Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The light in the cosy cavern at Tyrnannog pulsed in gentle syncopation with Arianrod's wheel. The goddess's spangled gown glittered as she swayed with the casting of yet another smooth torso. This time she wanted to make a masterpiece; her latest designs had a most ingenious waste-disposal system. She was slightly irritated by the recently increased demand for the old, YUK-Z11-GAH model; she did hope that the others would solve that expansion problem soon. She took the figure off the wheel and began to stick on the attachments.
Brigid foomed into existence beside her with a loud "Hi!", and made her jump. She was moulding a particularly delicate part, and the surprise caused her to jerk it off. She frowned.
"Really, Brigid dear, do try not to be such a hoyden. What have you brought that home for?" She nodded toward Doug, who lay over Brigid's shoulders trying not to piss with fear. "Does it need repairs? You know we're supposed to wait- "
"No, no," Brigid plonked him onto the floor where he squatted in a dazed heap. "I like this one mostly the way he is. It's just - Arianrod, canst thou stop him from fainting so much?"
"Hmm," Arianrod picked him up by one ankle and twirled him around. She tapped her lips thoughtfully with a clay-covered finger. "A bit more spine, is that what it needs?" She tore off his clothes and began to prod away at him with the finger.
"Ouch!" he yelled, flapping his hands desperately over his inverted parts. "Hey, ma'am, that's the only one I've got, and I need it!"
"Seems alright," said Arianrod, putting him back down. "Plenty of life. I think it'll stop fainting when it gets used to you, dear. Treat it gently. What do you want it for?"
"Well... I missed the celebrations in SIK-A00-PERVT- "
"You could always go back in the Time Continuum, dear."
"Yes, but it's not the same. Anyway, it's not so easy to go anywhere accurately except YUK-Z11-GAH just now, so I'm going to make the most of Beltane. I've chosen this," she stirred him with one delicate foot and licked her lips, "as my own priest."
Doug's head jerked up from his busy self examination at that. "What? me, a priest? Ma'am, I'm just an odd-job man, I'm not going to - urk!"
Brigid had grabbed him and slung him around her shoulders again. "See?" she said, "isn't he cute?" He closed his eyes and winced as she deafened him with her tuneful whistle; when he opened them again he was standing beside his half-finished statue. Brigid spoke again. "Thou art my chosen one, mortal. Thy initiation should be loads of fun." Two seconds later the man was alone except for an interested eagle, who still sat on the wall. He glowered at it.
"Fun for who?" Doug muttered; then he realised that something felt wrong. He looked down at himself and saw nothing but skin and hairy bits. In broad daylight. Without a pint or two inside him. He crouched close up against the wall and tried to cover everything with his hands. But, god, he needed a pee. And surely there was nobody nearby except the damn eagle. Cautiously he looked around; he unrolled himself and eased upright again. He stood there, stark naked except for his boots, and let it all hang out against the wall.
He was in full flow when the vicar rounded the corner and spotted him.
Theola's yell was a good one. It contained a lifetime of virtue. It contained passion and power in equal measure; it was a yell with verve enough to raise the dead, if only they could have been bothered to get up.
It made Doug, hopelessly attempting to stem his stream, wish he could join them in their dark, quiet graves.
Echoes of it reverberated almost as far as Sleasford, where the water-borne printer was about to make a delivery. He cocked his head to one side, his hyper-sensitive ears registering a vague distant disturbance; but the yell was not repeated and he shrugged.
Sloshforth checked that Lupudana was firmly chained down inside the shack before poling his raft into a makeshift pier. Festin Burke was already standing there, looking at his watch and shaking his head. The printer's desiccated face split into a grin; he rather liked keeping the busy little councillor waiting.
Festin trotted down onto the raft and frowned. "Well? I take it they're ready?"
