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NETFEED/NEWS: Little League Hostages Freed--Angry Father Killed
(visual: body of Wilkes beside camper van)
VO: Gerald Ray Wilkes, like many Little League parents, thought his son's team was victimized by a bad call. Unlike most of them, though, Wilkes decided to take drastic action. After beating the unpaid umpire unconscious, he forced the opposing team of eleven- and twelve-year-olds into his van at gunpoint, then led authorities on a two-state chase. He was eventually stopped by a roadblock outside Tompkinsville, Kentucky, where he was shot when he refused to surrender. . . .
Renie dodged Sam's first blow and ducked the second almost as easily, but the third bounced hard off the side of her head. Renie cursed and leaned away. Sam was crying and swinging blindly, but Renie didn't want to take any chances--if the sim body was a fair representation of her real self, Sam Fredericks was a strong, athletic girl. Renie grabbed her around the waist and threw her to the strangely soapy ground, then struggled to secure the girl's arms in a clinch. She failed, and was slapped on the side of the head again. Renie was having trouble keeping her own anger in check.
"Damn it, Sam, stop! That's enough!"
She finally managed to grab one of the girl's arms and used the leverage to shove Sam's head down against the ground, then climbed atop her and pulled her other arm up behind her back. For a moment the girl bucked, trying to throw her off, then her limbs went slack and her weeping took on a deeper, more heartbroken sound.
Renie kept her weight on Sam for almost a minute, until she felt the girl's convulsive sobbing begin to gentle. Hoping the worst was over, she took the risk of letting go one of the girl's arms so she could rub the spot where Sam had hit her. Her jaw clicked as she worked it. "Jesus Mercy, girl, I think you broke my face."
Sam twisted her head back to look at Renie, eyes wide. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" She burst into tears again.
Renie stood up. The skimpy strips of cloth she wore had nearly been pulled off her body in the struggle, as had Sam's, and both of them were streaked with pseudo-dirt. Some people would pay a lot to see this kind of thing, Renie thought sourly. Back at Mister J's, they'd put a lot of good coding into this effect--half-naked women wrestling in the dirt. "Get up, girl," she said aloud. "We're supposed to be looking for rocks, remember?"
Sam rolled over and stared up at the odd gray sky, face wet, eyes desolate. "I won't do it, Renie! I can't do it--even if you break both my arms. He's a murderer. He killed Orlando!"
Renie silently counted to ten before speaking. "Look, Sam, I let you scream at me--I even let you hit me and I didn't smack you back, no matter how much I wanted to. Do you think this feels good?" She touched her tender jaw. "It's been difficult for all of us. But we're going with that nasty old man because we have to--and I'm not going to leave you here. End of discussion. Now, are you going to make me tie you up and carry you all the way down this damned mountain, tired as I am?" Suddenly realizing that she was indeed exhausted, she slumped down next to the girl. "Are you really going to do that to me?"
Sam looked at her solemnly, struggling for self-control. Her breath hitched; she waited until she could speak. "I'm sorry, Renie. But how can we go anywhere with . . . with . . . ?"
"I know. I hate the bastard--I'd like to throw him off the mountain myself. But we're going to have to live with Felix Jongleur until we get some answers to what's going on. What's that old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?" Renie squeezed the girl's arm. "This is a war, Sam. Not just a single battle. Putting up with that terrible man . . . well, it's like being a spy behind foreign lines or something. We have to do it because we have a bigger purpose."
Sam looked down, unable to hold Renie's gaze. "Chizz," she said after long moments, but she sounded like death. "I'll try. But I'm not going to talk to him."
"Fine." Renie clambered to her feet. "Come on. I didn't just bring you out here to talk to you alone. We still have to . . ." She broke off as a shape moved slowly around one of the broken spikes of stone which were the primary features of the barren landscape. The handsome young man who stood there said nothing, but only stared back, empty-eyed as a goldfish in a bowl.
"What the hell do you want?" Renie asked him.
The dark-haired man did not answer for a moment. "I . . . am Ricardo Klement," he said at last.
"We know." Just because he was brain-damaged didn't mean he had earned any of Renie's sympathy. Before the Ceremony went awry, he had been another one of the Grail murderers, just like Jongleur. "Go away. Leave us alone."
