Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Farrell's piping burbled to a halt, as the ground shook with Gaia's final thrust and the chip flew out of Megan's computer.
Vinia Merrilees, still re-discovering her body's muscles, staggered against a wobbling tree and clung to it; her hair whipped around her mouth and eyes in the rising wind. As the movement died down, she spat out a mouthful of hair and squinted up at the gathering sphere of crystals. They glinted with golden fire in the sun's dying light.
A lump of emotion threatened to choke Vinia as she watched it; among that glittering host up there was at least one friend.
"Man, is this living or what?" a voice thundered above her, and she gave a little gurgle. Oh, Cryssie - the same old Cryssie. How was it going to cope, in the big bad world, after this birthing? Come to think of it, would there be any world left after all these quakes?
The swirling, golden sphere over their heads pulsed, drew in on itself, pulled Megan's still-chiming little pink chip into its centre.
Ceredwen shook her head and sucked her teeth. "That one's not right, is it? Oh well. Come to think of it, they're all a bit odd. Well, we'll have to make do with what we've got." She sat on a tree-root and gave a philosophical suck to her bagpipes.
"Whoo!" yelled Cryssie, its voice bouncing across the Forest's canopy. "Hey, brothers - move on over, let me in there. this is my birthday party, know what I mean?"
The sphere folded closer, denser, smaller, dragging air and brightness into it until it was a spot of light too sharp to bear, in the centre of a howling whirlpool. Vinia felt a pull toward it, almost irresistible; it seemed to tear her apart. Her gaze searched the woodland anxiously. Mother - there she was, clinging to Drew; Vinia didn't recognise the other stunned faces. "Angus!" she cried over the chaos. "Where the hell have you got to?"
A hand fumbled against hers from the other side of the tree, and she looked down to see his freckled fingers. They felt so warm and comforting; she felt like laughing in spite of the strangeness which bubbled all around.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see all her newly-awoken friends; unfamiliar shapes who clung to trees with as much desperation as herself. She hoped the trees could stand the strain.
The earth shuddered one last time. With a "crack", the impossibly bright spot blinked out, leaving a puff of nothingness and a temporary trail of black splodges on Vinia's sight. Stillness pressed down on her, and her eardrums echoed in the peace.
"What the hell happened? Where's Cryssie gone?" She cautiously let go of the tree's dry roughness and sank to the ground, reluctantly slipping her hand away from Angus'. He zipped round the tree and squatted beside her in an instant, his pale blue eyes laughing down at her.
Ceredwen shrugged. "You've never seen the start of a new universe before?" She glanced around. "No, of course not. Well, you must have heard of the Big Bang."
"Gluck - the Big - was that..." Vinia's voice came out in a series of squeaks, and she gestured to the spot where the crystals had been.
"Here, have a drink." Ceredwen offered her bagpipes, and carried on while Vinia took a long, steadying swig: "Gaia's in charge of Bangs, you see - she's dippy about children. Completely crackers. That lot should be starting up in - let's see - Continuum ZAP-51C-OOPS? Yep, that's the one. Still at the drawing-board stage, but I suppose it's not the first universe to be rushed through before the bugs were ironed out."
By the time Vinia's vocal chords were back under control, all she could think of was: "Whatever kind of universe is that lot going to create? I mean, those chips - all that crap - well..."
Ceredwen gave a crack of laughter. "Ah, crap. Yes. Isn't it nice to think that a little bit of you is out there, creating a new universe?" She shrugged. "Oh, ZAP'll survive. Unless it blows itself up under the management of that crazy hippie-chip and its bunch of genetically damaged freaks, of course." On which optimistic note, she blew on her bagpipes and disappeared.
Vinia shrugged. It all seemed a little unreal still, but as long as she had Angus' warmth next to her, it didn't matter. She still revelled in the slight roughness of cloth next to her skin, the crushed smell of damp earth, the chalky taste of disturbed dust; every sense was so fresh and new.
Farrell eased himself backwards and pushed the ruined computer away from him. He leaned against a tree and put his pipes to his lips, playing a gentle, weary melody. He looked up as he played, straight at Vinia, and she felt her stomach clench briefly. Then his Vinny slipped out from behind his tree; she flung herself at him and the two of them rolled over, a laughing heap of arms and legs. Until, that is, Megan deluged them with a water-bomb.
"While she's occupied over there..." whispered Angus, and pulled Vinia into a big hug.
Hmm, nice, thought Vinia as she wriggled up against him and licked his lips. A bit like cinnamon, with a tinge of mead...
