to swing or climb above the ground, carrying your friend's . . . carrying your friend, then remove these ropes after himself without leaving a trace. Besides, as you said, would this person really anticipate determined pursuit? More likely he would simply have hidden himself close to the hallways that are traveled, so as not to be tracked by bandits or other predatory searchers."

Renie thought back on the ancient hallways, thick with the silt of ages, silent and ghostly, and of the dozens of empty, uninhabited towers they had so fearfully explored. Another idea suddenly seized her. "Hang on," she said, "maybe we're the ones who are going over the top."

"What does that mean?" Florimel could not muster the energy to sound very interested.

"Because he has plaster from a tower window ornament in his cuff, we've been assuming that our man is living in one of the tower rooms. But maybe he just uses one for, what do you call it, surveillance? Maybe he's actually tucked in somewhere a couple of floors lower, where there are more exits." As soon as she said it, she felt certain she was right.

"So . . . so we have to look through all the buildings again?" Florimel scowled, but she was thinking. "All the floors we didn't bother to check?"

"No." Brother Factum Quintus stood up, the light of engagement bright in his fishy eyes. "No, if you are right, he would be using one of the towers with a good view all around for his observation post—perhaps to watch out for bandits, or for searchers from the House below. I would guess Weeping Baron's Tower."

"Which one is that?" Renie was gathering up her weapons, her table-leg club and curtain-rod spear.

"Do you remember the round tower? We saw that someone had been in the topmost chamber, I thought perhaps even recently, but since there was no sign of anyone actually staying there, we went back down again."

"I remember it, yes."

"A few floors down there was a landing—we climbed right past it, following the tracks on the stairs. The windows were broken out, and it was covered with leaves."

Renie could not forget. Factum Quintus' expression of sorrow and disgust at the state of the building had been almost comical. "But there weren't any doors off that landing, were there?"

"No," said Florimel, who had risen to her feet as well, "but there were tapestries—I remember, because they were discolored by the water that came in through the windows."

"Right. We're going. God, I hope we're not too late." As T4b helped her to her feet, Emily 22813 wailed, "But I thought we were resting!"

 

Renie stopped them on the floor before the landing. "Emily," she whispered, "you and Factum Quintus at the back, because you're not carrying any weapons. Just try to stay out of harm's way."

"Quietly now," Florimel added. "He may have both !Xabbu and Martine. We don't want to frighten him into harming them."

Weeping Baron's Tower—in an uncharacteristically discreet mood, the monk had refused to explain its name, saying that it was too unpleasant a story for just now—was clearly one of the later additions to the House, its much-repaired stone facade only a skin over a skeleton of heavy timbers. The wood of the stairs and the landing was even less impressive, and years of weather through the shattered windows had also taken their toll. Some of the steps gave alarmingly; before they had climbed even a dozen, one of them let out a squeak that although barely audible, grated on Renie's nerves like a sudden scream.

Worried that the boards of the landing might be similarly noisy. Renie waved the others to stay behind at the top of the stairs, then continued with as much stealth as she could muster, gently lifting the sodden tapestries one by one. She found nothing but mossy wooden walls beneath any of them until she reached the last tapestry by the window. As she twitched up the corner, the light of the setting sun revealed a door sunk into a recess in the wall.

Heart pounding, Renie motioned for T4b and Florimel, lifting the tapestry a little farther so they could see what she had found. When her two companions were standing beside her, Florimel round-eyed with nerves, the teenager inscrutable behind his helmet, Renie tapped T4b on the arm. She and Florimel grabbed the edges of the tapestry and tore it away from the wall. It dropped like a wet corpse into Renie's arms. T4b hiked his robe up above his gleaming silver-blue armored legs with the delicacy of a dowager going wading, then kicked the door off its hinges and stepped inside.

The clatter dropped into silence. Everything beyond was shadow.

"I think it's. . . ." T4b began, then a gout of flame and noise erupted from the darkness.

Knocked to her knees, half-smothered in the heavy tapestry, Renie thought a bomb had gone off until she saw T4b stagger away from the door with his chest on fire, his robe and armor melted into a smoking hole in his midsection. The teenager jittered backward, flailing at himself with his hands, then slipped and tumbled down the stairs, missing Emily, but carrying Factum Quintus down with him in a flailing black snowball.

Before Renie could even struggle to her feet another explosion knocked Florimel backward into the landing rail. She dropped limply and did not move, a doll with its stuffing gone.

