e-version notes
 

Otherland

Final Volume

Sea of Silver Light

Tad Williams

Original Copyright 2001
DAW Books ISBN 0-7564-0030-9

Volume One Synopsis

Volume Two Synopsis

Volume Three Synopsis

Foreword

First
A VOYAGE IN THE HEART

  1. Strange Bedfellows
  2. Execution Sweet
  3. Restless Natives
  4. In Silver Dreaming
  5. The Last Fish to Swallow
  6. Talking to Machines
  7. The Man from Mars
  8. Listening to the Nothing
  9. Hannibal's Return
  10. The Land of Glass and Air

Second
GHOST SONGS

  1. Yours Very Sincerely
  2. The Boy in the Well
  3. King Johnny
  4. The Stone Girl
  5. Confessional
  6. Badlands
  7. Breathing Problems
  8. Making a Witch
  9. The Bravest Man in the World
  10. Thompson's Iron
  11. Handling Snakes
  12. More Very Bush

Third
THE DYING HOUR

  1. Orientation
  2. Getting out of Dodge
  3. The Hidden Bridge
  4. Flies and Spiders
  5. The Green Steeple
  6. Master of His Silence
  7. Stony Limits
  8. Climbing the Mountain
  9. Romany Fair
  10. Bad House

Fourth
SORROW'S CHILDREN

  1. Weekend Hours
  2. Desert Smile
  3. Rainbow's Shoe
  4. Without a Net
  5. The Locked Room
  6. Boy in Darkness
  7. Broken Angel
  8. The Third Head of Cerberus
  9. Playing the Knight
  10. Old School
  11. Tears of Ra
  12. Stolen Voices
  13. Send
  14. Thoughts Like Smoke
  15. Star Over Louisiana
  16. Unreal Bodies
  17. The Next

Fifth
INHERITORS

  1. No Promises
  2. Watching Cars Explode
  3. The Oracle Surprised
  4. Borrowed House

Afterword

My father still hasn't actually cracked any of the books—
so, no, he still hasn't noticed. I think I'm just going to have to
tell him. Maybe I should break it to him gently.

"Everyone here who hasn't had a book dedicated to
them, take three steps forward. Whoops, Dad,
hang on a second .

Acknowledgements

These people saved my life. Without their help, I would never have finished these books. You may apply the appropriate punishments.

The List So Far:

Barbara Cannon, Aaron Castro, Nick Des Barres, Debra Euler, Arthur Ross Evans, Amy Fodera, Sean Fodera, Jo-Ann Goodwind, Deborah 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.

To which must be added another group of the brave and the good:

Melissa Brammer, Dena Chavez, Rick Cuevas, Marcia de Lima, Jim Foster.

As always, shout-outs to all my homies on the Tad Williams List-serve and the message boards of the TW Fan Page and Guthwuff.com's MS&T Interactive Thesis.

And of course, no acknowledgments would be truly acknowledgmentacious without mentioning my wonderful wife Deborah Beale, my lovely and talented agent Matt Bialer, and my brilliant and patient editors Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert. My kids Connor and Devon didn't really help much, but they sure make life more interesting (and the need to finish and sell books more acute), and Connor did type a bunch of consonants into my manuscript at random for me to use later, so I guess they belong in here as well.

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
Synopsis

Renie Sulaweyo, her Bushman friend !Xabbu, and several more of the volunteers recruited by the strange Mr. Sellars have been reunited in the weirdest part of the Grail network they have yet discovered—a world that seems somehow unfinished. They are stranded there because the murderer named Dread, who was masquerading as one of their company, has taken the access device—a virtual object that appears to be a cigarette lighter—that they have been using to travel between simulated worlds.

While they try to discover a way out, two of the more mysterious members of their company, Florimel and T4b, finally explain their backgrounds. Florimel is an escapee from a German religious cult, and has come to the network because her daughter is one of the children (like Renie's brother Stephen) who has fallen into one of the mysterious Tandagore's Syndrome comas. T4b, whose real name is Javier Rodgers, is a former street kid and gang member, now living with his grandparents. A young friend of his has also fallen prey to a coma.

Renie and the others find the unfinished world in which they are marooned increasingly uncomfortable—at one point, they see something that looks just like !Xabbu's baboon sim, but isn't. When a huge hole suddenly opens right in the middle of the ground, almost swallowing the blind woman Martine and somehow obliterating one of T4b's virtual hands, they decide they must escape immediately. Martine, !Xabbu, and Renie, working together, manage to open a gateway even without the lighter.

After they step through the gateway, following in Dread's virtual tracks, the search-and-destroy program named Nemesis, which was put into the network to locate another fugitive, Paul Jonas, tries to decide whether to follow them or not. It is confused—there are things happening on the network that interfere with the original clarity of its programmed drives, anomalies that are making it do strange, unprecedented things.

The amnesiac fugitive Paul Jonas is living out a version of the Odyssey in which he is Odysseus, returned to his home island of Ithaca after the Trojan War. But Penelope, the wife of Odysseus (who also appears to be yet another incarnation of the mysterious woman Paul thinks of as "the Angel") does not seem to be playing by the same set of rules. In an effort to shake her up and get some answers—another incarnation of the Angel has told him that the Penelope-version will tell him how to find the "black mountain" he must reach—he performs an invocation of what he thinks is Hades, the death god of ancient Greece. Instead, he summons the Angel herself, confronting Penelope with a near-twin. Next, a new force answers his invocation—not Hades, but the Other, the dark intelligence behind the Grail network. Terrified, Paul flees onto the ocean, but his boat is destroyed.

Meanwhile, Orlando Gardiner and his friend Sam Fredericks are in a simulation of ancient Egypt—a simworld that is the one place on the network that Felix Jongleur, the world's oldest man and master of the Grail Brotherhood, considers his home. They have been hidden from Jongleur's subordinates by a woman named Bonnie Mae Simpkins who is a member of a group called the Circle. She tells them how her husband and many other Circle members have been killed trying to penetrate the mysteries of the Grail network. Now the last few members in Egypt are besieged in a temple. Bonnie Mae recruits the god Bes to lead her and Orlando and Fredericks there, hoping that her Circle friends can help the two teenagers escape Egypt through an activated gateway.

People offline are just as involved in these events as those trapped on the network. Catur Ramsey, a lawyer who works for Sam Fredericks' parents, finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the Otherland mystery. With the help of Orlando's software agent, a cartoon bug named Beezle, Ramsey follows the online trail of the two comatose teenagers. A Canadian woman named Olga Pirofsky that he contacts, who works for one of Jongleur's many companies, has also become involved. What started for her as troubling headaches have now become dream-visitations by mysterious children. Olga fears she might be going mad.

In North Carolina, the little girl Christabel Sorensen, who helped Sellars escape and hide under the military base where they both live, has been caught by her security chief father, Major Sorensen. Sellars uses the little homeless boy Cho-Cho to ask Christabel to arrange a conversation with her parents. Sellars tells—and shows—Christabel's parents enough to convince them to help him escape the base entirely. With Sellars hidden in the back of their van, and Cho-Cho pretending to be Christabel's cousin, they all set out for a rendezvous with Catur Ramsey, who has also been contacted by Sellars.

Back in the Otherland network, Renie, !Xabbu, and the others have come through their jury-rigged gateway, following Dread's trail into a mysterious simworld known only as the House. They quickly discover it's called that because the world is nothing but a house—an endless collection of halls and rooms, with separate civilizations living only floors apart from each other. They are assisted in their queries by a brotherhood of monks who maintain the House's monstrous library, but Martine is kidnapped by Dread, and with the aid of one of the monks they set out in search of her—and the murderer.

Someone else searching for the murderer Dread—although in the real world, not the virtual—is Calliope Skouros, an Australian homicide detective. In the course of investigating one of Dread's earliest killings, she begins to find out just what a strange and unpredictable killer he is. Although Dread—also known by his birth-name, John Wulgaru—is listed as dead in police records, Calliope begins to suspect that he is alive.

Dread is not only alive, but has returned to Sydney, setting up operations only miles from Detective Skouros. He has brought the American programmer Dulcie Anwin to Australia to help him make sense of the Otherland network, whose existence he discovered while eliminating one of Felix Jongleur's Grail Brotherhood rivals. Dulcie finds herself strangely attracted to Dread—she knows he is a criminal, but has no idea of his true proclivities—and Dread is more than willing to use that attraction for his own benefit. He has big plans for the network, and plans to use his experience there as a basis for overthrowing his employer, Jongleur. He sets Dulcie up in a loft and puts her to work.

In South Africa, Renie's father Long Joseph Sulaweyo and friend Jeremiah Dako have been guarding her and !Xabbu while they lie helpless in the V-tanks they have used for long-term access to the network. But Long Joseph, cut off from drink, miserable, and distracted, left the abandoned army base to head for Durban and was kidnapped outside the hospital where his son Stephen lies comatose. The kidnapper turns out to be Renie's ex-boyfriend Del Ray, whose own life has been ruined by the help he gave Renie. He is desperate to find Renie so he can get a group of thugs (whom Dread hired on behalf of Jongleur) off his back. But when Joseph and Del Ray leave the hospital after going back to see Joseph's son, they are trailed by a mysterious black van. Then, when they return to the army base dug deep into one of the Drakensberg mountains, they find the thugs are there ahead of them. Joseph and Del Ray sneak into the base through the air duct Joseph used in his escape. Inside the base, Jeremiah has been contacted by Mr. Sellars, who wants to help them, but things do not look good. All but weaponless themselves, they are now besieged by heavily-armed killers.

Shipwrecked Paul Jonas is bound for Troy, which means he is living out the Odyssey more or less backward. After getting help building a raft—and other sorts of solace—from a hospitable goddess, he puts to sea again. He survives the attack of the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, then finds another survivor floating unconscious in the waves. The stranger turns out to be Azador, a mysterious Gypsy who had traveled earlier with Renie and !Xabbu and the strange girl Emily from the Oz simulation, and from whom Renie accidentally took the access device/lighter. Together, Paul and Azador defeat a dangerous cyclops and land on the island of Lotos, where they fall under the spell of the narcotic flowers. The Angel wakens Paul and helps them escape, but only after a hallucinating Azador has told Paul that he too is being pursued by the Grail Brotherhood, that he has escaped from their immortality machines, but many of his Gypsy kin have not. Free of Lotos, they sail on to Troy.

In the House-world, Renie and her companions have had little luck finding the kidnapped Martine (who is being psychologically tortured by Dread) and have themselves been captured by one of the tribes who make the House's attic their home. To their surprise, they find Hideki Kunohara sharing the robbers' revelries. Kunohara, one of the landlords of the Grail network, whose own giant world of insects they had crossed earlier, seems bemused to see them, but intercedes for them with the robbers. Paul Jonas' Angel appears to them all in a supernatural fashion, frightening away the robbers and alarming even Kunohara, who refuses to help Renie and the others any more than he already has, saying that he cannot risk the displeasure of the powerful Grail Brotherhood.

Renie and her companions at last find Martine, but only after !Xabbu has disappeared while searching for her (his baboon sim a more useful form for exploring the rooftops of the House). But Martine is not alone; Dread has prepared a trap for them. When they open the door, he shoots T4b and Florimel, then battles with Renie across a steep rooftop. Just when it seems he has won, !Xabbu returns, and then Florimel finds one of Dread's discarded guns. As Dread prepares to kill Renie, Florimel shoots him. He dies—but only online, leaving the stolen virtual body behind. For the moment Dread has been pushed out of the Grail network, and Renie and her companions are battered but safe.

Ancient arch-mogul Felix Jongleur has been very busy preparing for the Ceremony—the moment at which the members of the Grail Brotherhood will become immortal within the virtual worlds they have built for themselves. He has not been spending much time in his favorite mythical-Egypt simulation, and does not realize how far out of hand things have become there. His servants Tefy and Mewat—the Egyptian versions of his subordinates Finney and Mudd, who have been chasing Paul Jonas all through the network—are now forced to besiege a temple full of people resisting their cruel reign.

Inside the besieged temple, Orlando Gardiner and Sam Fredericks meet other members of the Circle, including Nandi Paradivash, a specialist who is trying to make sense of the network's dying gateway system. There is something very wrong with the Grail network. Its mysterious operating system, the Other, is acting in a peculiar fashion, and many of the simworlds seem to be falling apart.

Tefy and Mewat attack the temple, first bringing in a trio of rogue Egyptian gods to fight with the temple's two sphinx-guardians, then sending in a horde of tortoise men and flying snakes to finish the job. Orlando fights bravely, but cannot keep Sam from being captured by Tefy and Mewat. The unpleasant pair have recognized the teenagers as real people from outside the network, and are about to take them away to be tortured when Jongleur himself returns in the form of Osiris, chief god of Egypt. In the chaos, Orlando and Fredericks escape through one of the gateways Nandi has opened, out of Egypt and into Troy, where they have been urged to go by another incarnation of Paul Jonas' Angel.

Paul has already made his way to Troy, where—as Odysseus—he fits right in with the Greeks besieging the city. But when he is sent to the tent where the hero Achilles and his friend Patroclus wait, unwilling to fight against the Trojans, he decides something about the two doesn't seem to fit the simulation. After much sparring, he reveals his true name to them. Achilles and Patroclus are in fact Orlando and Sam, who recognize the name "Jonas" from something Sellars had told them. The meeting becomes a happy one, although Paul's spirits sag a little when he learns the two teenagers are in just as much trouble, and are just as lost, as he is.

Renie and the others use the lighter recaptured from Dread to leave the House and go to Troy. Unlike Orlando and Paul, when they enter the simulation they are assigned to the Trojan side in the besieged city, aware that their friends may be outside the gates, but with no way to recognize them. They are quickly sent on a deadly raid against the Greeks.

Paul Jonas has a dream in which the Angel appears to him again and tells him to go outside the camp. He meets Renie and the others, They talk for a long lime, comparing stories, trying to make sense of what they have learned. Paul decides to bring them back to the Greek settlement in the guise of prisoners so they can be reunited with Orlando and Sam, but even as they reach the camp the Trojans launch a frightening attack.

Caught in the middle of a fierce battle, cut off from Orlando and Sam, they can only struggle to stay alive. In the meantime, Sam, in a misguided effort to keep up the morale of Achilles' despairing troop and buy the sick Orlando some time to get better, dresses herself in the famous armor of Achilles and, masquerading as their chieftain, leads Achilles' soldiers out to fight the Trojans. The masquerade is so successful that the Trojans are driven back toward the walls of Troy. Orlando wakes to find himself alone. When he realizes what has happened, he scavenges armor and weapons and sets out across the plain toward the city, despite his own fast-failing health, desperate to save his friend Sam. He discovers her about to be killed by the Trojan hero Hector, and only barely manages to overcome him, then collapses in front of the walls.

Martine, who has been given a role as one of the Trojan royal family, is desperate to keep her friends alive. Hearing of the fighting in front of the walls, she nearly tricks some Trojan guards into opening the gates, but when they balk, she is forced to order T4b to kill the guard captain. The gates are opened, and to Martine's shame the Greeks come roaring into Troy, burning, raping, and killing. Although she and the others are all reunited, and even though the Trojans being killed are merely programs, she feels she has done a terrible thing.

Meanwhile, the Grail Brotherhood have begun their Ceremony, although Jongleur is irritated by the absence of his employee, Dread. Jongleur and technocrat Robert Wells explain to the concerned Grail members that they will not truly transfer their minds directly to the network. Instead, duplicate versions of themselves, virtual minds which have been made to copy every detail in the original minds, will come to life online—but in order to assure that only one version of each Brotherhood member exists, they must kill off their physical bodies. Because they are not aware that Jongleur, Wells, the financier Jinn Bhao, and American military man Daniel Yacoubian are not actually going through with the Ceremony this time—because they want to see how well the process works, these four will only pretend to awaken their virtual bodies and murder their real physical selves—the other members of the Brotherhood are at last convinced.

But Dread has other plans for the Grail network. He has decided to force his way back online, and with the help of Dulcie Anwin and a copy he has made of the access device/lighter, he tries to enter the system. He is resisted with terrible force by the security systems of the Other, but in the course of their battle—Dread employing his own telekinetic talent, which he calls his "twist"—Dread discovers that the network has mechanisms to inflict something like pain on the Other, mechanisms which the Grail Brotherhood has used to force the intelligent operating system to do their will. Dread uses this pain to bludgeon the Other into retreat. Victorious, Dread can now influence and even direct the entire Grail network.

Renie, Paul, !Xabbu, and the others fight their way across the dying city. When Paul meets Emily, a longtime companion of Renie and the others, he is stunned to recognize her as another version of the Angel. A name suddenly comes back to him—"Avialle"—and he is overwhelmed by returning memories.

Suddenly he can remember being hired by Felix Jongleur to work as a tutor in Jongleur's huge office-tower home in Louisiana. And he also recalls his first meeting with his pupil—Jongleur's daughter, Avialle Jongleur. But he can remember no more.

Despite apparently being followed by someone, they enter an abandoned temple and make their way to an altar at the center of a maze, where the Angel appears to them again and tells them they are too late—that she no longer has the strength to take them to where the Other wishes them to go. Paul offers her anything she needs, but does not expect what happens next. The Angel takes the life-force from Emily, who was only some kind of copy of herself, and then opens a gateway. When they go through, Paul and Renie and the others find themselves on a trail on the side of a bizarre and not-quite-real black mountain. They trek to the top, where they find a bound giant lying in a wide valley. The giant is in terrible pain, but is singing a song about an angel. Martine recognizes the song. It was sung to her by the mysterious child in the Pestalozzi Institute, thirty years before, on the day she lost her sight.

The suffering giant does not harm them, but opens a window through which Paul and Renie and the others can see the virtual Egyptian temple where Jongleur and the rest of the Brotherhood are beginning the Ceremony. Some Brotherhood members are still reluctant, but one of their number, a man named Ricardo Klement, undergoes the process and seems to be born satisfactorily into his new, young, virtual body. The others gleefully perform the Ceremony to kill off their physical bodies and resurrect themselves online, but although their physical selves do die, the virtual bodies remain uninhabited. Jongleur and the rest are spared because they have not undergone the Ceremony, but they are stunned and terrified. Something has gone very wrong.

Orlando, whose own physical body is also dying, can watch no more. He steps through the window and into the temple, where he confronts Jongleur and the other three Grail survivors. Sam and Renie follow to try to save him, and Renie tries to bluff Jongleur with the lighter that Yacoubian recognizes as his own stolen access device, which he has since replaced. Yacoubian, in Egyptian god-form, attacks Orlando.

The Grail system, already under a strain, now seems to begin to fall apart. The temple in Egypt and the top of the black mountain begin to merge. Simultaneously, the giant begins to writhe and bellow in pain—it is being attacked by something. A moment later, in the middle of all this chaos, it becomes clear that the attacker is Dread, who is trying to take control of the system from the Other.

Paul's Angel appears, weeping, as reality breaks down altogether. With the help of T4b, Orlando appears to kill the monstrous Yacoubian, but Orlando himself has used up his strength, and is smashed beneath Yacoubian's giant form when he falls.

The hand of the giant rises and then falls down on top of Renie, !Xabbu, Sam, Orlando, and others. They disappear. Then the reality of the top of the black mountain turns inside out again. Martine, sensitive to the network in ways the others can't quite understand, screams that the children are in pain, dying. Paul is overcome and blacks out.

Afterward, Renie wakes up to discover that she no longer wears the sim she had chosen, but seems to be in her own body again. !Xabbu has also shed his baboon form for his own real shape, as has young, female Sam Fredericks, who no longer appears to be a man. But they are not back in the real world. They are still stuck on the now-empty black mountaintop. The suffering giant has vanished. All their other companions are gone. Only Orlando Gardiner's dead body, still wearing the Achilles sim, remains.

But others are on the mountain, even if their friends are not. Felix Jongleur appears, wearing the body of a middle-aged man, accompanied by Ricardo Klement, who, although he has survived the Ceremony, appears to be brain damaged. After Dread's conquest of the operating system, Jongleur too is trapped in the network. He acknowledges that Renie and her friends have every reason to want to attack him, but suggests that they are better off making common cause. He leads them to the edge of the black mountain and points down.

They are miles high, in the middle of nothing. They cannot see the bottom of the mountain, or any ground at all, because everything below them is hidden in a strange, silver cloud. This is no part of the network he created, Jongleur assures them.

OTHERLAND
Sea of Silver Light

Foreword

He was tossed, fragmented, part of the outward-collapsing whirl of shattered light. His own identity was gone—he was spun into pieces like a universe being born.

"You're killing him!" his angel had cried as she herself flew apart into a million separate ghosts, each one shimmering with its own individual light—a shrieking flock of tiny rainbows. . . .

But as the world collapsed, a piece of his past returned to him. It came first as a single visionary flash—a house surrounded by gardens, the gardens themselves bounded by a wild forest. The sky was patchy with dark clouds, brilliant streaks of sunshine falling between them, the grass and leaves beaded with the recent rain. Light dazzled in the drops of water and fragmented into gleams of many colors so that the trees seemed part of a fairy-garden, a magical wood from a childhood tale. During that fraction of an instant before the memory grew wider and deeper he could imagine no more peaceful a haven.

But it was all, of course, far stranger than that.

 

 

The elevator was so swift and smooth that at times Paul Jonas could almost forget that he lived inside a great spike, that his journey to the top each morning lifted him close to a thousand feet above the Mississippi Delta. He had never much cared for tall buildings—one of the many ways he felt himself slightly out of step with his own century. Part of the appeal of the Canonbury house had been the old-fashioned scale of it—three stories, a few flights of stairs. It was a place he could actually escape from if there was a fire (or so he flattered himself). When he opened the windows of his flat and looked down into the street he could hear people talking and even see what they had in their shopping baskets. Now, except for the winds of the Gulfs hurricane season whose screaming voices could be heard even through thick fibramic, winds strong enough to make the huge tower rock gently, he might as well be living in some kind of intergalactic spaceship. At least until he reached the part of the building where he did his tutoring each day.

The elevator door glided open, revealing another portal. Paul keyed in his code and pressed his hand against the palm-reader, then waited for long seconds while the reader and other less obvious safeguards did their job. When the security door slid out of the way with a little suck of air, Paul stepped through and pushed open the secondary door, this one on metal hinges and of decidedly old-fashioned design. The smell of Ava's house washed over him, a combination of scents so evocative of another era as to be almost claustrophobic—lavender, silver polish, sheets kept in cedar chests. As he stepped into the foyer he moved in a few strides from the smooth, edgeless efficiency of the present into something that, were it not for the vibrant young woman at the heart of it, could be a museum or even a tomb.

She was not waiting for him in the parlor. Her absence startled him, an unexpected thing that made the whole strange ritual suddenly seem as mad as he had thought it to be in his first weeks on the job. He checked the glass and ormolu clock on the mantelpiece. A minute after nine, but no Ava. He wondered if she might be ill, and was surprised by the stab of worry that came with the thought.

One of the downstairs maids, capped and aproned in white, silent as a ghost, slid past the hall doorway with her arms full of folded tablecloth.

"Excuse me," he called. "Is Miss Jongleur still in bed? She's late for her lessons."

The maid looked at him, startled, as though merely by speaking he had broken some ancient tradition. She shook her head before disappearing.

After half a year, Paul still had no idea whether the household help were trained actors or simply very strange.

He knocked at her bedroom door, then knocked again, louder. When no one answered, he cautiously pushed open the unlatched door. The room, half-boudoir, half-nursery, was empty. A row of porcelain-faced dolls stared at him dumbly from the mantelpiece, glassy eyes wide beneath the long lashes.

On his way back across the parlor he caught a glimpse of himself in the framed mirror above the mantel: an unexceptional man dressed in clothes far more than a century out of date, in the middle of an over-ornamented parlor room that might have come straight out of a Tenniel illustration. Something only a hair more subtle than a shudder passed through him. For just a moment, but in a most unsettling way, he felt that he was trapped in someone else's dream.

 

It was bizarre, of course, even a little frightening, but he still could never quite get over how much cleverness had gone into it. From the house's front door his view across the formal garden and its maze of paths, past the hedges and over the woods beyond, was exactly what he would have expected to see surrounding the country house of a reasonably well-to-do French family of the late nineteenth century. The fact that the sky overhead was not real, that rains and morning mists came from a sophisticated sprinkler system, that the shifting of daylight into evening or the Bo Peep wandering of clouds were created by lighting and holographic illusion, almost added to the charm. But the idea that this entire house and grounds had been built on the top floor of a skyscraper largely for one person, a sealed time capsule in which the past was simulated if not actually returned, was more disturbing.

It's like something from a story, he thought—and not for the first time, by any means. The way they keep her up here. Like the giant's wife in that beanstalk story, or . . . who was the princess with the hair? Rapunzel?

He spent a short while exploring the garden, whose formal, old-fashioned French design was softened by what he could only think of as that woody, overgrown English influence that was almost indistinguishable from neglect. There were several places where the high hedges hid benches, and Ava had told him that sometimes she liked to bring her sewing out and work on it while she listened to the birds sing.

At least the birds are real, he thought as he watched a few of them flitting from branch to branch above his head.

The winding paths were all empty. Paul was beginning to feel a quiet rising of panic, despite all good sense. If there was ever anyone less likely to stumble into danger than Avialle Jongleur, it was hard to imagine: she was watched by the most sophisticated surveillance equipment available and surrounded by her father's private army. But she had never simply missed a morning's session, never even been late. Her time with Paul seemed to be the highlight of her day, although he didn't flatter himself that it was due to any overwhelming qualities of his own. The poor child had precious few chances to see other human beings.

He turned off the gravel-strewn paths onto the narrow track that led into the overgrown orchard Ava called "the wood." Here the ground became as uneven as real terrain, and the plums and crab apples that ringed the garden gave way to stands of silver birch and an increasing tangle of oaks and alders, which were thick enough to hide the house when he looked back and provide at least the illusion of privacy, although Paul knew from one of Finney's very pointed lectures that the surveillance extended everywhere. Still, he could not help feeling he had crossed over some invisible line: this far from the house the trees shouldered together closely and the false sky could only be seen through chinks in the foliage far above. Even the birds kept to the highest branches. The spot seemed strangely isolated. Paul found it hard to keep his earlier folktale impressions out of his head.

He found her sitting on the grass beside the stream. She looked up at his approach, smiling her secretive smile, but said nothing.

"Ava? Are you all right?"

She nodded. "Come here. I want to show you something."

"It's time for your lessons. I worried when you weren't waiting for me at the house."

"That was very kind of you, Mr. Jonas. Please, come here." She patted the grass beside her. He saw that she was at the center of a wide ring of mushrooms—a fairy ring, as his Grammer Jonas had called them—and the sense of being in some sort of unfolding tale crept over him again. Ava's eyes were wide and full of . . . something. Excitement? Anticipation?

"You'll get your dress wet, sitting on the grass," he said as he reluctantly moved forward.

"The trees kept the rain off. It's quite dry here." She pulled her hem aside and tucked it beneath her leg, making a space for him to sit, and accidentally—or was it?—revealing a bit of the petticoat beneath, as well as a pale gleam of ankle above her shoe. He found himself struggling not to react. He had discovered the first day of lessons that Ava was a flirt, although it was hard to tell how much was genuine and how much was simply her anachronistic manners, which dictated perfect decorum on the surface, but by doing so made every exchange even more loaded. A female friend of his back in London had once spent a drunken evening telling him why Regency novels were so much sexier than anything written in the less-inhibited centuries since: "It's all about the tight focus," she had insisted.

Paul was beginning to agree with her.

Seeing his discomfiture, Ava grinned broadly, an expression of unmeasured enjoyment which reminded Paul again that she was little more than a child, and which paradoxically made him even more uncomfortable. "We really should be getting back," he began. "If I had known you wanted your lessons outside today, I would have prepared. . . ."

"All is well." She patted his knee. "It is a surprise."

Paul shook his head. She clearly had something planned, but he was angry with himself for losing control of the situation. It would have been difficult enough, being private tutor to an attractive, lonely, and very young woman, but in the bizarre circumstances of the Jongleur fortress the whole thing became even more of a strain. "This isn't appropriate, Ava. Someone will see us. . . ."

"No one will see. No one."

"That's not true." Paul wasn't sure how much she knew about the surveillance. "In any case, we have work to do today. . . ."

"No one will see us," she said again, this time with surprising firmness. She lifted a finger to her lips, smiled, then touched her ear. "And no one will hear us, either. You see, Mr. Jonas, I have a . . . friend."

"Ava, I hope we are friends, but that's not. . . ."

She giggled. The waves of black hair, confined today by pins and a straw hat, framed her amused expression. "Dear, dear Mr. Jonas—I'm not talking about you."

Puzzled, more worried than ever, Paul stood. He extended a hand for Ava. "Come with me. We can talk about this later, but we must get back to the house." When she did not accept his help, he shook his head and turned to leave.

"No!" she cried. "Don't step out of the circle!"

"What are you talking about?"

"The circle—the ring. Don't step out. My friend won't be able to protect us."

"What are you talking about, Ava? Are you talking about fairies? Protect us how?"

She pouted, but it was reflexive. Paul thought he saw a real concern there as well—something almost like fear. "Sit down, Mr. Jonas. I will tell you everything, but please don't step outside the ring. As long as you stay here with me, we are both safe from prying eyes and listening ears."

Overwhelmed, and with the distinct impression that things were going in a very bad direction, Paul nevertheless sat back down. Ava's relief was obvious.

"Good. Thank you."

"Just tell me what's going on."

She picked at a dandelion. "I know my father watches me. That he can see me even when I do not know he's there." She looked up at him. "It's been true all my life. And the world I read about in books—I know I will never see it, not if he has his way."

Paul squirmed. He had only recently begun to realize that he himself was more of a jailer than a teacher.

"Even in the harems of the Middle East, the women have each other for company," she went on. "But who do I have? A tutor—although I am very fond of you, Mr. Jonas, and my other tutors and nannies were also kind—and a doctor, a most dry and unpleasant old fellow. Not to mention maids who are almost too frightened even to speak to me. And those abhorrent men who work for my father."

Paul's discomfort was rising again. What would Finney or the brutal Mudd think of him sitting here listening to Jongleur's daughter talking this way? "The fact is," he said as calmly as he could, "people do watch you, Ava. Listen to you. And they're doing it right now. . . ."

"No, they are not." Her tight smile was defiant. "Not now. Because at last I have a friend—a friend who can do things."

"What are you talking about?"

"You will think me mad," she said, "but it's true. It's all true!"

"What is?"

"My friend." She suddenly fell silent and could not meet his eye. When she did, something strange smoldered there. "He is a ghost."

"A what? Ava, that's impossible."

Tears bloomed. "I thought you of all people would hear me out." She turned away.

"I'm sorry, Ava." He reached out and touched her shoulder, only inches from her smooth, soft neck and the straggling dark curls where her hair had pulled free of the pins. The gurgling of the stream seemed quite loud. He jerked his hand back. "Look, please tell me what's going on. I can't promise I'll believe in ghosts, but just tell me, will you?"

Still with her face turned from him, her voice very low, she said, "I didn't believe it myself. Not at first. I thought it was one of Nickelplate's little tricks."

"Nickelplate?"

"Finney. It's my name for him. Those glasses, the way they gleam—and haven't you heard him when he walks? His pockets are full of something metal. He jingles." She scowled. "I call the fat one Butterball. They are monstrous, both of them. I hate them."

Paul closed his eyes. If she was wrong about being overheard, as he felt sure she must be if she thought her protection came from a ghost, then it wouldn't be long before he would be hearing this conversation replayed, probably as part of his exit interview.

I wonder if I'll get severance. . . .

"The voice whispered in my ear," Ava was saying. "At night, while I lay in bed. As I said, I thought it was one of their tricks and I did not reply. Not at first."

"You heard a voice in your sleep. . . ?"

"It was not a dream, Mr. Jonas. Dear Paul." She smiled shyly. "I am not so foolish. It spoke to me very softly, but I was quite awake. I pinched myself to make sure!" She held up her pale forearm to show him where she had done it. "But I thought it a trick. My father's employees are always saying vile things to me. If he knew, he would surely have them discharged, wouldn't he?" She almost seemed to be pleading. "But I never tell him, because I am afraid he would not believe me—would think it merely girlish spite. Then they would make it even more difficult for me, perhaps discharge you and bring in some horrible old woman or cruel old man to be my tutor, who knows?" She scowled. "That fat one, Mudd, he told me once that he would love to get me into the Yellow Room one day." She shivered. "I do not even know what that is, but it sounds dreadful. Do you know?"

Paul shrugged uncomfortably. "Can't say that I do. But what are you telling me? A voice spoke to you? And said that we're safe to speak here?"

"He is a lonely ghost, if that's what he is—a little boy, I think, perhaps a foreigner. He speaks that way, very seriously, very strangely. He told me he had been watching me and he was sorry I was so lonely. He said he wanted to be my friend." She shook her head in slow wonder. "It was so odd! It was more than just a voice—it was as though he stood right by me! But although it was dark, there was enough light to see the room was empty."

Paul was more than ever convinced that something was gravely wrong, but had not the slightest idea of what to do about it. "I know you don't think it was a dream, Ava, but . . . but it must have been. I just can't believe in ghosts."

"He hid me. He told me to go out for a walk in the evening, and that he would show me how he could keep me safe from being found. And he did! I went for a walk here in the wood and soon there were maids all over the garden and tramping through the trees. Even Finney came and joined in the search—he was very angry when they finally discovered me sitting on a stone doing my sewing. 'I frequently go for walks in the late afternoon, Mr. Finney,' I told him. 'Why are you so upset?' He could not admit that whatever methods they used for spying on me had failed, of course—he merely made an excuse, something urgent that he needed to speak to me about, but it was transparently a ruse."

"But is that enough. . . ?" Paul began.

"And last night my friend showed me the rooms where you live," she said hurriedly. "I know, it is a most terrible incursion on your privacy. I apologize. They are much less grand than I had suspected, I must say. And your furniture is all very smooth and plain—nothing like what I have in my house at all."

"What do you mean, showed you?"

"The mirror through which my father speaks to me, when he bothers to do so—it has never been of any other use, but last night my friend used it to show me you, dear Mr. Jonas." She gave him a girlishly wicked little flash of her teeth. "I am grateful, for my modesty and yours, that you were fully dressed the entire time."

"You saw me?" Paul was dumbfounded. She had stumbled on some way to use the one-way wallscreen in her study to connect to the general house surveillance.

"You were watching something on the wall—a moving picture of your own. It had animals in it. You were wearing a gray robe. Drinking a glass of something—wine, perhaps?"

Paul had a dim recollection of having half-watched some kind of nature documentary. The other details were correct, too. His earlier worry was growing into something far larger and more frightening. Had someone hacked into the house system? Could it be some elaborate precursor to a kidnapping attempt? "This . . . this friend of yours . . . Did he tell you his name? Did he tell you what . . . what he wanted?"

"He has told me no name. I am not sure he remembers his name, if he had one." Her face grew solemn. "He is so lonely, Paul. So lonely!"

He was dimly aware that she was using his first name now, that some crucial barrier had been breached between them, but at this moment it seemed the smallest of his worries. "I don't like it, Ava." Another thought occurred to him. "You talk to your father? In the mirror?"

She nodded slowly, her eyes now focused on the slow-swaying branches high above. "He is such a busy man. He always says he wishes he could come to see me, it is only that there are so many demands on his time." She tried to smile. "But he speaks to me often. I'm sure that if he knew how his employees treat me, he really would be quite angry."

Paul sat back, trying to make sense of it all. He himself had only once had a face-to-face interview with Jongleur—or face-to-screen, to be more accurate—and had felt fairly sure that the dapper, sixtyish man who had quizzed him sharply about his daughter's habits and behavior was not a true image: no anti-aging technology in the world could make more than a century and a half look like that. Still, it was one thing for the man to keep up a facade for employees—but his own daughter?

"Has he ever come to see you? Ever? In person?" She shook her head, still staring at the light bleeding through the leaves.

This is too bizarre. Ghosts. A father who only appears in a mirror. What in the bloody hell am I doing in a madhouse like this?

"We have to get back," he said aloud. "I don't care if anyone can see us or not—it's too long for us to be missing, out of the house."

"Whatever they use to spy on us," she said blithely, "they will only see us having a lesson here outside, you reading and me making notes." She grinned. "My friend promised me."

"Even so." He stood up. "This is all a bit too strange for me, Ava."

"But I want to talk to you," she said, her wide-eyed face suddenly anxious again. "Truly talk. Don't leave, Paul! I . . . I am lonely, too."

Her hand, he suddenly realized, was gripping his. Helplessly, he allowed himself to be tugged back into a sitting position once more. "Talk about what, Ava? I know you're lonely—I know this is a terrible life for you, in some ways. But there's nothing I can do. I'm just an employee myself, and your father is a very powerful man." But was it true, he wondered? Were there not laws of some kind? Even a rich man's child had rights—was there not some parental responsibility to allow one's offspring to live in the century into which she had been born? It was hard to think: the noise of the stream was so insistent, the light beneath the trees so oddly diffuse, as though he labored under some kind of supernatural glamour.

What should I do? Quit and file, a lawsuit? Take it to UN Human Rights? Wasn't Finney pretty much warning me about that when he hired me? A sudden thought, like a splash of icy water—What really happened to the last tutor? They were displeased with her, they said. Very displeased.

The grip of Avialle Jongleur's pale fingers had not diminished. When his eyes met hers, he saw for the first time the true desperation, almost madness, under the girlish flightiness.

"I need you, Paul. I have no one—no one real."

"Ava, I. . . ."

"I love you, Paul. I have loved you since you first came to my house. Now we are truly alone and I can tell you. Can't you love me, too?"

"Jesus." He pulled away, shocked and almost ill with sadness. She was crying, but her face held both misery and something harder and sharper, something as fierce as anger. "Ava, don't be silly. I can't . . . we can't. You're my pupil. You're still a child!"

He turned to go. Even in his confusion he found himself stepping carefully over the ring of white, fleshy mushrooms.

"A child!" she said. "A child could not hurt for you the way I do—ache for you."

Paul hesitated, compassion battling with quiet terror. "You don't know what you're saying, Ava. You've met almost no one. You've had nothing to read but old books. It's understandable . . . but it just can't be."

"Don't go." Her voice rose to a raw pitch. "You must stay here!"

Feeling like nothing less than a traitor, he turned and walked away.

"I am not a child!" she shouted from inside the magic circle. "How can I be a child, when I have already had a child of my own. . . ?"

 

 

The long skein of memory abruptly tore and was gone. Ravaged, feeling a regret so fierce it was almost physical pain, Paul fell from the recovered past into the darkly fractured now.

 

 

The first thing he realized as he sat up, heart pounding, was that he could still hear rushing water, even though the echo of Ava's last bizarre pronouncement was completely gone. The second realization, which followed a split-instant later, was that he was sitting on the ground at the foot of an immense, impossibly huge tree.

"Oh, God!" he groaned, and for a moment hid his face in his hands, fighting the urge to weep. When he pulled his hands away the tree was still there. "Oh, God, not again!" The rough cylinder that rose beside him was as wide as an office tower, the gray bark stretching up what must have been hundreds of meters in the air before the first branches spread out from the central column. But there was something odd about the spectacle that only the massive disorientation of waking from the memory-dream had prevented him realizing immediately.

There was not one gigantic tree as in his first battlefield hallucination, a single magical pillar stretching up to the clouds: there were hundreds, all around him.

Blinking, he stood up, slipping a little on the loose ground.

It's real, he thought. It's all real—or at least it's no dream this time. He turned slowly, taking in the details he had not been able to absorb upon opening his eyes. It was not just the trees that were titanic. From where he stood, perched on a raised mountain of leaf fragments and loose soil, he could see that everything around him was immense—even the blades of grass were ten meters high, bellying in the breeze like narrow green sails. Farther away, through a stand of swaying flowers each as large as the rose window of a cathedral, lay an expanse of green water, the source of the pervasive rushing noise—water wide as an ocean, but rippling around huge sticks and house-size stones in a way that told him it was actually a river.

I've shrunk. What in the bloody hell is going on? He struggled for a moment, trying to regain some of the perspective lost by the surge of returning memory. Before what happened that day in the fairy ring came back to me, where was I?

On the mountaintop. With Renie and Orlando and all the rest. And with God, or the Other, or whatever that was. Then the angel came—the other Ava came—and . . . and what? He shook his head. Who's doing these things to me? What did I do to deserve this?

He looked around for his companions, wondering if any of them had wound up in this place with him, but other than the mighty river, nothing stirred unless the wind moved it. He was alone among the oversized stones and trees.

This must be the bugworld place Renie and the others told me about. His attention was suddenly drawn to a round rock only a few paces away, a near-spherical pebble about his own size, half-buried in the mulchy slope. He had glanced at it briefly in his first inspection . . . but now it was uncurling.

Startled, Paul scrambled a few steps up the slippery hill, back toward the trunk of the gigantic tree, but when he recognized the unfolding shape, a gray-brown shell in close-fitting segments, he felt a little better.

It's just a wood louse. A pillbug, as some called them—harmless, inoffensive. Though relieved, he was still uncomfortable seeing something usually found huddled in a pea-size ball under a plant pot now swollen to his own dimensions. A moment later, as the unfolded wood louse rolled over onto its belly and its dozens of legs stretched out to steady it on the uneven ground, he saw that the limbs were all different lengths, and that many of them ended in awkward hands with stumpy, disturbingly manlike fingers.

A chill ran through him as the creature reared up. Worse than the fingered hands was the front of the thing's head, a dim parody of a human face, as though parts not meant to serve such purposes had been crushed together into a mask—a brow-ridge above a dark, eyeless flatness on either side of the hint of a nose, a raggedly gaping mouth framed by tiny, atrophied mandibles.

Paul stumbled back as the thing lurched toward him, its strange arms reaching out like a crippled beggar's. So strongly did its pathetic, misformed face and halting gait speak of supplication that when it moaned "Fooood!" at him in a voice clearly not designed for human speech, he began to raise his hands in the same show of helplessness he had guiltily displayed to the itinerants of Upper Street back in London. Then a half dozen more of the creatures came rustling and squirming up out of the mulch, pushing their way to the surface to join the first in its pursuit, all crying, "Food! Foooood!" and Paul Jonas realized that the first mutation had not been begging, but ringing the family dinner bell.

First:
A VOYAGE IN THE HEART

"Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe-
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew."

—Eugene Field, 1850-1895

CHAPTER 1
Strange Bedfellows

NETFEED/NEWS: Little League Hostages Freed—Angry Father Killed

(visual: body of Wilkes beside camper van)

VO: Gerald Ray Wilkes, like many Little League parents, thought his son's team was victimized by a bad call. Unlike most of them, though, Wilkes decided to take drastic action. After beating the unpaid umpire unconscious, he forced the opposing team of eleven- and twelve-year-olds into his van at gunpoint, then led authorities on a two-state chase. He was eventually stopped by a roadblock outside Tompkinsville, Kentucky, where he was shot when he refused to surrender. . . .

 

Renie dodged Sam's first blow and ducked the second almost as easily, but the third bounced hard off the side of her head. Renie cursed and leaned away. Sam was crying and swinging blindly, but Renie didn't want to take any chances—if the sim body was a fair representation of her real self, Sam Fredericks was a strong, athletic girl. Renie grabbed her around the waist and threw her to the strangely soapy ground, then struggled to secure the girl's arms in a clinch. She failed, and was slapped on the side of the head again. Renie was having trouble keeping her own anger in check.

"Damn it, Sam, stop! That's enough!"

She finally managed to grab one of the girl's arms and used the leverage to shove Sam's head down against the ground, then climbed atop her and pulled her other arm up behind her back. For a moment the girl bucked, trying to throw her off, then her limbs went slack and her weeping took on a deeper, more heartbroken sound.

Renie kept her weight on Sam for almost a minute, until she felt the girl's convulsive sobbing begin to gentle. Hoping the worst was over, she took the risk of letting go one of the girl's arms so she could rub the spot where Sam had hit her. Her jaw clicked as she worked it. "Jesus Mercy, girl, I think you broke my face."

Sam twisted her head back to look at Renie, eyes wide. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" She burst into tears again.

Renie stood up. The skimpy strips of cloth she wore had nearly been pulled off her body in the struggle, as had Sam's, and both of them were streaked with pseudo-dirt. Some people would pay a lot to see this kind of thing, Renie thought sourly. Back at Mister J's, they'd put a lot of good coding into this effect—half-naked women wrestling in the dirt. "Get up, girl," she said aloud. "We're supposed to be looking for rocks, remember?"

Sam rolled over and stared up at the odd gray sky, face wet, eyes desolate. "I won't do it, Renie! I can't do it—even if you break both my arms. He's a murderer. He killed Orlando!"

Renie silently counted to ten before speaking. "Look, Sam, I let you scream at me—I even let you hit me and I didn't smack you back, no matter how much I wanted to. Do you think this feels good?" She touched her tender jaw. "It's been difficult for all of us. But we're going with that nasty old man because we have to—and I'm not going to leave you here. End of discussion. Now, are you going to make me tie you up and carry you all the way down this damned mountain, tired as I am?" Suddenly realizing that she was indeed exhausted, she slumped down next to the girl. "Are you really going to do that to me?"

Sam looked at her solemnly, struggling for self-control. Her breath hitched; she waited until she could speak. "I'm sorry, Renie. But how can we go anywhere with . . . with. . . ?"

"I know. I hate the bastard—I'd like to throw him off the mountain myself. But we're going to have to live with Felix Jongleur until we get some answers to what's going on. What's that old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?" Renie squeezed the girl's arm. "This is a war, Sam. Not just a single battle. Putting up with that terrible man . . . well, it's like being a spy behind foreign lines or something. We have to do it because we have a bigger purpose."

Sam looked down, unable to hold Renie's gaze. "Chizz," she said after long moments, but she sounded like death. "I'll try. But I'm not going to talk to him."

"Fine." Renie clambered to her feet. "Come on. I didn't just bring you out here to talk to you alone. We still have to. . . ." She broke off as a shape moved slowly around one of the broken spikes of stone which were the primary features of the barren landscape. The handsome young man who stood there said nothing, but only stared back, empty-eyed as a goldfish in a bowl.

"What the hell do you want?" Renie asked him.

The dark-haired man did not answer for a moment. "I . . . am Ricardo Klement," he said at last.

"We know." Just because he was brain-damaged didn't mean he had earned any of Renie's sympathy. Before the Ceremony went awry, he had been another one of the Grail murderers, just like Jongleur. "Go away. Leave us alone." Klement blinked slowly. "It is good . . . to be alive." After another pause he turned and disappeared among the rocks.

"This is so utterly horrible," Sam said weakly. "I . . . I don't want to be here anymore, Renie."

"Neither do I." Renie patted her shoulder. "That's why we have to keep going, find our way home. No matter how much we want to give up." She grabbed Sam's arm and squeezed again, trying to make her hear, force her to understand. "No matter how much. Now come on, girl, get on your feet—let's go find some more rocks."

 

!Xabbu was using the stones they had already gathered to construct a wall around Orlando's naked sim, something that looked more like a lidless coffin than a cairn. The pseudo-stones, like the rest of the environment on the black mountain, were slowly changing: with every hour that passed they looked less like the thing they were supposed to be, more like a sort of cursory 3D sketch. Orlando's Achilles sim, though, had retained its almost supernatural realism: lying in the improvised tomb, he did indeed look like a fallen demigod.

Confronted with her friend's empty shell, Sam was crying again. "He is dead, isn't he? I keep wanting it not to be true, but that's probably how everyone feels, right?"

Renie recalled the achingly bleak months after her mother's death. "Yes, it is. You'll be seeing him, hearing him, only he won't be there. But it gets better after a while."

"It'll never get better. Never." Sam leaned down to touch Orlando's stony cheek. "But he is dead, isn't he? Really, really dead."

Renie was finding it almost as difficult as Sam to contemplate leaving behind a body that still looked so full of life. There had been other strange signs too. Unlike all the other sims she had seen whose living owners had died, Orlando's garments had remained soft and supple despite the marble-like solidity of the body beneath. This strange state of affairs had even made Renie wonder for a while if he might not still be living, just lost somehow in his own deep coma back in real life, but numerous surreptitious experiments—performed when Sam was otherwise distracted so as not to raise her hopes—had made Renie as certain as she could ever be in this strange place that there was no animation left in that petrified form.

Orlando's last gift to them had allowed Renie and Sam to salvage enough cloth to make crude garments, which helped Renie feel a little less vulnerable in the presence of the cold-eyed Jongleur and the vacantly childish Klement. In turning over Orlando's stiffened sim to untangle the remains of his tattered chiton, they had even found his broken sword, the hilt still bearing a few inches of blade, which had made it much easier to turn the dirty white fabric into loincloths and crude bandeau tops.

The damaged sword was the only weapon among the mountaintop survivors, perhaps the only weapon in this entire simworld, and obviously far too valuable a tool to leave behind. Renie would have preferred to carry it herself, trusting her own wariness to keep it from falling into Jongleur's hands, but Sam had been so pathetically grateful to have some keepsake from Orlando that Renie had not had the heart to argue very much; Sam now wore it thrust through the waist of her loincloth. With only a bit more than a hand's breadth of blade left, it would not make much of a weapon, although it had given Renie a nasty scratch on her leg while she and Sam had been wrestling. Still, she had to admit that in such spare circumstances the shattered blade had the look of a legendary object.

Renie shook her head, irritated at herself for getting mystical. Undecaying body or not, their friend was still dead. Orlando's sword might once have been the scourge of an imaginary gaming world, but now it would be used for digging or for sawing wood . . . if they ever found any. As for the miraculous cloth, it had been turned into a pair of primitive bikinis from a bad caveman flick. (!Xabbu had refused to take any of the tiny amount of fabric to clothe his own nakedness, and when Renie had offered some to Jongleur, more to protect her and Sam's own sensibilities than as a kindness, he had only laughed.)

So we'll head down the mountain this way, she thought. Three naked men and two women looking like something out of a Neandertal lingerie advertisement. And for all we know, we're the only people left alive in this whole virtual universe . . . except for Dread. Oh, yes, we're in great shape. . . .

!Xabbu took the new stones they had collected, but he seemed distracted. Before asking him why, Renie made sure Jongleur was out of earshot. The master of the Grail Brotherhood stood some distance away, staring out into the weirdly depthless sky from the rim of the cliff. Renie couldn't help wondering again what it would feel like to shove him over the edge.

"You look worried," she told !Xabbu as he shored up the walls around Orlando's body. "How are we supposed to cover the top of this, by the way?"

"I am worried because I do not think we have time to do that. I think we must leave Orlando's grave this way and begin our journey soon. I am sorry—I wanted to do better."

"What are you talking about?"

"We have all seen what has happened to this place just since we have been here—how things are losing their edges, their color. While I was out looking for more stones, I discovered something that worried me. The trail is losing truth, too."

She shook her head, confused. "What do you mean?"

"Maybe I have used the wrong word. I am talking of the trail which we climbed to come here, with Martine and Paul Jonas and the others, before everything became so strange—the trail along the mountainside. It is changing as everything else here is changing, Renie, but there was not much . . . what is the word? There was not much truth, much . . . reality to it in the first place. Already it looks old and blurry."

Despite the permanent room-temperature ambience, Renie felt a chill. Without that path they would be trapped on top of a miles-high mountain that was rapidly losing its coherence. And what if gravity was the last thing to go?

"You're right. We leave soon." She turned to Sam, who was brooding over Orlando's empty sim. "Did you hear that? We're running out of time here."

The girl was dry-eyed now, but the composure did not go very deep. It was still strange for Renie to see Sam's true face. It had been even stranger to discover that Sam had a black father, and a distinct African look to her features despite her tawny hair. Her teenage dialect had been so compellingly middle-American that even Renie herself had unconsciously typed the girl (even when everyone had still thought her a boy) as white. "He still looks so . . . perfect," Sam said quietly. "What's going to happen to him if this place goes away?"

Renie shook her head. "I don't know. But remember, that's not him, Sam. That's not even his body. Wherever Orlando is, he must be in a better place than this."

"We need a little rest before we go anywhere," !Xabbu said. "We have none of us slept since the night before Troy was destroyed, and that seems a long time ago. It will be no help to hurry down the mountain if we are not making good choices—if we stumble and fall because we are so tired."

Renie started to object, but of course he was right: they were all exhausted—in fact, it was !Xabbu himself who usually got the least sleep and insisted on taking the most strenuous duties. It might only be a sim and not his true body, but he was still sagging with weariness. Even Sam's emotional volatility, unsurprising after what they had all been through, might be improved with rest.

"Okay," she said. "We'll take a few hours to sleep. But only if you go first."

"I am used to being without sleep, Renie. . . ."

"I don't care if you're used to it. It's your turn. I'll stand first watch, then I'll wake Sam up for the second. So just lie down, will you?"

!Xabbu shrugged and smiled. "If you say so, Beloved Porcupine."

"Stop that." She looked around. "It would be nice if it ever got dark here." She remembered the terror of sudden nightfall in the other unfinished land. "Well, maybe not. Anyway, just close your eyes."

"You could sleep too, Renie."

"And not have anyone keeping an eye on Jongleur? Chance not, as the young people say."

!Xabbu curled up on the ground. Trained by his nomadic people to snatch the opportunity when it was available, within moments his breathing slowed and his muscles relaxed.

Renie reached out once and touched his hair, still awed to have the old !Xabbu back again. Or a virtual version of him. She glanced at Felix Jongleur, still staring out into the sky like a ship's captain watching the weather, then at Sam, crouched silently beside Orlando's cairn. Although her knee was touching Renie's leg, the girl seemed farther away than Jongleur.

"You get some sleep too," Renie told her. "Sam? Do you hear me?"

The girl looked up, a flash of anger on her face. "You're not my mother, seen?"

Renie sighed. "No, I'm not. But I am a grown woman and I'm trying to help. And if you ever want to see that mother of yours again, you must stay alert and healthy."

Sam's look softened. "Sorry. Sorry I'm being so stupid. I just . . . I want this all to be over. I want to go home."

"We're doing our best. Lie down for a while, even if you don't sleep."

"Chizz." She stretched out beside Orlando's body and closed her eyes, one hand touching the low stone wall. It gave Renie a superstitious shiver to see it.

I can't even remember, she thought, what it felt like when life was normal.

 

Both !Xabbu and Sam were still sleeping soundly after something like an hour had passed, as deeply as her brother Stephen had used to sleep after a long day of childish hyperactivity. Sam was snoring quietly, and Renie was reluctant to wake her up. She felt a brief desire for a cigarette, and realized with surprise that it had been a long time since she had thought about smoking.

Just too damned busy trying not to get killed, she decided. Effective, but there must be easier ways to quit.

Jongleur had his back against a rock some ten meters away and appeared to be sleeping himself, or at least his head was sunk on his chest and his eyes were closed. Renie could not help thinking he looked like a vulture waiting with the patience of millions of years of blind evolution for something to die. The fifth member of the involuntary fellowship, Ricardo Klement, had not reappeared, and even though it disturbed Renie to think about him trudging around the mountaintop, God only knew what kind of thoughts flickering through his damaged brain, it was better than having to look at him.

It was the mountaintop itself that now caught Renie's attention. For all that had happened here, for all that she and !Xabbu had worried about its ongoing dissolution, she had not really looked it over very carefully. Sleepless in the eternal, directionless light, she let her gaze wander across the spiky terrain.

The mountain was not only losing detail, it was losing color as well—or, since it had originally been all the same shiny black material, it might have been more precise to say it was gaining colors. The scumble of dark, unreflective soil beneath her had not changed too much, but the uneven peaks and pillars of stone were less solidly black, as though someone had thrown water on an ink drawing before it was entirely dry. Some of the spikes of rock had merely lightened to dark gray, but others now showed threads of other hues, purples and nightsky blues, and even the suggestion here and there of a dark brown like dried blood.

But that doesn't really make any sense, Renie told herself. That's not how virtual landscapes decay. If they don't just go nonfunctional, then some of the components might work longer than others and you get an odd effect like a schematic or a wire-frame after all the other detail is gone, but you don't just have color wash out. Things don't go blurry. It's crazy.

But here they were, and what hadn't been crazy since they'd first crossed with the old hacker Singh into this virtual madhouse of a universe? Nothing here behaved as normal code should behave.

Renie squinted. The mountaintop seemed quite real—in some ways more so than when they had first come—but there was no question that the place was losing coherence. Some of the jutting spikes were little more than blobs now, and in other places the canyons that cut into the rim of the valley had begun to sag along the edges like pudding.

It's not a real landscape—in fact, it never was. The more she looked at its sparse verticality and blurry gray sky, dead as a bad piece of theater scenery, the more it seemed like something purely of the imagination. An Expressionist painting, perhaps. A cartoon. A dream.

Yes, that's what it truly looks like, she thought. And that's what the other unfinished place looked like too. Not like real places, but like one of those landscapes that the brain throws out as a backdrop for a dream.

A thought suddenly came to her, something as strange and prickly as static electricity, and she found herself sitting up straight. After a few minutes, with other ideas grabbing onto the first as though magnetized, she badly wanted to share. She gave !Xabbu a gentle shake. He came awake immediately.

"Renie? Is it my turn? Is everything. . . ?"

"I'm fine, I just . . . I had an idea. Because of what you always say. A dream is dreaming us, you know?"

"What do you mean?" He drew himself up until he could look closely at her face.

"You always say that a dream is dreaming us, right? And I always thought of that as being, I don't know, philosophical."

"He laughed quietly. "Is that a bad word, Renie?"

"Don't make fun of me, please. I'm admitting my own faults. I'm an engineer, for God's sake—or at least that's my training. I tend to think of things like philosophy as being what you do after the real work is finished."

The look he gave her was amused, crinkling around the eyes. "And so?"

"I was just thinking about this place and how much like a dream it is. How nothing is quite normal, but in a dream that doesn't matter because you're waiting for something important to happen. And then I suddenly just thought, what if this place is a dream?"

!Xabbu cocked his head. "What do you mean?"

"Not a dream, really, but strange and unreal for the same reason that a dream is. Why is it that things happen all funny in dreams, things look funny? That nothing is ever quite . . . complete? Because your subconscious isn't actually very good at recreating the stuff the conscious mind usually sees, or else it just doesn't care."

Sam stirred in her sleep, disturbed by the urgency in Renie's tone, so she dropped her voice to a whisper. "I think the Other built this place. I think it meant us to come here, and it built this place out of its own mind, like a dream. What did Jonas call it? A metaphor." Spoken aloud, it did not seem as obviously true. It was hard to conceive of their own existence having any importance to that vast, suffering figure.

"Made this from its mind? But if this Other runs the system, then it has access to anything—all of those worlds, each one perfect." !Xabbu frowned, thinking. "It seems strange it should build anything so unreal."

"But that's just it," Renie said excitedly. "It didn't build those other worlds. Those were made by people—programmers, engineers, real people who know what a real world is supposed to look like, and how to make even an imaginary world look real. But what does the Other know? It's just an artificial intelligence of some kind, right? It sees patterns, but it's not a human. It doesn't know what would seem real to us and what wouldn't, just the general shape of things. It would be like giving a book to a very intelligent child who can't read, then telling him, "Now you make one of these books for yourself." The kid might have all the right letters to use from the one you gave him, but he couldn't make them into a story. So it would be a weird thing that just looked like a book. Get it?"

!Xabbu thought about it for a long moment. "But why? Why would the Other create a new world?"

"I don't know. Maybe just for us. Martine said she'd met it before, remember? That she'd been part of an experiment with it when she was a girl? Suppose the thing recognized her. Or maybe for some reason it just wanted to see what we were. This is an alien intelligence we're talking about, so who knows? It might be artificial, but it seems to be a lot more complex than any ordinary neural net."

Renie sensed something at her shoulder and turned. Felix Jongleur stood over them, his face hardened in a frown. "We have waited long enough. It's time to begin our descent. Wake the girl."

"We were just. . . ."

"Wake her. We are leaving now."

Ordinarily, faced with a naked middle-aged man, Renie would have been only too happy to keep her eyes on his face, but it was surprisingly difficult to meet Jongleur's cold gaze. Now that the first heat of her rage at the man had begun to dissipate she was discovering an uncomfortable fact: he frightened her badly. He had a deep, hard strength, the kind of unbending core that served nothing but its own will. His dark eyes showed not an iota of human concern, but there was nothing animalistic in them—rather, he seemed a creature that had moved past simple humanity. She had heard politicians and financial titans described as implacable, as forces of nature, and she had always seen it as just a flattering metaphor. Now, faced with the master of the Grail in person, she was beginning to understand that a black charisma like his owed nothing to artistic descriptions.

She darted a look at !Xabbu, but her friend's thoughts were hidden: when he chose to be, he was just as inscrutable in his own skin as he had been behind the mask of the baboon sim.

Jongleur turned his back on them and moved a few paces away, the picture of impatience controlled. Renie leaned over and nudged Sam Fredericks awake.

"We have to go, Sam."

The girl roused herself slowly. She crouched for a moment, then her eyes swung to Orlando's body lying in its close-fitting coffin of stones.

"!Xabbu," Renie whispered. "Go bother Jongleur for a minute so Sam can say goodbye to her friend. Ask the old bastard some questions—not that he'll give you any answers, but it will keep him busy."

!Xabbu nodded. He walked to Jongleur and said something, then swept his arm out toward the pearly, horizonless sky, exactly like someone discussing the weather or the view. Renie turned back to Sam.

"We have to leave him behind now."

The girl nodded. "I know," she said quietly, staring down at Orlando. "He was so good. Not just nice—sometimes he was kind of hardcase, majorly sarcastic. But he really wanted . . . w–wanted to be g–g–good. . . ."

Renie put an arm around her. There was nothing to be done, really.

"Goodbye, Orlando," Renie said at last, quietly. "Wherever you are." She led Sam away from the cairn, fussing at the girl's hair and ragged garments to distract her. "You'd better get your brain-damaged friend," she told Jongleur, "because he's wandering around out there somewhere. We're leaving now."

Something even darker and colder than usual moved across the man's face. "You think I should go fetch Klement as though he were some schoolyard chum of mine? You are a fool. I need the three of you, so we will all go together, but I see no such use for him. If he wants to join us, then I will not stop him—unless he does something that endangers my safety—but if he stays here instead while this place reverts to raw code, it matters little to me."

He turned and strode away toward the trail down the mountain, making himself the leader by default.

"Such pleasant company," Renie muttered. "Okay, it's time. Let's go."

 

The great bowl-shaped valley where the giant form of the Other had lain was empty now, one side collapsed in a long, ragged edge, as though something had taken a bite out of it. Jongleur walked ahead of them all, ramrod straight, his posture and stride those of a man even younger than the middle age his looks suggested. Renie wondered if the hard-planed face was really Jongleur's own, as it had looked sometime a century or more ago. If so, it just added to one of the strangest mysteries of all—why had they wakened here with sims so much like their real bodies?

It doesn't make sense. When we first entered the network, I had the sim I'd chosen, and so did T4b and Sweet William, but Martine was just in a generic body from Atasco's simulation and !Xabbu was a baboon. What the hell was that about? And Orlando and Fredericks had their own choice of sims, avatars from their adventure game—but didn't Fredericks tell me that Orlando's sim was not quite the same as usual? Older or younger or something?

But just as their original sims showed no obvious pattern, the fact that they now wore bodies much like their own true forms seemed just as strange. Could we actually be in our real bodies? she thought wildly. But she could remember quite clearly that moment of awakening in the tank in her true physical form, and although the difference was subtle, it was a difference. The shape she now wore might look like her real body, down to small details, scars, and even the knobbiness of a knuckle she had broken in childhood, but it wasn't real at all.

So what's going on? If it's the Other's dream, why do we look like this? It's like magic. Renie blew out air, frustrated. No matter how strange and unrelated the facts seemed, there had to be patterns, but she couldn't see any of them yet.

 

As the small company reached the outermost pinnacles of the mountaintop, Renie noticed that Ricardo Klement had at some point joined the party, following a hundred meters or so behind them like an unquiet ghost.

The trail still curved down from the summit and along the shiny black slope, apparently all the way down into the mysteriously glinting clouds that ringed the mountain, but Renie could see that !Xabbu had not exaggerated. The striations that had made the path safe had lost much of their definition, and although the trail itself still seemed substantial, the crispness of its outer edge was gone, as though the stone were some kind of licorice ice cream that had been out of the freezer a little too long.

"I still wonder why the Other would want to bring us to a place like this," she said quietly to !Xabbu as they started down the trail after Jongleur, "And maybe to that first unfinished world, too." She couldn't help remembering how part of the ground in that other world had suddenly vanished, trapping Martine and shearing off T4b's hand. What if the same instability happened here? She decided not to waste time brooding about something she couldn't prevent.

T4b's hand, though—that was an interesting anomaly. It had been replaced by another hand, a glowing thing that had done terrible damage to one of the Grail people, who had seemed otherwise invincible. Could T4b's hand somehow have been replaced by a bit of the Other itself, or at least of its ability to shape the network? A wild-card piece of the operating system at the end of his virtual arm?

She shared the thought with !Xabbu. "But even if the Other made both of these places—carved them out of the raw material of the network, so to speak—it doesn't really tell us anything. If it's been captured or taken over or something by Dread, that might be why this particular construct is starting to lose resolution, but it doesn't explain why that other unfinished world started falling apart underneath us."

!Xabbu cut her off. "Look here. I do not remember the path being like that before." The trail in front of them was suddenly only wide enough for them to pass single file. "We should save our talking and thinking until we have found a wide place on the trail and stopped for the night."

"We're not going to sleep on this mountain, are we?" Sam protested. "It only took us a couple of hours to climb up!"

"Yes," !Xabbu told her, "but I think that was from a spot very high up the mountainside. Going down to the bottom may be a much longer trip."

"If we make it down safely," Renie said, edging past the narrow space and its much too expansive view of the sheer black mountainside below her feet, "then I won't mind if it takes a week."

 

Even after hours of plodding descent, they seemed no closer to the bank of white cloud. They were all tired—Renie, who had not slept, was perhaps the weariest of all. It was not surprising that an accident should happen.

They had reached one of the narrower stretches of trail, not the worst they had seen—in places they had been forced to edge sideways along the path with their backs against the hard stone of the mountainside—but slender enough that two of them could not safely stand side by side. Sam was just behind Renie; !Xabbu and Felix Jongleur were the first and second in line. Klement, who at times had trailed a long way to the rear, was now so close he could reach out and touch the last in line, which for some reason was exactly what he did.

Sam, startled and frightened by Klement's fingers trailing through her hair, lurched forward, trying to push her way past on Renie's inside shoulder. For a moment the two of them tangled; then, trying to give the girl room, Renie put her foot down too far to the outside and the edge of the trail crumbled beneath her like stale bread. For a moment Renie could only flail her arms, a reflex absolutely useless for anything except to increase the odds of dragging Sam over the side as well. Renie shrieked and then tumbled outward, aware even as her heart seemed to stop that the sight of !Xabbu's shoulder and his head turning—far too late to help—was the last of him she would ever see. Then something closed on her wrist like a manacle and she slammed down against the path with her legs dangling over nothingness, her breath smashed out in one great gasp.

In the scrambling and shouting of her companions as they struggled to drag her back over the edge, Renie did not understand until she was safe again that it was Felix Jongleur's hand that had seized her, his wiry body that had kept her from slipping away until !Xabbu and Sam could pull her back to safety.

Stretched on her stomach, blood sizzling through her head like electricity, Renie struggled to refill her lungs. Jongleur looked down on her like a scientist examining a dying lab rat. "I'm not certain I would have bothered to do it for one of your other companions," he said, then turned and continued down the path.

Despite her shock and nausea, Renie spent a long moment trying to decide how she should feel about that.

 

There was no darkness on the mountain, and the strange Van Gogh stars that had hung above them during their ascent did not reappear. That first journey seemed weeks behind them, but Renie thought it must have been less than forty-eight hours since she and !Xabbu and Martine and the rest had emerged from the Troy simulation onto this very trail. Now all those others were gone—vanished or dead. Out of the entire company that had been gathered by Sellars, only three were left: !Xabbu, Sam, and herself.

The climb up the mountain had been brief, but this reverse journey held the promise of being much longer. Depressed by the way the silvery distant clouds seemed to grow no closer, increasingly exhausted, they continued down the trail long past the point of safety, searching for a place to stop. An hour longer than Renie would have believed she was able to walk, they finally reached a fold in the mountainside, a deep elbow joint in the trail a few meters wide and a few meters deep where they could rest away from the cliff face. It was a bleak campsite, without food or water or even fire, since !Xabbu had found nothing anywhere that could be used as fuel, but just the chance to lie down and rest in safety seemed as good to Renie as any meal she had ever eaten. Since her near-fall she had been so frightened she would not move out of arm's reach of the mountain face, and had spent most of the last part of the descent trailing her fingers along the black stone, rubbing her skin raw to make certain that she was on the inside of the path.

Renie made Fredericks curl up at the back of the crevice so that she could put herself between Jongleur and the broken sword Fredericks carried, then laid her own head on !Xabbu's shoulder. Jongleur made a space for himself farther up the cut where he quickly fell asleep sitting against the stone with his chin on his chest. Klement crouched at the opening of the crevice, looking out on the gray sky, his expression quite unreadable.

Renie was asleep within seconds.

 

She was teetering on the edge. Stephen was only a few meters away, a dim shape floating on air currents she could not feel, as though he wore wings; for all his fluttering movements he never came within reach. She thrust her arm out as far as she could and for a moment thought she touched him, but then her footing gave way and she was falling, plunging, with nothing beneath her but shriekingly empty darkness. . . .

". . . You there? Can you . . . me? Renie?"

She fell gasping out of the dream and into a greater madness. Martine's voice was buzzing from her own breast, as though her friend were somehow trapped inside Renie's body. For a long, disoriented moment she could only stare at the black stone walls and the sliver of gray sky before she remembered where she was.

The voice hummed against her skin once more. !Xabbu sat up. Sam stared, groggy and dumbfounded. "Can . . . us? We're . . . bad shape. . . !"

"The lighter!" Renie said. "Jesus Mercy!" She fumbled the device out of the strip of cloth she wore across her chest. "It's Martine—she's alive!" But even as she lifted it up, trying to angle it into the thin light so she could see it and remember the operating sequences they had discovered, a shadow crashed against her and knocked the lighter from her hand, sent it clattering toward the back of the crevice. Felix Jongleur stood over her, fists clenched.

"What the hell are you doing?" she screamed, already scrambling on her hands and knees after the device.

". . . Answer us, Renie," Martine pleaded. Renie's hand closed on the lighter again. "We're . . . without. . . ."

"If you try to activate that," said Jongleur, "I will kill you."

Sam came up from her crouch brandishing Orlando's broken blade. "Leave her alone!"

Jongleur did not even look at her. "I am warning you," he told Renie. "Do not touch it."

Renie was frozen, irresolute. Something in Jongleur's tone told her he would do what he threatened, even with the sword buried in his back. Even so, she leaned slowly toward the lighter, fingers spread. "What's wrong with you?" she growled. "Those are our friends!"

"Martine! Is . . . you, sweetness?" said a new voice—a terrifyingly familiar one, the signal stronger than Martine's, but also slipping in and out. "I've missed . . . you have any of my other . . . with you?"

Renie snatched her hand back as though the lighter had begun to glow white-hot.

"I'm a bit busy . . . old darling, but I'll . . . some friends to find you. Don't move! They'll . . . in minutes. Actually, go . . . move if you want . . . it . . . good."

Dread's buzzing laugh filled the small space. "He's after them!" Renie almost shouted. "We have to help!"

Jongleur curled his fingers into a fist. "No."

After ten seconds had passed in strained silence, Renie reached for the device and picked it up. It seemed cold and inert now, a dead thing. "Those people are our friends," she said furiously, but Jongleur had stepped away, back toward the entrance to the crevice. !Xabbu and Sam stared at him as though he had suddenly sprouted horns and a tail. Only Klement had not moved from the place where he sat silently against the wall.

"Those people have just revealed themselves on an open communication band," Jongleur said. "They have just announced their helplessness—not to mention their position—across the entire Grail channel. But they are not the only ones with access to that channel, as you also heard. If you had tried to give away my position to him, I would have killed you without a moment's hesitation."

Renie stared, hating him, but fearful of his cruel certainty. "And why should we care about that? It's you he wants."

"All the more reason you shall not give me away."

"Really?" She was enraged now by her own cowardice. "Well, you talk big, but there are three of us and only one of you, unless you're expecting help from your idiot friend. As for Dread, he's no worse a threat to us than you are—less, because he's just an ordinary psychopath."

"Ordinary psychopath?" Jongleur lifted an eyebrow. "You know nothing. John Dread with no greater weapon than his bare hands would be one of the most dangerous people in the world, but now he has the power of my entire system at his disposal."

"All right. So he's dangerous. So now he's the little tin god of the Grail network. So what?" Renie pointed a trembling finger. "You and your selfish old friends, destroying children so you could live forever, so you could build yourself the most expensive toy in the history of the world. I hope your friend Dread does bring the whole thing down in flames, even if we go with it. It will be worth it, just to see the last of you."

Jongleur eyed her, then !Xabbu and Sam. The girl cursed under her breath and turned away, but !Xabbu held Jongleur's gaze with little expression until the older man turned back to Renie.

"Be silent and I will tell you something," he said. "I built myself a place. It does not matter what kind of place, but it was something I created for myself, separate from the Grail system. It was my respite when the stress and worry of this project became too much. A system completely removed from the Grail matrix—in fact, a dedicated system, if you know what that is."

"I know what that is," Renie said scornfully. "What's your point?"

"The point is that no one but me could access this virtual environment. Then one day, not long ago, I discovered that someone had accessed it, corrupted it, ruined what I had built there. I only realized after much consideration that the Other itself had penetrated that dedicated system—something it should not have been able to do."

He paused. Renie could make no sense out of what he was saying. "So?"

Jongleur shook his head in mock-sorrow. There was a glint in his eye; Renie realized that the monster was actually enjoying this in some strange way. "I have overestimated you again, I see. Very well, I will explain. The only way the Other could have reached into that environment is through my own system—by stealing or co-opting my own security procedures out of my house system. My personal system, not the Grail system. And now the Other is under the control of John Dread."

Renie's chill had returned. "So . . . so what you're saying is that the Other . . . isn't isolated on the Grail system anymore."

Jongleur's smile stretched his lips but went no farther. "That is correct. So while you consider where your loyalties lie, take this into your counsels. That far-from-ordinary-psychopath Dread not only has control of the most powerful and complex operating system ever developed, that system itself has already managed to reach out of its Grail Project bottle and into my house network. Which means that the Other—and Dread, as its controlling force—can reach anywhere on the global net."

He stepped out of the crevice and onto the path, turned toward the downhill slope, then paused.

"The damage Dread can do here is nothing compared to what he'll do when he discovers his new reach." Jongleur spread his hands wide. "Just imagine. The whole world will be at his fingertips—air traffic control, critical industries, stockpiles of biological weapons, nuclear launch facilities. And as you have already discovered, Johnny Dread is a very, very angry young man."

CHAPTER
Execution Sweet

NETFEED/NEWS: Sect Refuses Marker Gene for Messiah

(visual: Starry Wisdom headquarters, Quito, Ecuador)

VO: The religious sect Starry Wisdom has gone to court to gain an exemption from UN rules on marker genes in human clones. The religious group intends to clone a duplicate of their late leader, Leonardo Rivas Maldonado, but claims that the marker genes the UN mandates to separate clones from originals would compromise their religious rights.

(visual: Maria Rocafuerte, Starry Wisdom spokesperson)

Rocafuerte: "How can we create our loving master again in a body that is sullied by an incorrect gene? We are trying to remake the Vessel of the Living Wisdom to lead us in these final days, but the government wants us to change that vessel for the sake of obtrusive, antireligious regulations."

 

This is so bad, this is so bad, was all Christabel could think.

The van bumped up over the sidewalk and slowed down at the opening, so the soldier who was driving could do something with a big metal box standing there. A woman wearing a bathing suit and a robe, pushing a baby in a stroller along the walkway beside the building, was trying to look in through the van's windows, but it didn't seem like she could see Christabel at all through the glass. After a few seconds the woman turned away. The van rolled down the ramp into darkness.

Christabel knew she must have made a noise, because her daddy leaned over and said "It's just a garage, honey. Don't be afraid. Just a garage for a hotel."

They had been driving for what seemed like a long time, driving out of the town and into a place where there were more hills than houses, so that she had seen the hotel coming for a long time—a big, wide, white building that stretched high up into the air, with flags flying in front. It looked like a nice place, but Christabel did not feel good about it.

The younger soldier sitting across from them looked at her, and for a moment she thought he was going to say something, maybe something kind, but then his mouth got tight and he looked away. Captain Ron, who was also sitting across from them, just looked unhappy, like his stomach hurt.

Where's Mommy? she wondered. Why did she drive away in our van? Why didn't she wait for us?

To keep Mister Sellars a secret, Christabel suddenly knew. Just because her Daddy and Mommy—and this new person, Mr. Ramsey—all knew about him now didn't mean that everyone did.

Something she hadn't really thought about came to her as the van stopped. That means Captain Ron doesn't know about Mister Sellars either—about how he came with us in our car, with that terrible boy, too. None of the army men know about it. That's why Daddy kept saying not to talk to anyone.

She had to hold her breath, because the being-scared suddenly felt so big. She hadn't understood. She had thought Daddy was angry at Captain Ron, angry because Ron didn't want him to take time off from work. Now she knew that he wasn't angry, he was keeping a secret. A secret she might have told one of the army men if they had asked her.

"Are you all right, honey?" her father asked. The van doors hissed open, and one of the soldiers stepped out. "Just take the man's hand when you get down."

Mr. Ramsey leaned close to her ear. "I'll be right behind you, Christabel. Your daddy and I will make sure everything's going to be okay."

But Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn't know they'd be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids.

Especially to little kids.

"Very slick," Captain Ron said as the door slid open in the garage wall, but he didn't sound happy. "Our own private elevator to the exec suite."

What kind of sweet? Christabel started to cry. Exec. She'd heard the word before. She didn't remember just what it meant, but she was pretty sure it must mean something about executions. She knew about them—she saw more things on the net than her parents knew about. Execution sweet, that was what Captain Ron was really saying. She wondered if it was a poison candy bar or something that they kept just for bad kids—maybe a poisoned apple, like in "Snow White."

Her father put his hand in her hair, touching the back of her head. "Honey, don't cry. Everything will be all right. Ron, does she have to come along? Can't we put this off until I can get hold of her mother or someone else to take her?"

Christabel grabbed her daddy's hand, hard. Captain Ron just shrugged, a big, heavy movement of his shoulders. "I got orders, Mike."

It was crowded and hot with all of them in the elevator—herself, her father, Mr. Ramsey, Captain Ron, and the two other soldiers—but Christabel didn't want the ride to end, didn't want to see what an execution sweet looked like. When the doors pinged and opened, she started crying again.

The room inside wasn't what she expected, which had been something like one of the terrible gray-painted prisons she'd seen on netshows, like the one Zelmo and Nedra had been in on Hate My Life. Captain Ron had kept calling it a hotel, and that's what it looked like, a big, big hotel room with a floor as big as their lawn at home, covered in pale blue carpet, with three couches and tables and a wallscreen that took up one huge wall, and a kitchen at the far end, and doors in the other walls. There was even a vase of flowers on one of the tables. The only thing that seemed as bad as she had expected was the really big man in dark glasses who stood in the doorway waiting for them. Another man who looked a lot like him was sitting on one of the couches, although now he stood up. They both were dressed in funny black suits, tight and a little shiny, and both had things strapped on their chests and hips that looked like guns or something even worse and more complicated and scarier.

"ID," said the man waiting at the door in a low slow voice.

"And just who the hell are you?" Captain Ron asked. For the first time his unhappiness seemed like something else—like he was angry, or maybe even scared.

"ID," the big man in the wraparound glasses said again, just the same, like he was one of the store window advertisements in Seawall Center. The soldiers with Captain Ron moved a little. Christabel saw one of them drop his hand to his side, near where his gun was. Christabel's heart began to go really, really fast.

"Hang on," her daddy said, "let's all just. . . ." One of the doors on the far side of the big room swung open. A man with a mustache and short gray hair walked out. Christabel could see a whole other big room behind him, with a bed and a desk and a big window with the curtains drawn. The man wore a bathrobe and striped pajamas. He was smoking a cigar. For a moment, Christabel thought she had seen him on the net because even in such funny clothes he looked so familiar.

"It's all right, Doyle," the man with the mustache said. "I know Captain Parkins. And Major Sorensen, too—oh, yes."

The big man in black walked back across the room to the nearest couch. He and the other shiny-suit man sat down together, not saying anything, but there was something about them that made Christabel think of a dog pretending to sleep at the end of a leash, just waiting until a kid got close enough to jump at.

"And I even remember you, darlin'." The man in the mustache smiled and leaned forward to pat Christabel on the head. She remembered him then, the tan-faced man in her daddy's office. "What are you doing here, little girl?" Her father's hand tightened on hers, so she didn't pull away from him, but she didn't say anything either.

The man straightened up, still smiling, but when he spoke again his voice was cold, like someone had just opened the freezer door and let the air puff out in Christabel's face. "What's this child doing here, Parkins?"

"I'm . . . I'm sorry, General." Captain Ron had sweat stains under his arms that had got bigger since they had left the elevator. "It was a difficult situation—the girl's mother was out shopping and couldn't be located, so since you said this was going to be informal. . . ."

The general laughed, a snort. "Oh, yes, informal. But I didn't say it was going to be a goddamn picnic, did I? What, are we going to have father-daughter sack races? Hmm? Captain Parkins, were you thinking we should have a picnic?"

"No, sir."

Mr. Ramsey cleared his throat. "General . . . Yacoubian?"

The man's eyes swiveled across to him. "And you know what?" the general said softly. "I definitely do not recognize you, citizen. So maybe you should just get back on the elevator and get the hell out of my suite."

"I'm a lawyer, General. Major Sorensen is my client."

"Really? This is the first time I've ever heard of a military officer bringing legal representation to a casual meeting with his commanding officer."

Now it was Ramsey who smiled, just a small one. "Clearly you have a broad definition of the word 'casual,' General."

"I'm a brigadier general, sonny. I think you'll find that things have a way of being what I say they are." He turned to Parkins. "All right, Captain, you've done your job. Take your men and get the hell back to whatever you're supposed to be doing. I'll take it from here."

"Sir?" Captain Parkins seemed confused. "But my men, sir . . . you said to bring a couple of MPs. . . ."

"You don't think Doyle and Pilger can handle anything that might come up?" The general shook his head. "Those boys are carrying more armament than a combat helicopter."

"Are they also US Army, General?" asked Ramsey loudly. "For the record?"

"Ask me no questions, lawyer, and I'll tell you no lies," chuckled the general.

Christabel's daddy's hand was trembling on her shoulder, which was making her almost more frightened than anything else that had happened today. Now he finally spoke. "General, there's really no need for either my daughter or Mr. Ramsey to be involved in this. . . ."

"Mike," Ramsey said, "don't give away your rights. . . ."

". . . So I wish you'd just let them go," her father said, ignoring him. "Send them with Captain Parkins, if you like."

The general shook his head. Although his face was very tan and his mustache was very small and neat, he had a crinkly look around his eyes that looked like pictures Christabel had seen of Santa Claus. But she thought that he was more like some kind of backward Santa, someone who instead of bringing presents would come down the chimney and take little boys and girls away in a sack. "Oh, no, I don't think so," he said. "I'm very interested to hear what everyone has to say—even the little girl. So you and your men just paddle off, Captain Parkins. The rest of us have some talking to do." He leaned past them and pushed the gold elevator button in its little frame in the wallpaper.

"If it's just the same with you, sir," Captain Ron said suddenly, "I'll stay. Then if you need Major Sorensen or his daughter taken somewhere, I'll be available. Mike's a friend of mine, sir." He turned quickly to the two soldiers, who were looking very wide-eyed, but still not saying anything. "You and Gentry go down and wait in the van. If I'm not going to need you, I'll call and let you know you can head back to base."

The door hissed open. For a moment everyone just looked at each other, the soldiers, the men in black on the couch, Captain Ron and Ramsey and her daddy and the general. Then the general smiled again. "Fine. You heard the captain, boys." He gestured the soldiers into the elevator. They were still staring out when the door slid closed. For some reason, seeing the young soldiers in their shiny helmets disappear, she felt like she had the first day her mommy had left her alone at kindergarten. She reached up and took her father's hand again and squeezed it tight.

"Make yourselves at home," the general said cheerfully. "I have a rather important conference to finish, but I'll be done in half an hour or so, and then we'll all have a long chat." He turned toward the two men in black. "Make sure our guests are comfortable. But make sure they remain our guests until I'm offline. Gently, though. Gently."

He turned and began to head back toward the bedroom.

"General Yacoubian, sir," Christabel's daddy said. "I want to ask you again if my daughter and Mr. Ramsey could be released. It would just be a lot easier for everyone. . . ."

The general turned around, and Christabel thought his eyes were as bright and strange as a bird's. "Easier? It's not me who has to make things easier, Sorensen. It's not me who has to answer the questions." He started toward the room, then stopped and turned again. "See, someone named Duncan from your office copied me on a request for labwork—something I should have been copied on automatically, but for some reason you held it back from me. Made for interesting reading, I have to say. A bit of scientific analysis you had done on some sunglasses. Very interesting sunglasses, they were, too. Ring a bell?"

Captain Ron looked completely confused, but Christabel's daddy turned as pale as if something had leaked out of him.

"So just sit tight and keep your mouth shut until I'm ready for you." The general smiled again. "You might say some prayers, too, if you know some." He turned and walked back into the bedroom, then shut the door.

There was a long silence. Then one of the men in black, the man called Pilger, said, "If the kid's hungry, there's some peanuts and chocolate in the minibar," before turning back to watch the wallscreen again.

 

 

The thing is, Dulcie told herself, I don't really know him all that well

She was surveying the routine maintenance levels of Dread's system, which he kept in a state rather similar to his household decor—sparse and colorless. Where her own system had the equivalent of notes and unfinished projects lying around everywhere, not to mention all kinds of strange coding bric-a-brac—everything from long out-of-date utilities and code-busters which she'd hung onto just in case she ever bumped into such a system again to algorithmic representations so interesting she saved them almost as objects of beauty—Dread had nothing out of place, nothing that was not absolutely necessary, nothing that gave any hint of his personality at all.

He's so guarded. One of those anal-retentive types. Probably rolls all his socks the same way. But after spending her childhood in her mother's aggressively bohemian care—most mornings young Dulcinea Anwin had not only needed to clear plates of spoiling food from the previous night's dinner party off the kitchen counter before making her own breakfast, but also had to make a circuit of the house putting out candles that had been left burning and evicting guests who had fallen asleep in strange places—she thought that a certain rigidity about order was not the worst trait a man could have.

She had finished running diagnostics on their project's house system, which, despite the rather uncommon strains Dread was putting on it at the moment, was holding up nicely, and she was busy making records of some of the events from their incursion into the Grail system for future study when she bumped across something odd.

It was a partition of sorts in Dread's own system, a boxing-off of data, but that wasn't the unusual thing about it. All systems were divided for organizational purposes, and most people who spent a lot of time working directly online were as idiosyncratic about how they arranged their system environments as they were with their RL homes. What she had seen of Dread's space was in fact so nonidiosyncratic she was almost disturbed by it: he had never bothered to change any of the settings, names, or infrastructure of the original system package, for one thing. It was a little like realizing the pictures on your manager's desk were the fake ones of smiling catalog models that had come with the frames. No, there was nothing unusual about partitioning your storage. What was interesting about this partition was that it was invisible, or supposed to be. She checked the directories, but there was no listing to correspond with the fairly extensive secured area onto which she had stumbled.

A little secret door, she thought. Why, Mr. Dread, you do have some things you want to keep private after all.

It was sort of cute, really—a boy thing, like a hidden treehouse. No girls allowed. But of course, Dread was a beginner with this stuff, and Dulcie was a very, very hard girl to hide things from.

She hesitated for a few moments—not very long at all, really—reminding herself that it was wrong, that not only did her boss have a right to his privacy, he was also a man who did a lot of dangerous things for dangerous people, people who took their security very seriously. But Dulcie (who almost always lost these arguments with herself) found the idea more a challenge than a discouragement. After all, didn't she run with a dangerous crowd herself? Hadn't she shot someone only a few weeks ago? The fact that she was having regular nightmares about it, and now wished she had invented an excuse not to do it—faulty gun, jammed door lock, epileptic seizure—didn't mean she was suddenly unfit to run with the big boys.

Besides, she thought, it will be interesting to have a peek into his mind. See what he really thinks about. Of course, it might just be his account books. Anybody this much of a neat freak might be pretty serious about hiding their double-entry stuff.

But the small bit of poking and prying she allowed herself failed even to turn up a keyhole, let alone a key. If there was something interesting on the other side of the door, she was not going to find it out so easily. With the faintly shamed feeling that had visited her as a young girl rooting through her mother's bureau drawers, she erased all records of her investigations and dropped back out of the system.

 

Her employer's secret compartment was still nagging at her half an hour later as she stood over his sleeping form, which lay nestled like a piece of dark jewelry in the while padding of the coma bed.

It's true—I really don't know anything about him, she thought, looking down at his heavy-lidded eyes, at the minute movement of his irises between the mesh of black lashes. Well, I know he's not the most stable person in the world. It was hard not to remember each and every one of his flashes of anger. But there's something else in him, too—something calm, something knowing. Like a big cat, or a wolf. It was hard to avoid animal analogies—Dread's compact grace somehow did not seem quite civilized.

She was watching the way his cocoa-colored skin took and softened the clinical glare of the overhead lights when Dread's eyes popped open.

"Hello, sweetness," he said, grinning. "Bit jumpy today, aren't you?"

"My God. . . !" She fought to regain her breath. "You could have warned me. You've been out of communication for almost twenty-four hours."

"Been busy," he said. "Things are hopping." His grin widened. "But now I'm going to show you a little something. Come join me."

It took her a moment to understand it was not an invitation to climb into the coma bed—an unpleasant thought even had her feelings about the man himself been less ambivalent: the low murmur of its engines and the constant slow movement of the bed surface made her think of some kind of sea creature, an oyster without a shell. "You mean . . . on the network?"

"Yes, on the network. You're a bit slow today, Anwin."

"Just a few thousand things to do, that's all, and about two hours of sleep." She tried to keep her voice light, but this teenage jocularity was making her tense. "What do I do. . . ?"

"Access the way I did, and make sure you're in full wraparound—you're going to need it. When you hit the first security barrier, your password is 'Nuba.' N-U-B-A. That's all."

"What does it mean?"

He was smiling again. "One of our abo words, sweetness. Comes from up north, Melville Island."

"What, is it insulting or something?"

"Oh, no. No." He closed his eyes as though drifting back into sleep. "Just the term they use for an unmarried woman. Which you are, right?" He chuckled, savoring something. "See you when you get there." He visibly relaxed, dropping back into the system like a swimmer sliding under the water.

It took her a long moment to realize that she was still shaking a little, startled by his sudden appearance. Like he was watching me, she thought. Just standing behind me, watching me, waiting to give me a little scare. The bastard.

She poured herself a glass of wine and drank it off in a couple of swallows before lying down on the couch with the fiberlink.

 

Dulcie had barely uttered the code word when the nothingness of the first system level abruptly took on color and depth. The initial dazzle was so bright that for a second she wondered if she was staring into the sun, then the huge bronze door in front of her swung open and she stepped through into darkness.

The darkness was not complete: the far end of the corridor had an unsteady glow that drew her forward. A dull murmur washed out to her, deep and slow as an ocean pawing at a stony beach. As the light grew and she began to glimpse the large chamber beyond, a shadowed space filled with tight-packed, round shapes like a field of sunken megaliths, she could not help feeling that she had stumbled into a dream. A look at her own legs and bare feet, muscular and bunioned from years of dance class, told her otherwise. Who ever saw their own feet in a dream? Her hands, too, were recognizably her own, the freckles on her long fingers visible even in the dim light.

It's a sim of . . . me, she realized, even as she stepped out into the great chamber.

The rush of muttering voices rose around her. A thousand people, maybe more, were kneeling on the floor of the massive room, their rhythmic, whispering chant rising to the distant ceiling. Oil lamps burned in niches all along the walls, making everything flicker like some visual recording from the earliest days of technology. A clear space between the huddled bodies led across the pale marble; none of the bent figures even looked up as Dulcie walked past them.

At the far end of the chamber a silent, motionless figure sat enthroned on a dais like a statue in a pagan temple, a long silver rod clutched in its hand. The creature was larger than a man, and although its body was human-shaped, the skin was absolutely black and as glossy as Chinese lacquer. The snouted, prong-eared head was that of some doglike beast.

As she neared the dais the whispering voices dropped into silence. The dog-creature's head was lowered, eyes hooded as if in sleep, muzzle against the massive chest, and she had begun to think it really was a statue when the great yellow eyes fluttered open.

All the kneeling shapes suddenly bellowed in perfect unison: "Cheers, Dulcie!" The room thundered with echoes, covering the sound of her startled shriek. "You're looking damn nice today," they added, loud as artillery fire, toneless as a punch press.

Silence fell again as she took a staggering step to maintain her balance. The thing on the dais stood up, rising to almost ten feet, and the muzzle gashed open in a long-toothed leer. "Like it? Just my way of saying 'Welcome!' "

I wonder if you can wet yourself in VR. Aloud, she said, "That's just charming. Took a few years off my life."

"What do you want from the Lord of Life and Death—flowers? Singing and dancing? Well, that can be arranged, too." He lifted the silver rod and a fluttering snow of rose petals began to descend from the roof. With a great scraping and murmuring, the thousands of shaven-headed priests rose from their kneeling positions and began clumsily to dance. "Any particular music you'd like?"

"I don't want anything." Dulcie looked up through the flurrying petals, trying to ignore the disturbing spectacle of a thousand blank-eyed, sandaled priests doing a spastic soft-shoe. "What the hell is this place?"

"It's the Old Man's home away from home." He waved, and the priests lowered themselves to the floor once more. The last few rose petals were still drifting down. "His favorite simulation—Abydos, I think it's called. Ancient Egypt."

It was more than a little disturbing to be carrying on a conversation with a jackal-headed man almost twice her own height, like something from a game or interactive theater. "The old man—you mean your . . . employer, right? And who are you supposed to be? Sparky the Wonder Dog?"

He showed her his teeth again. "This is the sim I always wore here. Of course, I was taking orders then, and now I'm the one giving them." He lifted his voice. "Roll over! Play dead!" The priests dropped to their bellies, rotated once, then lay motionless with their knees and elbows in the air. "It's amusing, in a sort of way, especially when I think how much it would piss the old wanker off." He gestured to one of the nearest priests, who leaped to his feet and scuttled to the dais. Dulcie stared at the sim curiously. He certainly looked like a real person, right down to the gleam of sweat on his shaved head. "This is Dulcie," Dread told the priest. "You love her. She is your goddess."

"I love her," the priest intoned, although he did not look at the object of his newfound affection. "She is my goddess."

"Would you do anything for her?"

"I would, Lord."

