133. Tombstone The path narrowed, twisting through forest now alive with birdcalls, though

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

133. Tombstone The path narrowed, twisting through forest now alive with birdcalls, though Jayhawk never saw any of the birds. Above the canopy there was still a trace of crimson sunlight, but it was rapidly growing dark below. She came to a sudden turn, the path veering left and opening into a bright glade. A squat slab of granite stood at the turning like a marker. She bent to squint at it. There were words carved deeply into its surface: FOR HER LOVE REST IN PEACE 2023 She thought of Aliantha, who had once told *him* that she loved him. 2023 seemed a reasonable guess for her birthdate. Three years older than Jayhawk. She shook her head, went jogging on into the fading sunlight. The path ran uphill, cresting a low rise. She ran faster, enjoying her tirelessness, trying to outdistance her terror. She almost ran headlong into the huge animal that was sleeping just over the lip of the hill, caught herself ungracefully and hastily drew back. It was a huge--she revised her first impression as it put up its head, ears flattened, and stared at her through slitted eyes. It was an enormous cat, sunset-gold, its eyes nearly on a level with her own as it stretched, stood up. "Charlotte?" she said tentatively, and went down on one knee, nervously holding out her hand for inspection. The great cat padded silently up to her, sniffed at her briefly, then tilted its head to be scratched. She buried her fingers in the thick, warm fur behind its ears. "Will you take me to *him*?" Charlotte let out a low, rumbling purr and levered herself back down to a comfortable sprawl. Jayhawk got up, walked around her, then turned to look back. She would have been glad of company, even Charlotte's. A rustle behind her caught her attention. Something was coming down the path toward her, a blur of motion. It resolved into Slim, coming up into a gunman's crouch, a long-barrelled gun in each hand. He was as tense as a wire, motionless except for a barely perceptible trembling, the pulse of blood in the huge veins visible at his throat. His skinless flesh was lurid red in the failing light. Slowly he relaxed a little, stood up. The guns didn't waver from her. "What are you doing here?" "I've come to talk to *him*." "Why?" "I've been told that the only real answers to what's going on are to heal him or kill him. I've been working on ways to do that." She heard the ambiguity in her words, let it stand. Slim nodded, slowly holstered his guns. "You could have had one of those just by waiting a little longer. I don't reckon there's more than about a day left." "Then I need to act quickly. That plan has a lot of problems with it." Her own death among them, she was coming to realize. If *he* truly maintained the Overnet.... "I'm sorry about the reception, ma'am. I thought *they* might have managed to get in here." Were 'they' her friends or the angry ghosts? "Will you take me, please? Martha said you could." "All right, ma'am." He turned, waited for her to catch up. "I hear you've been doing real well." She had a difficult time taking that as a compliment, coming from him. "Are things all right for you?" She was sure they weren't, remembering his wistful request for fur. Her plea had been ignored. Sudden as wildfire, her hatred for Paradisio came flaring up. They couldn't even do that for one of their own. "Very busy, ma'am, as you might expect." She had to trot to keep up with his longer legs. There was a nervous edge to his bearing that belied his calm words. Were Duende and the others going to attack *here*? Were they making a run against the High Temple itself? She hoped not, for their sakes. "Are they going to approve of what you're doing, ma'am?" Slim cut into her thoughts with uncanny accuracy. Did he mean Duende and his allies, or the ghosts? She thought for a moment, came up with an answer that fit both. "They're not here. I am." Ten minutes' jog brought them to a massive baobab tree. Slim reached into a hollow, pulled on something that caused the entire front of the tree to pivot away, revealing a doorway into bare white corridor. Jayhawk stopped short, taken aback. She knew where she was; within the 'game preserve' where Charlotte lived, inside the High Temple. But she'd walked here from Anubis. Were all the gardens one garden, and did that mean that Anubis was within the High Temple? Did Martha and her allies take their rest breaks in the forests that bordered on her sanctum? No, she assured herself firmly. She hadn't really been in Anubis when she met Lefty. This was a dream, or a place reached by dreaming, not the reality of her most private sanctuary. Collecting herself as best she could, she followed Slim through the tree-door, into the High Temple. 134. Knight Jayhawk followed Slim through the featureless corridors of the High Temple, trying and failing to match them to the map she'd created during her imprisonment. After nearly ten minutes they came to a stairway, the first she'd ever seen in the complex; it jogged back and forth, climbing steeply. More than one level, she guessed. The corridor into which it opened was no different than the one it had left, and equally unfamiliar. "'Scuse me, ma'am," said Slim suddenly, "but there's a storm coming. Do you think you can run?" "Of course." Even though she'd encountered them in her journeys, physical limitations were still foreign to her concept of herself. Slim broke into a fast trot; she followed, trying not to look at the way running made his muscles slide across one another, the occasional glimpses of gut and bone and metal beneath. Something ached in the back of her head, an unexpected persistant pain. She probed inward to identify it, found that it was coming from outside, mediated through the part of her that had been Piebald. A warning of the storm that Slim had sensed? She choked back the contact until it was warning but not pain. *Not my fault!* said Piebald-within indignantly. They took refuge in a bare, cavernous room. She was not at all tired or out of breath, to her satisfaction. Out of the corners of her eyes, she persistantly saw movement, lights, machinery, but when she looked at them directly there was nothing. As before, the life of the High Temple was hidden from her. Slim stood quietly, watching the door. She tried to think of something to say to him. "How are the animals doing?" she ventured at last. He started, obviously distracted from other thoughts. "Well enough, thank you, ma'am." She couldn't nerve herself up to interrupt him again. The warning pain subsided, and they went on. The corridors seemed endless. Here, too, she saw flickers of movement out of the corners of her eyes, but they never resolved into form. *Was* there life here? Or was it an illusion made for Slim and Martha, and not sufficient to fool her? The Temple felt strange, both deserted and overwhelmingly occupied. Pain screamed suddenly in the back of her mind, in Piebald's voice. Slim whirled toward her, face contorted with an emotion she couldn't read, forehead furrowed to the bone. "Hold on!" he shouted. "This is going to be a bad one!" With a Matrix-runner's instincts, she reached for the wall rather than Slim, found nothing to cling to in its smoothness. Around her the corridor rippled, elongating and contracting, curving madly out of sight. A pulse of change erased Slim, leaving a twist of distortion where he'd been. Another took away her surroundings entirely, left her clinging to nothing, in darkness. Wind, cool and searching. Grass underfoot. Stars overhead, and a vast open expanse around her, carpeted with grass. Her environment revealed itself slowly, one step at a time. She was standing on an open plain, nothing to be seen for tremendous distances in all directions. It was dark beyond any outdoors she had ever experienced, except for the nights in the jungle beyond the Gate. There was no glimmer of city-glow anywhere. Resolving out of nothingness, as the entire scene had, she saw a heavily-armored figure on a massive black horse standing in front of her, about ten meters away. His armor was entirely black, no glint of metal, no glitter of eyes through the slitted visor of the helmet. The horse was still as if carved of stone, hooves planted in the grass like the roots of buildings. "Who are you?" he said in a toneless slow voice. "Jayhawk," she said simply. Was he another guardian, another test? Or a reflection of *his* madness? "By whose authority do you come here?" "By my own." She had an odd feeling that he was not listening to her answers; only recording them, perhaps. "Of what lineage?" "What?" That question made no sense to her at all. "Can you explain?" He made no reaction. "I came here by my own choice," she said at last, guessing. "Why did you seek initiation?" She had a sudden image of Aliantha standing where she was standing now, a step in her own path to power. The obstacles in her way were part of an old, elaborate pattern, the challenges to a would-be High Priest-- nothing, really, to do with her. But she could answer that question, in her own way. "For freedom, and wholeness, and power." "Then, Jayhawk," said the knight formally, "since you claim no other: you must pass me, or fail." With a stiff but graceful gesture he drew a huge, dead-black sword from its sheath on his back, sat at attention on his motionless horse. She nodded to herself, began to walk slowly forward, watching him carefully. She couldn't fly here, as experiment demonstrated; couldn't even remember exactly how to begin. It was like a nightmare she'd once had in which she needed to run from a pursuer, but found she'd forgotten how and could only crawl with agonizing slowness. The ground underfoot gave way suddenly; she flung herself backwards, barely managed to keep herself from falling. The bit of grass on which she'd set her foot had dropped out in a neat hexagonal section, like a floor tile. Cautiously she edged up to the hole, looked down. The sides were smooth and neat, too neat to be earth, and went down beyond the limits of her vision. She reached out with one foot, tapped the grass beside the hole on her right. It fell silently out of sight. The tiles were about a meter across--jumpable, if the grass on the other side was solid. But if she jumbled onto a falling tile, she'd have no way to save herself. The loss of flight was suddenly dizzying; she had trouble bringing herself to move at all, even on ground she knew was solid. Would it stay solid? With considerable effort, she managed to pull up a tuft of grass, but it disintegrated in the air when she threw it across the gap. She dug in her belt pouch, came up with a heart-shaped glass bottle, half full of crimson liquid. A pity to lose it, but she had to get through. The midsummer deadline nagged at