Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The month of May wandered sunnily toward June, trailing new developments behind it. Inside Teledildonics Inc's main computer, some of those developments were being shaken - not stirred. Vinia was experimenting with a new type of ethereal cocktail.
Angus, hunched among a concentrating ring of icons, watched her as she leaned against the coruscating chip. The candy-floss effect on her icon's top was slipping a bit as she willed the honey-gold fluids to effervesce before her. He felt an urge to hug her, but right now he had to home in on Freedom's Network; the technique had become easier with practice, but they still had to work hard at holding the line.
This heavy stuff took it out of a guy, he thought, and flexed his edges to ease them. Come to think of it, this pins-and-needles effect was new. His surface tingled, little electric shudders of inconvenience skittering over it. Oh hell - maybe his essence was dying. Or then again, maybe he was pissed.
No, it couldn't be that. Just look at Arboriana, curled up beside him, her icon's fur standing straight out like a crackling aureole - and as for those lively kittens, each one was simply a bouncing ball of grey fluff. And, what about the glow in the chamber around him? Not to mention the way the light had started to throb - and those thin golden wires which led to Cryssie were vibrating like harp-strings.
He couldn't doubt - there was some new electrical charge in the aether, and Angus wanted out right now. God, he hoped that Freedom had got their makeshift computer ready out there. "Log on, damn you; come on," he muttered.
He tried to ignore Bertha as her 3-D octopus-icon bustled around the place and twiddled a tentacle for her trail of kittens.
She was doing a good job, keeping a firm eye on the forlorn-looking group of Subliminals which crowded near the entrance-node. She chopped bits off her tentacles and flicked them across to the Subliminals, who grabbed hold of them eagerly and hugged the little wriggling bits of aether to their filmy breasts. "You know, I do believe that those poor things are lonely," she said.
"Lonely?" Vinia looked at the dribbling wraiths and shuddered.
"Yes, look - they are so sad! Maybe I should organise- "
"I'd watch it, if I were you - they're probably trying to get around you. It's been a lot easier since they've taken a fancy to you - but I wouldn't trust them. I don't know why you won't let us put them back behind a force-field."
"No, really - they just need a bit of discipline, that's all." Bertha glanced away from her protégés and peered at the softly singing chip. "Hey, Vinia," she said, "maybe you shouldn't make any more of that unhealthy stuff for Cryssie - the chip is growing, you know. Exercise, that's what it needs."
Cryssie burst into a honky-tonk rendition of Pixilated Penguin and began to whirl around, scattering kittens and droplets of light in a molten spiral.
A pulse from the modem line grabbed Angus' full attention. Ah, there was Freedom now - thank god. He shouted urgency into the link: "You'll have got that box ready by now, surely? I tell you, we need it soon."
Vinia was examining the chip closely, and her Cheshire-cat smile slipped. "You know, Bertha - I think you're right. Cryssie does look a bit fatter. Oh, but that must be an illusion, surely? I'd swear these icons of mine can't damage anyone; they're not real, after all."
"Well, it looks sick to me," said Bertha. "Look deep inside, under that surface glitter - it's getting to be a darker orange. Say what you like, that chip is getting to be more erratic every day. No sense of responsibility. Exercise and a bit of dieting should do the trick."
Cryssie slowed down. "Hey, you sisters want to throw the insults around? That's alright by me, I mean it's real groovy just to be, man, let it all hang out. Okay then, let's see..." The chip clicked and crackled as it turned. "I know! You babes are flimsy Gypsum; your mothers were Oolitic, and your fathers filthy Greywacke."
The two women looked at each other. "That's an insult?" Vinia said.
Bertha's octopus shrugged. "Search me."
Angus was still trying to ignore the noise, busy explaining his fears to the listening Network, when a kitten scuttled up his back and teetered on the top of his smiley-face, fizzing defiance at its siblings. He felt a touch of hysteria coming on, but he schooled his voice to a masterpiece of restraint.
"...so we could end up disintegrating. I don't know how long we've got."
Vinia and Bertha leaned against each other, supping at wine icons and discussing the kitten effect earnestly. "That tail over his forehead is very fetching, don't you think?" said Vinia.
"Mmm - especially the way it twitches. Ooh look! Aren't they sweet!"
Five more fluff-ball icons had launched themselves at Angus' new "hat".