"Then show her how much you love her. Go on."

The priest struggled to his feet—he was one of the fat, middle-aged variety, and a bit short of breath—and waddled to one of the wall niches. As Dulcie watched with growing horror, the priest snatched out the oil lamp and upended its contents over his head; in a moment he was running with flames. His white robe caught and blazed up. His round head seemed to float in a halo of fire. "I love you, my goddess," he croaked even as his features began to blacken.

"Oh my God, stop, put him out, stop!" she screamed.

Dread swung his long-muzzled face toward her in surprise, then lifted his rod. The blazing figure disappeared. All the other priests still lay on their backs like dead locusts in a field. "Christ, girl, they're only code."

"I don't care," she said. "That doesn't mean I want to see something like that."

The jackal shape vanished, leaving the real Dread, ordinary size and dressed all in loose-fitting black, standing on the top step of the throne. "Didn't mean to upset you, sweetness." He sounded more annoyed than contrite.

"I just. . . ." She shook her head. "What's going on here, anyway? You said this was the . . . Old Man's place. Where is he? What have you been doing since you got into the system?"

"Oh, this and that." His human grin was only slightly less feral. "I'll explain more later, but first I want to take you on a little tour. Just for fun."

"I don't want to watch any more burning priests, thank you."

"There's lots of things more interesting to see than that." He raised his hand in the air and the silver rod abruptly shrank to a small silver cylinder. "Let's go."

"That's the lighter!" she said. "What. . . ?" But the high hall of Abydos-That-Was and its thousand patient priests had already vanished.

 

It was indeed a tour. From their first stop in the streets of Imperial Rome, complete with the shouts of street vendors and the wind off the Tiber rank with the scents of human sweat and urine, Dread moved Dulcie in short order to sweltering afternoon on an African plain inhabited by strange creatures as large as elephants, but which Dulcie had never seen before, and then in quick succession through the plum-treed gardens of some clearly mythical China, to a cliffside position overlooking a waterfall a mile or more high, and at last to the white weirdness of the ultimate north, where the convulsing Aurora Borealis hung over their heads like a fireworks show stuck on extra slow speed.

"My God," she said, watching her breath hang as vapor in the air, "it's staggering! I mean, I knew there were a lot of simworlds—we saw quite a few through the Quan Li sim, but. . . ." She shivered, mostly out of reflex. Due to some wrinkle in the simworld, or to Dread's control of it, the temperature here felt no cooler than an early spring evening. "And you can just go anywhere. . . ?"

"Go anywhere, do anything." His grin was now only half a smile, the expression of the proverbial canary-catching cat. He rolled the lighter in his fingers. "I won't need this much longer. And you can do whatever you want too, if you behave yourself and keep me happy."

She felt a tingle of warning. "What does that mean, exactly. . . ?"

"Do your job. Stay out of trouble." He paused to stare at her in a way that made her squirmingly uncomfortable. It was almost as though the attempted incursions into his hidden storage had appeared on her forehead like stigmata. "You have no idea what I've got going here."

She looked out at the endless ice fields, the northern lights shimmering. "But what about your employer? Where did he go? How is it that you have access to everything. . . ?" Nearby, a piece of ice the size of a football field groaned and shifted, lifting a jagged edge above the permafrost and tipping the entire plate on which Dulcie and Dread stood. She grunted in fear, staggered, and put her hand on Dread's arm for support.

He opened his eyes wide. "You don't have to worry," he said, although he seemed to be enjoying her discomfiture. "Even if you get killed here, you'll just drop offline. We're the only people left with on-and-off access."

"What about the owners? What are they called, the Grail people?"

He shrugged. "Things have changed a bit."

"And you can control the system? You can make things happen?"

He nodded. He seemed as pleased as a child, and Dulcie realized that just like a child, he was anxious to show off. "Anything you'd like to see?"

"Have you let those other people off the network, then?"

"Other people. . . ?"

"The ones we were traveling with—Martine, T4b, Sweet William. If you can control the access to the network, you should be able to set them free. . . ." She realized suddenly that she missed them. After living with them day in and day out for weeks, she knew them better than she knew most of the people in her real life. They had been so miserable, so frightened and trapped. . . .

Dread's blank look had become something even deeper and more distant. She pulled at his sleeve. "You are going to set them loose, aren't you?" When he did not answer, she tugged again. He snatched his arm away with a quick violence that almost yanked her off her feet.

"Shut up," he snapped. "Someone's using the main broadcast channel."

As she watched, in a white world silent but for the deep shifting of ice, his lips moved minutely as he subvocalized to the invisible someone. A slow smile stretched his face. He seemed to say something else, then his fingers flicked momentarily across the lighter. He turned to her slowly, eyes bright.

"Sorry about that. Something I'll have to see to later." He nodded. "What were you saying?"

"About the others—the ones the Grail had trapped online."

"Ah, yes. As a matter of fact, I've just been too busy to see to Martine and the rest. But I'll be getting to them directly. You're right—I need to deal with them." He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, his curious elation had been banked like the coals in a fire. "Come along—we've got one more thing to see."

Before she had time even to open her mouth the polar icecaps had dissolved and the two of them were hovering in midair above a vast and unbroken expanse of ocean. The sun was sinking toward the horizon, scalloping the wave-tops in brassy light, but otherwise there was nothing to see for miles, not even seabirds.

"What's this. . . ?" she began, but he flicked up his hand, demanding quiet.

They hung above the endless green for long moments, then Dulcie saw that the pattern of the waves was beginning to change just before them, the regular crisscross of breakers churning into something more chaotic. As she watched, openmouthed, the churn became a great boiling, the waves lifting into plumes dozens, perhaps, even hundreds of meters tall, flinging gobbets of froth into the air. Then, like the nose cone of a missile launched from some inconceivably huge submarine, the first tower top pierced the surface of the angry seas.

It lasted over an hour. For most of that time Dulcie was aware of nothing but the unfolding spectacle before her. The city heaved up from the waters with a surging roar, as though the earth itself were painfully giving birth—the spires of its tallest buildings first, tangled in great ropes of kelp, the walls of the citadel following closely behind, their armor of barnacles glittering wetly as they emerged into the sun. When the citadel had breasted, water sluicing down its roofs and walls before thundering into the ocean, turning the waters into white foam as far as she could see, the mountain and the rest of its clinging city arose, the drowned streets gleaming as they came back into the light.

When it was over, and the monstrous empty husk of island Atlantis had returned from the depths, Dread slipped his arm companionably around her shivering shoulders and leaned close to her ear.

"Play your cards right, sweetness," he whispered, "and someday all of this will be yours." He reached down and patted her on the buttocks. "I'll even dry it off for you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a few loose ends to deal with. Just keep out of trouble, and make sure that my loft doesn't catch on fire or anything, right? Cheers."

An instant later she was lying on the couch in the converted Redfern warehouse, muscles cramped and head pounding. Across the room, Dread's unmoving form lay like a corpse set out for viewing.

It was only when she had finished her shower and was sipping her second glass of wine of the afternoon that she realized she had just been taken on what must have been the strangest first date in history.

 

 

"Here, honey," Catur Ramsey told the little girl. "Come here and look at the giraffes."

She stared at him doubtfully, then at her father, who was standing on the far side of the suite. Sorensen nodded, so she came over and curled up on the couch beside Ramsey. He lifted the hotel guide and touched the picture of the Tanzanian resort; instantly the image sprang to life. Ramsey muted the soundtrack. "See how tall they are?" he asked her. "They eat the leaves on the very tops of the trees."

Christabel frowned, her big, serious brown eyes curtained by her lashes. He could see she was nervous but doing her best to control it. Catur Ramsey found himself impressed yet again by the composure of such a young child. "Does it hurt their necks to stretch like that?" she asked.

"Oh, no. Doesn't hurt them any more than it hurts you to reach up and take something off a shelf. That's what they're born to do."

She bit her lip as the brochure cycled through to a picture of a young, happy, wealthy-looking family dining on the veranda overlooking the waterhole while impala and zebra moved gracefully in and out of the spotlights bathing the veldt.

Ramsey was not feeling any happier himself. He eyed his pad, wishing he could try to call out again, but the shorter of the two men in black, the one called Pilger—shorter, but still over six feet and muscled like a professional wrestler—was watching him, broad face set in an expression of misleading indifference. Ramsey was furious with himself that he hadn't brought his t-jack.

Christabel's father, Major Sorensen, had wandered over to the suite's kitchen unit and was fiddling with the touch controls on the range. The big man named Doyle, the general's other bodyguard, or whatever they were, looked over from the European football game he was watching on the wallscreen. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm just making my daughter a cup of cocoa," Sorensen said scornfully, but Ramsey saw something anomalous in his body language. He had no idea what the major might be doing but he hoped the men in black weren't paying close attention. On the other hand, he hoped that Sorensen wasn't planning anything heroic—Doyle and Pilger were armed to the teeth, and even Sorensen's friend Captain Parkins, sitting stiffly in a chair in his uniform, scowling at the floor, was armed. It was Parkins who had arrested them in the first place, after all, and now they were cooling their heels waiting for General Yacoubian. That made it three large men with guns against himself and Sorensen, both unarmed, and a little girl who probably didn't even have the training wheels off her bike.

"Daddy," Christabel said suddenly, unable to pretend interest in the lioness that was chasing down a wildebeest for the fifth time through the loop, "when can we go home? I want to see Mommy."

"Soon, honey."

Sorensen still had his back to them, waiting for the water to boil, and Ramsey felt a shiver of unease. Doyle and Pilger might look like they were doing anything but performing their professional duty, but Ramsey had met their sort before, both on the military bases of his youth and in the cop bars in which he sometimes found himself in his adult profession. Not to mention that physiques like theirs probably owed something to metabolic enhancement. The one named Doyle certainly had more than a bit of yellow in the whites of his eyes, which could mean any number of unsavory things. If he had gone through one of the military biomod programs, it meant that even if Sorensen threw a pot of boiling water over him, the bodyguard would still be capable of snapping several necks, pain and third-degree burns notwithstanding.

Oh, man, Ramsey found himself silently begging. Major, please don't do anything stupid.

He was beginning to wonder just what exactly he had let himself into. Yacoubian clearly knew something that scared Sorensen to death—the man's blood had all but drained into his feet when the general started talking about sunglasses—and they were none of them going anywhere without the general's permission. Ramsey was furious that he had not had more time to talk to Sorensen, and had not even met the strange Sellars before this whole thing had blown up; it was like walking unprepared into a capital murder trial, then finding out that you were the one on trial.

His nervous thoughts were interrupted by Christabel scrambling past him toward her father. Sorensen turned and waved her away. "It's hot, Christabel," he said sharply. "I'll bring it to you when it's ready."

Her face screwed up, and her eyes filled. Ramsey looked helplessly to Captain Parkins, who was still glaring down at the blue carpet as though it had done something to offend him, then went and took her hand and led her back to the couch. "It's okay, honey. Come sit with me. Tell me about your school. Who's your teacher?"

Something thumped in the far room. For a moment, Ramsey thought he heard the general's voice raised in anger. The two bodyguards flicked each other a look, then turned back to the game. Ramsey wondered who the general's conference was with, and why it was more important than the interrogation of Sorensen. The general had clearly expended a great deal of energy to track the girl's father: it seemed strange he would keep the matter waiting for half an hour or more. Ramsey looked up at the wallscreen. Closer to an hour. What was this all about?

Something banged the connecting door hard, like someone had taken a sledge to it. Ramsey had only a moment to wonder why such an expensive suite would have doors thin enough to shudder just from someone banging their fist against it in the middle of a phone-conference argument, then Doyle jumped to his feet. He moved across the suite in perhaps two strides, just as frighteningly quick as Ramsey had feared he would be, and stood before the door to the general's room, listening. He knocked twice, loud.

"General? Are you all right?" He flicked a glance back to Pilger, who had risen now too, then knocked again. "General Yacoubian? Do you need some assistance, sir?" He leaned to the door, straining to hear a reply. After a moment, he pounded again, wide hand flat on the door. "General! Open up, sir!"

"What are they doing?" Christabel asked, beginning to cry again. "Why are they shouting. . . ?"

Doyle took a step back, grabbed Pilger's shoulder to brace himself, then lifted his booted foot and slammed it against the door. "Bolted," he grunted. This time they both kicked the door at the same time, which crunched and fell inward. Pilger splintered it off its broken hinges while Doyle snatched the huge machine-pistol from his shoulder holster and stepped through, the weapon already locked in firing position as he disappeared from Ramsey's view.

His voice came from a few meters inside the room. "Shit!"

Pilger stepped through after him, his weapon also drawn. Ramsey waited a moment. When no sounds of firing were heard, he stood and moved cautiously toward the door, trying to get an angle to see what was happening. Captain Parkins was leaning forward in his chair, mouth open.

"Christabel!" Sorensen shouted from somewhere behind him. "Don't get up! You stay on that damned couch!"

Doyle was squatting over the body of General Yacoubian, which lay sprawled on the floor between the door and the suite's large bed, his bathrobe rucked around his legs and open over his white-furred chest. The general's tan skin had turned a strange shade of gray. His tongue dangled from his mouth like a piece of rag. Doyle had begun CPR: for a surreal moment, Ramsey wondered how the bodyguard had pushed hard enough in just a few seconds to make that broad purple welt on the general's breast.

"Ambulance to the garage," Doyle said between his teeth. "This is massive. And get the kit."

Pilger was already hurrying back into the main room, his finger pushing against the jack on his neck. He spat a sequence of code into midair, then suddenly turned and waved his gun across the room. "All of you, lie on the floor. Right now!" Without waiting to see whether his order was obeyed, he kneeled and pulled a black valise out from under the couch, then headed back toward the bedroom. He popped its catches and slid it toward Doyle, who was still working on the general; with each blow, Yacoubian bounced on the carpet. Pilger drew a syringe out of one of the valise's inner pockets. As he checked its label, he saw Ramsey standing in the doorway. The gun came up in his other hand.

"Goddamn it, I said I wanted you all down on the floor!"

"Daddy?" Christabel was crying back in the main part of the suite. "Daddy!"

Even as Catur Ramsey backed away, helplessly watching the frighteningly large hole at the end of Pilger's gun barrel, something flared in the corner of his eye. He flinched, but there was no sound of a shot. He looked to the right and saw something that made no sense at all: Major Michael Sorensen was standing on a chair in the suite's kitchen holding a burning' napkin clutched in a pair of ice tongs. He was lifting it up to the ceiling, like some bizarre parody of the Statue of Liberty with her torch.

"I told you all to lie down!" shouted Pilger, who could not see this inexplicable sight. Even as Doyle plunged the hypodermic into the middle of the dark bruise on Yacoubian's chest, Pilger's gun tracked from one side of the doorway to the other, then tilted down at Ramsey's knees. Something clattered, then hissed.

Suddenly it was snowing purple.

The tiles of the ceiling had folded back like Venetian blinds. Dozens of nozzles racked down, spewing clouds of pale lavender fire-retardant dust. The lights of the room began to flick on and off and a painfully loud buzzing filled the air. Sorensen leaped past Ramsey and snatched his daughter up off the floor, then sprinted toward the elevator door where he began to press the button, over and over.

Doyle was pasting the second of two defibrillation patches to the general's still unmoving chest, but Pilger came out of the bedroom with gun drawn, waving his arm so he could see through the fog of choking purple. He shoved his gun against the back of Major Sorensen's head, inches from Christabel's terrified face. "You don't want it to go down this way, do you?" he snarled. "Your brains splashed all over your little girl? Just step away from the door and lie down."

"No. None of it's going to go down this way." Captain Ron Parkins had drawn his own service automatic and was pointing it at Pilger's head. Parkins' face was red with frightened anger. "We're not going to be disappeared by you bastards, whoever you are. These people are under my authority, not yours. You go tend to the general. We're leaving."

In the moment that followed, silent except for the low moan of the alarm, the elevator door swished open. Ramsey, who had both Pilger and Captain Parkins between himself and safety, struggled to slow his rattling heartbeat. It was already hard to breathe, and although most of the purple dust had settled to the floor, there was enough left in the air that he could feel the mother of all sneezes coming on. That would just be the capper, he thought. Sneeze and set off a gun battle.

"Let us go," Sorensen said quietly, Pilger's gun still against the base of his skull. "The general's dead. You may have more of your people coming to help clean up the mess, but now the fire alarm's gone off, so there are a lot of people on the way that you don't own. Just turn around. He's dead. This isn't worth it anymore."

Pilger stared at him, then flicked his eyes sideways to the silvery snout of Captain Parkins' gun. His lip curled. He lowered his pistol, then turned and walked back into the bedroom without another look at them. The general's body was twisting on the floor as Doyle turned the defibrillator dial. Ramsey fought the urge to faint dead away.

 

"Get out here," growled Captain Parkins. They were five miles from the hotel, the van stopped in front of the light rail station. "You can get a cab from here, a train, whatever the hell you want. Just get going."

"Ron—thank you, man, thank you." Sorensen helped his daughter down from the van. The two young soldiers, who had fought to keep astonishment off their faces when three men and a girl stepped out of the elevator powdered in purple from head to foot, sat a little straighter.

"I don't want to know," Parkins said angrily. "But even if I lose my bars for this, I just . . . I couldn't. . . ."

"I don't think you're ever going to hear about it again, Ron. At least not through official channels." Christabel's father brushed some of the powder from her hair; she looked up quickly as though to make certain it was his hand, not a stranger's. "Trust me—you don't want to know anything more about this than you have to, anyway."

"No, I don't."

Ramsey stepped down beside them, still amazed that he was alive and free and under the open sky again. "Thank you, Captain. You saved our lives."

Parkins threw up his hands in confusion. "Jee-zuss!" He turned to Sorensen. "Just . . . Mike, just take care of that wife and little girl of yours. On second thought, maybe I will ask you to explain this to me one day. What do you think?"

Major Sorensen nodded. "As soon as I figure it out, you'll be the first to hear."

Christabel was shivering despite the warm sun in front of the railway station. As the military van drove away Ramsey took off his windbreaker, shook a cloud of dust from it, and draped it over her shoulders. It was only as he followed the child and her father toward the taxi line that he realized he was shivering as badly as she was.

CHAPTER 3
Restless Natives

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

(visual: Yohira receiving implant)

VO: Shi Na (Wendy Yohira) is a prisoner in the New Guinea cult headquarters of the evil Doctor Methuselah (Moishe Reiner). Can Stabhak (Carolus Kennedy) save her before she joins the cult in their mass suicide ritual? Casting 28 cult members, 5 tribespeople, 2 Doctor Methuselah "special toadies." Flak to: 1EN.BKSTB.CAST

 

It was strange how it had come back to him, the new swathe of memory suddenly revealed, as though the roof of an ancient tomb had collapsed and let sunlight stream onto its contents for the first time in centuries. At the same time, the memories seemed new and painfully raw, like growing skin exposed beneath a scab.

Of course, he wasn't going to get much chance to think about it. . . .

 

Paul leaped away up the slithering leafmold hill even as the first of the wood lice just missed clutching his leg in a ripple of malformed paws. He could barely keep his feet: the skeletal remains of leaves were bigger than he was, slippery to climb as the bones in an elephant's graveyard. A dozen more wood lice emerged along the slope, the whole pack moving in that deceptive, staggering way, Their deformed legs might be different lengths, but that was small handicap on such terrain, and their dozens of tiny grasping hands were a perfect adaptation for chasing a stumbling, two-footed prey.

Paul dragged himself up onto a great curl of root that emerged from the leafmire like the back of a whale breaching the waves. He could see that even if he reached the base of the trunk, still about a hundred paces away, there was no escape on the far side except along another descending slope of the same half-decayed mulch, a slope littered with the bodies of other sleeping wood lice, curled like ribbed Easter eggs. He staggered on anyway.

"Come back," one of the creatures groaned behind him, and some of its companions took up the cry. "Huuuungry! Eat you!"

Despite the recognizable English words, the voices were so completely inhuman that he felt utter despair wash over him like a cold rain. Even if he escaped, something else would get him eventually. He was alone in a hostile world—a hostile universe. Whether he lived another ten minutes or ten days, he would probably never see another human being, would have only rasping, homicidal monstrosities like these for company until the inevitable end.

The whine of his pursuers became a fierce hiss, a change of tone so sudden and complete that Paul stopped in surprise. The wood lice were all rearing up on their hindmost segments, their distorted little hands waving frantically at him. Or at something behind him.

Paul turned. A man stood at the base of the tree, his dull robe almost invisible against the vast expanse of gray bark, so that for the first instant he seemed an apparition, a trick of the light making a face out of a whorl in the tree's rough hide. He was no bigger than Paul, but he seemed oddly careless of the approaching wood lice as he walked down the humped spine of the tree root.

"Huuunngryyy!" they chanted, like terrible children.

As the man drew closer, Paul had a better view of the stranger's compact frame and distinctly Asian features and guessed that this must be the one Renie and the others had described—Kunohara, the insect world's creator.

The black-haired man glanced briefly at Paul, showing neither interest nor irritation, then stopped just where the root curved sharply down into the leafmold, so that he faced the swarm of creatures like Moses preaching from the mount. But if these were Kunohara's people, they did not seem much disposed to obey him.

"Eat you!" they cried, hunching up the slope.

Kunohara shook his head in disgust, then lifted his hand. A great gust of wind abruptly curled down from the sky, then swept along the ground and past the base of the tree—a wind so howlingly fierce that most of the fallen leaves and other detritus were ripped away in an instant. With piping shrieks of frustration or terror, the wood lice, too, were lifted and flung off into nothingness; some managed to cling to larger objects for a few moments, but within a few heartbeats even those were sucked away. Then the gale died.

Paul stood, astonished. Although the closest of the creatures had been only a few paces away from him, and had been hurled sideways like a bullet fired from a gun, he had felt no wind at all.

Of the dozens, one wood louse remained, squirming helplessly on the ground at Kunohara's feet. "They even speak. . . ." the man said quietly, but he almost sounded shocked. Kunohara snaked his fingers into the plates behind the creature's head, pushing deep. Something crunched and the thing lay still.

"You saved me," Paul said. "Those things would have killed me. . . ."

The man peered at him, then lifted the curled corpse of the man-sized wood louse. He turned his back on Paul and lowered his head. Paul had the distinct impression that his savior was about to vanish.

"Wait! You can't just leave!"

The smaller man paused. "I did not bring you here." His English was very precise. "In fact, you are trespassing. I did not need to rescue you, but these . . . monsters offend me. You are free to leave the way you came in."

"But I don't even know how I got here."

"That is nothing to me." He shrugged and hefted the dead bug. "It is bad enough, finding my blameless isopods corrupted like this. I will not also be made a park ranger in my own home."

"What do you mean, corrupted?" Paul was desperate to keep the man from leaving. He sensed that his rescuer was not toying with him—he genuinely intended to leave him alone in the wilderness. The wood lice were gone, but the thought of what other horrors might be lurking was almost enough to make Paul throw himself on the other man to keep him from going, to cling to his legs like a frightened toddler. "You're Kunohara, aren't you? This is your simulation world."

The other did not reply, but the look of heightened caution that flitted across his face was enough to tell Paul he was right.

"Look, can you at least tell me if you know anything about where my friends are? You've met them before—here and in the House world."

Kunohara snorted. It was hard to tell whether it was a noise of amusement or disgust. "So you are one of Atasco's orphans," he said. "I am almost sorry now I saved you. You and your friends have brought ruin on me." He turned his back again, waving his hand dismissively. "Go and find your own road to hell."

"What are you talking about? At least tell me if you've seen them! Are they here somewhere?"

Kunohara turned around, his look of anger shifting to something more subtle, if not more friendly. "I have not seen you before with those other fools—and you have not been in my world before either, I think. So who are you?"

Paul felt himself at another crossroad. This man Kunohara was clearly no friend to Renie and the others, and Paul was reluctant with good reason to tell people his own name. But he could feel Kunohara slipping away from him. In a moment the man would be gone, leaving Paul alone in a place where he was no bigger than an ant.

"No, I haven't been here before," he said. "My name is Paul Jonas."

Both of Kunohara's eyebrows now rose. "So you are the man for whom Jongleur tore the system apart. Why does he want you? You do not look like much!" He threw his hands apart, a gesture of frustration or resignation. "Come."

"Come . . . where?"

"To my house on the river." For the first time, Kunohara smiled, but it was scarcely more than a brief grimace. "I might as well ask you a few questions before I give you back to the local Crustacea." He nodded his head once and the environment blurred around them so swiftly and unexpectedly that for a moment Paul thought the ground had literally been yanked from beneath his feet. A moment later everything jumped back into place again and Paul gasped at a world gone suddenly pear-shaped.

The sky curved over him like a weirdly gleaming bowl, and the towering trees which had stretched upward like pillars holding the heavens now bent above him like bystanders examining an accident victim. Paul felt a solid floor beneath his feet, and turned slowly to discover an entire room behind him, multileveled, furnished sparsely but attractively with screens and low furniture. Beyond the furnishings, the stairs, and the different levels of flooring, the world seemed to distort again, but instead of trees and sky, the other half of the wide space seemed to cower beneath a curved wall of foaming water.

The effect was so bizarre that it took long seconds before Paul realized that the curvature of sky and trees and water was because the room was. . . .

". . . A big . . . bubble?"

Kunohara shook his head, but only because he was amused. "It is not so big, really—it is you and I who are small. The bubble floats in an eddy between two cataracts of the river." He gestured to the wall of water which seemed to hang above the back of his bubble-house. "There, see the river pour down? It is most pleasant to watch its motion—turbulence is paradoxically soothing, whereas too much regularity can be maddening."

"I don't get it." Paul swiveled to look out what he thought of as the "front" of the house, with its leaning trees and broad if distorted view of the river spreading out below the cataract, then turned back to the curtain of foaming water behind them. He could feel the boil of water pushing steadily at the bubble, although the movement it imparted to the house was surprisingly gentle, like the rolling of a sailboat at anchor. "If this place is just a bubble, and there's water pouring down behind us, why don't we go over the waterfall?"

"Because this is my world." Kunohara was beginning to sound irritated again. "It is easy enough to keep the bubble floating in one place, balanced in the eddy, circling gently to the side of the main current."

Paul thought it would be even easier just to make the house out of something more substantial and stick it down, or use some programmer's magic code to ensure that the bubble would stay rigidly in one place no matter what, but clearly Kunohara found something to like in the sound and feel of the moving water, the delicate way the bubble swayed and spun. Paul was just glad he was not prone to seasickness. He turned from the view and examined the rest of the multileveled room, the floor covered in rugs and soft mats, the tables low to the ground in the ancient Japanese style.

"Are you interested in the natural sciences?" Kunohara asked suddenly.

"Certainly." Paul was anxious to keep his host happy. Polite chitchat beat the hell out of being thrown back to the ravenous pseudo-bugs any day. "I mean, I'm no expert. . . ."

"Go to those stairs. Wave your hand on the topmost step, so, then go down."

Paul paused at the top of the staircase, looking down into a lower level of Kunohara's house, this one seemingly not much different than the other, except that the floor was made from some dark, glassy substance. Paul waved his hand and the lights in the lower room went out, and he suddenly realized that he was looking not at a dark floor, but at the bottom of the bubble, gazing directly down through its transparency into the river.

Without the reflections obscuring his view he could see the rocky bottom of the river-pond beneath him, which to his eyes seemed as craggy and distant as a mountain range seen from a passenger seat on a jet. From time to time vast shapes slid between stones on the riverbottom, creatures which made Paul flinch in atavistic fear, although he knew that they must be very small fish by any normal standards. There were also a few semi transparent animals a little like attenuated, spider-legged lobsters or even more unusual shapes. Paul moved down to the bottommost step and stood there, reluctant to step onto the glassy material even though he could see a low couch and other furnishings below him, indicating that the floor could hold weight. One of the lobster-things floated up and bumped its head against the bubble, black bead eyes swiveling on stalks, whip-thin legs scrabbling across the curving surface, perhaps wondering why it could not reach something it could see.

"Penaeus vannemei, postlarval stage," Kunohara said from behind him. "Baby shrimp. I changed the refraction of the bubble here on the bottom, so what you are seeing is a bit magnified. Really they would be much smaller even than we are in our present size."

"You've got . . . it's very impressive." Paul did not say so, but although the bubble-house was striking, it was also strangely modest for one of the gods of a virtual universe. "A beautiful house."

Paul waved his hand at the topmost step; when the lights came back on, he saw his own reflection stretched along the curve of the wall like a sideshow mirror. Despite the unfamiliar jumpsuit, the man looking back was definitely him, the Paul Jonas he remembered, although with enough of a beard to give him the look of a shipwreck survivor.

But why do I always look like me, he wondered? When everyone else keeps changing? Someone said !Xabbu was even a monkey for a while.

Shaking his head, he mounted the stairs and discovered the dead wood louse Kunohara had brought back floating in the center of the room, suspended in a hexahedron of white light as though fossilized in amber. Paul's host walked around it, staring; when he gestured, the bug revolved in place. A pale scrimshaw of kanji text ran across the surface of the transparent container.

"Is it . . . something you haven't seen before?"

"Worse. It is something that should not be." Kunohara grunted. "Can you drink?"

"Can I?"

"Do you have the receptors? What would you like? You are a guest. Courtesy demands I offer you something, even if you and your friends have ruined my life."

Kunohara had twice accused Paul and his companions of causing him harm, but he wasn't ready yet to pursue the subject. "I can drink. I don't know if I can get drunk, so I suppose it doesn't matter." He had a sudden thought. "You wouldn't happen to have any tea, would you?"

Kunohara's smile this time was only a few degrees short of friendly. "Forty or fifty varieties. Green teas, which are my favorite, but also black—orange pekoe, congou, souchong. I have oolong, too. What do you want?"

"I'd kill for English tea."

Kunohara frowned. "Strictly speaking, there are no 'English' teas, unless they have begun growing it in the high tropical hills of the Cotswolds while I was not looking. But I have Darjeeling and even Earl Grey."

"Darjeeling would be lovely."

Paul had no doubt that Kunohara could have magicked the tea into existence just as he had magicked them into the bubble, but his host was clearly a man of carefully preserved idiosyncrasies—both Kunohara and his environment were a strange combination of the naturalistic and absurd. An old-fashioned fire burned in a brazier in a depression in the floor filled with sand, but although there was no visible way for the smoke to vent from the bubble, the air in the room was smoke-free. As Kunohara hung a pot of water above the low flames and Paul sat down on a mat beside the fire pit to wait, he found himself overwhelmed by yet another absurdist juxtaposition—one moment about to be murdered by mutants, five minutes later waiting for water to boil for tea.

"What are those . . . things?" he asked, gesturing at the hovering wood louse.

"They are perversions," Kunohara said harshly. "A new and terrible interference with my world. Another reason for me to despise your companions."

"Renie and the others had something to do with those monsters?"

"I have found strange anomalies in my world for some time—mutations that made no sense, and which could not have come from the normal functioning of the simulation—but this is something else. Look at it! An ugly parody of humanity. These have been created deliberately. Someone with power—someone in the Grail Brotherhood, I do not doubt—has decided to punish me."

"Punish you? Mutations?" Paul sat back, shaking his head. He was beginning to realize that even if the tea behaved as it did in the real world, it was not going to be enough to clear his head. He was exhausted. "I don't understand any of this."

Kunohara stared at the wood louse in scowling silence.

Steam chuffed from the kettle, spread in a cheerful cloud, then vanished, as though overwhelmed by the chill coming from Paul's host. Paul accepted the cup which Kunohara conjured out of midair, then watched as he poured boiling water over an infuser. The fumes rising from the steeping tea were the first thing Paul had experienced in longer than he could remember that made him feel like there might be some point to the world. "I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe I'm being dense, but I'm very, very tired. It's been the long day to end all long days." He laughed, and heard a tiny edge of hysteria in his voice. He leaned his head over the cup to breathe in the vapor. "Can you just tell me what terrible thing my friends did to you?"

"Exactly what I expected them to do," Kunohara snapped. "In fact, it is myself I am angry with as much as them. They pitted themselves against a far superior force and lost, and now it is the rest of us who will pay the price."

"Lost?" Paul took his first sip. "Oh, my God, this is wonderful." He blew on the tea and sipped again, trying to make sense of what Kunohara was saying. "But . . . but nobody's lost anything yet, as far as I can tell. Except the Brotherhood. I think most of them are dead now." He stopped, suddenly fearing that in his weariness he had said too much. Was Kunohara one of the Brotherhood, or just someone who rented space from them?

His host was shaking his head. "What nonsense is this?"

Paul stared at him. There was, of course, no way to know what someone was really thinking behind his face back in the real world, let alone here. But, he reminded himself, it might have been as little as an hour since he and Renie and the others had experienced . . . whatever it was they had experienced. It was too late in the day, and he himself was too helpless, to offend potential allies.

"You're saying you don't know what happened to us? That we saw the Grail Brotherhood have their ceremony—that we met the Other? This is all news to you?"

Paul had the not-inconsiderable pleasure of watching Kunohara's hard face melt into an expression of astonishment. "You met . . . the operating system? And you are alive?"

"Apparently." It was not, Paul reflected, as sarcastic a remark as it sounded.

Kunohara lifted the teapot. Admirably, his hand did not tremble. "It seems clear you know things I do not."

"From what my friends told me, it was usually the other way around. Perhaps this time you'll be a little more generous with your own information."

Kunohara looked shaken. "I will answer your questions, I promise. Tell me what happened to you."

 

Hideki Kunohara listened carefully to Paul's story, stopping him often for clarification. Even in a drastically streamlined version it was still a long tale: by the time he was describing the climb up the black mountain, the world outside the bubble had passed from twilight into evening and stars hung in the black heavens above the river. Except for the flicker of the fire, Kunohara had allowed his house to grow dark too; there were moments when Paul forgot he was inside the shining, curved walls and could almost believe himself back on one of the Greek islands with Azador, huddled by a campfire beneath naked sky.

Exhausted now and wanting to finish, Paul did his best to keep to what was important, but with so many mysteries it was hard to know what to leave out. Kunohara seemed particularly interested in the silver lighter, and disappointed to hear it had apparently been lost on the mountaintop. At the mention of Dread and the murderer's boastful announcement of his control over the operating system, his expression became dark and remote.

"But this is all most, most strange," he said when Paul had paused to finish his fourth cup of Darjeeling. "All of it. I had some inkling of what the Brotherhood intended. They approached me about it long ago, and they seemed surprised that although I could have afforded to join their inner circle, I chose not to." He met Paul's look with a grim smile. "I said I would answer your questions, but that does not mean I must explain everything of myself. My reasons for not wanting to pursue the Brotherhood's immortality are my own."

"You don't have to apologize for that," Paul said hastily. "I'd like to think that if it was offered to me, and I knew how many children would have to suffer and even die, that I'd say no, too."

"Yes, the children," Kunohara nodded. "There is the matter of the children, too." For a moment he sat in distracted silence. "But the Other, that is truly astonishing. I had long suspected that some kind of unique artificial intelligence underlay the system, and even that in some ways it had begun to change the environments. As I said, there have been unlikely mutations in my own biosphere almost since the beginning. At first I attributed them to processing errors because of the mounting complexity of the network, but I began to doubt that. Now these latest. . . ." He paused and closed his eyes for a moment. In the silence, Paul felt his own weariness tugging him down like a heavy burden. "You saw them," Kunohara finally said. "Those mutant isopoda were no chance corruption of the programming. They even speak!" He shook his head. "I suspect that this creature who calls himself Dread has truly bent the system to his own will and is beginning to play with his new toy."

The idea of the monstrous personality that Renie had described having such power over the network sent a chill through Paul.

"And your own story is just as strange," Kunohara said abruptly. "You were actually employed by Felix Jongleur?"

"That's what I remember, but beyond that point there's still some kind of block. The rest is all blank, except for the angel—except for Ava."

"Jongleur's daughter." Kunohara frowned. "But how could that be? The man is nearing the end of his second century of life. From what I know, his body has been almost entirely useless for many decades, floating in a tank, kept alive by machines—far longer than the age of the girl you apparently tutored. Why should he want a child?"

Paul sighed. "I hadn't even thought of that. I don't understand any of it. Not yet."

Kunohara slapped his hands on his legs and stood.

"There will be much to consider and discuss tomorrow, but I see that you are falling asleep. Find yourself a place to stretch out. If you need anything you have only to ask the house, but I think you will find the beds are comfortable. I will darken the wall of the place you choose so the morning sun will not wake you too soon."

"Thank you." Paul got laboriously to his feet. "I said it before, but I'll say it again. You saved my life."

Kunohara shrugged. "As you may yet save mine. Information is the most valuable capital in this network. I have always maintained sources of my own, of course, out of necessity. Sharing this network with Jongleur and his associates is like living in the Florence of the Medicis. But I must confess that we have come to a time when my knowledge is failing me."

Paul staggered across the room toward an alcove where a bed that was little more than a padded mat lay unrolled on the floor. "One more question," he said as he slumped onto it. "Why were you so certain we'd lost? That the Brotherhood had won?"

Kunohara paused at the entrance to the alcove. His face was again a stoic mask. "Because things have changed."

"Those new mutants?"

He shook his head. "I did not know of them until I saw your distress. But shortly before that happened, I discovered that I have been affected by the same thing you others have experienced, despite being one of the founders of this virtual universe." His smile seemed almost mocking. "I can no longer leave the network. So I too can die here, it seems." He gave a brief bow. "Sleep well."

 

Paul woke in the middle of the night, disoriented from yet another dream of being chased across clouds by a giant whose every step made tremors. He sat upright, heart speeding, and discovered he was still bouncing, although it was less than in the terrifying dream-pursuit, but as he saw the quiet, restful shapes of Kunohara's house around him, he relaxed. It was raining outside, the drops huge from his perspective. They thudded down on the bubble walls and stirred up the waters of the eddy, but Kunohara had apparently buffered the force so that Paul felt it as no more than a mild jouncing.

He had just lain down again, trying to make his mind a companionable blank in the hope of finding a more soothing dream this time, when a loud and weirdly familiar voice filled the room.

"Are you there? Can you hear me? Renie?"

He scrambled to his feet. The room was empty—the voice had come from thin air. He took a few steps and banged his shin on a low table.

"Renie, can you hear us? We're in bad shape. . . !"

It was the blind woman, Martine, and she sounded frightened. Paul pawed at his head, confused and frustrated by the voice from nowhere. "Kunohara!" he shouted. "What's going on?"

Light began to glow all around him, a dim, sourceless radiance. His host appeared, dressed in a dark robe. He too seemed disoriented. "Someone . . . someone is using the open communication band," he said. "The fools! What do they think they are doing?"

"What communication band?" Paul demanded, but the other man was making a series of gestures. "Those are my friends! What's going on?"

A group of view-windows sprang open in midair, filled with darting sparks of light that might have been numbers or letters or something even more obscure, but they seemed to make sense to Kunohara, who scowled. "Seven hells! They are here—in my world!"

"What's going on?" Paul watched as Kunohara opened a new and larger window. This one was full of dark forms; it was a moment until Paul realized he was looking at a section of the macrojungle by moonlight. Rain was splashing down with a force like artillery shells. Paul could make out several dim shapes huddled beneath an overhanging leaf. "Is that them? How are they talking to us?"

"Please answer us, Renie," Martine's voice moaned. "We're stuck somewhere without. . . ."

The sound abruptly died. Before Paul could open his mouth to ask more questions, another disembodied voice cracked through the room, deeper and stronger than the first. He had heard this one before too, Paul realized with mounting horror, but only once—from the sky above the black glass mountain. . . .

"Martine! Is that you, sweetness?" The big bad wolf discovering that bricks were no longer being issued to pigs could not have sounded more pleased. "I've missed you! Do you have any of my other old mates with you?"

Martine had lapsed into what was doubtless terrified silence, but the gloating voice did not seem to mind.

"I'm a bit busy at the moment, my old darling, but I'll send some friends to find you. Don't move! They'll be with you in a few minutes. Actually, go ahead and move if you want—it won't do you a bit of good." Dread laughed, a clear, wholehearted sound of enjoyment. The figures Paul could see in the open view-window shrank back even farther into the shadows beneath the leaf.

He turned and grabbed Kunohara's arm. "We have to help them!"

In the dim light, Kunohara's profile seemed carved from unmoving stone. "There is nothing we can do. They have brought this on themselves."

"You saved me!"

"You did not reveal yourself to those who would destroy me. In any case, I think it is too late for them anyway, no matter what this Dread chooses to do. They have been found by a nearer enemy."

"What are you talking about?"

Kunohara pointed at the window. The leaf where Martine and the others huddled still bounded beneath the heavy raindrops, but a huge shadow had crossed into Paul's field of view, a towering mass of jointed legs and armor that seemed, eclipse-like, to swallow the projected image.

"It is a whip scorpion," said Kunohara. "At least they will not suffer long."

CHAPTER 4
In Silver Dreaming

NETFEED/NEWS: Free Speech for Talking Toys?

(visual: Maxie Mouth Insult Doll, manufacturer's demo)

VO: Parents of a nine-year-old boy in Switzerland are suing the local school authorities, saying that their child is being punished for insubordinate speech when the real culprit is a talking toy named Maxie Mouth, manufactured by the FunSmart company,

(visual: Funsmart VPPR Dilip Rangel)

RANGEL: "Maxie Mouth is a full-range interactive toy. It talks—that's what it does. Sometimes it says bad things. No matter how unpleasant the remarks may have been, they are not the fault of the owner, who is a minor child. It's one thing to confiscate the toy—we've seen a lot of that—another thing to hold a child responsible for what the toy calls a teacher. Who is apparently a fairly oppressive old bitch, by the way. . . ."

 

There could be no mountain so tall, it was inconceivable.

"If this were the real world," Renie gasped to !Xabbu in the agonizing middle of what seemed to be their fourth or maybe fifth full day descending the mountain, "then the top would have been above the atmosphere, in outer space. There wouldn't have been any air. The cold would have flash-frozen our bones in our bodies."

"Then I suppose we should be grateful." He did not sound convinced.

"Chance not," Sam muttered. '"Cause if we were poking up into outer space, we'd be dead and we wouldn't have to do this hiking fenfen any more."

This was a rare exchange. The exhaustion and misery of the journey were too great, the danger too constant, to encourage talking. The path still led them in a monotonous clockwise spiral down the massive black cone, but as it receded back into the mountain, or simply melted slowly into nothingness, the trail became too narrow for anything except single file, too treacherous for them to attempt any speed greater than a trudging walk with eyes flicking between the edge of the trail and the back of the person just ahead.

Sam had slipped twice, saved both times because they were now marching so closely together that everyone was within arm's reach of someone else. Jongleur had almost fallen once too, but !Xabbu had shot out a hand and grabbed the man's arm, allowing him to topple backward instead of forward. !Xabbu had acted without thought, automatically, and Jongleur did not thank him. Renie could not help wondering what she would do if the Grail master stumbled again and she were the only one who could save him.

After Jongleur's near-miss, they made it a practice to rotate positions during the dwindlingly frequent wide spots along the path, so that the four of them took turns at the front, ensuring that whoever was leading would be relatively alert. Only Ricardo Klement was left out of the rotation—consigned to the rear, where his somnambulistic stops and starts would threaten no one but himself.

It was an indescribably dreary trip. Other than the occasional odd shapes of the black stone itself, its bulges and candledrip flutings, there was nothing to look at, no plant life, not even the distraction of weather. The sky that so closely and fearfully surrounded them was less interesting than a concrete wall. Even the distant beauty of the silvery-white cloudbank below them, with its unstable shimmering and gleams of rainbow light, quickly lost the power to engage, and in any case it was far too dangerous to look over the edge for more than a few seconds. Weary feet frequently stumbled: the trail, though monotonous, was not uniform.

By the time they had gone through their third miserable night's sleep in one of the mountainside's narrow crevices—"night" signifying only the period during which they stopped walking, because the black peak remained in perpetual twilight—even the violent angers of the first camp had disappeared. Felix Jongleur barely mustered the energy for the few necessary communications, apparently avoiding even contempt as a waste of resources. Renie's fear and dislike of him did not disappear, but in the dull slog of routine and the occasional shock of accident it receded into something at the back of her mind, a small, cold thing that slept. Even Sam, despite her loathing of Jongleur, began to lower her guard a little. She still would not speak to him, but if she stumbled and he was the one in front of her, she would reach out and steady herself on his naked back. The first time she had shivered in disgust, but now, like almost everything else, it had become only another part of their bleak routine.

 

"I just realized something," Renie said quietly to !Xabbu. Since they had not found a place wide enough to sit, they were taking their rest standing up, backs against the mountain's side. With no sun to warm it or night to chill it, the temperature of the stone was indistinguishable from that of her own skin. "We were supposed to climb this."

"What do you mean?" He lifted one of his feet carefully and massaged the sole.

She sneaked a look at Jongleur, who stood a few meters away down the slope, spine and head pressed back against the smooth rock face. "Paul's angel," she whispered. "Ava. She said something about how we were supposed to get to the mountaintop ourselves, but there wasn't time. And then she made that gateway and dropped us right onto the path. Do you see? They wanted us to climb this whole thing. Imagine that! Having to go uphill even farther than we've already gone down." She shook her head. "The bastards. It probably would have killed half of us."

!Xabbu too was shaking his head, but in puzzlement. "But who wanted that? Who are they?"

"The angel. And the Other, I guess. Who knows?"

He pursed his lips, then wiped a hand across his eyes. Renie thought he looked wrung out—more weary than she had ever seen him. "It is like the journeys our people must make, where we must sometimes travel for months in the bush—but that is for survival."

"So is this, I guess. But it still makes me angry, someone setting up an obstacle course like this. 'Oh, and let's have them climb a hundred-kilometer mountain, too. That'll keep them busy for a while.' Bastards."

"It's a quest." Sam's voice was flat.

Renie looked at her in surprise. By the girl's slumped position, Renie had judged her too exhausted for conversation. "What do you mean, Sam?"

"A quest, seen? Like in the Middle Country. If you want to get something, you have to go on some utterly long journey and earn bonus points and kill monsters." She sighed. "If I ever get out of here, I'm never going in that fen-hole Middle Country again."

"But why would we be sent on a quest? I mean, we already are on one, in a sense." Renie scowled, willing herself to think when her weary brain wanted only to lie torpid in its skullbath of nutrients. "Sellars brought us in to find out what was going on. But those gameworld quests always have a purpose, an explanation. 'Get this and win the game.' We had no idea what we were looking for—and we still don't,"

Her gaze flicked to Jongleur, as still as a lizard on a rock. Something tugged at her memory. "It was Ava who kept sending Paul places, wasn't it? And she did it for you and Orlando, too, right?"

"That was her in the Freezer, yeah." Sam shifted position. "And in Egypt. So I guess so."

"Oh my God," Renie said. "I've just realized some- thing." Her voice sank to a whisper. "If Paul Jonas was right, then Ava is Jongleur's daughter."

!Xabbu cocked an eyebrow. "But we knew that already."

"I know, but it hadn't really sunk in. That means the answers to most of our questions might be sitting there in that horrible man's head."

"Let's open it up with a sharp rock and find out," Sam suggested.

Jongleur's eyelids slid up and he turned to regard them. Renie wondered if her own sim face would register a guilty flush. "If you have the energy to whisper like schoolchildren," he said, "then you no doubt have the strength to begin walking again." He pushed himself upright and began to limp down the path.

"You seem very disturbed, Renie," !Xabbu said quietly as they stepped out after Jongleur.

"Well, what if it's true? What if the answers to everything—the children, and why we're stuck here, and what's going to happen—what if he already knows everything we've been killing ourselves to find out?"

"I do not think he will help us, Renie. He might trade for information from us, but only if it was useful to him, and we have no idea what he needs."

Renie could not shake a certain sick feeling. "I can't help thinking about what Sam just said. Not trying to crack open his skull, but about using force. If he's stuck in a virtual body like we are, then he's vulnerable—and we outnumber him. Don't we owe it to all those children, to our friends, to find out what he knows? Even if we have to . . . to torture it out of him?"

!Xabbu looked truly disturbed. "I do not like that thought, Renie."

"Neither do I, but what if the fate of the world really is at stake?" Sam had fallen back a couple of paces, and now Renie lowered her voice until her mouth was almost against !Xabbu's ear, which made walking single file even more dangerous. "It sounds so melodramatic, but it could be true! What if that's the only way? Don't we have to consider it?"

!Xabbu did not reply. He looked, if it were possible, more exhausted now than before they had stopped to rest.

 

Renie certainly understood !Xabbu's reluctance even to talk about the possibility of torturing Jongleur for information—not just in abhorrence of what they would themselves become in taking such a step, but also because of real fear about what might come of it. Jongleur was a hard, ruthless man. Watching his measured pace a few steps ahead, the ropy, hard muscles of his naked body moving beneath the skin, she had the feeling that bending him to their will might not be a process without casualties on their own side—a price Renie was unwilling to pay. And although Ricardo Klement had shown no interest in anything so far, that was no guarantee he would stand passively by and let them attack Jongleur. But even if they managed to subdue the Grail master and threaten him with pain or even death, what then? She did not know for certain that Jongleur really was as vulnerable to virtual execution as she and her companions; perhaps he was only pretending for some reason of his own, and dying in this place would merely fling him into some other sim, or back into his ancient physical body. Then they would have lost any chance at the information, not to mention having become the failed assassins of the most powerful man in the world—not a position with much long-term security.

She would not, could not rule out the possibility of using mortal force on him—not as long as the lives of Stephen and countless others were at stake—but all in all, it didn't seem like a gamble that should be undertaken before everything else had failed.

What else, then? If Jongleur were a normal man, they could bargain, trade something he wanted for information. But the only thing she could see that he needed was escape from this place and revenge on his unruly servant, Dread. Neither of those were in Renie's power to grant.

So what do you give the man who has everything? she thought in sour amusement. Was there something that Jongleur also needed to know? Something that Renie and her companions had to give? What might possibly interest him?

His daughter, she thought suddenly. How does she fit into this? Suddenly Renie knew why the whole thing had bothered her. Whatever she's doing, it doesn't seem meant to help her father. The opposite, if anything. Didn't Paul say Jongleur's goons have been chasing him? But it seems like she's been trying to keep Paul away from the Twins when surely she could just hand him over if she wanted. In fact, he said she was afraid of them, too. So what was her relationship with Jongleur? It certainly didn't appear to be an old-fashioned, Daddy's-Little-Girl scenario.

There was definitely something there. Renie felt a surge of grateful energy. Something to chew on, some useful work for her brain.

We don't really know anything about this Ava. Why was she also Emily, for God's sake—a minor sim in an Oz simulation? Why did she help Orlando and Fredericks in the Kitchen and Egypt, but never did anything for me and !Xabbu? And why has she elected herself Paul's guardian angel when it's her own father who's tearing up the network trying to find him?

She continued her downward march like a zombie, one slow foot in front of the other, but inside she felt alive for the first time in days.

 

They found a hollow in the mountainside relatively soon after the last stop, but since there was no guarantee another suitable spot would present itself anytime soon, they decided to make camp, which meant nothing more than dragging themselves off the trail to sleep.

Renie was the first to wake. She rolled over and looked at Sam twitching in uneasy slumber. The girl was bearing up as well as could be expected, but Renie was worried: she suspected the teenager's restraint was due mostly to the flattening of exhaustion. Acting on impulse, she gently withdrew the ruined sword from Sam's waistband, then sat back and waited for Jongleur to wake.

!Xabbu and the hard-faced man began to stir at the same time. Felix Jongleur seemed to be having a bad dream—his hands clenched and unclenched, and his lips were moving as though he were trying to speak. It made Renie feel more than a little happy to think that something might be preying on the monster's conscience.

Jongleur started upright, muttering, "No, the glass. . . ." then looked around blearily. His gaze touched on Ricardo Klement, lying a meter away, eyes open but otherwise almost lifeless. Jongleur shuddered and rubbed his face.

"So," Renie said suddenly and loudly. "What's with you and Paul Jonas, anyway?"

Jongleur froze like a startled animal, then his face became as carefully expressionless as the mask he had worn as lord of ancient Egypt. "What did you say?"

"I asked what your problem is with Paul Jonas." She kept her own voice aggressively casual, but her heart was beating fast.

Jongleur was on his feet in an instant, moving aggressively toward her. "What do you know of him?"

Renie was ready. The broken sword blade flashed up, inches from his face. Jongleur froze again, staring, lip curled and showing teeth.

"I don't think you should come any closer," she said. "What are you, anyway—French? There's still a little accent to your English. Maybe you're used to those North African black women, the ones whose husbands tell them what to do. Well, I'm not that kind of African, old man. Back up and sit down."

He moved no closer, but did not retreat either. "Accent? A poor jibe from you, with your school grammar draped over the township patois." His hands were knotted, knuckles like little white eggs. Renie could tell that the autocrat was only one bad decision on her part from trying to use them on her, sword or no sword. "What do you know of Jonas?" he demanded again.

"That's not the way we're going to play this game." She saw that !Xabbu was sitting up now, watching her carefully, silently. "You said before that we weren't going to get any information from you for free. Okay, I suppose that's fair. We know a lot about Paul Jonas. You know a lot about the network. Let's trade."

He had mastered his rage now, although the cords in his neck and arms were still pulled tight. "You think much of yourself, woman."

"No. I know my limitations—that's why I don't feel very comfortable about our arrangement. You need our help to get down this godforsaken mountain, but what do we get back for it? If we do make it down and you disappear on us, we have nothing but another enemy on the loose."

Jongleur narrowed his eyes. "I saved your life."

Renie snorted. "That would carry more weight if I didn't know you'd just as happily push me as catch me. And we've saved yours since then, anyway. None of this has anything to do with what I'm talking about. Let's share, shall we?"

Sam also sat up now, a child to whom waking into bizarre situations was sadly becoming second nature. Nevertheless, this time she was watching the proceedings with a curiously feverish intensity. !Xabbu moved close to the girl, perhaps to keep her from intervening in this edgy bit of diplomacy. Renie felt strengthened by his trust.

"What do you want to know?" Jongleur said. "And what do you have to trade?"

"You already know what we have to trade. Paul Jonas. We know him—we know him well. In fact, we've traveled with him." She watched carefully and was rewarded by a flicker deep in Jongleur's eyes. "Why don't you tell us about the Other?"

"Ah. You have learned some things, then."

"Not enough. What is it? How does it work?"

His laugh was as harsh and sudden as a shark bite. "You must be more of a fool than I thought. I spent enough money to dwarf the national product of your miserable country developing this system, put years of my life into it, and had dozens of people killed to protect my investment. Do you believe I would give that away for nothing?"

"Nothing? Is Paul Jonas really nothing?" She frowned—his face had gone cold again. "He was with us, you know. You were within a dozen meters of him back on the mountaintop, when everything started falling apart." She saw his expression of disbelief and laughed harshly. "He was! Right there, and you didn't even know it."

Jongleur was clearly wrestling with the idea. For the first time she saw a real crack in his facade of power, a shadow of unhappiness. "It does not matter," he said at last. "He is not here now. I want Jonas himself, not old news. Can you deliver him to me?"

Renie hesitated for a moment, trying to figure out which way to take it. "Maybe."

Jongleur's smile was slow and humorless. "You lie. This conversation is over."

Stung, Renie tightened her grip on the sword hilt. "Oh, yes? Before we even get a chance to talk about your daughter Ava?"

To her astonishment, Jongleur actually staggered a step backward. His face went bloodless, so that his dark eyes seemed to bulge out of the sockets. "You speak her name to me again and I will kill you, blade or no blade," he said in a grating whisper. He was struggling for control and barely succeeding, and that was the most frightening thing Renie had seen so far. "You know nothing of anything . . . in far over your head. Not . . . not another word! You understand?" He turned and moved out onto the path. Just before he stepped out of sight, he turned and thrust a quivering finger toward her. "Not another word!"

When he was gone, silence fell in the small enclosure. Sam was looking at Renie with wide eyes.

"Okay," Renie suddenly felt very shaky. "Okay, if that's the way he wants it. He's a murdering bastard anyway, so it's not like we're going to be friends." She hesitated for a moment, then handed the broken sword back to Sam. "In case he's angry enough to push me off the edge or something. Keep it safe."

"Chizz," said Sam in a muted voice.

 

Jongleur stayed well ahead of them for hours, although he was almost always within sight, shoulders stiff, face resolutely forward. A part of Renie wanted to speak mockingly of his behavior—the most powerful man in the world, who had climbed over the bodies of countless people to get to the top, had stalked off like an angry child when the game did not go his way. But that snide inner voice, she recognized, came from the part of her that feared the man and which wanted desperately to bolster her own courage. A more sensible portion of her realized she had touched something deep and catastrophically dangerous in Jongleur. She had seen his quick and frightening angers, but this had been something different, an ice-cold fury that she feared would not dissipate.

She had goaded a bad man, it seemed, and made him into a personal enemy.

Things might have been worse with Jongleur had the mountain not still demanded all their attention. The path was growing worse, a slow but obvious devolution, and they were all disheartened. Almost half the time now was spent edging along the narrow trail with their backs against the stone, forced to stare at the ugly drop down into the weird silvery mist. Even Jongleur appeared to decide on practicality after a while, dropping back until he was only an arm's length in front of !Xabbu, but they found no place wide enough-for a safe transfer of leadership for many hours.

After they did, !Xabbu led for a long time, holding down his speed so Renie and the others could keep up, although even the Bushman was visibly flagging. They had several near-accidents because of fatigue, but what was even more depressing was how clear it was that they had reached the very end of the trail's usefulness. At this pace, Renie felt sure, the equivalent of another day in this hourless place would find them with their faces pressed against the mountainside, edging along on tiptoes.

She was wrong. It took nowhere near that long.

They found one more spot wide enough for a short, standing rest and a change of order in the line. Renie stepped to the front while !Xabbu waited until all but Ricardo Klement had passed before moving back into the file, so that the small man followed Jongleur, who crept along behind Sam. Renie almost thought she could feel the Grail master's dark stare burning into the back of her head, but she couldn't afford to waste energy on such fancies: the dwindling path was scarcely wide enough for her to set both feet on it side by side, and she had to lean constantly to the inside to keep her balance.

More hours went by. Renie was staggeringly tired, her back cramping from the awkward, leaning angle, eyes and feet so sore that the idea of a misstep into emptiness was almost alluring. Maddeningly, the sea of glinting fog seemed no closer, but Renie could not bear to think about that—the short-term reality was even more worrisome. She had already stumbled and lurched forward sickeningly several times, once so badly that only Sam catching at the cloth of her makeshift outfit allowed her to regain her balance and avoid sliding down the path toward certain disaster. But even if they found a place to change leaders, Sam could not be any less tired than Renie herself. !Xabbu would unhesitatingly take the lead again if asked—she knew that with the same certainty she knew her finger would meet her thumb when she brought them together—but she did not want him risking himself either. The fact was, no one should be leading anymore. They desperately needed a place to stop and lie down. Another standing line change would let them rest, but they were beyond mere rest now—they had to have sleep. And trying to sleep leaning against the lukewarm stone would be an invitation to disaster.

There was no point in discussing any of this, she realized. She slowed and bent with deliberate care to try to knead a cramp out of her calf. It felt like someone had stuck a dagger into the muscle. She wanted to scream, but knew that her grip on sanity and control was far too tenuous to start anything like that. Everything was now balanced on the finest of points.

"We have to stop," she said out loud. "I've got a cramp. Just give me a moment."

"If we stop, we will all cramp," Jongleur snapped from behind Sam. "Then we will all go over the edge. We must keep going forward or die. If you fall, you fall."

She bit back angry words. He was right. If she paused any longer she would never get herself going again. Wincing, she put the weight back on her tensed, throbbing calf and took a careful step. It held up, although it still felt like it was pulled so tight the very fibers of her muscle might tear loose.

"Renie, be careful," !Xabbu called.

She lifted her outside hand in the air, trying for a jaunty, don't-worry wave, but could not summon the strength to do much more than flap it limply.

Step. Hobble. Step. Renie had to blink to keep the tears from blinding her. Hobble. Step. They were going to die here—one by one, with herself probably the first to go. Whoever had designed this place was a sadistic monster who should have all his nerve endings set on fire. Step. Hobble. Step.

Within a very short time the path began to narrow even farther, declining to a strip not much wider than the length of Renie's foot. The only stroke of luck in the entire miserable universe was that the mountainside tilted away from her at a bit of an angle here, so that as she forced herself to turn sideways, putting an even more agonizing burden on her burning calf muscle, she could lean forward slightly, away from the rim of the tiny ledge and the drop into nothingness.

No one spoke. There was nothing to say, and no strength left with which to say it.

After what might have been an agonizing quarter hour of crablike shuffling, Renie glanced sideways and cursed bitterly. Again, tears filled her eyes, and this time she just clung to the face of the mountain and waited for them to wash away, ignoring the screaming pain in her leg. The mountainside bulged out just ahead, so that the tiny strip of path clung to a smooth stone wall that no longer angled away from the drop, but actually leaned outward a bit past the vertical. She tried to summon the strength to move forward for a better look, but her legs were shaking so badly it was all she could do simply to hold on.

"Renie?" !Xabbu said, worry even piercing the weight of exhaustion in his voice. "Renie?"

"It's no use," she wept. "It sticks out—it sticks out here, the side of the mountain sticks out. We're trapped."

"Is there still a path?" he demanded. "Talk to us, Renie."

"Maybe we can go back up. . . ?" Sam said, but her tone was hopeless.

Renie could only shake her head, her fingers cramping, too, as she kept them locked on a vertical protrusion of the mountainside. "No use. . . ." she whispered sadly.

"Don't move," !Xabbu said. "I am coming forward."

Renie, who had thought there was nothing left in all the universe that could be worse than this, felt a crackle of terror. "What are you talking about. . . ?"

"Don't move," !Xabbu said. "Please, do not anyone move. I will try to step between your feet."

Renie was barely holding on now, staring helplessly at the flat, featureless black stone in front of her. Jesus Mercy, she thought, he's all the way at the back. He was the last leader before me. "Don't do it, !Xabbu!" she called, but she could already hear grunting and stirring to her right, where the rest of the company clung as she did to the almost naked cliff. Renie closed her eyes. She heard him coming closer but could not bear to think too hard about what he must be doing, making his way outside of Jongleur and Sam, leaning over them to touch the wall, only his almost superhuman balance keeping him on the tiny path.

"Carefully, Renie, my dear, brave Renie" he was saying now. "I am right beside you. I am going to put my foot between your feet. Do not move. Hold on."

Terrified, she opened her eyes and looked down, saw !Xabbu's brown leg come down between hers, only his toes gripping the edge. Below them—the nothing, the silver nothing. His fingers arched and touched, and spread like a spider's legs beside her own clenched hand, and his other foot came down beside the first, leaving him perched between her heels on the sliver of stone path. For a moment, as his other hand touched and spread so that he leaned against her, just barely brushing against the skin of her back, his balance as fragile as a spiderweb, she had the thought that if she leaned backward they could both just fall away, swoop down into the pale mist like angels, and all the pain would be over.

"Hold your breath, my Beloved Porcupine," he whispered, his mouth warm against her ear. "Just for a little moment. Please, please."

She closed her eyes again and clung, praying to anything and everything, tears running down her cheeks and neck. He moved his foot . . . his hand . . . his other hand . . . then his other foot, and he was not touching her anymore.

But if we're going to die, she thought, quietly, mournfully mad, I wish it could have been like that, together, together. . . .

She could hear him slowly edging along the shelf beyond her. "You must move," he called back quietly. "Everyone keep moving. It will do no good if I manage to get around but you are all still here. Follow."

Renie shook her head—didn't he know? Her limbs were locked, trembling. She was like a dead insect, her outside a rigid shell, her insides melted away.

"You must, Renie," he said. "The others cannot move until you do."

She wept a little more, then tried to make her hand unclench. It was a claw, hard and stiff. She slid it a few centimeters to one side, then struggled to make it grasp again. After a moment, biting her lip until it bled to keep her mind off the pain in her extremities, she slid her foot a tiny way along the ledge. Her leg burned like fire and her knee began to buckle.

"Keep moving," !Xabbu said from somewhere ahead of her. She stared at the black rock. Stephen, she told herself. He has nobody else. Help him.

She slid the other foot. The pain, although shatteringly bad, did not grow worse. She breathed through her nose and inched the other hand along, then started the whole horrible process again.

Renie risked a look to the side and wished she hadn't. !Xabbu had reached the place where the mountain bulged out, and was performing a terrifyingly intricate series of maneuvers—crouching to get his head beneath the worst of the outcrop, then moving sideways at a snail's pace, bent at the waist, with only his toes on the path and fingers resting lightly on the stone so he could keep most of his weight forward. As he moved, centimeter by agonizing centimeter, he made minute adjustments of balance, tilting head and shoulders a tiny degree here, an equally tiny degree there, moving slowly around the protrusion. Renie felt tears come again and wiped her burning eyes on her upraised arm.

!Xabbu vanished around the edge. She slid a few more steps, then reached the spot where the outward tilt began. She clung, knowing it was all pointless, waiting in dull horror for the cry that would mean he had fallen.

Instead, he spoke. "There is a place here."

It took a moment before she could calm the sob waiting to burst out. "What?"

"A place. A flat place. If you can only make it around the edge. It is a place to lie down, Renie! Hold on! Tell the others!"

"Liar." She gritted her teeth. She knew it had to be false—she would do the same herself, say anything to help the others find the strength to try to get around this horrible obstacle. "There's nothing but more of the same."

"I am telling you the truth, Renie." His voice was hoarse. "By the heart of Grandfather Mantis, I am telling you the truth."

"I can't make it!" she wailed.

"You can. Come as far toward me as you can. Lean to the side instead of back, to keep your balance. Try to reach your hand around to me. When you touch me, don't be frightened. I will hold your hand tightly and help keep you up."

"He says there's a place to stop on the other side," Renie told the others, trying to sound like she believed it. There was no reply, but she could see Sam Fredericks from the corner of her eye, feel the girl's exhaustion and panic. "A safe place. Just a tiny bit farther." She relayed !Xabbu's directions so the others would know what to do when they got there, not believing for a moment any of it would work, then slid a little closer to the outcrop. She leaned as !Xabbu had instructed, pushed her throbbing feet a little closer to the bump. For a moment she thought she had leaned too far, and only the stiffness of her limbs kept her from making a fatal grasp for a better handhold. She hugged the black stone tight, edged her left arm as far around it as she could, out of sight. . . .

. . . And something touched it. Despite !Xabbu's warning, the surprise was so great she almost lost her grip again, but the fingers around her wrist were tight and sure. She sidestepped again, having to lean back a little now as the stone bulged out above her, and suddenly she felt her balance shift back, back toward nothingness. She had only a moment to draw breath for the pointless reflexive scream, then her arm was jerked hard and she scraped along the stone. Her right foot slipped off the path, but the rest of her caromed out, swinging on the pivot of her other foot, and !Xabbu was there, still holding on with blessed, blessed strength as he flung himself backward into a wide cleft in the mountainside so that she tumbled in on top of him. He quickly dragged himself out from under her; a moment later Renie heard him shuffling back to the edge of the fold in the mountainside, calling to Sam, but Renie herself could only lie facedown on the floor and cling as hard as she had gripped the mountainside, rubbing her face against the precious horizontal stone.

She was dimly conscious of !Xabbu bringing the others in safely. Sam fell gasping beside her, whimpering at the cramping of her fingers and toes. A more stolid Jongleur followed and tumbled silently to the ground. Even as the adrenaline diminished and her heart began to slow, Renie suddenly realized that !Xabbu had gone back to the rim of the crevice, risking his life to help the brain-damaged Ricardo Klement to safety. She struggled to her knees, every muscle shrieking in protest, and crawled to the edge. !Xabbu was leaning out at an angle that made her heart begin triphammering again, talking slowly and softly to someone she could not see, his slender arm stretched out of sight around the outcropping.

"I'm behind you, !Xabbu." Her voice was a dry croak. "Do you want me to grab your hand?"

"No, Renie." His voice was muffled against the rock. "I need it where it is for balance. But if you held my leg, I would be grateful. Let go quickly if I ask."

As her fingers closed around his ankle he leaned out farther. Renie could only watch for a moment before having to shut her eyes. The sky's strange lack of depth did not prevent vertigo.

It's just as well T4b isn't here, she thought, the distracted thought keeping a greater terror at bay.

For a moment, as !Xabbu's muscles tensed beneath her touch and he leaned out even farther on his fingernail grip, she thought her pulse would explode in her chest. Then the naked body of Klement came wobbling around the edge of the stone and !Xabbu crouched and pulled backward, toppling onto Renie as he pulled Klement in on them both.

They all lay gasping for a while, until Renie found the strength to help !Xabbu away from the edge of the cleft, deeper into the dimple in the mountain's side. It was scarcely three meters to the place where Sam lay almost wedged into the back, but after that ribbon of trail the space seemed palatial.

Renie slept then, a brief dive beneath the surface of consciousness. When she woke, she dragged herself toward !Xabbu where he sat propped against the black stone and put her head against his chest, nudging until she found a spot in the hollow under his chin. The beat of his heart was soothing, and she realized she never wanted to let go of him.

"We're in trouble," she whispered.

He said nothing, but she could feel his attention,

"We can't go out on that trail again. There's nothing left of it."

She thought he drew breath to argue, but then she felt his head slowly nodding, the curve of his throat and jaw enfolding the line of her own skull like a cupping hand. "I think you are right."

"So what's left? We stay here until the thing dissolves out from under us?" She looked at Sam, as rigid as a catatonic, staring at her own hands. Jongleur too seemed lost in some inner world, all of them now wandering as distantly as Ricardo Klement. "What else can we do?"

"Wait. Hope." !Xabbu brought his arm up and drew her closer. His fingers rested lightly above her heart, on the upper slope of her breast. "We will be together, no matter what comes."

She burrowed even deeper against him, and realized that she wanted not just to be held, but to kiss him, weep against his face, make love to him. But not here. Not inches from slow-breathing Jongleur, not under Ricardo Klement's aquarium gaze.

And if not here, where? she thought with a brushstroke of sad humor. If not now, when? For it seemed fairly certain there was nothing left. Still, bone-deep weariness and the presence of hateful strangers had turned the thought grotesque. She would content herself with childlike pleasures, with being held, with falling asleep in what for the moment was as much safety as she could imagine.

"Tell a story," she murmured instead. "We need one, !Xabbu."

She felt his head turn slowly from side to side. "I cannot think of any stories, Renie. I am so tired. My stories are gone."

It seemed the saddest thing she had ever heard. Unseeing, she touched his face as sleep came and took her again.

 

Even after all the unreason she had experienced, all the visions and hallucinations, she came up out of the blackest, most unknowing depths into the active force of the dream and realized immediately that this was perhaps the strangest one yet.

Usually when she dreamed, she was the active one, even if those actions were frustrated; in some of the worst she was a helpless observer, a bodiless phantom condemned to watch over a life it could no longer enjoy. But this was different. This dream came at her, washing over her with the force of moving water, a river of experience that had swallowed her down and was rushing her along, battering her until she felt she might drown in it.

If there had been coherent images she might have found it easier to resist the terrible flow, to feel some tiny chance of control, but the whirling chaos roared over her and through her, unstoppably. Streaks of color, snatches of incomprehensible sounds, flashes of nerve-scraping heat and cold, it went on until she felt so overwhelmed that she could only pray for some sleep deeper than this terrible active dream, anything that would blank out the sensation, stop the terrible screaming input.

Death. The word registered only for a moment, like a headline on a gust-snagged newspaper. Death. Calm. Quiet. Dark. Sleep. In the uncontrolled anarchy of sensation, trapped on this brakeless thrill ride, it had a dreadful allure. But the life inside her was really very strong: when the darkness did come, it terrified her.

It was a cold, oozing dark, a clammy black static grip that, after the initial relief, was only slightly better than the surging horror it had replaced, for not only the swirl of images vanished, but most of her thoughts as well. Reality fragmented and disconnected, became a series of pointless movements that she realized were only the earlier discord stifled and slowed.

She floated in the midst of a living shadow. There was nothing but herself, surrounded by an unimaginable blackness. She could not think, not properly. She could only wait, while time or perhaps some incompetent impostor did its work.

The emptiness was aeons long. Even imagination died. Aeons long.

Then at last she felt something—a fluttering in the void, Oh, God, it was real, it was! Something distant, but actually separate from herself. No, many somethings, small and alive, tiny blessed warm things where before there had been nothing but cold.

She reached out eagerly, but the fluttering things darted away, frightened of her. She reached again and the presences retreated even farther. Her sorrow grew so large and painful that she was certain all that kept her coherent would burst and she would spill inside out into the darkness, disperse, collapse. She lay in cold misery.

The things returned.

This time she was careful, as careful as she could be, reaching out to them slowly, gently, feeling them in their terrible fragility. After a while they came to her without coaxing. She handled them with almost infinite caution, enfolded each one as gently as she could, a century between thoughts, a millennium between excruciatingly restrained movements. Even so, some proved too vulnerable, and with tiny cries they were no more, bursting in her grasp like bubbles as they gave up their essences. It tore at her heart.

The others flitted away, alarmed, and she was terrified, certain they would leave her forever. She called to them. Some came back. Oh, but they were delicate. Oh, but they were beautiful.

She wept, and the universe slowly convulsed.

 

The dream had been so deep and powerful and strange that for a long time she did not realize she had returned to consciousness. Her mind still seemed lost in lonely darkness: for almost a minute after she remembered her name, Renie did not open her eyes. At last some returning sensation in her skin and muscles pricked her and she unlidded, stared, then cried out.

Gray, swirling silver-gray. Flickers of light, the smearing of broken spectra, a fine dust of luminance . . . but nothing else. The shimmery cloudstuff that had girdled the mountain seemed to be all around her now, an ocean of silver emptiness, although she could sense something hard and horizontal beneath her. She was not bodiless—it was not a dream this time. Her hands crawled over her own flesh and to the ground on either side, a ground she could not even see. She was lost in a heavy, shining fog, everything and everyone else gone.

"!Xabbu? Sam?" She crawled a little way over the hard but curiously smooth invisibility beneath her, then remembered the edge of the crevice and stopped, fighting against complete panic. "!Xabbu! Where are you?"

An echo had been one of the few lifelike features that the degenerating black mountainside had retained, but there was no echo now.

Renie moved forward again, exploring with nervously twitching fingers, but even after she had crawled what must have been a dozen meters she had encountered neither the stone of the cliff face nor the open space at the crevice's rim. It was as though the mountain had just melted away around her, leaving her on some inexplicable tabletop in the glimmering fog.

She crawled another dozen meters. The ground she could not see was as smooth as something glazed in a kiln, but real enough to hurt her knees. She called her companions' names over and over into absolute silence. At last, desperate, she climbed to her feet.

"!Xabbu!" she shrieked until her throat was sore. "!Xabbu! Can you hear me?"

Nothing.

She walked a half-dozen careful paces, testing each footstep before setting it down. The ground was absolutely flat. There was nothing else—no precipice, no vertical stone slab of mountain, no sound, no light except the ubiquitous pearly gleam of the mist. Even the fog had no substance: it shimmered wetly but was not wet. There was nothing. There was Renie and nothing. Everything gone.

She sat down and clutched at her head. I'm dead, she thought, but outside the dream, the idea of death was not a soothing one. And this is all there is. Everyone lied. She laughed, but it sounded like something wasn't working properly inside her. Even the atheists lied. "Oh, damn," she said out loud.

A flicker of shadow caught her eye—something moving in the fog.

"!Xabbu?" Even as she spoke, she felt she shouldn't have. Hunted—they were all hunted now. Still, she could not smother the reflex entirely. "Sam?" she whispered.

The shape eased forward, resolving out of nothing like a magical apparition. She was prepared for something as bizarre as the setting; it took her a moment to recognize what it was that shared the silver void with her.

"I am . . . Ricardo," said the blank-eyed man. "Klement," he added a moment later.

CHAPTER 5
The Last Fish to Swallow

NETFEED/NEWS: Church Refuses Exorcism for "Bogeyman"

(visual: child on bed in La Palotna Hospital)

VO: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has refused the request of a group of close to three dozen Mexican-American parents to perform an exorcism on their children, who claim to have had identical nightmares about a dark spirit they call "El Cucuy"—the bogeyman. Three of the affected children have committed suicide, and several of the others are being treated for clinical depression. Social help agents say the villain is not a demon, but the medical result of too much time spent on the net.

(visual: Cassie Montgomery, LA County Human Services)

MONTGOMERY: "We can't trace the source yet, but I don't think it's a coincidence that most of these young people are latchkey kids and heavy net users. It seems pretty clear that something they've seen or experienced online is provoking these bad dreams. The rest I chalk up to garden-variety hysteria."

 

What's even more important," the guide said, smiling her professional smile from behind thick goggle-style sunglasses, "is that we now have healthy breeding populations of many threatened birds—the gallinule, or marsh hen, the roseate spoonbill, the Lousiana heron, and the beautiful snowy egret, just to name a few. Now Charleroi will take us into the deep swamp. Maybe we'll see some deer, or even a bobcat!" She was good at her job: it was clear she could manifest the same energy for that line every trip, day in and day out.

Not counting the guide and the young man nominally steering the boat, whose suntanned arms bore the serpentine traces of unignited subdermals and whose facial expression also suggested that some necessary light beneath the flesh had not been switched on, there were only six passengers on this slow weekday afternoon, a red-faced British couple and their small noisy son who was cutting at the duckweed with a souvenir lightstick, a pair of young married professionals from somewhere the the middle of the country, and Olga Pirofsky.

"Please keep your hands out of the water." The guide retained her smile even as her voice hardened to something less cheerful. "This isn't an amusement park, remember—our alligators are not mechanical."

Everyone except Olga laughed dutifully, but the boy still did not stop swiping at the water until his father said, "Lay off, Gareth," and smacked him on the back of the head.

Strange, so strange, Olga thought. So strange, all the years and miles of my life, to wind up here. A bank of cypress loomed ahead in the fast-dissolving morning mist, a gathering of phantoms. Here at the end.

Three days now since she had reached the end of the journey, or perhaps since the journey itself had deserted her. Everything was stasis, pointless as the quiet little guideboat moving along its preprogrammed route across the resurrected swamp. Sleepless through the silent nights, only able to slip into unconsciousness when dawn touched the window blinds of her motel room, Olga could scarcely find the energy to eat and drink, let alone do anything more strenuous. She didn't even know what impulse had led her to buy a ticket for the tour, and nothing so far had made it worth missing the few hours of sleep she might have had in its place. She could see the object of her quest from almost anywhere in the area, after all—the black tower dominated the vicinity as thoroughly as a medieval cathedral its village and fields.

Three days without the voices, without the children. She had not felt so bereft since those distant and terrible days when Aleksandr and the baby had died.

And I can't even remember now what that felt like, she realized. A big emptiness, that's all that's left. Like a hole, and my life since then has just been little things I throw into that hole, trying to fill it up. But I can't feel it.

She never had felt it, she realized—not fully, not truly. Even now it was a blackness that was out of reach, on the other side of some kind of membrane of deliberate ignorance, a thin wall separating her from a horror as complete as the vacuum of space.

If I had ever let it through, she thought, I would be dead. I thought I was strong, but no one is that strong. I kept it away.

"Since the completion of the intracoastal Barrier," the guide was saying, "thousands and thousands of acres of waterway which were being lost to erosion and increasing salinity have been returned to their pristine state, preserved for future generations to enjoy." She nodded, as though she herself had climbed out of bed every morning, smeared on her sunblock, donned her waders, and assembled the barrier.

But it is beautiful, Olga thought, even if it's all an illusion. The boat was murmuring through a patch of vibrantly lavender water hyacinths. Small paddling birds moved unhurriedly out of their way, clearly familiar with what by now must be a generations-old routine. The cypresses were looming closer. The sun had lifted a full span in the east above the Mississippi Sound and the gulf beyond, but the light could not penetrate too deeply among the trees and their knee-high blanket of mist. The darkness between them looked restful, like sleep.

"Yes," said the male half of the professional couple suddenly, "but didn't making the Intracoastal whatever . . . Barrier . . . didn't that utterly ruin like almost all the wetlands that were already there?" He turned to his wife or girlfriend, who tried to look interested. "See, the corporation that owns all this dredged out Lake Borgne over there completely. It was only a few meters deep, then they opened it up to the sea, sank the pilings for that island with the corporate headquarters, all that." He looked up to the guide, a little defiance on his thin face. Olga decided he was an engineer, someone to whom management was usually the enemy. "So, yeah, it was part of the deal that they had to patch the rest of this up, make it a nice little nature park. But it pretty much killed the fishing all around."

"You an environmentalist or something?" the British man asked flatly.

"No." He was a little defensive now. "Just . . . I just follow the news."

"The J Corporation didn't have to do anything," the guide said primly. "They had permission to build in Lake Borgne. It was all legal. They just. . . ." she was reaching, veering an uncomfortable distance off her usual recititativo. . . . "they just wanted to give something back. To the community." She turned and looked at the young pilot, who rolled his eyes but then added a little speed. They began to pass the first cypress stumps, pointy islands breasting the dark water like miniature versions of the mountain that haunted Olga's dreams.

There's nowhere left to go, she thought. I've reached the tower, but it's all private property. Someone even said that the corporation that owns it has a whole standing army. No tours, no visitors, no way. She sighed as the cypresses slid toward them through the mist, enfolding the little boat in mist and angled light.

It was indeed, as the promotional material had claimed, like a watery cathedral, a hall of vertical pillars and hangings, the cypress trees draped with moss like a freeze-frame of liquid flow, the water itself still as a drumhead but for the threading wake of the boat. She could almost imagine that they had passed not just out of the direct sun, but out of the direct surveillance of time itself, had slipped back through millennia to a time when humans had not even touched the vast continents of the Americas.

"Look," said the tour guide, her precisely animated diction puncturing the mood like a needle, "an abandoned boat. That's a pirogue, one of the flat boats the swamp trappers and fishermen used to use."

Olga turned resignedly to see the skeletonized hull of the little craft, its ribs colonized with hyacinths like the capitals of an illuminated breviary. It was beautifully picturesque. Too picturesque.

"A prop," the young professional man whispered to his companion. "This wasn't even swamp until ten years ago—they literally built it after they finished the Lake Borgne project."

"It was a hard life for the people who made their living in the swamp," the guide continued, ignoring the man. "Although there were periodic economic booms in the area, based around fur or cypress wood, the downturns were generally longer. Before J Corporation created the Louisiana Swamp Preserve, it was a dying way of life."

"Don't look like there's a lot of people making a living here now," the British man offered, and laughed.

"Gareth, leave the turtle alone," his wife said.

"Ah, but there are people still making a living in the old-fashioned way," the guide responded cheerfully, pleased that she had been given an easy one. "You'll see on the last stop on our tour, when we reach the Swamp Market. The old crafts and skills haven't been forgotten, but preserved."

"Like a dead pig in a jar of alcohol," the engineer said quietly, displaying what Olga thought was an unexpected gift for simile.

"If it comes to that," the guide said, finally allowing her own defensiveness to show through, "Charleroi's people come from this same area, didn't they?" She turned to the young pilot, who gazed back at her with infinite weariness. "Isn't your family from right around here?"

"Yah." He nodded, then spat over the side. "And look at me today."

"Piloting a boat through the swamp," the tour guide said, her point proved.

As the guide went on to list in great detail the red-shouldered hawk, ibis, annhinga, and other creatures winged and otherwise who frequented the reclaimed swamp, Olga let her mind wander away, lazy as the track through the floating duckweed of yesterday's final tour, which their own boat was following with only the smallest of deviations. A bird the guide identified as a bittern made a sound like a hammer striking a board. The cypresses began to thin, the mist to burn away.

They slipped from the grove to find the stern black finger of God held up before them, dominating the horizon beyond the swamp's vegetative carpet.

"Lord," said the Englishwoman. "Gareth, look at that, darling."

"It's just that building," the child said, rooting in the daypack for something else to eat. "We saw it before,"

"Yes, that's the J Corporation tower," the guide said, as proud of the distant structure as she had been of the Intra-coastal Barrier. "You can't see from here, but the island in Lake Borgne contains an entire city, with its own airport and police force."

"They basically make their own law," the professional man told his partner, who was dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief. He didn't bother to whisper this time. "The guy who owns it, Jongleur, is one of the richest guys in the world, no dupping. They say he pretty much owns the government down here."

"That's not very fair, sir. . . ." the guide began, flushing.

"Are you kidding?" The man snorted, then turned to the British family. "They say that the only reason Jongleur doesn't admit he owns the government outright is because then he'd have to pay taxes on it."

"Isn't he the one who's two hundred years old?" the British woman asked as her husband chortled at the idea of owning your own government. "I saw about him on the tabnets—he's a machine or something." She turned to her husband. "I saw it. Made me go cold all over, thinking about it."

The guide waved her hands. "There is a great deal of exaggeration about Mr. Jongleur, most of it cruel. He's an old man and he's very ill, it's true." She put on what Olga thought of as the Sad Newsreader Face, the one that net people donned when presenting schoolbus crashes or senseless homicides. "And of course he's influential—the J Corporation is the biggest employer in the New Orleans area, and has interests worldwide. They're a major stockholder in many companies, household names—CommerceBank, Clinsor Pharmaceutical, Dartheon. Obolos Entertainment, for that matter, the children's interactive company. What's your name," she asked the little boy, "Gareth, isn't it? Surely you know Uncle Jingle, don't you, Gareth?"

"Yeah. 'Snot fair!' " He laughed and slapped his mother's shin with his lightstick.

"See? J Corporation is involved in lots of things, vested in wholesome and consumer-friendly companies all over the world. We are, as we like to say, a 'people corporation'. . . ."

The rest of the spiel was lost to Olga—in fact, she had stopped hearing what the woman said after the mention of Obolos. In all her years working for the company she did not remember being told anything about J Corporation. But, of course, who paid attention? In a world where every corporate fish was both eater and eaten, who could even tell which fish had swallowed last?

I should have researched the tower, I should have. . . .

But it had been a religious experience, a revelation, not a school assignment. The children's voices had demanded she come, and so she had put away her worldly goods and come.

Uncle Jingle—Uncle Jingle comes from the black tower.

Olga Pirofsky spent almost two more hours in the tiny boat, surrounded by faces whose mouths moved but whose voices she could no longer bear to listen to, an interstellar traveler landed among babbling aliens.

Uncle Jingle is murdering the children. And I helped him do it.

 

 

"I don't understand here," said Long Joseph. "Where is this Sellars? You said he was on the phone—you said he was calling and calling on the phone. But now he don't call at all, anytime."

"He said he'd call back." Jeremiah spread his hands helplessly. "He said there were things going on . . . we're not the only ones with problems."

"Yeah, but I bet we are the only ones locked up in a mountain while a bunch of Boer murderers trying to burn their way in and kill us."

"Just settle down, would you? You're making my head hurt." Del Ray Chiume had returned from his brief inspection tour. "Don't pay any attention to him," he told Jeremiah. "Just read us the notes you made—it's not like we have a lot of time to waste arguing."

Long Joseph Sulaweyo didn't like anything much about the way this was going. It was bad enough being trapped in a deep underground base in the middle of nowhere, with only three bottles of anything decent to drink to last God only knew how long, and people outside who wanted to kill him, but now it appeared that Del Ray—Del Ray who Joseph himself had brought here—was making common cause with Jeremiah Dako, ganging up against him.

Joseph could make no sense of it, unless Del Ray, too, was secretly a girly-man as well, and the deep fraternal bond was stronger than other loyalties. Maybe that is the real reason he broke up with my Renie.

"So I am supposed to trust my life to this kak?" he demanded.

"Don't start with me, Joseph Sulaweyo," Jeremiah said. "Not after you just disappeared for days without an explanation, leaving me to handle everything."

"I had to go see my son." But he could not escape a small flitting shadow of guilt. He would not want to be cooped up in this place alone. Perhaps it had not been easy for Jeremiah either. "All right, then, who is this Sellars man? What business does he have with us, that he calls up from nowhere and tells us what to do?"

"The business is trying to save our lives," Jeremiah growled. "And if you hadn't shown up when you did, he would have been the only thing to keep me from being murdered by those men out there."

"That and several feet of battleship steel plate." Del Ray was trying to sound cheerful but hadn't quite succeeded. "There are worse places to be under siege than in a hardened military bunker."

"Not if we don't get things in order," Jeremiah said primly. "Now, are you going to listen?"

Joseph had not entirely buried his suspicions. "But if this man is away in America like you say, how did he find this place? It is supposed to be a big secret."

"I'm not exactly sure. He knows a lot about Renie and !Xabbu and the French woman—he even knew something about that old man Singh. Sellars says he's dead."

"Why he say a thing like that?" Joseph felt a thrill of superstitious fear. It had been so strange holding the empty line, waiting for the voice out of nowhere—the voice that never came. "This man Sellars really tell you he is dead?"

Jeremiah stared, then gave a snort of exasperation. "He said Singh was dead. Singh. The old man that helped Renie and the others. Now will you shut up and listen to what I've written here? There are men trying to break into this place. A folding bed crammed in the elevator door is not truly a long-term solution."

Joseph waved his hand. That was one thing about these homosexual men—like women, they always got so stressed up about things. "Talk, then. I will listen."

Jeremiah snorted again, then looked at the notes he had scribbled in old-fashioned pencil on the concrete pillar. "Sellars says that we can't just block the elevator—that they could come down the shaft. We have to seal off this entire section of the base. He says that the plans show how to do that. But we also have to prepare for a long siege, so we have to bring everything we need down to this place. Joseph, that means you have to haul as much food and water as you can down from the kitchen. We don't know how long we have until they manage to get through the outer doors, so we have to be ready to seal the. thing up as quickly as possible. If we get it ready, then have more time, we'll bring down more food and water."

"What, you want me just to haul those plastic water things like a day laborer? Who is going to look for the guns—Del Ray? You should see him with a pistol in his hand. He is more dangerous to us than to those bad men."

Joseph closed his eyes for a moment. Del Ray said something nasty under his breath. "It's hard to believe there were moments I actually almost missed your company," Jeremiah said. "First, there are no guns, just like there aren't any office supplies. Almost anything small enough to be carried away was taken when they closed this place down. They only left food and water because they thought they might use it someday as a bomb shelter or something. Second, even if we had guns, we couldn't stop these people. You said yourself they were armored like a Special Operations team. Sellars says the best thing for us to do is to seal this off and wait them out."

Long Joseph wasn't sure whether he was sorry or not that he wouldn't be shooting it out with the Boer hitmen. "So what is he going to be doing?" he asked, cocking a thumb at Del Ray.

"Depends. Mr. Chiume, do you know anything about computer systems, electronics?"

Del Ray shook his head. "My degree was political science. I know how to use a pad, but that's about it."

Jeremiah sighed. "I was afraid of that. Sellars said there are lots of patches to be made so that he can help us more. I guess I'll just have to muddle through them myself, if I can figure out his instructions. God, I hope he calls back soon."

"Patches?"

"This is a very old-fashioned system here, twenty, thirty years old or more. I don't know what exactly he plans to do, but he said it was important." He tried to smile. He looked very gray and drawn. "Well, then, Mr. Chiume, I suppose you will have generator duty."

"Call me Del Ray, please. What am I supposed to do?"

"If we're going to be locked down here in the lab, we need the generator, because those men up there will certainly be trying to turn off the main power. We have to have power just to get air in and out of here, not to mention keeping the tanks running." He gestured toward the huge shapes on the floor a level beneath them, tangled in their cables like stones overgrown with clinging vines. "Sellars said we're lucky they have a hydrogen-storage generator down here, not a reactor, because the military would have taken the hot material out of a reactor and we'd have nothing except the main power source."

"I still do not understand," grumbled Long Joseph, his mind full of the unattractive picture of himself carrying dozens of heavy plastic water jugs and food canisters down from the upper level. "What does he know of my Renie? How would she know someone from America, him get all involved with this, with us?"

Del Ray shrugged and answered for Jeremiah. "What are any of us doing here in this strange place? Why did a bunch of thugs come to my door and threaten to kill me because my ex-girlfriend was talking to a French researcher? It's a strange world and it's getting stranger."

"That is the first thing you say all day that makes sense," declared Joseph.

 

Joseph felt sweaty and irritable, but what was more disturbing was how the empty, echoing halls of the Wasp's Nest base made the sweat turn cold on his skin. Joseph did not like to think of himself as the type to be shivering with fear—although it had happened to him more than once in his life—but neither could he pretend that everything was going to be okay either.

Not going to talk your way out of this one, man, he told himself as he trundled the handtruck into the elevator. Before pushing the down button he cocked an ear, wondering if they would be able to hear when the thugs outside finally broke the code on the massive front door, or whether it would simply swing open silently, allowing the killers to walk in like cats coming through a window by night. All was quiet now; he could not even hear the sounds of Jeremiah and Del Ray two floors below. Only his own labored breathing gave the place life, made it something other than a hole surrounded by stone, as uninhabited as an empty seashell.

The elevator door clunked open. Groaning quietly, Joseph levered the cart into position and began to drag the water supplies along the landing. He could see Jeremiah's feet sticking out from beneath the console, surrounded by various components and cables, and he was reminded briefly of Elephant's storage-bin version of a mad scientist's lab. "It's not a secret anymore," the fat man had said about the military base, and he had been right. Not that Joseph was ever planning to look him up and congratulate him on his accuracy.

"This is all the water," he shouted to Jeremiah's feet. "I am going to bring down the food next. Don't know why—it is nothing but packaged rubbish. Want to kill ourselves after a few more weeks just from eating that."

Jeremiah slid out from under the console wearing a frown on which Joseph could have opened a beer bottle, if he had been lucky enough to have one. "Yes, it's a great shame. Which is why I'm certain that while you were out trotting around southern Africa, and I was cooped up here watching over your helpless daughter, you bought a few treats for me, yes? Some expensive candy bars, perhaps? A dozen koeksisters from the bakery? Something to compensate for leaving me hanging, stuck with nothing but the food you so accurately describe as rubbish?"

Joseph, from long experience with his daughter and others, recognized an argument he was not going to win; he hurried on with the cart to the spot where he had begun his pyramid of water jugs. On the way back, with Jeremiah safely under the console once more and Del Ray nowhere in sight, he paused to look down onto the laboratory floor. The silent shapes of the v-tanks, dusty, dead objects on a museum shelf, abruptly brought tears to the corner of his eyes. Surprised, he rubbed them away.

But one thing, he silently told the nearest pod. One thing is, they are never going to get you unless they go through me first. Somehow I get you back out into the sun again. He was surprised to hear himself making a speech in his own head, but even more surprised to realize what he was saying was true. "You hear me, girl?" he whispered. "Not unless they go through me."

He was afraid Del Ray or Jeremiah would see him, and in any case, the place was stony and miserable as a tomb. He hurried back to the elevator.

