Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
On the hillside above Uptonburgh, the Greater Slea Reservoir slopped against its boundaries - a slow, oily movement - and basked in the midday heat. From the fields far below, the deep burr of a vehicle engine disturbed the distant peace, undercutting voices lifted high in a lusty marching song. To the sharp glare of an eagle, the bright colours of Drew's vehicle could be seen bouncing their way toward Sleasford - also, a trail of GODLY banner-wavers were just tramping into sight, emerging stolidly from the Forest's edge.
Egrette sat on the reservoir's edge and peered in, wondering vaguely whether the fish would be sluggish enough to catch easily. She had just decided that it wasn't worth getting wet for, when the echo of a sweet whistle sounded and a bunch of people appeared from nowhere, knocking her into the water.
Great, just great, she thought as she scrabbled back out and glared at her latest persecutors. With a squawk and a ruffle of feathers, she lurched onto their cart and began to preen herself back into shape.
Doug Marrow and Jeston stood at the reservoir's edge with Brigid, Ceredwen, and a cart-full of Special.
Doug sucked his teeth and shook his head at the expanse of greasy water as it rippled toward the horizon. "I've got to admit," he said, "it was a terrific idea. I mean, doctoring the water-supply to save all those addicts sounds real clever; ten out of ten for ambition, too. But, where it all falls down is - three barrels and a couple of firkins of Special aren't going to make much difference to all that water, are they?"
Jeston looked thoughtful. "Excuse me, would it not be better - and faster-acting - to insert our fluid after the purification process?"
Brigid tapped a foot. "Now he tells us. Thou couldst have bloody said so sooner."
Several abortive whistles later, they stood at last on the walkway above one of the water company's purified water-tanks - four hot and irritable humanoids, a cart-full of booze, and a seriously ruffled eagle. Egrette had been caught unawares and yanked along in the others' slipstream, at a most intricate part of her toilet. Her stomach was complaining vigorously; it felt as if she'd been zoomed up and down in a juddering lift half a dozen times. If these people were going to travel in such an unnatural way, she thought, they could at least get it right first time - or give an eagle the chance to get away.
Doug stepped off the walkway and tested the surface of the tank by stamping on it. The plastic gave slightly. "So how do we get into this? Anyway, it's still too much water."
Jeston cleared his throat and eyed the gods. "Ah - I believe that Jesus took some items - fishes, loaves and so on - and multiplied them." He flinched from Brigid's glare and began to whistle thoughtfully to himself.
Doug clicked his fingers. "Oh yes! Even better - didn't he turn water into wine? Now, what about- " He broke off as he caught sight of Brigid's scowl.
"Pah! What a show-off," said Ceredwen, "fat lot of good it did him, fiddling with the Laws, didn't it? Anyway, wine is easy; any god can do that. He'd have been stumped by this stuff."
"Can't do it, eh? Fine gods you are," said Doug. He side-stepped neatly, with the ease of practice, as Brigid grabbed at him.
"Thou art getting too cocky by half," she said, "of course we can do it, but miracles can bugger up the Continuum fabric something rotten."
"The girl's right," said Ceredwen. "and a miracle can last forever if you're not careful. Once Gaia gives birth - pretty damn soon, from the feel of it - you won't be needing all this Special any more. And then you'd be stuck with no more water - just an eternal supply of booze."
"Sounds good to me," said Doug.
"No no," said Ceredwen, "Can't have that. We designed this Continuum around oxygen, hydrogen, water - all that rubbish. This kind of stuff is an optional extra. No, it'll have to be the barrel-multiplication trick, though with the Laws creaking like this, the whole thing could be a disaster."
Doug stood on the tank and folded his arms. "Just get on with it."
Under the weight of Doug Marrow and a sudden deluge of barrels, the tired old tank's top gave way with a sigh and an enormous splash.
"Glurk," Doug spluttered from his unexpected new position in the water.
Jeston bashed the nearest casks open with a hammer, and nodded in approval. "That should get through to the taps in a day or so. Hmm, this stuff definitely has that Special quality; I wonder if you ladies would be interested in a profitable partnership- "
Doug grabbed hold of the side to haul himself out, He turned to eye the swaying tip of the barrel-berg. "Um - it's just struck me; most of the addicts don't have homes. They drink out of the river."
Ceredwen pushed him back under. "You want the bloody river turned into Special, too?"
"No, no," he said when he got his breath back. "The VR arcades. We're going to have to ladle the stuff out right through Sleasford."
"Hell, that'll take for ever - unless- " Ceredwen grabbed Egrette.
Bugger off, thought the eagle.
"You want to help the Continuum, don't you?" said the goddess.
Do I, hell. Peck your eye out.
"Look, no Continuum, no more mice."
Mice? Hah! Peck your eye out.
