Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Gerald hummed a chicken-song to himself that evening as he cycled through the gathering dusk of a Shearweird path. The faint "whirr-click" of the wheels beat in syncopation with his meaningless tune.
Linsey had tried to make him give up the bike in favour of more genteel transport, but he was fond of the old thing. It understood him, and didn't run out of petrol or break down when he wasn't looking. It had the added bonus that Linsey couldn't come with him. Not that she'd have approved of this trip of his, anyway. She disapproved of Nature, and pubs, and getting pissed.
Gerald took a deep, exhilarated breath. He liked the Forest. The fresh-earth scent of damp leaves and moss pervaded it; nobody could feel lonely here, surrounded by such a cacophony of rustles and buzzes. Actually, he thought, there seemed to be a lot more noise than usual tonight. He frowned as a clearing zoomed by, stuffed with horses and caravans. Bother. Tourists; I hope they haven't drunk all the- At that moment, the forest-floor rippled briefly beneath him. "Urk!" he said, shot inelegantly over his handlebars, and buried his face in last year's humus.
As he raised his head from the compost, spitting out leaves, a large, rough tongue rasped over his ear. Halitosis-laden air wafted across his cheek and fondled his nostrils. "Ugh!" he said, inhaling the reek of rotten eggs marinated in sewage. He staggered to his feet and patted the lion who rumbled gently beside him. "Nice kitty," he said vaguely, mounted his bike, and rode off.
Leo stared after the man, his jaw hanging slack. Kitty? he thought.
A derisive "yark" sounded above him, and his head jerked up. That old eagle was practically pissing herself with mirth.
That's it, he growled, I'll get you now. Just you wait. Sit there a minute. He began to climb the tree, watched with some interest by Egrette. I'm the Great Hunter, aha, King of the Jungle - oh shit! The bough broke under his weight.
The leaf-mould beneath greeted him with enthusiasm, until it caught a whiff of his breath. Then it remembered pressing business elsewhere, and crawled off to join its mates in a fine, festering compost heap.
The Great Hunter got up, turned his back on the bird, and washed. He'd better let the others know that their plan would need some alterations. It was a great idea, highway robbery - but it might need some teamwork. He strolled back to their temporary camp, gave a great roar, then shook his magnificent - if moth-eaten - mane. Kitty, he grumbled.
Gerald, oblivious of the turmoil which he had created in the jungle king's heart, whistled happily into Fallekin Astow. There were loads of people outside Jeston's tonight, he thought; they seemed to be having some kind of wrestling game. This was a new one to him; the aim seemed to be to beat your neighbour's brains out. He dismounted, just as someone crashed into his bike. He was not pleased. His cream linen suit was already covered in skid-marks, and now this man's nose was bleeding all over it.
"Oh, I say," said Gerald, "give a fellow some space, do." He grabbed a 'Wrath Of God' placard as it whizzed past his head, and swung it in a leisurely arc. As if by magic, he got his space.
He entered the pub, to be met with a burst of warm-sawdust smell and laughter. He smiled. It was nice to see people enjoying themselves, though he couldn't see what fun the four in front of him got out of their particular game. It seemed to be fashionable to attack each other these days.
He edged around the energetic group before him, muttering "Excuse me" at the struggling Sloshforth Villars, and strolled over to the bar, where Jeston was placidly polishing glasses. The barman ducked his head in a little bow. "Evening, sir. Special?" He drew the pint as he spoke.
Gerald took a deep draught and sighed his satisfaction.
Jeston picked up another glass to polish. "We haven't seen you around these parts much, recently; the rigours of Parliament keep you occupied, I suppose?"
Gerald flushed and nodded. In fact, he thought, it was more the rigour of being engaged to Linsey that was the problem. He was uncomfortably aware that he hadn't been doing his stuff for his constituency recently. Not that it would have made any difference if he had. Now, what had he come for? Oh yes. He opened his mouth to say: "Ah, Jeston - I've to tell you to expect- "
At this point his roving gaze met the eyes of the most stunning woman he had ever seen. His mouth hung about, waiting to finish its sentence, while his stomach seemed to do a somersault and shove his heart up behind his eyes. This glorious creature had dark, curly hair, the reddest lips he had ever seen, lustrous dark eyes - and an expression of utter contempt.
Gerald tried to control his features and produce a smile, but it couldn't have been a success. She hunched a shoulder at him and turned back to her table companions. Her voice floated over the general noise, saying something that sounded like: "...Stupid Toff."
He leaned against the bar and tried to whisper to Jeston. "Gluck. Wha- Who?" He gulped down the rest of his ale.