 

 

Calliope Skouros made a face and put the coffee back down. It wasn't so much that it tasted bad, although it did, the steaming product of one of those little flash-brew drink packets, but that she'd downed so much coffee the night before that even after five hours of ineffective sleep she could still feel yesterday's caffeine hustling around in her system like one of those horrible cheery people who live to organize neighborhood events. Calliope was in a pretty good mood, though. While there wasn't exactly sweeping victory on the waitress front, there was definite progress. Elisabetta (bearer of tattoos and all that coffee) had revealed her name, and now dropped by Calliope's table to chat even when an occasional miscalculation of the seat-yourself policy put the detective in another server's section. To her surprise and pleasure, Calliope had discovered that there was more to the young woman than simply her rough, attractive look. She was an art student—of course—but seemed to have a lot on her mind, and was even willing to listen for short stretches when she could be distracted from the eternal waitress complaints of lousy bosses, sore feet, and problems with rent and transportation.

Interestingly, over several nights' worth of fleeting conversation, the other major component of waitress-misery had not come up: so far there had been no mention of lazy, ignorant, or violent boyfriends. In fact, there had been no mention of boyfriends (or girlfriends) of any kind.

This had better turn into something, Calliope thought, considering the prospect of months lurking amid the garish, beach-party ambience of Bondi Baby. Otherwise, the caffeine alone's going to kill me.

"I'd offer a penny for your thoughts, partner mine. . . ." Stan Chan slipped into the narrow, wallscreened place the cops all referred to as "the green room" and threw his coat over the back of a chair; as usual, the tiny room was practically a sauna. "But I'm sure that I'd be undervaluing. You look utterly deep today. What are they worth? Swiss credits? Real estate?" He gazed at the screen, which showed a dark, thin, scar-covered man. The room where the prisoner sat was empty but for an old table and several chairs, the walls a hideously cheerful orange fibramic tile designed to repel graffiti and, it was reputed, blood. "Speaking of valuable things, is this our friend 3Big?"

Stan was occasionally a bit much in the morning, even when Calliope's head wasn't churning with the perfectly legal equivalent of a couple pops of hotwire. "Can you talk a little more quietly? Yeah, that's him. He's been boxed all night, and now we're going to chat with him."

"Lovely." Her partner really was in a frighteningly good mood. She wondered if he'd had another date or something. "Can I be nasty? Is it my turn?"

"Your turn."

"You're a mate." He paused, frowning, and poked her in the ribs. "You're not wearing your flakkie, Skouros."

"In the station?" She hated wearing the gel-filled vest, an item commonly referred to around the office as "bulletproof underwear."

"Regulations. After all, while he was in the holding cell our friend in there might have manufactured a pistol out of soap and floor lint."

"Yeah, right. No wonder you like to wear yours—it makes you look like you actually have muscles. It just makes me look fat."

"I think of you as the husky angel of Justice." His face turned briefly serious. "You really need to wear that thing. Skouros."

"Okay, I will. Now let's do some work, Mr. Nasty."

Stan snapped his fingers to douse the green room lights so that only darkness would show in the doorway behind them as they stepped through into the glare of the orange tiles. The prisoner looked up at them, his face emptied of anything except for a lip-droop of casual disgust. Calliope liked that—she enjoyed it more when they pretended to be hard.

"Good morning, Edward," she said brightly as she and Stan slid into the chairs across from the prisoner. "I'm Detective Skouros, this is Detective Chan."

The dark man did not reply, but brought a finger up to stroke the long scars on his cheek.

Calliope decided to be puzzled. "You are Edward Pike, aren't you? I'm sure this is the right interview room." She turned to Stan. "Guess this one will have to go back to the box while we figure out the mistake."

"Nobody call me Edward but my mother, and she dead two years," he said sullenly. "3Big, that's how I go. 3Big."

"Yeah, this is him, fear not," Stan said. "Ugly little street beast, just picked up carrying six dozen carts of D-jak wipers in a customized flak belt. Retail weight of Indonesian charge—you're going to do ten years for that, 3-boy, and it won't be in one of the nice places either."

"It was for personal use, seen?" The denial was pro forma—everybody knew they were fencing until the public defender showed up. "I need rehabilitation. Got a bad 'diction, me."

Stan made a spitting noise. "That's going to play, yeah. Judge take one look at you, notice that you were within half a kilometer of a school, she's going to recommend we put you in one of the refuse barges and sink you in the ocean."

Calliope sat quietly for a few minutes and watched her partner moving through the formally aggressive steps of the dance. Edward "3Big" Pike was a habitual, so he knew the motions as well as Stan. He wasn't the worst sort they had to deal with—lots of priors for receiving and handling, and one decent stretch in Silverwater for dealing, but as far as she knew he hadn't ever killed anyone who hadn't tried to kill him first, which in Darlinghurst Road terms practically made him Robin Hood. He was known for being a bit smarter than the average King's Cross street beast, and the fact that he'd only gone down once for dealing testified to that. Calliope wondered if there might be a little pride wrapped up in that, another place they could insert the thin end of the wedge.

Stan had the man snarling and defensive, which meant it was about time for her to start her pitch. "Detective Chan?" She made her voice a little harsh. "I don't think this is the right way to deal with the situation. Why don't you go get a drink of water?"

"Nah, I don't think so." Stan gave the prisoner a stare of radiant contempt. "But if you think you can deal with this curb creature, be my guest."

"Look, Mr. Pike," Calliope began, "technically you belong to Street Crime, so we don't have any formal jurisdiction over you. But if you help us out with a little information—and if it's good information—we might be able to get them back down to simple possession. With your priors you'll still do some time, but it won't be anything too bad."

He was interested but trying not to show it, his heavy-lidded eyes burning brightly behind the surprisingly long lashes. "What you want? Not going to roll over on no one, me. Coming out the box early won't mean nothing if I get sixed first time I touch the Darling."

"We just want some information. About an old acquaintance of yours, someone you spent some time with back in Minda Juvenile. Johnny Wulgaru. . . ?"

His face was blank. "Don't know him."

"Also known as Johnny Dark—Johnny Dread?"

Now something did move beneath the stony features, something swift as mercury rolling in a pan. "You talking about John More Dread? Talking about Dread?" A complicated series of emotions ran across him, ending in a nervous scowl. "What you want with him? He's carked it, right? Dead?"

"Supposed to be. Have you heard otherwise?" She looked, but he had fallen back behind the street mask once more. "We're just trying to clear up an old homicide. A girl named Polly Merapanui."

He was on safer ground now. "Don't know her. Never heard nothing about her." He blinked and reconsidered. "She the one that got her eyes cut out?"

Calliope leaned forward, keeping her voice casual. "You know something about it?"

He shrugged. "Saw it on the net."

"We just want to know if you heard anything about Johnny Dread connected with that crime. Anything at all."

"Not going to roll on nobody, me."

Stan Chan leaned in. "How can you be rolling on anyone if he's dead, you little shit? Talk some sense."

3Big gave Calliope a look of wounded dignity. "This your dog? Because if he don't stop biting my knackers, you might as well put me back in the box."

Calliope waved Stan back into his chair. "Just tell me what you remember about John Dread."

The prisoner smirked. "Nothing. I forgot everything. And if I ever hear anything about him after today, I forget that too. He was one sayee lo bastard. Wouldn't talk slice to him for hard money."

Calliope kept asking questions, augmented by suggestions about 3Big's heritage and social life from Stan that were occasionally rather surreal. If it was a fencing match, the prisoner was not playing to win, but simply not to be scored upon, an unsatisfying experience that went on so long that the last of the caffeine rush finally wore off, leaving Calliope tired and irritable.

"So he's dead, and you haven't seen him for years anyway. That's what you're telling me, right?"

He nodded. "For true."

"Then why do I get the feeling you're holding out? You're facing a long stretch, Mr. Pike. Eddie. Three Bug, or whatever bullshit you want to call yourself. If I were where you are, I'd be climbing across this table right now, trying hard to kiss my big Greek backside, because there aren't going to be many people offering you anything in the next little while. Unless it's someone in the shower when you go back to Silverwater, handing you a chocolate bar to bend over." He was clearly a little surprised by how abruptly she had abandoned the pretense of helpfulness, but he maintained his smirk. "So why won't you talk?

"I'm talking."

"Talk about something real, I mean. We could scrape three to five years off your sentence if you told us something useful about John Dread."

He looked at her for a strangely long time. Stan Chan started to say something, but Calliope touched his knee under the table, asking for patience. 3Big fidgeted with his scars again, sighed, then dropped his hands to the tabletop.

"Look, woman," he said slowly. "I tell you something for free. I don't know nothing about Dread. But even if I did know something, I wouldn't tell you shit. Not for good behavior time, not for reduction, not for nothing."

"But if he's dead. . . !"

He shook his head, his gaze hidden now, curtained behind those long lashes like a panther in a canebrake. "Don't matter. You don't know Dread, you never met him. You cross him, he come back out of the ground and kill you three ways. If there was ever someone be a mopaditi, come back and six you in the dark, Dread do it."

"Mopaditi. What does that mean?"

He had retreated far back now, surveying them as though from the depths of a cave. "Ghost. When you dead, but you don't go away. I'll go back to the box now."

 

"Well, that was useless." Stan Chan waited expectantly.

"Hang on." Calliope took out her hearplug and popped it into its padded slot in her pad. She wondered again if it was time to invest in a can. It was tedious lugging the pad around, even the new, wafer-thin Krittapong she had bought herself as a birthday present. "Doctor Jigalong is out of town. I've left her messages at work and home."

"About 'mopaditi'?"

"Yeah, I haven't heard that in street slang before, have you?"

"No." He put his feet up on the desk. "That's what, eight, nine of these people we've rousted? Not getting much."

"We got something there."

Stan gave her the eyebrow. "You mean because he used an aboriginal word? In case you didn't notice, Skouros, the man was indeed of aboriginal heritage himself. Don't you say 'hopa!' or 'retsina' or even 'acropolis' every now and then? I've been known to use the occasional ethnic expression myself—I think I called you 'round-eye' just the other day. . . ."

"He reacted when I asked him about Johnny Dread. He was surprised." Something else was bothering her too, some detail, maddeningly out of reach.

"Well, the man is officially dead. Might be reason for surprise, being questioned about someone you thought was dead."

"Might be. But there was something weird about his reaction. Maybe he's heard something on the street."

"Maybe won't get us over the hump, Skouros. What next? Charming as it may be, we're running out of street culture to investigate."

Calliope shook her head, perplexed and distressed and, with the caffeine finally drained out of her system and nothing gone in to replace it, feeling generally pretty godawful.

 

Sleeplessly out of skew, she sat on the couch and accessed the interview from the department system to run it on her wallscreen. She had decided for her own good to stay away from Bondi Baby. It wasn't even so much the near-obsessive interest in the waitress Elisabetta, but the fact that she had realized she was actually beginning to look forward to the gooey desserts the place served.

Not going to lose any weight that way, Skouros, she told herself. Better to stay home. She hadn't shopped in days, so there was little except crispbread to imperil her determination. She watched the questioning all the way through, then jumped back to the spot where she had first mentioned their quarry's name.

"You talking about John More Dread?" 3Big said, then said it yet again as Calliope backed up and played it over ". . . Talking about Dread?"

That's it, she thought. John More Dread. Haven't heard that one before. But why should one more alias—for a suspect who already had many—catch in her thoughts this way, like a splinter working its way under the skin? More Dread. More Dread. Where have I heard that before?

The thought of the photo taken at Feverbrook Hospital drifted back to her, the blur of dark presence, the formless, smoky face.

3Big Pike said a ghost. If there's anyone who'd come back as a ghost. . . .

She closed her eyes and opened them, trying to use the familiarity of her apartment to push back the feeling of being watched. Of being haunted.

 

 

She was back on the balcony again. The tower drew her as though she were a moth and its black immensity some kind of inverse light. Even now, with the voices gone, when she was somehow farther from it than she'd been even back in Juniper Bay, she could not ignore it.

A sparkle of red signal lights ringed the top like a crown of embers, and on the uppermost floors a few windows glowed, illuminated singly or in small clusters. Otherwise, it was only visible against the night sky because of the searchlights that swept across the empty parking lot, glancing off the shiny, irregular exterior as they tracked across the rows of painted stalls.

The voices were gone. The children were gone. Were they one and the same? Olga Pirofsky had been immersed in the dreamy unreality of her southward journey for so long that she could not quite remember. She was exhausted, too. The nights when the children had pulled her and hurried her, whispering their lives into her dreaming ear, had somehow been far more restful than the dead black hours she had experienced after they had fallen silent. Now she woke each day slow-thinking and hollow, feeling like a helium balloon that had finally leaked the last of its buoyancy and could only roll along the carpet, sagging, useless.

So what now? she asked herself. She could not pull her eyes from the tower, the center of its own dark kingdom. Go home? Kill yourself?

But she had no home anymore. Misha was gone, and Juniper Bay seemed like another planet—like the circus, like the dear, sweet murdered days when she had still been with Aleksandr. And she had pushed away those who might have helped her, Roland McDaniel and her other few friends from work, that nice lawyer Mr. Ramsey. There was nothing left for her but silence.

The voices had brought her practically to the foot of this dreadful black mountain before deserting her. Somehow it was all tangled together—the children, the tower, and the grinning, corpse-white features of Uncle Jingle, the mask she herself had worn so long she wondered if it had not somehow shaped the face beneath.

She opened her pad and sat down at the tiny pressboard motel desk. She found her gaze repeatedly swinging to the window, and at last clapped her hands to close the drapes, unable to think with the distraction of that dark warning finger.

Tired, but happy to have made a decision, Olga began to write her open-ended suicide note.

CHAPTER 6
Talking to Machines

NETFEED/NEWS: Another Rocket Board Fatality Raises Concerns

(visual: kids practicing at Skate Sphere facility, Clissold Park, London)

VO: Another in a string of tragedies involving rocket boards has led members in Britain's House of Parliament to consider a ban on what one member called "a ridiculously dangerous vehicle." But most board users do not agree there is a problem.

(visual: Aloysius Kenneally, age sixteen, in front of Bored! store, Stoke Newington)

KENNEALLY: "It's utterly down the rug. Most all them who blowing up, they like forty-year-old bizboys, seen? Go out on a weekend, ripscrape, crash some wrinkly shopper, dovetail into a hover bus fan. Don't down the rest of us 'cause some bizboy shouldn't even be riding hammers a micro. . . ."

 

It was like a horror flick, but worse, because it was really happening.

Tiny human shapes quailed before a vast and monstrous thing—a whip scorpion, Kunohara had called it. Paul could see Martine and her miniaturized companions huddled deep in the underside folds of a great leaf that shuddered over their heads as rain thumped down like bombs. He reached out, but it was only a view-window—he could do nothing to help them. The whip scorpion took a step closer, slouching in the cradle of its towering, jointed legs. A slender feeler like a stiffened riding crop reached out toward them—slowly, almost tenderly.

"You destroyed those mutants," Paul shouted. "Why can't you save my friends?"

"The mutants did not belong here. There is nothing wrong with the scorpion." Hideki Kunohara almost sounded offended. "It is only following its nature."

"If you won't help them, then send me. At least let me go to them."

Kunohara regarded him with oblique disapproval. "You will be killed."

"I have to try."

"You scarcely know those people—you told me so yourself."

Tears started in Paul's eyes. Anger expanded like steam, threatening to blow off the top of his head. Dimly, he could hear the threadlike shrieks of Martine and the others as the monstrous scorpion levered itself nearer. "You don't understand anything. I've been lost—months, maybe years. Alone! I thought I was out of my mind. They're all I have!"

Kunohara shrugged, then raised his hand. An instant later the bubble, the view-window, and Kunohara's stolid face all vanished, replaced by a scene of terrifying strangeness.

He was somewhere on the forest floor, trunks of mountainous trees stretching up all around him into the night, so large as to be almost invisible. Rain hissed and thudded all around, drops big as rubbish bins, some even the size of small cars; when they smashed against the mulch of the forest floor, everything jumped.

Paul had a sudden and horrifying recollection of the trenches of Amiens, cowering under the impersonal destruction of the German heavy guns; lightning flashed as if to further the illusion, dazzlingly bright as a phosphorus flare. Something moved on his right with a loud leathery creak he could hear even above the thumping of raindrops; the ground shifted beneath him. Paul turned and felt his heart try to climb out of his chest.

The whip scorpion shuffled another step closer to the base of the leaf and froze, motionless except for its questing feelers. By Paul's scale it was as big as a fire engine but much higher, a low, wide body slung between a gantry of jointed legs. It had no tail that he could see, but the pincers that folded like bumpers below its head were jagged with thorny spikes that would hold prey as inescapably as a crocodile's jaws. Two bright red spots low on its head, visible as the lightning flared again, gave an impression of malevolent eyes, of something summoned from its sleep in the pits of hell and angry at having been wakened.

A stream of water rolled off one of the high leaves onto the scorpion. It hugged the ground as the torrent splashed down, waiting with cold patience for the inundation to stop. For a moment Paul could see past it, to the hollow beneath a drooping leaf the size of a ski chalet, to pale human faces reflecting like pearls in the faint moonlight. He took a few steps toward them even as the scorpion ratcheted up to its full height again.

"Martine!" His voice was swallowed in the bombardment of rain. He reached and snatched up a fibrous piece of wood as long as his arm, a tree-needle or a thorn, and flung it at the scorpion. It fell harmlessly against one of the monster's legs but the movement attracted attention. The scorpion stopped and waved one of its whips in Paul's direction. Suddenly aware of what he had done, he went rigid. The feeler, like a horn drawn out twenty meters long yet not much wider than Paul's leg, swept by only an arm's length from where he stood motionless, heart knocking in triple time.

What have I done? His thoughts were as distracted and swift as his heart. I've killed myself. I can't do anything for them, and now I've killed myself, too.

The scorpion took a rasping step toward him. The whip brushed his chest and almost knocked him over. The shadow swung above him, turning, the legs angled out on either side like a forest of leaning trees. He saw the massive pincers flex outward slowly, then snap back.

Before he could close his eyes to cloak the horror of his coming end, the scorpion suddenly wheeled to the side. A tiny human figure had burst from beneath the leaf and was stumbling away across the uneven ground. The whip scorpion moved after it with appalling speed.

The little shrieking figure staggered as the many-legged darkness covered it. The scorpion's front end dipped and the pincers snatched up its kicking prize, piercing it and smashing it into an impossible configuration before levering it up to the furious machinery of the jaws.

Paul could only stare in stupefied horror. The pursuit and kill had taken only seconds. One of his friends was dead and now the vast monster was turning, leg by leg, back toward him.

Something swept down out of the trees, a column of misty whiteness that shoved the huge creature flat against the ground. Ice began to form all across the monster's carapace and crystallize in powdery chunks on the joints of its legs.

"Seven hells, nothing works anymore!" Kunohara's voice rasped in Paul's ear, then the man himself was standing beside him. Ignoring the mammoth, rigid scorpion, Kunohara grabbed Paul's shoulder, then beckoned to the people still cowering under the leaf. "Step out," he shouted. "Come and join hands—I do not know how far my personal field extends."

Still light-headed with shock, Paul watched three dim shapes tumble out onto open ground. Someone clutched his hand, then another avalanche of rain swept down, sending bits of leaves whirling into the air even as everything abruptly vanished.

 

He was sprawled on the virtual tatami mats of the bubble-house in dark night, with bodies all around him. A moment later the lights warmed and Paul crawled toward the nearest of the groaning figures.

"What was that barking fen?" a large shape said, squelching wetly as it sat up, "And where's this?"

Considering that the last time they had been together the teenager had tried to strangle him, Paul would never have dreamed he would be so happy to see T4b, but as soon as he saw the hand with its pale glow sticking out of the baggy one-piece outfit, he felt a kind of joy. He tugged at the skinny, black-haired sim, a form quite different than the Trojan warrior Paul had met before. "Javier? That is you, isn't it? Who else is there? Where's Martine?"

"Paul Jonas?" The voice was Florimel's. "Yes, where is Martine?"

"Over here." T4b crouched beside the third figure. "Don't look good, her."

Martine Desroubins tried to speak, coughed, then succeeded. "I will survive. The transition . . . it overwhelmed me. Paul Jonas, is that truly you? Where are we? I can't make sense of it."

"Yes, it's me." He had been counting heads, but no matter how he tried, he could not make it more than three. He was terrified to ask the next question, but had to know. "Where are the others? Did that horrible thing . . . did the scorpion get them all?"

Florimel sat upright, wearing a fairly generic middle-aged woman's sim, but recognizable by her wounded eye and missing ear. "We have not seen Renie, !Xabbu, Orlando, or Fredericks since . . . since whatever happened on the black mountain."

Paul tried frantically to think of which of the companions he might have forgotten. "But who. . . ? I saw that monster catch someone. . . !"

"It was one of the Grail Brotherhood," Florimel said, "—a man named Jiun. I suppose he thought he could escape while the creature was distracted by you. He misjudged." She looked around again. "Where is this place? How did we come here?"

"Jiun Bhao?" Kunohara said from behind them. All but Paul turned in surprise. "Jiun Bhao, the scourge of Asia, eaten in my garden by a whip scorpion?" He threw back his head and laughed.

"Pretty locked-up sense of humor, you," T4b commented, but he sounded grudgingly impressed by Kunohara's hilarity, which now had their host bent double, hugging his own middle.

"So is it you we owe our gratitude, then?" Martine asked their host.

"You certainly took your time before deciding to help, Kunohara," Paul said angrily.

The man wiped his eyes. "Oh, I am sorry, but it is too sweet. Do you know how many small enterprises Jiun has gobbled himself? How many lives he has crushed in his own claws? Jiun Bhao, eaten by a scorpion, in the rain." He shook his head. "But you are unfair to me, Jonas. I would not have left you to die. I thought I could bring you all back from here, but there are grave problems with the higher levels of my system—doubtless more effects of the larger catastrophe—and I could not move you or your companions remotely. I would even have destroyed the scorpion from a distance if I could, although the creature itself is blameless, but few of my system commands are functioning. That is why I had to come in person, so you could be touching me when I transported back."

"So now we are your guests," Florimel said slowly. "Or are we prisoners?"

"No more than I am." Kunohara sketched a bow. "However, that may prove rather less freedom than any of us would wish."

"There's something I don't understand," said Paul. "Martine, I heard your voice. How were you . . . broadcasting like that?"

The blind woman held up a shiny silver object in her fatigue-trembling hand.

"The lighter!" he said. "But I thought Renie took it from you. . . ."

"It is not the same lighter," Martine said wearily. "I will explain later, if you don't mind."

Kunohara scowled at the device. "You have already done damage by making your presence known with that." He squinted at the stylized monogram. "Yacoubian—the idiot. With his cigars and his short attention span. I should have guessed."

"It would do him no good now, even if he had it," Florimel said with some satisfaction. "Not unless they smoke cigars in hell."

Kunohara frowned. "I will not ask you to give it to me—over such things a delicate alliance might founder. But if you dare to use it again and risk leading your enemy down on top or me, I will eject you from this House and send you back to the scorpion. He is doubtless thawed by now."

"We don't want to use it." Martine's words were slurred by exhaustion. "None of its other functions work now anyway, as far as I can tell. Just the communication." She yawned. "We only want to sleep."

"Very well, then." Kunohara waved his hand. "Sleep. You too, Jonas, since you were wakened by your friends' call. I am not happy with the foolish thing you people have done, but the step is taken now. I will discover what I can and wake you again soon enough."

He vanished, leaving them alone in the wide, curving room with the sounds and distorted motion of the river. T4b looked critically at the modest furnishings and the corpse of the mutated wood louse, which still hung in midair in its little box of light at one end of the room.

"Beats hiding under a leaf, maybe," he said, and stretched out on the floor mat.

 

 

"Code Delphi. Start here.

"I am hurrying to record these thoughts. God alone knows when I will have a chance again—everything seems tenuous now, tinged with catastrophe, as though this entire virtual world has tipped from its normal orbit. But I must make the effort to do things well, no matter how I feel time slipping away. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be Renie, always driven to move forward. . . .

"I believe I had recorded most of the events in Troy and atop the black mountain when we were interrupted by the scorpion. Now I will try to make some kind of sense out of how we left the mountain and what has happened since. There is little chance that I will ever recover these subvocalizations tossed out into the ether of the network, but I have always ordered my life this way, although usually with a more conventional journal, and it is a crutch I prefer not to do without.

"That is a thought, is it not? All my life, I have found my solace and my sanity in talking to machines, and through them to myself. Psychologically transparent, I suppose, and rather grim.

"Enough.

"In the final moments on the peak of the black mountain, as what we could perceive of reality fractured around us, I found myself consumed by images and feelings—powerful sensations as overwhelming as a demonic possession. I suspect now, after talking to Florimel and the others, that somehow my altered senses were perceiving the attack on the Other by Dread—to me it was a phantasm of bird shapes and shadows and the voices of screaming children, and surges of pain and horror for which there are no words. Whether or not the Other is the lonely thing I met in the controlled darkness of the Pestalozzi Institute when I was a child, and no matter what it has done to the old hacker Singh or anyone else, I feel pity for it—yes, pity, even if it is only some kind of highly evolved machine. I can think of almost nothing more pathetic than hearing it sing that old nursery rhyme, that bit of an old fairy tale. But whether it is good or bad or something less straightforward, its agonies nearly killed me.

"As the Other fought to protect itself against Dread's attack, things were happening all around me which I have had to reconstruct from the accounts of others. T4b's successful attack on one of the Grail Brotherhood—apparently an American general named Yacoubian, the true owner of our access device—will bear much considering, since somehow the strange thing that happened to our young companion's hand when we were in the patchwork simworld before the House allowed him to . . . I do not know. Disrupt Yacoubian's control over the virtual environment? Break down the protective algorithms that all the Brotherhood until recently enjoyed?

"In any case, soon after that, the Other's giant hand came down, apparently obliterating Renie, !Xabbu, Orlando, and Sam, and perhaps also Jongleur, the Grail master who wore the Osiris sim. But I am not certain I believe that, and neither is Florimel. It seems strange to think that a manifestation of the operating system would do something as crude as swat our companions like flies.

"In any case, with Florimel practically dragging me, we hurried to help T4b, who had been knocked aside by the monster and lay stunned just a few meters from the edge of the titan hand. That hand abruptly vanished—I felt the Other's presence vanish at the same time, a sudden vacuum in my head that I cannot begin to describe—leaving behind no trace of our companions, only the body of the falcon-headed Yacoubian. Florimel, who was far more composed than I was, saw something lying in Yacoubian's oversized fingers. It was another lighter, identical to the one Renie had taken with her into death or wherever she has gone—apparently Yacoubian had replaced his lost original. Even as Florimel bent and snatched it up, the world fell apart again.

"The Other was gone. I felt Paul's angel, Ava, shattered into fragments around us, each one suffering, a terrible chorus of pain almost as devastating as the Other's. The reality of the network was collapsing in some way I still cannot define, literally coming to pieces. I reached out for anything that might save me, as a drowning woman might snatch in desperation at a chunk of wood far too small to help her float.

"But what I found was indeed enough to save us from perishing in the overflow of chaos. How can I explain it? If I had a hope someone other than myself might actually hear these thoughts someday, I would perhaps try harder, but I cannot summon that belief.

"It was a . . . something. The words do not matter, since words cannot describe it—it was a ray of light, a silvery thread, a string of coherent energies. A connection of some kind between where we were and . . . somewhere else, that was all I knew for certain. The closest thing to it I have experienced was the terrifying moment in the Place of the Lost when I reached out through the nothingness to find !Xabbu on the other end. But this time there seemed to be no one on the far side of the shining filament. As all around me degenerated into meaningless information, only that bright thread remained constant, although it, too, was beginning to lose its cohesion. I snatched at it—again, there are no proper words—as I had done before with !Xabbu's extension of his personality, and I clung. I tried to fix my mind on all my companions—Renie, Florimel, Paul, all of them—tried to see their patterns in the information storm so I could pull them along with me on that slender lifeline. But the abilities I have here are not science, they are more like art, and once more the words fail me. If I knew how consistently to do the things I can sometimes do, I myself would be one of the gods of this place. In any case, I saved only a few.

"And so we came through and found ourselves dropped without warning into the stormy night of Kunohara's world, wearing our old sims from when we first entered the system, but dressed in identical coveralls with a patch reading 'The Hive' on the breast—apparently some kind of default garb here in Kunohara's world. It is too bad we were only granted the clothes and not the research installation itself. It would have been nice to have a roof and walls. Instead, we huddled under leaves for shelter from the crushing rain, prey to any monsters who might brave such weather to go hunting. And indeed, we nearly found ourselves eaten by one such creature, until Paul Jonas and Kunohara intervened. I am glad I could not see the thing. Sensing its size and power was bad enough.

"And now we are here in Kunohara's house, where after a short sleep we talked for many, many hours. I am tired again, but I must continue with this a little longer while the others are resting, because who knows when I will next have the chance to sort through my experiences? This network refutes any notion of natural inertia—if something can happen here, it almost undoubtedly will.

"When we awakened in the relative safety of this strange bubble, we explained to Paul what had happened since he was separated from us on the mountaintop. I suppose somehow I was able to drag him with us along that gleaming track. Kunohara would not talk to me about what it might have been that led us here, but I have my . . . no, I will keep things in their proper order.

"In any case, our host is a strange man. He spent the afternoon drinking some virtual liquor that he offered to us with a shrug. Only T4b accepted, but did not finish his glass. Kunohara seems fey and fatalistic—the knowledge that he is trapped here, subject to the same fears and mortal dangers the rest of us have lived with for weeks, seems to have affected him badly.

"As we explained to Paul, when Florimel, T4b, and I first found ourselves returned to Kunohara's microworld, we also discovered we had not come alone. Two of the Grail Brotherhood had been pulled through with us, no longer dressed as Egyptian gods, but given some kind of default sims—Florimel tells me both were quite generic, more like composites than actual people. She was the one who guessed they must be of the Grail, and with the help of T4b and his strange hand—after all, they had seen what it had done to their comrade Yacoubian—she convinced them to cooperate. The network's former masters had discovered that they no longer had any control over their own system, and I think they were rather shocked and disoriented.

"The less confused of the two was Robert Wells. It was incredibly strange to be huddling in the dirt beneath a monstrous leaf with one of the world's most powerful men, and just as surprising to discover his companion was a no less impressive figure, the Chinese financier Jiun Bhao. Jiun could not completely grasp what had happened, and seemed to think that Florimel, T4b, and I were there to help him get back offline, or failing that, into one of his own simulation worlds. We quickly disabused him of that idea. He spent most of the hours we were together in sullen, almost childish, silence.

"Wells was a sharper character, and quickly made it clear he had information to trade if we would help him. He did not specify what information, and I regret now that we did not take the time to barter, but we had already received frighteningly close scrutiny from a hunting centipede, and Florimel and I were more concerned with making our position defensible than trying to find out what Wells might know.

"Ahhh. Too many words, Martine. I am telling this more slowly than when we explained it to Paul and Kunohara. Soon the scorpion found us. In desperation, I tried to use the lighter, and heard the voice of that monster Dread telling us that he would be . . . how did he put it? Sending some friends to find us. Thank God we are no longer stuck in the place where I used the communicator. I do not ever want to see that . . . that. . . .

"It is hard to talk when I think of him, remember being his prisoner, his voice speaking cheerfully of so many ghastly things. Stop, Martine. Make sense of what you have, what you know and remember.

"Whether he was more frightened of Dread or the scorpion, I cannot say, but Robert Wells decided to run, and vanished behind us into the thick vegetation. Jiun waited a few moments longer to desert us, but he chose the wrong direction. I cannot say I will lose much sleep over the death of a cruel, self-serving old man like Jiun, but I wish I knew where Wells might be. It is doubtless cold-blooded to say so, but I would be. happier if I felt sure he would meet the same fate as Jiun Bhao. I could tell even in our brief hours together that Wells is frighteningly clever.

"Kunohara was highly amused by what happened to Jiun, but did not seem overly concerned about Wells being loose in his simworld. Actually, it is hard to tell what Kunohara thinks at all. Paul says he believes our host is ready to share information, but I have seen little of it, and as the day goes on, he grows more silent and strange. Despite his promise, he has still told us little we do not already know. What kind of ally is this? Only slightly better than the enemies we already have. With so many of our friends lost or dead, it is hard not to resent him and his self-pity.

"At times this Kunohara reminds me of a boy I knew in university, highly popular and very daring—he would do anything for applause. But always I heard in his voice a note of darkness. He died trying to climb the wall of a ten-story residence building and everyone said it was a terrible, sad accident, but I thought when I heard it that he was searching for that accident, and finally found it.

"Kunohara, especially with this quiet drunkenness upon him, seems to me like that boy. . . .

"The others are stirring again, and there is much to discuss. I will have to continue these thoughts later.

"Code Delphi. End here."

 

 

Paul was surprised by how much better he felt simply having Martine and the others sitting beside him. Kunohara's right—I barely know these people, he thought. But it doesn't feel like that.

"So, Mr. Kunohara." There was an edge in Martine's voice. "Now perhaps it is your turn to share a little information. After all, your life is now as much in danger as ours."

Kunohara smiled, acknowledging her point. "I have never harmed you. As I told your friends, it was a risk simply to speak to you. You have the sort of enemies someone like me tries to avoid."

"You can't avoid them anymore," Florimel said bluntly. "So talk to us. What do you know about all this?"

Kunohara sighed and folded his legs beneath him. Outside the bubble the first morning light was warming the sky from black to violet. The river was almost completely obscured by mists—they might have been floating through the clouds in a balloon. "I will tell you what I can, but it is not much. If you do not already know who I am and how I came to be here, I see no sense in explaining. I have built this place because I could, and have lived in uneasy truce with the Grail Brotherhood for a long time. I will not pretend I did not know what they were doing, or what crimes they committed, but I have done nothing wrong myself. It is not my duty to save the world."

Florimel made a low noise that might have been an angry growl, but Kunohara ignored her.

"All I wanted—all that I still want—is to be left alone. I am not particularly fond of people. It is strange now to see my quiet, private house turned into a barracks, but there is nothing to be done about it. It is hard to ignore someone who keeps appearing in one's garden, however much one might wish it."

"You said you knew what the Grail Brotherhood were doing," Martine said. "Tell us. We have had to rely on guesswork."

"I think by now you must know all that I do. They have made an immortality machine for themselves and killed to keep it secret, although it has done them little good so far. Despite all their planning they did not account for this maniac employee of Felix Jongleur's who, from what you tell me, seems to have somehow hijacked the operating system."

"But what is the system?" Florimel said. "It has a name of sorts. They call it the Other. What is it?"

"By now you probably know more about it than I do." Kunohara showed a thin smile. "Jongleur has kept it secret even from the rest of the Brotherhood. How it was constructed, what its principle of operation is, only Jongleur knows. It is as though it sprang from nowhere."

"It didn't spring from nowhere," Martine said suddenly. "I met it myself twenty-eight years ago."

Having heard her say something about this on the mountaintop, Paul was the only one who did not look at her in surprise. Martine quickly told her story. Despite her calm, dry voice, it was not hard to hear the terror of that long-ago child reverberating in her words.

Kunohara shook his head wonderingly. "So however it is constructed, Jongleur has been programming it in some way for perhaps three decades. As though teaching it to be human." He frowned, considering; his strange mood seemed to have abated, at least for the moment. "He must have gained something by both mimicking and using human consciousness as the root of his system."

"That's right!" Paul said urgently. "God, I had nearly forgotten. This man Azador—Renie and !Xabbu met him, too—he told me that the system used the brains of children, Gypsy children, and also . . . what did he call them? The unborn?" The memories were dim, distorted by his dreamlike experiences on the island of Lotos. "Why do you seem so surprised?" he asked Kunohara, who was looking at him very oddly. "We knew they were using children somehow—that's what brought most of these people here in the first place."

Kunohara realized he was staring and made a show of poking the fire. "So this is what they have constructed, then? A sort of net of linked human brains?"

"But what does 'unborn' mean?" Florimel seemed to be struggling to hold down anger. "Stillborn children? Aborted fetuses?"

"We have only hearsay from . . . from the person Jonas mentioned," Kunohara said. "But it would not surprise me if the most basic array of neural nodes were unimprinted brains of that sort, yes." He shrugged liquidly. "The South American, Klement, he made his fortune in the black market for human organs."

"Chizz that those old scanners sixed out, then," said T4b with sudden loathing. "Wish those Grail-Knockers had even more exit-pain, like."

"It is a horrible idea," scowled Florimel. "Horrible. But why would they need living children, too? Why would they need to take someone like Renie's brother, or . . . or my Eirene?"

"Matti, too," T4b said. "Just a poor little micro—didn't scuff no one."

"Hard to know," said Kunohara. "Perhaps they derive some different value from a more developed brain."

"How do they do it anyway?" Florimel demanded. "You can't just suck someone's mind out like a vampire stealing blood. This place is madness on top of madness, but it still has rules. It still exists within the real universe of physics. . . ."

"I want to ask Mr. Kunohara another question." Martine's quiet but firm voice shut Florimel off like a faucet. "You have said that we know all we need to know about you, but I'm not certain I believe that. If nothing else, there are still the riddles you set for us. Why? And what did they mean?"

Kunohara looked at her coolly. It was interesting and a little depressing, Paul thought, to see how quickly the owner of this particular world had sized up Martine as his most formidable challenge, relegating Paul and the others to bystander status. "In my own way, I tried to help. I am a meddler, I suppose, and thus not the perfect type to be a hermit, after all. You came crashing through my world as innocent as sheep and I thought it might help you to think a little about what was happening. But as I said before, I could not afford to assist you too obviously. I have remained safe both here and in the real world largely because of the indifference of Jongleur and his cabal."

"So you taunted us with riddles." Martine sat back, her face bland. "Dollo's Law and . . . what was the other? Something Japanese. Kishimo . . . something."

"Kishimo-jin." He nodded his head.

"Oh! I remembered what Dollo's Law is," Florimel said suddenly. "It took a long time to come back to me, but I remember it from university biology now. It is something about evolution not going backward—but I still can make no sense of why you should say it to us."

"Life does not retreat." Kunohara closed his eyes and took a sip of his drink. "Evolution does not go backward. Once a certain complexity has been reached, it is not undone. The parallel is that it will tend to become more complex—that life, or whatever self-replicating pattern you choose, will only grow more complicated."

"School?" T4b groaned. "School, is this? Six me now, save me pain."

Martine ignored him. "So what are you saying?"

"That the system is growing more complex than even the Brotherhood had wished. I had suspected that in some way the operating system was evolving, might perhaps be developing a consciousness," He took another sip. "It appears I was a few decades late in noticing."

"And the other little . . . riddle?" Martine's voice seemed unusually harsh to Paul. Kunohara might not be the most charming of men, but he had rescued them and given them shelter, after all.

"Kishimo-jin. A monster, an ogre—a creature out of a Buddhist fairy tale. She was a demon who devoured children, until the Buddha converted her. Then she became their special protector."

"Even with an explanation," Martine said dryly, "we are still puzzled. By a monster that devours children, you are alluding to the Other? What does this tell us?"

Kunohara smiled slightly, apparently enjoying the give and take, Paul thought that although the man might not like people, he did seem to like sparring. "Let us consider what you have told me. Yes, this system eats children, you could say. But have you failed to notice how obsessed it is with children and childhood in all forms? Have you not met, as I have in my travels through other simulations, the childlike figures who do not seem to belong in the worlds in which they are found?"

"The orphans!" Paul almost shouted. When he discovered everyone was looking at him, he cleared his throat. "Sorry. That's my name for the ones like the boy Gaily I met in two different simulations. They're not ordinary people like us—they don't know who they are outside of the simulation. When I was with Orlando and Fredericks, we wondered if they might be something to do with the children in comas."

"The Lost," Martine said quietly. "Like homeless souls, they were. Javier heard someone he knew."

"T4b," he corrected her, but his heart wasn't in it. "Heard Matti. Too far crash, that was."

"In any case, the operating system—the Other—does seem obsessed with such things, does it not?" Kunohara looked to Martine. "Children, and things of childhood. . . ."

"Like children's stories." Blind Martine could not return his gaze, but she clearly acknowledged his serve. "You spoke to the others about that. That there was some kind of . . . story-force at work. Some shaping force."

"You said a 'meme,' " Florimel said. "I have heard the word but do not know it."

"Perhaps we are looking at that meme even now," their host said. "Perhaps I have invited it into my house."

It hurt Paul to see Martine suddenly look so pale. "Don't play games with us, man," he said. "What do you mean by that?"

"A meme," Martine said faintly. "It is a word that means a kind of . . . idea-gene. It is a theory from the last century, brought up and argued many times over. Communism was such a meme, some would say. An idea that reproduced itself over and over in human consciousness, like a biological trait. Eternal life would be another—a meme that has kept itself alive admirably, over hundreds of generations . . . as witness the Grail Brotherhood and their obsession with it."

"Speed me," T4b said grumpily. "This bug-knocker saying that someone here is a Communist? I thought those were all like sixville, dinosaur-type."

"Mister Kunohara is suggesting that I, along with the others in that long-ago experiment at the Pestalozzi Institute, may have infected the Brotherhood's operating system with the idea of stories—that we have given this fast-evolving machine a notion of causality based on things like the Brothers Grimm and the fairy tales of Perrault." Martine put her fingers to her temples, pressing. "It is possible—yes, I can admit that it is possible. But what does it mean for us?"

The drink was agreeing with Kunohara for the moment—he looked sleek and satisfied. "It is hard to say, but I think the evidence is everywhere. Look at the things that come up again and again in your experience—look at the way you have been helped and prompted by this apparition which you tell me is Jongleur's daughter. Whatever she is, she is clearly tied closely to the Other, and she appears to you again and again, like a . . . what would be the word from your French tales, Ms. Desroubins? Like a fairy godmother. Or an angel, as Jonas puts it."

"But even if it's true," said Florimel, "even if the operating system is trying to make everything into a little story, the operating system isn't in charge anymore. As far as we know, whatever small independence it had under the Grail people is gone—it has been completely subverted by that murdering swine, Dread." She lifted her hand to her face. "Look at this! I have lost an ear and an eye—even if I survive to return to the real world, I might be half-blind, half-deaf. Even worse, this killer may have insured that there is no cure for my daughter. So it is meaningless to sit here talking about story this and story that. Where is Dread? How do we get to him? Where were we, in that place where the Other manifested itself? You are a landlord in this virtual universe, Kunohara. You must be able to find things out, travel, communicate." She took a deep, ragged breath; when she spoke again, her voice was quieter but no less harsh. "We asked you once before if you meant to help us, and you said you were too afraid of the Brotherhood—you would not risk your life. Well, your life is truly in danger now. So will you help us?"

What seemed to Paul like a very long time passed. A dull glow had kindled behind the mists outside: the sun was rising over Kunohara's imaginary world, although it was still hidden in fog.

"You overestimate me," Kunohara said at last. "My control of my own system is very small now—any abilities I had to manipulate the larger Grail system infrastructure disappeared a day ago, probably at the time the Other was subjugated by our mutual enemy. I still do not know what powers I have left in my own world, but I have certainly lost most of my oversight capabilities. I also cannot simply insert or remove things from the system as I normally could." He turned to Paul. "That is why I could not wipe the mutants out of the system, or even move the whip scorpion to somewhere else. I was forced to use my ability to manipulate weather, an awkward tool at best."

"So what are we to do, then?" Florimel asked, but her voice had lost its edge. "Simply give up? Sit here drinking tea and wait to die?"

"We must understand the system. Without understanding, we are indeed doomed. The Other has created, or at least influenced, the structure of the entire network, and even if this man Dread has somehow taken control over the system, the patterns must remain."

"And what patterns are those?" Martine asked. She had not spoken in a while. She seemed distracted, and tilted her head as though she listened to something the rest of them could not hear.

Kunohara drained his drink and stood up. "Stories. A quest of sorts. And other things, too. Children and childhood. Death. Resurrection."

"And labyrinths," Paul said, remembering. "I thought of that back on Ithaca. Many of the control points, the gateways, things like that—they center around mazes or places having to do with death. But I thought that was just the Brotherhood's sense of humor."

"It could be, in part," Kunohara said. "Or even a more practical reason. Because of the risk of getting lost, they are often places that people will avoid, which gives the Grail users greater privacy. But I have seen enough of the various worlds to think that too many repetitions of themes might also mean that the operating system has weighted things in that direction—that these are signs of an emergent order, if you will." He seemed quite involved and excited now, almost feverish. "In the House world, for instance, where I met most of you again. I knew its builders, and much of the artistry of the place was theirs, but the Lady of the Windows? Who also seems a manifestation of your own guardian angel, Jonas? I cannot believe that was built into the original world. No, rather I think it emerged—was brought into being by patterns in the larger system. And look at where you found another gateway in Troy, and an important one—the Temple of Demeter. In the house belonging to the mother of the death-god's bride, at the center of a maze. Both of the tropes Jonas described, in one."

Paul thought he heard now what had caught Martine's attention, a low throbbing hum, barely distinguishable above the murmur of the river. But something else now seemed foremost in Martine's mind. She sat up straighter. "That's right," she said. "You knew we had been summoned there, didn't you? When they met you in the House, Florimel said there was no maze in Troy, but you knew otherwise."

Kunohara nodded, but looked wary. "As I said, it was one of the first simulations the Brotherhood constructed." He frowned. "But how do you know what we said? You were still a prisoner. You were not there."

"Exactly." Martine's face was hard. "It is always strange when people know things who were not present to see them. And you know much about our time in Troy. Paul, did you tell Mr. Kunohara that we were in the Temple of Demeter?"

Martine's open enmity toward their host had been making him uncomfortable, and he was about to say something to set the conversation back on the right track when he realized she had a point. "Not . . . not specifically. I skipped over a lot . . . because I was in a hurry to tell him what happened to the Grail Brotherhood." He felt as though he had suddenly been set adrift once more, his destiny in the hands of others. He turned to Kunohara. "How did you know?"

It was hard to tell exactly what the man's exasperation signified: he was hard to read at the best of times. "Where else could it have been? I practically sent you there myself!"

T4b sat up straight, balling his fists. "Workin' for those Grail people, him? After all, he dupping us?"

"He could be telling the truth," Martine said, raising her hand to calm T4b. "But I wonder. I think perhaps you are not telling us all the truth, Mr. Kunohara." She blinked, distracted for a moment, but did her best to finish her thought. "You did know where we were going, as you said. I suspect that you also had an informant there in Troy and beyond—perhaps even one of our number, although that is an unpleasant thought—and that it was the communication link between you and that informant which I was able to follow back here when everything came apart on the mountain top."

The moment of tension between the two of them, which made the whole room feel hot and close, did not last. Just when it seemed Kunohara must either admit his guilt or launch an angry rebuttal, Martine jerked her head back, staring sightlessly toward the arc of the ceiling and the blanket of gray mist that obscured everything. The humming was now too loud to ignore.

"There are many shapes above us," she said, her voice twisted by surprise. "Many. . . ."

Something thumped heavily on the uppermost curve of the bubble, a dark blotch that made the mists outside swirl. Jointed legs flailed, scrabbling as though they sought to dig through the transparent surface. There were more noises of impact, a few at first, then dozens in rapid succession. Paul tried to scramble to his feet, but the urge to flight was already arrested: slow squirming shapes were all over the bubble and more were landing every moment. Kunohara clapped his hands once and the lights inside the bubble grew bright, so that for the first time they could see the things pressed against the curving roof.

By the shape of the bodies, the long armored abdomens and the blur of beating wings just above their shiny thoraxes, they might have been wasps—but if so, something had gone very wrong. Like the mutated wood lice, there seemed no limit to how many legs they had or how those limbs were arranged. As they crowded in ever-increasing numbers across the bubble, they pressed semihuman faces against the surface, distorted features stretching and squeezing even more alarmingly as they tried to force their way through the barrier.

T4b sprang up, looking for somewhere to retreat, but the wasps covered almost every centimeter of the glassy walls, the foggy sky now replaced with a firmament of plated limbs and drooling, mandibled mouths.

"It's Dread," Martine said, her voice a hopeless murmur. "Dread sent them. He knows we're here."

The weight of the wasp-things was so great now that it seemed to Paul the bubble must collapse at any moment: so many had collected already that they crawled across each other in tangled piles. Some of those caught on the bottom and being crushed to death ran barbed stingers out of their abdomens, driving them over and over into the substance of the bubble, which actually tented inward—giving, but not yet breaking.

Paul grabbed at. Kunohara. "Get them off! For God's sakes, freeze them, whatever. They're going to burst through any moment."

Their host was wild-eyed but clearly struggling for calm. "If I blast them with wind or ice, I will destabilize the house as well and destroy it or send it spinning down the river. We would all be killed."

"You and your bloody realism!" Florimel shouted. "You rich idiots and your toys!"

Kunohara ignored her. As Paul watched he began to move through a series of meaningless gestures, like nothing so much as someone practicing tai chi in a quiet park. For a moment he could not help thinking that the man had gone completely mad; then he realized that Kunohara, his mastery compromised, was running through an inventory of commands, trying to make something work.

"Nothing," Kunohara snarled, and turned in cold fury on Martine. "You, with your accusations. I thought you had doomed yourself by using that device, but you have led them here to my house and doomed me as well." He gestured; a view-window opened in midair. For a moment Paul could not make sense of the boiling, lumpy mass depicted in the window, then he saw that it was a bird's-eye view of the bubble-house, so covered now with the wasp-things that it had lost almost all suggestion of its true shape.

"Look," Kunohara said bitterly. "They are building a bridge between us and the land."

He was right. The massed wasps were extending a tangle of their own squirming bodies out across the moving surface of the river, a squad of suicide engineers giving their own lives to connect the free-floating bubble to the riverside. The wasps on the bottom of the growing pseudopod must be drowning by the hundreds, Paul thought, but more kept dropping out of the air to join them and keep the bridge growing.

But growing toward what? Paul struggled to see through the mist to the dark riverbank, alive with blowing grasses. Kunohara must have had the same thought, for he gestured again and the focus of the window changed, bringing the sandy bank into closer view. There was no grass; it was a solid line of beetle shapes, creatures as horribly distorted as the wasps, an army of thousands upon thousands of malformed crawlers waiting for the wasp-bridge to reach them, Even now, hundreds at the front of the clicking, bumping throng were forming a corresponding chain, climbing atop one another and clutching even as they drowned, struggling out to meet the wasps.

But even this horror was not the worst. On a lump of mossy stone at the river's edge stood a pair of contrasting shapes, like generals surveying the progress of a campaign. Kunohara's focus drove closer. Despite the more important threat of the wasps, who now formed a solid wall of carapace and claw all over the bubble-house, Paul could not tear his eyes from the two figures.

One was a massively bloated caterpillar, its pillowy segments the color of corpse flesh, with a face even more disturbingly humanoid than those of the mutant army, tiny porcine eyes and a mouth full of jagged teeth. Beside it teetered a cricket white as paper, rubbing its legs together in some unheard music. Its long face was as queerly personalized as the caterpillar's, except for the blank spot where eyes should have been.

"The Twins," Paul said. "Oh, God. He's sent the Twins after us."

"There is another," said Florimel. "See, riding on that beetle."

Paul stared at the pale human shape, bumping on the back of a shiny shell. "Who is it?"

Kunohara was scowling. "Robert Wells, I suspect, A pity the scorpion did not get him, too."

The tiny figure waved his arm, sending another squadron of beetles marching down to the water's edge to give their lives to the growing chain.

"The bastard is having fun." observed Kunohara.

CHAPTER 7
The Man from Mars

NETFEED/DRAMA-LIVE: "Warrior of Sprootie School"

(visual: Wengweng Cho's practice room)

CHO: Chen Shuo, the time has come for action! My daughter Zia has been stolen by the evil Wolf's Jaw school, and they mean to practice their spiritually incorrect and deadly martial arts style on her.

(audio over: gasps)

SHUO: By the sacred Sprootie, we must not let such a thing happen!

CHO: You are a brave man and a true warrior. Quickly, now, take my treasured throwing stars and go with haste to save my daughter.

SHUO: I will come back to you with the severed head of the Wolfs Jaw master, and with your daughter Zia safe.

(audio over: applause, cheers)

SHUO (to himself): But I must pray that my devotion to the sacred Sprootie will give me strength to achieve this task, because the minions of the Wolfs Jaw school are many and devious. Still—where Sprootie is, bravery is!

(audio over: even louder applause)

 

Mrs. Sorensen—Kaylene, she had told him her name was—had just come back from checking on the two children in the connecting room, which gave everyone a chance to catch their breath. Catur Ramsey, in particular, was grateful for the pause. He had never had such a strange day in his entire life, which included a college flirtation with psychedelics.

"Christabel seems okay," she reported. "She's sleeping. The little boy's curled up on the floor. I got him bathed again, but I couldn't even get him to use the other bed."

"She's been through a lot," said Michael Sorensen. "If I had imagined . . . God almighty, what have we gotten ourselves into?"

The strange, wizened figure in the rented wheelchair looked up. "I am truly sorry to have involved your family, Mrs. Sorensen. Desperation forces us to do shameful things."

The woman wrestled for a moment against her obvious urge to say something polite, and won. She had clearly not recovered from the horror of hearing Major Sorensen's cleaned-up version of what had happened in Yacoubian's suite. While Ramsey had tried to entertain a shell-shocked Christabel and the rather sullen little Hispanic boy, she had taken her husband to the adjoining room and, as Sorensen put it afterward, "let me know she wasn't very happy about how things were going."

In his own exhausted state, Ramsey was having trouble coping with the tension and unhappiness in the room, not to mention the bizarre story that Sellars had just told, full of the kind of conspiracy theories that even the loopier chat nodes would scorn. He needed a few moments to clear his head.

"I'm going out to grab a soft drink," he said. "Anybody want anything?"

Kaylene Sorensen shook her head wearily, but Ramsey couldn't help noticing the flicker of suspicion across her husband's face. It stung. "Oh, for God's sake, Sorensen, if I were going to bail out on you or betray you or something. don't you think it would be easier for me to wait and do it when I go back to my own motel?"

To his credit, Sorensen looked shamefaced. "I didn't mean to look that way. I'm just . . . it's been difficult, today."

Ramsey forced a smile. "It sure has. Back in a second."

 

He caught himself as he started to swipe his card through the drink machine's reader.

Sorensen's paranoia is better sense than you've got, he told himself. That was a real brigadier general that had us kidnapped out of a public restaurant Whatever this is, it isn't entirely someone's overheated imagination. He found he had a few coins, and even briefly considered trying to wipe his prints off them before dropping them into the slot.

Sellars' story, whether Sorensen and his family believed it or not, was patently impossible. Ramsey had been dubious but had tried to remain open-minded about the idea that Tandagore's Syndrome might be a purposeful human creation. He had even begun to suspect that there really was some connection between Orlando Gardiner's condition and the reports of the boy's software agent about some kind of network where Orlando was conscious but trapped. He had been willing, in short, to believe in a strange set of circumstances, even collusion between powerful people. But this? This was something out of a fever dream—a conspiracy among many of Earth's richest men and women to become gods. It was beyond belief that such a thing could exist, let alone that it could be kept silent for years, especially when the mechanism seemed to depend on destroying innocent children. The whole insane notion was like something out of a potboiler—a gruesomely overblown net drama. It simply could not be.

If he had been hearing it all for the first time, Catur Ramsey would have courteously thanked everyone for their time after ten minutes and gone home, keeping his thoughts about the sanity of these people to himself. But he had been living with the strange online world of Orlando Gardiner for weeks, and had begun to think of a software agent in the shape of a cartoon bug as a reliable informant. Before she closed up her house and disappeared, he had heard a woman who by her own admission had spent time in a mental health facility tell him that one of the world's most successful children's entertainment companies was part of a hideous experiment on those selfsame children, and he had begun to wonder if she might be correct. It wasn't as though he was close-minded—hadn't he first met Sellars in the back alleys of a VR gameworld? Where he, Catur Ramsey, respectable attorney, had been running around dressed as a barbarian swordsman? He had to admit that Sellars had told him things about Orlando Gardiner and Salome Fredericks that even Ramsey himself, with total access to both families, hadn't yet discovered.

He sipped his drink and watched the traffic slide past.

Sellars was asking him to believe in something that made the worst pamphleteering nonsense about Freemasons and Rosicrucians seem unambitious. And just to cap it all off, what had Major Sorensen said about Sellars? That he wasn't even human?

For a moment he truly considered walking to his car and driving home. Telling Jaleel and Enrica Fredericks that he'd found nothing to explain their daughter's coma, deleting Olga Pirofsky's name from his call list. Putting the whole thing into the "who knows what the hell that was about?" category and getting back to his other clients, his more-or-less life.

But he could not forget the face of Orlando Gardiner's mother, bright-eyed with tears, or her voice as she told him that they had always thought they'd have a chance to say good-bye to their son. He had just heard that same voice two hours ago, cracked and hoarse now, whispery as dry grass, leaving a message on his system with a date for Orlando's memorial service. He had promised them he'd find out what he could. He had promised.

He hesitated for only a few more seconds, then crumpled the squeeze-pak and dropped it into the trash slot beside the machine.

 

Sellars was inhaling something from a damp rag. He looked up when Ramsey came in and smiled, a horizontal distortion of his strange, rippled face. "The Sorensens will be back in a moment," he said. "The little girl had a bad dream."

"She's been through a lot," Ramsey said. "Too much for a kid her age."

Sellars dipped his head sadly. "I had hoped her part in this was finished." He inhaled from the rag again. "Please forgive me. My lungs . . . they do not function as well as they should. It will be better when I can get filters for my humidifier. I need to keep my breathing tubes moist." Something in Ramsey's expression brought back the smile, larger now, as Sellars let his withered hands fall to his lap. "Ah, I see something is troubling you. My lungs? Or just me? Let me guess—Major Sorensen told you something about me?"

"Not much. And that's sure not the worst of what's bothering me. But just because you brought it up, yeah. He said. . . ." Suddenly, ludicrously, it seemed a simple piece of discourtesy. Ramsey swallowed and forged ahead. "He said that you weren't really human."

Sellars nodded, looking like some ancient mountain hermit. "Did he tell you my nickname on the base? 'The Man from Mars.' In fact, they were calling me that before Major Sorensen was born." The smile surfaced and then was gone. "It's not true, of course—I've never been near Mars."

Ramsey suddenly felt weak in the knees. He reached out for support and found the arm of a chair, then lowered himself onto the seat. "Are you telling me . . . that you're some kind of alien? From space?" Now, as though a lens had changed, he could picture the disturbing texture of Sellars' skin as something far stranger than scar tissue—the mottled pinkish hide of some unknown animal. The scrawny old man with the misshapen head and strange yellow eyes would have made a wonderfully grotesque illustration in a children's book, but at the moment it was hard to tell which sort of supernatural creature he would have been, kindly or cruel. When the door to the adjoining room suddenly popped open, Ramsey flinched badly.

"Kaylene just fixed some sandwiches," said Michael Sorensen. "Ramsey, you should eat something—you look sick."

His wife came through behind him carrying a picnic tray, the too-perfect picture of traditional womanhood from an earlier century. Ramsey could not relax; suddenly everything seemed sinister.

"I was just about to tell Mr. Ramsey my story," Sellars said. "No, thank you, Mrs. Sorensen, I eat very little. Has your husband told you about me yet, Mrs. Sorensen? Surely you have wondered."

"Mike's . . . Mike's told me a bit." He clearly still made her uncomfortable. "Are you sure I can't get you anything. . . ?"

"Come on!" Ramsey's resources had been stretched to the fraying point. "I'm just sitting here, waiting to hear this man tell me he's an outer space alien. Meanwhile, everybody's talking about sandwiches! Sandwiches, for God's sake!"

Kaylene Sorensen frowned and lifted a finger to her lips. "Mr. Ramsey, please—there are two little children sleeping next door."

Ramsey shook his head, subsiding into his chair. "Sorry. Sorry."

Sellars laughed. "Did I say I was an alien, Mr. Ramsey? No, I said that my nickname was the Man from Mars." He held the rag close to his mouth, inhaled, then reached out and dipped it in a cup before bringing it to his mouth again. "It is an interesting story, and might conceivably help you understand a little more of the strange tale I've already given you today."

"Even if you claim you're the Grand Duke of Alpha Centauri," Ramsey said feelingly, "I don't think things could get any weirder than they are."

Sellars smiled gently at him, then smiled also at Kaylene Sorensen, who had settled in next to her husband on the couch. "You've all been through a great deal. I hope you can understand how important it is. . . ."

Ramsey cleared his throat.

"Yes, sorry. I've had little company lately except Cho-Cho—not much practice for adult conversation." He stretched his knotted fingers before him. "First, I will reassure Mr. Ramsey that, whatever may have happened to me since, I started out as human as anyone. Alien has many definitions, but I am decidedly not the outer space sort.

"In fact, for the first thirty or so years of my life, the only interesting thing you could say about me at all was that I was a pilot—a fighter pilot. I flew for the US Navy in the Middle East, and later in the Taiwan action, then in peacetime I trained new pilots. I was not married, was not even particularly close friends with my comrades, although during combat I trusted them with my life every day, and they did the same with me. I was a naval aviator. That was my life, and I was more or less content with it.

"This is before any of you were born, so you may not remember the dying days of what used to be called the manned space program—how the private consortia who funded most of it decided there was a lot more money to be made in satellites and remote mining than actually putting a live human being into a ship and sending him or her somewhere. Also, the world's populations weren't very interested in the whole matter—I think the human race had begun to turn inward, in a way. But the idea of exploration and colonization didn't die completely, and one rather quiet project went forward after the rest of the better-known operations had folded. It had to get private funding, of course, but it was still nominally under United States government control, back in the days when the UN didn't even have a space program.

"Word went around that military fliers with no close family ties, willing to undertake dangerous duty, were being evaluated for something called PEREGRINE. I was bored with training and, looking back on it, a bit bored with my life, so even though I suspected I was past the optimum age—everything I heard suggested it was a very physically-based selection process, which usually meant reflexes—I thought it couldn't hurt to volunteer." Sellars smiled again, self-mockingly this time. "When I found out I was one of the first dozen selectees, I was pretty impressed with myself.

"It's tempting to tell the whole story in proper detail, because it's interesting in itself, and no one but me really knows the truth now. No books, no net documentaries, no records at all to speak of. But everyone here is tired, so I'll try to keep it brief. PEREGRINE turned out to be a novel approach to human space exploration, a program that would permit human crews not only to travel long distances—with cold sleep along the way, but with connections still to the ship—but also to be able to explore likely planets in a more robust way than the old-fashoned astronauts. There were several planets they were interested in—one in 70 Virginis is the only one I remember now. Many of the signals have since proved misleading, and humankind seems to have lost its interest in exploration—a great shame, I think—but at the time it was very exciting. In any case, even back then we had instruments that could survey planets far more elaborately than anything a live human could do, but the people in charge of the program thought that you could never get the same level of funding and public support for exploration unless you were sending a real, live, breathing human whose life was being risked on behalf of the whole human race. You can almost hear the speeches, can't you?

"So, PEREGRINE. We reported to Sand Creek, a secret base in South Dakota. . . ."

"I've heard of that," Ramsey said slowly. "Sand Creek. . . ."

"No doubt you have. It's been talked about a lot over the years. But whatever you've heard is almost certainly not true." Sellars closed his eyes. "Where was I? Ah, yes. We began undergoing a very complicated process to make us capable of all kinds of rigors—and, most importantly, to hard-interface our brains with the ship's computer systems. You almost never hear that word 'computer' anymore, do you? They're part of everything now. They used to be boxes with keyboards, you know." He shook his head, so that it looked like a dry sunflower wobbling on its stalk. "Technology wasn't very sophisticated—this was half a century ago, after all. Much of what they did was surgical—actually opened me up and applied microcircuitry directly to my skeleton, implanted various devices, you name it. People take it for granted now that they can connect to the net with a neurocannula, but then the idea that a human being could channel computer information directly into the brain was mostly considered science fiction. Except at Sand Creek, where they were actually doing it.

"So they . . . built me, as it were. Rebuilt me, certainly, strengthened my bones and shielded my skin and various organs to better resist gravitational hardships and radiation, implanted tiny chemical pumps that would add synthesized calcium and other important supplements to my body if I had to go a long time in zero gravity . . . all kinds of things. But even more profound was the way they wired me—head to toe, like a Christmas tree! They used the latest alloys and polymers—although with all the changes in molecular engineering since then, the original stuff they put in me would seem positively antique now. But at the time, we PEREGRINE volunteers were works of art. That's when I first learned to love Yeats—the line about the emperor's mechanical birds in 'Sailing to Byzantium' caught at me:

". . . Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling. . . ."

He paused for a moment, lost in thought. "I cannot tell you what it was like the first time I simply closed my eyes and found myself online. The net was tiny and primitive then, the early days of virtual interfaces, but still. . . ! Still. . . ! Already, without leaving Earth, we were explorers, flying where others had only crawled. We PEREGRINE volunteers began to talk about the net among ourselves as though it were a place, a universe that others could only visit, like tourists staring through a fence, but which truly belonged to us. When you can swim through information as though it were a physical medium, when access is instantaneous, you begin to see things, learn things. . . ." His voice was getting dry and thin; he stopped and inhaled from the rag. "I promised myself I would not be diverted, didn't I? I apologize. In any case, our ships were built at the same time we ourselves were built—in parallel, as it were—custom-tailored to our particular physiological needs. They were small, sophisticated, using primarily antimatter drives for the long, black distances, but able to use other sources of power as well, including solar wind. There was to be one for each of us, each named for an explorer—the Francis Drake, the Matthew Peary, I cannot remember them all now and it's too sad to try. Mine was the Sally Ride. A lovely name for a ship, and a lovely ship she would have been—my bride, you might say, on a permanent honeymoon. But it did not happen that way.

We only had a few orbital nights, practice runs, before. . . . Oh, dear, am I boring you?"

Michael Sorensen had fallen asleep sitting up on the couch, his head lolling on his wife's shoulder. "He's just exhausted," she said apologetically, as though he had nodded off at some suburban card party. "He must know all this already, doesn't he?"

"All but the fine details," Sellars told her gently. "He's looked through my file a few times since I made contact, I'm sure."

"I think it's fascinating," she assured him, although she looked quite tired herself. "I . . . I had no idea."

"Please go on," Ramsey said.

"Well, you both must know something about what happens when you work for the government, and this was in the early days of the private/public partnership, so-called. The administration in Washington changed. The UN grew snippy about a major project with so little international participation. And the corporate angels began to grumble about how much money was being spent with no returns in the foreseeable future. PEREGRINE was nearly canceled several times.

"There were nights later on, years worth of nights, when I used to wish with all my heart it had been.

"The solution was not really surprising, especially with large defense corporations involved. It was decided to streamline the operation, to get 'more bang for the buck,' I think the phrase of the day was. It would have been very difficult to make the project smaller at that fairly advanced stage, so instead they folded it together with something called HR/CS—Human Robotic Combat Systems. I think that project also had a code name—'Bright Warrior' or 'Bright Spear' or something, but the engineers started calling it HARDCASE and the name stuck. This was straight military, what was probably one of the first attempts to create biomodified soldiers—basically humans who could be plugged into extremely sophisticated combat armor, who could use these systems as extensions of their own bodies, go places even an ordinary armored soldier couldn't go. You get the idea—it was like something out of an old comic book. The military was much more intent on their timeline, so the shared resources—mostly engineers, medical personnel, and supercomputer time—began to flow in their direction. The pace of PEREGRINE slowed dramatically.

"All of which wouldn't have meant all that much, except that HARDCASE had a much different approach, especially to recruiting. Their process was much closer to what I had imagined would be used on PEREGRINE, focusing on reflexes and even more esoteric things, synaptic variations, certain types of chemical and immune system receptivities, and so on. And even psychologically they were looking for a different kind of subject. We were pilots, had been chosen primarily as such—some of the PEREGRINE subjects had never flown a combat mission, but they were all fliers, much like the original astronaut corps. HARDCASE needed soldiers. You might even say that, ultimately, they needed killers. They tried to be more discriminating than that, but that infinitesimal slant shadowed it from the beginning, I think.

"Even so, if Barrett Keener's problems had been physical—a tumor, say, or a serotonin imbalance, it would have been caught immediately. Both PEREGRINE and HARDCASE subjects were routinely tested for such things, and we spent most of our time hooked up to analytical devices as a matter of course. But in those days pure schizophrenia was still largely a mystery, and Keener was the sort of paranoid who made hiding his growing illness part of the focus of his madness. Although very few people who worked with the man could honestly say they liked him, not a single one of the psychologists or doctors at Sand Creek or any of his HARDCASE co-subjects guessed that he was slowly going insane. Not until it was too late.

"I see the look on your face, Mr. Ramsey. No, you haven't ever heard of Keener. You'll find out why in a moment.

"I can be brief about this, and I would prefer to be. I lost many friends on the day of Keener's rampage. There were plenty of safeguards built into the system, but although the military and its contractors had considered the possibility of sabotage, and had even considered the frightening possibility that one of the HARDCASE subjects might have a breakdown, no one had considered that both might happen. Keener, caught in the grip of a strengthening psychotic delusion, had been preparing for weeks. The HARDCASE complex at Sand Creek was an arsenal—the cybernetic battle-suits themselves each carried the firepower of a Powell tank, and there was a stockpile of other ordnance for combat-testing purposes. But as deadly as the battle-suits were, for someone like Barrett Keener with a background in munitions there was even more damage that could be done. He spent weeks preparing in secret, determined to avenge some incomprehensible insult, or strike some unimaginable blow for delusional freedom, descending deeper and deeper into a black spiral of hatred.

"I have pieced together much of what happened from secret reports. It was night when it began, and most of the personnel on the base were asleep. I happened to be up—I've never needed a lot of sleep—working with the night-shift technicians in the construction bay. We heard the explosions first. We barely had time to wonder what was going on when Keener himself, his battle-suit already in full thermodispersal flare, blew through the walls of the construction hangar. He wasn't singling us out—we were simply on his destructive path from one end of the base to the other. Despite the surprise and the firestorm from the bombs he had already triggered, there had been at least a little resistance before he got to us. Keener had already survived a direct hit from a grenade launcher with only scorch marks and a slow freon leak at one of the suit joints to show for it. With the glow of his heat dispersal units and the cloud of leaking vapor, he looked like an angry god. We didn't have a chance. As he stepped through the wall he opened up with a mini-railgun and the place literally fell apart around us.

"It was horrible. I cannot bear to think about it much. In the early days I tried to imagine things I could have done differently, ways I could have saved my comrades—tortured myself with a thousand different scenarios. Now I know that it was only blind luck that I even survived. I was close enough to one of the ships under construction that I was able to scramble inside the shell when the first of Keener's incendiary ordnance went off. I had time only to see Keener marching out across the rubble of the construction bay, armor blazing like the sun as it struggled to process the additional heat, then the rest of the thermal grenades he was spraying began exploding and everything went away."

Sellars brought a knuckle slowly up to the corner of his dry eye. Ramsey wondered if it were only an old gesture helplessly repeated, or if the man felt tears he could not shed. He wondered which would be worse.

"Two technicians inside the ship and I were the only ones in the bay that survived the attack, and neither of them lasted out the month—they were too badly burned. We all were burned, roasted like meat in an oven, but I had shielded organs and modified skin—the engineers didn't. I was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to survive. Just barely.

"After leaving a path of destruction all the way across the base, Keener actually escaped Sand Creek. Through a lucky accident his built-in flight jets were incapacitated by machine gun fire from one of the sentry posts, so he set out on foot. He was headed toward the closest town, a place called Buffalo, I think, and God knows what he would have done when he got there, but they scrambled jets from the nearest air base and caught him within a mile or so of Sand Creek, in open prairie. They lost a plane, but Barrett Keener was finally killed by air-to-ground misiles. To be more precise, even though there were no direct hits on him, the explosions finally pushed his suit past its dispersal limit and it went up like a small-bore thermonuclear device. It took years, I hear, before anything grew on the spot. The soil was virtually turned to glass.

"So . . . a madman committed a very, very expensive suicide, and the rest of us were left behind to deal with it. I was the only surviving test subject of PEREGRINE. Keener had been even more thorough with his HARDCASE comrades, placing shaped charges in the barracks, and every one of them died in their beds when the building went up. The entire Sand Creek base was in ruins—one hundred and eighty-six killed, three times that many wounded. The ships were ruined, billions of dollars worth of work and research gone, so the military-corporate fellows cut their losses and ended the program. HARDCASE was buried too—or at least that was the official story. Of course, Keener had managed to do a very impressive amount of damage with only a single suit, and the less ambitious combat suits that soldiers wear today look very similar to the HARDCASE regalia, so perhaps they simply changed the name of the program and started again somewhere else."

"How . . . how horrible," breathed Kaylene Sorensen.

"I've never seen anything about this," Ramsey said, trying to keep from sounding too doubtful, if nothing else out of respect for the obvious pain on Sellars' ruined face. "Not a whisper."

"It was buried very, very deep. People knew about the base at Sand Creek of course, but not what was being done there or what ultimately went wrong. The official story was that it was closed because of a bad fire, with some residual radiation contamination forcing them to seal the site. Some of the dead, like the PEREGRINE volunteers, whose postings had been secret in the first place, were siphoned off to other operations and their deaths reported there. It was a failure of colossal proportions, not to mention that it would have brought down countless billions in lawsuits if the truth came out. They buried it. They couldn't just make it disappear completely, of course, which is why there are rumors about what happened there to this very day."

"And they buried you, too?"

"As best they could. I had no relatives. In fact, they thought I was dead the first twelve hours or so, because . . . because the scene in the construction bay was so bad. When I survived, it became easier just to lose me."

"They made you a prisoner!" Ramsey couldn't help feeling angry.

"Not at first. No, with all that time and effort put into me, quite literally, they wanted to find some other use for me. But my project was gone, I myself was burned, crippled, my circuitry badly damaged. I was functionally useless—and, unlike the other survivors, I was also incontrovertible living testimony to what had happened there. If an ordinary soldier violated his confidentiality agreement, you might be able to discredit him as a crackpot, but what about a man with millions of dollars of state-of-the-art cybernetic implants in his body? Yes, eventually they imprisoned me, but I am actually grateful, Mr. Ramsey. In another country or another time they might simply have cut their losses and silenced me in a more definitive manner."

Ramsey did not know what to say. In the silence, Major Sorensen huffed and sat up, glancing around. Not knowing he had been asleep for almost ten minutes, he did his best to look as though he had just closed his eyes to concentrate better. Sellars looked at him for a moment with what almost seemed like fondness before continuing.

"It's been a long time. What happened then isn't so important, except to me. But what does matter is what happened afterward. After the first few years' rounds of hospitals and research facilities, they decided there was nothing useful left to do with me, so they moved me to the base—the one where you babysat me, Major Sorensen, although I arrived there a long time before you even joined the service. In fact, one of the small ironies of the whole terrible mess was that even though I was Navy, my imprisonment somehow came out of the accounting for HARDCASE, so I wound up on an army base.

"The only thing the top brass really wanted from me was silence, so I lived for years in an environment that might have been something from an earlier century—no telephone, no television, no electronic connection to the outside world. But after I had been ten years on the base, my cultivated show of patience had lulled them. I was allowed a wallscreen, since a one-way, extremely low speed media connection could hardly cause much trouble when the recipient was allowed no input devices.

"I had been waiting years for this, of course. I was so bored, and in those days so angry at what had been done to me, that I had freedom on my mind the way a slave chained to a galley oar does. My only exercise was mental—you can see my legs, my withered arms, what Keener's incendiaries did to me—but I was a pilot, damn it! In a few minutes I had lost everything—my ship, my health, my freedom—but I had in me still that drive, that need. If I was denied the skies, I could fly through information space, the way my PEREGRINE fellows and I had discovered. It might not be the same as walking the streets like other citizens, but it would still be escape of a very real sort.

"It was true that I had no devices to access the net. No visible ones, in any case. But even then my caretakers understood very little about my capabilities . . . and, more importantly, my obsession for escape. It was easy enough to steal a length of fiberlink from the men who installed the wallscreen. When they were gone, it was almost as easy for me to perform a brief if messy operation with a magnifying glass, a butter knife I had ground down to razor-sharpness, and various other implements, including old-fashioned solder. It would have looked horrible to anyone but me, the wires going directly into a long and bloody incision in my arm, but I connected up to the old input control point from the PEREGRINE days and began using some of my implanted systems to force a machine-language connection, reversing through the wallscreen downlink.

"I won't bore you with all the details. My keepers on the base eventually noticed what I was doing—I was so enraptured with my newfound freedom that I was not as cautious as I should have been. They brought four MPs to subdue me—me, all one hundred and ten shriveled, pre-metric pounds!—and ripped out the wallscreen. Doctors sewed me back up. See, here is the scar. They put a big flashing marker on my file ordering that nothing which might allow me that kind of connection was ever to be given me again, and I was subjected to periodic random searches for decades.

"But what they didn't know was that it was already too late. In the early hours of my newfound freedom, I located and downloaded a raft of specialized gear to my internal systems, including a very clever little black market number that permitted me to make remote connection to nearby networks, using my own metallicized bones as an antenna. Long before the telematic jack became a chic accessory for the busy new-rich, I had one of my own, invisibly hidden inside me.

"Since then, I have continually upgraded myself, all without the knowledge of my captors. Not everything could be done by software alone, but to a man who can go anywhere and converse with anyone, not much is out of reach. In a fit of reflexive honesty, the military had kept my pension for any survivors that might turn up. I made it disappear with a small numbers trick, then moved it into some other areas and began growing it—legitimately, always legitimately. I don't know why that matters, but it does. I have never stolen from anyone. Well, except information. I'm not the world's richest man by any stretch, but I have a tidy sum now, and for a long time I bent it all toward self-improvement. Upgrades?" Sellars suddenly laughed, a genuine bark of amusement. "I am the Upgraded Man! Do you remember my chess-by-mail game, Major Sorensen?"

The man narrowed his eyes. "We examined the hell out of that. No codes. No trick writing. Nothing."

"Oh, it was a perfectly legitimate game—we made sure of that. But you can put quite a bit of expensive black-market nanomachinery in the period after the word 'check,' which is how one of my contacts was able to send me the last things I needed to be able to upgrade my system and survive without constant hydration. I tore out and ate a tiny little piece of paper and the little machines went to work. I would not have lasted a day in that tunnel under the base without that improvement."

"You bastard," Sorensen said admiringly. "We were wondering what you were going to do after you broke out. We had every medical supply place in three states on the watch."

"But why?" Ramsey asked. "Why did you wait so long to escape? I mean, you've been there thirty years or so, haven't you?"

Sellars nodded. "Because after I'd gained full-time access to the net, and had read every file, explored every record, my anger began to fade. A terrible thing had happened to me, an injustice—but what did that really mean? Now that I had a sort of freedom, what more did I want? Look at me, Mr. Ramsey. It was clear that I was never going to be able to live a normal life. I still harbored deep resentments, but I also began to put my endless free time into other things. Exploration of the fast-growing worldwide data sphere—the net. Amusements of various sorts. Experiments.

"It was in the course of one such experiment that I found the first track of the Grail Brotherhood. . . ."

"Hang on a bit," said Ramsey. "What sort of experiments?"

For a moment Sellars hesitated, then his waxy face seemed to harden. "I do not wish to talk about that. Do you want me to go on, or have you heard enough for one day?"

"No, please continue. I didn't mean to offend you." But Catur Ramsey's radar was still flashing. It almost seemed like the old man wanted to be asked again, but Ramsey had no experience reading the odd features. But there's something there, he thought. Something important, at least to Sellars. Is it important to us, too? It was impossible to guess. He filed it away for later. "Please, go on."

"I have already explained much of what I discovered then. What the Brotherhood seemed to be doing, the weapons at its disposal, all were bad enough. But now, just in the last forty-eight hours, everything has gone completely off the rails. I am having a terrible time trying to make sense of anything and my whole Garden is in an uproar."

"Garden?" said Kaylene Sorensen before anyone else could. "What garden?"

"I apologize. It is the way I order my information—a metaphor, in a sense, but a very real thing to me as well. If you like, I will show it to you someday. It was . . . really quite beautiful once." He shook his head slowly. "Now it is blighted. Order is gone. Something drastic has happened to the Grail network, and also to the Brotherhood itself. The newsnets tell me that several people I believe to be part of their leadership have all died within the last few days, their empires suddenly in chaos. Is this part of some move toward immortality—of conveying themselves into the virtual universe forever, as I suspected that they planned? If so, it seems odd they would leave such disruption behind, since they must surely still need some kind of economic power to maintain that huge, expensive network."

"You're only guessing about that," said Michael Sorensen. "About a lot of things."

"I am only guessing about almost everything," said Sellars, amused and disgusted, and at that moment finally won much of Catur Ramsey's trust, "But the probability factors are too high to ignore, and have been since I first encountered this ghastly plot. I'm terrified, trying to grope at something behind a big thick black curtain and guess what it is. But I am certain that whatever it might be, it's bad and getting worse—unfortunately, that's the guess I'm most confident about. Do you think I would have involved a child like your daughter if I could believe for an instant I might be wrong? Me, who had his own life ruined by trusting those who should have known better and planned better? Major Sorensen, Mrs. Sorensen, I can never earn forgiveness for endangering your daughter, so I haven't asked. But I can promise you that I only did it because I felt that the stakes were so frighteningly high. . . ." He stopped and shook his hairless head. "No, that would not make it better. She is your child, after all."

"And we won't let anything happen to her," Christabel's mother said fiercely. "That's the one risk I won't allow." She stared at her husband; it was not a gentle look. "Not anymore."

"I think we understand the basic situation." A part of Ramsey was amazed that he was still sitting here, even more amazed to find he was about to take a central part in something that by any rational standard should be considered a mass delusion. "So the question is . . . what can we do?"

"Let me bring you up to date on the poor and probably hopeless measures I began," Sellars said. "My little group of explorers. I still have hopes for them, and until I know otherwise, I'll assume that they are all still alive, still active."

"Oh my God," said Ramsey suddenly. "Sam Fredericks. Orlando Gardiner. They're yours. . . . I mean, I'd almost forgotten, when we first spoke you said you knew something about them. Is that what you meant—you sent them into this network?"

Sellars shook his head. "In a way. But yes, they are part of the small group of people I brought together. I hope they still are."

"Then you didn't know." Ramsey hesitated. "Orlando Gardiner died two days ago."

Sellars did not reply immediately. "No, I . . . I did not know," he said at last, his voice soft as a dove's call. "I have been. . . ." He paused again for a surprisingly long time. "I had feared . . . that it might all be too much for him. Such a brave young man. . . ." The old man shut his eyes tight. "If you don't mind, I will take a moment to use the bathroom."

The wheelchair turned and rolled silently across the carpet. The bathroom door closed behind it, leaving Ramsey to stare at the Sorensens, who stared back.

 

 

Christabel was having a bad dream, running from men in black clothes who were chasing her down a long staircase. They were carrying a long fire hose which trailed behind them like a snake, and she knew that they wanted to catch her and point its metal nose at her and choke her with its purple smoke. She tried to scream for her mother and father, but she couldn't get the breath to do it, and when she looked back the pale-faced men were always closer, always closer. . . .

She woke up thrashing in pillows and a sheet and almost screamed again. She twisted herself free, frightened by the strange room, the unfamiliar pictures on the wall, the heavy curtains which only let a tiny bit of light into the room, yellow light with dust bouncing in it. She opened her mouth to call her mother and the face came up over the edge of the bed.

It was worse than her bad dream, and she fell back with a feeling like a cold hand had grabbed inside her, and just like in the dream she couldn't even make a noise.

"Hay-soos, weenit," the face said, "wha's your problem? Trying to sleep down here."

Her breaths were little and small—she could imagine her sides moving fast like a rabbit's—but she recognized the face, the broken tooth, the black hair sticking up. Some of the worst of the being-scared went away.

"I don't have a problem," she said, angry, but it didn't sound very good.

The boy smiled an angry smile. "Know if I had a big ol' nice bed like that one, claro, wouldn't see me havin' no pesadilla, start crying and everything."

He was talking about food, it sounded like. She didn't understand. She didn't want to understand. She got up and hurried to the door that led to the next room and opened it. Her mommy and daddy and the new grown-up, Mister Ramsey, were all talking to Mister Sellars. They all looked tired and something else, too, like the time that her parents and Ophelia Weiner's parents had thought there was going to be a war about Aunt Artica, which Christabel had thought was a dumb name for a place but not worth having a war about, and all the grown-ups had that same look on their face during dinner.

Mister Sellars was saying, ". . . A South African military program that actually employed a few of the original PEREGRINE designers—they were working with remote aviation, pilots using virtual control modules—but the project was defunded years ago. I found out about it while tracking the PEREGRINE records, and it came in handy. I was able to nudge them into using it, in part because the base was secret and they would be safe there, but somehow the Grail seems to have tracked them down and now they are under siege." He finally noticed her standing in the doorway and gave her a gentle smile. "Ah, Christabel, it's good to see you. Did you have a nice nap?"

"Honey, are you okay?" her mommy said, standing up. "We're just out here talking. Why don't you see if there's anything on the net?"

The fullness and bigness of her parents and Mister Sellars talking about grown-up things, of all of them being somewhere away from home in a strange place, in a motel, suddenly rose up inside her and made her want to cry. She didn't want to cry, so instead she said, "I'm hungry."

"You still have your sandwich from earlier—you only took a bite. Here, I'll pour you some juice. . . ." and her mommy came back with her to the room where she'd woken up and for a little while things were better again. After Christabel had a paper plate with the sandwich and some raisins. Mommy took a bag of cookies out of her purse and gave two to Christabel and two to the boy, who grabbed them fast, like her mommy might decide to take them back again.

"We grown-ups have to talk a while longer," she said. "I want you kids to stay here and watch the net, okay?"

The boy just looked at her like a cat, but Christabel followed her to the door. "I want to go home, Mommy."

"We'll go home soon, sweetie." When she opened the door, Christabel's daddy's voice came through.

"But that doesn't make sense," he was saying. "If the network's harming children, causing this Tandagore thing, then why should the boy be able to get on and offline without being . . . hurt, whatever?"

"In part because I have been grappling with the security systems in my own particular way to allow that to happen," said Mister Sellars. "But there is something more at work. The system seems almost to have a . . . an affinity, that is the word. An affinity for children."

Christabel's mommy, who had been listening, suddenly looked down and saw that Christabel was still standing beside her in the doorway. A frightened look went across Mommy's face, the oh-my-god look Christabel hadn't seen for a while, the last time when Christabel had carefully picked up the sharp broken pieces of a wine glass that fell on the kitchen floor and brought them in both hands to show her parents.

"Go on, honey," her mother said, and almost shoved her back into the room with the terrible boy. "I'll come in and check on you in a little while. Eat your sandwich. Watch the net." She closed the door behind her. Christabel felt like crying again. Her mother usually didn't like it when she watched the net, unless it was something Mommy and Daddy had picked out that was educational.

"I'll eat it if you don't want it, weenit," the boy said behind her.

She turned and saw that he was holding her sandwich in his hand. After all the baths her mommy had been making him take even his fingernails were clean, but she could just tell that no matter how many times he went in the tub, he was still covered with invisible germs. The thought of eating her sandwich now was impossible.

"You have it," she said, and walked slowly to sit on the edge of the bed. The wallscreen wasn't very big, and the only thing on KidLink was a stupid Chinese game with people running around and all talking out of time with the way their mouths were moving. She stared at it, feeling empty and lonely and sad.

The little boy finished her sandwich, and without asking ate her raisins and cookies, too. Christabel didn't even feel angry—it was strange to see someone eat like that, like they hadn't ever eaten before and didn't know if they'd ever get to do it again. She wondered how he got so hungry. She knew Mister Sellars had lots of meals in packages down in the tunnels, and he was a nice man. He wouldn't have told the boy not to eat. It didn't make sense.

"What you staring at, mu'chita?" he said with a mouth full of cookie.

"Nothing." She turned back to the wallscreen. The Chinese people were making themselves into a big pile to reach something hanging high in the air. The pile fell down and some of the people had to be carried away with the audience cheering. Christabel wished her parents would come in and tell her it was time to go home. She didn't like what was going on any more. She sneaked a look at the boy. He was licking the plate where the sandwiches had been. That was really gross, but it bothered her in a different way, too.

"When we go home," she said suddenly, "maybe . . . maybe my mom will give you some food. You know, to take with you."

He looked at her and shook his head like she had said something stupid.

"Ain't nobody going home, chica. We on the run. No more mama-papa house for you, not ever, m'entiendes?"

She knew he was lying, knew that he was saying it to make her feel bad, but she could not stop herself from crying anyway. What was worse was that when her mommy came in and asked Christabel what was wrong, and she told her, Mommy didn't say it was a lie, didn't say they were going home right away so don't worry, didn't even yell at the terrible boy. She didn't say anything at all, just held Christabel on the bed. It should have made her feel better, but it didn't, it didn't, it didn't.

CHAPTER 8
Listening to the Nothing

NETFEED/LIFESTYLE: Virtual Memorials-Visiting the Dead

(visual: family and deceased laughing at wake)

VO: Funebripro, a company in Naples, Italy, has announced the newest twist in funeral technology—a virtual memorial, where mourners can talk with their dear departed. The company says that a series of what it calls Life Copies can be made and then combined into a convincing simulation of the deceased as he or she was in life,

(visual: company founder Tintorino di Pozzuoli)

DI POZZUOLI: "Hey, this is a nice thing. If you lose someone, like we lost my dear grandfather, you can still keep a part of them with you. You can visit with them even after they're gone—commune, you might say. It's like having a telescope that points at heaven, right?"

 

Almost dying on the mountain had been bad enough. Now Sam Fredericks' exhausted sleep was invaded by the most bizarrely powerful nightmare she had ever experienced.

The bad dream seemed to go on forever, a flood of terror and solitude and confusion so real and so lengthy that at last, in some paradoxical way, even horror became as boring as a hundred-year trip in the back seat of her parents' car. The only respite from the hammering monotony of fear and loneliness were the small phantoms, swift and cautious as birds, that finally appeared to her out of the long darkness, as though she had passed some terrible pointless test and was now being rewarded. She could not see them but she could feel them all around her, each gentle and insubstantial as a shallow breath. They might almost have been fairies, wispy bits of beauty like something from one of her childhood screen stories. Spirits, perhaps. Whatever they were, she finally felt relieved and at peace. She wanted to hold them close, but they were all as fragile as a butterfly wing, as the trembling puff of a dandelion: to clutch at them was to destroy them.

When she came up at last from the endless dream, Sam Fredericks' first realization—as it had been with every awakening since it had happened—was that Orlando was dead. He was not merely dying (a familiar shadow she had learned to squint into invisibility) but dead. Gone. Not coming back, not ever—no new stories, no new memories. No more Orlando.

But this time, the terrible sadness only lasted until she opened her eyes and saw the endless silver-shot nothing that surrounded her. Surprise was turned to something worse by the look on !Xabbu's careful, devastated face as he told her that Renie was gone.

"But what happened? This so utterly, utterly, utterly scans." At least an hour seemed to have passed and nothing had changed. Sam had not been one of the visitors to the weatherless stasis Renie had named Patchwork Land; to her, the most astonishing thing about this enveloping silver-gray void was the simple fact of its persistence, limitless and unchanging. "Is Renie still back on the mountain? In fact, where's the mountain?"

"I have no answers, Fredericks," !Xabbu said.

"Sam. Call me Sam—oh, please." She had run out of strength to plan, to do. Orlando had died. In all the time she had been trapped in the network, Sam Fredericks had never allowed herself seriously to consider that there might come a time when that would happen—when she would have to go on without him. How could such a thing even be possible? But here it was, the world around her just as strange and incomprehensible as it had been when Orlando was still alive, but now there was no Orlando to push her along, to growl at her, to tell her stupid jokes because he knew that being pissed off by stupid jokes was as good a method of keeping going as being entertained by good ones, and a lot easier on the one telling the jokes.

Sam felt a congestion inside her, a painful swelling of the heart. She would never again get to tell him those obvious things in that way that drove him crazy—an obviousness of such perfection that he could never tell if she was kidding or not. The tightness inside her felt like something that needed to be born, but did not want to come out. It was astonishing to discover how much you could miss someone whose real face you'd never seen.

What would he say now? she wondered. Everything vanished, Renie gone, Sam trapped in the middle of literally nowhere?

"Neck-deep in fenfen and waiting for the tide to rise," that was what he'd told her once in the Middle Country, when they'd turned from stuffing their pockets full of treasure to discover a twenty-meter-long snake forcing its way in through the underground chamber's only exit.

That's where I am now, Gardino, she thought. For real this time. Wailing for the tide to rise. . . .

!Xabbu saw the tears running down her cheek and crouched beside her, then wrapped her in his slender strong arms. Just as the weeping threatened to overwhelm her, a tall shape appeared out of the mist.

"I knew she was the most reliable of you," Jongleur said disdainfully, "but I would not have thought you two would collapse so quickly in her absence. Have you no backbone at all? We must go on."

The bony-faced man was such a horror Sam could not even look at him, but !Xabbu grew tense beside her. "It is foolish to go when we have no idea where we are going," the small man said. "Did you have any better luck searching than I did?"

Jongleur hissed out breath, as though he had sprung a small leak. "No. There is nothing. If I had not taken my steps carefully and followed backward along the same track, you might never have seen me again."

"Wouldn't that be sad."

Jongleur ignored her. "That is doubtless what happened to your companion. Wandered off after we made the transition to whatever this place is, and cannot find her way back."

"Renie would not do such a thing," !Xabbu said firmly. "She is too smart for that."

Jongleur flicked his hand dismissively. "Still, she is lost, however you choose to explain it. As is Klement." His smile was wintry. "I suppose we can be fairly certain they have not eloped."

!Xabbu rose to his feet. He was a full head shorter than Jongleur, but something in his posture made the taller man step backward. "Unless you have something useful to say, you will stop talking about her. Now."

Jongleur peered down at him, annoyed but momentarily surprised. "Get hold of yourself, fellow. It was merely a remark. . . ."

"No more remarks." !Xabbu stared at Jongleur for a long moment while Sam watched them both, suddenly and uncomfortably aware that without !Xabbu she would be alone with this ancient monster. Jongleur stared back. At last, !Xabbu put his hand down and touched her arm. "He is right only in one thing, Sam. We can wait a little longer for Renie, but even if she is nearby, we might not find her. Sound does not carry well in this place. She could pass a hundred meters from us and we would not know it. At some point we must move on and hope that we find her along the way."

"We can't . . . just go without her!"

For a moment !Xabbu's composure slipped, giving Sam a glimpse of the pain he was hiding. "If . . . something has happened to her. . . ." He stopped and darted a look at Jongleur, clearly unwilling to show such things in the man's presence. "If we cannot find her, we owe it to her to go on. Don't forget, it was her love for her brother that brought her into this place. She would want us to try to help him even without her."

He spoke with his normal calm, but such desolation lay just behind the words that Sam felt as though her own river of sorrow had met another at least as great—that if they were not both very careful, the combined waters might overflow the banks and flood the world.

 

The poor visibility meant that she had to stay fairly close to Jongleur while !Xabbu did his work, and it was all she could do to keep her loathing of the man in check. His proud face seemed made of stone, a chiseled monument, like Sam's own father at his stiffest and angriest, but without the redeeming sense of humor she could always tease out of him. She could not help wondering how someone with Jongleur's wealth and power could turn himself into a thing, could bend so many lives with his cruelty . . . for what? Just to keep himself alive? To enjoy centuries more of cold, unhappy power? Sam had trouble at the best of times understanding why old people would want to continue on, long past the point they could do anything that she could imagine as worth doing; someone like Jongleur, who had already lasted into a third human life span, was beyond her grasp.

