by Jenn Reese




"Prithee, Lady Murielle, hast thou yet discovered the cause of the creature's malady?"

"Cut the crap," Murry said. "I've got a shitload of work to do."

Salam laughed. "Wouldn't hurt you to get into the spirit."

“Yes, actually it would.”

Murry kept her eyes on the polygons rotating in 3-D on her monitor.  When you put 'em all together, they spelled Gorgon, Medusa Class.  When you put 'em all together and they worked, that is.

Salam leaned over her shoulder to stare at the performance charts lining the left column.  "She looks fine.  Still no luck locating the problem, I assume?"

"Yeah, no luck."  Murry kicked back and let her chair roll her to the second desk she kept in her work area.  She grabbed her coke from the middle of two telemetry monitors and took a long swig.  It was warm and flat.  "The critter's still alive, but it's totally ignoring Denizen safety codes.  Already broke some guy's arm, even though he's a Level 10."

"Did you check—"

"His projector's fine.  Ran the diagnostic this morning."  Murry nodded to neat stack of papers near Salam.  He ignored it, continuing to stare at the rendered Gorgon.

"What about the other generation-fivers?"

"We grew eight in that batch, according to Anderson's records.  All were released, four killed by Denizens, four still at large." Murry shrugged.  "Nothing there."

"Guess you'll have to go out and take a look, then," Salam said.

Murry frowned.  Salam had switched into boss mode, and she found that annoying.  He always acted buddy-buddy until there was something distasteful to do; then the switch flipped and she'd be sharing a bag of potato chips with a Suit.

"Send Teresa.  She likes it out there."

Salam shook his head.  "No.  Teresa and her team have been putting in overtime on the coronation project, and they've got a lot to finish before the ceremony.  Jang's group is working on that casting module for the Projectors.  There's a lot of potential revenues on that project, so they're out.  Besides," he said with a smile,  "you're our high-priced consultant, the one who doesn't need a team.  Looks like that fiery independence and ornery disposition might backfire on you this time."

Murry wiggled her tongue at him in a blatant show of fiery independence and childlike maturity.

"Good.  I'll speak to Security and get you an escort," Salam said.  "Most of the folks are overseeing that damned war in Blue, but I think Henry stayed back for his annual recruitment camp.  He's a good guy, but likes to play the game."

Salam stared at her, using his best eyes-of-intimidation stare.  "Don't give him a hard time.  You know Kingdom policy, so don't cross the line."

"Do I ever?"  she asked sweetly.  Murry tried to bat her eyelashes as well, but lacked the skill and coordination to pull it off.

Salam sighed.  "Just go."

*     *     *

As she walked, Murry looked down at her dress for roughly the fifteenth time, and shuddered.  They'd been traveling for almost two hours but the horror was still fresh.

"You are quite fetching in blue," Henry said beside her.  He was leading his horse by the bridle because Murry refused to requisition a horse for herself, and because Henry refused to ride while she walked. Whatever.

"Fetching? As in dog?"

Henry laughed. "You delight in attempting to vex me.  The habit is amusing. I meant fetching as in charming, as you full know."

Murry suppressed a growl. First the dress, now the forty-year-old reject from a Ren Fair spouting platitudes. It was a two-day hike to the forest by Castle Red; Murry wagered that one of them would be dead before they arrived.

She looked at Henry.  The man was fit, tan, and clearly enjoying himself.  He wore a green leather tunic studded with metal, green tights, and the most worn-out calf-high boots she'd ever seen.  Despite the primitive lifestyle of the Kingdom, he managed to keep his moustache and goatee impeccably shaped.  Only the ugly red blemish of the receptor/projector module -- the Third Eye -- buried in the flesh of his forehead marred his otherwise inoffensive face.  Murry glanced down that the sword swinging from his belt.  Hopefully he shaved with something a little smaller.

"If I may ask, my lady," Henry said, "how does Lord Jeffries?"

"How does he do what?"

"How does he fare," Henry explained.  "The creature broke his arm clear through -- I saw him in the healers' tent."

