Copyright Carolyn Horn 1993
All Rights Reserved
Vinia Merrilees couldn't feel a thing. She couldn't see anything, either; when she tried to open her eyes, the lids didn't seem to work. If only that horrible noise would stop -- a sound like a hundred wailing cats trying to climb a wobble-board. She tried to put her hands over her ears. That was when she found she had no hands; and where were her ears anyway? She tried an experimental scream, but couldn't find a pair of lungs to fill.
That was when she decided to panic.
Beside the river Slea, several miles from Uptonburgh and Sleasford, a village drowsed in the noon-day sun. Doug Marrow leaned on his graveyard hoe and squinted along the nearby road. He could just see the border sign, half obscured by trees, which announced: "Fallekin Astow welcomes you; home of 200 charming people and one old fart." He sighed and thought of the crabby new vicar. Someone was going to have to change those numbers to "199" and "two". Preferably carved in stone. Wistfully, he began to weigh up the relative merits of sandstone and granite; he longed for the feel of a hammer and chisel in his hands. He'd had a lot of fun with such things, way back before that vicar came and started getting stroppy.
In the distance a cockerel made a half-hearted attempt to call some hens to order and, close by, a few bees were getting drunk on borage nectar. A tattered old eagle glowered at Doug from a pile of manure. He sighed again, and thought that this was no day to be digging up weeds for dead people; perhaps he could just nip along and see how his special herb-plot was doing --
A muffled "foom" sounded behind him, and the eagle flew off with an indignant squawk; Doug whirled around to gawp at a tall woman who'd appeared from nowhere. Ash-blonde hair flowed down over a naked body which caused a stir in his trousers, and a pair of incredibly black eyebrows arched up over grass-green eyes. These brows snapped together in annoyance, and a strong wind began to blow. "Well?" She said. "Art thou going to abase thyself or not?"
"Er..." Doug said, and tried to cover his excited crotch with his hands.
She strode towards him and poked his stomach with a finger. "Down, mortal." He collapsed in a gasping heap, and her frown grew blacker. "By our triune self, thou hastn't a clue who I am, hast thou? What the Kernunnos is happening around here? I aim towards a horde of worshippers, and I get -- this!" She gestured to the graveyard in disdain.
"Ack..." said Doug.
"Know this, then, mortal; Brigid hath deigned to show herself to thee -- thou'd better be bloody honoured, see?" She put her fingers to her mouth, blew a haunting but unlady-like whistle through them, and disappeared with another "foom".
"Urk..." the graveyard attendant nodded. He climbed to his feet and stumbled off to the pub. He needed to preserve his enlightenment in alcohol. And he had to have a pee.
Egrette, the old eagle, swore colourfully at him from the safety of a Shearweird Forest oak-tree. She fluffed out her feathers; she was not pleased with all these goings-on. Two minutes later, she was even less pleased.
Another tuneful "foom" vibrated her indignant ears, as a large albino proboscis monkey materialised on her branch. He flung out his hands to steady himself, grabbed hold of her tail, and fell to the mossy floor in a tangle of twigs and leaves. Egrette staggered off into flight again, muttering to herself about people who took liberties with tailfeathers.
The monkey, known to his friends (or indeed anyone) as Orangputeh, extracted himself from a decaying humus-pile. Humph, he thought, and spat out a few twigs. Not right. Continuum buggered. Can't get home. What to do? Hmm. Science got to be sorted out. Get a human; useful. He clambered back up a tall tree to peer through the leaves at the northern skyline, where the town of Uptonburgh sprawled over the hill beside its Sleasford suburb. He cocked his head to one side, as though listening for something. Then he nodded to himself. Aha! That's the way. One over there doing it -- just ripe. Really great vibes, too. Wake it up, get it to go fix things.
Orangputeh puffed out his flaccid nose, blew a sweet note through it, and disappeared. He reappeared in a dank, decaying alleyway of Sleasford, clambered up to the window of Farrell Wightman's bedsit, and peered through the grime-encrusted window. A haunting melody flowed from the room. The man sat in shabby jeans, on a decaying sofa, playing a set of pan-pipes; his back leaned against a wall which might once have been cream, and one leg was crossed beneath him. His pale face had a lived-in quality, although he could only have been in his early thirties. Orangputeh looked at him and sniffed; such stupid little noses these humans had. But Farrell had his mind on much more than the pipes he was playing, as was obvious from the white Cap which softly covered his temples, and from the humming of the small VR machine set into the wall beside him.
This one; yes. Doing it. Very ripe. Better wait for the ripest bit. Pluck at it, get it moving. Orangputeh nodded to himself and started to peel a banana. He shifted his atoms by half a degree. It was a bit of a squeeze.
the other side of that half degree, Farrell played all the day's frustrations
into his pipes. The tune was restless and sad, and his Vinny swayed
before him to the rhythm. Her green-clad body moved as sinuously as
a street-dancer's, and Farrell found it more than fascinating. She shook
some of her fine, red-gold hair forward, and winked across at him. He
slipped into a soothing, breathy lilt... "Damn!" he said, and flung
down the pipes. "This wasn't what I meant to do at all. Vinny, I--"
the words tried to stick in his throat, but he pushed them out. "I put
the Cap on today to say good-bye."
"What?" She was beside
him instantly, grabbed him by the ears, and bashed his head against
the wall. "How can you say that, after all your chatter about love!"
He tried to pull her
hands away, and she tugged; his eyes began to water. "Look," he said,
"you're not real. Ow! Stop that! You're just a piece of software on
a disc, and I refuse to be obsessed any more."
"Just a piece of software,
am I? Hah!" She pushed his head back against the wall and kissed him
hard on the lips. "Isn't that real? Isn't it? All right then, hook back
into those friends of yours in the Freedom-VR Network; see how you like
having to wear that great heavy helmet again. And you won't be able
to feel anyone touching you -- like this..."
"Oooh," Farrell groaned
as she brushed herself against him and started to stroke his abused
ears. She could be so gentle, and the fresh wild-rose scent of her was
so delicious. He felt his resolve begin to give way... "No!" He pushed
her off, and she stumbled backwards.
"I can't let my life
be ruined any more," he said. "Hell, here I am, thrown out of work after
only two bloody weeks of you."
She steadied herself
and folded her arms. Her eyes flashed blue at him. "Work -- hah! That's
a laugh -- the stupid pits, you're crying for them?"
She spun around, turning
her back on him. What a back, he thought a little helplessly. He shook
his head. For god's sake, remember -- she's only a slip of imagination.
"No," he said, "I'm
not crying for the sewage-sludge pits. That was one shitty job. But
how do you think I'm going to be able to afford food, now, let alone
get a Teledildonics machine to feed my obsession with you?"
She motioned to the
machine in the wall. "You can still meet me through that--"
"How? I'm about to be
flung out of this place, for heaven's sake -- and the dear old landlord
owns that damn machine."
He thought back over
the past couple of weeks; it was a period of exquisite agony. All landlords
had begun to install these latest machines in their bedsits -- they
were to get tax incentives from the government, as well as the revenue
from the disc-hire. He hadn't intended to touch the thing. Then he'd
thought he could resist T.D., give it a try without getting hooked;
but no, he'd become like all those hopeless beggars outside the Arcade.
He should have listened to the Network warnings, but he'd wanted to
know what T.D.Inc's new software was really like.
The first time, he'd
been about to have the most ecstatic love-making session of his life
-- he could almost taste it now -- when a temporary power-cut had zapped
him. He still winced when he thought about it. So of course, he'd had
another try at the experience, gone in a little deeper... This time,
a special government propaganda notice had cut in; something about their
sewage policy and the good of the country.
Farrell wasn't impressed,
but his erection was; fatally so.
He groaned, now, and
put his head in his hands. The trouble was, he really, really loved
this bundle of binary digits. He heard the rustle of her skirt, and
felt her warmth close to him.
"Ah, Farrell; I'm sorry.
Don't be so unhappy. We can work something out." Vinny's voice was soft
in his ear, and her wild, warm scent caressed his nostrils. He jerked
his head up when her hand touched his shoulder.
"Oh sure," he said.
He gestured around the airy, open room with its primrose-yellow curtains
fluttering in the breeze and its bold paintings on the walls. "Look
at it. All the comfort I could ever want, extrapolated from the rubbish
in this shit-hole. Warmth, comfort... And none of it real, for god's
sake. And then there's you..." He had to admit that she was perfect,
though. This whole new Teledildonics stuff was nothing like the flat,
cartoony effects produced by the un-subsidised Freedom VR.
Her eyes were full of
blue tenderness, and she stroked his hair. He leaned his head against
the smooth warmth of her silky thigh, and reached up to stroke her buttocks.
His libido began to stir in his trousers.
We interrupt to bring you the latest on the sewage-sludge negotiations..."
a huge baritone voice boomed through the room; Farrell's libido whimpered
off into a corner and hid.
"Omigod," he said wearily.
"Why does something always have to stop us?"
The voice ceased its
shouting. "Dammit, this is no good," Farrell groaned. "We're always
just getting comfortable -- "
"Like this?" She did
interesting things with her hands.
He groaned. "Yes, oh
A banana hit him on
the ear and he jerked to his feet. " -- AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS!"
he shouted. "Bloody monkey! Where the hell did it come from?" He hurled
the banana back at the windowsill; Orangputeh sat there, with one knee
bent up to his chin and the other leg dangling into the room. He gave
Farrell a solemn look and grabbed the banana adroitly. He blinked and
slid back over the sill.
Farrell subsided back
into his seat. "The bastards! It's bloody deliberate, isn't it?" he
said. "T.D.Inc meant to stop us -- what a hell of a trick. Okay, I was
fooled for a while. But, a monkey, for god's sake! The government announcements
-- okay, reasonable enough. And the mains glitches -- well, this is
a shitty town. But a banana in the ear, for heaven's sake! Do they think
we addicts are all stupid?"
Vinny knelt beside him
and touched his arm. He shook her off. "No. They just don't give a damn
once we're hooked. Look, I'm going to have to go soon," he said. "Once
I thought I had you, at least -- but I don't, do I? I'll just have to
go and find the real Vinia Merrilees; that's all there is to it. This
is driving me crazy; it's already lost me my job and my home. For what
He looked up and saw
tears in her eyes; she turned away and sniffed.
He felt uncomfortable,
absurd though he knew it to be. She's only a damn shadow, he thought,
but I can't help it. "C'mon," he said, "you know I've got to get out
of this place. I'm going to go to Teledildonics' Uptonburgh offices
to find you -- I mean her..."
"They won't tell you."
She blew her nose and sank onto the couch next to him, head held high.
"They have a policy. No addresses given."
"Oh great." Bitterness
swamped Farrell. "And you -- your original -- let yourself be a part
of them." Vinny winced, and he glanced down at her shining red-gold
hair. He reached out a hand to stroke its softness; his voice gentled.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't
blame you. If only I knew how to hack into their computer. I wish I
could find Angus on the Network; he'd know how to do it. But he's not
logged-on for weeks."
Vinny looked up at him
and blinked. "I wish I could remember; I used to be good with computers,
I know I did. Something got lost when they copied me, I think." She
shook her head and frowned. "But why not actually go along to the Freedom-VR
labs in Fallekin Astow, and find Angus?"
Farrell's eyes brightened
and he hugged her. "Brilliant!" He jumped up and twirled her around;
she laughed up at him but there were tears on her lashes.
She reached her hands
up to his head and drew his face down until he felt her soft breath
on his mouth. "Take me with you," she whispered, "oh take me too."
He tried to say "You
know I can't." But the words wouldn't come out; instead passion surged
through his loins.
Greyness spread across
his vision. Vinny faded from his sight and his arms; a whisper remained:
"Take me too..."
He heard himself yell:
"Oh no, not again!" Then the swirling mist dissipated into the mould-ridden
dark corners of his real bedsit.
The landlord was hammering
on the door and shouting: "Mr. Wightman? I want you out of the place
in one hour. I've got another tenant for it -- this one'll actually
pay his rent. Out you go, or I'll get the police. One hour, okay?"
Farrell groaned something
in reply and rolled over on his shabby horsehair couch. As usual after
a session with the VR Cap, he felt flushed. But this time wetness had
begun to pump into his trousers. For once, the special Morality Interrupt
which Teledildonics Inc secretly built into all their VR programmes
had cut in almost too late. He'd nearly been allowed to enjoy an orgasm.
Shit, he thought. Then
he pulled off the soft white Cap. He looked at it, and at the machine
which still hummed and glowed in the wall-socket, and he thought; Vinny
-- dammit, I will. Yes, Vinny, I'll take you too; we can search for
your real self together. Sod the landlord. He slid her disc out of the
machine, unplugged the Cap, and ripped the machine out of the wall.
He was sure he'd be able to attach those dangling wires to a battery
Ten minutes later, Farrell
strode down the cluttered alley; a shabby figure carrying all he owned
in a handmade backpack, on his way to Freedom with a proboscis monkey
Vinia Merrilees had given panicking her best shot, but it wasn't much of a success. It's difficult to do things right, she thought, when you can't feel a cold sweat break out or even work out how to scream properly. If only she could touch something, or at least see through the murk. This place was nothing but mud-brown with yellow sparkles. Not very exciting.
At least the wobble-board cats had quietened a bit.
"Hang on, lovey, what's wrong?" A cheerful voice made her jump. It sounded kindly enough, but it did seem to be coming from where her own head ought to be.
"Well, of course!" It went on. "All we're left with is thought, after all -- the bastards stole everything else, didn't they? So what's your problem right now? You were making a hell of a racket."
Racket? Me? Well, I was trying hard enough, she thought. Where the hell am I, and who are you, and what happened...?
"Oh-oh; you're new to being stuck in the circuits, are you? God, they could warn their victims. When did they grab you? Never mind, chin up. Exercise, that's what you need. Hey, Angus -- we've got another casualty from T.D.Inc."
All was peaceful in the glow-lit limestone caverns which shimmered under the Fallekin Barrows. The cat liked it that way. She always thought of herself as Ethniu, beautiful daughter of the Sidhe, but everyone else called her "Gobsmacker" or even "Damn That Stupid Tabby". They fed her. She could live with that.
She lay half-asleep at the moment, draped over one of the comfortably radiant natural sculptures, and watched the others. The furniture had been modelled by nature; all the gods had had to do was give the drip on each stalactite instructions on where to fall. It didn't do to be in a hurry, though. Redecorating and furniture moving took a wee while -- a millennia or two.
A few tree-roots had explored the cavern, and had been put to use for hanging out the washing.
Ceredwen sat by the tunnel; her old hook-nose was echoed in the subtle witch-shape shadows cast by the soft light. The hag was sewing up a rip in her old bagpipes. Kernunnos chuckled earthily in the corner over the latest "scratch-and-feel" magazine; he was happy in his hairy, antlered nakedness as he sat scratching his crotch.
Arianrod was the only person in the room who was being really active. She was a statuesque lady with a comfortable lap for a large cat to lie on; but right now, her spangled gown was liberally splattered with mud, and she was throwing a block of special goddess-clay onto her foot-powered wheel. The hum of the wheel and occasional squishing noise was most restful.
A sudden "Poof!" of smoke in the corner and the tail-end of a whistle announced a new arrival; it jerked Gobsmacker into wakefulness. Oh, she thought, it's only that twitchy Brigid female. Such fidgeting around shouldn't be allowed. She began to wash herself.
The willowy goddess-maiden stood there and stamped her foot. It slapped softly on the stones. "Shit bugger arseholes," she said, "poop--"
"Don't swear, Brigid dear," the potter said, in a lilting voice. She turned back to her wheel.
"I damn well shall, too. Look, Arianrod -- everybody -- someone's got to do something about all this. I aim at a bunch of good honest worshippers in Continuum SIK-A00-PERVT, and I get a bow-legged shoveller in a graveyard. Pah! I got into the YUK-Z11-GAH Continuum again; thou knowest," she wrinkled her dainty nose, "the one that's all full of science."
"So what?" The hag cackled. She had finished with the mending and was examining it carefully. "Nothing to do with us, girl, if you're too drunk to do the dimension-hop." She passed her hands over the bagpipes, muttering a few words and trailing sparkling powder from her fingers. "That should do it," she said.
"Drunk! It's not me that gets drunk! I don't make Wildflower Nectar. I'll have thee know I drink nothing but Adam's ale-"
"Yes dear," Arianrod's calm voice interrupted above the hum of her wheel, "but look at what Adam's children put in the stuff."
Brigid subsided onto a pastel-streaked rockseat, and sighed. "Oh well. Maybe it's not such a bad place. Full of unbelievers, of course, but," she smiled slightly and licked her lips, "that gravedigger was rather quaint..."
Kernunnos looked up and grinned. His teeth glinted among the hair. "There be nothin' wrong with that science place, kid; I'm right glad of it. Invent some decent stuff, they do," he said, and flourished his magazine.
Brigid hunched her shoulder. "Thou'rt only interested in the Erotic Nasties Era, foul old man that thou art."
Kernunnos grinned again, and threw a copy at her. "Give this one a try, -- 'tis for women only."
She wrinkled her nose and flicked the magazine open. "Oh!" she said, and her eyebrows rose. She reached out a finger and stroked the page with it, and a gurgle of laughter burst from her. "Well! How do they manage to make it feel so real? Oh look, it's growing firm in my hand. I just have to try..."
Ceredwen stood up. "I'm off. Find some decent company. Think I might give old YUK-Z11-GAH a go myself; have a chat with the Travellers. It's Beltane soon, in that Continuum, and they know a thing or two." She ran her hand over the bagpipes; pale gold liquid spurted out. She frowned and made an adjustment, then she shot a bright glance in Brigid's direction and said: "If you want something useful to read, have a look at the Book of Universe Design and check out the Laws in YUK; they're trying to change. There's more wrong on the Parallels than a few mislaid worshippers, stupid girl." She blew into the chanter, started a haunting melody and disappeared before Brigid could think of a scathing retort.
Ceredwen reappeared in the middle of a dusty road, amidst rough scrubland, with not a soul in sight. "Damn," she said, and frowned accusingly at the bagpipes. "What're you playing at? This isn't the caravans, that's for sure. Oh well. And what the horny-devil have I got in me shoe?"
She sat on a milestone and prised the thick brogue off her foot. A toad climbed out with an indignant "ribbit" and then looked about in disgust.
Nothing but dust everywhere. Well, this hook-nosed old hag had brought him here, she could ruddy well look after him. He hopped onto her lap. "Humph," she said, "so now we're getting frogs-"
Natterjak glared at her.
"Sorry. Toads, then. Whatever. Definitely bad vibrations, these days. Suppose something ought to be done. Wonder what me next trick should be?" Ceredwen said, and poured golden liquid from the pipes into her hat. She began to sip at the Wildflower Nectar. "Ribbit," said Natterjak, and jumped into it.
After a few thirsty slurping noises, Ceredwen wiped her mouth on a sleeve and grunted to herself. "Megan. Perhaps I'll give her a try; she's interested in all this newfangled science rubbish. Grumpy bitch, but not bad for a nixie. What d'ye think, eh?" She looked at Natterjak.
"Ribbit", he said.
She cackled. "Okay then, here we go."
Ceredwen jammed hat and toad back on her head, and took up the bagpipes again. A few soggy skirls later, she was on her way to a riverside house in Fallekin Astow village.
Megan Merrilees Fareman was tending the stones in her garden -- washing them and crooning a gentle ditty -- when Ceredwen "poofed" into existence behind her with a final wail of the pipes and a gurgle from Natterjak.
"Go away," Megan said without turning. "Sod off, Ceredwen."
"Tsk," the goddess wagged her finger at Megan's unheeding back, "is that any way to treat your gods? No respect, these days." The nixie didn't reply, so Ceredwen shrugged and sat on one of the boulders. She tried again. "We need you to save the world."
Megan gave a crack of laughter. "Go away. I'm not interested."
"Yes you are. You want your true Continuum, and all the Parallels, to come crashing into this one, eh? Something's going wrong with the science here. You took up Science, didn't you?"
Megan turned suddenly. "Yes -- thanks to you lot!" she snapped, and glared at the old goddess. Then she sighed, eased her slim back in a stretch, and sat down. A couple of otters slithered onto her lap and glowered at Ceredwen.
Megan had spent the past eighteen years in this Continuum, haunting her husband's old house. He wasn't in it, and she wouldn't have been able to see him even if he were there. The Natural Laws saw to that. She was three hundred and twenty-five years old, a mere teenager by nixie standards, but she looked almost forty in this world of humans -- and a trifle worn. Her eyes lacked their usual green sparkle. Ceredwen frowned. "You're letting yourself go, stupid girl. You should have gone back to the nixies' world, where you belong."
"Hah! What's the difference? You took Drew away from me--"
"'Twas the Law --"
"--On a technicality, rot you--"
"'Twas your own fault; besides, a nixie/human relationship is unnatural."
"--Anyway, I can never see him again, unless my latest experiment works; so why should I care how I look? And why should I care about your precious Parallels?"
Ceredwen shook her head. "Look, Megan girl. I can't help the Laws of Nature. Drew was only a man, for Kernunnos' sake! A cross-continua relationship simply can't continue if one of you stops believing in the other; 'tis the way of it. Decided these Laws in committee before starting the clock on YUK-Z11-GAH. Can't change 'em now. It's his fault for losing faith in you, and yours for letting him. Your appeal -- a waste of time, and you knew it. Why not go back home? Find a nice young nixie there? Think of the mess if we kept changing basic Laws."
"Like it or not, the Laws matter," said Ceredwen, "it'd be chaos if we never put any in. And now something's wrong -- the edges are wobbling around a whole Sector of the Continua. It all stems from here; I know, I checked. Some idiot is messing around with a few Continuum Seeds and a bit of Science."
Megan brightened. "Does that mean the Laws will be damaged?"
"Shouldn't wonder. Nasty mess."
"Then I'm definitely not interested in your problem; damn your stupid Laws. When I get my psi-tuned radio working, Then we'll see how well they're working. How wonderful it'd be... To be able to see my lovely Drew, to be able to hear him, feel him! He was so clever. And his beautiful, strong body--"
Ceredwen frowned. "Young love! Phooey. There's more to it than that, girl. That Drew of yours isn't the same as he was. You should leave it alone; I'm telling you, I know. Things happen; you'll change your mind. Have a drink." She passed the hat round. The otters reared up their sleek heads and sniffed eagerly.
"Ribbit," said Natterjak.