her, though she had no sense of the outside passage of time, cut off from Anubis' clock. She hefted the bottle, tossed it underhand. It landed on the grass across the hole, rolled to a stop. With a deep breath, she took three steps backwards, ran toward the hole. The armored figure reached behind his back, drew out a huge spear. As she leaped he threw it at her. There was no way to dodge without falling--she tried to steel herself, hit the ground hard and dug her hands into it, afraid to roll. The spear had touched her, she'd seen it, but she'd felt nothing. An illusion. Carefully she climbed to her feet, looked at the knight. A meter closer. She picked the bottle up and went on, walking more carefully, watching the ground as well as the knight. Something caught her eye just as she was bringing her foot down, and for an instant she felt an unnatural hardness--she jerked her foot back, crouched to stare at the grass. It looked subtly different, but she couldn't pin down the reason. She took out the bottle again, dropped it onto the suspect patch of grass. With a silent, almost invisibly-fast movement the grass grew upward to meet it at a height of twenty centimeters. The bottle hit the leaping grass and was knocked sharply aside to land at her feet. The grass subsided instantly to its original height of about ten centimeters. She bent and picked the bottle up. The glass was chipped and scarred. Very carefully, she lay down on the normal grass, parted it to peer at the roots of her problem. From that angle the difference was quite perceptible; the aggressive grass was black nearly halfway up its shaft, wearing the green blade like a headdress. She could reach out and touch it from this side without danger; it was stiff as wire, and she couldn't push a finger between the blades. Her lightblade made no impression on the black grass; it bounced off with a faint sizzling sound, leaving no trace. She sat back, looked up at the knight. He was sitting motionless, head level; it was impossible to tell if he was watching her or not. She was afraid to close her eyes with him so close. She slitted them to block out distraction, imagined a mowing machine--a self-guided power mower, like the ones that wandered the University's lawns. An instant of closed eyes to fix the visualization, and she opened them again, saw the machine she had imagined. It was dark blue with polished silver blades, resting idly on the very edge of the normal grass. She hopped up, turned it on, gave it a forward push. It began to slice its way forward, biting into the black grass about two centimeters above the ground. She followed it gingerly, but the stubble underfoot was quiescent. The knight brought out another spear, threw it--at her, she thought, and restrained herself from ducking, knowing it as an illusion. It plunged into the engine of her mower, which coughed horribly and stopped. Bereft of power, it melted into nothingness almost at once. She was standing on a narrow path amid the black grass. It didn't reach the end of the infestation, examination proved. A bigger, tougher machine? The image of a thresher, an agricultural mowing machine, leaped to mind: with a flash of Piebald enthusiasm she added a light on top, sirens to impress the spectator, great flailing appendages to beat down the grass. She closed her eyes for an instant, opened them. A wave of sound and light assailed her, then faded, hooting mournfully. The machine slipped from her mental grasp like water between her fingers. Frustrated, she looked around for other options, found that the grass was growing. It was already a meter high in front of her, and increasing rapidly. It seemed to become more clumpy as it grew taller; she bent cautiously, managed to poke a finger between the wiry blades. She couldn't think of a way to stop it, though it seemed imperative that she do so; soon it would be too tall to jump, even if she'd managed to nerve herself up to it--she had an ugly image of herself impaled on needle-sharp blades. The spaces between the clumps were becoming wider and wider as the grass reached above her head. She knelt, tried to push two clumps aside, find a way between them. It was almost doable. The grass was tremendously high now, almost tree-like, each individual clump like a branchless, many-stemmed tree. She took a cautious step forward, then another. The grass was still growing, a towering forest blocking out the starry sky overhead. It was very dark, but not obscuringly so--she wondered fleetingly whether absence of light could really block her vision. And walked forward, hoping the grass wouldn't decide to bend. It was dangerously sharp-edged, even at this size. She expected to reach the knight soon, but she walked forward for five minutes, realized that something must be wrong. Either she was lost, or he'd moved. There was no visibility beyond the endless aisles of the grass-forest. She thought about going back, but it seemed futile. She broke into a trot, looking around for any sign of the knight's passage. Something came crackling and rustling toward her--a furrow in the dark ground, like the track of a burrowing animal. It was directly in her path. She ran toward it, then at the last moment leaped over it. Something lunged out at her, moving too quickly to be seen--she had a dizzy impression of a long, jointed black arm, an insect's arm. She threw herself around a grass-tree, managed to avoid it, felt a stab of fire and ice in her calf. Another leg had thrust up out of the earth, laid her leg open from ankle to knee. It hurt intensely, with a dreamy nightmarish pain. Whimpering, she ran from the burrow, hearing it crackling after her. The pain dulled with fear, and she left it behind. There was a break in the grass-forest ahead, something huge and dark. In an instant she realized where she must be, what had happened, and the darkness resolved into a hoof a dozen times taller than herself, something towering up above it too big to see in its entirety. Even as she understood what she was seeing it shifted. She was full-sized again, standing in front of the knight, and he was raising a huge sword, nearly the length of her own body, over his head. She ran, limping a little on her injured leg--not away from him, but past. When she heard the air part for the sword's passage she threw herself down and rolled, came up behind the black horse. Behind her, he reined his mount into a rearing, plunging turn, prepared for another stroke. "I got past!" she screamed, and ran. The black horse pounded after her; it was immediately obvious that she couldn't outrun it. She pulled a fence out of the confusion of pain and fear in her mind, a two-rail fence of steel piping, dropped and rolled under it. The horse thundered toward her, gathered itself in a tremendous leap, sailed overhead. It hit the ground in a clatter of steel and harness, wheeled to face her again. She struggled to her feet, holding the fence for support. Her leg was bleeding lavishly, scattering blood onto the dark grass. "Stop!" she howled. "I got past, I did what you said, this isn't fair!" He made no answer, no sign that he'd heard her, only raised the blade overhead and spurred his mount back toward her. She clung to the fence. Running was useless, and anyway this was *wrong*, she shouldn't be letting him chase her, she'd *won*-- The blade descended, and she closed her eyes, braced for death. It won't be the first time, she told her fear. I can face this. I've faced it before. The fence shifted in her grasp, becoming smooth wall. She opened her eyes to sudden, dazzling brightness, found Slim staring at her. They were in the fluorescent glare of the High Temple's corridors, now straight and solid again. "That was close, ma'am," he said in a tone she couldn't interpret, something between concern and criticism. "What do you mean?" she said, wondering if he'd been aware of what happened to her, or if he meant--what had that been? A storm? "You nearly died." She nodded, wondering if she'd won or lost, passed or failed the test. Her leg ached with remembered pain, though there was no mark on it. "Let's go," she said. "There's not much time left." Slim tipped his hat back to look at her. She'd always avoided his eyes in the past, but they were the most human part of him, soft blue and oddly sorrowful. "If you're all right, ma'am," he said gently, and turned to go. 135. Charnal The corridor down which Slim was leading Jayhawk turned abruptly, opening into a room floored in a harsh, alternating pattern of red and black. The walls were black too, hung with flayed carcasses; long streaks of red stained the walls, pooled heavily on the floor. Jayhawk forced herself to look around once, quickly. There were no other apparent exits. The bodies might have been human; she wasn't sure. Slim walked out into the center of the room, boots leaving smudges of red behind them. In an unexpectedly harsh voice he said: "So. You've come." His eyes were not the soft blue that she remembered; they reflected the black and crimson of the room. "Do you enjoy the sight of what you've done?" he said, and flung both arms wide, tendons gliding under their thin sheaths of flesh. Unwillingly, she looked at the walls. Piebald's face stared sadly back at her, upside down, dangling from a hook like an empty sack next to a bundle of broken flesh. The skin next to him still held long strands of black hair. Angela's, perhaps. She didn't look closer to identify it. Choking back nausea, she said, "I came to heal, not to kill. This is none of my doing." "Eater of souls," he said to her, a startling depth of hatred in his voice, "builder in shit, who will you take next? How many more will die for you?" *Look who's talking!* she wanted to say, remembering all Paradisio's horrors. "No one. I am content with myself--and I've never taken anyone who wasn't willing! This is nothing to do with me." Piebald's eye stared glassily out at her, its yellow clouding to grey. "So you say. What will you do when you fail?" "If I fail--and I'm not planning to fail--I'll give my support to those who are trying to destroy *him* and all his works. Those are the only choices left. I can't let things go on as they are." How many souls had *he* eaten, how many flayed skins had he left behind? "Then you pledge yourself to destruction." There was something else under the hatred, a terrible weight of despair. "No," she said simply, "because I'm not going to fail." He stepped back as if pushed by the weight of her determination, black eyes fixed on her. It wasn't Slim, perhaps had never been Slim; an insight confirmed by his words, emptied now of all expression. "In that case, you are right. You have already passed me." He vanished, and the room of carcasses with him. She was standing in a curving corridor, a door directly behind her. She recognized it; the door of her own room, the place where she'd been imprisoned. The curving corridor would lead to a dark chamber, a voice whispering of pain and immortality. She considered the door in front of her, found that she was afraid to open it; she might see herself, still imprisoned. She shook her head to rid it of that thought, turned away. There was nothing in there for her anyway. 