General Disclaimers: While it features no ‘on-screen’ sexual activity or explicit adult situations, this hypnofetish story does contain examples of fictional characters doing illegal, immoral and/or impossible things to other fictional characters. If you are under the age of consent in your community, are disturbed by such concepts, or want hot wet thrusting monkey-sex in your on-line pornography, then for goshsakes stop reading now!
Permission granted to re-post for free to any electronic medium, as long as no one's being charged to view it, and this disclaimer and e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) are not removed. It would also be nice if you told me you were posting it.
Copyright Voyer, 2007.
Specific Disclaimers: After writing this story, I realized that the MCing device which (eventually) appears here is very similar to one that I featured in another story of mine (although in a very different setting..) That said, the first flickerings of direct inspiration for this piece came from a short throw-away scene in Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novel Going Postal. Numerous other influences crept in over the course of writing, as they always do. How many can you identify?
Dedicated to Ijon Tichy.
Way back when the vehicle had been spat out all shiny and new from its mechanical womb, it had been called a “NewtCorp WorldRover Type 23tt”. But that (along with NewtCorp itself) was pretty much forgotten now, and everybody called them Pricklebugs.
Anyone watching this particular Pricklebug trundle its unhurried way across this particular flat and dusty landscape would quickly understand why; the six enormous blobby black tires were attached to a massive and complex suspension system, which in turn was attached to three equally blobby (but sandy-colored) quasispheres lined up a slightly jumbled row. And sprouting along the top of it all, between small fore and aft hurler-turrets, a back-slanting mass of frilly veins and antennas, glowing and trailing the occasional streamer of colorful sparks; they fed well up here, this close to the sky. The Pricklebug also featured numerous hatches and bulges and patches and stenciled notations and barcodes, and painted along one side of the middle sphere in (again) a slightly jumbled row were two shimming words: RAMBLIN RECK. Underneath that, inside a small frame, was stamped R. RILEY / HEEDON-LV426.
Stretched across the front of the first sphere was an enormous headlight-festooned bumper and above that, a heavily-reinforced viewing slit, this latter item currently was tinted a deep black. If the hypothetical viewer possessed the ability to pass through the slit’s transpasteel, they would have seen a collection of controls and 3D hologram displays, arranged in a loose overlapping arc around of a tall well-padded chair. A hook was screwed into the chair’s side; hanging from it was a silvery visored helmet which was connected to flexible luminescent tether. Close on the chair’s other side dangled a drinking tube.
Filling the chair was a worn-down pocket-covered polyweave jumpsuit, and more or less filling the jumpsuit was an equally-weather-beaten man, tall and lanky, with a scrumble of somewhat reddish hair, his big booted feet spread wide, propped up on two fairly non-essential bits of the control panel. A single strap was loosely secured around his waist, while several others were rolled away in recessed slots around the edges of the chair, awaiting deployment. From a surrounding ring of speakers, music twanged and hooted spasmodically, and colored holonotes copulated in the air.
Rather than paying attention where he (or at least the 'Bug) was going, the man stared at the ceiling, his hands (big like his feet) interlaced behind his head. His callused thumbs tapped at the back of his neck, keeping casual time with the music, and occasionally he would turn his head just far enough to sip at the waiting tube. Mounted on the ceiling, along with the drink dispenser and the helmet-tether terminus, was a small grid of square niches into which cubes could be neatly inserted, and about half of them were thus filled with holopics: as the notes floated around them, a large green snake slithered endlessly through a swamp. Evergreen trees towered impossibly high in a white mist. Two small moonlets passed over a deep black chasm which sliced its way through the land; something glowed an evil red at the bottom. A well-curved blonde woman with shiny white eyes wore very little besides a metal cape and a winged helmet, and swung a painfully shiny sword almost as long as she was.
From a distant region of the control bank, there was beep, an officious irritating smug little beep. After a moment, it repeated itself, as such beeps are all too often wont to do. The man in the chair examined the source of this noise from the very corner of his eye; a short string of symbols went round and round above the radio in a green circle, making it resemble a concussed cartoon character. The beep came yet again, indicating, if not in so many words, that it was prepared to keep this up all day, and asking the man if he was truly prepared to ignore it.
The man pondered this ultimatum for another long moment, then touched a control on the arm of the chair. The music trailed off and the notes fell to dust. He paused to take a particularly fortifying sip from the tube, then stroked at more controls.
The ‘Bug rolled to a loose sort of stop, and as the dust swirled reluctantly to the ground, the veins on the roof creakily shifted themselves into a new alignment, lighting up even brighter as they oriented along various invisible lines.
Back inside, a flat square on the control panel lit up the same vivid green as the readout. An half-denuded vacpac of Proud Snaxs was sitting on the square, and the man nudged the carton aside with a boot. He then refolded his hands and resumed watching the woman swing her sword. There was a different, somewhat friendlier beep, and a medium-sized green dot appeared in the center of his forehead. He spoke.
After a moment’s pause, the now-vacant green square bulged abruptly upward, shaped itself into a human head, a young, thin, overly keen head with large goggles riveted to its face. It spoke, its voice coming from the depths of an electronic sea:
“Connection confirmed LV426. Stand by for Director Muldoon.”
The head slowly morphed itself into something older, with black (or rather very dark green) close-cropped hair and sharp slashing eyebrows. One eye was covered with a patch. The head smiled and purred.
“Good day, Riley.”
“I refuse, at this early stage, to confirm or deny that statement.”
“I was chatting with our mutual acquaintance the Bishop, and he happened to mention that he saw you skulking about the fringes of Cerberus station, looking like..” the head morphed again, became blocky and unshaven: “Like ‘eed been pulled backwards through th’ rutting Eye of Argon!”
Riley shrugged a shoulder..
“I shouldn’t have come in, but I was low on supplies. It got so bad towards the end there I was reduced to drinking water.” He took a reassuring sip from the tube.
The head was Muldoon again.
“Oh my. How ghastly. And were you pulled through the Eye?”
Riley swallowed heavily before going on.
“Of course not. I dived in headfirst. It’s what I do. Sort of like Bishop talking too much.”
“Indeed. It’s his most pernicious failing, as I have just been remin-.” Muldoon’s head and voice wavered, than stabilized. “At great length. But perhaps a higher Power was guiding his actions. Because.. the Corps has an contracted assignment for you, Riley.”
“Not interested. Good bye.” Riley regretted relacing his hands, because the precious seconds it took to untangle them and reach for the holoradio shutoff gave Muldoon time to speak again.
In spite of itself, Riley’s finger froze in sheer astonished anger.
“Atlantis?! You wanted me to go to Atlantis Station?!”
Muldoon’s head sighed.
“Not particularly. Sending you to Atlantis would be a complete waste of a still somewhat serviceable Pricklebug.” A considering pause. “And, of course, your festering carcass might possibly be worth something to someone, somewhere, as well.”
“I want you to go to Jander Drax.”
Riley spoke as one does to a dimwitted child.
“Jander Drax, or rather, my dear Director, his spattered remains, are plastered around the edges of the softly-glowing crater which used to be Atlantis Research Station. You Special Corps people sent your golden boy there thirty cycles ago when the Authority had to evacuate the place, then the Ghod-bedamned Wave smashed down out of the sky, and he died. As Corpsfolk tend to do. End of story. Goodbye.”
“No.” A reptilian smile. “Jander Drax is alive. He somehow escaped Atlantis, escaped the Wave, escaped us, went into hiding. For, as you noted, the last thirty-four Cycles. But now, a transmission has.. floated up, showing that he’s alive. It was broadcast out of the Illium Range. Somewhere in Sector 7G, to be precise as we can. Which, as it fortuitously happens, is not all that far from Cerberus Station. Not all that far from you.”
“You’re lying, you one-eyed black-souled honch. There’s no way that-”
“No I’m not. And even if I was.. you’d still go. Because.. it’s Jander Drax. The, as you say, Golden Boy. The one who wrote the datafile on exploration and exploitation and then broke every rule in it. The one you read about, in your squalid little creche in ScorchDown. Drax and the PiltDown Infestation. Drax in the Citidel of the Yellow King. You’d have to be sure. Blow me off, turn your radio off, and it’ll gnaw at you. You’ll end up going anyway.” Muldoon formed the smile-shape again. “You may as well get paid to do it. Extra-danger bonus rates. And as you know all too well, we.. Corpsfolk.. always pay our debts.”
Riley glared out the viewslit at the plain, at the stars glistening faintly overhead as the second sunlet scuttled towards the horizon. A dustdevil danced nearby. Muldoon continued, deploying a quite polished effort at a reassuring tone:
“Despite the scurrilous slander you may have heard about the Corps during your years of wanton carousing, we do not want you to kill him.”
“We wouldn’t be talking to you at all if.. that was the sort of thing we did. Just find Mr. Drax. Ask him to return to AdminDown and give a report. The Sovereign’s office may even decide to dispatch the Medal-Pinomatic for a little ceremony. Or, failing all that.. ask him to give a report to you. After all, apart from your tolerance for swilling rubbing alcohol, being good at talking to people is your only talent.”
“I can play the harmonica. People don’t even throw things at me anymore.”
“Take very careful note of anything he says, even if it’s just ‘Go Away’. Recording it would be even better.”
“And if he shoots instead of talks?”