Murry shrugged.  "Oh, that guy.  They took him to the hospital.  It was a bad break, but clean, from what I heard.  No doubt he'll be fine."

Henry nodded.  "I am glad to hear it.  He fancied himself a knight, though he had not the heart for it.  I always knew he'd find some trouble for his daydreams."

Murry looked at him.  "I thought you all fancied yourselves as knights.  Isn't that the point?"  The sharp stone in her boot was really starting to piss her off, and itchy tributaries of sweat trickled across her back and down her spine.

"Some of us do more than fancy," Henry said.  "Some of us train and learn and practice.  Some of us are more than playing."

"But this is Pennsylvania, not Castle Azure, not Castle Crimson, not Castle Sun.  Playing or not, none of you are knights." 

Murry snorted.  When she was working in the Tower, it was easy to think of the Denizens as visitors to an amusement park.  Sure, they paid a little more and stayed a helluva lot longer, but they were just tourists in the end.  It was easy to forget how seriously some of them took the whole Kingdom scenario.

Henry walked beside her silently.  He kept his gaze on the trail in front of them.

"Look, I didn't mean to insult anyone," she said.  "It just seems impossible, even for a minute, to forget what this place really is."

"Maybe for you, but not for me."

Murry rolled her eyes but kept her mouth safely closed.  It was too easy to bait him, to bait any of them, and not that rewarding.

"Why do you choose to work here if you dislike it so much?"  he said.  "The Kingdom hires the best, so you must be able to find work elsewhere . . . ."

Murry snorted again.  "You have no idea how much they're paying me for this gig.  It's almost obscene.  I don't give a crap about the work itself, but hey."  She shrugged.  "Can't have everything."

"I don't agree," Henry said. "You can—"

A woman screamed. 

Sounded just like it did in the movies, Murry thought.  Maybe a little more angry than scared, but who was she to judge?  She found herself scanning the forest on either side of the path.

"This way!"  Henry shouted.  He drew his sword and bolted into the woods. 

Strangely, Murry found herself following him.  She dug through her pack as she ran, trying to find the projector she had borrowed from Jang.  Then her damn dress snagged on a branch and she was eating dirt.  Murry, projector clutched in one hand, pushed herself off the ground and stumbled to her feet.  She darted through the trees until she found the woman, Henry, and a twenty-foot long dragon fighting it out on the shore of a sparkling blue lake.

The woman was down and cradling her right arm against her chest.  Her sword lay a dozen feet behind her, and she was pulling herself toward it with her good arm.  Happily, she wasn't screaming anymore.  Henry had positioned himself between her and the beast.

Murry stared at the dragon.  It was a generation-two water serpent, Kraken Class.  She'd never seen one after it had been released in the wild.  It coiled and uncoiled its huge, sinuous body, its fanged maw snapping at Henry's head with terrifying speed. The creature's Third Eye was shaped like a diamond and blended perfectly with its glittering red scales.  When it paused to roar, all the hair on Murry's body stood up to salute.  Chimaeras never felt this real rotating on the computer screen.  Go figure.

"Her name is Crystal," Henry called.  "She's getting old. I should be able to take her."  Just then the monster struck, ripping a bloody streak across Henry's shoulder.

"No, she's mine!" the woman on the ground yelled.  "I want to do it!"  She started dragging herself faster towards her weapon.

"Oh for the love of God," Murry muttered.  The two testosterone-laden imbeciles in front of her were playing their damn game at low safety levels.  That's all she needed right now, two corpses to explain to the Kingdom.

The creature reared, preparing for another strike. Its neck was criss-crossed with bloody scratches and one of its almost vestigial forelimbs hung from its body by a lone strip of flesh.

Murry lifted her hand-held projector and scanned through the list of preloaded programs.  She chose ICEBALL, pointed the projector at the dragon, and sent the program in a wide arc across the field of battle.

They must have felt its effects immediately.  The creature started to convulse, gripped by the power of her invisible spell. Its Eye projected the spell's effect to Henry and the woman. Their Eyes received the input and passed it along to their optic nerves and spinal columns, triggering the appropriate responses.  A cumbersome system, only effective if you were willing to put your body at the mercy of the all-mighty god of technology, Murry thought.  But it was pretty damn spectacular nonetheless.

The woman gasped and tried to shield herself with her wounded arm.  The point of Henry's sword dropped and he stumbled backwards, his mouth hanging open.  The creature shrieked, a lion's roar with the volume and pitch hiked way up, and collapsed backwards, into the lake. 

Murry watched the remainder of its coils get sucked under the water.  The cleanup crew is going to kick my ass for this, Murry thought.  She shut off the projector, stowed it in her pack, and walked over to Henry.

"What was that?"  the woman said.  Henry helped her to her feet.  She had one long, blond braid down her back and some pretty armor decorated with blue and silver Celtic knot designs.  She would have been beautiful if not for that damned Third Eye.

"Something called ICEBALL," Murry said.  "Did it look cool?"

Henry nodded.  "It was the most fantastic thing I've ever seen.  The ice spread across her skin like a horde of ants."  He shivered.

"Zippety-doo-dah," Murry said.  She turned back to the woman and nodded towards her arm.  "You okay?  Can we get out of here?"

The woman's eyes were still wide with awe.  "It's nothing," she said.  "Nothing compared to the wonders I have just seen.  Who are you, Great One?"

Murry was about to answer 'the Antichrist' when Henry interrupted her.  "She's a wizard from the Tower.  One of the most powerful.  The Lady Murielle."

The woman bowed.  "I am Kayla, a knight of the Silver Circle, and I am at your service, my lady.  I owe you my life."

Murry stared at the top of the woman's head and searched for the proper comeback.  It didn't come.

"You've got to be kidding me," she offered weakly.

"No, verily, I speak the truth," Kayla said, her eyes wide.  She stood up from her bow and straightened her shoulders.  "I am your sword to command, by the oath that binds my Circle to the service of the Kingdom."

Murry turned to Henry.  "She is kidding, right?"

Henry frowned.  He turned to Kayla.  "Lady Murielle has great respect for the Silver Circle," he said.  "Unfortunately, her current quest requires her to travel in secrecy.  Perhaps after you've taken that arm to a healer, we can look for you again on our way back." 

Kayla started to pout.  Murry was convinced that the hardened warrior-woman was about to cry.  It was simply too much.  She shook her head, snorted loudly, and plodded off to find the path.

*     *     *

Her feet felt like swollen lumps of raw flesh.  Each step brought fresh pain and another audible groan from her lips.

"Programmers aren't supposed to walk.  We have huge asses for sitting, not exercising."

Henry chuckled.

"Something funny?"  Murry asked.

Henry shook his head.  "I used to make a similar joke, when I first got here, about CFOs."

Murry took an exaggerated glance at his posterior.  "Things have certainly improved for you in that respect, at least."

He blushed and coughed into his hand.  "Why thank you, Lady."

"Hell and highwater! Is that the tavern?"

They breached a small green hill and were welcomed with the glow of a Kingdom-style village, complete with a few shops, some townhomes, and no less than four inns.

In all fairness, the civil engineers and historical experts had done an excellent job balancing convenience and flavor.  Some inns would be more authentic than others -- they'd have fires burning in the kitchen and whole pigs roasting on spits.  They had outhouses and chamber pots and rooms as cold or as hot as it was outside.

"I've reserved two rooms at the White Hart," Henry said, and Murry smiled.  The White Hart looked authentic enough; it even had a gilded wooden sign with a stag swinging above the door out front. Inside, however, hidden from casual view, it harbored a modern kitchen, central heat and air-conditioning, and a full-fledged laundromat.  As far as Murry was concerned, the only important amenity at the moment was its fully-modern toilet.

"You're brilliant," she said, and it was Henry's turn to smile.

Henry stabled the horse while Murry attended to business inside.  The common room of the White Hart was large and warm, full of dark woods, the rank odor of beer, and the glorious smell of roast beast.  About two dozen Denizens and a handful of Kingdom employees filled the room.  They talked, ate, laughed and ordered more ale in loud voices.  Murry claimed one of the medium-sized round tables near the empty fireplace and started to rummage through her sack for a Power Bar.