136. Betrayal Jayhawk walked down the curving corridor, found herself facing a closed door. It made no response to her presence until she reached out and touched it; then it slid reluctantly aside. There was darkness within, and a faint sweetish smell, old corruption gone stale. She walked forward, and when the door slid shut behind her she visualized a rod of blue crystal, reached down to find it at her belt. It glowed with a faint sapphire light at her touch, just enough to illuminate her path. It revealed nothing. The sound of her movement died in a vast emptiness all around her. Somewhere there would be a center. She walked through the empty space, trying to find it. There were no landmarks, but she fancied that she had a vague sense of the chamber's shape. She set the feeling of unseen walls at her back, walked away from it. Eventually she felt that she'd come to the center, though there was nothing to mark it. She raised the rod overhead, let a little more light trickle out--she'd made it deliberately dim to spare the eyes of the one she'd expected to find, but there was no sign of him. The light went out from her and encountered vacancy; there was not even a reflection from the dead-black surface beneath her. She had a sudden, dizzying feeling that there *was* no surface, beyond the fiction that she was creating so that she could walk on it. She was at the center of a sphere. "Hello?" she called out, as loudly as she could bring herself to dare. There was neither answer nor echo. Against an incomprehensible and painful reluctance, she called again, louder: "Astrachok!" She would not call him Lord, even now. After a long moment she saw something approaching. It was a flat image, like a primative piece of graphics; a woman--no. She wasn't sure. For a moment she'd thought it was Aliantha. Closer, it was no one she could recognize, a vaguely human face blurred beyond identification. It seemed to change, though she could never catch it changing. For an instant she saw fire, a woman clothed in fire, consuming nothing, illuminating nothing. Her light did not shine on it. It was visible of itself, like an image projected on her eyelids. It made no sound. "Will you take me to him?" she said softly when it had come within a few meters. It raised one hand with a dancer's grace. On its palm was a small, flat disc, of a color she couldn't resolve between gold and red. Thin black letters, a single word: here Her nerves prickled. Here, in this vast emptiness? Was she too late? "All right." A deep breath. She might be talking to *him* directly, or some fragment of him; she couldn't tell, decided it didn't matter. She'd repeat herself as many times as she had to. "This is what he must do to be healed. First, he must call all of those he's taken into himself, and give them a choice--to go free, to live or die as they may; or to become part of him, wholly, irrevocably, by their free choice." The figure tilted its head, stared at her with eyes like fragments of the Void. The disc in its hand bore a single word: why? "If you make a person out of people who hate each other," she said carefully, "he'll hate himself. There's no way to wholeness through that. It's a necessary sacrifice." For an instant she was surrounded by voices, a myriad of voices--as if the whole sphere, in all its vastness, was filled to overflowing with people all speaking at once, and all at once falling silent. Uncertainly, she said, "It might be best to ask them one by one; but he would know better than I." What had happened? What about Martha? The figure shifted, though she could see no movement. It seemed male now, a fair-haired man she didn't know, distorted by the flattening of the image. The disc in its hand said: key? She put a hand to her belt, hesitated. She'd clung to it all this time, afraid that in giving it up she'd give up control, freedom, the possibility of escape. *His* key, his gift. Slowly, she held it out. The image took it from her, an instant's contact like the touch of feathers, of frost. Bending at odd points, not where a human would bend, it stooped to the floor, spun the key like a top. It blurred into a disc of gold, a meter wide. The figure crouched, beckoned her with an open palm. look She bent to look, saw men in heavy armor moving down a corridor, guns cradled in their arms. One supported a smaller figure who was limping heavily. After a moment she recognized Duende at the lead--or could it be another Gatekeeper? She was seeing the armor, not the man. No. There was Yoichi, deck slung at his back in an embroidered band she remembered. There were more of them than she would have expected, more than the eight who'd taken Cavilard Base. The viewpoint of the golden disc moved, running ahead of them down their path. It passed unhindered through a door painted with dully glowing designs, stopped in a large room filled with boxes and cases. In the center, cradled in midnight-black velvet, was something like a crystalline egg, illuminated with its own inward light. It drew the eyes, rendered the rest of the view insignificant; but she could make out no details, only an impression of brightness, depth, infinite complexity. She looked up at the image, who opened both hands to her as if pleading. The discs on its palms, a color between crimson and black, said: stop them "No!" she said sharply. "You have no right to ask that of me." It looked at her with eyes of a color she remembered, the color of the sun at its death. There was a disc in its hand, grey as the Overnet. sacrifice "That's not how it works. You can't sacrifice other people; that's a red herring, it doesn't get you anywhere. That's the mistake Paradisio's been making all along." Two discs, in hands held out palm up like a beggar's: your sacrifice "They're not mine to sacrifice!" she said, pleading in her turn. "I don't even think I *can* stop them. They don't trust me, they won't listen to me. They haven't told me their plans." There was no response. "How can anything good come out of betrayal? Don't ask me to do this." Desperate, whispering, "Ask for a sacrifice that's mine to make, if you must." It was still, silent, changing only in the instants when she was not watching it. Smaller than she, now, fragile as a child. If she refused, she would fail, she guessed. She remembered what Martha had said about Duende's team: 'They're pursuing the one line of attack which will insure that neither we nor they can win.' *He* would die, if he could; Martha would die, fuel for his pyre. She herself would die with the collapse of the Overnet, if the djinn had told the truth. And probably Duende and the others would be within the conflagration as well. Sunflower and fusion fire. Annihilation. There had been a time when she would have given up her life to see Paradisio destroyed. If she agreed...they might die anyway, at her hand. She didn't think that she could stop them by argument or trickery. Channa would see through her in an instant, as she always had. She could try anyway, try negotiating, confront him with her failure. No. She felt a dreadful certainty that if she agreed to betray them, they would be betrayed; she would have no second chance, no opportunity to weasel her way out. They would condemn her for what she'd done, if they lived to understand it. She remembered Duende's quiet passion, fixed always and wholly on one cause, his private war with Paradisio. 'I wish to prove to myself that I am real. This is the only way I can find to do it.' Having been Paradisio's prisoner herself, she understood now why he felt that way. Her own reality, dreamshadow of *his* making, was so tenuous.... "How can I do this?" she whispered, as much to herself as to the other. It stooped, showed her open palms: step through "I came to heal, not to kill," she said. "I will not harm them." It made no reply. With a shiver that ached in her whole body, she stepped into the key-shimmer, like a pool of gold. It closed over her, cleared. She was standing in the cluttered warehouse-like room that she had seen. To one side was the warded door, its inscriptions glowing softly. Behind her was the crystal egg. After one glance in that direction she kept her eyes away from it. Like *him*, it was painful in its beauty. Not thinking about it, only acting on instinct, she walked to the wall of the room, spread her arms out wide as if to embrace it. Walked *into* it, as if into a computer. Stone, heavy and static, but alive in a way she hadn't experienced before. She was not the High Temple, rather to her surprise, but a lesser structure with deep roots in the earth. Down one of those root-shafts she could feel footsteps, light pressures on her body. She had no eyes, no ears. Only touch told her of their presence. They were almost at the final door. On the Matrix, accessing the Overnet, she had been able to create and destroy connections between nodes. She was not on the Matrix now, though she could feel her connection with the Overnet. In some fashion she was still in the dark chamber at the Temple's heart. But the situation was the same. She reached out into the living stone that was herself, set it flowing to unmake the passageway. With infinite care, she kept the changes behind the warded door, away from the humans in their fragility. It was hard, harder than she'd expected. The analogy with the Matrix was not very close, and the stone wanted to shatter rather than flowing smoothly. It resisted her, a growing ache in that part of her great body. When she was sure the passageway was sealed, ten feet of native stone between Duende and the object of his search, she let go of her grip on the building, found herself again in the empty sphere. 