Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
In Teledildonics Inc's main computer, Angus was panicking. He was doing a magnificent job of it - taste of bile in the non-existent mouth, pounding heart - the works. Vinia - Vinia. Where was she? He zoomed up onto the circuit roof and flicked his gaze over the whole vista; the golden pathways stared blankly back and the distant copper spires and whorls glittered at him with cold emptiness. Nothing.
He slipped back into the corridor and hurried along its glowing length toward the subliminals' cage-field. Surely she hadn't gone there? She knew the danger, after that clock-beat hiatus. Well, maybe the field had held after all, it was silly to expect the worst. He rounded the final corner - oh, hell. No field, no Subliminals, no Vinia. This had to be the wrong place, maybe he'd taken a wrong turn, maybe Vinia hadn't come here... He flipped from side to side in the corridor's tube, pushing aside its lining of lazily turning light-spheres. There - what was that? A faint sigh from a left-hand junction...
A tightness in his non-existent throat, Angus sped after the sound and popped into the recreation area, smash into a crowd of slavering creatures.
"Aaagh!" he cried, back-sliding furiously, then: "Oh hell." They'd seen him; they were jostling along after him, whispering siren longings which tugged at him. He wanted to go back, to revel among them. Why shouldn't he? He slowed down. What was he supposed to remember?
A sudden banzai yodel of "Chin up - don't give in!" screeched across his nerves, and Angus juddered to a halt. Bertha Bustleman's 3-D octopus-icon barrelled down the corridor, grabbed him up in its tentacles, and turned to flee - straight into the path of another Subliminal. This one was a wraith in the shape of a woman; it floated toward them, gossamer-thin with desire.
"Ah, shit!" said Bertha. She whipped out a tentacle and spun the ghost-creature like a top; she sliced off her tentacle and left it behind, still working away, as she whisked Angus past the creature. Its eyes crossed and it carried on spinning; Angus' last glimpse was of chaos, as it whirled in among their other pursuers and scattered them.
At last Bertha stopped and put Angus down; he felt wobbly around the edges. "Phew, that was close," he said; "I thought they'd got Vinia, but I didn't see her there, did you?"
"But hey, lass - how did you manage that trick? Are you immune or something?"
Bertha's octopus shrugged, and her loud laugh rang out. "Goodness, I don't know. I don't usually get too close. But their job is to change people - make 'em want to stick around - isn't it? Well, they'd have a jolly tough time changing me; I want to stay here anyway."
"Why? You'll be wanting to get out and carry on with - whatever it is you do - surely? Aren't you a keep-fit instructor?"
The octopus drooped, all colour flopping out of it. "That's a laugh. You've got to be healthy for that; even apart from my useless legs and eyes, I've been a wreck inside for years - hated myself - ever since... Well, he was my cousin and I trusted him, but that's no excuse, is it?." Bertha lifted her icon up and whirled around again. "But let's not get morbid, eh? When you lot get out, I'll have those weirdoes back there for company; better than nothing. I didn't think so before; but now - well. I suppose I don't deserve any better. Oh, come on, let's get looking for that Vinia of yours. Start at the centre and work out. Chop chop!" She laughed again, and sped off toward the central chamber, trailing tentacles behind her. Angus grew a chin and dropped it.
Then he chased after her.
He felt breathless when they reached the Chip. Vinia's familiar candy-floss-topped icon squatted beside the throbbing crystalline form, and sneezed gently. "Kitten-fur," she said. How do they make it so real?"
Angus crumpled into a heap. "Vinia! Thank heaven, lass; I thought we'd lost you. But what kept you here?"
She looked at him with a surprised tilt, and nearly fell backwards. "Whoops," she said and giggled. "Hello there. Want some?" She materialised a bubbling beaker of an icon in front of Angus.
"What the hell- "
"It's wine; really good. Give it a try. Ol' Cryssie here loves it." Vinia reached out a corner to pat the pulsing Chip.
"Yeah, man - this juice blows my mind. Whooee!"
Angus listened anxiously to the clock-beat; it was okay, thank goodness. The stuff did look good... He took a sip. It was good - dark and lightly honey-flavoured, but sharp as iced lemon.
Vinia's icon leaned against the Chip and wafted out another drink-icon. "It's great fun keeping Crystal happy, isn't it? She - he - it- " A note of exasperation crept into her voice. "Look, Crystal, are you a he or a she? Or an it?"
"Hey, sister - call me anything. Never mind the sex - like, sure it's groovy but is it the core of the universe?"
"So, does that mean you're male or female?"
