Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Sir Liam Hang stood in the sleas-house dormitory, frowning at Sherelle. Those thin brows met in an angry "V" above his nose, and in the nurse's view he only needed horns to look like a devil holding back a fart. She shivered, and gestured toward a fair-haired body. This one had been labelled "Bertha Bustleman".
"I promise you, sir, you've seen all the ones in my care. This one is the closest to your description. The one you want must be somewhere else..." Something stuck in her throat as she remembered the beautiful body which had fallen into the river.
Festin hurried into the room and stopped with an exclamation when he saw who was with her. Oh bother, she thought, what does he want now? She had enough troubles at the moment.
Sir Liam was saying, in a voice which dripped the words listen, you imbecile between each phrase: "No, nurse. This body's hair is not the rich, red-gold of the one I'm looking for. Its features are more pinched, there's something not quite right about its legs, and its breasts are far too small and round. You will have to do better than this."
Festin had only come to see Sherelle, ostensibly to ask if she needed his help. From the look in her eyes, he thought, she was in a fair bit of trouble. He frowned for a minute as he removed his bowler and turned it thoughtfully between his hands. That description sounded familiar; now, when had he seen - "That's it!" he shouted. Sir Liam turned and regarded him in some disdain. The little councillor blenched. "Sorry, I've just realised where I've seen someone with hair like that. Old Villars."
Sir Liam's eyebrows rose. "I beg your pardon?"
Festin flapped his hands. "You know, Sloshforth Villars, does all our printing cheap - lives on a raft?" The Great Man seemed neither to know or care. Festin cleared his throat. "Yes, well, when I went to get the leaflets he had a woman like that; she was just sitting there. I thought she looked a bit vacant. One of these bodies, is she?"
Colour rushed to Sherelle's face. "On the river? Oh, thank God," she said.
The councillor smiled at her. He felt very pleased with himself - even the Great Man looked interested. "Mind you, I was meaning to talk to you about him, sir; that man is printing subversive literature. For those Freedom-VR people. Full of disrespect for the government and Teledildonics Inc- "
"Well, my good man, why didn't you come to me straight away? You'd better impound all such literature - I'll provide an injunction. You will also remove that woman from his clutches."
Festin winced, and his hand moved involuntarily to his crotch. The memory of his last visit was still vivid. "I can't just take her- " he said, a hint of hysteria in his voice.
Sir Liam tapped his teeth thoughtfully. "Oh yes, I'm sure you can make a charge of kidnapping stick. The man won't be printing for a long, long time unless he co-operates fully." He turned to leave, but stopped at the sound of Sherelle's voice.
"Sir Liam - please, sir. I need to know; are the Drongans going to buy the sewage?" She clasped and unclasped her hands, and her voice shook slightly.
"Of what possible interest can that be to you? Stick to your work, girl. Come along, Burke; get on with it. Good day to you."
Sherelle's voice took on an edge of desperation. "It's just - well, this True Reality thing; were you serious about that?"
"Why, my dear," said Festin, "do you want to try it? I think you'll find it's pretty expensive- "
"Oh my god, no! All I'm trying to say is that I don't think it'll be a good idea." There was an eager, pleading expression in her eyes that Festin couldn't quite understand. "Those Drongans are very exact about their requirements, aren't they? Well, any interference with these bodies - it would end up all wrong, I just know it would, no matter how much we added to the soy-fluid feed. I heard it was something to do with metabolism... Sex would change that, wouldn't it?"
Festin scratched his ear. This did seem to matter to her, heaven knew why. "Hmm," he said, and turned to the Great Man. "Sir, she could be right. Perhaps it would be better, if the Drongans do agree- "
"Very well. We'll take stock. I'll order a committee of enquiry. And I myself shall perform a useful experiment to check this out, when you bring me the body; that is, if it's in good condition. If not - well, you can deliver that one to me." He nodded toward the motionless form of Bertha Bustleman. "Is it virgin?" He strode over, pulled apart the body's legs, and peered at her genitals.
Bertha's body chose that moment to evacuate her bowels.
At that moment, the Drongans' minds also were firmly in sewage. The interpreter sat with the delegation in their hotel room, his polished-mahogany face creased in a smile. "So. It is agreed; we shall bargain with the lure of our exquisite new by-product. There is such irony, such poetry to be gained from a transaction such as this, is it not so?"
A murmur of agreement rippled among his companions.
His smile broadened. "Come. Let us not be guilty of keeping our hosts waiting. You have the products?"
The eyes of all those present flickered in secretive amusement, as the leader nodded and held up his briefcase.
The interpreter chuckled. He had been surprised that there had been no query about the Drongans' desire for sewage-sludge; also their rather peculiar insistence on the exact consistency and ingredients, a vital matter, had met with no curiosity at all. Such was the power of money, he supposed.
Drongo had, of course, been experimenting with the compacting of sludge for many years - the Drongans lived on a small island, and they abhorred waste - and a satisfactorily lacquer-like product had been made. But it was only since the discovery of the strange new crystals, and their usefulness as special chips for VR machines, that their startling catalytic quality had been accidentally discovered.
By some unaccountable oversight, the Uptonburgh authorities hadn't been informed that the only known source of these crystals was in an area within its jurisdiction. The interpreter didn't feel that it was his place to tell them.
He ushered the delegation into Sir Liam's office to find the Great Man arguing with a woman - something about a man called Gerald.
The interpreter bowed, in some amusement, at the flushed young woman. "We are inconvenient, yes?"
"No, no, not at all," Sir Liam gestured to the delegation, inviting them to sit in the armchairs in his lounge area. "Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. My cousin was just about to leave."
The interpreter bowed toward the woman and smiled. "It would be an honour if the noble lady would deign to gratify us with her presence."
"Very well." Sir Liam shrugged. "Linsey - coffee for our Drongan friends." He jerked his head at his cousin, who glared at him but touched a wall-stud. A panel slid back to reveal a sink and percolator, and she began to clatter cups. Sir Liam turned back to his guest. "Have you come to a decision?"
The interpreter ducked his head. "Indeed, sir, it would be a great privilege to do business with you. After much thought, however, we have been able to find no way in which our humble country could gather the moneys which you require. But it is possible - we have thought of something which you may find a worthy compromise. It is that a part-exchange could be acceptable, isn't it?"
Sir Liam's expression gave no indication that this was so.
The interpreter nodded to their leader, and slid his gaze around to the woman called Linsey. She had arrived at the table with a tray of steaming coffee-cups and a scowl. She watched in fascination as the brief-case was opened with a theatrical flourish; a glitter of jewellery cascaded out. "Oh!" she said. "How lovely!" Linsey picked up a pair of large, dangling turquoise earrings which were as light as lacquer. But the sheen! They were so iridescent that they appeared almost to glow from within. They were slightly warm to the touch, with the illusion of softness - she held them up to her cheek and rubbed them against it.
The interpreter smiled to himself and bowed at her. "We should deem it an honour if you would accept this small gift, dear lady," he said, and almost laughed at her little cry of pleasure. Ah, he thought, what would she have done if she had known what they were made of? His teacher had been correct; presentation was everything. "Sir, it is possible that these poor pieces could sell for vast profit, isn't it?"
After some brisk bargaining, the Drongan delegation left the office with several smiles and a contract.
A few miles downriver, at Fallekin Astow, Sloshforth was boiling oil beside his raft. Doug and Brigid stood silent on the river-bank, watching the black smoke roll up into the sky.
Doug looked at the printer's unaware back, and his nose wrinkled in disgust. "What's that you're cooking?" he said.
Sloshforth threw a small bread-roll into the cauldron and snorted. "Don't you know ink-making when you see it? I'm not buying any more from that bunch of shysters." He turned around and caught sight of Doug's companion. His desiccated-prune look deepened. "Bloody woman," he said. "A goddess, too; what'd you want to bring her along for?"
Doug heard his companion's swift intake of breath. He made desperate signals to warn the still-muttering Sloshforth to stop. Brigid strode forward, and Doug closed his eyes; he was rather fond of the grumpy little printer.
"So thou wouldst insult thy goddess, thou pile of chicken-shit?" Brigid spoke softly enough to Sloshforth, but there were thumping sounds and the odd gurgle. Doug couldn't stand it; he opened his eyes and started forward, only to stop with his jaw hanging slack. The goddess had her hands around Sloshforth's neck - but she wasn't tearing his head off. She was hugging him.
"Get off me, woman. I suppose you'd better come on board; this is about done, anyway." He dug out the blackened roll, winched the cauldron to one side, heaved a pot of soup into its place and led the way into his shack.
Doug plonked his sack on the planks. "Here's your potash."
Sloshforth peered into the sack. "Good. About time; I was running out of lye. You'll be wanting the seaweed, I suppose. Need any bonemeal? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Of course, you've got plenty of that. How are the - plants - coming along?"
Doug flushed slightly. He was about to reply, when he caught sight of the body in the corner, beyond all the dusty chaos. "Wow! I thought you couldn't stand women?"
The printer sniffed. "It's not a woman. Just the body, nothing else."
"Hast thou been up to thy nixie tricks?" Brigid frowned down at him. "I thought thou sworest- "
"No, no. This one didn't have a soul when I picked her up. I don't know who's got it, but they should have finished the job properly. I can't abide shoddy work."
Brigid squatted down beside the body, an action which stretched her skirt over her buttocks and made Doug's eyes water. She touched the woman gently on her bright hair, and awareness crept into the dull eyes.
"Hmm," said the goddess. She bounced to her feet, and Doug's crotch began to give him serious trouble. "Thou'rt right; the soul is missing. I've given her some life, but this stupid Continuum is mucking things up something terrible. Thou'd better bloody fix it."
"Me?" Doug's voice came out in a squeak. "I wouldn't know where to start!"
"Jeston's. Come," said Brigid, and grabbed his arm.
Sloshforth's harsh voice broke in. "Soup. You'd better have something in your bellies before tackling Jeston's Special. Put him down, woman, he'll keep."
He was right.
Jeston and his Special were in many minds just then, as opening time passed by. From farm-worker to shop assistant, from chicken-minder to dynamo-fixer, people were squinting up at the sun's progress and licking their lips. Before long most of those who could walk, and even some of those who couldn't, had converged on the pub.
One group, however, regarded the arrival of Happy-Hour with a grim determination; GODLY were on the march. Flamboyant banners raised aloft, and wodges of leaflets held as both shield and sword, the commune swung across the main street and arrowed along the alley to Jeston's.
Theola saw them pass by, but she wasn't interested at that moment. She was confronting the village's latest statue, as it squatted obscenely in the centre of the street. What made the whole thing worse was that she'd forgotten all about it in the church. Mr. Nunnos - Kerr - had been so concerned about the bump on her head, and it had been so lovely to have him insist on escorting her home: "In case it be worse than ye think, lady," he'd said. And now, here was this- this-
"This is appalling!" She said, trying to wrench her gaze from the five snakes in the statue's prominently upthrust genital area.
"Appalling? 'Tis fairly magnificent, I'd say," said her shaggy-haired companion.
Theola turned on him. "What do you know about such things, Kerr? You're just a labourer. How can you know what such amateur stuff can do to warp the people's minds? Right in the middle of the street, too!" She carefully avoided looking into his eyes; one wry little smile from them could scramble her brains.
Kerr flung back his head and gave his rich, wild laugh. "I'm thinking that 'tis not amateur, lady. In fact, I'll wager that I can name the artist- "
"Doug Marrow," she nodded.
"Nay, it has the look of- " he glanced down at her and seemed to reconsider "- Harry Anrhod. A classic example, and, perchance, a great work."
"It's sick." she said flatly.
He made a strangled little noise. "Sick? Well yes, but 'tis an artist who experiments with new statements, new worlds- "
She stamped, and turned to go. "I'm not staying here for you to make a fool of me. Good-bye Mr. Nunnos."
He grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her toward him. His voice gentled. "Nay, lady. I'm not trying to fool ye." He put a hand under her chin and tilted it up; his eyes looked deep into hers, and his breath was fresh as pine-sap. "Lady, my name is Kerr. And I swear that this piece is not a joke; 'tis very serious, and its presence here may be deadly. 'Tis a fact that something must be done, but not with mere hammer and chisel."
Theola's insides felt like a mess of jelly; suddenly she didn't give a damn about the statue. She rather thought she needed to pee.
"Come," Kerr said, "Jeston's is the place for me. Will ye come?"
She tried to shake her head. "I don't drink." she said simply.
"'Tis a place for more than alcohol. There'll be other juices, and a chance to see your sinning congregation, lady. Come."
Of course! thought Theola. Why didn't I realise that before? Thus it was that, when confronted with an indignant GODLY picket outside Jeston's, she was able to sweep them aside.
"Madam vicar!" said Mr. Dimbly, who was parading under a particularly lurid banner which declared Sinners Die in dayglo-orange. "I am astonished that you haunt this den of iniquity. Your soul will be lost forever if you pass these portals- "
"Nonsense," she said, pushing past him. "I am as aware as anyone of the dangers of temptation. I hope that my love of God is great enough to overcome them. How can I preach on the sins of Man unless I understand them?" Kerr gave a little gurgle of mirth beside her, and she swung around. "What are you laughing at?"
"Nothing, lady. 'Tis simply - I'm glad that ye love your god so much. He'll appreciate it." His smile was infectious, and as they flung open the door to step through, she found herself laughing too.
She stood there in the doorway, feeling flushed and animated. She looked around at the glow of polished wood and the cheer of polished faces. Clean glasses glinted rainbows at her, and the sharp smell of fresh sawdust toyed with her nostrils. On the far wall, VR machines glowed and hummed as they lay idle; some of the bulky Freedom-VR helmets were already in use.
Everyone looked toward the open door, and silence fell like a blanket. Oh dear, she thought. It seemed as though the whole village was in this room - even that peculiar old woman with the otters had a huge, half-empty glass in her hand.
Then Doug Marrow, caught in the act of taking a deep draught from his glass, began to choke. The terrible underdressed Brigid beside him gave him a thump on the back which must have loosened his fillings; it certainly stopped the choking. It also stopped the breathing.
Theola dashed over to the table and rubbed his back; she was rewarded by some gasps from Doug and a glower from Brigid. Somehow that broke the ice. Not long after that, Theola found herself sipping at a flamboyantly-decorated tomato juice, niftily avoiding a cocktail-stick up her nose - in company with a man whom she strongly suspected of being a hopeless sinner, and two peculiar strangers. She looked from the sinner to the male stranger, and felt that odd melting sensation in her stomach again.
Just as Theola was wondering once more if she really did need the toilet, the Travellers arrived outside the pub. This, it appeared, was what GODLY was waiting for. The defenders of the right stood shoulder to shoulder and shouted "Piss off, Yobbos!" and other carefully crafted slogans.
"Okay, have at you!" called Holly, as she and Drew powered toward the crowd, armed with nothing but their hands and teeth. Farrell was amazed at the speed and delicacy with which Drew could manipulate his wheelchair, and he had to admit that Holly's biting technique was unparalleled.
Farrell was irritated. He was beginning to suffer Teledildonics withdrawal symptoms, and on the other side of that door there was both power for his machine and a bloody good pint. He wasn't going to be kept from them by anyone. He rolled up his sleeves and strode up to the nearest protester; he shoved his face right up to the stranger's. He rolled his eyes wildly, shoved his fingers up his nose and drooled from a mouth which had suddenly gone wide and rubbery. Not for nothing had he come seventh in last year's sludge-pit girning competition. The protester recoiled in shock; Farrell grabbed the placard from the man's nervous grasp and batted him out of the way with it.
The protester promptly fell into Holly's clutches, but Farrell didn't stop to look at what she did with the poor man. As he opened the door, he looked back to see Ceredwen tripping people up and bonking anyone who wouldn't fall over on the head with her squishy pipes. Natterjak sat on her shoulder, giving the odd encouraging little "Ribbit". It was nice to see an old lady enjoy herself so much.
The bar was a scene of tranquillity; no-one took any notice of the skirmish outside. Farrell was on his way over to the bar, whence Jeston's round face beamed out at everyone, when he caught sight of a woman in the corner. It wasn't the sinuous otters which caught his attention, nor the puddle under her chair. It was the fact that she looked so like his Vinny, only older and darker, that made his heart turn over. No, it couldn't be, he thought. "Hi," he said when he reached the bar. "Who is that?"
"Ah, you can actually see her, can you sir?" Jeston looked at him with approval. "That's Megan. Keeps herself to herself mostly, but she likes my Special. Most people do. I think it's the secret herbs that do it. Now sir, what can I do for you?"
Farrell blinked in surprise. Megan? Surely that was the name of Drew's-
"A pint of Special, sir? I can recommend it."
Farrell jumped and wrenched his gaze from Megan's face. Vinny, that's what he was here for, not this Megan female. "This is where Freedom hang out, isn't it?"
"Could be, could be," said Jeston.
"I need to speak to - is Angus here?"
A shadow crossed the barman's face. "Sorry. Have a pint of Special instead."
Farrell blinked. "Well - is there anyone who knows how to hack- "
"The Special is highly thought of. Give it a try."
Farrell gave up and shrugged. "I'm sorry, I've got no cash. I could play the pipes for it," He flipped the pan-pipes out of his backpack. "And maybe for a chance to plug my machine into a socket?"
"That's okay, sir. No need to play; it's on the house. Any friend of Angus... I hope you like the beer. It's strong stuff."
Farrell thanked him and took his pint over to a table near Megan. Her otters reared their sleek heads over the edge of her table and regarded him suspiciously. He grinned at them and took a deep pull at his pint, just as Ceredwen piled through the door with a "Whoop" and a "Ribbit"; he chuckled to himself and waved at her. She waved back and grinned, but it was with some surprise that he saw her come across to sit with Megan. He took another swig and plugged his machine in. It began to glow and hum in its comforting manner, and he dug in his pack for his disc.
"Hah," Megan was saying to Ceredwen, "how's your problem with the Continua coming along? Won't be long before those Laws are meaningless, eh - I heard Gaia. Did you know she's waking up?"
Ceredwen cackled and took a pull from her pipes. "I'm a goddess. I know everything. Including the fact that you'll change your mind about helping me. In about two minutes. Look over there." She jerked her head in Farrell's direction.
He smoothed the Cap over his temples, and got out his disc; he was inserting it into the machine when he heard a gasp from Megan. But he wasn't interested; his Vinny was with him now. She sat on the bench beside him, clad in a gossamer-silk evening dress which was cut low over the bodice and held up goodness knew how. Her warm thigh pressed against his. She sipped from an elegant glass of wine, but the look she gave him was anything but elegant. "No, please be good," he said. "I really am in public here, but I just had to see you."
She looked at him with a speculative twinkle, and then decided he was serious. "Okay," she said, but then leaned across him to pick some nuts from a dish. The silky softness of her breast brushed his arm; he tried hard not to be affected by it. He thought desperately about sewage-sludge, the pits, the smell... He felt the stirring in his loins subside, and wiped sweat from his eyes. He turned to Vinny and caught her by the shoulders. "Look," he said, "I want you - god knows I do. But I have to live in the real world, too."
"I'm real, don't you realise that yet? How could I touch you like this - and this- "
"Sewage, think of sewage, oh god, rotten eggs- "
"I'm sorry, Farrell. I'll be good, really I will. I don't want this damn thing to zap me either; have you any idea what it's like for me?"
"I suppose it must be pretty awful. Okay; truce?" He lifted her hand to his mouth and planted a kiss in the soft palm.
The pub door opened and Drew burst in with Holly, clothing a bit torn but otherwise still in fighting form. Drew whirled his chair over to Farrell's table, while Holly went to grab a couple of pints of Special. Farrell wrenched his thoughts from Vinny, and looked around. He was amused to see that his fantasy world was obviously happy with Holly clothed in tatters. Megan however, now looked much younger; she was startlingly like Vinny now. She was also clawing angrily toward him. He wondered vaguely what the problem was. Ceredwen was trying to restrain her; the two women were locked in a silent struggle. Some busy armwork was going on over at that table.
Drew looked in their direction as he came over to Farrell's table, and his brow creased in puzzlement. "Have you got the screaming abdabs, Ceredwen? What are you doing there all by yourself? Fighting with invisible foes is one of the first signs- "
"Shut up, dummy," said the goddess a little breathlessly.
"Watch it - who're you calling dummy?" Megan asked.
"Not you, girl; him."
"Who?" Megan glanced around in bewilderment, staring right through Drew. "There's no-one there! You're just trying to distract me." She pushed at Ceredwen again.
"Never mind," said Ceredwen, "Look, stop it. You don't want to damage the young man, do you?"
"Yes," said Megan simply.
More people entered. Farrell didn't bother to look; a thought had just struck him, and he turned to Vinny. "How come," he said, "since this software is so addictive, Drew here isn't also desperate to see more of you? He saw you long enough in the van that day."
"I don't know. Maybe because he's already deeply in love; and- " Vinny looked toward the door, and her face suddenly went white.
"And?" he prompted. Drew had settled down opposite, and lifted his glass companionably.
Vinny's voice wobbled; she stared in horror at the doorway. "- and because I'm his daughter."
Farrell's mouthful of Special spluttered across the table. "What?" he yelled, and gestured at Drew. "Your - daughter?"
Drew said: "Yes, didn't I tell you?" at the same moment as Megan said:
"My daughter - yes, and you're not bloody laying my child. Pervert!"
Farrell looked from one to the other and back again, his jaw slack and his brain feeling like pulp.
Then at last he caught sight of the figure in the doorway. Leaning against a man with a desiccated-prune face was the very model of his love. It had to be - "Vinny!" he yelled, and jumped up. His own Vinny tried desperately to hold him back.
"No, Farrell; no! She looks like me, but something is very, very wrong!"
He shook her off and dashed forward. The Cap pulled off his head, and he fell over the table in a crash of beer and breaking wood. "Shit," he said.
Jeston's voice floated over from the bar. "The Special's that bad, huh?"
Deep in the Forest lurked something strange. Well, that was normal for Shearweird; but this was a new strange thing. The pussy-willow didn't like it. He listened a little nervously to an odd growl here, a peculiar howl there, and his leaves shuddered. That was the problem with being a tree, he thought. You can't run away like all those animals, with their aerial root systems.
Ooh, there it went again - and what was that? He made a very spirited attempt to lift his roots as a trumpeting sound reverberated across the nearby clearing and bounced off the motionless caravans. Then there was a crackling and crashing, dead branches and leaves being crunched under some massive feet, and a couple of elephants loomed out of the murk. They wandered over to him and stood on his roots to use him as a scratching-post.
"Nom d'un nom," he muttered. "So, this is the way of it; from all the trees in this so great forest, it is me that you must pick on." His voice was like wind susurrating through the leaves.
A heavily-scarred man arrived, and pushed affectionately at the elephants. "Careful; don't knock that tree over. I've heard tales of this place, so take it easy."
The huge beasts ran the tips of their trunks delicately over his hair and down his back, blowing gently; he chuckled and leaned against one of them, patting behind its gently wafting ear. "Funny," he said, jerking his head at the pussy-willows, "this bit of the Forest still looks like winter."
The shabby little girl who had come up behind him looked around at the violated area with wide, deep-seeing, solemn eyes. She frowned.
Gaia shivered. A ripple ran through the earth under Shearweird Forest.
"Ouch," said the tree.