Orlando had been afraid of dying, too—terrified of it, she realized now, and all those death-simulations had been meant to desensitize him to what was coming so unfairly soon. But even if he had been given the chance to escape that death, would he have done what this man had done, taken the lives of innocent others to preserve his own? She couldn't believe it. She didn't believe it. Not her Orlando, who believed in the Ring-Bearer's Quest the way those people in the Circle believed in God. Not Orlando Gardiner, who had told her that being a true hero was still the most important thing, even if no one ever found out about it. He had really believed it didn't matter what else happened, or what anyone thought about you—it only mattered what you knew about yourself.

Even her father had told her once, when she was battling her mother over her name, "If you want to be Sam, be Sam—just be the best damn Sam you can." His serious scowl had suddenly become a laugh. "Someone ought to put that in a children's book."

Missing her father and her wide-eyed, nervously affectionate mother suddenly became a hurt at least as great as the pain of losing Orlando, and for a moment a shadow threatened to overtake her completely. Sam stared at Jongleur sitting a few meters away and could not tell if the dimness was the mist or her own teary eyes, but she knew that whatever happened, she didn't ever want to be like him, angry and frozen and alone. . . .

A movement startled her out of her thoughts. !Xabbu's small form appeared from the gray. He sat down beside her gingerly, as though he ached.

"Well?" snapped Jongleur.

!Xabbu ignored him. He took Sam's hand—she hadn't quite become used to his frequent, careful touching, but she still found it reassuring—and asked her how she was feeling.

"Better, I think." She smiled a little, realizing it was true. "Did it work?"

He wearily returned the smile. "As I often say to Renie, the skills I have are not the sort that turn on and turn off. But I think I am making sense of things, yes, perhaps a bit."

Jongleur made a quiet hissing noise. "Any other man of my generation would find it comical to see me staking my life on two Africans and, unless I miss my guess about this girl, a Creole—and we have already lost one of the Africans." He rolled his eyes. "But I have never been a bigot. If some instinct of yours will show the way out of this place, then damn you, tell us."

!Xabbu shot him a look of real dislike—one of the strongest things Sam had seen from him. "It is not 'instinct,' not in the sense you mean. Everything I know about finding my way has been learned, taught to me by my father's family. They taught me other things you do not seem to know either, like kindness and good sense." He turned his back on Jongleur, who seemed stuck between outrage and sour amusement. "I am sorry to have left you with this man, Sam, but I had to move far enough away that I could not see you, could not even hear the two of you breathing. All in this network is stranger than in the real world, and it has been hard at the best of times to make sense of things. But this place is even more difficult—until a little while ago, I would have said there was nothing at all to sense beside ourselves. It might still be true—like a starving man hoping to scent game, I might have convinced myself of what is not true."

"You think you . . . smelled something?"

"Not exactly, Sam. For a long time I just sat, trying, as I said, to forget the sounds and smells of you and . . . and this man. For some of the time, I hoped I might hear Renie calling far away." He shook his head sadly. "But after a time I gave up and just . . . opened myself. It is not mystical," he said hurriedly, peering over his shoulder at Jongleur. "Rather it is being able truly to hear, to smell, to see—the things people in the city world seldom do, because everything they need comes to them, hurries toward them as though it were shot out of a gun." His face grew solemn as he searched for words. "After a while, I began to feel something. Perhaps it is a little like Martine, how she senses things—it takes a while to understand the patterns here—but I think it is simply that I finally had the stillness and . . . what is the word? Alone-ness? I finally had a chance to hear." He squeezed Sam's hand again and stood up. "That way," he said, pointing outward into a portion of the pearly void no different than any other. "It could be that my mind is making things up, but I feel there is something there, in that direction."

"Something?" Jongleur's voice was measured, but Sam could hear his anger just under the surface. In a flare of insight, she saw how it must eat away at a man like him to have to rely on anyone at all, let alone someone he must think of as little better than a savage.

How old is he really, anyway? Sam wondered, and almost shivered. Maybe two hundred years? Did they still have, like, slaves when he was growing up?

"What I sense is . . . something," !Xabbu said. "There is no other word. I am not speaking that way to disturb you. It is a thickening, perhaps, or greater movement, or distant changes in what is more orderly here, or . . . something. Like the ghost of a track in sand, all the rest blown away by the wind. It might be only a shadow. But that is where I am going, and I think Sam will go with me."

"Utterly right." Besides, what was the alternative? Waiting here forever in this fog, hoping something helpful would happen? That wasn't what Orlando or Renie would have done.

Jongleur looked carefully at !Xabbu. Sam did not need any particular insight this time to read the man's mind. He was trying to decide whether !Xabbu was lying to him, or was crazy, or maybe just wrong. Sam could never feel pity for a nasty creature like Jongleur, but she could almost guess what it would be like to suspect everyone and everything. It was an ugly, miserable thing to imagine.

"Lead, then." Jongleur, even naked, conveyed the impression of a king granting a favor to a peasant. "Anything is better than this."

 

 

The third time, Renie almost didn't find her way back. It was strange to be using the shambling, brain-damaged Ricardo Klement as her lodestone, even stranger to experience a flush of pleasure and relief when she saw his seated form appear out of the nothingness.

But what if he'd moved? she asked herself. Even if I found him again, I wouldn't be coming back to the same spot. It might be a spot !Xabbu and Sam had already checked, and they might be looking for me in the old spot. . . .

This was all presuming that her two friends were still alive—that they hadn't simply been swallowed or drezzed somehow by the network, whatever damned part of it this was. But she couldn't afford to think about that alternative much.

She couldn't really risk wandering anymore, either. Not that it made any difference—the seamless, monotonous gray went on and on, the invisible earth or floor continued, flat as a tabletop; silence and emptiness reigned. So she would either stay put, or move and keep moving.

It would have been an exaggeration to say Klement seemed glad to see her—he lifted his head slightly at her return—but there was no question he knew she was there: his eyes followed her, and he changed his position subtly after she sat down a few meters away, as if to designate a space between them—space that in a world with anything in it at all might have held a campfire.

Renie would have given one of her arms for a campfire. She would have added another limb and perhaps even a few organs to have !Xabbu and Sam seated around that fire with her.

I shouldn't have been thinking about how few of us there were left-—tempting fate. Now look what's left. Me. And . . . that.

Ricardo Klement gazed back at her, so still and silent that it was like looking at a picture in a museum. The last thing you would ever imagine was that it would speak.

"What . . . are you?" Klement asked.

Renie flinched in surprise; it took her a moment to respond. "What am I?" It was hard to talk: her voice was hoarse from shouting for her lost companions. "What do you mean? I'm a woman. I'm an African woman. I'm someone you and your group of rich friends . . . hurt." There were no words to express the feelings in her about Stephen, and the helplessness of the last hours had only made it worse than usual.

Klement stared. There was something moving behind the eyes, but it was deep, deep down. "That is . . . a long name," he said at last. "It seems . . . long."

"Name?" Jesus Mercy, she thought, that Ceremony scorched his brains properly, didn't it? "That's not my name, it's what I. . . ." She stopped and took a breath. "My name. . . ?" She wasn't sure she wanted to tell him, although she had given up on anonymity long ago. There was something galling in the way this thing, whatever had gone wrong with its mind, presumed to a kind of childlike innocence. Did this increase in conviviality mean that the old Ricardo Klement was beginning to surface, or simply that the new, damaged version was becoming more comfortable with its faculties?

"My name is Renie," she said at last.

Klement did not respond, but did not take his eyes off her either, as though forming an elaborate visual picture to go with the newly-filed name.

Renie sighed. This damaged man was the least of her problems. After what seemed like half a day in the void, nothing had changed. She had shouted until her voice was a husk, she had walked dozens of small circuits, all to no result. There wasn't anything you could call land, let alone landmarks, no directed light, no sound other than that which she made herself. But if I stay here, I'll die here. Or else Stephen's heart will finally fail and he'll die in that hospital bed, which will make what happens to me pointless. With the endless gauzy mist before her, it was hard not to see her dear Stephen's face, but it was the bad face that came to her—the sightless eyes and ashy skin, the slack jaw propped by the respirator. Drying up, curling. Like a fish pulled out of the water and thrown in the dirt. Dear God, please don't let that be the last Stephen that I see.

But if she couldn't accomplish anything, what good was she? It was hard to understand how a Renie lost in nothingness, with nothing to act upon, even existed. Still, what choice did she have? She had no tools, nothing but the lighter, and although she had tried several times to open a gateway, it remained as frustratingly inert as before.

"Where . . . is this . . . place?" Klement asked.

Renie cursed silently, then decided she deserved at least this small pleasure and cursed again out loud. She would have to be prepared for his occasional startling remarks, it seemed.

"I don't know. I don't know anything. Jongleur already said we weren't in the network, and this is . . . even more not in the network, I guess." She peered at him. "You don't understand any of this, do you?"

"That is also a long name. Names of places . . . speaking them . . . usually they are not so long."

She sighed and shook her head. She was beginning to think she liked him better when all he could say was "I am Ricardo Klement."

Renie turned her mind back to the pressing problem of being nowhere at all, and spent a silent quarter of an hour or so going back over everything that had happened since she had last been with !Xabbu and the others, but she could find nothing on which to form a theory of how they had become separated. The slippery grayness around her looked very much like the silver cloudbank they had seen girdling the mountain, but that did not explain how the mountain itself had vanished, or where her companions had gone. She had simply slept, then woke up in this different circumstance. Could the strange dream have something to do with it? She tried to remember the details, the rushing chaos, the long darkness, the heartening appearance at last of those ephemeral presences, but it already seemed vague and distant. In any case, it explained nothing.

So it was a conundrum. A sort of locked-room problem in reverse, if this had been a mystery story—not how to get into a locked room, but how to get out of total nothingness into something . . . into anything at all.

The only things she possessed were the scraps of clothing she had made from Orlando's garments and the lighter. But the lighter would not summon gateways, which would be the most obviously useful thing to do. Could it help her in some other way?

If I had a cigarette, I could light it, she thought grumpily.

A sudden thought came to her. The pale emptiness around her, unnatural and apparently endless—could this be the White Ocean that Paul Jonas and others had spoken about? The network's children had talked of it as a mythical place, something to cross to get to a kind of promised land. Did that mean there was something on the other side of this emptiness? That was a heartening thought. But even if it were true, that still didn't give her any idea how to get there.

She pulled the lighter from between her breasts and held it up. All the studying of it that she, !Xabbu, and Martine had done while preparing to leave the House had actually taught them very little of its true capabilities—as though a group of aliens had discovered a car and, after much trial and error, learned how to turn on the headlights. Further experimentation might teach her more, might even present her with some way out of her current dilemma, but did she dare risk it? She had scoffed at Jongleur's concerns, but that had mostly been out of loathing for the man. Hearing Dread's voice purring from the lighter—whispering out of something that had been pressed against her skin moments earlier—had made her feel like insects were crawling on her. Could she actually risk announcing her presence to him by trying the communication gear built into the device? The only person she knew besides Dread who was somehow accessing the communications band was Martine, and she had not sounded as though she were in a position to help anyone else.

And what if I reached her? What would I tell her? "Martine, come find me, I'm in the middle of a bunch of gray stuff."

She lifted the lighter and turned it, reflexively trying to catch light that would never angle down in this place. She looked at the ornate "Y," the letter tangled in raised vines and leaves as though it were a statue in a forgotten garden. What had Jongleur said the bastard's name was? Yacoubian. The one who pretty much killed Orlando. She fought a roil in her guts. I hope whatever T4b did to his head hurts him like sin. I hope it never gives him a moment's peace.

She wondered briefly if Yacoubian, too, might be listening silently to the communication band of the device, just waiting for her to reveal herself. The thought was unpleasant, but the idea of Dread sitting somewhere, waiting like a cat for one of the mice to show its whiskers, was far worse.

Just listening to the dead air, grinning. . . .

The idea came an instant later. Renie leaped up and started to put a little distance between herself and Klement, then stopped and—out of some not quite explicable sense of loyalty—told him, "I'm just going a short distance away. I need quiet. Don't say anything, anything at all. I'll be back in just a moment."

He watched her go, incurious as a cow chewing grass.

When she was far enough away that she could still see his dim silhouette, but had created a sense of privacy for herself, she held the lighter up again. Back in the House they had discovered how to bring up the communication band, but she wasn't sure she recalled the sequence. She stared at it with a sense of dull fear, but triggered the combination of touches she remembered. When she had finished, nothing bad happened, but nothing much good happened either. The lighter remained inert and silent. The environment around her seemed unchanged.

Cautiously, holding her breath, she held it up to her ear, then held it out before her and moved it in a slow arc. She could hear nothing but more silence. She let her breath out, then listened again. When she had confirmed her result, she turned herself a few degrees to her right and began the process again.

Dowsing, she thought, amused and disgusted. If I ever have to explain this to someone, I'd better come up with something that sounds closer to engineering,

But there was more to her search than superstition or despair, and nearly halfway through her slow rotation she heard something. It was so faint that she could think of it only as a slightly noisier silence on the communication band, but she definitely thought she could hear a tiny hiss, a noise that, however minuscule, had not been there before.

She swung the lighter a little farther through the arc until the tiny sound was gone again, then continued the rest of the way around, just to be sure. When she came back to the direction she had been facing before, the sound also came back.

If she was going to risk her life on something, she wanted to be as certain as she could be. She looked back to make sure Klement was still where she had left him, a lump of almost invisible shadow perhaps fifteen meters away, then she took off her upper garment and tossed it a meter or so in front of her, in the direction which seemed to produce the noise. She closed her eyes, spun around several times to disorient herself, then began rotating slowly through a circle again, using the lighter as her compass needle. When she felt sure she could hear the soft murmur again, she opened her eyes.

The piece of pale cloth lay right in front of her.

"Right!" She was pleased with herself, but even more pleased to think she had something on which to focus once more. She tied her top on and was about to head off when she turned to look back at Klement. He had not moved He was so still, it seemed like he might never move again.

I should just leave the murdering bastard here, she thought. I'll probably curse myself later if I don't. But the idea of deserting the almost childlike Klement in the middle of this deathly nowhere suddenly seemed wrong, although she could not tell herself why.

Renie shouted, "I'm going off in this direction. I'm not corning back. If you want to follow me, you'd better do it now."

Positive that she had just done something gravely stupid, but still feeling lighter in her heart than she had for hours, she marched out in pursuit of a whisper.

 

 

Walking through the endless silver-gray, Sam decided, was in some ways worse than just sitting in it. The plodding along was bad enough—she liked sports, which had a point, but had never much cared for running and hiking, just moving her legs to be moving them—but the lack of landmarks and weather, the failure of the sourceless light to change, made it seem like some torment specifically designed to make Sam Fredericks crazy. For the first time since entering the network she really began to miss eating, not for its own sake, but to mark time passing.

No water, no food, no stopping. After what must have been the first couple of hours, it became a perpetual chant in her head, like the advertising slogan for some particularly awful vacation package. It was also a slight exaggeration, since they did take breaks to rest, in part to allow !Xabbu to pause and listen for whatever vague thing it was that was leading him onward, but the pauses were not much of an improvement on the walking. For part of each stop she was left alone with a silent Jongleur, which was a bit like being left in a room with an unfriendly dog: even when no direct threat was offered, the suggestion of it was always present. Thrown back on her own resources, Sam found it hard to pull her mind away from Orlando and her parents, both now so far out of reach that it was hard to believe her mother and father, unlike Orlando, were still alive and she might see them again someday.

Felix Jongleur marched with the stiff determination of a religious pilgrim. Sam was young and strong, and she guessed he was working hard to keep up with her, but he refused to show it; instead, he made a point of acting impatient when they stopped to let !Xabbu metaphorically sniff the breeze. In a less unpleasant man the stoicism might have been admirable, but to Sam it just made him seem even more coldly removed from normal humanity. She found herself choking back her own weary complaints so as not to show weakness in front of him.

Felix Jongleur might have been struggling to keep up with Sam, but it was clear that !Xabbu was holding himself back to avoid leaving them both behind.

After all the time she had known him in the baboon sim, she was only now starting to grow used to the change. In some ways, !Xabbu in his real body seemed even more exotic than in the form of a monkey. For all his small stature—he was both shorter and more slender than Sam, who was herself slim and only normal height—he seemed quite tireless, moving with such graceful economy that it sometimes seemed he could walk in his sleep if he needed to.

"Where do Bushmen come from?" she asked suddenly. When !Xabbu did not immediately answer she felt a pang of worry. "Oh, is that an utterly rude question?"

His slanted eyes were so narrow the brown irises were almost invisible until something made them open wide in surprise or amusement. She could not tell which of those her second question had produced. "No, no. It is not rude, Sam. I am just trying to think of the answer." He touched his chest. "In my case, a small country called Botswana, but people with my blood are scattered throughout the southern part of Africa. Or do you mean originally?"

"I guess so, yeah." She moved closer, matching her stride to his; she did not want to include Jongleur in the conversation.

"No one knows for certain. In my school days I was told we migrated down from the northern part of the continent long, long ago—a hundred thousand years ago, perhaps. But there are other theories."

"Is that why you can walk, like, forever? Because you're a Bushman?"

He smiled. "I suppose so. I was raised in two traditions, and both made for hard lives, but my father's people—the old, old tradition, the nomadic hunters—sometimes walked and ran for days on the track of game. I am not as strong as they were, I think, but I had to harden myself when I lived with them."

"Were? You mean they're not around anymore?"

Something moved across his brown face, a shadow in this place with no shadows. "I could not find them when I looked for them again a few years ago. There were few left, in any case, and the Kalahari is harsh. It could be that there are no more people who live the old life."

"Impacted! Then you're like . . . the last of the Bushmen." Even as she said it, she realized what a terrible thing that would be.

To his credit, !Xabbu did his best to smile again. "I do not think of myself that way, Sam. I was only a visitor to the original way of life, for one thing. I lived with them just a few years. But it could be that no one else will learn the old ways as I did, that is true enough." He seemed lost for a moment. In the silence, Sam could hear Jongleur's harsh, even breathing behind them. "It is not surprising. It is a life I value, but I do not think many others would agree. If you were one of that tribe, Sam, you would find it very hard."

There was something in the way he said it that poked at Sam's heart—he seemed needy, something she had never seen in him before. Perhaps it was Renie's disappearance. "Tell me about it," she said. "Would I have to hunt lions with a spear or something?"

He laughed. "No. In the delta, where my mother's people live, they sometimes fish with spears, but in the desert the killing of large animals is done with a bow and arrow. I do not know anyone who has ever killed a lion, few who have ever seen one—they are dying out, too. No, we shoot poison arrows, then track the animal until the poison has killed it."

She thought that was a bit unfair, but didn't want to say so. "Do girls do it?"

!Xabbu shook his head. "No, at least not among my father's people. And even men only go hunting big animals from time to time. Mostly they snare smaller game. The women have other duties. If you were one of my tribe, an unmarried girl like you, you would help with the children—watch them, play games with them. . . ."

"That doesn't sound so bad. What would I wear?" She looked down at her improvised bikini, a last sad reminder of Orlando. "Something like this?"

"No, no, Sam. The sun would burn you up in a day. You would wear a kaross—a kind of dress made from the hide of an antelope with the tail still on it. And besides watching the children, you would help the other women dig for melons and roots and grubs—things I think you would not much like to eat. But nothing goes to waste in the Kalahari. We use our bows to make music as well as shoot arrows. And our thumb pianos—" he mimed the playing of a small, two-handed instrument, "—we also use as workbenches for braiding rope. Everything is used as many ways as possible. Nothing goes to waste."

She considered this for a moment. "I think that part is good. But I don't know if I'd want to eat grubs."

"And eggs from ants," he said solemnly. "We eat those too."

"Yick! You're making that up!"

"I swear I am not," he said, but he was smiling again. "Sam, I fear for that life, and I would miss ant eggs were I never to eat them again, but I know most people would not want to live in that way."

"It sounds so hard."

"It is." He nodded suddenly a little distant, a little sad. "It is."

 

The endless march at last found a temporary ending. Jongleur was limping, although he refused to admit he was suffering. Sam, who was footsore and exhausted herself, had to surrender her pride and suggest that it was time to stop.

She was getting frighteningly good at falling asleep without pillow or blanket—the many back-country trips Pithlit had made with Thargor had already prepared her a bit—and the invisible ground was no harder than some other places she'd slept, but even exhaustion couldn't bring her peace. The dreams of darkness and solitude returned, not quite as vivid as before, but still enough for her to wake several times, discovering on the last that !Xabbu was kneeling beside her in the pearly false dawn, a concerned look on his face.

"You cried out," he said. "You said that the birds would not come to you. . . ?"

Sam couldn't remember anything about birds—the details of the dream were already beginning to recede—but she did remember the loneliness, and how desperate she had been for companionship, some contact that might warm the long, cold dark. When she told him, !Xabbu looked at her strangely.

"That is much like the dreams I have had," he said. He turned to look at Felix Jongleur, who was coming up from his own sleep with a host of small twitches and whimpers. !Xabbu went to him and shook him awake.

"What do you want?" Jongleur snarled, but Sam thought there was something weak and frightened beneath his words.

"My friend and I have had the same dream," !Xabbu told him. "Tell us how you dreamed."

Jongleur pulled away as though burned. "I will tell you nothing. Don't touch me."

!Xabbu stared at him intently. "This could be important to us. We are all trapped in this place together."

"What is inside my head is mine alone," Jongleur said loudly. "Not yours—not anyone's!" He struggled to his feet and stood, fists clenched and face pale. Sam was suddenly reminded how strange it was that they should all wear such lifelike forms, that everything should be so much like the real world while still being completely unreal.

"Keep them, then," !Xabbu said in disgust. "Keep your secrets."

"A man without secrets is no man at all," Jongleur spat back.

"Tchi seen," said Sam. "He's scannulated. Forget him. !Xabbu. Let's get going." But she was puzzled by the change from Jongleur's normally icy expression. For a moment he had looked like a man pursued by demons.

The idea of sharing a dream was still bothering her as they walked. "How could that be?" she asked him. "I mean, it's one thing for us to see the same things, because they're all pumped into our heads by the system. But you can't pump in thoughts and dreams and fenfen like that." She frowned. "Can you?"

!Xabbu shrugged. "Since we have been in this network, there have been nothing but questions." He turned to Jongleur. "Tell us, since you will not talk of dreams, how it is that we are kept on this network against our will? You call yourself a master, a god even, but now you, too, are trapped here. How can such a thing be? With all that expensive equipment of yours, you may be little more than a mind in the wires, perhaps—but me? I am not even wearing a neurocannula, if that is the word. The system has no direct contact to my brain."

"There is always direct contact between the outside and the brain," Jongleur responded sourly. "Constantly. You of all people, with your talk of ancient tribal ways and living close to nature, should know that it has been going on since the beginning of time. We do not see unless light transmits messages to the brain, or hear without sound imposing patterns on it." He smirked. "It is happening all the time, all through life. What you mean is that there is no direct electronic contact between your brain and this network—no wires. And that is meaningless in this situation."

"I do not understand," !Xabbu said patiently. Sam had thought he was taunting the older man out of anger, but she thought now he was working toward something else. "What do you mean—are you saying there are other ways of putting thoughts in my mind?"

Jongleur rolled his eyes. "If you think I am going to reveal the secrets of my expensive operating system as part of this childish catechism, you are mistaken. But any school-child, even one from the backwaters of Africa, should be able to guess what it is that keeps us online. Have you gone offline?"

"I have," Sam said grimly. The memory was horrible.

"And what happened?" He looked at her fiercely, intently, like some grandfather from hell. "Come, tell me. What happened?"

"It . . . hurt. I mean just majorly scorching."

Jongleur rolled his eyes. "I have been forced to endure ten generations of teenage slang. That alone would be enough to discourage a lesser man from wanting to live as long as I have. Yes, it hurt. But you didn't manage to get offline by yourself, did you?"

"No," Sam said grudgingly. "Someone unplugged me. Back in RL."

"Yes, in 'real life.' How appropriate." Jongleur showed his teeth—a sort of chilly grin. "Because you couldn't find the way to do it yourself, just as I can't now. And do you think that is because, as those religious fools in the Circle believe will happen one day, we have been translated into Paradise, into incorruptible bodies, innocent of such things as neurocannulae? Do you think so?"

"No." Sam scowled at him. "Chance not."

"Then why else can't you find something you know perfectly well is there? Think, child!" He turned to !Xabbu. "Have I lost you? Can you not guess?"

The Bushman looked back at Jongleur coldly. "If we could guess, we would have already done so without your lecture, which explains nothing."

Jongleur threw his hands up in a gesture of mock-frustration. "Then I will bore you no longer. Solve the riddles yourself." He slowed until he was several paces behind them once more.

"I hate him," Sam said in whispered fury.

"Do not waste your strength, and especially do not let anger blind you to him. He is clever—I was a fool to think I could draw him out so simply. He has plans of his own, I am sure, and will not easily give anything for anyone else's benefit."

Sam fingered the length of broken sword thrust through the waist of her garment. "All the same, I hope he gives me an excuse to use this on him."

!Xabbu squeezed her arm hard. "Do nothing reckless, Sam. I tell you as a friend. Renie would tell you the same if she were here. He is a dangerous man."

"I'm dangerous too," said Sam, but in a voice so quiet even !Xabbu didn't hear.

 

They had stopped three times for sleep when !Xabbu finally made his discovery.

Sam and !Xabbu had experienced similar dreams each time, although never exact duplicates. Jongleur continued to make uneasy noises in his sleep, but remained silent about it when awake.

The tramping through the endless, featureless overcast had itself turned into a kind of dreary dream—faced with such unending nothing, Sam had several times slid over into hallucination. Once she saw the front doors of her school in West Virginia, as clearly as if she stood at the bottom of the steps. She even raised her hands to pull them open, braced for the noise of the echoing hallways, then found that she was reaching out toward nothingness and that !Xabbu was looking at her with concern. She also saw Orlando and her parents several times, distant but unmistakable shapes. Once she saw her grandfather trimming a hedge.

Even !Xabbu seemed oppressed by the monotony, the terrible dull pale cloudiness of everything, the continuous pointless now; even he grew increasingly silent and withdrawn. Thus, when he paused suddenly and awkwardly in the middle of one of his investigations, interrupting what had by now become a sort of boringly familiar dance of turning and listening, turning and listening, Sam thought maybe he too had been caught by a hallucination—a vision of Renie, perhaps, or some feature of his people's desert home.

"I do not believe it!" Surprisingly, he had an eager tone in his voice that had been missing for some time. "Unless I am losing my mind." He laughed. "Come, this way."

Jongleur, who had been showing little more animation than a sleepwalker, dutifully followed, setting one foot after the other as though reading it from an instruction manual. Sam hurried to catch up with !Xabbu.

"What is it?" she said. "Did you hear something?"

"I need quiet, Sam."

"Sorry." She fell back a little way. Please let him be right, she thought, watching the poised, flexible tension of his naked back. Please let him find something. I hate this gray. I hate it so much. . . .

!Xabbu abruptly stopped and crouched. The silvery void was all around him, unchanged and seemingly unchangeable. The small man grew wide-eyed, waving his fingers at nothing visible, paddling them in small circular motions at ground level, until Sam suddenly became terrified that he had lost his mind.

"What are you doing?" She almost shouted it.

"Feel, Sam, feel!" He dragged her down beside him and shoved her hand into the perfectly empty patch of nothing identical with every other cubic meter of nothing that stretched away in all directions. "There. Do you see?"

She shook her head, fearful. Jongleur had stumped up and now paused, looking down on them as though they were beggars he had discovered living in his rose garden. "I don't see anything," she moaned.

"I am sorry. I spoke badly—there is nothing to see. But maybe you can feel or hear it. . . ." He held her hands in his own and gently moved them back and forth just above the ground. "Anything?" When she shook her head, he pulled his own hands away from hers. "Try again. Concentrate."

It took long moments, but at last she felt it—the faintest, most negligible force, a weak current of skin-temperature air, perhaps, or a vibration so meager she could barely distinguish it from the tremble of her own pulse in her fingers. "What . . . what is it?"

"A river," !Xabbu said triumphantly. "I am certain it is. Or at least it will be."

CHAPTER 9
Hannibal's Return

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: HN, Hr. 6.5 (Eu, NAm)—"Teen Mob!"

(visual: Mako and Crank Monkey searching alley for Klorine)

VO: Suicidal Klorine (Bibi Tanzy) has just discovered she is not her parents' biological daughter. She takes an overdose of pills, but none of the Teen Mob know where she is. Her friends Crank Monkey and Mako only have two hours to find her before it's too late. Producers claim: "Surprise Ending of the Year!" Casting 12 Madness Mall employees, pharmacist. Flak to: HN.TNMB.CAST

 

"I should have guessed," said Florimel bitterly, staring into the view-window at the distant, beetle-riding shape. "Someone like Robert Wells will always find a way to get himself onto the winning side." They all stood frozen, helpless. Even Kunohara had stopped trying to make his ruined system function. The crush of mutated wasps swarming over the bubble-house filled Paul with claustrophobic terror—any moment the barbed stingers dimpling the transparent walls would break through and the whole thing would dissolve into tatters, dropping the squirming mass directly on top of them. But what could they do? They were surrounded, but even if they got out, the Twins were waiting. Once he was out of the bubble and onto open ground, they would hunt him down without mercy. . . .

"You still have not answered my question, Kunohara." Martine's voice was raw—Paul could hear her fighting to keep her words steady. "We must rely on each other or we have nothing. Did you have an informant among us?"

He turned on her angrily. "You have no right to question me! You and your carelessness have brought this down on us all." He glared, then turned back to the window. "I will go out. Wells at least I can talk to, although I doubt I can trust him."

"Gonna sell us out, him," T4b growled, but bluster could not hide his fright. "Don't let him do it!"

Paul astonished himself by saying, "Then I'll go with him."

Even Kunohara looked surprised, but there was cold rage in his eyes as well. "Why? Do you think if this child was correct with his accusations of treachery, you could stop me?"

"That's not why. Those creatures—the Twins. They've been hunting me all along. If it's me they're looking for, well . . . maybe without me the others would be safe." It sounded even more foolish spoken out loud, but he could not simply wait here for everything to collapse.

"I'm not sure I understand you," Kunohara said. "But if you are with me, you are in no greater danger out there than here."

"Maybe you could just . . . take us all away." Paul was already regretting having volunteered. "Wouldn't that be better? Move us all somewhere else, like you brought us back from where the scorpion was?"

"And give up my house to them?" Kunohara looked at him with scorn. "This is what I have left to keep me alive. This is my local interface—the seat of my power, at least what little of it remains. If I flee and they destroy this place, we would not last half an hour out in that world." He shook his head, face a grim mask. "Do you still wish to come out to parley with me?"

Paul took a breath. "I think so, yes."

The house vanished, replaced by a cold, windy riverbank. The outcropping of stone on which they now stood was surrounded by deformed beetles and wasps, the buzzing so loud he feared it would make him sick to his stomach. The bubble which they had just left was invisible beneath a crawling mass of insects.

"Wells!" Kunohara shouted at a human figure watching the action from the edge of the stone. "Robert Wells!"

The man sitting astride a beetle as proportionately large as an elephant turned at the call. He kicked with his heels at the creature's shell until it slowly turned toward them, moving with an almost mechanical dignity. The human rider leaned forward, squinting.

"Ah," he said brightly. "Doctor Kunohara, I presume?" Paul understood what Martine had meant—Wells' sim did indeed look slightly less than realistic. The pale hair and the general shape of the face echoed what he had seen in newsnet footage of the technocrat, but there was something unfinished, almost doll-like about the features.

Kunohara was tight-lipped. "Yes, it is me. But I do not recall inviting you here, Wells. You are even wearing one of my scientists' jumpsuits, I see. What of the agreement I had with the Brotherhood?"

Wells looked briefly and incuriously at Paul before turning back to Kunohara. "Oh, the Brotherhood. Well, that ship ran into a bit of an iceberg, if you haven't heard." He laughed breathily. Paul did not know the man, but thought he seemed strange, almost a little mad. "Oh, yes, the Old Man screwed that up pretty damn thoroughly. Then got bumped off by one of his own employees, no less. A corporate power play, I suppose you'd call it, although the timing was unfortunate," His not-quite-human smile didn't fade. "Everything's gone to hell now, really. But it's not all bad. We just have to stay in the saddle until everything calms down again."

Kunohara's expression had not changed. "You make jokes, Wells, but as you do so, you are trying to destroy my home, the things I have built here."

Wells swayed a little as the beetle changed position underneath him. "Not me! I'm just along for the ride. It's my new friends you want to talk to." He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Paul's heart raced as two mismatched figures appeared over the edge of the stone. It was all he could do not to run, to trust Kunohara's failing abilities instead. "It's not even you they're after, Kunohara, it's your guests," Wells said. Now he looked at Paul again, the smile lazy and a bit disconnected. "Apparently they've gotten on the wrong side of the new management. If you'd just hand them over to the boys," he cocked his head at the approaching pair, "I'm sure you'd be welcome to join us." He leaned forward and winked. "Time to choose up sides, you know. At the moment, it's not a hard choice at all."

Paul hardly registered Wells' words. He was fixed in sickly fascination on the two creatures moving toward them, the sagging, fleshy caterpillar and the albino cricket—Mullet and Finch—no, that had only been their names in the trenches. Mudd and Finney.

A spark of memory. Mudd and Finney . . . a dark room, two mismatched shapes. . . .

It was gone. Paul shuddered. They were as horrible to look at as they always were, no matter the incarnation, and every sensible instinct shrieked at him to run as fast and far away from them as he could—but still, something was subtly different this time. Only as they reached Wells and stopped on either side of the beetle did Paul begin to understand what it was.

"What do you want?" the Finney-cricket asked in a scraping, petulant voice. "The new master says hurry. He is impatient for us to secure these creatures."

"If we help him," the Mudd-caterpillar rumbled, "he will give us the little queen."

"Yes, the little queen." The eyeless cricket rubbed its forelegs together in pleased anticipation. "We have hunted for her so long. . . !" It turned its smooth head toward Kunohara and Paul. "And what are these things? Prisoners?"

"Do we eat them?" the caterpillar inquired, rearing up so that the front half of its huge heavy body towered over them both.

Paul took a step back in alarm, but there was a surge of elation, I'm right, he thought. I don't feel that terrible, sickening fear I've felt in the past—and look at them! They don't even recognize me.

Wells appeared to consider the caterpillar's request for a moment. "No, I think not. Kunohara, at least, will be a useful source of conversation in this godforsaken place." He smiled and nodded. "But you really better let them have the others, Doctor K. This pair are pretty damn single-minded. . . ."

"We will bring the new master the ones who spoke through the air," the blind cricket rasped, "and then he will let us have our little queen. Our lively, lovely larva."

"I miss her," the caterpillar said, something like a fond smile twisting its tusky mouth. "So pale, so fat. . . ! When we find her, I will nibble on all of her dozens of little toes!"

Paul now knew for certain that these versions of the Twins were not the remorseless creatures who had stalked him through so many worlds, but something more like the Pankies, oblivious to him, consumed with a quest of their own. A memory of Undine Pankie came to him then, her doughy face transfixed by some grotesque instinct just like the caterpillar's, babbling about "my dear Viola. . . ."

Viola. Something tickled his thoughts. Viola. Vaala. Avialle.

Ava.

". . . I must insist you turn them away, Wells," Kunohara was sputtering. "This is my house, my domain, and whatever has changed, I still insist on my rights. No guests of mine will be taken from under my roof."

Wells nodded, the soul of reason. "Oh, sure, I understand. But what's that old saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face? You don't really want to go up against the new boss, Kunohara. As for me, I have no pull with him at all—not yet, anyway. Nothing personal, but I just can't help you."

The cricket and the caterpillar, slow and self-absorbed as their thoughts were, nevertheless had begun to pay attention. "This is the one?" the cricket whined, pale blind face turning to Kunohara. "This is the one who keeps us from the others?"

With a squelching noise like a giant water mattress, the caterpillar moved closer. A ripple passed through its legs as those nearest Paul stretched toward him, the tips curling and clenching. "They keep us from the little queen. . . ?"

"Enough," Kunohara said, and gestured. A moment later the-stone outcrop was gone and Paul, caught by surprise, stumbled and sat down in the middle of Kunohara's bubble-house.

"What happened?" asked Florimel. "We couldn't hear. . . ."

Paul turned on Kunohara. "Why didn't you blast them—snow or wind or something, one of your god-tricks? We were far enough away from the house. . . ."

"Something blocked me in their presence." Kunohara was clearly troubled. "Their new master, this Dread it must be, has protected them. He is playing tricks with my world." The worried look changed to a scowl. "But I will not be destroyed so easily. Not in my own home."

The wasps had become more agitated on top of the bubble, the slowly moving tapestry of chitin now sped until it was almost a liquid blur, their buzzing so intense it made the air in the transparent house vibrate.

"Op that!" T4b shouted. He took a hurried step back and knocked Paul staggering. Just above their heads the weight of the swarming creatures had begun to push the arch of the dome downward. "Don't get out of here, be six-meat, us!"

One of the stingers finally ripped through the fabric of the dome and the pressing weight began to widen the tear. Even Kunohara stared in shock as one of the deformed creatures slid into the hole in the fast-collapsing membrane. It hung above them for a moment, kicking its huge black legs like a horse dangling from a chandelier.

"Downstairs," Kunohara shouted. He snatched at Paul's arm and shoved him toward the steps leading to the lower chamber. The others tumbled after them as the first wasp finally fell through and landed on the floor of the upper room. It stood, eyes staring blankly from its caricature human face, then several of its fellows rattled down on top of it, knocking Kunohara's furnishings into splinters as they struggled mindlessly to disentangle themselves.

When all the humans had reached the room below, Kunohara flicked his fingers at the door atop the stairwell to close it behind them; when it did not respond, he snatched at it and began pulling it down. T4b and Florimel leaped up to help him, but a flailing leg pushed through before they could close it. With a shout he barely recognized as coming from his own mouth, Paul snatched the first thing he could find, a small table, and hammered on the leg until it snapped. Gray liquid spurted through the trapdoor, but Kunohara and the others were able to ram it shut and latch it.

Overwhelmed, Paul stared at the severed leg lying on the transparent floor, still twitching slightly. Beneath his feet, perhaps stirred by what was happening on the surface, the spidery postlarval shrimp swarmed toward the transparent bottom of the bubble, stalk-eyes swiveling, legs stroking. The rumbling hum from the upper room grew louder. The trapdoor began to bulge inward beneath the weight of the creatures swarming in through the torn roof.

"Sixed, us," T4b panted. "Take some of them crawlies with us, though."

"No." Kunohara pointed to a place on the floor. "Stand there."

Martine was holding her hands to her ears, overwhelmed by the buzzing. "What are you going to do?"

"The only thing left to do," Kunohara said, raising his voice as the din overhead grew even louder. "Their field of defense now surrounds this place, too—I cannot even transport myself! But with you gone, perhaps I can still salvage something." He took Martine's arm and directed her roughly toward the spot he had indicated.

"What, he give us to the bugs?" T4b shouted. "Chance not. . . !"

Kunohara hissed with fury and desperation. "Have you not already brought enough ruin on me? Must you insult me, too? Get on that damned spot!"

Paul seized T4b and shoved him to the place where Martine and Florimel already stood. The floor abruptly bulged downward into a round concavity. T4b slipped and dragged Martine and Florimel to the bottom as well. "Gonna drown us, him!" T4b shrieked.

Paul looked back at Kunohara, whose returned glance explained nothing, then abandoned himself to trust and slid down into the growing blister. As the bubble-material bulged outward, the water of the river abruptly surrounded them, the congregation of translucent shrimp now only inches away.

Paul shouted back at Kunohara, "What about you?"

"There is another thing I must do, otherwise they will simply catch you floating here. Brace yourselves." He turned his back on Paul and began another series of elaborate gestures. As if in response, thunder boomed outside, momentarily outstripping the angry murmuring of the wasps. Lightning flared, a murky flash seen through the water that now almost totally surrounded them. The bulge had become a small bubble, connected only by a shrinking hole to the rest of the house. Paul was crushed between Florimel and T4b, scarcely able to move. Kunohara dropped his hands like a conductor at the finish of a symphony and the hole through which Paul was watching him abruptly narrowed, then disappeared. With a sudden bounce that made Paul's stomach drop toward his feet the bubble popped free of the house that had birthed it and rose swiftly toward the river's surface.

The pressure was so strong that the sphere actually shot entirely out of the water before falling back, throwing Paul and his companions into each other, elbows and heads and knees all making painful contact. The momentary sense of freedom was short-lived. They had surfaced only a small distance from the house and its swarming blanket of insects. Rain was pounding down on all sides now, huge drops that smashed the surface of the river into a froth and bounced their tiny, spherical life raft like a child's ball.

Paul untangled himself from his companions and pressed his face against the bubble wall. Even the hammering rain had not slowed the Twins' assault: the bridge to the land was now complete, a hundred thousand wasps and beetles twined together across the agitated water. In a lightning-illuminated moment he saw the cricket and the caterpillar making their way unhurriedly down the stone outcrop and onto the landward end of the insectile chain, like conquerors mounting a castle's drawbridge. Paul couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw Wells spurring his beetle behind them.

"They have seen us!" Florimel shouted, and for a moment Paul had no idea what she meant—the Twins and Wells were surely too far away to attach any significance to their bubble, surrounded as it was by others kicked up naturally in the rain-pummeled water. Then he saw that some of the mutated wasps were swimming toward them, floundering across the water with purpose in their movements if not on their blank faces. Several had already been swept away by the roiling waters, but dozens more were still paddling on with the awkward determination of dogs.

Their spherical ark was splashed by another massive raindrop and slipped sideways, bobbing and spinning. Paul had to brace himself against its curvature to keep his balance. When he could see out again, another glare of lightning showed him the Twins, now poised atop the shattered parabola of Kunohara's bubble. The mantle of wasps squirmed wildly, perhaps struggling to make an entrance for their commanders. A river-tossed stick almost half the size of the house bumped past, caught in the current, and scraped away a few of the hundreds of wasps clinging to the house. Leaves and bits of wood and grass were scattered across the surface of the river. Paul looked up to the cataract behind the house and saw that a great clot of debris had formed, an accidental dam of twigs and leafmold, trembling with the force of the water rushing over it and through its interstices.

The rains, he thought distractedly, so much rain. There must be a lot of water and other things trapped behind that rubbish.

What had Kunohara said? "There is another thing I must do. . . ."

"Oh my God!" Paul shouted. "Hold on—brace yourselves!"

"We are already fighting just to keep upright. . . ." Florimel began, but Paul put his foot against her hip and pushed her back against the curve of the bubble. "Just brace yourself. It's going to be. . . ."

As the lightning flashed again, he saw the great wedge of debris lurch and change shape across the top of the cataract. For a moment the waterfall was almost completely choked off—a change so great that even the misshapen pair on top of Kunohara's house turned to look behind them. As the effect of this throttling of the flow reached Paul and the others the current grew momentarily mud and their bubble settled deeper in the water. Then the clot broke apart and the river surged over the fall like a fist made of green water and white foam, smashing down on Kunohara's house and the insects, driving the whole mass beneath the surface in an explosion of spray.

The wall of water rushed across the surface of the pool toward Paul and his companions, caught them up, then hurled them screaming out over the lower cataract, so that for a moment they were freefalling through the air above the dark, rain-whipped river like a star that had plummeted from the heavens.

 

 

The destruction of Rome was in full swing now, and the smoke of the burning could be seen as far away as the vineyards of Campania—a defeat of staggeringly unprecedented proportions. But the Romans, citizens and slaves, could have been forgiven for being caught unprepared, since the massive assault had arrived out of nowhere, and almost three hundred years late.

Before this day had dawned, Tigellinus had reigned two years as emperor. The onetime horse trader was still popular, not so much because of his own acts, although he had been a careful steward, but because of the hatred in which the people of Rome had come to hold his predecessor Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, in the days before his assassination. It was not just Tigellinus, many Romans suggested—even one of his horses would have been an improvement over Nero.

In fact, as of the day before, all had seemed more than well in the Mother of all Cities. A March tramontane wind had swept the skies clean, and spring had seemed to sprout almost immediately in its wake, luring buds out of the branches of the chestnut trees, turning the hills green. Strangely, even the College of Augurs had offered no warning of anything amiss—the most recent sacrifices had gone smoothly, and all the signs had suggested a happy year for the emperor and his people. The empire itself was quite secure. There were still skirmishes at the outer fringes of the Roman world, but generally the idea of war had become little more than the setting for stories told by old soldiers in the wineshops who had fought in Britain or the forests of Gaul. No one had expected any sort of attack. let alone one by a long-dead enemy—especially when that enemy's city had been dust almost as long as he had.

On that late March morning, Hannibal's army had simply appeared as if sprung from a god's hand. Hundreds of years earlier, the Carthaginian's crossing of the Alps had caught the Romans by surprise. This time, Hannibal Barca and his armies had found some even more startling way of traveling. The first anyone knew of his presence was black smoke trailing in the sky just north of the city and the first terrified refugees fleeing down the main roads into Rome itself. Within a few hours fires were burning in many places inside the city walls and the corpses of citizens were being defiled on the Field of Mars.

The city was largely undefended. The Senate had fled south down the Via Appia at the first reports of invasion, some of the senators making themselves notable by crushing other refugees beneath the wheels of their carts in their hurry to escape. The most respected men of the day were far from Rome, in large part because Tigellinus had preferred it that way, all Rome's defenders and generals scattered. And, of course, Hannibal's old enemies Scipio and Marcellus were centuries dead.

The Praetorian Guard fought nobly, but against ten thousand shrieking Carthaginians they could do little; Hannibal's armies cut their way down the Via Triumphalis like a knife through hot fat. Emperor Tigellinus was dragged from the Golden House with his arms bound behind him. Hannibal himself climbed down from his black horse and beat the emperor to death with a stick—a mark of respect, of sorts.

The most bizarre thing in what would become a week of horrors too great to comprehend, was not just that the monster Hannibal of Carthage should rise from his ancient grave, but that he should storm Rome with an army of men who looked so much like himself—in fact, some survivors swore that every soldier was absolutely identical. It was at least certain that instead of the diverse band of mercenaries he had used the first time he had come down into Italy in the days of the Republic, Ligurians and Gauls, Spaniards and Greeks, this time there was a strange uniformity to his troops—each and every one small but well-knit, with black skin, long dark hair, and a strange Asian cast to his eyes. Wherever they were from, they burned and pillaged and murdered with a cruelty so savage and arbitrary that even in the early hours of the assault some Romans swore that the very pits of the Earth had opened and belched forth this army of demons. By the end of the first day, scarcely anyone would have argued.

The few who saw him and survived said that Hannibal himself had the same dark skin and oddly hooded eyes as his troops. Other than his gold-shod horse and his banner, went the horrified whispers, Hannibal was only distinguishable from his minions by the silver staff he carried at all times, and by the fact that he alone, of all his implacable army, seemed to find the ghastly events amusing. He laughed as the young men of equestrian families were brought before him to be butchered, laughed just as hard when their sisters and mothers begged for mercy, as though the whole terrible rampage were a kind of performance conducted for his benefit alone.

He is no human, but an evil god, survivors murmured to each other as they huddled in sewers and basements. He may call himself Hannibal, but even the scourge of Cannae was never so cruel.

As the sun set on the first day of his conquest, the evil one came to the heart of the city, the Forum Romanum. and built himself a palace there. Flies in the millions hovered over the place, darkening the red skies like storm clouds. The demon built his house from corpses and near-corpses, piling them high, skewering them face-up on tall wooden stakes to make his walls, so that each dying man's last sight was of another body being rammed down on top of his own.

At the center the arch-monster Hannibal ordered a throne built from skulls of all sizes, skulls which only hours before had held the diverse thoughts of living folk; when it was finished he sat upon it, surrounded by the high walls of his new palace—walls that screamed and bled and begged—and had the prisoners of Rome brought before him, one by one, then in bunches as the evening wore on, and to each he ordered some terrible thing done.

The old Stoic Seneca, who had advised three emperors, and who himself was the first to admit that many considered him the conscience of Rome, stood brave but weeping before the enemy's throne and quoted Euripides in Hannibal's grinning dark face, saying, "My mother was accursed the night she bore me, and I am faint with envy of all the dead."

The demon laughed loud at this, and had the old man's arms and legs carefully taken off so he should not kill himself, then kept him at the foot of his throne like a dog and made him witness to all that happened afterward.

And indeed, in the end, there was not one of the living who did not at last come to envy those who had already been killed. . . .

 

It was hard work being God, Dread had begun to realize.

He stood in pale sunlight before his throne room in the Forum and sniffed the dawn air, his keen nostrils sifting the scents of smoke and blood and putrefaction for something more subtle, without knowing quite what it was he sought. His soldiers, a thousand mirrors of himself, kneeled in the Via Sacra, waiting silently for orders. He sniffed again, trying to understand what he was missing, what he was pursuing on the breeze on this lovely spring morning, made only a little less so by the odor of a thousand unburied corpses. Perhaps the faint trace of purpose, of a real challenge.

Destruction for its own sake was beginning to pall, he decided as he surveyed the charred rooftops of Rome. Already he had obliterated half a dozen of the Old Man's favorite simulations, not to mention a select few belonging to some of the network's other masters, and he was beginning to find such exercises boring. It had been exciting at first—he had spent several days engineering the rape of Toyland, testing his cruel imagination to such a degree that near the end, as he lay sated in the midst of the wreckage like a lion beside its kill, he had an almost unheard-of moment of self-doubt, wondering if the elaborate tortures he had visited on Mary Quite Contrary and Little Bo Peep and Tom the Piper's Son, his thundering devastation of their fairy-tale land, might be evidence of some latent pedophilia. The idea had disturbed him—Dread found child molesters a particularly pathetic lot—and when he had moved on to his next target, savaging a charming little comic simulation of 1920s London, he had been careful to limit his more personal and arcane pursuits to those clearly of adult age. But now, several simworlds on, after pursuing the flower of Roman womanhood through fields and burning villas in this latest world, until both bravery and weeping surrender no longer intrigued him, and after a program of terror that was starting to become mechanical. Dread was definitely growing bored.

He picked one of the Dread-soldiers at random and gave it a nonfunctional copy of his silver staff.

"You're Hannibal now, mate," he told his simulacrum. "Here's your first job. Release the gladiators and give them all knives and swords and spears." He frowned. It was hard to care anymore, impossible to forget he was just talking to a poor copy of himself. "Oh, and destroy all the food stores. When that's finished, you and the rest of the soldiers withdraw, form a perimeter around the city, and we'll see what the survivors get up to."

He did not wait for an answer—what did it matter?—but flicked himself back into the heart of the system.

 

The problem was, it was so easy to destroy things here, but hard to keep it interesting. Initially, of course, just the idea of wreaking this kind of havoc within the Old Man's staggeringly expensive simulations had been pleasure enough, almost like giving the ancient bastard a good beating, and the endless power to cause horror on such a scale had its own intriguing allure. Now he was beginning to feel the limitations of the exercise: soon his complete license to roam the worlds of the network and do to them what he wanted would lose all savor. In any case, it was not true destruction: unless he froze them in eternal and somewhat boring devastation, or destroyed the code behind them (a very different and far less viscerally satisfying kind of revenge), the simulations eventually would simply cycle through and start over and all the destruction he had committed would be wiped away as though it had never happened.

Dread floated in midair in the immense but mostly featureless complex he had built for himself, an open-plan structure crafted entirely of smooth white virtual stone. Outside the windows stretched unclouded blue sky and the endless Outback scrubland he had seen on netshows in his childhood but had never visited, the emptiness that filled the center of his native country. It was not enough simply to hold gross power over the network, he was beginning to think. With the whip of pain—or its analog, since there could be nothing like true pain for an artificial intelligence, however lifelike—he had demanded it give him unlimited control, repeatedly scorching the operating system until it abandoned all protections against him. But even though control had been given to him, there were still too many limitations, and it galled him to realize that although he had equaled Jongleur's power over the system, he still could not surpass it. He could not locate an individual user, for one thing—the system was too complex for that, too distributed. If the blind woman Martine had not announced her presence over an open communication channel, he would not have known she was alive, let alone been able to guess where she was. He regretted now that he had been busy with Dulcie at the time: a quick check of the Kunohara simworld revealed that his former companions' whereabouts were again unknown. He should never have left it to anyone else, even Jongleur's own agents. Especially Jongleur's own agents. Dread was developing a greater understanding of the Old Man's frustration with incompetent subordinates.

Confident, cocky, lazy, dead, he reminded himself. The Old Man had thought himself unquestioned master of the network and he had lived to regret it. Dread decided he needed to pay better attention to avoid making similar mistakes. But who could threaten him?

It was not all bad, he reflected—if nothing else, locating Martine and the rest of his former companions would be the first challenge he had found in days. And Jongleur himself seemed to have disappeared from the system entirely, even disconnected from his own system's port into the network. Was he dead, or simply offline and lying low? Dread knew his victory would not be complete until his onetime employer groveled before him. It would be a fine day when it came. Even the devastation of Toyworld and Atlanta and Rome would seem like a picnic compared to what Dread was planning for Felix Jongleur.

Oh, and the Sulaweyo bitch. Not only was the virtual Renie out there somewhere in the Grail network, but Klekker and his boys should be getting hold of her real body very soon now. He made a mental note to check on the progress of the Drakensberg operation. Won't that be interesting? I'll have her offline and online, both—her body and her mind. It could be . . . very special.

Dread let the halls of his ice-white palace fill with music, a children's chorale from out of the random choice of his system. The singers, innocent as bees making honey, brought back to him the final hours of Toyland, a thought that at this moment he found aesthetically unpleasant. He dropped the voices in pitch and felt relaxation flow through him.

God, or at least the Grail network's bloody-handed equivalent, rested a while from his heavy labors.

The thing is, he thought after a while, I can't do without little Dulcie Anwin just yet. I don't know how to make new things, I don't really know how to modify things in any big way. The operating system is like a door—if I lean on it, it opens or closes, but the options are pretty limited.

He had tried giving it natural language commands, but either the system was not set up that way or it was pretending not to understand. All the pain he could inflict on it had not made it communicate, which had left him only able to reshape things that already existed—mutation gradients, sim replacement algorithms. Such limitations were frustrating, and the need to work with the vagaries of a network that should have been his like a cheap whore offended him.

One thing was clear: if he wanted to find Renie Sulaweyo and Martine Desroubins and the others, he needed to be able to use the system in a more sophisticated way. Jongleur's own agents were hopelessly flawed, based on what was happening in the bugworld. Dread was also beginning to think nothing else in this virtual world could be nearly as interesting as getting his own hands on the real people who had defied him. And he would take such magnificent revenge when he did! Something fabulous and inventive and achingly slow. Surely the mind that had imagined flaying the leading citizens of Rome, then turning their skins into hot air balloons set aloft with their families clinging to the bottomless baskets—surely a mind of such artistry could deal with his few remaining enemies in a way that would be truly awesome, even . . . beautiful?

Dread slipped into a half-sleep, floating in his white palace, chasing ideals of pain and power that others could not even imagine.

 

 

The elevator seemed to take a long time to go down ten floors. Anger made him tight all over, hot and full of pressure. When the door at last whispered open, Paul thought he might explode out into the reception area like boiling blood out of a hemorrhaging artery.

There was no one at the reception desk, which was just as well—he didn't much like the pale, angular young woman who usually sat there, and didn't want her to see him screaming like a maniac. He walked around the curved room, just composed enough not to trip over any of the stylish and expensive Rostov Modern furniture, and laid his hand on the door panel.

His first reflexive thought at seeing them huddled close together at the desk, the small neat head almost touching the shiny bald one, surprised even him.

They know all the secrets. All the bad secrets.

He stood in the doorway, suddenly aware of his own breach of propriety, his own relative powerlessness, and the self-righteous fury cooled. But there was another side to his upset, the silly, embarrassing part of him that believed all those childhood ideals, the ones he had dragged with him through school like a ragged coat despite manifest evidence that it was going to lose him more friends than it gained. No sneaking, no grassing—he still believed it. Duty and fair play. All that high-minded public school nonsense, which the children who had been born to it had discarded while they were still in short pants, but which to a scholarship boy like himself was exotic and precious.

He looked at the two of them, silent and oblivious to the intruder, undoubtedly communing through some cordless connection—Paul himself didn't even have a neurocannula, further proof of his old-fashioned hopelessness—and could not help feeling exactly like a schoolboy again. He had come to scold the older boys for not playing fair, but now that he was alone with them, he knew that what he was going to get was a terrible beating.

Don't be stupid, he told himself. Besides, they don't even know I'm here. I can just turn around and come back later. . . .

The eyes of the small one came up, flashing behind the spectacles, giving the lie to his self-reassurance.

"Jonas." Finney stared at him as though he had arrived naked. "You are in my office. The door was closed."

His companion Mudd was still oblivious, staring at nothing, a grin of disturbing pleasure stretching his lips.

"It's just. . . ." Paul realized he was short of breath, his heart beating now not from anger but from something closer to fear. "It's . . . I know I should have phoned first. . . ."

Finney's face was so pinched with disapproval that Paul actually felt his anger smoldering up again. This wasn't school. Nobody was going to thrash anyone. And he had a bone to pick with this little shrew-faced man.

Mudd abruptly surfaced, touching his hand to his neck and then turning his piggy eyes toward Paul. "Jonas? What the hell are you doing down here?"

"I've just talked to a friend of mine." Paul stopped to take a breath, then realized he was better off forging ahead while his courage held. "And I have to say, I'm very upset. Yes, very upset. You had no right."

Finney tilted his head as though Paul were not only naked but frothing. As the angle changed, the nearly invisible overhead lights turned his spectacles into two blank bars of white. "What on earth are you babbling about?"

"My friend Niles Peneddyn. He was the one who recommended the job to me." Paul took another breath. "He said you contacted him."

One of Finney's eyebrows rose, thin as a fly's leg. "He recommended the job to you? That's droll, Jonas. He recommended you to us—and a good thing, because Mr. Peneddyn, unlike yourself, is of a well-known family and has excellent connections."

It was a line of insult he knew well. He did not let it distract him. "Yes. Yes, that's him. He said you contacted him."

"So?"

Mudd leaned his huge hip against the desk like an elephant scratching its hide on a tree trunk. "What exactly is your problem, Jonas?"

"I just talked to him. He was very concerned. He said you told him there was a problem in my relationship with my pupil."

"He recommended you to us. We wanted to make sure there was no mistake—that he had not simply done a favor for someone he didn't really know."

"What problem?" Paul had to struggle not to shout. "How dare you do that? How dare you call my friend and suggest that there's something . . . irregular in my conduct?"

If the moment had not been of such high seriousness, Paul would have almost thought Finney was hiding a laugh. "Oh, and that upset you?"

"You're damn right it upset me!"

A few moments went by. In the silence, Paul's memory of his own voice grew louder and louder, until he began to suspect he had actually shouted at his multtzillionaire employer's right-hand man.

"Listen, Jonas," Finney said at last, all trace of humor certainly gone now. "We pay close attention to all our responsibilities—Mr. Jongleur is a very, very bad man to displease. And we happen to believe that there are . . . tendencies in your relationship with your pupil we don't like."

"What tendencies are you talking about? And what are you basing this on?"

Finney ignored Paul's second question. "There seems to be too great an emotional attachment developing between you and Miss Jongleur. We don't approve, and rest assured, her father would most definitely not approve either,"

"I . . . I have no idea what you're talking about." he shook his head, but his courage was flagging. They must know something about the secret meetings, he felt sure—he should never have let himself get into such a position. Damn his own tendency to let things happen to him! But if they guessed even a little bit of what was going on, wouldn't their response be far more draconian than simply a call to Niles. . . ?

Paul struggled to find his indignation again. Because he actually hadn't done anything wrong, had he? After all? "I . . . damn it, this is my job. And she's just a child!"

Finney pulled a sour smile. "She is fifteen years old, Jonas. Not a child in most senses of the word."

"In the legal sense. In the professional sense. My God, as far as I'm concerned, too. In my own sense."

"Don't tell us about children, Jonas," said Mudd with heavy amusement. "We know all about children."

"What are you basing this on?" Paul asked. "Did Ava say something? She's a young girl kept locked up like a storybook princess—she's . . . well, she's a little eccentric, perhaps, imaginative. But I would never. . . ."

"No, you would never," Finney said, cutting him off. "You definitely would never. Because we would know. And you would spend the rest of your life regretting it." He leaned forward, and even laid his pale fingers on Paul's arm, as though about to tell him a useful secret. "The rest of your very short life."

"A short life, but a merry one!" said Mudd, and laughed out loud.

Bizarrely, as the office door closed behind Paul, he heard Finney join in the laughter. It was a strange, terrible sound.

When the door opened on the top floor, the swelling scent of gardenias washed into the elevator. A moment later, before he had taken more than a few steps into the hall. Ava had thrown herself at him, wrapping her arms around him so tightly it took him long seconds to pull free.

"Oh, darling," she said, her eyes so bright they might have been harboring tears, "do they know about us?"

"Jesus, Ava." Paul quickly led her outside into the garden. "Are you mad?" he whispered. "Don't do that."

The look of melodramatic sorrow on her face turned into something infinitely more subtle, infinitely more painful to see. She rushed past him and disappeared into the trees that took up most of the vast towertop. A fireworks display of white and yellow birds leaped into the air, disturbed by her headlong flight. . . .

 

He woke to find his head on Florimel's lap, although at first it was hard to separate the throbbing ache from the lap. All his bones hurt too, and he made a little noise of pain as he tried to sit up. Florimel calmly pushed him back down again. With a strip of cloth tied over her wounded eye and ear, she looked piratical. The up-and-down motion of the bubble, which was doing Paul's head no good, added to the buccaneering illusion.

"She was so . . . unstable," he said. "I'd forgotten, but it's no wonder all the things she's told me have been so hard to understand."

"He's delirious," Florimel told Martine.

"No, no. I'm talking about Ava—about Jongleur's daughter. Another memory just came back, I guess while I was unconscious. Like a dream, but it wasn't a dream." He was bursting to tell them all that he'd remembered, but suddenly realized there was a here and now quite separate from the returned memories, no matter how sharp and new they felt. "Where are we? On the river?"

Martine nodded. "Bobbing along. No sign of Wells or the Twins or their monster insects."

"Yes," Florimel said, "and Martine and T4b and I all survived, too, although we're sore and badly bruised. Thank you for asking."

"Sorry." Paul shrugged and winced. "Kunohara?"

Florimel shook her head. "I cannot believe he lived through the collapse of his house. We never saw it come back to the surface after the river took it."

"Fishfood," said T4b, not without satisfaction. "Pure."

"So where are we heading? Is there any way to control this thing?" The ride was actually fairly comfortable, the bubble so much a part of the river that there was little jostling. He had heard once that riding in a dirigible felt the same way, because the ship moved with the air currents, not through them.

Florimel grunted in disgust. "Control it? Look around—do you see a rudder? A steering wheel?"

"What do we do then?" He sat up, resting his back against the curve of the wall, and moved carefully to disentangle himself from Florimel. They all faced each other, feet touching at the bottom of the bubble, the river water flowing along beneath them as though they hung in open space. "Just wait until we snag on a sandbar or something?"

"Or until we reach the end of the river and pass through a gateway," Martine said. "Orlando told us that many of the gates are no longer functioning. We will have to hope that if the next simworld is closed off we will be able to find another. One that is safe."

"Is that all we're going to do? Just wait and see?"

"We could worry about how much air we have in here," Florimel observed. "But that wouldn't do us any good either."

"I would rather talk about Kunohara," Martine said. "If he had denied he had an informant with us in Troy, and if it had felt to me even slightly likely that he told the truth, that would have been the end of it. But you heard him—he had no answer."

"We were being attacked by giant wasps," Paul pointed out, compelled for some reason to defend the man. "He saved our lives."

"That is not the issue." Martine was firm. Paul found himself a little alarmed—what had happened to the quiet voice, the almost ghostly presence? "If he was playing a double game, it might make a difference to us—and if one of us has kept a secret. . . ." She did not finish, but did not need to. Paul knew without being told what it had meant to these people to discover that a murderer had traveled with them in Quan Li's body, a murderer they had treated as a trustworthy friend.

"Perhaps," said Florimel. "But suspicion can be devastating, too. And we are only half of those who were in Troy."

"Just tell me," Martine said. "Tell me that you had no secret relationship with Kunohara. I will believe you."

Florimel did not look pleased. "Martine, you are not like us. Don't pretend you with not look at us with your little lie-detector rays."

"I have no lie-detector rays." Her smile was bitter, her voice hard. "Tell me, Florimel."

"I have had no dealings with Kunohara that the rest of you have not been part of." Her voice was angry, and Paul thought there was a great deal of pain, too. This network, with its masks and labyrinths, was hard on friendship.

"Paul?" Martine asked.

"The same. This is the first time I've met him—I didn't know him when I was in Troy."

Martine turned to T4b, who had been unusually silent. "Javier?" She waited a moment, then prompted him again. He looked like a spring coiled too tight. "Just tell the truth, Javier."

"Off my face, you," he snarled. Even Paul felt there was something defensive in his voice. "Got nothing to do with Kuno-whatever. Just like Florimel said, the rest of you seen it all." He seemed to feel Martine's continuing gaze as an assault. He swiveled his head angrily. "Stop staring! No dupping, I told you! Off my face."

Martine looked troubled, but before she spoke, someone else did.

"Martine? I heard you before—can you hear me now?"

It sounded so much like the familiar voice was right beside him that for a moment Paul found himself wondering how anyone could be in the bubble without being seen. Then as Martine pulled out the lighter, he understood.

"Renie? Is that you?" Florimel made an angry shushing gesture at her, but the blind woman shook her head. "Dread knows where we are," Martine said quietly. "And he will until we get out of this world, so it doesn't matter." She raised her voice. "Renie? We hear you. Talk to us."

When it came again, the voice was quieter, not distorted but diminished, with clean holes in the flow of speech. "We never left . . . mountain," she said. "We're in . . . must be . . . ocean. But I've lost !Xabbu and. . . ."

"We can't understand you very well. Where are you exactly?"

". . . Think I'm . . . like the heart of the system." For the first time, Paul could hear the terror subdued beneath collapsing control. "But I'm . . . trouble—bad trouble. . . !"

There was nothing after that, no matter how many times Martine begged her to speak again. At last Martine put the lighter away and they sat in silence, carried as froth on the river surface, hurrying toward the end of one world among many.

CHAPTER 10
The Land of Glass and Air

NETFEED/BUSINESS: Death of Figueim Leaves Shipbuilding Firm High and Dry

(visual: Figueira breaking bottle across bow of tanker)

VO: The sudden death of Maximiliao Figueira, chairman and CEO of Figueira Maritima SA, Portugal's largest shipbuilding firm, has left the company reeling.

(visual: Heitor do Castelo, FM company spokesman)

DO CASTELO: "We are all shocked. For his age, he was in excellent health, but what is even more confusing is how little preparation he seems to have made for the event of his death. He was not a man to delegate, so we had hoped he had prepared for this eventuality a little more thoroughly. We will persevere and retain our leading position in the industry, but I must honestly admit we are scrambling to untangle some very confusing arrangements. . . ."

 

At first it seemed like a kind of trick !Xabbu was playing, leading them carefully along the banks of a river that only he could see, but after a while even Sam could perceive clearly what her companion had sensed so much earlier.

It started as lines in the never-ending gray, faint as pencil markings but less substantial: when Sam approached one, or even changed her angle of view, the mark was gone. It was only as the lines became longer and more numerous that she saw they were rims of shadow delineating big basic shapes—rolling curves like distant hills and a line marking the river-shape !Xabbu had been following. Although there was nothing like a sun, and in fact still very little differentiation between ground and sky, the light for the first time was beginning to have an implied direction.

With the alteration of the light also came a change in the color of things. The gray became livelier and more slippery. A faint sheen moved through it, gleaming here and there like the skin of an eel. Although all around her still was strange and mostly formless, Sam felt a loosening in her heart. The endless nothing finally seemed to be coming alive.

"It's like swimming in a silver ocean," she said wonderingly. For a long time the void above their heads had been indistinguishable from the void beneath their feet; now, showing the first gleaming striations that might eventually become clouds, it was beginning to take on a suggestion of expansiveness. Sam recognized the paradox: as long as there had been nothing to look at, emptiness did not seem to stretch very far. Now it was as though someone were pulling back a blanket, opening up their view of things. "It's like being underwater. Ho dzang! I feel like I can breathe again."

!Xabbu smiled at the odd combination of images. "I think the river has a sound now, too." He held up his hand. Sam stopped; even Jongleur paused. "Do you hear it?"

She did, a faint whisper of moving water. "What does all this mean?"

"I think it means that we are going to reach something more friendly to us than all that emptiness." !Xabbu dabbled his hand experimentally where the confluence of emerging shadow suggested the river must be, but drew it back dry. He shrugged. "But we have a distance still to walk, it seems, before that happens."

"No, I mean . . . what's happening with this place? It's so scanny, just this nothing, then . . . something. Like it was growing here."

He shook his head. "I cannot say, Sam. But I think it is not so much growing as that we are moving closer to the place it is most concentrated, if that makes sense." He looked at Jongleur, half-mocking. "Maybe you can explain to us?"

The sharp-faced man seemed for a moment about to say something dismissive, but when he spoke, he was surprisingly quiet. "I do not know. This is all a mystery. The Brotherhood built nothing like this in the network, nor did anyone else."

"Then we should continue," said !Xabbu. "If we are not clever enough to understand the mystery, perhaps it will be enough if we are simply strong enough to walk until we reach its heart."

Jongleur looked at him for a moment, then nodded his head slowly. He waited until !Xabbu had set out along the translucent riverbank again before moving into a steady, trudging gait behind him.

 

It was strange, Sam thought, how unobtrusively an entire world could swell into being. It was like music, the kind her parents listened to, with violins and other old instruments starting almost silently then growing before you noticed it into a huge noise.

The silvery phantom landscape was now shot through with colors, although they appeared only for short moments, rippling and disappearing as she moved, sometimes to be replaced by other equally unexpected hues. The glassy, ghostly hills traced on the far horizon gleamed deep purple, taking on weight and substance until she felt she could see every detail; then, as she walked another twenty paces, the purple seemed to retreat inward, leaving behind only a sketch of the hillcrest, colorless as a shed snakeskin. A moment later, just when the shapes had almost vanished against the equally pale and undefined sky, there would be a faceted glimmer of deep tan, almost orange, and for that brief instant there would be hills again and the world had something like a normal shape.

To the extent Sam could make sense of it, she and the others seemed to be moving toward those hills along the gentle slopes of a long and meandering valley, following the river's course upstream. When the river itself took color, she could see that it had cut a deep track in the land, twisting between stones that in their phantom stage looked almost like huge and irregular chunks of ice. Some of the larger ones lay across the river's path like bricks of glass, and here the water foamed as it spilled over and around them until it found the low ground once more. A few ghost-trees clustered along the banks and on the higher knolls, but most of the land seemed to suggest grassy meadows. Only her own breathing, and occasionally a muttered curse from Jongleur as he stumbled over some feature of the increasingly solid landscape, rivaled the sound of the river. No insects hummed, no birds sang.

"It's like someone's inventing it," she said when they had stopped again to rest. She was sitting on one of the flat rocks with the river roiling and whispering just an arm's length away. !Xabbu had no further need to sniff the air and listen; he sat beside her companionably, dangling his feet. Sam had reached down and found that the water still did not quite feel like water: the sensation was cool but dry, as though chilled silk were being dragged continuously across her skin. "It's like a coloring book for kids," she continued, "and someone's just starting to test a few colors, just getting started."

"I think rather it is the other way around." His face turned serious. "I think perhaps that this place was once all full of color and shape. Do you remember the black mountain? Solid and very real at first, then later it began to fade away? I think that has happened here, too."

Sam felt her first pang of real fear in hours. If !Xabbu was right, they were walking into reality faster than it was dissolving, but could that last forever? Or would they eventually find themselves, as they had on the mountain, with all of creation vanishing around them again? Would they have to go on and on that way, through abortive worlds that coalesced and then deteriorated around them, without a stable place where they could ever just stop and live like people?

Jongleur had been standing a few paces ahead up the riverbank. He turned now and walked slowly back toward them, his expression distant.

"It reminds me of North Africa," he said. "When I was young, I spent a year there, in Agadir. Not the landscape that is growing around us—that looks almost European, or it would if it were filled in. But the light, it reminds me of the desert towns in the early morning—the silver dunes, the white light angling off the houses, everything washed out and pale as linen." He turned back from surveying the hills to see that Sam and !Xabbu were both staring at him. His mouth curved sourly downward, "What, did you think I was never young? That I have never seen anything but the inside of a biomedical support pod?"

Sam sat up. "No. We didn't think you cared about anything you didn't own. That you didn't have somebody build for you."

For a second he appeared about to smile, but he still commanded his virtual face as stringently as he had his Egyptian mask. "A touch, I confess it. But a mistaken attack if you seek to wound me. Am I cold, hard, monstrous? Of course. Have I done my terrible deeds deliberately to oppress the downtrodden, or merely to increase my own pile of luxuries, like a dragon sitting on its hoard? No. I have done what I have done because I love life."

"What?" Sam was happy to let him hear the disgust in her voice. "That's uttermost fenfen. . . ."

"No, child, it is not." He turned away, looking to the distant limpid hills. "I did not say that I loved all life. I am not a hypocrite. Most of the Earth's crawling billions mean as little to me as the insects and smaller creatures that you crush beneath your feet in the grass mean to you. It is my life that I love, and that includes the beauty I have seen and felt. It is my memories, my experiences, that I wish to preserve against death. The happiness of other human beings means little to me, it's true—but it would mean even less to me if I were dead." He turned slowly. His eyes on her were uncomfortably sharp. Sam's hatred of the man had distracted her from what he truly was, but at that moment she could feel the strength in him, knew that this was a force that had knocked down governments as though they were bowling pins. "What about you, child? Do you think you will live forever? Would you not like to?"

"Not if I had to hurt other people to do it." She was suddenly close to tears. "Not if I had to hurt children. . . !"

"Ah, perhaps not. But unless you are presented with that option you will never know for certain, will you? And especially not until you are presented with that option while knowing that Death is standing just behind you. . . ."

!Xabbu, who had been listening to the conversation, was suddenly not listening any more. He stood up, staring forward past Jongleur and up the riverbank.

"What is it?" she asked. "!Xabbu, what is it?"

Instead of answering he hurried up the bank, running gracefully, bounding over near-invisible stones like a deer. In a few moments he had reached a cluster of small colorless trees that plumed above the bank like the smoke of several fires. He reached up and snatched at one of the branches, stared at what he held in his hand, then hurried back down the riverside.

"Look!" he cried, skipping past Jongleur to Sam. "Look at this!"

She leaned in. Nestled in his palm was a tiny bit of white cloth lopped in a knot. It took her a moment to make sense of it. "Chizz! Is that. . . ?"

!Xabbu held it against the strip of cloth tied around her hips. "It is the same." He laughed, a wild sound unlike anything she had heard from him. "It is from Renie! She was here!" He did a little half-dance, pressing the scrap of fabric against his chest. "She left it as a sign. She knew we would follow the river." He turned to Jongleur, his mood so good it sounded as though he were bantering with a friend. "I told you she was clever. I told you!" He turned back to Sam. "We must walk now as long as we can, in case she has stopped somewhere ahead of us."

Sam of course agreed, but could not smother a sigh of weariness as she got down from the stone. !Xabbu was already walking briskly upriver once more. Sam fell in behind him. Jongleur shook his head, but followed.

For the first moments the little man's happiness had been infectious, and Sam had felt her own spirits lifting higher than they had been since before Orlando's death, but now a finger of worry was poking at her—something she could not bear to mention to !Xabbu, but which troubled her more and more.

In the Girl Scouts they always tell you that if you get lost, you stay in one place, she told herself. Sam hadn't been a great Girl Scout, but she had learned what she had to, especially the things that seemed sensible and useful. Do they have Girl Scouts in Africa, wherever Renie's from? She wasn't sure, but !Xabbu was right—Renie was smart. Somehow Sam thought Renie would know about the stay-in-one-place rule. Which meant maybe there was a reason she hadn't stayed there, in that spot she'd marked by the river.

Maybe she had to leave because something was after her.

 

 

As the light altered from depthless gray to something as slippery and bright as mercury, as she walked doggedly out of nothing into something, Renie knew she should have felt more—should have been full of excitement, exhilaration, relief. This was the reason she had been stopping every few hundred yards to wave the lighter like a dowser's rod. Finding this growing reality should have been a triumph, but she found herself moving more and more slowly instead, as if bowed beneath a heavy burden.

The thing was, this place still made no sense.

And I don't do well with things like that. She looked back to see Ricardo Klement picking his way across the uneven ground, if you could call it that, putting one foot before the other like an overwound automaton that would carry on until it walked over the edge of something and disappeared, legs still grinding.

Like my father. He made no sense either, with his self-destructive slide into alcohol and defeat. Yes, his wife had died. Yes, it was horrible. But his wife was also Renie's mother, yet Renie had managed to get up every day after it happened and take care of what needed to be done. That made sense. Surrender, slow decay, that didn't. Death would get you no matter what, and who knew what would happen then? Better to fight on.

But it seemed some people couldn't.

My father would like it here, she thought. Wouldn't have to try at all, not even pretend. Just lie on the ground and wait for the world to change around him. She hated it as soon as she thought it, hated her own bitterness.

As she stood taking her first rest in over an hour, Klement reached her and stopped, so much like the machine she had imagined him to be that at first she did not even look at him, any more than she would look at an oven that had finished its cycle and shut off.

"Tell me," Klement said in his painfully uninflected way. "Why . . . is it important, up and down?"

"What?"

He made a stiff gesture that might have indicated his own body, or the span of nascent ground to silvery sky. "Is it because . . . this? Up and down?"

She found she could not bear to look at whatever was struggling behind his eyes, trapped, lost. "I don't know what you're talking about." She turned from him and started to walk again. Klement seemed rooted in place. After a moment, just as Renie was about to stop again, he lurched into motion, following where she had walked as though trying to touch the same footfalls. She shook her head. Perhaps he was so damaged that no part of his earlier self remained, but even if it were so, that still did not make him pleasant company.

So what was this place? Jongleur had said it was not part of the network, but how could that be? It wasn't magic. There had to be an explanation.

Something was murmuring wetly a short distance away. Renie hiked up a translucent rise, noting with interest how much it changed things simply to be able to move out of the strictly horizontal, and saw a shimmering line that looked less substantial than what lay on either side of it.

A river, she thought, then: Could it be the river?

She waited until she felt sure Klement had seen her, then descended to the river's bank. She had a direction now—upstream, whatever that might mean—and was determined to follow it. She knew !Xabbu would do the same if he was ahead of her, which meant their chances of finding each other would now be improved substantially. The thought lightened her heart.

When nothing makes sense, she thought, at least there are people you love, people you need.

But if this senseless world was something the Other had invented, then what did that really mean? A construction within the network, somehow, but not of the network? And why should it mimic reality—why should there be hills and a sky, as in the Patchwork Land, and here even a river? Had the operating system been working with some dim notion that humans needed a human place to be? But why did the operating system need humans at all?

The river valley, in its tenuous way, had begun to resemble a real valley in a real world, with grass and stones and even a few stands of trees. Even the sky, which for days had been as blank as an undeveloped level in a VR system, had begun to take on depth, although it was still murky and the light diffuse, as though this entire ghost world were built inside a giant pearl.

What if !Xabbu's not ahead of me? she suddenly thought. What if he's lost in the gray—he and Sam didn't have the lighter, after all. I should stop, wait for a while. But what if they're ahead? She considered building a sign out of sticks or some of the glass-clear reeds growing at the river's edge, but knew that if they were to follow along behind her walking even a little way up the slope, they might miss a sign constructed from this environment entirely—it would be like trying to see melting ice in a glass of water. She should wait until the things around her had more substance. Then she could build a sign out of sticks, write anything she wanted—Help! I'm Being Held Prisoner By My Own Frustration! Or maybe even, Wanted, More Reality.

She sat down on what had once been—or someday would be—a log, giving Klement a chance to catch up again. A copse of phantom trees swayed around her in an unfelt wind, but made no noise, not even the merest whisper of leaves brushing leaves.

After what seemed like a quarter of an hour, Klement had not appeared.

Reluctantly, Renie struggled up the bank to the top, looking back across the rolling land she had just crossed, but there was no sign of him and little chance he could be hidden in the monochrome expanse. She cursed bitterly—not because she feared for him or missed his company, but because she had taken a sort of responsibility for him, then had allowed carelessness to undercut her yet again. After waiting almost as long atop the bank as she had waited below, she trudged back down to the stand of trees.

I have to mark the spot, she decided. Even if I don't go look for him, I have to at least let !Xabbu and the others know I've come this way. But there remained the problem of how to do it. As she thought, she distractedly pulled at the flimsy garments she had made for herself—the more real the landscape, the more vulnerably underdressed she felt—and suddenly realized what she would use to advertise her presence.

She was tying the strip of pale cloth on a thin branch that protruded far beyond its shadowy neighbors, thinking that if she had to do this many more times she would be naked again in short order, when something moved in the branches just beside her head. She leaped back in surprise.

It was a bird . . . or at least something birdlike, smaller than her clenched fist. It seemed only slightly more real than the landscape, with a tenuous shape and colors as evanescent as a scatter of broken glass. She watched it move down the branch toward her, then cock its head—a hint of an eye, the blurry suggestion of a beak. For a moment its familiar movements almost made her feel as though things might make sense again, then the bird dipped its head and said, "Didn't think."

Renie gasped and took a few backward steps. This was a crazy place, she told herself: anything was possible, therefore nothing should be surprising. "Did you say something?" she asked.

The bird changed its position again and piped, "Didn't think I would." An instant later it sprang into the air in a tiny explosion of rainbow light, then flew off across the river.

Renie had only a moment to decide. She looked at the wisp of white cloth bobbing on the branch, then back down the valley, a world of glass frozen in eternal twilight. She ran in pursuit of the bird, a speck now against the inconstant sky.

 

She found a shallow place and splashed across the river. As she reached the farther bank she noticed that the light had shifted in a subtle way. The environment had suddenly grown quite solid, as though she had passed through some kind of barrier that held the pressure of reality firmly in place, but that was the least of the distractions. The new world around her was so strange that she could scarcely keep the flitting bird in view.

Rolling hills and meadows had given way to a landscape of folds and peaks, as though some great upheaval had shoved the substance of the earth together into gigantic wrinkles. The terrain was rough and rocky, the vegetation reduced to tangles of wind-twisted pines and rugged shrubbery cloaked in mist. The burgeoning sunshine was lost now behind thick overcast, so that even though the world had grown more substantial, it was not a great deal more colorful.

She paused at the top of a rise, panting, watching the bird's flight. Her quarry had grown more solid, too, although at this distance she could make out little of its color. It alighted on a twisted pine branch hundreds of meters below her down the hillside. Its voice floated up, saying ". . . I would . . . I would. . . ." softly and regretfully as a tired child.

The track down between two ragged outcroppings was steep, but Renie had run too hard and too long to turn back. This was the first voice other than her friends' that she had heard since the mountain had disappeared, the first new living thing that she had encountered.

As she made her way down the hill the bird sat placidly on the branch as though waiting for her. The mists eddied in a slow but surprisingly chill breeze—she was discovering that not all aspects of returning reality were equally welcome—and she thought she could detect hidden forms built into the curves of land, odd, almost humanoid shapes like vast bodies underneath the soil. It was hard to tell in thin light and mist, but it reminded her uncomfortably of the monstrous figure of the Other that had greeted them on the mountaintop. She shivered and brought her attention firmly back to the rocky soil beneath her feet.

The bird tipped its head to watch her awkward approach. It had color and shape now, a bundle of reddish-brown feathers with a bright black eye, but there was still something unusual about it, something not quite complete.

"Didn't think I would ever get there," the bird said suddenly.

"Get where?" Renie asked. "Who are you? What is this place?"

"We walked for a long time," the bird chirped sadly. "Didn't think I would ever. . . ." It suddenly stood and fluttered its wings as if about to fly. Renie's heart sank, but the bird merely settled back on the branch. "Didn't think I would ever get there," it observed again. "Mama said it would take a while. We walked for a long time,"

"Walked where? Can you talk to me? Hello?" Renie took a slow step closer and lowered her voice. "I don't mean you any harm. Please talk to me."

The bird looked at her again, then suddenly leaped from the branch and flashed away down the hillside. "Didn't think I would. . . ." it called shrilly before it disappeared into the mist.

"Jesus Mercy!" Renie sank down onto the stony ground, close to tears. She had traded a place beside the ghost-river for nothing except an exhausting run and a cold, foggy hillside; she would need a long rest before she could manage the climb back up. "Jesus Mercy."

 

It was only when her chin bumped against her chest and she jerked her head upright that she realized she had fallen asleep—whether for seconds or minutes, she could not tell, but the misty landscape seemed distinctly darker now, the shadows deeper in the folds of the hillside, sky shaded from pearl to a stormy gray. Renie staggered to her feet, keenly aware of the chilly winds ranging the slope and of her own skimpy clothing. She shivered, cursing quietly but miserably at the thought of spending a night in the open. She and her companions had been spoiled by the room-temperature ambience of the unfinished land.

She clambered a short way back up the hill, then stood to have a look around before the light began to fail. The fog that clung to the ground had mounted higher. Her friends could have passed only a stone's throw away while she slept without noticing her.

When she turned her head, she thought she could hear the river not too far away, invisible in some fold of the hill. She began to move sideways along the hillside toward the sound, leaning into the angle of the slope as her feet searched for solid earth. She could at least be grateful, since she had no shoes, that the hill was more soft dirt than sharp stones.

The river remained elusive. In fact, she couldn't see anything that looked like the low, rolling country she had just left.

Lost. And it's getting dark fast.

She had paused to catch her breath on a shelf of rock when she heard the strange sound. The wind had died, but a thin howl still skirled along the hilltop above her, a kind of drawn-out bubbling whistle. The skin at the back of Renie's neck tightened. When a second wailing noise arose from a spot ahead of her and distinctly farther down the slope, her unease curdled into fear. The first voice seemed to hear it and reply, keening and gobbling like some sort of underwater hyena, and Renie's heart stuttered in her chest.

There was no time to analyze—she knew only that she did not want to be caught between whatever these two things were. She turned and scrambled back across the hillside, missing footholds in the diminishing light so that twice she came very close to a long and perhaps mortal fall.

Just move, keep moving. . . . She had a strange and inexplicable certainty that whatever entities moaned along the slopes above and behind her were not just making noise for its own sake, but were hunting for . . . something. For Renie herself, if she was extremely unlucky. Or perhaps for anything warm that moved, which wasn't a lot better.

The chill wind numbed her skin, enabling her to ignore the countless scratches and bumps of her awkward clamber, but she could feel the cold sucking the strength out of her as well and knew she could not keep up such a pace for long. The cry of the thing on the hilltop seemed farther away now, but the answering moan was at least as loud as before if not louder; Renie chanced a look back and then wished she hadn't. Something pale was moving along the hillside as though following her tracks.

Barely visible through the murk, it flapped and billowed like a man in a bedsheet, but seemed larger than that and much more terrifyingly alien. Unstable shadows moved across its ghostly surface—a horrible suggestion of a face, swimming in and out of focus. As she stared, transfixed, a dark uneven hole opened in the middle of the features to emit the mournful, bubbling cry. As the thing on top of the hill responded, farther away but not by any means far enough for her to head upslope, Renie bolted forward along the hillside, sacrificing caution for speed. The sound of the pursuers filled her with icy dread. Anything, even tumbling to her death down the hill, would be better than being caught by such pale, formless things.

She nearly got her wish when she plunged her foot through a mat of fallen branches that she thought was solid ground. She lost her balance, swung her arms for a moment, then fell and began to roll. Only sheer luck saved her—a tree, bent almost double by years of wind and gnarled as an old man's hand, stood right in her path. As she freed herself from the tangling branches, scratched bloody in a dozen places, another throbbing cry floated up, but it sounded more distant now.

A moment's fierce joy at the idea that she had rolled so far down was suddenly dashed when she realized that this noise came from below her—a third hunter. In confirmation, two more calls echoed from the slope above her head, rising in pitch as though they sensed the end of their run, their quarry's failing strength.

Renie crouched, gasping shallowly, full of useless, terrified thoughts. They had surrounded her—perhaps from pure brute instinct, perhaps because they had planned to do so from the start. She was caught between them now: already she thought she could see the nearest, a wan, deathly shape only a little thicker than the mist, bobbing leglessly along the slope like a jellyfish in an ocean current, moving slowly but inexorably toward her. Her heart was thumping like a high-speed rhythm track.

She realized she was clutching at the lighter and pulled it out of her thin garment. It was useless, but even so she was desperate to hear a voice, any voice. She suddenly couldn't imagine what danger she had thought so great that she had avoided using it before.

"Hello, M–Martine, a–a–anyone?" Fear was taking her breath; she could barely speak. "Is someone listening? Please, answer me?" Silence—even the spectral searchers had fallen still. As she tried the command sequence again, all Renie could see was swirling mist, gray tree-shadows. "Martine? I heard you before—can you hear me now?"

The voice that came back was diminished but surprisingly clear, so much so that Renie felt a moment of pointless hope, as though her friends might only be a few meters distant, might suddenly come rushing out of the fog to rescue her. "Renie? Is that you? Renie? We hear you. Talk to us."

"Jesus Mercy," Renie said quietly. "It's you, Martine." She struggled for composure—it was almost certain her friends could do nothing for her now. She must tell them what she could, tell them what she had seen and experienced, "We never left the mountain," she began. "We woke up and you were gone. We're in what must be the White Ocean the others talked about. But I've lost !Xabbu and Sam and now I'm lost, too."

". . . Can't understand you very well," Martine replied. "Where are you exactly?"

She was nowhere. She was in the realms of terror. She had to force herself to remember what she had thought about so long. "I think . . . oh, God, I think we're in the heart of the system." The tears started again. "But I'm in trouble—bad trouble. . . !"

Something crackled in the branches behind her. Renie leaped in startled terror and dropped the lighter.

Second:
GHOST SONGS

"Boys and girls come out to play.
The moon is shining as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street."

—Traditional

CHAPTER 11
Yours Very Sincerely

NETFEED/NEWS: Club Patrons Get Mother Goosed

(visual: advertisement for Limousine)

VO: Visitors to the virtual adults-only club Limousine got a surprise when service was interrupted for almost an hour by what some users suggest was a disguised or artificial voice reciting nursery rhymes.

(visual: anonymated Limousine customer)

CUSTOMER: "Yeah, it sounds funny, but really it was pretty gruesome. I mean, it didn't sound . . . normal."

VO: Happy Juggler, the corporation that owns Limousine and several other online clubs, call it "just the most recent in a series of irritating pranks."

(visual: Jean-Pierre Michaux, HJN Corporation spokesperson)

MICHAUX: "It prevented us delivering service in our most productive time slots, and also, let's face it, half our users are fathers and even some mothers who've finally put the kids to bed and are hoping for a little diversion and relaxation. Nobody in that situation wants to have to sit and listen to more damn nursery rhymes."

 

Jeremiah stacked the last vacuum bag and stood surveying his handiwork. It wasn't quite a kitchen—who was he fooling, it was nothing like a kitchen—but it would have to do. Piles of cans, boxes, and bags of rations, several plastic jugs of water, the single working portable halogen ring he'd salvaged from one of the upstairs common rooms, a kettle, and about three weeks' supply—if they were stingy with it—of perhaps the most precious commodity of all, instant coffee. Trapped in the underground base without any of the real stuff, he had long since taught himself to drink the self-heating swill without gagging, and had even begun to look forward to his morning cup. Now he was even more anxious to preserve a few last rituals of normality.

He squinted at his makeshift larder, which filled most of an upright metal cabinet. All in all, it would serve. And if they were to be trapped down in this lowest level so long the coffee ran out, well, then perhaps the thugs upstairs wouldn't seem such a bad alternative.

He couldn't even make himself smile. He checked the batteries in his flashlight, firmed up the corners of one of his stacks, and stood.

Good Lord, I am a walking stereotype. Under siege, fighting for our lives, and who promptly takes over the kitchen as mother-elect?

He made his way around the circular walkway to the control consoles where Del Ray sat frowning at the screen like a literary critic forced to review cheap genre fiction. Long Joseph lurked sullenly behind him, two squeeze bottles of wine sitting on the table. Jeremiah felt a moment of actual pity for the man. If Jeremiah himself was feeling miserable about having to ration several weeks' worth of coffee, imagine how Joseph must feel about having to make a day's worth or less of his usual poison last for God alone knew how long?

"How is it going?" he asked.

Del Ray shrugged. "I can't get the security monitors to work. They should, but they don't. I warned you, this is not really my area of expertise. How's your end?"

"As good as it's going to get." Jeremiah pulled out one of the swivel chairs and sat down. "I wish we'd had that old fellow Singh get those cameras all running when we had the chance. But who knew we'd need them?"

"Maybe your friend Sellars will call back," said Del Ray, but he didn't sound like he believed it. He pushed one of the buttons on the console, then gave it a frustrated whack. "Maybe he can do something about this disaster."

"My Renie was here, she would have that wired up before you can jump and turn around," Long Joseph said suddenly. "She know all that stuff. Has a degree from the university and all."

Del Ray glowered, but it quirked unexpectedly into a tiny smile. "Yes, she would. And she'd get a lot of pleasure cleaning up the mess I've made with it and telling me about it."

"She would. She is one smart girl. Ought to be, with all that money for her education."

Del Ray's smile widened a bit as he met Jeremiah's gaze. Education she paid for herself, if I remember correctly, Jeremiah thought. He remembered Renie talking about her years of bondage to the university dining hall.

"Hang on a moment," he said, turning to Joseph. "Did I hear correctly? Were you bragging about Renie?"

"What do you mean, bragging?" Joseph asked suspiciously.

"I mean, acting like you're actually proud of her?"

The older man scowled. "Proud of her? 'Course I am proud of her. She is a smart girl, like her mama was."

Jeremiah almost shook his head in wonderment. He wondered if the man had ever said anything like that when Renie was around to hear it, instead of waiting until she was encased in plasmodal gel in the depths of a fibramic casket. Somehow he doubted it.

"Damn." Del Ray pushed his chair back from the console. "I give up. I can't fix it. This waiting is making me crazy. I thought that at least if we could see what they're doing up there, instead of just sitting here. . . ."

"You don't want all those cameras," Joseph growled. "That will do no good against bad men like those. I told you, we should be finding guns to shoot those piglockers with."

Jeremiah grunted in exasperation. "There aren't any guns. You know that already. Nobody's going to decommission a military base and leave the guns lying around."

Joseph hooked a thumb toward Del Ray, who was slumped in his chair, staring up at the ceiling of the vast underground chamber as though trying to do the work of the inactive monitors by himself. "He have a gun. I told you, you should give that gun to me. You didn't see him, waving it around, all in a fright, hand so sweaty I thought he might shoot my head off just by accident."