It was at this point that Megan noticed, with a very big water-bomb.
"Mother," said Vinia when she had finally stopped gasping for breath, "for heaven's sake - stop it!"
Megan snorted. "I'll stop when these men have made honest women of you, and not before."
Vinia grinned at Angus and leaned her head against his shoulder. Life looked pretty good.
Her friends wobbled about, newly reunited with their legs and trying to work out who was whom. She chuckled; it was going to be a long and interesting time ahead, getting to know everyone all over again.
Theola Devin, with the church's echoing "bong" still loud in her ears, landed on what looked - and felt - like a glowing stone sofa. "Ouch!" she said, with feeling. She picked herself up and fingered her bruises carefully. Ethniu, who had used her as a cushion, stretched and wandered off.
Theola became aware of a humming noise, and she glanced up from her self-inspection. There was something very odd about this crypt. It wasn't simply the pastel glow from the walls, nor the bubbling jars in the alcoves, nor even the washing which hung over a bunch of invasive tree-roots; the real puzzlement was the statuesque woman in a spangled gown who sat beside a massive, spinning potter's wheel. "Hey," said Theola, "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"How interesting - another sentient being," said the woman, glancing up from her work with a gentle smile. "But really, dear, you don't have to use such a loud noise to Continua-hop- "
"What? Look, I don't recall authorising a pottery in the crypts- "
"Well, dear, this isn't your crypt. But with all this Continuum fuss, I'm not surprised that you think it is. Have a nice cup of ginger and rosehip tea; it's wonderfully soothing."
"Arianrod," Kerr's voice sounded behind Theola, bubbling with suppressed laughter, "you're just confusing her. It's information she needs, not tea."
Theola whirled around; before her sat a naked, hairy man with horns. Her body made a spirited attempt to gasp, scream, faint, and run in several directions, all at once. In the end, it settled for biting her tongue.
"Damn," she said, "sorry God, I mean- "
"You're welcome, dear," said Arianrod absently, as she concentrated on a figurine.
"Eh?" Theola's legs gave way and she shrank back onto the sofa as the horned man came toward her. The most disturbing thing about him - well, one of the most disturbing things, she thought as she wrenched her gaze from his crotch - was that his face was so like Kerr's, and his eyes held all the man's warmth and concern. "What's wrong, kid? I be right glad to see you- "
"Kernunnos, can't you see you're frightening the poor child?" Arianrod gestured toward his horns, and he clapped a hand to his head. "Sorry - forgot!" In an instant he had become the familiar Kerr.
The cave heaved slightly, and Arianrod sucked her teeth. "Oh look, another of my figures damaged; I'll just have to squidge it down and start again. I do wish Gaia would just get on with it, and stop all this fuss. Perhaps we'd better make a more solid anchor in YUK than those old Fallekin Stones." She wiped her hands, gazing calmly at Theola. "Leave her alone, Kernunnos; the poor thing's had a shock. Here, dear..." She put an enormous mug of steaming, gingery tea into Theola's hands and sat down beside her.
Theola was taking her first sip when Ceredwen appeared with a soggy skirl of the pipes and said: "Now the clock's started in ZAP-51C-OOPS, the draft Laws will have to stand. Should be interesting; anyone know what was on the drawing-board?"
"Let's see." Arianrod clicked her fingers, and a massive tome appeared on her lap. Emblazoned on the front, in glowing letters, were the words: Book of Universe Design. It opened at random, and Theola gasped at the sight - a dizzying depth of blackness, filled with a dusting of sharp, cold star-points.
"That's yours, dear - YUK," Arianrod said, "one of our less imaginative universes, but perfectly serviceable. Now then..."
Theola gulped down the rest of her tea and choked. When she could see again, she gasped: "Universes - you're talking about - but that means... You're God? The Great Mother?"
"Well, yes, dear." Arianrod stopped patting her back. "But Kernunnos does the worlds - he's a great worldbuilder. Would you like to try some of his elderflower tea?"
"Oh, but you can't be. God is the One, invisible, omnipresent- "
Arianrod looked up with a puzzled frown. Then her brow cleared. "Oh, I think you mean Jove - no, he calls himself Jehovah now, doesn't he? Yes, he loves going around the Continua creating religions. Frankly, I can't stand his holier-than-thou attitude."
"But the Bible, the Word of God- "
Kernunnos chuckled. "Oh, he's a right chatterer - there's no shortage of his Words."
"Now, Kernunnos, behave yourself. You're confusing her. And she's one of my better creations, too..."
"Better?" squeaked Theola, thinking of the doughy Devin looks.
"Oh yes, I installed all sorts of concepts like loyalty and compassion into this model. Now then, I was looking for ZAP-51C-OOPS, wasn't I?"
As Arianrod flicked the first thin sheet over, her fingers seemed to be swallowed briefly by the velvet blackness; then she was riffling though the pages, a swirling, shape-changing rainbow of star-powdered colours.
At last she reached a series of pages which were transparent and covered in diagrams and spidery writing. She slowed down, muttering: "Ah, here we are. Oh, goodness!" She glanced up, gurgling with mirth. "Do you remember we were experimenting with primeval soups? Guess where the gravity-less cock-a-leekie went?"
"Well, I think a universe based on the continuous non-entity particle was a real good idea," said Kernunnos.
"You would," said Arianrod, and closed the book. "I dare say we'll see. It'll be quite a challenge, creating suitable inhabitants." She picked bits of hardening clay from her fingers. "I could do with that apprentice of mine - I suppose he's gallivanting around with Brigid again. Isn't that just like a man, always letting little things like goddesses get in the way of true Art."
Ceredwen poured Wildflower Nectar into Theola's empty mug. "I don't know about that," she said, "But I do know that those SIK creatures of yours are going wild among the YUKkers. I'd shift them out, if I were you."
"What? I didn't give them souls- "
"Well, they've got 'em now. Those YUKkers - I've never known creatures so good at fiddling about with stuff they don't understand. Inquisitive lot."
Arianrod smiled as if at a compliment. "Yes, it was an ingenious trait, wasn't it? It makes such interesting little creatures." She sucked her teeth. "Oh well, you know exactly where all those SIK pieces got to - will you do the clean-up job for me, dear?"
"Humph," said Ceredwen, picking up her hat and dislodging the toad. "Alright. But don't drink all that barrel of Nectar before I get back, you hear?"
Natterjak jumped into Theola's mug with a splosh, as Ceredwen piped herself into nothingness. Theola decided to ignore him. The drink tasted too good to waste simply because it was full of toad.
Two mugs and a satisfied toad later, Kernunnos leaned over and caressed Theola's cheek. "How'd you feel about conceiving a half-god child with me? It'd be right good fun, wouldn't it?"
Theola rubbed her nose and thought about the old legends. "I don't know," she said at last, "I think perhaps it's not all it's cracked up to be."
Arianrod gave a crack of laughter, and refilled the vicar's mug.
Ethniu, ignoring all this nonsense, examined what was bubbling up in her food-alcove. Something green and treacly, from the look of it. Oh well, nothing ventured... She stuffed her nose into it and began to make champing noises. Decaying rabbit marinated in seaweed? Oh well.
Sir Liam held his sweating horse steady in the massive doorway as the church rocked to Gaia's final push; the animal, spooked by the unusually surging ground, tried to rear - or roll over - or run away. It obviously felt that anywhere would do - preferably somewhere really distant, like Drongo.
Sir Liam's gaze swept over the confused congregation, and his lips twisted in a sneer. Idiots and animals - what a selection. Well, all the more for the Hunt to deal with. His mouth filled with anticipatory saliva.
"That stupid woman has left," he said over his shoulder as he urged his mount forward, "so perhaps we can get on with the day's business. Master of Hounds - send 'em in!"
It was perhaps unfortunate for Sir Liam that the circus had only one thought in its collective head, now that the ground had stopped heaving. That thought was: Out. Out of here. Let's bugger off NOW! Even his iron will couldn't hold up against three elephants in stampede formation, followed by a set of Prancing Pansies, an assortment of Great Cats, and a flock of geese. The geese had a particularly interesting rearguard action.
His horse took one look at the rabble which thundered toward it, and decided that Enough was Enough. It didn't care what this monster on its back did now - those elephants were more than an aristocratic horse could bear. With great presence of mind, it did a delicate pirouette and dashed out of the doorway, neatly depositing its human burden on one of the mechano-hounds. Linsey's horse, which had been pottering happily toward the church, took one look at its friend's crazed eyes and decided not to hang about. It whirled with determination, parting company vigorously with its rider as it did so. The rest of the equine section of the Hunt saw their companions zoom past, ears well back and bit between the teeth, and with a commendable sense of self-preservation they followed their example without question. If there was something that awful in the building, they reasoned, then a long way away was a good place to be.
From the far end of the church, Haigho's whistle pierced the air. His ring-master's voice rang across the stampede: "Single file! Hup! Hup!"
The habit of a lifetime cut through the elephants' instincts, and they stumbled to a halt. Fallekin Astow's church was then treated to the sight of God's dumb creatures performing the show of a lifetime. They reared and they twirled; they really put their hearts into it. All except the geese, who waddled out of the door with determination, and proceeded to savage Sir Liam with gusto.
It was the first circus performance ever to be held within those holy walls, and it was the spark of a great tradition. The loss of a few pews, magically transformed into useful firewood in the process, was surely a small price to pay for such an historic event.
It was a shame, perhaps, that the only audience inside the church consisted of a worried printer with his wolf; a SIK, Bertha-filled statue; and the newly wed Gerald and Holly, whose minds were on other matters.
Sir Liam, sprawled on the over-friendly mechano-hound outside and fending off geese, sent up a little prayer of thanks to Mammon for saving his life, and for showing him the Way; now that he had his circus back, he could think of loads of new, profitable schemes.
At last the circus took its final bow and filed out of the door. Nearly everyone left the church; even Lupudana, refreshed by her rest, loped out beside Bertha and Sloshforth. But Gerald and Holly were too busy plighting their troth in lots of interesting ways.
Haigho breathed a sigh of relief and wiped his forehead as he stumbled through the door. He'd been terrified; those massive walls looked sturdy enough to do his elephants a lot of harm. Thank heaven, he thought, I was able to stop the stampede- Oh shit. His thoughts came to an abrupt halt as Sir Liam grabbed him.
"Right," said the Great Man, "you will now put those animals back in their cages. You will then, of course, be allowed the formality of a trial. I shall only give you ten years in the sludge-pits if you come quietly."
Haigho shook Sir Liam off, and his stomach churned. "I'm sorry, sir, I won't ever hand these creatures back; you'll only torture them or make them into food-packages. You can't make me."
Linsey picked herself up and staggered over to them. "Come on, now; be sensible," she said, "GOLEM will get onto you if you resist, and then you'd get much more than a silly little ten-year sentence, wouldn't you? You know that these animals belong to dear Liam - and I've always wanted an elephant..."
Lupudana's hackles had risen as soon as she had spotted the fallen huntsman, and Sloshforth had been desperately holding onto her. The wolf broke free at last; she snarled and jumped at Sir Liam, her massive jaws clamping down on his neck with a solid, metallic "clunk."
"Aaargh," Sir Liam said with somewhat less than his usual sang-froid.
Sloshforth pulled desperately at the wolf's tail. "Lupu! Put him down!"
"Thank heaven," said Linsey as she tugged from the other side, "someone with a bit of common sense!"
Sloshforth shrugged. "Don't want him to poison her, do I?"
Bertha swept them all aside with a gentle shove of one massive hand. "Hey," her cheerful voice rolled over them, "this one's mine! It's Sir Liam Hang, isn't it? Well, fair's fair. He fiddled with my body, so now it's my turn. Anyway," her snake-genitals began to twirl, and she looked at him speculatively, "he really looks like a jolly good piece of fluff."
"Gah," he said, beginning to go purple from an excess of wolf. Lupudana gave him a final shake and let him go. He put his hand up to feel for tooth-marks, but there were none. Instead, neatly printed in bold type, was the word: "Censored."
Bertha grabbed hold of Sir Liam, and his eyes bugged at her as she drew him close. Haigho began to feel almost sorry for him.
"Hey!" A woman who looked exactly like Vinia, except for a harsh compression of her lips and her choice in clothes, strode up to them. Her leather suit and boots were decorated with deaths' heads, and her hands caressed the thongs of a whip. "He's mine, aren't you, my lord?"
Sir Liam, pulling out of Bertha's grasp, was in no position to answer. In fact, he was in no position for a lord, either. He was on his hands and knees, trying to scrabble away.
"Oh look, isn't he adorable," said Bertha, grabbing him by the foot. "No, really, there's plenty for all, share and share alike."
The Vinia lookalike tapped her whip against one boot and looked thoughtfully at the massive Bertha. Then she nodded. "Okay, we can share him then. My lord, prepare yourself..."
"What on earth are those for?" Linsey said to Haigho, pointing to Bertha's snakes.
Haigho shook his head. "Madam, I'd hate to even imagine- "
"Oooh," said Linsey, her voice throbbing with envy as Bertha began to demonstrate. "Ooh, I want one!"
At that instant, the squirming trio disappeared, nothing but the echo of a soggy bagpipe note remaining behind them.
Ceredwen had started her SIK clean-up operation.
It was thus that Hang Enterprises and the government completely lost their heads; neither was ever quite the same again. Well, Sir Liam wasn't either; but since he was up to his neck in SIKker genitals most of the time, he simply didn't care.
The sun arose next morning, peered down on Sleasford, and recoiled behind a cloud. The sun wasn't a prude, but really! By the time it decided to re-emerge, the day was well advanced, and the town had stilled. Snoring bodies littered the pavements and each other, wide grins on their slumbering faces. The widest grins beamed from scattered members of the GOLEM squad; they were easily identified by fragments of their uniforms, which were still approximately bottle-green.
The sun buckled down to its job of warming the rooftops, its rays fingering every crack and corner. There were a lot more cracks than usual - all the roofs had broken out in a rash of tiny holes, and the rays wriggled into them all, exploring dusty passageways and stairwells, highlighting exploded, chip-less Teledildonics machines.
In Sleasford that day, many a now-useless machine had been kicked to pieces by a landlord cheated of his rental-money; many a landlord now tore his hair and wept at the injustice of Fate. It would be many a long month before he would be able to devise another legal method for wringing more money from his tenants.
The sun washed over the slightly dented look of the Grand Square, and peered into still more rooftop holes; in Uptonburgh, of course, the VR machines' devastation was greeted with much more decorum. Teledildonics Inc's headquarters was a scene of controlled bustle, as engineers and technicians worked solidly on repairs. They might just as well have torn their hair and wept.
Gently, the sun's rays caressed the soft contours of Shearweird Forest's canopy; the ravaged patch of pussy-willows, tossing their heads, purred as the summer breezed past. The sap rose like a fountain toward buds which swelled with the joy of life. Not one sapling remained comatose, not one root unstretched. Beneath their joyful whispering, the earth spread, unbroken, over the area where once a dark hole had gaped; no longer would Gaia's caverns be violated by avid crystal-seekers.
The sun slid down the sky. At Fallekin Astow, it toyed with the vicar's neck as she sat, cross-legged, on the manse lawn, her nostrils full of the scent of crushed grass.
Theola was reading her bible, trying to arrange all the new godly evidence into a pattern with her old beliefs. Tricky stuff. Still, she was working on it - maybe she would be able to convince herself that yesterday had all been a dream.
Dusk was trying to gather its cloak around her before she responded at last and looked up from her book. To be precise, she was responding to something warm and wet which huffed in her ear. "Ugh! Lupu, get off!" she said, thrusting the wolf's nose away.
Lupudana sat, tongue lolling out, and laughed silently.
Kernunnos and Sloshforth leaned over the gate, grinning at her; a jab of longing shot through her from heart to groin and back up into her stomach, where it quivered with anticipation. Nonsense, she thought, what nonsense it all is.
"Come on, little lady," Sloshforth's harsh voice was gentle. "Time to socialise with your congregation."
Theola looked down at the bible in her hands. She closed it slowly and stroked its worn buckram cover. Then she shrugged. "Why not? I don't suppose the Almighty will mind. Whoever She is."
June rolled onward, and Fallekin Astow drowsed in the midsummer sun. Near the church, just where the road wound past the village sign, a sculptor was at work on the sign itself.
Doug Marrow - graveyard attendant and artist, priest to one goddess, and apprenticed to another - was looking forward to Midsummer's Day. His duties sounded as if they'd be loads of fun, especially since there were going to be an unusual number of interesting weddings - or were they handfastings? Well, whatever they were called, it was all good stuff, and plenty for himself and the Vicar to do.
He paused in his work, hammer and chisel in hand. He listened to his world's sun-drenched sounds; in the distance a few hens - Gerald and Holly's, probably - were clucking over their eggs, while the nearby hedge rustled to some rodent's scrabbling.
Egrette, perched in bloated, tatty splendour on the sign, showed little interest in the possibility of food; her eye followed the scuttering sound, but she simply yawed vaguely and went back to watching Doug.
He stepped back from his work and squinted at it; then he nodded and selected another chisel. It was high time this sign was changed. Having it carved in stone to stand the test of time was a great move, and one he'd dreamed of for years. "Fallekin Astow - home to approx. 300 complete humanoids and some very peculiar animals" had a certain ring to it. It might become inaccurate in time, but at least it would look good.
A muffled "foom" sounded behind him, and the eagle launched itself heavily into the air with an indignant "yark."
Doug turned to face whatever Fate had in store. He was pretty sure it wouldn't be dull.
Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved