by Paul Marlowe

 

 

 

 

 

From Issue 11 (July 2011)

In the peeling little kitchenette of his suite at the derelict Waterfront Hotel, Father McHaffey was dubiously studying the instructions on a bottle of eye-drops. His Alsatian, Tail, stared upwards, panting in hopes of a share of whatever treat was engrossing his master. Or he may have been considering eating the squirrel-sized puppet that was dressed in a top hat and morning coat and clinging to McHaffey’s shoulder.

“May cause disorientation and transient emotional anomalies… do not use in combination with other nanopharmaceuticals… consult a physician before use…. Harmless, was that what she called this stuff?”

McHaffey sighed and tilted back his head. He hated putting things into his eyes, but there didn’t seem to be any choice. He wasn’t going to be sleeping, that much was certain; Friday would arrive in a few hours, and his conscience kept showing him Greenslade’s face whenever he closed his eyes. He’d earned his fee, but there was a greater debt to pay. To Greenslade. To Justice. He squeezed the bottle, feeling like he’d made a toast. Unpromisingly, the first drop landed on his nose. The second one fell coolly into his right eye like a raindrop. The third… missed altogether. When he looked down to see if he’d hit his shoe, with the doll adjusting its grip to look too without falling off, McHaffey found Tail grinning and winking one runny eye at him.

“Whoops!” said the puppet.

“Oh, crap,” said McHaffey.

Quickly, McHaffey squirted another drop into his left eye and checked the transponder pendant around his neck, which bleeped a warning as he was rummaging in his pockets for the manual. He squatted by Tail, patting the dog’s head.

“Sorry, I hope you don’t…”

A wave of vertigo interrupted the thought and dropped McHaffey onto the kitchen floor, sending the puppet tumbling. Tail whined, pawing at McHaffey’s leg, but the flesh was going as numb as a dead piece of meat. His inner ear told him he’d tipped over onto the rug, but he couldn’t feel it. The ceiling was patchy, grey, swirling into black.

Harmless? Was that what she’d said?

McHaffey found himself, with Tail, sitting before Zhen Cameron’s polished desk on the other side of Vancouver. She smiled, with a face spared the creases her erstwhile commander had acquired over the years. No surprise there – wealth and cosmetic therapies could stop time, and his old comrade-in-arms had risen in the world in more ways than just to this corner office with a view: from Section Comms Assistant, as she’d been when they met, up to partner in Transparadisium Incorporated. In her smart grey suit and still militarily cropped black hair, framed by a panorama of the city, Cameron regarded him with old respect, compounded with a little awareness of the reversal in hierarchy that had happened over the years.

“Perfectly harmless, not like the things we saw in the war,” she assured him. “Players just place a drop in the eye, and the nans migrate along the sclera to the optic nerve and the brain, where they isolate sensory areas and immerse the user in simulated sensa. The necklace transponder relays data between nans and network. We’re transitioning from alpha- to beta-testing, with a few thousand users, but the launch will be happening shortly.”

McHaffey fought away light-headedness, and a curious feeling of familiarity, as he leant out of his chair to set the player-kit back down on Cameron’s desk. “I imagine you didn’t hunt me down just to sell a game subscription, Zhen. How did you find me, by the way?”

“We don’t call it a game. It’s a…”

“…a multi-user environment,” McHaffey interrupted, wondering immediately how he’d known that.

Cameron nodded. “Yes. I’d hoped to run into you at the regimental reunion last weekend, but since you didn’t show, I found you through Servus, the employee database. You’ve had an… interesting career trajectory since leaving the Forces last decade.” Cameron’s eyes flicked to a screen for a moment. “I see you do a night shift as a police constable, and you’re a priest during the day.”

McHaffey cleared his throat. “Strictly speaking, I’m a priest around the clock.”

Around the clock. Had he said that already? He hated to sound nervous by repeating himself, but…

“Have you really,” she continued, squinting incredulously at the screen, “started a crusading army?”

Have I? He rubbed the bridge of his nose, and remembered.  “It’s more of a charity than an army,” he explained. Ever since founding the Order of St. Wulfstan, he’d had certain misgivings about the project. Some rather odd types joined. Still, it did some good work. “Being part of an order, with rules, seems to help focus people on a goal, and make the sacrifices necessary to help others. Overcomes the ego, maybe.”

“Not exactly the employment I would have foreseen for the man they used to call the Black Baron of Mongolia. At least you’re using your old leadership skills, eh? Good for you, Ben. The truth is,” she said, growing quieter and more confidential, “the chief programmer for TEN – our flagship, the Transparadisium Environment Network – has dropped off the map. I understand that you sometimes resolve problems… outside of normal channels?”

McHaffey nodded. He’d known it would turn out to be something sordid like this. Beside him, Tail was sniffing, as if smelling a rat. The dog flattened his ears unhappily and dropped onto his belly, nose between his paws. Something about it reminded McHaffey of his kitchen.