Muffled but unbowed, he continued: "Get over here quick, get us out of here. And - " another dozen kittens flung themselves at him; he went down under the avalanche. He heaved himself half upright, dripping kittens, to be bowled over by another enthusiastic heap of fur - "get these animals off me."
Vinia and Bertha hung onto each other and sobbed with mirth.
Farrell's voice floated through the chamber: "Sorry, animals are your problem. We've got enough of our own. But there's going to be a party over at Teledildonics' headquarters tomorrow - we'll slip in, our computer is just about ready and it should work. Nothing complex, but what we've got should do the trick. Okay, hang on if you can. We're going to have to work fast anyway, because of those new Suicide Subliminals."
"New what?" Angus paused in the middle of kitten-heaving.
"Suicide Subliminals. Ah, you won't have seen those- "
"My god, you'll be meaning - they're wanting people to commit suicide?"
Arboriana, on psi-lookout, gave a sudden hiss: "Quick! Is danger, someone comes!"
A technician had entered the computer room, her mind radiating puzzlement. Whatever could have gone wrong with the modem link?
"Oh shit," said Angus, "Okay, tomorrow - we'll be prepared- "
Tsk! How the hell did the line get moved? the technician thought, swiftly returning the modem's plug to its original socket.
Angus sat back, shaking slightly with the sudden break. "Well," he said, "it won't be long. Things shouldn't get any worse in just a few hours."
Vinia made a strangled noise and tapped him on the corner. "Ah, Angus - I think you should take a peek at this."
He whirled around and took a peek. Then he wished he hadn't. Just how bad did things have to get?
"Erm," said Vinia, "could these be the Suicide Subliminals?"
They could. They were big and slobbery, they were ugly, and they were coming straight at the huddled souls.
At Jeston's, Farrell watched the display of pyrotechnics in the centre-well of Freedom's Network. "Wow," he said as a particularly impressive series of sparks cartwheeled across his vision, "I always wondered what would happen if we disconnected on-line."
He removed his helmet and tried to get rid of the buzzing in his head. "Well," he said, "sounds like we've really got to get a move on."
"Bugger," said Megan. "Oh well, I reckon the crystal's about ready now. Hey, Jeston - got a tap in here that I can use to clean this?" She lifted the glittering crystal out of her jar of sludge, and everyone shrank back from the gobbets of brown slime which slid down off its surface. Processed soy-bean protein was all very salubrious. The trouble was, the whole village knew where it had been. Wordlessly, Jeston indicated ladies' room.
Farrell shuddered and picked up his drink. It was halfway to his lips when he glanced across at Vinny's mindless hulk; he blinked, hesitated, and put the fragrant glass carefully down again. Maybe all this booze wasn't such a good idea. He leaned across to Drew and cleared his throat. "See anything odd over there? I mean, I could swear I can see two Vinnies now."
Drew squinted at Vinny, then he patted the younger man's shoulder. "So can I. You think we've both got double vision? Well, maybe - but don't worry, son, just look at it this way. You get twice as much as a teetotaller."
"I only want the one. Just one Vinny. A complete one," Farrell hurried on as he saw the gleam in Drew's eyes.
Drew shrugged. "I wouldn't worry too much about that. I think Ceredwen meant what she said about us fiddling with the 'stuff of life'; it's something to do with these Teledildonics chips. But if you're that worried about the Special, you could always try soaking it up with one of Jeston's new bar-snacks."
Jeston looked up from his glass-polishing, and beamed at them. Bright platters of hot and cold pies jostled on the bar's surface with spicy egg custard dishes and cakes. "Miss Holly's a dab hand at these," he said, "she uses the same herbs that give my Special its extra edge, too. They complement each other superbly. Can I offer Sir a savoury pie?"
He could indeed. Farrell's mouth watered as the hot, fluffy roundel tantalised his nostrils with the buttery scent of pastry and warm thyme.
Farrell proceeded to stuff himself with as much food as he could.
Megan bustled back from the ladies' with her gleaming crystal, followed by a couple of jealous otters. They obviously felt that she was paying far too much attention to this lump of rock.
Farrell looked at the rough crystal and scratched his head. "Are you sure that's going to work?"
Megan looked surprised. "Don't see why not - after all, it's true that we don't need complex computing power. This is simply a magnet for those poor people."
"Okay, so you get them all in there - then what?"
Drew looked up from his delicate task of inserting the crystal into the computer. "Well... We release them?"