"Not this again," Jeremiah moaned.

"I'm just telling you! I don't think this mother's boy ever fired a gun at all! I was in the Defense Force, you know."

"Oh, yes," said Del Ray, eyes still closed, "I'm sure you shot a lot of other people's chickens after you and your mates had downed a few." He rubbed at his face. "Even if it wasn't hand-coded for me, you'd be the last person I'd. . . . "

The sudden silence was strange. Jeremiah was just about to ask Del Ray if he was all right when the young man abruptly sat upright in his chair, eyes wide.

"Oh my God," he said. "Oh my God!"

"What is it?" Jeremiah asked.

"The gun!" Del Ray grabbed at his hair as though he would pull it from his scalp. "The gun! It's in my jacket pocket!"

"So?"

"I left it upstairs! When I was stacking water bottles yesterday. I was hot. I took the damn thing off, then when I got downstairs you asked me about the cameras, and . . . shit!" He stood up, his hand still on his head as though he was afraid it might otherwise tumble from his shoulders.

"See. . . ?" Joseph began, unable to disguise his pleased tone, but Jeremiah rounded on him.

"Don't say anything." He turned back to Del Ray. "Where is it? The kitchen?"

Del Ray nodded miserably.

"Do we really need it?" Jeremiah looked around. "I mean, once they are down here, is it any real use to us?"

"Is it any real use?" Del Ray stared at him. "What if they get in here? Are we going to throw bags of flour at them? We need every advantage we have. I have to go get it."

"You can't. We closed off the elevator—shut those armored security doors like Sellars told us to do. There's no other way up. And we are not going to take the chance of opening them again."

Del Ray stood looking at the floor for a moment, then straightened, some of the panic suddenly gone from his face. "Hold on. I don't think I left it in the kitchen after all. I think I just left it outside the elevator on the top floor of our part of the base. I stored most of the water bottles and the extra generator up there, and I think that's where I took my jacket off."

"I will get it," said Long Joseph brightly, but both men turned on him.

"Shut up."

"Yes, shut up, Joseph."

Del Ray started off toward the stairs. "It's too bad we had to seal off the elevator at both ends—it would be nice if we could keep it to use just down here for dragging stuff up and down."

"Too noisy," Jeremiah called after him. "If we are lucky, they won't even know there are more rooms down here." He suddenly realized how loud his voice was.

Too noisy, you say, and listen to you! What if they're up there with stethoscopes or something, listening to the floor, looking for us. . . .

The idea of the faceless mercenaries—Jeremiah alone of the three had not seen them—crawling along the floor, tapping on the concrete like woodpeckers, was deeply disturbing.

We don't even know they're inside, he told himself. Maybe they can't get through that big front door, like a bank's vault. It took Renie and her hacker friends at least this long to get it open.

Still, the vision would not go away. He looked at Joseph, who was sucking a measured amount of Mountain Rose with a face full of wounded dignity, and decided he had better find something with which to keep himself occupied.

Del Ray had levered open the console and its array of security monitors, revealing a mare's nest of cables that looked like something from an ancient telephone switchboard. Jeremiah sat in the chair the younger man had vacated and meditatively flicked switches. The console had power—all the monitor screens had little red lights glowing beneath them—but the screens themselves were blackly empty.

Joseph was right. If Renie was here she'd have this running in a few minutes.

He tugged at the bundle of cables. All but a few were connected. He took one of those that wasn't and tried it in a few of the open slots, but nothing changed. A second provided nothing different, but as he pulled up the third another came tangled with it, and as it brushed something in the board, the screens momentarily hiccuped with light, then went black again.

Excited, Jeremiah pulled the end of the trailing cable free and began to touch it to the open connections in succession. Suddenly the monitors jumped into life again. Jeremiah attached the cable, warm with pride. Now they could see outside their bunker. They were no longer forced to wait blindly.

Before he could tell Long Joseph of his triumph, something caught Jeremiah's attention. One of the monitors displayed a rectangle of trees and scrub brush, framed by blackness. Puzzled, he stared at it for long moments before he realized what he was seeing.

It was the base's massive front gate, seen from a camera just inside. The gate was open.

Three loud cracks came from somewhere above Jeremiah's head. Long Joseph leaped up, swearing, so startled that he dropped his squeeze bottle of wine to the floor. Jeremiah's skin turned cold.

"Del Ray!" he shouted. "Del Ray, is that you?"

For once Joseph kept his mouth shut as they both listened. Nothing came to them but the echo of Jeremiah's own voice.

"Is he shooting that gun?" asked Joseph in a hoarse, nervous whisper. "Or someone shooting at him?"

Jeremiah felt as though his own cry had emptied all the air from his chest: he could only shake his head. For a moment he stood, frightened and confused, trying to decide whether they should shut off the lights and hide. He turned to the console and tried to make sense of the almost monochrome images, seeing what he thought were flickers of movement here or there, but never able to make out anything definitive.

Which one shows upstairs, where Del Ray went?

He recognized the elevator bay at last—not by the elevator itself, which was only a dark shadow along the wall, but because of the old sign posted beside it, a stern warning about the weight the elevator could handle that he had seen so many times he sometimes found himself muttering it under his breath.

He only had time to think, for the very first time in all the weeks he had been immured in the underground base, Seems funny that there is no freight elevator for a place with this much equipment, then he saw the dim outline of a pair of legs stretched on the floor, disappearing offscreen. It was too dark to be absolutely sure, but Jeremiah knew with an indisputable horror whose legs and feet those were, lying so still beside the darkness of the elevator door.

 

 

Dear Mr. Ramsey,

The first time you walked into my house, I thought you were a very nice man. I know it may not have seemed that way, that I may have seemed suspicious. Just listening to me without letting your thoughts show on your face was a kind thing to do, because I am sure you must have thought I was a crazy old woman.

When you read what I have to tell you now, you will be very certain that you were right. I don't mind. When I started to get old, I used to feel bad because men didn't look at me the same way any more, that I wasn't a young girl. I was never pretty, but I was young once, and men do look. When if stopped I felt a little bad, but I thought at least they will take me seriously now. Then when all the things happened to me, the headaches and the problems and my ideas about this Tandagore disease, people stopped even looking at me like I had a brain in my head. But you treated me like a real person. You are a nice man, I was right about you.

I am doing something that is hard to explain and if I am wrong I will wind up in a jail somewhere. If I am right, I will probably be killed. It is a long distance to go to prove a point, I bet you are saying.

But this letter is to tell you that if I am crazy, it doesn't feel like it to me, and that I am doing this with the knowledge that it doesn't seem to make sense. But if you heard the voices I hear in my head, or that I used to hear, you would do what I am doing too. I know you would, because I can tell what kind of man you are.

Before I tell you the other things, that reminds me of something I wanted to say to you. I feel very light now, as if I have taken off a heavy coat and am walking through the snow. Later I may freeze, but for now I am just happy to have that heavy weight off my back. The weight is pretending, you see, and instead I am telling the truth. So I will tell you something that I would never have said to you otherwise. You should get married. You are a good man who works too hard, always in your office, never at your home. I know you will say, what is this crazy old Polish-Russian lady talking about, but you need to find someone to share your life with. I don't even know if you like men or women, and you know what? It doesn't matter to me. But find someone to live with you, that you want to go home for. If you can, have children. Somehow children make sense out of life.

Now I will tell you the rest, about the voices and about Obolos Corporation and Felix Jongleur. Then even if you still think I am crazy, you will understand why I am doing what I am doing. I am telling you just so that someone knows it.

Do you know, if my baby had lived, he would have been just about your age? I think about things like that too much.

And when I have finished explaining there will only be one more thing for you to do. I think there is something called a power of attorney? And since you are an attorney, you would know about this. If I disappear, then please will you sell my things? Mostly only small things and not worth the trouble,-but there is Obolos stock and my house. I have no living relatives and that stock now feels to me like something unclean—"treyf," as my mother would have said. Will you sell them both, please, and give the money to the children's hospital in Toronto?

I am sitting here at this desk, looking at this screen, and it is very hard to find a place to begin to explain. The voices had not come to me when you and I first met. If they are just something in my own head, something to do with the headache, then I will have made a fool of myself. But you know what? I don't care. There are children hurting, both those with the terrible coma disease and I think maybe others too—the voices who speak to me. It is for the children I must risk it. If I am wrong it is only one more old woman locked away. If I am right, no one will believe me, not even you, but at least I will have tried to do something.

The voices, and now the black tower. It is like a castle from one of my mother's stories. It frightens me very much. But I will go there and I will get inside and I will try to find the truth. . . .

 

". . . And it ends, 'Yours very sincerely, Olga Pirofsky,' " Ramsey finished.

Kaylene Sorensen broke the silence. "That poor woman!"

"That poor woman, indeed." Sellars leaned forward, eyes half shut. He had rolled his wheelchair back into the most shadowed corner of the room, but even the small amount of sunlight arrowing in beneath the drapes seemed to make him uncomfortable. "She's brave, though. She is walking into the lion's den."

"You don't think they'll really kill her, do you?" Ramsey's hands were still shaking; Olga's letter had disturbed him deeply. "That wouldn't be very smart of them. Surely if they catch her trespassing on J Corporation property they'll just toss her out, maybe have her arrested?"

Sellars shook his head sadly. "If Jongleur and his associates had nothing to hide, that would certainly be the case. But do you think your client will go quietly if they do catch her? Or will she make loud claims that will attract more attention than a trespasser usually gets?" He sighed. "Here is another question. What can she tell them about you?"

"What?" Ramsey was caught unprepared. "I don't get you."

"If this mess is everything he claims it is," Major Sorensen interjected, "then Sellars is right—they'll question her. And if they're that ugly, they will get information. You don't want to think about that part too much, but trust me—you saw the kind of boys General Yacoubian was running around with. What does she know about you, Ramsey . . . about . . . all this?"

Catur Ramsey suddenly noticed that his heart was racing. He took a step backward and sank into one of the shiny metal chairs. The cheap servo-motors tried to adjust the seat to fit him, but gave up about halfway through the process. "Christ."

"What I don't get, though," Sorensen continued, "is all this crap about 'voices.' Is it like you talking to my daughter and to me, Sellars? Is someone tricking her? Or is she just . . . well, you know . . . nuts?"

"I don't know," the old man said. He looked as troubled as Ramsey felt. "But I suspect it is something stranger and more complicated than either."

"Good Lord, we have to stop her!" Ramsey shoved himself to the edge of the chair, prompting a whine of indignation from the internal mechanism. "We can't just let her walk into that, whether she's a risk to me or not. I didn't have a chance to tell her half the things I'd found out. I don't know about these voices either, but somehow she's stumbled into this thing—completely separate from you, Sellars. all on her own—and she still thinks she might be imagining it." He thought about it and slumped back. "God, the poor woman."

"Did you respond to what she sent you?" Major Sorensen asked.

"Of course I did! I sent her back a message to call me immediately—not to go one step without talking to me first." He saw the look on the military man's face and felt his stomach go sour. It took a couple of seconds for him to understand why. "Shit. I gave her the number for this motel."

To his credit, Sorensen did no more than shake his head once in irritation before standing up. "Right. First thing, we move. Kaylene, why don't you round up the kids and I'll start throwing stuff in the car. Sellars, we're going to have to return the chair, and we may not be able to rent another. I'm afraid you're going back in the wheel-well when we travel, too. The military may not be actively searching for us right now, especially if we really were a private matter of Yacoubian's, but you're still way too easily noticed and remembered."

"Where are we going, Mike?" Kaylene Sorensen, a veteran military spouse, was already tossing things into bags. "Can't we just go home? We can find Mr. Sellars someplace to hide, can't we? Maybe he could stay with Mr. Ramsey for a while. Christabel has to get back to school."

Even Catur Ramsey could see past her husband's carefully maintained expression to the misery in his eyes. "I don't think we're going back there for a while, honey. And at the moment, I don't have any idea where we're heading—just out of here."

"I need to call Olga again before we leave," Ramsey said. "If there's any chance of keeping her from trying to get into that place, I owe it to her."

"On the contrary," Sellars said abruptly. He had been sitting very still, eyes almost closed, like a lizard sunning on a rock. Now he lifted his head to show his strange yellow gaze. "On the contrary, we must not stop her. And I also know where we must go—some of us, anyway."

"What are you talking about?" Sorensen demanded.

"I told you that there have been many odd things going on with the Grail Brotherhood in the last few days. I have been watching carefully, trying to make some sense of the events that are sealed away from me within the network, and have seen evidence of uncertainty within the Brotherhood's various holdings and private domains. Jongleur's little kingdom is no different. There are definite suggestions of a tremor in the routines, of confusion at the top."

"So?" Ramsey was impatient.

"So instead of trying to keep your Ms. Pirofsky away from the J Corporation, I think we should instead help her to get in, Mr. Ramsey. I have been forced to use innocents to help me often enough in this grim task—the Sorensens can testify to that. Olga Pirofsky is at least already determined to take the risk. We will see what we can do to help, and to protect her while she is in there."

"That's . . . that's crazy." Ramsey got up so quickly he almost knocked over the coffee tray. "She doesn't deserve that—she doesn't know what she's getting into!"

For a moment there was a kind of flash in the straw-colored eyes, a sudden glimpse of the aerial predator Sellars had once been. "Nobody deserves this, Mr. Ramsey. But others have dealt the cards—we have no choice but to play the hand." He turned to the Sorensens, who had both stopped to watch, the major with a certain reluctant professional interest, his wife with growing discomfort. "I cannot compel you two, but I know where I am going, and I rather suspect that when he thinks it through, where Mr. Ramsey is going as well."

"And that is. . . ?"

"Mike, don't even talk to him," Kaylene Sorensen said. "I don't want to hear this. It's crazy. . . !"

"To New Orleans, of course," said Sellars. "To the very lair of the Beast. Our plight is so desperate that in retrospect it now seems an obvious endgame move. I wish I had thought of it earlier,"

 

 

They were moving again. Christabel wasn't sure why, but that never mattered much when things like this were happening. She wondered if when she was older people would tell her things, explain things, or if being grown-up she would just know.

What almost seemed like the saddest thing of all, sadder even than leaving the new motel just when she had figured out where the candy bar machine was, was that Mister Sellars was going to have to go back into the place in the back of the van where Daddy normally kept the spare tire. It seemed such an awful place, so tiny.

The old man was sitting in the doorway of the van, waiting for her father to finish some other things and help him in, when Christabel found him.

"It's all right, little Christabel," he said when she told him her worries. "I don't mind, really. I don't use my body for much these days, anyway. As long as my mind is free—what is it Hamlet says? 'Were I bounded in a nutshell, still could I count myself a king of infinite space. . . .'—something like that." For a moment he looked very sad. If he was supposed to be making her feel better, Christabel thought, he wasn't doing a very good job.

"Mommy said you have wires inside you," she said at last. "Is that true?"

Sellars laughed quietly. "I suppose I do, my young friend."

"Do they hurt?"

"No. I have pain, but it's more to do with my burns, with . . . with other old injuries. And most of the wires aren't really wires anymore. I've had lots of help changing things inside me. There are plenty of gearmakers hungry for a challenge, more than a few out-of-work nano-engineers in need of a few extra credits."

Christabel wasn't at all sure what he was talking about. "Nano-engineers" made her think of Ophelia Weiner's Nanoo dress. The thought of a lot of train-drivers in party dresses that changed color and shape didn't explain anything, so she let it slide away, another thing a kid just worked around. "You mean you had wires, but you don't anymore?"

"Wires are sort of old-fashioned, especially when there are so many other ways to transmit information. I'm confusing you, aren't I? Well, do you remember when I had you bring me soap to eat?"

She nodded, pleased to be back on familiar ground.

"I sometimes have to eat funny things like that, because my body is making something new for me, or repairing something that's not working very well. I eat little bits of polymer sometimes, too—plastic, you'd call it. Or I have to get more metal. Sometimes there are pills that will help, but usually they don't have enough of what I need. I used to have to eat a couple of copper pennies a week, but that's past now." He nodded at her and smiled. "It doesn't matter, Christabel. I have funny insides, but I'm still me. I don't mind what's in your insides—can you still be my friend, too?"

She nodded her head rapidly. She hadn't meant anything bad at all, certainly not that she wouldn't be his friend. Her mother's passing remark had been worrying her all day—the thought of sharp wires sticking in Mister Sellars' insides had almost made her cry.

"Oh, just a moment, Christabel," Sellars told her, then waved for Mister Ramsey to come over.

Christabel could tell that the dark-skinned man was not happy because he didn't smile at her, and even though she had only known him a while, she could tell he was the kind of man who almost always smiled at kids. "I feel terrible," he told Mister Sellars. "I've been a real idiot. It's just still so hard to take all this stuff seriously! Having to worry about being traced—it's like some bad netflick."

"No one blames you," Sellars told him gently, "But I wanted to ask you something before I descend into my traveling sanctum sanctorum. Have you heard anything back from Olga Pirofsky since we spoke this morning?"

"No. Nothing."

"May I make a suggestion? If you were her, doing something as dangerous and questionable as she is doing, and your attorney sent you a message that said, 'Don't do anything until you talk to me.' what would you assume?" She could see Ramsey trying hard to think, like Christabel herself when she hadn't been listening to the teacher but got asked a question anyway. "I don't know. I guess that my attorney was going to try to talk me out of this crazy thing."

"Exactly. And if you were her, would you bother to reply?"

Now, even though Mister Sellars was talking in his usual quiet, hooty voice, Mister Ramsey looked like Christabel when the teacher yelled at her. "No. No, I guess wouldn't. Not if I'd already made up my mind."

"I think that's probably the case. If I may make a suggestion, you might send her another message saying something along the lines of, "I know what you're doing and believe it or not I think you're right and I want to help you get inside as safely as possible. Please get in touch with me."

"Right. Right." Ramsey turned and walked away fast, back toward his motel room.

"Well, little Christabel," said Mister Sellars, "I see your father coming to help strap me into my pilot's seat. The best captains always lead from behind, you know. Or even beneath." He laughed, but Christabel thought he was less happy than she had almost ever seen him. "I'll be out before you know it. Have a good trip and I'll see you soon."

 

The boy was already in the car. Christabel was too confused and worried by everything to pay very much attention.

"What your problem, mu'chita?" he asked.

She just ignored him, trying to understand why Mister Sellars had seemed so different than usual—so dark underneath the smile, so quiet and tired.

"Hey, I'm talking to you, weenit!"

"I know," she said. "I'm thinking. Talk to yourself."

He called her names but she ignored him. She knew that if her mother had not been in and out of the car, shoving in bags and cases, he would probably have poked her or pinched her. She wouldn't have cared if he did. Mister Sellars was very sad. Something bad was happening—something even worse than the worst things she had worried about before her parents found out.

"Okay, okay, just tell me what you thinking about, okay?"

She looked up, surprised by the sound of the boy's voice. He didn't look angry, or at least that wasn't all she could see.

"Mister Sellars. I'm thinking about Mister Sellars," she said.

"He one strange viejo."

"He's scared."

"Yeah. Me, too."

For a moment she didn't realize what she had heard. She had to look up to make sure it was the same mean-faced boy with the missing tooth. "You're scared?"

He stared for a moment as though waiting for her to make fun of him. "Not stupid, me. I heard some of what they been talking about. Army men trying to kill them, all that. That's all locked up, seen? The azules, the police and stuff, most times they don't go after people like your mama and papa, they go after kids like me, or maybe big crooks, whatever. And if your dad actually snuck el viejo out of an army base, and brought his family along, even a little gatita like you—well, you know that's trouble major." He looked out the car window. "Think I'm going to get out of here soon." He turned back to her suddenly. "You tell anyone, I'll kill you. No dupping."

A few days before, thinking about the little boy running away would have made Christabel happy enough to dance. Now it just made her even more lonely and frightened than she had been.

Something was very, very wrong, but Christabel had no idea what it was.

 

 

Long Joseph carried a huge, red-painted fire ax, and was creeping along the corridor with what he probably believed was the warlike stealth of his Zulu ancestors. Jeremiah Dako still hadn't found any weapon better than the table leg with which he had almost brained Joseph and Del Ray during their unexpected entrance, but he couldn't imagine many situations in which they were going to get a chance to hit anyone anyway.

Jeremiah had not much wanted to bring Joseph with him, but it would have been impossible to convince the man to stay with the equipment and their slumbering charges, Renie and !Xabbu, and since it would be hard to carry Del Ray back by himself, Jeremiah had made only a token argument. To Joseph Sulaweyo's credit, he was at least keeping his mouth shut for once.

Now the man stopped at an intersection of aisles and made a theatrically broad gesture, fingers to his lips, other hand pointing at the right-hand corridor. The silliness of it all—Jeremiah knew perfectly well where they were, and where Del Ray was lying so unmovingly—suddenly brought home to him their terrible danger.

There are men out there who want to kill us. Men with guns and God knows what else. Maybe even the same men who beat Doctor Susan so that she died.

If he stopped to think about it any longer he knew his legs would collapse beneath him, but there was a flame of anger burning now, too. Jeremiah put a hand against Joseph's chest and, returning the older man's wide-eyed stare of outrage with the most purposeful look he could muster, slid past him to the turning of the corridor. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled forward until he could see Del Ray's feet, one of them only wearing a sock, the shoe lying half a meter away. It made Jeremiah feel quietly sick.

Go on, man. Nothing else to be done. Go on.

Certain that any moment someone was going to step out of the shadows—which would somehow be worse, he could not help thinking, than someone simply shooting him—Jeremiah crept toward Del Ray . . . or at least toward his legs. . . .

Oh, my God, what if he has been shot in half by one of those machine guns?

He slid another few meters forward over industrial carpet so old and threadbare he could feel exposed patches of cold concrete pass beneath his belly, until at last he was close enough to reach out and touch Del Ray's unshod foot. It felt warm and alive, but that meant little—everything had happened only a few minutes earlier. Eyes closed, even more frightened now, he let his hand travel up the outside of Del Ray's leg until, to his great relief, he felt the bunched fabric of the man's shirt, then his arm, shoulder, and even the base of his chin. He was in one piece, anyway.

Jeremiah had just lifted up his hand to beckon Joseph forward when someone hissed in his ear. "Where they shoot him? In the belly? Between the eyes?"

When Jeremiah's heart had slid back down from his mouth into its normal spot, he turned and glared. "Just shut up! We have to get him out of here."

"Tell you one problem," Joseph whispered. "There is a big pipe on his arm, over here."

Jeremiah, feeling a little braver now that a minute had gone by out in the open and no one had put a bullet in his spine, rose until he could kneel beside Del Ray. He touched the young man's chest, which seemed to be moving, then found a living pulse at the base of his jaw. His relief suddenly turned sour when he brought back his hand and found it covered with something dark and sticky.

"Oh, Christ! He's bleeding from the head."

"Then he is dead," said Joseph, not unkindly. "Nobody gets a shot in the head, then they go back to work on Monday."

"Shut up and help me move him. We have to get him back where I can have a better look at him."

Joseph had been right—there was indeed a long piece of heavy pipe, about the thickness of a wine bottle, lying across Del Ray's arm. They pushed it off, not without effort, and although Jeremiah flinched when it clanked to the floor, he also began to feel a little relief. Perhaps Del Ray hadn't been shot. Perhaps this thing had fallen on him, clubbing him down in the dark.

Jeremiah looked up and his heart threatened to stop again. A jackstraw clutter of the heavy iron pipes hung down from the ceiling above their heads, all at strange angles, most only connected now at one end, as though some huge hand had reached up and pulled them away from their moorings. The clutter of metal looked as though it might come down at any moment. He gestured urgently to Joseph and they began to drag Del Ray back toward the corridor.

At the last moment Jeremiah remembered the gun. He hesitated, fearful of spending another second out in the open, of letting Del Ray's wounds go untended any longer. What good would a single pistol and a few bullets do them? Joseph made impatient noises. Jeremiah hesitated, then turned and crept back, moving as quietly as he could beneath the Damoclean assortment of broken pipes. Del Ray's jacket was lying almost hidden in shadow. Jeremiah tugged it toward him, patted the pockets until he felt the telltale chunk of smooth, heavy metal, then sprinted away from the treacherous spot.

 

While Joseph checked the vital signs on the V-tanks, Jeremiah stretched Del Ray full length on a blanket laid out on a conference table in one of the side rooms. He could feel a distinct swelling on the left side of the young man's head, a bump underneath a long but seemingly shallow laceration. His fingers came away slick with blood. Jeremiah would have liked to believe that was the only injury, but much of Del Ray's shirt around the collar and behind his shoulders was dark and damp as well. He hoped it was only that, the young man had been lying in the blood of his own head wound, but he could not be sure.

Might have been shot first, then grabbed at a loose pipe on his way down.

Satisfied that Del Ray was at least breathing, Jeremiah began to cut the shirt away with his pocketknife. Long Joseph came in from the main room and watched, his expression hard to read, but he stepped forward when Jeremiah asked, helping to turn Del Ray's wiry body over so that Jeremiah could investigate his back.

Jeremiah splashed water from a squeeze bottle on a ragged strip of shirt and began wiping away the blood, grateful that they still had the overhead fluorescents—the idea of doing this by flashlight and perhaps missing a vital wound chilled him. He was relieved to find no evidence of another injury. He took a small bottle from the first-aid kit and splashed it on a comparatively clean piece of Del Ray's shirt, then began cleaning the head wound.

"What is that stuff you putting on there?" Joseph asked.

"Alcohol. Not the kind you can drink."

"I know that," said Joseph, disgusted.

Probably from experience, Jeremiah thought, but kept it to himself. The edge of the cut was ragged, but gentle probing with his fingers revealed no deep hole, nothing that might be an entrance wound. Feeling better than he had in the last hour, he made a pad of wet shirt and used one of the severed sleeves to tie it in place, then with Joseph's help turned Del Ray back over.

The younger man's groan was so pitiful that for a moment Jeremiah froze in horror, positive he had done something terribly wrong. Then Del Ray's eyes fluttered open. The pupils wandered for a moment, unfixed, confused by the bright bank of fluorescents.

"Is . . . is that you?" Del Ray said at last. He could have meant anyone, but Jeremiah was not going to split hairs.

"Yes, it's us. We brought you back safe. You seem to have been hit on the head. What happened?"

He groaned again, but this time it was more a sound of frustration than pain. "I'm . . . I'm not sure. I was just coming back from the elevator when something up on the ceiling went boom!" He squinted and tried to turn away from the lights, but the pad kept his head from rolling. Jeremiah leaned forward to shade his eyes. "I think . . . I think maybe they're using some kind of explosives up there. Trying to blast through to our part of the base." He winced and slowly brought a hand up to his head, his eyes widening slightly as he felt the bandages. "What . . . how bad is it?"

"Not bad," Jeremiah said. "A pipe fell down, I think. If they set something off upstairs, that would make sense. I heard loud noises, three of them. I think—bang, hang, bang!"

"What, so they are trying to bomb us out now?" Joseph said. "Foolish. They not going to get me out so easy. They blow a hole, I come out of it and knock in some heads."

Jeremiah rolled his eyes. "He's right about one thing, though," he told Del Ray. "I don't think they'll get through that concrete or that heavy door on the elevator—not right away, anyway."

Del Ray murmured something, then tried to sit up. Jeremiah leaned forward to restrain him but the younger man would not be stopped. His skin had paled and he was shaking, but he seemed otherwise almost normal.

"The question is," Del Ray said at last, "how long do we have to hold them off? A week? We might be able to do it. Forever? That's not going to work."

"Not if you are going to get knocked out, walking into pipes," declared Joseph. "I told you, you should let me go and do that."

Tired and irritated, Jeremiah could not resist. "You know, Del Ray, it's been a real pleasure to see you with your shirt off. Joseph was right—you're a very handsome young man."

"What?" Long Joseph Sulaweyo leaped up, almost spitting with indignation. "What are you talking about? I didn't say nothing like that! What are you talking about?"

Jeremiah was laughing too hard to push it any farther. Even Del Ray managed a wincing smile as the older man stomped off to the other room, presumably to drown the insult to his manliness in a few swallows of his precious wine.

"I shouldn't do it," Jeremiah said when he was gone, but could not restrain a last quiet chuckle. "He's not all bad, and we need to stick together. Help each other."

"You helped me," said Del Ray. "Thanks."

Jeremiah waved it off. "It's nothing. But I was scared. I thought they'd broken in, shooting. They're still out there, though, and we're still safe in here—for the moment. Ah!" Reminded, he bent and picked up Del Ray's jacket off the floor. "And we even have a gun."

Del Ray took the heavy pistol out of his pocket and turned it over, looking at it as though it were some completely new object. "Yes," he said. "One gun, but only two bullets." He wiped a tiny trickle of blood off his ear and gave Jeremiah a mournful look. "When they do manage to get in, that's not even enough to shoot ourselves."

CHAPTER 12
The Boy in the Well

NETFEED/MUSIC: Christ Not Happy As "Superstar"

(visual: Christ with Blond Bitch on stage)

VO: The story of singer Johann Sebastian Christ, who came back from both a crippling adrenochrome addiction and the loss of his band in a freak stage accident, is to be made into a partially fictionalized net drama—if it can get past one crucial snag.

(visual: entertainment journalist Patsy Lou Corry)

CORRY: "Apparently the network is under huge pressure from Bible Belt advertisers not to have a character named Christ who wears a dog mask and performs naked from the waist down, among his more presentable habits. The network has suggested they could rename the character Johann Sebastian Superstar.' Christ wants to call off the project, but he doesn't want to return the network's money. It'll wind up in court."

(visual: Christ in press conference)

CHRIST: "Lawsuit? You know what International Entertainment can do? It can bend right over and start counting shower tiles. . . ."

 

Like school, this is," said T4b miserably.

It had been a long time since Paul had been in school, but he knew what their Goggleboy companion meant.

They had been trapped in the bubble for what felt to Paul like hours, perhaps half a day. In a different situation the bobbing journey atop the swell of the river would have been fascinating: the current had pushed them past a great deal of Kunohara's jungle, past huge mangrove trees with roots sunk deep into the water, monstrously tangled edifices of bark proportionately large as entire cities. Strange fish had nosed them, leviathans up from the river mud to investigate, but fortunately none had decided the strange bubble was worth trying to swallow. Birds with wingspans like jumbo jets and colored like an explosion in God's own fireworks factory, a rat the size of a warehouse, water beetles big as motorboats—they had floated past all kinds of wonders. But the four of them were trapped in a sphere scarcely large enough to allow them all to sit with their legs stretched out, and they were bored, stiff, and miserable.

Worse, Renie's unfinished message seemed to hang in the sealed air of the bubble like a curl of poisonous gas. She was in trouble somewhere and her friends could do nothing.

With nothing to do but rest and talk, they had puzzled and argued for hours, but Paul thought they were no closer to solving any of the riddles that haunted them. He had related all that he had remembered so far of his life in Jongleur's tower, but although the others had been fascinated, they could offer nothing to help him make sense of what the fragments meant.

"So what happens?" T4b said, breaking the long silence. "Just go on, us, all rub-a-dub-dub like this, forever?"

Paul smiled sadly. Personally, he had been thinking of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod adrift in their wooden shoe, but the idea was much the same.

"We will go through to the next simulation," Florimel said wearily. "When we get to the gateway, Martine will try to manipulate it to send us back to Troy, so that we might perhaps cross through to the place where Renie and the others are. We have said all this before."

Paul looked to Martine, who at the moment didn't appear capable of manipulating anything more complicated than a bath towel or a spoon. The blind woman sagged, her earlier confidence gone, or at least worn down for the moment. Her lips were moving, as though she were talking to herself. Or praying.

I hope she doesn't give up, he thought in sudden fear. Without Renie to push us along, she's all we have. Florimel's smart and brave, but she doesn't think ahead like the two of them, she gets angry and discouraged. T4b—well, he's a teenager, and not a very patient one at that.

But what about me? Even the thought of taking responsibility for the lives of these people made him feel a little queasy. Yes, but that's shit, man, and you know it. You've been through things in the last weeks that nobody—nobody!—in the real world has experienced, let alone survived. Chased by monsters, fought in the bloody Trojan War. Why shouldn't you take the lead if it were necessary?

Because it feels like it's hard enough just being Paul Jonas, he answered himself. Because it's hard enough getting by when it feels like a big piece of my life is missing. Because I'm damned tired, that's why.

Somehow, they didn't sound like very good excuses.

Martine stirred and sat up. "I am troubled," she said. "Troubled by many things."

"And who is not?" Florimel snorted.

"This thing about Kunohara having an informant among us?" Paul asked her.

"No. There is nothing we can do about that if it is true, and I am willing to believe you all when you say you know nothing about it." But her sightless gaze seemed to pause for a moment on T4b, who shifted uncomfortably. "I am troubled by the song that the . . . the operating system, as I suppose I must call it, was singing. A song that I think I taught it to sing."

"You can call it the Other," said Florimel. "Many others seem to, and it is easier to say."

Martine waved her hand in impatience. "It does not matter. The fact is, I am troubled because it might hold answers to some of our questions, but I can remember very little about that time, those events."

Paul shrugged. "We don't know anything except what you've told us."

"And that is as much as I wish to tell. I was . . . experimented upon. I communicated remotely with what I thought was another child—a strange, even frightening child, but also somehow pitiful. I played games with it, as I assume other children in the institute did. I taught it stories, songs. I think that I taught it the song it was singing. . . ." She broke off, staring at nothing.

"And now you think this playmate of yours was an AI?" Paul finished for her. "They were . . . training the operating system to be like a human, for some reason."

T4b shook his head. "Locktacious. Those old Grail-knockers scan freely, huh?"

"Stories," Martine said quietly. "Yes, there was a story that went with the song. What was it? God, it was so long ago!"

"I do not remember the song," Florimel said. "Much that happened on that mountaintop—it was all very confusing. Frightening."

Martine raised her hands as though trying to keep her balance. The others fell silent. When she spoke Paul expected some revelation, but instead the blind woman said, "We are almost there."

"What? Where?"

"The end of this simulation. I can feel the . . . the falling-off. The ending." She swiveled her head. "I must have quiet. I wish we could land and go through slowly, but we have no way to control our movement, so I must take this as it comes. If I can get us to Troy, I will. If not, there is no telling where we may find ourselves."

They were all still for a moment, the bubble rising and falling with the movement of the river.

"Will we have a boat on the other side?" Florimel asked hoarsely.

Martine shook her head in irritation, hardly listening, intent on something none of the others could perceive.

"What do you mean?" Paul asked.

"This was not a standard craft," Florimel said. "We walked out of this simulation the first time we were here. Renie and !Xabbu used one of the entomological institute's planes, which was translated into something else on the far side of the gateway. But what is this?" She spread her arms. "It is a bubble, something that did not exist until Kunohara made it. Will it be something on the far side? Or will it just . . . disappear?"

"Jesus." Paul reached out and clutched Martine's hand. "Everybody grab on. At least that way we'll go into the water together." The blind woman did not seem to notice. Florimel took her other hand, then they both linked with T4b, who had gone pale and as silent as Martine. The water seemed to be moving faster now, the bubble jouncing through streaks of white foam. "I think we're heading toward another waterfall." Paul tried hard to keep his voice steady.

"Going all blue, like," T4b growled, trying as hard as Paul. "Sparkly."

"Hold tightly." Florimel closed her eyes. "If we do go in the water, lake a big breath. Do not struggle, do not swim until you know what is up or down."

"If we can tell," Paul said, but it was nearly a whisper. Beside him Martine had gone rigid, locked onto some incomprehensible signal.

The current was definitely moving faster now. The bubble bounced from one swift-moving eddy to another, barely dimpling the surface of the water. A lurch turned them all sideways, and for a moment Florimel and T4b rose up above Paul's head before tumbling down on top of him in a bruising pile of elbows and knees. Somehow they managed to keep their hands locked; a moment later the bubble had righted itself, leaving them sprawled on their backs once more, panting and silent.

Blue fire began to rise around them in glittering cascades. The bubble rose, fell, skimmed, and spun.

Where next? Paul thought wildly as they were flung head over heels again. Good God, where next?

A fog of blue sparks surrounded them completely. Martine grunted in pain and fell sideways into Paul's lap just as the bubble evaporated around them and black water splashed in on all sides.

 

"We're still alive," Paul said. He spoke the words aloud in part because he was still not entirely certain it was true. Their bubble was gone and already he missed it dearly. It had been replaced by a small boat, a crude craft that seemed like something to be poled rather than rowed, although there were no implements on board to do either. The storm that had greeted them at the gateway had swept past, but it had left them drenched and the air was frosty. Paul could already feel his wet clothes crackling with ice.

The river around them was black. The land, such of it as they could see through the mists, was all white. They were surrounded by snow.

"How is Martine?" asked Florimel.

Paul pulled her upright against him. "Shivering, but I think she's okay. Martine, can you hear me?"

T4b squinted out across the apparently polar landscape. "Don't look like that Troy place to me."

Martine groaned quietly and shook her head. "It is not. I could not find the Trojan simulation in the information at the gateway." She wrapped her arms tight around her body, still shivering. "I had to work so fast! Many of the gateways are closed—the information system for the gateway was like a building with most of its lights out."

"So where are we?" Florimel asked. "And if we can't get to Troy, what are we going to do?"

"Freeze, if we don't make a fire," Paul said through clenched teeth; he was shivering now. "Time later to worry about other things if we manage to survive. We'll have to go ashore." He wished that he felt as confident, as certain as he was trying to sound. This simworld along the river-banks reminded him of nothing so much as the Ice Age, although he hoped it wasn't so; it was impossible to forget the giant hyenas that had chased him into an icy river much like this one. He did not want to encounter any more primitive megafauna.

"There is nowhere here to make a fire, and nothing to make one with." Florimel pointed at the hummocks of snow which seemed to extend from the riverbanks all the way to the dim, fogbound mountains. "Do you see any trees? Any wood?"

"Those hills up ahead," Paul said. "Where the river turns—who knows what's behind them, or even under them? Maybe this is some kind of futuristic simworld, and there are underground houses with atomic furnaces or something. We can't just give up. We'll freeze."

"Not necessarily," Florimel said sharply. "None of us is like Renie and !Xabbu, with their real bodies suspended in liquid. Our bodies are all resting at room temperature somewhere. How can we freeze? Our nerves can be fooled into feeling cold, but that is not the same as actually being cold." Despite her words, she too was now wracked with trembling. "Psychosomatically we can be convinced perhaps to radiate more heat, as though we had fever, but surely we cannot be forced to freeze ourselves?"

"By that logic," Martine pointed out through chattering teeth, "we could not be bitten in half by a giant scorpion, either—it would only be a tactile illusion. But none of us were very eager to test that assumption, were we?"

Florimel opened her mouth, then shut it.

"We need to find something to use as paddles, anyway," Paul said. "It will take us days to drift through at this rate."

"Only thing for sure is turning all ice," T4b grumbled. "Rest of you can jawjack about it. Want to get warm, me."

"We should huddle close," Martine said. "Whatever the somatic truth, I can perceive heat leaving your virtual bodies very quickly."

They crowded into the center of the boat. For once even T4b, not the most companionable of their number, had no complaints. The boat moved, but the current was sluggish, the black river flat as glass.

"Somebody talk," Paul said after a while, "Keep our minds off this. Martine, you said you remembered a story that went with that song the . . . the Other was singing?"

"That is just the p–problem." She was shivering so badly now she could hardly speak, "I don't re–re–remember it. It's been so long. It was just an old fairy tale. About a b–boy, a little boy who fell down a hole."

"Sing the song." Worried for her, Paul began rubbing her arms and back, trying to make some heat by friction. "Maybe that will tell us something."

Martine shook her head, but began in a low, trembling voice to sing. "An . . . an angel touched me, an angel touched me. . . ." She frowned, thinking. "A river . . . no, the river washed me and now I am clean."

Paul remembered it clearly now, the eerie sound echoing across the black mountaintop. "And you think that it's significant somehow. . . ?"

"I know that story," Florimel said abruptly. "It was one of Eirene's favorites. From the Gurnemanz collection."

"You know it from a German book?" Martine said, surprised. "But it is an old French fairy tale."

"What's that?" T4b asked.

"A f–fairy tale. . . ?" Martine was stunned despite her suffering. "You d–d–do not know what a fairy tale is? My God, what have they done to our ch–children?"

"No," said T4b disgustedly. "What's that?"

He was pointing at a mound of snow perhaps a thousand meters ahead of them, one of the outriders to the cluster of snowy hills Paul had seen earlier.

"It's a pile of snow." Paul said it a trifle rudely, but he wanted to hear what Florimel had to say about the story. A moment later he was startled and embarrassed to see the glint of something that was not snow or ice. "Good Lord, you're right, it's a tower. A tower!"

"What, think I'm blind, me?" T4b growled. A moment later he frowned and turned to Martine, "Didn't mean no slapdown."

"Understood." She frowned into the distance. "I p–per–ceive no signs of life at all. I ca–ca–can barely sense that there is anything there at all beside ice and snow. What do you see?"

"It's the top of a tower." Paul squinted. "It's . . . very narrow. Like a minaret. Decorated. But I can't see anything of what's underneath. Damn, this current is slow!"

"A minaret, yes," said Florimel.

"Maybe this is the Mars I visited before," Paul said excitedly. "That strange sort of late-Victorian adventure world. It had a lot of Moorish-looking architecture." His gaze slipped to the countless miles of deadening white spread over both sides of the river. "But what happened?"

"Dread," said Martine quietly. "The man called Dread has happened to this place, I would bet."

They were all straining to see something now, all except for Martine who had let her trembling chin sink to her chest. As they drew closer to the great mound of snow and its single protruding spire, Paul saw something on the bank beside them, a much smaller shape half-covered by white drifts. "What the hell is that?"

T4b, who was leaning so far out of the boat the little craft was tipping to one side, said, "It's one of those Tut-Tut and the Sphinx things, like—you know, that netshow for micros? That animal they ride with bumps?"

Paul, whose grasp of popular culture had been diminishing rapidly since he left boarding school, could only shake his head. "It's a sphinx?"

"He means a camel," Florimel said. If she had not been pressing her teeth together to keep them from chattering, she might have laughed. "It is a frozen camel. Did they have camels on your Mars?"

"No." Now that they were closer, he saw the boy was right again. The dead camel was on its knees at the river's edge, teeth exposed in a hideous grin, the skin stretched so tight on its neck and head that it seemed mummified, but it was definitely a camel. "We must be in Orlando's Egypt. Or something like it,"

Martine stirred. "That man c–called Nandi. If we are in Egypt, p–p–perhaps we could find him. Orlando and Fredericks said he was the Circle's special expert on the gateways. He might be able to help us reach Renie and the others."

"If he's here, gotta be a popsicle," T4b suggested.

"Ancient Egypt with minarets?" asked Florimel sourly. "In any case, I have changed my mind about trying to outlast this cold. So let us head toward that tower or none of this speculation will matter, because we, too, will be . . . popsicles."

"We'll have to paddle with our hands," Paul said. "We'll have to get there fast or we'll all get frostbite."

"We will take our hands out in turn to warm up," Martine said. "Two paddling, two warming. Now."

For a moment, as he plunged his fingers into the dark river, Paul felt nothing but clean chill, like an alcohol-swabbing before an injection. Then his skin began to burn like fire.

 

It was only snow and not ice they had to kick through to reach the open arched door of the building beneath the looming, white-shrouded tower, a piece of luck for which Paul was terribly grateful. Within a few moments they were standing in a decorated antechamber, painted head to ceiling in a beautiful, elaborate scarlet, black, and gold fretwork of repeating shapes. They did not stop to look, but continued forward, bending over the freezing hands they all held pressed against their bellies.

Three more doors and three more decorated chambers led them to a smaller room whose walls were lined with shelves full of leather-bound books, and the glorious discovery of a tiled fire pit and a stack of wood.

"It's damp," Paul said as he stacked logs in the fireplace with clumsy, stinging fingers. "We need something to use as kindling. Not to mention a match."

"Kindling?" Florimel pulled a book down from the shelf and began tearing out pages. It seemed somehow sacrilegious to Paul, but after a moment's consideration he decided he could live with the feeling. He looked at a page and saw that it was in English, but English rendered in a spidery print that had the feeling of Arabic script. As he crumpled pages and arranged them around the wood, he saw a pretty lacquer box tucked into an alcove in the tile on the outside of the fireplace. He opened it, then held it up. "It's flint and steel, I think, and thank God for that. I wish !Xabbu were here. Anyone else know how to use this?"

"We did not even have electricity at Harmony Camp until I was ten years old," said Florimel. "Give it to me."

 

Perhaps a quarter of an hour passed, the sound of clicking teeth gradually subsiding, before Paul was willing to take his hands away from the wonderful heat of the fire. After a bit of exploration he turned up a storeroom full of soft rugs which he and the others wrapped around themselves like cloaks. Warmer now and feeling almost human, he picked up one of the discarded books and opened it.

"It's definitely supposed to be Arabic—this book is dedicated to His Majesty the Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid. Hmmm. It seems to be a story about Sinbad the Sailor." Paul looked up at the shelves. "I think this is a library of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights."

"Ain't spending no thousand nights here in this popsicle pit," T4b said. "Lock that. Lock that tight."

"That's just the name of a book," Paul told him. "A famous old collection of stories." He turned to Florimel and Martine. "Which reminds me. . . ."

"I said I could not remember the story," Martine began.

"But I said I could." Florimel pushed herself back a little way from the fire. Bundled in the stiff carpet, and with the makeshift bandage covering her eye and a large portion of the side of her head, she looked more than ever like some medieval hedge-witch.

Which is funny, Paul thought, since the witch of the group is Martine. It was an odd realization, but no less true for being odd.

"I will tell it as I remember it." The German woman scowled, exaggerating her already daunting appearance. "It is only memorized because my daughter asked to hear it—and several of that Gurnemanz collection's other stories—many, many times, so don't interrupt me or I will lose the rhythm and forget parts of it. Martine, I am sure it will be different than the version you knew, but tell me about it afterward, will you?"

Paul saw the ghost of a smile flicker on the blind woman's face. "That is fair, Florimel,"

"Good." She arranged her damp but drying robes beneath her, opened her mouth, then shut it again and glared at T4b. "And I will explain the parts you don't understand after I'm done. Do you hear me, Javier? Don't interrupt or I will throw you out into the snow."

Paul expected anger, or at least teenage indignation, but the boy seemed amused. "Chizz. Bang those squeezers. Listening, me."

"Right. Very well then, here it is as I remember it."

 

"Once upon a time there was a boy who was the apple of his parents' eye. They loved him so fiercely that they were frightened something would happen to him, so they got him a dog to be his companion. The dog was named Sleeps-Not, and was fierce and loyal.

"Even with the love of two parents and the mercy of God, not all accidents can be avoided. One day, while his father was out working in the fields and his mother was busy preparing the afternoon meal, the boy wandered far from the house. Sleeps-Not tried to stop him, but the boy cuffed the dog and sent him away. The dog ran back to summon the boy's mother, but before she could reach him, the boy fell down into an abandoned well.

"The boy fell and rolled and tumbled a long, long time, and when he finally struck the bottom of the well he was in a cavern very deep in the earth, by the side of an underground stream. When his mother discovered what had happened she ran to get her husband, but no rope they had in the house would reach down to the bottom. They brought all the other villagers as well, but even with their ropes all tied together they could not reach the bottom where the boy was trapped.

"The boy's parents called to him that he must be brave, that somehow they would find a way to get him out of the deep, deep hole. He heard them and was a little heartened, and when they had dropped some food down wrapped in leaves to cushion the fall, he decided to make the best of it.

"Late at night, when his parents and the other villagers had finally gone in to sleep and the boy thought he was alone again at the bottom of the well, he began to weep and to pray to God.

"No one heard him but Sleeps-Not, and when that loyal dog heard his little master crying, he rushed off to roam the wide world in search of someone who could help the boy in the well.

"The boy's parents dropped food to him every day, and he had water to drink from the underground stream, but he was still sad and lonely, and every night, when he thought that no one was listening, he wept. With his dog Sleeps-Not out searching for help, there was no one to hear him at first, except the Devil, who after all lives deep in the ground. The Devil cannot cross rushing water, so he could not reach the little boy and take him down to Hell, but he stood in the darkness on the far side of the river and tormented the boy with lies, telling him that his parents had forgotten him, that everyone above the ground had given up hope of getting him out long ago. The boy's weeping became greater and greater until an angel heard him and appeared to him in the darkness in the form of a pale and fair woman.

" 'God will protect you,' the angel told the boy, and kissed him on the cheek. 'Put yourself into the river and all will be well.'

"The boy did as he was told, and then climbed out again wet and shivering, and sang this song: 'An angel touched me, an angel touched me, the river washed me and now I am clean.'

"The second night the Devil sent a serpent up from the dark depths to attack the boy, but Sleeps-Not had found a hunter, a brave man with a gun, and brought him to the top of the well. Although the hunter could not bring the boy up from the hole, with his keen eyes he saw the serpent coming and killed it with a shot from his gun, and the boy was safe. Again the boy said his prayers and stepped into the river, and again stepped out again, singing: 'An angel touched me, an angel touched me, the river washed me and now I am clean.'

"The next night the Devil sent a ghost to attack the boy, but Sleeps-Not had brought a priest to the top of the well, and although he could not bring the boy up from his hole, the priest saw the ghost coming and threw down his rosary, dispatching the spirit back to hell. The boy said prayers of thanks and stepped into the river, then came out singing: 'An angel touched me, an angel touched me, the river washed me and now I am clean.'

"The next night the Devil sent all the hosts of hell after the boy, but Sleeps-Not had brought a peasant girl to the top of the well. It seemed there was little she could do to save the boy from all the hosts of hell, but in truth she was not a peasant girl but the angel who had first helped him, and she flew down into the well holding a fiery sword and the hosts of hell drew back, afraid.

" 'God will protect you,' the angel told the boy, and kissed him on the cheek. 'Put yourself into the river and all will be well.'

"The boy stepped into the water, but when he would have come out again, the angel raised her hand and shook her head. 'God will protect you,' she said. 'All will be well.'

"At this the boy realized what he was expected to do, and instead of stepping out of the water he let go and allowed the river to carry him. It took him a long way through darkness, but always he could feel the angel's kiss on him, keeping him warm and safe, and when at last he came out into the light again, it was no less a light than that of Paradise itself, which shines from God's face. And soon enough his dog Sleeps-Not and his two loving parents joined him in that place, and unless I am wrong, they are all there still."

 

"I am certain I got some details wrong," Florimel said after they had all spent a few silent moments listening to the pop and hiss of the fire. "But that is close to what I read so many times to . . . to my Eirene." She scowled and rubbed at the corner of her good eye. Caught between sympathy and courtesy, Paul looked away.

"Know how you said you'd explain parts that didn't make sense?" T4b asked.

"Which parts didn't you understand?"

"Total."

Florimel grunted a laugh. "I think you are saying that to be funny. You are not foolish, Javier, and that is a story meant for children."

He shrugged, but didn't take offense. Paul could not help wondering if the sullen teenager might be slowly turning human. Perhaps the simple fact of being out of armor was having an effect.

"Is it as you remember it, Martine?" Florimel asked. "The same story? Martine?"

The blind woman shook her head as though awakening from a daydream. "Oh. Sorry, yes, it is much the same, I think—it has been a long time. Perhaps a few differences. The dog in my childhood version was named 'Never-Sleeps,' and I think the hunter was a knight. . . ." She trailed off, still absorbed in some inner conversation. "I am sorry," she said after a moment, "but . . . but as I hear it now, hear the song and the story that go with it, I am reminded of what was for me a very bad time." She waved her hands, forestalling sympathy. "No, but that is not all. Also it has made me think."

"About the song?" Paul asked.

"About everything. About what Kunohara said—that the reason for the operating . . . for the Other's strange patterns might be that I taught it a story. But I think that is too simple. I think that many of the children at the institute must have told it stories—I am fairly certain I told it other fairy tales myself. Telling stories was one of the things the doctors often asked us to do, perhaps as a measure of our memory and general mental health. If the operating system and its growing intelligence has been corrupted by this one particular folktale, I do not think it is because it was the only tale, the only song, that it ever heard."

Paul blinked. A great wave of weariness was rolling over him. After the perils of Kunohara's bugworld and their escape along the river, he was only now feeling how exhausted he truly was. "I'm sorry. I don't understand."

"I think it has taken this story to heart, if you will excuse an inappropriate metaphor, because more than any other, this story had resonance." Martine looked weary, too. "For the Other, this was the one that spoke most clearly of its own situation."

"Are you saying it thinks it's a little boy?" Florimel said, an edge of angry amusement in her voice. "A little boy with a dog? In a hole?"

"Perhaps, but that is rather simplifying it." Martine bowed her head for a moment. "Please, give me the chance to think out loud, Florimel. I do not have the strength to take much argument."

The other woman flushed a little, but nodded her head. "Go on."

"It may not think it is a boy, a human child, but if this truly is an artificial intelligence, something that has become almost human, imagine how it does feel. What did Dread say, in that moment on the mountain when he appeared like a giant? 'Your system is still fighting me, but I have learned how to hurt it.' A metaphor . . . or not? Perhaps when the system, with its growing individuality, did things the Brotherhood did not want it to do, they had to check its efforts with something it perceived as pain."

Paul had a sudden, nightmarish memory of the Other straining against its bonds, an agonized, Promethean figure. "It thinks of itself as a prisoner."

"A prisoner in the dark. Yes, perhaps." Martine took a breath. "A thing being punished for no reason—tormented as the Devil torments people, for the pure enjoyment of another's suffering. And so it has sat in its darkness for years—at least three decades, maybe more—hoping that one day it would be saved from its pain and set free, and singing a song that a little boy sang at the bottom of a deep, black well." Her face suddenly contorted in anger and unhappiness. "It is terrible to think about, no?"

"You think it has done these things . . . against its will?" Florimel asked. "That what it did to my Eirene and the other children, to your friend Singh—all these things it was forced to do, like a slave? Like a conscripted soldier?" She looked shocked. "It is hard to think that way."

"Oh, Jesus, the angel." Paul could hardly breathe. "In the story. Is that why . . . why Ava appears the way she does? Because the Other thinks she's an angel?"

"Perhaps." Martine shrugged. "Or because that is the only way it can imagine a human female who is not part of the legions of pain-bringers. And there is the image of the river as well—certainly we must all find that familiar by now."

"But even if you are right, what good does this do us?" Florimel said, breaking a long moment's silence. "The Other is defeated, at least the part of it that thinks. Dread has taken over the system. Look at this place—the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid, all vanished under a glacier. Dread is not an unwilling monster. He has turned this whole imaginary universe upside down just to amuse himself."

"Yes, and with the Brotherhood dead or dispersed, he is our true enemy." Martine leaned back against the wall. "I'm afraid you are right, Florimel—my idea means little. If nothing we did before could affect the Other, I cannot imagine how we can do anything to discomfort Dread."

Paul sat up. "Aren't you forgetting something? Like the fact that we have friends who are still out there? Maybe we can't do anything to bring down the system, maybe we can't touch this murderer-turned-virtual-god I've heard so much about, but we can bloody well try to find Renie and the others."

For a moment it looked like Martine would lose her temper—Paul saw color bloom on the cheeks of her sim-face. "I have not forgotten, Paul," she said stiffly. "It is my curse that I forget almost nothing."

"I didn't mean it that way. But if we can't do anything to stop Dread, we can at least try to get out of this network. The Grail Brotherhood is dead as a doornail, so what are we fighting against anyway? You lot may have volunteered, sort of, but I sure as Christ didn't." Paul felt his anger swirling uselessly and tried to calm himself. "Right, then. So what's our next step? If the Troy simulation is offline, how can we get to Renie and the others?"

"We do not know that same trick would work twice anyway," Florimel pointed out. "It was my impression that the Other somehow wanted us to come to it—that it made some kind of special gateway for us. If the artificial intelligence is enslaved now, or at least defeated, then I doubt. . . ."

She paused because Martine had held up her hand, fingers spread, like a sentinel who hears a stealthy footstep outside the camp.

"I think you are right," Martine said slowly. "I think, along with Paul's angel, the Other tried to bring us to itself, somehow. It wanted something from us."

"But we have no idea what that might be," said Paul.

"Just wait for a moment!" The blind woman's angry flush returned. "My God, let a person think. It . . . the Other . . . wanted us for some reason. To help it free itself? As in the story?"

Paul frowned, trying to understand where her thoughts were going. "It . . . it takes the story literally? It wants us to get it out of its hole?"

"Out of its imprisonment, yes, it could be."

"Which one of us is the dog?" Florimel said with heavy sarcasm. "I hope we are not expected to volunteer."

"The dog. Of course!" Martine nodded her head violently. "Oh, could it really be? Perhaps I am right. Let me say this, however foolish it sounds." She raised her hands to her head, eyes tightly shut. "Renie told me once that all the sims I have worn within this network look very . . . unexceptional. Is that true? Almost like generic sims."

"Yes, I suppose," said Florimel. "So?"

"She told me that only in Troy did I look like a specific person. But that was because in Troy I was given a specific character made for the simulation—Cassandra, the king's daughter. All the rest of the time I have been in some version of this original peasant sim from Temilún, and it is not as detailed as yours is, Florimel, or as the false Quan Li's was."

"Granted. What does that mean?"

"We are all of us interfacing with this system as almost pure information, yes? Whatever our real bodies might look like, we exist on this system only as minds—as sense-memory and conscious thought, correct? And the system sends information back to us along the same neural pathways."

Paul looked over at T4b, expecting the teenager to be annoyed by the long, complex discussion, but the boy had his head turned away, watching the fire. For a moment, Paul envied his detachment. "But that's basically the definition of this sort of VR environment, isn't it?" he asked. "Gives people input at the sensory level, bypassing information coming from what would normally be the real world."

"Ah." Martine sat up straighten "But there is no such thing as 'this sort of environment.' We have seen that already—it is unique! Unique in that we cannot find a way to go offline, unique in that we cannot find our own neurocannulae, or even the cruder input-output devices Renie and !Xabbu are using, even though we know they are there. And when Fredericks tried to go offline, he . . . no, she, I almost forgot! . . . suffered terrible pain."

Florimel grunted. "You are still not explaining. . . ."

"Perhaps the network—or more specifically, the operating system, the Other—can interface with not just our conscious thoughts, but our subconscious thoughts as well."

"What? You mean, read our minds?"

"I do not know how it might work, or what the limits might be, but think! If it could reach into our subconscious, it could implant suggestions that we cannot go offline. Like hypnosis. It could convince us, below the conscious level, that removing ourselves from the network would cause us great pain."

"Jesus." Paul suddenly began to see it taking shape. "But that would mean . . . that it wanted you all to stay on the network. What about your friend Singh? It killed him."

"I do not know. Perhaps the security system part of the Other, the part that guarded entry, to the network, was under more direct control by the Grail Brotherhood. Perhaps it was only when we had made our way inside that the Other could truly see us, contact us." She was growing excited. "If it was trying to act out a story somehow, the story of the boy in the well, it might well have decided we were the allies it was looking for!"

"It makes a kind of sense," Florimel said slowly. "Although there is much to think about before I am ready to agree. But you haven't explained about the dog, yet. I said something about the dog in the story, and that set you onto talking about sims, about how your own sims worked. . . ?"

"Yes. Do you know what your face looks like?"

Florimel flinched. "Are you speaking of my injuries?"

"No, in everyday life. Do you know what your face looks like? Of course you do. You have mirrors, you have photos of yourself. Any normal person knows what he or she looks like. Paul, have you seen your sims? Do they resemble you?"

"Most of them. Except when I was someone specific, as you said, like Odysseus." He looked at her, puzzled, then a moment later it came clear. "You don't know what you look like, do you?"

Martine shook her head. "Of course not. I have been blind since I was a child. I know I don't look like that anymore, but what the years since have done to me, I have no idea, except by touch."

Florimel was staring at her. "You are saying that the Other . . . read your mind?"

"In a way, perhaps. It may have tried to take some sense from each of us of who we were, what we looked like—or wanted to look like. Didn't Orlando say that he looked like an earlier version of his own character? Where did that come from, if it wasn't from the mind of Orlando himself?"

Paul's weariness was still powerful, but the unfolding vistas of this new line of thought could not be ignored. "I wondered, when he told me. I wondered about a lot of this, but there hasn't been any shortage of unanswered questions."

"Of course," Martine said. "We have been fighting for our lives each and every day, in circumstances no one else in history has had to endure. It has taken a long time for, as you English say, the penny to drop."

Paul smiled wanly. "So what do we do with this knowledge, if it's all true?"

"I am not done yet." She turned to Florimel. "You asked about the dog. Orlando was not the only one of our group to find his Otherland sim a surprise. Do you remember what !Xabbu told us?"

"That . . . that he had been thinking about baboons. . . ." Florimel began, then stopped, her expression now honestly dumbstruck. "He had been thinking about baboons, because of some tribal story or some such . . . but he had not planned to be one."

"Exactly. But someone . . . something . . . chose that appearance for him. Do you know what the old name for baboon was?"

Paul nodded, impressed. "The European sailors used to call them 'dog-faced apes,' didn't they?"

"They did. So imagine the Other, trapped in darkness, praying and singing in the small corner of its own intellect where it could hide from its cruel masters. It remembers a story, one of the most vivid things it knows, something that has been with it since a time that was perhaps as close to a childhood as it ever had. A story about a boy in darkness, tortured and frightened. As it sifts through the thoughts of the latest group of intruders, while its security programming deals with the gross physical facts of the intrusion, it perceives that one of them has an image firmly in his mind—perhaps even a sort of self-image—of a four-legged creature with a head like a dog's head. And, if by probing at the subconscious it can sense anything of its subjects' true nature, it may even have perceived !Xabbu's kindness and loyalty.

"Perhaps it had a plan before that moment, perhaps !Xabbu or something else about us triggered the thought, but from that moment on the Other was not trying to destroy as—or at least the 'child' part of it, the thinking, feeling part, was not. It was trying to find us. It was trying to bring us to it. It was praying to be rescued."

"Jesus." Paul was dimly aware he'd already said this a few times, but could not help saying it several more. "Jesus. So the mountain. . . ?"

"A neutral ground, perhaps?" Florimel offered.

"Perhaps. Perhaps a spot near—if we can use such physical terms about this network—to the Other's own secret place, to the center of its 'self.' If we had been able to remain there, if Dread had not interfered, it might have spoken to us."

Paul stiffened. "And so Renie was right. She and the others really are in the heart of the system?"

Martine slumped back. "I do not know. But if we want to get there, we will have to find some other way, since Troy seems to be barred to us now."

"We will think of something," Florimel said. "Great God, I had not expected to feel this way about the thing that crippled and stole my Eirene, but if what you guess is true, Martine . . . oh! It is a terrible thought." Martine sighed. "But before anything more, we need sleep. I have quite overwhelmed myself, and I did not have much strength in reserve."

"Hang on." Paul reached out and touched her arm. He could feel it trembling with fatigue. "Sorry, but one last thing. You said something about Nandi."

"The one Orlando met."

"I know. I met him, too—I'm sure I told you. I think you were right. If anyone can help us puzzle out the gates, it's him."

"But we don't know where he is," said Florimel. "Orlando and Fredericks last saw him in Egypt."

"Then that's where we need to go. At the very least, it gives us something to aim for!" He squeezed Martine's forearm gently. "Did you notice whether it was one of the . . . available destinations? When you were looking for Troy?"

She shook her head sadly. "Too little time. That is why I accepted this place when I couldn't find Troy—it was the default setting." She reached out and patted his hand, then turned away, searching with her fingers for a clear spot to lie down and sleep. "But we will look for it at the next gateway." She yawned. "And you are right, Paul—at least it is something."

As she curled herself tighter in her blanket, and Florimel did the same, Paul turned to T4b.

"Javier? You haven't said much."

The boy still didn't have a great deal to say. He had clearly been asleep for quite a while.

CHAPTER 13
King Johnny

NETFEED/NEWS: Jiun Would Not Want State Funeral, Heirs Claim

(visual: Jiun at Asian Prosperity Zone ceremony)

VO: The heirs of Jiun Bhao, Asia's most influential mogul, say that the state funeral planned for the businessman is inappropriate.

(visual: nephew Jiun Tung at press conference)

JIUN TUNG: "He was a very modest man, the embodiment of Confucian values. He would want what was due to a man of his position, nothing more."

(visual: Jiun meeting group of farmers)

VO: Some observers suggest that the family is being more modest than their late patriarch actually was, and that what they really object to is the state's expectation that the Jiun family pay for part of the massive ceremony. . . ."

 

Calliope drummed her fingers on the countertop. She was definitely, definitely going to give up caffeine, go for the no-octane varieties. Tomorrow. Or right after that.

Every noise from the other room seemed louder than it was. It was so strange to hear someone else in her apartment. Calliope's mother hated leaving her little house, fearful of crowds and unfamiliar places. Stan hadn't visited in months, mostly because they saw so bloody much of each other at work: even friendly partners didn't want to spend any more time in each other's company than they had to.

Calliope had just decided to pour herself a drink of something counter-effective to coffee—although, as wired as she felt at the moment, it would probably take some kind of morphine derivative to slow her down—when the bedroom door popped open. Elisabetta, the waitress-muse, leaned in the doorway, only a yellow towel covering the completeness of her tattooed glory. She held another towel in her hand and waved it at Calliope. "I took one for my hair, too. All right?"

Detective Sergeant Calliope Skouros could only nod. The towel-clad apparition vanished back into the steamy bedroom. God, the girl was beautiful. Maybe not in the runway-model sense, but strong and just vibrating with youth and life.

Did I look like that once? Did I have that glow, just because of how old I was? Or rather, how old I wasn't?

Stop it, Calliope. You're not that bloody old, you just work too hard. And you eat too much crap. Find a life, like Stan always says. Go to the gym. You've got good bones.

As she mulled over the dubious value of good bones, something her mother had always assured her she had when a younger Calliope was feeling particularly unpretty, Elisabetta appeared again from the bedroom, a towel around her head, the rest of her now dressed in a black knit top and a pair of black 'chutes slashed with insets of glowing white.

"These are so. . . ." She waved at the silky trousers. "I mean, I know they're utterly cutting, but they're so much more comfortable than that latex shit."

"Cutting. . . ?" asked Calliope, knowing even as she did so that she was just confirming her own official middle-agedness.

Elisabetta grinned. "Cutting edge. Meaning old-fashioned. It's just something this friend of mine says." She gave her hair a last rub, then ceremoniously draped the towel over the door handle. Which, Calliope reflected, for someone in her early twenties probably represented "not leaving a mess."

"It was really nice of you to let me use your shower. It's so far back to my place, and the traffic. . . ." She bent for her bag, then straightened up. "Oh, and thanks for the drink, too."

"No problem. I enjoyed it." Calliope considered some further affirmation but could not come up with anything that didn't sound utterly stupid in mental rehearsal. I love your company and I have weird fantasies about you all the time? I'd like to be genetically reengineered to have your babies? I drink three gallons of coffee a day just to watch you walk around dropping salads on peoples' tables, so it was quite nice to have you naked at my place, even in the next room?

"I really want to go to this party. My friend's house-sitting, and the people told her it was okay to have it—they've got this amazing place, with walls, like a castle. And you can have fireworks every night. They're not real, they're just holograms or something, but my friend says it's wonderful." She pushed damp hair out of her eyes and looked at Calliope. "Hey, maybe you'd like to go. You want to?"

Something squeezed at her heart a little bit. "I'd love to." Something else squeezed—her conscience? "But I can't. Not tonight. I have to meet someone." Am I closing a door? she wondered nervously. "My partner. My work partner. About work."

Elisabetta regarded her solemnly for a moment, then returned to the task of rummaging around in her bag. But when she looked up, she wore a smile that was both amused and ever, ever so slightly shy. "Hey, do you like me?"

Calliope carefully leaned back on her chair, just to stop herself drumming her fingers nervously on the tabletop. "Yes, Elisabetta. I do. Of course I do."

"No, I mean do you like me?" The smile was still shy, but challenging, too. Calliope was not entirely sure she wasn't being teased or mocked in some way. "Are you . . . are you interested in me?"

Further obfuscation was not going to work, although it was tempting. Calliope realized that after almost a decade and a half of police work, after sitting in interrogation rooms facing rapists and robbers and murderous psychopaths, she couldn't think of a thing to say. After what seemed like half an hour, but was probably three seconds, she cleared her throat.

"Yes." That was as much as she could manage.

"Hmmm." Elisabetta nodded, then slung her bag over her shoulder. She still seemed to be enjoying some secret joke. "I'll have to think about that." As she reached the door, she turned, her smile wide now. "Got to fly—see you later!"

Calliope sat in her chair for a long minute after the door whooshed closed, unmoving, as stunned as if she had been hit by a car. Her heart was hammering, although nothing had really changed.

What the hell am I supposed to do now?

 

"Technically," Stan Chan said after a short silence, "this should be the portion of the conversation where you ask me, 'and how was the big meeting, Stan?' I mean, now that we've spent twenty minutes or so talking about some waitress I don't remember."

"Oh, Jesus, Stan, I'm sorry." She stared at the bowl of cocktail crispies, then defiantly took another handful. "I really am. I haven't forgotten about it. It's just . . . I've been out of circulation a long time, what with one thing and another. I forgot how much like shooting some weird drug it is. Does she like me, should I care, what does that little thing mean. . . ? Damn, see, I'm doing it again. Tell me about what happened, please. I'm getting sick of listening to myself, anyway."

"That's why you and I make such good partners. We agree on so many things."

"Die, China-boy."

"You'll never take me down, you goat-chasing lemon."

"I'm glad we've got that straightened out."

Stan nodded happily, then sobered. "I'm afraid that's going to be the highlight of the evening."

"So they didn't go for it," One of the reasons she had been wasting time with waitress-trivia had been a bad feeling about Stan's meeting with the department brass.

"Not only didn't they go for it, they pretty much made it clear that they thought a couple of garden-variety homicide dicks should keep their noses out of things they couldn't understand."

"Meaning the Real Killer case."

"Yep."

"Did you ask them about the Sang-Real thing I was thinking about? The whole King Arthur and the Grail idea?"

"Yes, and they informed me that they'd thought of it themselves a long time ago, and had beaten it into the dust. Looked up Arthurian scholars, checked the seating lists for Parzival in case the guy's a closet Wagner nut, every angle they could think of. I have to admit, it sounds like they were pretty thorough."

"So basically, then, the answer was 'piss off.' "

"That sums it up pretty well, Skouros. They already decided once that Merapanui wasn't anything to do with their serial killer. And the captain was there, too—did I mention that? She thinks it's a lot more likely that minor villain Buncie got his dates wrong than he saw Johnny Dread alive after his check-out certificate, and she's also beginning to wonder why we're putting so much time into this case, since it's five years old and—in your own words when they gave it to us, Skouros—'as dead as good manners' " He shrugged.

"The captain. . . ." Calliope leaned forward, thoughts of Elisabetta's shoulders shining with water drops vanishing quickly as she realized what Stan was trying to tell her. "Oh, God. Does that mean. . . ?"

Stan nodded. " 'Fraid so. She basically said we should wrap it up and put it away. She asked me if we'd found any actual evidence that our Johnny was still among the living, and I had to admit we hadn't."

"But . . . damn." Calliope slumped. There wasn't any, of course, not hard evidence, not the kind you could even take to a prosecutor. She felt like she had been hit in the stomach with a club. The whole thing was a structure built on guesswork—the kind of paranoid fantasy that kept thousands of net nodes busy. But she knew it wasn't pure fantasy—that the hunches were built on something. And Stan knew it, too. "Didn't you argue?"

"Of course I did." For a moment he showed a flash of genuine hurt. "What do you take me for, Skouros? But she pointed out that while we were devoting so much time to this five-year-old case, people were getting murdered in new and original ways all the time, and the department is understaffed as it is. It was hard to argue with her."

"Yeah. I'm sorry, Stan. You were the one who had to listen to it." She scowled and picked a piece of ice out of her drink, rubbing it along the table so it left a trail of moisture. "It's probably just as well I wasn't there. I probably would have screamed at her."

"Well, did you put the afternoon to some other good use? Besides inviting people over to use your shower?"

She winced. That hurt—despite all the unpaid overtime she had put in lately, she had fretted over leaving half an hour early just to catch the end of Elisabetta's shift at Bondi Baby. "I didn't just spend the entire day trying to get laid, Chan, honestly. But if they're going to pull us off Merapanui, there's not much point talking about what I found, because it isn't much."

"Not pull—pulled."

"You mean . . . we're off it?"

"We're reassigned as of 1800 hours today." Stan did not often show real emotion, but his quicksilver features turned leaden. "It's over, Calliope. Sorry, but the captain made it very clear. Merapanui goes back in the 'do not resuscitate' file and Monday morning we go back to work on the latest street-beast bashings and alley slashings." He grinned bleakly. "We would have solved it, partner. We just ran out of time."

"Shit." Calliope was not going to cry, even in front of Stan, but the wave of frustration and anger that washed through her definitely made her eyes smart. She slammed the piece of ice down on the tabletop; it squirted from her fingers and caromed off a napkin holder onto the floor. "Shit."

There wasn't much else to say.

 

 

It was always strange, this sensation of intrusion. She thought of it as being somehow very male, which probably explained why most hackers and crackers were men. Burglars, too. And explorers. And rapists, of course.

Which did not really explain where she herself fit in, but it was hard to deny the wired-up pleasure Dulcie always felt when she found her way into someone else's system.

Her system was chewing up machine language, but it was slow going; not only did the J Corporation have all the usual state-of-the-art security gear, but the really important stuff she wanted was also buried under a tremendous amount of VR code. This made breaking into the vaults of the J Corporation even more like burglary than the usual foray: information could actually be seen as old-fashioned paper files in cabinets, the different sections of the massive system as rooms in some near-endless office building. Not that Dulcie bothered with any of these real-world imitations, but she could tell that if she wanted to, a few adjustments would set the whole thing unrolling in front of her like a game, virtual representations of gates and vault doors, steely-eyed security guards, and all kinds of things. Was it just that in fifty years of living entirely online Felix Jongleur had found time to add a human-friendly facade to everything? Or was something more complicated at work?

Maybe he's like Dread, she thought. A bit of an illiterate when it comes to technology, but still wants to be able to access everything because he doesn't really trust anybody but himself. That would certainly make sense if the stories about his immense age were true, since Jongleur would have been an old man already by the time the Information Era had begun.

She filed these questions about Jongleur away for possible later use, but the idea had set off a few interesting sparks. Could something like that be the key to unlock Dread's own hidden storage? Some obvious thing that a technophile like Dulcie Anwin wouldn't normally consider—something that might not even occur to her? Several days had passed since she had stumbled across her employer's hiding place, but it still nagged her thoughts.

Not now, she told herself. There's work to do here, with Jongleur's files. And I sure don't want Dread scorched at me.

Not only that, she realized—she wanted to impress him. Something in Dread's self-confidence and self-involvement pulled up a corresponding need in her, a need to prove herself.

Well, even if he's the toughest, coldest son of a bitch in the world, he couldn't get into the J Corporation files by himself. But I can. And I will.

 

She did, eventually, but it took almost twenty-four hours.

As it turned out, none of the passwords or other bits of Grail network information that Dread had passed along to her proved much use at all. She was thrown back on old-fashioned methods and was glad she had come prepared. But even with the best gear that money and shady connections could provide, there was still a great deal of waiting. She left the building several times to take walks—trips she kept short, despite her need for fresh air and sunshine, because the neighborhood made her nervous—and curled up once for a couple of hours of uneasy sleep, which was punctuated by a dream of long hospital corridors, in the dream she was searching for a little animal of some kind that had been lost, but the corridors were starkly white and empty and the search seemed endless.

When her customized Krypton gearstripper finally gave her the hole she needed, she jumped up, clapped her hands, and whooped, riding an electrifying surge of adrenaline—but the elation did not last long. The actual truth of breaking into the J Corporation's information system was in some way worse than the grim hospital dream. At least there she had been searching for something, however hard to find; now, with the break-in accomplished, she was forced to confront the ridiculous complexity of the task before her.

Dread, with the nonchalance of someone who didn't understand what he was asking, had told her he wanted anything of interest about the Grail network, but especially anything pertaining to the Otherland operating system. At the same time, he had made it very clear that he didn't want her examining the data too closely herself—a stricture which had made her snort loudly while listening to his original message.

Right, she had thought. Like they're just going to label all their file material to facilitate easier industrial theft. "Don't bother to read this: trust us, it's important."

Now that the exhilaration of cracking the system was gone, the weight of the actual task depressed her. She had no idea how she'd ever find the things Dread wanted. The amount of information that lay before her was staggering, the accumulated institutional knowledge of one of the world's larger multinational corporations. And the Grail network information might not even be included—it was an important secret, after all, wasn't it? At the very least, it certainly wasn't going to be helpfully labeled.

Almost two hours of browsing the system indexes confirmed her fears. She sighed, disconnected, and got up to rip open another coffee pack. There had to be a way to narrow things down.

It came to her as the cup was still bubbling. It wasn't the J Corporation she really wanted—it was Jongleur's own personal system. None of the Otherland information, or at least very little of it, would need to be available to J Corporation employees, since the bulk of the network administration seemed to be handled by Robert Wells' Telemorphix, and even though Jongleur owned the J Corporation completely, it was still a quasi-public entity and presumably available to government audits. Jongleur couldn't have bribed everyone, could he? She thought the chances were very strong that someone who lived nearly his entire existence online would have his own separate system containing all the most important information, and certainly anything as vital to him as the secrets of the Grail network. The question was, how to find Felix Jongleur's personal system.

The solution, when it came, pleased her sense of irony and confirmed her earlier hunch: Jongleur's own eccentricities would give her the tools to defeat his security.

Jongleur's peculiar use of the VR interface slowed down her initial experiments, but since they were going to be the key to her success, she felt no urge to complain. She put her best analysis gear to work on the places where use of the clumsy, humanizing interface seemed most counterintuitive, guessing that these would be the most likely spots to find Jongleur's own connections to the J Corporation system. The gear did its job. Within an hour the links began to turn up—conduits for information to be siphoned out of the corporate system on a regular basis, data pipelines custom-tailored for Jongleur's own idiosyncratic use. Dulcie felt a buzz of pride. Dread might have his weird little tricks that he would not share or explain—he was clearly using something out of the ordinary to have breached the Otherland security so easily—but she had tricks of her own.

I'm good, damn it. I'm good at this. I'm one of the best.

As her gear tracked the smaller, capillary links to larger links, pursuing their mazelike course through rerouters and firewalls, her excitement continued to rise. This was what it was all about. This was better than anything—better than money, better than sex. When the larger links converged into a single broadband data tap, she was so excited she had to get up and take another walk just to pump some of the nervous energy out of her system so she wouldn't explode. As she paced along the slick, shiny streets in the wake of one of the city's unmanned cleaning trucks, she felt her heart racing as though she had just finished a marathon. All by herself, she was making a billion-credit incursion. If this had been her own play, this would be what others in her business called a retirement strike—she would never have had to work again.

She came back to the loft to find that the tracking gear had located its quarry and finished its work: she was spiked into Jongleur's personal system. There was still work to be done, of course. If it had been a true cold call, Dulcie would have needed weeks just to get into the simplest and least important levels, but now the passwords and other bits and pieces Dread had picked up enabled her to start nibbling away like a mouse in the wall-wiring. It still wasn't easy—the security mechanisms behind the ancient mogul's virtual playground were tough, smart, and adaptive—but because Dread's information was like having a fifth column inside the besieged system, the hardest part was now finished.

 

A management specialist would be in heaven here, she thought as she surveyed what now lay spread before her. You could spend days—weeks!—just tracking the custodial staff in that big tower of his. And look at this! Personal security—it's an entire subsection. He's got a damned army out there on his island. Just the quartermaster's requisitions take up ten times the storage I have in my entire system!

Even the most flawless spike-and-siphon had a time limit, of course, and even as she rode the crest of her triumph, Dulcie was keenly aware that things could go south very quickly.

Dread says Jongleur's out of contact, somehow—but someone must be in charge. You don't just leave a multi-trillion dollar enterprise empty like a laundromat while you step out for a few days. Good God, if J Corporation missed their payroll, the Slate of Louisiana would collapse.

Contemplating the corporate immensity spread before her, the thought of Dread's own hidden files plucked at her like a beggar's hand. How much is he hiding from me, anyway? How much can I trust him? I'm putting my life on the line doing this—what if he's wrong? What if his boss is onto him already?

Looking over Jongleur's empire, she had no doubt that at least one thing Dread had already told her was true: if they wanted to, Jongleur and his associates could make her vanish so quickly and thoroughly that Dulcinea Anwin might as well not have existed.

Only my mom will even notice. And she'll get over it.

In a way, she quickly realized. Dread had been right and she had been wrong. It was possible to copy information without surveying it first. In fact, it was imperative. There were so many thousands of files that seemed like they might have something to do with Dread's rather broad mandate, she could only designate whole blocks for duplication and send the data shooting down the high-speed links to the storage space Dread had given her—memory he had partitioned off for her from the Grail Network, because nothing she or Dread had access to would have given her anywhere near enough room.

In her mind's eye, Dulcie saw herself on one of those net game shows—what was that one, Loot?—throwing things into bags as fast as she could, stumbling over the objects of her own greed because they were too many and she was only one person.

She worked all night, and did not realize how much coffee she had consumed until she pulled the data-spike and collapsed onto her bed. Her entire nervous system seemed made of sparking, short-circuited electrical wires; she spent three teeth-grinding hours lying on her back until sleep came to her at last.

 

If she dreamed of lost animals or hospitals this time, she did not remember when she woke. The sleep just passed seemed like an impossibly long stretch of blackness, the attack on Jongleur's system weeks old, but after she had checked on Dread in his coma bed and made her way out into the gray day in search of some kind of meal that didn't come out of a wave-pak, she realized she had slept only ten hours, which wasn't too bad.

Nah, you're getting old, Anwin, she told herself. Used to be you would have slept for two hours tops, then been up taking the data apart.

Feeling much more substantial after the ingestion of a couple of rosella bud muffins, a fruit salad, and more coffee, she wandered back to the loft, hooked up her 'can and got into the Jongleur downloads. She had a perverse desire to wake up Dread, roust him out of his machine, and show him what she'd accomplished.

What is that—daddy stuff? She was disgusted with herself. "Look, I'm a good girl, see what I did for you?"

She was an hour into the preliminary investigation, and had found several of the codewords that designated Grail-related files, allowing her to pull a large number of them directly out of the mix and into the "relevant" pile without having to examine them, when she came across an anomalous object. It was a VR file, or at least it had VR code attached to it, but it also had some strange encrypted link embedded in it as well. It was in among a grouping of much more mundane files having to do with what she was loosely calling Jongleur's personal estate—powers of attorney, links to various legal firms and accounting operations, instructions to J Corporation management. She had spent time on the estate data hoping that it might contain some information on maintaining the Grail network in case of an emergency, reasoning that someone as old as Jongleur would want to make sure his pride and joy was kept running properly if he was temporarily disabled. She hadn't found anything—the material seemed quite ordinary, the kind of thing any powerful, wealthy person would have to ease the transition during illness or at death—so the odd file stuck out even more.

It was labeled "Ushabti," a word or name Dulcie didn't recognize, but she guessed from what Dread had told her about the old man's obsessions that it might be Egyptian. It had been created three years earlier and did not seem to have been added to or changed since. She triggered a quick search through her own system, and was given the information that ushabti was indeed an ancient Egyptian word, signifying a kind of tomb-statue. There was more detail available, but a quick glance turned up nothing relevant. Dulcie frowned and opened the file itself.

A dark-eyed man appeared before her so swiftly that she flinched. He was perhaps in his sixties, a tiny smile on his lined face, his white hair neat. The viewpoint drew back to show that he sat behind a desk in an old-fashioned office, something that might have belonged in a nineteenth-century embassy, teak furniture and heavy drapes on the windows.

My God, she thought. That's Jongleur. But this file is only a few years old, and he can't have looked like that in a hundred years.

Which meant nothing in VR, of course. What the hell difference when this was done—this is a guy who appears as some Egyptian god most of the time. . . .

The old man before her nodded his head once, then spoke, the voice public-school English with a tiny hint of something else, something more foreign, beneath.

"And so we meet, my son. Something we could never do while I was alive. I am anxious to tell you everything, and then you will understand why your life has been ordered in the way it has. But first you must tell me your name. Your true name, as it has been given to you, then we may proceed to the more prosaic forms of verifying identity."

My son? Dulcie sat without a thought of anything to say. She had clearly triggered the first half of some kind of dual-encryption, and now Jongleur—or his recorded sim, or his ghost, or whatever the hell this was—was waiting for the other half of the key.

"I wait for your true name," the old man said, a bit more of an edge in his voice. His eyes were quite mesmerizing, Dulcie thought as she waited helplessly—"commanding" is what they would have been called in a romance, although there was little romantic about this flinty old monarch. If he had looked anything like that in real life, it was easy to understand how he had built himself an empire.

"Your true name," the pseudo-Jongleur said for the third time. A moment later he was gone. The file had closed itself.

Dulcie rubbed her hand against her forehead and felt a film of sweat. She dropped out of the system. It was definitely time to take a break.

 

An hour later she sat staring at the Ushabti file. She was unwilling to open it again, or even examine it too closely, because things like this often had a built in number of attempts they would allow before simply self-destructing.

A search of available information on Jongleur had done nothing to illuminate the mystery. Not only had his actual sons and daughters died a century ago, but according to the best sources she could find there was nothing like a direct line of succession. All of his living relatives—the oldest still generations younger than Jongleur himself—were descendants of his cousins. He was not known to be close to any of them, nor did any of them have a role in the J Corporation.

As carefully as a specialist handling an unexploded bomb, Dulcie picked the Ushabti file out from the midst of the estate information and moved it onto her private system, then went back to work sorting files.

Dread could hide things? Dread wanted to keep secrets from her? Well, Dulcie could keep secrets of her own.

 

 

"Lets have another one," Dread decided. "This is interesting."

He waved his hand and a dark-haired, muscular man shuffled forward into the glare of torches and fell to his knees. His linen robes showed signs of having been costly once, but they were singed and torn, and his black wig sat askew.

"What's your name?" Dread asked him.

"Seneb, O Lord."

"And what do you do?" Dread turned to the woman beside him. "Kind of funny, isn't it? Like a game show."

"I . . . I am a m–m–merchant, O Great House." He was so terrified he could hardly speak.

"Tell me . . . hmmm. What did you have for breakfast this morning?"

Seneb paused, fearful of a wrong answer. "I . . . I had nothing, Lord. I have not eaten in two days."

Dread waved a huge, pitch-black hand. "The last time you had brekkie, then, mate. What did you have?"

"Bread, Lord. And a little beer." The man wrinkled his forehead, thinking desperately. "And a duck egg! Yes, a duck egg."

"See?" Dread grinned at his female guest, his red jackal tongue lolling. It was much more entertaining to do these kinds of things with a real human audience. "Every one different." He pointed to the priest he had been interrogating only moments before beginning on the merchant. "And what do you think of this bloke, eh? Is he a good man?"

Seneb looked at the cowering priest, again unsure of the answer that was wanted. "He is a priest of Osiris, Lord. All the priests of Osiris are good men . . . are they not?"

"Well, since Osiris has stepped out for a while. . . ." Dread smirked. "I suppose we'll have to leave that question unanswered. But how about if I asked you to fight with him? To kill him if you can?"

Seneb, for all his beefy size, was trembling. That might have been in part because the jackal-headed god on the throne before him was twice human height. "If the great Lord wishes it," he said at last, "then I must do it."

Dread laughed. "See? Some of them can't wait to pitch into one of the priests. Some of the others think it's sacrilege and won't do it to save their own lives. It's bloody marvelous."

His guest looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"Don't you see?" Dread asked. "You can't predict anything here! God—no pun intended—but this is an impressive situation. They all are." He turned to Seneb. "If you kill him, I'll let you live."

Seneb stared shamefacedly at the priest, hesitating.

"What are you waiting for?"

"And . . . and my family?"

"You want to kill your family, too?" Dread barked a laugh. "Ah, I see, you want to know if I'll spare your family. Cheers. Why not?"

As the merchant Seneb raised his hands and lurched toward the priest, an older, frailer man who now moaned in fear. Dread shook his head in continued wonderment. It really was quite stunning. He remembered the Renie woman and others commenting on it, but with the total access he now enjoyed, the unshackled freedom to bend the network's simulated humans into any shape pain and power could contrive, it was even more clear: the individuality of these constructs was something unprecedented, each with its own little internal universe of hopes and prejudices and memories.

He could almost see why someone like Jongleur thought he could spend an eternity in this place. Not that he could imagine such a thing himself, at least not in the immediate future. Dread had nearly exhausted most of the obvious ways of enjoying himself, and although he definitely planned to take advantage of the Grail network's immortality options, he was not ready to give up the pleasures of real as opposed to virtual flesh. Not yet.

Still, there was fun to be had.

"Come on, admit it—you're rooting for one of them."

The woman beside him shut her mouth in a firm line. Dread smiled. This was much more fun than anything he could do with Dulcie, to whom he was still forced to show a friendly face. After all, there was still so much more he needed her for. He had a lot to learn about the Grail network, but now that he had confirmed the Old Man's continuing absence—Jongleur's private line had gone dead, and if he still was somewhere in the Grail system, he was as marooned as any of Dread's former companions had been—he needed her to find a way into Jongleur's personal files. He badly wanted information about the operating system, and also about things that mattered outside the small, hermetic world of the Otherland system.

With the Old Man's money and power, Dread thought happily, I can be a god in the real world, too. I can play these kind of tricks with real people. Industrial accidents. Biochemical releases, A few small wars when the mood strikes me. And then I'll have the Grail network to keep me alive.

Astonishing vistas had opened up. Control of the Otherland system, which had seemed like the be-all and end-all, might only be the beginning.

John Wulgaru, he thought to himself. Little Johnny Dread. King of the world.

The merchant Seneb fought clumsily, but the aged priest was no match. His mostly toothless mouth sagged open as the younger man seized him and cracked his head against the polished stone of the temple floor, over and over.

Dread's female guest had closed her eyes. He smiled. If she thought that would solve the problem, she might be interested to find out how easily her eyelids could be removed. He turned to his other guest, who was just beginning to groan his way back to consciousness.

"A little bored?" Dread waved his silver staff and the merchant and priest melted screaming into puddles on the marble. The crowd of watchers shrieked too. Dread was intrigued; he had expected them all to be numbed to pain and death by now. "Well, then perhaps it's time to get on with our own business."

"You can torture me as much as you want," the woman said. "Even if you really were the Devil, I'd have nothing for you but the back of my hand."

"Oh, come now." Dread leaned over until his great muzzle touched her cheek and his nose pressed wetly on her ear. He licked the side of her face and wondered idly what it would feel like to take her head off in one bite. Would knowing it was a real person make it different? He had tried it enough times with this simworld's virtual inhabitants. "Let's play a game . . . what was your name? Ah, right, Bonnie Mae. Let's play a game, Bonnie Mae. Every time you tell me something useful about the Circle, or about some friends of mine I know you met, that's worth an hour without pain. Play your cards right, you could have a couple of nice days' vacation here in sunny Egypt."

"I'll tell you nothing. Get thee behind me, Satan."

"Yes, well, I'm sure you'd keep your mouth shut like a good little martyr, no matter what I did to you, Little Red Riding Hood. At least at first. But let's not waste time." He turned and reached a massive hand toward the other prisoner. The ends of Dread's stark black fingers began to glow an incandescent red. "But how long can you stay quiet if it's your little Indian friend here that's taking the punishment?" He leered at his male captive. "Wishing you had made it out of this simulation before I took over, aren't you?" He closed his long fingers on the man's leg. Flesh sizzled and steamed. The prisoner's shrieks made even the numbed crowd moan and fall to the floor.

"No!" the woman screamed. "Stop it, you devil! Stop it!"

"But that's just the point, sweetness." Dread lifted his smoking fingers in a gesture of mock helplessness. "It's not up to me to stop it—it's up to you."

"Don't . . . don't tell him anything, Mrs. Simpkins!" Nandi Paradivash was shivering with agony, but struggling to remain upright. "I am no less bound than you. My life is nothing. My pain is nothing."

"Oh, on the contrary," said Dread. "It's quite a bit. And if she won't talk to save you, I think you will when I start on her." He grinned, displaying a line of teeth like an ivory chess set. "Because I do even better work on women."

CHAPTER 14
The Stone Girl

NETFEED/NEWS: Net Has Its Own Folklore

(visual: artist's rendering of TreeHouse node)

VO: Net historian Gwenafra Glass says that, like all new countries, the net has its own folktales, mythical beasts, and ghosts.

GLASS: "You go back to the earliest days and you hear about things like cable lice. TreeHouse is another sort of example. It's a real node, but it's been embroidered over the years into something that's mostly fantasy. And more recently we have things like the Weeper, which is a strange sobbing voice people hear sometimes in unoccupied chat nodes and unfinished VR nodes. And of course an old folktale from the twentieth century, the gremlins that used to lock up fighter airplanes, has carried over into the Glowbugs and Lightsnakes that people these days claim to have seen in VR environments, but no one ever finds in the code. . . ."

 

Renie looked wildly from side to side, but could see no sign of whatever had made the sound. The nearest of the ghostly shapes pursuing her was a pale smear in the twilight murk, frighteningly close, but still several dozen meters away. She took a step to steady herself and to her horror felt something clutch at her ankle. She leaped away with a muffled shriek.

"Down here," a small voice said. "You can hide!"

Something rustled near Renie's feet. "I . . . I can't see you." Wind carried the pursuing creature's liquid groan down the slope. "Where are you?"

"Down. Get down!"

Renie dropped to her hands and knees amid the undergrowth, baffled by the shadows. One of the patches of darkness widened a little and a small hand reached out, closed on her wrist, and tugged. Renie crawled forward and found herself in a recess scarcely larger than her own huddled form, a space where a tangle of fallen branches had been silted over with crushed leaves and dirt. Pushing in headfirst, she could see nothing of the pocket's other inhabitant, and could feel only a childlike form pressed the length of her side. "Who are you?" she asked quietly.

"Sssshhh." The shape next to her stiffened. "It's close."

Renie's heart was still beating uncomfortably fast. "But won't it smell us?" she whispered.

"It doesn't smell things—it hears them."

Renie shut her mouth. She huddled, the smell of damp earth in her nostrils, and tried not to think about being buried alive.

She felt the hunter's approach before she heard it, a gradually growing sense of panic that made her skin tighten and her already speeding heart threaten to rattle right out of her chest. Was this the helpless, paralyzing horror that Paul Jonas felt each time the Twins came near him? Her respect for the man went up another notch, even as she fought down shrieking panic.

The terrifying thing had moved above them now; she could sense it as clearly as if a cloud had swung in front of the sun. Her throat tightened until the urge to scream was gone. She could not have made a noise if she wanted.

