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Chapter 12



No sensation of movement. The four were not caught up in a whirlwind and tossed around until they landed nauseous and dizzy. Nor did they experience a few infinitely long seconds of freezing cold followed by a crack! as they broke through something unbreakable but fragile. No, Lyndess's magic was as prosaic as John's cloak; only the scenery changed, as if a button had been pressed on a slide projector.

For a moment they just stood, not seeing where they were, only that they were no longer targets; then they started to laugh. They held onto each other roaring as tension rushed out of them like balloons escaping into the bright blue sky.

Except George, who fell over.

And Lyndess, who wasn’t there.

When the others calmed down, wiping their eyes and gasping, they attended to George. He was out cold, whether from the aftereffects of the lust dust or surfeit of fear, they couldn't tell.

John made as if to pick George up, but Paul caught John's elbow with a gloved hand, saying "We shouldn't move him, you're not supposed to move someone if they’ve gone into shock."

"Right." John pulled his arms back. "You lads keep an eye on him, I'll go find a doctor or whatever they've got around here."

The others two agreed, and for the first time they really looked at where they were.

They stood in a large grassy space loosely surrounded by astonishingly colored wooden buildings that faced every which way and sat at irregular distances from one another. Here, a four-story building glittering with the kind of metallic gold paint usually reserved for cars on Earth; there, a house, yellow with green blotches, as if someone had thrown paint-filled balloons at it; there, another house whose basic white served as the background for beautiful portraits of naked men and women. And between these buildings could be seen red, pink, orange, blue, black, purple, more green, more yellow, more gold, pictures, patterns, abstracts.

As if to compensate for the overabundance of painting creativity, the architecture was monotonous; the houses followed the same one-story-wooden-cottage-and-stable pattern, and the gold building, also made of wood, was little more than a thick rectangle sticking up from the ground. There weren't any roads; the grassy ground served as both lawn and street. Overall, Ta’akan appeared to have been created by a giant child who had dumped its brightly colored toys onto a green mat and righted them where they fell.

Paul voiced what John and Ringo were thinking: "There must be some kind of law against organization."

"Against people, too," said Ringo, for the place was deserted. There wasn’t another person in sight. Moreover, on second look, many of the buildings were dilapidated underneath the bright colors, with peeling paint, broken windows, and doors hanging open. A warm breeze blew through the area, rattling loose things, but the loudest noise was the ka-CAW, ka-CAW of a bird perched on a nearby roof. There was no trash on the ground, though—no bits that had fallen off houses, no dung, nothing. It was all rather eerie.

“God,” said Paul, staring into a nearby house, a blue-and-green confection, whose door was open. Though he could see plenty of furniture, including a beautifully carved wooden table and chair set, the place was festooned with spider webs and obviously abandoned. “What happened here? Why did everyone leave?”

“Not everyone,” said John, staring off into the city—he could hear faint sounds of activity. Paul gave him a funny look, and he amended, “I think.”

Then George moaned, and the other three quit their gaping.

“We should find some water or somethin', at least,” said Ringo.

Suddenly John held up a hand. “Wait—I hear someone!” He cocked his ear in the direction of the golden building, which had an open door and a faded, unreadable sign. Yes, there was definitely someone walking about in there. “Lemme see if I can get help!” He sprinted off across the grass, black cloak flapping.

At the inn's entrance, he paused to check his cloak's clasp, making sure it was secure; then he stepped through the shiny doorway into a wood-paneled, surprisingly Earthlike motel lobby, complete with gold carpeting, black overstuffed chairs, and a reservations desk. However, the carpet was filthy, and the chairs were ragged and sprung.

There was no one behind the desk, but a woman in a green silk shirt and pants was coming down the stairs. She might have been sister to Lyndess, with her bronze skin and beak of a nose. However, she was thicker around the mouth and shorter than the wizard, and her black hair was long and elaborately braided. She wore a thick leather belt with a sheathed dagger on her right hip and a small pouch at her left hip.

The woman gasped as John entered and hurtled down the rest of the stairs, crying, "What are you selling, olyrr-sar? Do you have tirin magic?"

"Uhhh..." Caught off guard, John backed up a step as the woman charged up to him. "Uh, nothin', nothin', I haven't got anythin' for sale! Is there a doctor around here?"

The woman scowled, then wrinkled her nose, backed away, and fanned her hand at John. "Phew! Bathe, broken olyrr-sar, before the Tayhil rebirth just to kill you. The baths in this inn still burn—go use them."