Ears ringing, her head as cloudy as if she had sunk into deep water, Renie at last kicked free from the tapestry, but she had only crawled a few meters back toward the stairs when she felt something step on her leg. She rolled over to see the Quan Li thing standing above her, the familiar face contorted as though by demonic possession, stretched in a gleeful smile. It held a flintlock pistol in each hand, one of them still dribbling smoke.

"I wish I'd been able to find more than one of those old blunderbusses," it said. "Good choice for Bang-Bang the Metal Boy, though, wasn't it? As good as a shotgun. But these little black powder guns aren't bad either." It glanced at the smoking pistol, then smirked and tossed it over the landing. Renie heard it clatter downward, tumbling, falling. "One shot apiece. A bit Stone Age . . . but then, if I'm going to treat myself to some extended play with one of you, I only need one more shot anyway." It glanced at Emily, cowering in shock at the top of the stairs, then turned the familiar, terrifying grin back onto Renie.

"Yeah, I think I'll keep the little one," it said, and lowered the pistol toward Renie's face.

CHAPTER 22
An Unexpected Bath

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: GCN, Hr. 7.0 (Eu, NAm)—"Spasm!"

(visual: Pelly being airlifted from building roof)

VO: Pelly (Bettie Donovan) and Fooba (Fuschia Chang) think they have found the missing children, but the sinister Mr. B (Herschel Reiner) has a surprise waiting for them—a heart-attack ray! 2 supporting, 63 background open, previous medical interactive pref'd for hospital strand. Flak to: GCN. SPSM. CAST

 

It was windy, and the Lollipop Family kept blowing over in the middle of their tea party. Christabel didn't feel very much like playing, but her mommy had told her to go out and play, so she was sitting on the ground next to the fence in the front yard, under the big tree. She had put a rock on top of the table so it wouldn't tip, but she couldn't do anything about how every time Mother Lollipop reached for the tea she lost her balance.

They were really indoor toys. It was stupid to play with them out in the yard.

Everything was all wrong, that was the problem. Christabel had been so happy that the Storybook Sunglasses hadn't killed her daddy when he put them on, and even happier that after that he hadn't yelled at her anymore about the secret with Mister Sellars. She had been certain that now everything would be all right. Things would go back to the way they were before—Mister Sellars would come up out of his hiding place in the ground and go back to his house, and Christabel would visit him, and the terrible Cho-Cho boy would go away, and everything would be good again. She had been certain.

But instead, things had just got more wrong. At first, Daddy hardly came out of the study at all, coming home straight from work every evening and locking himself in. Sometimes she even heard him talking to someone, and she wondered if it was Mister Sellars, but her daddy wouldn't say what he was doing and her mommy just seemed scared and unhappy all the time and told her to go play.

The worst thing was the fights that her mommy and daddy had. Every night they had an argument, but it wasn't even like other arguments. They did everything really quiet. When Christabel stood beside the door of the study or her parents' room when they thought she was asleep, she could hardly hear a word they were saying. At first she thought they were trying to hide the fighting from her, which was scary. That was what Antonina Jakes' parents had done, then one day her mother had just left the base and taken Antonina away with her. Even on the day her mother came and took her out of school, Antonina had said, "My parents don't never fight," because someone had teased her about Divorce.

So at first, that was what had scared Christabel. Divorce. That word that sounded like someone slamming a door. When your mommy and daddy didn't live together, and you had to go away with one of them.

But when she had finally made herself brave enough to ask, her mother had been very surprised and said, "No, no, Christabel! No! We're not fighting! Your daddy's worried, that's all. I'm worried, too." But she wouldn't tell Christabel what she was worried about, except that Christabel knew it had something to do with the Storybook Sunglasses and Mister Sellars' secret, so whatever it was, it was Christabel's fault.

When her parents went on with their whispenng-but-scared arguments, Christabel had another idea. Her parents were afraid someone would hear them, but maybe it wasn't Christabel they were hiding from. The arguments were a secret, but who were they trying to keep the secret from?

In her mind Christabel saw something from a kid's show on the net, a story about the North Wind, a frightening, angry face that appeared in the sky. Something like that was all around, maybe, listening, trying to catch her parents talking out loud. Something as thin and slippery as the air, as dark as a rain cloud. Something that could listen at every window.

Whatever the problem was, nothing was right any more. Christabel wished she'd never met stupid old crippled Mister Sellars.

Last night had been the worst. For the first time in days the arguing had gotten loud. Her mom had been crying, her dad shouting in a kind of scratchy way. They were both so unhappy that she wanted to run in from the hall and beg them to stop, but she knew they would just be angry at her for listening. This morning, when Christabel had come down for breakfast, her daddy had been out in the garage and her mommy had looked very sad, her eyes red and puffy-outy and her voice very quiet. Christabel had hardly been able to eat her cereal.

Something was wrong, more wrong than ever, and she didn't know what to do.

 

Christabel had finally switched off Mother Lollipop, because if she didn't keep trying to pick up the teapot at least she wouldn't fall over, when she heard a noise behind her. She turned around, expecting to see the dirty-faced boy with the broken tooth, but it was only her father's friend Captain Ron looking different than usual. He was wearing his uniform, but she was used to that—she hardly ever saw him in anything else. It took a moment before she could figure out that what was different was the look on his face. He seemed very serious, scowly and cold.

"Hello there, Chrissy," he said. She hated the name, but she didn't make the face she usually did. She felt like running but that was silly. "Is your daddy home?"

She nodded. "He's in the garage."

He nodded, too. "Right you are. I'll just pop in and talk to him for a minute."

Christabel jumped up. She wasn't sure why, but she felt like she wanted to run ahead and warn her daddy that Ron was coming. Instead she walked a little way ahead of him alt the way across the lawn, then only ran the last couple of steps.

"Daddy! It's Captain Ron!"

Her father looked startled, and for a moment it was like the time when she pushed open the bathroom door and went in by accident when he was naked out of the shower, but he was only taking the seats out of the big van—when he was in a good mood he called it "the Vee-Hickle"—and setting them on the garage floor. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and there were black smears on his hands and arms.

"That's fine, honey," he said. He didn't smile.

"Sorry to interrupt your Saturday, Mike," said Captain Ron, stepping into the garage.

"No problem. You want a beer?"

Ron shook his head. "I've got Duncan working with me today and you just know he'd be mentioning it in some report somewhere. 'I noted an apparent smell of alcohol when Captain Parkins returned.' " He frowned. "Little prick." He suddenly noticed Christabel standing near the door. "Oops. Pardon my French."

"Why don't you run along and play, honey," her father told her.

Christabel went back onto the lawn, but she found herself slowing down when she was out of sight of the open garage door. Something was different than usual between her father and Captain Ron. She wanted to find out. Maybe it had something to do with why her mother was crying, why they were arguing every night.

Feeling very, very naughty, she quietly walked back and sat down on the path near the garage door where the men couldn't see her. She was still holding Baby Lollipop in her hands, so she made a little pile of dirt and sat him on top of it. He moved his fat little arms slowly back and forth, like he was losing his balance and about to fall.

". . . Tell you these things pop in and pop out," her daddy was saying, "but I'm telling you the sonsabitches are lying. I've already scraped all the skin off my knuckles on the damn bolts." It sounded almost like his normal cheerful weekend voice, but something was not quite right. It made Christabel squirm like she needed to go to the bathroom.

"Look, Mike," Captain Ron said, "I'll make this quick. I just found out about this little vacation you're taking. . . ."

"Just a few days," her father said quickly.

". . . And I have to say I'm not real pleased about it. In fact, I'll be honest with you, I'm pretty goddamned pissed off about it." For a moment as his voice got louder, Christabel got ready to run away, but then she realized he was only walking back and forth between the door end of the garage and where her daddy was. "I mean, now of all times? When we've got the Yak breathing fire about that damned old man? You're just going to cut out for a few days for a little family trip and dump it all on me? That suctions, Mike, and you know it."

Her father was quiet for a while. "I don't blame you for being upset," he said at last.

"Don't blame me? That's a lot of help! Man, I never thought you'd do something like this to me. And not even talk to me about it first! Shit." There was a clumpy, clanky sound as Captain Ron sat down on one of the trash cans.

Christabel was excited and scared and confused by the bad language and Ron's angriness, but most of all by this talk of a vacation. What vacation? Why hadn't her mommy or daddy said anything? She suddenly felt very frightened. Maybe her daddy was going to take her away somewhere. Maybe he and Mommy were going to do a Divorce after all.

"Look, Ron," her daddy said. "I'll tell you the truth." He waited for a moment. Christabel slid a little ne