121. Collapse Jayhawk sat huddled in a prism of silvered glass, surrounded by reflected im

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121. Collapse Jayhawk sat huddled in a prism of silvered glass, surrounded by reflected images of her shattered selves, and tried to think of a way out. Why was she here? What had the IC-construct done to her, and why? It had torn her apart, or that was how it had felt; cut along the lines of her re-unification, perhaps, though she didn't *feel* fragmented. Perhaps that was her problem. Maybe something she needed was trapped in those mirrored walls. Or perhaps they needed something from her...she looked into Angela's wide, frightened eyes and wondered. None of them had really known what they were doing in creating her; she remembered that clearly from all four perspectives. Recalling Piebald's idea, she squirmed around awkwardly until she was lying on her back, reached out hands and feet to touch all four walls. She, too, could return to Anubis below her; but she felt certain that doing so would conceed defeat in her attempt to reach the Hawk. When the glass warmed to her touch she rejected its pull, concentrated instead on imagining the presence of the others. They were within her as well as behind the mirrors. *What do you want, Angela?* she asked the Angela-image within, and tried to imagine the answer. *Do you really want to be me? How are we going to get out of this?* The answer was clear, almost like a voice speaking, though the image made no move that didn't echo hers. *I'm terrified by what we're doing, but it doesn't matter. I do want to be you.* A flicker of self-denegration. *I made my choice, and I'm glad of it. But I don't know how we're going to get out.--I don't know why you think *I* would know anything.* She had never fully appreciated how worthless she had felt, how unfit to share Jayhawk's existance. *I value you,* she said to Angela-within. *You are strong in ways I am not, without you.* She felt a brief touch through the cold glass, almost a caress. The voice within was silent. Jayhawk turned her attention to Piebald. *What do you want? Are you content?* His answer, distracted as always: *I still think it has something to do with the corners. Or possibly the point. Did you notice how it rocked when we hit it? It's not very sturdy.* She chuckled softly. She wouldn't get a straight answer out of Piebald, any more than she ever had; but she understood why, now, and she felt sure of him. She asked the same questions of Caroline-within, received a sharp and passionate answer: *I want to be you; I always have. This is a test of some kind; a test to trap Aliantha, I think, or any of the others who walked her path, split themselves into hating fragments, sacrificed themselves for power. We're not like that.* Feverish impatience washed over her. *I want to do this, I want to prove I can, I want to see *him* whole. I want to be whole myself. It's up to you. Do you accept me?* *Of course,* she whispered to that fierce demand. Jay last. The glass was cold, cold to her touch, and the voice within even colder. *Do you realize what you're doing? You will sacrifice us to him so that he can live; but we will die. I could have lived forever. I still want to.* A desperate whisper. *I can't live without you; I can't master Anubis on my own, it will destroy me. But you'll kill us. Why do you want to save him? Why is it worth this?* Jay already knew her answers. There was no reply she could make. *I hope to survive,* she said at last. *I can only hope. You have the power to deny me, if you choose.* Soft, bitter laughter. *'I accept your embrace, and surrender to you my life, my strength, my power.' I do. We will die for his glory; perhaps it's fate, perhaps there was never any way out once we saw him. I only wish....* Grief washed over her, stinging like salt. *Anubis!* Jayhawk curled in on herself, away from the cold walls, though she could not silence the voices within. Her eyes met Angela's, grieving and guilty; involuntarily she pulled away, rocked the whole pyramid with her movements. A Piebald idea caught her. She leaned forward, rocked back hard, and with a huge crash the pyramid toppled, tumbling her awkwardly onto the new floor. She disentangled herself with an effort, found that the shape had changed as well; she was looking down at Piebald now through a square prism, the pyramid's new base, and at Anubis, Jay, Caroline and Angela through the sides. She reached out to brush the mirror that contained Anubis, felt its touch, sure and steady. There was no division there, no need to ask consent. But below her...she stared down at Piebald, gripped by understanding. She could pass through, but she would *become* Piebald, making that image real, herself unreal. She shook her head, watched his bells echo silently. Wait! The pyramid was arranged the wrong way, that was the problem. *She* needed to be on the bottom. She tipped the pyramid again so that Anubis was below, considered her watching reflections. It seemed to her that it was Piebald's idea, so it would be only fair to let Piebald implement it. She pressed her hands against the glass of his window, felt a quick warming, *here* and *there* at once-- Jingling with excitement, Piebald levered himself around until he could bring the pyramid toppling down onto the Jayhawk-mirror, then considered the situation. From his perspective she was hanging upside-down, peering at him between her crossed legs. If he dove in there, he'd fall headfirst into the point of the pyramid--ouch! But it seemed silly to be right side up when she was upside down. They might not fit together properly. Walking his feet up the sides of the pyramid, he managed to stand on his head. The glass melted beneath him, a brief dizzying fall-- Jayhawk drew in a deep breath, feeling the world steady around her. She wasn't sure whether she'd changed or not; but one of the mirrored walls reflected her, the Hawk's mark crimson on her forehead. She twisted around, reached out to Angela. Angela rocked back and forth, trying to topple the pyramid without risking breaking it--she was sure that would be a terrible mistake. Finally she put her shoulder to it, fell heavily forward as it overbalanced. Jayhawk peered up at her from an awkward tangle of limbs, though not half so awkward as Angela's own. She hesitated, caught up in a whirl of emotions. She wanted to be free, wanted to share Jayhawk's power and delight, but to give herself up again....She wasn't really Angela, she knew that now, only a mechanical copy Awakened by the Overnet. But even that was something to cling to. No. Jayhawk trusted her, and she wouldn't fail that trust. She lowered her forehead to the cold glass, felt it warm, let herself fall-- There were tears on Jayhawk's face that she couldn't remember shedding. She brushed at them, turned to Caroline. An instant's hesitation, born of a doubt she couldn't explain even to herself, then she touched the glass, let herself pass through. Caroline bounced up, toppled the pyramid with a nerve-wracking crash and clatter. Jayhawk stared up from beneath her with wide doubtful eyes. It didn't have to be this way. The others hadn't really thought about that. Remaining separate or becoming part of Jayhawk weren't the only two options. She could refuse to cooperate, refuse to let things proceed, until they had no choice but to topple the pyramid over again so that *she* was at the bottom, and let all their strength and wisdom and power flow into her. "Would you do it?" she said aloud to the reflection. The walls echoed her voice, flattened and distorted. She'd be a magician, intuition whispered; and without giving up all the rest, Anubis' power, Piebald's genius, Angela's insight. She turned to look at Jay, reflection so perfect that she might have been looking at herself, except for the glitter of life-thread. A part of herself, her own creation, *hers* to re-absorb now if she chose. She remembered the acid jealousy she'd felt when Jay mastered Anubis. She remembered sitting up with Jay, that last long night of their independent existance, sharing their stories and trying to trust one another. "I won't ask that of you," she whispered. Her decision had already been made, and nothing good would come of recanting it now. Resolute and impatient, she put both palms flat against the floor, let herself fall, an instant's bright memory of flight-- One more, Jayhawk thought to herself, and looked up to see the fear reflected in her own mismatched eyes. She had no thought of backing out now; it was clearly impossible. Success or failure would be in Jay's hands--Jay, so close to the machine she loved that she could be almost infinitely patient, infinitely stubborn. She touched the cold glass, let herself pass through. And so it came down to her, with the decision already three-quarters made, irrevocably so. She *could* master Anubis and survive, Caroline had shown her the way--refuse to cooperate, refuse the merger until Jayhawk had to give in and allow her control. She wasn't sure what that would do to her. It seemed uncomfortably close to Aliantha's sacrifice of Megan. She didn't have to do that; she could return to Anubis, search for a way to retain her identity in its embrace. It might be possible. She'd been trapping the others here forever, she suspected. But she would live; even if she lost herself in Anubis' strength, she would survive. She felt the reality of Jayhawk's love for Martha, her deep-buried feelings--not love, but something dangerously close to it--for *him*; but she didn't share them. They came at least in part from loneliness; the need for companionship, understanding, contact with a kindred mind. She had no such needs, secure in Anubis. But she had known all this, in potential if not in actuality, when she accepted Caroline's embrace. She just hadn't realized the extent of the sacrifice. She didn't believe that Jayhawk could face *him* and survive, whatever the outcome; at best, she would become another of his shadows, broken and insane, a warped tool to his will. There was no reason that she could find to accept such a fate; only her love for the others, for the greater whole they formed, doomed as it was. She bowed her head, accepting the necessity, and touched the cold floor beneath her, let herself dissolve into it as if into Anubis. Unity embraced her like the memory of dissolution. With a violent lunge, Jayhawk stood up, her arms folded about her head. The pyramid shattered at her touch, falling in liquid fragments around her like a spray of mercury. It was easy, now that she knew how. She shook herself, unfolded to her full height, and looked around. Walls of rough wood towered around her, except to the left where they were obscured by the curving side of a vast white structure, smooth as stone and without doors or windows of any kind. She blinked, and suddenly the scene leaped into perspective; she was at the bottom of the great nest, beside the egg, and she was the size of an insect by comparison. She looked up, eyes struggling with the scale of things, and saw the Hawk perched on the edge of the nest, looking down at her. 122. Possession His preparations done, Duende inspected the site of the summoning. Channa had drawn an elaborate ward in chalk and grease-pencil, a many-pointed star six meters across. She indicated places in it for him, for Ratty. Most of his remaining people formed a circle around the perimeter, backs to the hostile night; he missed Grant and Argent, eventually spotted them on a half-decayed rooftop, rifles unslung. It was reassuring, even though he knew that he was a primary target. Ratty took two bits of machinery out of a grimy pocket, laid them down at the center of the circle: a bit of a wall-frieze from Cavilard Base, and a chip from the base computer. The shaman sat down in front of them, buried his hands in his face as if brooding over something. Duende remained standing, watching curiously. At the center, a column of pale amber smoke began to form, almost cutting off his view of Ratty. He smelled a hint of cinnamon. The smoke twisted, turning about its axis as if seeking escape. Very softly, in a strained voice, Ratty called "Aliantha...." For a moment the smoke hung motionless. There was dead silence from the surrounding circle. Then a face appeared slowly out of the mist. He was looking at it from behind, and it was clearly hollow, a thin mask with nothing inside it. He couldn't recognize the face, reversed as it was, but he knew the voice that spoke to Ratty. "What do you want?" Ratty took a deep breath, loud in the silence. "I am to offer you this challenge," he said carefully. "Possess this man, and struggle with him. If you win, you will have flesh and blood to do with as you wish. If you lose, your knowledge and power will be at his disposal." She laughed, a silvery falling laugh that ended in a moan of pain or despair. The column collapsed to earth like a fall of dust, leaving no trace. And something tried to force its way into his mind. There were huge vacancies within him, empty of memory and conviction. He let her in, forced her towards those places. Their walls were thick, and there was room enough to imprison her. She fought back, reaching for motor and speech control: he felt it as tingling filaments of cold, wrapping about his limbs from within. Dimly, from a distance, he was aware that he had fallen to the ground, lay writhing. That didn't matter. Patiently, inexorably, he denied her control. He would not compromise with her, would allow her nothing. She was strong, far stronger than Channa; but there was something lacking. Her will was nearly the equal of his own, but he was singleminded in his purpose, and she was not. Slowly he forced her within, away from control, away from contact with the outside. *How can I destroy Paradisio?* he demanded of her. Silvery bitter laughter. *It's already dead. You're dead, I'm dead, everybody's dead. There's nothing you can do.* Rather than argue with her, he began to narrow the space that she inhabited. To do so, he had to fill in the vacancies. Distantly he was aware that he was probably doing something irrevocable to himself in the process, but that didn't matter either. Slowly, despite her resistance, he walled her into a smaller and smaller area, forced her back onto himself. At the end it went quickly, as if her strength had been exhausted. The knowledge he wanted was there, strangely encoded but accessable. He dug into it. Images, feelings, thoughts brushed against him, subsided. He was killing her. The knowledge was the core of what she was, the single thing she had clung to in the destroying darkness. Taking it from her, he would make a final and complete end to her. With savage satisfaction, he did so. He opened his eyes, found the circle staring at him. "Duende?" said Channa, sharply. "Yes." He couldn't feel her magic, but he was sure it was there, probing the truth of his words. She glanced down once at something cupped in her hands, then back at him. "All right," she said in a voice of sudden exhaustion. "Someone's got a ritual link to you, probably through the ghost. We need to move, now." WIthin thirty seconds they were in the RV and moving. He was pleased with their efficiency, with the restraint that held back their questions until they were on the road. Then Grant and Yoichi spoke at once. "What happened? Did you find out--?" "Aliantha knew of no way in which we could destroy Lord Astrachok. But she knew of something which would hurt him so badly that she felt he would destroy himself. A place we can reach through the Gates; an island, probably in the South Pacific. We'll move tomorrow. We're going to need to recapture Cavilard Gate. Grey is there; he and his people tried to summon and bind Aliantha. The ritual link is probably theirs." "It's dropping," said Channa distantly. "Not strong enough to cover the distance. Duende, are you all right? Certain of your control?" "Aliantha is dead," he said simply. "I know what she knew, what was left of it; there was very little left. But that person no longer exists." It didn't seem important to tell them that the process of dissolution had begun long before Aliantha's death at their hands. "How are we going to cope with the Gate chamber at the other end?" said Grant pragmatically. "They're usually guarded impossibly well." "We won't need to. Aliantha knew how to short-jump, come out of Gate space before reaching the other end of the connection. I can do that now." Grant looked at him sharply, turned to Channa as if for confirmation. Very slowly, she nodded in acknowledgement. She'd used an African magic to see him as he truly was. He wondered what she had seen. It seemed to cling to her now, a shadow deeper than exhaustion or fear. 123. Watch Duende was keeping watch when Yoichi came looking for him. It was hours yet till dawn, and a thin cold wind was blowing; he'd chosen a place behind a pile of rusted cars, but they were poor shelter. Yoichi sat down on the oily ground, shivering. "I need to talk to you," said Yoichi in a strained voice. Duende nodded. "What did Aliantha know about Jayhawk?" He considered that. "Aliantha believed her to be alive, at least in some sense--active on the Matrix and the Overnet--and that her physical form was at the High Temple--" He stopped, disturbed by that. Aliantha had also believed that the High Temple didn't exist. Her memories were a mass of contradictions. "Physically near His physical location." A wisp of Aliantha's thought, bitter, fading. *And I wish them much joy of each other.* "Aliantha saw Jayhawk at Cavilard, cooperating in an attempt to summon her--but split, one part in the node, one part manifest as a decker. She believed her to be initiated. Possibly a High Priestess." "Jayhawk says that the decker wasn't her, it was an imposter." Duende nodded. "Aliantha felt that Jayhawk lost her nerve midway through the summoning and disrupted it, causing it to fail." He dug for more information. "She remembers her because she hoped that Jayhawk could accomplish something; she was impressed with her courage at the Hidden Fortress. She felt that Jayhawk might be able to turn Him from His plan." That impression was quite clear, though many of the details surrounding it had faded away. One further conclusion, even more clear. "Aliantha felt sure that Jayhawk belongs to Him body and soul, irrevocably. She had no evidence supporting this." It was distressing to deal with such memories. The certainties were clearly misplaced, but they were attractive...it was difficult to strain them out, make sure that no sureness that did not pass the test of reason remained. And almost none of it did. Yoichi made a small, hurt sound. "Do *you* believe that?" "I don't believe Aliantha knew for certain. Neither do I." "Is there something in those memories--something we could ask her, some way to figure out if it's Jayhawk we're talking to, at least?" *Ask her how she escaped me at the Hidden Fortress.* Duende shook his head. "Anything she knew, someone else at the High Temple could also know. We've been over that before, and it hasn't changed." Prompted by the evident pain in Yoichi's voice: "I'm sorry." Yoichi looked up, obviously startled. "You'd better watch it, Duende. You're starting to sound almost human. We must be a bad influence." He got stiffly to his feet. "Thanks. Food for thought, I guess. Are you doing all right out here?" Duende nodded, watched him pick his way back to the RV. Yoichi's words didn't distub him particularly; he had accepted that there would be consequences to what he had done. It remained necessary. But a little curiosity stirred in him, wondering what the changes were, where they would lead; and ran into another of Aliantha's *certainties*. She had believed he would die at midsummer, though she hadn't cared enough to remember why. Just the certainty: *Duende will die too.* It was not clear to him that his plan could prevent that. 124. Talons "Greetings, fledgeling," said the Hawk to Jayhawk, and added in a somewhat disapproving fashion, "I see you still travel the paths of Machine." As before, it had no voice that she could hear; its words were in the tilt of its head, the ruffling of its feathers in the wind. It was huge; she could have fit in the pupil of its golden eye. She glanced down, saw the last fragments of her silver prison soaking into the nest like water. "I came to ask you for advice, since your advice was good last time." She sat down on a projecting twig. "Will you help me?" "What do you need?" "I've decided to try to heal the Dragon at Paradisio. I have some idea how to go about it, but I don't know...a couple of things. How to convince him, for one." "A difficult task. What do you need to know? You must ask questions; I cannot guess." She thought about that for a little while. "What does he respect? What does he value? I have myself as evidence, my own wholeness, but what if that's not enough? I mean to ask him to do things that he won't want to do." "You wish power to force him?" She shook her head. "I don't think I can. I need...authority? Some way to make him really listen to me." "Such authority," said the Hawk gravely, "cannot be given as a gift. If you do not have it in yourself, you can have it only as the agent of someone else--if I were to make you my agent, for example. I do not think that that is what you want." She shook her head, fancied that she saw approval in the great eye. "Do you think you have such authority within yourself, Jayhawk?" "I don't know. What would he respect? What has meaning to him? I need to know more about him." "He respects death....No. Not exactly. He respects sacrifice, and mortality is part of that." She shivered, hearing the echo of Jay's thoughts in the pyramidal prison. "Why would an immortal creature care about death?" "I don't know." She dug her fingernails into the rough bark of her seat, not looking up. "It seems to me," she said presently, "that one of the things I'll have to do to heal him is...is hold things together for him while he re-creates himself, as Jay did for me. Can I survive that? Will there be anything of me left?" "I don't know," the Hawk said again. "Only you can judge whether you have that kind of strength. I do know that if you do not, only being claimed by another will keep you from him." She wondered if that was an offer. "Here's another problem, then. There are thirty thousand angry ghosts waiting for their revenge. I don't think that they'll accept healing him as a solution. How can I deal with them?" "There are three ways to deal with hunters. You can fly too fast or too far for them to catch; grow such claws that they cannot defeat you; or change yourself until you no longer resemble prey." It rubbed one great claw briefly against its beak. "I don't think we can run away from ghosts, not in this world; I don't think he'd consent to run anyway." "I could give you power to destroy them, though I cannot say whether you would succeed." That definitely *was* an offer. She shook her head. "It seems wrong to destroy them--they're *right*, dammit, they have a right to want vengeance. I think that if things go as I plan, they'll be avenged in full, but I don't know if they...." "Could you persuade each one?" "Thirty thousand ghosts? Even if I had time, I never could. Some of them would be bound to refuse, because they're stubborn or vindictive or...well, just because." "Then perhaps he must be changed so greatly that they will not recognize him." "How? How do ghosts find people anyway?" "The flavor of their souls, the taste of their blood....I do not know how this could be done, if the initation you speak of does not do it." "Will it?" "Again, I don't know. Your first problem will be much greater if it is. I do not think he will wish to become so estranged from what he is." "Am I mortal?" she said suddenly. The great head bent to peer at her. "You can be killed; but you will never die of old age if you remain as you are." She sat quietly for a minute, digesting that. "You said that he respects death," she said at last. "Who could tell me why, or how I can use that to persuade him? How can I talk to the powers of death?" Ratty had done that once, she remembered, though his explanations had meant nothing to her. She was startled at herself. But it seemed pointless to back out now, after she had come so far. "I can send you," said the Hawk. "Returning is another matter." She stood, said formally, "Please do, then." Still not quite believing what she was doing. "Be strong," said the Hawk softly. "This will hurt...a great deal." Was that a hint of anger in the soundless voice? She had refused him three times....A great claw struck out at her, caught her at the base of the throat and tore her open with force almost too great for pain, though there was pain too, clear with Anubis' impossible, dreadful clarity. A last thought, an echo of Jay in the burning darkness: *A sacrifice for *him*. Perhaps it's fate.* 125. Alamin Jayhawk found herself standing in a room sketched out of blue lines on black, like a minimalist computer graphic. She was wearing a short white dress, belted at the waist. Her tools were gone. The comforting glitter of her life-thread around her was gone. More than that: her sense of Anubis was gone, and her thoughts flowed with the shallow, uncertain current she remembered from the time before its creation. As if she were only flesh and blood, bereft of power and precision and memory. With an effort she forced herself to focus on her surroundings, fought back the terror and revulsion at what she'd done. Ahead of her was the beginning of a corridor, a square opening with four blue lines converging in the distance. Behind was a massive door, the least ephemeral thing in the room, crisscrossed with blue. It seemed obvious that she should go forward, not back. She stepped forward, saw someone standing in the dimness of the corridor opening. The sourceless blue light picked out a harsh, angular face, perhaps Arab, framed by a tightly-wound headdress of black cloth. He was wearing biker's leathers; steel gleamed dully at throat and wrists and belt. She didn't recognize him. "Where are you going?" he said in a low, faintly-accented voice. "I have come to ask the powers of the Land of the Dead for aid." It sounded so melodramatic, like a scene from stimsense. She wished it was. "Who are you?" "You would know me best as Alamin Azore." She knew the name, and understood why she hadn't recognized him. They had never met in person, and on the Matrix he'd appeared as a Jaguar Knight, in the style of most Paradisian deckers. She and he had fought over the secret of Paradisio's base in Seattle, and she'd developed a grudging respect for him; one of the best deckers she'd ever met, quick-witted, cunning, and skilled, and backed by code that had made her dizzy with envy. He'd died in the attack on the base, betrayed by his employer's self-destruct procedures. His ghost had been among the angry multitude that Ratty bargained with. As one of the attackers, she'd shared in the responsibility for all those deaths; but it had been Alamin's that she felt as if her own hand had been on the death-switch. She looked down, unable to meet his eyes. "There is a door behind you," he said softly. "It leads to a Matrix of infinite extent, challenges that will have no end. Yours, if you wish it." "I can't go back until I've accomplished what I came for." "You cannot go back. Did you think that you could?" *I'm dead. This time I really am.* She turned, looked at the door. It was simpler than the door to the Overnet had been, almost unadorned. For a moment her thoughts lingered there. She'd never considered an afterlife, never really believed in one. It seemed to her that that was what Alamin was offering; not life, but existance...elsewhere. She shook her head. "Then the only way out is forward." "It leads to annihilation." "I have to risk that." Drawn, unwillingly, to explain herself; "How could I value the Matrix if I knew I was betraying the people I care about? I'm not finished with what I was doing." "Perhaps you should reconsider that. Perhaps it *is* finished, whether you accept that or not. All things end." "The Hawk said I could return--that it would be hard. Not impossible." As she said it, she realized that it wasn't true. The Hawk had promised her nothing. Alamin was silent, staring at her with shadowed eyes. She couldn't imagine what he must think of her. A message across the Matrix had drawn her into the fight against Paradisio. She'd always suspected that Alamin had sent it, though she'd never had any proof. A simple message: *Help us*. Her efforts to help had been their downfall--though they were already doomed, or so she'd told herself at the time. "I am not finished," she said softly, holding her head high. "May I pass?" Annihilation. She'd faced that before, defied the Dragon in his own place of power. She'd survived; and she clung to that hope now, in defiance. He bowed, stepped aside for her. When she turned to look back he was gone, and the blue door as well. She stood in a corridor sketched of four blue lines in blackness, extending as far as she could resolve in both direction. She turned, put one hand on the wall to her right, ran. 126. Djinn Jayhawk ran and ran, with no sense of progress against the stark blue-on-black of her surroundings. It was not a maze; there were no branchings at all. Something hooted behind her; she whirled, found in the motion how close she was to panic. She was being followed by a tiny vehicle, an electric cart with a front-mounted horn, just big enough for one rider. It rolled up to her, stopped. "I'm looking for information on the Dragon at Paradisio," she said to it tentatively. It rolled backward and forward as if impatient. She swung herself up onto the single seat, almost like a motorcycle's, and at once it hummed into motion. It sped along the endless corridor for a moment, then turned abruptly and plunged into a black wall. Instinctively she flinched, but there was no feeling of contact; they were still in corridor, a sketched-in room opening ahead. The vehicle rolled into the room, stopped. She patted it, climbed down. At once it let out another hoot and rolled away. She was in a hexagonal room, doors opening into darkness at either end. At the center was a single chair, sketched with one continuous blue line, and a table with a small terminal on it. She walked quickly to the terminal, looked it over. It was actually a computer, some archaic make that she didn't recognize, with a single slit for a diskette. There was a diskette lying in front of it, next to the keyboard. She touched a key, and the display sprang to life. It said: INSERT DISC. She did so, drew back with a start as smoke began to pour from the machine. It formed a huge cloud, blackness outlined in blue, then solidified into the vague figure of a man. His lower half trailed away into mist. The quality of the graphics, as she couldn't help noticing, was extremely low; the smoke-man's face was an unrecognizable blur. "Hello, Jayhawk," he said in an oily voice. "What is your command?" "I'm looking for information on the Dragon." "Specify, please?" "The Dragon at Montaigne Paradisio. Astrachok." She hadn't used that name, even to herself, in a long time--a Paradisian habit it disturbed her to notice in herself. "Ah. That's not filed under 'dragon'. You're lucky I have cross-references. What do you want to know?" "How can I heal him?" He folded smoky arms, stared at her. His expression might have been a smirk, or a flaw in the bitmap. "What makes you think you *can*?" "I healed myself," she said sulkily. It was not a question she liked. His laugh was mechanical and irritating. "How does it feel to be obsolete, Jayhawk? When you laughed at those flat-screens you never thought you'd join them, did you?" "Get to the point." "Temper, temper! You're asking a lot of an outdated system, aren't you? We're slow, you know. How does *that* feel, by the way--being slow?" "It's necessary--and temporary," she said stiffly. "Temporary obsolescence. That's a new one on me. I wonder how many of those who come here think that way. But I'm wandering. What do you need to know?" "How can I heal the Dragon?" "Ah. I do have an answer for that. But I don't think you can do anything with it." "Try it and find out." "Why should I bother?" She reined in her anger, said as calmly as she could, "What do you want in return? What's it worth to you?" "You don't have anything to offer. You're obsolete, Jayhawk. Otherwise you wouldn't be here, with us." "I'm going back; I'm not finished yet." He simply stared at her, his chin almost resting on his insubstantial chest. "Please," she said, though it stuck in her throat. "Ah, the magic word. Such a big concession, Jayhawk! What do you really want to know? You aren't looking for answers, are you? You just want someone to tell you how great you are. You should write yourself a utility." He leaned forward. "How on earth do you think you're going to do it? How would you heal *me*?" "I don't think I would choose to heal you," she said, furious, and immediately regretted it. "I suppose not," he said as if finding a conclusion confirmed. She turned away so that she wouldn't have to look at him, said in a low flat voice, "Would you ask me to? Do you desire to be healed, in return for your information?" "I desire nothing. And I have nothing to tell you." "You said you did." "I was wrong. I didn't understand the situation fully." "Tell me anyway; maybe you still don't understand, maybe I can make some use of the information." He said nothing. "I apologize! I'll try to heal you, if you ask me to. I was angry, all right? I'm desperate." She felt ill, suddenly, looking over her shoulder at his blurry face. She wasn't sorry, not at all. She was toadying up to him to get her way. It was intolerable. She turned away sharply, walked into the corridor leading away, four blue lines sketched on black. She could feel his eyes on the back of her neck, or thought she could; she didn't turn to look. 127. Netherworld The corridors were endless, and nothing Jayhawk did could make them lead anywhere but back to the djinn. She wondered whether time was passing, outside. Ratty's spirit journey had taken three days and three nights. She wasn't sure whether there was that much time left before the end. A sudden thought struck her, as she hesitated in the middle of a passage junction, wondering which way to go. She reached out to one of the walls, drew a square on it with the tip of her finger, visualizing a blue line. Light sprang from her touch, outlined the square. It was an opening into a new corridor, perpendicular to the one she was in. Or was it an old corridor, something that had been behind the wall all along? It didn't matter. She could shape this maze to her liking, with enough patience. Slowly, with many trips back to the center to check her work, she cut new doorways and closed old ones, carving the corridors into a schematic diagram of Anubis. She had no way to represent the nodes themselves, but she could model the connectivity, the flow of information. It felt strange, pacing the familiar patterns but with no sense at all of response, no contact with Anubis. An ashen lonely feeling. At last she finished it, sat down in the center to think. It was lifeless, a mere representation. Could she pull it into activity? She could...and Anubis would exist here, if nowhere else. She was not at all sure that she could unmake it again. It would be here, formed out of the substrate of this place as it had once been formed out of the Overnet. *She* would be here. She'd never leave, not really--she might escape for a while, but it would be like going to the Matrix, leaving Anubis behind. She sat for a long time, considering that. It would give her power; she guessed that she could coerce the djinn, if his habitation were reshaped into hers. It would probably give her more than that, as binding herself to the Overnet had given her power over the Matrix, the Gates, even the physical world. She would be a creature of death. She wasn't sure what that meant. She hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about death; it was no asset to a 'runner. If she'd imagined anything, it was non-existence. But Ratty had been there, had come back to tell of a broken city, darkness, ruin, the Spider. Death as a place. He seemed to have been right. At last she swore aloud, got up and began reshaping passages. She wouldn't leave a map of Anubis here, where something vile might stray into it. When it was distorted beyond recognition, she began picking her way back to the djinn. The chamber, when she finally found it, was empty. She touched a key on the keyboard and the djinn sprang back into place. "Back again?" he said nastily. His edges were squared and uneven, as if the resolution of his image wasn't high enough to form true curves. She found herself wanting to edit it, reached out to do so, met nothing--no sense that she had any power in this place, though her door-drawing had proven otherwise. "Tell me what you need," she said simply, "and I will try to help you." "I don't need anything from you." "Will you help me, then? Please?" "I don't have anything for you, either." "You said that you did, earlier. Were you lying?" "I was wrong. I didn't know what kind of person you were. The advice I would have given would be valueless to you, and I prefer not to offer it." "And you don't have any other way to help? It's not just for me. There are innocent people depending on what I do." "You think pretty highly of yourself for an obsolete piece of computing equipment. You'll be replaced. In a few years no one will remember you except to laugh at you. Believe me. I've seen it a thousand times." "Do others find you, when they come here?" Against her will, she was furious again. "Sometimes, some of them." She wanted to destroy him. With the power implicit in re-creating Anubis here she could do it. And what would happen then? An empty place, a trap with no escape? Or would she become this place's guardian, bound to it forever? "How do I get out of here?" she said savagely. "You got in here, didn't you? Should have thought of that sooner." She whirled, walked away. It was hard not to cringe; somehow she expected a blow, but none came. The model of Anubis was easy to find. She repaired the one flaw she'd introduced, stood in the center. It was hollow, empty, a bitter mockery of her system. She tried to imagine how awakening it would feel. Not like being in the Overnet, intuition whispered....heavier, harder, a vibration to it like the presence of a huge engine, not the light-play effortlessness of the system she knew. She could almost touch the reality of her imagining. Slowly, methodically, she began to unknit the web of corridors she'd linked together, erase corridor-mouths and shift walls until no trace of Anubis remained. When she was finished, she faced a blank black wall. There was no way back, no way through the challenge she was facing here. She could not deal with the djinn--she *would* not--and she would not bind herself to the death-lands. With an effort--it was hard to focus herself without Anubis, hard to work within the limitations of humanity--she cleared her mind of the surrounding graphics. She had no destination in mind, only the desire not to be here any longer. She stepped forward, through the black wall, into darkness. 128. Ruins For a long time there was only darkness; emptier than the Void, not even the terrible sucking to prove to her that she still existed. She had time to think; more time than she'd ever had. It was very quiet. Her anger drained out slowly into the vast silence. She could have done differently; could have avoided reacting to the djinn's provocation, could have pressed her offer to help him. But it seemed to her that she didn't want his help under those terms. The answer he offered might be workable, but at the gut level she didn't believe that it could be the right one. Eventually she lost interest in her past mistakes, and only dreamed, thinking of Martha, of the printer she'd healed, of the gardens of Anubis. Her memories were only human now, but they were clear enough; she walked the green islands, swam in the pools, circled high above to taste the wind's sweetness. Walked the crystalline corridors of Anubis, saw her reflection in the mirrored pools, felt the pulse of the system's life at its shadowy center. Time passed as she had never imagined time, measureless and endless. With a prickling shock, like life coming back into numbed limbs, she found herself standing on a surface of broken, sliding cement. There were stars overhead, ruins all around her: stubs of walls, pavement cracked and pitted by rain, though there were no plants to hasten its destruction. It was as dark as the jungle at night, no sign of city lights anywhere. She looked around, saw a deeper darkness off to her left; a large hole, its mouth strung with broken girders and cables. She walked toward it, stopped on the edge. She didn't know whether she could fly, but the drop held no fear for her. This close, the girders resolved themselves into a rough web, spiralling in to the center. Something stirred there, pulled itself up into clear view. It was a spider, larger than she, with faint traceries of green light running beneath the fur of its massive body. Its claws dug into the webbing, which trembled slightly beneath its weight. Black eyes tipped with red stared out at her. Silence had left her unused to speaking. She sat down on the edge of the hole--she could see no bottom to it, even this close--and watched the spider. It advanced slowly across the web until it was only a few meters away from her. The great legs arched high over her head, but its face was nearly on a level with hers. "Jayhawk," it said in a soft cold voice. "Why have you come here?" She found her voice after a little struggle. "I'm trying to find out how to heal the Dragon at Paradisio." "You have set yourself a hard task." It settled onto the webstrand, legs outstretched. "What do you need to know?" Haltingly, she described her plan. What was this creature? Ratty had summoned it from the death-lands, but even he hadn't known what it was. Ally or foe of Paradisio? She didn't know which to hope for anymore. "I don't know how to convince him to listen to me. I hoped that having done this, having come here for him--that might carry some weight. And I don't know how to deal with the ghosts." "The ghosts could be summoned and bound here. It would require a token, some bit of Him to act as bait. If you can provide such a thing, I will do it. The ghosts themselves are payment enough." "What kind of token? Provide it to whom?" "A liter of blood, or perhaps a few scales....To Ratty. He will know what to do with it." "Will he agree? We aren't allies any longer. I don't know if he'll listen to me. And he's promised the ghosts vengeance." "You don't need to ask him, or mention this at all. Send him the token; that will be enough. By Midsummer." She frowned, staring at the spider. Its many-eyed expression was wholly unreadable. It was clearly trying to manipulate her, manipulate Ratty through her; did that make its advice bad? She could send the token and a message as well, let Ratty decide. She knew just enough of the theory of magic to guess that the blood would be a tool for him, if he was resolved to destroy the Dragon. Let him choose. She nodded. "As to your other question," it went on, "there is not much I can tell you. Only this: if you decide that you must destroy Him, strike quickly. He wants to live more fiercely than I think He knows. And in any case, be very sure what you want. He will sense it in you, and if you waver you are lost." She remembered the early days of her captivity in Paradisio, how she'd prayed to the Spider for help. She'd promised it her service in exchange for her freedom. Slowly, reluctantly, she said, "Did you hear me calling, when I as in the High Temple? Did you answer?" "Ah. That was you. I heard you, but I had no way to answer." Its eyes seemed to sparkle with a secret amusement; it saw her relief, she guessed. She didn't care. She'd been very much afraid that she owed this creature more than she was willing to pay. She turned to look at the ruined city. "How do I get back?" she said softly, afraid of the answer. "Let go of being here. It's not difficult." She tried, imagining stepping from this place to the island-gardens as she would from the Matrix. Nothing happened. Unwilling to ask the spider anything more, she got up, walked out into the ruins. "Not that way," it said. "I know," she replied, a little irritated, and addressed herself to the problem. It wasn't like crossing between levels, or like accessing the Matrix. She reached out to the dark city, tried to feel Anubis beyond it, fall into mergeance. Nothing answered. At last, between one step and another, she found the key to dissolution, like the strand Piebald had pulled out of their IC. The scene around her didn'd dissolve; her awareness did, a briefly frightening feeling. There was not even darkness in the transition. She found herself in the CPU at Anubis, cradled in a webwork hammock. A half-formed query to the system gave her the date: June 19. Two days to Midsummer. Anubis was luminous with life around her; for a little while she drank it in, probed every part of the machine looking for damage, found none. It occured to her to test herself as well; she rose, called up a surface of reflective glass. To her eyes she was unchanged, the Hawk's mark burning crimson on her forehead, the gossamer web of her life around her. But there was something different, though she could put no name to it, and analysis code returned nothing. Like a shadow, clinging to her, though she saw nothing. A shadow out of the deathlands, the mark of what she'd done. She wasn't sure whether she was glad or sorry. 129. Debt "Channa? Casey?" Yoichi looked up from his terminal, found the two of them head-to-head over a sheet of paper--probably another accounting of their slim resources. "I have a letter from Jayhawk I want you to look at." He displayed it on the screen for them. >Yoichi, do you know how to get in touch with a fixer named Ramone? "Why would she want to know that?" said Casey, scratching at a week's stubble along his chin. "Ramone might know where to find us," said Channa unhappily, "or at least she might think he did. He does know we're in Seattle." "So what do I tell her?" "Ask her why she wants to know," said an unexpected voice from behind them. Duende pushed past Channa to slide into the front seat, examine the message. Yoichi winced at that--it seemed rude--but sent it. The response was almost instantaneous: >I'm trying to locate a missing person, and I believe Ramone may have >some information for me. "*Angela*," said Yoichi with sudden, terrible certainty. "The Paradisians are looking for Angela." "Hm?" said a sleepy voice from the loft overhead. Angela dangled over the side, her eyes widening at the group beneath her. "Who's looking for me?" "We don't know yet," said Channa gently. "I doubt they'll find us, in any case. We've kept away from them so far." Duende leaned over him, typed rapidly: >Who are you trying to locate? Possibly we could help. Yoichi pulled the keyboard closer to himself. "Are you serious? We're making the final run tonight--we aren't going to have any time to help her." "Immediate information or nothing," Duende said agreeably. "I'm curious how she'll answer." The terminal beeped, displayed the response: >I'm looking for a woman named Angela Dolores Whitechapel, kidnapped >from Seattle some weeks ago, probably by the Paradisians. I owe her a >large debt, and in return for it I intend to help her escape if I can. "I told you so," said Yoichi to Channa, winced at the edge in his own voice. "Wht can I say to her?" "Do you trust her?" said Channa. "Do I have any right to make that kind of decision? Angela! What do you think? It's your life on the line too." The dangling head vanished. After a moment she replied, in a muffled voice, "I'd rather you didn't tell anyone where I am. I don't want to get you in trouble. But maybe you could tell her that I'm all right, but you aren't allowed to say any more." "Why would Jayhawk be looking for Angela?" said Casey. "She talks as if she's free, as if she could do something without Paradisio knowing. That's not what she said before." "Perhaps it's not Jayhawk, even if it was before," said Duende. "Or perhaps she feels this is the most effective way to her aims. Is there any way in which giving this information could hurt us significantly?" "If she could find Angela, she wouldn't need to ask; her knowing we have Angela shouldn't put us in too much more danger," said Yoichi, wondering if he believed it. Paranoia was becoming a way of life for them. A few months ago he wouldn't have hesitated. "It's all going to be over tonight, one way or another," said Channa wearily. "Telling Jayhawk this might put Angela in more danger, but I don't see that it could hurt us. And I'd rather not be any more suspicious than I have to be, personally." Yoichi ran his fingers across the keyboard, hesitated. "Are you sure it's all right?" No one answered. Channa stood up, bringing her head on a level with the loft, and softly repeated Yoichi's question. "You're asking me?" said Angela incredulously. "Do whatever you think is best." >Jayhawk, >Angela Whitechapel is no longer in the hands of the Paradisians He looked up at Duende, who was watching him intently, and wanted to laugh. Where was she, if not in the hands of the Paradisians, just like the rest of them? >and is relatively safe. I'm afraid that I can't tell you anything >more, for reasons I'm sure you'll understand. >Yoichi The response was impossibly fast; he wondered if Jayhawk was present on the Matrix, catching his text even as he typed it rather than waiting for transmission. >Yoichi, >Thank you. That's a big load off my mind, and I'm grateful that you >could tell me. I won't ask any more of you than that. Only--If you >should have the opportunity, could you please give Angela a message >for me? > >Angela--I don't know whether you remember me or not, but our accidental >resemblance has cost you a great deal of danger and difficulty. I'm >sorry about this, and I would like to make it up to you if I can. >Please, if you ever need assistance from the Matrix side of things, >feel free to let me know and I will do whatever I can to repay the debt >I owe you. > >Jayhawk He read the letter aloud. There was silence from above, then a thoughtful *hmm*. "Do you remember her?" said Channa. "No," said Angela, very softly. "I don't think so." 130. Dam WIth a fearsome sense of committing herself at last to her plan, Jayhawk sent a message to Martha: >Martha, > >I'd very much like to visit you, if I might. Can you tell me how to >get there? > >Jayhawk The answer seemed to take forever to come. She polished her decking code, searching for flaws; turned over and over in her mind the outline of her plan. It was dismayingly vague, but she could find no way to refine it. Finally a soft bell chimed, announcing a reply: >Whatever you do, don't come here! I can't get away right now, but I'll >send a remote to talk to you if you like. Meet at Western Telecom's >switching station in Olympia, twelve o'clock Pacific time? > >I hope you are well. > >Martha Jayhawk found this unsettling--Martha had never proposed anything so formal before. Was it Martha she was communicating with, or perhaps some other Paradisian? Was she about to walk into a trap? There was nothing she could do about it if so, other than walk carefully. She gathered up her tools, spent a little time checking her preparations, could find no way to improve them. Then she descended to the Matrix, made her way to Olympia. The WT system was like a huge dam, turbines whirring all around her; she thought of the waterwheel and shivered. She'd drunk the water of that river. She was deliberately early; she searched the system from one end to the other, found no traps on the Matrix or the Overnet. She was sitting on the top of the dam, a point she didn't think an ordinary decker could reach, when she saw a motorcycle blur to a stop below her. For a moment she thought there was no one on it. Then she saw the small, green-capped form huddled between the handlebars. It was a gnome, like the ones she remembered from her first hours on the Overnet, dwarfed by the machine he rode. She jumped down, walked over to him. His voice was Martha's, which she found somehow disconcerting. "Hello, Jayhawk. I'm sorry we couldn't meet in person. I can't afford to leave right now. Things are beginning to slide here. Is there something I can do for you?" "Tell her," said Jayhawk, "that I'm ready to begin. Tell her that if she has an answer to that question I asked her once, she should tell me now." 'Would you be free if you could?' Caroline had asked Martha. "Why?" The voice was troubled, though the gnome had no expression at all. His eyes were not focused on her, or anything else. "If things go as I plan, all those whom he's taken will have to choose: be free of him--and that might mean the freedom of death--or part of him, completely, irrevocably. I need to know how she would choose." In a stricken voice, "You want me to choose for all of them?" "No...but I want to know, I need to know what she'd decide. Whether he will have her humanity as part of him--" She looked down, said in a trembling voice, "Tell her I love her and I cannot ask that of her." She was afraid, afraid of the rush of events which was carrying her closer and closer to an end she still couldn't imagine. She was afraid to lose Martha, afraid that in trying to save her she would damn them all. The pent-up water of the telecommunications station trembled in the ground underfoot like building thunder. It seemed to her that if *he* did not gain some kind of humanity in his rebirth, what she was doing was worse than evil. If not Martha...herself? There was a long silence. "Yes," said the gnome at last. "I would choose to be free." "She may die." "I know." She bowed her head, accepting that, glad and sorry at the same time. "I need to know--how can I reach him? What address should I use?" "Do you still dream? Walk out of your dreams into His." She nodded. The gnome looked up as if seeing her for the first time. "Is that all? Good luck, Jayhawk. I hope...I hope it works out." Before she could answer, silenced by the turmoil of her emotions, gnome and bike were gone. She stood for a little while, leaning against the face of the dam, feeling the pressure of the water beyond it. Then she shook herself from her thoughts with an effort, returned to her garden. The doorway was within, as the door to the Overnet had been. She should have guessed. 131. Fly Jayhawk lay down in the feathery grass, surrounded on three sides by sheltering foliage, and tried to sleep. She wasn't at all sleepy; she was shivering with energy, excitement, and more than a little fear, and she'd slept less than an hour ago. She told herself firmly that timing didn't matter--she wasn't corporeal anyway, her need for sleep was purely mental--and that *she* was in control of whether she slept or woke. She told herself that, and lay with eyes closed in the dappled shadows, wide awake. Anubis was sleeping, or as close to it as a computer could come, all processes at maintenance level--she wondered whether it could dream, apart from her. She reached out to the machine, tried to match the slow rhythm of its life, tranquil as the motionless water in its reflecting pools, the pulse of information that maintained its defenses. More than once she'd used the system to mirror herself, show her her own thoughts and desires from that intimate and yet foreign perspectice. Now she tried to mirror it, reflect Anubis back to itself, and share its dreams. A strange buzzing sound disturbed her contemplation. Remembering the spinning pyramidal construct, she opened her eyes, sat up hastily. She saw nothing. The buzzing, high-pitched and oddly familiar, faded away almost at once. Puzzled, she rose into the air, looked down at her gardens from a dozen meters up. There was nothing out of place, no sign of intrusion. Perhaps it had been something very small? She dropped back to the ground, searched the area around her nest carefully. Still nothing. A little annoyed--at herself, at the delay--she curled back up, went back to her pursuit of sleep. Convinced that she was making progress, she tapped into Anubis' recordings of what she'd been doing, picked them up at the point where she'd been distracted. Some unmeasured time later, the buzzing returned, a wavering whiny sound that crept slowly closer. She lay perfectly still, waiting. Abruptly something touched her nose, a prickly tickling sensation. She opened her eyes, not moving another muscle. There was a fly on her nose. "Hello," she said experimentally. The fly paid no attention. She made a grab for it with cupped hands, but it darted between them, buzzed away. She threw herself into the air after it. It buzzed erratically over a bridge, always just beyond her grasp. After a moment it occured to her that she didn't want to catch it; she wanted to *follow* it. It might be a guide, as the birds had been. Halfway across the second bridge, a figure turned suddenly into visibility, as if he had been a paper-thin image edge on to her, now full-on. He brought his hands together with a sharp slap, the fly between them. The buzzing stopped abruptly. It was Lefty, dressed in a black leather jacket and tight black pants, biker's gear. He smiled sideways at her. "You've got bugs, Jayhawk." "It wouldn't be a real computer if it didn't have bugs," she retorted, landing on the bridge a few meters away from him. "Hmph." Somehow she felt he ought to have changed, but he hadn't, at least not on the surface. His thick brown-black hair was held back by a green sweatband, but his eyes were in shadow, a dark glitter under heavy brows. A shiver of old, old fear went through her. He'd nearly killed her twice. "Where are you going? You seem to be in a hurry." "Just chasing a fly." "That's primitive. You should build a fly-catching machine." "I didn't want to catch it." He looked at her quizzically. "So how have you been doing? Keeping busy? Things going according to plan?" "Well enough--how about you?" "No. Not really. But it doesn't matter." He sounded mildly regretful. Jayhawk stared at him, trying to figure out how he'd gotten there--she'd thought that the gardens were safe from anything but the clever infiltration Aliantha had used. "You know, I talked to a psychologist once who speculated that you might really be a part of me." "Really? What part?" "The annoying one. Are you, do you think?" She didn't expect a real answer--she wasn't likely to believe him, whatever answer he gave--but she wondered what he might say. "I am annoying, aren't I?" he said with an almost childlike delight. She'd seen him smile before, but never so brightly. "I don't know. What do you think?" Jayhawk looked at him hard, trying to focus Anubis' resources on him-- realized abruptly that she wasn't in Anubis. Nothing around her looked different, but everything was; she was far from home, in a place which felt completely unfamiliar. In a dream? Her own, or *his*? "I don't know either. What are you doing here?" "Talking to you. What are you doing here?" She took a deep breath, said, "I want to talk to *him*." It seemed to her that Lefty, real or not, might be a guide. Lefty snorted. "He won't see you. Everybody has to go through His secretary--and she won't see you either. She's a very busy woman." "I think he'll see me." "Why? People like you and me don't mean anything to him. Beneath his notice. What makes you think you're so special?" "I can heal him." Lefty was silent for a moment, head cocked sideways, looking curiously at her. "Is that so? Nah, don't give yourself airs. You're just a figment of his imagination. Besides, you'll never get past his secretary." "I think I can," said Jayhawk, thinking of Martha. "I've got an in. But I need to get there soon. There's not much time left before the end." Impulsively, "How do you feel about that? Knowing that it's all going to be over soon?" "Oh, I don't think it will." He rubbed his palms slowly together. "Are you glad or sorry?" "*What*?" He seemed completely baffled by that. "Would you like to see it end, or do you enjoy life? Would you rather be alive?" "I would rather be alive," he said after a moment's thought. "What do you think of me?" "I think you're dead." "That's not an opinion, it's an observation." "Oh, it's an opinion too. You'll understand eventually." She found that she wasn't afraid of him anymore. She didn't even hate him, rather to her surprise. He reminded her of herself, of Piebald-- particularly of Piebald, leaping from one point of illogic to the next. And as Piebald she felt she understood him. "Will you take me to him?" she said softly. "I think you can." "There was a mage among your friends," Lefty said, watching her with wide dark eyes, "who got into my mind once. What did she think?" Jayhawk searched her memories. That had been before Anubis, and they were not as perfect as she'd come to expect. "She said that you wanted to impress us; that's why you were hunting us, so that we'd appreciate your ability. No malice, really. She was rather confused by you." "How was she afterwards?" "A bit shaken up, but she got over it in a week or so." "Were you impressed?" "I was. You practically tied up the whole group singlehanded. You know, we broke Cavilard Base, killed Aliantha, the Investigator and the Steel Mage all in the same night--but it was killing *you* that everyone crowed about afterwards. I think that's a compliment, of sorts." "I really got under your skin, didn't I?" "You sure as hell did." She remembered the others' expressions when they found she'd been trading email with Lefty, setting out the rules of the deadly game they were playing. But he'd stuck to them, as she'd guessed he would. "Will you take me to him?" "What will you do for me in return?" That cut her short. It seemed to her that there was only one thing she could really do to help Lefty. She could take him into herself, as she had taken in Angela, Piebald, Caroline, Jayhawk; anchor him in her being, in Anubis. But she was afraid to do that. She didn't hate him any longer, but she didn't want to taste his madness; and she didn't want to give him power in the world, power over her. She was having enough trouble disentangling her motivations without that. Dr. McDougall had speculated that he might be part of her, but she found that she didn't believe it. "You make me think too hard. It hurts," said Lefty plaintively, in a voice so much like Piebald's it made her shiver. She stepped forward, held out her hand. "Don't think about it, then. Just do it." "Well--okay," he said with a sudden smile, startling in its warmth. "You'll remember that I'm really irritating?" His life, like Martha's, would probably stand or fall on her words to the Dragon. It seemed to her that he knew it, and groped for continuance in the only way he knew how. "Of course. How could I forget?" 132. Shadows The sun was low on the horizon, and the feathery woods were full of shadows. Jayhawk followed Lefty closely, afraid to lose him; he kept darting forward at each bend in the path as if he wanted to shake her. He ducked around a particularly thick tree, vanished. Rushing after him, she almost ran headlong into someone else, recoiled in confusion. It was Martha, solid as stone in the dimness. The Martha of the waterwheels, rather the larger of the two. "Hello, Jayhawk," she said. She sounded sad, or perhaps weary. "Hello, Martha." There was no sign of Lefty anywhere. "You're a long way from home. What brings you here?" "I need to talk to *him*. I believe I know how to heal him." Martha let out a slow breath, looking away into the depths of the forest. "Do you? How?" Jayhawk licked her lips, gathering her thoughts. She'd been forming her plan for a long time, but she'd never really articulated it, even to herself. She found that she resented the necessity, as if her ideas might dissolve under scrutiny. "I will challenge him, with my own life, my own wholeness as evidence that I can do what I say--challenge him, or make an offer....I'll tell him: Call together all those you've taken, and give each one a choice--wholly free, or wholly yours. Accept those you make part of you, *as* part of you, nothing held back. Call together all the parts and aspects of yourself that you've sent out, and either tear them from you forever or accept them wholly into yourself. Re-create yourself as you wish to be, spirit and machine together, and accept--" She faltered, unsure how to put it into words. "Death, and rebirth." "He won't do it." "It's the only way. I have to hope I can convince him. Otherwise he'll die." Martha looked past her as if waiting for something from the forest. "Would you like to know what your friends are doing?" "If it won't endanger them--yes, I would." It hurt that they wouldn't tell her their plans, even though she understood why. *He* had predicted that. "They've hit upon the one line of attack that will insure neither they nor we can win. Right now they're fighting their way in to destroy the one thing He still holds dear, His last hope." Jayhawk tried to hide her grin, failed. She felt a defiant, stubborn pride at Duende's accomplishments. No matter how difficult it made her path, it was good to know that someone could defy *him* and not only survive, but win. *They are succeeding where you could not,* whispered a small bitter voice within her. "Maybe it's for the best," she said aloud. "Despair is a powerful motivation." "But not for healing." Jayhawk dipped her head in acknowledgement. "How do you hope to persuade him to listen?" "I've walked in the--in the lands of the dead to learn how to do this. I think that should count for something." Martha looked up at her sharply. "It will. But at the end....He is awakening, Jayhawk. You've never faced Him when He is awake. And he will be angry beyond imagining." Jayhawk nodded slowly. There was nothing she could say to that. "I know how to deal with the ghosts," she offered after a moment. "I'm going to need--I wonder if you could help me. There's a shaman in Seattle who can bind the ghosts, but he needs a physical token to lure them. I don't know how to ask *him* for that, who to tell him to send." "A physical token?" "Blood, scales, something like that." It was hard to imagine *him* as something physical enough to shed blood; but the Spider had seemed to know what it was talking about. "Give me the address, and I'll see that it's sent." Jayhawk hesitated. The address would lead back to Ratty, no matter how cautious he was. "Please be careful," she said at last, and gave it. Martha repeated it once, softly, then said to her, "Tell me, what will you do when he tires of what he's created and unmakes it? Do you think you can survive that?" She had no answer, only defiance. 'He created the Overnet,' the djinn had told her. 'When he dies you will return to the nothingness from which you came.' She was still groping for a reply when Martha said sharply, "You'd better go. You don't have much time. She's slipping; she won't be able to hold things together much longer. I know someone who can take you to Him." Jayhawk looked up at her, struggling with desire and regret. "Martha, do you have any hope at all, any last spark of it? Becuase if you do, hold on to it. I need that." Carefuly, she held out her arms. Martha hesitated, then hugged Jayhawk gently. There was no sense of the system's presence, only the physical touch of her, solid and warm and trembling. "Quickly," Martha whispered in her ear, and let her go. She glanced back only once as she ran, but the other woman had vanished into the gathering shadows. -- Copyright 1992 Mary K. Kuhner


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