“Ordinarily we’d use our own human resources maintenance staff, or the police, but she’s the keystone programmer, and our IPO of shares is scheduled for Friday. Alarming press leaks could affect the share value. You understand…”

“I’m dreaming!” McHaffey announced, springing to his feet. Disconcertingly, his feet remained in the chair, along with the rest of him. No-one seemed to notice.

“Defected, you think, or planning sabotage? Blackmail?” asked the seated McHaffey, while his disembodied self looked resentfully at the body that seemed able to carry on without him.

“Oh, she’s not ambitious or anything,” said Cameron. “Like I said, she’s a programmer. You might have heard of her: Meaghan Greenslade. Apparently she’s something of a celebrity among the high-usage segment of our consumers. She goes by G-slade on the Net. About ten days ago she stopped turning up for meetings. It was assumed she was taking a break after the beta launch, but there’s been no communication from her. Frankly,” she said, dropping a few more decibels, “some of the directors would rather let things ride until after the IPO. They believe we should pretend nothing’s happened, in case an investigation stirs something up. I don’t like loose ends. I don’t know what the problem is, exactly, just that it needs to go away, quietly, quickly – before Friday. Will three hundred thousand be enough?”

Stifling a choking sound, the seated McHaffey nodded and passed an account number from his pad to Cameron’s terminal. She didn’t need to know the account belonged to a convent in Prince Rupert, thought the ghost McHaffey. Cameron reciprocated, beaming an employee profile of Meaghan Greenslade back to McHaffey’s pad.

The real McHaffey, the invisible one without a body, circled the desk, watching the transaction and disapproving of his body’s slouch. “I’m haunting myself,” he said, before considering again. “No, I was going into that game… multi-user environment… whatever. And this is all coming back, now. It all happened before. And next…”

Greenslade’s condominium complex was an elaborate Neo-Deco affair with brawny, Atlas-like figures supporting the entrance. Tambunting, the nervous little superintendent with an unnaturally low hairline, ushered McHaffey gravely into his office while eying his visitor’s clerical collar, and his dog, but ignoring the ghost McHaffey that drifted around the procession.

“Of course I can’t let just anyone wander into tenants’ rooms, er…”

“Father,” the solid McHaffey supplied.

“Yes. Father. With the police, you say?”

Tambunting scanned McHaffey’s ID. He looked back and forth from the read-out to the man, as if trying to reconcile the sacred and the profane.

“Missing, you say? Ms Greenslade, was it?” Tambunting tapped his screen while chewing his other set of nails. “According to our logs, Ms Greenslade is currently in residence. No harm in going up to inquire, I suppose.”

The elevator slid silently upwards, with McHaffey luxuriating in the absence of stairs, or a body, to such an extent that he completely ignored Tambunting’s stream of bitter complaints about his least favourite tenants. In any case, the man was talking to the other McHaffey, not him. Twenty flights of stairs McHaffey had to climb every day at the Waterfront! On the other hand, he considered, glancing away from his doppelganger to Tambunting, there were no superintendents at the squat. And no rent to pay. Despite being a seething warren of layabouts and organic gardeners, the decrepit old hotel had seemed empty lately. His police-partner, Araxi, rarely visited him anymore, and she was even skipping work since moving into the Waterfront to be with her semi-vegetative boyfriend, Jo Creely, who still, after months, hadn’t managed to pull together all the bits of his mind scattered around the Net. McHaffey could only imagine what that relationship must be like. He rolled his eyes towards the elevator ceiling, and immediately hated himself, sneering at others’ relationships. He penitently resolved to see how they were doing, next chance he got. But he wasn’t going to visit Ms Tetsuyama, the hotel’s second weirdest resident. The less he knew about the septuagenarian’s intrigues and industrial espionage, the better, even if he did long for another taste of her indescribable curry bread. Musing on his invisibility, he considered sneaking into the old woman’s suite when he got home, before remembering he was in a simulation. A memory. Pity.

The lift opened onto a luminous mural on the twelfth floor: a thin poplar tree in a meadow, leaves shimmering and hissing in a digital wind that swayed it languorously to and fro.

“Best quality, that,” bragged Tambunting. “No pixilation, see?”

McHaffey ignored the mural and floated to the apartment ahead of the superintendent. Greenslade’s door, adjacent to the mural, gave no response to Tambunting’s knocks, nor did anyone appear on the intercom.

“I suppose we must check,” Tambunting conceded, placing his thumb on the lock scanner.

They had descended three steps into the sunken living space, towards a neat desk that supported a bookshelf and the latest model workstation, when a motion caught McHaffey’s eye. Tail growled. Just as quickly, they and the solid McHaffey all relaxed, recognizing the movement as an ankle-high robotic doll from some movie McHaffey couldn’t recall. Not another tarantula, like at that domestic dispute a week earlier. The bandy-legged little doll in a black top hat and cutaway coat strode gravely over to them and bowed. Tambunting recoiled.