“Wha—” Peripherally John noticed that he reeked of four days in Ketafa, especially after having slogged back and forth through Focan. Irritated, he snapped, "Oh, who gives a fuck? I need to find a doctor right away!"

The look the woman gave him said plainly, I want nothing more to do with you. Still, she muttered, "What is a ‘docta’?"

Now, of all times, to hit the language barrier! John impatiently explained: "Y'know, someone you take a sick person to, to help them get better." He pointed out the door at the others. "Me friend's fainted, and we—”

"Oh, a healer," the woman interrupted. “There are healers in Old and Almost. I don’t know of any in Anywhere.” She opened her beltpouch and withdrew a vial of blue liquid. "If you need minor healing, I’ll sell you this healing potion for ten golds."


"A healing potion?" Paul scratched his stubbly chin as he looked at the vial John displayed in his palm. "Is it real? What's it do?"

"It heals," John said brusquely. He gave back to Ringo the money pouch he'd run out and snatched without explanation. "Right, help me sit him up. She said we just have to pour it down his throat."

But Paul balked. "How d'ye know it isn't poison, then?"

John glared at him. "I vaguely remember Lyndess usin' one. Look, we've just been teleported, for fuck's sake, why shouldn't it be real? Anyway, there don’t seem to be a doctor for miles, so it’s this or nothin’."

John said it loudly, to convince himself as well as the others—and to his surprise, it worked, although none of them were truly confident as Ringo propped George up, Paul held his mouth open, and John poured in the syrupy potion.

"If this doesn’t—" began Paul.

George's eyes snapped open, startling everyone. "Hara-ee?" he demanded, then jerked his head away from Paul's fingers and looked wildly around. "Where are we? What happened? Did we escape?" The others watched in stark fascination as the pink crept back into his face and a few scratches and pimples shrank and faded off his skin.

"Wow!" said Ringo enviously. "How d'ye feel, man?"

"Why?" George felt himself all over, then wiggled his fingers and goggled at his fingertips, which had healed as nicely as everything else. "Are we dead? Is this heaven?"

The others filled him in.…


-CLICK- whirrrrr...

~Copy works. Adventure don't. This's the lowest rolling run I ever saw. Psych experiments. Jeez! Why don't you just run some bacteria while you're at it?

~Too bad they aren't Varx's. He knows what a character's supposed to be. He could do stuff with the others like he did with that one guy. That would make it fun. But Shag'd never let him. She's such a mundane.~


George blinked at John. "You have what?"

"Show him," said Paul, turning frosty now that the crisis had passed.

John glared at him. "Sod that! Not here, where anyone could walk by! Let's go in that empty house—I'll do it there."


~I should get outta this program. I promised I wouldn't run it....

~No, first I gotta find out what that guy can do. He might be worth stealing.~


"I need a drink," George mumbled, mopping his forehead and coughing as he sat on the dusty old couch. Ringo was outside, sneezing.

"Bath first," said Paul, hanging in the door frame with his back to the room, watching Ringo, as John fastened the clasp on his cloak. "That woman John met was right—we all stink.” He scratched his ribs, which didn’t work well through his glove. “I think I have fleas, too. How’d you know she was in there, then?" he added over his shoulder.

“I heard her, okay?” John replied irritably. “Come on, that woman said the baths still work over there.”

Paul was silent for a moment before saying, “Do we have to rent a room, or can we just pay for a bath?”

“I dunno. Place looked abandoned, but maybe they’re just dreadful housekeepers. Maybe that woman knows.”

Returning to the golden building, they found the woman in one of the rooms, packing her few possessions into a backpack. She was extremely annoyed that they had bothered her, but she did deign to explain that the inn was indeed abandoned, and the four could use the rooms as they saw fit.

The rooms were frayed and disheveled but otherwise clean, suggesting that the transients who made use of the inn were at least conscientious enough to keep the place from completely deteriorating. Indeed, compared to the quarters in the Idris’ castle, the rooms were luxury unbounded, with soft, thick mattresses on the beds and lovely big bathrooms. Oddly, there were no locks on the doors, which made the four nervous, but the sight of the hot tubs in the bathrooms broke down their resistance, and they each took a room and a bath on the fourth floor, reasoning that bad guys weren’t likely to tramp all the way upstairs to see if there was anyone around.


George was glad to be by himself. His brain wasn't functioning too well, numbed and jumbled as it was from the myriad shocks of the morning, and he desperately needed some time alone to sort everything out. He stared dispassionately around his room, barely noticing how Earthlike it was, from the queen-sized bed to the small paintings on the walls and the round overhead (magical) light.

