Copyright Carolyn Horn 1993
All Rights Reserved
Two hours and the
bottom of the pipes' bag later, the village was treated to a rendition
of "My Bonny lies Over the Ocean" sung by two raucous female voices in
the key of E flat. Very flat.
Ceredwen stopped with
her "Bonny" still in the air, and squinted at Megan. "So you won't help?"
"No." Megan squeezed the
empty bagpipes and frowned. "You're a goddess -- why didn't you make these
"'Tis an old model. Comfy."
Ceredwen heaved herself upright. "C'mon. Let's go."
The off-key "Bonny" started
up again and dopplered down the middle of Fallekin Astow's main street,
as the two ladies supported each other on their way to the pub. A couple
of otters and a toad sat on their shoulders and hiccuped gently out of
time with the beat.
The vicar was absorbed
in her thoughts while she strode through the village, but even her preoccupation
over her first-ever funeral service couldn't drown out that awful row.
She stopped and watched the duo in disgust. Drunk already, she thought.
And on their way to the pub, no doubt. Pshah! What a dreadful lot of boozers
they were in this village; the old vicar had really not done his job properly.
She lifted her chin and plastered a look of determination onto her plain
face. Well, she was about to bury his slack ways along with his remains
this afternoon. If nobody else was going to make them see the light, she
certainly was. Not for nothing had the Devins named their chunky, dough-faced
daughter "Theola Belluse". She would fight for these people's souls, if
it killed them.
She turned up the slope
toward the church. A bit of peace, that's what I need, she thought, settle
my thoughts a bit... She felt herself flush slightly. No, it's got nothing
to do with that Doug Marrow character; I couldn't care less if I don't
see him. Remember how sinful the man is.
Those rude statues which
he'd carved on the churchyard walls -- she knew he'd done them, she'd
caught him at it -- were shocking. How could the previous incumbent have
allowed such goings-on? She'd had to shout at Mr. Marrow about those.
And then what did he do? Just wandered off and got drunk. The man was
But at least he had promised
to cease that desecration, her internal voice whispered; he wasn't without
a chance of redemption. Her pace quickened. After all, she should really
discuss the arrangements with him, make sure everything was ready for
Theola reached the churchyard
walls, strode around the corner and was slapped in the face by the rudest
vision she had ever seen. It was another statue, obviously brand new.
A tattered old eagle sat on the top, yawing at her.
Theola shuddered to a
halt. How dared the man do this, she thought. Her gaze slid over the rough-hewn
stone. It was a powerful piece, carved from a strange, dark stone; a craggy-faced
couple, absorbed in an eternal embrace, their huge arms wrapped around
each other. But they were naked! The woman's -- well, her bosoms -- they
stood out and pressed against the man's arm; while as for his... Theola's
thoughts trailed away into incoherent rage.
Damn that gravedigger,
he'd promised! What infuriated her most was that the male genitals had
been replaced by a lifelike bunch of snakes -- how dare Mr. Marrow poke
fun at her like this.
Egrette watched with interest
as the vicar stormed off down the hill. Excitable lot, these humans, she
thought. She preened herself, defecated over the statue's offending member,
and flew off. It might be more fun to go and find that dilapidated circus
over by Sleasford. She could sit on the lion's cage and shout insults
By the time the soaring
Egrette had found a decent thermal, Theola was almost back at the main
street. It was as though the devil was after her.
And then she saw him --
not Satan, she thought with bitterness, but the next best thing; Doug
Marrow wandering along on those bow legs, on his way to the pub with a
big sack slung over his shoulder.
Theola thundered across
the road and stood in his path. "You're going to that den again, I see.
Well, it's no business of mine if you want to pickle yourself to death."
Her gaze scorched its way up and down his body. "But I took you for a
truthful man! Hah! How dare you do such a thing? Do you think the Almighty
doesn't see you?"
The graveyard attendant
looked surprised. Well, he was surprised. He'd been contemplating that
wonderful woman from earlier this morning; and instead of her, here was
the large form of the vicar, dressed in her usual shapeless grey suit.
Perhaps she just didn't
want him having a few jars of Jeston's ale; good stuff, it was. He looked
at her vaguely and scratched his ear. "It's only a pint or two, ma'am.