But the thing itself was not silent. It moaned again, the sound so pulsingly near that it seemed to turn Renie's bones to sand in their sockets, in the wake of that awful noise she could hear other sounds, a sighing murmur, as though the phantom whispered to itself in a voice of wind, meaningless sounds just on the edge of speech. The breathy gibberish was as unbearable as the scream. It was the sound of a dying or even dead intelligence, an empty madness. Renie, already in darkness, squeezed her eyes shut until her face ached, clenched her teeth together, and prayed directionlessly for strength.

The sounds gradually grew more faint. The sensation of hungry, brainless malevolence also lessened. Renie cautiously let out her breath. The shape beside her touched her arm with cool fingers, as though to warn her against premature celebration, but Renie had no urge at all to move or make a sound.

Several minutes passed before the small voice said, "I think they're all gone now."

Renie wasted no time backing out of the tiny cavern of twigs and leaf-scatter. Afternoon, or what passed for it in this sunless place, was almost entirely gone. The world was gray, but seemed still a bit too bright for this shank of twilight, as though the stones and even the trees gave off a faint light of their own.

The foliage rustled at her feet. The little figure that crawled out was mottled gray and brown, human-shaped but not very exactly so, as though it had been cut out of raw soil with a cookie cutter.

Renie took a step backward, "Who are you?"

The newcomer looked at her, surprise evident on its face—a face mostly suggested by the arrangement of dark and light spots and bumps and holes in the dun-colored surface. "You don't know me?" The voice was soft but surprisingly clear. "I'm the Stone Girl. I thought everyone knew me. But you didn't know enough to hide, so I guess that makes sense."

"I'm sorry. Thank you for helping me." She stared out along the empty hillside. "What . . . what were those things?"

"Those?" The Stone Girl gave her a look of mild surprise. "Just some Jinnears. They come out at night. I shouldn't have stayed out so late, but. . . ." The Stone Girl's expression suddenly became morose, in its simple way. She bent and brushed herself free of clinging leaves, quite deftly considering the thickness of her limbs and the clumsy shape of her blunt fingers and toes.

"So who are you?" the little girl asked when she had straightened up. "Why don't you know about Jinnears?"

"Just a stranger," Renie said. "A traveler, I guess." The Stone Girl might look as though she had been quickly molded from raw soil, but there was an odd suppleness to her movements, as though she could bend in places other than just the normal joints. "Do you live here?" Renie asked her. "Can you tell me anything about it?" A sudden thought struck her. "I'm looking for some friends—one is a small man, almost as dark as me, the other is a girl with curly hair and paler skin. Have you seen them?"

The indentations that were the Stone Girl's eyes widened, "You sure ask a lot of questions."

"I'm sorry. I'm . . . I'm lost. Have you seen them?"

The little head tilted slowly from side to side. "No. Were you out in the Ending?"

"If you mean that place over there where things get . . . kind of strange, hard to see. . . . Yes, I guess so." Renie suddenly realized how tired she was. "I really need to find my friends."

"You need to get out of here, that's for sure. I do, too—I should never have been out so late, but I was trying to get to the Witching Tree to ask about the Ending." The Stone Girl followed this unedifying explanation with a moment of silent thought. "You'd better come with me to see the stepmother," she said at last.

"The stepmother? Who's that?"

"Don't you have one? Don't you have a family at all?"

Renie sighed. This had become another one of those incomprehensible Otherland conversations. "Never mind. Sure, take me to this stepmother. Is it far?"

"Shoes. Down by the bottom of the Pants," the Stone Girl added, equally cryptically, and waddled past Renie to begin clambering down the hillside.

 

It didn't take long for Renie to understand the geographical reference, although it was not the kind of understanding that really explained anything.

As they made their way down the hillside in the dying light, following the course of the river, which emerged through a gash in the hillside and splashed energetically down toward the misty valley below, Renie began to see that her earlier observations had been disturbingly true. The shapes of the distant hills mimicked that of human forms, although they were still true hills, made at least on the surface from soil and covered in vegetation, as though earth had covered over the carcasses of titan forms. But where the giant on the black mountaintop had been singular and unquestionably alive, these smaller and more numerous forms buried in the earth seemed the remnants of some impossibly earlier time.

"What is this place?" she asked her guide when she caught up with her again.

The Stone Girl tried to look back over her shoulder, but it was hard without a neck. "Haven't you been here? It's Where The Beans Talk. You can see all the giants that fell. They're big," she added somewhat unnecessarily.

"Real giants?" Renie asked, then immediately felt stupid. As if such a question could mean anything in a world like this.

The Stone Girl seemed to take it at face value, however. "They were. They fell. I don't remember why. Maybe you could ask the stepmother."

As they followed the line of the cataracts down, Renie began to understand the rest of the girl's strange description. When she had seen them through the mist, the land's unusual features had seemed only the effect of odd hills and shadowy copses of trees, but now that she could see better she began to make out a strange order. One great fold of hillside, a ridge with a line of trees stark along its spine, was now revealed to be a single huge. . . .

". . . Sleeve?" Renie said. "It's a sleeve? Do you mean we're walking down a . . . a shirt?"

The Stone Girl again twitched her head in the negative. "Jacket. We're in the Jackets now. The Shirts are over there." She pointed a stubby finger. "Do you want to go to the Shirts?"

Renie shook her head violently. "No. No, I was just . . . surprised. Why is this country . . . why is it all made of clothes?"

The Stone Girl stopped and turned, apparently tired of trying to talk over her shoulder without the proper anatomical equipment. She looked as though she suspected Renie of making sport of her. "Why, they came off the giants, didn't they? When they fell."

"Ah," said Renie, who could think of nothing else to say. "Of course."

 

As they descended through river mist down a long fold of one of the Jackets, picking their way between the small but stubborn pines that seemed to cluster on all the most narrow and difficult bits of the path, Renie asked her small guide, "Do you know anything about birds that talk?"

The Stone Girl shrugged. "Sure. Lots of birds talk."

"This one kept repeating the same thing again and again, no matter what I asked it."

"You can't really talk to the ones that are asleep," the girl told her.

"What does that mean? That bird was flying—it wasn't sleeping."

"No, that's just how they are when they first get here, all sleepy, doesn't matter if they're flying or nothing. Used to be, anyway—there aren't many that come anymore. But the new ones never understand much at first. Just say the same things, over and over. I used to try to talk to them when I was little." She darted Renie a quick look, just as any real girl would, to make sure that Renie realized she was very grown-up now, not just a kid. "The stepmother said it wasn't our business—we should let them sleep, let them dream."

Renie pondered this with a growing sense of excitement. "So the birds . . . are sleeping? Dreaming?"

The Stone Girl nodded, then swung herself down to a lower section of the path and waited for Renie to follow. "Yeah. Watch out for that part—it's pretty slippery."

Renie balanced, then let herself slide down beside her. "But . . . but what do you call this place, anyway? Not the . . . the Jackets, here, but all of this." She lifted her hands. "Everything."

Before the girl could answer, a terrible choking sob came echoing up the furrowed hillside. Renie flinched so badly she almost lost her footing and fell. "Oh my God, it's another one of those things!"

Her guide was calmer than she was, holding up her blunt fingers for quiet. For a moment, as they stood in the mists, Renie heard nothing but the soft rush and splash of the nearby river. Then another ragged cry rose from the valley below.

"It's farther away now," the Stone Girl pronounced. "Going the other direction. Come on."

Renie, only slightly heartened, hurried after her.

It was easier going as they neared the valley floor, but the mist was thicker, too, and the slow twilight seemed finally to have made the turn into night. In deepening shadow the strange shapes of the clothing, the mountainous shirts and pants only partially concealed by a cloak of earth and vegetation, seemed even more disturbing. Here and there Renie thought she could see smaller shapes moving in the mist, as though people watched her and the Stone Girl—people who did not particularly want to be seen in return. Renie was grateful to have a guide. Fumbling her way alone through these strange hills in growing darkness, especially with those screaming somethings on the loose, was not a pleasant idea.

From the fires she saw flickering through the mist, it seemed certain that many people, or many somethings, in any case, made their homes among the folds of Pants and Shirts. As the Stone Girl took them along the seam of a small canyon between a row of cookfires on the heights, a few voices called down greetings. Her guide lifted her stubby arm in reply, and Renie felt reassured enough to wish that !Xabbu and Sam could share this with her. There was something deeply, primitively satisfying about coming into a lighted settlement at night, especially after being in the wilderness, and she had been in something much more bleak than any ordinary wilderness for days.

As they moved out of the Pants into another dark crease between hills, the Stone Girl said, "We're almost there. Maybe the stepmother will be able to tell you where your friends are. And I have to tell her about the Witching Tree, and how the Ending's getting so much closer."

They came around an outcropping of stone into another vale of cheery light. The buildings were ramshackle but the shapes were unmistakable, some of them so much a part of the landscape that they were indistinguishable from natural features, but others actually sticking most of the way out of the ground so that cookfires gleamed in the eyelets or through gaps in the soles. There were dozens of them, perhaps hundreds—an entire town.

"They're shoes! Big shoes!"

"I told you, didn't I?"

As she got used to the light, Renie saw that the spaces between the shoes were occupied too, dozens and dozens of figures huddled beside fires, shadowy shapes that watched almost silently as Renie and the Stone Girl passed. Despite their silence, she felt little menace. The eyes that stared at them, the voices that whispered, seemed dulled with weariness and despair.

It's like a shantytown, she thought.

"There aren't usually people living out here," the Stone Girl explained. "It's because they lost their homes when the Ending came. There are so many of them now, and they're hungry and scared. . . ."

She was interrupted by a dozen shrieking shapes running toward them from out of a dark clutter of gigantic footwear. Renie's moment of panic ended quickly when she realized they were only children. Most of them were even smaller than the Stone Girl, and their energy was unmistakable.

"Where you been?" one of the nearest shouted. "The stepmother is in a state."

"I found someone." The Stone Girl gestured toward Renie. "Took a while to get back."

The children surrounded them, chattering and jostling, Renie had assumed they were the Stone Girl's siblings, but in the growing light that spilled from the mouth of the nearest shoe she saw that none of them looked anything like her guide. Most of them appeared more ordinarily human, although their clothing (for those who wore any) was of a style she could not identify. But some of the swarm of laughing children were even stranger than the Stone Girl, their shapes distorted and fantastical—one plumply furred in yellow and black like a bumblebee, another with feet like a duck's, and even one child, Renie was startled to see, who had a huge hole right through her middle, so that she had almost no torso at all.

"Are these . . . your brothers and sisters?" she asked.

The Stone Girl shrugged. "Sort of. There are a lot of us. So many that sometimes I think the stepmother just doesn't know what to do."

The shape of a vast shoe loomed before them, and Renie suddenly drew up and stopped. "Jesus Mercy," she said. "I get it."

"Come on," said the Stone Girl, and for the first time took Renie's hand. Her fingers were rough, with the cool dampness of forest loam. A little boy with the head of a deer looked up at Renie with shy, liquid brown eyes, as though he wished he could take the other hand, but Renie was busy wrestling with this new realization. "Of course—it's that damn nursery rhyme, 'The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.' " Something else was tugging at her, too, some distant memory, but it was hard enough to deal with finding herself in a Mother Goose book.

"We all live in shoes," her guide said, drawing her through a door at the back of the ancient, moss-covered boot. "Well, everybody around here. . . ."

It was a very, very old shoe. To Renie's relief, no olfactory traces of its previous giant owner remained. Two or three times as many children waited in the smoky firelight as had come out to meet them, but the stay-at-homes seemed just as weirdly diverse. Those who had eyes watched Renie with fascination as the Stone Girl led her through the great boot toward the toe. Although there were far too many for introductions, the Stone Girl called a few by name, mostly while instructing them to get out of the way—"Polly," "Little Seed," "Hans," and "Big Ears" were a few Renie heard. She had to step over many of them, and a few times she trod on someone by accident, but no one objected. She guessed that the crowded way they lived had accustomed them to it.

Could these be the children in comas? she wondered. Is that what this place is—a kind of concentration camp for all the children the Other has stolen? If so, the prospects for finding Stephen were daunting—there might well be thousands just here in the Shoes, and God alone knew how many in the other pieces of clothing throughout the hills.

"Is that you, Stone Girl?" a voice called, echoing slightly in the dome of the toe. "You're late back and you've set me worrying. These are bad times. It can't be allowed."

A dark shape sat in a rocking chair beside the fireplace. A brick chimney poked up through the shoe leather overhead, but to little effect. In fact, Renie first thought it was the pervasive smoke that made it hard to see the figure in the chair, but then she realized that the humanoid form was itself vague as mist—a suggestion of shoulders and a head atop a body shapeless as a gray cloud. Twinned glimmers of firelight seemed to reflect where the eyes should be, but otherwise it had no face. The voice, though faint and airy, did not seem either particularly feminine or kindly. It was certainly not any version of the Old Woman in the Shoe that Renie would have expected.

"I . . . I tried to find the Witching Tree, Stepmother," the Stone Girl said. "Because everything is going wrong. I wanted to ask it. . . ."

"No! You are back late. It's not allowed. And you have brought one who does not belong here. Already the streets outside are full of those who have lost their homes—why do we need another? We have nothing to share."

"But she was lost. One of the Jinnears tried to. . . ."

The smoky matter of the stepmother became for a moment more solid. The eyes flashed. "You misbehaved. That calls for punishment."

The Stone Girl abruptly fell to the floor, writhing and crying. The other children were all silent, their eyes wide.

"Leave her alone!" Renie took a step toward the fallen Stone Girl, but something jumped through her like electricity, a great convulsive snap of pain that threw her onto her hands and knees beside the child.

"This one does not belong," the stepmother said complacently. "Too big, too strange. This one must go."

Renie raised her head; her jaw flexed but nothing would come out. Fighting to control her jerking limbs, she crawled a short way forward. The stepmother stared at her, then another whiplash of agony ran up Renie's spine and exploded blackly in her skull.

She dimly felt herself lifted by many small hands. When they set her down again, she was so grateful to stop moving she tried to say so, but only managed a wheeze. The dirt against her face was cool and damp, rather like the Stone Girl's hand, and she lay against it appreciatively as the last painful twitches worked their way out of her arms and legs.

When she could sit up, she found herself in the middle of a dark street surrounded by huge Shoes, as though she had been tossed into the back of some gargantuan closet. Light leaked from some of the dwellings, but their doors were all shut tight. Even the campfires of the shantytowns seemed to have been hurriedly extinguished, but she sensed the silent homeless watching her with fear and mistrust.

Okay, she thought blearily. Don't have to hit me over the head. Know when I'm not wanted.

A thin wail floated down into the valley. Renie shivered, wondering what she was going to do now, lost and alone.

She was staggering down the twisting thoroughfare when a shape came out of the shadows.

"I left." The Stone Girl's voice was very small.

Renie wasn't certain—she wasn't certain about anything—but it seemed something important had happened.

"You . . . ran away?"

"The stepmother is getting meaner and meaner. And she won't listen to me about the Ending." The Stone Girl made a funny sound, a muddy little snort. Renie realized she was crying. "And she shouldn't have given you punishment." She thrust something toward Renie—a blanket, soft and threadbare. "I brought you this, so you won't be so cold. I'll go with you."

Renie was touched but a bit overwhelmed. As she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, she couldn't help wondering whether she had been given a huge favor or a huge responsibility. "Go with me . . . where?"

"I'll take you to the Witching Tree. Ask it for help. That's where I was trying to go today, but the Ending has eaten up the path I used to take. We'll have to go through the Wood."

"Right now?"

The little shape nodded. "It's the best time to find it. But we have to be careful—there are things hunting. Jinnears—and Ticks, too." She looked up, suddenly hesitant. "If you want to come with me, that is."

Renie let out a breath. "Oh, definitely. If you promise you'll explain a few things to me along the way." The Stone Girl's dark line of a smile was odd but genuine. "That's right, you like to ask questions, don't you?"

 

 

The world around them, Sam decided, was becoming both more and less real.

More real because as they walked farther upriver, what had been glassy translucency became more substantial, the meadows and hills all solid objects now, the river itself un-arguably wet, splashing noisily beside them. More unreal because nothing seemed quite normal, as though it were all a picture improperly copied from life—or even a picture copied from another picture. The colors and shapes were all subtly wrong, too regular or simply not quite recognizable.

"It is purely an invention, I think," said !Xabbu as he examined one of a small, scattered stand of trees by the riverside, the bark whorled like fingernails, the perfectly circular leaves like translucent silver coins. "Like the first flower I made—a flower that was more an idea than anything else."

"The first flower you made?" Sam asked.

"When Renie was teaching me how things are done in these virtual worlds." He shook his head. "This seems the same—as though made by a child playing, or someone experimenting."

"Wasn't Renie talking about that? She said the mountain might have been made by . . . the Other. That system-thing. So maybe this all is, too."

"It seems likely. It certainly is not a perfect copy of some real-world place." He brushed aside some of the silvery leaves and smiled, "Look, there is too much shininess, too much color! In that way, it is much like what a child would do."

Jongleur turned back toward them, his bony face set hard. "Are you two still wasting time? It will be dark soon."

!Xabbu shrugged. "Perhaps. We do not know the rules of this place."

"Do you want to get eaten by something, then, because you don't know the rules?"

The little man paused, restraining his temper. Until recently, Sam had thought of him as perennially good-natured, but spending so much time with Jongleur was testing even !Xabbu's tremendous reserves of courtesy and equanimity. "It is probably a good idea to make camp, yes," he said with measured calm. "Is that what you are saying?"

"We're not going to find that . . . your friend. Not before dark." Jongleur's early mood of quiet withdrawal was over. He looked at Sam and !Xabbu as though he would gladly have hit them both with a stick, although he, too, kept his voice almost civil. "This is not like being on the mountain—there may be living things here that we would not want to meet."

"Very well," said !Xabbu. "Then this is as good a place as any to stop, since at least the ground is flat." He turned to Sam. "The man is right about one thing—we do not know what will come to us in this new land."

"If you want me to gather wood or something, you could go have one last look around for Renie. Call her or whatever."

He nodded, grateful. "Thank you, Sam. I think I can make a fire—it worked in that unfinished place where we were before. See what you can find that is loose on the ground."

 

She was not surprised when !Xabbu returned slowly, as though carrying something heavy. She had heard him shouting Renie's name for a long time. She decided to spare him the effort of making cheerful conversation.

He crouched and began building the fire. Jongleur sat on a spotted stone, brooding silently, his naked legs pressed together. Sam thought the old man looked like a gargoyle off a church roof.

Some of the trees stirred as a breeze blew across the grassy hills and through the camp. Watching the fire ripple, Sam realized that weather was one of the things that had returned when they had reached this area of greater substance.

Will it just keep getting more real? she wondered. It was only when !Xabbu looked up at her in surprise that she realized she had said it aloud. She felt silly, but the thought would not go away. "I mean, if we keep walking, will this world just get more and more real?"

Before !Xabbu could speak, Jongleur leaned forward. "If you think we will walk all the way back to the network, child, you will be painfully disappointed. This is not part of what I built, none of this. We are in some backwater of the net constructed by the operating system, something separate from the rest—very separate."

"Well, what's it all for, then?"

Jongleur only scowled and stared at the fire.

"He doesn't know either," Sam told !Xabbu. "He's just dupping, like he knows everything, but he's scared like we are."

Jongleur snorted. "I am not 'scared like you are,' girl. If anything, I have more to fear, because I have more to lose. But I do not waste energy on pointless talk."

!Xabbu reached over and patted Sam's hand. "If only about one thing, he is again correct. We should get rest now, because who knows what we will find tomorrow?"

Sam hugged herself. "I hope one of the things we find tomorrow is something to wear. It's getting cold." She looked at !Xabbu, as contented in his own bare skin as if he were dressed. "Aren't you cold, too?"

He smiled. "I will be, perhaps. So we will spend some time tomorrow trying to discover if any of the plants here are good for weaving into clothes, or at least blankets."

The idea of a project, however small, lifted Sam's heart. Nothing since Orlando's death had seemed to have much point, and certainly they seemed no closer to learning what they truly needed to know . . . but it would be very nice to be warm again.

She felt sleep pulling on her, so she curled up near the fire.

 

Sam thought she had only been asleep for a second when !Xabbu's long fingers touched her face. "Quiet," he whispered. "Something is nearby." She tried to thrash herself upright but !Xabbu held her back. Jongleur too was awake and watching as shadows moved in the high grasses just beyond the firelight. Sam realized she was having trouble getting her breath. She reminded herself of all the frightening adventures she and Orlando had experienced together, how she had learned to fight through her nervous excitement to do what was needed.

Yeah, but this is real.

It wasn't, of course—just one look at the strange trees showed her that—but the danger was. A quiet hiss that might have been the wind, or might have been whispering voices, eddied past. Sam fumbled out the hilt of Orlando's sword and held it with both hands because she was trembling too much to hold it steady with just one.

A small shape slipped into the circle of firelight. It crouched low to the ground, huge round eyes staring nervously. It was one of the strangest animals she had ever seen, a bizarre hybrid of monkey and something like a kangaroo, its spindly legs covered with long fur, its tiny head set low against its body.

Jongleur suddenly lunged forward and snatched a smoldering branch from the fire. By the time he had straightened up the creature had vanished back into the tall grass.

"Stop," !Xabbu said. "It offered us no harm."

Jongleur scowled. "And doubtless the first piranha to reach a swimmer is well-mannered, too. But there are many more out there. I heard them."

Before either !Xabbu or Sam could respond, the wide-eyed face appeared at the edge of the clearing again. Despite the creature's unfortunate aspect, Sam felt her heart touched by its bravery—it was half the size of Sam and her companions, and clearly frightened almost to death. But she was still startled when the creature spoke.

"You . . . you talk?" It slurred and mumbled the words, but they were still clear.

"We talk, yes," !Xabbu replied. "Who are you? Will you come and sit by our fire?"

"Sit by our fire. . . !" Jongleur exploded. The scrawny creature flinched away from him but stood its ground.

"Yes. Where I come from, we do not drive someone from our fire who has shown us no harm." !Xabbu turned back to their small, hairy visitor. "Come and sit. Tell us your name."

The thing hesitated, bobbing on its long legs, rubbing its front paws together. "Others are with me. Cold and frightened. They can come to the fire?"

!Xabbu quelled Jongleur with a look, which impressed Sam no end, although on this particular issue she was closer to Jongleur's opinion than to her friend's. "Yes," !Xabbu told the stranger, "if they mean no harm."

The thing smiled nervously. "Nice. Things are . . . are not good. Everyone frightened." It turned on its long legs, then turned back. "Jecky Nibble. That's my name. You are nice people." It faced out toward the forest and made a fluting sound, summoning its companions.

At first it seemed to Sam as though someone had thrown open the doors of a pet shop and let the merchandise escape. The dozen or so creatures that crept cautiously out of the undergrowth and into the faint firelight were mostly small and might have been mistaken for rats or dogs or cats until the firelight began to reveal a few odd details. Even as she found herself both disturbed and fascinated by the many tiny ways they were not the things they resembled, she heard a whirring above her head and looked up to see another score or so of visitors, winged creatures in the approximate shape of birds, settling in the branches all around the clearing.

"What, has the Ark sprung a leak?" Jongleur growled.

"Hey! He made a joke—sort of." Sam tried to keep her voice light, but didn't take her eyes off the squadron of small, strange creatures that now shared their campfire. "He must be scanning out pretty bad."

"I will build up the fire," !Xabbu told the first creature. "We have no food to offer, but you are welcome to share the warmth."

Jecky Nibble gave a funny bow, long legs flexing. "Nice. Very." It fluted again and the small animals scurried forward across the clearing, making a ring around the fire.

"Who are your companions?" !Xabbu asked as he laid some colorful deadwood on the fire. "Or are they your children?"

To Sam it seemed a very strange question—how could a monkey-kangaroo be the parent of birds and three-eared rabbits?—but Jecky Nibble did not seem to find it unusual. "No, not mine. I make. . . ." It paused, big round eyes suddenly asquint as it thought. "I do . . . I take? I take care of them? Of new ones—find them places, families. But no families left. Outside the gathering-places, it's very bad."

It shook its small round head. "We are trying to find a bridge. The world is getting so small! I think the One is angry at us!"

"Who's . . . the One?" Sam asked. "And what do you mean, 'find them families'?"

A flicker of apprehension slid across Jecky Nibble's face, plain even in the dim light. "You don't know? Don't know the One?"

"We are from far away," !Xabbu said quickly. "Perhaps our name is different than yours. You mean . . . you mean the One who made all this?"

It nodded, relieved. "Yes, yes! The One who made us all. Brought us across the White Ocean. Feeds us. Gives us families."

The smaller creatures, who had been murmuring and chirping quietly, now fell into reverent silence. Some of them nodded their tiny heads, smiling distantly, lost in a dream of nourishing community.

But Felix Jongleur was not smiling. In fact, Sam couldn't help noticing that he looked angry enough to bite someone. The visitors seemed to have noticed, too, and although they were now thick on the ground across the camp, they kept conspicuously distant from him.

Sam realized she had been sitting in one place so long that her joints were aching. She sat up, and the movement sent a flurry of startlement through their small guests. A few of the birds went whirring up into the air and did not settle back on their branches until Sam was still again.

The weird audience of tiny, staring creatures was becoming almost too much for her. Sam repressed a giggle. "It's just like, what was that scanbox show for kids? Bubble Bunnies on the Torture Planet? Any minute, they're going to start singing, '. . . Bunny ears, bunny toes, extra-flexy bunny nose. . . .' "

"Shut up, child," Jongleur snapped. "How can a man think with all this prattling?"

"Do not talk to her that way," said !Xabbu.

"Worry not—I don't pay any attention to him. . . ." Sam was interrupted by one of the small, vaguely squirrellike creatures, who suddenly took a few steps toward her and stood on its rear legs, staring at her fixedly.

"He always says I spend too much time on the net," it proclaimed in a thin voice. "Just 'cause he thinks Bubble Bunnies is stupid and doesn't have mortal values." It looked at her expectantly after finishing, as though awaiting a counteroffer on a major proposal. Then its tiny face fell and it crept back among its fellows.

"Who always says?" Sam could make no sense of it. "I mean, did you hear that? It utterly talked! It talked about Bubble Bunnies!" She turned to !Xabbu, trying not to giggle, but somehow very frightened too. "What did that mean?"

"That . . . the ghost-life," said Jecky Nibble, worried again. "Didn't you have one when you first came here? The One gives it to all—but maybe you forgot yours when you found your place. It happens."

Before she or !Xabbu could reply, Jongleur suddenly bent over the monkeylike creature. "The . . . One, you say? It made you?" He leaned in closer. "Made all this?"

Jecky Nibble raised long arms above its head for protection. "Of course! One made everything. One made you, too!"

"Oh, did it?" Jongleur's voice had become quieter and nastier, like a burner turned down to a fierce blue flame. "Well, you just take me to this One." His hand snapped out with startling speed and locked on a thin, furry wrist. "Then we will damn well find out."

Jecky Nibble let out a shriek as though it had been burned. Its charges fled the clearing in a hiss of wings and trampled grass. A moment later only the captured creature remained, trying desperately to free itself from Jongleur's grip. The look of raw terror on its little face made Sam feel ill.

"Let him go!" she shouted. "You big mean mamalocker, let him go!"

!Xabbu leaped forward and grabbed Jongleur's free arm and yanked hard. Jecky Nibble jerked free, then fled the clearing in a tangle of digging limbs. Jongleur, eyes slitted with fury, raised his hand as if to strike !Xabbu.

Sam dashed forward, waving the broken blade of Orlando's sword. "If you hit him I'll . . . I'll cut your balls off, you old bastard." Jongleur snarled at her, actually snarled like an animal, and for a horrifying moment she thought he had gone completely mad, that she would have to fight this cruel, muscular man to the death. She spread her feet wide apart, forcing herself to hold the shattered blade level, and prayed he wouldn't see her knees threatening to buckle. "I mean it!"

Jongleur's eyes widened. He looked slowly from her to !Xabbu, as though he had no idea how a Remote Area Dweller of the Okavango Delta had come to be attached to his arm, then shook himself free. He turned his back on them both and stalked out of the clearing.

Sam sat down, certain that she would collapse if she did not. !Xabbu was at her side in a moment.

"Are you hurt?"

"Me?" She laughed, far too loud. "It was you whose head he was going to tear off. I never even got near him." The strangeness of it all swam up on her. What was Sam Fredericks doing in a place like this, almost getting in a knife fight with the meanest, richest man in the world? She should be home studying, or listening to music, or talking to friends on the net. "Oh, God," she said, "this just locks in so many, many different ways!"

!Xabbu patted her shoulder. "You were very brave. But I would not have been as easy a victim as he might have thought."

"Don't get all regular-guy on me, okay?" Sam tried to smile. "You're not one of those. That's why Renie loves you."

!Xabbu stared at her for a moment, then blinked. "What are we to do now?"

"I don't know. I don't think I can stand to be around that man anymore. Did you see him? He's . . . I don't know. Seriously scanny."

"It is bad enough that he attacked someone who was our guest," !Xabbu said. "But we might have learned much from those children."

"Children?"

"I am certain. Do you not remember what Paul Jonas told us? About the boy Gaily and his companions, waiting to cross the White Ocean?"

Sam nodded slowly. "Yeah. And that little chipmunk or whatever it was . . . it said something about Bubble Bunnies! That's like this net show for micros back in the real world!" She darted !Xabbu a quick glance. "Micros means kids. Children."

He smiled. "I guessed." The moment's cheer evaporated. "As I said, there is much we might have learned. . . ."

Now it was Sam's turn to touch the small man's arm in sympathy. "We'll find out what this is about. We'll find Renie, too."

"I will gather some more wood," !Xabbu said. "You should lie down and try to sleep. I will guard us—I do not think I shall sleep again for a while."

 

Despite !Xabbu's suggestions, a restless, wakeful hour passed for Sam before movement in the vegetation brought her upright again. She kept the hilt of the ruined sword firmly in her hand; her fingers tightened when she saw Jongleur's hawkish features looming above them.

"What do you want? Do you think I was dupping about what I'd do. . . ?"

Jongleur scowled, but there was something strange in his expression. He spread his hands. They were shaking. "I have come back. . . ." He hesitated, then turned his face away, so that it took a moment before Sam made sense of the words. "I have come back to say that I was wrong."

Sam looked at !Xabbu, then back at Jongleur. "What?"

"You heard me, child. Do you think to make me crawl? I was wrong. I let my temper control me and I spoiled an opportunity to learn something, perhaps something important." He glared, but it was directed at no one, at least no one visible. "I was a fool."

!Xabbu cocked his head to one side. "Are you saying that you wish to be forgiven?"

Sam watched a visible shudder run up the man's naked torso. "I do not ask forgiveness. I never have. Not from anyone! But that does not mean I cannot admit fault. I was wrong." As if the firelight made him uncomfortable, he stepped back until he was almost in the shadows once more. "It was . . . it was hearing what they said. How they spoke of my invention. The One. . . ! That is my operating system they spoke of, as though it were a god! He . . . it, whatever one calls it—the Other has made things without my permission, taken tremendous liberties! This is why the system was sluggish, why there were problems with the network that delayed the Grail Ceremony for so long! Because the damnable operating system was stealing power to make this little project for itself, this laughable, broken little Eden. Christ Jesus, I am betrayed on all sides!"

After a moment, !Xabbu quietly said, "Yes, you have been unlucky with your servants, haven't you?"

Jongleur gave him a wolfish smile. "You remind me that you are not a savage, after all. You have an unpleasantly sharp wit when you wish to use it—like one of your people's poisoned arrows, eh?" He shook his head and sank down onto the forest floor. Sam finally realized that the man was shaking not with anger, but with weariness and perhaps something else as well. For the first time she saw what he truly was beneath the mask—an old, old man. "I deserve it. I have made two gross miscalculations and now I am paying for them. That may provide the two of you some little satisfaction, anyway."

Before she could say anything, !Xabbu touched her arm. "We have no satisfaction in any of this," he said quietly. "We are trying to stay alive. Your operating system and your . . . what is the word? Employee. Your employee. They are our problems as much as they are yours."

Jongleur nodded slowly. "He is horrifically clever, young Mr. Dread. He used that name to taunt me—More Dread, he called himself. Do you understand the reference? But even I did not see the full significance."

Sam frowned. She knew !Xabbu wanted to keep the man talking, so surely a question wouldn't hurt, would it? "I don't know what any of that means—More Dread."

"The Grail legend. Mordred, son of King Arthur. The bastard who betrayed the Round Table. Just as Dread has betrayed me, and perhaps destroyed my Grail." Jongleur looked at his hands as though they too might prove treacherous. "He has talents, he does, my little Johnny Dread. Did you know he is a bona fide miracle worker?"

!Xabbu settled himself with the quiet unobtrusiveness of a hunter who does not wish to startle his quarry. "Miracle worker?"

"He is a telekinetic. He has power. A genetic fluke, something that has probably been in the race for a million years, but scarcely noticed. He can affect electromagnetic currents. It is such a minute amount of force that I doubt it was even noticeable as a trait until humankind developed a society dependent on those currents. He could not push a paper cup off a tabletop with his mind, but he can alter information machinery. Doubtless he found some way to use it to burglarize my system, the miserable cur. But the true irony is that I taught him to control that power!"

The fire was beginning to die again, but neither Sam nor !Xabbu made a move to stoke it. The bizarrely geometric trees grew remote as the flames faltered and shrank.

"You see, I have long been interested in such . . . talents. I have eyes and ears in many places, and when certain records pertaining to a boy named Johnny Wulgaru came to my attention, I made sure he was committed as a ward to one of my institutes. What he had was only a rough talent, but then, he was a rough boy. He'd already killed a few when I found him. He has killed many more since—only a small number of them on my behalf, I might add. But I should have known that someone so self-indulgent would never make a useful tool."

"You . . . trained him?"

"My researchers took him and his raw skill in hand, yes. We helped him learn to use his unusual ability. We taught him restraint, selectivity, strategy. In fact, we taught him more than that—we made a street animal into a human being, or at least a convincing simulacrum." Jongleur's laugh was sharp. "As I said, even I underestimated him, so we did our work well."

"And he used this . . . power . . . on your behalf?"

"Only incidentally. Even when he had learned to focus it, to fully harness his latent abilities, it was still capable of only small miracles—things that in most circumstances could be achieved by more mundane methods. He himself has found it useful for subverting surveillance equipment. But I discovered he had other, more practical skills as well. He is completely ruthless and he is clever. He made an extremely useful tool. Until recently."

!Xabbu waited a while before speaking. "And . . . the operating system? The thing some call the Other?"

Jongleur narrowed his eyes. "It is of no consequence. Dread controls it, and thus controls the network."

"But he does not control this part of the network, whatever it is." !Xabbu gestured to the surreal, shadowy forest. "Or he would have found us here, would he not?"

The old man shrugged. "Perhaps. I still do not know where 'here' is. But our true enemy is John Dread."

!Xabbu frowned. "I think that if this man Dread controls the network through the operating system, then knowing more of the operating system might be important—how it works, how Dread is forcing it to work for him."

"Nevertheless, I have said all I will say."

!Xabbu stared hard. "If Renie were here, I think she would know what questions to ask. But she is not." His eyes wandered for a moment. "She is not."

"So we're just impacted, then?" Sam was trying to keep her temper and not entirely succeeding. The memory of Orlando, staggering bravely through his final hours while this crusty old monster sat in his golden house, planning to live forever, burned her. "Everything's just utterly scorched and nothing to do about it? And what do you mean, 'our enemy is Dread.' Our enemy? As far as I can see, you're as much an enemy to us as he is."

!Xabbu watched her for a moment, eyes serious and remote. "You frightened away innocents who might have helped us," he said to Jongleur. "You or your helpers have tried to kill us many times. She is right—why should we continue to deal with you?"

For a moment it seemed the old man might lose his temper again. The lines around his mouth grew tight. "I have said I was wrong. Do you wish me to crawl? I will not. I never will do that."

!Xabbu sighed. "Never since I first left the delta has it been so clear to me that speaking the same tongue does not mean understanding. We do not care about apologies. The things you have done to us and people we care for can never be made better by apologies. We are as . . . practical . . . as you are. What can you do for us? Why should we trust you?"

Jongleur was silent for a long time. "I have underestimated you again," he said at last. "I should have remembered from my time in Africa that there are many hard-headed bargainers among the dark peoples. Very well." He spread his hands as if to show his unweaponed harmlessness. "I swear that I will help you to get out of this place, and that I will not hurt you even if given the chance. Even if I will not willingly give you all my information—and what else do I have to bargain with?—I still know much that you do not. You need me. I would be in great danger alone, so I need you, too. What do you say?"

"!Xabbu, don't," Sam said. "He's a liar. You can't trust him."

"Then if you won't bargain, what will you do?" Jongleur demanded. "Kill me? I think not. I will simply follow you, deriving some benefit of safety from your presence while you gain none from mine."

!Xabbu looked to Sam, troubled. "Renie wished us to work with him."

"But Renie's not here. Doesn't it matter what I want?"

"Of course."

Frustrated, she whirled on Jongleur. "Where are we going, anyway? How are you going to help? Like, strangle all the little forest animals until they tell us what we want to know?"

He scowled. "It was a mistake. I have already said so."

"If he comes with us, we're going to take turns sleeping." Sam said. "Like we were in enemy territory. Because I don't trust him not to kill us in our sleep."

"You have not answered her other question," !Xabbu pointed out. "Where are we going?"

"In. To the heart of this place, I suppose. To find . . . what did they call it, those pathetic creatures? To find the One."

"You said knowing about the operating system would do us no good."

"I said I had told you all I wished to tell. And in truth there is nothing much we can do as long as Dread controls it. But if the operating system built this world, then there must be a direct connection back to the operating system somewhere in it." He fell silent, musing, then seemed to realize he had not finished. "If we can find that connection, we can use it to reach Dread as well."

"And then what?" !Xabbu suddenly seemed very weary. "Then what?"

"I do not know." Jongleur too had run out of strength. "But otherwise we wander here like ghosts, until our bodies die the real death."

"I just want to go home," said Sam quietly.

"A long way." For a moment Jongleur almost sounded human. "A very long way."

CHAPTER 15
Confessional

NETFEED/FASHION: A New Direction for Mbinda?

(visual: models wearing designer's troubled Chutes line)

VO: After a disastrous year, many designers would rethink their fashion ideas. Hussein Mbinda has done more than that. Yesterday he announced that he is considering an even more radical approach to his profession.

(visual: Mbinda backstage at Milan show)

MBINDA: "I had a dream that everyone was naked. I was in a place where clothes didn't matter, because everyone was young and beautiful forever. I realized it must be heaven, and that what I was seeing was people's souls. God sent this vision just to me, seen? And so I wanted to find a way to show everyone that fashion and money and all that—it doesn't matter. . . ."

VO: Mbinda's spiritual insight has provided his latest direction: latex sprays, but not in the usual fashion shades. Every one of Mbinda's new sprays is a human flesh tone, so that the wearers can be naked even when they're dressed. Despite the religious inspiration, they're apparently going to be quite expensive, too. . . ."

 

He had stared at his pad long enough. He had performed every other undone task he could remember, and had improvised a few new ones. There was really no acceptable reason for putting off the call any longer. He spoke the code phrase Sellars had given him, the one that the strange man had promised would give him an untraceable connection, then waited.

In the past several days Catur Ramsey had come to believe in several impossible things—that a worldwide conspiracy existed to sacrifice children for the immortality of a few incredibly rich people, that an entire virtual universe had been created almost without any public notice, and even that the minuscule hope for its defeat rested in the crippled hands of a man who had been living in an abandoned tunnel under an army base. Ramsey had seen a father and his child kidnapped out of a public restaurant by the US military, had been threatened himself by a rogue general and then had seen that officer suddenly die, and now he and several other fugitives were apparently in terrible danger simply for having chanced on the vast and malevolent design. One set of clients had a child in a mysterious coma apparently caused by the conspiracy. Another client was being led by supernatural voices. Catur Ramsey had been through a lot just lately.

Somehow, though, this felt like the most difficult thing yet.

On the tenth ring the answering service clicked on. Disgusted by his own relief, he began to leave his message. Then Orlando's mother picked up the call.

"Ramsey," she said, nodding in an oddly deliberate manner. "Mr. Ramsey. Of course. How are you?"

All abstract thoughts about danger and loss left him in a moment, blasted away by the reality of Vivien Fennis Gardiner. As jet fuel had changed Sellars' exterior so completely that it was almost surreal, grief seemed to have performed some similar dark alchemy inside Orlando's mother; behind the hollow stare and clumsy makeup—he couldn't remember her wearing makeup in their previous meetings—something terrifying hid.

He struggled to find words. "Oh, Ms. Fennis, I am so sorry. So sorry."

"We got your message. Thank you for your prayers and kind thoughts." Her voice might have been a sleepwalker's.

"I . . . I called to say how bad I felt about missing Orlando's memorial service. . . ."

"We understand, Mr. Ramsey. You're a very busy man."

"No!" Even this inappropriate outburst did not startle any deeper reaction out of her. "No, I mean, that's not why I missed it. Really." He felt himself suddenly in deep water, floundering. What could he tell her, even over a safe line? That he had been afraid agents of a secret conspiracy might follow him back to Sellars and the others? He had already withheld crucial information from her once, fearing to deepen her grief. What could he tell her now, after the worst had happened, that would make any sense at all?

At least some of the truth, damn it. You owe her that.

She was waiting silently, like a doll left upright, slack until someone came again to give it life. "I've been . . . I've been following up the investigation I told you about. And . . . and there's definitely something going on. Something big. And that's . . . that's why. . . ." He felt a weight of sudden fear on the back of his neck. Surely if these Grail people were willing to steal Major Sorensen out of a public place, they wouldn't balk at tapping Orlando's family's home line. What could he tell her? Even if everything Sellars said was true, the Grail conspiracy didn't necessarily know how much Ramsey himself had discovered—how deep into it all he now was. "Orlando . . . all that stuff he was doing online. . . ."

"Oh," said Vivien abruptly, animation flickering across the Kabuki mask of her face for the first time. "Was it you who sent those men?"

"What?"

"Those men. The men who came and asked to go through his files. I thought they said they were government researchers—something about Tandagore's Syndrome. That's what they say Orlando had, you know. At the end." She nodded slowly, slowly. "But it was the day after Orlando . . . and Conrad was back at the hospital . . . and I wasn't really paying attention. . . ." Her face sagged again. "We never did find that bug of Orlando's, that . . . agent. Maybe they took that thing, too. I hope they did. I hated that creepy little thing."

"Wait a minute, Vivien. Hold on." The weight on Ramsey's neck suddenly felt like a ton. "Somebody came to your house? And went through Orlando's files?"

"One of them gave me his card, I think. . . ." She blinked, looked around. "It's around here somewhere . . . hold on."

As she wandered out of range of the screen, Ramsey tried to hold down the sudden rush of panic. Don't, he warned himself. Don't do it—you'll turn into one of those professional paranoids. It could have been actual researchers, maybe from the hospital, maybe from some government task force. Tandagore's been getting press lately, some real officials may be feeling the heat. But he didn't believe it. Even if they're with the Grail, so what, man, so what? Just slow flow, man. You never even talked to Orlando Gardiner about any of this stuff—never even met the kid, except as a warm body in a coma bed. But the bug. Beezle Bug. If they ever find that gear, the Beezle program, what has it got in its memory?

He had managed to calm himself into near-fibrillation by the time she returned.

"I can't find it," she said. "It was just a name and a number, I think. If I find it, do you want me to send you the information?"

"Yes, please."

She was silent a moment. "It was a nice service. We played some songs he really liked, and some of the people from that game he played showed up. Some others from that Middle Country sent a kind of tribute that they played on the chapel wallscreen. Full of monsters and castles and things like that." She laughed, a sad little laugh, but it seemed to crack the mask: her jaw trembled, her voice hitched. "They . . . they were just kids! Like Orlando. I had been hating them, you know. Blaming them, I guess."

"Look, Vivien, I'm not your attorney, not in any official way, but if anyone else comes around wanting to look at Orlando's files, I strongly advise you not to let them. Not unless they're the police and you're damn sure that they are who they say. Understand me?"

She raised an eyebrow. "What's going on, Mr. Ramsey?"

"I . . . I can't really talk. I promise I'll tell you more when I can." He tried to think—were they in any danger, Vivien and Conrad? He couldn't imagine how. The last thing these Grail folks would want to do would be to make an even bigger news story out of another Tandagore tragedy. "Just . . . just. . . ." He sighed. "I don't know. Just take care of each other. I know it doesn't mean anything right now, but there's a chance your suffering won't be completely pointless. That doesn't make anything better, and I can only guess at how terrible this is for you, but. . . ." There was really nothing else he could think of to say.

"I'm not quite sure what you mean, Mr. Ramsey." She had retreated a little, either out of reflexive distrust of anything that might force her to engage the horror more deeply, or simply because the effort of having a human conversation had finally worn her out. "Never mind, Ms. Fennis. Vivien. We'll talk again." He let her end the conversation and disconnect. Just now, that was the only thing he could give her.

 

Sellars sensed his mood and was kind enough to let Ramsey slump silently on the couch for a while, pretending to watch the wallscreen. It was a model at least twenty years off the showroom floor, a plasmacolor that stuck out from the wall a full two inches, the top of the frame speckled with dust, its screen only slightly larger than the ghastly painting of a sailboat that hung over the couch.

"I'm suddenly remembering how much I hate motels," Ramsey said. The ice in his drink had melted, but he couldn't even sit up straight, much less walk out to the ice machine in the hall. "The bad paintings, the weird-colored furniture, the grit you find in all the corners if you look too closely. . . ."

Sellars bobbed his head and smiled. "Ah, but you see, Mr. Ramsey, it's all a matter of perspective. I spent decades in a small house that was my prison cell. More recently, I lived for several weeks in a damp concrete tunnel under Major Sorensen's base. I find a certain pleasure in having seen several motel rooms in the last few days, even if the decor is something less than engaging."

Ramsey swore under his breath. "Sorry. That was self-centered. . . ."

"Please." Sellars raised a thin finger. "No apologies. I had no hope of allies, and now I find I have several. You are a volunteer for a dangerous mission—you're entitled to complain about the accommodations."

Catur Ramsey snorted. "Yeah, and even I have to admit I've seen lots worse. Just . . . just in a kind of twisted mood. The call to Orlando's parents. . . ."

"Bad?"

"Very." He looked up suddenly. "Someone's been to their house—been through Orlando's files." He gave Sellars the details. While Ramsey spoke the runneled face seemed reposed and thoughtful, but the eyes were almost empty, as though already the old man were making inquiries, investigations, reaching out along his invisible web of connections.

"I'll have to look into it further," was all he said when Ramsey finished, then he sighed. "I am very tired."

"Do you want to get some sleep? I'd be happy to go out and stretch my legs. . . ."

"That's not what I mean, but thank you. Have you heard back from Olga Pirofsky?"

"Not yet." Ramsey was still angry with himself. "I should never have sent that first message—you were right. She must have thought that I was going to shout at her, tell her to turn around and come back at once." He looked at Sellars. "Although I have to say I'm still not sure why I shouldn't be telling her that."

Sellars stared back at him, the yellow-eyed stare inscrutable, then shook his head, "Damnation," he said softly. "I forget that I no longer have my wheelchair." With great effort he rearranged himself so that he could face Ramsey more directly. "As I said, Mr. Ramsey, I am very tired. I do not have much time left, and all my plans and necessities won't mean anything when that time is up. As Ms. Dickinson once put it, "Because I did not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. . . ." His head swayed on his thin neck.

"You're . . . sick?"

Sellars laughed, a dry sound like wind across the top of a pipe. "Oh, Lord, Mr. Ramsey. Look at me—I haven't been well in fifty years. But I have been better than I am at the moment, that's certain. Yes, I'm sick. I'm dying. There is the irony of all this—I'm doing the same thing the Grail Brotherhood is doing, trying to outrace a failing physical shell. But they want to preserve what burns inside them. I will accept extinguishment gratefully, if only my work is done."

Ramsey still did not feel close to understanding this strange man. "How long do you have?"

Sellars let his hands fall into his lap, where they lay like crossed twigs. "Oh, perhaps a few months if I don't exert myself—but what are the odds of that?" He showed his teeth in a lipless grin. "I am extended so far that I could work twenty-four hours every day without moving out of a chair, and now I have the added pleasure of traveling in the wheel-well of Major Sorensen's van." He held up his hand. "No, please, pity is not what I'm asking for. But there is something else you can do, Mr. Ramsey."

"What's that?"

Sellars sat quietly for what seemed to Catur Ramsey half a minute. "Perhaps," he said at last, "it would help if I explained some things first. I have not told you or the Sorensens everything there is to know about me. Are you surprised?"

"No."

"I didn't think you would be. Let me tell you one of the less interesting, but perhaps not entirely irrelevant things I haven't mentioned. Actually, Major Sorensen is likely to know this, since he has my personal history in quite excruciating detail. I'm not an American. Not by birth. I was born in Ireland—well, Northern Ireland, as that part of it was known in those days. My first language is Gaelic."

"You don't sound Irish. . . ."

"I came here to live with an aunt and uncle when I was very young. My father and mother belonged to a rather odd Catholic sect in Ulster. They both died early—that is a story in itself—and I was sent to America. But while they were alive, I was raised to be a soldier of the faith, and probably would have been one if they'd survived."

"You mean, like . . . the Irish Republican Army?"

Oh, much smaller and much less responsible. A splinter group that formed during the days when the peace process had begun in earnest, and which was never reconciled. But this is all beside the point."

"Sorry."

"No, no." Sellars nodded gently. "In this mad hash of stories we're all living, it's hard to know what is relevant, what is not. But the fact is, I was raised in a very Catholic household. And now that the end of my labors is upon me, Mr. Ramsey, I find that I want the chance to confess."

It took a few seconds for him to make sense of it. "You want to confess . . . to me?"

"After a fashion." Sellars laughed his hooting laugh again. "We have no priest in our company. As a lawyer, aren't you next in line?"

"I really don't understand."

"It's not a religious thing, Mr. Ramsey. I'm just very tired and lonely. I need someone to help me, and the first way to help will be to listen. I have been fighting this war by myself for too long. We are in desperate straits, and I no longer trust myself to make all the decisions. But you must understand the whole story."

Ramsey begged a moment, then went to get a drink of water out of the bathroom sink and splash some on his face. "You make it sound like there are some major undisclosed details here," he said when he came back. "What exactly are you getting me involved with?"

"My, you are a lawyer, aren't you? Just listen, please, then you can judge for yourself."

"Why not the major? Or Kaylene Sorensen—she's a smart woman, even if she's a bit old-fashioned."

"Because I have already put their child in danger several times, and they have Christabel with them now. They cannot be objective."

Ramsey drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch. "Okay. Talk to me."

"Good." Sellars slowly lowered his body back against the chair cushions, a process so deliberate it might have been performed by museum curators moving a fragile masterpiece.

Which I suppose he is, thought Ramsey, If everything he's said is true.

"First off," Sellars announced, "I did not stumble onto the Brotherhood's project—the Grail network—completely by accident." He frowned. "I will save that bit of the story for later, I think. For now, it's enough to know that as I began to realize what I had found, I watched their progress with growing alarm. And not just for altruistic reasons, Mr. Ramsey. I watched the threat of the Brotherhood with growing despair in large part because I knew it was going to delay the most important of my own projects."

"Which was. . . ?" Ramsey said after long seconds.

"Which was to die. Not that such a thing is difficult for me, Mr. Ramsey. On the contrary—with the nanomachinery I have acquired, and my original circuitry, I now have enough control over my own body that I could turn off the blood to my brain with a thought."

"But . . . why were you still alive, then? Before you found out about the Grail Project?"

"Because I have been balancing a scale for a long time, Mr. Ramsey. On one side is the normal urge to live, my joys and my interests, solitary and limited as they may be. On the other is the pain. Because of my many surgeries, the things that have grown into my bones and my organs, the strains on my glands . . . it hurts to be me, Mr. Ramsey. My life is very painful."

"But surely if you have such control, you could turn off the pain?"

"I did not have as much control over my own functions when I first discovered the Brotherhood as I have gained recently, but yes, even then I could probably have switched off the feelings in my hands, my skin, cut my brain off from my entire body. But then why be alive? There is little enough of the physical in my life—for so long I have lived mostly in my own mind, as prisoners often do. Should I give up the sensation of a breeze on my face? The taste of the few foods I am able to eat?"

"I . . . I think I understand."

"And in fact, the time was nearly upon me when the tradeoff was no longer going to be worth it. Then this Grail network reared its head, a problem I could not simply ignore. Still, I did not think I would be needed past the initial stages—I was planting seeds, as it were. I wanted to find a group of trustworthy people, teach them what I knew, and then be free to do as I wished. I even told them my real name, so you can imagine I was not planning to be around long! But things went wrong at the very beginning—the invasion of Atasco's island, the weird behavior of the operating system which prevented the people I rather dubiously call my volunteers from getting offline—and here I am, more needed than ever."

"So what can I do? Besides listen."

"Listening is very helpful, do not doubt it. It is an unimaginable pleasure just to be able to talk openly. But I have some very specific needs, too. I'm fighting on many fronts, Mr. Ramsey. . . ."

"Call me Catur, please. Or even Decatur, if that's too informal."

"Decatur. A nice name." The old man blinked slowly, summoning back his thoughts. "Many fronts. There is that group, allies of ours, who are literally under siege in South Africa. There are various plans the Brotherhood had already put into action which have to be monitored and in some cases covertly resisted. And most importantly, there is the constant struggle to find and aid those people I've already brought into the Grail network. And that's where you . . . and Ms. Pirofsky . . . come in."

"I don't understand."

Sellars fluted a sigh. "Perhaps when I tell you this, Mr. Ramsey, you will understand something of my frustration and weariness. I have been trying to locate and contact my volunteers within the system ever since I was first forced to abandon them in the Atascos' simulation world, but from the moment the Grail network was fully operational, I have found it impossible to get past the network's security. But I have told you a little bit about the operating system, haven't I? Its strange affinity for children? I discovered that if I bring the boy Cho-Cho online, at a certain point in the process, at a high enough level, the operating system will simply let him through. Not me, no matter how I disguise my intrusion—the operating system has always blocked me, sometimes quite painfully—but a real child will be allowed inside."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?"

"You do not see the whole problem, Mr. Ramsey. Decatur, excuse me. Imagine that you had a sealed box full of tiny beads, and a single thin needle you needed to push through the wall of the box so that it touched one particular bead, which could be anywhere in the container. How would you do that?"

"I. . . ." Ramsey frowned. "I wouldn't, I guess. Is it a trick question?"

"I wish it were. That's my problem—tracking my volunteers. Fortunately, it means that the Brotherhood hasn't been able to track them, either. The one I helped release, Paul Jonas, seems to have eluded them for quite some time."

"But you did make contact with them a couple of times, didn't you? You said so."

"Yes. I got Cho-Cho to the right spot. That was a little coup—I was quite proud of myself. Do you know how I did it? The operating system—this quasi-living neural network, or whatever it is—seemed to be fascinated with my volunteers. It paid special attention to them, and by carefully observing its actions, I could roughly track their whereabouts. Let me show you something."

Sellars gestured, and the jai alai game from South America that Ramsey had been half-watching disappeared. In its place was a strange, fish-eye view of masses of green growing things.

"That is my Garden, my place of meditation," Sellars said. "Or my tčarmunn, as I would name it in the language of my birth. Every source of knowledge I have is represented there, displayed as trees, moss, flowers, and so on. Thus, what you are looking at is not a garden at all, but the complete, up-to-the-moment picture of all my information.

"Or rather, what you see is how it looked a week ago. Do you see those dark fungal traces sprouting up through the soil? There, and there? And a large something below the surface there? That was the operating system. A knot like that, a node of activity, showed that a great deal of the system's effort was being expended there. Often—but by no means always—it meant the system was monitoring part of my volunteer task force. As you can see, they have split into several groups."

"So you can use a kid like Cho-Cho to get into the system. You can figure out approximately where your people are by the shape of the operating system." Ramsey squinted at the complex green shapes on the wallscreen. "So what's the problem?"

"That was a week ago. This is now."

The difference was striking, even to Ramsey. Sellars' garden appeared to have been hit by a killing frost—whole structures gone, others blackened and shriveled. He could not tell what any of it meant, but it was clear something devastating had happened.

"The operating system. It's . . . gone."

"Not gone, but vastly reduced, or perhaps withdrawn." Sellars briefly highlighted a few points in the now-barren garden. "It is now operating like a true machine, as if its advanced functions have been demolished. I can make no sense of it. Worse, there is no longer any correspondence that I can use to locate my people within the system. They are lost to me."

"I can see why you're upset. . . ."

"There is more. Have you noticed how quiet and sullen the boy Cho-Cho has been today? Last night, we had a very disturbing experience. Even though I could not locate any of my volunteers, I tried to get the boy online just to discover what I could about the current state of the network. We were both nearly killed."

"What?"

"The operating system no longer acts in its earlier manner, at least as far as allowing intrusions into the network. There are no more inexplicable exemptions for children—or for anything else. The security of the Grail network, still deadly dangerous for reasons I've never been able to understand, is now utterly seamless. Nothing gets in, nothing comes out."

Ramsey had to sit and think about this for a while. "So the people you brought into the system are just . . . lost?"

"At the moment, yes. Completely. It is a very helpless feeling, Decatur. And that is where you come in."

"Me? Somehow I don't think a lawsuit is going to do much good."

Sellars' smile was less than hearty. "We are far beyond that stage, I'm afraid. I know you cannot completely understand my Garden, but trust me—time is short. Things are changing quickly. The entire Grail system is extremely unstable, in danger of collapse."

"But that's good, isn't it?"

"No. Not while there are children whose health is still wrapped up with this network. Not while people whom I brought into this war of mine are somehow trapped inside the thing. You've already seen one child die while we all waited helplessly. Do you want to make that same call to the parents of Salome Fredericks?"

"No. Jesus, of course not. But what possible use can you make of me?"

"Because the more I think of it, the more I realize that Olga Pirofsky may be our only hope. I have tried everything I can imagine to penetrate the system. I have tried tapping into my volunteers' own connections from the outside world, but although I can access them, there is still something that prevents me from tracing that link through the security system and into the network."

"So what the hell is Olga Pirofsky going to do? She's just a nice woman who hears voices."

"If she succeeds in her goal, it could be that she can do much. What we need at this point is something she might be able to provide—access to Felix Jongleur's own system."

Ramsey blinked. "Felix Jongleur's. . . ."

"If there is anyone who can bypass the network security, it will be the man who created the thing. If there is anything that can get us onto the Grail network, and thus back in touch with the people I have put in mortal danger, it will be found in Jongleur's system."

"But Olga. . . ? You don't need some nice middle-aged lady, you need some kind of—Christ, I don't know, a tactical unit! Commandos! This is a job for Major Sorensen, not a kiddie-show host."

"No, it is precisely a job for someone like Olga. Major Sorensen will be very useful to us, I promise you—we will need all his security expertise. But no one is going to swim to Jongleur's island by night, bypass the attentions of his private army, and climb up the outside of his corporate tower like some kind of spy hero. The only way someone will get into the enemy's stronghold is if he . . . or she . . . is invited in."

"Invited? She quit her job, Sellars. She doesn't even work for them anymore. Do you think they're going to say, 'Oh, this is fun, a disgruntled ex-employee who hears voices and is on medical retirement—let's take her up to see the boss!' That's crazy."

"No, Decatur, I don't think that's going to happen. Nor would we want it to. There are people who go in and out of those buildings all the time and no one notices them. Cleaners—hundreds of them, mostly poor women born in other countries.

"Olga Pirofsky is more likely to get into that place pushing a vacuum cleaner than Major Sorensen would driving a tank."

 

A half hour later, Ramsey's disbelief had not precisely turned to heartfelt agreement, but had at least mellowed into a kind of stunned acceptance. "But I still don't understand why me?"

"Because I cannot do everything, and I fear I will be stretched even farther before the end comes, whatever that end may be. Ms. Pirofsky will need constant supervision, support, encouragement. Sorensen will be able to help with many of the technical problems, and I will help with others; but she is going into the labyrinth, as it were—inside the monster's lair. She will need someone on the other end of the ball of string, if I'm not overdoing it with the mythological allusions. And of all of us, you are the only one she knows and trusts. Who better?"

"You're assuming that she'll contact me again," Ramsey said, unable to keep bitterness out of his voice. "That's a big assumption."

Sellars let out a soft sigh. "Decatur, we can only plan for what we can do, not what we can't."

Ramsey nodded, but he wasn't happy about any of it. Worst of all was the knowledge that even if they succeeded in getting in touch with Olga Pirofsky, instead of giving her sensible advice—like, for instance, get the hell out of town and stay away from J Corporation—he would be trying to persuade her to do something far more dangerous than she had planned to do on her own. All this on behalf of a cause he hadn't even known about a week ago, and which still struck him as a half-step from total unbelievability.

Sellars cleared his throat. "If you don't mind, Decatur, I find that I am indeed tired now. You don't need to leave, but you'll forgive me if I take a rest."

"Of course, go ahead." He jumped as Sellars relinquished control of the wallscreen and the Garden disappeared, replaced by some kind of car race through what appeared to be a mined course. Ramsey muted the sudden grind of sound. A slow-motion replay of an armored vehicle spinning into the air on the back of a bright explosive flash made him think of Sellars' horrific burns.

"Hang on." He turned back to Sellars. The old man had closed his eyes, and for a moment a wave of pity washed through Ramsey. He should leave the poor crippled bastard alone. If even half of what he said was true, the old pilot deserved all the rest he could get. . . .

But Catur Ramsey had spent his early years working in a prosecutor's office, and the training had never entirely left him.

"Hang on. One more thing before you fall asleep."

The yellow eyes flicked open, alert and solemn as the stare of an owl. "Yes?"

"You said that you were going to tell me the real story of how you found out about the Grail Network."

"Decatur, I am very tired. . . ."

"I know. And I'm sorry. But if Olga calls back, I'm going to have to decide what to tell her. I don't like loose ends. Confessional, remember."

Sellars took a raspy breath. "I half-hoped you had forgotten." He levered himself awkwardly into an upright position, each almost-hidden twinge of pain a rebuke to his interrogator. Ramsey did his best to harden his heart. "Very well," Sellars said when he was resettled. "I will give you this last piece of the story. And when I've finished telling you what I've done, I hope you will remember that confession is not complete without the possibility of absolution. I feel in need of it after all this time."

And so, in a room lit only by the flicker of the wallscreen, by silent images of destruction and triumph from somewhere in the wide, wide world, Sellars began to talk. And as he listened to the old man's quiet words, Catur Ramsey's confusion and surprise gradually became something else entirely.

CHAPTER I6
Badlands

NETFEED/ENTERTAINMENT: Gills a Deal-Breaker

(visual: Orchid and attorney)

VO: Homeground Netproduct has dropped actor Monty Orchid from its upcoming series Bite My Beethoven because of Orchid's recent cosmetic surgery. Orchid, best known for his work as the doctor's estranged son on the Concrete Sun series, was to have played a student at a music academy who doubles as a government mercenary, but Homeground says that Orchid's new cosmetic gills are a violation of his contract. Orchid is suing.

(visual: Orchid at press conference)

ORCHID: "They could have worked with me . . . we could have made him some kind of underwater mutant guy—you know, music student by day, sabotage frogman by night. But they just didn't have any imagination."

 

The bleached, icy expanses of what had once been Arabia Desert stretched on and on, drift upon drift of white like spilled sugar, the misty sky almost the same color as the empty countryside. By the end of the second day, the miserable cold was no longer Paul's greatest concern. He was beginning to miss color the way a starving man misses food.

"But for me," Florimel said, "it is the waste of time I most regret. It is like being forced to walk down train tracks for hundreds of kilometers while trains pass on the other tracks. An entire system set up for instant travel, but we cannot make it work."

They had searched several more snowbound Arabian palaces in hopes of finding another gateway, with no luck. "If we could only see enough of this place to make some sense of it," Paul complained, as he had already done many times, "we could probably find the sort of place they usually hide their gates."

"Oh, chizz," said T4b. "So oughta just keep digging in the snow like some kind of dogs, us? Chance not."

"We have already agreed." Martine's plume of breath was the only sign she had spoken. Like the others, she was so wrapped in rugs pilfered from the icy fantasy castles that her face was all but hidden. Paul thought they all looked like piles of washing waiting to go in the machine. "We continue to the end of the river. At least we know we will find one there."

"I didn't mean to open up the argument again." Paul stared disconsolately at the line of the black river stretching ahead. "Just . . . thinking about Renie and the others . . . feeling so useless. . . ."

"We are all feeling the same way," Martine assured him. "Some of us may even feel worse than that."

 

It came up so slowly, perhaps because of the thickening mist, perhaps because the dark, cold water muted its normal vibrance, that Paul and the others were on top of it before they noticed.

"Op it," said T4b. "In the water around the boat—that blue light!"

"My God," Martine gasped. "We dare not go through on the river. Head for land!"

They applied their makeshift paddles, beautifully carved bits of paneling stolen from cabinets and chests in the empty palaces, to fight against the sluggish current. When the bow of the small boat grounded in the shallows they waded to shore through freezing water, losing several precious blankets in the process.

"I don't want to pressure you, Martine," Paul said, his wet feet already making him shiver, "but we're going to be frostbitten if this takes too long."

She nodded distractedly. "We are right at the edge of the simulation. I am trying to find the gate information." The river and its banks nearly vanished in the mists only a few hundred yards ahead, but some trick of the simworld's programming gave glimpses of greater distances, made it seem that there was more river and more land beyond. Paul wondered what would have been seen here before Dread covered the place with killing frost—an illusion of unending desert?

"I think I have it," Martine finally announced. "Pull the boat along beside us so we don't lose it. We must all walk forward."

They followed her small, shrouded figure through the drifts like a group of lost mountaineers trying to slay close to their Sherpa guide. T4b was the slowest, making his way along the river shore with the boat's rope, pulling the little craft against the current. He had been quiet much of the trip, even his usual litany of complaints muted, so much so that Paul wondered if the young man were going through some kind of personality change.

Paul could not help remembering a young soldier in his squadron, a lad from Cheshire with a thin, girlish face and a habit of talking about his family back home as though everyone in the trenches knew them and wanted to hear what they said and thought. The first bad bombardment had silenced him quite thoroughly. After seeing the reality of what the Germans wanted to do to them all, he became as miserly of speech as the most confirmed misanthrope in the trenches.

Six weeks later he had been killed by an artillery shell at Savy Wood. Paul could not remember him having spoken for days beforehand.

Startled, he pulled up. Martine had stopped in front of him and was studying the swirling mists with her blind eyes as though reading directions on a street sign.

What are you going on about? Savy bloody Wood? That isn't real—or your memories aren't, anyway. It was all make-believe.

But it felt real. The details of the World War One simulation he retained felt no different than the recovered memories of his real life, either the musty routine of his job at the Tate or his strange year in Jongleur's tower fortress.

So how do you know any of those memories are real? It was a question he didn't want to face, especially not here, in icy mists that might have cloaked the edge of the world, the reefs of Limbo. How do you know? How do you know Paul Jonas is even your real name—that anything you think happened actually happened?

"Step forward." Martine's croaking voice sent the phantoms flying. "We must hold hands as we step through, just to be sure."

"Did you find Egypt?" Paul reached out and took Florimel's callused fingers, even as she clutched T4b's free hand.

"Just s–step forward with m–m–me—I will explain when we p–pass through. Hurry! I f–feel like I am fr–freezing to death!"

As they walked forward, tangles of unsteady blue light curled up between their feet; sparks vibrated in the air like drunken fireflies. Paul felt the static lifting his hair.

Every detail, he marveled. They thought of every detail. . . .

Twenty paces later he stepped through into burning air and sunshine that struck him like a hammerblow.

 

The river still flowed, but hundreds of meters below them now, glinting in harsh sunlight at the bottom of a raw, red mud canyon. The dirt road on which they stood was less than a dozen meters wide. It felt something like being on the trail up the side of the black glass mountain once more.

"It is . . . the index said this is. . . ." Martine sounded a little dazed. "Dodge City. Is that not a place in the old American West?"

Paul's whistle of surprise was interrupted by a loud yelp of alarm from T4b. They turned to see the young man stumbling back from what had been their boat, but was now a large wagon on spoked wheels. Odd as the transformation was, it was not so much the wagon that seemed to have startled him as the beast yoked to the wagon.

"W–w–was holdin' the rope on the boat, like," T4b stuttered as he halted beside Paul. "We come through, holdin' that instead!"

The shaggy black creature in the traces had something of the shape of a horse, but its back legs were too large and its front legs had knuckled hands like those of a great ape. Its face was long, but not as long as a horse's, and tiny ears lay close to the sides of its bulging forehead.

"What is it?" Paul asked. The creature had bent to graze on dry grass beside the narrow dirt road. "Something extinct?"

"Nothing I have ever seen," Florimel said. "Not with fingers, no. I think it is something made up."

"None of this is what I expected." Martine swiveled her sightless gaze back over the canyon. On the far side, contorted shapes that Paul had briefly taken for human watchers, but which now he saw were cacti, stood along the ridgeline. "I . . . do not think there were such large mountains in Kansas, even in the nineteenth century."

"Why are we here?" Paul was grateful for the hot sun—he was even beginning to sweat a little. He dumped his rugs, which had changed their pattern but not their general substance, onto the dusty road.

"To imitate the old joke," Martine said, "there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Egypt sim-world still exists, or at least it is still on the index. The bad is that we could not get to it from the Arabian Nights world."

"Can we reach it from this one?"

"Not if we go all the way through," she said. "The river gate at the end of this simulation opens to something called 'Shadowland'—or once did, anyway. But there appeared to be a secondary gate, the kind that would be somewhere in the middle of the simulation, that we can use."

"And that will take us to Egypt?"

"Yes, as far as I could tell. It is hard to be certain because some of the codes that indicated status were indecipherable to me. But I believe the chances are good."

"Hey!" T4b shouted. "Op this!" He had wandered a sort distance back up the sloping road and was peering at something in the dry grasses. "Hole in the ground, but with like a frame around it. Some kind of treasure dungeon, something."

"Stay with us, Javier," Florimel called to him. "That sounds like a mine shaft. It will not be safe."

"So what now?" Paul asked. "Where do you think this other gateway is?"

Martine shrugged. "If this simworld is named Dodge City, I would think that the city would be a good place to start looking." She pointed down the canyon. "If we are at one edge of the simulation, then it must be in that direction. Do you see anything?"

"Not from here." He turned to Florimel. "Do you know anything about horses? If that's what that thing is supposed to be?"

She favored him with a grim smile. "I have dealt with a few. Again, the benefits of growing up on a rural commune. Why don't you throw the rugs into the back so we have something to sit on?" She turned and shouted down the road to T4b, where the top of his black-haired head showed above the long weeds. His arm went up and down, as though he were waving at something. "Damn you, Javier, if you fall down in there and break your legs, I am not going to pull you out. Come and help us."

"Deep, utter," T4b said as he rejoined them few moments later. "Took that rock like about a minute to hit the bottom."

"Jesus," Paul said in weary annoyance, "can we just get going?"

They piled into the wagon. Florimel had indeed managed to gentle the horselike creature, although Paul thought it looked at the rest of them with something less than trust as she climbed up onto the bench and took the reins. When the rest of the company was seated on the hard boards she clicked her tongue softly and the creature began to move down the gentle incline. The road was narrow and the canyon opened starkly to their left, a fall that would last several seconds should any of them be unlucky enough to try it, and Paul was glad of the beast's deliberate pace.

"It is so strange," Florimel said. "It is a river valley, but it seems so . . . raw." Indeed, the edges of the canyon wall, banded in red and brown and orange, glistened like meat. "So new."

"I've never been here," Paul said, "I mean, in the real world, but I agree with Martine—I don't think there are many mountain ranges in Kansas. T4b? Do you know anything about it?"

The youth was staring out of the back of the wagon. "About what?"

"Kansas."

"That a city, something, right?"

Paul sighed.

"It is new," Martine said. "At least, I can feel something in the geological information—I cannot think of a better way to say it—that suggests it has changed much and is still changing." She frowned. "What is that clanking?"

"The very poor suspension of this wagon, perhaps," said Florimel sourly. "By the way, this thing pulling us is not what I think of as a native American animal either, when you come to it. In fact, I am reminded of. . . ."

"Fenfen!" T4b shouted suddenly, pointing back up the slope. "Op it! Look!"

Paul turned to see a huge, glittering shape slide out of the mine shaft. For a moment it was only multiple starbursts of bouncing light, then the great head heaved around toward them, and with the bright reflections gone, Paul could suddenly see it clearly.

"Sweet Jesus," he said. "It's some kind of snake!"

But it was more than that—it was another thing like their horse, familiar yet strange. As the monstrous creature heaved more of its bulk out of the shaft, he saw that its body was studded with great chunks of copper and silver, as though its bones were metal and protruded through the horny, patterned skin. Instead of a smooth tube, it was segmented like a child's toy, but weirdest of all were the wheels at the bottom of each segment, great round buttons of bone.

"It's a. . . ." Absurdly, even in heart-pounding fright he found himself grasping for the proper term. "A mine train—ore cars!"

The thing writhed, squeaking and scraping, out onto the road. For a moment it tried to draw itself into a circle, but there was not enough room for its massive coils in the flat space along the edge of the cliffs. It rose up swaying, just its front two sections looming several meters high, and for a moment its huge, faceted rose-quartz eyes seemed to consider their wagon, halted and helpless as Florimel tried to calm the terrified horse-creature. A tongue like a hardened stream of quicksilver flicked out, then flicked out again, then with terrifying speed the serpent dropped its head and slid down the road toward them.

"Get out," Paul shouted. "It's corning! We'll have to run!"

"Chance not!" T4b slithered out of the wagon and onto the front bench and snatched the reins from Florimel. "Done this one before, me—just like Baja Hades!"

He whipped the horse-creature's flank with the end of the reins until it gave a shrill whistle of pain and surprise, then leaped away down the road so suddenly that the wagon almost tipped over. It was all Paul could do to cling to the side. As soon as he regained his balance, the wagon wheeled around a bend and he spun sideways again to crash into Martine and almost knock her over the low railing. The snake-thing had fallen out of sight behind them.

"Flyin' now!" T4b whooped. "Told you, done this before!"

"This isn't a game!" Paul shouted at him. "This is bloody real!"

Florimel took advantage of a section of straightaway to fling herself into the back of the wagon with the others. She grabbed fiercely at the board railing beside Paul.

"If we survive," she gasped, "I will kill him."

The odds on that outcome rapidly became worse; as the careening wagon picked up speed on an increasing slope, the vast head of the serpentine creature came around the corner behind them, followed by its juddering body. It had wheels, as well as the great muscular power of its ore-knobbed body to push it along. It was gaining on them.

They thundered over rocks in the road and for a moment Paul felt himself rise weightlessly off the wagon bed, then gravity reasserted itself, slamming him down hard on his back on the boards. A body, either Florimel's or Martine's, thumped on top of him and drove out the air, so that for a moment the sky exploded with daytime stars.

A second later the wagon tipped up at an alarming angle as the terrified horse dragged it around another bend on two wheels. From his position, it seemed certain to Paul that they had run off the side of the road and were hanging over pure nothing.

When all four wheels were touching ground again, Paul clambered up onto his hands and knees with the idea of putting Florimel's plan into action now, on the chance that they would not live to kill T4b later on. Instead, as he lifted his head up above the wagon floor, he saw the terrible face of their pursuer only meters behind them. The creature saw him, too. A mouth full of draggled iron fangs opened wide, displaying black depths as impenetrable as the pit out of which it had crawled.

Paul decided not to strangle the teenager just yet.

"It's catching up!" he shouted.

T4b crouched lower on the bench, snapping the reins against the horse-creature's back, but the animal had no greater speed to give them. Another bump and Paul felt himself flung up in the air again, and for a moment was heart-stoppingly certain he would be flung out the back of the wagon and into those waiting jaws. Instead he tangled with Florimel and the two of them slid and crashed into the back railing of the wagon.

"Grab her!" Florimel shouted as he struggled to extricate himself. For a moment Paul had no idea what she meant, but then saw that Martine also had hit the back of the wagon at such an angle that she had nearly flown out. She was clinging with one leg and one arm, her left leg dangling only a few inches above the dirt, too stunned even to cry out.

Paul scrambled along the railing, but could not get a firm hold on Martine's flailing limbs as he fought against the wagon's ceaseless jouncing. Florimel grabbed him, helping to anchor him as he worked to better his grip. T4b was staring back in alarm, and as if sensing his inattention the horse-creature had slowed a little. The pursuing serpent gave a creaking hiss and rose up behind them, looming over the wagon like the terrifying figurehead of a Viking ship.

The wagon abruptly swung to the right as the horse followed a tight curve in the hillside. Paul, Florimel, and Martine were all flung to the outside rail of the wagon; for an instant, Martine lifted off the railing and was in open air with nothing below her but the painted strata of the canyon. Paul felt her sleeve begin to rip under his fingers, the material pulling apart at the seams, even as the dragon head darted down at them and the giant stony jaws clacked a hand's breadth from Paul's head.

Paul yanked Martine back down into the wagon, banging her skull against the rail in the process. The serpent reared again, then paused and abruptly rolled sideways, its hiss a shriek of surprise, and fell away behind them.

Paul clambered to his knees, staring. The tail of the serpent had failed to make the last sharp bend, even as the head had driven in for the kill. Much of the creature's bulk had already skidded down the steep slope in a billow of dust. As Paul watched, the great head whipped back and forth as it tried to gain purchase with the part of its body still on the mountain road, but too much of its back end was sliding downward. With a screech like failing brakes, the head thrashed toward them once, sun glinting from the copper nodes, then it was gone over the side like a yanked rope.

Moments later a grinding crash echoed up to them, the sound of a vertical train wreck.

Paul slumped back to the wagon bed. Martine and Florimel lay beside him, breathing in shallow, rapid gasps. The wagon was still jolting swiftly down the winding road, swaying dangerously at every turn.

"It's gone!" he shouted. "Javier, it's gone! Slow down!"

"This thing's locked up! Won't go slow!"

Exhausted, Paul sat up. The boy was pulling back as hard on the reins as he could, but although the horse had modified its pace a little, it was still moving down the hill road at a near gallop.

"It can't slow down," Florimel groaned from the boards beside him. "The wagon will run over it. Find the brake!"

"Brakes? On a wagon?"

"Great God, of course there is!" She clambered past Paul and leaned across T4b's lap. She grabbed something there and pulled up. There was a groaning noise and for a moment the wheels dug, then rolled again, but this time a little more slowly.

"Damn," said Paul. "I can't tell you how happy I am you knew that."

They were still rolling downhill at a whistling pace, but all four wheels now remained in contact with the ground. Paul, Martine, and Florimel dragged themselves back into the center of the wagon bed as the rocky hillside rushed past.

"Everybody all right?" Paul asked.

Martine groaned. "I have scraped most of the skin off my hands. Otherwise, I will live."

"Hey!" shouted T4b. "What about some charge for the driver?"

"What?" Florimel rubbed bruised knees. "Is he asking for drugs?"

"Charge!" T4b said, and laughed. "You know, rep!"

Paul, who was at least glancingly conversant with street slang, was the first to figure it out. "Thanks. He wants us to thank him,"

"Thank him?" Florimel growled. '"I would give him a painful spanking if I didn't worry we'd go over the cliff."

T4b scowled. "Didn't get eat by no snake, you. What's your boohoo?"

"You did a good job, Javier," Martine said. "Just keep your eyes on the road, please."

Paul spread his legs to brace himself, then leaned against the front of the wagon bed, watching the hill road wind away behind them. The sun was dazzlingly bright, only an eyelash short of noon. Raw metal glinted here and there in the ragged landscape.

"I doubt that either that snake or the horse pulling us were part of the original package for this place," he said. "Does that remind you of anything?" He was startled by a line of black appearing on the ridge beside them. It took a moment before he realized it was some kind of cable. He raised himself on his elbows and turned to look ahead. The cable paralleled the road, stretched along sentinel tree trunks.

Telephones? Not in Dodge City. Telegraph, must be. He eased himself back and watched the hill road and the line of black sliding away behind them.

"It is like Kunohara's world," Florimel said. "Those mutations he said had just begun there. Perhaps Dread has done something like that here as well."

"That would be a quick and perhaps amusing way to spoil things," Martine said. She spoke slowly, obviously still tired and sore. "And he has so many worlds to ruin. Just turn up a few randomizing factors, perhaps, then sit and watch someone's carefully-crafted simulation turn into something bizarre."

Another telegraph line now hung below the first, twin black streaks along the left side of Paul's vision. The wagon rattled and lurched down the stony road. Paul groaned. It was hard to imagine a less comfortable way to travel—he was surprised he hadn't broken any teeth with all the jaw-snapping bounces. "Can't we go any slower?"

"Not if you want Mister Horse in front of this ride," T4b said crossly.

Now there were telegraph lines along the canyon rim as well, so that the wagon rolled between two high, sparse fences of black cables. Paul wondered if this was another misshaping of the original simulation, and if so, what weird communication ran along these extra cables. Or were they merely empty copies?

"I think I see a town," Florimel said. "See, down at the bottom of the canyon."

Paul clambered to the edge of the wagon and squinted. The sun's glare off the canyon walls was fierce, making the river at the bottom a twisting line of silvery fire, but there was certainly something along the river's edge just before the canyon bent and blocked the rest of the river valley from view, something that seemed too regular to be stone on the canyon floor.

"Martine, can you tell if that's really a town—Dodge City, or whatever this is? I can't see it very well."

"We will reach it soon enough." She reached up and rubbed listlessly at her temples. "Forgive me."

"What in hell is going on?" Florimel said.

For a moment Paul thought she was talking about Martine's unwillingness to come look; then he saw that just ahead another half-dozen cables ran in from the hillside and then bent off a leaning pole and stretched over the top of the roadway like a musical staff with no notes. An instant later they were bouncing along beneath the awning of black lines, and Paul could not help seeing that the cables now surrounded them on all sides. They hung loosely, a meter or two of empty space between each pair, so they were not in any way trapped, but it was still an unsettling sight.

"I don't know," Paul belatedly answered Florimel. "But I don't like it very much. . . ." He looked up past T4b just as the wagon rounded a bend, still traveling in a tube of telegraph cables. The young man swore and jerked back hard on the reins. Their horse was already trying to slow up, but the weight of the wagon behind it was too much and the creature's knob-knuckled feet were furrowing the roadway.

Just a few dozen meters ahead the cables all ran together, knotted in a crooked black mandala across the middle of the wide road. It looked like. . . .

"Christ!" shouted Florimel, tumbling as the horse tangled in the traces and the wagon began to sway alarmingly. "What. . . ?"

It looked like a huge spiderweb.

"Get out!" Paul shouted. The horse had bolted to the inner side of the roadway and the wagon could not make a sharp enough turn to follow. The wheels dug and skidded. The whole wagon began to tip even as it plunged swiftly forward into the swaying net of cables, now only a stone's throw away. "Jump—now!"

Martine was wrapped around his legs. The wagon bed was tilting up sideways, lifting them inexorably toward the canyon side of the road. Paul bent down and grabbed the blind woman, then did his best to climb to the rising side of the wagon, hoping to leap out toward the hillside, but Martine's weight was too much for him.

One of the wagon wheels snapped with a noise like a gunshot. A splintered piece of spoke arrowed past his face and the whole wagon groaned like a wounded animal as it tumbled onto its side.

Paul had no chance to pick spots. He grabbed Martine and flung himself off the wagon bed. Something sticky caught at him, sagging beneath his weight, and for a moment he had the alarming sight of nothing but empty air beneath him, of the full vertiginous drop down the crazy-banded side of the canyon. He half-slid, half-fell down the row of cables until he was sitting in a painful, twisted position in the roadway, stuck at the nexus point of two of the black bands, with Martine lying motionless across his lap.

Before he could even look for the others, the wagon and the trapped, tethered horse rolled into the web of cable blocking the roadway, flinging up a dense cloud of dust. One of the horse's legs was obviously broken; it writhed helplessly in the wreckage of the wagon, a mess of kicking black fur and splintered wood dangling from the sticky web.

Then the web's builders appeared—hairy gray-and-brown shapes climbing up from the canyon or down the hillside, scuttling along the strands like spiders.

Spiders would have been bad enough. These things had the faces of dead buffalo, with hanging tongues and rolling eyes, atop their malformed, many-limbed bodies. Worst of all, they were even more clearly part-human than the insect-monsters of Kunohara's world. They hissed with hungry pleasure as they advanced down the swaying cables. The first of them to reach the middle of the web began to pull the living horse apart, bickering in wet, piping voices over the best bits, ignoring the creature's agonized squeals as they began to feed.

Paul tried to drag himself upright, but the sticky cables held him like a strong hand.

 

 

"CODE Delphi. Start here.

"It seems pointless to me even to record these thoughts, since I cannot believe we will ever leave this place, but the habit dies hard.

"It is dark here, the others tell me—some kind of underground nest, filthy to smell and unpleasant to hear. I wish I could limit myself to those two senses, but in my own way I can even see the things moving, eating, coupling. They are horrible. I am running out of hope. My strength is all but gone.

"I suppose we are alive only because they feasted on the horse first. The sounds it made dying were. . . . No. What is the point? Is there something we can do? I can think of nothing. There are dozens of the monsters. We should have tried to escape when we were first seized. Now we are in their nest. Any hope that they eat only animals has been destroyed by the human bones that lie everywhere, in careless piles. Those I touched have been picked clean of flesh and broken for marrow.

"Horrible things. T4b, who has spent most of the time praying, called them 'rotten-cow spiders.' I have not had a clear impression of them. What I perceive is the mass of them, the limbs, the voices—almost human, but my God, that word 'almost'. . . !

"Stop, Martine. We have faced situations as bad as this and survived. Why is it that I am so weak, so weary, so miserable? Why have the past days felt like work too hard for me to do?

"It is. . . .

"Good God. One of the things came to sniff at us. Florimel drove it away by kicking at it, but it did not seem frightened. They do smell of rotted meat, but they also have another scent, something strange I cannot define, something nonliving. This whole place, this simworld, seems to be in a paroxysm of change. The others can see only what is at this moment, but I can perceive the changes that have happened and those that are about to happen. Dread has grabbed the place and squeezed hard. This world has not resisted him any better than would a fistful of butter. Heaven only knows what these poor creatures were. People, perhaps. Ordinary people with ordinary lives. Now they live in holes in the ground and squeak like rats and eat things that are still screaming.

"Where is Paul? I cannot sense him near me anymore. But the noise and heat and confusion make it difficult. . . .

"Florimel says he is just a few meters away, on his hands and knees. Poor man. To have gone through so much, only to end here.

"I cannot stand this anymore—any of it. Ever since the Trojan simulation I have been dazed as an electroshock victim. In between the terrors and lesser distractions I have tried to find myself, the Martine I know, but it is as if I have been hollowed. The memory of the last hours of Troy haunts me. How could I do such a thing? Even to save these friends, how could I bring death to so many? Rape and torture and destruction? And after watching the pitiable humanity of Hector and his family, too.

"I tell myself over and over that they were only Simulaera, not real, only bits of gear. Sometimes I believe it, for hours at a stretch. Maybe it truly is so, but I know that I cannot stop seeing the spear plunging into that Trojan soldier's stomach, the horror on his face. How can I know that was not someone like us, still trapped in the system, forced to play out his part in a famous war? Not likely, perhaps, but still . . . still.

"I dreamed last night that the great burning light of my own blinding came streaming out of his wound. I dreamed that I fell into a darkness even greater than the one I have known.

"I cannot stand this place. I cannot live with this madness. I ran away from all of this years ago. I am not meant to care this much. I do not want to be terrified anymore, to see my friends threatened and hounded and killed.

"I do not want to meet Dread again.

"There. That is perhaps the greatest fear. I admit it! Even should some improbable thing happen, should we drag ourselves out of this stinking pit, away from these cannibal monstrosities, it does not take magic to know that any road back to the real world must run through him. He handled me as though I were a child—made me whimper. Made me beg him to stop, and all without needing to cause any physical pain. Now he has the power of a god, and he is furious.

"Oh, merciful Heaven, I don't want this.

"It's all too much. I wish could turn off these senses. I want to cover it all over, bury myself in the dark—but not this dark! Escape . . . I don't want this!

"They're coming toward us, a great group of them. Are they . . . singing?

"Paul is gone—Florimel says so. Have they already taken him?

"T4b! They're coming! Get over here with Florimel and me!

"I wish he had his armor. I should . . . if this is the last . . . I should . . . but. . . .

"Oh, God, not this. . . !"

CHAPTER 17
Breathing Problems

NETFEED/INTERACTIVES: GCN, Hr. 5.5 (Eu, NAm)—"HOW TO KILL YOUR TEACHER"

(visual: Looshus and Kantee reading the Reality Scroll)

VO: Looshus (Ufour Halloran) and Kantee (Brandywine Garcia) have discovered that Superintendent Skullflesh (Richard Raymond Balthazar) is the reborn prophet of the Stellar Knowledge cult, and is preparing a blood sacrifice of the entire school population to bring on the end of the world. Casting 4 hall monitors, 7 cult members. Flak to: GCN.HOW2KL.CAST

 

It made a very small pile when she looked at it, all the things she had bought, all the things that she would carry with her into this last and strangest country of a life that had seen many countries and many strange things.

The new telematic jack was small, of course, no larger than the standard variety despite its additional range. It had cost a decent fraction of her bank account, but the salesman had sworn that it would keep her in touch with her fancy Dao-Ming pad at a distance of several miles—"even in the middle of a high-usage telecom area during an electrical storm," he had cheerfully promised. Olga didn't know about storms, although she had spent enough days now near the Gulf of Mexico to know that even on a clear day lightning never seemed more than a breath away, but she guessed that an island with its own army and air force would probably qualify as a "high-usage telecom area."

Beside the jack sat a small but extremely powerful LED flashlight, a piece of high-tech paraphernalia usually sold to businessmen with too much money, and despite its dramatic name—something like "SpyLite" or "SpaceLight," she couldn't remember which—seldom used for anything much more dramatic than finding dropped keys in a parking lot, she guessed. She had also bought something called an Omni-Tool from the same store, then changed her mind and exchanged it for a more familiar Swiss Army knife. She had always meant to buy one, had thought dozens of times what a handy object it would be for a woman living on her own, but for some reason had never done it. The fact that she had finally bought one, a top-of-the-line model with all kinds of clever hidden devices and built-in microcircuitry, helped mark the occasion. Things had changed. She was not the same Olga Pirofsky.

What did one bring on an infiltration of one of the world's largest and best-guarded corporations? She supposed there were many more things she could have bought, guns and cutting torches and surveillance devices, but it all smacked too much of boys playing war games. Besides, she was fairly certain she would be arrested at some point, and a pocketful of plastic explosives or wall-climbing pitons would make it hard to pretend she had wandered away from a tour group.

So her pile of tools to take behind enemy lines was a small one: the new jack, the knife, the flashlight, and the one object of sentiment she had not been able to leave behind in Juniper Bay with the rest of her old life. Thee curl of white plastic was certainly not going to arouse anyone's suspicions. Olga's last name and first initial, as written decades ago by some nurse who might very well be dead, had almost faded away. Olga herself had cut the bracelet to remove it, but had never thrown it away, and through all the years in her top drawer it had retained the curve of her wrist. Many times she had come within inches of tossing it in the trash, but the O. Pirofsky who had worn that hospital bracelet was a different person, and the tiny snake of pale plastic was her only tangible connection to that Olga, a girl with her life ahead of her, a young woman with a husband named Aleksandr still alive, so very much alive, a young woman about to give birth. . . .

Something rapped quickly and authoritatively on the motel room door. Startled, Olga dropped the bracelet back onto the small pile of objects in the middle of the bed. After a moment's hesitation, she stepped to the door and looked out through the fish-eye peephole. A black woman and white man stood there, both in dark suits.

For a moment she leaned breathlessly against the door, heart racing for no reason she could say. Missionaries, they must be—this whole region was acrawl with them, people with nothing better to do than walk around in heavy clothing on the hottest day, trying to convince others that there was somewhere hotter yet they might be going if they didn't embrace the doorstepper's faith.

The knock came again; something in its weight drove all thought of ignoring it out of her mind. She tossed her motel bathrobe over the things lying on the bed—irritated, despite her fright, that these people would now think she was the kind of person who normally left things strewn around the room.

It was the black woman who took the lead when the door opened. She smiled at Olga, although it seemed a little perfunctory, and drew a long flat wallet out of her coat pocket. "You're Ms. Pirofsky, is that right, ma'am?"

"How do you know me?"

"Manager gave us your name. Nothing to worry about, ma'am, we just wanted a few words with you." The woman flipped open the wallet, a brief glimpse of something that looked like a hologram of a police badge. "I'm Officer Upshaw and this is my partner, Officer Casaro. We'd like to ask you a couple of questions."

"Are you . . . police?"

"No, ma'am, we're security officers for J Corporation."

"But I. . . ." In her fear and surprise, she had been about to say that she didn't work for J Corporation anymore. She managed to keep her mouth shut, but only at the expense of looking like a slow and stupid old woman. But, she thought, perhaps there could be worse ways to look.

The man Casaro had only briefly made eye contact with her, and unlike his partner, he made no effort to smile. The black pinholes in the center of his pale eyes looked past her into the room itself, as if he were some kind of machine recording everything he saw for future study. Olga suddenly remembered her grandmother describing the old Polish secret police. "They didn't look at you, they looked through you, even when they were talking to you. Like x-rays."

"What . . . what could you possibly want to ask someone like me?"

Officer Upshaw grudgingly used the smile again. "We're just doing our job, ma'am. We heard you were asking some questions in various places about the J Corporation campus."

"The campus?" She could not shake the feeling that they had been following her ever since she had walked out the doors of Obolos Entertainment—that this was only a bit of cruel pretense, and at any moment they would throw her to the floor and handcuff her.

"The buildings, the facilities—that's what we call it, ma'am. Some of the local merchants, well, they let us know when people are asking questions." She shrugged, and for the first time Olga saw how young this woman really was—perhaps just past college age, and with a bit of insecurity in the measured way she spoke. "Now could you please tell us what brings you to the area and what your interest in J Corporation might be?"

Officer Casaro's long inspection of everything behind Olga finally ended. His eyes found hers and locked. She felt her knees go a little weak. "Certainly," she managed to say after a moment. "Why don't you come in—all of the air-conditioning will get out, otherwise."

An almost imperceptible look flicked between the two. "That's fine, ma'am. Thank you."

 

After Olga gathered up the things on the bed, under the guise of tidying away the bathrobe, and deposited the bundle on the counter in the tiny bathroom, she was able to relax a little. None of the objects that had been lying there were illegal or even particularly suspicious for someone who had made her living in net entertainment, but she didn't really want her possession of a telematic jack that cost as much as a small car to become a topic of conversation.

As her initial terror ebbed a little, she began to believe that things might be no worse than they appeared. She had been asking questions in what was, after all, a company town, and the company itself was famously secretive. Similarly, if they had her name from the credit information at the motel, she couldn't very well pretend to be someone different, could she? Somewhere on that island—perhaps in the black tower itself—were the records of Pirofsky, O., employee.