But even in his reduced condition, a bath sounded wonderful, so he went into his bathroom: an oak cubicle with a sunken hot tub, apparently perpetually clean, full, churning, and steaming. First, though, he availed himself of a pipeless wooden toilet and a clean rag that cleaned itself when he was done. Then he stripped and eased into the warm water, which smelled of violets. Man, this feels good. He settled back against the jet that spurted fresh water into the tub; it made an excellent massage. Amazing that such a thing should still be in perfect working order in this dilapidated hotel—there was even a sizable chunk of soap resting on the rim of the tub—but then, very little about this city made sense.

For a while George lay back with his eyes closed, his muscles and mind unwinding from their Ketafan tangle. Some of his memories bobbed up and floated away, too dilute to affect him any longer. The Arms' argument in the bedroom, the run through the courtyard, the teleportation—had they really happened? (And less than an hour ago, too!) Mostly what he had was a hazy impression of fear and nausea. Much more clearly did he recall his enchanted tryst with Fi'ar... and to his surprise and annoyance, he remembered it as enjoyable and fulfilling. He tried to feel violated, for hadn't he been raped, sort of? After all, Fi'ar had magically forced him to want sex. But he couldn't forget the enthusiasm with which he'd entered into the thing. And enthusiasm did not result from rape.

But she made me feel that way, he started to think, then stopped and chided himself, Leave off, idiot! You've got enough crap in your head, don't add to it! Especially when the source of the most recent pile was a few rooms away, probably preening his feathers with his nose....

George threw himself into washing, scrubbing his hair hard, as if to clean his brain along with the rest. Soap soap soap, lather lather lather, don't think about John, don't remember how the other three crowded over him on the grass, trying to soften the shock by first burying it under a mound of sentences. "Brace yourself, John's not the same any more." "He had a bit of an accident, he's grown wings." "Please don't freak out, I'm still me, I'm not an angel or anythin'." Then, in the house, forget the flash of white, the sudden studying of the floor by Paul, the apologetic look on John's face as he gazed down at George and the defiant one when he looked at Paul....

His reverie was interrupted by a voice from the bedroom. "George, are you all right?" Paul called. "You've been in there an awfully long time."

Startled, George snapped, "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine! I'll be out when I'm out!" But he hurried anyway, ducking under the water to rinse the soap out of his hair, then pulling his clothes in to give them a cursory wash and drown the fleas. Anything to dry off with? Well, some towels were crammed into a small cupboard, but George curled his lip at how filthy they were. Apparently transient care of the place extended only so far. Eventually he emerged from his room with his clothing clinging to his body like plastic wrap, his hair plastered to his skull, and water dripping down his legs into his shoes. He squished as he walked.

Paul and Ringo were in the room next door, somewhat dryer than him but still damp and pasty. They stood in front of the open window, gazing at the spread of the city visible from the room—something George had been too preoccupied to do himself—and pointing here and there. They turned as George came in. Paul's wet Idri shirt had traced lines of black down his bare arm, and his silver chain had acquired a dull coating of dye. With their several days’ growth of beard and generally scruffy and hollow-eyed appearance—none of the four had ever slept well in Focan—they looked like they’d just come back from a particularly arduous camping trip.

“How d’ye feel, mate?” Paul asked anxiously, peering into George’s face as if to spot mental abnormalities.

“Okay, I suppose,” George said, conscious more of John’s absence than the others’ presence. He passed his hand over his stubbly face. “I'd like a shave.”

Looking inexplicably happy, Ringo said, “Eh, isn’t this place great, though?”

“Great?” George echoed doubtfully. His gaze traveled to a small table that lay smashed in the corner of the room.

“Not that—I mean the baths, and real toilets, and the lights, and no fuckin’ Idris, and bein’ clean, and able to breathe—” Ringo took a big sniff of the air, which was indeed delicious and fresh, save a faint mustiness from the room and the hot-water smell from the bathroom. “All this magic! Isn't it amazin'? And if this is what they abandoned, then what've they got out there?” He gestured out the window, and George somewhat reluctantly came over and peered at the city. Between the hotel’s height and the slight downward slope of the land, a decent slice of multicolored buildings was visible, as well as a tiny bit of traffic: people, horses, carts. The vast majority of buildings were cottage-sized, spread out, and randomly placed, but visible in the distance were taller buildings closer together.