“Madam is…is n…n…not receiving today,” the toy’s reedy voice announced, Englishly.

Belying its reticence, the thing suffered a spasm and fell over, eventually mustering its self-control enough to stand and seize hold of the solid McHaffey’s trouser leg. It tried futilely to drag him away to his left. Tail inclined his head to examine the thing, and sniffed, looking unsatisfied.

“Ah…ah… gentleman never loses his temper!” it said, falling over again. When the solid McHaffey was able to drag his attention away from the deranged puppet, he glanced to where it had been pulling him, where the real McHaffey was already looking, and where Tail pointed intensely. Tail uttered a short bark. Through the leaves of a luxuriant Schefflera, McHaffey saw a familiar pair of bare feet on a sofa.

“…nothing like this before,” McHaffey half-heard the superintendent babbling. Tambunting crossed himself and milled about fretfully while, through a latex glove, the simulated McHaffey manipulated the dead woman’s ankle, and then her elbow, checking the rigor.

“Dead a day or so,” McHaffey said, a moment before his recreated counterpart pulled off its gloves and repeated the assessment, pausing afterwards for a moment of silent prayer. The real McHaffey remembered.  Have mercy upon her, pardon all her transgressions, for there is not a righteous man upon earth, who doeth good and sinneth not. A little uncanonical, he had to admit, but he’d never found anything that better suited the sad sight of an ended life.

“Suicide, do you suppose, Father?” Tambunting speculated.

It certainly looked that way. No signs of injury or struggle. Poisoning, perhaps. No history of sudden death risks on her medical file. The simulated priest drew out his pad. “Zhen Cameron,” he demanded. After the dialling, she appeared.

“Capt… or rather, Ben. News?”

“Greenslade’s dead. Could be suicide. No obvious signs of murder, anyway.”

Or misadventure? McHaffey recognized the necklace half-tucked under the corpse’s collar as a game transponder, online perhaps when she died.

A look of undisguised relief washed over Cameron’s face on the pad. “The poor girl. So young, and talented. Always quiet. I suppose that’s the type that, you know…” Cameron composed herself. “I assume you can take care of things discretely, to avoid any fuss before the exchanges close Friday?”

The solid McHaffey checked his watch. Thursday afternoon, the real one recalled.

“There’s got to be a death certificate issued and, given the circumstances, a coroner may want an inquest if there’s any doubt as to the cause of death.”

Consternation re-appeared in Cameron’s expression. “I retained you to make this go away, Ben, at least until the weekend. If you can’t…”

“Maybe,” offered the solid McHaffey. A full police investigation probably couldn’t sort matters out in a hurry anyway. He could arrange a day or two’s delay that might allow him to work out what really happened. McHaffey remembered being pretty confident of that.  “But I need complete access,” the simulation continued. “Everything. Passwords. Greenslade’s level or higher, in the game too.”

“It’s a multi-user environment, not a… all right, I’ll get you full access. Give me fifteen minutes. Cameron out.”

The simulated McHaffey smirked at the blank pad, and at Trooper Cameron’s slip into her old phrase, while the real one frowned. I don’t really look like that, do I? he wondered. Tail looked up at him, whining. “I know, I should be working.” Perhaps he could, now that something like normality was finally returning to McHaffey’s mind, suggesting not only that he ought to be looking for evidence of suicide, such as a note, but also that he wouldn’t find it in a simulation constructed of his own memories. The point was underscored when he pulled a book off Greenslade’s desk – Transhumanism – and found all of the pages blank.

“OK,” he said, addressing the ceiling, and then the walls, “that’s enough. I quit. Time out. Stop. Help!”

Whichever word worked, the simulation first froze around him, then faded slowly through monochrome to blackness. Tail stepped out of his disappearing double, sniffed it, and growled. From out of the wall someone else appeared: slim, androgynous, in a black turtleneck and trousers. The newcomer approached McHaffey and smiled blandly.

“I’m the Moderator. How can I help you?” it asked.

“I don’t know how this all works,” McHaffey admitted, “but I’m looking for someone. How do I stop with the memories and do something else?”

“Follow me,” said the Moderator, as it set off walking down a tree-lined lane that was materializing around them, leading to a stone cottage at the distant vanishing point.

McHaffey had regained his body, he noticed. Other details were emerging too. Birds sang in the arched boughs overhead. The scent of roses came next, followed by hedges of the flowers on either side. In the lane a strange bush appeared which, when he was close enough to get a good look at it, McHaffey saw was growing strips of bacon from the branch tips.