The barman looked at the empty glass and frowned. "You're supposed to savour the Special, sir." He pulled another pint as his gaze followed Gerald's pointing finger. "Oh, that'll be one of the Travellers, sir. Now, what were you going to tell me?"
Sloshforth hadn't noticed the Toff's entrance; he was far too busy protecting Vinia's semi-animated body from several fully-animated claimants, as they dragged her toward the tables at the other end of the room. "Do you want to keep her in one piece?" he yelled as he disentangled her arm from the clutches of Megan and Drew. "Are you a pervert, or what?" he went on to Farrell, who was trying to embrace her.
Farrell was only vaguely aware of all this. Still dazed and disorientated from the rude removal of his Cap, he could only think of one fact - that his Vinny stood before him at last. All these people in his way were annoying flies. At last he could-
A heavy hand thwacked him across his buttocks, surprising his libido into a collapse.
"Stop this disgusting behaviour!" the voice was loud and sharp. Farrell spun around, his brain suddenly clearing. An infuriated, dough-faced woman glared at him. "Is this what I can expect of alcohol abuse? No wonder those people outside were protesting!"
"So you've turned up again, eh?" Sloshforth said to her. "Damn vicar. Still, at least you had some sense - I see you took my advice. Don't go and spoil it now." He guided Vinia's steps toward a table. Farrell swayed along behind; now that he could see clearly again, he was puzzled by Megan - she kept walking into Drew's wheelchair as if she were blind, and yet she didn't seem to feel the clashes. Come to think of it, Drew also seemed oblivious of her presence. What on earth were they playing at?
Sloshforth still grumbled away to the vicar. "Can't you see it's not the drink? It's bloody obvious that these idiots have had a shock."
The vicar glared at him, and turned to go. She looked at her tableful of friends; they were laughing. For a second she looked unsure whether to simply walk out of the door; then Sloshforth touched her arm. His voice softened as his gaze held hers: "But - thank you. So here's more advice; take joy as it comes. Don't twist it to fit. Now get back to your seat, woman."
She looked into his eyes with an arrested expression which brightened slowly; then a startlingly attractive smile washed over her face, and she hurried off. "You're just a growling pussycat, aren't you?" she called back over her shoulder.
Sloshforth turned puce. "Pussycat?" he spluttered, "Pussycat?"
Farrell sank into a seat opposite to Vinia. She looked blankly at him, but he was relieved to see that she didn't flinch from his presence after his appalling behaviour. "Sorry," he said, "I really am sorry - I'd had a jolt, I know it's no excuse really, but I hope..." She wasn't listening. He could swear it. For a second he thought she was blind; but no, that wasn't right.
Then her gaze wandered around to Megan, who sat next to her and held her hand. In her clear, soft voice she said: "Mama!" and dribbled slightly. Farrell stared at her in shock. His Vinny - his beautiful love, for whom he would have moved mountains, killed dragons, and done the washing-up - was mentally retarded.
Drew Fareman, seated on Vinia's other side, was even more shocked. His daughter was mad. She talked to empty spaces and called them mother. Perhaps she was just confused? He caught hold of her shoulder and pulled her round to face him. "Here! Look at me. I'm not 'Mama'; I'm your father. Drew Fareman - remember the name?"
A huge smile illuminated her features. "Papa!" she said, in that same childish timbre.
He folded her in his arms and rocked her back and forth, tears leaking from his eyes. "Yes. 'Papa'. How I wish your 'Mama' were here, but- "
She wriggled in his embrace and he let her go; the heart-turning smile stayed on her face and she fumbled her hands out to either side, repeating happily: "Mama. Papa." She sighed, lowered her head to the table, and fell asleep instantly.
Her body chose that moment to break wind.
"Phew!" Ceredwen said to Sloshforth, flapping her hand at the smell. "What have you been feeding her on?"
The goddess looked at the people who were gazing at Vinia's peaceful body in varying states of puzzlement, and cackled.
Megan glanced up with a frown. "It's Drew, isn't it?" she said. "He's here somewhere, I know he is. Bloody gods. Why the hell can't you let me see him?"
Ceredwen shrugged. "It's your own fault. Shouldn't have lost faith in each other." Drew was looking at her with dawning realisation, and she grinned at him. "Yes. You did, didn't you? Ignored the warnings; fatal. Nixie/human marriages are unnatural anyway. I've never known such a case to be successfully reversed."
Megan glared at the goddess and dug her psi-tuned radio out. "They say there's always a first time!" she said.