"Well, come to think of it, no Continuum, no more eagles." Ceredwen shook herself. "Here's the deal. You do as we ask - and we'll give you all the food you can ever eat. Otherwise we'll have you for dinner ourselves."
Doug peered at Egrette and frowned. "A bit stringy, don't you think?"
No need to get personal. So, what d'you want?
"The monkey; he'll be at the church, just like all the rest. You've become a major magnet for him when he Continua-hops - tell him to round up a dozen Travellers and blow his nose. Then you get back to us fast, before he does it. He should be able to suck a few along in his slipstream if he concentrates. Get on with you, now."
Egrette flew off to Fallekin Astow; within the hour she was back, spearing through the sky toward the heap of barrels.
See the magnificent flying machine, she thought as she came in to land, soaring effortlessly- "Urk!"
Orangputeh materialised, clinging onto her tailfeathers, and her elegant landing turned into a disgraceful scrabble.
A pile of Travellers arrived in a giggling heap and sorted themselves out into ten adults and a solemn-eyed little girl.
As all those silly, wingless humans finally trundled off into town, each of them laden with a fresh cask, Egrette sat in pleased eminence on a mound of meat.
Doug's voice wafted back to the happy eagle. "Rather a lot, wasn't it, Ceredwen?"
"Well, I promised her a lifetime's food."
Yes, very nice, thought Egrette as she stuffed herself fuller than she'd been in years. I didn't think you meant "all at once", though.
The sun, working tiredly across the sky, hung heavy over Uptonburgh; the summer afternoon dust revolved listlessly beneath its light. There was a thickness to the air as it syruped through the lungs; many a tattered philosopher sat outside Sleasford's VR arcades, and wondered what was the point of Life, the universe, and Coitus Interruptus.
Sir Liam Hang had no impulse toward such inward searchings, but even he felt a bit peeved as he entered his gymnasium that afternoon. He'd been all set for a nice bit of relaxation with his special copy of Vinia, when Linsey had dashed in with some nonsense about body liberators. And what the devil did that stupid cousin of his mean by buying a franchise behind his back? Still, he supposed she was keeping it in the family; some good might be made of it if the silly bitch could be persuaded to stop blabbing about the jewellery's main ingredient. At least she'd had enough sense to come to him about this threat from some lunatic rabble; her investment should be safe in the hands of the Guardian Officers of Land, Ethics, & Morality.
He frowned. The usual sense of anticipation was mixed with an unease akin to a gut-full of wind, as he stripped naked and prepared to slide the disc into its well-used slot. His software seemed to be going a bit haywire; he'd been meaning to speak to the technician about it. Oh well, at least his Vinia still did his bidding even if she was beginning to behave a bit strangely. She had to; she was his, he'd paid for her, dammit. But she did seem to be a little too eager, these days. He shoved the disc in viciously.
"I thought you'd never get here, my lord," Vinia's soft voice came from behind him. "I've been waiting for you; what is your pleasure? Shall I whip the spunk out of you - or does my lord desire to be lathered in whipped cream first?"
He whirled, open-mouthed; it was happening again. Before he'd even got the Cap on, here she was, smiling gently and caressing the thongs of a long whip. She was dressed in black rubber decorated with brass-studded deaths' heads, for heavens' sake. Where on earth was the demure, pastel innocence for which he'd paid? "Stop it," he said, "I demand that you stop this nonsense at once; where is my frightened virgin? This simply isn't good enough. In fact- " he grabbed the disc out of the machine, and blinked when she didn't disappear. "What the hell...?"
"My lord is displeased with me?" She sidled up to him and twiddled his minuscule genitals with her whip-handle. The penis stirred sluggishly, took one look, and crawled back into his crotch. Her eyes widened; their gaze flew to Sir Liam's face. "You find me unattractive? But I am yours - I'm what you made me."
"Nonsense!" He pushed the whip away. "I paid for fear."
She pouted slightly. "Well, how was I to know? I thought you wanted me to be submissive. You kept telling me to- "
"Be quiet!" He glared at her, and she lowered her eyes respectfully. "Where's the fun if you're not afraid? I demand my rights."
"If my lord desired fear, then of course I shall be all that he wishes. Will that get big for me, then?" She indicated his crotch.
He winced, shoved the disc back in its socket and flung the cap onto his head. Ah, there it was - he could feel the power surge through his loins... "Now, woman - tremble!" And she trembled most satisfactorily. Sir Liam gave himself up to a half-hour of almost-blissful nastiness.
But something niggled at the back of his mind. At last he realised what it was - she was pretending.
In disgust, he ripped the Cap of his head, threw the disc to one side and strode out of the gym. His secretary looked up and squealed. "Why, Sir Liam!" she said, staring at his crotch.
