This story first appeared in Weird Tales, Fall 1999 (Issue #317) and was reprinted in The DNA Helix, July 2003, Wildside Press (A “Best of” DNA Publications Anthology)
“Mtp://mweb.DecLocus.prime.minus3051/umn.edu~Melchior,” I said. It was my current home site on the mweb. “Execute.””I hear and obey, Ravirn,” replied Melchior.
My webgoblin familiar scratched a hexagram into the wood with his right index claw and then spit out a netspider. The tiny magical creature scuttled across the stained table to the diagram. There it set an anchor line, crossed into the etched design, and vanished. A few minutes later it returned, at which point Melchior grabbed it and returned it to his mouth.
“Mm mm. Delicious and nutritious, tastes just like chicken.”
“Can the editorials, Mel. I know they taste terrible. That’s one of the reasons I created you in the first place. I just want to know if my room at the dorm is empty.”
The webgoblin stuck its spider-occupied tongue out at me. I snapped my fingers in exasperation, calling a wisp-light into being. I sent it to dance a few inches in front of Melchior’s eyes. The goblin hopped back and growled a little. When the wisp showed no signs of departing, he sighed and swallowed the spider.
“Processing,” said the goblin, in a mechanical voice. Then after a few minutes, “Reporting. Your room in the prime-minus-3051 Decision Locus is currently vacant.”
“Thank you, Mel. That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” I dispelled the wisp. No sense in aggravating him.
“Ick, ack, ptooie.” The goblin spat, his voice returning to its normal whiny growl. “When your grandmother wrote the code for those things, why did she make them so bitter?”
“I’m tempted to say it’s just another manifestation of her sparkling temperament. But that’s not actually the case. Uncle Varian asked her once while I was around. She said that it’s to remind us that the spiders are serious and potentially dangerous magical constructs, not toys.”
“Hmph. Why don’t you fix them?”
“There are several reasons.” I ticked them off on my fingers. “First, I’m not the one who has to eat them. Second, their programming is much more involved and nasty than it’s worth. Third, they’re virtually bug free, if you’ll pardon the pun. Fourth, and finally, it would seriously irritate grandmother and I’m not stupid enough to do that. Now, before you come up with any more distracting questions, I have orders. Establish a Locus Transfer Protocol link with the Comstock hub. Then, as soon as that’s done, initiate transfer. Execute.”
The little goblin glared at me, but went to work. I watched him pull a piece of chalk, a string, and a stick out of his belly pouch. Then he moved the rug away from the center of the small room. Using the stick and string to measure he drew a large hexagram on the floor. Into the center of this he spat another netspider. It blinked out the second it landed in the diagram, leaving a little glowing blob of gold silk pulsing on the spot where it hit.
“Connecting to prime-minus-3051,” intoned the goblin.
There was a long pause in which the pulsing became ragged. A few moments later it abruptly changed from gold to green. “Connect,” said Melchior. “Initiating Gate procedure.”
He dropped to his knees and grabbed the node. As he pulled at it the green glow spread outward filling the whole hexagram. Once the diagram was all green, the light rose to form a hexagonal column about six feet in height and two feet across.
“Gate established. There you go, boss. We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Mel. That was nicely done.” I stood and stretched, flexing my shoulders. Just then there was a loud crashing noise from elsewhere in the building. That would be the cousins coming to see who had invaded their demesne. And, as much as I might love to stay and chat with my dear dear relatives, Atropos’ brood is notorious for killing first and trading pleasantries later.
“Perfect timing,” I said to Melchior. “Shall we be going?”
“Yes, yes,” said Melchior. “She scares me even more than your grandmother.” The goblin was hopping from one clawed foot to the other in obvious agitation. He was also tugging at the corner of my cloak. I twitched it out of his hand.
“We go now!” he shrilled. The doorknob turned, as someone tried to open it.
“I do believe you’re right, Mel.” He was. I really didn’t want to be there when they got through.
I turned and stepped into the column of light. As I did so there was a tremendous thud and the door shuddered and groaned. A half second later the sound was repeated. Long cracks appeared in the thick wooden timbers.
“Melchior, Locus Transfer now,” I said. “Execute.”
Melchior, joining me on the hexagram, hissed out a string of spaghetti logic. The light began to shift from green to blue. As Melchior finished, a third impact buckled the door completely. I drew my rapier. A half second later a broad bladed hunting spear hurtled though a gap at the top of the ruined door, coming straight for me. It would be touchy, but I thought we would be gone before it got to me. Still, it never hurts to be careful. I brought my sword up to parry the missile just as the light finished its transition. As the head of the spear entered the lighted area, the room wavered around us and vanished.
There was a shower of sparks as the iron spearpoint grated along the edge of the rapier. The contact deflected the missile so that it went past my left shoulder and buried itself solidly in my roommate’s Hootie and the Blowfish poster. It also left my hand stinging and numb by turns.
“That,” I said to Melchior, “was entirely too close.” I dropped the sword and stepped to my dorm room door where I hooked the chain.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a gift for stating the obvious?” asked my goblin. He was livid, literally. His face and neck, normally indigo, had faded almost to periwinkle. “Were you trying to get us killed, or are you just stupid?” That was too much.
“Melchior! That’s enough. When I wrote you I included a certain amount of self determination, and a wicked streak of sarcasm. But I will not tolerate insolence or insubordination. Go to your desk.”
“Your least whim is my veriest desire, o’ prince. I dance to your bidding.” The webgoblin leaped up onto the small desk on my side of the room.
“Melchior, Laptop,” said I, tired of hearing his whining. “Execute.”
“No sooner commanded than performed.”
The goblin’s flesh began to flow like soft wax. Five minutes later the transformation was complete. What had once been a nasty tempered little manling was now a shiny WebRunner 2,000cs PPCP cell laptop. A small blue logo that bore a suspicious resemblance to Melchior was positioned just below the screen on the left.
While the goblin was altering his appearance to better fit in with his surroundings, so was I. The black cloak and the rapier went into a trunk at the foot of the bed. The tights, likewise black, and the emerald tunic were stuffed into a laundry bag. The high leather boots were retained to go over a pair of black jeans. I topped that off with a green “Nobody Wins” T-shirt and a TechSec leather jacket before checking myself in the mirror to see if I had forgotten anything.
Boy, had I ever. “Shit,” I mumbled. The face that stared back at me was not one I could wear around here. I invoked the spell that rounded my slightly pointed ears and reshaped the vertical slit in my green eyes to a more human circle. My long black hair, fine bone structure and dead white skin I left intact. On a campus with as large a Goth population as the U of M, they were normal enough to make the concealing of them a waste of magical resources; a cardinal sin in the Lachesis clan. That done, the transformation was complete. Prince Ravirn of the house of Lachesis, forty third in line for the throne, was gone. In his place was Ravi Latcher, a double major in Classics and Computer Science. A junior with mid-terms to study for. I ducked back into the main room and started stuffing books into my shoulder bag. That was when I remembered the spear. Ran into it is more like the truth, but that’s neither here nor there.
“Damn! If Rod comes back and finds that thing there I’m never going to hear the end of it.” I pulled the weapon loose and tossed it under the bed. That left the rip in the poster and the hole in the wall to be dealt with. Sighing, I flipped the cover of the laptop up and began typing.
Run Melchior. Execute.
I hear and obey!
The laptop shifted back to its webgoblin form. “What is it now? I didn’t even have all my inits in the right places. You know how I hate that.”
He can get in a real snit when that happens and I didn’t feel like picking a fight with my laptop three days before term papers were due. He had a nasty habit of crashing at the most inconvenient times when he was angry. I decided to be placating.
“I know, I know. I’m really sorry about that. You’ve been doing good work lately and I haven’t been praising you enough. But I really don’t have time for this right now.” I waved vaguely at the wall. “I was supposed to meet my study group in Walter Library ten minutes ago. I want you to fix Rod’s poster and then catch up to me there.”
“I don’t see why you can’t just do it yourself.”
“Because I don’t have time to code a real spell, and if I just paste an illusion over it I’ll forget about it. Then the illusion will wear off at the most inconvenient possible time and I’ll end up having a huge argument with Rod.”
“True, pathetic, but true.” I let that slide by and he continued. “Get moving, I’ll be along in fifteen minutes or so.”
“Great.” I opened the door then looked over my shoulder. “Oh, and Melchior.”
“I don’t want you terrorizing the sorority girls on your way over.”
“No, Mel. Stay away from the football team too, OK?”
“Yeah, sure. If I have to leave the Greeks alone I might as well not have any fun.”
“Thanks, Mel. You’re a prince.”
“No, you’re the prince. I’m just a lowly goblin flunky, doomed to a life of menial labor.” Melchior wrenched a razor sharp tooth from his mouth and spat a netspider into his hand. He squeezed it until silk came out and then threaded that onto the tooth. “No one appreciates my simple graces.”
As Melchior began to sew up the rip in the poster I ducked out and closed the door. Then I took the back stairs three at a time. When I hit the mall I sprinted. It was October, one of the good ones, and the air was crisp but not icy. In the clear fall air the full moon seemed close enough to touch and the smells of dry leaves and dying grass were enough to paint a grin on my lips. There was nothing like fall in Minnesota. I gloried in it as I raced across the lawn.
Melchior caught me as I was dashing up the library steps. Somehow, he had gotten there ahead of me.
“Boss!” he whispered loudly, from behind a pillar. “Hey, Boss.”
I turned, startled. He had gotten there too fast. “How did you manage to fix the poster and get here before I did?”
“I didn’t fix the poster.” He raised a closed hand to forestall my complaint. “We have much bigger problems than an annoyed roommate. This popped through into the room right after you left.”
He opened the hand. In it was a small broken thing, a netspider, and it wasn’t one of mine. I took it and popped into my mouth. The flavor was even worse than the ones my grandmother had coded. It was also familiar.
“Atropos,” I said. “This came from my cousins, or worse, my Aunt. Are you jamming?”
“As much as possible, but they’re using some pretty heavy code breaking algorithms. Their webhounds will have us locked down within ten minutes.”
That wasn’t much time, and it didn’t leave me with a lot of options.
“I guess I’m going to have to take a pass on my study night,” I said. “Melchior, bugout. Execute.”
“Executing,” said the goblin. “Waiting for connection.” There was a long pause. “Lachesis.web system connect denied.”
“Melchior is unable to create an Mweb socket connection at this time,” he said. “The system may be down or there may be insufficient system resources at this time. Try again later.”
We were being counter jammed. That was very bad. It meant they had me at least partially localized. It also meant that Atropos was directly involved. It would take her direct authority to seal access to a whole node or band of nodes.
“Right. Melchior, Sidedoor. Execute.” The goblin’s eyes glazed over and a low hum emerged from his mouth. After a moment he spoke again. “Unable to open carrier wave connection. Access denied.” In a more normal voice he continued. “Sorry, Boss. It doesn’t look good. I can’t get in anywhere and we only have about five more minutes before we’re locked down.”
“All right. If she wants to take this to extremes we’ll take it to extremes. Melchior, Scorched Earth. Execute.” His eyes got very wide and he looked like he wanted to object, but I had phrased it as a direct order and he had no choice.
“Loading,” said the goblin.
There was a long pause as Melchior prepped the spell. It was too big to keep in active memory. I had time to wonder if I was overreacting. Melchior’s voice came again.
Then it was too late for second thoughts. Scorched Earth is not a spell that can be aborted halfway. Ultimately all spells draw power from the same source, the primal chaos that churns between the worlds. Most use the predigested forces that my grandmother and her sisters channel into the net via their mainframe webservers. Scorched Earth isn’t like that. It taps directly into the interworld chaos. That means it is both very dangerous and very powerful. It also means that I don’t have to have web access to run it. Melchior’s voice interrupted my train of thought.
“Scorched Earth successfully implemented,” he said.
And, with those simple words, the nastiest virus I could code was released into the mweb. If it worked right, it would scramble the routers for my whole node band and put my Aunt’s webhounds smack in the middle of a data storm. There was no way they would be able to track me through that. There was even a chance they might be completely fragged. I chuckled at the thought.
“Uh, Boss,” said Melchior.
“Yes. What is it, Mel.”
“I just lost contact with the carrier wave.”
“I thought you couldn’t get in.”
“I couldn’t, but that’s not what I mean. I mean it just cut out completely.”
“It can’t do that, unless…” I trailed off as a really ugly thought occurred to me. I looked at Melchior and he nodded his head in agreement.
“There’s no carrier wave and no Mweb line,” he said. “I can’t even get a ping off the backbone. I think we just took the entire net down, Boss.”
Sitting at the desk in my dorm room I cradled my head in my hands. Melchior sat on the floor nearby. For four hours we had been trying to get some kind of link going to the net. Nothing had worked. There was very little doubt now that we had crashed the whole damn thing.
“Well, Mel, I think it’s time we admitted the-” He held a hand up, cutting me off.
He cocked his long pointed ears this way and that for a few moments and then got up and walked to the ethernet jack in the wall. Looking confused, he wetted a fingertip and stuck it into the socket. A moment later he let out a prolonged modulated whistle.
“Uh, Boss. I don’t know if you’re going to believe this, but you’ve got new mail.”
“Coming over the local net?”
“What is it?”
“It’s from your cousin Cerice, she wants a visual ASAP.”
“Over the local line? That’s going to lock a lot of folks out of their online services. Where is she mailing from?”
“Cerice@shara.gob via aol.com.”
“Well, so much for AOL for the next twenty minutes or so. I wonder what she’s doing in this DecLocus. I thought she was home in Clotho’s domain. I suppose that I’ll just have to ask. Vlink Ravirn@melchior.gob via umn.edu. Execute.”
“Aye, aye. Searching for shara.gob.” I used the brief pause that followed to drop the spell that altered my appearance. “Contact, waiting for a response from Shara.gob. Lock. Annexing extra bandwidth. Vltp linking initiated.”
Melchior opened his eyes and mouth wide. Three beams of light, one green, one blue, one red shot forth from these orifices and intersected at a point about four feet in front of his head. A translucent golden globe appeared at this juncture. After a moment it fogged and then filled with the three dimensional image of a strikingly beautiful young woman. Her hair was so pale as to be almost white, but aside from that her features bore a strong resemblance to my own.
“Cerice, my darling,” I said. “You’re as ravishing as ever. It’s an absolute pleasure to rest my weary eyes on your delightful features once again.”
“Charming as always, Ravirn. Your absence must be sorely felt at your grandmother’s court.”
“Alas, I think not. Lachesis is not overfond of me. I believe my nature pains her more than my manner charms.”
“Speaking of which,” said Cerice, her attitude shifting from courtly circumlocution to businesslike directness, “you have a major problem.”
“Huh?” I replied. The change in gears was jarring.
“Look, I know that family politics call for a lot of polite nonsense and frills before finally broaching the real subject for conversation. But, I just don’t have the time.”
“All right, I’m willing to dispense with formality. I was dying to ask you how you happened to be in this particular DecLocus at this exact moment anyway. I thought you were home.”
“I was until two hours ago
“But-” She cut me off smoothly.
“Yes, I know. The net’s down. I hacked into Clotho’s mainframe and used it to open a single use one way gate.”
“That must have been a cast iron bitch to do.”
She smiled. “It wasn’t that bad. You’re not the only competent coder in this generation. And, no, I’m not going to tell you how I did it, so don’t even ask.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t even dr-” She cut me off again.
“I don’t want to hear it, Ravirn. I didn’t call to exchange hacking tricks. I called to let you know that you’re in hot water all the way up to your eyeballs.”
“Atropos wants your head.”
“That’s not news. My grandmother merely mislikes me, her sister on the other hand has always held a special black little place in her heart for me. It’s because of my hacking. Atropos writes lousy security algorithms and then blames me when I happen to point that out to her.”
“Ravirn, don’t be more of an idiot than usual. We both know that she’s security mad, and that her firewalls and program killers are better than either Clotho’s or Lachesis’. We also both know that’s why you bother to crack them. You’re an egotistical bastard where it comes to your hacking skills, and Atropos is the only opponent you think is worth your effort. So, time and again you hack into the command line at Atropos.Web just to prove that you can. Unfortunately you haven’t the wit to do it without leaving a calling card of some kind so that you can gloat about it later.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“But me no buts. As I said, I haven’t the time. Neither have you. Not after you crashed the whole net. That was not real smart.”
“It wasn’t actually my intention.”
“Intention or not, that was the result, and it’s given Atropos the opportunity she’s been waiting for. The net hadn’t been down for five minutes when she showed up at Clotho’s demesne. They called council and when Lachesis arrived Atropos demanded your head. Your grandmother apparently has a higher opinion of you than you think, because she absolutely refused to hear of it. Unfortunately for you, Clotho sided with Atropos.”
I felt a sort of rushing sensation in my head. I had always known, in the abstract at least, that something like this could happen, but I had never really believed it.
“I’m screwed,” I whispered.
“Yes, you are. Atropos couldn’t just cut your thread without unanimous agreement of course, but with the net crashed and Clotho backing her she was able to get Lachesis to agree not to interfere with a proxy assassination attempt.”
“Moric, Dairn and Hwyl.”
“All three!? Just for poor little old me?”
“Lachesis agreed to only one attempt. Atropos didn’t want it to fail.”
“When was the conference?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Powers and Incarnations, I’ve got to get moving.” I started to tell Melchior to close the connection, then paused. “Cerice, thank you. If I survive, I’ll owe you my life. If not… Well, if not, I’ll still owe you a great deal, but you’ll likely have a hard time collecting. I have to know, why did you warn me?”
“Because you’re my favorite cross cousin. Despite your pigheadedness, arrogance, and willful idiocy, you are quite charming in an impish sort of way. The world and I would be the poorer for your passing. Now go.” Her hand waved briefly and then the picture faded away.
“Melchior, log us off and shut down all incoming modem traffic.”
“Yes sir, right away, sir. Logging off and shutting down modem, sir. Then will we be running away, sir?”
“Damn straight we’ll be running away.”
“Very good, sir. Brightest thing you’ve done all day, sir.”
“Don’t push your luck, blue boy. I might leave you as a distraction for the assassins. Now, Mel, I want you to- Powers and Incarnations.” It hit me like a ton of bricks.
“Ah… I’m not sure I’m familiar with that one, boss.”
“Mel, the net is down. The hit team will be coming the same way Cerice did. That means we have no way of knowing when they’ll arrive. For that matter they could be here already.”
The impulse to run out the door right then was almost overwhelming. I choked it down. I had to run, but I had to run smart. Moving as quickly as possible I grabbed my rapier and a left handed shoulder holster out of the trunk. When those were strapped in place I leaned down and tapped the combination into the speed-draw gunsafe bolted to the underside of the bed. The drawer popped open and I pulled out my beat-on but much loved Colt 45. Before holstering the old model 1911 I worked the slide to chamber a round, flipped the secondary safety on and popped the clip. Then I loaded another bullet and returned it to the pistol. Also in the little drawer were two more clips, a box of slugs, and a dozen Krugerands. I tucked them into my jacket. As no one had yet broken my door in I took the time to kick off my boots and jeans and swap them for TechSec racing leathers. Finally I grabbed the shoulder bag I keep packed for emergencies.
“Come on, Melchior.” I opened the flap on the bag. “Let’s go.”
“It’s about time,” replied the goblin, as he climbed into the bag. “You were going so slow I thought you were going to put down roots.”
“Listen,” I began. But then I thought better of it. “Later, if I’m still alive, I think I’m going to rework your OS.” I grabbed my motorcycle helmet and gauntlets, and opened the door.
On the other side was a huge figure dressed in lamalar armor. From the demon-face helm a voice said, “Say goodnight, Gracie.” Then a massive fist holding an Afghani punch-dagger slammed into my chest, right over the heart. The blow knocked me halfway across the room. It also cracked a rib, but thanks to the multi-layer Kevlar lining that TechSec built into all its racing gear, it failed to kill me.
I didn’t think I would get that lucky twice. Hand to hand in a small room with my cousin Moric was a recipe for a quick death. His abilities as a sorcerer were not fantastic, but for the past couple of hundred years he had focused them on physical enhancement and on that score there weren’t many in the family who could match him.
No, in this case discretion was the only part of valor. Unfortunately he was between me and the door. That left me only one possible exit and I took it. Holding my helmet in front of me I crashed through the window. That solved the immediate problem, but it also left me outside of the window of my twentieth floor dorm room.
“Melchior, Fear Of Falling. Execute now, now, now!”
The goblin stuck his head out of the bag. “I-aiee! Executing.”
We had dropped nine floors. A prerecorded version of a spell spewed from the tiny blue lips, at 56,800 kilobaud, it sounded like a whippoorwill on speed, but it did the trick. Three floors above the ground our headlong plunge became a leisurely drift. I pulled on my helmet and gloves. It looked like I was going to need them before I ever got to my motorcycle.
My feet had barely touched ground when something struck me above the collar bone and then burned its way across my neck. More by reflex than conscious thought I tucked my chin into my chest. That caused the second arrow to strike the chin piece of my helmet instead of my throat. The arrow shattered, my helmet cracked, and my head just about came off my neck. Groggily I turned and headed for River Road and the cover of the cars parked there. Two more arrows hit me in the back as I went, but didn’t pierce the Kevlar. I was going to need a new jacket and pile of pain killers, but at least I wasn’t leaking any precious bodily fluids.
Once I reached the road I ducked behind an old Dodge Ram pickup and opened my jacket far enough to grab my pistol. Then I carefully zipped it again. I needed all the protection I could get. I also needed a plan.
If this conflict stayed a purely physical one I was going to die. There was no way around that. Sure I’m a lot stronger, tougher and faster than a normal human. But then so is everyone in my extended family. And when you put me on a scale filled only with my relatives the picture changes completely. I weigh in firmly in the featherweight division. Moric and his brothers on the other hand are all ultra-heavyweights with attitude.
Unfortunately I don’t do my best thinking under pressure, and nothing came to mind immediately. The arrows smashing into the truck I was leaned against didn’t help either. So a plan would have to wait until I put a little more distance between me and my homicidal cousins. The only problem was how to do that. The archer, probably Dairn who pulls a 225lb bow, was shooting at me from the ramp where my cycle was parked, effectively cutting me off from it.
Well, I couldn’t stay where I was. Moric would be out of the dorm and back in the game shortly. And Hwyl was out there somewhere as well. To my left River Road wound lazily past the parking ramp and Dairn. To the right it curved sharply north and went under the Washington Avenue bridge. Directly across from me was a thin strip of trees followed by a steep plunge into the Mississippi. I considered the choices and then, keeping the cars between me and the ramp as much as possible, I headed for the bridge. I was almost there when I heard a low gurgling growl. I winced. Intellectually I had known that Hwyl must be around someplace. Emotionally I had been pretending he didn’t exist. So much for that. I tapped my shoulder bag.
“Mel?” I whispered. “Are you still alive in there?”
A muffled voice replied, “Battered, but serviceable, boss. What do you want?”
“Melchior, Redeye. Execute.”
“Executing,” said the webgoblin, and whistled the spell.
My visual range expanded to include the infra-red and I peered at the gap under the bridge. On the left side, near one the abutments, a broad hulking inhuman shape lurked. Eyes, lamp bright in the IR range, glared out at me. It was Hwyl all right. Great. Being careful not to make any sudden movements I thumbed the 45’s secondary safety off. The beavertail primary, was of course deactivated by the grip of my hand on the pistol butt.
Hwyl took a step towards me. My intestines did a backflip with a half twist. I wanted nothing more than to run blindly away. The things Hwyl has used his magic to do to himself give me the screaming creepies. Forcing myself to move with precision I snapped the pistol up into line and fired four quick rounds at his knees. The booming sound of the shots covered the noise, but I could see bone and tissue shatter and pulp under the impact of the heavy copper jacketed slugs. I turned to my right and ran up the slope to the bridge.
While I ran I cursed under my breath. It might take as long as two minutes for Hwyl’s injuries to mend, but mend they would, especially with a full moon. Lacking silver weapons there was nothing I could do to him that would keep him down. That was why I aimed for the knees. Almost any other wound he could have taken and kept coming, but nobody, not even a were like Hwyl, can walk with broken knees.
My options were rapidly narrowing. By forcing me away from the passage under the bridge Hwyl had pushed me onto a killing ground. The space I entered now was narrow and enclosed on both sides. If Moric or Dairn could close off the other end it would be all over.
On my left was the long barren expanse of concrete that made up the car deck of the Washington Avenue bridge. On my right the alien, stainless steel angles of the Weisman Art Museum gleamed in the moonlight. The twisted mirrors of its construction threw my distorted reflection back at me. Something about it spoke to me, and I paused in my headlong flight to look at it. I held out my hands to touch the cold metal and the warped picture in its depths seemed to offer me refuge. It was exactly the message I needed to hear.
Turning around, I grabbed hold of one of the I-beams that supported the upper deck of the bridge. A quick layback ascent brought me to the pedestrian surface above. It also placed me only a few yards from the doors to the Weisman. I turned towards them and ran. They were locked. They were also glass. A small concrete and steel ash tray stood beside the doors. I bent, picked it up, and heaved it through the glass into the lobby.
A brutal clanging began thrashing the air as the alarm went off. As a sort of counterpoint I could hear the approaching wail of police sirens. Those were probably in response to the gun shots. In a few minutes the whole area was going to be flooded with cops. I winced at the thought. Unless those police officers were very lucky they were going to end up going toe to toe with my cousins. That was likely to get a lot of people killed. The only thing I could do about that was to remove myself from the equation as quickly as possible.
With that as an additional spur —like I needed another one— I raced down the main stairs and into the Red Gallery, where the current traveling show was housed. It was called ‘A Distorted Mirror: Our World Through the Eyes of the New Surrealists’. I turned right, past a sculpture of a giant melting Chihuahua, and started looking for the right sort of painting. Before there was an electronic web tying the worlds together there was an artistic one. Almost from humanity’s beginning there have been artists interested in representing and interpreting the world around them. A small but significant number of those artists could see past their own world and into the others beyond. In the early years my grandmother and her sisters had used those gateways as their only means to travel between the spheres.
Of course, as the centuries went by and technology advanced they developed better and better means of travel and control, eventually settling on the mweb as the ideal solution. It was quick, it was powerful and it was easy to integrate with the growing electronic nets of the outer worlds. But the old ways still existed, they had just fallen into disuse.
There were drawbacks of course. Each of the artistic gateways goes to only one other world and there is no way to reset them. They are also slow to make and difficult to use, to say nothing of the interface. On the other hand, anything that stood a chance of getting me out of this DecLocus alive was worth trying.
That thought was abruptly punctuated by a sharp yell from outside followed by a couple of shots. I looked back towards the entrance to the gallery and found my eye caught by a splotch of bright jewel tones on a panel near the door. Even from where I was standing I could tell it was what I needed. I dashed over and was pleased to see that not only was it a gate, but it even looked like it might be to someplace nice. That was a big plus in my book. I didn’t want to cross over into some raving, psychotic, artist’s personal vision of hell. I grabbed Melchior out of the bag and dropped him on the floor.
“Mel, I need you to set up a DecLocus transfer to wherever this picture goes. But first we’re going to need to make sure that no one follows us through.”
The webgoblin looked at me suspiciously. “How do you propose to do that?” he asked.
“You’re not going to like this, Mel. But it’s the only way. Melchior, Burnt Offerings. Exe-” The little bastard cut me off.
“I really don’t think that’s such a good idea, boss. Not only is it excruciatingly painful, but if anything goes wrong we could be-” I held up a hand and he ran down.
“I don’t want to hear it, Mel. Melchior, Burnt Offerings. Execute.”
“Executing,” came the resigned response. Then, he waited for me to do my part.
It was my turn to try and think of an excuse to avoid what came next. He was right, this was going to hurt. But I couldn’t think of anything else. I stuck the tip of my left pinkie finger into my mouth and bit down hard on the first joint. The pain was incredible, and I thought I was going to black out, but it was this or die. I bit down harder. The blood started to flow and I gagged but kept biting. Abruptly, with a sickening pop, I felt the cartilage go and the tip of my finger came off in my mouth. I spat it onto the floor and then turned away and threw up.
When I turned back Melchior had paired the fingertip with one of his own and, using the blood from his maimed hand, was inscribing a diagram around them. From his bloodied lips came a steady stream of spell data. Now, we would see if it worked. It was a good theory, and I had run it through my spell-checker looking for bugs at least a dozen times, but for obvious reasons this was not an enchantment that I had been willing to beta-test.
I pulled a sterile wound dressing from my bag and quickly wrapped my finger. As I did this Melchior finished the diagram. A moment later the paired fingertips began to swell and metamorphose. Within a minute they had become miniature versions of the goblin and I. Within two they were approaching us in size. Within three they had grown to exact duplicates and my consciousness expanded to fill the body of my doppleganger. I opened my second set of eyes and instantly developed a skull splitting headache. The effort of managing two bodies was bad enough, but the quadroscopic vision provided by four eyes was the real killer.
At least it wasn’t going to last long. One way or another the situation was going to be resolved in the next few minutes. Not-I reached down and grabbed the fake Melchior. I handed not-me the bag. Not-I took it, put not-Melchior into it and went out the door of the gallery. I closed my eyes and concentrated on managing not-I. Melchior reversed those priorities as he worked on creating a pre-web DecLocus gateway, while letting not-him sit vacantly in not-my bag.
Not-I staggered a couple of times on the stairs, but made it to the main floor without falling. Not-I turned towards the front doors where Moric had just arrived. As not-I watched there were a couple more shots and sparks danced across the back of his armor. He didn’t even seem to notice. That wasn’t exactly a big surprise. The armor was modeled on a suit my aunt Electra had designed and nothing short of an anti-tank missile was going to breach it. He turned then and saw not-me. Smiling he advanced.
“Ah, dear little Ravirn. How nice of you to come out and meet me. Did you simply run out of places to hide? Or did you finally remember the nobility of your blood and decide to look your death in the face?”
“Neither,” not-I replied. “I decided that if I was going to go I should at least take one of you with me.”
Not-I raised not-my hands and pointed them at Moric. Internally I braced myself. Then I opened a line into the interworld chaos and let it pour down the channel that led from my body to my doppleganger’s. It was like opening up my veins and pouring liquid fire into them. Both of my bodies crashed to their knee and I felt my own right kneecap fracture. Compared to the pain of the linkage it was barely worth noting.
I was intentionally violating every rule I had ever been taught about the proper management of magical power. Normally we only tap the raw chaos in a very carefully channeled way and all sorts of precautions are taken to contain it. That was why it can be very dangerous to tamper with even something as simple as a netspider. Muck up the tap and instant charcoal.
I felt the skin of my doppleganger crisping as though it were my own as its underdeveloped nervous and magical channels struggled to handle the overload. There was no chance. My uncle Mordechi had died this way when a particularly involved enchantment melted down on him, and he had been a better pure sorcerer than I was ever likely to be. It was in fact that death which I had had the misfortune to witness from close at hand which had given me the original idea for Burnt Offerings.
Not-I watched as the power I had summoned shot from not-my hands and wreathed my cousin in flames. His armor protected him from some of the fury that was smashing at him, but it couldn’t keep out all of it and after only a second or two he was swept from his feet. I didn’t see what happened after that because not-my eyeballs chose that moment to melt down.
The pain was my entire universe and I fought like mad to free myself from it and the linkage which connected my two bodies. It was hard, and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do it especially with the agony that washed across me. But if I didn’t manage to sever that pathway when the chaos tap finished consuming that body it would backlash into my own and that would be it for me.
Mentally I cut at the link with everything I had, but it was very strong. It had to be, forged as it was from the sympathetic resonance between me and the fingertip which I had used as a seed for the doppleganger. Symbolically we were still part of the same whole, and breaking your own internal self image apart is not a task I recommend. In point of fact, it’s just about impossible, a circumstance that I was discovering to my great dismay. It didn’t look like I was going to be able to do it. I was going to die.
“Boss!” Melchior’s scream impacted on my ear from a distance of millimeters. “Boss! The gateway is open. Let’s get the hell out of here!” There was pain in his tone. No surprise there, not-Melchior must have been getting pretty badly charred in not-my shoulder bag.
Fighting through the pain I forced my eyes open. My vision was blurry from the tears of agony that streamed down my face, but I could still see the depth and life which had come to suffuse the picture. It was too bad that I wasn’t going to live to see the world on the other side. It looked like a nice place.
“Thanks, Mel. You’ve done me proud. Why don’t you step through and find someplace nice to settle down. I don’t think my great aunt is going to want to leave you in one piece if she finds you, even if I’m gone. Take care of yourself.” I closed my eyes again. It was emotionally too hard to keep them focused on that escape I had almost made.
“Boss, come on. You’ve got to move. If you don’t they’re going to find you and kill you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mel. By the time they get here I’ll already be gone. The doppleganger’s just about burned out and the backlash should be along to get me in a few seconds. But, thanks for caring.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Ravirn. The net’s backbone is down. Once we’re through with the gate closed behind us the doppleganer link will be severed.”
“What?” I thought about that for a moment and realized he might be right, but only if I hurried. I had at best five more seconds before not-I finished flaming out. After that…
I reached up with one hand and grabbed the edge of the picture frame. I started to stand and rediscovered my broken knee. My leg folded under me and I almost lost my grip on the picture frame. I had three seconds left. Placing my other hand next to my first I pulled myself up and into the picture. The pain as my broken knee hit the panel below the painting was enough —when added to the feedback coming from the doppleganger— to knock me out.
I don’t remember what happened next, but I must have gotten lucky and fallen in the right direction, because when I woke up ten minutes later I was still among the living. I was also in another world. I was on a rounded green hill in the middle of a fairy circle made from crushed beer cans. Melchior was beside me. I looked at his maimed left hand and a wave of guilt washed over me.
“Sorry, about the hand, Mel.”
“It’s okay, boss. I understand. If that scrawny carcass of yours turned up without mine alongside it, your cousins would never believe they had the real thing. Even with your actual flesh, in the form of your fingertip, providing the signature they’d know that something was up. It is after all common knowledge that you couldn’t find your ass with both hands and a map if you didn’t have my help.”
“You know what, Mel. I’m going to ignore that comment because of your recent service above and beyond the call of duty. And I’m not going to erase your hard drive and start from scratch like I should.”
“Gosh, boss, you’re all heart.”
“Thank you, Mel. But now, putting all that aside for a moment, what do you think, trash her files, a virus, change all of her passwords?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Melchior, his tone one of deep concern.
“Getting even with Atropos.”
“Are you out of your teeny tiny little mi…” He trailed off into a sigh and then began again, “Do we have to? Can’t we just stay dead for a while and let things cool off?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. If I quit hacking, Atropos wins. Besides, if you can’t tempt a fate once in while, where’s the fun in life. Come on, let’s get to work.”
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 1999. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.