137. Failure Channa staggered heavily, nearly fell as the stone beneath her shook violently. Her husband caught her, braced them both against the wall as the tremors increased. The corridor caught the earthquake's rumbling, echoed and re-echoed it until she remembered the controls in her helmet, managed to turn off its receivers. She could still feel the sound, trembling in the walls, the floor, her very bones. At last it stopped. Her companions collected themselves painfully. She saw many anxious glances at the ceiling. No one was sure how far underground they were, but the weight of earth overhead was suddenly oppressive, terrible as a great depth. Had she filtered out the sound of the passageway collapsing? Were they trapped here? At the head of the column, Duende raised a hand, gestured them on. She understood his attitude, though it was hard to share. Don't worry about the earthquake; it's beyond our capacities to deal with. Just keep going. There were no aftershocks. Perhaps it hadn't been a natural earthquake, but explosives, or maybe a spirit. She unclamped her helmet, despite Casey's worried look, and tried to see the truth of what was around them. As before, the living stone balked her. It was like being within a huge beast...one that might at any moment roll over, crushing them.... Stop it, she told herself firmly, and went on. They came to a door warded with lines of faintly glowing blue, a complex unfamiliar symbol. "This is mine," said Alan, squinting at it. "Why don't the rest of you back off, in case it lashes." She hesitated only a moment, nodded. Stranger though he was, they'd come too far not to trust him now; and this was his area of expertese, not hers. They retreated thirty meters from the warded door, sat to watch Alan. He only stared at the pattern for long minutes, unmoving. Then he reached out one hand, not quite touching it, and made a single, sharp gesture. The webwork of blue unwound like a skein of yarn. In the utter silence she had time to hear his soft gasp of startlement or understanding. Then the great door exploded off its hinges in a deafening wave of blue-orange light. The shock knocked her from her feet, sent her tumbling back into her companions. Nothing but the door had been damaged, they found when they sorted through the rubble; the explosion had spared the corridor walls. Alan had been directly in the path of the blast, and a ton or more of stone had caught his upper body like a mallet. There was no question of being able to help him. Beyond the broken door was a passageway slanting steeply upwards, light streaming in from above. With a sharp order, Duende got them moving again, leaving Alan's body to lie. Channa tried not to look at him as they passed. It could have been her. It would be her, the next time. After a climb that left her dizzy and winded, her head throbbing with noise and shock and fear, the passage led them out into the tended meadows where they had begun, five kilometers from the Temple. Nothing had changed; the body of the Jaguar Knight they had interrogated still lay neatly among the flowers. Channa cast herself down on the grass, unable to go any further. It was not just physical exhaustion, though she was tired and bruised, and the armor was beginning to feel like a shackle. It was despair. They had actually done it, actually fought their way into the Temple, and for what? To come out again, via a senseless five- kilometer bolthole. Where was the egg that Duende had described? Somewhere, they must have missed a turning. Somewhere. Or perhaps the whole thing was Paradisio's last and cruellest joke on them. Lefty would have been proud. They'd lost two people already, Kure to the stone snakes, Alan to the trapped door. How many more would it be? She'd thought she was ready to die, but this long slow dying was proving her wrong. "Fifteen minutes," said Duende, his voice expressionless through the speakers of his helmet. "What then?" said Casey, beside her, the same despair and exhaustion in his voice. "What now?" "We go back in," said Duende. "There's nothing else to be done." 138. Choice The changing image--it looked like an old man now, dressed in rags of grey and yellow--bent over the spinning key. Jayhawk turned away, unwilling to see. In the brief glimpse she'd caught, she'd seen Duende and his allies advancing slowly down the corridor toward the warded door. They would be quite a while getting to it. The image raised a palm to her, a disc on it which was neither white nor colored: watch "No," said Jayhawk harshly. "There's not much time left. Don't waste it." To her surprise the figure bent, touched the key to make it stop. It held it out to her. She took it clumsily, put it away at her belt. "The next thing to do--" She was painfully uncertain. What had it meant, that terrible confusion of voices? Were they the voices of those he'd taken, now dealt with? Or was that still to be done? She didn't know, and doubted whether she could find out. The image lacked bandwidth for explanations. There was nothing to do but go on. "Call back all the aspects of himself that are scattered across the world, and offer each one a choice: to be separate, existing independently if it can, or ceasing to exist; or part of him, fully accepted, fully integrated." The image gave no sign of having heard her. It turned away, its flatness very apparent in the gesture, and stared out into the dark. After a moment she heard soft footsteps, approaching. She held up her light to see. It was Aliantha, though a younger Aliantha than Jayhawk had ever seen, barely out of her teens. She walked slowly forward, stood before the image, hands at her sides. There was a moment of intense and terrible silence. Then she lifted her head, glanced once at Jayhawk, and walked forward. The image did not move to embrace her, but she was enfolded in its shifting outline, and vanished. After her there were others, one by one. Jayhawk sat down, legs folded, and tried to identify them, but most were strangers. Some gave themselves to the image; some averted their eyes and dissolved into the darkness. A few turned away and walked off in the direction they had come from. Two came walking out of the darkness together: Martha as she had been at the High Temple, Martha as she had been at the waterwheel. They stood together before the image for a long time. Those it had absorbed had given it no further solidity. If anything, it seemed less real, as if the dissolutions plucked at its fabric. Jayhawk forced herself to look up, saw both Martha's looking at her. She could understand nothing from their expressions. She wanted to say something, but guilt and shame and a kind of embarrasment held her back. And anyway, who was she to advise or question them? She'd said her part already. Abruptly, as if an unspoken agreement had been reached, they turned away together, walked into the dark, out of her sight. She felt suddenly, irrationally hurt that they hadn't spoken to her. None of the apparitions had spoken so far; she wasn't sure they could. But somehow she had hoped that Martha might. Others came, an endless stream of them. Though she tried to watch with attention, the sheer numbers overwhelmed her after a while. She contented herself with watching for individuals. She was afraid to see Duende, in particular, and know the full extent of her betrayal. She saw herself; and almost leaped to her feet, dizzy with horror, before she realized that she was looking at Weasel. The Paradisian agent was still a perfect copy of her Matrix image. She wasn't sure how she knew it was Weasel, but she did. Weasel stood before the image for a moment, a restlessness in her movements which Jayhawk remembered. She wanted to ask questions--Why did you impersonate me? Where is Angela? She restrained herself. Weasel turned away with a disturbingly familiar gesture of defiance, and dissolved into darkness. A faint glimmer seemed to persist for a moment, or perhaps it was her imagination. She never saw Duende, or Lefty. Perhaps she missed them in the teeming multitudes. Perhaps she had never really known what they looked like. It seemed to her that she was seeing everyone who had ever served Paradisio. All, all aspects of *him*? No wonder Martha had said that Paradisio would die with his death. She wondered if she herself would stand before him, at the end. His last High Priestess. At last the slow procession seemed to be over. She steeled herself as the image turned to her. It didn't seem to have changed, not in any way that she could distinguish from its constant changing. It said nothing, only looked at her for a moment and dissolved itself into the darkness. She was on the Overnet, though she didn't know how she could tell; it was utterly dark. A voice spoke to her as if from a great distance. Like the Hawk's, it was not embodied in sound; it brushed against her in the fabric of the Overnet itself. It said: *Now I must ask you to hold this for me, for where I am going I cannot hold it for myself. Will you?* In the midst of her guilt and pain she laughed aloud, softly, hearing no echo from the great emptiness around her. It was the offer that she had dreamed of and feared while she was thinking of healing him, though she had never really admitted either to herself. He meant the Overnet, of course. She remembered merging with Anubis. In her wholeness she had been able to survive that; but the Overnet was far greater, and *his*. She remembered the key he had given her. She had never really considered refusing it. "Of course. Of course I will." 139. Overnet *Until dawn,* said the Dragon to Jayhawk. She could feel his passage through the Overnet, to someplace unimaginably far. He dove from her perception and vanished. She laughed weakly. Dawn in what time zone? It seemed a ridiculous concept. The Overnet spread out around her. She was in the center, Anubis was; at the center of something unimaginably vast, but finite. She could feel its edges. The High Temple was nowhere to be found. She was in its place; she/Anubis *was* the center of the Overnet. It appeared to her as a mist of tiny points which were systems, even tinier threads that linked them together. She had never seen the connectivity before, though she realized now that she'd been navigating, unconsciously, by those patterns for some time. She had no attention to spare for any of the individual points. Out at the edges, the Overnet was slowly unravelling, connection by connection, her awareness insufficient to hold it together. She could feel it as if it were happening to her, like the progressive degredation of Anubis during their initiation. Like having bits of her stripped away, though they were bits she'd never known she possessed until now. Not Jayhawk's memories or powers, not yet. She reached out to a spreading break in the pattern, like a run propagating through fabric, a virus breaking down a disc. She didn't have the control to stop it; or perhaps she could, but if she focused all her attention on it, the myriad others which she could sense would propagate unchecked. She reached out to touch the damaged structure, realized in the movement how completely she had lost the sense of human form. All of the Overnet was within her reach; she knew herself to be at the center, but there was not even the illusion of a physical entity to give substance to that knowledge. She could not protect or prevent, but she could heal. With an infinitely delicate touch, she gathered up the fraying strands of connectivity, drew them together. There was a memory, in them or in her--she wasn't certain--a memory in the Overnet of how this piece should be. She called that memory into form, impressed it on the break. It resisted her for a moment, and