George wasn’t at all sure he felt like discovering what they had out there—he had so much else to deal with first—but his stomach chose that moment to growl audibly, and he abruptly realized how hungry he was. Had he eated anything in Ketafa after that first morning’s bowl of porridge? He must have nibbled at something, or he wouldn’t be feeling as sturdy as he did. Still… “Hope they have a restaurant, at least,” he murmured. “Where’s…?”

“Same problem—said he was hungry, went to find something to eat," Paul said distastefully.

"Probably diggin' up worms," Ringo added, grinning.

George stared at him. In mildly accusatory tones, Paul said, "Well, you adjusted fast, didn't you."

Ringo shrugged. "Eh, it's no weirder than Bed Peace or Two Virgins, y'know. As far as I'm concerned, it's just John bein' John."

"It's not the same," began George, but he broke off as feet sounded on the stairs, and in a few moments John, cloaked, dry but rumpled, came in swinging a large burlap bag that proved to hold yellow apples. "Got lucky—found some chap comin’ into town to sell his crop. Thought it was appropriate. And there ain't no worms in 'em, either," he added, looking directly into Paul's eyes as he held the open bag out for the others. "Just in case you wondered."

The apples looked and smelled miraculous after days of Idri food, and Ringo took one right away and bit into it. But the other two balked. George couldn’t help thinking of magic apples from religion and folklore: the apple that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden, the apple that poisoned Snow White, the apple that hit Isaac Newton on the head. (Well, that last wasn’t exactly magic, but it still had had a profound effect on its victim.)

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” John snapped, rattling the bag at Paul and George. "Would you forget about me and just eat the bloody things?” When that didn’t elicit a response, he pitched the bag onto the bed and strode over to the window, where he stared out across the horizon for a couple of seconds. Then he sighed heavily and turned back to the others. “Look, I didn't ask for this to happen, y'know. I'm sorry if I freak you out, but please remember it's just chrome, I'm still the same chap and on your side in this adventure." He pushed his glasses down his nose and looked over them at Paul and George. "It's just me, lads. It's just me."

For a few moments the only noise among them was the crunching of Ringo's apple. Then Paul said, “I know you haven't changed," and took an apple from the bag. "You're still a swine."

"Well, pigs will fly," John replied offhandedly, focusing on the final recalcitrant. “George…?” he said, a hint of pleading in his voice.

George barely heard him through the buzzing of his many thoughts. Was it just John? What was he? What did he mean now? Did he have something to do with George’s decision about God? Did Fi’ar? What were the apples? Did it mean something that they were the first food to be eaten in this new place? Did they mean anything? Did they have to mean anything? Did the empty city mean anything? Did anything mean anything?

Then George’s stomach growled again, and he finally surrendered to the need of the moment and took an apple, though he couldn’t look John in the eye. He bit and chewed tentatively, expecting something to happen as the tangy juices covered his tongue and he swallowed the first bits, but it was just a plain old apple. That was reassuring—not everything had gone mad. Still, he had some mental sorting out to do the next time he found a quiet moment. Too bad he couldn’t get back into the bath immediately.


~Okay, how could I sneak him outta there? Can't just yank him out, that's too obvious. Gotta do it some way that don't make it look like I did it. Lemme check the program. Maybe there's something in it I can rewrite, or maybe they didn't debug it all the way.~ Run Jeft's Outline, level 1.


~Jeez, look at all that redundancy. Didn't they ever learn shortcuts? With all that lard, there must be a bug in there.~ Run Jeft's SuperCheckProg, to level 4.

000000000111111111122222222223333333333444444444455555555556666666 1234567890123456789012345678901234567890123456789012345678901234





~Just one, in all that mess? Those two are better programmers than I thought. Still, it's in a good place.~ Expand 38D.

X = ]@!

~What...? I don't believe it. I don't believe it! They must not have—they couldn't have checked for that, or they'd've set up the sensors to monitor it. Oh, wow! Talk about rolling double 0's!

~Wait. Calm down, Jeft. You've gotta see exactly what this rates at. It's probably a half-percent thing that isn't worth getting excited over.~ Expand result.

X = ]@! = ???68.2%

~Huh? That can't be right. The decimal point must be off.~ Repeat, applying Jeft's Precision Doublecheck.

X = ]@! = ........ ???68.200057%x>

~Sixty-eight? Not point sixty-eight, sixty-friggin-eight?~


"Now what?" Ringo said as he took the last apple from the bag and threw the core of his previous one out the window.

