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Chapter 10



[-Sniff- That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.]

+You should've seen yourself when John fell. You practically went transparent, you were so pale.+

[I know. I'm still shaking.]

+It's a good thing I made him into a real velae and didn't just grow the wings on his human body. Velae are instinctive fliers. Actually, I almost forgot to give him the instincts. Can you see it? Aaaaaah... SPLAT!+

[That would also have been the sound of you going out the window if you really had forgotten them. -Sigh- It's too bad Borl missed it.]

+He never did show up, did he. I wonder why...+

[By the way, do you have any idea why John keeps hearing that sizzling noise? He can't possibly be hearing our monitor, can he?]

+Nah, he's just hearing air molecules bash together. You can hear it too if you get into a very quiet - +


[Borl! Wait'll you hear what—oh, um, hello Coordinator - ]

{Students Gen and Mal, Student Ard has made some serious accusations concerning your conduct in this experiment. May I review your recordings, please?}

+Borl, you fink!+

[Borl, how could you?]

/I had no choice. I can't risk my academic reputation at this point in my education./


This man was meant to fly,

'Cause someone gave him wings.

This man has touched the sky,

And like the bird he is, he sings.

No, no, that's dreadful, John happily scolded himself as he strolled through the awakening market square, chewing on the last of several sausage rolls he’d purchased from an early-rising vendor in the city, and smiling at sleepy-eyed merchants who paused as they opened their stalls to gape at the tall, cloaked stranger. The market was still mostly empty, disappointingly so—Bump into me! John mentally urged people he passed. Touch my wings! Feel how marvelous they are! Only Lyndess's warnings, half-remembered and dreamlike but powerful enough, prevented him from stripping off his cloak and shouting "Look, look, look!" He began to jog (oh! how wonderful, his wings bounced with each step), the sooner to grab Lyndess and dance her around the room. I can fly, Lyn, I can fly!

Knowing better than to approach the Idri castle via the main gates—Grynun would not like knowing that he’d been out on his own—John went directly to Lyndess’s private door, which had been shut but not re-locked.

We wrote a song about it once,

We didn’t know a thing

'Cause flying doesn't make you calm,

it makes you want to SING!

There, that’s a bit better.

John trotted round to the front door and hammered on it, calling "Lyn! Lyn! I'm back, lemme in!" He shifted weight from foot to foot impatiently as the woman came running to the door. It flew open, and Lyndess's tense dark face peered into John's radiant light one. "Lyn! Guess what I've been doin'!" he warbled, reaching to embrace her.

"In here, deadbrain!" the woman hissed, grabbing his left arm and yanking him into the house.

Caught off balance, he stumbled into her living room and fetched up against her—no, not her, too big, too smelly. It was Paul, tight-lipped and pale beneath his three-day growth of beard. He looked quite the young bohemian in a black Idri turtleneck (complete with cut-off right arm). Around his neck was a delicate silver chain.

For a moment Paul's face softened with vast relief; then he was all angry business again. "Are you crazy?" he demanded, catching hold of John's shoulders with his gloved hands and giving him a shake that was half hug. "Going out there in the middle of the night by yourself! You could've been killed!"

"You scared the shit out of us when we came to get you and you weren't here," said Ringo, coming up behind Paul. He was nothing but relieved that John was safe. "You scared the shit outta me when I went back up to the attic and you were gone! What were you up to, then? Gettin’ a shave? And some new clothes?"

John touched his chin; he’d never noticed it was hairless. Oh, well, unimportant. He laughed. "I went up to the clouds. All the way!"

Behind them, Lyndess made a little noise.

Disgusted, Paul pulled away from John and began to pace. "Why can't you give a straight answer for once? Jesus, Lennon, you really take the cake! Here we finally decide to leave this madhouse and start looking for a way home rather than waiting for one, and you're nowhere to be found, you've gone running off—"

"No, no, not just runnin', flyin'!" John hopped up and down, unable to hold the news in any longer. "I was flyin', Paul, flyin'!"

"- and you've, uh..." Paul's voice faded away. He watched John cavort, then said carefully, "Did you find some drugs? Is that why you went out?"

"Who needs drugs? I grew wings!" John fumbled with the clasp at his throat. "Here, you've gotta see ‘em, they're beautiful, all blue and white…."

"Sounds like he found some sort of LSD," Ringo muttered.

Paul didn't hear him; something about the way Lyndess was watching John, her hands gripping the back of a chair, made his stomach knot. With a little laugh, he began "Oh, you needn't take it off, we believe—"

The cloak fell off. "Ta-dah!" cried John, spreading his arms wide and twirling around to show the others his back.

Silence dropped on the room like a blob of honey; everything stopped, suspended, moving with difficulty against it.


[I am not terminating this project.]

+Gods, what luck! We could've flunked the whole class, not just the project!+

[I will not give up the computer time I reserved. I will not erase my program. I will not -]

+I can still pass the class with a ~ if I get a )( on the final. All my other grades were )('s and ><'s. Except that one - +

[- ‘abandon any further plans I might have had’ for them. The Coordinator has as much concern for life as a gamma ray. How he could erase my Master Disk before I could send them home - ]

+- ~ I got on the first test, but you can't expect me to study on Tynsis Night! Yeah, I could even get a >< on the final and still - +

[Varx, stop figuring your grades! Don't you care that my boys are trapped on C'hou for the rest of their lives? Without the Master Disk, I can't even watch them, let alone send them home!]

+Come on, Shag, you know I care about our heroes. Besides, I copied the Master Disk two nights ago. It's funny what I'll do when I'm bored. Took all night. But it was worth it, huh?+

[Varx! Stellar baby! Supernova! Utter genius!]

+The smartest person in the universe thanks you and requests a more spendable form of appreciation. Actually, the real problem's figuring out how to get computer time. We're last priority now that we're doing this as entertainment, and it's totally impossible to stay on for more than five decis without some highgrav bumping us off for classwork. You want to do more than just send our heroes home, right?+

[Yes. I have to get them into Baravada and find a place John can get changed back.]

+Too bad he can't keep the wings. He enjoyed them so much.+

[Well, he can't go home like that. He'd be dissected.]

+Among other things, yeah.+


Ringo broke the quiet with a shaky "Bloody Jesus fuckin' hell!"

"H-how?" Paul stammered. The room spun before him, and he clutched the edge of the table to steady himself. "How? How'd this h-happen?" He wasn't seeing this, John was playing a trick, he'd pull them off and they'd have a laugh, he wasn't seeing this!

"Yesterday, wonderful beautiful yesterday." John giggled, completely oblivious to the discomfort he had engendered. He twirled some more. "That marvelous Remlar, he attacked me and I came out like this. Isn't it great!"

"Metamorph powder," Lyndess added absently.

"Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," Ringo whispered, wide-eyed. "This just blows me mind incredibly.…" He swallowed. "Can - can I touch one?" At John's enthusiastic nod he timidly stroked a wing, then jerked his hand away. "It's warm."

"Of course it's warm." John shrugged them halfway open. Muscles on his chest rippled as he did so. "Eh, Paul, can I join Wings?"

It's not even his body, Paul thought, staring at John's chest, arms, legs. It's like someone cut off his head and put it on that body.

"What's it feel like?" Ringo asked. "I mean, flyin'."

John spun around, and Ringo had to jump back to avoid being whacked by a wing. "It was just incredible! I was so free, I was like Superman, you should've seen me! I jumped into the Chasm, I thought I was gonna die, and then - "

"You jumped into the water to fly?" Lyndess interjected, frowning.

"No, no, I jumped into the Chasm, not the sea! See, I ran about that big meadow, but I couldn't get in the air that way, so I jumped off the edge of the Chasm and flew. I flew!"

The woman's grin was so huge and satisfied that even the very distracted Paul knew she wanted something. "That's not the Chasm. That's the Deep Gap. The Chasm is what Ketafans stupidly call the Gafrharhen, the ocean that separates Ketafa and Baravada."

"Oh?" It was all one to John, who wriggled ecstatically as his mind soared back to last night. Marvelous, just marvelous.…

"John." Lyndess's hand gently touched his chest, and he looked at her. She gazed back with big, brown, hopeful eyes. "I have a bargain to make with you and your friends." She didn’t even glance around to include those friends.

Like a shot, John said "If it involves flying, I'll do it."

Lyndess squealed like a teenager and threw her arms around him.

"Eh, wait a sec," Ringo said, alarmed. He usually didn't mind when others made decisions for him, but this was ridiculous. "What did he agree to? What are we agreein' to?"

There were tears in the woman's eyes as she let go of John and composed herself. "My fault, sar, I'm so happy.… My bargain is this: You want to leave Focan, and you seek a way to return to your world. Ketafa holds no sar who could help you, so you’ll have to go to Baravada, to Ta'akan on the Shining Coast or Zagesevregar at the edge of the Ah’di. But first you’ll have to wait for a Rust Coast trader to dock and agree to take you, as the Idris prevent Ketafans from escaping this rotting land. That could take hands and hands of days. And the trip across the Gafrharhen will take no less than fifteen days, if the weather stays clear and pirates don't attack. And then you’ll be on the Rust Coast, still thousands of longsteps from any sar with sufficient power and knowledge to help you.

"But I can teleport you two and the other one to Ta'akan today—if John will fly across the Gafrharhen, carrying me."


[What ideas do you have for getting computer time? All I can think of is paying someone to let us take over a session or two.]

+Paying them with what, our bodies? In case you've forgotten, we're poverty-stricken students. I couldn't pay a beggar to go away.+

[I know it's not a good idea. I'm open to anything right now.]

+Let's kill the Coordinator and take over the school.+

[I'm open to most anything.]

+Well, how about this: let's use the old Mini-Megas in the math department. Anyone can use 'em, and they're always free.+

[The reason no one uses them is because they aren't very powerful. I don't think they could run this program.]

+Okay. Hmmm... We could rent a computer outside the school.+

[What was that about poverty-stricken students? Although I might be able to get another student loan.... Do you think we could persuade someone to abandon their project and pick up ours?]

+Nah. Here, gimme the school paper—maybe it'll inspire me.+

[I hope John got back to the city safely. Terdan might try to pull his cloak off. Gods, the Ketafans would tear him apart.... I hope Terdan doesn't hurt one of the others.]


For the first time that morning John looked doubtful. "The Gafrharhen—that's the ocean, right? Well, ain't that a bit far? I mean, I dunno if I can fly that far by meself, let alone carryin' you. I've only done it once, y'know."

"Do you think my brain turned to dust, that I don't know this? You're strong, yet not strong enough." Lyndess stroked his chest with a sweaty hand, and he realized with a start how small it looked against the vast expanse below his neck. "But I can cast and maintain spells that’ll enable you to carry me across."

That's my chest? John belatedly looked at her. "Uh, you can?"

"Yes. As I told you yesterday, I'm a movement mage, but I’ve learned off-branch magic from the Ketafan Hiddenwizards. A spell to shrink myself. Energy spells so we won't have to sleep or rest. Spells of sustenance that will also sustain our kidneys and bowels. A speed spell to hasten the journey. And spells of sanctuary against storms and location if you get lost. Maintaining the spells will strain me, but I have enough strength and spellfuel to last the journey."

"Oh, that's all right, then," said John. "Just so you've worked it all out." Still, something nagged at him, though he didn't know what. Maybe it was the overeager note in the woman's voice, or the desperate glint in her eye?

But Ringo, fascinated by the sudden downpour of magic even as he heartily wished to be elsewhere, said "Uh, if you can teleport us over, why d'ye need John, then? Can't you just do it to yourself?"

The woman's face hardened; she turned away abruptly and studied the wood carving on the wall. "You'd never have met me here if I could cast the spell on myself. You think I stay in this rusting place willingly?" She traced the carving's silver inlay with her finger. Then she turned back, looking old and tired. "I told you before that my feet did not carry me to Ketafa. I was placed here, caged here, by Banare, the goddess of humans." Lyndess spat on the floor and ground the blob of spit in with her heel. "Banare cursed me, so that to leave Ketafa I must cross the Gafrharhen—but I can't cross in any sort of vessel! If I board a ship, it sinks. I can't swim the distance. My teleportation spell will not take me beyond the shores of Ketafa, because I must cross physically. My friends haven't responded to the messages I sent on Rust Coast trader ships; either they've left Ta’akan, or the traders took my money and tore up my letters. Or my friends are dead." Lyndess laughed bitterly. "Banare chose my cage well! I can't even speak to godsar to pay my debts, for Ketafa itself is cursed—the gods can't perceive anything on this continent."

"The whole continent," said Ringo, subsiding into a chair.

"Five hundred years ago the Dalns gods and the Pyar gods fought for control of C'hou. The Deep Gap was formed during the struggle, as were many other landmarks. The Dalns gods won, but the Pyar gods cursed Ketafa before leaving. They cracked the real Vasyn—I don’t know why it was here—scattered the pieces, and declared that no Dalns god would be able to see or hear anything on Ketafa until the Vasyn was restored."

Ringo digested this cosmic weirdness. What was he doing involved with it? He looked to Paul for help, but Paul just stood like a zombie, his face expressionless; so Ringo muttered "Uh, yeah, right, I see why you need him, but, uh, what if we can't find each other when -"

"I'll send you to Ta'akan, where I'd rather be now, and you can arrange to meet there—or I'll help you reunite." Her tone became pleading. "I'll cast anything for you, give you money, give you - "

"Send us home?" rasped Paul.

Everyone looked at him.

"If we do this for you, will you send us back to Earth?" he repeated sharply.

"I - " Lyndess faltered. She shook her head. "I'm not knowledgeable enough to break universes. But I promise this if I return to Baravada: After I make my apologies to Banare, I'll help you find a sar who can. I will do nothing else until you're returned to your world."

Paul nodded. "That's good enough. We'll do it." He swung around to Ringo. "Right, let's get George. We have a few things to tell him."

He hadn’t looked at John once during this speech.


+Oh—oh, wow! I've got it! I think. Look at this article.+

[‘Running: An Enthusiast's Defense’ by Jeft Indle. What does running have to do with anything?]

+It's not physical running, it's character-running! Listen: ‘There is something enormously satisfying about watching the thriving of hand-picked beings in other universes where you have put them, and—’+

[Not much of a writer, is he?]

+Lemme finish! ‘—and seeing how they react to various challenges that they meet. Psychology students already know some of these pleasures, but they are restrained by the terms of the experiment. Real runners have much freer rules that they work by, that they have agreed upon beforehand. Always they have much more freedom to….” Anyway, you get the idea. Jeft is doing exactly what we're doing!+

[So? He wouldn't be able to get any more computer time than us.]

+You mean you haven't heard of Jeft Indle?+

[Just now. Should I have? He sounds foreign.]

+Yeah, he's extra-dimensional, got a computer programming scholarship. He has some minor psionic power that gives him an affinity for computers. He debugged some programs for the school, so they rewarded him with second priority on any computer. I heard he kicked the Coordinator's daughter off a game so he could work on a program. You must've seen him around—he's that fat, bald, white humanoid with the big head and the long skinny limbs.+

[Oh, now I know who you mean. He once took over the terminal next to mine. You think he'd give us some of his computer time?]

+I was thinking more of getting him interested in our heroes so that he'd want to watch them instead of his own.+

[You mean give them to him? No!]

+I don't mean that we won't have any say in the matter. It'll still be our program; he'll just be interested enough to watch and let us use his computer time. Gods, John's interesting enough for anyone now.+

[Well, we don't have much choice. I'll do it, if Jeft agrees.]

+C'mon, let's go find him and ask.+


As usual, George sat on his bed in the lotus position, eyes shut, palms flat on the bed, desperately chanting his mantra to drive out the only answer he'd come up with during his days of intense meditation. He had tried to uproot it when it first sprouted, but it was as tenacious as a dandelion, always leaving bits of itself that grew back as strong as ever.

But it was the only thing that made sense.

And he was sick of things not making sense.

God didn't send us here, he decided, and he surprised himself with his calm mental tone. I'm not saying You don't exist, Lord Krishna. You're still around, you're everywhere, but You just didn't do this. Someone else did. I don't know who, maybe Paul's right, it's aliens or whatever. But it wasn't You.

He repeated his conclusion to himself several times. At first he felt guilty, for wasn't he effectively losing his faith? No I'm not, he told himself fiercely. There are other things out there—being here proves it. I've just been wrong, that's all. And he was convinced.

Relief washed over him. Now he could act human, rather than the saint he thought he had to become. Cracking his first smile since arriving in Ketafa, he got out of the lotus and stretched his legs until they creaked. Oh, that felt good! Now the trick was to find out who had sent them there—but he could go about that differently….

The door flew open, WHAM!

George jerked back hard, and he could do nothing but stare at the woman in the doorway. Stark naked and reeling drunk, she raised a small drawstring bag as if toasting George and giggled insanely. "Sex," she whispered, licking her lips.

George's wits rushed back to him. Fi'ar—Castle Virgin—forbidden—castration— "No!" he yelped, scrambling off the other side of the bed, pressing against the wall as Fi'ar staggered toward him, waving her little bag at the end of its strings. She was too close, there was no way to run around her! He balled his fists, despairing at the weakness in his arms. How could he fight off this warrior woman, even with her out of her mind? As she loomed barely the length of his arm away, he opened his mouth to scream "H- "

Fi'ar yanked open her bag and snapped it at him. A cloud of yellow dust enveloped him, set him coughing hard. The world vanished in a golden haze as he stumbled from behind the bed, wheezing and striking out blindly. He touched flesh and heard a squeak; then he barked his calf on the side of the bed. "Ow, shit!" Frantically he rubbed his eyes. Tears flooded up, washed away the powder. His hacking subsided, leaving a slightly sore throat. And suddenly he was looking at


God's own concubine, the model for all male fantasies, sexual excitement personified even as she stood expectantly with her feet pointing in opposite directions and matted hair entering her gaping mouth. George's eyes grew very big as God was washed away by semen. Tearing his pants off, he leaped on the woman. Thud! on the floor, and they were rolling around in erotic, noisy, painful bliss.

Laughing and crying at the same time, George screamed at Fi'ar's shuddering body "I don't want to do this, yes I do!" She shrieked wordlessly and beat on his back, and with one last gigantic heave he exploded into her, rolled off her body, and passed out.

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