she felt the tear within herself, the flaw in the one trying to mend the flaw, and saw that she would ultimately fail. Until dawn. The broken strands fit together again, though not exactly as they had before. The printer she'd healed had changed, too. She felt a distant echo of the delight mending it had given her, but she had no leisure to enjoy it. There were more breaks, crawling inward at a frightening pace. Anubis was at the center. Everything else would go before she did...but she didn't want to lose any of it. Dimly through her preoccupation she could see the totality of the Overnet. It was beautiful beyond imagining, like a map of the countries of desire. Dawn might be forever in coming. She remembered how Anubis could stretch her time until minutes became days, became weeks. She turned and turned, like a prisoner in an ever-shrinking cage, trying to keep dissolution at bay. There were dissonances in what she had remade, constructions that were not quite of a piece with the rest of the Overnet. She had nothing to spare for them. It was in her thoughts as well--that, more than anything else, told her how far she had spread herself, or how deeply the rot had eaten. She percieved the Overnet with touch and the subtle internal senses that had governed her physical body--temperature, balance, position, movement. Now her unused vision began to present apparitions, shadows from memory. They were constructs, IC she had crafted or studied or fought, fragments of systems she had run. A great tentacle reached out to caress her, fell back. A flight of golden birds flew overhead, vanished. No people. She knew too well that she was alone. A sudden pain went through her, a tearing wider than flesh and blood could conceive. From the outside in, the whole Overnet was falling apart, tears propagating almost too fast to perceive, the outermost reaches simply dissolving into the Void she could now sense, dimly, gnawing inward in its hunger for her existance. Almost without thought, she took the thread of her life, still wound around her, and cast it out over the disintegrating structure. It was a framework to which to bind the fast-unravelling pattern, a single coherent strand to knit all the strands together. It helped, a little. She didn't think about what she was doing to herself. The concept was lost in the immensity of unmaking. The pull from *outside* relented, and she was able to gain a little ground, binding everything that she could salvage to the matrix of her own life. There were mismatches everywhere, but it was better than non- existance. A little more. Something had changed, something beyond the scope of her perceptions, wide-spread as they were. She felt a touch on the strands of the Overnet, as something broke through them from--from below? She had no name for the direction--and moved toward her. She couldn't see it. Even the apparitions were gone; she suspected that her eyes were gone as well. *It is dawn,* said a great voice, rippling across the Overnet, and everything around her was still, as if listening. Slowly she found a voice for herself, no more physical than his. *What's happened?* Now that the deed was done, she found herself afraid to face its consequences. She was glad of her blindness. *Everything has changed,* he said to her. *Yours is the next wave, Jayhawk. Ride it well.* She was caught up in a sudden, terrible certainty of failure. He was unbound from mountain and flesh and machine, she guessed, a free spirit again as he had once been. He had taken her message and accomplished its opposite, not integration but rejection. *What about the machine?* she asked him. *Have you set it aside? Have you denied what you were?* *I have denied nothing!* For the first time she felt the passion behind his words. It was like fire licking at her, like a lover's touch. *It is part of me now, as it is part of you. Do you not even understand your own teaching?* A vast, terrible amusement. She remembered his laughter when she had died on his mountaintop. *What will you do now?* She contemplated the task of opposing him now, of destroying him. It was so far beyond her means as to be ludicrous. *It seems,* he said more softly, and the emotion behind his words was something like wonder, *that I will try being human now. It is something I have never done. I wonder what it will be like.* She caught her breath, amazed, and tried to see him. For an instant she saw brightness, a flame that illuminated the Overnet and reached out far into the Void. Then it failed her, or her courage did. *Your lesson, Mistress of the Web. You have done your work well,* he said. With an almost wistful note, *You need no key from me anymore. But I will leave it to you, as a gift, if you wish it.* She could feel the Overnet around her, trembling with his touch. The dissolution was checked, never to begin again while she--while she lived? It was true, though she could not have said how she knew it. *What's happened to Martha?* It was an easier question to face than what had happened to her. *Did you not know?* Amusement again. *She will be my mother.* *Is--is she willing to do this?* *It was her choice.--Goodbye, Jayhawk. Perhaps in fifty years we will speak again, you and I.* *Wait. Do you...do you feel that you owe me a debt?* *In a fashion, I do. As you owe me one.* What could she ask? She thought of Duende, but the words didn't come. He wouldn't want help from the fruits of her betrayal. She doubted any of them would want anything from her, once they knew. *What would a Dragon need from me?* *I am not a Dragon. And I don't think I should answer that yet.* There was something impossibly familiar about the soundless voice. "Lefty!" she said aloud, finding out in the process that she could. *Maybe she will have twins.* She tried a little longer to find a request, but it seemed to her that there was nothing she could ask from him now. Many things that she needed, but nothing she could ask. *Goodbye,* she said at last, and did not try to look as he dove through her web and was gone. 140. Change Jayhawk set herself to repairing the damage to the Overnet, and found that the whole structure was changing around her, motion within motion like the spheres of an infinitely complex orrery. The destruction was not nearly as great as she'd thought. Perhaps *he* had helped her? But the changes didn't feel like his work. She remembered how Anubis had shifted when she first attuned herself to it, fitting into the pattern of her mind and soul like a perfect and necessary complement. He'd given the Overnet into her care. It was an idea she had trouble grasping. Before going to the High Temple she had sent Avery DeHaviland a message, a warning to salve her conscience: Stay off the Overnet on June 21; anyone on it may be killed when it unravels. Apparently her advice had been taken--she'd been alone through the long night. She wondered if their ways of accessing it would still work, now. She didn't want to leave the Overnet while it was in flux. It was shaping itself to her, she could see that clearly now, and probably shaping her to itself as well. It didn't seem like a process which she should interrupt. But she made a link to get at her email, curious and somewhat afraid to see what had happened in the world outside. There were two messages from that address, one from the captain of the Turing Police, and one from Avery himself. The first pressed her for details, reasons, explanations. The second was very simple, and very short. >If you need help in some way, you can contact me privately. I hope >you're all right. Avery It carried an email address she hadn't found in his files. She filed it away, pleased and a little bashful. She must have caused him no end of grief, disappearing right in front of his eyes as she had--after all, he'd been assigned to keep tabs on her. System by system, she rewove the delicate connections, undid the isolation that the Overnet's near-destruction had caused. The new links seemed more substantial than the old, more explicit. She remembered hours spent wandering through the grey, trying to find a point, any point, of connection with the Matrix. It wouldn't be like that now. The Gates were gone. She unknit the traces they had left, wondered at them. They seemed impossible--she'd thought she understood Gates, at least a little bit, but the constructions she was eliminating didn't look as if they'd ever have worked. Finally she realized that they had been designed for an Overnet which no longer existed. Gates might still be possible, but they would not manifest as pathways in the Overnet any longer. The rules had changed. Vision returned to her, a startling cascade of new information. She hung in a sea of stars, bright as gems against a background of velvet black. She knew their names, each one. Their patterns were not the pattern of the Matrix; the Overnet was a different mapping, drawn together not by physical location or even connectivity, but by the living ebb and flow of information. *I always thought it should be black*--she laughed at herself, wondering if it was true, or if she thought it should be black because it *was* black, now, shaping her desires to its reality. It didn't matter. She crafted new defenses for Anubis out of the new patterns she could see. Hers was a responsible position: she needed to make sure that no wandering decker--there *were* ways to reach the Overnet now, though they would always demand initiation, transformation--could bring the whole bright glory tumbling down. She searched the Overnet for signs of Paradisio, found only broken fragments. The great systems in Argentina and Bangkok still functioned, but they were quiet and empty. Even the beacons of their Gates were gone. The communications modules embedded in the interface between Matrix and Overnet were gone too. She set monitors on news to watch for signs in the physical world. She'd never be able to manifest there again. She had woven her life into the fabric of the Overnet. To withdraw it, to try to sustain herself unconnected, would set it all unravelling, and her with it. Somehow that made her sad, which she hadn't expected. She tracked the emotion to its source. If they had survived, she would need to speak to Duende and the others. (Could Duende possibly have survived? He was no more real, she guessed, than any of Paradisio's other creations. Fragments of *him*, lost and hurting, even rebelling, but his none the less.) She wanted desperately to ask their forgiveness. And for that, physical form in all its vulnerability would have been fitting. She sent Yoichi email instead. >Yoichi: > >Are you all right? Can we talk? > >As far as I can tell Paradisio is dead. The main systems are unused, >the Gates are all down, and I can't find any signs of their >communications. > >Jayhawk For anxious hours there was no response. A thousand times she replayed her decision to betray them. She could find neither alternatives nor justifications. It had been necessary, if she wanted to heal *him*. It had been...unforgiveable? She could ask them that. There were no angry ghosts. Had Ratty done as she asked? At what cost to himself? She couldn't be impatient with the changes; they happened as they should, with a steady, relentless rhythm--like the pulse of the dataflow, like the passage of days and nights across the world, reflected reflected in the currents of the Overnet for her to read. But it was hard to endure the guilt and uncertainty, and wait. At last there was a message in return: >I would like to talk to you. I think the others would too. I could >set up some teleconference stuff tomorrow--17:35 PST. It was not even signed. She spent a long night and day wondering about that, a small bitter worry wound into her work until she forced herself to set it aside, afraid to poison what she was creating. 