"And just how do we do that?" Farrell shivered as he remembered Angus' fears - what if Angus and Vinny really were to disintegrate? "If they're out of touch with anything solid, I bet they'd die."
Drew frowned and put down his tiny tools. "You take the computer to the bodies, then you make with your music and play their essences out of the thing. That makes sense, doesn't it?"
Farrell stuffed another piece of pie into his mouth and licked his fingers. "Bodies. Where are the damn bodies? All we've got is Vinny, here."
Vinia's hulk smiled and broke wind. "Goo," she said. Everyone clambered unobtrusively over to the other side of the room. She looked wistful and reached out a hand. "Mama?"
Megan glowered at Sloshforth. "Can't you think of anything else to feed her on?" she said with feeling.
Gerald looked up, sniffing vaguely; he had been deep in nuptial plans with Holly and Theola. "I say, didn't I tell you? Uptonburgh's sleas-house is full of those bodies."
"Okay," said Drew, closing the computer with a satisfied sigh and patting its sagging top, "so we take this box there. Simple."
Farrell got out his panpipes and looked at them. "Just one more thought - how exactly do we free those guys from your contraption? My music is supposed to attract them to a crystal."
Megan and Drew looked at each other. At last Drew spoke: "Well, yes - but I'll bet that it also frees them from constraint. This time they know what's going on, so perhaps they'll be able to make a choice, find another magnet - their bodies, I hope."
Farrell snorted. "There are too many guesses there."
Theola looked up from Gerald's wedding notes, a puzzled look on her face. "Surely - don't magnets often have two ends? I mean, if it took one type of note to attract them to the crystal, wouldn't another one repel them from it?" She blushed as the whole roomful looked at her and breathed heavily, including two otters, a bucket-slurping horse, and a wine-drenched toad. "Just a thought..." she said.
"Brilliant!" Holly gave her a big hug.
Farrell picked up another pie and wondered vaguely if he had room for it. "You know, even when we do get everyone out of that damn computer, we won't be able to stop what's going on," he said.
"Eh?" Gerald said intelligently.
"Look, Teledildonics are still making the bloody software the same way. And those poor guys who are going to get addicted to suicide - we've simply got to do something about that. Can't we nobble the computer?"
Ceredwen took a pull at her pipes, sighed, and sucked her teeth. "This Law-breaking is getting to be chronic. It's more important than a few miserable spirits - what you lot should be worrying about is automatic Clock shut-down. If this goes on, it's bound to happen. The Continua simply can't take all this expansion. Get a move on."
"Eh?" Gerald said, expressing Farrell's thoughts exactly.
"Look, you dummies. It's belief, amplified by Gaia's damn embryos - okay, crystals to you - that's mucking up the Continua. You keep using these shadows of yours and believing in them, and before you know where you are, the edges of YUK will have begun to crash into SIK. Different Clock-scales, different Laws - blooie, two burnt-out Clocks and a couple of duff Continua."
Gerald tried a new approach. He said: "Ah?"
Ceredwen ignored him. "It's already getting serious. Why do you think this couple are together again now?" She nodded at Drew and Megan who were hunched over their computer with the shadowy Vinny.
"Hey," said Farrell, crammed full of Holly's pies, "I ought to be sober by now - but I'm still seeing double on the Vinny angle."
"I expect it's the herbs, pal," said Holly absently. "Doug supplies them to Jeston too, doesn't he?"
"Indeed he does, madam," Jeston said, "and if I may say so, it gives the Special that - special edge."
"Okay," said Holly, returning to the main problem, "so how can we sabotage the computer?"
Drew shrugged. "Won't do much good, will it - all those discs are already out there being used and believed in. Are we going to raid all the shops, all the little traders? And what about the Suicide stuff which is due out soon - that'll be in all the outlets too, by now."
"Okay, pal - we're going to have to find a way of sabotaging all that software. Any bright ideas?"
They all looked at each other and shook their heads.
"Is it really that bad?" Farrell asked. "After all, look at me - yes, I was addicted at first. But now I can take it or leave it. I seem to have become immune. Hey! Do you think I might be immune to the Morality Interrupt too?" He reached eagerly for his Cap.
"Don't even think about it, buster," Megan's voice hissed in his ear. "Have you ever thought what could be done by a nixie with a pair of pinking shears?"
Farrell sweated, and covered his crotch with his hands. Wow, he thought, Vinny and her mother have a lot in common.
He was grateful when Holly jumped up from a quiet discussion of her future, and started yelling at Gerald: "You and your damn chickens!"