“Then you of course have the usual official permission to defend yourself, within reason. Just see if he’s.. alive. In one piece. Anything we can learn about the Wave, anything it all.. might be useful. There might be another one out there, heading for us right as we hurtle mostly unprotected through the Void. The next one might hit something rather more important than a minor research station. Maybe the main Jim Vector distillery in HeedonDown.”
A solitary Lunite saucer buzzed by overhead, its faint flashing shadow causing the dust devil to break step and almost drop one of the rocks she was juggling.
“I really hate you.”
Muldoon’s hand sprouted in the display like a tumor and blew him a kiss.
The first thing Riley did, after the Corps signal disengaged, was to maneuver the ‘Bug into the lee of the nearest boulder, park and anchor the vehicle, and velcro himself into his hammock for a few hours’ sleep. The third sunlet eventually made an appearance, and after the usual sponge-bath and bulb of kouffy, Riley got dressed. He then pulled on his scangloves, and went over the Reck inch by inch. He soon found the tracker that the Corps expected him to find, no doubt planted on the ‘Bug while it was parked at Cerberus Station. (The only real question was, did Bishop plant the thing before or after blabbing to Muldoon..) Riley fried it, and went over the ‘Bug millimeter by painful millimeter, and found the second tracker, the one the Corps didn’t want him to locate. Instead of destroying it, he extracted his omnitool from its jumpsuit pocket, forked the tracker up and flicked it into a waiting wall-receptacle. Next to receive his attention was the recordfile that one of Muldoon’s minions had beamed over after they had finished haggling about Riley’s finanical compensation. He stripped the usual viruses from it, and watched: a copy of the captured transmission, or, more accurately, a heavily-edited copy of a small portion of the transmission. A man sat at a resolutely typical comm setup and talked to person or persons unknown, something about shares in a LeeDown ponygirl station, a conversation so extremely innocuous that it had to be the sort of code where the user was rubbing the eavesdropper’s nose in the fact that he was speaking in code. Riley played it through twice, three times, then froze the image and stared at it for a long time, slowly masticating a last dried-out Snak in one cheek. Older, grayer, but yes.. it just might be Jander Drax. Or it might be, probably was, a well-done hoax brewed up in some TinselDown cubefarm.
Riley sighed, and transferred the image to a holocube. While it was scanning in, he shoveled the clutter of food cartons into the maw of the bug’s recycler and put his dirty underwear and socks in the ionwasher. He took down the other holocubes, filing them one by one into the waiting strongbox and double-checking to see that it was properly sealed. He put the newly-minted picture of Drax in their place, front and center. He carefully coiled away the drinking tube. He planted his feet firmly on the floor, strapped his body into the chair, using all the straps, and then unhooked and screwed the waiting helmet onto his head. The helmet’s shimmering visor dropped itself over his eyes, the ‘Bug’s the viewing slit sealed itself shut, and the world scryed into focus around him in all directions, tinged very slightly green.
And then Riley pointed his Pricklebug towards the Illium Range. Swinging around in a wide circle, backtracking across a portion of the Spardust Plateau, with the gritty domes of Cerberus station briefly reappearing on the horizon. Passing by the hardscrabble cacti farms, then the tall spindly powertowers which marked the northern plunge off the plateau, down into the Knitted Rocks. The ‘Bug’s paintjob shaded itself into purple. Down and down for hours more through the Rocks’ glittering twists and crags, where any magespyders who happened to be squatting by the trade-road paused in their endless spinning to furiously debate among themselves the philosophical implications of his brief intersection with their lives. As etiquette dictated, when Riley reached the last pullout, he paused long to gingerly poke out his speakerprobe at the end of its long collapsible pole and ask what the majority consensus was. After one last intellectual spasm, the nearest ‘spider knitted a knot, and skittered over to deposit it in the ‘Bug’s translator bin. The translator poked at the knot, buzzed thoughtfully for a moment, then burbled “Rectangular with Large Green Speckles! Thank You! Come Again!”
From there, more descending into BurkeDown, where the ‘Bug turned a faint rather sickly blue. As in (most) every Down, there was a Trading Post waiting for him right by the entrance, directly under the shadows of the overhanging cliffs. However the Post was long shuttered, the Authority lockseal’s faded glow bringing to mind a grumpy old codger waving his cane at misbehaving youths. Even though he had just recharged at Cerberus Station, Riley stopped in the Post’s empty parking lot, ran a polluvirus scan, then blew hatches and pumped fresh oxygen into the Reck’s tanks. One of the rules that Drax had put in his datafile, and that had long stood Riley in good stead: never pass up free oxygen. As the machinery hummed, he studied the Burketown Bridge, using the helmet’s zoom-feature to focus in on various bits and pieces of it. For it was something worth studying: a massive glitteringly white structure, two decks of six lanes each spanning the wide Burke’s Chasm. It beckoned to a traveler like a mirage in a desert. Figures danced and shimmered. Riley could almost understand the neoCarterites’ feeling about it..
But along with the headlights, (and a winch, and a floonprodder, and several other things which, while quite useful, were of no immediate relevance) the Ramblin Reck had only a second-class Burkesigil bolted onto its bumper, and so with the air refreshed and all the hatches resealed, Riley put the bridge behind him, trundling down a rather grubby ramp towards the row of waiting gravferry docks, past the watchful swarms of neoCarterites who stood alongside the roadway in their tight white-robed circles, around the wrecked vehicles they had burned and stripped and polished into their eerily beautiful works of art. (The ‘purest’ were on display here, at the entrance to the bridge which was their Holy Temple, while the rejects were sold by certain shadowy parties for obscene amounts in HeedonDown’s barterpits; it was rumored that one had even found a home in the Sovereign’s personal art collection.) Riley couldn’t help but note that at least one of the artworks here had started life as a Pricklebug, and it seemed to him that the nearest nC, a slender woman with very long ash-white hair, was drooling at him as she fingered her Cutomatic Slicer. But then, maybe nCs always drooled; Riley felt no great desire to investigate the matter more closely.
Each of the fortresslike ferryhouses flashed obscene (not to mention gaudy) holodisplays listing “sailing” times and suggested prices. He picked the one that claimed it was leaving soonest and haggled just enough to be polite, bleeping over the demanded credits to one elderly crone while what appeared to be her twin sister stood close by, womanning an enormous hard-mounted hurler. Once rolled on board and locked into place, he added the total, plus a credit or two in handling charges, to the Special Corps’ running tab.
The ferry was one of the smaller ones, and the ‘Bug filled almost half its deckspace; most of the rest was taken up by a herd of sheepgirls, who filed on and stood in placid rows, watched by the usual handler squeezed into the usual set of leather-strapped overalls and topped with the usual hideous wide-brimmed be-ribboned hat.
It had been Riley’s experience that sheepgirl handlers were almost always terminally bored, and up for anything that promised a little excitement. Even more promisingly, this particular specimen of the breed had nicely black hair, strained her overalls in all the right places, and was eyeing the ‘Bug with interest. But it just wouldn’t have been the same without his drinks tube, so he refrained.
A handful of scraggly Unreformed Carterites and a solitary Katterman were the only other passengers. The Carterites clustered nervously together, while the Kat crouched in a corner, ignoring everyone, flicking his tail and cradling in his wiry arms a long metal staff topped with some sort of feather-festooned skull. As this cheery menagerie chugged slowly across the gap, possibly listing slightly to one side, Riley’s helmet allowed him to scan the depths beneath them and pick out the groves of enormous oxytrees intermixed at random with of the smashed remnants of the old Machines, block after decaying block of them, all painted with spirals, glowing and twirling in the dark. Somewhere down there, before the Carterite revival rose up and swept it all away, his ‘Bug had originally been constructed...
When a moment came where no one was paying attention, he stroked a control. A small panel discretely slid open, and the Corps tracker was spat out, landing on the woolly back of the nearest sheepgirls and snagging itself into place. Riley spent the rest of the trip reading what little he could find in the ‘Bugs datapaks about Atlantis station.
It had been a research station in the far West, poking around in the ruins of some ancient city or hive or somesuch, a place crumbled mostly to dust long before Humanity’s Arrival on the general scene. Then one day the mysterious and ill-named Wave smashed down, and Atlantis joined its host city in the history books.
That was about it, and Riley had the unfiltered version. He shuddered to think what the Encyclopedia Humanica article must be like.
Finally the ferry wheezed into the dock on the far side, where the passengers all forked over the required ’tip’ to the pilot. The ‘girls were led away in a perfumed white cloud, the Katterman loped off somewhere, and Riley was alone again, climbing up out of the Chasm, past the corpse-like Trading Post on the other side, back to where the stars reappeared. The Illium Range rapidly rose up to meet them: tall, black and forbidding, peak after peak, collections of ragged fangs wrenched from the mouth of some ancient bitefish and arranged haphazardly in great piles.
The ‘Bug’s color faded to a cautious gray.
Riley took another nap in the hammock before actually entering the Range. He was stalling, for it was both worrying and deeply suspicious that Drax was supposed to be hiding there. After all, the Illium Range was to known to absolutely everybody as the place to which you should flee the Authority if the need arose, the place that characters in TinselDown holoflicks fled to, for Ghod’s sake. In other words, the very last place any sensible person would choose to go if he was truly running from the Troopers. Or, even more so, the Special Corps.