"You see," she told them, "I worked for a J Corporation subsidiary for years—you've seen Uncle Jingle, haven't you? I worked on that show." Upshaw nodded and smiled politely. Casaro didn't bother. "And since I was in the area—I'm taking a car trip across America now that I'm retired—I just thought I'd come see it. After all, they've been paying my salary for years!"

She answered a few more questions, all from Officer Upshaw, and did her best to pretend she was enjoying the break in routine, the importance of a visit from security officers. She struggled to remember the innocent taxpayer's serenity she had always been able to bring to her encounters with police in Juniper Bay.

You're an actress, aren't you? So act!

It seemed to work. The questions got more perfunctory, and even Casaro's surgical examination of Olga and her room gradually dulled to something like bored routine. She had no urge to rekindle his interest. She started telling a true but circumstantially pointless story about her dog Misha, which finally did the trick.

"We're sorry, but we'll have to get going, Mr. Pirofsky," said Upshaw, rising. "We're sorry to have bothered you." Feeling almost pleased with herself now, she hazarded the tiniest return of serve. "Maybe you can tell me, since I haven't been able to find out for certain. Is there any kind of tour of the . . . the campus, as you called it? I'd hate to come all this way and not get to see it except from a distance."

Casaro snorted, then stepped out the door to wait for his partner in the motel parking lot, under hot gray skies.

Upshaw shook her head. For the first time her smile seemed honest—an amused grin. "No, ma'am. No, I'm afraid there isn't. See, we're not really that kind of corporation."

 

 

Jeremiah was up in the sleeping area, changing the dressing on Del Ray's head wound, so Joseph had become the official watcher of the monitor screens. All of the men upstairs were in view on one camera, still in the same place beside the elevator doors. At the moment they were resting and smoking, but dusty chunks of concrete lay piled all around and the man standing in the hole, leaning on the handle of his pick, was a good half meter below his fellows.

Joseph supposed he and his companions should be grateful at least that they were so far out in the middle of nowhere, or the men upstairs would probably have fetched in air hammers and a compressor by now.

"Coward bastards," he said, half-whispering. Just what they were doing that was so cowardly he couldn't quite define, but waiting was difficult, especially when you were probably waiting to be killed.

He looked down to the floor of the lab where the silent V-tanks lay. How strange, to think Renie was so close. And her friend, too—both of them sealed in the dark, like those little oiled fish in cans. He missed her.

The thought was so surprising that he had to stop and try it out for size and feel. Yes, he did, he truly missed her. Not just feared for her, not just wanted to protect her, do the fatherly duty of keeping her safe from bad men—he wished she were here to talk to him.

It was something he hadn't thought about much, and he had trouble holding it together to consider it. It was all wrapped up somehow with Renie's mother, but not with the awful helplessness of watching her die, as his feelings of protectiveness were. He missed having someone around who cared about him. He missed the company of someone who understood his little jokes. Not that Renie liked them very much, and sometimes she pretended they weren't jokes at all, that he was just being stupid or difficult, but there had been times when she was just as amused by him as her mother had been.

Now that he thought of it, though, it had been a long while. Not many jokes in the last few years, at least not the kind you could laugh about.

She was funny herself when she wanted to be, but it seemed to Joseph it had been some time since there had been much of that from her end either. She had got so serious, somehow. Angry, even. Because her mama was dead? Because her father couldn't work, with his bad back? That was no reason to lose your sense of humor. That was when you needed it most of all—Long Joseph knew that for a fact. If he couldn't have gone out and had a drink every now and then with Walter and Dog and found a laugh or two with them, he would have killed himself a long time since.

When she was a little girl, we used to talk. She'd ask me questions, and if I didn't know, I'd make up some foolishness just to see her laugh. He hadn't seen that laugh in a long time, that surprised laugh where her whole face lit up. Such a serious little girl she'd been, he and her mother couldn't help but tease her sometimes.

Come back, baby girl. He stared at the silent tank, then turned back to the monitor. Break time was over: three men were digging now in the hole in the concrete floor, dust billowing up like they were devils in the smokes of hell. Joseph had the strangest feeling, like he was going to cry. He reached out and took a swallow of his last, dwindling bottle of wine. You come back soon and laugh with me. . . .

The ringing of the telephone startled him so badly that he almost dropped the precious squeeze bottle with its cap open. He stared at the device for a moment as he would a black mamba. Jeremiah was upstairs, but he must be able to hear the ring—with the floors all open to the high central ceiling, the underground lab complex was like being in some big train-station waiting room.

Maybe I just leave it alone until he gets down, Joseph thought, but the thought of being frightened of an antique telephone was too much. As it rang again, he stood up and snatched it off its dented metal cradle.

"Who is that?"

There was a pause on the other end. The voice, when it came, was ghostly and distorted. "Is that Joseph?"

Only after the first superstitious chill had raced across his skin did he remember, but he wanted to be sure. "You tell me who's calling, first."

"It's Sellars. Surely Mr. Dako has told you about me."

Joseph didn't want to talk about Jeremiah. Joseph was the one who had answered the phone; he was the one in charge of this emergency. "What do you want?"

"To help, I hope. I take it that they haven't managed to break in yet."

"They are trying. They are surely trying."

In the silence that followed, Joseph found himself suddenly worried that he had done something wrong, driven off their benefactor. "I don't have much time," Sellars finally said. "And, I must confess, not a lot of ideas, either. You managed to get the armored elevator doors closed?"

"Yes. But those men are digging through the floor now—started out with a grenade, I think, but now they using picks, shovels. Coming right down through the cement."

"That's bad. Do you have the monitors working?"

"I am looking at those men right now. They are digging like dogs after a bone." Jeremiah had appeared, a look of worry on his face. Joseph waved him back: everything was being taken care of.

Sellars sighed. "Do you think you can help me connect to your surveillance system? That would give me a better idea of what's going on."

"You mean these cameras and so on?" Joseph felt his competence suddenly under heavy fire. "Hook you up? To those?"

"We should be able to do it, even with that old equipment you have there." There was a strange, wheezing laugh. "I'm pretty old equipment myself, after all. Yes, I think I can talk you through it."

Joseph was disturbed. Every cell in his body told him to take charge, to make something happen, but he knew Jeremiah had spent much more time with the machinery than he had. In fact, he knew he hadn't even bothered to learn anything about the monitors at all. With real regret, he said, "I will let you talk to Jeremiah." But he could not give up without even a show of involvement. "It is that man Sellars," he whispered as he passed the receiver. "He wants to get hooked up with the pictures."

Jeremiah stared at him quizzically, then leaned forward and tapped a button on the instrument panel. "I've put you on the speaker, Mr. Sellars," he said out loud, then hung up the receiver. "That way we can both hear you."

Joseph was caught off-balance. Was Jeremiah being kind to him, like to a child? Or was he treating him as an equal? Joseph wanted to be irritated, but could not help feeling a small glow of pleasure.

"Good." Sellars' voice sounded even more strange now, scratchy on the small speaker. "I'm trying to think of things to do, but first could you patch me in to your monitors?" He gave a list of instructions to Jeremiah that Joseph could not quite follow, which left him feeling annoyed again. Who had been the mechanical one in this group, after all? Not Jeremiah, a kind of glorified lady's maid for a rich old white woman. Not Del Ray, an overgrown schoolboy who wore suits and sat behind a desk.

By the time Joseph had summoned up the meditative calm to shrug off the unintended insult, Jeremiah had apparently done what Sellars wanted.

"I see three working and one with a gun, watching," the tinny voice said. "Is that all of them?"

"I'm not sure," said Jeremiah.

Joseph frowned, thinking. When he and Del Ray had snuck in, they had seen . . . how many? "Five," he said suddenly. "There are five of those men."

"So one's off somewhere," Sellars said. "We shouldn't forget about him. But first we have to deal with the digging. How thick are the floors, any idea? Wait. I should be able to access the plans."

For long seconds the speaker was silent. Joseph's thoughts were just turning sadly to the small bit of wine he had left when the strange voice spoke again. "Roughly two meters deep where they're working, next to the elevator bay. Which means they're probably about a quarter of the way there." He made a strange sound, perhaps a hiss of frustration. "It's heavy concrete, but they'll be through in a day at the most."

"We only have one gun, Mr. Sellars," Jeremiah said. "Two bullets. We're not going to be able to fight with them when they get through."

"Then we have to see what we can do to keep them out," Sellars replied. "I wish this place were a bit older, then maybe I could find a way to banjax the heaters, fill that upper section with carbon monoxide."

Joseph remembered enough from his days in the construction trade to remember something about those carbon what-so-oxides. "Yes, kill the bastards! Poison them. That would be a fine thing."

Jeremiah winced. "Kill them in cold blood?"

"We can't do it," Sellars said, "or at least I can't see a way just now, so it's not worth debating the morality of it. But you must understand that those are not ordinary men, Mr. Dako. They are murderers—perhaps the very men who attacked your friend, the doctor."

"How do you know about that?" asked Jeremiah, startled. "Did Renie tell you?"

"In fact, they have killed someone else that Joseph knows," Sellars said, leaving Jeremiah's question unanswered. "The young technician you visited in Durban."

Joseph had to think for a moment. "The fat boy? Elephant?"

"Oh, God, they didn't!" said Del Ray.

"Yes. Shot him in the head and burned his building." Sellars was speaking briskly now, as though a timer inside him was ticking loudly. "And they will kill you, too, as blithely as swatting a fly, if it suits them . . . and I suspect that it will."

In his mind's eye, Joseph could see the cluttered storage depot burning. His initial horrified fascination began to curdle into something else as he remembered Elephant's cheerfulness, his pride in his top-of-the-line equipment.

Not right. That is not right. He just helped us because Del Ray ask him.

"What will we do, then?" asked Jeremiah. "Wait tor them to break through and murder us?"

"He said about police." Joseph felt anger building, a different kind of anger. "Why don't we just call someone—the army? Tell them some men are trying to kill us right here in their base?"

"Because you are yourselves wanted by the police," Sellars said, his voice flattened by the electronic distortion. "The Brotherhood has seen to that. Do you not remember what happened when Mr. Dako tried to use one of his cards?"

"How do you know about all this?" Jeremiah demanded. "I didn't tell you any of that when we talked before."

"Never mind." Their invisible companion seemed frustrated. "I told you, I have little time and much to do elsewhere. If you call the authorities it will take hours for any suitable force to respond—you are far up in the mountains. Then, even if they drive away or capture Klekker and his thugs, what will happen to you? More importantly, what will happen to Renie and !Xabbu? After you three are arrested, they will either be left alone and untended here, with the place empty and perhaps the power shut off, or, if you tell the authorities, they will be disconnected and dragged away. Still deep in what will appear to be comas, would be my guess. Moving them now might even be fatal."

The idea of the electricity failing and Renie waking in the darkness of the tank, struggling to get out, thrashing in that strange jelly, was even more horrible than imagining her lying in some hospital, as unresponsive as her brother. Joseph slapped his hand down on the table. "It will not happen. I don't leave my girl here."

"Then we have to think of another solution," Sellers said. "And quickly—I have my hands full just now trying to put out fires, and for every one I control, two more seem to flare up." A moment of silence was filled with the looping hum of the mystery man's voice-distortion gear. "Hang on. That may be it."

"What? That may be what?" Jeremiah asked.

"Let me look at the plans," Sellars told him. "If I'm right, we'll have to work fast—you'll all have lots to do. And it's risky."

 

"Just a small pile at first," Sellars told them. "Concentrate on the things you know will burn—paper, cloth."

Joseph looked down at the huge heap of trash they had spent the last hour and a half collecting under Sellars' guidance. The paper and kitchen rags he could understand, the dusty military-issue sheets from the supply depot they had dragged down in the first days of their occupation, but what on earth were they going to do with the wheels off all the office chairs? Plastic floor mats? Rugs?

"Let me test it one more time before we commit ourselves," Sellars said. "Unlike your enemies, you don't have access to outside air." As if a ghost had flicked a switch, a rattling noise sprang up behind the wall vent. It mounted higher, until it was a high-pitched whine, then eased down again. "Good. Someone please start the fire."

Del Ray, who had dragged himself from his convalescent bed to help, looked first at Jeremiah, then at Joseph. "Start it? How?"

Something like weariness was in Sellars' voice. "Isn't there anything you can use? The base is old—surely someone left behind a lighter, something?"

Joseph and the others looked around, as though such an object might magically appear.

"There's a little petrol in the emergency starter for the generator," Jeremiah said. "Only a spark would do it. We can make a spark, can't we?"

"I suppose you can cut into the wires in the monitor console," Sellars said. "Those are the only ones you can get to easily. . . ."

"Hold on!" Joseph stood up straight. "I know. Long Joseph will fix this problem." He turned and hurried toward the room where he slept.

He had put Renie's clothes in a box, knowing she would want them when she came out of the tank. He felt in the pockets, and to his great joy discovered her cigarettes, but could find no trace of a lighter no matter how he looked. His moment of pride turned sour.

"Shit," he said, letting the clothes fall back into the box. He stared at the cigarettes, wondering dully how Renie was coping without them. Could you smoke in the computer-place she was?

She must be crazy if she can't, he thought. 'Course, I am in the real world and I can't get any wine, so who has got it worse?

"Good thinking!" someone said from the doorway.

Joseph looked up at Del Ray. "No lighter, no matches." The younger man seemed puzzled for a moment, then smiled. "Don't need any of that. Those are self-lighting."

Joseph stared at the packet of cigarettes, relief mixed with a certain angry regret at having to be told something important by someone his daughter's age. He took a breath, then swallowed what he had been about to say. He tossed Del Ray the cigarettes and followed him back to the makeshift bonfire.

The tab pulled, the end of the cigarette smoldered alight. Del Ray dropped it on the knee-high pile of paper and rags. Little tongues of yellow flame scalloped the top of the pile; within half a minute it was burning well. As Joseph and the others heaped more of the most flammable objects on top of it, smoke began to drift upward in a visible cloud. The whine of the air intake deepened and the smoke was drawn toward the wall vent.

"Slowly." Sellars' disembodied voice was hard to hear above the noises the fire was making. "It has to be burning very hot before you can put any of the plastic or rubber on it."

Joseph wandered over to the monitors. The men in the hole beside the elevator well upstairs were working just as hard as ever, nearly waist-deep now. The white one watching their progress had a cigar in the corner of his mouth,

"You will get your smoke, ugly man," Joseph said, then went back to help the others.

Within twenty minutes the flames were as high as Long Joseph himself, the blaze several meters across, and only the air-intake, which now roared like a small plane taking off, kept them from being choked by the clouds of gray smoke.

"Push in the pans of oil," Sellars said. "And start throwing on the rubber mats."

Jeremiah and Joseph used a pair of broom handles to slide the kitchen baking pans full of machine oil into the heart of the blaze. Del Ray threw much of the material they had been saving onto the top of the pile. The smoke, and even the flames themselves, began to change color: the cloud billowing out now and being drawn into the vent was stormy black, and even through the wet rag wrapped around his nose and mouth the smell was making Joseph woozy. His eyes were burning too: the safety goggles they'd found in a cabinet were ancient and fit badly. He stepped away to watch Jeremiah and Del Ray throw the last boxes of plastic and rubber onto the top of the burning pile. The flames beat out so fiercely the three of them were forced back across the wide area they'd cleared on the cement floor, coughing all the way.

Weren't for that getting sucked out, Joseph thought as the inky clouds disappeared into the vent, so thick they almost folded rather than flowed, we all be dead. He suddenly realized what Sellars had meant when he said "risky." If the power failed, if something in the burning, black cloud choked the intake system, that black mass would come flowing back on them. Then their choice would be to suffocate or open the armored elevator doors and stumble out into the gunsights of the killers.

The pall of black was beginning to overcome the intake's capabilities, curling back, widening like a thunderhead. Joseph felt a rising terror.

"Where is that damn man?" he said. Jeremiah and Del Ray were too busy coughing to answer. Joseph, in a moment of unusual clarity, turned to memorize the location of the V-tanks so he could find them and release the prisoners if the power went out. His thoughts, absorbed by the fire-building, were now beginning to grow fragmented and panicky. "Sellars! Whatever your name is, what are you doing, man? We choking to death here!"

"Sorry," the voice hummed. "I had to disable the fire alarms. I'm ready now."

Easy enough for you, Joseph thought. You are not fighting just to breathe.

He and the others gathered around the monitor, wheezing. The full-throated roar of the intake did not change, but there was a succession of distant clanks, as though someone was striking a metal pipe with a hammer. An instant later Joseph felt the pressure of the room change, not enough to make his ears pop, but a definite shift. The plume of black wavered and then bent visibly toward the vent. The rest of the smoke that had escaped the intake began moving back toward the vent, too, as though the mountain itself had just inhaled.

"Watch," said Sellars.

For a moment the scene on the monitor remained unchanged, the picks rising and falling, the white man with the cigar—Klekker, Sellars had called him; Joseph wanted to remember the Boer pig's name—leaning in to say something. Then Klekker lifted his head like an animal hearing a distant gunshot. A moment later the picture darkened. For an instant, Joseph actually thought the monitor was failing.

It all seemed strange and distant on the tiny screen, without sound. Suddenly, in the new, nightdark dimness of the picture, the men came thrashing up out of the pit. One collapsed to his knees, choking and vomiting, but before Joseph could see what happened to him, the monitor screen went almost completely black.

All the screens of that floor were dimming as the smoke rolled out from the vent near the elevator shaft. Joseph could only catch glimpses of the men, stumbling, falling, crawling toward the exit.

"Die, you bastards!" Joseph shouted. "Burn down my house, do you? Shoot up some fat computer boy you don't even know? Choke and choke and die!"

But they did not all die, at least not as far as he could tell. The monitors recorded their escape to the next level up and their frantic attempts to seal the doorway behind them, but Sellars was apparently forcing the fumes and smoke up to that level as well, so the mercenaries were forced to flee again.

Four of them escaped through the base's massive front door. The camera by the armored gate showed the small, silent shapes as they staggered out into the air and fell to the ground like shipwreck survivors who had reached land against all odds.

"Four," said Del Ray, counting. "So one of them didn't make it out. That's something, anyway."

"The rest of them will not be able to enter the level they were digging in, not for a long time," said Sellars. He did not sound particularly pleased, but there was an undertone of grim satisfaction. "They already had the doors blocked open, probably just to make sure we couldn't trap them anywhere, but I've disabled the vents on that level and it will take them a long time to disperse the fumes."

"I wish it had killed them all," Joseph said.

Jeremiah shook his head and turned away. "A terrible way to die."

"What do you think they are planning for us?" Joseph was irritated. "A braai? Cook up some barbecue, open a few beers?"

"I must leave you for now," Sellers announced. "But I will be in touch again. You should have gained a few days' respite."

When the speaker was silent, Joseph took the damp cloth from his mouth, then had to put it back on.

"He better make sure our air gets better in here," he rasped.

"The vent's still working," said Del Ray. "I think it will get better. But we should put out this fire." He lifted one of the fire extinguishers they had set in readiness.

Joseph hurried to join him. "How are Renie and the little man?" he called back to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah Dako raised his goggles for a moment to squint at the readouts on the console. "Everything steady. They're breathing better air than we are."

"So what do we do now?" Joseph asked, heaving a large fire extinguisher off the floor. Smoke curled around his shoe tops, but the largest part of the cloud was still being sucked into the vents, the grille, and the wall around it stained a shiny, sludgy black.

"What we've been doing," said Jeremiah. "We wait."

"Damn," said Joseph. He fired a gooey plume of foam onto the blaze. "That is the thing I am tired of doing. Why is it that Sellars man can turn this mountain upside down, but he can't send me a damn bottle of wine?"

 

 

It was a dream, of course—not the sort that had ravished her life, not the children come back to her after their long silence, but a simple, ordinary dream.

It was nighttime, and Aleksandr was outside the door of her Juniper Bay house. He wanted her to let him in because he had left something behind, but even though she could see his outline in the thin light from the streetlamp—in the dream there was a window beside the door—she felt uncertain. Again and again he called to her, not in pain or anger, but in that sort of explosive preoccupation he had always had, that air of having something important to do that was being prevented by a needlessly obstructive world and its petty details.

He couldn't or wouldn't tell her what it was he had left behind. Driven to a kind of fluttering despair by indecision, she had rummaged through drawers and cabinets, trying to find whatever was so important that he would delay whatever journey he was on, but she could find nothing in any of the places she searched that made any sense at all.

She woke up to the wallscreen yammering and darkness in the spaces between the motel drapes. She had fallen asleep sitting on the bed, in midafternoon, and now only the light from the screen remained. Carelessly, she had nodded off with the drapes not completely closed. Anyone could have stood and watched her through the window.

But did anyone care?

She stood up and pulled the drapes shut, then went back to the warm trough of the bed. As she sat, trying to make peace with being awake, she felt something missing. It took a moment before she realized it was Misha, who at home would have been curled up beside her, or more likely in her lap, his entire little body laid trustingly upon her.

Never again. Tears came to her eyes.

The news was still chattering away in the background. stories of sudden instability in financial markets, of strange rumors, of mysterious silences from key movers and shakers. It was so hard to care. Rather, it was too hard to give it true attention, because the caring was too painful. Once she had sat down every night to watch the news, but each evening's iteration had left her feeling that she and the rest of human civilization were poorly balanced on the crest of some huge wave, that any moment the entire thing would crash down with shattering force.

She turned off the screen. It was time to go. The security officers, corporate police, whatever they were, had given her a bad turn, but clearly they were just investigating all possibilities. People had noticed her asking questions.

After all, for all they knew, I might be a terrorist, she thought. It amused her, then her own amusement struck her as even more ironic. But I am a terrorist.

The urge to laugh, all alone in the now-silent room, seemed unhealthy. She was frightened by the thought of what was to come, that was the truth of it. Olga was not the kind of person who lied much to others, and not at all to herself.

She had lied to the security people, of course, if only by omission. And in a way she had lied to Mr. Ramsey—not by anything she had told him, but by doing it in a written message, knowing he could not respond, that she would not have to defend herself. And just as she had feared, his replies had come hastening back, a chorus of protesting voices that she could not bear to access.

It was time to go. She would sleep in her rental car for a few hours in the out-of-the-way spot she had found deep in the bayou, then when her alarm woke her at midnight, she would make her way in through the swamp in the raft she had bought, try to land somewhere in the park that covered one edge of the artificial island. It seemed unlikely there would be no guards, but there would certainly be fewer of them out on the edges of the impenetrable swamp, wouldn't there?

It wasn't much of a plan, she knew, but it was the best she'd been able to come up with.

The pad would stay hidden in the room, of course; with two weeks' stay already paid for, it would likely go unnoticed longer here than in the car, which might be found in a couple of days. And so she would be able to keep sending entries to it for rerouting until . . . until whatever happened. So at least Mr. Ramsey would know what had happened to her. Perhaps that would be useful to him with the other things he was doing, trying to help those poor children.

She knew she should make a last circuit of the room, but the thought of Catur Ramsey would not leave her so easily. She flipped open the pad and looked at his last three messages, all of them blinking, tagged "urgent," practically screaming for attention. She knew that it would only make her feel worse to access them, that all his arguments would make good sense but would change nothing. She was terrible at arguing—Aleksandr had teased her with it, made her agree to ridiculous things, then laughed and refused to take advantage. "You are like water, Olga," he would say. "Always, you give way."

But what if there was something else Ramsey wanted to tell her? What if he needed some other kind of permission from her to sell the house? What if the people who had taken Misha had forgotten the veterinarian's name and couldn't get him his medicine?

She knew she was stalling, fearful of the journey in front of her, but now the worry wouldn't go away. Had that been the meaning of the dream, of dear Aleksandr so fretful outside the door, wanting to leave but unable to go?

She made a last circuit of the room, then picked up the pad. She had decided to leave it in the closet, down at the bottom under the extra blankets. There would be no one in the room, so no reason to put in fresh blankets; the motel's underpaid cleaning crew would be unlikely to go searching for extra work.

Olga slid the pad into the back of the closet, then went to the desk and wrote a note on the quaint, old-fashioned note paper—the one thing about the place that had separated it from the dozen or so others in which she had stayed during this trip. Under the "Bayou Suites" heading, she wrote, "I will be hack for this pad. If it must be taken out of the room, please leave it in the motel office, or contact C. Ramsey, atty.," then added his address and signed her name.

She was all the way back to the closet when the thought of little Misha jumped up at her again. What if something had happened? If he did not get his medicine, he would start having those terrible seizures again. She had told them over and over, his new owners, but who knew how much attention people might be paying?

Poor little thing! I gave him away to strangers. Left him behind.

Her eyes swelling with tears again, Olga swore quietly to herself, then sat down on the bed with the pad across her lap and began opening messages.

CHAPTER 18
Making a Witch

NETFEED/NEWS: Mystery Still Surrounds General's Death

(visual: Yacoubian meeting President Anford)

VO: The death of Brigadier General Daniel Yacoubian in a Virginia hotel suite has spawned a surprisingly virulent set of rumors, strangest of which is an assertion by one of the general's bodyguards, Edward Pilger, that he believes Yacoubian was involved in some kind of coup against the American government. Journalist Ekaterina Slocomb, who produced a short documentary on the general for Beltway, an upmarket tabnode, finds that idea hard to swallow.

(visual: Ekaterina Slocomb in studio)

SLOCOMB: "It just doesn't make sense. Yacoubian was friends with a lot of powerful people. Why would he or any of them want to overthrow a government that they already more or less own? Yacoubian was not an ideologue—if anything, he was a kind of ultimate pragmatist. . . ."

 

One of these days, Renie thought, something that happens to me in this network is going to make sense. But not yet, obviously. A little creature made of mud who called herself the Stone Girl was stumping along determinedly beside her, on either side of the dark, empty street the giant shoes that housed the local inhabitants were shut up tight against the night and its dangers, and this entire world had grown out of silvery nothing right in front of Renie's eyes.

"I still don't understand why you're coming with me," she told the child. "Aren't you supposed to stay at home? You're already in trouble for my sake."

The Stone Girl's face was as shadowy as the street. "Because . . . because . . . I don't know. Because things are going wrong and no one will listen to me. The stepmother never listens." She wiped defiantly at the dark spots of her eyes, and Renie couldn't help wondering how a child made of earth and rock could cry. "The Ending is getting closer, and the Witching Tree isn't there anymore."

"Hang on. I thought you said that's where we were going—to this Witching Tree."

"We are. We just have to find out where it is now."

Renie chewed this over as they made their way out through the outskirts of the shoe-village. It was touching and disconcerting, both. The girl's willingness to push against the normal order of her life made Renie think of Brother Factum Quintus back in the House world—it was hard to imagine someone programming such flexible individuality into any mere simulacrum, but over and over she had seen the evidence. There was something different about this newest simulation, though—something more than the fact it seemed to have been created by the Other itself. A ragged bit of memory was still tickling her, and had been ever since she had first seen the shoe where the Stone Girl and her motley assortment of siblings lived, but it remained out of reach.

So what do I know? That this place is made up from some kind of nursery rhyme—or from lots of them, more likely. I never heard of any Stone Girl in the "Old Lady and the Shoe" rhyme. Martine said she taught the Other a song—that "angel" thing it was singing when we first saw it on the mountaintop. Maybe she taught it some stories, too.

But that still did not scratch the itch at the back of her memory.

They had reached the edge of the dark settlement. There was no moon, only a sort of dully glowing latency to the sky that left it just a shade more purple than black and gave faint shape to the shadowy world. Renie could barely make out the small person walking right next to her. She had just begun to wander what would happen if she lost her little guide when a glowing apparition stepped out in front of them, billowing and moaning.

Frightened, Renie grabbed for the Stone Girl, but her companion shook off her hand. "It's just Weeweekee," she said.

"Stop!" The thing lifted its hand. A glowing ball hung just above it, a flame with no source. "Who goes there?"

"It's me, the Stone Girl."

As they drew closer, the weird apparition blocking their path became only slightly less so—a kind of human-sized rodent in a pale, flowing outfit like a hooded wedding dress. It waved its paw and the hovering ball of fire followed its hand—an impressive display, somewhat undercut by the creature's chubby cheeks and goggling black-bead eyes.

"You should be in bed," the giant marmot, or whatever it was, declared in the voice of a tattletale child. "For it's eight o'clock."

"How can it tell?" This was the first Renie had heard any mention of exact time for longer than she could remember. "How does it know it's eight o'clock?"

"That's just his word for 'dark,'" the Stone Girl explained.

"All children should be in their beds," Weeweekee told her.

"I'm not going to bed. I'm going out to search for the Witching Tree, and she's going with me. So there."

"But . . . but . . . you can't." His voice was swiftly losing any semblance of authority—in fact, getting dangerously near a squeak. "Everyone is to be in bed. I have to rap at all the windows."

"The stepmother threw us both out," asserted the Stone Girl, which was not true, but close enough. "We can't go back."

Weeweekee was getting close to panic now. "Then you can go in somewhere else, can't you? Just . . . go to bed. There must be some other beds, even with all the people sleeping in the street."

"Not for us," the little girl said firmly. "We are going out into the Wood."

Now the dark eyes widened with horror. "But you can't! It's eight o'clock!"

"Good night, Weeweekee." The Stone Girl took Renie's arm and led her past the creature, whose whiskers and hovering flame were both drooping.

Renie turned to look back at him. The rodent was still standing as if frozen, staring after them with misery clear in every line of his being. Even his filmy robes had lost their animation.

"Oh," said Renie, and suddenly found herself struggling not to laugh. "Oh. He's Wee Willie Winkie. In his nightgown." It came back to her in one piece, like an evocative scent—the paper Mother Goose book her grandmother had given her for her fifth birthday, the pictures bright as candy wrappers. She had been a little disappointed, wishing it were something that moved by itself like the children's stories she saw on their small netscreen, which all featured exciting toys (even though her family couldn't afford most of them) but her mother had given her a discreet push in the back and she had carefully thanked Uma' Bongela and put the book beside her bed.

Only months later, on a day when she had been home from school sick while her mother was out and her father was working, had she finally opened it. The strangeness of some of the words had confused her, but it had caught at her, too, like a window suddenly open into places she could barely imagine. . . .

"Wee Willie Winkie, running through the town
Upstairs and downstairs, in his nightgown
Rapping at the window, crying at the lock,
'Are the children all in bed? For now it's eight o'clock.' "

This recital gained her an irritated look from the Stone Girl. "His name is Weeweekee," she corrected Renie, with the air of someone dealing with the borderline competent.

It took a moment for Renie to realize that even without Weeweekee and his magical candle, she could actually see that expression on her companion's face. "It's getting lighter!"

The Stone Girl pointed to the surrounding hills. A radiant sliver had appeared along the crest—a frighteningly wide sliver. As Renie watched in mingled fascination and unease, the full moon slid up into the sky. It seemed to cover a huge portion of the heavenly firmament, a vast blue-white disk that nevertheless gave scarcely more light than the ordinary variety.

"That's . . . that's the biggest moon I've ever seen."

"You've seen more than one?"

Renie shook her head. Easier just not to talk. This was a dreamworld—probably the dream of something not even human—and wrestling too strenuously with the particulars was useless.

The Stone Girl led her out beyond the village and along the valley floor. Renie saw more dark shapes clinging to the hillsides on either side, the shuttered dwellings of another settlement, leaking light between curtains or sparking from the chimneys, but whether they were more shoes or other articles of clothing she could not tell.

"So where is this tree?" she asked after they had walked for perhaps a quarter of an hour beneath the intrusive but oddly benign moon.

"In the Wood."

"But I thought you said you went looking for it before and it wasn't there."

"It wasn't. The Wood was gone."

"Gone?" Renie pulled up. "Hold on, then where are we going? I don't want to walk all night—I want to find my friends!" The thought that she might be putting distance between herself and !Xabbu, or that worse, he might be out in this same moon-domed night just a short distance away, gave her a fierce, sudden ache. She had been trying not to think about him but it was a precarious sort of ignorance, fragile as a bubble.

The Stone Girl turned to face her, arms akimbo, stubby hands on hips. "If you want answers, you have to come and make a Witch. If you want to find the Witching Tree, you have to find the Wood."

"It . . . it moves?"

Her guide could only shake her head. "I don't understand you. I'm trying to help. Do you want to come with me or not?" There was a pleading note beneath the fierceness.

A sudden idea struck Renie. "Could you make a map? Maybe that would help me understand." She reached down and found a stick, then scratched a line in the dirt—bold, so it would show on the moonlit ground. "Okay, that's the road we just came down. See, I'll draw some shoes to be the houses. These are the hills. And here we are now. Now can you make a picture of where we're going?"

The Stone Girl looked down at the ground for a long moment, then up at Renie, squinting her pockmark eyes as though against a fierce sun. "Before I met you," she asked with a certain delicacy, "did you sort of . . . fall down? Maybe on your head?"

 

By the time they had reached the thick, scrubby slopes that the Stone Girl said marked the outskirts of the Wood, Renie had begun to realize how impossible the whole thing really was. There would be no map, either for this journey or any other such trip Renie might want to make. Apparently, there were no such thing as maps in this place, and for a very good reason.

It looks like there's just not much normal here-to-there proximity, she decided. I should have thought of it. The human-built simulations are made to be navigated by humans just like they were part of the real world. But why should a machine intelligence try to duplicate something like physical proximity or geographical continuity that it never uses or experiences itself?

As far as she could tell, some things like the villages did have implied maps, or at least a sort of three-dimensional organization and stability that allowed the inhabitants to find their way around their home turf, but once you left the familiar locale there were apparently no memorized routes to other places within the world, even it the inhabitants had visited those places before.

In fact, the Stone Girl had been coping bravely with what Renie now realized must seem very strange, fundamentally wrong questions. "You just . . . find the Wood," she explained again. "It's always in front of you until you walk for the right amount of time, then you look for things."

"Things like . . . what? Shapes? Trees you've seen before?"

The Stone Girl shrugged. "Just . . . things that seem like the Wood is somewhere near. Like that." She pointed to a vertical stone thrusting from the hillside undergrowth, illuminated by the huge moon.

"That rock?" The finger of pale stone was the size of a truck—certainly a fairly obvious landmark. "You've seen that before, then?"

Her guide shook her head in frustration. "No. There are lots of rocks like that. But tonight it's a close-to-the-Wood kind of rock."

Now Renie was the one reduced to headshaking. Clearly her companion had knowledge she didn't—perhaps transmitted cues that Renie could not receive, or even precoded information being translated as spontaneous recognitions. Whatever it was, Renie didn't understand it. And if it was something precoded, she would never understand it.

As the Stone Girl led her uphill through the scrub growth, Renie pulled the blanket tight around her to protect herself from scratches and tried to imagine what it felt like to live in such a world. But how can I hope to make sense of it? I can't even imagine what it feels like to grow up the way !Xabbu did, to see normal urban life as something strange, and he's a living, breathing person like me, not an artificial construct.

The sharpness of her separation from him came back, this time with a helplessness she hadn't felt before. Is it pointless anyway? she wondered. I feel so strongly for him, I'm so scared we won't make it out of this together—but what then? Even if we survive, how could we have a life together? We're so different. I don't know anything about his background, his people's lives, except the few things he's told me. What would his family think of me?

Renie's steps slowed as her spirits sagged. She forced her thoughts in a different direction.

I still don't know whether or not the people in this world—the Stone Girl, Weeweekee—are really the missing children. But it certainly seems possible. Maybe the Other brought them all here, their consciousnesses, their minds, whatever. She felt a shiver that was not caused by the cool of the night air. Their souls.

And if Stephen is here in this world, how can I find him? How will I recognize him? Would he even know me?

"The Wood is just beginning." Her companion came a little way back down the slope. "This is a bad place to stop—Jinnears, and maybe some Ticks, too, they all like it here on the edges."

"Do you know. . . ." Renie could hardly think of what she wanted to ask. "Do you remember being . . . having a life before this?"

"Before what?"

"Before you lived in the shoe, with the stepmother. Do you remember anything else? Crossing a white ocean? Having a mother or a father?"

The Stone Girl was puzzled and clearly a little worried. "I remember lots of things from before the shoe. Of course I crossed the White Ocean. Who didn't?" She frowned. "But a mother? No. People talk about a mother, but nobody has one." She suddenly became very solemn; the dark holes that were her eyes grew wide. "Where you come from . . . do people have mothers?"

"Some do, yes." She thought of her own, lost so long ago. "Some lucky ones do."

"What do they look like? Are they bigger than stepmothers, or smaller?" Renie had finally struck a topic that interested her companion. "This boy who used to live in the Shoes, but then he went away, he said he remembered a mother, a real one, one that was just his." Her indignant snort was not entirely convincing. "Bragger, we called him."

Renie closed her eyes for a moment, trying to make sense of what little information she'd put together. "Do you all come here as birds? Are you all birds to begin with?"

The Stone Girl laughed loudly, a surprising sound in the evening dark. "All birds? You mean everyone, the people in the Shoes, in the Coats, the people at Bang Very Cross and Long Done Bridge? How could there be so many birds?" She leaned down and poked Renie in the arm. "Now come on. Like I said, there's usually Jinnears out." Renie realized that beginning to make some sense of this world would mean little if they were caught out-of-doors by one of those terrifying creatures. "Okay. Let's keep moving."

 

Like everything else she had seen since finding the black mountain, the Wood was both more and less than reality. A few paces in from the perimeter the trees grew very thickly and seemed to share branches, as though the whole upper forest was a tangled mat of one single growth spread miles wide. Some did not grow so high, but branched sideways farther than any real tree would, like vast green mushrooms covering hundreds of meters. Many of the freestanding shrubs had definite shapes to them, rounded forms as regular as the icons of playing cards, spades and clubs and diamonds, as though the tangled woodland were the preserve of a fanatical corps of topiary gardeners.

Although the high canopy blocked out most of the great blue-white disk overhead, small, warm lights now kindled in the overhead branches as if to replace the lost moonlight. These individually weak lights grew more and more dense until the forest was brighter than the hillside they had climbed, an endless twinkling bower like a gigantic Christmas display.

"What are those shining things?"

"Bugs," the Stone Girl told her. "Wood-candles, we call 'em. They're like the candle Weeweekee has, but smaller."

Will-o'-the-Wisps, Renie thought, that's what they should be called. Whatever those things are that used to lure travelers off the path. They're beautiful. You could follow these lights forever.

"We're close to the Witching Tree now." The Stone Girl spoke quietly, as if the tree were something that might be spooked into flight.

But maybe it is, Renie thought. Who can know around here? She had begun to formulate a guess as to what the thing might actually be. "This Witching Tree," she said. "What do we do when we find it?"

"Make a witch, of course."

"Ah." The weird mangling of Wee Willie Winkie into Weeweekee had not escaped her—the Other seemed to have an idiosyncratic grasp of spoken English, almost childlike in its misunderstandings. She was being taken to a Wishing Tree, "You tell it what you want, is that right?"

The Stone Girl considered. "I guess."

They were deep in the Wood now, the swirl of tiny lights illuminating not just the arabesque of branches over their heads but also open places in the thickening forest, long vistas of lighted tunnel, paths that bent out of sight and vanished. A mist rising from the ground softened the gleaming points to something out of a sentimental winter scene, a holiday card. The memory that had been nagging at Renie for hours finally rose to the surface.

This is like that place under that horrible club—Mister J's. Where those strange people, those children or whatever they were, took !Xabbu. She thought back on the Brothers-Grimmish ceiling of roots, the pinpoint lights, the sensation of being tightly enclosed even in a wide space. All of this invented country had that feel—as yearningly claustrophobic as a beautiful clipper ship constructed inside a bottle.

The Other made that place, too, she suddenly felt certain, even though it was in the real world-net, not the Grail network. A little . . . what, shelter? Refuge? Something it created for itself inside that ghastly place. So the children there—Corduroy, Wicket, I can't remember all their names—were they children like the ones here? Stolen children?

There was some key to the Other's personality to be found in comparing the two, she suddenly felt sure, if "personality" was the right word. Some recurring theme in what it made for itself. Something that might actually benefit from an applied use of Renie's engineering smarts.

If I ever get the chance for uninterrupted thought. . . .

"There it is," announced the Stone Girl. "The Witching Tree."

 

Renie's first thought was that she had stumbled onto another case of complete communication failure, because what lay before her where the forest opened out was not a tree at all, but a wide expanse of dark water, a lake or large pond. It took her a moment even to be sure of that, because although the moon hung in the sky just above, big and bright as some alien mothership preparing to land, there was no reflection of it in the water: except for a crowd of smaller lights gleaming beneath the surface, the lake might have been a huge black hole in the forest floor.

Renie moved forward, squinting as though studying a dusty mirror. The lights in the water were not points like the wood-candles, but something more like active waveforms, shimmers of faint purple and silver that were either moving swiftly or turning on and off in sequence. She lowered herself to a crouch and stared at the hypnotic movement of light in the blackness, then stretched out a hand to the dark water.

"Don't!" the Stone Girl said. "We don't go in it. We have to go around it."

"Why? What are those lights?"

Her companion wrapped small cool fingers around Renie's arm. "They're just . . . they just belong there. Don't you want to go to the tree?"

Renie allowed herself to be drawn upright. "I thought you said it was here."

"No, silly. It's over there. Can't you see it?"

Renie followed the girl's gesture. Halfway around the lake,, something a good bit larger than the surrounding vegetation loomed over the riverbank, half-sunk in the water like a giant cooling its feet. It was hard to see it clearly: the other trees wore their crowns of sparkling fairy-lights, and the water itself was alive with glimmers of faint color, but the thing the Stone Girl pointed at was dark.

As they waded along the spongy lakeshore, Renie could not shake the idea that the lights in the water were following them like curious fish, but she could not be sure it wasn't merely her own changing vantage point. She leaned over and violently waved a hand over the water, half-expecting the lights to startle back, but if the dull gleams were some kind of creatures, they were not much impressed.

Of all the unlikely shapes of living things Renie had encountered since entering this simworld, the Witching Tree seemed the poorest copy of a real-world object. It was scarcely a tree at all: only its roughly vertical middle section, which might have been a trunk, and the way it flared at the bottom and the top, seemed to fit the bill. Its hide was shiny and smooth but for the places it wrinkled at the bends of branch and root, resembling the skin of some black dolphin more than it did bark. At the end of their forking subdivisions the limbs disappeared among the branches of other, more normal looking trees; the rubbery black roots dangled in the murky water like the tentacles of an octopus dragged halfway onto land. The thing gave an impression of not quite belonging, a piece of alien life dropped into the environment.

Considering how weird everything else is around here, that's saying a lot, she decided, "Are you sure that's . . . a tree?"

The Stone Girl frowned. "It's the Witching Tree. Do they look different where you come from?"

Renie could think of no useful reply to that. "What do we do?"

"We make a witch and ask a question." She looked at Renie expectantly. "Do you want to go first?"

"I have no idea what to do." Something about this strange, lonely spot suddenly made her aware of how tired and used-up she felt. "I'll just watch you, for now."

The Stone Girl nodded. She rucked up her shapeless dress and sat on the ground, composing herself. Then, in a dry and touchingly off-key voice, she began to sing unfamiliar words to a familiar melody.

"Hush-a-bye, baby,
Your cradle is green,
Daddy's a king,
And Mommy's a queen;
Sister's a lady
Who wears a gold ring;
Brother's a drummer
Who plays for the king."

In the moment's silence that followed, Renie thought she saw a slowing and dimming of the flashes in the dark water, but the tree itself, as if it were somehow absorbing the light, began softly to glow, the merest hint of a rich grape-skin purple beneath the Witching Tree's smooth black rind. It creaked and shuddered. For a frightened instant Renie thought the tree was going to stand up on its roots like some nightmare vision, but it was the branches that were slowly bending. Something came rustling down from the heights where it had been hidden in the foliage of the surrounding trees—a fruit that glowed like a lantern with a deep, fleshy red shine, dangling at the end of a long black branch.

The Stone Girl reached up her small hands and let the fruit nestle in her palms. She gave a small sharp twist; when the twig snapped free, the black branch sprang back into the heights. The Stone Girl looked up at Renie, her smiling face bathed in strawberry-colored light, her dimple-eyes round. Although she had been expecting it, the little girl's expression clearly said, it was nevertheless a thing of wonder.

The sparkle in the surrounding trees grew dimmer, so that the fruit, an ovoid about the size and shape of an eggplant, seemed now to be the brightest light. Renie found herself leaning forward as the Stone Girl clutched the glowing object firmly and split it in half.

A tiny shape lay at the center of the fruit—a baby, or something shaped like a baby, its shrunken body markedly female, the eyes closed as if in sleep. Its hands were laid across its stomach, the little fingers translucent as threads of glass.

"I made a Witch!" the Stone Girl whispered, thrilled and a little scared. The infant thing wriggled in its glowing bed at the sound of her voice.

"A . . . witch. . . ." Renie fought against the dreamy illogic of the scene. She had thought it a simple mispronunciation, but clearly it was more, somehow.

The Stone Girl held up the homunculus, cradling it close to her chest so that she nearly touched it with her lips as she asked her questions. "Will the Ending come any closer?"

The little thing stirred again. When it spoke, eyes still firmly shut, the voice was eerily out of keeping with the infant form, a lost moan that seemed to echo across great distances.

". . . Ending . . . is only beginning. . . ."

"But what will happen to us when all the world is gone into the Ending? Where will we live?"

The tiny mouth curled in a half-smile, then the Witch began to sing. "Boys and girls come out to play, the moon is shining as bright as day. . . ."

Renie fought down a superstitious shudder. Despite the small, ghostly voice, the entire fantastic setting, this was something that existed for a reason—or at least its creator had once operated under direction and intention. It might be weirdly unsettling to listen to the murmuring pronouncements of what was essentially a machine, but she had too much at stake to be tricked into forgetting. Underneath all this hoodoo ran the binary blood of a comprehensible system: she was not going to be sidetracked by what was little more than game design gone badly astray.

The Witch in the Stone Girl's hand had begun to wither, shriveling into a wrinkled mass like the stone of a peach. Grotesquely, it continued to talk and sing, but the voice had grown so faint now that although the Stone Girl was still listening intently, Renie could no longer make out any of the words. After a while it became clear that even the Stone Girl could not hear it anymore; she stared at it sadly for a moment, then dropped it unceremoniously into the dark, unreflecting water.

"Will the tree work for me, too?" Renie asked.

The Stone Girl seemed disturbed, but not by the question. "Suppose so."

Renie seated herself on the ground beside the girl. She couldn't remember the words the Stone Girl had sung. "Can you help me sing?"

Her small companion prompted her with the unfamiliar words about kings and queens, and Renie followed along, trying to make up for her hesitation between lines with clarity and volume. When she had finished, the air around the lake fell silent. A wind, perhaps, moved the branches of the trees so that the lights wavered. After a moment the branches of the dark tree began to move again: one of the shining, globular fruits was gliding down to her out of the hidden spaces overhead.

As she cradled the warm, smooth thing in her hands and tugged at it, watched it split open like a biology illustration to reveal the little creature within, Renie had a brief but powerful flash of memory. The childish solemnity of the experience, the crude images of death and birth, brought back to her the games she used to play with her friend Nomsa—elaborate, mock-Egyptian funerals of dolls, somber ceremonies out behind the flatblock where the weeds would hide them from mothers they somehow knew would disapprove. This was much the same, another flirtation with the forbidden that seemed not quite adult.

The miniature infant opened its eyes, startling her back to the present.

"Too late. . . ." it said, the voice airy with distance. "Too late . . . the children are dying . . . the old children and the new children. . . ."

Renie found herself growing angry, although she was a little distracted to realize that her baby was male. "What do you mean, 'too late?' That's a lot of shit, after everything we've been through." She looked to the Stone Girl. "Don't I get to ask it a question?"

Her companion was watching the baby's eyes, which filled the lids like pearls, without irises or pupils. The Stone Girl seemed frightened about something and did not answer, so Renie turned back to the strange fruit,

"Look, I think I know what you are, and I think I may even understand a little of what is going on." Renie was not sure if she was addressing the homunculus, the tree, the air. It's like talking to God, she decided. Although this one goes out of its way to communicate. Sort of. "Just tell me what you want from us. Are we supposed to find you? Was that what the black mountain was all about?"

Tiny limbs twitched slowly. "Wanted . . . the children . . . safe. . . ." It flailed again, as though drowning in a deep, unfriendly dream. "The new children . . . nowhere to be. . . . Now the cold. . . ."

"What about the children? Why don't you just let them go?"

"Hurts. Going to fall. Then warm . . . for a little while. . . ." Terrifyingly, the small perfect mouth opened wide and a rhythmic, wheezing hiss filled the air. Renie could not tell if it was laughter or gasping misery; either way, it was a horrible sound.

"Just tell us what you want! Why did you take the children—my brother Stephen, all the others? How can we get them back?"

The noise had ended. The tiny arms moved more slowly. The homunculus was becoming loose and flabby, collapsing in on itself in dreadful, high-speed putrefaction.

". . . Set free. . . ." The voice was a whisper that barely reached her ears. ". . . Set . . . free. . . ."

"God damn you!" Renie shouted. "Come back and talk to me!" But whatever had spoken was silent. Renie tried to remember the song that had summoned it, but the words were a jumble in her head, adding chaos to the rising anger. It was like dealing with Stephen at his most truculent—the child that simply would not obey, who almost dared you to use force. She gave up on the unfamiliar verse and began hoarsely to sing the words she did know, determined to drag the thing back from wherever it was hiding, force it to deal with her.

"Rock-a-bye, baby,
in the treetop,"

The fruit in her hands liquified and ran between her fingers. With a grunt of disgust, Renie threw it down and wiped her hands in the dirt, singing all the while.

"When the wind blows,
the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby,
cradle and all."

"Do you hear me?" she snarled. "Cradle and all, damn it!"

For a long moment there was only silence. Then a whisper, thin as a death-sigh, rose all around her.

"Why . . . hurting? . . . Called you . . . but now . . . too late. . . ."

"Called. . . ? You bastard, you didn't call anyone—you stole my brother!" Anger was bubbling out of her now, confined for too long in too tight a space. "Where is he? God damn you, you tell me where Stephen Sulaweyo is or I'll come find you and take you apart piece by piece. . . !" There was no reply. Furious, she opened her mouth to begin the verse again, to drag the thing back by its metaphorical ear, but was stopped by a sudden convulsive shudder up and down the tree's smooth black trunk—a peristaltic spasm that made the branches whip and snap overhead, knocking leaves and twigs from the other trees even as the black roots stirred the lake to froth.

Then, with the suddenness of a frightened ocean creature retreating into its shell, the tree collapsed—a lightning parody of what had happened to the witch-babies, but unlike them, the tree did not merely shrivel; it shrank from something into literally nothing: one moment it stood before them, the next it was gone, with only the torn, muddy ground and agitated waters to show it had even existed.

The Stone Girl turned to Renie, eyes wide, mouth a dark gape.

"You . . . you killed it," she said. "You killed the Witching Tree!"

CHAPTER 19
The Bravest: Man in the World

NETFEED/NEWS: ANVAC Arrests Own Customer for Noncomptiance

(visual: defendant Vildbjerg's house, Odense, Denmark)

VO: Danish music producer Nalli Vildbjerg was briefly jailed and is being sued by the security corporation ANVAC for violating his contract—failing to notify them of a crime that occurred on the premises they protect.

VILDBJERG: "These people are mad! I had a party, and someone took a coat that didn't belong to them—by accident, I'm certain. These ANVAC madmen saw it on the surveillance, and not only had this person arrested—a guest of mine!—but now they're prosecuting me, too!"

(visual: anonymated attorney from ANVAC's international legal firm, Thurn, Taxis, and Posthorn)

ATTORNEY: "When you sign one of our contracts, it says very clearly on page one hundred and seventeen that all crimes that occur onsite must be immediately and accurately reported to the company. Mr. Vildbjerg does not have the right to ignore crime—to appoint himself judge and jury in a matter of Danish and UN law."

 

I'll just remember Orlando, Sam told herself for perhaps the twentieth time in the past few hours. Then I can keep going. She might be stumbling with fatigue and miserable with worry, missing her parents and her home so badly she wanted to scream, but that was nothing compared to what Orlando had shouldered every single day.

But it killed him, she could not help remembering. So what good did it do him being brave, so brave. . . ?

"I think it is time for another rest," !Xabbu said. "We have been walking a long time now."

"And nothing is different," she said bitterly. "Is it just going to be like this forever? It could, couldn't it? Huh? Just go on forever, I mean. It's not a real place."

"I suppose." !Xabbu dropped easily into a crouch, showing no effects from the all-day march that had Sam's legs trembling with fatigue. "But it doesn't seem . . . what is the word? Likely. Logical."

"Logical." She sniffed. "That sounds like Renie."

"It does sound like her," said !Xabbu. "I miss her—always thinking, wondering, trying to make sense of every detail." He looked up at a movement nearby, something cresting the low riverside hill they had just descended. It was Jongleur, trudging after them with that grim tenacity that Sam found almost admirable. His body might be relatively young and healthy, that of a fit middle-aged man, but it was clear Jongleur himself had no recent practice in moving such a body for very long and was feeling the endless walk even more than she was.

"I still hate him," Sam said quietly. "I utterly do. But it's hard to, you know, keep it up when you see someone all the time, isn't it?"

!Xabbu did not answer. He and the older man were no longer naked since the Bushman had woven them both a sort of kilt from the long river grasses during their rest stops, and Sam had to admit it made her a little more comfortable. She thought of herself as modern and un-shockable, but it was strange enough having !Xabbu naked all the time, and herself nearly so; to have to confront the raw physical reality of Felix Jongleur for days on end had made her feel like she couldn't quite get clean.

"Not that we have days around here," she said aloud. "Not really."

!Xabbu looked at her curiously.

"Sorry. I was thinking out loud." Sam frowned. "But it's true. It doesn't get dark or light here like a normal place. There's no sun. It's more like someone gets up in the morning and switches on a big light, then turns it off again at night."

"Yes, it is strange. But why should it be anything else? It is not real, after all."

"It's real enough to kill us," said Jongleur as he stopped beside them.

"Thank you, Aardlar the Cheerful Barbarian." Sam only realized after she said it that she was quoting one of Orlando's jokes.

!Xabbu wandered a little way down the riverbank. As Jongleur caught his breath, Sam watched her small, slim friend picking his way through the reeds. He misses her so much, but he doesn't talk about it. He just wants to keep walking, walking, wants to keep looking for her. She tried to imagine what it felt like, tried to picture what she would feel if Orlando were still alive and lost somewhere in this alien landscape, but it made her too sad. At least there's a chance he might find Renie.

"We should go on," !Xabbu called. "It is hard to tell how many hours of light we have."

Jongleur rose without a word of complaint and resumed his plodding march. Sam sped up to catch !Xabbu.

"This place all looks just the same," she said. "Except that sometimes it starts to look . . . I don't know . . . transparent again. Like when we first came here." She pointed to a distant line of hills. "See? They looked okay before, but now they don't look quite real."

!Xabbu nodded his head wearily. "I can make no more sense of things than you."

"How about the other side of the river?" Sam asked, half-hoping to distract him. "Maybe Renie's over there."

"You can see as well as I can that the land is even more flat there," !Xabbu told her. "There are at least some trees and plants by the river on this side that might block her from our view until we were right beside her." His somber look deepened: Sam did not need him to say that it would be especially true if Renie were lying unconscious or dead.

A cold shudder ran down her back. She wished she could remember some of the prayers they had taught her in Sunday school, but the youth pastor had been bigger on sing-alongs than on the nuts and bolts of what to do when you and your friends were marooned in an imaginary universe.

Remembering the youth group, and a boy with braces named Holger who—much against her wishes—had tried to kiss her at the Overnight Retreat campfire ceremony, Sam walked several steps before she realized that !Xabbu had stopped. She turned, and the stunned look on his face made her think for a moment that the worst had happened, that he had seen Renie's legs protruding from beneath a bush, or her body floating facedown in the river. She whirled to follow his angle of sight, but to her relief saw only a small cluster of trees on an otherwise empty hillock of grass close by the water.

"!Xabbu. . . ?"

He dashed past her toward the trees. Sam hurried after him.

"!Xabbu, what is it?" He was touching one of the branches, drawing his fingers slowly along the bark. His silence, his strange, devastated expression brought Sam close to tears. "!Xabbu, what's wrong?"

He looked at her face, then down at her feet. She made a move toward him but he grabbed her arm with surprising strength. "Do not move, Sam."

"What? You're frightening me!"

"This tree. It is the one to which Renie tied the piece of cloth." He waved the strip of frayed white fabric that he had been carrying in his hand like a holy relic since they had discovered it.

What are you talking about we left that behind two days ago!"

"Look down, Sam." He pointed at the ground. "What do you see?"

"Footprints. So what. . . ?" And then she understood.

A trail of her own footprints led back, showing where she had just crossed the powdery soil. But there were dozens more all around, mixed in with many others, including !Xabbu's own telltale small prints, more slender even than her own—far too many to have just been made. She put her foot down in one of the older tracks. It was a perfect fit.

"Oh, my God," she said. "That's too scanny. . . ."

"Somehow," !Xabbu said, his voice as miserable as she had ever heard it, "we have come back to our starting place."

 

Although the swift turn into nightfall was still at least an hour away, !Xabbu had made a fire: neither he nor Sam felt much interest in going any farther. The thin, silvery flames, which usually lent a homely atmosphere to their camps, at the moment seemed merely alien.

"It doesn't make any sense," Sam said again. "We never went more than a little way from the river. Even without a sun, we couldn't be that lost . . . could we?"

"Were there not our own footprints on this ground, I still could not forget this place—I could not mistake it for another," !Xabbu said forlornly. "Not the tree where we found a sign that Renie was alive and looking for us. Where I grew up, we know trees like we do people—better, since the trees stay in one place while people die and the wind blows their footprints away." He shook his head. "I knew for a long time that the land looked very much the same, but I tried to make myself believe I was mistaken."

"But that still doesn't explain how we could get so utterly lost!" Sam said. "Especially you—it just seems wrong."

"Because you still believe that you are in a real world," said Jongleur sharply. He had been silent for almost an hour; his sudden words startled them.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sam demanded. "We still have up and down, don't we? Left and right? We followed the river through that whole impacted network of yours. . . ."

"But this is not my network," Jongleur interrupted. "That was planned by technicians, engineers, designers-conceived by humans, for humans. Left, right, up, down—very useful if you are human. Less meaningful for the Other."

!Xabbu looked at him bleakly but said nothing.

"Are you saying that everything just . . . changes here?" Sam asked. "That there are no rules?"

Jongleur picked a twig off the ground. Despite the occasional changes in the refractory quality of the land, Sam found it frustrating to see how normal everything looked, how ordinary, in a place that could play them such a terrible trick.

"It could be that we will find a place where the 'rules,' as you call them, are almost nonexistent," the old man said, rolling the long twig between his fingers. "But I suspect that there are indeed firm rules here—just not the sort we expect to find." He leaned forward and cleared a space in the dirt with his forearm, then used the twig to draw a row of small circles laid out side by side like a line of pearls. "The Grail network is set up something like this," he said. "Each circle a world." He drew a single stroke all the way from one end of the series of circles to the other—a strand on which the pearls hung. "The great river runs all through it, connecting every world to another world at each end. If you never left the river, used only those gates at either end of the simulation worlds, you would still eventually pass through every world before coming back to the beginning and starting again."

Sam studied the scrawl. "So? Why doesn't that work here? How did we lose the river?"

"I do not believe we did."

"How can that be?"

"Because there is no reason this world should be linear, as the Grail network is. We assume a river must have a source and an outflow, but even the connecting river of my network does not truly begin anywhere or end anywhere." Jongleur wiped out the string of pearls, then made a new circle, larger this time, with another squiggly circle inside it. "This place has even less reason to follow the model of a real world. I suspect what we have been doing is following the river here," he touched the wobbly circle with the end of the twig, "to here." He followed the squiggle all the way around until he reached the spot where it had started.

Sam stared. Beside her, !Xabbu was watching with more interest than he had shown in an hour. "So . . . that's all there is?" she asked. "We've seen the whole place? Just once around the bagel and we're done?" She shook her head, almost angry. "That's too woofie to be true. For one thing, if we've gone all the way around the whole world, where was Renie? And that friend of yours, Klement? They couldn't just disappear."

But maybe she could, Sam thought suddenly. Into a hole. Into a river. Lost. Lost like Orlando. . . .

"Perhaps the model is even more strange," said Jongleur. At that moment he seemed almost normal, like one of her teachers—not a chosen companion, but not an arch-villain either. And like her better teachers, he actually seemed interested in what he was talking about. Sam remembered that this was a man who, whatever his methods, had set out to solve the problem of human mortality.

Like, that Greek guy in the myths, who stole the secret of life from the gods. Orlando would remember his name.

Jongleur had wiped away his other drawings and replaced them with the largest circle yet, this one filled with half a dozen concentric wavy circles, so that the whole looked something like a watery bull's-eye. "Then consider this," he said. "Perhaps there are more worlds concealed within this world—many more, like Russian dolls. But instead of the river being the conduit between them, it is a barrier instead. So instead of following the river," he traced one of the river-rings back to his starting point, "which only brings us back to our starting point, we must instead cross over the river, into the next world." He drew a line from one ring, across the wavy river line, and into the next ring inward. "There is no need to mimic real-world geometry here. The self-elected god of this place doesn't know much about the real world, after all."

Sam stared at the bull's-eye. "Hang on—that just scans. Look out there—look!" She pointed to the far side of the river, its low hills and river meadows still glowing in the directionless light. "Like !Xabbu said, we'd have seen Renie if she was over there. And besides, if it is another world, then your operating system doesn't have much imagination, because it's just like this one!"

Jongleur's self-satisfied chuckle made Sam want to hit him. "Just because you can see it does not mean it's there, child."

"What?"

"There are many places in the Grail network where only one side of the river was built. Those who try to reach that other side find that although they can see it, they never manage to reach it—but still the illusion of two sides is maintained. If we managed to cross that river somehow, who knows where we would be? Or what we would see if we looked back at this spot. . . ?"

The twilight was upon them, and it was getting hard to see the far side anyway. Sam was too tired and depressed to stay interested in a discussion of yet another mystery. Even if Jongleur was right, even if they could make sense of it and find Renie, maybe even find the Other itself, they would still be exactly nowhere. Sam remembered the Other, its cold presence, the way it had made the cartoon Freezer a hole into complete nothingness. . . .

I wonder what Mom and Dad are doing right now? she thought suddenly. They can't be at the hospital all the time, watching me. Her loneliness was touched with something like jealousy. Maybe they're home eating dinner. Watching something on the net. Mom calling Grandma Katherine. . . .

!Xabbu was still looking at the river. "There is someone there." He sounded very calm, but Sam knew better—she had learned something about him in their days together.

"Somebody where?" She sat up, surveying the now-shadowy farther bank. "I don't see anyone."

"In the reeds at the edge of the river." He stood. "It is a human shape."

Sam could see only the faint movement of the stalks, a wavering wall of gray. "Is it . . . can you see who it is?" She tried to keep excitement out of her voice, having just realized it was just as likely to be the zombie Klement as Renie. It might even be Jecky Nibble or one of the other strange creatures from a couple of nights ago.

Something was indeed clambering out of the reeds—something very human in its shape and movements.

Her moment of hope lasted only until !Xabbu's next words, spoken in a voice so flat that Sam could only guess at the pain behind it. "It is a man." He had been poised, pulled taut like a bowstring, ready to run down the slope. Now she saw him sag, even the possibility of danger less important than the fact of loss.

The stranger raised his hands in the air. "Don't run!" he called. "I cannot stand to spend another night in the cold!"

He was limping, and the black trousers and loose white shirt he was wearing were badly torn and pink with washed-out blood. If he was faking, trying to lull them, Sam thought, he was doing a very good job of it. He staggered like a runner in the last meters of a grueling marathon and appeared to be dripping wet as well. !Xabbu watched his approach with a very strange expression on his face, but he did not seem frightened.

The stranger was of more or less ordinary size, his body older than hers, younger than Jongleur's, and very fit. Except for the bedraggled black mustache and wet hair, he was quite good-looking in what Sam thought of as a tanned, netsoap-actor sort of way, and seemed to be in the peak of life and health.

"Oh, share your fire, please," he begged as he stumbled the last few steps toward them. When none of them said anything, he threw himself down beside the flames, shivering. "Thank God. There is nothing good to make a raft here—the one I made keeps sinking. All last night I spent, wet and freezing. I saw your fire, but could not reach it. I have been following you. Ah, God, this empty, miserable place."

Sam was surprised that !Xabbu had not made the stranger welcome. She looked to him for a cue, but the small man still seemed oddly distracted. "We don't have much to give you," she said, "not even a blanket. But you can certainly get warm at our fire."

"Thank you, young lady. You are very kind." The stranger tried to smile but his teeth were chattering too briskly to hold it for more than a moment. "You do me a favor, and Azador does not forget favors."

"We should go get more wood," !Xabbu said suddenly, touching Sam's arm. "Come with me and we can carry back enough to last all night."

!Xabbu walked very close to her as he led her toward a copse of trees farther up the meadow where he had gathered the first batch of deadfall. "Do not look back," he whispered to her. "Don't you remember the name Azador?"

"It . . . it sounds familiar, now that you mention it."

"He traveled with Paul Jonas for a while. Before that, with Renie and me. The lighter—the access device—came from him."

"Oh my God! You're dupping, aren't you?" She fought the urge to look back. "But what's he doing here?"

"Who knows? But what is important is that he doesn't know we recognize him. You see, he knows me only in the shape of a baboon."

"You don't want him to know who you are?"

"We will learn more if he thinks us all strangers. At least we will be more likely to notice if he tells lies." !Xabbu frowned. "But now that I think about it, this is a very complicated problem. From what Paul Jonas said, this man calls himself a victim of the Grail Brotherhood. If he finds out who Jongleur is. . . ." He shook his head. "And since Renie and I used our real names in front of him, you cannot call me by name. But if you call me something else, some false name, Jongleur will notice."

"This is making my head hurt," she said as they reached the trees. "Maybe we should just kill him." !Xabbu turned to her, eyes wide. "I'm joking, utterly!"

"I do not like such jokes, Sam." !Xabbu bent and began picking up branches from the ground.

"Look," she said as she filled her arms with deadfall, "it wasn't a very nice joke, okay. Seen. But if we can't use Renie's name in front of him, if we can't use your name, if we can't talk about anything that's really going on, that's going to slow us down. What's more important, fooling this guy or finding Renie?"

!Xabbu nodded slowly. "Of course you are right, Sam. Let us just see what Azador has to say for himself tonight—it is normal for us to ask him what brings him to our campfire—and then we will try to make sense of things."

 

"Of course you would want to know my story," Azador said expansively. The fire had warmed him; but for his swollen ankle and a certain damp-dog look to his upper lip, he seemed completely recovered. "It is full of danger and excitement—even, if I must say it, heroism. But what you really wish to know is, how is it that Azador comes to you in this godforsaken place, yes?"

Sam wanted to roll her eyes, but restrained herself. "Yes."

"Then I will tell you a secret." The handsome newcomer leaned forward, raising his eyes and looking from side to side in a children's-theater gesture of confidentiality. "Azador has been following you for a long time."

She resisted the urge to look at !Xabbu. "Really?"

"Since . . . Troy." Azador sat up and folded his arms across his chest as though he had performed a magic trick.

"What . . . what are you talking about?"

He smiled kindly. "Do not try to trick me, pretty lady. I have been all around—I have seen more of the network than any other man. You are the only people in this place. I saw you on the mountaintop—yes, you remember! I see it on your faces. I know you are the same people I followed from Troy."

Sam was trying to make sense of this. Were they in trouble? Were all !Xabbu's warnings to her now useless? She looked from the Bushman's intent face to Jongleur, whose expression was entirely unreadable. "But . . . but why would you follow us? If we were the people you think we are, that is."

"Because you were with the man Ionas. I knew he was more than he admitted to me, and when I saw him lead you and the others into a temple in the middle of a burning city, I knew he was looking for a gateway. Do not forget, Azador has been all over this network! The Grail Brotherhood has pursued me everywhere! There are some that say that I am the bravest man in all these worlds." He spread his hands in a gesture of humility. "I myself would never make such a claim."

His silliness was beginning to subdue her fears, but she could not help wondering if that was an intended effect. God, this whole adventure just scans and scans. It's like playing Halloween party games in a pitch-black room, like for months—but if you lose, someone kills you.

"Why were you following this . . . Ionas?" !Xabbu asked.

"Because he was my friend. I knew he would get himself in trouble in that Trojan world—he had not done the things I have done, seen the things I have seen. I wished to help him, to . . . protect him."

!Xabbu was carefully keeping doubt off his face. Sam cleared her throat, "So you followed . . . these people . . . into a temple?"

Azador laughed. "You wish to keep pretending, little lady? Very well—I have nothing to hide. Yes, I followed Ionas and . . . his friends into the temple. All through the maze—I could hear them just ahead of me. Then they stopped. I stopped, too, out of sight in the corridors behind them while they argued. It was a long argument, and I thought the gateway was broken, that they would all turn back and I would have to follow them out into the city again, where people were being killed like animals. But instead the gate opened and all went through, with much shouting and more arguing. I waited as long as I could but I was afraid the gate would close again, so I went through."

"But if Ionas was your friend, why didn't you want to be seen?"

For a moment a flicker of irritation crossed Azador's face. "Because I did not know the people he was with. I have many enemies."

"Okay," Sam said. "So you went through. And. . . ?"

"And found myself in a strange place—the strangest yet. I heard voices on the mountain ahead of me, so I waited until they began to move, then followed. Slowly, slowly, and very quietly. You . . . or should I say, the friends of Ionas. . . ?" He smiled in a way that Sam felt sure he thought extremely winning. "The people ahead of me, they walked very slowly. But patiently I followed. By the time we reached the top I had let them get far ahead of me. I saw the giant there." He shook his head, apparently in genuine dismay. "What a thing that was! I have seen nothing like it in any of these worlds. And I saw Ionas and the others very close to it. But when I went to follow them, something . . . something happened." He closed his eyes, thinking. "Everything came apart, as though someone had broken a window and the pieces flew everywhere."

There was a sudden stir beside her. Sam realized that Jongleur had sat upright; from the corner of her eye she could see tension in the lines of the old man's body. In all this strangeness, what had grabbed his attention so firmly? "Everything came apart," she prompted.

"And then I do not remember much," Azador said. "I fell. I think I hit my head." He reached up and massaged the base of his skull. "When I awakened the mountain was gone and I was surrounded by nothing—all gray, like a fog, but with no up or down. I have been searching ever since, and even when I found a world to be in, there was no one there. Azador was alone, except for the hunting creatures. Until I saw the light of your fire."

"Hunting creatures?" !Xabbu poked up the fire. "What are those?"

"You have not seen them? You are lucky." Azador patted himself on the chest. "Shapes that freeze the blood. Monsters, ghosts—who knows? But they hunt men. They hunted me. Only on the river was I safe, so I built myself a raft."

Satisfied with the drama of his recitation, the newcomer sat back and gazed solemnly into the shifting flames.

"So we've let you get warm at our fire," Sam said. "What else do you want?"

"To travel with you," he said promptly. "There is safety in numbers, and you will have much benefit from pining Azador as a companion. I can trap animals for food, I can fish. . . ."

"We don't eat," Sam pointed out.

". . . And I can build a raft with my bare hands!"

"Which keeps sinking, you said." She looked to !Xabbu, half-amused, half-disgusted. Was it just chance that kept saddling them with horrible traveling companions?

"There is no Ionas here," !Xabbu said. "I can say with truth that I have never known such a person in this world."

"Ah, even with your different faces, I knew that he was not with you," said Azador cheerfully. "After all, Ionas was brave, in his way—for an Englishman, that is. He would not have stayed silent and pretended he was someone else with his friend Azador standing before him. But if he is lost somewhere in this world, then I will find him."

Sam looked at !Xabbu, who was watching Jongleur, but the old man's face was again an impenetrable mask. When !Xabbu finally turned to her she saw that, beneath his composed expression, the only person here she trusted was just as worried and confused as she was. She almost used his name, but caught herself. "So what should we do, then?"

He looked at Azador, who was smiling confidently. "I do not know," !Xabbu shook his head. "I suppose you will travel with us, Azador. For a while, at least."

The newcomer smiled and ran a finger along the bottom of his mustache. "You will not regret it. This I swear."

CHAPTER 2O
Thompson's Iron

NETFEED/NEWS: Expert Decries Apocalyptic Themes

(visual: excerpt from How to Kill Your Teacher,)

VO: Net ethics watchdog Sian Kelly thinks kid's programming is going too far these days—all the way to the end of the world.

KELLY: "It's a trend, and it's not a good one. So many of the children's interactives—Teen Mob, Blodger Park, Backstab, that Kill Your Teacher thing—are running shows with apocalyptic themes. Kids are very suggestible, and the emphasis on suicide cults and the end of the world is irresponsible and frightening."

VO: The networks uniformly deny any collusion between writers and creators of the shows cited.

(visual: Ruy Contreras-Simons, GCN)

CONTRERAS-SIMONS: "It's a trend, sure, but it's nothing anyone has decided to do. I guess it's just in the air. . . ."

 

The trip down into the burrow had been horrible, the four of them carried like pieces of dead meat, which was clearly how the mutant web-builders already thought of them. Paul had fought back, but with his limbs tightly held had managed only to get himself dragged along sharp rocks and to earn a stinging blow on the head from a misshapen claw that was not quite either a hand or a hoof.

The only bit of good fortune was that they were not bound. The sticky cables remained as part of the web; the creatures had needed to drool some putrid-smelling fluid on their captives just to pull them free of it.

Several dozen of the monsters were in just this open part of the burrow where the captives had been thrown down, but Paul, his senses raw in the darkness, thought he could hear chattering voices down the side tunnels as well. It was not completely dark; something was burning or gleaming in one of the tunnels, letting in a bit of the light and throwing just enough definition onto their crawling captors and the nest to make Paul see how hopeless was any thought of escape.

The things were not human. He had to keep reminding himself of that, both to ease the horror and to keep the embers of hope smoldering. The spider-buffalos showed little or no organization, and were clearly used to prey that was either stunned or already dead. Other than roughly shoving T4b back when the boy had tried to scramble out of the pit, they had not bothered with any other precautions against escape. Not that more precautions seemed needed: they outnumbered Paul and his friends by ten to one or more, and were each at least as strong as a person.

Trying to decide what the things actually were, with an eye toward discovering a weakness, was little help. They were just some wild mutation of the simworld, possibly intentional—perhaps there was even a cruel joke in the way they resembled the buffalo of the American West that had been so completely and swiftly slaughtered for their hides, massacred by the thousands, skinned, and then left to rot on the plains. In any case, they were big, fast, apparently without conscience, and obviously had a tooth for human flesh. Man-bones crunched underfoot on the tunnel floors and in greater numbers here in the pit itself, becoming even more common lower down the slope toward the pit's black depths.

As if to underscore this, Paul put his hand down on something sharp. He felt around, expecting to discover another jawbone, and found instead something small, square and hard which he held up to catch the faint light. It was a rusty belt buckle, bent as though the belt itself had been torn open with great force while still fastened. Paul's stomach lurched. It was not hard to imagine these fierce, hairy creatures doing just that in their haste to make a meal of the tender flesh beneath it.

Despair swept over him like a cold rain. What could they do? Fight the monstrosities with bare hands and a belt buckle? Or take up jawbones, like Samson, to smite their enemies?

But I'm no bloody Samson, am I?

"Paul?" It was Florimel, a short distance away. "Are you there? You cried out—are you hurt?"

"Just put my hand on something." He stared up the slope at the grotesque figures moving in the half-light—probably performing the mutant equivalent of setting the table—and tried to keep the hopelessness out of his voice. "Any ideas?"

He could not see her, but he could hear her grunt of misery. "Nothing. I can barely crawl. I landed hard when we fell from the wagon."

"How are the others?"

"Martine is alive, but I think she is hurt, too—she is very quiet, talking to herself just over there. T4b . . . T4b is praying."

"Praying?" It startled him, but he could not claim to have any better ideas.

"There are so many of these monsters, and we are all so tired. I am frightened, Paul."

"I am, too."

Florimel fell into troubled silence. Paul could see no reason to make her talk. It would be one thing if they had a plan, but the situation was too bleak for peppy chats.

So it is me, then? Is it down to me to come up with something? I didn't bloody well ask to be here in this network in the first place. At least he didn't think he had—he still couldn't remember, but it would be hard to imagine: "Oh, and if you have a few spare moments, Mr. Jongleur, how about locking me up in a World War One simulation and torturing me a bit, all right?"

But why, then? He was a nobody, a museum employee, a university graduate with less power than a classroom teacher or a shop steward. If he had interfered in the raising of Jongleur's daughter, why hadn't they just fired him? If he had somehow discovered something of the Grail Project, as seemed likely, why not just kill him? Perhaps they had not wanted the irritation of arranging an accident or a suicide, but it seemed bizarre to think that people like Felix Jongleur and his associates would lavish so much attention on a nonentity.

Even if the World War One simulation had been something already built. Finch and Mullet, otherwise known as Finney and Mudd, had devoted a great deal of time to him, and had doggedly tracked him all over the Grail network. Why?

Shuddersome memories of his escape from the trenches came back to him, made worse by the similarity to his present situation. The mud, the bodies, the shattered pieces of men and their machines lying beneath his feet. . . .

A thought sparked. Paul, who had been crouching on his heels, suddenly dropped back onto all fours and crawled down the slope, feeling with his hands. It was disgusting work. Not only were the human and animal remains more common as the slope descended, but many of them had not been completely cleaned of meat, remnants perhaps from days of great feasting when all the spider-creatures ate their fill with some left over. The bleak realization struck him that he and his friends probably represented a similar bounty—that they had been unharmed so far only because they were to be the centerpiece of some grisly festival meal.

The stench near the bottom of the pit was terrible, the ground and remains alike active with small creatures taking advantage of the web-builders' generosity. Worst of all, the farther he crawled the less light he had, and he was forced to handle every collection of remains as he looked for something which might save his life and the lives of his companions.

Clambering across the rot and muck, it was hard to put the last hours of the World War One simulation out of his mind. Ava—Avialle—had appeared to him there as well, lying in a coffin like a vampire princess. "Come to us," she had said. Was she simply speaking lines the Other had given her, as Martine guessed? Trying to bring Paul and his companions together in a sort of fairy-tale-inspired rescue mission? But why? And what was Ava's part in it? Why did she pick such strange ways to contact him?

He had been running his hands across the thing for some seconds before he realized what it was. At first he had unconsciously rejected it—if a buckle was no use, what good could be done with a rotting belt?—but as his fingers traced the length of it, coming at last to the large triangular pouch at the end, he felt his heart thump as though it might stop.

He had been hoping only for a walking stick or perhaps even a knife, something the creatures had thrown away that would even the odds a little. Now he hardly dared breathe as he pulled the pistol out of its holster. It seemed to be a revolver such as he had seen in old Western flicks. It was surprisingly heavy, but that was all he could tell about it by touch—he was no expert, and had never thought he would need to know anything about pistols, ancient or modern. Of course, not even the most paranoid of gun-obsessives had ever envisioned a situation quite like this.

Working slowly, but with a pounding sense of urgency, he carefully pulled and pushed at the cylindrical drum until it pivoted free of the barrel. He squinted, but could see nothing. A finger carefully inserted into one of the holes found an obstruction, and further examination showed that all the rest of the gun's six chambers were the same. Bullets—or mud? There was no way to tell without light and time, and Paul doubted he would get enough of either. And even if they proved to be bullets, there was still no guarantee that damp and dirt had not made them useless.

He hesitated. A part of him wanted to continue down the slope, a wild gambler's impulse suddenly activated by success. Maybe he would find enough pistols to arm the whole company. This was Dodge City, after all—many of the creature's captives must have been armed. Perhaps he would find something even more useful. It was hard to believe there would be a Gatling gun lying in the pit's muddy reaches, but there might be a shotgun. Paul actually knew how to shoot one of those, having endured several hunting weekends in Staffordshire with Niles and his family before mustering the courage to admit to himself, and then to Niles, that he never again wanted to stand on a cold moor with a group of people whose idea of a good time was to get drunk and blast small animals to shreds.

Still, he would not mind blasting the things capering above him into random particles, not at all. A shotgun would be a very satisfying, mind-easing thing to have, and he would not be placing all his hope on the performance of one gun—a pistol that could have been lying here in the dark for the simworld's equivalent of years, for all he knew. . . .

It was tempting, but he could not take the risk. He was almost fifty meters down the slope from his companions—what if the creatures snatched them now? He would have to get quite close before aiming would be anything more than a blind lottery in this near-darkness.

He turned and began laboring up the slope, cursing now when he slipped on the bones and decomposing tissue he had so actively sought on the way down. As if to confirm his worst fears, definite activity of some kind had begun on the rim of the pit: the spidery creatures were gathering, their hissing, gulping cries rising in shared excitement. Paul heard a panicky shout from Martine. He tripped and fell, too numb and frightened now even to curse his luck, and scrambled upward on all fours like an animal, struggling to keep the gun out of the dirt.

"I'm coming!" he called. "Get ready to run!"

He reached the top of the pit in time to see one of the two women—in the half-light he could not tell which—being dragged out by a cluster of hairy creatures while her two companions pulled desperately at her arms in a gallant but failing struggle to keep her. Paul pushed up beside them and found himself only a meter away from the closest of the buffalo-spiders, which turned its smashed face toward him, squinting lopsidedly at this slightly unexpected arrival. It left its fellows to the job of dragging Florimel off to be eaten and reached for Paul with hideously long arms. He lifted the pistol and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell. Nothing happened.

The creature's horn-plated paw struck him on the head and knocked him backward. The pistol flew from his hand into the darkness and dirt. He sank to his knees, the faint lights and deep shadows now wavering as though seen through water. The creature that had slapped at him hesitated for a moment, torn between following up the attack and going back to help its fellows secure the chosen meal. In that space of a half-dozen fluttering heartbeats Paul recovered enough of himself to crawl after the gun. He lifted it again, certain that it was all useless, steadied his hand, and yanked the trigger once more.

This time the explosion was like a bomb going off. Fire leaped from the muzzle, and simultaneously the malformed head of the creature seemed to disappear. The other creatures sprang back, shrieking like startled gulls, but he could hardly hear them for the ringing in his ears.

"Run!" Even at a shout, his own voice sounded as though it were far away, floating through cotton. "Come on!"

He grabbed at the nearest hand and tugged its owner, who turned out to be Martine, up the slope. The creatures had let go of Florimel, and now one of the inhuman shapes lurched in front of him. Paul shoved the gun into the thing's midsection and the creature bent double and flew backward as the gun detonated again. The creatures were leaping around the darkened nest in growing confusion, but Paul could only concentrate on what was just ahead of him.

Trusting that the other two were following, Paul dragged Martine toward the tunnel from which a little light washed out, praying that it was the sun. He had to duck his head as he entered the lower passage, and a surprise swipe from one of the creatures almost took his face off. Terrified, Paul squeezed the trigger, not bothering to aim. He didn't think he hit it, but the muzzle flash and the explosion of powder sent the creature squealing away down a side tunnel.

A dozen more steps and his heart sank. There was no sun. The tunnel widened into a broad space with a great fire pit in the middle, the flames surrounded by a crude ring of blackened skulls, both animal and human, and a corona of burned split bones. Several more of the monsters had backed against the wall, startled by the sudden appearance of the escaping prisoners, but they looked as though they were mustering the courage to attack.

No sun. We'll just stagger through these tunnels till they surround us or we run out of bullets. . . . The adrenalized numbness wore away a little. He realized he was already gasping for breath, that his wrist ached from the kick of the pistol. Behind him, Martine was jerking frantically at his arm.

"It's no good," he said. "Just their . . . their kitchen. No sun."

"Keep going!" She was fighting to control her voice. "You're going in the right direction. Go on!"

He could only hope she knew what she was saying. The little party hurried forward through the flaring yellow light. He waved the pistol, backing several of the creatures out of their path. One would not be bluffed, so Paul fired again. The thing fell to the floor in a hissing, writhing heap, forcing them to inch around it with their backs against the damp clay of the tunnel wall. Its guts had spilled onto the ground and the stench clawed at his nostrils.

How many bullets gone? Do I have any left?

Time became something not quite calculable as they stumbled through the nest. With every branch the tunnels seemed to get smaller and smaller. Paul began to feel horridly certain that Martine had made some miscalculation, that one or two more turnings would lead them into a tube where they would have to crawl on hands and knees, and from there into a wall of dirt where they would be trapped.

No, that was the war, he told himself. The shrilling of the enraged spider-buffalos was all around him. He felt his thoughts fragmenting. Keep your mind on what's in front of you . . . in front of you. . . .

"Go to the right!" Martine shouted. "Paul! To the right!"

He hesitated because at that moment he honestly could not think which direction was which. He felt Martine shoving him from behind and allowed himself to be guided out of the tunnel into a passage that turned sharply upward, a twisting path through cracked and broken rock.

"I see light!" he said excitedly. A circle of dim, twilight blue hovered a hundred meters above him, but this was no trick, no monster's cookfire: there were faint stars in it, real, honorable stars, as welcome as the faces of old friends. "Hurry!"

He reached back to help Martine over a stone that jutted into the passage like a crooked tooth and had a moment of panic when he could see no one behind her. Then T4b and Florimel lurched into view, made clumsy by their hurry to get out of the corridor below.

"They're coming," cried Florimel as she pulled down stones and earth, shoveling them with her hands into the tunnel opening to slow the pursuers. "Dozens of them!"

Paul could not make his way up the steep tunnel with only one hand free; he shoved the pistol into the pocket of his torn, muddied coveralls and began to climb, stopping every few meters to reach back and help Martine. The sounds of pursuit were growing louder. As Paul felt the first breath of outside air wafting down the tunnel onto his face, Florimel shouted that the creatures were forcing their way into the passage below.

Paul reached the top of the hole and dragged himself out, gasping in his first breath of clean air in hours. He had only moments to look around as he helped Martine and the others out, but what he saw did not encourage him. They were in the middle of a stony mountainside almost bare of vegetation, a thousand meters above a valley floor already drowned in evening shadow. The top of the rocky ridge was much closer, but only after a terrible climb across jagged stones and loose scree. . . .

"We have to go down," he gasped as he and Martine dragged Florimel over the lip of the hole. Behind her T4b was muttering in terror and dismay, and almost knocked the older woman down the steep slope to certain death in his hurry to get out of the tunnel.

"Right behind me," T4b gasped. "Grabbin' my legs, them."

"Let's go," Paul said. "Maybe they won't follow us across open ground."

He didn't really believe it himself, and the hope proved futile by the time they had slipped and skidded a dozen meters from the tunnel. A horde of the spider-buffalos spilled out of the hole onto the hillside. They gulped and jabbered excitedly, peering around nearsightedly until one of them saw Paul and the others, then the whole bristling crowd of them came boiling down the slope like termites out of a split log.

Paul drew the pistol and aimed it at their pursuers. The jerk of the gun's detonation knocked him off-balance so that he stumbled into T4b and almost sent them both tumbling down the mountainside, but although the closest of the creatures recoiled from the shot, halting the pursuing pack for a moment of milling confusion, none of them fell.

Paul turned and hastened downhill behind his companions. He was fairly certain he had no bullets left, and carrying the gun in his hand was a terrible risk to balance, but the thought of facing a rush of those hairy things with only his bare hands was too much. If it wouldn't shoot, he would use it as a hammer.

I'll smash a few of those ugly faces back in the other direction before they get me. Even in his own head, the words sounded like the most pathetic and useless sort of bravado.

Martine was in front now, but at the rear of the line Paul could barely muster time to wonder about the wisdom of letting a blind woman lead them. The footing was terrible, loose stones and shallow soil everywhere: he could only pray Martine's strange gifts would make her a better guide across such terrain than others might be. As it was, every hurried step threatened to start an avalanche: Paul alternated between clinging to T4b's shoulders for balance and supporting the teenager in turn when patches of loose stones turned into little rockslides below T4b's feet. Florimel was clearly in pain and could move only slowly, but they could better accommodate her pace in their downward scramble than if they had been fleeing across even ground. Even so, Martine had to stop every few steps and help the German woman onto the next relatively stable spot.

Paul did not dare lake his eyes off the slope in front of him until a sudden squealing from their pursuers, a shrilling chorus that sounded something like panic, made him turn back. Several of the monsters, scuttling too quickly across a section of scree already loosened by the passage of Paul and his companions, had started a slide. As Paul watched, the rocky earth crumbled away beneath them and they went hissing and shrieking down the mountain, freefalling in a hail of loose stones and dirt. For a moment Paul felt something like hope, but only a few had fallen, and although the rest had to stop and clamber uphill to make their way around the deadly section, it was the briefest of delays.

The sun had now disappeared between the horns of the stark mountain range on the far side of the river basin. Cold shadows climbed up out of the canyon. Paul could almost feel his heart freezing inside his chest.

We'll never make it. We'll die here in this idiot, backwater world. . . .

A horrid wet barking noise, very close, stopped him in his tracks. He whirled to see two of the creatures crouching on a promontory just above him, twisted mouths open and drooling with excitement. They had found a faster way along the mountainside and had outflanked him from above.

The nearest leaned out over the edge of the rock shelf, long legs drawn up beside its head like some hairy midnight cricket. Paul only had time to let out a little shout of surprise and dismay before the thing unfolded itself in a powerful spring.

To his complete astonishment the beast missed him, even seemed to jolt and change direction in midair. It landed heavily at his feet, limp as a flour sack, and skidded a few meters down the slope to lie unmoving below him. The second monster leaped just as the crack of the gunshot that had killed the first reached Paul's ears.

The second spider-buffalo sprang only a little way down-slope to land just above him, and had time to rear up on its legs and snatch at him before something went past Paul's ear like the crack of a whip and punched into its matted chest, drenching him in an explosion of blood.

Whoever was firing now shifted aim onto the large crowd of spider-buffalos farther up the slope. Bullets pinged off of stones and sent up gouts of dirt, but an almost equal number struck their targets; within seconds a half-dozen of the creatures were tumbling down the hill while the rest let out bubbling shrieks of dismay, eyes rolling with terror.

"Get down!" Paul scrambled forward and yanked T4b to earth, then huddled facedown while shots winnowed their pursuers. He could turn his head to one side just far enough to see Florimel's back where she lay nearby; Paul could only hope she had not been hit, and that Martine was safe on the other side of her.

The chase and almost inevitable capture of a meal had now turned into a spider-buffalo's worst nightmare. The rest of them scrambled back up the slope in a disorderly rout, leaving their dead and wounded scattered on the mountainside, some of the carcasses still bouncing from the impact of stray bullets. If Paul had not been so tired and terrified that he could barely remember his own name, he would have let out a bellow of triumph.

A few shots followed the survivors until they disappeared into the shadows of the rocks far above, then the mountainside was silent.

"What. . . ?" Florimel rasped. "Who. . . ?"

Paul waited, but there was no shout of warning or welcome. He sat up and cautiously looked around, trying to guess where the shots had come from, but could see nothing but the darkening mountain. "I don't know. I just hope they're on our side. . . ."

"There," Martine said, pointing.

Two hundred meters down the hillside, near a jumble of boulders that looked very precariously perched, a light was moving. Someone was waving a lantern, signaling to them. It was just a small thing, a wavering gleam still faint in the last rays of the sun, but at the moment Paul thought it looked like a glimpse of heaven.

 

The person who held the lantern was small, face almost hidden by a scarf and hat pulled low, and the long billowing coat also seemed too large for the slight frame, but Paul was still surprised when the stranger spoke in a woman's dear voice.

"You can just stop there," she drawled. "There are a few guns pointing at you, so unless you think you can outrun a bullet better than those things that were chasing you, I suggest you tell us your business."

"Business?" Florimel was so tired her temper was as raw as her voice. "Business? Running for our lives from those monsters. They were going to eat us!"

"It's true," Paul said. "And we're grateful you drove them off." He tried to think of something else to say; he was so exhausted he thought he might collapse any moment. "Just don't shoot at us. Do you want us to reach for the sky?" It was about the only thing he could remember from netshow westerns.

The woman took a few steps toward them, holding up the lantern which was now the main source of light on the mountainside. "Just hold your water for a minute while I get a look at you." She peered at Paul and his companions, then turned and called over her shoulder, "They look like real folk. More or less."

Somebody shouted something from behind the boulders that Paul could not make out, but apparently it was agreement; the woman with the lantern waved them forward.

"Just don't do anything too fast or tricky," she said as Paul and the others staggered down the slope toward her. "The boys have had a long day, but they'd be willing to kill a few more if they had to."

"Bitch talk that fenfen," T4b muttered sourly. "Don't like it, me."

"I heard that." The woman's voice had gone cold. A pale hand appeared from the voluminous sleeve, the small gun pointed right at T4b. "I don't need Billy and Titus to deal with you, boy—I'll put you down myself."

"Jesus!" Paul said. "He didn't mean it! He's just a stupid kid. Apologize, Javier."

"Sayee lo, you! Do what. . . ?"

Martine grabbed his arm and yanked. "Apologize, you idiot."

T4b stared at the muzzle of the derringer for a moment, then cast his eyes down. "Sorry. All tired, me. Those things tried to kill us, seen?"

The woman snorted. "Just watch your mouth. I may not be a lady myself, but we got a few in there who are, not to mention some young ones."

"We're sorry," Paul told her. "We thought we were all going to die down in that nest."

The woman's eyebrows rose. "You got out of one of them nests?" she said. "Well, that's something. My man will be pretty interested to hear about that, if it's true."

Paul heard T4b's intake of breath and turned a stifling glance on him. "It is true. But we wouldn't have made it without your help."

"Tell it to Billy and Titus when you go in," she said, gesturing to a space between two standing boulders. "They did most of the shooting."

Paul ducked his head and stepped through into the flicker of flames in a dark place—for a moment it was so much like the nest that he could not help fearing some terrible trick.

"Annie is a fair hand with a buffalo gun herself," someone said beside him. Paul turned, startled. "Shoots better than she dances, anyway. Don't let her tell you different." The man who had spoken had long, fair hair and a face freckled with dirt that Paul realized only later was gunpowder. Several other people stood behind him, hanging back in the shadows where the firelight did not quite reach.

"That is Billy Dixon," the woman said as she and the rest of Paul's friends filed in. The cavern knifed far into the hillside but was screened on the open end by an ancient tumble of boulders. Paul could see these survivors had picked their fortification well—only a few chinks between the great stones let in any sight of the evening sky. "Billy might be the best hand alive with a Sharps gun—even my man would allow that was true."

Dixon, who had a long straggling blond mustache and the beginnings of a serious beard covering his broad face, showed a smile but said nothing.

"And my name is Annie Ladue," she said, unwinding the scarf. She was attractive, or should have been, with a sharp chin and big, heavy-lidded eyes, but her teeth were bad and one cheek was marked with a long horizontal scar. "If you behave, we'll get along well. Titus." she called over her shoulder, "what's going on out there?"

"Nothing," a deep voice said. "No sign of nary a one of those devils, 'cept the dead ones." A tall black man with a very long rifle swung himself down from a higher spot among the rocks—a look-out post of sorts, Paul guessed. He landed beside them with a thump.

