Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The evening began to draw a cloak around itself. The sky had had enough of smiling down on the world. It gathered huge clouds together and began to sulk all over the Shearweird area. Winds blew up and scurried around the corners; Fallekin Astow's villagers leaned on their allotment spades and peered through the murk at their watches. The mystic words: "Opening time" wafted across the plots, and every worker melted away towards Jeston's.
Megan crouched among her favourite water-smoothed stones, oblivious to the call of the bottle. She ignored the wind which ruffled her hair as she concentrated on her special Project. She was hunched over her own invention - a psi-tuned wireless which she had cobbled together herself; not for nothing had she studied the sciences since her husband had been lost to her. Soon, she hoped, she'd pick up her dear Drew's thoughts. She listened intently for the slightest change in the faint hiss from her headphones. Every so often she sighed in frustration and twiddled the knob an infinitesimal degree widdershins. She glanced up, unseeing, and muttered at the two otters who had draped themselves over a couple of rocks and were regarding her with some puzzlement. They never could get the hang of all this business with wires. "Hmph," she said, and rocked back on her heels. "I know I've got it tuned to the right psi-channel. So where's all this rubbish coming in from?"
The otters looked at each other and shrugged. Don't ask us, they thought, and slid gracefully over to examine the mechanism. One of them gave an experimental lick to an exposed connection; ugh, she thought. What is the point of this thing? Not even worth eating. She sat back and cleaned her whiskers. Her companion nibbled a wire or two; seemed quite enthusiastic. Well, perhaps he had a point. There was something tingly and exciting about the red ones...
Megan's eyes were closed in thought. Strange, she thought; very strange. It was almost as if there were too many psi-waves for the channels, as though they were beginning to stretch the aether- a short, high-pitched whistle screeched in the headphones and knocked her over backwards.
The otters squealed and ran like quicksilver, into the safety of her skirt. They rubbed frantically at their mouths; the damn wires had bitten them.
Megan scrabbled upright again and uncrossed her eyes. She paused in the act of tearing off the headphones - surely there was a new sound in there, a deeper, warmer timbre underlying all the crowded noise? It sounded almost like the Earth, or Gaia herself, grumbling sleepily. Megan's eyes widened; yes, it really was Gaia!
"Oh, alright," the low-timbre chimes sighed through the headphones. "Don't keep on so, Aldebaran. Yes yes - look, I said I'd take a peep, just as soon as I can open my sensors properly. Oh dear, I'm so sleepy. If only I could scratch..." The voice slid down into a gentle, snoring murmur.
Megan grinned; a huge wave of mirth welled up inside her. Oh yes - Ceredwen wasn't fooling; there was something very wrong. Roll on the clash of Continua, then, and freedom from the Laws. The laughter crashed out of her in perfect synchronicity with a roll of thunder from above; when the heavens opened to pour buckets of water down, they cascaded over a woman who whirled around in a wild dance and shouted with joy.
The otters looked at each other and blinked. Last one down the slide's a sissy, they thought, and scampered for the riverbank.
At that precise moment, Theola and Doug were huddling their way through the village, the vicar having lent him her long jacket. To add to her fury at his behaviour on holy ground, she was now getting exceedingly wet. There was one consolation - at least everyone would be taking shelter and not watching them.
She could feel the heat radiate from her flushed face, which was carefully turned away from the man beside her. The whole village must have noticed his essential nakedness, she thought; the expanse of bandy leg which stretched from the hem of the jacket to those hobnailed boots was a real give-away. She had never seen a naked man before - even her father had been particular on that point. She'd been surprised to see how accurate statues could be, particularly Michelangelo's.
She had thrown the lot at Doug - desecration of holy property, indecency in public, etc etc - but what really annoyed her right now was that she could still hear her own voice ring in her ears, harsh and petulant. How could it sound so ugly when it spoke nothing but truth? To add to her confusion, the vision of Doug's naked flesh kept intruding on her thoughts; a strange warm fizz jolted her middle and pulsed downwards every time she thought of it.
Theola and her philosophy were having quite a fight.
They walked in silence until they reached the manse gate, when Doug tried to justify himself again: "I'm really, really sorry, ma'am. I couldn't help myself. Truly, these two goddesses ripped- "
She rounded on him, and he stepped back. She turned her eyes away from the flapping front of her jacket. "Mr. Marrow, there is no need to compound your error by blaming your state on some mythical gods. I neither know nor care how you came to be desecrating church property."
He swallowed and tried a grin. "If I promise not to do it again, will you let me- "
"I will not listen to your justification."
"If you'd let me, Ma'am, I'd just like to- "
She held up a hand. "No. You're deceitful and rebellious, and I'm ashamed to be seen with you. You're- "
"I suppose buying you a drink is out of the question, then," he said.
She snapped her mouth closed on a rising bubble of hysteria, opened the gate, hurried through it, and tripped heavily over an enormous tabby cat. A muddy puddle received Theola with an enthusiastic splash. "Bastard," she said to the cat, which was now visible only as a pair of eyes glittering at her from beneath the hedge.
She shook the water out of her own eyes and looked up at Doug. At least he wasn't laughing as he bent to help her up. His hair was plastered to his head, water dripped off the end of his nose; and at the back of his eyes lurked an honest, if slightly amused, concern. Something softened inside her. Come to think of it, perhaps some women had torn his clothes off - there were some weird types in this village. If only he wouldn't keep calling them goddesses! She only hesitated briefly before accepting his helping hand.
He cleared his throat. "Will you come along to Jeston's and let me buy you a drink? Give it a try?"
She shook her head. "No. Thanks; I don't drink. If you're going to the pub, I suggest you change first!" She produced an illuminating smile - the first he'd ever seen from her - and hurried away up the path, leaving Doug with a glazed expression on his face.
His brain could cope with one whammy - after all, he had heard of people who didn't drink, although he'd never met one - but he was astonished to see that the vicar's pudgy face could look almost attractive when she smiled. He staggered off to Jeston's. He needed enlightenment.
He therefore missed the sight of the large cat, streaking past Theola and through the opening front door; he only vaguely heard the vicar's harassed cries as she chased it and shoved it back out of the door. She was beginning to use some pretty colourful language, these days.
Ethniu Gobsmacker sat in the shelter of the manse porch, washed her paws, and thought for a moment. Then she nodded to herself. Yes, this would be a very comfortable place to live in. The matter of installing herself firmly by the fireside was a minor problem; shouldn't take long. A bedraggled aspect, a pitiful expression, and a few nights of long-drawn-out howling; that should do the trick. She curled up in the corner and went to sleep.
The rain beat down on the empty streets and Grand Square of Uptonburgh; the storm could find nobody to annoy, so it tried a few spectacular flashes of lightning. It was particularly pleased with a coruscating effect which it achieved on the library's dome-shaped glass cupola. A pity nobody ever goes in there, it thought.
It would have been delighted to know that its effects were being watched with wonder by the building's sole browser. Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe, who stood on the marble floor of the modern technology section, looked down again in some surprise at the monster book of computer printouts which weighed down his arms. He couldn't make head or tail of it, but if his beloved computer wanted it...
The air was musty with disuse; many political arguments had arisen in the House as to the advisability of burning the place down and building a palace there instead, but many traditionalists insisted on keeping it updated with new material. "It's history," they said.
"It's a drain on the tax-payer's resources," Sir Liam would retort, but so far he'd given way to their demands.
Gerald shook his head, and wondered whatever had come over him. All these pages of diagrams and symbols seemed so meaningless.
His dear Linsey whirled into the room and clattered towards him, a handkerchief held to her nose. "There you are, darling! What are you doing here?"
"I just wanted a book- "
"A book?" Linsey looked around at the shelves as though seeing them for the first time, her nose wrinkled in distaste. "Oh, put the horrid thing down. Come on, we're due at the holo-concert in half an hour and you must get ready- "
"No," said Gerald, simply.
"No. I'm not going."
"But da-arling, we have to go! One must be seen!" Linsey gazed at her fiancé with wide eyes.
He shook his head. "I'm not going. I've got to get another TD pass from Liam."
She frowned and crossed her arms. One daintily-shod foot stamped on the floor. "Darling, you're becoming a crashing bore. For goodness' sake, can't you think of anything else but that place?"
"No," said Gerald. A desperate sadness welled up inside him.
"Oooh! You - you - moron! Well, if you keep fooling around with all this stuffy nonsense, you can do it without me. You'll have to make up your mind soon - our life together or that stupid computer!"
Gerald felt helpless; speech couldn't get past a constriction in his throat. He shrugged. His Linsey burst into tears and ran out of the room. He was sorry to have upset her, but he really did have to find Liam and get that pass. He set off towards the corridors of power.
Sir Liam Hang stood in his gymnasium; a slim figure, completely naked. He rubbed his palms together with a dry crackle. His cold eyes came as close as possible to a smile when he looked at the equipment on the walls; a very neat arrangement of bars, designed to really stretch a man, with a few whips lodged in strategic places. Not that he needed them, but they did give a pleasing authenticity to his fantasy world before he entered it. Even looking at these walls gave him a pleasant tingle in his loins. He looked down at himself and a shadow of irritation crossed his face; why, he thought, could he never make it measure more than two inches long at its most erect? No amount of massaging or manipulating of the figure could raise it by more than a tiny fraction.
He shook off the thought. Never mind, he could make up for it in Teledildonics Inc's latest VR, the specially formulated and highly expensive deluxe version. It lacked both the Morality Interrupt and the Subliminal Addiction Virus, of course. He was a responsible public servant, after all - he didn't need to be controlled.
The very best Personality was here for his use. His lips quirked as he sank onto the room's leather-covered slab of a couch and picked up the disc. "Vinia Merrilees - version 3.1B (not for public release)" was his to do with as he wished.
Two minutes later, his special wireless Cap in place, Sir Liam laughed aloud at the feeling of power which surged through him.
"Oh!" Vinia's soft voice sounded from the other side of the room. "Oh, my lord, you wish for me?" A swishing of silk marked her movement towards him.
He opened his eyes and watched her with glee. Her red-gold hair was swept back and tied tightly, to expose her delicate neck and shoulders. Her eyes held a vulnerable submission, and the folds of white silk which hung from breast to floor gave her a virginal appearance. It didn't matter to Liam that all this had had to be programmed into his copy. In fact, much of the programme had grown from his interaction with the original bare personality-skeleton over the past couple of weeks, so he was justified in thinking of it as his own creation.
"Well?" He rose to his feet and extended a hand; she knelt before him and kissed it, muttering:
"Sorry. I forgot."
"And what happens to little girls who forget?"
He looked down at himself and felt joy lift within him as he saw his now-massive organ begin to rise.
The technician who had programmed in this little extra had looked horrified. She'd said: "How big do you want it? Are you sure of these dimensions?"
"Oh yes. Quite in order. I need it to be a just a fraction bigger than my real one." Sir Liam had been quite pleased with his reply; the technician had really looked quite upset.
His Vinia now regarded it with her usual apprehension. Exquisite unpleasantness ensued.
He finally let her go because he felt like a bit of flagellation. "Come," he said as he led her over to the wall-bars and handed her a whip. He did wonder vaguely whether all this wasn't getting a bit tame; perhaps he would look into installing more fear into the woman. A bit of a chase and fight before their mutual submission could be worth exploring. But for now...
He was spread out over the bars, clutching at them and yelling happy obscenities to the beat of the fantasy whip, when Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe brushed past a protesting Festin and burst into the room. The two men stood and watched him, their jaws flapping open helplessly. Festin gulped, and whispered: "I told you he was busy."
Sir Liam squinted over his shoulder at the disturbance. In his private world, the two men became naked, beautiful boys bearing silks and dusky-smelling sandalwood oil to rub his body's pain away. What a great idea, he thought. One of them was wittering on about a pass that he was desperate to have - well, he would get it in fair payment if he did a good job.
When the young man left, clutching his precious piece of paper, he looked slightly unwell. The Great Man's final order had turned him a trifle green.
The Great Man had no time for further dalliance; his enormous tool demanded, and obtained, instant release. As he lay satiated on the couch, beside the sobbing form of his eternally re-virginal Vinia, he felt irritated.
He wondered whether his fantasy Vinia was perhaps a little too perfect; somehow all her sweetness jarred. Why, he wondered, shouldn't he try out the real woman? Then a sudden idea illuminated his mind, blinding in its sickening fascination. He brushed aside her hand and jumped up off the couch. "I'm going to look out for the real Vinia Merrilees," he said. "She'll be a mindless hulk, and I can have her dragged in here. Young Burke's `True Reality' idea is a winner." He became brisk. "Off you go into oblivion, now; I'll turn you off till I find her." He tugged off the cap; his last vision was of Vinia, as she reached out to him with horror in her eyes.
Festin Burke stood before his wardrobe mirror, in his high-ceilinged, oak-panelled bedroom, and scowled. He saw a slight, nattily-suited, unfit figure before whom a small pot-belly wobbled. He turned sideways and pulled in his breath and his stomach; it looked quite reasonable that way, except that he couldn't breathe. His face turned purple before he gave up the struggle and his stomach boinged back out again.
The clattering of rain on the roof, mixed with heavy crashes of thunder, did nothing to cheer him up. His trouble was that nurse, Sherelle. Festin couldn't get her out of his mind; those hidden depths of hers - of purple lace and more, probably - both excited and worried him. He didn't know what she liked, what made her happy, what would make her laugh. More than anything else, he wanted to see a carefree happiness in her eyes instead of that lost worry; he told himself that was because he just wanted to see the effect on her face, but he wasn't sure about anything at the moment. Especially since those peculiarities in Sir Liam's gymnasium.
What had all that nonsense been with Fonsbrick-Smythe and the pass he'd wanted? Really, people shouldn't go bursting into private quarters in that manner. They should go through the proper channel to apply for such things - in other words, Festin's own office - in a decorous fashion; they should not go bouncing through in such chaos. He tut-tutted to himself.
The day's events had all been pretty confusing. Take Sloshforth and his raft, for instance. Festin winced as he remembered the press. Strange to see a woman on board, too; the councillor could have sworn that Sloshforth was a confirmed woman-hater. He wished he could remember where he'd seen her before.
He shook his head, looked at his stomach again and tried another heave inwards. This effort collapsed to a peal of thunder which sounded remarkably like a laugh. Festin looked up at the shadowy, vaulted ceiling in suspicion.
He sighed and finished putting on his bow-tie. Perhaps he should diet, he thought. His stomach grumbled in protest.
Those wall-bars which Sir Liam had been using in such an odd way; perhaps therein lay the secret of the Great Man's slim, taut figure. Exercise, Festin thought a bit bleakly. Perhaps that's what I need.
But then what? Whispered his inner man. How the hell does one go about wooing a woman, anyway?
With bowed shoulders, Festin took himself off to his lonely table and a date with a wild goose and chestnut soufflé.
The storm had not gone unnoticed at the circus. The rain rattled gaily on the wooden vans and pinged off the metal cage roofs; it was really working at trying to get through the canvas of the Big Top. However, nearly all the animals below were too old to care - and the humans were too relaxed to notice; Farrell and his new friends had been trying to boost their flagging courage during rehearsals, and in the process they had graduated from Ceredwen's Wildflower Nectar onto Drew's Mix. Even Papillon was a little unsteady on his shoes; he'd managed to knock a bottle or two of the heady brew into the horse-trough as an experiment. Definitely successful, he thought, and smacked his lips. He'd spent the past half-hour leering at the Prancing Pansies and making them twitch with nerves.
The whole troupe of volunteers leaned on each other offstage, hiccuping gently as they awaited their turns. The Big Top was heady with the smell of damp sawdust and the sharp muskiness of warm animal.
Rehearsals had driven Haigho to tears, until he'd got too drunk to care. Now he wielded the whip in the centre of the Ring, and howled out his spiel with verve and panache. So it was sad that the only audience were a bunch of non-paying Travellers, five tramps who had partly come in to shelter from the rain, and one very small girl who sucked a lolly-sweet and watched with big round eyes.
Audiences had been falling off lately, which was a pity because this would be a performance to remember. Indeed, it was a performance to end all performances - particularly in this circus.