Sloshforth grunted a reply and led the way into the shack. The councillor's nose wrinkled in distaste as he glanced around at the chaos. The walls were lined with shelves, highlighted by the dust-laden glimmer from a single window. They groaned under stacks of paper; tins of ink and racks of typecases jostled each other on the ground beneath; hammocks bulged under the roof, stuffed with household necessities; an untidy bed was almost obscured by piles of printed matter; the press gloomed in cast-iron silence, bolted to the middle of the floor; and a mound of pied type cluttered one corner. A second corner was full of a blanket-covered woman, near to the stove which glowed with warmth. Festin gazed at her in curiosity; he was sure he'd seen her somewhere before, but her vacant eyes gave no response to his half-nod.
The printer stomped over to the bed and lifted one of the piles. "You got my cash?" he said.
Festin dragged his eyes from the woman's face, and he nodded. "I'll see the leaflets first, if you don't mind. Sir Liam will not tolerate shoddy work for the Party." He studied the leaflet carefully; the Great Man's face stared up at him from the page with the familiar smile of conscious superiority. The eyes remained as cold as marbles. Festin shivered slightly as he scanned the sheet of government propaganda, but everything seemed to be in order. "`The party that cares for your personal needs,'" he read out. "`Under Sir Liam Hang's visionary policies, your property has been protected as never before. We deliver on our promises...' Yes, yes, this all looks correct." The councillor flicked through the rest of the leaflet, nodded, and handed over a bag of coins.
He stowed the packet of propaganda away carefully in his shoulder-bag and then, as he waited for Sloshforth to make out a receipt, he pottered over to look at the other piles of printing. Suddenly he stiffened. "What is the meaning of this?" he said, turning around with a garish leaflet held between finger and thumb. His little pot-belly wobbled in indignation. "This is - is - disgusting!" Festin fluttered the leaflet in agitation. "Freedom, indeed. Anarchy, that's what they want. No control, no - oh my goodness, look what they say about Teledildonics Inc and the government."
Sloshforth glanced up. "Anybody who asks me to print, and they pay, I do it. Those Freedom-VR people, they're regular payers. There's no law to stop me."
Festin took off his hat and mopped his brow with a large, purple, lace-edged handkerchief. For once he didn't shove his face into the cloth and fantasise about Sherelle; he was far too worried. "Whatever will Sir Liam say? My dear Villars, you really must take care what you print." He became aware of a deep rumbling growl behind him, which shook the shack. He spun around. "What's that noise?" he said.
"Noise? What noise?" Sloshforth's face shone with straight-faced innocence.
Festin glared around; he had the feeling that the man was laughing at him. He edged toward the door, still clutching the Freedom leaflet. As he brushed past the press, there was a heavy, barking "Whomp"; the front part of his trousers disappeared into the maw of the platen. It took him two seconds to turn purple and scream. He wondered, a little desperately, whether he couldn't feel pain in his genitals because they had gone numb or because they had shrunk into his body; he promised his god that he'd never dream of purple underwear again if he could only have them back.
Through a red haze of fear, Festin heard the printer speak meaningless words: "Lupudana; Down! No, Lupu, no." It sounded like an incantation; the man couldn't possibly be talking to an inanimate metal press.
When the councillor was finally set free, he was too busy counting his balls to worry about Freedom leaflets. He stumbled off the raft in a euphoria of relief; two, he still had both of them, and that dangly thing in the middle.
His watch bleeped at him, and he began to hurry - he mustn't be late, Sir Liam expected him to be there when the Drongan delegation were shown around the sleas-house.
Two hours later, at the doorway of the last sleas dormitory, the dapper foreign gentlemen in charcoal-grey suits bowed and spoke courteously.
Their interpreter's gaze slid expressionlessly from the spokesman to Sir Liam. "Honoured sir, the sludge is of a texture the most consistent; your donors are indeed of metabolism the lowest. We must return now to our hotel in order that our minds may absorb the superb quality which has delighted us today. It is necessary for us to contemplate deeply; we must humbly discover whether we may allow ourselves the honour of dealing with your superlative government."
They bowed again and left the room, their mahogany faces inscrutable. Sir Liam followed, to escort them to their limousine, pausing only to speak to Festin in his cold voice: "If they don't take the sludge, then you'll have to dispose of these zombies. You will, of course, do so in such a way that the government's caring commitment to its people will remain clear. I'll return in a minute to discuss possible shut-down."
