Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The waxing moon shone over Forest and village alike, and looked hopefully for some old-fashioned lovers. Someone to truly appreciate her beauties. Even a werewolf would have done. But what did she get? Her rays washed in some bewilderment over the busy scene between circus animals and GODLY people. Whatever they were doing didn't seem to involve gazing soulfully at the moon. And as for the village - how could anyone even see her, with all that light spilling out of the pub?
Far below her wistful face, Jeston's benevolent eyes smiled upon his customers while he listened to what Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe had to say. At the precise moment when Aggie and her friends began to defend their honour against a bunch of marauding animals, the publican's expression sharpened into one of great interest. His eyes widened in excitement. "Are you sure, sir?" he breathed.
Farrell was still trying to sort out the chaos in his mind. This childish creature was Vinny? His Vinny? This had to be the real person - they said so. He glanced at his companions; Megan, who was deep in her psi-tuned radio, muttering and frowning as she turned the knobs, and Drew who was shoving pints of Special inside himself and then squinting toward her space. Drew had a theory that if he got drunk enough, she'd appear. Farrell's gaze returned hopefully to the snoozing Vinny. She was as beautiful as ever. But she wasn't... She was so-
She farted again, and he winced.
"Sir," Jeston called to him over the hubbub, "you were asking about Angus? Mr. Fonsbrick-Smythe says he's going to come on-line in a minute." The publican beamed and hurried over to his private wall-unit. "Hey, everyone, there's an important message due on the Network."
Farrell shrugged. He didn't need to find Vinny any more; but it would be good to talk to Angus all the same. He swung around to the wall nearby and picked up a Freedom-VR helmet; it felt strange but good in his hands, like an almost-forgotten old friend. He smiled as he pulled it down over his temples and faced this machine's Questioner - a portly, butler-dressed version of Jeston. The effect was a little cartoony, as opposed to the polished Teledildonics VR, but its roughness had a genuine appeal all the same.
The butler bowed, creaking slightly. "Would sir wish to insert a disc - or does he require the Network today? The Network - very good, sir. Please provide the name. Thank you sir. Your ident number is cleared."
The Network was idle as he closed his eyes and logged-on, a cavern of warm ochre glow. To his left he could see Jeston's simple ident number; several others flickered into being here and there around the cavern.
Something shimmered in the centre; he strained to see it, but it faded, along with a whisper of sound. "Come on," he muttered to himself, just as the shimmer returned and resolved itself into a ghost of Angus' old number. A cheer went up, a ripple of colour along the idents.
Angus faded, to be replaced by a glowing line of text; once again, the effect was ghostly, and the accompanying voice almost inaudible. It sounded like several people shouting together through foam rubber.
"You'll be wondering if this is a joke. It's not. There's loads of us. We don't know what's happened to our bodies, but we - our essences? - are stuck in this damn Teledildonics computer. Can any of you guys get us out? Repeat - trapped in computer. Help us out. Not a joke. Okay - done."
There was a stunned silence, and then all the idents pulsed; the Master of Ceremonies picked Farrell, who had been first by a nanosecond. He threw his voice into the centre well: "Angus - we hear you. Who are you all? How did you get there? Okay - done." The tail end of his text disappeared, and there was a pause.
"Ouch! You are very loud. Farrell Wightman? Great to hear you. We are too many; all the people whom Teledildonics were copying for their top dildonics range. Plus a few embarrassments like me. It's their new copying process that does it. Did you never see my message about the helpless hulks they produce? We're what's left. Okay - done."
Farrell felt his ident pulse in shock. If only he hadn't stopped Networking; but then, he wouldn't have met Vinny... Vinny! Was she- "Angus, tell me - have you a Vinia Merrilees there?"
"Yes. The lass has a true feel for software. We've got the brains this end, but no brawn. Anyone out there help us? Got to stop soon, effort too much."
Jeston cut in on over-ride. "Don't worry. We'll work on it. This channel will stay open for incoming messages."
Farrell felt a twinge in his mind, and opened his eyes to see Megan superimposed on his Network image, still hooked up to her psi-tuned radio, gazing at him in a mix of fear and horror. "Vinia!" she mouthed.
That was the moment when, out in the Forest, Natasha's deep-seeing eyes spotted Aggie's crystal - and Gaia screamed. Megan, who had opened out every psi-channel in her hunt for Drew, was knocked over by the blast; it ricocheted into Farrell, and caromed around the Network. Everything sparkled as Farrell nearly lost consciousness.
"My god," said Angus, "what was that?"
Before anyone could answer, he was replaced by a deep grumble. Something flickered in the central well; a shimmering crystalline form. "Hey, man," it said, "what's going on? I mean, is this groovy or what - one minute I'm asleep along with my big fat mama, and the next she's screaming fit to wake the universe. Like, what is all this?"
Gaia's nightmare-ridden scream was still echoing in her caverns when she heard it; some of her babies - sentient so soon? Not only that, but they seemed to be in some kind of power-positions; it couldn't be good for them. They were far too young. No respect for their elders, either; big fat mama, indeed! She tried to shake off the last wisps of sleep. The urge to doze off again was enormous; but her silly, bewildered children needed her.
The World Filigree songs were growing chaotic. After Gaia's scream, Aldebaran-4 rode high over the Filigree. With a slight discord in his bell-like voice, he asked: "Gaia? Good grief - what the hell is your problem?"
"My babies, you fool; what else do you think would waken me? Something's been tampering- "
"Still the same sweet Gaia, I see," he sang in a special ironic cascade of light. "Well, what do you expect, leaving them lying around the place?"
"I never did! Anyway, if that bath your people sent along aeons ago had been any good, it would have removed all the pests."
Aldebaran-4 chuckled, a rivulet of sparkles throughout the Filigree. "Wake up, you silly girl. We've got real problems - and the bloating of life-aether is coming from your sector. Wake up properly..." he faded into the background of celestial song.
Gaia was irritated that her usual perfect, tinkling pitch was still sluggish with sleep. She was upset about her children. She was annoyed with Aldebaran-4 and everyone else.
But most of all right now, she wished she could scratch.
Farrell and his pub-full of new friends had ripped off their headsets and were trying to work out what exactly had happened.
Farrell rubbed his aching head. "Look," he said, "I don't know what that scream was all about, or who that was who popped up at the end; but the main thing is - we've got to get those guys out of there. Angus was stuck; and Vinny..." He braced himself for the familiar stomach-clenching pain which always jabbed at him whenever he started to long for her; but it didn't come. In his surprise, he gulped a huge mouthful of Special down the wrong way.
Theola Devin thumped his back with verve. "You shouldn't talk while you're swallowing, you know," she said helpfully.
"Thanks," he gasped when he could breathe again.
Drew was deep in thought and his third glass.
Megan kept shaking her head. "My daughter's trapped in a computer? But I could have sworn she was actually on that disc; I saw her!"
"You couldn't have, surely," said Farrell. "Though, if you're an - ah - nixie, maybe you'd have different- "
"No she wouldn't," Ceredwen broke in. "Not like that, anyway. Nobody can see VR unplugged. It's all part of the expansion problem. You'll see." She gave a cackle. "Or at least, you would do if any of you could survive the break-up of the Laws. You're going to have to stop all this fiddling about with Gaia's private bits, you know."
Farrell blinked. "I'm not fiddling with anybody's private- "
"Oh yes you are. What do you think you've got at the heart of that newfangled machine of yours? And you're busy believing in the thing, too. It's the stuff of life, and you're making it grow. Like a cancer, it is."
Farrell shook his head to clear it. Machines... belief... growth... What on earth was she talking about? But none of that mattered, he thought. Right now, there was the more urgent matter of those trapped people. He glanced around for inspiration.
Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe sat nearby, gazing at Holly. Farrell wondered whether the Toff was smitten or whether that idiot expression was normal. He rather hoped the latter was true, because Holly kept completely ignoring the poor guy.
"That was a crystal we saw at the end," Holly was saying to Drew, "I could swear - wasn't it like one of the rocks we saw those GODLY people stealing?"
"I say," Gerald said, "I saw a picture of something just like that. Now where was it? Oh yes, it was in the book of diagrams and symbols that I got out of the library. Something to do with the heart of the computer?"
Holly hiccoughed. She was obviously having to work at ignoring him.
Farrell thought desperately; he had to get his Vinny's essence back into her body. Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He whirled around. He could have sworn it was Vinny's- No, he was beginning to imagine things, now. If only she was here... That was it! "Couldn't we somehow download those people into the Freedom computer, at least, and then try to find their bodies?"
Megan shook her head. "No good. We'd need new equipment - probably a transducer like the one Teledildonics Inc use to create their discs. Freedom's based on a different premise."
Jeston wheeled more jars of Special over to the friends' tables. "Madam is quite correct."
Farrell took another look at Vinia's vacant body and shivered. "Well, couldn't you work out how they do theirs and make one here?"
"The problem, sir, is funding. Our own new system, which would be streets ahead of theirs, has died for lack of funds. We only manage to keep present equipment going - we simply couldn't afford a transducer like theirs, even if we could deduce its basis."
"Funds?" Gerald's ears pricked up again. "There's a meeting at the House tomorrow to discuss various budgets; I could put it to the House that your Network should be funded." Holly's black eyes looked straight at him and he went bright pink. "It might help - a petition - signed by as many of my constituents as possible..." his voice trailed off into a strangled gulp at his Special.
Several of Jeston's Specials later, the petition was written and liberally, if unevenly, sprinkled with the signatures of 150 humans, three gods, two nixies, two otters, and a toad.
The moon had given up and gone home by the time Gerald wove home along the Forest path with a song in his heart and a belch on his lips. If anyone had whispered "Linsey" into his ear right then, he would have answered "who?" His mind was full of a dark-haired, red-lipped Traveller maid. Even chickens had been ousted from it for now.
He'd forgotten to bring a light, but it didn't really matter; the slight glow which seeped from the Forest itself showed him the way.
Ah, she was glorious, he thought. Intelligence radiated from her eyes, though he couldn't see why her mouth kept curling in contempt every time she looked at him. No matter how he tried, he couldn't translate that sneer into a smile-
At this point, company erupted out of the undergrowth. An albino proboscis monkey swung silently down from an elephant's ear and grabbed hold of his bike, while the elephant pulled him over the handlebars.
Lights flared up around him, and he blinked up into a bower of exotic faces. The monkey sat on his chest and poked at his nose; it made a disgusted noise. A scarred human, who could have posed as the monkey's brother, pushed through the others and peered down at him.
"We demand toll," the man said.
Gerald's Special-soaked brain was puzzled. "A bell?" he tried experimentally. No, that didn't seem to be what his host was after.
His host? Gerald suddenly realised that he was flat on his back at a party; he went cold at the thought. "I say, I'm terribly sorry ol' man - I seem to have got a bit ineb- inberb- drunk too much. Shocking way to behave." The scarred man's eyebrows lifted in surprise.
Gerald sat up and squinted at the crowd. They were all dressed like animals. Of course; that was what he'd done to offend his host. "Oh I say, I seem to have come without my fancy dress. I'll be on my way imme- imm- straight away."
"No you won't; you'll empty your pockets first."
Gerald felt faintly surprised at this rather unusual rule, and then he realised. Naturally, they'd want to sign his petition! He handed over the paper. The scarred man looked at it and then back at Gerald. "What's this?" he said.
"Well, it's the petition, of course - for Freedom!" Gerald launched happily into his speech; he knew it would wow them in the House. It certainly seemed to stun this audience.
When he wobbled off again on his bicycle, his pockets remained inviolate and he clutched the petition. It was enhanced by several rather unusual signatures; many of the guests could only produce an illiterate cross, which caused Gerald to shake his head over the current state of education.
In a small, airless room next to the main sleas-house dormitory, Sherelle was stuffing herself with a late-night chicken vindaloo with extras. She was very determined about it; her face shone with the heat from yet another chilli.
She still felt furious that she hadn't been able to prevent that body from being taken away for Sir Liam's use. However, she expected Bertha to be returned to her care in the morning, after which the authorities were going to discover that sex definitely disturbed the delicate balance of the sewage. The Drongans would find the whole of that next morning's sludge completely unacceptable. Sherelle's curry would see to that.
When the last plate had been emptied and she had washed the lot down with beer and icecream, she staggered to her trestle-bed.
Just this once, she neglected to take a quick look at the patients - so she missed seeing all the bodies jump at once when Gaia screamed.
A hundred of them had jerked away from their waste-holes. It was morning before Sherelle discovered the mess; she had nearly finished mopping up and replacing the bodies properly over their waste-holes when Festin Burke arrived. The little man twitched as he watched her; his fingers plucked at his bowler hat and twisted it around, and his little pot-belly wobbled slightly. Actually, now she came to look at it, that part of him seemed to have reduced in the last couple of days.
Well, what does the silly creature want now? she thought. Then she looked at his eyes, and felt sorry. He really did look worried.
"That body," he blurted out, "the one who went to Sir Liam? I'm sorry, it died."
Sherelle felt her whole body go still, stiff as ice. Inside, something began to bubble up from her abdomen, and it wasn't the curry. It was fury.
The councillor was still chattering: "And he- he wants... Well, he still intends to do a test to see if the bodies can be used for True Reality experiences and for quality sludge. He tells me that you're to prepare half a dozen more, for a few of his friends, but I- "
"What?" The fury finally spilled out of Sherelle; she vibrated with it as she grabbed hold of Festin and shook him. "That's it. The end; I will not do it. Do you hear? Those monsters can go somewhere else for their kicks. I've had enough of this; you can do what you damn well please, but keep away from my patients!"
"Nurse - Sherelle - " Festin was visibly horrified. "I'm not going anywhere near- " He tore himself out of her grasp.
Sir Liam chose that moment to storm into the room. His brows met in a thin, diabolical V. "Well?" he said. "Have you arranged it?
Festin gulped. "Sir, I was just about- "
"Well, get on with it. I do not wish to waste time. I have some select people who are eager to pay for this experience." He glanced along a row of bodies. "Linsey wants a good, sturdy male; that one will do." He pointed to Sherelle's favourite body.
Sherelle looked down at the helpless, homely form of Angus, and her mind worked frantically. Something - she had to think of an answer fast, one that would stop this whole idea for ever...
Suddenly it clicked into place. Her mind felt as clear and sharp as glass; she turned to Sir Liam and spoke coldly, clinically. "Sir, that would be a mistake. I can guarantee that the slightest change upsets the balance of the sludge."
"What have you been doing to them, nurse?" Sir Liam's frown deepened. "It would be quite unethical for you to- "
Sherelle grimaced. "I have simply moved the bodies around; I thought it would be good for them to have their muscles flexed. But the next day's sewage was quite the wrong consistency, and it's had to be put aside for fertiliser."
"That can be confirmed by the council, I suppose?" Sir Liam glanced at Festin. "Have you authorised this?"
Sherelle gritted her teeth. "It's only just- "
"Yes, sir," Festin broke in, "The authorisation came in this morning."
Sherelle gulped and looked at him in surprise.
Sir Liam's brow grew darker. "You should have told me about this earlier, Burke, instead of wasting valuable time. Very well, I suppose we'll have to drop the True Reality sex until the Drongans no longer need the sludge. Now, get back to work." He strode out.
Sherelle blinked at Festin. "You lied for these people? I can't thank you enough."
"Not at all, not at all. You can count on me, nurse, I assure you. I admire your determination." Festin hurried out, beaming all over his face, and Sherelle sank onto the chair beside Angus.
She patted his lovely freckled hand and murmured: "They won't even try, after this. I swear it. But it's funny - I wouldn't have believed that Burke backing me up. Well, maybe he's not so awful after all."
She sat for a few more minutes until the curry-based earthquake in her belly grew to alarming proportions. Her exit was swift.
Sir Liam stood in the middle of his empty circus, jerking his crop in his hands. His horse sidled uneasily beside him, while an old eagle hurled abuse at it from the top of an derelict cage.
Sir Liam wished he'd brought a gun with him, he could have shot the noisy damn bird. He was seriously annoyed. First it seemed as though his True Reality sex idea might be a non-starter, and now here was his latest pet project destroyed at conception. It would have been a real money-maker, too; his friends would have paid enormously for the privilege of hunting real live animals.
He raised his arms to the heavens and raged silently, his ears roaring with the thunder of his fury.
"Ah yes, you do right to thank the Lord for his blessings," a voice sounded just about at his armpit.
Sir Liam's arms snapped down to his sides and he whirled to see a neatly-suited couple who gazed at him with approval. "What?" he snapped. "Who are you?"
"Mr. Dimbly, sir, of GODLY." The man handed Sir Liam his card. "We are deeply disturbed, sir, by the approaching festivities of Beltane; God's own land is disturbed each year by their disgraceful behaviour."
"Disgraceful," the young woman by his side nodded eagerly, "and there's all those strange animals, -gasp- they're over-running the Forest, maybe ruining it for our local fauna, and those yobbos are simply encouraging them to- "
"Quiet, Aggie," said Mr. Dimbly with an indulgent smile. "She can become very enthusiastic on the Lord's work, sir. We hope that you will ban this disgraceful yearly exhibition and control the animals; we have a petition- " he handed over a slim sheaf of papers "- which shows the depth of feeling among God-fearing people in the area."
Sir Liam took the papers. He was struck by an idea; of course, the Forest was full of animals - all free! Wait a minute, much of the place was Common land; how would that affect the Hunt? Perhaps something would have to be done about that detail. What were these fools saying now?
"- hope that you would persuade the House to agree to GODLY having outright title to a specified area of the Forest, between the village and the Barrows, so that we could control the paths and protect the Lord's land."
Sir Liam smiled. These little people had given him some useful ideas. Of course, he couldn't let them gain title to the land; such important property couldn't be handed over to any riff-raff. It should be kept within the government's control - or, better still, his own. As head of Hang Enterprises and a member of Teledildonics' board, he was ideally suited to the management of such a key site.
However, the law required certain tiresome conditions to be fulfilled before Common land could be privately acquired; if carefully handled, this silly little petition would be useful in overcoming certain legal difficulties in the House. "Leave it with me," he said. Then he turned to his horse and leapt into the saddle.
Unfortunately, the eagle had chosen that moment to dive-bomb the horse. It wasn't anybody's fault that Sir Liam fell face first to the ground. Nor could anyone be blamed for the pile of old elephant-dung which awaited him.