He looked down at himself; "Oh, shit," he muttered, and came back in for his clothes. He flung them on, ignoring his Vinia - she still appeared to be there in the all-too-solid flesh, but obviously she could only be an illusion; he would have her removed, re-write the disc, just as soon as he could. Meanwhile - he felt his blood start to pound as he finished dressing and left - it was almost time for the True Reality Hunt. It was going to be very popular.
His pace quickened as he set off on the road to destruction, oblivious to his too-solid Vinia. She slipped along behind, the dark and loyal daughter of his mind.
That afternoon, a rash of beer-barrels appeared at every VR arcade in Sleasford. Beside each was a sign which read: "Free! Booze for all; sample Jeston's Special!"
As Doug Marrow staggered down the street toward the town's largest arcade, with his allotted cask and a couple of eager helpers, he gazed at the sight before him in awe.
The frontage of the arcade was a confection of neon and glittering simulations, bright even in the sun's light, all beckoning the unwary into its maw. Outside squatted the desperate, the tattered, the hopeless. To each thin chest a disc was clutched; precious as food to the addicts - but useless as sawdust, without money for the machines.
Two hundred yards down the road, the sleas-house squatted in grim silence, shimmering through a rising mist of methane. A GOLEM van rattled along the road, sirens wailing; it slid to a halt outside the sleas-house and spewed out a pile of Guardians, who proceeded to stand importantly around the grey building.
Nobody at the arcade took any notice; they stared, sunken-eyed, at the pleasures for which they longed. Above the arcade door, powdered with stars, a VR advertisement capered over and over in a pre-programmed pattern. It was a white, long-nosed monkey which threw bananas at the crowd; bananas which exploded into cascades of gold and silver, each highlighting a brief glimpse of a smiling face, each of which was greeted with a gasp of longing by a different section of the crowd.
And that - among other things - puzzled the hell out of Doug, as he heaved his barrel up to the door, since behind each no-hoper sat a shadowy but vibrant person, each wearing one of those faces. Doug put the barrel down carefully, and stared from Orangputeh to the arcade's VR monkey and back again.
Orangputeh avoided the man's eye; he looked up at the sky and whistled gently to himself.
Doug opened his mouth to ask a question, and thought better of it. Some things were better left alone. Instead, he waved his ladle and called out: "Roll up, roll up - free Special for all, come and get it. Roll up, roll up..."
The addicts stirred vaguely and shambled toward their would-be saviours. "What is this, then?" A grey-faced, tired eyed man asked, poking at the ladle with a grubby finger.
Behind him, a shadowy Vinia-clone looked hopeful. Doug winked at her. "It's good, it's free, and what have you got to lose?"
The man shrugged. "You've got a point." He drank deep of the Special, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and gave a great: "Yahoo! God, that was good." He grabbed the Vinia-clone, who grew more solid as Doug watched, and twirled her around in a laughing Lambada. The other addicts clawed over each other to get to this wonderful potion.
Minutes later, the street was a censor's nightmare.
"Well, I think that answers Farrell's question; the Morality Interrupt does seem to be affected as well," said Doug, glancing around with a connoisseur's eye.
"I don't think you should be seeing this, Natasha, child," said Ceredwen, looking at the morass of energetically threshing limbs and cries of ecstasy.
Natasha gazed at everything, her deep-seeing eyes wide and solemn. "I dunno," she said, "I think the geese do it better."
By the time the Hunt enthusiasts had gathered - a laughing, chattering crowd at the edge of Shearweird Forest - the sun had hunkered low in the sky, glowering down at them through a few wisps of cloud.
Sir Liam, sitting straight in the saddle, dressed in an elegant black suit with top-hat and polished boots, set the tone to perfection. His horse moved restlessly beneath him, flicking its ears and tail at imaginary flies; it was fresh and eager. The sharp, musky scent of worn leather and warm horse toyed with his nostrils; a saddle creaked here, and an impatient hoof stamped there. And all this was real. Sir Liam frowned slightly. All except for the dogs, which smelt of heated resistors and machine-oil.
The mechano-hounds buzzed around, an alert forest of spiky tails and flapping ears; they looked remarkably like proper hounds, thanks to clever metal-work and fine plastic skins. Sir Liam would have preferred to use the real thing; but unfortunately the government's last election campaign, with its free handouts - which had served the dual purpose of showing the government's caring attitude toward the poor, as well as keeping the streets clean - had made severe inroads into the canine population. Dogs had proved very popular as free meat for the destitute.
The Great Man eased himself in the saddle and wondered whether they'd left it a bit late in the day to start the Hunt. Then he shrugged; daylight, moonlight - what did it matter? It all added to the new Reality experience.
He looked his huntsmen over with satisfaction; well, there were a few women too, but that couldn't be helped. After all, they had paid. He just hoped they wouldn't get in the way. He peered at one of them; he didn't think he knew her, but she looked remarkably like his Vinia. That was absurd.
He shook his head. Time to flush out the first of the vermin on his list: "Gentlemen - ladies - we have a particular quarry in mind for our first session. I'm pretty sure we'll find him down by the river, but let's see... This should give our hounds the lead they need." He leaned over to dangle a piece of paper before the lead mechano-hound; while the hound snuffled at it, he went on: "We've had reports of trouble with a wily creature that lives down there - he's avoided all efforts at capture or containment." He paused for effect, glancing around at the eager, expectant faces. "He's an anti-government printer."
"How dreadful!" Linsey spoke breathlessly. "Will we see blood - real blood?"
Sir Liam looked at her. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips parted and full with desire; he smiled and nodded. Then the mechano-hound lifted its nose to the wind, gave a grating howl, and shot off toward the river.
"Yoiks! Tally-ho!" Sir Liam dug his heels into his horse and galloped after the hound, the rest of the Hunt trailing behind him in a wave of excitement and titters.
The sleas-house was quiet apart from the soft bubbling of evacuating bowels and the swirl of the passing river.
Festin Burke felt very pleased with himself; his convalescence was going well, and he was definitely getting the hang of things as he hobbled around, helping Sherelle. All he had to do was think for a bit before he did anything, and he could usually figure out what she'd like. The key was simply this - she got upset if others were hurt; all he had to do was work out how not to hurt people. Tricky, but possible.
And it was catching. He found himself constantly thinking about how he could take some of the burden off her, smooth the worry from her brow. The purple lace underwear hardly ever wandered across his mind; he could get a tingling in his loins simply by looking at her eyes.
Like now, for instance, as she gazed down at his latest effort. It had been a bit difficult - well, rather messy, actually. But not as messy as last time. He knew he'd done it right; he learned from his mistakes. He checked again - yes, the feeding-tube was definitely in the right orifice.
Sherelle cleared her throat. "Yes, Mr. Burke - Festin - very nice." She looked up at him, her smile warm as ever. "It'll only take a little bit of mopping up- "
Her head jerked up at the wail of sirens outside, and her smile slipped.
The door crashed open and a couple of GOLEM officers burst in, resplendent in bottle-green and flashing their badges. "We have reason to believe that extremists are plotting against this property," said the spokesman, "have you been approached by any suspicious persons?"
Sherelle shook her head, her eyes wide. "Whatever would they want with this place?"
"They intend to steal these bodies. Some sort of bullshit about reviving them. However, these are now the property of Hang Enterprises, and any tampering would be a violation of the law- " the spokesman finished with a quick "Excuse me!" as a vehicle rumbled to a halt outside; he darted back through the door with his companions.
Sherelle glowered after him. "How dare he say anyone owns these poor people?"
A voice wafted clearly through the door: "We've as much right as anyone to come here; we can cure those bodies. This is a public building- "
"No it ain't, sir, not any more. We've got a Protection Warrant on behalf of a Miss Linsey- now sir, we're a peaceful corps, don't make us- "
A splintering crash answered him.
Sherelle turned eagerly to Festin. "If there's really a chance of reviving them- What are the silly creatures doing now? Somebody'll get hurt! But oh, Mr.- Festin, just think, if they could really bring these people - like Angus - to life again..."
Festin knew what he had to do. He sighed. Much as he wanted to throw Angus' body into the river, he realised it would do him no good. Funnily enough, he really did want this wisp of a nurse to be happy. "I'll speak to them," he said, and hobbled out, straight into the path of a flying water- bomb.
As he wiped water out of his eyes, he exercised his full diplomatic skills. "Hey," he said, "stop it!" Another bomb plastered itself to his face.
When he could see again, he gazed at the scene in awe. The five newcomers - no, three; no, hang on, he needed his eyes testing, it was five - who were fighting with their backs to their gaily painted van, were sadly outnumbered; but they were putting up a good fight, particularly the bomb wielder in the wheelchair. Festin could see that hand-to-hand combat was a sadly neglected art; not so, foot-to-groin combat.
He winced, and glanced along the street for inspiration. Then he looked again, and blinked. There was plenty of inspiration up there - especially near the arcade, where lusty limbs writhed all over the pavement and spilled over it with verve. The funny thing - well, one of the funny things - was that several of the women looked exactly like one or two of those who were fighting the GOLEMs. The ones he didn't seem able to count properly.
Festin shook his head, tapped the GOLEM leader on his shoulder, and pointed. "Don't you guard morals, too?" he said. "Look at that! Flagrant disregard for decent standards. Lots of it, too."
