Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Farrell took a soothing gulp of Special and watched as the otters squeaked and scampered over Megan's skirt onto her lap; from that safe haven their sleek faces peered loftily down at Gerald.
Their companion looked up from her psi-tuned radio and frowned at all the frivolity, before squinting again at Drew's feet. "I know that's him," she muttered, "and I'm damn well going to get more of him than his stupid feet."
A sudden ringing tone sounded over by the Freedom-VR machines, and Farrell joined the scrabble for a helmet. Megan put her hand on his arm, and turned her radio to wide-band. "Young man," she said, "remember I'm keeping an eye on you. No shenanigans with my daughter." She turned back to her dial, muttering to herself: "Mind you, I'm not convinced she's actually in that computer. Trapped on the disc, more like, else how come I see her nuzzling up to this geek?"
Geek, thought Farrell. Thanks, Megan. He shrugged, and logged onto the Network - remarkable how a gallon or so of sage and onion tea can sober a man up. The familiar ident numbers flicked on in the ochre cavern around him. This really was so comfortable; what a shame he'd allowed himself to become hooked on that flashy new stuff of T.D.Inc's. Though, thank heaven, he hadn't felt that terrible yearning ache in his guts since he got here-
His thoughts were interrupted by a surge of excitement. A glow pulsed in the central well; then the strange, glittering presence which had closed out the last session popped up. The only difference this time was that it appeared to be draped in half a dozen grey cats and a giggling octopus.
"Wow!" it said, loud and strong; it twirled, casting reflections all around the cavern. "Hey, Dudes, is this where you wanted to hang out? Whoo-ee, not my scene. I mean, we're talking seriously drab, here."
Angus' voice rose over the sound, although his accompanying text got lost in the coruscating light. "Shut up, Cryssie. Angus here. There's something important that these people need to know- "
"What? Oh, yeah man. Have we got news for you. There's this babe here - hang on, sister, where are you? She can make wine like you've never tasted before- "
Angus groaned. "Vinia, lass - keep Cryssie quiet, will you?"
A sparkling, amber beaker formed; its contents cascaded over the crystal, which began to hum tunelessly to itself. More beakers appeared; earnest glugging noises ensued.
"Look," said Angus, "we've got a few hints that may help. Cryssie here is the answer, for a start - if you can get hold of another of this type, put it into an old computer, then maybe you can draw us all out- "
Farrell looked at the chip, which was hiccoughing its way through an obscure song about moonlight on a mutton-tump, and blenched. "You mean, we've got to get one as - cheerful - as that?"
Angus chuckled. "No, this one's liveliness is probably unusual. Remember that awful psi-amplified scream we heard when we logged-on last time? Well, that was what woke our Cryssie up, and we think it's the only one awake so far. There are plenty more asleep, just out of the sewage vats, ready to be sold as chips. You'll be needing to get hold of one of those."
"Yeah, my brothers and sisters are still asleep over there; gettin' riper by the minute, though."
Farrell frowned. "Sewage vats? I don't recall using crystals for anything when I worked in the pits- "
The octopus, swirling happily on top of the crystal, interrupted. "The whole thing is a jolly good idea, but these chips are made in Drongo. This one's been piecing together its formative weeks in the vats, and it says there's a waiting list- "
Farrell groaned. "Oh great. How the hell can we afford Drongan prices?"
"No, chin up - you can make your own. All you need is a crystal from the Shearweird Forest caverns, some zombie-crap, and a fermentation jar."
"Hang on there, dude," said the crystal, "you're talking about my family, my very own poly-tuplet rocks. You get the mix wrong in the jar, and blooie, you'll make one seriously un-hip chip. Then, better watch out for the fury of my big fat Mama!"
A new, celestial voice with the resonance of a glass harmonica sang across Megan's psi-link and tinkled through the cavern: "Aha, my baby! I hear you at last. Is my little foetus pining for its Mama-Gaia, then? Okay, I'll be with you soon. I've just got to find..." The voice faded with a final chime.
Farrell stared at the wine-sodden, off-key crystal before him, and gulped. "That's a foetus??"