“Let's explore!" John gestured with his half-eaten apple at the city through the window. "That farmer told me everyone’s moved into the older part of town, and they’ve got pubs and restaurants and magic everywhere! Like, the farmer had his apples in refrigerated boxes, just plain wooden boxes that were magicked to be cold inside. You were in the jacuzzis, you saw the lights in the rooms and the toilets! If the abandoned buildings have that kind of stuff, what’s in the occupied ones? Let's see what else they've got!"

Ringo made enthusiastic noises in support of this near-duplication of his own feelings. Paul was quieter but agreed that it was pointless to hang about the deserted inn. George, in no mood to challenge John on anything, just nodded. So Paul shouldered his guitar; they divided up the coins in the money pouch and pocketed them; Paul stuffed his gloves into the pouch; and John put the pouch in his empty apple sack and slung it over his shoulder. Meager luggage thus packed, they left the inn and ambled in the direction indicated to John by the farmer (and by his ears).

The four started out warily, a little spooked by the empty houses and everything they implied. But as they trudged along, examining the buildings, peering into windows, and generally reassuring themselves that no zombies were going to come staggering out after them, they grew more comfortable and even began to enjoy themselves as they looked around, completely free and making their own decisions for the first time in days.

"God, now I really want a camera!" Ringo kept exclaiming, and the others heartily agreed, because Ta'akan was a city of infinite photographic opportunity. Their mental photo albums bulged at the seams:

Cottage after wildly colored cottage

A flower garden, long untended but wild with yellow and pink flowers

A series: George darting to the flower garden, George examining the blooms, George picking a few. Caption on the back of #2: “I’ve never seen anything like them! I’ve got to get seeds!”

The first pedestrians encountered, a pair of women and a man, members of Lyndess’s race, darkish and hawk-nosed and supremely self-confident; their silky clothing is dyed in bright colors; the man and one of the women have pointed ears, and the woman also is somewhat more delicate in build than the other two; all three have severe short haircuts

Closeups of weapons hanging from the belts of the trio—swords borne by the women, a pair of daggers on the man. Caption: "What do they use them for?" (Scrawled underneath: "Do we really want to know?")

The three pedestrians turning to stare hungrily at the four

The trio rushing toward the four. Caption: "What are you selling, olyrr-sars?"

The hands of the trio thrusting into the camera, waving jewelry, gems, a scroll, a vial, a wand. Caption: "I'll buy water spells! I want knowledge spells! I need, I'll trade, I want I want I WANT!"

The backs of the trio as they returned to whatever they were doing. Caption: "What happened three seconds after we told them we weren't selling anything."

(A note is appended to the album here: "This happened with everyone we met!"—Paul "This was as bad as being famous on Earth!"—John "No it wasn't, they left us alone afterwards."—Ringo "It must have something to do with our karma, always getting run after like this."—George)

More traffic, now including people on horseback and driving wagons or carts; the people either have very short haircuts or very long hair, often elaborately braided or interwoven with flowers or jewels or strands of gold or silver; although everyone carries some kind of weapon, only the short-haired people have the truly vicious-looking ones—swords, maces, axes, and the like

A long shot of the city in the direction most everyone is going: the buildings are closer together and even occasionally line up; bits and pieces of former cobblestone streets are just visible amid the grass

A trotting procession of six riders (all short-haired) and two other horses laden with saddlebags and other luggage, going in the direction the four had come from; the leader of the procession, a woman, grins broadly as she reaches down to touch the outstretched hands of other short-haired people. Caption: “She told the people on the ground, ‘We’re for the corpse!’ What the hell does that mean?”

More pix of buildings, these in good order and occupied; the buildings are older than the ones around the abandoned hotel and have stone in their construction as well as wood, but are still fantastically colored

Two women and two men, naked, tangled in the grass, having vigorous group sex; passersby aren't even looking

The four pressed up against the window of a closed and darkened shop, trying to see inside; the sign overhead proclaims "Plant and Animal Magic Shop"

The four emerging from a building decorated with pictures of candy, cramming chocolates into their mouths. Caption: "Yes, Ta'akan is civilized!"

A tall, slender elvish man, unusually drab in a worn brown shirt and pants; he holds the reins of a horse with bulging saddlebags and has a faraway look in his eyes

Magic lanterns that hang next to doors, flaring to life as the sky darkens

Four buildings in a row along an intact but short cobblestone street that apparently connects two patches of grass. Caption: "What happened to the rest of their streets?"

A girl of perhaps six, short-haired and short-sword-bearing, standing on a tree stump and chatting with a couple of men. Caption: "They start them early here." Another appended note: "She was almost the only kid we saw."