The leader looked up and stiffened. "My god," he said, quivering with excitement, "I've never seen anything like it! A clear transgression of Article 5eX, if ever I've seen one. Men, follow me; this is a Crisis!" He flipped a telephone out of his pocket as he ran, calling: "Air Force? Disciplinary measures needed at Area Slea/S, Zone D0/0M."
Such was their discipline that his whole platoon followed him, leaving the field to the four - no, five - liberators. "Phew," said Festin, sweating faintly, "I hope I did the right thing."
The quintet - yes, definitely five - galloped past, waving a decaying computer and a set of pan-pipes. "Thanks," said the man in the wheelchair, as he whizzed through the door. "Don't worry about it - I reckon that lot can beat the Golems."
"Yes," muttered Festin, "but I didn't realise he'd call the Air Force. I know Sherelle won't like it." Then a fireball rose up from the arcade and whistled above his head; he ducked, as it returned like a boomerang. Where the hell had that come from? It looked terribly familiar... A small girl stood solemnly in the midst of the fornicating populace, and played with fire.
Festin slipped inside after the others; it looked as if the fight was in good hands. Etched on his mind was a final picture of the GOLEM squad hopping about and squealing.
Farrell stood near the centre of the colourless sleas-house dormitory and smiled at the nurse. She had greeted them with such excitement that he'd had the crazy notion she might explode; she was dashing from bed to bed now, making an adjustment here, patting a hand there.
The real Vinny followed her, looking eagerly at the labels. "Angus!" she said at last, and clapped her hands. "Oh, he does look nice. What did the silly pillock mean, calling himself ugly? God, I hope we got him out..." She stood by the man's bed and held his hand; at least Farrell supposed it was the real Vinny, who could tell?
He felt like screaming. All afternoon he'd been busy ignoring the fact that his mind insisted - all too realistically - that there was another Vinny, one that loved him and only him; later he'd try and have his head seen to, but right now-
Right now, the little nurse whirled upon Vinny and grabbed Angus' hand from her. "Hey, I'm the one who's been looking after him!"
"Oh yes? So I suppose you know all about his little foibles?"
"What would you know about his foibles, then? I bet you don't know about the giant freckle on his- "
The scene degenerated into a tussle in which each woman seemed determined to pull the other's head off. Having discovered the difficulties inherent in this ploy, they progressed to pulling off anything else they could reach. Farrell, trying to separate them, nearly got his trousers torn down for his pains; he backed away hurriedly.
He took a deep breath to steady himself, and choked. God - what a stink, he thought, and put the pipes to his lips. Megan and Drew, hunched over their computer, gave him a nod - and he was away, riding on a wave of notes, his eyes fixed on that box. He played his heart into the husky tune, flowing down to the deepest notes and then welling out into a loud echo.
Up and over he went, and then down again to the depths... At last, a warm glow shimmered up around the box, a mist that writhed and hovered and finally twisted out into reaching wisps of silver-streaked life. Each strand grew, fluctuated, flew toward a vacantly warm body, and hovered above it before sinking gently through the skin.
A rustle here, a cough there, and the bodies began to stir; Farrell kept playing. The mist still swirled around the box, rootless and unable to find homes. Gentle weeping chimes rang from the depths of the computer, lost and forlorn.
The room sprang into a mass of activity, bodies rolling off beds, little yelps of "Ouch!" and "Shit, I've just crapped myself," mingling with the music and with shouts of: "Hey, this is my body, get out."
"No it isn't, you're over there- "
"I'm no bloody red-head, get out!"
"Wanna swap? Okay, okay, it was worth a try..."
At last the noise died down, and Farrell's pipes sang on alone. His eyes strained toward the one bed, smarting as they searched for a twitch, a movement... Amid all the stretching, yawning bodies, only one still lay like death. Vinny, tears streaming down her face, held Angus' lifeless hand to her cheek; the little nurse held his other hand to her dishevelled breast, staring at the body and holding her breath.
He glanced back at the box and frowned as he played on; the cloud still twinkled around it, pulsing like a shadowy heart. With little cries, a song of loss for bodies that they'd never known, some more wisps separated from the mass and swirled above it, searching for a purpose.
Suddenly one of them swirled higher than the rest, a tangle of two silver-grey threads, buckling and squealing, fighting for life. A psi-shout filled the room: Get off me, you bugger!
The wisps were still struggling as they flew over to Angus and melted into his skin. With elegance, he whispered: "Shove off. I'm home now."
With a plaintive Wheep, one of the wisps coalesced again above the body; it brushed past Farrell to get to the door. He almost cried out from a sharp stab of sorrow; abruptly, he stopped his piping, and the silver-streaked glow which still hovered around the computer sank back within its dark box.
Farrell watched with disgust as Vinny sank into a rapturous - and, in his eyes, completely gratuitous - clinch with Angus. Oh well, he thought, and thumped his friend's shoulder affectionately. "Hello, you bloody northern git," he muttered.
Angus grinned up at him. "I love you too, laddie," he said; then he gave a great whoop, and grabbed Vinia close. Two seconds later, a water-bomb hit him full in the face; Megan wasn't having her daughter doing naughty things with a naked man. Not in public, anyway.
"Hah," said Farrell, and turned away from the lovebirds. The little nurse stood with her back to them, too, her head held high; even the torn shreds of her clothing seemed wrapped in dignity. She sniffed, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Good grief, thought Farrell, Purple lace underwear; who'd have thought it.
The councillor, Burke, sidled up to her and put his arm around her shoulder; she sighed and turned toward him. "I didn't think he'd sound like that. He's not a bit like I imagined," she said simply, and leaned her head against Burke's shoulder. A look of astonished bliss wandered across the man's face as he patted the purple lace.
"Urk," said Farrell, as a hand grabbed him by the collar and whirled him around.
His Vinny stood there, fully dressed, her blue eyes dark with fury and her red-gold hair crackling with static. She clicked her teeth shut and hissed: "What do you think you're looking at?"
"Er, what about Angus?" Farrell glanced around wildly. There was Angus, still cuddling up to a half-clad Vinny - but here too was Vinny, full of flesh and fight, trying to pull Farrell's ears off.
She sank against him, firm and warm, her hair tickling his cheek. "Can't you see it now? Can't you see that I'm me - and she's someone different?"
Am I crazy? Well, what the hell, he thought as he folded her in his arms. Maybe, just maybe, he really had created her out of nothing and a T.D.Inc machine.
Ah, Mr. Farrell, a furry whisper purred into his mind from Megan's computer, It is that you will pipe us to our own bodies, yes? The Forest...
"Of course!" Vinny - no, Vinia Merrilees - said, looking up from her attempt to make Angus decent with a sheet. She thumped her head. "Those poor pussy-willows - they can't get to the trees. Okay, Arboriana - we'll get you home. Come on, but hurry- "
Please; is also important, you pipe as we go, yes? These poor creatures, Subliminals, is it not so? They cry. It is not their fault, how they are. You liberate them too, yes?"
Yes. As the van headed out of town, overflowing with people who looked at the world with re-born eyes, Farrell sat on the roof, piping away. Deep inside Megan's computer, a crystal stirred and gave a thin tinkle of fear and loneliness. The foetus cried for its mother.
Far below Farrell, beneath the Earth's crust, Gaia heard the weak cry of the last of her lost babies. Excitement bubbled through Gaia's magma. There! At last, there it was. She turned in her airbed and called out over the Filigree Net: "All right - so where's the Galactic Midwife? My time is due, I can feel it."
Aldebaran-4 sent a chuckling sigh of stardust tinkling through the net. "That's me. You'll have to do exactly as I say."
"Piss off," Gaia said elegantly.
"Look, I'm the Midwife. I'm the only one you'll get - and I do know my job. When I say push, you push," Aldebaran-4's laughter bubbled at her over the celestial songs. Gaia sighed. She got ready to push.
The first of many shudders disturbed the peace of the world's skin; this one measured only 1 on the Richter scale.
Angus' silver-thread antagonist continued to fly through the town, a lonely Subliminal in search of a home. Wheep, it said sadly; wheep? Nobody seemed to want it, what was the point of it all?
Then it felt something - a vague pull, a smell like a burned-out transistor. Yes! There was a home, a place to be, an emptiness ready to be filled. It speeded up until a wide Square opened before it; over there, in that crater, a body lay waiting...
And so Arianrod's SIK figurine, which had made such an impression on Uptonburgh's Grand Square during Beltane, got itself a soul of a sort.
Aha! thought the Commander of the Air Force, buzzing along in his microlight blimpette, Here we go again, protecting our fine country - I'm going to drop bombs, yippee... He leaned back; he was damned if he'd let himself be fooled like last time. They'd bloody well bomb the right place today, and no eagles or whatever were going to catch him on the hop. Well, they weren't going to catch him anywhere; he was keeping a firm lookout.
What had annoyed him most about that whole affair weeks ago had been, not that he'd nearly lost his job, and not that he'd lost a perfectly good lunch - but that nobody had had the presence of mind, when they'd landed, to catch those creatures and disembowel them.
He scanned the heavens, keeping such a cautious eye on them that he neglected to notice whether his pedallers were keeping up their speed.
They weren't. They were tired, they wanted their tea, and they didn't want to see smelly bombs being dropped anyway. The blimpette sank lower over the Square, until it was skimming along just above the ragged statues.
Thus it was that, as the SIK figure climbed out of its crater, stretching its legs and whirling its sexual organs with joyful anticipation, this funny buzzing toy flew within jumping range. It was, perhaps, unfortunate for the Air Force that the dominant race in SIK-A00-PERVT were born with an enormous and fully developed sex-drive; also that their subject races, or pets, bore a remarkable similarity to the humans of YUK-Z11-GAH - particularly to portly, bearded males.
Such as, for instance, the Commander, who was still sky-gazing when the blimpette gave a lurch and a massive, over-friendly creature clambered over the edge and made free with his trousers.
"Drop that!" he yelled.
Two bombs fell majestically from the bomber helicopters to expire grandly in the deserted Square.
The Square was not amused.
The moon peeped palely over Fallekin Astow's horizon just as the bloated sun was humming and hawing a bit about going to bed on this heavy May evening. The moon probed weakly through the powder-blue sky, humphing to itself about brash balls of fire that wouldn't put out their own lights and piss off out of the sky.
The two heavenly bodies mingled their rays; they washed over Fallekin Astow's church roof, which sighed and creaked with the cooling breeze.
Theola looked at her peculiar congregation and felt love and hysteria well up within her. Where else on earth would a vicar be performing a wedding service between a Toff and a Traveller, with a crowd of onlookers which included a circus; a self-important cat which insisted on sitting on her shoulder; a large, cheerful statue with interesting genitals; and a manic horse who was there to give away the bride?
The circus was behaving in a fairly restrained manner. To Theola's left, the elephants swayed gently on top of a clutter of planks. Actually, the planks had once been a pew, but it had groaned and collapsed as soon as its three enormous guests had climbed aboard. They stood now, trunks snuffling along the backs of the other pews; they were feeling the ancient carvings with interest, while the geese honked gently underneath the seats. From the sound of it, they were tearing a hassock or two to pieces.
In front of them, a scattering of vultures vied for perches, and flapped indignantly when Beauty's cub cuffed at them in passing. He was growing to be quite large, now, and there was a certain something about him as he gambolled around the place - a suggestion of a ruff, perhaps - which reminded one a bit of Leo. It looked as if several of the others shared Theola's thoughts; a barrage of accusing looks were levelled at Leo, who carefully avoided everyone's eyes. He sat beside Sloshforth and gazed up at the arched roof with a saintly expression on his face.
On the other side, the Prancing Pansies were behaving with great decorum, squatting back on their haunches and whiffling in each others' ears; if only they had hats, Theola thought, they could have passed for a group of parishioners.
Well, thought Theola, I'd better get down to business. "Do you, Holly, take this..."
Aggie stumbled along amid a marching column of GODLY supporters. They had been on the march ever since Mr. Dimbly had heard about the plan to doctor the water supply with unnatural substances.
"But Mr. Dimbly -gasp-," Aggie had said, "it's not unnatural; didn't Jesus himself turn water into- "
"Silence, woman. You, who mix with the heathen, beware how Satan uses your voice. These perverse creatures wish to infect the Lord's pure gift of water- "
"No, but really - they said they had a cure for all those poor addicts, Mr. Dimbly."
"Brethren," Mr. Dimbly had said, turning to the hushed gathering, "can we allow this doctoring of our water supply?"
"No!" the cry had swelled most enthusiastically around him.
"Then, brethren, let us march on in the Lord's name."
So here Aggie was now, on her way to the city and wrestling with a confused tangle of philosophy and longing. Perhaps her flesh was too weak to be truly good - certainly, a smooth, mahogany nose and a pair of warm arms would keep intruding on her inner vision. She'd run out of breath, but all the rest were still singing the usual stuff about Christian soldiers. She'd never been able to figure that one out - how did Christians and soldiers fit together with turning the other cheek?
So deep in thought was she when they swung through Uptonburgh's Grand Square, that she didn't even notice the fresh devastation until Mr. Dimbly pointed it out. Then she hardly heard him - they had stopped just in front of the hotel where, right now, her Drongan friend was probably getting ready to leave. Tears welled into her eyes and she sniffed.
What was Mr. Dimbly wittering about? "Something terrible is happening - can you not feel the earth quiver beneath our feet even as we stand here? Brethren, it is a warning; Armageddon will be upon us if we continue in our sinful ways." He looked around and pointed to a large grey figure with unusual genitals. "Look at that ugly thing," he said, "Such abominations are all a part of the world's degeneration. Heathen images!"
The statue seemed to blink, and Aggie jumped. "You know," she said, giggling slightly, "the last time I was in this Square, I could have sworn I saw a statue move- Eeek!"
This time there was no doubt. The statue was moving. It came toward them, drooling faintly and with its snake-like genitals twirling madly. Ooh, it thought, yum-yum, more pets.
"Bloody hell!" said Mr. Dimbly, his eyes bugging out at the sight.
"Mr. Dimbly! Swearing!"
He fixed her with a stern glare, and she wilted. "Cast out the beam from thine own eye..."
Aggie, abashed, looked away. Then she blinked. "What are those for?" she asked, pointing to the snakes.
At this point, the statue reached down to grab Mr. Dimbly who squirmed and yelled "Armageddon! Repent ye - the dead rise up..." as it began to strip him; then it demonstrated precisely what they were for, and Mr. Dimbly began to giggle.
"Mr. Dimbly!" gasped Aggie. "Hedonism!"
The ground suddenly heaved; she staggered and blinked down at it. It looked like marble, but it felt - it felt like jelly, it behaved like jelly. The grand houses wobbled about on it; she must be going mad, she thought, as her legs buckled under her. Then the ground decided to stop playing about, and settled back to the dull job of being marble again.
Aggie scrabbled to her feet, and there he was - her Drongan friend, who had run out of the hotel with his countrymen when the quake started. They stood looking at the sky and shaking their heads.
"Come," he said, touching her arm, "The earth, she moves, it is not good for business. It is also not good - the crystals, they go from us." He pointed upward, and Aggie saw a trail of shining objects pop out of the roofs of the town with little crackling noises and float gently across the evening sky. High above the Forest, they were gathering into a sphere of coruscating light.
"It is that we follow them, isn't it? Come."
When the rest of the Christian Soldiers finally staggered back to the Forest that night, their mission was in tatters and their leader in a very unusual position.
Sloshforth's raft creaked in the river's gentle swell, suffused by the evening's glory of gold and red. The sun was putting its best effort into painting the sky, ignoring the moon's pale frown.
As the wide, faint face of the moon peeped through the shack door, Lupudana stretched and yawned, a noise between a whine and a rusty hinge; she sniffed the evening air. It was full of the dusty smell of summer, laden with sharp pollen and the pot-pourri of clamouring flowers. Something else was on the wind, too; a hidden hint of sweat and excitement. Something which was getting closer, full of horses and people and machine-oil. It was heading for the raft, and Lupudana didn't think it was very friendly.
She loped out of the shack, nosing the door shut behind her, and waited in tense silence as the sound of yips and yodels drew near. She had to protect the Word.
Now! Here they were, a splash of colour and cruelty, eyes and teeth. Now! They'd seen her.
She leapt to her feet and dashed away, leading them as far as possible from Sloshforth's life and work.
The forest floor shook and buckled beneath her, but still she ran on.
Aldebaran-4 was doing his stuff.
"Well, that's it;" said Theola, ignoring what sounded like a distant baying of hounds; "I pronounce you married in the eyes of the Almighty - go on, Holly - Gerald - kiss each other." She mounted the steps to the pulpit while the couple enthusiastically obeyed her command.
Then her eye was caught by a sudden scurry of movement at the door, accompanied by the harsh panting of an animal driven to its last extremity.
She looked up to see a huge wolf stagger down the aisle, its sides heaving and its tongue flopping from open jaws.
"Lupu!" Sloshforth jumped out of his seat. "What is it, girl?"
"Lupudana," whispered Theola as the wolf dragged herself toward the pulpit and collapsed in a panting heap. "Whatever can have happened?"
Theola was about to go to the wolf; there was a stamping of hooves outside and Sir Liam Hang appeared in the wide doorway, spreading darkness over the congregation. "Here," he called out to the people behind, "it's in here. Come on, it's time for the kill."
"What?" Theola couldn't believe her ears. "This animal has come to the church for Sanctuary. You will not kill her in here, now or at any time."
The indifferent eyes passed across her face. "I'll have you know that this is my land and my Hunt. I shall do as I please."
"It is the Almighty's land!"
"Precisely." Sir Liam held up his hand. "And that wolf is mine. Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's - read your Bible, woman!"
"She belongs to God- "
Gaia pushed long and hard; she pushed so well that her whole crust shivered.
She pushed so well that Shearweird Forest rocked and the pussy-willows danced around Farrell, who hunched there, desperately piping the kittens free.
She pushed so well that the last, faltering crystal finally broke free of its chains and flew upward from Megan's computer, to whirl above the Forest, a pink speck amongst its magnificent, golden siblings.
She pushed so well that the rotten floorboards of Fallekin Astow's pulpit gave way, and with a reverberating "Bong" the church gave its vicar at last to the crypts below.
The Drongan Interpreter looked up at the growing sphere of crystals and turned to his companions. He spoke briefly; they shrugged and nodded.
"I tell them it is that we must find a new business," he said to Aggie. He put his arm around her shoulder. "Now then, tell me about this village; it is that someone makes herbs of a great specialness, isn't it? It is perhaps time for negotiations of great bilateral profitability..."