Angus had been thinking hard. He turned to Bertha: "Hang on, lass. If you're immune to those Subliminals, we'd be better rounding them up now, wouldn't we?"
She shook her octopus icon. "Sorry, I wouldn't like to fiddle with a whole bunch at once... Wow, this wine is terrific!"
Shearweird Forest was not enjoying a peaceful Sunday lie-in. As far as this Sunday went, its guts were full of argument and conflict, as well as the usual wafts of worm-driven methane.
Megan stood in the mud of a Forest stream and glowered at Sloshforth, who lay on the bank and peered into the water. "What the hell do you mean by it?" she said.
The printer shrugged. "What, that?" His desiccated face crinkled in amusement as he nodded toward the soul-disadvantaged Vinia, who sat in the middle of the stream and crooned vaguely. Sloshforth shifted his harpoon to his left hand. "She makes great bait," he said. "Most useful female I've ever come across. Peaceful, too."
Megan snorted. She subsided onto the bank and watched her daughter's body with morose fascination. She had to confess that Vinia looked quite happy. "So, what about your great anti blood-sports beliefs?"
"Gotta eat, girl. Doesn't hurt the fish, either. This is just a love-harpoon. Shush - there's one! Watch." The printer stiffened and fired directly at Vinia's toes.
A disturbance in the water resolved itself into a fish which leapt onto the surface and rolled into the shore in an amazingly erotic belly-dance.
Vinia gurgled happily and clapped her hands.
Sloshforth slipped his hands under the fish, held it in the air and tickled it while reciting a verse in an ancient language which sounded something like a cross between a gargle and a hiccup.
A smoky essence rose from the doomed fish and coalesced around his fingers. Gently, Sloshforth placed his hand in the water, and a ghostly shape flipped around it briefly, looking puzzled, before wriggling off downstream.
At which point, one of Megan's otters jumped up, flicked the dead fish out of Sloshforth's hand, and bit its head off.
Doug stumbled through the underbrush, yelping slightly as the thorn-thickets clung lovingly to him; he wove toward the stream, holding on to his sack and to Brigid.
The goddess was clad this time in a strapless silver-chain evening gown, split to the waist on one side to facilitate walking. Doug had been squinting sideways at her as he staggered along, and he still couldn't figure out how it was held up. Not that he'd been able to concentrate very well; the rhythmic flash of thigh had seen to that. He was having trouble getting used to her footwear, though; spike-heeled patent-leather black boots with vicious spurs. A tad incongruous perhaps. And those ecstasy-wielding fingers - how had she managed to grow the long, curving, cat-like nails so fast? Even worse, what were they for?
With a final yelp, Doug popped out from the riverside bushes and plonked his sack at Sloshforth's feet.
The printer glanced up from his tussle with Megan's otter, looked critically at Doug, and sniffed the air cautiously. "Been trying Jeston's Ultra-Special, huh?"
Doug straightened up and tried to look dignified. "Do you want my hemp, or don't you?"
Sloshforth's face crinkled into a smile as he peered into the sack. "Ah, good. This will make fine, sturdy paper."
"Paper?" Brigid dug out a handful and smelt it. "Thou art an unimaginative creep."
Sloshforth ignored her. "So, what is it you want in return? A bit of printing?"
Doug nodded eagerly. "Labels, that's the thing. I can see it now, all sorts of incense for Beltane, wrapped up in fancy packets - they'd go like a rocket. Stuff like `Moon Incense,' `Elemental Incense', `Beltane Incense'- " Brigid put her hand on his shoulder and rumbled gently. He hurried on: "- and, of course, `Goddess - Brigid - Incense'..."
"Right you are. I'll get it done tomorrow." Sloshforth turned back to his work, just in time to see the last remnants of his fish disappear down two otterly throats. He did a little dance of rage; Megan snickered; and Vinia clapped. "Goo, glurgle!" she said.
"Right," said Brigid, grabbing hold of Doug, "thou hast done thy business; now let's go and rave it up."
Doug held back slightly. "Are you going to cut those nails first?"
She gave a wild, eerie laugh. "Thou art so cute," she said and whistled them into privacy.
The Sunday before Beltane drew to a tired close; the sun came out of its depression and painted a very creditable sunset, one of the standard gold-fading-to-pink jobs. Unfortunately, nobody in Fallekin Astow noticed it; they were all hurrying toward the pub. Being holy was thirsty work.
Drew Fareman took a deep draught of his Special; the bitter creaminess played with his tastebuds, slithered down his throat, and went about its intoxicating business. He gave a deep sigh, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and squinted around the room. Damn, he thought; still no luck. Okay, he'd have another swig. This was bound to work; one day he would get drunk enough to see that nixie wife of his. Or die of gut-rot.