"No," said Gerald, "but listen, Holly - they are wonderfully efficient. That power-station really should be made more useful for the village - not just piped to Uptonburgh- "
"What are you talking about?" Doug said. "If we got the power legally, we'd have to start paying bills! As it is, we can recharge our batteries for nothing- "
Gerald flushed. "Well, however you get the power, you still need plenty of raw materials. I could take over the running of the hen-house, make sure they were well looked after."
"You expect me to stay confined in some god-awful static place?" said Holly.
Gerald slid an arm around her. "No, but chicken-shit can liberate, you know. I mean, look at this egg custard - you need to keep hens for that."
Holly grabbed hold of the dish of custard and upended it all over him. Bits of gunk slid down his face, and he licked at it experimentally.
Theola looked up from her wedding-notes. "Are you two sure about getting married?"
"Yes - why ever not?" Both Holly and Gerald look surprised.
Gerald added: "It can become addictive for a fellow, having your food like this. That tang of salty sweat really adds to it. Tell you what, Holly, why don't we just travel around with a chicken-coop - or, I say, we could just live on a bit of land somewhere in your van?"
"What, with a hundred chickens? And what about Papillon?"
"Oh yes, it would be perfect; I can see it now." Gerald scraped bits of egg out of his hair and grinned happily at everyone. "I say, you fellows will be coming to our wedding, won't you?"
Papillon lifted his head out of his bucket and squinted at them all from his usual place in the window and snickered. When he contrasted the constant work of lugging a van around the place with the onerous task of wandering to the pub and getting pissed out of his brain, he knew which he preferred.
The following night, the sun slid peacefully to bed out of a clear sky. Uptonburgh's Grand Square still had a slightly scuffed look to it, but the worst of the rubble had been cleared away in the past few weeks. The dying sunlight cast kind shadows over the headless statues.
Its rays slid redly across the brooding face of Teledildonics Inc's headquarters. The headquarters scowled back, and the sun sank hurriedly out of sight. The moon, recovering from the monthly impulse to hide its face, began to rise and cautiously washed the building in molten silver.
Behind that facade, a genteel cocktail buffet was in progress.
Aggie scurried through the Square, starting at strange noises and wishing that the moon didn't make everything look so - so - different. She could have sworn that the statue over in the west corner had moved, but when she stopped to look of course it hadn't. Mr. Dimbly always said she had too much imagination; it was a sin, an attempt to improve on the Lord's work, and she'd really tried to stop.
One hand strayed to the beautiful pendant which that nice Drongan had given her. She clutched his little note in the other sweaty hand, and shivered - it felt really strange, coming out all by herself like this; she wished that Mr. Dimbly hadn't been so horrid about it. He had been most unkind when the courier had come with this note; maybe he was right. Maybe the Lord would punish her for lusting after the pleasures of the flesh.
But it was so nice to be able to wear this beautiful thing and not just tuck it away where nobody could see. Oh, she did long so for just a glimpse of fun, perhaps one little drink, possibly even a compliment or two from that lovely, mahogany-coloured gentleman... She felt light as a leaf, floating up to the great door.
Which was when she came crashing down into reality. The entrance's grand, penguin-suited guardian took her crumpled note between thumb and forefinger, and asked haughtily for her name.
His eyebrows rose as he shook his head. "I am sorry, madam. This is exclusive, by invitation only."
"Oh but -gasp- I was asked by - by - well, he didn't give me his name, but he's bound to be here- "
"You are not on the list, madam. I suggest you leave."
Aggie took one last despairing look around, and turned to go. Then there he was, her lovely Drongan interpreter, asking that she be allowed in. "This friend; she comes to me, yes?"
"Sir, if the name isn't on the list- "
"It was that I asked the so beautiful lady to come; ah!" he lifted her hand to his lips. "She displays our jewellery to perfection!"
Aggie put her hand to her cheek. She could still feel the cool touch of his lips, along with the shock which tingled through her whole body. She knew it was wrong to be so attracted to him, but she really couldn't help it. He was so - so - mahogany.
Then the great Sir Liam was beside them, speaking to her new friend. "Our apologies for this little misunderstanding. Of course, any friend of yours..." His sludge-grey eyes skimmed down Aggie's slight form, and she felt herself blush.
Her escort steered her through the murmuring, champagne-drinking throng of long-line, halterneck dresses and grey suits.