"You better believe it, brother. And I'm loaded with pizzazz."
"You're loaded with something, anyway." Angus muttered. "But the point is, the crystal has to be - ah - marinated in special sewage. As Bertha says, from someone with a very low metabolic rate; Cryssie says the stuff had a taste of soy-bean to it."
Suddenly Vinia's voice rang out clear: "Hang on a minute, Angus."
Vinny, thought Farrell - yes, it was his Vinny's voice! He could even smell her glorious wild-rose scent - no, of course he couldn't, that wasn't possible on a Freedom machine. And he certainly couldn't feel her silky skin against him. He wasn't getting an erection, he wasn't...
While he was still battling his libido into submission, Vinia's voice continued: "- and they played the same music to soothe our nerves when they put the Copying Helmet on us. I suppose it was meant to keep us calm, but the same cadence keeps running over and over in our minds - you know, just like those horrid, catchy chicken-songs. I felt uplifted, drawn; and then, whammy, I can't remember anything until I woke up in here. The tune reached this bit, just as the copying process started. I can't sing high enough, but- " she made throat-clearing noises and sang in a wobbly, self-conscious voice: "tum tiddle-tiddle tum tum, tiddle tum tiddle- "
Suddenly Cryssie joined in, a deep and rhythmic background, putting words to the music: "Got no brothers, got no sisters; ain't got no home to call my own- " the crystal started to weep, glittering drops which flew outward among the wine-beakers and evaporated.
Jeston's ident flashed in blue agitation. "Sir," he said, "or Madam - you really shouldn't cry into good wine."
Farrell, his urges under temporary control, was struck by a memory; was this what Arianrod had been talking about? He opened his eyes. Superimposed on the image of the Network cavern, he met Megan's furious gaze. He smiled weakly and rummaged in his pack for his special pipes. Closing his eyes again, he slipped back into the warm ochre. "Here," he said, "why don't I give it a try?"
He ran over the husky notes, trilling in a reasonable imitation of the tune. When he stopped, silence settled around him like a ton of feathers. "Ah - was that it?" he asked.
A sudden babble answered, and Angus had to yell to let himself be heard. "Farrell? Yes, that's about it. But you'll be needing to get it a bit higher; we think the exact timbre is what did it to us."
Farrell tried again.
Angus kept up a commentary: "No, can you not get it higher? That's nearly it... Oh shit, laddie - you're fading..."
The whole cavern dissolved into an explosion of sparkles, and Farrell felt himself spiral down into a velvety blackness. When he regained consciousness, he was lying, helmet-less, against Holly's ample bosom. Hmm, he thought, nice. Jeston, full of concern, held a mug of Ultra-Special under Farrell's nose. Farrell jerked upright and grabbed the glass. Oh yes, very nice, he thought.
"That's the trick, sir." Jeston said. "Better than old-fashioned smelling-salts any day, this is."
Farrell couldn't argue. He was far too busy drinking.
"Well, pal," said Holly, "it's just as well that your piping couldn't quite get through the line; you might have followed it, without a crystal this end!"
Megan sat, frowning, with her otters curled up in her lap and her psi-radio lying forgotten beside her. "It's a bandwidth problem," she muttered, "frequency's too high for the damn telephone line. Well, we're going to have to plug direct into their computer's high-speed serial port, that's all there is to it. Someone's going to have to get us into that headquarters of theirs."
Everyone looked at Gerald, who backed away. "Me?" he squeaked, "No no. I say, fellows - you just don't know what it's like, getting a pass from Liam." He shuddered.
Holly's eyes glittered. "What about that party you've been invited to, Toff? That girlfriend of yours said it was going to be actually at Teledildonics' headquarters, didn't she?"
"God, no. I'm not going, anyway- "
"Of course you are! Didn't you hear the silly bitch? Your career would be finished. And you could get the key- "
"Please?" Holly slithered over, sat on his lap, and stroked his cheek.
Gerald's eyes crossed. "N-no?" he said.