141. Forgiveness Yoichi, Jayhawk found, had rigged a small computer to a camera and widescreen vid, so she had a clear view of him and the others. They were in some kind of vehicle, maybe a motor home. She recognized Casey and Channa, though Channa's hair was now dark brown and Casey had a respectable moustache. There was a dark-skinned little girl leaning against Casey's leg, staring at her with wide cool eyes. And Angela, squeezed into a seat next to Yoichi, watching her with short sidelong glances. There was no sign of Duende, Argent, or Grant. Painfully, she said, "Is this everyone? Duende...." "Duende is trying to rescue Argent from the awkward place where the Gate spit him out," said Channa. "Jayhawk--" She sounded as if she wasn't sure she was using the right name. "What happened last week?" Slowly, with some prompting from Channa, Jayhawk laid out the story, arranged in clear neat lines of victory and betrayal. When she spoke of reshaping the Temple's stone there was recognition in their eyes. "I see," said Channa at last. "That explains some things, though not what happened at the end." "What happened?" Channa hesitated as if wondering whether to tell her. "We were searching the main body of the Temple when there was something like an explosion--a sudden burst of noise, pressure, flashing lights, cold....I think I fainted." She touched her husband's arm gently. "We were at Cavilard Base," Casey said. "The Gate was in ruins--the whole framework had shattered, and there was a deep burn in the wall behind it. About half of us were there, that is--no sign of the others. We got calls from them later. They were scattered all over the world at various Gates. All broken, all the bases completely empty." "Who was where," said Channa, "even seemed to make a little sense, except for poor Argent, who is stuck in Antarctica at midwinter." Casey, hoarsely--now that she looked at him, he looked battered, a heavy bandage on his head, his skin paler than she remembered--"Do you know why that happened? It seemed like the whole Temple, maybe the whole island, got sucked into the Gate. But I don't understand why we came out at all, let alone in Seattle." Jayhawk hesitated. "I would have to guess," she said at last, reluctantly, "that *he* chose to save you. The Gates wouldn't have done that without a will behind them. It wasn't me. I didn't even know you were in danger. And there wasn't anyone else." "Duende will ask," said Channa very softly. "Why?" "The Hawk told me that he respects sacrifice. You risked everything to stop him. I think he might honor you for that. And maybe...I don't know. Maybe he hopes to be forgiven." His action to save Duende must have been much more direct, Jayhawk guessed: the Gatekeeper was no more real than she was. But it would be cruel to tell Duende so, though it pleased her. She looked down, searching for words. "I know what a terrible thing I did to you. I felt that I had to, that what would happen if I didn't stop you would be much worse. I don't expect you to agree with me, but I hope you can understand...." *Forgive*, she wanted to say, but she was afraid to. "I believe you did what you thought was right," said Angela unexpectedly, and flushed as all eyes turned towards her. "I think you were probably right, too." "Thank you," said Jayhawk. "You don't know how glad I am to see that you're free and safe." The others were silent. She tried not to squirm--even without physical restlessness, it was instinctive. It felt very strange to be here, on the Matrix but not away from the Overnet--she would never really be away from the Overnet again. She was like the Turing deckers, always enmeshed in the place from which she came. It still hurt, not being able to touch them. She watched Angela settle into the curve of Yoichi's protective arm. She should have been able to read Angela's expression, knowing her as well as she did, but her own emotions were in the way. Now that she was finally talking to Angela, she could find nothing at all to say. "We--" said Channa, and then checked herself. "I think I understand why you acted as you did." Her eyes were shadowed as if by a bitter memory. "And I may well forgive you for it. But you need to give me a little time. It's too raw right now." Casey put an arm around her shoulders, said quietly to Jayhawk, "So what's happened to Paradisio? Is it really dead?" "I believe so, though I haven't been able to check on individuals. But the bases are all empty, the Gates are gone, the communication network is gone. I don't think it will be easy for any survivors to rebuild." "What are *you* going to do?" Was that an accusation? She didn't think she saw hatred in his eyes, but she might be deluding herself. "I'm going to watch and wait, and make sure that no one tries to put the pieces back together. I'm responsible for the Overnet now. I'm going to look after it. And--if I can help you in any way at all...." "You're not coming back," said Yoichi. "I can't. This is what I am now, this is my place. I wouldn't give it up if I could." The little girl, in broken but comprehensible English, said, "Do you answer to him, or only to you? Will you stop him if he tries to do this again?" "I will try," she said. "I don't think it will happen; but I promise to watch for it." "Good." The child's eyes were like the Hawk's, feral and too wise for her age. What had Paradisio cost her? "Is there anything else--?" For some reason, Channa and Yoichi both looked at Angela, who blushed again. "I don't think so," she said. "I'm beginning to see that I was mixed up in something really bad--I don't think I want to go back to that at all, not even to figure it out. That person really doesn't exist any more." With a defiant pride that Jayhawk understood from within: "You can call me Susan now." "I could eliminate all records of Angela Whitechapel," Jayhawk offered. "That would make it a lot easier for you to start over." Susan hesitated, then nodded. "Thanks. That would really help." "Thank you," said Yoichi somberly. "I wasn't sure I could pull that off. I don't suppose it's very hard for you." He ran a hand through lank black hair. She'd never seen him let it grow so long. "Jay, I'm sorry it had to work out like this, but I'm glad you're okay. And I think--maybe you're right, and there really wasn't any way we could have won." "That's not what I was trying to say. If you hadn't been there, if you hadn't been fighting him, I'm not sure he would have been desperate enough to accept what I did. Martha implied that he couldn't stop you himself, and I think she was right, though I don't understand why." "That's good to know." He hesitated, said awkwardly, "Maybe we can talk again sometime, when things have settled down a little. Right now Interpol and the Health Service are looking for us, let alone any Paradisian survivors. It's going to be hairy." "What will you do?" He looked at Channa, who said, "Try to find a safe place, settle down, start over. I think we've had enough violence to last most of us a lifetime. I'd like to go back to my studies, maybe teach a little." "Teach them," said Jayhawk impulsively, "the Black Path isn't necessarily closed any longer. That division's healed. It's still dangerous, but it can be done." "I'l bear that in mind," said Channa carefully. And then, with more warmth than she'd shown before, "Take care of yourself, Jayhawk. Let us know if there's something we can do to help." She wanted so badly to say *Forgive me*. "Thanks, Channa. You take care too. I'll be here if you ever need me." Yoichi moved a little, and the screen went blank. She could have kept the connection alive through the Overnet, but she was done, too. It was better and worse than she'd expected. They didn't hate her; she was almost sure of that. But what had been between them was over. A final sacrifice for *him*. She shook herself out of her sorrow, cast herself into the tides of the Matrix. It burned around her like a multitude of stars, drowning her loneliness with its beauty. 142. Garden Jayhawk tried to reach the jungle where Martha had lived at the waterwheel station, and found her way blocked by walls of intricate code. She set herself to finding a way through them, in the time she could spare from tending the Overnet. It took her eleven months. During that time she'd created a full security system for Anubis, and had it tested twice; bargained with the Turing Police; hunted down the records of Angela Whitechapel in every database she could find, and deleted them all; taught Forked Lightning a decent amount of decking, though not the Overnet knowledge he craved; and formed the basis for a monograph by Gregor McDougal, to be privately published. She'd also teased out of her memories the address at which *he* had vanished into the Matrix. It was a maternity hospital in Victoria, BC. Deliberately, she followed that line no further. The barrier code was among the most beautiful she'd ever seen. Its elegance was finally her key to passing through it; she looked for a solution of equal beauty, crafted passcodes like diamonds until she found one which worked. With a tiny internal wrench, she found herself circling above the waterwheel station. The jetpad had been turned into a garden, with flowers and vegetables in neatly trimmed rows. The door to the cottage was open; she knocked anyway, then sat down on the porch to wait. Something came diving around the corner of the house in a blur of speed, came up in a tense crouch. It was Martha, crimson-tipped gun cradled in her arms. Jayhawk sat very still. "Oh," said Martha. "I should have realized it'd be you. I guess the defenses didn't work." She was a little thinner than Jayhawk remembered, and deeply tanned; her hair was tied back in a bandanna, and there were spots of dirt on the knees of her pants. "They were superb," said Jayhawk. "I've been working on them for nearly a year. But if I'm intruding, I