Klement blinked slowly. "It is good . . . to be alive." After another pause he turned and disappeared among the rocks.
"This is so utterly horrible," Sam said weakly. "I . . . I don't want to be here anymore, Renie."
"Neither do I." Renie patted her shoulder. "That's why we have to keep going, find our way home. No matter how much we want to give up." She grabbed Sam's arm and squeezed again, trying to make her hear, force her to understand. "No matter how much. Now come on, girl, get on your feet--let's go find some more rocks."
!Xabbu was using the stones they had already gathered to construct a wall around Orlando's naked sim, something that looked more like a lidless coffin than a cairn. The pseudo-stones, like the rest of the environment on the black mountain, were slowly changing: with every hour that passed they looked less like the thing they were supposed to be, more like a sort of cursory 3D sketch. Orlando's Achilles sim, though, had retained its almost supernatural realism: lying in the improvised tomb, he did indeed look like a fallen demigod.
Confronted with her friend's empty shell, Sam was crying again. "He is dead, isn't he? I keep wanting it not to be true, but that's probably how everyone feels, right?"
Renie recalled the achingly bleak months after her mother's death. "Yes, it is. You'll be seeing him, hearing him, only he won't be there. But it gets better after a while."
"It'll never get better. Never." Sam leaned down to touch Orlando's stony cheek. "But he is dead, isn't he? Really, really dead."
Renie was finding it almost as difficult as Sam to contemplate leaving behind a body that still looked so full of life. There had been other strange signs too. Unlike all the other sims she had seen whose living owners had died, Orlando's garments had remained soft and supple despite the marble-like solidity of the body beneath. This strange state of affairs had even made Renie wonder for a while if he might not still be living, just lost somehow in his own deep coma back in real life, but numerous surreptitious experiments--performed when Sam was otherwise distracted so as not to raise her hopes--had made Renie as certain as she could ever be in this strange place that there was no animation left in that petrified form.
Orlando's last gift to them had allowed Renie and Sam to salvage enough cloth to make crude garments, which helped Renie feel a little less vulnerable in the presence of the cold-eyed Jongleur and the vacantly childish Klement. In turning over Orlando's stiffened sim to untangle the remains of his tattered chiton, they had even found his broken sword, the hilt still bearing a few inches of blade, which had made it much easier to turn the dirty white fabric into loincloths and crude bandeau tops.
The damaged sword was the only weapon among the mountaintop survivors, perhaps the only weapon in this entire simworld, and obviously far too valuable a tool to leave behind. Renie would have preferred to carry it herself, trusting her own wariness to keep it from falling into Jongleur's hands, but Sam had been so pathetically grateful to have some keepsake from Orlando that Renie had not had the heart to argue very much; Sam now wore it thrust through the waist of her loincloth. With only a bit more than a hand's breadth of blade left, it would not make much of a weapon, although it had given Renie a nasty scratch on her leg while she and Sam had been wrestling. Still, she had to admit that in such spare circumstances the shattered blade had the look of a legendary object.
Renie shook her head, irritated at herself for getting mystical. Undecaying body or not, their friend was still dead. Orlando's sword might once have been the scourge of an imaginary gaming world, but now it would be used for digging or for sawing wood . . . if they ever found any. As for the miraculous cloth, it had been turned into a pair of primitive bikinis from a bad caveman flick. (!Xabbu had refused to take any of the tiny amount of fabric to clothe his own nakedness, and when Renie had offered some to Jongleur, more to protect her and Sam's own sensibilities than as a kindness, he had only laughed.)
So we'll head down the mountain this way, she thought. Three naked men and two women looking like something out of a Neandertal lingerie advertisement. And for all we know, we're the only people left alive in this whole virtual universe . . . except for Dread. Oh, yes, we're in great shape. . . .
!Xabbu took the new stones they had collected, but he seemed distracted. Before asking him why, Renie made sure Jongleur was out of earshot. The master of the Grail Brotherhood stood some distance away, staring out into the weirdly depthless sky from the rim of the cliff. Renie couldn't help wondering again what it would feel like to shove him over the edge.
"You look worried," she told !Xabbu as he shored up the walls around Orlando's body. "How are we supposed to cover the top of this, by the way?"