Festin felt a little taken aback. That would be an awful lot of bodies to get rid of. He glanced at Sherelle and saw the shock in her eyes. If only he could get that purple lace underwear out of his mind; he blushed slightly as he looked at her. He was sure he could detect the darkness beneath the cloth of her uniform...
"What did he mean? Dispose of them?" she said.
"Ah well, I think he feels that if they're not paying their way- "
"Murder! Is that what he's saying? Murder them?"
Festin flapped his hands soothingly. "No, no. Well, not really. They aren't much use, are they?"
"They're people. I look after them."
Festin's face creased in thought. "Of course! You'd lose your job, wouldn't you? Hmm, yes, we can't have that." She gave a strangled exclamation, and he wiggled his fingers at her. "Quiet now, let me think..."
He wasn't sure just why her well-being should matter to him, but it did - it wasn't just the lace. Ah yes, he had the answer. A brilliant idea! His brow cleared and he opened his mouth to speak.
At that moment, Sir Liam re-entered the room. "Now then, Burke. I want you to be ready to stop- "
"Sir!" Festin interrupted the Great Man in his eagerness. "Sir, I think we could make money another way, if the Drongans won't take our sludge. We could make this place one of the area's most novel and select experiences for the elite; I can picture it now." He raised his hands to sketch a sign in the air: "`Come to the banks of the River Slea for a new, True Reality experience; sex with a real woman, but with a difference. She can't scream or cry or nag at you.'" He lowered his hands and looked hopefully at Sir Liam; the man still looked supercilious, but there was speculation at the back of his eyes as he thought.
"Hmm; you might have the germ of an idea, Burke. Select - yes. We can't let the unrestrained masses join in, of course; it could give them ideas. And you would have to remove the irrelevant male bodies; no way to stiffen them." He paused, and then shook his head and clapped Festin on the back. "Nonsense, what am I thinking of? Of course there'll be men who would prefer those. It could be quite a challenge to the women, too; there's my cousin Linsey, for instance... We could charge them by the half-hour and give awards for success. And we could bring in some sheep." His face crinkled into an almost-smile. "Yes, we'll keep them all, no matter what the Drongans decide. Of course, we could get the best return out of combining the two purposes. Our tax-payers will be pleased; we can reduce their burden. Come, it's late. We'll finalise details over tea."
Festin was awed. Tea with Sir Liam! He followed the Great Man out, but couldn't resist one last glance back at the nurse. He wasn't able to tell whether she was pleased or not. He rather hoped so.
Sherelle stood in the centre of the floor, a glazed expression on her face. She wanted to let out a hefty scream, but it seemed to be stuck in her throat.
Sir Liam's cousin Linsey would have been delighted to know that he had such interesting entertainment lined up for her. She was, in fact, a little disappointed in her beloved fiancÚ, Gerald; he steadfastly refused to ravish her. "You wouldn't be able to wear white at the wedding," he said, reasonably and inaccurately. Sometimes Linsey wondered whether he simply couldn't stand the thought of touching her - it was something to do with the way he shrank away when she tried to have a good grope - but she knew that couldn't be so. After all, she thought every time she passed a mirror, he'd have to go a long way to find anyone as seductive and beautiful as herself. Or at least, as rich and available.
At the moment he was trailing after her rich availability on a guided tour of Teledildonics Inc's main computer complex. Neither of them understood a word that the guide was saying - well, Gerald wasn't even listening - but it was what one did. One was nothing if one hadn't had a private tour of the place; and dear Liam had been delighted to give his cousin a pass.
On the other side of the computer's enigmatic grey face, things were happening at which even the knowledgeable guide hadn't guessed. The main computer itself carried on about its business, quite unaware of the souls which gathered and bickered within its guts.
Vinia's icon stood on the roof of the congregation-node; she looked moodily across the vista of golden threads and copper spires, trying to see what excited Bertha Bustleman so much about the place. There was beauty in it, she supposed, as well as in the corridors that lay beneath; the glowing light-spheres which rolled over the walls changed colour to make a constant variety. The insides of the nodes were the least interesting part of the place; they were simple caverns of fawn light - except for the huge central nucleus.