He was raising the glass to his lips for the third time when he felt a cool hand on his arm, and the scent of wild roses wafted up his nostrils. "No, father; that isn't the way." The woman's voice was soft and vibrant.
Drew jumped and looked wildly around; nobody was there. He looked at his glass and then at Farrell, who sat opposite and was working steadily through his own pint. The young man was making an art of it.
"This stuff," Drew said carefully, "do you think it could affect the brain permanently?"
"Shouldn't wonder," Farrell said, draining his glass with a series of revolting sucking noises. He thumped it back down on the table with a satisfied grunt, sat back in his chair, looked at Drew and almost jumped out of his chair. "Vinny?" The eagerness died out of his eyes and he slumped back with an accusatory glare at his empty glass. "No, she's gone again. Now I'm seeing things. Should we stop drinking, do you think?"
Drew and Farrell stared at each other; as if struck by the same thought, they shook their heads in unison and then scrambled to beat each other to the bar. "Quick, Jeston! Line 'em up!"
Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe was visiting Holly. Or, more accurately, he was running through Fallekin Astow after her and Papillon. He could hear the buzz of satisfied sighs and chatter already rising from the dusk-shrouded pub. He thought wistfully about his trusty bike. He should have brought it, he really should, and not let himself be conned into getting up behind her on that damn horse.
Gerald, unused to bareback riding, had done his best to stay up behind Holly. How the hell did you stay on a horse which bounced along with such energy, when you had nothing to cling onto and your knees kept slipping? Boing boing boing, the damn creature went. Well, he was blowed if he was going to cling onto Holly, attractive as the idea seemed. Holly was prickly about things like that. And a fellow had his pride.
A fellow's pride meant that halfway through the Forest, he had slid inexorably backwards down the stallion's back.
At last he was sliding down the rump, and a fellow's pride evaporated. "I -gack- say, -guck-..." Holly couldn't hear him; she was singing a wild Traveller song, punctuated by whickers and neighs from her mount. Which was why Gerald ended up running along behind, the distance between them gradually widening.
Papillon trotted through the back streets and deposited Holly at the door. She dismounted, stretched, and looked puzzled. "Oy - Toff! Where are you?" She said, and then glanced at the stallion, who pretended innocence. "Papillon! What have you done with him?"
The horse tossed his head and snorted, as Gerald stumbled up to them, panting. Holly caught sight of his red face and dishevelled clothing; she didn't quite manage to suppress a gurgle of mirth.
A blast of hop-laden hot air greeted them as Holly flung the door open. The place was an ocean of happy confusion; Jeston's Special was a marvellous ice-breaker. Gerald licked his lips and inched toward the bar, catching Jeston's eye; the barman nodded his understanding, and a couple of glasses of Special were smoothly pulled for Gerald in an instant. Jeston beamed, and went back to polishing glasses.
Gerald and Holly squeezed over to the noisiest table. The only quiet person seated at it was Kerr Nunnos, who was examining an oddly iridescent magazine. He seemed to be stroking it.
Ceredwen was there, teaching Natterjak to beg for eye-dropper drips of wine; she was being remarkably unsuccessful. Toads obviously had their pride - they had extra long tongues, too, as many at the table discovered.
Megan was there, twiddling grimly at her psi-tuned wireless and squinting across the table at the spot where she obviously guessed Drew to be. She was right.
Farrell and Drew were leaning chummily against each other; they sang, with excruciating vigour and passion, an obscure song involving some female and her lover which started: "The bird sat on the maiden's brush, his tail a beacon bright; `Oh fie, my lord, I feel quite flushed, your sword's a handsome sight'" - and got worse.
Gerald looked at them and shook his head. "Third pint?"
"Yep," said Ceredwen.
Gerald glanced from Drew to Megan, and felt a pang of sympathy. "I say, how on earth did you two meet if you can't see or feel each other?"
Megan glanced up from her radio. "He is here, is he? Good. I used to see him alright," she said, "he was a real sight, mooning about at the edge of the river. All strong and silent. Couldn't resist him, though I did try, no matter what anyone says." She glowered at Ceredwen, who shrugged.
"You should come to Tyrnannog and look at the Book sometime," said the goddess. "see the variety we've got there. Then you'd understand why cross-Continuum fraternising is so difficult. Well, you can't expect oil paints to join easily with watercolours. Magic and Science don't mix; and those are the closest sets of Laws!
Drew stopped in mid-song and sobbed gently into his beer.
"Hey," Jeston called out over the hubbub, "salt ruins it!"
"Megan and me?" Drew said. "God, but she was beautiful. When I first saw her, she was running through a field, laughing, her hands outstretched to the sky; a lithe, wild creature. It was her eyes, though, that caught me. Just a glance she gave in passing, but there was everything in them. Joy, despair, compassion - everything. I had all I could need in those days, you know. A good research job, a house, my legs... But none of it meant a thing without her. When she turned out to be a nixie, it made no difference. I had to have her. It took ages - but I got her."
Gerald looked from one to the other again and scratched his ear. "So what on earth went wrong between you two?"
"Oh, it was my fault really," Drew stared morosely into his now-salty Special. "I'd been warned what would happen if I hit her."
"You hit her?"
"That's right, he hit me." Megan glowered. "Well, it was more of a push, really, but he'd never been angry with me before then. He'd been doing the `worship the ground under your feet' routine until then, the silly pillock."
"Yes, I hit her. I just couldn't understand her; she'd go to a wedding and weep, and she'd go to a christening and weep - but what got me riled was when we went to my mother's funeral. Megan dressed in her best clothes, and she laughed and danced all over the place. Well, I was upset - but that's no excuse. I lost her right then. She looked at me all wistful-like, and said, `Oh Drew. Why?' I was still seething, so I said `You hated my mother that much?' And she gave a wistful sort of smile and said `No, my dear. I dance because I love her.' Which was when she disappeared, just like a puff of smoke. And now - now, I'd do anything to get her back; but she wouldn't want me, not now I'm stuck like this in a wheelchair. I just wish I could see her so that I can tell her that I understand at last."
Drew shook his head, took a swig at his beer, and gagged. "Hey, Jeston! Another Special, please; this one's ruined."
Megan suddenly rose to her feet in excitement. "Feet! I can see his feet! But why are they off the ground?"
A slam and the tinkle of breaking glass interrupted her. The window behind had crashed open, and Papillon's head thrust through it, looking hopeful.
Jeston took in the situation at a glance; he heaved a bucketful of Special from behind the bar and carried it over. As he placed it before the horse, he said mildly: "Perhaps Sir would indicate his requirements less dramatically in future?"
Sir responded with thirsty sucking noises.
Farrell had put his Cap on. Not because of the withdrawal pains; they no longer tore him apart these days - he didn't know why not, but he wasn't complaining. It was nice just to simply be with his Vinny, companionable and loving as she always was - or nearly always. Right now he was in the middle of a heated discussion with her. Well, actually, she had grabbed him by the ears and was bashing his Cap-covered head against the wall.
He was a bit confused; what had started it? Oh yes, he'd been leaning back in her arms, her breath soft on his cheek, and had said: "Oh Vinny, I wish you were really here." Quite innocuous, he'd have thought, but here she was, really laying into him.
"- And you know this is real," she banged his head back again, "you'll have the bruises to show for it in the morning." -bash- "Are they real? Are they?" -bash- "so why isn't this real?" At which point she let go of his ears, rubbed her chest sinuously up and down his - and he felt his eyes cross.
"Gah," he said.
"Vinia!" Megan's shocked voice rang out. "Stop that at once!"
"Guck," Farrell said, trying to retain as much dignity as three Specials and an erection allowed. "How can she see you?" he whispered to Vinny.
Vinny clamped her teeth together in a pretty attempt at a snarl, and hissed through them: "Doesn't that prove I'm real?"
Farrell gave up. One more Special, a twitch from the Morality Interrupt, and a slap from Megan later, he decided to make music. His pan-pipes felt warm in his hands as he let the husky notes flow out from his heart. Suddenly he heard another note, vivid and ethereal, a sound which made him think of stags running through a forest. He looked up; Kerr had a strangely curved horn in his hand and was blowing with fervour.
Kerr winked, and started a wilder tune. Farrell felt a surge of excitement, closed his eyes, and followed the lead; his notes rose and fell around the horn. Drew and Megan caught the beat and each began a syncopated bongo rhythm - each had eagerly caught an echo of the other; they were both flushed with excitement. Soon the whole pub seemed to be a well of sound - and Farrell felt himself falling, falling into it...
Then a woman's voice: "Well, it's about time one of you came, dear. Have some sage and onion tea." Farrell's eyes snapped open. He was in a softly-lit limestone cavern, with Kerr and a spangle-gowned lady of majestic proportions and dirty hands. If this was madness, it wasn't too bad. Even the sage and onion tea wasn't unbearable.