"I am worried because I do not think we have time to do that. I think we must leave Orlando's grave this way and begin our journey soon. I am sorry--I wanted to do better."
"What are you talking about?"
"We have all seen what has happened to this place just since we have been here--how things are losing their edges, their color. While I was out looking for more stones, I discovered something that worried me. The trail is losing truth, too."
She shook her head, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe I have used the wrong word. I am talking of the trail which we climbed to come here, with Martine and Paul Jonas and the others, before everything became so strange--the trail along the mountainside. It is changing as everything else here is changing, Renie, but there was not much . . . what is the word? There was not much truth, much . . . reality to it in the first place. Already it looks old and blurry."
Despite the permanent room-temperature ambience, Renie felt a chill. Without that path they would be trapped on top of a miles-high mountain that was rapidly losing its coherence. And what if gravity was the last thing to go?
"You're right. We leave soon." She turned to Sam, who was brooding over Orlando's empty sim. "Did you hear that? We're running out of time here."
The girl was dry-eyed now, but the composure did not go very deep. It was still strange for Renie to see Sam's true face. It had been even stranger to discover that Sam had a black father, and a distinct African look to her features despite her tawny hair. Her teenage dialect had been so compellingly middle-American that even Renie herself had unconsciously typed the girl (even when everyone had still thought her a boy) as white. "He still looks so . . . perfect," Sam said quietly. "What's going to happen to him if this place goes away?"
Renie shook her head. "I don't know. But remember, that's not him, Sam. That's not even his body. Wherever Orlando is, he must be in a better place than this."
"We need a little rest before we go anywhere," !Xabbu said. "We have none of us slept since the night before Troy was destroyed, and that seems a long time ago. It will be no help to hurry down the mountain if we are not making good choices--if we stumble and fall because we are so tired."
Renie started to object, but of course he was right: they were all exhausted--in fact, it was !Xabbu himself who usually got the least sleep and insisted on taking the most strenuous duties. It might only be a sim and not his true body, but he was still sagging with weariness. Even Sam's emotional volatility, unsurprising after what they had all been through, might be improved with rest.
"Okay," she said. "We'll take a few hours to sleep. But only if you go first."
"I am used to being without sleep, Renie . . ."
"I don't care if you're used to it. It's your turn. I'll stand first watch, then I'll wake Sam up for the second. So just lie down, will you?"
!Xabbu shrugged and smiled. "If you say so, Beloved Porcupine."
"Stop that." She looked around. "It would be nice if it ever got dark here." She remembered the terror of sudden nightfall in the other unfinished land. "Well, maybe not. Anyway, just close your eyes."
"You could sleep too, Renie."
"And not have anyone keeping an eye on Jongleur? Chance not, as the young people say."
!Xabbu curled up on the ground. Trained by his nomadic people to snatch the opportunity when it was available, within moments his breathing slowed and his muscles relaxed.
Renie reached out once and touched his hair, still awed to have the old !Xabbu back again. Or a virtual version of him. She glanced at Felix Jongleur, still staring out into the sky like a ship's captain watching the weather, then at Sam, crouched silently beside Orlando's cairn. Although her knee was touching Renie's leg, the girl seemed farther away than Jongleur.
"You get some sleep too," Renie told her. "Sam? Do you hear me?"
The girl looked up, a flash of anger on her face. "You're not my mother, seen?"
Renie sighed. "No, I'm not. But I am a grown woman and I'm trying to help. And if you ever want to see that mother of yours again, you must stay alert and healthy."
Sam's look softened. "Sorry. Sorry I'm being so stupid. I just . . . I want this all to be over. I want to go home."
"We're doing our best. Lie down for a while, even if you don't sleep."
"Chizz." She stretched out beside Orlando's body and closed her eyes, one hand touching the low stone wall. It gave Renie a superstitious shiver to see it.
I can't even remember, she thought, what it felt like when life was normal.
Both !Xabbu and Sam were still sleeping soundly after something like an hour had passed, as deeply as her brother Stephen had used to sleep after a long day of childish hyperactivity. Sam was snoring quietly, and Renie was reluctant to wake her up. She felt a brief desire for a cigarette, and realized with surprise that it had been a long time since she had thought about smoking.
Just too damned busy trying not to get killed, she decided. Effective, but there must be easier ways to quit.
Jongleur had his back against a rock some ten meters away and appeared to be sleeping himself, or at least his head was sunk on his chest and his eyes were closed. Renie could not help thinking he looked like a vulture waiting with the patience of millions of years of blind evolution for something to die. The fifth member of the involuntary fellowship, Ricardo Klement, had not reappeared, and even though it disturbed Renie to think about him trudging around the mountaintop, God only knew what kind of thoughts flickering through his damaged brain, it was better than having to look at him.
It was the mountaintop itself that now caught Renie's attention. For all that had happened here, for all that she and !Xabbu had worried about its ongoing dissolution, she had not really looked it over very carefully. Sleepless in the eternal, directionless light, she let her gaze wander across the spiky terrain.
The mountain was not only losing detail, it was losing color as well--or, since it had originally been all the same shiny black material, it might have been more precise to say it was gaining colors. The scumble of dark, unreflective soil beneath her had not changed too much, but the uneven peaks and pillars of stone were less solidly black, as though someone had thrown water on an ink drawing before it was entirely dry. Some of the spikes of rock had merely lightened to dark gray, but others now showed threads of other hues, purples and nightsky blues, and even the suggestion here and there of a dark brown like dried blood.
But that doesn't really make any sense, Renie told herself. That's not how virtual landscapes decay. If they don't just go nonfunctional, then some of the components might work longer than others and you get an odd effect like a schematic or a wire-frame after all the other detail is gone, but you don't just have color wash out. Things don't go blurry. It's crazy.
But here they were, and what hadn't been crazy since they'd first crossed with the old hacker Singh into this virtual madhouse of a universe? Nothing here behaved as normal code should behave.
Renie squinted. The mountaintop seemed quite real--in some ways more so than when they had first come--but there was no question that the place was losing coherence. Some of the jutting spikes were little more than blobs now, and in other places the canyons that cut into the rim of the valley had begun to sag along the edges like pudding.
It's not a real landscape--in fact, it never was. The more she looked at its sparse verticality and blurry gray sky, dead as a bad piece of theater scenery, the more it seemed like something purely of the imagination. An Expressionist painting, perhaps. A cartoon. A dream.
Yes, that's what it truly looks like, she thought. And that's what the other unfinished place looked like too. Not like real places, but like one of those landscapes that the brain throws out as a backdrop for a dream.
A thought suddenly came to her, something as strange and prickly as static electricity, and she found herself sitting up straight. After a few minutes, with other ideas grabbing onto the first as though magnetized, she badly wanted to share. She gave !Xabbu a gentle shake. He came awake immediately.
"Renie? Is it my turn? Is everything . . . ?"
"I'm fine, I just . . . I had an idea. Because of what you always say. A dream is dreaming us, you know?"
"What do you mean?" He drew himself up until he could look closely at her face.
"You always say that a dream is dreaming us, right? And I always thought of that as being, I don't know, philosophical."
He laughed quietly. "Is that a bad word, Renie?"
"Don't make fun of me, please. I'm admitting my own faults. I'm an engineer, for God's sake--or at least that's my training. I tend to think of things like philosophy as being what you do after the real work is finished."
The look he gave her was amused, crinkling around the eyes. "And so?"
"I was just thinking about this place and how much like a dream it is. How nothing is quite normal, but in a dream that doesn't matter because you're waiting for something important to happen. And then I suddenly just thought, what if this place is a dream?"
!Xabbu cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
"Not a dream, really, but strange and unreal for the same reason that a dream is. Why is it that things happen all funny in dreams, things look funny? That nothing is ever quite . . . complete? Because your subconscious isn't actually very good at recreating the stuff the conscious mind usually sees, or else it just doesn't care."
Sam stirred in her sleep, disturbed by the urgency in Renie's tone, so she dropped her voice to a whisper. "I think the Other built this place. I think it meant us to come here, and it built this place out of its own mind, like a dream. What did Jonas call it? A metaphor." Spoken aloud, it did not seem as obviously true. It was hard to conceive of their own existence having any importance to that vast, suffering figure.
"Made this from its mind? But if this Other runs the system, then it has access to anything--all of those worlds, each one perfect." !Xabbu frowned, thinking. "It seems strange it should build anything so unreal."
"But that's just it," Renie said excitedly. "It didn't build those other worlds. Those were made by people--programmers, engineers, real people who know what a real world is supposed to look like, and how to make even an imaginary world look real. But what does the Other know? It's just an artificial intelligence of some kind, right? It sees patterns, but it's not a human. It doesn't know what would seem real to us and what wouldn't, just the general shape of things. It would be like giving a book to a very intelligent child who can't read, then telling him, "Now you make one of these books for yourself." The kid might have all the right letters to use from the one you gave him, but he couldn't make them into a story. So it would be a weird thing that just looked like a book. Get it?"
!Xabbu thought about it for a long moment. "But why? Why would the Other create a new world?"
"I don't know. Maybe just for us. Martine said she'd met it before, remember? That she'd been part of an experiment with it when she was a girl? Suppose the thing recognized her. Or maybe for some reason it just wanted to see what we were. This is an alien intelligence we're talking about, so who knows? It might be artificial, but it seems to be a lot more complex than any ordinary neural net."
Renie sensed something at her shoulder and turned. Felix Jongleur stood over them, his face hardened in a frown. "We have waited long enough. It's time to begin our descent. Wake the girl."
"We were just . . ."
"Wake her. We are leaving now."
Ordinarily, faced with a naked middle-aged man, Renie would have been only too happy to keep her eyes on his face, but it was surprisingly difficult to meet Jongleur's cold gaze. Now that the first heat of her rage at the man had begun to dissipate she was discovering an uncomfortable fact: he frightened her badly. He had a deep, hard strength, the kind of unbending core that served nothing but its own will. His dark eyes showed not an iota of human concern, but there was nothing animalistic in them--rather, he seemed a creature that had moved past simple humanity. She had heard politicians and financial titans described as implacable, as forces of nature, and she had always seen it as just a flattering metaphor. Now, faced with the master of the Grail in person, she was beginning to understand that a black charisma like his owed nothing to artistic descriptions.
She darted a look at !Xabbu, but her friend's thoughts were hidden: when he chose to be, he was just as inscrutable in his own skin as he had been behind the mask of the baboon sim.
Jongleur turned his back on them and moved a few paces away, the picture of impatience controlled. Renie leaned over and nudged Sam Fredericks awake.
"We have to go, Sam."
The girl roused herself slowly. She crouched for a moment, then her eyes swung to Orlando's body lying in its close-fitting coffin of stones.
"!Xabbu," Renie whispered. "Go bother Jongleur for a minute so Sam can say goodbye to her friend. Ask the old bastard some questions--not that he'll give you any answers, but it will keep him busy."
!Xabbu nodded. He walked to Jongleur and said something, then swept his arm out toward the pearly, horizonless sky, exactly like someone discussing the weather or the view. Renie turned back to Sam.
"We have to leave him behind now."
The girl nodded. "I know," she said quietly, staring down at Orlando. "He was so good. Not just nice--sometimes he was kind of hardcase, majorly sarcastic. But he really wanted . . . w-wanted to be g-g-good . . ."
Renie put an arm around her. There was nothing to be done, really.
"Goodbye, Orlando," Renie said at last, quietly. "Wherever you are." She led Sam away from the cairn, fussing at the girl's hair and ragged garments to distract her. "You'd better get your brain-damaged friend," she told Jongleur, "because he's wandering around out there somewhere. We're leaving now."
Something even darker and colder than usual moved across the man's face. "You think I should go fetch Klement as though he were some schoolyard chum of mine? You are a fool. I need the three of you, so we will all go together, but I see no such use for him. If he wants to join us, then I will not stop him--unless he does something that endangers my safety--but if he stays here instead while this place reverts to raw code, it matters little to me."
He turned and strode away toward the trail down the mountain, making himself the leader by default.
"Such pleasant company," Renie muttered. "Okay, it's time. Let's go."
The great bowl-shaped valley where the giant form of the Other had lain was empty now, one side collapsed in a long, ragged edge, as though something had taken a bite out of it. Jongleur walked ahead of them all, ramrod straight, his posture and stride those of a man even younger than the middle age his looks suggested. Renie wondered if the hard-planed face was really Jongleur's own, as it had looked sometime a century or more ago. If so, it just added to one of the strangest mysteries of all--why had they wakened here with sims so much like their real bodies?
It doesn't make sense. When we first entered the network, I had the sim I'd chosen, and so did T4b and Sweet William, but Martine was just in a generic body from Atasco's simulation and !Xabbu was a baboon. What the hell was that about? And Orlando and Fredericks had their own choice of sims, avatars from their adventure game--but didn't Fredericks tell me that Orlando's sim was not quite the same as usual? Older or younger or something?
But just as their original sims showed no obvious pattern, the fact that they now wore bodies much like their own true forms seemed just as strange. Could we actually be in our real bodies? she thought wildly. But she could remember quite clearly that moment of awakening in the tank in her true physical form, and although the difference was subtle, it was a difference. The shape she now wore might look like her real body, down to small details, scars, and even the knobbiness of a knuckle she had broken in childhood, but it wasn't real at all.
So what's going on? If it's the Other's dream, why do we look like this? It's like magic. Renie blew out air, frustrated. No matter how strange and unrelated the facts seemed, there had to be patterns, but she couldn't see any of them yet.
As the small company reached the outermost pinnacles of the mountaintop, Renie noticed that Ricardo Klement had at some point joined the party, following a hundred meters or so behind them like an unquiet ghost.
The trail still curved down from the summit and along the shiny black slope, apparently all the way down into the mysteriously glinting clouds that ringed the mountain, but Renie could see that !Xabbu had not exaggerated. The striations that had made the path safe had lost much of their definition, and although the trail itself still seemed substantial, the crispness of its outer edge was gone, as though the stone were some kind of licorice ice cream that had been out of the freezer a little too long.
"I still wonder why the Other would want to bring us to a place like this," she said quietly to !Xabbu as they started down the trail after Jongleur. "And maybe to that first unfinished world, too." She couldn't help remembering how part of the ground in that other world had suddenly vanished, trapping Martine and shearing off T4b's hand. What if the same instability happened here? She decided not to waste time brooding about something she couldn't prevent.
T4b's hand, though--that was an interesting anomaly. It had been replaced by another hand, a glowing thing that had done terrible damage to one of the Grail people, who had seemed otherwise invincible. Could T4b's hand somehow have been replaced by a bit of the Other itself, or at least of its ability to shape the network? A wild-card piece of the operating system at the end of his virtual arm?
She shared the thought with !Xabbu. "But even if the Other made both of these places--carved them out of the raw material of the network, so to speak--it doesn't really tell us anything. If it's been captured or taken over or something by Dread, that might be why this particular construct is starting to lose resolution, but it doesn't explain why that other unfinished world started falling apart underneath us."
!Xabbu cut her off. "Look here. I do not remember the path being like that before." The trail in front of them was suddenly only wide enough for them to pass single file. "We should save our talking and thinking until we have found a wide place on the trail and stopped for the night."
"We're not going to sleep on this mountain, are we?" Sam protested. "It only took us a couple of hours to climb up!"
"Yes," !Xabbu told her, "but I think that was from a spot very high up the mountainside. Going down to the bottom may be a much longer trip."
"If we make it down safely," Renie said, edging past the narrow space and its much too expansive view of the sheer black mountainside below her feet, "then I won't mind if it takes a week."
Even after hours of plodding descent, they seemed no closer to the bank of white cloud. They were all tired--Renie, who had not slept, was perhaps the weariest of all. It was not surprising that an accident should happen.
They had reached one of the narrower stretches of trail, not the worst they had seen--in places they had been forced to edge sideways along the path with their backs against the hard stone of the mountainside--but slender enough that two of them could not safely stand side by side. Sam was just behind Renie; !Xabbu and Felix Jongleur were the first and second in line. Klement, who at times had trailed a long way to the rear, was now so close he could reach out and touch the last in line, which for some reason was exactly what he did.
Sam, startled and frightened by Klement's fingers trailing through her hair, lurched forward, trying to push her way past on Renie's inside shoulder. For a moment the two of them tangled; then, trying to give the girl room, Renie put her foot down too far to the outside and the edge of the trail crumbled beneath her like stale bread. For a moment Renie could only flail her arms, a reflex absolutely useless for anything except to increase the odds of dragging Sam over the side as well. Renie shrieked and then tumbled outward, aware even as her heart seemed to stop that the sight of !Xabbu's shoulder and his head turning--far too late to help--was the last of him she would ever see. Then something closed on her wrist like a manacle and she slammed down against the path with her legs dangling over nothingness, her breath smashed out in one great gasp.