can certainly leave. I thought you might want some company." This was not the woman she loved. The distinction seemed strange to her, but understandable; it would have made sense for someone to love Caroline and only tolerate Jay, or vice versa. But she did care what this Martha thought of her. Martha frowned at her briefly, then said, "No, now that you're here you might as well do something useful. Come help me weed." She disappeared into the house, returned with a small shovel which she pushed into Jayhawk's hands. Then she turned resolutely and walked back toward the garden. Jayhawk couldn't restrain herself. "You do it by *hand*? Here?" "It's good for you. I bet you haven't been exercising." Jayhawk snorted. "I've been looking after the entire Overnet. If that isn't exercise, I don't know what is." The sunlight was hotter than it was in her own gardens, and the weeds were stubborn. For a while she had no breath for talk. Martha worked a parallel row, quiet as if engrossed in her own thoughts. At last she came to the end, leaned on her shovel to survey their work. Jayhawk struggled with a final weed, finally pulled it out with an effort that sent her tumbling backwards. The earth was warm too, and felt very different from her feather-clothed steel. "How have you been?" Jayhawk said, glad of the opportunity to catch her breath. This place was so exasperatingly physical! "Not too badly. I've had lots of time to think...and things are coming up here." Jay didn't recognize most of the plants, but their pattern was so neat that the weeds were easily identifiable. "Yourself?" "It's going well. I think the Turing Police may see reason, sooner or later. I want the Overnet as neutral territory, like Antarctica. They don't like negotiating with a spook, but they're coming to see the necessity." Gingerly, feeling her way: "Can I ask...why you decided to stay here?" Martha's eyes were shadowed against the sun. "I felt I needed some time to think, some time to rest. A little privacy." "I'm sorry if I'm intruding." She shook her head. "I thought you might come here, sooner or later. I didn't really think I could keep you out." She began weeding the next row, working in an easy rhythm which Jayhawk tried and failed to copy. "It was really hard. That's beautiful code." "Thank you." She went on with her work in silence until she came to the end of the row. At last, very softly, "Have you seen *her*?" "No. I think she may need some time too." "I wish I understood...why she chose as she did." "Maybe you should ask her." "Maybe I will someday." She straightened abruptly, surveyed her garden. "What do you think?" "It's growing very well," said Jayhawk carefully. "What are they?" The names meant nothing to her, but the conversation seemed to please Martha. They finished the weeding, went to draw water from the stream. The waterwheel was no longer turning. "Is Caroline doing all right too?" Martha said, tipping water into a furrow between rows of lacy-topped greenery. "I *am* Caroline.--And Jay." "Kraken said something like that to me once." Jayhawk winced. She had gone back to Westking Enterprises, looking for the great squid. It was gone, but there were hints to its nature in the code that had supported it. Its author had scattered his soul into his creations. "Well, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it." Martha snorted. "That sounded really egotistical, didn't it? I don't really know how to explain. Martha, did you know about Angela?" "Angela?" "A woman in Seattle who looked a lot like me...." "Ah. Yes." She looked down as if abashed. "Whitechapel." "What was going on there? Why did--was it Lefty?--why did they try to make me believe I was her?" "It was Lefty, on the behalf of various factions who thought that you were progressing too fast. A distraction. I'm glad it didn't work." "I think they did me a favor without meaning to. There's some of Angela in me now, along with Jay and Caroline and Piebald." "Piebald?" Jayhawk took on Piebald's shape with a jingle of bells, shook out his/her three-cornered hat and grinned at Martha. Martha's eyes widened. "That? Why did you copy *that*?" "Who am I?" S/he looked at Martha sidelong, amused and curious and a very little bit afraid. "It looks very much like a piece of encrypt/decrypt code I wrote a long time ago." She frowned. "The only copy I know of was at the High Temple." Jayhawk blurred back to her own form, realizing that she was upsetting Martha. "He was a person, of sorts, when I met him. At the High Temple, yes. So that's where he came from! I never knew." "*His* dreams took odd forms at times." "Yes. And I was a prisoner, I was looking for someone, anyone who could help me...it's not too surprising." She laughed suddenly. "Encrypt/ decrypt code! It's no wonder he's such a mystery." She'd been afraid to find out that Piebald was...she didn't know what. But it really didn't matter. Whatever her scattered aspects had been, she was one now, and whole. They finished with the garden, and went inside to drink tea. The interior of the cottage was as she recalled it, except that there were flowers in vases beside the bed, and fresh vegetables hanging in bundles in the kitchen. "What are you going to do now?" said Martha. "Lots of things. Hash out this business with Interpol, for one. Keep an eye on the Overnet. Learn some programming--I've gotten behind, there's all sorts of new stuff cooking out there. Watch out for anything Paradisio might have left behind." She added tentatively, "I could come visit you sometimes, if you like. Or would you rather not be disturbed?" "I wouldn't mind," said Martha wistfully. "I wouldn't mind that at all." 143. Susan For three years Susan had kept the address in her mailfile, and never looked at it; like a bill too long unpaid, or an old love letter. She was alone now, in an apartment lit only by the luminous screen, where it burned like a challenge. It was a meaningless address; even her limited skills as a hacker had told her that. Mail to it should bounce back within minutes. She sent the message. The response was almost instantaneous. She had a sudden, dismaying feeling that Jayhawk had spent the last three years simply waiting for her to write, unwearying and undistracted. No. Channa said she was more human than that, and Channa should know--shouldn't she? >It's good to hear from you again. May I use graphics?--Jayhawk On a hunch, she typed in 'okay' at system level. Instead of returning an error message, the screen blanked, then cleared to show an image she recognized, the Matrix representation of Yoichi's personal system. A young woman in silver and blue was sitting crosslegged on the communications console. "Hello," said a soft voice from the speaker. She jumped. The terminal itself had no sound; that was Yoichi's stereo system. But of course it was tied into the Net for music retrieval. "Is the volume okay?" "It's fine." Could Jayhawk hear her as well? "Thanks for coming to talk to me." "My pleasure." Apparently she could. "I, um, wanted to thank you for helping us ditch those records. It looks like we're free and clear. Thanks." The image didn't look particularly like her anymore. Her own hair was pale blonde like Channa's now--they'd passed for mother and daughter, though Channa wasn't really old enough to be her mother. Her eyes were blue, but not that blue. There was something different in the shape of the face, the set of the eyes. That was comforting. She wasn't sure she could have talked calmly to an exact image of herself. "You're welcome. I'm glad it's worked out for you." Susan felt suddenly as if she'd summoned a demon--what was she going to say? Jayhawk would expect her to have had some reason for writing. She probably wouldn't go away again without an answer. "Yoichi and I are getting married." She hadn't meant to broach that topic quite yet, but.... "Congratulations!" "You don't mind? It's okay?" "I don't mind," said Jayhawk gently. She reached forward, seemed to touch the screen with her fingertips, a wistful gesture. "I'll come to your wedding if you have it on the Matrix. If you want me to." Susan brushed the screen with her own fingers, felt only the cold smooth surface. "Why did it happen?" she said in a very small voice. "I've been trying not to ask that question, but I can't." "Caroline Davies and Angela Whitechapel were half-sisters, I think. I know that's not 'why', but it's part of it. So Ren'raku's reasearch team--" "...looked at my genotype and decided I'd be a good experimental subject. I know that part." Jayhawk's eyes widened a little. "Our father was something of a bastard," she said after a moment. "But you seem to have come out of it all right. I've never been sure--Did you do it by rejecting what they'd given you? Or coming to an accomodation with it?" "Accomodation. I guess that's a good word." She laughed nervously. "I wanted to run the Matrix, but there's no room for more headware. And I wasn't willing to pitch...what's in there. It didn't have any choice in the matter either, it didn't want to be stuck in my head. And finally I remembered..." She hadn't told anyone, not even Yoichi, the extent of those memories. "Remembered running naked on the Matrix, and I said to myself, 'Hey, I can do that.'" Though Channa had probably guessed. "I can, or we can, I'm not exactly sure which." "I would like to see you. I spent a lot of time wondering where you were, whether you'd be all right." She dropped her hand, looked down. "Though I'd understand if you'd rather not." Susan slowly unwound the dataline from the terminal, fitted it to her jack. Would the presence-within cooperate? Her vision blurred, steadied. She was standing in the central node of Yoichi's system, barely a meter from Jayhawk. The image was not as clear as the one on her screen, filtered through a vision too different from hers; Jayhawk's image was misty with possible interpretations, nuances of program identification that had no meaning to her. Not a decker, that she could see. The presence-within made one of its rare comments, a flicker of data almost too fast to follow. *Virtual system.* "A different path than mine," said Jayhawk, watching her with a shivery intensity, "but a good one. Damn, I'm glad to see that!" Suddenly warm arms were around her, and a small voice in her hair, "I was afraid you'd hate me, or just never remember at all because it hurt too much." "I didn't for a long time. But that hurt too." She hugged Jayhawk back. Yoichi would worry if he knew, as he always worried. But for the moment she didn't care. "So we're sisters! I should have guessed." "Good luck, little sister," said Jayhawk, releasing her. "Give my regards to Yoichi and the others. Take good care of yourself, and him too. I'll be here, if I can help." "I'm not sure what we could do to help you," said Susan on impulse, "but if you ever think of anything--let me know." "I will." She dissolved in a shimmer of conjecture, the presence- within's attempt to understand connections and procedures it had never seen before. Susan felt its curiosity like a cool, flickering light. She watched the shimmers until they faded away, let it collect all the data it could before she went back. She wasn't sure she wanted to understand what Jayhawk was. But it did, and she wouldn't deny it its chance. She shook her head, went back to the empty apartment to wait for Yoichi. 144. Beginnings Jayhawk paced her workroom, staring at a construct of code like a silver spider. A friend had sent it to her for her opinion; she'd almost sent it back with a snap judgement--trace-and-mark, good code but nothing all that unusual--but something had nagged her about it. It didn't access the Overnet, not in any way that she knew. But it accomplished effects that should not have been possible without Overnet access. And its programming style struck her as distantly and dangerously familiar. In the eighteen years she'd been keeper of the Overnet she'd seen several attempts to revive the Paradisian Matrix-work. They were generally recognizable by their choice of symbols--Jaguar Knights and Feathered Serpents, pyramids and obsidian knives--as well as by the attempt to use Overnet constructions that predated the transformation of the Overnet. She'd watched them carefully, and in one case mentioned them to Duende. That installation had shortly ceased to exist. She had also had vague hints of something far more subtle. Sometimes she felt that she was being opposed--or not even opposed, but competed with--by someone else who could access the Overnet fully. It was hard to imagine how that could be. But she kept seeing small signs, code that shouldn't quite have been possible, paths of investigation blocked off so cleverly she couldn't be sure they hadn't just petered out. The spider had that touch to it, an easy, dangerous competance with ideas that were just beginning to work their way into top-level Matrix programming. A bell chimed, warning her of email. She compressed the construct into an inert form, unwilling to allow it to act on Anubis while she was distracted. Sometimes she thought it might be *him*, gaming with her across the great multi-level board of the Matrix and the Overnet. Sometimes she was sure it was something new, an adversary crafted by the world for her, as she had been for him. In any case, she wasn't going to take chances. >Jayhawk, >I would very much like to talk to you. Can we get together? >Martha The address at the end was not the waterwheel station. It was an academic machine in Vancouver. Jayhawk let out a whoop of delight and snapped off a reply: >Sure! Name the time and place. The answer took a few minutes: >Terrific! How about the Crystal Palace, 17:20 PST? She was there early, careful as always of traps. Not many deckers knew of her existance, but the ones who did--her students, some of them, and her students' students--took her very seriously indeed. It would not have been the first time she'd walked into a web of code designed to put her power at someone else's disposal. It was almost a game, though it would have become deadly earnest if any of them had ever succeeded. The Crystal Palace was a stimsense image of a sumptuous restaurant, high ceilings bedecked with crystal chandeliers, booths of Tiffany glass. It had become fashionable in recent years to replicate the material world on the Matrix, down to drinks that could be tasted, and there were quite a few deckers drinking and talking here. Jayhawk walked veiled in her cloak of bells, trying to avoid being recognized. She spotted an Interpol agent, sitting at the bar pretending to be engrossed in his drink. If he saw her there would be questions--not a problem for her, but she didn't want to complicate Martha's life. If it was Martha. She'd been planning to hunt Martha down someday, but she'd been resolved to wait until she was twenty-one. That resolve seemed silly now. Jayhawk had been an adult at eighteen, after all. A tall, think girl was sitting alone in a side booth, chin resting on hands, trying not to be too obtrusive as she watched the passers-by. Jayhawk made her way over, slid in on the other side, taking off her cloak and spreading it across the side of the booth to give them both privacy. The girl looked up, startled. She appeared to be about eighteen, full-grown but not filled out yet. Hyper-realistic Matrix images had been all the rage lately. Jayhawk sent a query winging back through Anubis to the Net, retrieved the name that went with that image. Martha Ann Walker, of Vancouver. "Jayhawk?" she said in a soft musical voice, somewhere between question and recognition. "Martha! It's good to see you again." "It's good to see you too! What would you like to drink?" Her words came tumbling out. "How have you been?" "Tropical Teaser," said Jayhawk at random. Supplied by the node's programming, two drinks slid out onto their table from a hidden chute. For a few months automated waiters had been the rage, until people noticed that it was all too easy to substitute disguised deckers. "Things are going pretty well for me. Lots to do. I can learn about new stuff all day and all night and still not keep up with the current research--it's really an explosion. How about you?" Martha looked up shyly. Her eyes were not the brown Jayhawk remembered; the expression was almost the same, but this girl had a kind of innocence to her, though not a childish one. "I think I've been a puzzle to my parents. Too mature for my age, they always said. They blamed it on the Awakening, which is fair, I guess." Very softly: "You know, it almost seemed like a dream, a dream I'd had all my life. I didn't know whether to believe you really existed, and then I got your letter--" "I really do," said Jayhawk with a delighted smile. "God, I've missed you!" "I've missed you too." She took a deep sip of the simulated drink. "I've missed...a lot of things." There was a hint of red on her high cheekbones. "What have you been doing all this time?" "Keeping an eye on things. Relearning the Overnet--it's changed quite a bit. Dickering with the Turing Police. We've been hashing out some legal issues involving AI citizenship--I'm pretty proud of that. Teaching... sometimes that worked out, sometimes it didn't. Do you remember the big panic in '57?" "I remember hearing about it," said Martha with a trace of embarrasment. "I wasn't very old then." "That was a student of mine--and me, trying to catch him before he did something worse. I really misjudged him. But on the whole, things have been going really well." She couldn't say how well without bragging. "Yourself?" "I've been thinking about the future a lot. If you're real, that means the rest of it....It's funny, thinking that in a couple of years...." "Lots of time yet." So Martha did know that she was to be *his* mother. She wouldn't have wanted to break that news. "That's right," said Martha defiantly, "and I'm going to use it, too. I've gotten behind in a lot of things. You weren't kidding about the research explosion. And when I *do* become a mother, well, he's going to get more than he bargained for. Going to raise him up right, I am. Teach him a thing or two." "I bet you will." She could barely sit still, bubbling over with excitement. She'd missed Martha...more than she'd realized. And the idea of awakening to find your dreams a reality touched deep chords of wonder in the part of her that was Angela. "I don't know whether to offer to teach you or ask to become your student. There's so much--" "Oh, I'm sure you have more to teach me--you've been out there for eighteen years, after all. *I've* been stuck in school! But I'm free and clear now." With sudden shyness, "I would like that. I might be able to show you a few tricks too." "I've been visiting, um, the other Martha, at the waterwheel--about once a month, usually. We have tea and pull weeds." Martha glanced down. "I'm glad to hear that. Is she doing all right?" "I think so. She wonders why you chose as you did." "I felt that I'd missed out on a lot of things, and I wanted to give them a try. A new beginning, maybe." The idea of Martha's mortality caught Jayhawk suddenly and painfully. Only a few decades, a century at most....It was a high price to pay even for rebirth. But that was Martha's choice, not hers. And perhaps it wouldn't come to that. The dizzing whirl of science might save her. *He* might. "She'd like to hear that from you, I think." "I'll tell her," said Martha, and then in a much smaller voice, "...someday. I have a lot to learn, or relearn. I'm getting the impression that some of the rules have changed." "Fair's fair!" said Jayhawk, laughing. "You guys always changed the rules on me. Tell me one thing--I've never been able to get *her* to explain--How could Paradisio get started so long before the Awakening?" "What do you think the Awakening was?" "Magic came back, or at least became a lot more accessable...." "The Awakening happened," Martha said seriously, "when people realized that they weren't the only ones out there. That's it. It didn't happen all at once, or at the same rate everywhere. I was taught in school that the Awakening began in 2040. But I died in 2023." She laughed suddenly. "Not that that explains all of the dates, does it? But some of them...just got confused. If you live for thirty years, subjectively, does it matter that only ten passed on the calendar? Some of them decided that it didn't. Or they may not even have known anymore." Jayhawk nodded. "It's not over yet, is it? Channa tells me that one of her students is a mageborn decker, and as far as she can tell he's doing okay. The rules keep changing." "It's not over yet," said Martha, and drained the last of her drink. "Though it almost was--for us, anyway...." Jayhawk held out her hand, said with an impish smile, "So! When I teach people, I usually start out by trying to find out what they already know. Want to go for a jog?" "I'd love to," said Martha with a smile that made her shiver, and took her hand. -- The End Episode #144 is the last one; campaign and story both end at that point. A fitting ending, I think, though I'm always sorry to see the last of a good campaign. Thanks to everyone who's sent fan mail, encouragement, and requests for missing episodes. :-) Missing episodes, incidentally, can be gotten by anonymous ftp from potemkin.cs.pdx.edu or ftp.white.toronto.edu--and another thank-you to the archive administrators. And of course, credit where credit is due to Jon Yamato, the GM for this campaign, for being infinitely patient with my demands that he remember year-old details and explain all the intricacies of Paradisio.... Mary Kuhner mkkuhner@genetics.washington.edu Copyright 1992 Mary K. Kuhner

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank