"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
"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
"What about the other
"We grew eight in that
batch, according to Anderson's records. All were released, four
killed by Denizens, four still at large." Murry shrugged.
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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.
supposed to walk. We have huge asses for sitting, not
"Something funny?" Murry
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
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
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
"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
"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
"My heart bleeds," Murry
"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
"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.
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
Cries of alarm swept
through the masses and people panicked. Soon the street was
empty except for twenty-some frozen Denizens, Murry, and a
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
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
"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
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
Murry kept her butt firmly
grounded and aimed the projector. Henry burst back to life in
"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
"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
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.
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.