A few miles away, in Teledildonics Inc's main computer, Bertha watched as Angus prepared everyone for their roles in the forthcoming message. Every part of her felt bitter; nobody ever listened to her. What was so special about their precious bodies? She twitched the corners of her gorse-bush irritably. Teledildonics Inc didn't know what a favour they'd done her, the day they pulled her out of hers. She'd hated it for years, ever since... Well, she didn't want to think of that. She was free now. And these idiots wanted to get back, trap her back in that agony - or even worse, leave her all alone here. But why couldn't they see that they could have everything they wanted in this place?
"Now look," Angus was saying, "you've all got to pull at once to affect the right data at the right time. Link up together, and wait for my signal, okay? Hey, Vinia! You're not with us, lass."
"I'm sorry." Vinia's crumpled icon straightened itself, but it shimmered around the edges.
Angus was beside her in an instant. "What is it? You've not been right for a while, have you?"
She leaned a corner against him, and nearly crumpled again. "It's really weird; I got a jolt a few thousand clock-beats ago, as if someone had touched my essence and drained a bit of it away, and now I don't feel quite complete. It's as though a part of me is somewhere else now..." She straightened up again. "Don't worry, I'll do my bit when we get to the time. I can manage when I really concentrate."
"Well, lass, you just take a rest. I - we - need you at your best, I really do." He flipped his corner against her in a gentle stroke.
"Oh yes, all very sweet, love's young dream and all that," Bertha Bustleman said. "Why is everyone bothering with this? It can't work, you know. And even if it did, how d'you suppose those bumpkins will be able to help?" Her brisk voice sank a little. "As for you two, how do you know you'll be free to get together when you're out of here?" She laughed as she watched Vinia's icon stiffen. "Haven't thought of that, have you?"
Angus hunched a corner at her. "Don't be daft, Bertha. Of course we must get out. Our real lives await."
She flicked her gorse-bush around. "All right then," she muttered, "but don't say I didn't warn you." She whisked down a corridor, ignoring Vinia's call. She'd show them. If they didn't want to stay now, they soon would - all of them.
The evening settled down to the serious business of covering Fallekin Astow with gloom. It wasn't making much headway outside Jeston's, where light shone, yellow and flickering with life, from every window. However, it cast its shroud over the rest of the village, rather pleased with the effect. There would be a moon soon, almost a full one, but for now the darkness could play with the GODLY crowd which straggled away from the pub. Dispirited voices wafted upwards:
"Mr. Dimbly, watch where you're going!"
"How can I damn well watch, without a torch? Trust you to forget the bloody things!"
"Mr. Dimbly!" -gasp- "Swearing!"
"I'm sorry, Aggie. Sometimes I feel unworthy of the Lord's trust. This flesh is but a weak vessel for belief. Even now I begin to doubt that our petition will be granted by the government." Mr. Dimbly stood in the centre of the main street and raised his fists heavenward in appeal. "Lord, our faith is sorely tried. I pray you, send us a sign that we shall succeed; that we shall gain that land!" As the last word left his lips, a solitary car zoomed past, catching on what remained of his leaflet-bag. He was spun off his feet.
He sat in the gutter, rubbing his knees. "That was some bloody sign, Lord," he said.
Festin Burke drove down Fallekin Astow's main street, unaware of his role as Lord's Sign. He was on his way to Sloshforth's raft, and he wasn't looking forward to the meeting one bit. He wished he hadn't remembered about that gold-haired body with the printer, although Sherelle had seemed pleased at first. He wished he could understand why she went all funny again, though, when he'd been told to fetch the body and those dreadful leaflets. He sighed. Maybe one day she would smile upon him, give him more than a glimpse of those purple lace knickers on her firm body, let him run his hands and nose over them...
He snapped out of his daydream in time to swerve past the village's unusual new statue. Good, he thought. Someone was taking an interest in aesthetics around here at last; but they could have put the ghastly thing somewhere better.
The moon began to show her face. She seemed a bit coy about it, hiding occasionally behind scudding clouds, but Festin was glad of the light when he arrived at the river.
"Hello?" he called. There was no reply; no sign of life. He scuttled down the bank to knock on the door of the shack. The door creaked back on its hinges when he touched it; he hesitated for a second, because he thought he heard a low growl. No, it must have been the wind in the trees. His spirits lifted. He wouldn't have to argue, he could simply grab the girl and the leaflets. He slipped inside the shack, and the door slammed shut.
The night air became busy with thumps, wolf-like howls, and screams.
Suddenly a rush-light flared on, and Sloshforth stood in the doorway. Festin, clinging desperately to a rafter, blinked down at him in the glare.