She heard a chorus of welcomes and looked up.  Henry had entered and the serving women were rushing over to greet him.  He hugged and kissed each of them in turn, a broad smile on his face.  The women, some of whom could have given the Hooter's waitresses a run for their money, seemed entranced.  They flirted outrageously in their low-cut bodices and layers of colored cotton skirts.  They pointed to his bandaged shoulder, battered their eyelashes, and coo'ed.  Hastily, Murry unwrapped her Power Bar and ripped off a chunk with her teeth.

"They could fire you for that," Henry said, nodding to her Power Bar.  He plunked two mugs of beer on the table and fell heavily into the chair beside her own.

"Yeah?  Well one of those girls looked fourteen," Murry spat back,  "In some states they could hang you for that."

Henry just smiled and looked over at two of the women standing behind the tavern bar.  They giggled to each other and waved. 

"They're beautiful, are they not?" he said. "Every last one of them."

"You're definitely in danger of over-sharing here," Murry said.  Henry laughed.

"Never fear.  I would not dream of taking advantage of such sweet young things.  I do have a daughter, out in the other world."  Henry grinned.  "On the other hand, there are quite a few fine looking women of a more mature persuasion whom I have no trouble envisioning—"


"As you wish, my lady," Henry said.  He took a long drink from his mug and wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve.

Murry shoved the wrapper of her Power Bar bag into her belt pouch.  "So is that why you come here?  To cut yourself up being stupid and to have a bunch of desperate women fall all over themselves to flirt with you?"

Henry put his mug on the table quietly and stared at her.  "You speak quite openly on matters you know nothing about."

"So enlighten me," Murry said.  She turned her gaze to a rowdy group of Denizens in the far corner.  Four big men, pot-bellied and bearded, wearing leathers and furs and only the gods knew what else, were drinking heavily. Their voices grew louder with every bawdy joke.

"I was rich out there," Henry said.  "The filthy kind of rich you're embarrassed to tell your own mother about.  I was married, had two beautiful kids, but that didn't stop every other person I met from trying to get something out of me.  They flattered, they simpered, they laughed at all of my jokes.  Yes-men?  Hell, I had a whole army."

"My heart bleeds," Murry said.

"Well, it didn't mean shit," Henry said.  "If you think it feels good to be loved for your money, think again.  In this place, I get what I deserve.  If I'm an asshole, I get slapped.  If I slay some menacing lizard, I get a little more.   Every 'thank you' that comes from some good deed I performed means more to me than a whole horde of swooning sycophants."

Their food came.  The serving woman smiled at Henry, her brow furrowed slightly with concern.  Murry glared at her and the woman fled for the kitchen.  Murry looked down at her steaming vegetable pie.  It smelled marvelous and was covered in a thick, gooey orange cheese.  She just couldn't bring herself to pick up her fork. 

"There are a helluva lot of ways to do good deeds.  Ever heard of charities?  The Peace Corps?  Hari Krishnas?"  Murry leaned back in her chair until the two front legs lifted off the floor. "Using that 'helping others' line to camouflage what amounts to a huge wet-dream smacks of hypocrisy, if you ask me."

"I'm doing something that I love," Henry said, his voice low,  "which is obviously more than you can boast.  Don't be so quick to judge.  We've found something here.  We looked, and we found."

Murry let her chair fall back to the floor with a loud smack.  "But what the hell did you find?  You play dress-up, you talk like bad fantasy novels, and you walk around purposefully deluding yourselves that the real world doesn't exist.  You'll never find anything here that isn't just an illusion."  Murry looked down at her steaming food and pushed it away.  "Your 'happiness' is such a big fat joke that the rest of us are on our asses on the floor from laughing."

Henry pushed away from the table, his chair scraping loudly across the wooden planks of the floor, and stood up.  "Is that so?  We're all a bunch of deluded morons, too stupid to realize we're living a lie?"

"Yeah, that about sums it up."

"And now you, of all people, are going to tell me how to find happiness?" Henry said.  His cheeks and the tips of his ears burned red.  "You, with your piss for blood, and your..."