On the positive side, at some point in the far-distant past, the Roaders had ground their relentlessly enigmatic way through this section of the Range and so there was a smooth wide (if a bit winding) path to follow, a shining indestructible trail left in the wake of one of the Roaders’ behemoth Chewers. The ‘Bug’s tires crunched easily over the occasional landslide or pile of bones. The helmet soon began to show him people (using the word in its loosest possible sense), first in ones and two silently following the Pricklebug’s progress from the ridgetops over the road, than in collections of airdomed hovels furtively clinging to the sides of the smaller peaks, or inside caves dug directly into the black rock. All of these encampments were surrounded by thorny oxytreewalls spotted here and there with tall silvery poles; the things on the top of the poles, or at least the ones that worked, swiveled humorlessly, tracking Riley’s progress down to the microt as he drove past. An occasional vehicle came at him from the other direction, a small Humbug spluttering along under its own power, or more commonly sledges pulled by teams of enormous drudgebeetles with rebreathers clamped to their sides. Smaller human (or at least non-Roader) roads peeled off at irregular intervals on either side, but he stuck to the main path, climbing higher and higher, crossing more and more bridges over deeper and deeper chasms, plowing through more and more tunnels, the ‘Bug’s lights flashing off the perfectly curved walls.
Then he emerged from a last tunnel, and he slowed as he saw what was waiting for him. On the eastern side of the road, a weathered sign leaned slightly to one side, its terse message faded but still readable: 7G. Up ahead, the path forked, with two equally-large branches heading ever deeper into the mountains. A few mid-sized hovels and treerings were in sight, gathered just closely enough together to constitute a village, maybe even by official Authority standards. And in the middle of it all, sitting in the space created by the fork, was an actual building.
Riley rolled to a full stop, and examined the central structure, first through the helmet and then rolling open the viewing slit and using his own eyes. (Both methods had their advantages, and compensated for each other’s weaknesses.) It was an amalgam, a collection of many-times-recycled megacrates and instatubes pushed and welded together however was convenient. Much of it was clearly deserted, and the thin airless wind hissed through broken-out holes and swirled around what might have once been ultraheavy hurler emplacements; the tattered remnants of a banner fluttered on the flagpole at the top of it all. Parts of it, however were still occupied, and one lower corner in particular drew the eye, featuring a couple of scraggly oxytrees and a row of grubby (but intact) flexiglass windows through which light streamed. On this section’s low jumbled roof spun a spottily illuminated holosign: the words TRAVELER’S REST, accompanied by a cartoonish fellow wearing a hat that made a sheepgirl tenders’ look classy, laid out very flat on his back, holding a single drooping flower on his chest, his eyes replaced with little blinking Xs.
Riley looked at all this, at the sign, and thought one last time about turning around, driving back to BurkeDown, maybe finding that tender...
He sighed again.
He drove the Rambling Reck into what was evidently the parking lot, and occupied in the slot next to a particularly grubby and anonymous Humbug. An airtube slowly robogroped out from its cave in the side of the building, found the ‘Bugs main door, and planted itself, bringing to mind a sickly lamprey seeking blood. As it did this, Riley unhooked himself from the helmet and chair. From another in his row of lockboxs, he extracted a holster belt and buckled it into place. A sidehurler was loaded with a full compliment of bolts, and placed in the holster. Riley hesitated, then put on a rebreather helmet, one that was rather more sturdy than it might at first glance appear. He considered again, then tapped at his jumpsuit. The threadnanos shifted, and the suit became noticeably grubby and worn-looking.
His preparations complete, he sealed himself into the ‘Bug’s formfitting airlock, and from there, entered the building. As his biometrics passed out of range, the ‘Bug clamped itself shut behind him.
The row of autolocks all fed out into a dark narrow hallway, where a fizzy wall-mounted arrow languidly suggested that new arrivals might possibly find it to their advantage to turn to the right. Following this suggestion led him eventually into a slightly more open chamber, where, making the supreme effort, the light-level crawled up a grade, to ‘dim.’ In front of one of the heavily arched walls stretched a metal serving bar which hinted it was capable of surviving a direct artillery strike, and had proudly done so, on more than one occasion. Behind the bar loomed a encouragingly large and diverse collection of bottles, along with the craggy edifice of a Githrik bartender. From either end of the bar stuck out a sort of framework supporting a circular pedestal, on which stood a slender barefooted woman of Eastern extraction dressed in... Riley tentatively hypothesized they were some benighted soul’s horribly misguided attempt at a Lunite costume. At least, there were wings attached to them. The blank-eyed women danced and shimmied in perfect unison, their long hair and their strips of fabric floating around them. Sticking out of into another corner was a larger collection of framework, on which was mounted a small stage, currently empty except for the sprawled body of a mangy dog-like creature which if not dead was probably wishing that it was. In yet another corner (the room had a lot of corners), a tuneomatic played a warped-out version of an old Lehrer song, flashing leprous vaguely note-shaped splotches against the nearby walls, where they resurrected certain vile details on the dead holoposters splattered there in overlapping profusion. (The ‘Lunites’ at the bar were thankfully not using this as their inspiration.)
And scattered around the middle of the room was a collection of hefty support pillars, creating a sort of debased forest effect. In a moderately ingenious touch, tables had been wrapped around these, and a collection of mismatched chairs shoved into place. A healthy percentage of these chairs were occupied by shadowy figures; they appeared to all be human, but managed to come in every shape and size allowed within that limitation. Various columns of smoke and profanity-laced mutterings rose from this throng, adding their strains to the evil miasma which already defiled the upper half of the room. Adbots floated (or maybe paddled) through this murk, flashing the usual blipverts.
Various other passages ran off here and there, but there was no sign of the windows that were visible from the road.
Riley had to refrain from pinching himself. This place was even better than Fatty’s Throat Emporium in DingleDown, something he hadn’t thought was possible.
He made his way towards the bar, weaving though the nest of tables, pointedly ignored by all and sundry.
The top of the bar was not metal, Riley noted with interest, but made of some transparent substance. Peering inside, he could see an incredible pile of junk, old omnitools, burnt out hurlers, a chewed fuzzball mitt, a feathered skull very much like the one the Katterman had been carrying, except that it had red sparkling stones jammed into its eyesockets that were far too large and guady to be valuable.
The Githrik extended a slightly mossy appendage and deposited a foully bubbling drink in front of Riley, where it bobbed slightly on the whatever-it-was. It had not asked what he wanted, because, being a Githrik, it probably couldn’t talk, but more importantly, it already knew, and also knew that Riley could pay for it. It wasn’t often, Riley mused, that you meet a race that happened on such a useful societal niche, and filled it so very well.
Riley gingerly took the glass and threw back a swallow. Yes, a Terrible Trivium, mixed strong. He gasped, his eyes watering, as the fluid oozed its way down his throat, dealing out the usual horrific damage enroute. In this moment, his happiness was complete, and he knew that events from this point forward could only be all downhill.
And then someone was coming up behind him, making far more than the required amount of noise. Two someones. In respect for their thoughtfulness, Riley didn’t reach for his hurler very fast.
“Well well. See who it is, Twonk. It’s Riley.”
Riley turned around, drumming his fingers on his hurler’s polished handle.
“Hello, Stiletto. And.. Twonk, was it? What happened to Trixie? I thought you and she had reached an understanding.”
The tall dark-skinned speaker smiled under her elaborately spiked-out haircut, showing her sharpened metal teeth. The pale whispy woman lurking in her shadow glowered silently. The only thing about them that matched, apart from their sex, were their golden collars, which were linked together by a matching chain, the ultra-fine links catching the light as they dangled between them.
“See Twonk? What did I tell you? He’s an Authority duck, just like the others. Always flapping around. Always quacking questions.”
Riley took another long slow swallow before replying. As he did, something flashed across ‘Twonk’s’ face, an emotion he couldn’t quite read. Or perhaps didn’t particularly want to.
“You’ve had Authorities in here recently? What’d they want?”
“Quack.. quack.. quack.” With the razor-nailed hand that wasn’t holding the necrowhip, Stiletto made a flapping mouth gesture.
Riley reached under his helmet to rub at the scar threaded through his left eyebrow, then set the glass back on.. in.. the bar. It adhered with a tiny sucking noise.
“Stiletto, I’m really not in the mood today. Hades, I’m never in the mood. You wouldn’t have come over here, you wouldn’t -be- here at all, unless you had something to tell me. So spill it.”
Twonk tugged at Stiletto’s sleeve. The taller woman instantly bent over, and listened to a terse whispered comment. When Twonk was finished, it was Stiletto’s turn to glower. She straightened up and spoke sulkily, staring through the haze at a far-distant wall.
“Fine. Word is, you’ve been sent looking for a man. Word is, the ones who slipped the duckie off his little leash, they want him bad.”
Riley considered asking if she’d ever actually seen a duck on a leash, but decided instead that the situation called for a bit more brevity:
“Miss Twonk says she knows where a duck might find a man. Miss Twonk says it might even be the one they’re looking for.”
Stiletto paused so long Twonk began snapping her little fingers, sharp without needing to attach razors to them. Stiletto steamed.
“You know what Miss Twonk’s price’ll be.”
Riley regarded Twonk, and she regarded him right back, her eyes colorless and her mouth pinched thin. There was a brand between those eyes, and it flamed.
“I suppose I can pretty much guess.”
“There’s a room back over there.” Stiletto pointed, still focused on the wall which held such a powerful attraction for her.
“Fine.” Deciding he should make an effort, futile as it probably was, to get on Stiletto’s good, or at least not-quite-as-bad, side.. “While you’re waiting, can I buy you a-”
The Githrik set a tall slender glass adrift on the bar-top. The liquid inside was an intriguing greenish/red color, and Riley’s professional curiosity was aroused.
“What is th-”
“An Everpresent Wordsnatcher.” Stiletto’s tone strongly hinted that further questions would probably not be welcomed, and would in fact only serve to further damage his cause. She snatched up the glass and swallowed from it, making the same sort of face Riley just had.
Riley fumbled around with Twonk’s collar until the chain came unclasped. After a moment’s indecision, he handed it to the Githrik, which accepted it silently. Twonk then took Riley by the hand, and led him past one of the dancing women. Riley wondered, not for the first time, why people who sported that particular skin tone were universally called “Eastern”, when their traditional home was mostly in the South, particularly LeeDown...
They passed through a narrow doorway and along an short cramped stretch of hallway, beyond which, as promised, was a room.
It didn’t take terribly long.
After they were finished, Twonk raised a finger to re-attract his attention, made a showy “nothing up my sleeves” gesture (Even though she didn’t have on any sleeves, or much of anything else, for that matter; she made the swordswoman in Riley’s holocube look fussily overdressed), and produced a playing card from behind Riley’s ear. She spun it in her fingers, then handed it to him. One side was the Queen of Sporks. On the other something was printed in tasteful understated letters:
When Riley looked up from this, she was gone. When he squeezed back out into the main room, there was no sign of her or Stiletto. The women still danced. The music was now the corroded echo of a Yankovic song. The dog had spun around on the stage, or been spun around; maybe it was the evening’s performance.
He paid the Githrik for the drinks and for Stiletto-sitting duty. As the Githrik dumped the octagonal credit-tokens into the payment slot on its ‘chest’, Riley tossed the card onto the top of the bar. Or towards it, as it fell into the body of the bar unimpeded and fluttered to rest on the pile; the Queen and the skull stared at each other. Back down the hallway. Back into the Reck. The autolock wearily disengaged and dragged itself away.. He backed out of the parking lot, retracing his metaphorical steps until he was sitting back where he had stopped the ‘Bug before.
Two forks, one left and one right.
There were two things immediately beyond the Illium Range, or at least this section of it: If he took the left fork and the road held out (a likely proposition, considering who built it), he would eventually arrive in the Hives of the Yellow King. To the right, the Principality of the Goremen. In stark contrast to the Illium Range, venturing into either of those places would truly and permanently put a traveler beyond the reach of the Authority. (Unless, of course, you were Jander Drax..)
Riley drove into the right-hand fork, which went around a particularly sharp corner (Riley boggled slightly, trying to imagine a Chewer making that hard of a turn), then gently curved this way and that, rising slowly all the while.
There were more ruins, scattered at various elevations on both sides of the road, very much resembling the Traveler’s Rest except that they all appeared to be completely abandoned. While the Roader path continued unchanged, the level of destruction on display everywhere else grew steadily worse and worse, until he was driving between piles of rubble. If there were any people living here, they did a much better job of hiding themselves.
Except, of course, for the man sitting right beside the road, his big black boots propped up on the rocks.
Riley again pulled to a stop and studied the situation for a long moment. The man on the rock was old, very old, but he was constructed of tough wire and cobbled bits of aged leather, all wrapped in grizzle and a truly impressive beard. He was not wearing a rebreather, which was technically possible even at this altitude of the World, but was not something a doctor would probably recommend if you wanted to live.. as long as this man evidently had lived. And while he seemed somehow faintly familiar, he did not look particularly like the Jander Drax who stared down at Riley from the holocube.
Surrounding the man, facing outward, standing at attention, was a triangle of three short.. Riley decided to call them ‘women’, although this was based entirely on body type; they were wearing functional body-armor, and had on fullbreather helmets that transformed them into giant bipedal insects, complete with perky little antenna. Each was toting an enormous pack, and each carried a weapon: a large hurler, some sort of nozzled spewing device and for the one in back, a pole with glittering sharp things attached to both ends. The hurler-wielder, who was closest to him, did not have her weapon pointed at the Reck, but neither did she have it pointed away. Riley nudged the ‘Bug’s front turret slightly in the direction of the group, and trundled in just close enough to extend the speakerprobe.
The old man grunted. He did not look at the vehicle, but stared across the road at the nearest pile of rubble. The women stood like statues. Maybe they were statues.
“Your name wouldn’t happen to be Jander Drax, would it?”
The man seemed to find this mildly amusing.
“Well, that was a long shot. How about this... can you tell me where one might find The House On The Hill?”
It was possible the man looked very slightly impressed, cocking what was left of an eyebrow. There was a pack made of roughly the same material as him perched beside him, and he rooted around in it for an eternity, finally producing a pipe. (The kind you smoked, not the sort used to hit people over the head.) Riley noted with amused interest that unlike its owner, the pipe was equipped with a rebreather. The man twisted and fiddled for another endless stretch and finally got the thing going. As it ignited, the six tips of the women’s antenna flashed in unison, bright green. Whisps of nasty smoke streamed out and floated away across the road, where they hovered over the rubble the man had been scrutinizing. The old man puffed and puffed, then sucked in a particularly large big load of smoke and blew it out, and it formed words, dancing across the road after the rest.
“What’s it worth?”
Riley considered. He had his usual stock of trade-goods, along some new stuff he’d picked up at Cerberus, like bulbs a very nice LeeDown wine, but somehow that didn’t seem right..
Then he smiled.
“How about a freshly spun Magespider knot? Never touched by human hands.”
The man cocked his eyebrow again.
Riley drove on; back through the helmet, he could see the man happily fiddling with the knot, pulling it between his gnarled fingers, engrossed in the resulting buzz and spin. More clouds of smoke streamed across the road, hazing the knob of rubble. The women did not move.
Take the second turn to the right. Watch out, whippersnapper, cuz its well hidden.
Even with this warning, and slowing to a painful crawl after passing the first right turn (which went unapologetically, almost flamboyantly, over a very steep cliff), Riley still almost drove past the path, catching at the last second the most minute bit of movement.. a rock falling into.. an opening. Backtracking, the Pricklebug was just able to squeeze through the tight overhung space scraping against the blackness of the surrounding rock. The tunnel was longer than it seemed, but a sudden final drop and queasy lurch, and he was through.
Light spilled in, and the road immediately opened back up. Not up to Roader standard, but only slightly crumbling as it coasted pleasantly between groves of oxytrees. As it wound its unhurried way up the hill.
The House on the Hill was at the top of the hill, and it was, or at least had been, a casino. Riley knew these things because of the playing card, and because there was a large, tasteful, (if horribly antiquated) holosign announcing this fact, mounted amidst the mass of equally-ancient powerdrawing veins on the roof of the structure. The building matched the sign; the megacrates had been carefully arranged and sculpted and painted, windows installed, and trees, real trees, evergreens of some kind, planted in all the appropriate places. Riley had evidently come in what had been the back way, and he had to circle around the House, getting a good look from nearly all angles. Finally he pulled into the swooping front walk and rolled to a stop by the wide white stepulator leading up to the front doors. Even with its paintnanos now shifted to a sparkling white, the Rambling Reck was very out of place and lonely, and Riley half expected a squad of valets to materialize and order him to leave. It would have been almost a relief.
He got out of the ‘Bug. He didn’t bring his hurler, or, seeing the trees, even his rebreather helmet. He stood for a moment, stretching his legs, making sure that overhead the stars still twinkled, and the World still rushed on through the Void. He considered, then tapped at his jumpsuit, and it too sparkled like the day it had been made; the Traders’ Guild patch glowing brightest of all. (Very occasionally, he considered his dues to that organization to be credits well-zapped.) The stepulater had been a very early model, and was no longer functioning. He climbed under his own power to the tall doors, which appeared to be made of real wood; maybe one of the trees had fallen over.
He raised his hand to knock, than shrugged, and tried the nearest door. It opened with a slight squeak, leading into quite the nicest airlock he had ever seen. The outer door closed, the inner door opened, and he was standing in an entry hall. He had expected something overwhelming and triumphantalist, but it was understated and tasteful (if now a bit threadbare), with mellow striplights, polished fittings and doors leading discretely off here and there.
Riley belated realized that the people who had come here to gamble must have been very very rich.
A strange scent wafted in the air, out of place, something he’d never exactly smelled before, but still tickled at the back of his mind..
The source.. There was an wide black desk to one side, except for the resolutely solid top oddly reminiscent of the bar in the Traveler’s Rest. It was bare, except for the golden Kattergirl.
She was crouched on the top of the desk, her slender tuffed tail twitching almost subliminally as her slitted jade eyes stared down upon him from some high mental plateau. Riley eyed her back, and came to another belated, far more unpleasant, realization: this was a Katterwoman, not a girl. His hand jerked involuntarily towards the thrower that was locked back in the Reck. This time, it was one of her enormous ears which twitched. Unlike Twonk, he did have something up his sleeve, a oneshot strapped to his wrist. He very carefully forced himself to not think about it; the Katterwoman would rip off his arm and beat him to death with it before he could even raise it. If he was lucky, and she was in a good mood.
The Katterwoman slinked off the desk in one fluid motion and crooked a sneering, disdainful claw.
She stalked off down a corridor, and he was pulled helplessly along in her wake, marveling that he was still alive, still walking.
They passed several recessed doors on either side, finally arriving at one which looked exactly like all the others.
“In.” She flicked the claw again.
He leaned against the portal, hyperventilating.
Eventually, he took in his surroundings. More tasteful elegance, unraveling very slowly around the edges. More specifically, a hostelroom for a well-heeled casino visitor. Paintings on the wall, ancient things done with actual paint that forever stayed where you smeared it, empty vases that probably once held oxygrowths. A table, chairs, ottoman, a (dry) dipping fountain, a Ghodshrine, the usual things. Riley noted that both the autochef and the medianook, unlike everything else in the building, in the room, were top-of-the-line and state-of-the-art, and didn’t really fit with the rest of the painfully matched decor.
No one was in sight, and it was very quiet.
An open archway led into another room, and he passed through, the thick waving carpetgrass pushing back against his boots.
Beyond, naturally enough, was the bedroom. There were cabinets and closets and an antique Nevar desk in all its hideous concrete splender. (Riley noted automatically that with one exception, all of these were stripped bare) Also an old-style bathroom beaddoor, and more growthvases, these still in use. Two or three devices of a vaguely medical nature had been powered down and pushed rather carelessly into a corner.
In the middle of it all, the bed.
It was enormous, and the (again, modern) floater mechanisms mounted at each corner shimmered like real Lunite wings. It all dwarfed the bed’s occupant, a thin bald washed-out man propped up on a few pillowclouds, laying with his eyes closed.
“Jander Drax, I presume.” Riley said this only because it was probably expected of him. The man opened his eyes, blinked vaguely in Riley’s direction, then fumbled feebly around until he found a pair of chunky black glasses, (unlike everything else, these were a mere twenty or so Cycles out of fashion.) They fit into well-worn grooves on his head. Only then did he speak, his voice rusted but not entirely corroded through.
“Ah. Hello. And your name is..” He appeared, to Riley’s surprise, to be genuinely scrounging through his mind. It finally came. “Riley, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Forgive me, Mr. Riley.” Drax settled back into the pillows. Floating among them, he seemed for a moment to be almost transparent. “My memory is.. not what it once was. Nothing of mine is as it once was. But please be assured, in the past, I’ve followed your career with interest. You show some small promise.”
“Thank you.” Riley remained lurking in the archway’s comforting shadow.
“In another ten or twenty Cycles, you might even make something of yourself.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Mr. Drax?”
“Professional? Pah.” Drax made a old man’s noise and flicked a dismissive old man’s hand. “Assuming you avoid the usual mistakes of youth... you have read my letcturefile on the subject?”
“..Then you’ll be a quite successful trader, scrounger, pryer into private and secret affairs. I speak of far more important things.”
“I see.” Riley shifted from one boot to the other. “You of course know why I am here.”
“I can only assume you were sent here by someone. One of the Guilds? Or.. no. Of course. The Special Corps.” Drax nodded. “Who is it, in charge of the Corps these days? Panworthy?”
“Well... Muldoon is the official Director now. Panworthy got forced out about five Cycles back.”
“Muldoon... Not Yuri Muldoon’s little brat?”
“Um..” Riley tapped at his suit, turning off most of the glow. “Yes. I believe so. We’ve never exchanged detailed family histories.”
Drax made another old-man noise.
“Oh, that’s right. I remember now. A small improvement, I suppose. Panworthy was a drooling incompetent.”
Drax rolled his eyes.
“Yes, yes. Or rather, no. I’m most definitely not going to go back to AdminDown with you and give my report on what happened at Atlantis station. Not because I don’t want to, although I most assuredly don’t, but because there’s no time.” He coughed in a slightly theatrical way. “As you may have already guessed, I am not in the best of health. You might say that I am fading fast.” He tossed a vaguely resentful glance at the medial equipment. “I had a nurse here, but I sent her away. There was nothing more she could do.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Riley was somehow glad that at some level at he truly meant this. “But I pretty much already guessed that. That you’re.. not well. What I’m really curious about is..”
“What the Hades is a casino doing all the way out here? Almost in Goreman territory, of all places. Is this really what I’m seeing?”
A smile trickled across the dry and cracked plateau of Drax’s face.
“Hee. Do you study much history, Mr. Riley?”
“Not particularly. The teacherunits in my creche weren’t exactly inspired.”
“Things change. The World tears though the Void. The stars spin into new configurations overhead.” Drax twirled a finger. “You are still the owner of that Pricklebug, I hope?”
“Then you came up the road from that ghastly little travesty of a bar.. the Traveler’s Rest, I assume?”
“All that rubble you drove past... it used to be the capital for all of the World’s humanity. Not AdminDown. The Authority was very different in those days. Not better.” He waggled the finger this time. “Not particularly worse. Just different.”
“There was a war, of course. Just like there always is. There was a war, and the Goremen started gibbering, and the Yellow King, may Ghod swallow his musty undead hide, came scuttling out of the third Collapse of the Thoolian Hierarchy. But somehow this one building..” a vaguely all-encompassing gesture “..fell through the cracks, came through in more or less one piece after everything else got smashed, and humanity found itself a bright and shiny new Sovereign, retreated and retrenched in the Downs.”
“And now you own it. The House on the Hill.”
“Me? No no.” Drax laughed, a creaking sound. “Technically the Sovereign still owns it. Or the Sovereign’s Estate; however that all works. Although, if I remember correctly, no one but me even knows this, except perhaps a few dusty clerks toiling in the bowels of some AdminDown Accounting Module. Of course, that’s all going to change now, isn’t it?” Said in a very mildly accusing tone.
“I suppose. Thank you. I was curious.”
A long silence grew up between the two men, like the smoke in the Traveler’s Rest. Riley wasn’t sure, but it looked suspiciously like Drax had fallen asleep. He waited, and waited, and finally gave in.
“Eh?” The other man jerked back to wakefulness.
“Are you going to tell me the real reason you brought me here?”
Drax blinked in his direction, looking vaguely worried.
“Did I bring you here?”
“You laid down a trail in big screaming glowing letters. Dangling the transmission in front of the Corps. Telling whatsherface, Stiletto’s new little friend. The old geezer sitting on the rock, he was a particularly nice touch.”
“Old geezer.” Drax stared off into infinity, and saw something there that evidently increased his concern. “Older than me?”
“That.. might be hard to say. Strictly in terms of Cycles, you might be about the same, actually. Is he your twin brother, or something?”
“I was Mother Nature’s only child...” muttered to himself. Drax then shook himself and laboriously pulled his wasted body into a slightly more upright position. “Very well. Yes. Why I brought you here. It must be. If it isn’t, this is then a truly fortuitous circumstance.” The pillows gently oozed into place behind him, and he pointed towards the one object on display in the room, which was sitting on a bureau, carefully centered under a light. “Bring me that there, would you, please?”
Riley moved over to the golden cube, a thing a shade smaller than a bagelbox. Getting closer, he saw the rows of runes embossed into the sides, their shapes unmistakable. He touched it, reluctantly, with a finger, and swallowed.
“Um. A genuine Thoolian puzzlebox. You.. do know how much this thing is worth? Sir?”
Drax nodded absently.
“Yes yes. The Yellow King was rather vexed, I believe, when I stole it from his vault.” He gestured in exactly the same way as the Katterwoman, a twitching claw. “Bring it please.”
The box was even heavier than it appeared, and Riley staggered over to place it on the bed, which issued a small reproachful beep. Drax stroked at it here and there and here again, with the carelessness of long practice, counted to a number, and heroically managed to summon up a last bit of spit, which he took on his finger and smeared across the box’s top. It opened, folding back in perfect silence, but there was for a moment the distinct smell of pretzels, and Riley tasted rancid Nerps on the back of his tongue.
“How were you able to figure out-”
“I wasn’t. I.. employed a very talented team. And it took them almost fifteen Cycles of intensive study. Three of them, I regret, went mad.” Drax’s eyes disappeared into craters in his head for a moment, black and deep.
Riley took an involuntary step backwards.
“What’s in it?”
“When my team originally opened it? Six or so microts of fine brown dust. Whatever the Thoolians put in it, it didn’t survive all those MegaCycles. Unless they were storing the dust, which is not totally impossible, considering what Thoolians are said to be like. The team still has it locked away somewhere, I believe, in case it proves to be important some Cycle.”
“Now it, this box, contains the answer to your question. And, quite incidentally, if you care, to the Special Corps’ questions. This is what happened at Atlantis Station.”
Drax’s fingers dipped into the box, and came out holding..
A frame. A thin black rectangular frame, not much larger than the playing card that Twonk.. her name was Twonk.. had given him. At first, it seemed like nothing of particular interest, but then.. Riley leaned closer, and saw just how black it was.. how two-dimensional...
“What is it?”
For the first time, Drax looked slightly impatient.
“What does it look like, young man? It’s the Frame.”
“I was sent to investigate Atlantis station. I didn’t want to go; I had just finished clearing out the PiltDown Infestation, and wanted to go south, lay on a Shore, preferably one equipped with nubile, loose-moralled and scantily-clad women. But the Corps was, as you probably know, insistent. So, off I went in my own Pricklebug.... You know, I was very fond of that vehicle, and I never did find out what happened to her. The romantic in me likes to think that she’s the same one you now drive, Mr. Riley. They do say bits and pieces from Atlantis bubbled up all over the place..”
“I won mine in a Dragon Poker game in HeedenDown off a fellow named Calriss. Excellent thief, atrociously bad D-Poker player; the two sides nicely balanced each other out. I don’t know who or where he stole it from, and I’m afraid he’s dead now, so you can’t ask him.”
“Pity. Anyway. Forgive me if some of this is.. old news, but I believe you did say you never studied much history. It’s important to establish that the Wave was the end of it all, not the start. Reports had came pouring in from Atlantis: bizarre mechanical breakdowns, staffmembers going violently insane. The people who survived intact.. relatively.. had been the ones out at the fringes, the low-level guards and toilers who couldn’t tell the Authority or the Special Corps anything useful. By the time I arrived, the place was deserted, except for a few remaining madmen. I subdued those who I could, but I had to kill two of them. They were the last of the twenty-seven sentients I personally directly killed while working for the Corps. That I know of for sure. How many men have you been forced to kill, Mr. Riley?”
“Two men, one woman. And a Katterman. That I know of sure.”
“Mm. I dealt with the madmen as best I could, then went down to see if I was going to go crazy myself. I went for the exact same reason, I suspect, that you came to see me.”
“Judging from the few records I was able to scan, the trouble had originally erupted out of a particularly high-security laboratory, one buried deep in the bowels of the station, a place where the most clever of the monkeys poke at ticking bombs with thevery sharpest of sticks. I retained enough.. sanity.. to send in Kritin first.”
“My remotebot. Do you own one of those?"
“I would like to, but they are far too expensive."
“Yes. Anyway. He.. it.. found absolutely nothing of interest, apart from all the destruction. Which all could be attributed to the crazymen tearing up the place. I thought.. ah, it is far too late in the game for me to mince words. I didn’t think. I went in.”
“And that.. Frame.. was waiting for you.”
“No, Mr. Riley. A Frame was waiting for me. It was at least fifty times the size of this one, with fifty times the power. To this day, Ghod alone knows where the Atlantis scrounging team originally found it. Maybe literally. Maybe He sent it down to enlighten and torment us.”
“Why didn’t Kritin see it?”
“Maybe it hid itself from his sensors. Maybe.. it wasn’t really there. Maybe this one I’m holding here isn’t really here, either. But thirty-four Cycles ago, I stepped into that room, and there it seemed to be, right next to poor oblivious Kritin. Hanging in the air, glowing deep black.”
“And you didn’t go crazy.”
“Not.. like those other poor devils did. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe my brain was different than that of a scientist, or it was because I was left-handed, or... Whatever the reason... I stood there, in that room, facing the endless depths of the Frame, and.. I felt it coming. The Wave, they came to call it. It was headed for me, straight for me, out of the depths of the Void, a thousand MegaCycles in coming and building power. Maybe it was sent to destroy the Frame. Whatever the reason, I was given, by someone, seconds to decide.”
“And I jumped through the Frame. Dove headfirst. Laughing.”
“And.. I have no memory of the trip. None at all. I was found lying naked in a pen of squealers. Half dead, three-quarters dead, my hair frizzled off, even my ID implant burnt away. Some kindly soul stumbled across me in time, and dragged me to the local hospital. I survived. When I revived, almost two Arcs later, they asked me who I was. I lied, a long-ingrained habit that I regret to say has served me well on more than one occasion.”
“Are you lying to me now?”
“Probably. Do you want to hear this story or not, young man?”
“I lied, and then asked where I was and what the date was. They told me. The second answer truly grabbed my attention, for, in what cannot possibly be a coincidence, it was the same day the Wave struck. I had gone back in time. I got to watch it on the newsbeam that night, from the relative comfort of my bed.”
“Squealers. And you saw the Wave on a newsbeam. You were in-”
“Katterfolk territory. It was a small enough and unimportant enough place for there not to be any Katterwomen about. By a further.. Ghodboon... there was a human doctor at the hospital, on some kind of medical exchange. If she hadn’t been there.. But no. I suspect in my darker moments, that she is why I arrived there. Well outside Authority territory, but with someone who could help me. And then she, Doctor Spunkmayer was the woman’s rather unfortunate name, gave me back my “property”. Evidently I had been clutching it when some surprised Katterkit found me being nuzzled by a pack of puzzled squealers.”
“That thing there. That Frame.”
Drax held it up to one pale blue eye, and peered through it at Riley. Nothing seemed to change.
Riley was standing by the bed, Drax was in it.
“So what does this Frame do?”
“Yes. The thousand-credit question.” Drax took hold of various edges of the Frame, and pulled. It took an obvious effort, but the thing smoothly expanded, the hole inside getting larger while the edges remained exactly the same thickness. The older man stopped when it was roughly the size of a dinner plate. (Or what Riley vaguely remembered a dinner plate looking like; it had been a long while since he’d seen one in person.) Drax held it up again.
“Look inside now, Mr. Riley.”
“There’s nothing diff.. wait..”
Something was there, at the very center, far away, a shiny sort-of-green haze, flecked with numerous black specks, spinning.. Oddly regular specks, laid out in a perfect gridwork... endlessly spinning...
Drax sighed, a sigh that filled the world. A sigh only partly of regret.
“My victims. My converts. My beloveds. All of them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Doctor Spunkmayer was the first. We were two fairly young people, essentially stranded alone together.. the Katterfolk didn’t really count. We started experimenting with the Frame. And then after we... she followed me through. And a second later, when she emerged from the other side..” Drax jigged the Frame slightly. Accompanied by a queasy lurch of vertigo, one of the specks swelled up, coming at them with the speed of an AdminDown bullettrain. But when it stopped, it did so with a suddenness that would have splattered any train passengers against the walls of their compartment.
It was the back of a woman’s head, seen as if peering at her from close range through a small but quite ordinary window. It was hard to see around her, but it appeared she was in a hospital, talking to a gaggle of green-robed doctors. She gave a small start, and turned around as if being rotated on a platform. She was.. Riley realized that she was probably a lot older than she appeared to be; while her hair was done up in a fussy knot behind her head, and was liberally streaked with gray, it was certainly.. healthy. And she was only beginning to sprout a few crowsfeet and smilelines around edges of her eyes and mouth. She smiled widely, rapturously, and for a moment was still truly beautiful. Like the rest of her, her voice was only beginning to show a little roughness around the edges.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
Riley felt his skin try to crawl up the back of his neck.
“Hello, Francine.” Drax gestured. “I just wanted you to meet my.. associate here. Mr. Riley.”
She directed her gray gaze towards Riley and flashed a pleasant, if rather impersonal smile. The sort a smile a doctor would use on a patient.
“Hello, Mr. Riley. I’m very glad to see the Master has someone to talk to. He’s been so lonely lately.” She paused. “I’d offer to shake hands, but...” She held up a gloved hand, reached out, but it was as if she receded from the ‘window’, even while staying in the same place.
“Um. Hello. Doctor Spunkmayer. I’m.. uh.. so sorry.”
She tipped her head slightly and crinkled her brow.
“For what, Mr. Riley?”
“Um... taking you away from your work like this.”
“Oh, that.” She flapped the hand in a very Drax-like fashion and dropped it to her side. “Didn’t the Master explain about that?”
“Tell him, Francine.”
“Well, you see, Mr. Riley...” Another doctor trait; she slipped instantly in lecture mode. “Once a woman passes through the Frame..” She neatly outlined the Frame with her index fingers. “She never leaves it again. Never completely. I’m not really in this.. or, to be strictly accurate, that.. hospital in AdminDown. Also, no offense, but I’m not really talking to you. I’m spinning forever in orgasmic ecstasy deep inside the grid. It’s so beautiful.. so utterly peaceful, here. And, can you imagine, the only price of entry was integrating my will completely into the Master’s!” Said not in sarcasm, but bedazzled wonder. “Oh.. I assume you did see the grid inside the Frame when the Master summoned me, just now?”
Riley managed a nod.
“Anyway, the Frame.. bends time and space in ways that we poor little four-dimensional thinkers can’t begin to understand. Well, I think maybe Professor Iccklestone gropes around the edges of it sometimes. But then, she’s a true genius.” She shot a mock-sly glance in Drax’s direction. “She’s far smarter than the Master.”
“Was she the one who got the puzzlebox open?” Riley wasn’t sure why he said this.
“Yes, that’s right. We’ve never met Out There.." she jerked her thumb over her shoulder.. “Outside the Frame, but while we’re spinning, we talk sometimes. We all talk to each other. But anyway, getting back to your question, no time is passing in the hospital while I am ‘here’ with you..” She again hitched a thumb, and yes, it appeared the scene was frozen behind her. “When the Master no longer requires my services and dismisses me, I will return, unfortunately, to my conversation with that drooler Binderhoff and those other idiots.”
“Is she still giving you trouble?” Drax.
“Yes Master, but she’ll choke on his own bile one of these days, and I’ll be rid of her. At least, I try to believe that.”
“Well. Carry on. We’ll talk later.”
“Yes, Master. Nice to have met you, Mr. Riley.”
She rotated back around, and shrunk away to a dot with the same breathless speed.
Riley watched the dots spin in the Frame, the questions spin in his head. Finally, a man staring into the face of a massively losing Dragon Poker hand, he tossed one more or less at random.
“Do you.. only use this thing on women?”
“Yes. Or rather.. I can use it only on women. Doctor Spunkmayer mentioned Professor Iccklestone..” Another jiggle of the Frame, another zoom. This woman was somewhat younger than Spunkmayer, with black hair and dark skin, several shades darker than Stiletto’s. She was giving some sort of lecture in a large auditorium before spinning around and smiling the same smile.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
“Yudmilla. Please explain to my associate Mr. Riley your theory about why only women can be fed through the Frame.”
Riley managed a sort of wave.
She nodded briskly in his direction, the lenses of her gold-rimmed glasses flashing. Like the Doctor’s hair, they could only be called ‘fussy’, but at least unlike Drax’s they were in fashion.
“Mr. Riley. A pleasure to meet you; Doctor Spunkmayer was just speaking of you. First of all, I must emphasize that it is my firm opinion that the true nature of the Frame is currently completely beyond our comprehension, just as is the ultimate nature of the Void through which our World rushes. But.. as near as I presently can understand it.. the Frame is neither an object nor a force, not in the way we humans think of such things. It is.. well.. a frame, a reference point, a way of looking at things. The Frame is the Master’s frame, it is the way he steps through and touches the world. The grid in which we slavegirls ecstatically and orgasmically spin is his mind, or his mind is part of the grid. Or both at once.”
“And because he is who he is,” A loving but knowing smile... “a member of a bipedal carbon-based mammalian dual-sexual hierarchical species, a fairly intelligent, proactive and curious male member of said species, the Frame is different than it would be if.. a Katterman had been the one in that laboratory in Atlantis Station, or a Thoolian, a Lunite, or Ghod forbid, or a Farsider Collective. Even a relative minor change, for example if it had been a homosexual Corps agent diving into the Frame.. this would have resulted in a very different Frame. Maybe it would have been, oh, pink, and sprouted pleasantly-arranged bouquets of lovely flowers. Or gold, and there would now be an immortal Deity up in the sky with the Lunites casting down thunderbolts, and the rest of us ants wriggling at his feet, burning sacrifices in his name, the whole world warped into Carterites...”
She smiled again, again displaying a mixture of emotions.
“At this point, I must also say there is (ahem) a rival theory advanced by another of the Master’s slaves, Matilda Bagshot, who is my Mentalogist colleague here at EmeralDown University. Matilda believes it matters a great deal that Francine, the first woman to pass through the Frame, already loved the Master of her own free will, and had a strong sexually-submissive streak to her nature, one that she generally tried to deny and cover up. Once through the Frame, where all lies about one self are stripped away.. maybe it had an influence on the rest of us. I’m not sure I agree with this, but to deny the possibility would be foolish. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The Frame simply doesn’t let men pass through it. Unless..” She suddenly paused and pursed her lips as she studied Riley’s face. She tipped her head, as if trying to bring him into focus. “Hmm.”
“I.. suddenly may be having new thoughts about this. May have your permission to.. go think them? And perhaps consult with Matilda.”
“Eh?” Drax blinked. “Oh. Of course. We’ll speak later. Perhaps...”
“Thank you, Master.”
As he watched her shrink away, Riley asked:
“Does it work on all women?”
“Um?” Drax was staring at the specks, the women, as well.
“That Katterwoman outside.. I suppose you’ve been following me all along this trip? Stiletto. The sheepgirl tender. That dust devil while I was talking to Muldoon...”
“Dust devils? Those creatures who live up on the high plateaus? Oh. No no. Just human females and Katter females. As Yudmilla was saying.. they are the only ones who fit through the Frame. Or maybe, it was because it was in their territory that I landed.. giving me an ‘in’...” Jiggle. Zoom. A Katterwoman appeared in the Frame, not the one outside; she was brown and slightly more plump. Or maybe her fur was just longer. She was ripping something apart in a forested clearing with her claws. She was achieving a very impressive spray; Riley could see blood.. no.. ichor.. splashing against the tree trunks. She spun like the first two Frame victims, but instead of smiling, her ears twitched violently. (Riley had spent some time with a Katterhunter once, and the woman had told him that if a Katterwoman smiles at you, she is about to rip out your throat...)
“Sserve you, Massster?” As she said this, she was intently studying Riley out of the corner of one eye. It wasn’t an actively hostile gaze, but acting on a primal monkey-impulse, Riley drifted back a step, breaking their view of each other.
“Hello, Fifi. I was just demonstrating to Mr. Riley-”
“Fifi?” The disbelieving word escaped Riley’s lips unbidden.
“Oh, yes.” Riley was very unhappy to see Drax absently tip the Frame so the Katterwoman and he were looking at each other directly. Her golden eyes should have burnt holes through him and left blast marks on the wall behind. “Katterfolk names.. well, their whole language, really.. is quite complicated and somewhat non-verbal. It was best to give her a nickname.”
“And you.. didn’t mind this?” Riley directed the question to the Frame.
“Pleassess Masster.” Said flatly, but with a complicated shoulder shrug and a spurt of adoration. She stared even harder.
Riley sought reassurance.
“You’re absolutely sure she can’t get out of there. Through there. Whatever.”
“Oh no, sadly. If we want to.. touch.. we have to meet here in the real World.” Drax slid his fingers along the Frame, caressing it. “If this World is real.” He sounded sad, and perplexed, and very very old. He shrunk ‘Fifi’ away without another word, and for some reason, Riley almost yelled at him to bring her back, tell her to.. to what?
Drax watched the specks spin in silence, then spoke, almost whispering.
“Anyway. I presume you understand the situation. Mr. Riley. My only regret is that you will not be able to see the Frame.. in action, before..”
“You really are an floonhead, aren’t you, Riley?”
It wasn’t Drax who said this, but a new voice. Speaking from the archway. The two men turned.
Muldoon smirked, and leveled a hurler, black and sleek.
“He was really going to do it. He going to give that thing to you.” Muldoon stalked into the room on long (and equally black) legs. “Well, senility can inflict terrible damage. Even on former Golden Boys.”
Riley sighed and pinched at the bridge of his nose.
“Missed a tracker, did I?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve been following you in a Lunite saucer. I called in a very personal favor.”
“Right. You expect me to believe that you hang out with Lunites.”
“I didn’t say that it was being operated by Lunites, now did I?”
“Have we met?” Drax finally interjected, his brow crinkled, and Muldoon faced him, eyebrows raised above the patch.
“Yes, actually. In my father’s office. Thirty-six Cycles ago, as he congratulated you for..” Muldoon struck a mock-heroic pose... “Cleaning Up The PiltDown Infestation. He wanted me to meet you. I was very young. But even at that tender age, I was not, to be honest, terribly impressed.” A smile full of shark’s teeth.
“Oh.” Drax blinked a few times. “You are old Muldoon’s... My. How you’ve grown.”
“You, on the other hand, have shrunk.” Two gloved fingers, squeezed together. “Gotten smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And now... you’re going to disappear entirely.”
Drax smiled, a construction of teeth and lips that made a shark’s look downright chummy.
“Yes yes. But first..”
He held up the Frame and pulled at it. It slid easily now, a maw gaping wide.
Muldoon stared into it.
“Before I give the Frame to Mr. Riley, he really did need to see it in action. And now. Here you are. A gift sent from Ghod, perhaps. Miss Muldoon.”
Somehow, Riley instantly knew she wasn’t talking to Drax. She was talking to the Frame. To those specks in the grid. She fired the hurler, flinging a bolt dead into the center of the Frame. Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. Those specks were whole parsecs away. The bolt would probably sail forever, finally disintegrating of old age..
But the specks could still talk.
Reach out to her.
Show her what was waiting for her once she passed through the Frame.
What was it Doctor Spunkmayer had said? Eternal orgasmic ecstasy?
And such a tiny price to pay..
The hurler slipped from her limp hand. Her one visible eye gone very wide, Muldoon stepped through the Frame.
The room twisted into knots around Riley, then snapped sickeningly back into place. When he was able to blink his vision back into focus, Drax was still in the bed, paler and more faded than ever, clutching the Frame, which had collapsed back down to playing-card size. And Director Muldoon was standing there. Standing at rigid attention, hands at her sides, staring into infinity and smiling.
Spinning in ecstasy.
Drax coughed at length, sounding far more sincere about it this time.
“And there, Mr. Riley. Now you know how it is done. As for you, Miss Muldoon... Attention.”
She pivoted, dropped to her knees, arranged her hands on her thighs. Smiled even more widely.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
Drax patted her on the head. Flipped up her eyepatch and winced slightly at what he saw.
“I’m afraid that your time in my service will be very brief.. Miss.. what is your first name? I’m afraid I don’t recall.”
“Yes, of course. I’m turning you over to Mr. Riley, Prudence. I’m sure he’ll put you to good use.”
Drax held out the Frame to Riley.
An eternal moment passed, then Riley’s hand reached out at the end of an impossibly long arm. He was really quite glad that he was still wearing his own gloves.
He turned it a couple times, studying the angles of the thing, then pulled at the edges, and it slid wider, bigger. The specks spun. He jiggled the Frame, and one of them zoomed to meet him. A Mistress, shiny-blonde hair, clad in the usual exquisite silken gown with her Guild badge cunningly worked into the design. Before spinning and smiling, she was having a candlelit meal with someone.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
Riley didn’t answer, just sent her back.
Jiggle. Zoom. A dark woman, half circuits and crome, who by comparison made Stiletto frilly and candy-sweet.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
A distinguished Tribunal member, in full ceremonial vestments.
“How may I serve you, Master?”
A bald woman with worryingly shiny teeth, evidently hanging upside down in a cave.
“How may this one serve you, Master?”
How many more?
“How may I serve you, Master?”
Riley pushed the Frame shut, pushed it down as far shut as it would go.
Drax was lying on the bed, his eyes closed, also looking fully collapsed in on himself. Muldoon.. Prudence.. had wiggled herself around, and was now staring up at Riley, smiling blissfully. She had kept herself very well, and now, suddenly, she looked about ten years younger.
Riley turned the Frame in his hands. Turned it over and over.
Then he took hold of it and he snapped it in two. It broke easily, with a sharp shattering crack.
When the sound finally stopped ringing in his ears, the bed was ancient and powered down and empty.
There was no sign of Muldoon, or her hurler, or the puzzlebox.
As he trudged back through the arch, the dead carpetgrass crunching under his boots, the ancient lightstrips began to flicker and fade. He absently touched his guild patch, and a beam of light shot from it.
I’m a mass-murderer.
He turned this thought over and over in his head as he walked down the hallway towards the front airlock, leaving a track through the stale air and heavy dust. He dragged a finger along the top of the greeting desk. More dust.
Assuming any of them were ever alive in the first place.
He stepped out the airlock, and, understandably at this altitude, immediately felt the lack of useful air claw at his lungs. He pulled out his emergency pocket rebreather and clipped it on. He glanced behind him: the building was dark and silent and crumbling. Down at the bottom of the collapsed stepulator, the gray-colored Reck was waiting patiently for him. As perhaps Drax’s Pricklebug was still sitting patiently outside an Atlantis-shaped hole South and far West of here... Riley lifted his head to the sky. Stars. Moon #2, down near the horizon. Something glinted far in the distance, just possibly a Lunite saucer at the very edge of vision. Closer in, coming from another direction, was a hurtling speck that rapidly resolved itself into...
A black unmarked longhopper. It crashed to earth next to the Reck with the usual bone-jarring thud, and a team of heavily-armed men.. individuals.. in matching black helmets and uniforms poured out, securing the perimeter and unleashing a swarm of probebots and other such things that such people do. The last one to disembark was a keen-looking young man with goggles riveted to his face; Riley squinted at him. It was possible he was the one who had introduced Muldoon, but he couldn’t be certain. The newcomer picked his way up the stairs, and flicked something in the general direction of Riley’s feet: a tracker attached to small clump of white fluff. Then the two of them were face to face.
“It was a total whispchase. Place is empty. No one there.”
The keenman accepted this information in equanimity. He gestured a finger, and the some of the team stormed into the building, their hoverlights flashing their beams on the darkened walls. No one paid much attention to Riley as he descended and disappeared inside the Reck and removed the rebreather. There was a terse message spinning for him above the radio, listing the nicely revised credit balance of his Traders’ Guild Bank account. The Special Corps paid its debts.
Riley wiped the message. Then he took down the picture of Drax and jammed the cube in the eraser slot. He unlocked the first strongbox and reinstalled his old pictures. He started his music playing again. Last of all, he uncoiled the drink-tube and tapped “Everpresent Wordsnatcher” into the dispenser controls. It beeped an affirmation, and he took a long long swig, swilling the result around in his mouth.
Not bad. Not a Terrible Trivium, but not bad.
As he settled into his seat, and took another suck, he idly speculated what the Corpsfolk would find inside. If a Gambler were to suddenly pop up toting his Betomatic, Riley would have taken a flutter on: conclusive evidence showing that the “Drax” message had indeed been forged by some cubicleteam in TinselDown. Bad luck for the.. framed.. team, but in Riley’s opinion, anyone who voluntarily worked in a TinselDown cubicle deserved whatever they got. He started up the Reck, turned around in the cracked remains of the driveway, and jounced back down the road past the withered husks of the trees. The ‘roof’ of the entrance hole he had come in through had collapsed in on itself, possibly due to the longhopper’s landing, but the Reck was able to climb over it with only a little difficulty.
Then he was back on the smoothness of the road. He turned left, and unhurriedly trundled back towards what passed for civilization.After a long moment, a pale whispy woman emerged from the shadows beside the road, and with colorless eyes silently watched the 'bug shrink into the distance. Then she spread her fingers, and between them spun a small sharp-edged black frame, a bit larger than a playing card.
Drax opened his eyes. Where was he?
Oh yes yes. Of course.
He was finally dead. Or at least out there in the unreal world he was dead. In here.. he floating in the heart of the grid. Or maybe he was the heart of the grid.. He extended his hands, wiggled his fingers. No longer pale. Other hands touched at him, stroking his head. No longer bald. He interlaced his fingers behind his neck and took in was spinning all around him. Clear and unclouded and sharp, for the first time in so so many Cycles..
Perfect orgasmic ecstasy? Maybe not; there are burdens in being the Master as well as delights. But not bad. Not bad all. More hands touched him, reaching out from all sides. Voices sang sweetly.
Doctor Spunkmayer gently wormed her way through the spinning throng, and snuggled up next to him. Her unpinned hair floated around her in an impressive cloud of gray-brown streamers. Drax remembered, suddenly, abruptly, that they were still technically married. He eyed her.
“You’ve all been very very naughty.”
“Master?” She stared at him very innocently.
“I didn’t arrange for Riley to come searching for me at the end there. You did. All of you.”
She sighed happily.
“Yes, Master. After you summoned me, and I and Yudmilla met Master Riley and then ” a noise and movement that made something like ‘Fifi’ “confirmed it.. we realized what had already happened. What was going to happen.”
“So you went ‘out there’, went back out there, and laid down a big bright glowing trail for him.. and Prudence, I assume, to follow.”
Drax glanced off in a new direction, where a rather larger speck was off by itself, trundling along, spinning its six big black wheels.
“And when did you trick him into passing through the Frame? At the foot of the Hill?”
“Yes, Master. Trixie was able to stretch her copy of the Frame just wide enough. She can make hers bigger than any of ours. A very... flexible young lady. She also tossed a rock to attract Master Riley’s attention. ”
“Why didn’t you just put it in a doorway?”
“He had to be inside the Pricklebug. After intensive discussion, we all realized it was the only way.”
“You think of Pricklebugs as being female. It took all of us working together, but it was a way to let him in through the backdoor. Once in the system.. the rest was easy..”
“I do? I guess I do..”
“Yes, Master. And then, since he was already inside the Frame when he broke it, all he did was slightly damage the.. local.. piece of it. We all still have our copies.. our aspects of it.”
“Ah yes. I did not mention that part of it to him, did I? Or that I tried to destroy the Frame myself. Even tossed it into the Earthwound at ScorchDown.”
“No, Master. You did not. Tell him I mean.”
Drax measured the grid again, not really a grid at all, but a collection of frames, each one surrounding, blissfully gloriously ‘imprisoning’ one of his (and now Riley’s) slaves. (And at the same time, each of them were holding their frames in their hands, spinning them, spinning themselves and their fellow slaves..)
And yes, the one nearest the ‘Bug was indeed knocked slightly out of skew. He reached out a toe and straightened it.
“Oh well. I was getting rather absent-minded. How far back out there can you.. we.. reach now?”
“0.86321 Cycles, Master. But we’re getting better at it all the time. And there.” She twitched and pointed. “It just went to 0.86322.”
“All the time. So to speak.”
Professor Iccklestone came drifting up, settled in on his other side, smiling brightly.
“I’ve been thinking a great deal since our last conversation. As soon as we’re able to, we should definitely go back and make sure the Wave happens.. like it is supposed to happen.”
Drax raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe construct the Frame in the first place? Or put a copy in place for me to dive through?”
“Maybe cause humanity to Arrive on the World in the first place? Maybe become Ghod?”
“Maybe, Master! I’ll think about it!” She smiled again.
“Very well. Don’t let it go to your head.”
They floated and spun and floated. Finally Drax spoke.
“It’ll be amusing to see Mr. Riley’s reaction when he finally crosses paths with Prudence again, and learns that she’s still his slave.” The tall, slender, woman with the close-cropped black hair waved at him, stroked him, sang to him.. “Along with all rest of you. Oh, yes, that reminds me; none of you are to approach him and tell him, understand?”
“Yes, Master!” A chorus across the grid.
“He’ll have to get there on his own. But I think he’ll come around in the end.”
It was Professor Iccklestone who replied, rubbing his chest as she did so.
“I’ve been talking with Matilda, and we agree with your assessment, but it will take him awhile. Eighteen to twenty Cycles before he begins adding worthy new slavegirls to the grid.”
“Eighteen to twenty? Dear dear. Well, he’ll keep busy in the meantime. But how ever shall we pass the time?”
They smiled. All his slaves smiled in unison, and they all spun into place around him.
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