“Must be your fantasy,” he told the grinning Tail, who trotted up to the plant on which he then simultaneously nibbled and widdled. The rest of the landscape was nothing McHaffey could precisely remember ever seeing, and so it wasn’t from memory exactly. Yet it was familiar somehow. From his dreams? Cobbled together from things he’d seen, and admired, but never put together in his own mind? The sort of things he wished he could say he had seen, when he went to regimental reunions. Which was why he didn’t go.

The Moderator was some distance ahead now, forcing McHaffey to jog to catch up with it.

“This is the domain best suited to your happiness,” the Moderator said when McHaffey came alongside. “We’ll just walk up to the house. Sierra is waiting for you. She…”

McHaffey recoiled, feeling like he’d been pole-axed. “Don’t…” he breathed. He took a fistful of the Moderator’s shirt front and pulled it closer. “Don’t ever do that again.”

Looking slightly put out, the Moderator made a conciliatory gesture. “But, it’s what you want…”

McHaffey shook his head and released the Moderator. “There are no ghosts to raise; out of death lead no ways; vain is the call,” he recited.

“Beddoes? A gloomy poet. Is that what you believe this is? Dream Pedlary?”

“Just get rid of it,” McHaffey commanded, waving a hand around the simulation. As though responding to the motion, it faded back into black void. “And tell me everything you know about Meaghan Greenslade’s death.”

“G-slade is dead?” the Moderator said, its eyes round with the first show of real emotion the androgyne had given. It shuddered. “Dead?”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much the Moderator could add. Despite Cameron granting McHaffey total access, no amount of interrogation wrested from the Moderator any useful information about the dead programmer, only a reverential awe, made the stronger by the Moderator’s obvious shock at her demise. There were no recorded messages, no suicide notes left behind. No scenarios saved in the system – no traces at all. That in itself was even more suspicious than it was frustrating. Someone so intimately involved in creating the place had to have left a trail. McHaffey was beginning to regret his rash promise to keep Greenslade’s death under wraps until Friday. Surely Cameron wouldn’t have… no. She wasn’t capable of murder. But others could be.

“Perhaps you could have sent word of G-slade’s death to the coroner by some faster means than mailing a letter,” the Moderator commented, or accused.

The superintendent had been eager to offer the use of his franking machine for postage, even though he’d had to dust it off. And after all, the law merely required him to inform the authorities. It didn’t specify the method.

“I turned the room temperature down to five degrees. The body will be fine,” McHaffey explained. Then it struck him. “Are you reading my mind?” he demanded.

Almost imperceptibly, the Moderator shrugged. “Your mind is part of Transparadisium. As am I.”

“What are you, exactly?”

After a momentary pause, perhaps to check McHaffey’s access level: “You’re familiar with the concept of distributed computing? Every online user is evaluated for intelligence, sanity, and so on. In the best eight hundred a small region of the cortex is isolated and re-tasked to form part of my mind. The deficit is temporary and insignificant for the user. Collectively, they create… me. You could call me a child of mankind.”

“Oh, for a simpler age!” In the old days they just put ads on your screen. Now they took over part of your brain. It was all… insidious. Could Greenslade have been threatening to go public with this?

The Moderator shook its head. “It’s all in the User Agreement, I assure you. Quite legal.”

“Hold on,” McHaffey said, not liking the whole mind-reading business at all. “You’re not saying I’m… I’m part of you…”

It smiled. “The mind-sharing is somewhat more intimate with my donors, naturally. Admittedly, you’re more impulsive than the ideal donor, but selection is limited at present.”

Lord. Between gestalt brain-borrowers, simulated paradises, and walking, talking dolls, how was a person meant to cope with the world? At least Tail had the right idea. With the loss of his bacon tree he’d decided to take a nap until McHaffey fixed the reality trouble.

“Not everything unfamiliar is sinister,” the Moderator suggested.

There was certainly something sinister about that doll of Greenslade’s. No, not sinister, really. More pathetic, once the creepiness of it faded with time. The way it couldn’t move properly, but was almost trying to communicate something.

“How many data streams are coming through my game transponder?”

“It’s not a…” the Moderator started to say when McHaffey glowered, as only an annoyed constable with the backing of Apostolic Succession can glower. “Three.”

“Me. Tail. Show me what the other one is seeing right now.”

Turning to face the same direction as McHaffey, the Moderator called into existence a large oval window with a 3D view of… Vancouver. A familiar view.

“That’s my kitchen window. That doll is looking out my window, and sending the data through the transponder. Where’s it ending up?”

For a few moments the Moderator looked thoughtful. “A location in the Alpha Zone. How strange.”

“Take me there.”

It required a mere instant to reposition them. Whatever McHaffey’s vague anticipations had been about the nature of the testing area, they certainly hadn’t come close to the reality. He was in Greenslade’s elevator, going up.

Beside him, the Moderator shifted uneasily. “Regrettably, I have no permission to affect the Alpha Zone simulations,” it said.

“Terrific.” There was one consolation: McHaffey’s mind had outfitted him in his ordinary police gear, with body armour, truncheon, and pistol. It made him wonder if that wasn’t the role he was, at heart, most comfortable with. At least, until he felt the pinch of his dog collar.

Eleven, twelve, chime, and the doors drew apart onto a corridor darker than, but much like, the real one. Where the mural had been, there was only blank wall, as if the simulation wasn’t quite completed yet. Tail’s growl brought McHaffey’s mind back into focus enough to recognize that something else was out of place. A blacker shape crouched in the shadows by Greenslade’s door was stirring, unfolding itself, and stepping out into the half-light of the corridor. It was met by a deep, warning woof from Tail. Since the Moderator politely extended an arm to allow McHaffey to go first, he sidled out of the lift staying close to the near wall, and slid his truncheon from its belt-loop at the same time, while Tail advanced next to him, bristling. The leathery-skinned thing by the door inclined its low forehead this way and that, then set about chewing on its long claws with peg-like teeth.

It was Tambunting. The thing’s broad nose, twice the size of any human’s, and its dour expression only confirmed the impression. He’d been turned into a gargoyle.

All three edged around the creature cautiously, though it showed no signs of hostility. It even waggled its talons so encouragingly toward Greenslade’s door that McHaffey tried the handle. To his surprise, it opened easily.

So that’s where the tree went, he thought. Not a poplar now. He took each descending stair slower than the last, so preoccupied with the state of the room that his forward momentum was ebbing away. His last step crackled through dry twigs until it reached floor, where his sole stuck, feeling like it had pressed into fresh tar. All around the room were drifts of broken sticks, covering the furniture and lending the place something of the atmosphere of an especially unkempt crow’s nest. In the middle, where there should have been eggs, was a great tangled and leafless hawthorn tree growing from out of the floor, with an iridescent blue-green peacock squatting atop it. The bird spread the broad fan of its tail at McHaffey, which might have been very pretty had the dozens of feather-spots not been human eyes that rolled and blinked.

“I have a feeling the police recruit’s manual didn’t cover this situation,” McHaffey said. “What is this?” he asked the Moderator.

“Something the alpha testers created? I don’t sense any connection to players. Only something unusual, that I’ve only felt with one other player.”

No help there. Probably the Moderator’s dim memory of Greenslade’s last appearance. Whatever it was, it looked like no suicide note or crime scene that McHaffey had ever witnessed. He decided on a direct approach.

“I found Greenslade’s body,” he said, addressing the bird for lack of a more sensible suspect. “Tell me anything you know about her.”

Somewhat to his surprise, the peacock seemed to listen to him. It ruffled its tail and launched itself into the air. As it glided gracefully towards the floor, the gaudy, blobby bird stretched and blurred, becoming…

By the time its feet touched the floor it was a tall woman, tightly clothed in glistening peacock feathers. She spent just long enough looking smug at McHaffey’s astonishment for him to realize that he knew her face. Greenslade. She laughed.

“I appreciate your concern, constable. But as you can see, I’m not dead.”

McHaffey glanced to the Moderator. It looked hopeful after seeing Greenslade but shrugged, as if to say that this was a matter best left to competent legal authorities. Or to a human. Tail kept his eye on the bird-woman, but didn’t offer any advice either, except a comment on Greenslade’s housekeeping in the form of some suspicious snuffling of the ooze underfoot.

“I take it you’re claiming to be Meaghan Greenslade?” he asked.

“That organic mess back in the other world is regrettable, but I’m sure someone will take care of it,” she said. “I created this world, and I intend to live here. Forever.”

“You discovered the Almatis technique,” said McHaffey, causing Greenslade to turn her eyes sharply onto him from where she’d been contemplating the tree.

“So you know of it.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Almatis Corp. collapsed quite suddenly, as I recall, and several directors disappeared. I don’t suppose that involved you in some way?”

“Possibly. I also take it you’re claiming Greenslade’s death was… suicide?”

The bird-woman swept a hand down her feathered body. “It’s a debatable issue,” she said.

He looked to the Moderator again for advice.

“She is an avatar of some kind,” it said, smirking with suppressed pleasure. Or giddiness from Greenslade’s presence.

“Yes, Omega,” Greenslade said. When McHaffey looked puzzled, she added “That’s what I call him. The Greek numeral for eight hundred. You should visit more often,” she said, to the Moderator again. “I have a lot of changes in mind that I need to discuss with you.” Then, turning back to McHaffey, “If you’re done investigating, or whatever you’re doing, Omega will show you out.”

Was he finished? How could he tell it was really Greenslade – perform a Turing test on her? And could she be allowed to just slough off her body like an out-of-style dress, to take up another one in a simulation? What would the company say? Or was the avatar a fake, planted by a murderer? And what on earth was she doing posing as a peacock on top of a thorn tree?

McHaffey took a stroll about the room to grasp for clues. Aside from the squalor, it wasn’t much different from the real apartment. As he got closer to Greenslade, he found himself wondering if she were growing the feathers rather than wearing them. Her eyebrows, questioningly arched, were feathered too.

“Tell me about the puppet,” he said, “the one with the top hat.”

And why a dead tree, he thought. He toyed with a twig, pondering whether the bark was green underneath, getting pricked by a long thorn in the process.

“Puppet?” Greenslade said, a little nervously. “That thing. It’s only a stupid toy, from some movie. You can toss it out, along with the corpse.”

McHaffey grimaced at the drop of blood welling out of his finger, noticing for the first time that the simulation included pain. Annoyed, he snapped off the offending twig.

The tree shrieked, the scream dying away into a whimper, as though he’d broken off its finger. Blood poured from the severed branch. A reflex made him look to Greenslade for an explanation; instead of giving him one she leapt forward and offered him a hard shove into the hawthorn. The tree screamed, and McHaffey screamed too, pierced through the clothes and flesh by a hundred barbs. He hardly knew what was happening next, through the agony and the noise. From where he was writhing, impaled on thorns like a shrike’s supper, McHaffey could only watch events unfold. Tail, snarling, had sunk his teeth into Greenslade’s leg and the two were struggling barely more than an arm’s breadth away.

Two forest-green panthers materialized out of thin air to fall onto the bird-woman, knocking her to the ground, where they pinioned her with fangs like daggers. McHaffey gave up trying to extricate himself and simply watched as a masked samurai in armour, bristling with swords and horns, appeared next. And all the while a voice had been muttering beneath the din, saying something he could only now make out, with the racket dying down. “…stop. Make her stop… Make her stop…” It was the tree. He could see enough branches piled nearby to be reminded of the vast kindling heap the room had become; he knew the floor’s sticky coating to be gore, and for a moment he was sick with the sheer inventory of suffering it all represented.

He was brought back to the present by the warrior’s odd dance. Seemingly chasing a fly, the samurai made little grabs at the air, glancing this way and that between snatches. On the fifth, or sixth, the samurai seemed content and, drawing a sword, sliced the air. Once satisfied with the mime performance, the samurai turned to McHaffey and removed the grotesque mask. A lovely Japanese girl looked at him from under the curly helmet, with concern.

“I’m afraid I’ve been tailing you. You always get into such interesting trouble, McHaffey,” she said.

“Er,” McHaffey began, eyes flashing the length and breadth of the samurai girl in search of a mental handhold.

“Oh, this?” She indicated the get-up. “It’s a hobby.”

When McHaffey’s face remained screwed up in bafflement, in addition to exquisite pain, understanding lit up her face at last.

“Of course. This is me from fifty years ago, or so. What do you think?”

“Tetsuyama.”

She lifted McHaffey out of the hawthorn and onto Greenslade’s couch, where she joined him and considered the squirming bird-woman, now merely grimacing at her panther captors.

“Araxi and Jo,” Tetsuyama explained, twitching her sword toward the cats. They both looked up at hearing their names and shifted to brace Greenslade with paws that were changing into hands, the feline shapes metamorphosing into fur-clad human bodies. “Felt you were here,” Araxi said, “through the Moderator.” Beside them the tree continued its grim muttering.

“And this?” McHaffey asked, making little grabs at the air and regretting it when his injured hands ached in protest.

Tetsuyama watched his performance and removed her helmet, releasing a wave of glossy black hair that fell to the scaled sode sticking out from either shoulder. “Ah, you see I was severing the last link between them,” she said, indicating Greenslade and the tree.

“I don’t see. What link?”

“I mean, they had diverged too much to recombine, but hadn’t fully separated. Like conjoined twins.”

“Twins!” McHaffey said, jumping to his feet to regard the bird-woman and the tree, as if some resemblance might prove the claim. The Moderator was approaching the pair too, its stricken look changing back to awestruck fascination. The bird-Greenslade stirred with indignation.

“That’s no twin,” she said, “It’s a growth, an offshoot. It’s an artefact of the transference. It’s demented. It killed my body!”

“Is that why you’ve been torturing it all this time?” McHaffey asked.

“I haven’t! It’s only a pseudo-avatar, with a few defective bits of my personality.”

When McHaffey continued to look impassive, she added “It can only speak when you break branches. Go ahead. Try.”

Then she wants something from it, he thought. McHaffey addressed the tree, without effect. With a wince, he snapped a twig. A dribble of blood dripped out. The tree groaned.

“It’s true,” the tree said. “I’m nothing. Only worthless, corrupt data.”

McHaffey asked the Moderator’s opinion once more. “The tree does seem like the bird. They’re both… like him,” it said, pointing to Jo Creely, who was still restraining the Greenslade-bird with his furred arms.

“Full-digital sentients?” Creely suggested, startling McHaffey with the aptness of the reply. The Moderator nodded assent. Not since before the Almatis incident had Creely been able to string words together in any kind of sensible conversation. Here he was… as normal as he’d ever been.

The hawthorn had lapsed back into a seemingly depressed silence. Getting its side of the story wasn’t going to be easy, considering the process. Lord knew, sometimes he felt the same way himself: useless, and any communication a torture.

“There’s no other way to talk with it?” he asked, looking in turn to everyone in the room. There wasn’t.

Gritting his teeth, McHaffey snapped off another twig and drove the thorn through his palm in the same motion. Even knowing there was no real wound, it still stabbed like a knife.

“What does she – the bird-woman – want from you, and why won’t you give it?”

“System knowledge,” the tree moaned. “Programming. I got it all. She mustn’t have it. She’d abuse, pervert this place, she…” and the tree trailed off into silence.

Another branch, and another spine through his hand.

“What would she do if she had your knowledge?” he asked.

“Look around you. What do you think?”

Standing in the midst of a room full of blood and pain wrought by the bird-woman, he had to admit it was a foolish question. “Did you control the puppet?” he added quickly.

“Yes, I…”

McHaffey grimaced and pushed another broken branch’s thorn into his palm.

“Are you Meaghan?” he said.

The tree was silent for so long he checked the stick for blood.

“I… I suppose so,” she said at last.

What a mess, McHaffey thought, drawing out the barb. One dead body and two lost souls. The bird one wrestled herself upright.

“You’ve got no jurisdiction here,” she told McHaffey. “I committed no crime.”

Getting a bit fed up with her, McHaffey folded his arms resolutely.

“Under the law, you’re not even a person. You’re intellectual property of Transparadisium. If I chose to delete you, I don’t think they’d have a problem with it.”

“That’d be murder!” said the bird-Greenslade.

He was inclined to agree. He brushed back his hair, leaving a long smear of blood across his forehead.

“Moderator?” he said.

“Yes?”

“If I ask you to manipulate things here, what can you do?”

“With your level of access? Anything.”

Even in an avatar body, McHaffey felt a headache coming on.

“You said you couldn’t affect the Alpha Zone.”

“On my own. I can act as your proxy, however.”

Wearily, McHaffey shook his head. “How many of your eight hundred parts are currently lawyers?” he asked. “Never mind,” he added, when the Moderator looked on the verge of enumerating the membership of its mind. “Remove all permissions of the bird-Greenslade to affect anything in Transparadisium.”

“No!” she said, wrestling more desperately against Araxi and Jo.

“She can exist, and interact with players, but cannot change anything, or create, or destroy, or harm anything. And shut down the Alpha Test Zone. Eliminate it.”

“No!” she repeated, screeching almost like the bird she imitated. “You’ve no right!” The bird-Greenslade twisted out of Jo’s grip, elbowed Araxi in the face, and sprang into the air, transforming as she went. Araxi merely clutched a fistful of tail feathers before the peacock thrashed to the window and swooped away. Even as she did, the room was dissolving into a dark void, leaving only the people, and the tree. McHaffey turned to it, or her.

“And you,” he said. What to do with a half-person made of expertise, self-loathing, sacrifice, and hopelessness? “I think you should join the Moderator. Omega.” He had no idea what part of the tree was her ears, so he whispered close to a twig. “I only have a rough idea of what really happened here, and what you’ve suffered, but I know you’ve suffered enough. Whatever you’ve done, or think you’ve done, or failed to do, you’re forgiven.”

McHaffey straightened up and called over the Moderator, who approached with something like reverence.

“It would be an honour, G-slade, to have you join me,” it said, and reached hesitantly to touch the hawthorn.

Nothing happened.

Arguing would mean snapping off more pieces of Meaghan, and McHaffey hardly had the stomach for it, even without sharing the pain literally. But he could imagine what she was thinking. That no-one could really feel honoured by anything she did, or was. She’d failed, fallen apart, lost herself. Even her opus magnum, Transparadisium, was unfinished.

“This is your world,” he told her. “These people wouldn’t be here if it didn’t mean something to them. Omega wouldn’t welcome you if you didn’t mean something to them. Even if you do nothing else worthwhile, you can at least please them by letting them try to help you.”

After a moment the tree twitched and dissolved. When McHaffey saw the Moderator again, it looked a little sadder. And its hair was threaded with hawthorn twigs. And poplar leaves.

“She…” it began. “I…feel much better, now. Thank you.”