Henry stopped.  He was breathing heavily, and his hands gripped the edge of the table hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

"Just say it," Murry said. She wanted to stand as he said it, but she thought it might infuriate him more if she remained sitting.  "So I've got piss for blood and what else?"

"No," he said quietly.  "You won't beat me that way."  He let go of the table and took a step back.  "Just take your judgments and your attitude, and get the hell out of our paradise."  He stared at her a moment longer, then turned and left.

Murry watched him leave.  When he was gone and the awkward silence in the inn had been filled with once again with bad jokes and drunken laughter, Murry drained her mug of ale and started on his.

*     *     *

Murry kicked the sheets out from the bottom of the bed and rolled onto her side.  Her feet still ached and her back was ornery as hell from all the walking.  She sighed.  How many sheep was she up to -- three-fifty-four or three-fifty-five?

She hated being away from home, hated strange beds and unfamiliar trees outside the window.  Not that her crappy apartment was much of a home.  She still hadn't gotten around to hanging her brother's photographs or unwrapping most of the silverware.  There just didn't seem to be much point.  Her contract with The Kingdom was a five-year deal, and five years was barely enough time to learn all the local restaurants, let alone get cozy.  After that, she'd be on to whatever company offered her the biggest paycheck.

Abruptly, Murry's thoughts returned to the women working in the tavern.  They had laughed so freely, without a hint of self-consciousness.  She hated to admit it, but Henry was right.  There was something beautiful about those people. 

*     *     *

A high-pitched scream cut through the morning chatter.

Murry paused, the spoon full of steaming cinnamon oatmeal already halfway to her mouth.  What, didn't these people have anything better to do than shriek all the time?  She dropped the spoon back into her bowl and reached for her pack.  The five other people in the tavern were standing up, heading for the door to investigate.  She might as well join them.  Henry hadn't made an appearance yet, and she couldn't very well find the gorgon without him.

Murry stepped outside into the sunny August morning.  On the other hand, maybe she could.

The gorgon stood seven feet tall -- a grotesque harpy-like creature with snakes for hair -- and was busy turning the town's sleepy populace to stone.

Well, not literally to stone.  She had managed to freeze all of the Denizens with Eyes, about two dozen in all.  A handful of children ran between the stock-still bodies of the adults and screamed.

Screaming and snakes, Murry thought. Rapture.

Murry pulled out her projector and studied the creature as it snarled and swiped at the villagers.  Each little snake had an Eye of its own which emitted a very narrow band of infrared instructions to the Denizens' receptors.  Problem was, the creature's Third Eye looked smashed.  It was clearly projecting, as the growing number of frozen Denizens proved, but its receptor module must have been damaged.  They should have picked that up from the telemetry, but the system was still far from perfect.  In fact, that was one of the main reasons they were pumping out cash for her services in the first place.

Under normal circumstances, Murry would not have been in danger.  Chimaeras were coded to read the safety level of the Denizen before inflicting damage of any sort. If they couldn't find the Denizen's Eye to read the code, or if the Denizen didn't have one, they assumed level 10.

But not today.  Murry leveled the projector and sent off a continuous string of termination commands.  The gorgon ignored her.  It turned and froze the stable boy.  Murry cursed.  This was no job for a programmer.  What the hell was she doing here?

Like a hero out of legend, Henry rode into the village square on his silver-gray horse, his sword drawn and slashing through the air.

"Run!" he yelled to the townsfolk.

Cries of alarm swept through the masses and people panicked. Soon the street was empty except for twenty-some frozen Denizens, Murry, and a charging stallion.

Henry raised his sword, let out a war whoop, and promptly got stoned by a snake.  His body went rigid just in front of the gorgon, but his horse kept going.  Murry cringed as he fell from its back and collided with the ground.  The gorgon's claws skidded across the horse's flanks leaving deep red gouges.  It screamed and galloped away.  The gorgon turned its attention to Henry's prone form lying conveniently at its feet.

"Shit!" Murry said.