In the scrambling and shouting of her companions as they struggled to drag her back over the edge, Renie did not understand until she was safe again that it was Felix Jongleur's hand that had seized her, his wiry body that had kept her from slipping away until !Xabbu and Sam could pull her back to safety.
Stretched on her stomach, blood sizzling through her head like electricity, Renie struggled to refill her lungs. Jongleur looked down on her like a scientist examining a dying lab rat. "I'm not certain I would have bothered to do it for one of your other companions," he said, then turned and continued down the path.
Despite her shock and nausea, Renie spent a long moment trying to decide how she should feel about that.
There was no darkness on the mountain, and the strange Van Gogh stars that had hung above them during their ascent did not reappear. That first journey seemed weeks behind them, but Renie thought it must have been less than forty-eight hours since she and !Xabbu and Martine and the rest had emerged from the Troy simulation onto this very trail. Now all those others were gone--vanished or dead. Out of the entire company that had been gathered by Sellars, only three were left: !Xabbu, Sam, and herself.
The climb up the mountain had been brief, but this reverse journey held the promise of being much longer. Depressed by the way the silvery distant clouds seemed to grow no closer, increasingly exhausted, they continued down the trail long past the point of safety, searching for a place to stop. An hour longer than Renie would have believed she was able to walk, they finally reached a fold in the mountainside, a deep elbow joint in the trail a few meters wide and a few meters deep where they could rest away from the cliff face. It was a bleak campsite, without food or water or even fire, since !Xabbu had found nothing anywhere that could be used as fuel, but just the chance to lie down and rest in safety seemed as good to Renie as any meal she had ever eaten. Since her near-fall she had been so frightened she would not move out of arm's reach of the mountain face, and had spent most of the last part of the descent trailing her fingers along the black stone, rubbing her skin raw to make certain that she was on the inside of the path.
Renie made Fredericks curl up at the back of the crevice so that she could put herself between Jongleur and the broken sword Fredericks carried, then laid her own head on !Xabbu's shoulder. Jongleur made a space for himself farther up the cut where he quickly fell asleep sitting against the stone with his chin on his chest. Klement crouched at the opening of the crevice, looking out on the gray sky, his expression quite unreadable.
Renie was asleep within seconds.
She was teetering on the edge. Stephen was only a few meters away, a dim shape floating on air currents she could not feel, as though he wore wings; for all his fluttering movements he never came within reach. She thrust her arm out as far as she could and for a moment thought she touched him, but then her footing gave way and she was falling, plunging, with nothing beneath her but shriekingly empty darkness . . .
". . . You there? Can you . . . me? Renie?"
She fell gasping out of the dream and into a greater madness. Martine's voice was buzzing from her own breast, as though her friend were somehow trapped inside Renie's body. For a long, disoriented moment she could only stare at the black stone walls and the sliver of gray sky before she remembered where she was.
The voice hummed against her skin once more. !Xabbu sat up. Sam stared, groggy and dumbfounded. "Can . . . us? We're . . . bad shape . . . !"
"The lighter!" Renie said. "Jesus Mercy!" She fumbled the device out of the strip of cloth she wore across her chest. "It's Martine--she's alive!" But even as she lifted it up, trying to angle it into the thin light so she could see it and remember the operating sequences they had discovered, a shadow crashed against her and knocked the lighter from her hand, sent it clattering toward the back of the crevice. Felix Jongleur stood over her, fists clenched.
"What the hell are you doing?" she screamed, already scrambling on her hands and knees after the device.
". . . Answer us, Renie," Martine pleaded. Renie's hand closed on the lighter again. "We're . . . without . . ."
"If you try to activate that," said Jongleur, "I will kill you."
Sam came up from her crouch brandishing Orlando's broken blade. "Leave her alone!"
Jongleur did not even look at her. "I am warning you," he told Renie. "Do not touch it."
Renie was frozen, irresolute. Something in Jongleur's tone told her he would do what he threatened, even with the sword buried in his back. Even so, she leaned slowly toward the lighter, fingers spread. "What's wrong with you?" she growled. "Those are our friends!"