Except for the Moderator, they all retired to the water-filled palace set up by Araxi and Jo in the Beta Test Area, the Alpha Zone having now vanished. It was not an environment calculated to set McHaffey’s nerves at ease, but he was getting used to the fish schooling and darting through the rooms, and Tail found it entertaining to chase them in three dimensions, particularly when Jo gave Tail a seal’s body like the ones he and Araxi were currently using to swim loops around the chandelier. McHaffey was even growing accustomed to the way Jo and Araxi spent most of their time in the bodies of various animals.  It was the not-breathing that he found disconcerting. With any luck, though, the place might serve as a hideout until the exchanges opened Friday morning. Cameron’s wrath was all too easy to picture.

Then again, with Greenslade, or G-slade as her fans seemed to know her, melded irrevocably with Transparadisium, it was inevitable that some players would develop an obsessive devotion to the place. The Eight Hundred certainly knew what had happened. How long could it be before everyone else did? All things considered, McHaffey was beginning to suspect that Greenslade’s death, and rebirth, could be the trigger that turned Transparadisium into something… phenomenal. Unprecedented. A new world, flocked to by the people of the old. A world owned, lock, stock, and barrel by Cameron’s company, of course. If things turned out that way, he’d have to ask Cameron for a bonus. A free subscription for everyone in his regiment. He needed to make up for skipping the reunion somehow. The next one would be on him.

More worrying than the economics was the question of safety. Meaghan… Omega… or whatever the two now were, had told them it had been an accident. A little experiment, not meant to fully convert a mind to a digital form as they had at Almatis, but just a test of the technology needed. A split had begun that the proto-peacock-Greenslade nurtured, pushing the process further. The other half panicked, seeing what was growing out of her, and killed the body in trying to stop it.

McHaffey’s brooding was interrupted by Tetsuyama, still in armour, who swam down from the ceiling, head first, to drift to a stop in front of his face.

“Why so glum, McHaffey?” she said.

“I can’t quite decide whether this place is miraculous or infernal. Whether it should be protected, or shut down. If other people get split up like Greenslade…”

The samurai paddled in a roll until she was right way up.

“G-slade was the first. Probably not the last. If not here, someone will try it again somewhere. At least here Omega knows what the signs are, and is watching. And won’t let someone else make the same mistake.”

He and Tetsuyama watched the others swooping through the water until the chase was abandoned for an arc ending at the audience. The seal with dog-ears braked with its flippers and dropped a fish in McHaffey’s lap, while the other two remoulded themselves into hairless, grey, seal-skinned humans with their more-or-less normal faces.

“We were thinking,” Araxi said.

“Wondering about this crusading army of yours,” said Jo.

“It’s not an army,” McHaffey explained. “Well, all right, maybe it is. But it’s really more of a peacekeeping force.”

“Well, we’d like to join,” said Araxi. “We don’t have to be celibate, do we?”

“Not if you don’t want to,” said McHaffey.

“Aren’t you celibate?” Jo asked McHaffey.

“Not by choice. I mean, it’s not a job requirement.”

It was with more than a little scepticism that McHaffey regarded the two naked seal-people floating before him. But when he rattled off the Order’s oath from memory, they agreed to it. Lord knew the place needed some kind of guardians, especially until there was proof that the Moderator was sane.

“Hail to our glorious leader,” Jo intoned. They both saluted gravely before giggling overcame them.

“So where are you setting up the Order’s Transparadisium headquarters?” Araxi asked, more practically. “A castle?”

“That’s up to you,” said McHaffey. “I’m not staying in this weird place.”

“But what if we need your wisdom and guidance?” Araxi asked, snickering only slightly.

“You know where to find me. And if I’m not at home, I’ll be at her place,” he said, hooking a thumb towards Tetsuyama, “eating curry bread.”

The two seals pouted, seeming to accuse him of some perverse old-fashionedness in resisting the fantastic charms of the new world.

“Sorry,” said McHaffey, “but there are enough problems for me to deal with in reality without taking charge of this place too. And Transparadisium isn’t my idea of a holiday. When I want to get away from things, I’m more in sympathy with Archimedes. Give me a book that’s good enough, and a place to sit, and I’ll ignore the world.”

 

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Marlowe

Paul Marlowe

Paul Marlowe lives in Canada, and since his latest story in Something Wicked contains some religious themes he would like to clear the air by stating that he is not a practicing member of Canada’s official religion (Hockey – or, as some heretics in warmer climates erroneously refer to it, ‘Ice Hockey’).

He would also like to assure the reading public that his latest book, Knights of the Sea: A Grim Tale of Murder, Politics, and Spoon Addiction is every bit as silly as it sounds. And speaking of sounds, for a taste of the sort of fare you can expect in Knights of the Sea, listen to “The Resident Member”, a radio play of Marlowe’s short story of the same name, produced by Something Wicked, and available for free download, either on the Something Wicked website, or from Marlowe’s own website at www.PaulMarlowe.com

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