"What d'you think you're doing?" said the printer, peering up at him.
Festin's throat worked silently for a second. His voice came out finally as a squeak. "Keep it off me! My god, what have you got in here? It's a bloody wolf!"
Sloshforth smiled grimly. "Reckon you're working too hard - seeing things. Where's your wolf? Take a look. There's just printing stuff."
Festin peered around at the room below. The man was right, there weren't any animals. Festin finally let go of the rafter and sprawled onto a pile of paper. He didn't feel entirely in control of the situation.
He staggered to his feet, trying to regain some shreds of dignity. "That woman you kidnapped will have to be turned over to the authorities- "
"I think you should see a doctor. First wolves and then women... Lupudana and I are quite alone." Sloshforth nodded expressively toward the press, which stood beside Festin, and raised his brows.
The councillor looked at the press with a shudder. "Leaflets. That was the other thing- Urk- " something warm splashed against his socks, and he jerked backwards. Lupudana had dribbled black oil all over his expensive suede shoes.
Shortly after, Festin huddled in his car and wondered whether to report failure to Sir Liam or simply to slit his own throat now.
The memory of Sherelle in her underwear decided him. Life was worth fighting for. After all, the Great Man couldn't actually eat his employees; it was just that terrible look of his. As though he was devising an exquisite new torture for them.
Sir Liam waited in his gymnasium. Festin was quite correct, he was devising an exquisite new torture. The councillor came in to report failure and stood there in a sweat of fear; the sharp scent of it excited Sir Liam almost beyond bearing. He thought of several things to do to the man, but abandoned them all with regret. The law of the land was funny about such things; it ought to be changed.
Instead, he told Festin to fetch the Bustleman body which had been reserved for him at the sleas-house. "Oh, and make sure it's been properly emptied, too; I did give the nurse specific instructions on that point."
When the body was delivered, Sir Liam rubbed his hands. She wasn't as glorious as Vinia, but she was still quite a pretty little thing, with all that soft fair hair. Even if the breasts weren't as voluptuous as Vinia's, they were at least well formed.
He felt a stirring in his loins, and looked down in irritation at his minuscule erection. The damn thing was almost lost in his thick mat of pubic hair. Sometimes he wondered whether it would look better - stand out more, as it were - if he shaved the area.
Oh well, he had a fine substitute. He smoothed on his wireless Cap, and felt power surge through his muscles. Oh yes! In this world, he became God, as was his right. Now, what should he do first? There was so much to choose from. A bit of sado-masochism on the wall-bars, maybe? He shook his head. Too normal.
Half an hour later he took off his cap, a little irritated. His Vinia had been shaking him and shouting "You've killed her! She's dead!", and for the first time she'd refused to do his bidding. It really was too annoying; his technician was going to have to check the disc for bugs.
Then he looked down at Bertha's body. It really was dead, quite obviously so.
"Bother", he said.
In another Uptonburgh building, Angus' icon paced up and down the glowing circuit corridor, kicking spheres out of the way and counting clock-beats. Vinia watched his jerky, tense action and tried not to giggle; the freckled smiley-face which he wore seemed so incongruous. She couldn't hold it in any longer - the sound came out as a cross between a hiccup and a snort. He stopped pacing and flipped an enquiring corner at her. "Eh?" he said. Then he looked round at the others as they relaxed against the walls, waiting for the big push. "Hey - where's Bertha? Is she still sulking somewhere?"
Vinia hunched up and scowled to herself. "I don't know - and I don't care. Why's she so annoyed that we're trying to get out? What's wrong with the silly- "
A piercing scream echoed down the circuit, scrambling her thoughts and shattering her icon-hold. She took one look at Angus, who wobbled at the edges in shock also, and gasped: "The Subliminals! They've got someone!"
She pelted along the corridor toward the sound, ignoring Angus' yell: "No, lass! They'll catch you too. Oh, dammit! Hang on, I'm coming too..."
She skidded to a halt first, at the field which held the Viruses captive. They still slobbered behind its intact shimmer; so what on earth was wrong? Vinia looked around in puzzlement.
A low moan sounded beside her, and she whirled around to see an amorphous brown blob of half-controlled bytes. "Oh, my head," it said.
"Bertha!" Vinia folded herself to sit beside the blob. "Whatever is wrong?"
"Wow, what a party that must have been; can't even remember it. Anyone got an aspirin?"
"Bertha - snap out of it!" Vinia flipped her edge against the blob to shake it. "Come on, girl; what on earth is wrong with you? There hasn't been any party. Surely you remember? Take a look around and see where you are."
"I can't see, you should know that. Haven't been able to for years. Not since... Never mind. I don't want to talk about that. God, how I miss being able to see. I just had a terrific dream - I was in a computer, I had my sight, I could walk; I even quite liked myself. It was wonderful. The freedom; so much to see and do. But they were going to take it away from me- "
Oh my god, Vinia thought. I never realised how unhappy she is... "It's okay, Bertha. Come on, pull yourself together; you can see. That computer was no dream."
Bertha sniffed. It was a fruity sound, just like a nostril full of phlegm. Vinia was impressed.
"Yeah, and I'm a purple-spotted kangaroo," said Bertha.
"You are?" Angus sounded interested.
"Oh shut up, Angus." Vinia hunched a corner at him. "If you can't be helpful- "
"Sorry, lass." He folded up beside them and spoke to the blob. "You're in the computer still, Bertha, believe me. If you want to prove it, just do what you dreamed would give you sight. Go on - you can't lose anything."
The blob grew an eye and opened it. Bertha blinked, sighed, and picked up her bytes. "Oh. It's you two. You're right; but I do feel queer," she said, and fiddled with herself. Her icon grew three-dimensional tentacles, and she began to giggle.
Vinia looked at Bertha in concern and flicked a gentle corner against her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine now," Bertha said, "but goodness, something really peculiar has happened. Didn't you get it too? No? I wonder... Maybe something happened to my body? Oh, who cares - I feel so strong now!" Then she looked around at all the icons, most of them pulsing with worry, and she crumpled up again and burst into tears.
Vinia wrapped herself around Bertha and rocked, trying to comfort her. "Hey, cheer up. I don't know what hurt you so badly before you came here; but if you really want to stay, of course we couldn't force you to go home. Maybe there are some others who don't want to- "
Bertha gave Vinia a great hug. Vinia was nearly blasted backwards by the strongest psi-force she'd ever encountered.
"You're all so kind," Bertha's wail was muffled by another fruity sniff, "and I wuh- wuh- wanted to stop you all and I nearly did! Well," she pulled herself away from Vinia and stiffened up, "I'm going to help now. You can count on me. Come on everyone; on your toes! It's nearly time. Let's push a few bits around!"
Her coruscating octopus-icon zoomed off down the corridor, followed by a trail of kittens and dingbats.
Vinia picked herself up. "Phew," she said. She looked at Angus' puzzled-looking smiley-face and gurgled. "Come on, Mr. Confused. She's right, for once. It is time to get going. And I think we'll be glad of all that strength when it comes to the push."
Near the edge of Shearweird Forest, the moon shone down on a scene of quiet bustle, reflected from a dozen pairs of glittering eyes. From behind an agitated bush, a soft giggle floated. Natasha pushed Leo away with a whisper of: "Ugh! Stop that. Go 'way!"
"Sssh!" said Haigho from another bush. "Someone's coming."
A dishevelled group staggered toward the occupied bushes, dragging tattered banners behind them. "Now!" yelled Haigho, and the group went down beneath an ambush of fur and feathers.
"Oh Lord," a voice floated up, "If thy servant must die from this animal's breath, then so be it. But I pray you, let it be quick."
"Mr. Dimbly," said another, "Someone's taking everything I've got!"
"Aggie, put yourself in the Lord's hands- "
"It's not -gasp- the Lord's hands I'm worried about!"
"Calm yourself, please," Haigho said, helping Aggie to rise. "We're only removing any valuables or food; we need to eat, just like anyone else. This is simply a bit of highway robbery - nothing to worry about. Now move along, do."
They moved along.
Haigho and his friends sat in the moonlight, counting the spoils. They were disappointingly small, consisting of a small purse of coins, a bag of toffees, and a couple of pouches of small crystals. But it was a start. Haigho held one of the crystals up to the light. It really was rather beautiful; there was an impression of a strange glow deep within. He heard a little moan beside him, and turned to see Natasha regarding the pouch. She knelt beside it and stroked the crystals, wide-eyed and trembling. Puzzled, he put his arm around her and cuddled her until she stopped shivering.
Gaia's half-dream erupted into horror. Now she knew why her poor ravaged womb ached; how far had the violation gone?
"My babies! What's happening to my babies?" The scream shattered the celestial filigree-songs. Volcanoes throughout the world erupted in a spume of molten fear. Several thousand people and a whole island in the Developing World disappeared. An Uptonburgh Toff was touring the island when it sank.
This time, the disaster made international headlines.