"Martine! Is . . . you, sweetness?" said a new voice--a terrifyingly familiar one, the signal stronger than Martine's, but also slipping in and out. "I've missed . . . you have any of my other . . . with you?"
Renie snatched her hand back as though the lighter had begun to glow white-hot.
"I'm a bit busy . . . old darling, but I'll . . . some friends to find you. Don't move! They'll . . . in minutes. Actually, go . . . move if you want . . . it . . . good."
Dread's buzzing laugh filled the small space. "He's after them!" Renie almost shouted. "We have to help!"
Jongleur curled his fingers into a fist. "No."
After ten seconds had passed in strained silence, Renie reached for the device and picked it up. It seemed cold and inert now, a dead thing. "Those people are our friends," she said furiously, but Jongleur had stepped away, back toward the entrance to the crevice. !Xabbu and Sam stared at him as though he had suddenly sprouted horns and a tail. Only Klement had not moved from the place where he sat silently against the wall.
"Those people have just revealed themselves on an open communication band," Jongleur said. "They have just announced their helplessness--not to mention their position--across the entire Grail channel. But they are not the only ones with access to that channel, as you also heard. If you had tried to give away my position to him, I would have killed you without a moment's hesitation."
Renie stared, hating him, but fearful of his cruel certainty. "And why should we care about that? It's you he wants."
"All the more reason you shall not give me away."
"Really?" She was enraged now by her own cowardice. "Well, you talk big, but there are three of us and only one of you, unless you're expecting help from your idiot friend. As for Dread, he's no worse a threat to us than you are--less, because he's just an ordinary psychopath."
"Ordinary psychopath?" Jongleur lifted an eyebrow. "You know nothing. John Dread with no greater weapon than his bare hands would be one of the most dangerous people in the world, but now he has the power of my entire system at his disposal."
"All right. So he's dangerous. So now he's the little tin god of the Grail network. So what?" Renie pointed a trembling finger. "You and your selfish old friends, destroying children so you could live forever, so you could build yourself the most expensive toy in the history of the world. I hope your friend Dread does bring the whole thing down in flames, even if we go with it. It will be worth it, just to see the last of you."
Jongleur eyed her, then !Xabbu and Sam. The girl cursed under her breath and turned away, but !Xabbu held Jongleur's gaze with little expression until the older man turned back to Renie.
"Be silent and I will tell you something," he said. "I built myself a place. It does not matter what kind of place, but it was something I created for myself, separate from the Grail system. It was my respite when the stress and worry of this project became too much. A system completely removed from the Grail matrix--in fact, a dedicated system, if you know what that is."
"I know what that is," Renie said scornfully. "What's your point?"
"The point is that no one but me could access this virtual environment. Then one day, not long ago, I discovered that someone had accessed it, corrupted it, ruined what I had built there. I only realized after much consideration that the Other itself had penetrated that dedicated system--something it should not have been able to do."
He paused. Renie could make no sense out of what he was saying. "So?"
Jongleur shook his head in mock-sorrow. There was a glint in his eye; Renie realized that the monster was actually enjoying this in some strange way. "I have overestimated you again, I see. Very well, I will explain. The only way the Other could have reached into that environment is through my own system--by stealing or co-opting my own security procedures out of my house system. My personal system, not the Grail system. And now the Other is under the control of John Dread."
Renie's chill had returned. "So . . . so what you're saying is that the Other . . . isn't isolated on the Grail system anymore."
Jongleur's smile stretched his lips but went no farther. "That is correct. So while you consider where your loyalties lie, take this into your counsels. That far-from-ordinary-psychopath Dread not only has control of the most powerful and complex operating system ever developed, that system itself has already managed to reach out of its Grail Project bottle and into my house network. Which means that the Other--and Dread, as its controlling force--can reach anywhere on the global net."
He stepped out of the crevice and onto the path, turned toward the downhill slope, then paused.
"The damage Dread can do here is nothing compared to what he'll do when he discovers his new reach." Jongleur spread his hands wide. "Just imagine. The whole world will be at his fingertips--air traffic control, critical industries, stockpiles of biological weapons, nuclear launch facilities. And as you have already discovered, Johnny Dread is a very, very angry young man."
Copyright © 2001 Tad Williams. All rights reserved.