Vinia quivered as she thought of that dark place, with its pulsing red walls and the huge presence which brooded in its centre. She still wasn't sure why that central object moved her so; it was only a large, faceted piece of dark amber crystal toward which ran a fine tracery of deep copper wires. But she could have sworn that a faint glow pulsed deep within it in time with the clock-beat; and there was the faint echo of a high musical cadence, a disturbing echo, which she hadn't been able to get out of her mind for as long as she'd been there.
Nobody else had felt quite the same threatening sensation that she had, of a powerful being which slumbered there, although the others had heard the musical echo.
"Ugh," she had said, "I'm sure that thing's just waiting- "
"Come off it," Bertha had been quick to defend her beloved new home, "that's only the Chip, you know. All computers have those, don't they? Anyway, this is where we found you, and it didn't do you any harm."
Angus had been intrigued. "It really bothers you, does it, lass? Well, it does come from the living rock, I suppose. And it's a crystal substance that nobody else but T.D.Inc have got hold of yet, so who knows?"
Vinia looked around now and grumbled to herself. Oh sure, this world in the computer was beautiful. The only real problem with it was that it was so empty and pointless. And what would happen to them all if anything damaged their bodies? How come Bertha didn't care at all?
She tried to straighten her icon, which felt as tattered as her thoughts, and went in search of the others. She found them in a wide corridor which pulsed with an orange glow; the whole place seemed to be made of spheres of light which rolled lazily around the walls.
Bertha Bustleman was beginning to frazzle everybody's nerves now. She'd finally stopped trying to organise them all into pointless search-parties - new arrivals always turned up in the same place, near the big central nucleus - or arranging tourist trips around the corridors. But now she had an obsession with fitness.
"Come on, everybody! Exercise, that's what we need. We've got to keep our spirits up." Bertha's mouse-faced icon jogged up and down on the spot.
Vinia flipped her icon around and snorted. "Keep our spirits up," she mimicked. "Haven't we got enough bloody 'spirit'? What we need now is brains."
Bertha gave a light, bubbling laugh. "Oh, you are a one for jokes, aren't you? That's the way, keep your chin up, that's what I always say. And there's nothing like a good workout to tone the muscles, put some zip back into- "
"What bloody chin - what bloody muscles? Can't you see, we're trapped in here; don't you care?" Vinia was tired. Her icon had frayed at the edges, and she knew that her control over it was slipping. The candy-floss hair flopped over the Cheshire-cat smile. She was desperate to get out and find her body; her nerves were ragged with thoughts of what could have happened to it. Thousands of clock-beats of thought and effort, and the most she'd managed to achieve were a vague ability to sense temperature and a flair for producing milk-auras out of the aether.
Bertha giggled. "Trapped - don't be silly. This is freedom; our bodies always weighed us down, didn't they? You tire too easily, that's your trouble. You need to be fit! Come on, one-two, one-two, hup, hup..."
Vinia wondered, a little desperately, if she was going to be stuck here for ever. With Bertha's jollity. Without going mad. She was not alone; everyone looked at the bouncing icon with loathing, except for the grey kitten-cats. They watched, with their whiskers and ears intently forward. Several of them crouched to the ground and began to inch forward.
Angus glanced at them and back at the mouse-icon. He coughed. "Bertha, I think- "
"It'll be great fun; a bit of exercise does the world of good- "
"Hey, lass, I really think you'd better- "
"First, let's make an aether-ball- " Bertha continued to jog on the spot.
"Look out!" Angus yelled just as the cats sprang. The mouse-icon disappeared with a yelp under a mound of grey fur.
She looked a little faded around the edges when the others finally extracted her. "What happened? Keep them off!" her voice rose on a squeak as she saw several of the cats begin to stalk her again.
"I think you'll have to change your image, lass," Angus said.
A few clock-beats later, Bertha had transformed her icon into an extremely prickly gorse-bush.
Vinia basked in the peace, and sat in companionable silence beside Angus. A large, sinuous cat-icon slunk up to them and settled down nearby. Her name was Arboriana, and she had decided to "adopt" Vinia since the milk-icon episode. The woman's quick thinking and her ability to produce a convincing milk-aura had impressed the pussy-willow spirit.
"Hello," she said in her furry, purry voice. "You have worked out how to get us out, yes?"
"No," Vinia said simply. Not for the first time, Vinia looked enviously at the other's slinky icon. "How do you manage such realism - you and the kittens?" she asked. She had managed to develop some rudimentary senses, but she knew that the animals were way ahead.
"Ah, it is the instinct, you understand. Already we are mostly spirit; the difference, it is only a minuscule. But," and a wistful tear rolled down her furry nose, "there are things to miss, even for us."
Vinia felt the familiar frustration well up. She turned to Angus. "Haven't you thought of anything yet? You've been here a while; surely there's some way of affecting the circuits. If we can just shut down the right sections... You know a fair bit about computers; how about it?"
Angus shook his head. "Right enough, but I've never been stuck inside one before."
"Can't we put a spike in the mains or something?"
He shrugged his edges. "How? That'd take an ability to touch matter, which we haven't got. Psyche is indistinct stuff. The most we could be doing is to try telekinesis, and it'd be damn heavy. None of us here have that strength. Not even all together."
Vinia twiddled one of her corners in thought and gazed unseeingly at the still-quiet gorsebush. "Well, but what if we tried communication? Isn't it possible to reach out and influence nearby minds if we all work together?" She turned back to Angus eagerly. "That's it, surely! Perhaps we could try and get at someone outside?"
Angus' smiley-face drooped slightly. "Nay lass, we've tried that. The computer's circuits make a barrier which it's difficult to think through; and whenever we do manage, all the people nearby seem to be insensitive."
Vinia sighed impatience. "But it is possible? Well then, for goodness' sake, we should keep trying! Can't we three try just now?" She turned to Arboriana, who nodded hopefully.
"You show us how, yes?" the cat purred at Angus and rubbed herself against his edge.
His icon flushed scarlet, and Vinia felt unaccountably annoyed. "Well?" she snapped. "Come on, show us."
He showed them. He led their perceptions through the pearly swirls of non-being, up to the springy barriers; he showed them how to feel for the pulses from a living brain. Suddenly his thoughts sharpened. "Hey! Hang on - someone out there's receptive at last!" They all locked onto the waves as he oozed excitement. "An intelligent programmer, that's all we need. We'll only have to- " He stopped abruptly and groaned. "Hens. The keg-head's mind is full of hens. Would you believe it? The one time we find a Sensitive, and he turns out to be full of poultry."
The brain in question was indeed thinking about hens. Chicken-shit, to be precise, and just how did the power-station turn such stuff into electricity? Not that he would be likely to understand the answer if anyone gave it to him, but he found hens much more interesting than this black-suited little man who was showing them around the Teledildonics Inc complex. His dear Linsey had insisted.
"Oh, da-arling, we must go and see the place, it's the very latest, you know. Everyone else has seen it!" Well, he didn't care. He was beginning to think that he'd somehow been conned; the more he thought about it, the more positive he was that he hadn't ever proposed to Linsey.
Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe stopped his seventh yawn right in the middle. What was that? It sounded like a bunch of people squabbling over some problem. He looked around; nope, nothing. He did seem to have some strange urges at the moment, though; for instance, he just had to ask: "Hey, do you have a manual for this thing?"
Linsey and the little man stopped and stared at him, their mouths open. He shrugged. "Just asking," he said. They turned back to each other and carried on as if he'd never spoken.
Gerald felt an urge to stroke the gleaming metal beside him. Why had he never noticed how smooth and gentle a computer could be, and how cat-like? It even purred like one. As he touched it, his head filled with warmth and he could have sworn that a furry voice spoke to him alone: "Ah, my lovely man, you will find me a little circuit diagram, yes? It is so, you will come back to me soon- "
Linsey grabbed him and pulled him away. "What do you think you're doing? Come on, we've seen this part now." Gerald looked back at the room with longing as she dragged him out. He was hopelessly, helplessly in love. With a non-existent voice and a pile of electrical circuits.