Doesn't stop me doing me job. I got that grave dug, and a bit of weeding;
the dead bodies never complain--"
"Are you trying to be
funny? You know perfectly well what I'm talking about, Mr. Marrow. That
"Eh? What statue? I already
cut all the bits off 'em all, just like you said." Why did she have to
keep on so?
She tapped her foot and
folded her arms. She spoke slowly. "I am talking about that new one of
yours, Mr muck-spreader, the one--"
A "foom" sounded behind
her, and Doug's mouth dropped open. Theola spun around, and felt her chin
flop down too. She'd never seen a woman with such a radiance around her;
must have been a trick of the light on that ridiculously blonde hair.
The vicar made a few gargling
noises, and then managed to squeak: "Who're you?"
"Thou knowest me not?
Silly woman. Behold Brigid, great goddess of learning and lots of other
things too. Kneel, mortal!"
"What kind of joke is
this?" Theola spoke in freezing accents. Such indecent clothes the female
was wearing, she thought -- a negligee, for heavens' sake, in the middle
of the village!
"Thou'rt questioning me?
Thy goddess?" Brigid was a little annoyed. A wind began to blow up the
street, and then she caught sight of Doug. He was still guggling. She
pushed Theola to one side and grabbed hold of him. "I shall take thee.
Thou knowest Jeston's, in this Continuum?"
He nodded and hefted his
sack. "Uh, just going there -- these -- for his next Special brew--"
"Right then, I shall take
thee for a right piss-up. Come." Doug came.
Theola picked herself
up; the contact had felt sharp, like an electric shock. Good grief, people
were imagining themselves to be gods now! She staggered off, thinking
that half the village probably needed psychiatric treatment.
Actually, half the village
was in the pub right now. A little way from the street, close to the River
Slea, lurked the quaint little building. A sign creaked outside it, suspended
from a pole; bright glossy paint showed a jovial landlord holding a mug
which frothed over his hand. Below ran the legend: "A pint of Jeston's,
the best on your street." Well, it was the only purveyor of ale on the
street. Which was why half the village was there. The other half was on
the way; all except for the two old farts.
was learning to see. It was tricky without eyes, but she was getting
the hang of spotting icons and pathways through the thick brown aether.
Every so often she'd try too hard, and this skew vision would fade away.
She still felt like screaming sometimes, but if she'd had a foot she'd
have stamped it too.
Angus was patient with her.
She knew that there were plenty of other essences around, but they were
being careful to keep out of the way while she learned how to cope with
Angus stood alone before
her as a square of white bearing a roughly drawn smiley-face. His artistic
soul had added freckles and untidy red hair. He has such a kind voice,
she thought, and then tried to blush furiously when she realised he'd
have heard that. No face, she thought, thank heavens I've no face.
He chuckled faintly. "Well
now, lass; I'd better teach you about privacy icons, hadn't I?" he said.
It was quite some time
before she was able to keep her guard up as well as communicate. She
couldn't have said how long, because she hadn't learned about the clock
yet -- although she had discovered how to extract its rapid beat from
the rest of the sounds that screeched and boinged around her.
She was pleased with herself
when she at last managed to build a personal icon; she put all that
she'd ever wanted to be into it. She was sure it must look stunning,
so she humphed to herself when Angus laughed so much that his icon crumpled
"Sorry," he said and
straightened himself out. "I've never seen the Cheshire Cat with a pile
of candy-floss on its head before. No no, don't wipe out the smile;
it really is great for a first attempt. Change it later. The main thing
is, you can communicate properly in this place."
Vinia steadied herself and
asked: "Okay; this place. I'm dead, right? This is Hell or something?"
A roar of laughter greeted
her question, and several icons began to appear around her. "No," Angus
said. "No Vinia, you're not dead. Did you go to Teledildonics Incorporated's
Personality Copying laboratory? Do you recall putting on a Cap there?
I thought so. Bet they had all sorts of good incentives for you."
Vinia felt her voice
shake. "They said it was a new range. It's a new series which is intended
to educate the poor and give them a sympathetic environment..."
A crack of laughter
burst from Angus. "Well, lass, what they didn't tell you was that the
poor are getting educated alright -- in the newest Dildonics Experience.