"And this is Titus, who perforated that jackalo what was jumping down to give you a haircut and shave you wouldn't have forgotten, mister," Annie said.

Paul stuck out his hand. "Thank you. Thank you all."

After a moment's hesitation, Titus took it. "You would have done it for me, too, wouldn't you? Ain't no question of skin when something like that is coming after someone."

For a moment Paul was puzzled, then remembered that this was supposed to be nineteenth-century America, where things like racial differences still meant a lot. "Absolutely," he said. "Except I don't ever want to shoot a gun again."

Billy Dixon gave a little snort of amusement and wandered off toward the depths of the cave. The other inhabitants were coming forward now. As Annie Ladue had said, many of them were women with children. In fact, except for a couple of old fellows who hobbled up to look the newcomers over and congratulate the shooters, Billy and Titus appeared to be the only young men in the cavern.

"I'm glad you enjoyed the show, Henry," Annie told one old man notable for what looked to Paul like complete and utter toothlessness, "because you can go pick up the Springfield and stand first watch. It oughta be cool now, and mind you don't bang that barrel on any rocks." She turned to Paul and the others. "This way we stand a chance of getting some good out of him before he gets into the liquor."

The ancient laughed and went off to get the gun. Annie seemed to be one of the leaders, if not the leader. Paul was intrigued, but it was not enough to overcome his weariness. The adrenaline had worn off and strength was running out of him like air from a punctured tire.

"Do you folks want something to eat?" Annie asked. "There's not much, but there is some beans and hardtack, which is sure better than nothing."

"I think we just want to sit down somewhere," Paul said.

"Lie down," Martine quietly amended him. "I need sleep."

"Then you all better come over here and bunk down in what we call the shooting blind," their hostess said. "That way we can keep the young ones away—if you try to lie down back where everyone else is at, the little rats will be all over you." She led them up a narrow makeshift path through the tumble of stones that screened the front of the cave until they reached the flat top of a boulder several meters across. A few animal skins scattered across it—Paul guessed they were buffalo hides—made it look quite inviting; At one edge the old man she had called Henry sat staring out through a crevice between two large stones, a long rifle propped beside him.

"These people need to get some rest," Annie told him. "Which means that if I hear you bothering them, you'll answer to me. So keep your no-tooth mouth shut."

"I'll be quiet as the grave," he said, eyes wide with mock fear.

"Which is where you'll end up if you cross me," Annie said as she departed.

"You all lie down," Henry told them. "I'm keeping an eye out, and I see better than I chew." He chortled.

"Oh, God," Florimel said as she slumped heavily onto the nearest buffalo hide. "A damned comedian."

Paul didn't care about that or anything else. Even as he lay back he could feel sleep dragging at him, swallowing him as if the very stone beneath him had become liquid and he was sliding downward, downward into its depths.

 

He woke up with a throbbing head, a dry mouth, and a light but firm pressure against his ribs. The man named Titus was standing over him, high-boned African features betraying nothing.

"Want to get your friends up and come on," he said, giving Paul another gentle shove with his boot toe. "The rest of 'em have come back and the boss man wants to talk to you."

"Boss man?" Paul asked muzzily. "Come back from where?"

"Hunting." Titus leaned against the boulders while he waited for the foursome to rouse themselves. "You don't think we eat those be-damned jackalos, do you?"

Following the tall, lanky Titus, Paul was reminded of his sojourn in the imaginary Ice Age, the excitement that had prevailed at the hunters' return. There was a great deal of activity all across the wide cavern, and several fires were burning where only one had been lit when he and his companions had first arrived—perhaps to make it easier to see what was happening outside the stronghold.

"What time is it?" Paul asked.

"Don't know exactly, but it's morning," Titus told him. "You all slept like you needed it."

"We did."

Titus led them into a second large cavern, the one into which Paul guessed the other inhabitants had withdrawn the night before. Now it was just as busy as the outer chamber, full of the smell of cooking meat, and the smoke was even thicker. Paul was surprised to see three men with long knives dismembering the carcass of a good-sized calf. "They've been out hunting cows?"

"Better we get 'em than leave 'em to the jackalos and the devil-men," Titus said.

"Devil-men?" asked Florimel. "What are those?"

Titus did not reply, but stopped and gestured with his chin toward the calf butchers. "Go on. He's been asking about you."

Paul and the others took a few steps forward. A broad-shouldered, well-built man with a thick mustache and a dusty plug hat rose from his crouch with the casual ease of a lion coming up out of the grass.

"I'd offer my hand," he said, "but as you can see I'm bloody up to the elbows. Nevertheless, you're welcome here. My name is Masterson, but my friends and a few of my more informal enemies call me Bat."

"Bat Masterson?" Paul stared despite himself. It should not be a shock to run into simulacra of famous people, not in this artificial universe, but it was still a surprise when it happened.

"Heard of me, have you? That'll teach me to spend time with newspapermen."

"Most of what's written about him is lies," Annie Ladue said as she climbed to her feet beside him. Paul realized that he had again mistaken her for a man. She gave her paramour an affectionate pat on the rump. "But to be fair, only about half the lies are Bat's."

"Sit down and work, woman," he said. "We've got a half a hundred mouths to feed, which means we'd better be cutting pretty close to the bone." He turned his attention back to Paul and the others, looking them up and down, his interest obviously piqued by the coveralls they had inherited back in Kunohara's bugworld. "So what are you folk? Circus performers? Traveling players? You'd find an eager audience here. The little ones are getting a mite fretful in here after all these days."

"No, we're not . . . performers." Paul had to suppress a bemused smile. If this were a netflick, they'd probably have to pretend they were. What kind of bizarre act could they cobble up between them? See the Amazing Lost Man! Marvel at the World's Most Sullen Teenager! "We're just ordinary people, although we come from a long way away. We were passing through and got lost, then those . . . things attacked us."

Once again, the system's ability to absorb anomalies moved them smoothly past an impediment; their odd garments were not mentioned again. "I heard about that," Bat said. "I heard you fought your way out, too—which, if the ladies will pardon my language, is pretty damn impressive. How did you manage?"

"I . . . I found a gun," Paul said, pulling it carefully out of his pocket. "It had enough cartridges in it for us to shoot our way out, but just barely. We would have been killed if your people hadn't been there."

"We have a lot of trouble with that nest so close," said Bat casually, but his gaze had not left Paul's pistol. "But this is the best place to defend for miles, so we chose the lesser of two evils."

"How did you wind up in this situation. . . ?" Paul began.

"I hate to interrupt," Bat said, "and you may take this amiss, but I hope not. Would you extend me the courtesy of letting me have a look at that shooting iron of yours?"

Paul paused for a moment, confused by the strange tension in Masterson's tone.

"Don't," said T4b in a too-loud whisper, then grunted as Florimel stepped hard on his foot.

"Of course." Paul proffered it butt-first, but Masterson would not take it until he had found a handkerchief in his vest pocket so he could hold it without smearing blood on it. He lifted it up to catch light leaking in from a high chink in the cavern wall.

"You say you found this in the nest?" His voice was casual, but there was still something in it that made Paul nervous.

"I swear. In the muck, down with all the bones of animals and . . . and people. It was in a holster."

Bat sighed. "I'd almost rather you were lying. This is Ben Thompson's gun, and a better man and a better shot would be hard to name. I haven't seen him since all hell broke loose, but I was hopeful he was still alive out there somewhere, maybe at one of the other camps up on the ridgetop. But if you found it in the bottom of one of them godforsaken nests. . . ." He shook his head. "Dead is the only way Ben would be to let someone take his iron off him." He offered the gun back to Paul. "It's yours by right of spoils, I guess."

"To tell the truth," Paul said, "I've hardly ever fired a pistol before this and I'll be happy if I never fire one again. If it belonged to a friend of yours, you keep it."

One of Bat Masterson's dark eyebrows crept upward. "I'd like to think you might get your pacifistic wish, sir, but it doesn't seem likely. We'll run out of bullets long before we run out of trouble."

"What kind of trouble is this?" demanded Florimel. She had been impatiently quiet for too long. "Why are there mountains? We've never heard of anything like that. And what are these monsters?"

"More importantly," said Martine, "how do we get into Dodge City? Can we reach it from here?"

Paul was puzzled by her question for a moment, until he remembered what she had said about finding the gate that could lead into Egypt.

Masterson, Annie, and Titus were far more surprised than Paul, and regarded her with something like astonishment, although Bat, when he spoke, was almost courtly. "My dear lady, no offense, but where in creation have you greenhorns come from? Get into Dodge City? You might as well ask to be let into Hell's own saloon bar! You'd be better off stripping yourself naked—begging your pardon for the crudeness—and running into the nearest Comanche camp screaming 'All Indians are liars and fools!' "

Titus snickered. "That's a good one."

Annie was less amused. "They just don't know, Bat. They're from somewhere else, that's all. We should find out, though, because maybe that somewhere else is a better place to be than here."

Bat smiled. "The lady has more sense than I do, and more manners. Perhaps we should share information. . . ." Before he could finish his sentence, long-haired Billy Dixon appeared. "Prisoner's cutting up somethin' fierce," he announced.

"Damn. Maybe you could lend a hand here, Billy—I've been a bit distracted."

Bat offered him the knife, but Dixon plucked one out of a sheath on his leg so quickly that it seemed to jump into his hand from thin air. "Got my own."

"If you just come and set your eyes on the little charmer we brought back with us," Bat said, beckoning to Paul and the rest, "it will save me a fair piece of explaining." He led them toward the back of the cavern, well away from the fire. A few more hard-faced men looked up at their approach; Paul guessed they were the ones who had accompanied Masterson on his hunting trip.

"These fellows came down on us the day after the earth started moving," Bat said. "There was so much dust in the air we didn't even see them until they were almost on top of us. Then someone came riding down past the Long Branch screaming that a Cheyenne war party was coming up fast. We got all the women and children and old folks into the church, rest of us saddled up and got our guns. Didn't do us much good. For one thing, these aren't any Cheyenne like I've ever seen. . . ." He stopped. "I hear he's getting twitchy, Dave," he said as one of the men stood up.

The man, lean and with most of the bottom half of his face hidden by an immense whiskbroom mustache, shrugged. "I say ventilate him. He won't tell us nothin' but his name—at least I think it's his name. Keeps saying, 'Me Dread,' over and over. . . ."

"Oh great God!" said Florimel, staggering a step backward. "How can this be?"

"Bastard shot me!" snarled T4b.

"It is Dread," Martine whispered. She had gone deathly pale. "Although he no longer wears Quan Li's body, I could not be mistaken."

Paul stared at his companions, then at the slender, nearly naked man in a breechclout lying on the ground before them, bound tightly hand and foot, covered in bruises and dried blood. The prisoner looked up at them with no sign of recognition. His teeth were bared in a grin of exertion as he writhed in his bonds like a snake. His dark skin and Asian eyes gave him a little of the American Indian look, but Paul could not doubt Martine's senses. He had never met the much-feared Dread, but he had heard more man enough: despite the prisoner's obvious helplessness, he took a step back as well.

The prisoner laughed at Paul's retreat. "Hah! Me kill you all."

Bat Masterson crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, if you folks dislike this one so much, you might want to reconsider your travel plans. You see, this fellow's got himself about a thousand identical cousins, and right now they're all having themselves a hell of a wingding on Front Street down in Dodge."

CHAPTER 21
Handling Snakes

NETFEED/ART: Bigger X—Dead Genius, or Just Dead?

(visual: Coxwell Avenue death scene, Toronto)

VO: The art world is talking about the death of forced-involvement artist Bigger X, killed in a hit and run accident in Toronto, Canada. Already several camps have formed. Many believe X was responding to a "suicide challenge" by another artist known as No-1, and may have arranged his own fatal "accident" both as an acceptance of No-1's challenge and a further homage to a favorite artist of X's, TT Jensen. Others suggest that TT Jensen himself may have arranged the death, either out of irritation at Bigger X's constant citation of him, or (an even stranger alternative) as a symbol of gratitude for Bigger X's praise. Yet another group suggests that No-1 may have engineered the death out of frustration that Bigger X did not publicly respond to his "suicide challenge." There is even one brave group who suggest that X's death is just what it seems—something that happens to people who walk into a busy street without looking. . . .

 

She had been staring at the wallscreen so long that she had fallen into a kind of dream. When the shouting began, she sat up so quickly she almost fell off her chair.

Dulcie darted a reflexive glance at the coma bed, but Dread had not moved. He had been back online for most of a day. She was beginning to feel like she was keeping a deathwatch.

Someone screamed in the street below, a shrill but still masculine cry of pain and outrage. Dulcie walked across the loft, legs tingling because she had been in one place too long, and lifted the corner of the blackout curtain on one of the windows.

It was dark outside, which startled her almost as much as the noises had—how had it become night again so quickly? People were moving in the alley below, shadowed bodies performing an aggressive posture-dance. It was a fight of sorts, three or four young men strutting and shoving, but there seemed to be more arguing than actual attacking. Dulcie had spent too many years in Manhattan to be either surprised or concerned, and she certainly wasn't going to waste any time worrying that they might hurt each other.

Men. They're programmed for it, aren't they? Like those little builder robots. Just walk forward until you bump into something, then shove it until it does what you want—unless it shoves harder than you do.

She wandered back across the loft toward the cabinet where, in a fit of bored domesticity while waiting for some of her security-cracking gear to work, she had set a chair and arranged all the squeeze packs, sweeteners, and other related objects into a sort of coffee-break area. As the argument raged on in the alley below she became conscious for the first time that she had no idea what kind of security Dread had in this place. She couldn't imagine him leaving himself open to robbery or assault, especially in a neighborhood as troubled as this one, but she also knew he was highly unlikely to have any of the more common deterrents like an alarm system connected to the private-subscription police lines: Dread was obviously not the kind of man who would be calling the police. She couldn't picture him waiting for a private security firm to come save him either, or even men he had personally assembled, like the ones from the Isla de Santuario invasion. In fact, she just couldn't imagine him waiting for anyone. Dread was the type who would want to handle everything himself.

Yeah, and fat lot of good that will do me if he's off in Never-Never Land somewhere when the rude boys come through the window.

Another shout, a sputtering curse that seemed to come from right under the window, made her flinch. By the time you could wake him up, she thought, someone might have already stuck a knife in you, Anwin. She put down her coffee and walked to the room Dread had given her, then dropped to her knees and pulled her suitcase and attache out from under the bed.

As she located and removed the various plastic components, some molded to blend into the corners and roller-wheels of the suitcase, others disguised as ordinary pieces of executive traveling equipment—a set of pens, an alarm clock for those exotic locales where you were occasionally denied net access, a purse-size curling iron—she considered her strange up-and-down relationship with her employer. He had made it pretty clear now that he was physically interested in her, and she had to admit that he in turn was pretty interesting himself. He had come up from his last session in the network bubbling with delight, and she had been surprised to find herself feeding off his mood, hurrying to tell him of her successes with Jongleur's personal files. He had praised her, laughing at her excitement, almost vibrating with that strange hyperactive glee that filled him sometimes, and for a moment she had wanted to have him right then, quick and nasty as something out of one of the paper-book potboilers her mother had left lying around the house in lieu of discussing the boring details of sex and love with her only child.

But although they had moved around the huge room in a kind of hyperkinetic dance, Dread shouting questions at her as he made himself coffee and banged in and out of the shower, her timing was bad: at that moment he seemed completely uninterested in her, at least sexually, sharing the joy of her success and his own upbeat mood, but only as her collaborator.

He had been pleased, though, and that was certainly something. For the first time since she had come to Sydney she had made her value unmistakable. He had told her as he stood with his black hair lank and gleaming from the shower, his robe carelessly open down to his tight stomach muscles, that Dulcie's work would give him the last tools he needed for his big strike.

She paused, absently contemplating the scatter of small plastic parts now lying on the discount-store rug beside The bed. What was his big strike, anyway? He seemed to have gained control of his employer's VR network, which was certainly impressive, and might even be in and of itself enough to make him wealthy, although it was hard to imagine quite how that would work. Would he continue the Grail Project, selling the prospect of immortality to wealthy people, but with himself taking the tolls instead of Felix Jongleur? Or, more likely, was he planning to sell his employer's secrets off to the highest bidder? Where was Jongleur, anyway? Had Dread arranged the same fate for him that he had for Bolivar Atasco? Then why hadn't anyone heard about it? Surely if one of the world's richest, most influential men had died at least a rumor of it would have made the newsnets by now.

Dulcie took the tube from the curling iron and screwed it into the case of the travel clock, working slowly through the unfamiliar design. She almost hadn't brought a gun with her—the dreams about Cartagena were still strong—but the ingrained habits of a professional woman, especially in her particular profession, were hard to shake. The gun she had used on the gearhead in Colombia had never left that country, of course: Dread had volunteered to dispose of it for her, but she had read and watched enough thrillers to know she wasn't going to give anyone incriminating evidence against herself. She had disassembled it, wiped it as forensically clean as she could with nail-polish remover, and dropped the pieces in a dozen different trash cans across downtown Cartagena.

So you wouldn't trust him not to blackmail you with a murder weapon, but you'd sleep with him? Interesting selection process, Anwin.

It was so hard to figure out how she felt. He was mercurial, of course, never the same from moment to moment, but wasn't that what she wanted? She had discovered a long time ago that advertising copywriters from Long Island and stockbrokers thrilled to be under warranty on their first armored Benz didn't make her heart go pitty-pat.

Face it, Anwin. You do like bad boys.

And even more, she liked knowing that she herself was at least as wicked, just more discreet. But when you moved out to the fringe neighborhoods of sex, more than the scenery changed. You got . . . well, a weirder selection.

Jesus, Dulcie, so you have a fling with him and it doesn't work out. So you go back to New York and spend a couple of days drinking and watching netsoaps and feeling sorry for yourself—worse things could happen. Do you really think he's long-term material anyway?

She had to admit that she couldn't imagine herself living in the same city with the guy for any stretch of time, let alone picking out curtains together. But was that so bad? He excited her. She thought about him all the time, alternating between fascination and, occasionally, something much stronger and more dangerous than irritation or dislike, something closer to hatred and fear.

So what? He's what you want—a bad one. He's just badder than most, and that scares you. But you can't walk the high wire and still use a net or there's no point in the high wire at all, is there? So his social skills are a little alien. The guy's an international criminal. At least he isn't boring.

Her hands had been moving reflexively, but it didn't matter: despite the differences from model to model, once you'd put together a few of these plastic stealth guns you could pretty much do it in your sleep. She got up off her knees and sat on the bed, shaking ceramic bullets out of a vitamin bottle and slotting them into the magazine. Click, click, click . . . like little babies, octuplets, being packed into a shared cradle. Babies, guns, virtual worlds, old men pretending to be Egyptian gods—her brain, she reflected, was definitely scrambled.

You need a vacation, Anwin. A long one.

She considered for a moment, then walked back to the main room of the loft. The loud argument outside was over; a peek through the window showed the alley was empty. She put the gun in the middle shelf of the coffee cabinet, under some napkins.

Or maybe I need something exciting to happen. Something big.

 

 

Christabel stood holding the glass in one hand. Her other hand was on the faucet but she didn't dare turn it on, even though she was so thirsty she was about to cry. She was angry at herself for being thirsty, angry at herself for getting out of bed to get a drink of water. Now she had to stand like a scared mouse in the dark bathroom and hear her mother and father having an argument in the next room.

". . . It's gone far enough, Mike. I can't make you come back with me, but I'm certainly not going to stay here with Christabel, put her in danger, while all this is going on. We'll be perfectly safe at my mother's."

"Jesus H. Christ, Kay!" Daddy's voice was so loud and full of hurt that Christabel almost dropped the glass to smash on the hard bathroom floor. "Haven't you been paying attention to what's going on here?"

"I certainly have. And anyone with an inch of sense would know it's no place for a little girl. Mike, you let someone point a gun at her! At our daughter!"

For a long moment no one said anything. Christabel, who had been about to set the glass down so her arm would stop aching, stayed just where she was, like she was in a terrible game of Freeze Tag.

Her daddy's voice, when it came, was quiet and scary. She had never heard him sound mad in quite that way before—it made her want to run away. "That's about the worst thing you've ever said to me, you know? Do you think I haven't had nightmares about that every night? I didn't take her in to meet Ramsey. You let her go off to find a bathroom by herself. What was I supposed to do?"

"I'm sorry. It was an unfair thing to say." Her mommy was still mad, too. "But I'm terrified, Mike. I'm . . . there isn't even a word for how I feel. I just want to take my little girl and get out of here, and I'm going to. I'm taking the boy, too. Just because he's poor doesn't mean he's any less of a child and doesn't deserve protecting."

"Kaylene, will you listen to me? If I thought there was anywhere safer for you to be, I'd be the first one to send you both there—for God's sake, you have to believe that! But I'm only here right now because Yacoubian thought he could get away with using some of the ordinary base personnel. If it hadn't been Ron who picked me up, you would never have heard of me again. There's no doubt in my mind."

"This is supposed to make me feel better?"

"No! But however much of Sellars' story is true, I can tell you this—the way they took me, that whole thing the general was up to, it stank. There was nothing regulation about that at all—it was a kidnapping. Ron and Ramsey saved my life, just by being there."

"So?"

"So what if these people come looking for me again? Without bothering with the appearances of military law, this time—at night, maybe, disguised as burglars. Don't you think my wife's mother's place is somewhere they might look? And if I'm not there, don't you think that they might figure you and Christabel would make useful hostages? These aren't Boy Scouts. What's your mom going to do, sic the cat on them? Call that goddamn mobile home park committee she's always sending after the kids on skim-boards?"

"All right, Mike. It's not very funny."

"No, it's not. You were right before, Kay—it's terrifying. At least if I have you two near me I can protect you. We can keep moving, and Sellars seems to be pretty good with managing a low profile for us. You settle in one place, even somewhere not as obvious as your mom's, we'd just be hoping they don't find you."

"You sound like you believe in this . . . conspiracy. This whole big crazy thing."

"Don't you? Explain Sellars, then. Explain Yacoubian and his little hotel room and his matching Nazi weight-lifter bodyguards."

Christabel had been stiff in one place so long that she was afraid she would scream if she couldn't put the glass down. She inched her arm to the edge of the sink, looking for a flat spot.

"I can't explain it, Mike, and I don't want to try. I just want my child safe and away from all this . . . craziness."

"That's what I want, too, as soon as possible. But the only way I can see. . . ."

The glass teetered, then tipped. Christabel grabbed at it but it jumped out of her fingers and hit the floor with a sound like something blowing up on the net. An instant later the bathroom light flashed on bright, and her father was so big and angry in the door that Christabel took a bad step back and started to fall. Her father jumped forward and caught her arm so hard she squeaked, but she didn't fall down.

"Oh, my God, what are you doing? Ah! Jesus! There's glass everywhere!"

"Mike, what's going on?"

"Christabel just broke a glass. I got a piece in my foot the size of a steak knife. Jesus!"

"Honey, what happened?" Her mom lifted her up and carried her into the room where her parents had been arguing. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"I'll just clean up the glass, then," her father said from the bathroom. "And amputate my foot to save the leg. Don't mind me." He sounded angry, but Christabel relaxed a little—it wasn't the kind if divorce-angry she had been hearing.

"I . . . I was thirsty. Then I heard you. . . ." She didn't want to say it, but she still believed a little that if she told Mommy, something would happen to make things all right again. "I heard you arguing and it scared me."

"Oh, honey, of course." Her mother pulled her close and kissed her head. "Of course. But it's okay. Your daddy and I are just trying to decide what to do. Sometimes grownups argue."

"And then they get a divorce."

"Is that what's worrying you? Oh, sweetie, don't take it so seriously. It's just an argument." But her mother's voice still sounded funny and raw, and she didn't say, "Your daddy and I will never ever get a divorce." Christabel leaned into her and held on, wishing she had never been thirsty.

 

They were still talking in the other room, but much more quietly now. Christabel lay in her bed, just across a space like a little valley from the boy Cho-Cho, who was tangled up in his covers on his own bed like an Egyptian mummy. Christabel tried to breathe slowly like her mommy told her, but she kept feeling the crying about to come out and her breaths sounded all raggedy.

"Shut up, mu'chita." Cho-Cho's voice was muffled by his pillow, which lay over his face. "People tryin' to sleep."

She ignored him. What did he know? He didn't have a mommy and daddy who were arguing and were going to get a divorce. It wasn't his fault everyone was angry, like it was hers. Even though she was so sad it hurt, she also felt a little brave.

"This far crash," Cho-Cho said, rolling out of bed and taking most of his covers with him, so the sheeted mattress suddenly was bare and white, like an ice cream sandwich with the top peeled off. "Can't nobody sleep with this mierda." Skinny in his T-shirt and underwear when the blankets fell away, he walked toward the bathroom.

"Where are you going? You can't go in there."

He didn't bother to look at her and didn't even close the door. Christabel buried her head under her own blankets when he started to pee. After the noisy flush of the toilet, it was quiet for a long time. When she at last stuck her head out from under the covers he was sitting up in his bed, staring at her with his big dark eyes.

"You afraid some monsters gonna come get you, something?"

Christabel had met a real monster, a smiling man in a hotel room with eyes like little nails. She didn't need to answer to this mean boy.

"Just go to sleep," he said after a while. "Got nothing to worry about."

It was so unfair she couldn't keep quiet any more. "You don't know about anything!"

"I know nothing happens to little ricas like you." He stared at her, smiling a mean little smile, but he didn't look happy. "What you think gonna happen? I tell you what's gonna happen to me, you wanna know that? When all this over, you gonna go back to some mamapapa house somewhere, little Cho-Cho's going to work camp. See, your daddy, he one of the nice ones. Los otros, man, they maybe just take me out and shoot me."

"What kind of camp?" It didn't sound that bad—Christabel's friend Ophelia had been to Bluebird camp, and they made art projects and ate marshmallow sandwiches.

Cho-Cho waved his hand at her. "Cross City, that was one they put my tio in. Digging and like that. Bread with, like, little bichos cooked right in it."

Christabel put a hand to her mouth. "You said a bad word."

"What?" He thought for a second, then laughed, showing his missing tooth. "Bichos? That just mean bugs." He laughed again. "You thought I said 'bitches,' huh?"

She gasped. "You did say it!"

The boy let himself slide back into his bed, staring up at the ceiling. All she could see was the tip of his nose above the pillow. "Tell you what, not gonna wait around, me. Next chance I get, Cho-Cho be too much gone."

"You're . . . you're going to run away? But . . . Mister Sellars, he needs you!" She couldn't understand—it seemed like the kind of wickedness they talked about in church sometimes, not Sunday school, but the big room with the benches and the glass window of Jesus. Run away from that poor old man?

And her mother would be sad, too, Christabel realized. Mommy complained about it a lot, but she really seemed to like making Cho-Cho bathe and wear clean clothes, giving him extra food to eat.

The boy made a noise she could just barely hear—it might have been another laugh. "I thought there was some efectivo around here, some money, but it's just a bunch of crazy people trying on some spyflick mierda. Little Cho-Cho, soon he going to be too . . . much . . . gone."

He didn't say any more. Christabel could only lie in the bed next to his; straining to hear her parents' low voices, and wonder how the world could have turned so strange.

 

 

She had drawn enough hieroglyphs on the countertop with powdered creamer for an entirely lactose-free edition of the Book of the Dead. She had listened to the quiet hiss and hum of her employer's expensive coma bed adjusting itself until she wanted to scream. A thousand channels of net input and she couldn't muster interest in any of them.

Dulcie knew she ought to go lie down, but knew equally firmly that she wouldn't sleep for hours. She pulled on her lightweight raincoat and keyed the security sequence for the front door lock. When it chimed she hesitated, then went back and got her newly-assembled gun from its hiding place in the coffee cabinet.

A little before midnight and the hilly streets of Redfern were shiny with rain just fallen, although at the moment the skies were clear. A loud group of people were streaming out of a dirge club down the block, mostly young white and Asian kids dressed in funereal clothes, baggy black 'chutes and wrapped fellaheen hoods. She fell in behind the largest group, drawn down the street behind them as their voices rang off the building facades like the excited piping of a flock of bats. They seemed to be shouting things at each other in some pidgin Aboriginal dialect. Dulcie remembered a time when she could have stood on the streets of Soho or the Village next to a bunch of young people like this and done in-depth social anthropology on every word, every item of clothing and its positioning. Now she couldn't even remember if this particular sub-sub-group were Dirt Farmers or No-Siders, or anything much else about them except that they liked organic hallucinogens, loud slow music, and artificial skin bleaching.

It all seems so important when you're young, she thought. Marking yourself up so everyone knows who you are. People should just have ID readouts in real life like they do with VR sims, so instead of going to all the trouble to get your skin laced or your face branded, you could just display a little message—"I like cats and bondage, don't listen to any music older than six months ago, and am punishing my father by getting too many subdermals."

Or in my case, "I'm punishing my mother by doing things with my life that she probably wouldn't care about if she knew." Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

She was depressed, she realized. The missed moment with Dread, because of bad timing or whatever, had turned the possibility of something spontaneous and a little scary into another nightmare checklist of should-she, shouldn't-she. The fact was, although she rather enjoyed being played in that way he had—jerked back and forth emotionally, frightened and then petted—the too-long courtship, if that was what it was, had begun to lose her undivided attention. The fact that she didn't actually like him much was starting to weigh more heavily than it should.

The real truth is, he hasn't told me anything. He's dragged me into some major industrial espionage on pretty thin promises, paying me decent but unspectacular hourly rates, and for all I know he could have found a way to turn lead into gold. I have no guarantees. And what if it turns bad—I wouldn't let him take the gun for me, why should I let him keep me in the dark here in somebody else's country? I don't even know what the laws on this stuff are like in Australia.

And what else did he tell me, like it was the big payout—"Do you want to be a god, Dulcie?" Meaning what, immortality in the Grail network? Well, who knows? The fact is, he hasn't offered. He hasn't really offered me anything but himself, and although that's not bad, it isn't enough. Not for this girl.

The crowd was dispersing quickly, some to the bus stops, others flagging down taxis. Coming home from the apres-Jihad party, she thought with dry amusement as a group of black-turbaned youths jostled its way into a shared cab. Then she realized that a wide but dark street that had been crowded and noisy only moments ago was now nearly empty.

Where am I? That would be great—get lost out here in the middle of the night.

The street signs weren't particularly edifying and she had left her t-jack in the loft, so she couldn't even access a map. Angry with herself but not too worried—there were still people on the street, including some couples—she began to retrace her steps, doing her best to remember how many times she had turned while following the crowd. The old row houses with their rusting wrought-iron balconies seemed to watch her like blank but disapproving faces. She patted her coat pocket, reassuring herself. At least she was armed.

Three dark-skinned men watched her as she approached the corner on which they stood, and even though none of them moved or said anything—the youngest one even smiled very sweetly at her as she passed—she found her steps quickening as she moved away from them down a dark side street.

It's like we're always in the shadow of them, somehow, she thought. Men are just there, blocking the light, and there's nothing we can do about it. Is it only because society has been shaped that way over the years, or is there something more prehistoric going on—because they were stronger back in the beginning?

Felix Jongleur, a prime example of a predatory old man, flashed through her mind. His strange Ushabti file was apparently some kind of last will and testament—an if-you're-seeing-this-I-must'be-dead bit of drama carefully prepared for an heir who seemingly never was. What would his real successors think about that when he did finally give up his lamprey-grip on life? Would they be as puzzled as she was?

Men and their secrets. It was part of their power, wasn't it? So hard to get them to talk about important things that you'd think someone was trying to steal their souls. Dread was another example—a very pertinent example, now that she thought about it. What did she know about him anyway? Sure, with the work he did, she didn't expect to find anything very useful in her few early stabs at researching his background, but she had been impressed at how much of a nonperson he was—or had made himself. There wasn't even a Dread-shaped hole to be found in any of the international files, criminal record banks, anywhere. He was Australian and, by the looks of him, of mixed racial ancestry, which could describe millions of people. Where did he come from? What was his story? It must be an interesting one. Jongleur had secrets. All powerful men had secrets. So what was it that John More Dread was hiding?

She heard the noise before she saw the clump of shadow on the sidewalk half a block ahead of her—a soft retching sound like a cat bringing up a furball. She slowed as she tried to make sense of the shape, which only resolved a few slowing paces later into a man standing over a kneeling woman. At first Dulcie thought he was holding her head while she vomited—the results of a night's excess at one of the bars or clubs—but even as she began to step out into the gutter to swing around the pair she saw that the man was actually pushing her down, forcing her toward the sidewalk.

The pale-haired man looked up, his eyes assessing and dismissing Dulcie within a heartbeat in a way that infuriated her despite her sudden fear. He turned his attention back to the woman, saying something loud in a language that sounded Slavic, and the woman, weeping, choked out something in the same language. Dulcie remembered Dread mentioning all the immigrants who had come to Redfern after the Ukrainian grain belt disasters; he had said it with a sense almost of irritation, which she had thought at the time was some kind of anti-white racism, and only realized afterward was the exotic Mr. Dread experiencing a very common thing—discomfort at his old neighborhood changing.

The woman was bleeding a little from a cut on her lip, fighting clumsily to stand. The man, his wide jaw set in a line of fury, was holding her head down, the kind of thing a playground bully might do. Something about the situation pricked at nerves long Manhattan-numbed. Dulcie stopped a few meters from the slow-motion struggle and said loudly, "Leave her alone."

The man scowled at her, then turned back to the woman and shoved down hard, so that she gave up resisting and sank all the way to her hands and knees.

"I said, leave her alone."

"You want it too?" His accent was thick but the words quite understandable.

"Just let her stand up. If she's your girlfriend, that's no way to treat her. If she's not your girlfriend, I'll have the police on your ass in twenty seconds."

"No," the woman said in a kind of despair. The man's broad hand was still on top of her head; she looked out from beneath his spread fingers like a beaten dog. "No, okay. Is okay. He not hurt me."

"Bullshit. You're bleeding."

The man's face, which at first had showed a trace of amusement, began to shift. His scowl congealed into something quite frightening. He pushed the woman again so suddenly that she toppled over into the gutter, then he turned toward Dulcie. "You want? You come here, then."

Something that had been burning in Dulcie all day flared hotly. She tugged the gun out of her coat pocket and leveled it at him, bracing her wrist in best shooting-range style.

"No, you come here, asshole." It was strange to feel that power all the way up her arm, like godly lightning at her fingertips. "Get down on your knees, why don't you?" She saw the man's mouth drop open and her feverish high expanded. This was the way those Baptist snake-handlers must feel with thrashing, living death in their hands.

"You . . . you crazy!" The man began backing away, trying to keep his face hard but failing. The woman in the gutter was weeping and covering her head.

She was tempted to squeeze off a shot, just to let the bullying bastard feel the wind of it past his face, but she hadn't test-fired it, didn't know how sticky the pull was, anything.

So I miss and take his ear off instead, she thought. Or worse. So what?

But the face of the Colombian gearhead Celestino swam up out of the turbid darkness of her thoughts, his brown eyes big with fear like a wounded dog, although in real life she had never actually seen fear in his face, since he had been fiberlinked online and blind to her when she shot him.

The young Russian man turned and walked swiftly up the street, barely restraining the urge to run. Before Dulcie could take a step forward to help her up, the woman he had been brutalizing staggered upright, then—with only a brief scared-rabbit look at Dulcie—ran after him. She left both of her high-heeled shoes behind her on the sidewalk.

 

Dulcie was still breathing a little too fast, vibrating with an excitement that was beginning to turn a little sour, when she found her way back to the street that held the loft.

It's about power, isn't it? she thought. You give them all the power, let them keep all the secrets, and they can grind you down. Without some kind of equalizer the game just isn't fair.

So what's Dread hiding? Just his Swiss bank accounts? Blackmail-quality details on some of the Grail folk?

She thought about the little invisible box on his system, a boy's carton of dirty secrets slid under the bed, out of reach of Sister and Mom.

I can find out, can't I? If I can crack the whole J Corporation, I can sure as hell beat some hidden storage on Dread's home system. I can get in and out without him even guessing.

Then I'll have something on him for a change. I wonder how he'd feel about that?

She had a feeling he wouldn't like it very much, but just now, with fear and fury and triumph singing together in her veins, she didn't care.

CHAPTER 22
More Very Bush

NETFEED/LIFESTYLE: Mayor Declares Dying Illegal

(visual: Ladley Burn High Street)

VO: The mayor of Ladley Burn, a charming rural village in Cheshire, England, has declared it against the law to die within the town limits. What sounds like a quixotic attempt to turn back death is actually a pragmatic move to save the village's thirteenth-century graveyard, which is already almost full and whose few remaining plots are the object of fierce competition among local residents,

(visual: Mayor Beekin in front of churchyard)

BEEKIN: "It's rather simple, actually. If you die in Ladley Burn, you break the law, and the penalty is you get buried somewhere else. Where? That's not our lookout, I'm afraid."

 

Baffled and defeated, Renie slumped to the ground beside the black waters, which were still rippling from the disappearance of the Witching Tree. The Stone Girl had edged away from her, frightened by the strength of Renie's anger.

"Come back," Renie said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted. Come back, please."

"You made the Witching Tree go away," the little mud girl said. "That never happened before."

Renie sighed. "What did it tell you? Am I allowed to ask? I heard something about the Ending, and some boys-and-girls rhyme. . . ."

The Stone Girl looked at her curiously. "You said the tree stole your brother."

"It . . . it's hard to explain. But not the tree, no." A sudden thought struck her; however unlikely, it was worth asking about. "Do you know anyone named Stephen? A little boy. . . ?"

"Stephen?" She giggled. "What a funny name!"

"I take it that's a no," said Renie. "Jesus Mercy, what have I done? What kind of foolish, crazy place is this?" She let her shoulders slump, conscious for the first time in a while that the forest was turning chilly. "What else did the Witching Tree tell you?"

Her guide became somber again. "That things are bad. That the Ending is going to come closer and closer until there's nowhere left to go. That I should come to the Well with all the other people, because that would be the last place left."

"The Well? What's that?"

The Stone Girl furrowed her earthen brow. "It's a place like this, except way more big, across the river and across the river and across the river. Where the Lady comes, sometimes, and talks to people."

"The Lady?" Renie's neck prickled—she knew who that must be. "She comes to this Well and . . . what?"

"Tells people things that the One is thinking." The Stone Girl shook her head. "But she doesn't do it anymore. Not since the Ending started to come." She got up. "I have to go. The Witching Tree said I need to go to the Well, so I'm going to start walking." She hesitated. "Do you want to come with me?"

"I can't, I have to wait for my friends." Renie felt events slipping through her fingers. "But I don't even know where I am. How can I get back to the place I was before you found me?"

The Stone Girl cocked her head to one side. "Where did you come from?"

Renie did her best to describe what she could remember of the rolling meadows, the distant hills, their translucency. Trying to remember it now, it felt like a distant dream.

"You must have been at Over Thaw Hills, in Faraway," the little girl decided. "But it's probably all gone now. The Ending was already there when I was looking for the Witching Tree. That's how come it was all empty in some of it, like you said."

And she had been so sure she had found a place that was becoming more real! Renie felt a harsh pang of fear for !Xabbu and Fredericks. What if they were not lucky enough to stumble on a crossing, as she had been? She had to go find them.

Yes, but find them how? Wander around these weird places by yourself while it all evaporates around you? What good will that do?

But what was the alternative? To follow a fairy-tale creature like this Stone Girl deeper into madness?

I shouldn't have lost my temper. Just for once, why couldn't I have kept my mouth shut? Maybe I would have got some useful information out of that thing if I'd been nicer. She should have remembered what it was like to deal with Stephen, how shouting and scolding just drove him deeper into sullenness. The operating system was so much like a child, and what had she done? Treated it as though she were an angry parent. And not even a particularly smart angry parent.

"What was that you said the . . . the tree told you? That you were supposed to go to this Well, and that all the other people were going there, too?"

The Stone Girl nodded, still standing at the clearing's edge.

What if Stephen really is here? Renie thought. What if he's one of the people drawn or sent to this Well? What if I could finally find him, reach him . . . touch him?

So here was the balancing point. Renie was exhausted, but she couldn't put off the decision. The little girl was leaving, with her or without her. Did she abandon !Xabbu and the others, or perhaps abandon the chance to find Stephen?

Years of university, and for what? How can you make a decision like this—no facts, no discernible logic, no real information. . . ? It was agonizing to think of !Xabbu, who she knew would be looking for her just as diligently as she had been looking for him. It was no less agonizing to think of Stephen, her beautiful, shining little man, so close he was almost her own child, now curled in a hospital bed—a thing of sticks and skin like a broken, discarded kite. She felt bruised inside, helpless, miserable.

And just think—here in the network, I'm really nothing but a living brain. A brain with a bad case of heartache. . . .

The Stone Girl scraped her foot against the ground, swaying a little. Clearly it was difficult, even painful for her to wait once the Witching Tree had told her what to do. "I really have to. . . ."

"I know," said Renie. She took a deep breath. "I'm coming. I'm coming with you."

 

I don't have any choice, she kept telling herself, but it felt exactly like treachery. !Xabbu and the others might never have made it out of that gray . . . whatever it was. They might have been tossed into another part of the network, or they could even be. . . . It was almost impossible even to consider it. I could look for them forever. And this could be my last chance to help Stephen.

Of course, that's assuming I can do anything for him even if I find him, she thought grimly. Considering I can't even get myself offline, that's a pretty big assumption.

"Are you angry at me?" the Stone Girl asked.

"What?" Renie realized they had been walking for a long time without speaking. She had a sudden recollection of what it meant to be with an angry adult, thinking that she was the cause, and was ashamed. Even in the days before her mother had died, her father had been prone to sullen silences. "No! No, I'm just thinking." She looked around at the sparkling trees that still surrounded them, an endless series of leafy tunnels through the forest. "Where are we, anyway? I mean, does this place have a name? Is it called Witching Tree or something?"

"The Witching Tree isn't a place, it's a thing." The Stone Girl was clearly relieved: even Renie's invincible ignorance did not draw the usual look of disbelief. "There are lots of places it can be—that's why we had to go look for it."

"And we found it . . . where?"

"Here. I told you, it's always in the Wood."

"And where are we going?"

The Stone Girl considered for a moment. "I don't know for sure. But I think we'll have to go through More Very Bush and maybe even Long Done Bridge. It's really hard to cross there."

"Cross. . . ?"

"The river, silly." Renie's companion frowned. "I just hope we don't have to go through Jinnear Bad House. That's too scary."

More Very Bush and Jinnear Bad House. Those would be . . . Mulberry Bush and Gingerbread House, Renie guessed. She was beginning to get the knack. "Why is it scary?"

The Stone Girl put her hand up to her mouth. "I don't want to talk about it. We don't want to go there. But there are Ticks and Jinnears there, lots of them."

Ticks and Jinnears. For some reason, the phrase stuck in Renie's mind, but unlike the place names, which seemed to be childish malformations of things like London Bridge, she couldn't find an easy explanation. But having seen the things, she was just as eager as her companion to avoid something called Jinnear Bad House.

"What are Ticks? Are they as bad as Jinnears?"

"Worse!" The little girl gave a theatrical shudder. "They're all starey. They have too many eyes."

"Ugh. I'm convinced. So if we have a long trip ahead of us, shouldn't we stop and sleep? I'm tired, and you, if you'll excuse me saying so, are definitely up past your bedtime."

Now her small guide did indeed put on a look of disgust. "Go to sleep in the Wood? That's a stupid idea."

"Okay, okay," Renie said. "You're the boss. But how far do we have to go before we can get some sleep?"

"Until we find a bridge, silly."

Properly told off, Renie subsided.

As the flying-saucer moon hovered overhead, showing no signs of moving toward a horizon, they walked deeper and deeper into the forest—deeper, Renie knew, because the trees got taller and taller around them. They had long since left the black lake and its sentient tree behind, but Renie could not help feeling observed, although she was not sure whether by the small, secretive eyes of invisible forest dwellers or by some larger, more godlike entity. The clearings, with the branches arching cathedral-high overhead, glittering with fairy-lights like a sky full of bright stars, seemed particularly watchful. The weird, cartoonish beauty of the setting could not overcome the hackle-raising sensation of traveling through enemy territory.

Well, why shouldn't it feel this way? she thought. If I'm right, I'm not just inside the network any more, I'm inside the operating system itself—right in the belly of the beast.

Pulling her blanket-cloak tighter around her to ward off a forest breeze, Renie suddenly touched the lumpy shape of the lighter underneath her top, pressed against her breast.

"Oh, no! I called Martine. . . ." In the unceasing strangeness since then, she had completely forgotten her distress call from the hillside, with the Jinnears coming down on her from all around. "She must think. . . ."

The Stone Girl stopped, eyebrow dents raised in astonishment, to watch Renie pull the small shiny object from inside her clothing and speak into it. "Martine, can you hear me? Martine, this is Renie, can you hear me?"

No answer came back to her. Renie shook the lighter as though it were a stopped watch, conscious even as she did so how stupidly RL the gesture was. It made no difference, anyway: the lighter remained as silent as a stone.

They walked on, Renie adding the horror she must have visited on Martine and anyone else with her to her list of sins.

It's getting to be a long list, she thought. Failed to find my brother, didn't do anything useful to interfere with the Brotherhood's plans, deserted !Xabbu and Sam, and also called my other friends and made them think I was about to get killed.

Yes, but you really were about to get killed, she reminded herself. Ease up, girl.

As they walked on through twinkling trees and woodland dells carpeted by dark grass that wavered without wind, studded with circles of pale, dully-shining mushrooms, Renie began to feel a different kind of liveliness to the Wood. She began to hear rustles in the foliage and once or twice thought she saw shadows just disappearing around a bend of one of the long open pathways before them. She mentioned it to the Stone Girl, who nodded sagely.

"Other people going to the Well," she said. "The Ending is coming fast, I guess."

"So they're not . . . Jinnears. Or Ticks."

The Stone Girl managed a tiny smile. "We'd know."

The vast moon had still not moved noticeably from one side of the sky to another, but Renie had just decided that it had perhaps slipped a bit lower when they saw the camp-fire on a small knoll ahead of them through the trees. The Stone Girl hesitated for a moment, peering at the flicker of light, then lifted her stubby finger to her mouth for silence and led Renie forward. Strange shapes were clustered around the flames. The Stone Girl slowed again, leaning forward and squinting, then straightened.

"It's just dwarfs," she said cheerfully, taking Renie by the hand.

A sentry shape at the edge of the knoll lifted a stick and said, "Who goes there?" in a high, querulous voice.

My God, Renie thought. More children. Is everyone in this place a child?

"We're friends," the Stone Girl announced. "We won't hurt you."

The creatures huddled around the fire watched their approach warily. Renie was at first secretly pleased to see that the dwarfs numbered exactly seven, but discovered a few moments later that she was a little less comfortable with how they actually looked. They might be someone's idea of dwarfs, but as with so many things she had seen lately, it was a very curious kind of idea.

The little men were all dwarf-high—the nearest, the stick-wielding sentry, stood no taller than Renie's hips—but although the Other, if it was indeed the creator, apparently understood that dwarf meant small, it had accomplished this not by miniaturizing a normal person, but by leaving out or rearranging parts. The dwarfs had faces that grew right out ol their chests, and after she had studied the awkward gait of the sentry, who had fallen into step beside them, she realized that his legs ended at the knee: there was no joint in the middle, which made the little fellow walk something like a penguin. His arms, however, were of normal length: he used them to aid his movements, knuckle-walking like a chimpanzee.

Renie forced herself to remain calm, although it reminded her unpleasantly of the grotesque patchwork creatures in the Kansas simulation—not only cruelty made monsters, it seemed. As Renie and her friend reached the fire the little creatures rose and greeted them with awkward bows. The tallest, whose shoulders were as high as Renie's waist, asked, "Are you searching?"

"No," the Stone Girl replied. "Just walking. Are you going to the Well?"

"Soon. But first we must find what we have lost. And we have lost everything, even our home!"

One of the other dwarfs was staring right at Renie. "Say Dives," he said mournfully.

"Um . . . dives," she answered after a moment, wondering whether this was a greeting ritual or some kind of test.

"No, they're from Say Dives," the Stone Girl whispered.

"Say Dives is gone!" the leader said, his mouth open from floating rib to floating rib in a gape of woe. "The meadows, the mountains, our beautiful caves! Gone!"

"The Ending has t–t–taken it all by now," said the one beside Renie, choking back a sob. "When I came home from work, my house was gone—and all my wives! The cats and sacks—all gone, too!" The other dwarfs echoed his misery in a wordless chorus of moans.

"The stepmothers came and told us we had to run away," the leader said. "The people that we meet here in the Wood say we must go to the Well. But we cannot go until we find our wives and our sacks and all our cats! There is a chance that they escaped!"

"A man without wives and kits and cats is no man at all," another proclaimed heavily. A deep, tragic silence fell on the gathering.

"So . . . so you people have stepmothers also?" Renie asked at last, finding herself a seat on a log near the fire, trying very hard not to stare at what to her was a pattern of ghastly deformities. The dwarfs beside her slid down to make room. She had to remind herself that however bizarre this seemed to her, these events were just as terrible to them as to any real-world refugees.

The shy-eyed fellow beside her, his face set so low on his belly that his belt looked like it must be strangling him, offered her a cup of something that steamed. "Stone soup," he said quietly. "It's good."

Renie's guide looked over, her face solemn with worry. "You eat . . . stones?"

The leader shook his head. "We would never harm you, friend—we eat only unliving minerals. Besides, if you will forgive me, you look to be mostly sediment. No offense, but that is not to our taste."

"No offense taken," the little girl said in relief.

"Does everyone who lives in . . . in these places . . . do they all have stepmothers?" Renie asked.

The dwarfs could not cock their heads, since they had no necks, but they bent themselves into several strange positions to indicate surprise. "Of course," said the leader. "How else would we know when danger is near? Who else would guard us when we sleep?" His lower lip drooped toward the fork of his legs. "But they can't stop the Ending."

So the stepmothers are part of the operating system, Renie decided. A kind of monitoring subroutine—maybe a harsh one, like the wicked stepmothers in all those stories. But where do the monsters, these Ticks and Jinnears, fit in? She tried to think of a nursery rhyme with a tick in it, but the closest she could come up with was "Hickory Dickory Dock," which wasn't very close at all.

"Where are you from?" one of the dwarfs asked Renie. She looked helplessly at the Stone Girl.

"Where The Beans Talk," the little girl answered. "But we went to the Witching Tree, and it told us it was time to go the Well."

It didn't tell me that, Renie thought morosely. It didn't tell me much of anything. A sudden thought led to her to ask, "Have any of you seen any others like me? A brown-skinned man and a girl with skin a little lighter?"

The dwarfs shrugged sadly. "But the Wood is full of travelers," one said. "Perhaps your family is among them."

Renie said nothing, struck by the idea. !Xabbu and Sam Fredericks, her family. It was true in a way, and not just in shared skin color. Few people had ever suffered greater hardships with their real families, and certainly no one had suffered anything more consistently peculiar.

Conversation wound down quickly. The dwarfs had made a heroic effort to be good hosts, but their hearts were clearly not in it, and Renie and the Stone Girl were exhausted. They curled up on the ground to rest while the dwarfs went on talking among themselves in quiet voices full of confusion and loss. Although she had proved herself much less bothered by cold than Renie, the Stone Girl pushed herself tight against Renie's body and within moments seemed to be asleep—so much so that Renie could detect no breathing at all. She wrapped her arms around the compact little form and watched the firelight glimmering in the treetops above her head. She was wandering now in a weird, childish dream-world—a dream-world under siege. She had lost everyone and everything. Of all who had come to Sellars' summoning, only she remained. Even the operating system, the god of this small world, had admitted defeat. What was there left to do?

I can hold this child, she thought. Even if it's just for one night, I can give her a little comfort, a sense of safety—even if it's an illusion.

So, as the huge disk of the moon crawled down toward the horizon and Renie eased into a sleep she desperately needed, that was what she did.

 

When she awoke, a diffuse glow had spread across the world, a sad gray light that did little to make things seem more hopeful. The dwarfs had gone, leaving only the embers of their fire behind. The Stone Girl was already awake, squatting by the dying fire, poking in the ashes with a stick.

Renie yawned and stretched. Even in this sickly dawn it was good to have a blanket to wrap around herself, good to have someone to talk to. She smiled at the little girl. "It feels like I slept a long time, but I guess I didn't. So if there's a moon here, why isn't there a sun?"

The Stone Girl gave her a quizzical look. "Sun?"

"Never mind. I see our friends are gone."

"A long time ago."

"Why didn't they wait for the sun . . . I mean, for morning?"

"They did. It's been this way since before they left." Renie now noticed for the first time that her companion was frightened. "I don't think there's going to be any more light than this."

"Oh." Renie glanced around. It was dark, the sky a mournful, shadowy gray. "Oh. Does this . . . happen very often?"

"That it doesn't turn into day?" The little girl shook her head. "Never."

Jesus Mercy, Renie thought, does this mean the system's shutting down now? Is this part of the Ending everyone's so afraid of? If the operating system were a person, Renie would certainly have diagnosed severe depression at the very least. "So is the damn thing just going to give up on us?" she said aloud.

And what if it does? If we're inside it, somehow, do we go, too? It was hard to believe that, locked as they were within the system, subject to damage and death just as in real life, she and her friends would survive a complete collapse of the network.

And Stephen, and all the other children here, trapped, helpless. . . .

"We have to get going." Renie struggled to her feet. "To the Well, I guess. But you'll have to lead us there."

Her guide balanced on her haunches and looked out at the encircling forest. "We need to find a bridge," she said listlessly. "Then we can go to More Very Bush. Or maybe to Counting House. There's a king there," she added.

Renie wasn't certain she wanted to meet this odd fairy tale's version of royalty—for all she knew, he might incline toward the Alice's Wonderland, off-with-their-heads model. "So we find a bridge." She hesitated. "Does that mean we have to find the river first?"

The Stone Girl snorted. "Of course."

"Give me a chance." Renie was glad to see a more normal response from her companion. "I'm just getting the hang of all this."

What had been mysterious, twinkling fairy-paths in the night had become something less charming now—a series of winding ways through a dank, dark forest—but no less confusing. Even in the glum half-light, Renie could see other travelers passing through the Wood, although few even made eye contact, let alone stopped to converse. Many had carts or wagons drawn by strangely unconvincing beasts of burden, horses and goats and oxen that seemed to be three-dimensional mock-ups created from children's drawings. Renie recognized a few as refugees from the storybooks of her childhood, like a trio of pigs and a nervous-looking wolf who were traveling together, having apparently made common cause, but there were far more she could not identify, some so bizarre they made the dwarfs look like net-show models. But all the travelers trudging or hurrying through the dim byways of the Wood had one thing in common, the worried expressions on their faces—at least among those that had faces. Some were openly weeping. Others staggered, blank-faced as shock victims.

The Stone Girl stopped in a clearing to talk with the leaders of a large party, perhaps three dozen refugees in all. As the little girl shared news with a buck deer and a tiny bumblebee-man perched between his antlers, Renie found herself staring at the faces of the group they were herding, looking for Stephen.

But he won't took like Stephen, she told herself. Which means he could be any one of these—he could be anyone we've seen today!

Nevertheless, she walked over for a closer inspection.

"Have any of you seen some people who look like me—with skin like mine?" she asked. Several faces, animal and human, turned to look at her in dull hopelessness. "A little boy, or even a man and a girl? They would be newcomers—people you hadn't seen before."

"The Wood is full of strangers," said a woman carrying a hedgehog wrapped in a baby blanket. She spoke as if each word were a heavy stone that must be lifted.

"But I mean real newcomers. From outside." She tried to remember how the others had phrased it. "From beyond the White Ocean."

The crowd stirred, but only a little. The buck and the bee-man turned to look at her, then resumed their conversation with the Stone Girl.

"Nobody has crossed the White Ocean in a long time," the hedgehog-mother said. "Since before the Ending began."

"What does it matter?" asked a fish-faced man. "Who cares?"

"I care. . . ." Renie began, but she was interrupted by a little boy with a nose as long as a finger.

"There have so been newcomers," he said shrilly. "Stepmother told me."

"What kind of newcomers?" Renie asked. "What did they look like?"

"Don't know." He introduced a long finger into his finger-length nose and began to pick meditatively. "She just said they were strangers, and that strangers were dangerous, and that was why the Ending was going to take away our house."

"Where was this? Here in the Wood?

The boy shook his head. "Cobbler's Bench, where our house is." His finger paused. His face grew sad, struggling with the enormity of loss. "Was."

"And where is that? Are they still there?"

Another child, this one with the russet ears of a fox, yipped in derision. "Not nohow! The stepmothers chased them out of town!"

Finger-nose nodded. "They got Weasel to help, 'cause Monkey's sick."

"Renie!" The Stone Girl was beckoning to her. "We have to go."

As they left the refugees from Cobbler's Bench behind, Renie tried to stay buoyant. So there were newcomers—someone had seen them. That had to be !Xabbu and Sam. Unless it was Martine and the others . . . Renie had assumed that because they were not on top of the black mountain when the dust settled, Paul and Martine and the rest of her companions had been dispatched somewhere else—but who was to say that this nursery-rhyme world was not that somewhere else. And if everyone was being drawn toward this place called the Well, they would surely all find each other.

As the gray day wore on into what Renie felt must be afternoon, they found the river at last and began to pick their way along the marshy ground beside it. The dark, gurgling water lulled Renie into a dreamy routine of one-foot-after-another. Strangely, despite all the travelers they had seen in the forest, they met few along the riverside, and those were just as likely to be hurrying in the opposite direction. All wore looks of desperation. None would stop to talk.

Renie was beginning to wonder about her companion, too. The Stone Girl, previously so steady in her walking that Renie often found herself hurrying to keep up, seemed increasingly tired and confused. Several times she stopped and stared out across the river as though looking for something, although Renie saw only empty forest there.

At last, as the daylong twilight was just beginning to slide into something deeper and darker, the Stone Girl flopped herself down on a fallen tree. Her little shoulders were rounded, her earthen face somber.

"I can't find the bridges," she said. "We should have got to one of them by now."

"What bridges?"

"The places to cross the river. It's the only way to get out of the Wood unless we go all the way back through the trees to the other river." She made a little snuffling sound. "Then we could go back to Where The Beans Talk. If it's still there."

"The other river? There's another river?"

"There's always another river," the Stone Girl said dolefully. "At least there used to be. Maybe that's gone now, too."

Through careful questioning, Renie at last began to grasp that every single one of these lands—the Wood, the place Renie had met the Stone Girl, even the places she had not seen but had heard of, like More Very Bush and Say Dives—were bounded on either edge by a river. You had to cross a river to pass into the next land. The whole thing reminded her a bit of Lewis Carroll's chessboard world, where Alice found a different adventure in each square.

Yeah, but "curiouser and curiouser" doesn't cut it here, she thought. More like "worser and worser." Aloud, she asked, "So if we don't find a bridge, are we just stuck here?"

The Stone Girl shrugged miserably. "I don't know. Why would the Witching Tree tell us to go to the Well if we couldn't get there?"

Because the Witching Tree, or whatever's behind it, is running down, Renie thought. Or giving up.

It was Dread, she realized suddenly. On the hilltop, he had said something about inflicting pain on the operating system. It might have been a metaphor, but it seemed pretty obvious that there was a core of truth. Whether on purpose or not, Dread was slowly killing the thing that held the Otherland network—and most especially this part of it—together. "We can't do anything if we sit. Come on! Let's keep looking."

"But . . . but all my family. . . !" The Stone Girl looked up at Renie imploringly. Two little trickles were running down her dirt cheeks. "They're back there, and the Ending. . . !"

The tears shattered Renie's impatience. She dropped to her knees beside the small child made of earth and stones and put her arms around her, "I know, I know," she said helplessly. What could she say? What had she ever said to Stephen when he had been scared, or heartbroken with disappointment, except the thing that all grown-ups said to children? "Everything will be all right."

"But it won't!" The Stone Girl sniffed angrily. "I shouldn't have gone away! Polly and Little Seed and Tip, all the baby ones, they'll be scared. What if they don't get away? The Ending will come and take them!"

"Sssshh." Renie patted the little girl's back. "The stepmother will get them out. Isn't that what stepmothers do? Everything will be all right." It was hard not to dislike herself for making assurances she knew nothing about, but she could see little good for either of them in a long trek back across the Wood to the land of giant shoes and jackets.

Renie's soothing seemed to help a little. The Stone Girl stood up, still snuffling loudly. "Okay. We'll look for the bridge some more."

"Good girl."

The light was definitely lessening now, and there had been little enough to begin with. Eager not to spend another night on this side of the river, Renie hurried to keep up with her guide, and even forged ahead in some places where the reeds and riverside vegetation grew too high for the Stone Girl to see.

She had just relinquished the lead to the Stone Girl as they climbed up a rise between two bends of the river, when her companion stopped and cried out.

"Look! A bridge!"

Renie scrambled up after her so quickly that she slipped and had to catch herself with her hands; she was still wiping dirt and moist, too-pale grass off her blanket as she reached the little girl's side. Before them she could see an entire bend of the river valley. A large crowd had gathered on the near side of the river at the first stone of one of the most unusual bridges Renie had ever seen. It was made entirely of rectangular stone pillars stretching crookedly across the river like a linear Stonehenge. Although they were of slightly different heights, none of them seemed to be more than a meter or so from its neighbor. Renie could see how it would be possible to cross by clambering from one to the next, but the look of the thing, like a jaw full of uneven teeth, gave her a moment's sinking feeling.

It's like the mouth on the front of Mister J's, she thought. This whole place is just a crazy-mirror, isn't it? One of those funhouse affairs, but it reflects all the things that the Other has been forced to do.

"Why isn't anyone crossing it?" she asked.

The Stone Girl shrugged and trotted stiffly down the rise.

As they got closer, Renie could plainly see a continuation of the forest on the river's far side, but the middle of the bridge was swathed in mist so she could not actually make out where it touched the opposite shore. Still, that did not explain why so many travelers, a motley assortment of fairy-tale oddities that must have numbered almost a hundred, were gathered silently on the bank, looking yearningly toward the far side but not actually using the bridge.

"Is it . . . broken or something?"

As they reached the edge of the sullen crowd, the Stone Girl asked a woman in almost whimsically colorful medieval dress what was going on. The woman looked them up and down for a moment, paying particular attention to Renie, before answering.

"It's them Ticks, dearie. Dozens of them."

"Ticks?" The Stone Girl's eyes went wide. "Where?"

"On the other side," the woman replied with a certain grim satisfaction. "Some folk already tried to cross over—it's this Ending, you know. They said they weren't feared of a few Ticks. But it's not a few, is it? One or two of the ones what went over got back to tell about it, but the rest got et."

As though whatever had animated her earthen body had suddenly ceased to work, the Stone Girl sagged to her knees. "Ticks," she said hoarsely. "They're so bad."

Renie felt herself go cold inside. "Are they worse than Jinnears?"

"They're bad," the Stone Girl would only say again.

"And some say them Ticks have some new ones still trapped over there," the woman in the colorful dress went on. "Some strange folk—not from anywhere around here."

"What?" Renie could barely resist the impulse to grab the woman by her bodice and haul her close. "What kind of strange folk?"

"Sure I don't know, dearie," the woman said, giving Renie a look that implied she had just been categorized as strange herself. "Heard it off a rabbit, I did, and they're always in a hurry. Or was it one of those squirrels. . . ?"

"On the other side, you're saying?" Renie turned to the Stone Girl. "Those might be my friends. I have to go help them."

The Stone Girl looked up at her, her dimple eyes pools of shadow, her face blank with apathy or helpless terror.

"Shit. Stay here." Renie began elbowing her way through the crowd assembled on the bank, a casting call for a surrealist painting. Most of them seemed gripped by the same mood of fear that had immobilized the Stone Girl; only a few even murmured as Renie forced her way past them.

The first stone of the bridge stretched almost Renie's height above the shallows. She found a handhold and pulled herself up, not without strain. She was tired after the long day's walk, and when she had dragged her belly up onto the rough surface of the stone's top she had to lie there for a moment until she could catch her breath. Sprawled and vulnerable, she could not help thinking of the way the bridge had looked, like a row of chewing teeth.

"Help me up," someone said.

Renie peered over the edge into the dark, upturned face of the Stone Girl.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm not going to stay here. You're my friend. And you don't know anything, either."

Terrified by the thought that !Xabbu and the others might be under attack, she only had a moment to consider. The girl was right about one thing—she knew a lot more than Renie. And with the system apparently dissolving the simworld around them, would the child be any safer waiting here, at least in the long run?

Bullshit justification, Sulaweyo. But what else was there?

"Grab my hand," she said.

When the little girl reached the top of the stone, she gestured for Renie to keep silent.

"Gray goose and gander, Waft your wings together,"

the Stone Girl intoned solemnly,

"And carry the good king's daughter
Over the one-strand river."

"You're always supposed to say it before you cross," she told Renie. Fear made her shrill. "Don't you know? It's very important."

They made their way quickly from tooth to tooth until the warning cries of those still waiting on the bank had faded. Midstream the water seemed faster, blackly turbulent as it washed between the close-set stones, the spray sharp and chilly as hail. The mist Renie had seen from the bank was all around them now, obscuring vision and making the stones slippery. She forced herself to take each step with slow care.

They were only a few stones past what she guessed was the midpoint of the river when the streams of mist thinned. Renie, crossing with a long stretch from one rocky tooth to another, was so startled that she almost lost her foothold and had to scramble to get her weight forward so she could jump to the waiting stone.

The far side of the river had changed completely.

Where before she had seen only primordial forest stretching into the distance on both sides, now she found herself confronted by a very different landscape. For a moment she thought it was some kind of formal garden, full of hedges and topiary shapes, but then the scale of the thing hit her and she realized she was looking at an entire town—a city—completely grown over by brambles and twining, crawling vines, a living green sculpture in the shape of houses and streets and church steeples.

"Is that . . . More Very Bush. . . ?"

The little Stone Girl only whimpered.

Almost the only contrast to the thousand shades of green were the many pale shapes moving over and through the bushes like maggots in a rotting carcass. Like the Jinnears, they were a sickly white, but where those things had been almost completely formless, these had the semblance of some kind of animal life. They were long and low to the ground, scalloped at the edges in what almost seemed a parody of legs, but they still moved horribly quickly, half-scuttling, half-slithering. They were also nearly her own size, and there were hundreds of them. The greatest number swarmed around the base of a green-strangled tower halfway into the town, a writhing white necklace easy to see even in the dying light, the creatures excited as ants who had discovered an unguarded wedding cake.

"Jesus Mercy," Renie said, her fear turning sharp and cold, so cold. "And those . . . are Ticks?"

The Stone Girl's voice barely rose above the noise of the river beneath them. She was weeping again, the words fracturing.

"I w–w–want m–my s–s–s–s–stepmotherr."

Third:
THE DYING HOUR

"How many miles to Babylon?
Threescore and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again."

—Traditional

CHAPTER 23
Orientation

NETFEED/SPORTS: "Body Fascism" Litigant Killed in Practice

(visual: Note outside courtroom after victory)

VO: Edward Note, who won a court case in which he proved a local professional football team was discriminating against him based on body type when they initially refused to give him a tryout, was killed in his second day of practice with the team. Members of the Pensacola Fishery Barons BMFFL team, who are responsible to UN antidiscrimination laws because their stadium was built with revenue from local taxes, put on a public face of regret, but some team members said off the record that Note "only got what he deserved."

TEAM MEMBER (anonymated): "What did the guy weigh, a hundred twenty pounds, old school measurements? Running around with guys that weigh three or four times that? It's no wonder he got his foolish tiny ass crushed. Too bad for his kids, though."

VO: The thirty-eight-year-old Note, who declared contemporary pro sports a bastion of "body fascism," was apparently caught underneath a pile-up in practice and asphyxiated. His family is demanding an investigation of his death.

 

"Just a minute, Olga." The woman, a stranger of course, but acting as familiar as an old friend, handed her a cup of coffee which steamed convincingly. "I hear you're working for that J Corporation now. That must be fascinating—you hear so much about them in the news. What's it like?"

"I'm not allowed to talk about where I work," she said.

The woman smiled. "Oh, of course not—I know that! But I'm not trying to get you to tell any important secrets, am I? Just . . . what's it like? Is it really on an island?"

Surely everyone knew that. Still, Olga was unbending, "I'm sorry—I'm just not allowed to talk about where I work."

The woman frowned. "You're being really grumpy and silly about this. You must not be getting enough sleep. Are you working nights or something?"

"I'm really sorry, but I am not allowed to talk about my work."

The woman waved her hand in disgust. A moment later the room wavered and changed, so quickly that Olga felt a bit dizzy, almost sick.

They should do a better job with their transitions, she thought. If they ever got a job on the real net, for Obolos or someone, they'd get ripped to shreds for something like that.

She sat patiently as someone who was apparently a relative of hers asked her to bring home some extra office supplies for the kids—nothing important, just a few sticktights or hardclips for the poor, underprivileged darlings to make art projects for school. Olga sighed and began her refusals, waiting as patiently as she could through the upward spiral of recrimination, waiting for it all to end.

 

"Well, an excellent score," Mr. Landreaux said after she had stepped out of the hologram room. He was a small man with a shaved head and a scatter of sparkling stones embedded in his wrist—trying a little too hard to look young, Olga thought. "You really studied up, didn't you?"

She tried not to smile. A quarter of an hour's examination of the company's voluminous hiring package the night before had made it pretty clear what the general idea was. "Yes, sir," she said. "This job is very important for me." And you can't even guess how true that is, can you?

"I'm glad to hear that. It's important to me, too." The personnel officer squinted at his wallscreen. "Your references are very, very good. Fourteen years at Reichert Systems—that's a very good company." He smiled, but she saw something else glint in his mild gray eyes. "Tell me again why you left Toronto."

This is really just a junior version of the man who gave me my exit interview at Obolos, she thought, another pink soft animal with sharp teeth. Does that Jongleur fellow grow them in vats, like those space-tomatoes? Aloud, she recited the story Catur Ramsey had invented for her, and that his friends had somehow turned into accomplished informational fact. "It's my daughter Carole, sir. Since her . . . since she split up with her husband, she needs some help with the kids so she can keep her job. She works so hard." Olga shook her head. This was cake. Convincing a hundred overstimulated children to be quiet so they wouldn't scare the Boxy Ox, that was real acting. If the whole thing were not so strange and terrible, she suspected she might even be enjoying this little trick—corporate folk were such easy yet somehow satisfying targets. "So I just thought, do you know, if I were nearer. . . ."

"So you left the Great White North and came all the way down here to the Big Easy," Landreaux said cheerfully. "Well, laissez les bontemps roulez, as we say." He leaned over, mock-conspiratorial. "But not during working hours, of course."

She tried to look duly impressed by his informality. "Of course not, sir. I am a hard worker."

"I'm sure you are. Well, everything's in order, so I guess it's my pleasant job to welcome you to the J Corporation family." He extended his hand without standing, making her lean forward to shake it. "Your shift supervisor is Maria. You'll find her in Building Twelve down on the esplanade. Go see her now. Are you ready to start tonight?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you very much, sir."

He had already begun to lose interest, and was just turning back to his wallscreen when his attention snagged on the patch of white high on her neck. "You know, I was meaning to ask you," he said with deceptive lightness that did not lull her one little bit. "About that bandage on your neck. You don't have a health problem you haven't told us about, do you, Ms. Chotilo?"

Caught a little off-balance by hearing Aleksandr's last name after all these years, even though she herself had chosen it as an alias she could remember, it took her a moment to reorient. "Oh, this?" She touched the adhesive strip covering her t-jack. "I had a mole removed. That's all right, isn't it? It wasn't cancerous or anything, I . . . I just didn't like it."

He laughed and waved his hand. "Just trying to make sure nobody's signing up with us just to get our medical insurance." His face went through another little shift; the slightly ominous flicker came back. "See, we don't like to be tricked, Olga. J Corporation is a family, but a family has to protect itself. It can be an unpleasant world out there."

Out there, she guessed, meant anything more than five kilometers from the black tower. "Oh, I know, Mr. Landreaux," she assured him. "Full of bad people."

"Right you are," he said absently, his thoughts already back on the day ahead of him, the little tricks and traps and bumps of mid-level management.

Olga stood. His back was to her as she scuttled out.

 

As she walked across the plaza outside the corporation's orientation center, heading across the esplanade, she made a conscious effort not to look up at the black tower looming on the far side of the water. It was hard not to feel she was being watched, although it seemed like a lot of effort to expend on the newest employee of a staff of thousands. And why wouldn't a new employee look up at the tower, the corporate symbol?

Still, she just didn't want to, not until she was actually on the boat. She was beginning to feel superstitious about it, as if relaxing herself to that point would automatically draw a heavy hand to her shoulder, the corporate security people wanting to do more this time than ask a few harmless questions.

Building Twelve was a hangar built right out onto the pier. The massive hovercrafts that carried maintenance and custodial workers to and from the island lay at anchor, bumping against each other on the gentle swell. Inside the hangar was an entire complex—supply warehouses and changing rooms, currently filled with the echoing chatter of hundreds of voices, since one of the custodial shifts had just come back from the island.

Maria proved to be an immense and not particularly patient woman, her hair dyed a once-stylish polychrome silver, her black roots badly in need of a touch-up.

"Oh, Lord, another one," she said when Olga approached her. "Don't those pocket-jockeys over in Orientation know I got no time to teach anyone this week?" She gave Olga a look that suggested the new recruit would be doing the best thing for all concerned if she simply drowned herself in Lake Borgne immediately. "Esther? Where the hell are you? You take this new one, find her a uniform, tell her what to do. See if there's a badge for her on the fabricator thing. And if she gets in trouble, does something stupid, it's your ass, seen?"

Esther was a thin Hispanic woman close to Olga's own age, girlish in a tired way, with a kind, shy smile. She helped Olga find a gray two-piece uniform in the right size from a rack that would have stretched from wingtip to wingtip on a Skywalker jet, then fed her past a series of bored functionaries until Olga had secured both her badge and a locker in one of the changing rooms. The place was like a boarding school for students with bad feet and aching joints, hundreds of black and brown women, as well as a few dozen European types like Olga, with English a second language for almost all.

As she changed, listening to the women shouting jokes across the humid locker room, Olga could almost believe for a moment that this was really her life, that the years on the net had never happened.

"Hurry up, now," Esther told her. "The boat leaves in five minutes."

Olga studied her own blank face on the badge, tilting it to see her hologrammed profile. I look like an old woman, she thought. God, I am an old woman. What do I think I'm doing with all this? She picked up her backpack, popped the locker closed, and realized she would probably never see those clothes again. Maybe I should have cut out the labels, like in that mystery I saw. Of course, if she had really planned to be a woman with no past, she should probably be infiltrating a corporation that didn't already have her face and real name tucked away somewhere in its vast complex of personnel files.

She tucked the pack under her arm and fell into the swirl of gray-clad women moving toward the dock.

 

In this strangest month of Olga's life, the meeting with Catur Ramsey had definitely been near the top of the list. It had been odd enough to pull off the road near Slidell into the picnic area and see him sitting on a bench—the same young man who, it seemed, had been at her own door for the first time only days ago, thousands of miles away in another country. He had hugged her, which was another unusual twist. Since when did lawyers hug people? Even a nice one like Ramsey?

Then, when the big blond man had stepped out of the parked van, she had experienced a moment of sinking fear and something worse. He had the look of a police officer, and for as long as it took him to cross the ten paces to the table she had been horribly certain that Ramsey had sold her out—for her own good, he would have deemed it, but no less a betrayal for that. But instead the man had only extended his hand, introducing himself as Major Michael Sorensen, then walked back to the car.

As if reading her mind, Ramsey had told her, "Hold on—it's going to get weirder." And when she saw the person Sorensen was lifting out of the van, Olga had to admit he had been right.

They had spent an hour talking while traffic rumbled past just on the other side of the trees, but Olga could remember little of it now. The shriveled man Sellars had spoken so quietly and carefully that at first Olga had taken offense a little, thinking she was being given the gentle treatment reserved for the pathetically unbalanced. After a while she came to realize it was just his way, and that this achingly thin man with runneled skin could not have taken a deep enough breath to speak loudly even if he had wanted to. And when she actually heard what he had to say, it kindled a spark of something like joyful relief inside her. She had not realized until then just how lonely she had become.

"I'm still not certain why you have experienced these things, Ms. Pirofsky," he had told her, "but whatever the cause, they are real. If I had all day, I could not tell you of all the strangeness I have encountered since I first began studying these matters. Whatever the source of your voices, it couldn't be a coincidence that you have been drawn to Jongleur's tower. We only wish to combine forces with you—to give you the best chance of getting answers safely, answers that we may need ourselves to put an end to a terrible, criminal conspiracy."

The conspiracy itself, at least in Sellars' hurried explanation, had quite boggled her. And other than the fact that he was some kind of military security specialist, she had never quite managed to understand the major's place in this tiny resistance movement—bizarrely, he had even mentioned a wife and children waiting at some motel. She was also still a little unsure how much Ramsey was involved, whether he had known any of these things when he had first interviewed her, but the mere fact that instead of receiving patronizing looks she was finally getting answers had made up for any residual confusion.

Sorensen, in a gruff but careful way that reminded her of her own long-dead father, had inspected the tiny store of possessions she planned to take to the island, and added one more item—a small silver ring with a single clear stone. The sparkling stone was not a gem at all, he had explained, but a lens with a tiny transponder hidden behind it. A camera ring.

"With this, we will see what you see, Ms. Pirofsky," Sellars told her.

Returned to companionable humanity after what she realized had been weeks of self-absorption and voluntary exile, a solitude made even more fierce when the voices of the children deserted her, Olga would have gladly stayed longer with Ramsey and the others, but Sellars had told her that time was running short. In his gentle way, he had pushed her to begin her incursion as quickly as possible, and since he had promised to find her a way in, using his unspecified talents to somehow get her onto the island legitimately, she had no desire to argue. And he had been as good as his word.

 

Once she was on the hovercraft, out in the hot, damp breeze of the foredeck with all the others, Olga could no longer avoid staring at the black tower. From the far shore it had looked something like a medieval cathedral, a jutting spire looming above more human-sized dwellings, but as it grew into the sunset-streaked sky before her it seemed more like the mountain of her dreams, a weird monolith of black stone, parts of its facade tortured and twisted in the modernist style, as intricately grooved as Sellars' odd face.

It seems like it's been waiting for me a long time—my whole life. But how could that be, when I only heard the voices for the first time a few weeks ago? Still, she could not shake off the feeling that she was on the brink of some long-sought revelation.

It's what I thought before—it's like catching fire with some religion. You just know things, you're sure of things, it doesn't matter how or why or what anyone says.

But most religions promised salvation. She expected nothing so cheerful from the black spire.

They docked in at another huge warehouse building, so close to the tower that half the sky seemed to be black. It was not that the thing was so staggeringly tall—although she could not believe it was less than a thousand feet—but that its size and solidity were so overwhelming. Seeing it in the far distance or through the bayou mists had not prepared her for its disconcerting presence.

It's not an office, it's a fortress, she realized. Whoever made this was at war, or planned to be. Maybe not against armies, but against something.

She could not help remembering the architectural remains that had sparked so many lectures from her father as the circus troupe crisscrossed Europe—the remains of this or that triumphalist regime, communist or fascist, unboundedly capitalist or unashamedly imperial. Those buildings too had screamed their importance, but there had been something different in all of them, some quality of publicness that the J Corporation tower lacked. Despite the difference in size, the only thing she could think of that came close were some of the Renaissance tower-houses of Italy, fortified islands in the middle of cities, designed for defense over glamour.

I've never seen a multibillion dollar office building that so clearly said, "Go away," she thought. And I am ignoring the warning—like whistling past the sign that says, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." What are you doing, Olga?

But she already knew the answer.

Esther found her standing quietly in a corner, trying to work up the courage to follow the rest of the chattering workers into the massive outbuilding that housed the entrances to the skyscraper's service corridors and elevators. "C'mon, sweetie," she said, patting Olga's arm and making her jump, "they started the countdown when your badge went through that door back there, coming off the boat. More than ten minutes to get to our station and you lose half an hour's pay."

Olga mumbled an apology and fell into step behind Esther. She was feeling extraordinarily reluctant to enter the huge black edifice, its polished surfaces gleaming with reflected sunset.

"Oh, no, why you got that backpack?"

Olga tried to look surprised. "What's wrong?"

"You're not supposed to bring nothing like that over here," Esther said. "I guess 'cause they think we might steal or something." She made an amused expression of disgust. "But they are real strict about that. Oh, sweetie, you should have asked me, I would have told you to leave it in your locker back on the esplanade."

"I didn't know. It's just my lunch and some medicine I'm taking."

"They have a regulation box you bring lunch in, they run them all through some x-ray or something when the boat comes in," Esther frowned. "Well, we'll find some place to leave it. You don't want to get in trouble your first day."

Olga shook her head. No, she certainly didn't want to get in trouble her first day, but she didn't plan to be separated from her bag, either. Under quick inspection the contents looked innocent enough, but anything more thorough and she would be attracting a lot more attention than the average custodial employee.

 

Her bag safely stowed in one of the cubbyholes provided for the custodians to stash rainwear and other items impractical to carry around the offices, Olga was introduced to her first day (and last, she fervently hoped) as a J Corporation cleaner. Esther, Olga, and a team of six other women were given B Level by the on-site supervisor, two floors below the street. It was mildly disturbing to think that they were working in a big tube down below the surface of the lake, but any tendency to dwell on that, or on the much more immediately dangerous things she planned, was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work. Stepping carefully over the hubcap-sized vacuuming robots, they moved from office to office dumping wastebaskets, cleaning surfaces, and tidying the common areas. The bathrooms took special attention, all fixtures to be scrubbed. As the newest worker on-shift, Olga was gifted with the least pleasant tasks, which of course included cleaning the toilets and urinals with a brush and a spray bottle of some enzymatic cleaner whose floral overtones could not cover up the more disturbing chemical whiff underneath. Esther warned her sternly about not spilling any. What she had thought was an admonition to thrift became clearer when she dripped some on the back of her hand and felt her skin burn.

B Level was wider than the aboveground tower and held hundreds of offices. As the night crept by in a cloud of fumes, underscored by the off-key singing of a couple of the other women and the constant sucking and chewing noises of the gray vacuum-bots, Olga realized how lucky she had been that her little fantasy of actually doing such a job for a living had not been true.

How can they stand it? she wondered. With the supervisors watching so closely, like strict teachers, and some of them won't even let you talk except in whispers. I always thought that in a job like this you'd at least get to chat and joke with fellow employees, but there hasn't been much of that since we got off the boat. Is the company really that stingy, frightened that these women are going to waste a few minutes' worth of their wages?

Her answer came when she paused for a moment to lean on a desk near one of the restrooms and the wallscreen beside it leaped into fife, activated by her touch. The screen displayed only a scene of someone's children sitting in a sailboat, a personal photo used as wallpaper, but within moments one of the on-site supervisors, a fat man named Leo with an unpleasant wheeze, was standing next to her.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing. I . . . I just leaned on the desk. I didn't mean to. . . ."

"Well, don't. Where's your badge?"

She showed it to him. He squinted, frowning as if angry at being forced to do what was presumably his job.

"First day, is it?" he said. He did not sound much mollified. "Then you learn a lesson, and learn it good. You don't touch anything except what you're cleaning. You want to keep this job, you pay attention. There are plenty more would be happy to make good money. Don't touch anything. Repeat that back."

Stung, furious at this petty, rude man, Olga fought to keep an outward aspect of frightened subservience. "I don't touch anything."

"Right. Damn right." He turned and waddled off, a pudgy protector of the laws of private property and corporate inviolability.

It was not until she was nearing the end of the shift, when luckier employees in the upper levels might be glimpsing a bit of dawn's light at the edges of the blackout-curtained windows, that Olga found a chance to be alone. With Esther's permission, she made her way to one of the rest-rooms they had not yet cleaned and seated herself in the farthest stall. Positive that there were eyes and perhaps ears following her every move, she lowered her pants and underwear before sitting on the toilet for the sake of appearances, and said a silent prayer of gratitude that she did not have to talk out loud. She subvocalized the code word Ramsey had given her. A moment later, she heard his voice in her ear.

"Are you okay? We've been worrying about you."

She tried not to laugh. Just working like most normal people have to do, she thought, but said only, "I'm fine. There hasn't been a chance to call before now."

"I'm connected to this node all the time, so don't hesitate if anything comes up. Really, Olga, whenever you need me." There was a note of beseeching guilt in his voice she hadn't heard before, as if he thought he had shoved her into danger, when she herself had in fact been rushing toward it.

"Why?" she asked, half-teasing. Once you got the knack of subvocalizing it was quite easy, she decided, as long as something didn't startle you into speaking aloud. "If I get in bad trouble, are you people going to come get me out of it?"

Ramsey's pause was painful. "Sellars has been waiting to talk to you," he said at last. "But don't go off when he's done—I want another word."

The old man's breathy voice was unexpectedly soothing. Whatever else he might be, this Sellars person was clearly no stranger to such unusual situations. "Hello, Ms. Pirofsky," he said. "We're all very glad to hear from you."

"I think you should probably call me Olga. Since I'm sitting here with my pants around my ankles, pretending to go to the bathroom, 'Ms. Pirofsky' seems a bit formal."

She could hear the smile in his voice. "Very well, Olga. It's a pleasure to talk to you again, whatever the circumstances. Did you have any problems with the hiring interview?"

"I don't think so. It all went very smoothly. How did you arrange all that?"

"We'd better save the details. Were you able to get your bag in with you?"

"Yes. I don't have it right this moment, but I can get it again, I'm pretty sure."

"Call me when the shift's over, and when you have it. We'd better not keep you in there too long, so I'll save the rest of what I have to say until then. Oh, except for one very important thing. Can you hold your badge up near the jack on your neck? Just uncover it for a moment—if you think you're being watched, try to make it look like you're cleaning the spot under the bandage. I think I can pick up the encoding that way." When she had done it to his satisfaction, he said, "Good. Thanks. Now Mr. Ramsey wants to talk to you."

A second later Ramsey's voice was in her ear again. "Olga? I just wanted to say, be careful, okay?"

Now she did laugh, but there was real pleasure in it. "All right, sonny. And you dress warmly and eat your vegetables."

"I'm sorry—Olga, what exactly. . . ?" he was saying as she rang off, still grinning.

 

She was more physically tired than she had been in months when the shift came to an end, staggering after ten hours on her feet. Friday night had crept round to Saturday morning, although only the chronometers on the wall testified to that, sunk as she was in the sunless depths of the building. She could almost sense the massive mountain of plasteel and fibramic above her, separating her from the day's light, as though she were lost in some underground cavern or dungeon.

And the real work begins now, she thought. God, I just want to sleep.

She made weary chitchat with Esther and the others as they put away their cleaning supplies and began the march back to the dock. Then, heart beating fast now, frightened and also full of a weird, unexpected exhilaration, she pulled up short.

"Oh, no!"

Esther turned. There were circles under her eyes, and Olga found herself for the first time wondering what the other woman went home to. A loving family and a kind husband? Or at least something a little better than this numbing labor in Pharaoh's mines? She hoped so. "What is it, sweetie? You look like you see a ghost."

"My backpack! I forgot my backpack!"

Esther shook her head. "I told you you shouldn't have brought it. It's okay—you get it on Monday when we come back."

"I can't. It's got my medicine in it. I have to take my medicine." She took a step backward, putting up her hand to wave the other woman off, praying that fatigue would keep her from volunteering to accompany her back. "I'll go get it. I'll be right back. You go ahead."

"The boat leaves in a few minutes."

"I'll run. If I miss you on the boat, have a good weekend!" Then, feeling surprisingly sincere, she added, "Thanks for all your help!" before she turned and began breasting the tide of gray-clad workers, until Esther and her worried exhortations were out of sight and earshot. Now I have to hope she won't look for me on that crowded boat, or after it docks, at least not very hard. She had planted a seed earlier, saying she would have to be picked up by her daughter still in her work clothes because of a medical appointment. And if Sellars did what he promised with that information off the badge, it will look like I got on the boat and then got off on the far end. Which will give me, what—until Monday evening, if I'm lucky?

Two and a half days to discover the heart of the beast. It seemed so long. It seemed so brief.

The big room with the cubbyholes was empty except for a single male janitor swabbing the floor with a mop and a bucket. She nodded to him and took her backpack, then walked back in the direction of the hovercraft landing, but instead made a turn into one of the stairwells and climbed back down to B Level, which was now comparatively familiar ground. She knew that Sellars and Major Sorensen had arranged some tricks with the security cameras, but she knew they could do nothing if she ran into any flesh and blood company management, so she moved quickly to her planned destination, a utility closet off one of the maintenance corridors. After testing to make sure she could open it again from the inside, she pulled the door shut behind her and slumped on the floor, in the dark. Her heart was beating very fast and she was trembling.

When she had recovered a bit, she spoke the code again and Ramsey's voice was in her ear, reassuringly familiar in the midst of so much that was strange.

"Olga? How are things going?"

"Pretty well, as long as my supervisor doesn't look for me too hard on the boat. But the poor woman looked ready to drop. This is hard work, you know. All my joints are aching, and my hands are cracked—just from one day!"

"I'll give my cleaning lady a much bigger bonus this year, I promise," Ramsey said, but he could not pull off the joking tone very convincingly. So serious, Olga thought, Even if it really is the end of the world, so serious.

"You should have been born a Jew, like me," she said. "You learn how to deal with these things."

The pause was deafening. "I have no idea what you mean, Olga. You have completely stumped me. But I'm glad you're safe. And I'm proud of you. Sellars wants to talk to you."

"Hello, Olga," the old man said. "I echo Mr. Ramsey's sentiments. I may not have much time to talk, so I'm going to give you as much as I can now. Don't write anything down, just in case someone grabs you."

"Don't worry," she said, sitting in the dark, talking silently to people who might as well be on another planet. "I don't have the strength to lift even a pencil right now."

"You'll need at least enough to lift what's in that backpack of yours. Will you get that now?"

"The package?"

"That's right."

She fumbled in the backpack until she found her flashlight, then took out and carefully piled the military rations Ramsey—or really Sorensen, she supposed—had provided, several days worth of food that took up less space than an ordinary box lunch. There was also a bottle of water, which seemed a bit redundant in a building that probably contained a thousand drinking fountains. At the bottom of the pack she found the wrapped box bearing the label of a common thyroid medicine and a note in Olga's own hand that said, "Two after each meal."

"I found it."

"Just open it please. I need to perform a little test."

She unwrapped the box carefully so she could return it to its innocent appearance afterward, and drew out a slim gray rectangle the size of her palm. It was oddly heavy and she viewed it with some distrust. "I have it."

"Just tell me what happens," Sellars said in his soft voice. A moment later a tiny red light sparked on the side.

"A red light turned on."

"Good. Just needed to be sure. You can wrap it back up and put it away now, Olga."

She was still troubled as she returned it to the depths of the backpack, along with the rations, and pushed her sweater back on top of them. "Is that thing . . . is it a bomb?" she asked at last.

"A bomb? Goodness, no." Sellars sounded quite astonished. "No, we don't want to destroy anybody's system—we have friends alive in there. It would be like putting a bomb on a house where someone's being held hostage. No, Olga, that's what used to be called a vampire tap—a special sort of information shunt that the major helped me obtain. If we do find what we're looking for, I suspect that I'm going to need to send and receive at much faster speed than what I'm using now if I'm going to accomplish anything."

"I feel better."

"Now the water bottle—that is a bomb." He chuckled, a soft hooting noise. "But a very small one, just to make smoke. As a diversion. Goodness, I almost forgot to tell you."

I've stepped out of reality, Olga decided. I thought the dream-children were crazy? This is crazier still.

"All right," Sellars said, "listen carefully and I'll explain what you should do next. We have less than three days before they begin to figure out something's wrong—that's if everything goes perfectly. There are still people in that building and you shouldn't let any of them see you from this moment on. I'll do my best to help you with the surveillance, but even so, this will be more difficult than you can possibly imagine, and in all honesty probably hopeless. But we have no other choice."

Olga considered. "Now you I could believe were Jewish, Mr. Sellars."

"I'm afraid I don't follow you."

"Never mind." She sighed and stretched her aching legs as far as the tiny closet would allow. "Go ahead—I'm listening."

CHAPTER 24
Getting out of Dodge

NETFEED/BUSINESS: Bad Year for Executives

(visual: Dedoblanco funeral, Bangkok, Thailand)

VO: The death of Krittapong Electronics' Ymona Dedoblanco pointed up once again that it has been a bad year for business executives. Several moguls, perhaps the richest and certainly the most famous being Chinese financier Jiun Bhao, have died during the last few months. Little has been seen of several others, including Felix Jongleur, the aged Franco-American entrepreneur, who seldom leaves his Louisiana compound.

(visual: business journalist She-Ra Mottram)

MOTTRAM: "Yes, there have been several significant losses in the business community, and it's made the markets a bit shaky. Of course, most of these people were extremely old. That's why it's ironic that two of the oldest, Jongleur and Robert Wells, are still alive and kicking. They must get a certain pleasure out of seeing their younger rivals dropping by the wayside. . . ."

 

Paul stared at the lithe, dark man trussed on the floor of the cavern. The prisoner stared back, eyes narrowed as though he were a dog about to bite; Paul had no doubt that, given the chance, he would indeed cheerfully rip out their throats. "A thousand more? What do you mean?"

Bat Masterson shoved the prisoner with the toe of his boot, earning a look of even more tightly focused hatred. "Just as I said, friend. When they came down on us, we thought they were an ordinary war party of Comanche or Cheyenne. We didn't have much chance to get acquainted, though—we were too busy getting killed—so we only noticed after a while that they all look just the same. It's a ticklish mystery, sure enough. I reckon it's some tribe that's been inbreeding too long." But he did not look confident in his solution.

"They're devils," the mustached man who had been guarding Dread suggested. "Simple as can be. Ground opened up. Hell busted out."

"But, shit, Dave why would hell be full of octoroons?" Masterson tugged at his mustache. "Oh. Begging your pardon, ladies."

Martine, for one, was paying little attention to what was being said. "It is Dread," she murmured dreamily, "but also it is less. I can feel that now. He has copied himself somehow—used something as a framework, perhaps one of the Indian tribes, then replicated himself."

"Ma'am," Masterson told her, "I have to say that I can't figure out what in blazes you're talking about. Have you met these fellows before?"

Paul shrugged, tried to think of something to say. "Not really. It's hard to explain."

"Met him, yeah," T4b said. "Sixed him, too," he added unhelpfully.

As Masterson stood perplexed, scratching his head beneath the plug hat, Paul put his hand on Martine's shoulder. They needed to do something, it was clear, but it was pointless trying to explain the devolution of the network to the sims who lived in it. "Now what?"

"Even if a million of these waited for us," she said softly, "we would still have to make our way past them. We have no other way out of here." She turned to Masterson. "Can you lead us to Dodge City? Or at least tell us something of what to expect? We do not want to go there, but we have no choice."

"If'n you folks just want to get killed," the man named Dave offe