Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The sun shone down on Uptonburgh from a clear, breezy blue sky; not a cloud in sight to spoil its view. It approved of days like this. Perfect for designing the most subtle of sunsets.
However, far below its burnished face, behind the gleaming panels of Teledildonics Inc's main computer, at least one storm was brewing.
Vinia's icon stomped up and down the computer's glowing recreation-corridors, shoving the slow-moving spheres out of the way. "Who is this Farrell guy? What did he mean by asking about me?"
Angus watched her with some concern. "He's okay, lass. We used to chat on the Network- "
"Never mind that; how does he know my name?"
"Well now," Bertha's hearty tones cut in, "How do you think? Look, stop worrying about it. Why not join in the game?"
Bertha's vibrant new 3-D octopus-icon swirled around nearby, flicking balls of aether at the sea of kittens. The little furry icons bounced after them, eager to bat and spit and bounce back again. Sparks crackled between the octopus tentacles and ran over the whole icon; Bertha had been amazingly strong ever since her strange blackout. Angus had to hand it to her - it had been her strength which had eventually pushed their message across to Freedom.
Vinia hunched at her now and tapped a corner against the floor. "He's been using me, my personality, on one of those awful discs - hasn't he? Hasn't he?"
Angus twisted his smiley-face. "Farrell's a good Network friend. He's- "
"A pervert! A Teledildonics junkie. That's what your good friend is."
He grabbed her corners with his and shook her. "Hey, calm down. So Farrell has made a big mistake. Maybe he tried the Cap out of curiosity; it doesn't make him a monster. Look," he wrapped himself around her and drew her down the corridors towards the Subliminal Virus' restriction field. "Remember how nearly you got caught by one of these? Well, there's one on every dildonics disc, lass."
Vinia looked at the creatures which slavered on the other side of the field, and shuddered. Then she realised that it wasn't just her that was shivering; the whole place was moving around her. She tried to get away from the field, tripped up, and fell flat on her face.
The clock-beat had changed. It began a wild, syncopated rhythm with a deep undertone, a manic bongo reverberation. The whole area started to sway and buckle; the field around the Subliminals began to fizzle.
Angus pulled Vinia out of the corridor and pelted through the recreation area with her, yelling at the others as he went. "Get away from here - we've got to find whatever's making this noise before those beasties escape!"
The sound seemed to bang and crash all around them as they flew through the corridors; Angus found it hard to concentrate on the direction. Through a pulsing golden haze, he saw Bertha, covered in a trailing cascade of kittens, spear past him. "Come on, everyone," she yelled, "this way! Stop going round in circles, for heaven's sake. It's the Chip!"
The rhythm got louder and louder as they approached the deepest cavern, the one which contained the processor. Somewhere under that row, Angus could hear a voice singing in a series of bass chimes - something about the world being a great big melting-pot. Right now, Angus could believe that. His brain felt like the slag.
They burst through the node into the huge, spherical chamber; thin golden wires ran toward the centre, where the Chip - the secret, special crystalline basis of Teledildonics' new process - used to squat in dark, powerful silence. Once, it had been large and inanimate in its solitary splendour.
Now, however, it was almost unrecognisable. It had become a vibrant, faceted sphere from which the circuit-glow reflected a glitter of light. A dark coppery throbbing, deep inside it, pumped to the new rhythm of the clock; and over its opalescent life-fire, the manufacturer's circuits flowed like golden veins, as did the lettering: "Made in Drongo".
The most startling change, however, was the way in which this shimmering presence twirled and danced, singing out of tune and flicking the golden wires in a rumba.
Suddenly it spotted them. "Hi there! Come right on in, the party's fine." The voice rang, deep and bell-like.
"Please," Angus shouted, "you'll have to stop. We can't- "
"Hey, man, hang loose. This is music, like you've never heard it played."
"You're right there," Vinia winced.
The kittens, silent for once, watched the movement of the huge Chip with wide-eyed interest. At this point, it produced an excruciating rendition of the Lambada.
"Quiet!" Bertha's voice rang out above the din, and she flipped a long, whip-like tentacle over the Chip's surface.
"Ow! Okay, sister - no need to get heavy. What's your beef, anyway?"
"Look," said Angus, "That clock's important. Don't mess around with it or this computer'll be closed down for repairs. You wouldn't want to be replaced, would you?"
"Sounds like a good deal to me. I get to win free of this stupid job. Neat, huh?"
"What's wrong with it?"