Megan still frowned in thought, and gazed unseeing at the centre of the table. "One of you lot is going to have to dig up a crystal."
"Well, ma'am," said Doug, "I think I've seen something like that in the Forest. My new business partners have a handful."
Megan nodded. "But what about the sewage?"
A loud fart reverberated through the room, and every eye turned toward the peacefully smiling body of Vinny. Farrell cleared his throat. "What did you say you'd been feeding her, Sloshforth?" he asked.
"No," said Megan. "you are not going to use my daughter like this."
"Come on, Megan," said Farrell, "Look, I know about sewage- "
"No." Megan grabbed hold of Farrell's ears and bashed his head against the wall.
Ah, thought Farrell between bangs, so that's where Vinny gets it from...
Drew looked thoughtfully at Farrell's bouncing head. "Getting physical about it, is she? She's grown violent over the years, then. Hang on, let's see if this helps." From his jacket pocket he pulled out the mug he'd been working on all week. It was intricately decorated with poppies and a laughing miniature of Megan; he had slaved over it with great love and care. He poured his own hip-flask of Mix into it, and thrust it into the middle of the table with a curt: "Make her look at it. Maybe it'll distract her."
Farrell caught hold of the mug and thrust it in front of Megan's eyes; she gasped, and dropped his ears. "But - that's me! Among the poppies... Drew? He did this?" Farrell nodded, and Megan lapsed into deep thought. She took a long, absent-minded swig of the Mix; then her eyes bugged out and she grasped her throat. "Gah!" she whispered. "What is it? Poison?"
"No. Vehicle fuel," Farrell said.
A look of suffering staggered onto her face. "Fine, just fine," she said, "twenty years apart, and my husband greets me like this. Okay, if he wants to kill me- " she took another gulp, and a thoughtful expression wandered across her face. "Actually, it's not too bad." By the bottom of the mug, she was humming gently to herself. "Maybe the old soak's okay, after all."
"Megan!" Drew had pulled himself up, half out of his wheelchair, by his muscular arms. He was staring across the table, straining toward his nixie wife.
Megan gave a great yell of joy, and flung herself across the table at him. The two of them collapsed backwards in a slow-motion flurry of arms, legs and wheels. "Whew," said Megan, sitting on Drew's chest and tidying her hair, "this calls for a celebration."
Eager hands helped them both up. "It's another of those damn dreams," said Drew.
Megan gave him a huge, smacking kiss. "Does this feel like a dream?" Then she noticed the wheelchair; she frowned at it and kicked a wheel. "Hey, what's all this about?"
"Well, I was in a bad accident, and if it hadn't been for Holly's folks- "
Megan looked furious. "I leave you in charge of a perfectly good body, and look what you do with it." She leaped to her feet, grabbed Drew's pint of Special, and poured it all over his head. "There! That's what I should have done all those years ago, and never mind Ceredwen's stupid Laws."
A beatific smile spread over Drew's face as Special dripped from his nose. "Yep, Megan's back," he said.
The moon had almost given up and gone home by the time the revellers spewed out of the pub.
Theola squinted along the street; only a short distance, she should be able to make it. Some of her companions would surely manage to get her front door open. Most of them, of course, were in no condition to try.
Those three, for instance, she thought as she watched Gerald, Holly and Papillon. The trio staggered off along the streets, each supporting the other two with care.
"'S no good, I tell you." Gerald spoke slowly. "I'm not going to that party -hic- and that's that. Don't want Linsey. Want you."
"Well, Toff - you won't get me if you don't go. Hah! What do you think of that?"
"I s-say; why d'you always call me Toff? My name's Gerald..."
Their bickering faded into the distance, interspersed with gentle whickers and belches from the horse.
Theola's rescuers - all those who could still stand - surged up the manse drive. Ethniu, who had been sitting on the garden wall and yawning, settled down into an interested-looking tea-cosy position and watched.
"Fat lot of use you are," said Theola.
The cat blinked and purred.
Everyone piled into the porch and battered against the door. It remained aloof; it also remained shut.
The rescue team huddled on the front lawn and squinted up at the open window in drunken concentration. "I know," said Drew at last, "someone could climb the ivy."
"Great idea - only one little flaw." Megan's voice was flat. "There isn't any."
"I suppose sucker-feet would be out of the question?"
Theola scowled. She stormed up the path, kicked the door and yelled: "Stupid thing. You know where you'll end up in your sinful pride. Somewhere good and hot. Hah!"
"On the bonfire?" Sloshforth sucked his teeth. "Wouldn't do that, if I were you. It'd leave a hole, and then where would you be? Everyone, from bats to beggars, piling in off the street- "
"Oh, you can talk!" Theola whirled on him. "Your door might as well not be there - anyone can pop in. In fact, I found a wild animal in your place tonight- "
"You went into my shack, with the moon nearly full? Didn't I warn you about that?" Sloshforth grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
"A human pyramid! That's the answer." Megan's voice wafted across the grass.
A chorus of "Yay" was followed by the sound of earnest rustles and pants. Limbs flashed busily in the moonlight, and some concentrated grunts were pushed out with vigour.
"Hey, watch it - whose foot is that? Look, if you must use me as kingpin- " Drew's voice droned on in the background.
Theola batted Sloshforth's hands away, and felt herself flush. "Well, I thought you were there. Actually, the animal did no harm; it was quite cute, just wanted a game. But we didn't damage anything - I did light a match and check - so you don't have to worry." Theola frowned as she remembered her puzzlement. "It must be a shy beast, though - the moment I struck the match, it disappeared; I don't know how it managed that. How can an animal jump so quickly and quietly out of a window?"
Sloshforth stood in the middle of the path, his jaw hanging open. "Cute - Lupudana? Good lord. Cute. A game... And not even a tooth mark on the woman." Then he looked at the lawn, and his glittering eyes bugged out.
"Ow - oo!" Drew was still complaining, at the bottom of a wobbling pyramid.
Doug's voice called down from the top. "One slight hitch, everyone; We've done just great on the upward direction; couldn't be better. In terms of upwardness, we can't be beat. The trouble is - and it's only a small flaw, to be sure - the sideways angle. Perhaps we should have done this over there, actually against the wall?"
"No problem," said Megan, "we just have to push it along till you can reach the window."
Theola turned just in time to see them pushing it along toward her in a wobbling swathe. "Aaagh," she said, and dived in among her poor abused primulas.
Drew's wheels pushed it along so well that he outstripped the rest of the pyramid and reached the wall first. In fact, he was the only one to reach the wall. Everyone else lay in little heaps on the lawn, groaning faintly - except for Ceredwen, who lay with her bagpipes on her stomach and a toad on her head, and snored gently.
Kerr clambered to his feet to help Sloshforth dig Theola out of the flowerbed and brush the worst of the mud off her. She shook them off and leaned against the porch, gazing at that tantalisingly open window. "Hasn't anyone got a ladder?" she said, just as Ethniu stretched, yawned, and streaked across the lawn.
In one fluid move, the huge cat bounded up Theola's back onto the porch, sprang sideways off its roof, and scrabbled in through the window.
Theola sprawled face-first among her tulips. "Why not just kill me now and have done?" she said. Sloshforth and Kerr were no damn use; they leaned against each other and gurgled with mirth.
Then there was a clattering and scrabbling at the door-handle, and the great door swung open; Ethniu wandered out and sniffed at the flattened vicar, as if to say "Well? Didn't you want to come in?"
Theola picked herself up with dignity and limped into the house. "If anyone wants a cup of coffee," she said to the night air, "I'm going to put the kettle on now." Her offer was met with a deafening silence, and she cleared her throat. "We could have Irish coffee; I do have some cream and a medicinal bottle of whisky in the- " She finished on a strangled squeak, as a disorderly stampede of thirsty rescuers bore her backwards into the kitchen.
When Theola climbed wearily up the stairs to bed that night, her mind was a brittle kaleidoscope of feelings and faces. "Sort it out later," she muttered to herself as she slid between the cool sheets. "Much later."