She fumbled at her projector, scanning for the right program name.  After punching in the command and adjusting the settings, Murry headed for Henry.  She needed to unfreeze him and get him away from that damn beast before it ripped him to shreds. 

Henry lay face-first on the ground, his Eye impossible to reach.

"Shit!" Murry said again.  She surveyed her surroundings looking for ideas, saw Henry's sword, and picked it up before her common sense could regain control.

It was heavy and ungainly, its hilt slimy with sweat.  "Does anyone know how to use this thing?"  Murry scanned the crowd, but found no takers.  Apparently all of the real warriors were already frozen.  Or perhaps most of the Denizens liked their danger a little more predictable.  

Murry shrugged.  "Whatever."  She pocketed her projector, hefted the sword into one hand, and charged. 

Sixteen tiny snake-heads twisted to face her.

"Sorry guys, I don't believe in magic," Murry muttered.  A second later, she swung at the gorgon with all of her strength.  All of her strength and a big, sharp sword.

Murry had never wanted to be petite, but she had seldom appreciated the benefits of more substantial bulk until now.  The sword connected with the gorgon's genetically engineered flesh, and knocked the bastard flat on its ass.

Murry dropped the sword and rolled Henry over.  She whipped out her projector and pointed it right at his face.  His limbs unfroze suddenly and his eyes widened.

"Watch out!"

Henry shoved her, hard, and Murry toppled to the ground in a big burst of dust.  The gorgon's clawed arm quickly filled the space she had just vacated.  Henry scrambled backwards, away from the creature, and grabbed his sword.

But not before the gorgon froze him again.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Murry kept her butt firmly grounded and aimed the projector.  Henry burst back to life in an instant.

"Stay there," he called to her.  "Keep using that spell on me!"

Murry climbed to her feet.  "Thanks for the advice.  I never would have figured that one out on my own."

The creature attacked Henry again and again.  Murry danced behind it, keeping the projector pointed at Henry's face.  Henry jolted and jerked like a rag doll as Murry and the creature vied for control of his body.

Murry started to huff from the workout.  "Screw this, just put your hand over the damn Eye!"

"No!" Henry yelled.  "That's not how I –"

The gorgon froze him again.

Murry rolled her eyes, zapped him with her projector, and summoned her second wind.

Several minutes and three solid sword-strokes later, the gorgon lay dead at their feet. Murry and Henry cheered as the other Denizens snapped back to life.

Murry looked down at the bloody carcass then up at Henry and grinned.

"You people are completely insane." She shook her head.

Henry grinned back at her. His face was caked with dirt, and little puffs blew out of his mouth when he talked. He almost glowed. Before she could summon another quip, his arms were around her, squeezing. Henry whooped and Murry laughed.

*     *     *

"It's a breach of contract, and you know it," Salam said.

Murry shrugged and kept loading her books into a neon-purple crate. "So sue me."

"We just might do that."


Salam came over and sat on her desk.  His tough bad-cop face melted into the face he used when he pretended to be her friend.

"I just don't understand what's going on with you, Murry."

"There's nothing to explain," she said.

"Try anyway."


Murry finished packing, took one last look around the room, then turned to Salam.

"Sue or don't sue, it's your choice.  I'm pretty sure that life-and-death situation you put me in last week will give me a solid out. You want to test it, go ahead."

He started to speak, but Murry tuned him out.  She grabbed her crate and headed out of the room, out of the Tower, out of the Kingdom.  She hated this place, despite the occasional decent person it contained.

Murry smiled and adjusted the crate in her arms.  She wasn't sure what place she'd like better than this one, but she was damn well going to try and find it. After slaying a gorgon, ennui didn’t seem like such an impervious foe. And, hell.  Maybe she’d find a few good taverns along the way.




About the Author:

Jenn Reese has published stories in cool places like Polyphony 4, Flytrap, Strange Horizons, and various anthologies. Her first novel Jade Tiger, an action-adventure kung fu romance, was just published by Juno Books. Jenn lives in Los Angeles, where she practices martial arts, plays strategy games, and sits in traffic. You can follow her adventures at her website.



Story © 2007 Jenn Reese.