"I'll tell you, brother. I didn't ask to be put here. I got cut out of my fat mama's belly; thrown fast asleep into a vat of shit, with a bunch of my brothers and sisters, just to be some kind of dumb catalyst; and then here I am, stuffed into this dead-end job. So what's it all about? Whoo-ee. I've been only half alive, man - but at last I'm awake, and now I get to make sweet, sweet music." The rhythm began to speed up again.
Vinia raised her voice: "For heaven's sake, think! If this computer shuts down, we'll all of us stop existing - we'll die."
A drum-roll answered her. "Well, what is existence, sister?"
Angus was about to appeal to the Chip's better self - although he wasn't sure it had one - when the kittens leapt onto it. It disappeared under a scrabbling, fizzing mound of fur.
"My little ones!" Arboriana slipped over to the heap and grabbed at her children. Angus and Vinia joined in, just as a muffled chuckle broke from the Chip. Soon the air was filled with its loud guffaws and cries of "Too much" and "Wow, that tickles."
"This game, it is not a good one. You will come away, no?" said Arboriana in alarm, flinging yet another kitten behind her. It scrabbled up her icon with glee and flung itself back onto the pile.
At last the Chip emerged, quiet and surrounded by a susurration of purring cats. Angus listened carefully to the familiar pounding of the clock-beat, and sighed with relief.
"Man, that was great," said the Chip. "No, don't take them away. They're real cool cats. I'll make you a deal. Like, you give me a load of fun - and I let that dumb tick-tock boogie along for you awhile. Okay?"
It would have to do. Angus floated slowly back along the corridors, deep in thought. Now, where was Vinia? He speeded up, suddenly remembering the caged Subliminals.
Across town Angus' body carried on making sewage, unaware of his missing soul's difficulties, the premature birth of Gaia's children, and the approaching end of the universe.
Festin Burke stood beside the body, in the sleas-house dormitory; the room was quiet apart from the occasional soft fart - and some heavy breathing from a seriously ruffled Sherelle. The nurse oozed fury from every pore; Festin could scent her anger with his eyes closed. Or, he wondered, was that simply the smell of zombie-crap?
He opened his eyes again and got the full force of her glare. She was magnificent; soft brown hair escaped the confines of its cap and flew around her face, her breast heaved in agitation, and her eyes were large and dark with emotion.
She stalked toward him, fists clenched, and spoke in low, even tones. "I don't care what Sir Liam says. My patient is not going to be terminated simply because his Lordship thinks Angus' faeces are no longer saleable."
He backed away, flapping his hands nervously. "No no, you don't understand- "
"It's you who doesn't understand; you touch a single hair of any of my patients - or send anyone else to do it - and there will be one more eunuch in this town."
He flinched. "No, really; I came myself to tell you about Sir Liam's orders, because I thought I could help you! We could fiddle the books, he'd never know if this body was the same one or another, and anyway I could donate something towards its upkeep- "
"You?" She stopped dead and blinked. "You'd do that much? Why?" For once she seemed to really look at him, her warm gaze full of puzzled interest. He swallowed, desperate not to give the wrong answer. Instinctively he knew that it would be a big no-no to tell her how much he wanted to get inside her knickers.
He rummaged through his mind. At last he managed: "Well, his crap isn't really unsaleable, is it? We could sell it ourselves..."
What had he said wrong now? She wasn't glaring at him any more, but that new expression of interest had gone too. A look of disappointment wandered across her face as she turned briskly back to her patient. "Yes, alright. Whatever it takes. Now, I've got work to do."
Festin felt an urge to yell. He felt an urge to grab hold of her and shake her until she told him what the hell she wanted; to fling her precious Angus out of the window; to dance up and down naked in the middle of the room and defy her to ignore him. Quite simply, he felt an urge.
But instead of indulging in any of these delightful activities, he sighed, unclenched his hands, and walked away. He had to go and keep a date with an army major and a load of inoffensive standing Stones. Yet another of the Great Man's impossible commands.
Festin began to wonder whether the life of a councillor was worth all this effort, and then he remembered what life was like in the sludge-pits, and despair gnawed at his stomach. Although maybe it's hunger, or then again..., he thought, as he remembered the glorious glimpse of Sherelle's lithe body - and sensed again that unfamiliar, disturbing movement in his loins.
That was the trouble with keeping fit. He left the room, fighting to hold his eager genitals under control by picturing soggy chocolate eclairs. Then he realised what could be done with a bit of imagination and an eclair, and he switched desperately to a picture of Sir Liam's sneer.
That did the trick. His genitals gave up the fight and crept back into his crotch.
Shearweird Forest glowered down at the object of Festin's thoughts. Sir Liam was riding along the forest edge, in earnest conversation with Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe.
Gerald had never been very good at riding. Horses would apparently size him up at first sight, decide that he was a sack of potatoes with a chicken-meal brain, and act accordingly. Most of the time, he was almost convinced that his mounts were headless; the reins would disappear downwards, over their shoulders, to the place on the grass verge or hedge where some serious munching was going on. Progress would be slow.
However, on this occasion, Gerald was both surprised and alarmed to see his mare's head bob up and down, in its proper place, to the rhythm of her walk. She had been almost eager to move when Sir Liam had said something cold in connection with horses and dog-meat - in fact, she had trotted off so fast that Gerald had nearly lost his seat, the reins, and his breakfast.
Cycling was a lot easier, he thought wistfully. He dreamed about Holly.
Sir Liam's superior voice droned on: "So you see, Gerald; of course your constituents are important. But loyalty to the Party is absolutely vital; it's your duty to back our well-conceived Bills rather than some crazy idea concocted by crackpots. They don't know the first thing about the economy. Your people voted you in to put through the government's policies, didn't they?"
"Well, I don't know," Gerald risked lifting one hand off the reins to scratch his nose. "They didn't have much choice really, did they?"
"Nonsense! Everyone has the same choice."
"Uh, even in the places where there's no other contestant? And then what about the homeless, or the people in tied cottages, or- "
"Well, of course!" Sir Liam sounded outraged. "Would you want every uninformed idiot to have a say in how the country's run?
"N-no, I suppose..." Gerald looked absently along the hedge, where a distant figure was bent over, foraging.
Suddenly he remembered an earlier puzzlement. He twisted to look at his companion. "I say, back there at the House, didn't someone twitter about the Drongans and sewage-sludge while I had the Gerbil? What was all that about?"
Sir Liam sighed, and urged his horse into a faster trot alongside the hedge. "Gerald, I wish you'd pay attention to what goes on sometimes. The country is getting some good revenue - both from the tax on Teledildonics' products, and from their by-product of a few bodies. They produce saleable sludge; the Drongans are falling over themselves to buy the stuff. So you see, boy, that the system turns out well for everyone." He dug his heels into his horse.
Gerald frowned. That reasoning didn't sound quite right.
Suddenly he realised that Sir Liam simply hadn't noticed the foraging figure; the Great Man was bearing down on her at a canter. Gerald gasped and did his best to urge his mare onward.
"Sir Liam! Look out," was what he tried to say, but it came out as "Sir! Liggle! Glot!" since the mare chose that moment to bolt.
Holly hummed to herself as she picked lovely fresh young nettles from the hedgerow. They were terrific in stews, of course, but her particular forte was delicious nettle beer. She loved this time of year, when the buds were bursting on the trees and the tasty hawthorn-buds were ready for picking; in fact, this hedge had enough for a good meal. Even this late in the day, there was a dewy feel to the air as well as a delicately mingled scent of rising sap.
A few bees buzzed nearby in youthful optimism, and a cuckoo called deep in the forest. Through the hollow ground, Holly's bare feet picked up the rhythmic thud of horse's hooves on the turf at much the same time as her ears became aware of the sound.
The drumming grew faster and louder, beating in time with her heart as she leaned far forward over the nettles to gather the delicate hawthorn buds.
Then the sound was upon her, filling the air; something brushed against her bottom and sent her tumbling over, face-first into the ditch. The nettles embraced her with enthusiasm.
Holly was not amused.
Gerald hung on, no room in his mind for the unfortunate woman so carelessly upended by Sir Liam's boot. The Great Man was visible now only as a cloud of mud-clots in the distance, and Gerald had more urgent things on his mind. Such as, how to dismount in one piece.
"Oww-ooo," he said intelligently. The mare zipped along, her mane flicking against his nose, ears eagerly pointing forward. Hang on, ears forward? Damn the beast, she wasn't spooked at all! As if to prove him right, she slowed to a trot, pranced around in a cheerful little dance, and powered back along the hedge. Gerald clung on desperately. She was a sadist, that was the answer, he thought, as his stomach continued to bounce along on her back.
Well, it was nice to know that one of them was in control.
At that moment the one in control slowed down. Enough was enough; it was time to stop and get down to some serious grass-cropping. Gerald, having come adrift from his stirrups in the confusion, continued his forward momentum by slipping down her neck onto the muddy path. He lay there, hugging and kissing as much of it as he could and ignoring her derisory whicker.
He heaved himself to his feet and staggered off along the hedge; he had to find out if that poor woman was injured. She sounded pretty healthy, if the muffled invective emanating from the nettle-bed were anything to go by. Shapely too, judging from the legs which waved helplessly in front of him.
Gerald grabbed hold of a foot and pulled hard and effectively, to be greeted by a string of curses and an infuriated Holly. "Er," he said, and felt himself flush. She looked magnificent, even with a rash across one delicate cheek and humus in that glossy hair. "I say, are you okay?"
"Can't you look where you're damn well going?" she said. Her voice was music to his ears. Unfortunately the words were off-key.
"No, really, you've made a mistake, it wasn't me- "
At that moment the mare pushed his back with her nose and whiffled happily. Holly glowered at him. "Don't lie to me. Do you see any other riders around here? Stupid Toff."
Oh marvellous, thought Gerald. Now the animal decides to be chummy. Suddenly he brightened; simple logic, that was the answer. "I say, Miss - Holly - would you expect a," he winced, "'stupid Toff' to push you into a ditch and then come back to rescue you?"
"Depends what he's after."
So much for logic. "I'm sorry, then. All I can say is, that when I saw Sir Liam crash past you, I was afraid he'd hurt you. I'm glad he didn't." Gerald turned away in defeat and reached for the mare's reins; she jerked away; he twisted, stumbled over his feet, and fell back into the ditch.
As he fell, he heard Holly's shocked voice: "Sir Liam? Ugh!"
He scrabbled back up, surprised to find Holly's slim hand reaching down to help him. She gurgled with mirth; he must look quite a sight, he supposed. He grinned, and an arrested expression crossed her face. She looked closely at him.
"I do believe you were telling the truth after all. Must be a first for a Toff," she said. "C'mon, pal, we've both been in the wars, eh? How'd you like to try some of last year's elderberry wine?"
Gerald would like to very much. The next couple of hours saw some serious drinking and a most satisfying progress in bilateral relations.
The evening sun still smiled down on the Forest and the Barrows, preparing to create a veritable masterpiece of a sunset for its fans, when the army's heavy lifting gear lumbered up toward the Stones. A fine crop of the country's healthy young conscripts staggered across the fields, armed with crowbars, a dismembered crane, and an ancient garbage-truck. The recent spending cuts had been severe.
Festin Burke, trailing along behind, wished that he wasn't. This whole exercise reeked of disaster, and he really couldn't see why anyone in Uptonburgh should be bothered by a bunch of Travellers this far out. So long as the town was kept clean, what did it matter?
They heaved their way up to the top of the mound, where the oval of rugged Stones loomed high against the sky. Festin looked up at the nearest one and shuddered. It was a tower of darkness on this clear evening, and the cold wind of prehistory oozed from it.
He felt very small. It didn't help that an old eagle was yarking at him from the top.
Egrette was watching everything with interest. This promised to be a good show. To her left, a spur of Shearweird Forest washed up against the base of the mound; with her rheumy eagle eye - well, if she squinted it a bit anyway - she could already see a swathe of trees rustling with furious activity. The effect was similar to that created by a mouse scampering through long grass toward her, only a lot bigger. She drooled at the thought. Well, okay, so she knew it wasn't a giant mouse; but a bird could dream, couldn't she?
Below her, the humans were bickering.
"Okay, mate," said a spotty one; "let's blow the bugger up!"
"Look, the geezer move the things, not smash 'em to bits," his companion said, pushing a pair of big round spectacles back into place. "You gotta have a bit of finesse. What we want is a some leverage, get them into the truck. What d'you think we brought this crane for?"
Spotty sniffed at the heap of bits. "Scrap-heap. Can't beat a good blooie."
Spotty's argument was apparently irresistible to the others. His bespectacled adversary glowered at him while he happily set up a network of explosives, lit the fuse, and stood back. Egrette decided that caution was a pretty neat idea; she took off into the clear evening sky, and circled at a safe distance.
Shortly afterwards, two events occurred at once; three elephants, a lion, and a tigress on wheels erupted from the forest edge; and all the explosives went "Ka-FOOM". The area disappeared under a billowing cloud of smoke and a cacophony of hacking coughs.
Deep in the caverns of Tyrnannog, the ground bucked. Arianrod's careful fingers slipped on the clay; she flung a ruined figurine back onto the wheel and squidged it down. "Oh bother," she said. "What are those silly children doing now?
Trying to lift the anchor in YUK-Z11-GAH, telepathed Ethniu, who had been having a nap and was now hopefully sniffing the food-creation alcove. Mouse-flavoured crisps? Is that all Kernunnos produced today? Oh well. She crunched her way through them. Not bad. Like bones without the splinters.
Arianrod stopped, and looked at the cat in dismay. "Trying to lift those Stones? Are they mad?"
Probably. Hey, I'd better see what's keeping everyone. They should have stopped this by now. Ethniu licked her whiskers, gave a musical "mew", and vanished.
Arianrod looked down and saw that yet another of her special figurines was missing. She was beginning to feel a bit miffed.
At Fallekin Barrows the smoke hung about, clinging affectionately to everyone; nobody appreciated it, though. They were all running about and yelling.
A roar rang out over the chaos, followed by an eerie trumpeting.
"What's that?" the words dropped into the ensuing hush. "Sounds like a lion..."
"Uh, I think this was all a big mistake - let's just go. I'll tell Sir- Urk!" Festin Burke found himself lifted into the air, high above the smoke. What he saw didn't comfort him. Three elephant trunks waved like snakes at him from the murk below, a huge lion sat in royal splendour on a Stone, and a couple of moulting vultures inspected him critically from another.
"H-rrrowrr?" said the lion conversationally.
Festin's throat worked silently for a while. "Yes," he managed at last; "it's a lion alright. Ah, has anyone got a change of underpants handy?"
"Look, Mr. Burke," the words floated up from below, accompanied by a manic hissing and honking; "I've got my own - ow - problems right now. Who let these damn geese up here?"
The smoke gradually dispersed in a huff. As the air cleared, it disclosed a completely undamaged ring of Stones. Spang in the middle of it squatted a huge and unearthly statue; it was clad only in a large cat and a small, wide-eyed girl.
Natasha sat on one of the sticky-out bits of the new statue and clapped, squealing happily. This was loads of fun.
Beauty could whiz around really well now that she had a set of Drew's wheels. She was ever so good at picking people up in her mouth; you could tell she was the motherly sort. And those elephants were great at fiddling about in people's pockets with their trunks.
"Ugh! Hey, Burke," one man yelled as he pushed Leo's face away from his; "Why didn't you warn us? I didn't know Sir Liam kept a bloody menagerie here!"
"Neither did I", came the weary response from under a pile of geese.
Leo patted the man's hand away. Natasha felt real envy at the way he could knock people out by breathing at them. He made a great team with the vultures, who were terrific at sitting on people's chests and looking hungry and hopeful.
All too soon the area emptied of briskly fleeing men. The little one called Burke outran them all, even their careering truck.
Natasha swung her legs against the statue and sighed. What a pity it was all over. She stroked the silky fur of the cat which sat on one of the other sticky-out bits, one that looked like a lot of snakes having a party.
Suddenly the cat fizzed and leaped down. Natasha rubbed her nose in surprise; then she climbed down too and raced after it. There, round the back of the Circle, a man with big round glasses had hitched up a machine to one of the Stones; he was tugging away, muttering something like: "I'll show those guys. All they ever think of is explosives. This'll lift these monsters out; you can't beat levers- Ouch!" The cat had jumped up onto his head.
Natasha looked at the man. She looked at the Stone with her deep-seeing eye, and saw the scorch-marks on the grass. Something welled up inside her from deep within the earth; she felt sparks fly up her spine, out through her hair, and up into the sky. Clouds began to roil above the mound, spreading out from it as Natasha's hair crackled around her head.
She stamped her foot. "Naughty man!" she said, and a couple of fireballs crashed out of the clouds.
"Oh shit," said the man. He yelled: "Hey! Wait for me!" and ran after his friends, who were lurching over the fields in their truck.
But Natasha had lost interest in him. She was having fun, sitting back on her perch, with the cat beside her, clapping happily as the fireballs zipped and danced all over the sky.
Egrette flew off happily into the grey evening sky, as the sun sulked and slipped down over the horizon.
No delicate sunset was in evidence; the sun was blowed if it was going to produce one of its beautiful water-colours for all these flamboyant cretins.