The latest copying process, the one which produces their new VR with
the addictive subliminals, has a side effect. It leeches the essence
of the original away into the computer's--"
Vinia tried to gasp.
"Oh but -- they can't realise that this happens, surely? Nobody would
do such a thing to another person!"
"Oh aye, sure they would.
Anyway, they do know that the people they copy end up as zombies." There
was a hint of bitterness in Angus' voice, and his icon turned orange.
"That's why I'm here. You'll be beautiful; they'd not want you for their
top-range product otherwise. Me, I'm an ugly devil; they just wanted
to turn me into a useless hulk because I'm the top idiot in Freedom-VR.
Heard of it?"
Vinia nodded her icon
without toppling it over. She was really getting the hang of this. "I
enjoy hooking into the Freedom Network. Oh -- hey, you're that Angus
-- I've met you there!"
Angus laughed. "Well,
my ident number, anyway. You'll be a computer enthusiast? That's going
to be useful here. At Freedom, we've become a bit of a nuisance to T.D.Inc,
especially now that we've managed to cobble together a better package
than theirs. They know we've not got the backing to market it, so usually
they just laugh at us. But what I did that stirred them up was -- I
put a message on our Network, warning everyone about the way all their
Originals turn into helpless hulks. I suppose you didn't see that? I'd
also found out about the subliminal addiction virus the buggers add
to their software."
"Look, this can't be right,"
said Vinia. "Why would they keep doing this to people if they're left
with bodies to care for? I mean, wouldn't it be just as easy to programme
in appearances and personalities -- cheaper, too?"
Angus chuckled. "You're not
looking at it straight. Think of the amount of information you'd need
to programme in just to get the simplest person. But if they can clone
us and just fiddle with a few odd changes to the basic pattern, it's
a hell of a lot easier; especially with the special new-formula chip
they use. It can extrapolate easily from anything that exists. And cost
-- well, it's much cheaper to throw away a useless contract and deal
with a simple zombie than to pay an expert programmer for weeks of work,
isn't it? I'm sorry lass, but since your essence is here, you're a part
of their top Dildonics range. You've been conned."
Vinia's rush of horror
caused her to lose hold of her icon. She sank back into the brown background,
where she fought with a mixture of distress, fury, and a desire to tear
somebody's balls off. It took a few beats of the clock before she could
get hold of herself again. The others were all murmuring and fluttering
around her in concern.
"So they'll be using me --
my personality -- to create more of those beggars who hang around the
Arcades? Oooh, I could kill somebody!" She paused, longing for the comfort
of a friendly arm about her shoulder. Even that had been denied her.
"You know what those bastards did? They gave me a signed contract which
guaranteed that I'd 'not be used for pornographic purposes'! Fat lot
of good that is to a dead person!"
"Yes, they fooled us all,"
a breathless voice issued from a blue icon wearing a mouse-face. There
was something excited and cheery about this one; it sounded like the
voice which had first greeted her. "Hi. Join the club. But we mustn't
let it get us down, must we? No point in getting bothered about it all;
let's just forget our bodies. What use were they, anyway? Life can be
good here; I've been here ages and I know. It's beautiful out there
in the Circuits, isn't it everybody? And you really should see the main
Chip node; and if we could just organise ourselves--"
"Shut up, Bertha!" The
response was a weary-sounding chorus.
"Bertha's been here since
the beginning," Angus murmured close to Vinia, "I think she must have
been a test case."
A vivid discussion of Teledildonics
Inc's failings followed; it seemed to be a favourite pastime of the
captives. Vinia withdrew slightly, lost in thought.
There was something
important in the back of her mind; what was it? Oh yes! She turned her
icon on to a vivid, flashing yellow. "Hey! You say our bodies end up
as helpless hulks. I wonder -- do you think that T.D.Inc believe those
to be all that's left of us? Do they know that their computer is full
of our essences?"
The icons all looked
at each other and shrugged. "What's the difference?" said mouse-face.
"Well, I'm not sure.
But if they don't know... Well, do they think we're dead; and do they
bury the bodies? If so, what's going to happen to us if we ever get
out?" Vinia felt sick. She shuddered. So did all the other icons.
If she'd been able to
see beyond the computer's circuits and through a couple of walls, she'd
have known the answer. It might have comforted her slightly, but then
The answer could be seen in the Grand Square of Uptonburgh, where the council's leading moralist, Festin Burke, rested on the steps of the Fountain of Cupid and gazed around at the beauty of the place. He was a small, neat man in a dark suit and bowler hat, with a slight wobbly beer-belly which rested on his thighs when he sat, and little round eyes. At the moment those eyes were filled with light reflected from the fountains and gleaming stonework. Elegance receded from him in a vista of marble colours and spray. He had a keen eye for the smallest piece of litter which might spoil the clean lines of the Square, and he had once docked a month's pay from the duty cleaner's wages for being sloppy.
The man had then committed suicide in the most messy way, right in front of the Ascending Angels statue. Some people had no sense of aesthetics.
Festin's glance roved now over that very statue, and then he stiffened. What was that pile of rags at its base? He slid off the steps and hurried over, his stomach wobbling with anxiety.
He stopped and shuddered. Oh dear, he thought, here's another of those undead bodies. Why couldn't Teledildonics Incorporated dispose of their own rubbish? He was going to have to lodge a strong complaint at the next committee meeting. But for now, he'd better call up a van to take this dribbling, vacant-eyed female away to the sleas-house. He sighed and pulled his communicator out of his pocket.
Deep within the Earth, below the layers of parasitic man-grubbings, Gaia's heart began to stir. Her sleep was troubled. A strong itch had begun to seep into her unconscious, and her magma sighed at suffocating dreams of microbe-swarms.
Gaia was beginning to wake up, billenia before her time.
Already, in her half-sleep, she was beginning to wonder whether she needed the Galactic Exterminators in to remove the itch, or just a back-scratcher.
This was going to be very embarrassing for all those who lived off her skin -- especially when she tried to give birth. And most especially when she discovered that so many of her eggs had been thoughtlessly dug up.
The afternoon wandered onward past Fallekin Astow, where the villagers turned out in force to bury the old vicar.
Most of them were still moderately sober, too, thought Theola with some surprise as the bearers lowered the coffin smoothly into Doug Marrow's latest masterpiece. She flicked the sleeves of her robe out of the way and began to read slowly and clearly from the prayer-book; she had almost finished when an unexpected sound struck her ears. Someone was laughing, a joyous sound ringing through the hush.
Her head jerked up; she was just in time to see a woman vault over the wall into the graveyard. The woman wore a long skirt, most unsuitable for such antics, and a couple of otters clung to her shoulders -- heavens, she was one of those drunken women who'd made such an exhibition of themselves that morning.
A sighing whisper flew among the watching villagers: "Megan! She came!"
Megan stood, poised at the edge of the grave and looked down; her green eyes were solemn and her softly greying hair stirred in the breeze. Then she glanced up at Theola and laughed, a clear, rippling sound, before lifting her arms high and twirling around in a dance which Theola would remember all her life.
Megan danced as though she was made of fluid, her body a shapely column of green and warm ochre which swirled and rippled and changed colour, as it caught the light, while she swung and swayed to the rhythm of her feet. Her laughter rippled in time with the otters, who slithered up and down the dancer as sleekly as swimming in a stream.
Theola found her voice at last. It came out in a rough whisper: "Excuse me! This is a place of death; show some respect, please!" She cleared her throat and opened her mouth to try again.
Doug Marrow glanced at her in surprise. "You can see Megan?"
"Well, of course! Who could miss her, the way she's capering about the place. Did she hate the old vicar so much?"
Doug shook his head, an arrested expression on his face. "No, Megan dancing -- it's a great honour to the old man; she only does it for people she loves. Sometimes she'll come to a wedding or a birth, dressed in rags and crying, and that's real sad. You want to check with her before you do anything daft like get married."
"What rubbish! Look, take her aw--"
At that moment, Megan turned around in one last pirouette, her eyes laughing warmly into Theola's, and then she stepped into the open grave. She proceeded to do an echoing tap-dance.
With a snort of disgust, Theola snapped her prayer-book shut, said the last few words of the service in a hurry, and stormed off. She might have been comforted by the villagers' excited whispering: "New vicar can't be too bad, you know -- she could see Megan. No, really -- ask Doug. He was standing right beside her."
Or then again, they might simply have confused her even more.
Farrell Wightman emerged at last from the confines of Sleasford; he stood now beside the circus field, which wasn't really part of the town. It was just as shabby, however, and over it all hung the pungent smell of dung. The field contained a group of grubby tents, a broken-down caravan, and a selection of rusting animal-cages. The inhabitants -- a few blank-eyed animals -- huffed at the wanderer from behind their bars. The grey sky gloomed down on them all. The human performers had been dismissed or had left the place in frustration long ago; Farrell was surprised to see that anything of the place still existed.
He glanced at the sad face of the lion and felt a surge of sympathy for him; an eagle was perched just out of reach and was obviously hurling the most juicy insults at the poor beast. Strangely enough, Leo seemed to brighten slightly as he lunged for the bird; Farrell supposed it supplied the beast with some sense of purpose.
The man subsided onto the grass beside a tent and opened his bag. He'd spent his last remaining money on a suitable battery; the final handful of coins had gone on a shapeless pie and a gunge-filled sandwich. After this, what? Starvation, he supposed. It didn't bother him right now. Right now, he had to see Vinny. His whole being yearned for her. Peace enveloped him as he put on the Cap and smoothed its softness over his temples. He closed his eyes. Warmth caressed his skin and he took a deep breath; Vinny's delicate wild-rose scent rewarded him. "Farrell! Oh yes -- you did come for me!" He opened his eyes as Vinny flung herself at him.
"Whoa!" he said. They fell backwards in a laughing heap. She lay above him, gazing down at him with deep blue joy, her hair falling in a red-gold, misty cage around his head. She felt so firm and soft. He spoke severely to his libido. There were more important things to think of just then. Like what? Like -uh-...
Farrell pushed her off him and sat up. "I'm sorry, Vinny," he said. "I've got to keep an eye on the battery; can't afford all those forced interruptions-"
"Battery? Hey, you mean we're travelling? Where are we?" she scrambled onto her knees, and looked around at the field, bare feet tucked under her neat, denim-clad bottom.
Farrell nodded; he reached out a finger to touch her shining hair "I just had to bring you along. After all, maybe you'll be able to help me. Anyway--"
He broke off and gazed around in awe. The field was now, of course, bathed in VR sunlight; a slight breeze ruffled the luxuriant verdure, and the tents bore cheerful cherry stripes. Gone were the drabness and the depressed animals. In their place pennants fluttered and equipment gleamed.
Horse-drawn caravans had apparently begun to arrive; they parked in fresh-painted array, and their owners joked with each other.
Farrell was a trifle surprised. He hadn't realised such things could be extrapolated from fresh air, even with Teledildonics' fancy new process.
"Oh Farrell! You great fool, always trying to justify yourself!" Vinny flung herself on him again, laughing and wriggling for the fun of it. She tickled his sides until he was helpless, and then she began pulling off his trousers. He made ineffectual little motions as if to stop her, but he was laughing so much and it felt so good and oh my god that was wonderful what she was doing and he put out a hand to grasp himself -- and oh no, he thought, there it goes again...
Everything blanked out into a swirling mist of grey. "Damn", he said. Somebody giggled, and his eyes snapped open. A circle of faces peered down at him, wearing various expressions of mirth.
A young woman spoke through the reddest lips Farrell had ever seen. Her voice shook with amusement. "Is that the way a man always does it? I've often wondered." She shook her dark curls and looked down at his crotch.
He followed her glance and saw that his hand still grasped his rampant member. He flushed and dropped it quickly. Then he jerked both his hands back over his genitals as she chuckled; he began to sweat again.
"Tut, Holly, you're embarrassing the poor man." A man's voice spoke, deep and soft. By now, Farrell had struggled into a sitting position, and he looked with surprise at the variety of Traveller's caravans which had, in reality, just arrived. The man who'd spoken sat in a rough wheelchair; he smiled at Farrell.
Then his expression changed to one of annoyance as a shout rang across the field from the other side: "Hey! Gippos -- get outta here. It'd be more than my job's worth if Sir Liam Hang finds you on his property."
A short, thin man stumbled towards them flapping his hands. Those hands were as massively scarred as his face, which sported a nose almost as large as Orangputeh's. The monkey sat near the crowd and nodded in approval. Here was a man who really knew where his nose was.