More detached lengths of street. Caption: "Maybe they ran out of money or something."

More shops: clothing and weapons and household items and furniture, leather goods and dyes/paints, tools…. all in the cottage-type buildings, all obviously combination business-dwellings.

(And in the back of the photo album is a page with blank squares entitled THINGS WE DIDN'T SEE:

Anyone who looked poor, hungry, sick, or dirty

Anyone in a uniform or specialized outfit, be it cop, Idri, priest, or noble

Guns or any piece of technology beyond the medieval level)


The clang of metal-on-metal, which John had secretly been hearing for some time, because audible to the others. The four followed the noise until they came upon a group of people, most short-haired, watching a fight between a small, fork-bearded, short-haired man with a spiked mace and a slightly taller, bare-chested, short-haired woman with a sword. Both had been blooded: the man sported a nasty gash across his chest that split his silky orange shirt, and the woman had a perforated left arm. Even so, they were obviously having fun. "Practice on a tree tomorrow!" the woman cheerfully shouted as she neatly parried the man's swing. "No dead sar could ever beat you!" he called back, grinning, as he avoided her thrust.

Morbidly fascinated, the four drew closer, like motorists slowing down to look at an accident, until they were at the edge of the audience (the largest gathering of people they’d yet seen in Ta’akan, about twenty or so). The spectators nearest the four noticed them and began to turn their way, the usual question forming on their lips—but everyone turned back when the woman drove her blade into the man's stomach.

He gasped; the crowd murmured, and a few people nodded as if they'd anticipated the outcome. With a satisfied smile, the woman yanked out her sword. Blood gouted forth, splattering the nearest watchers, who jumped back making annoyed noises. The man stared at the wound for a moment, dropped his sword, and sank slowly to the ground, as if he didn't want to but custom required it.

Then the woman noticed the four hastily leaving the scene of the crime, and she waved her bloody sword in the air. "Olyrr-sars! What are you selling?" But she got no answer, so she, and everyone in the crowd, went running after them, leaving the man lying on his side, dyeing the grass red.

The next few minutes were a nightmare jumble of retching and pursuers with weapons and frantic screams of "NO, WE'RE NOT SELLING ANYTHING!" Only when the message sank in and the Ta'akanians disgustedly stomped off did the four have a chance to compose themselves, finding privacy among some tall bushes by the side of a house.

"Well," Paul said, squatting on the ground, clutching his guitar firmly, "they do use those things after all." He shook his head. "I don't know why it was such a shock that they do, but it was."

"Did you see the way they smiled, then?" growled John. "Fuckin' sadists."

"How can this place be so civilized while they do that shit to each other?" George demanded. "I mean, how can they have jacuzzis and chocolates and fights in the street where they slaughter each other?" He looked back at the spot of the fight, which was empty now, the man having been carted off. Nothing was left but bloodstains on the ground. "Don't they have any cops or Idris to put a stop to this rubbish?"

"I think the short-haired ones are the local Idris," said Paul. "Awful lot of 'em, though." He felt his own hair. “I wonder what we count as?”

"Could we go get a drink now?" pleaded Ringo. "I saw a pub back there."

Paul stood up. "I don't know if that's a good idea. I mean, d'ye want to be drunk around here? Besides, it's getting really dark." Actually, between the many magic lanterns and the rising moons, Ta'akan was quite navigable, but the irregular spacing of the buildings created zillions of dark patches where bad guys could lurk. "I'd rather go find another hotel and wait till morning."

With the mood of the day spoiled, the others readily agreed, so they moved away from the bushes to quest for a place to sleep. Though there were still plenty of abandoned buildings in this part of Ta’akan, none of the four wanted to spend the night in such, even in one as comfortable as the hotel with the hot tubs; too spooky, too dirty, too unprotected. Luckily, they had money, and Ta’akan had clean, functioning inns; they’d passed one a while ago, though none of them could ever have found their way back to it in that disorganized city.

"`Scuse me," Paul asked a passing woman. "We're strangers here, can you direct us to the nearest hotel or inn?"

"Are you selling anything?"

“No, sorry."

"Then buy a map, broken olyrr-sars."


But the woman ignored him and walked away.

“Do they have some kind of religion against helping people?” Paul snapped when the woman was out of earshot. “I was enjoying being left alone, but this is ridiculous!”

“It could be worse,” said Ringo. “They could pay us the same sort of attention they paid that poor bastard on the grass.”

Luckily, the pub that Ringo had seen (the Owner’s Head, it was called) turned out to have the Soft Bed Inn nearby. The two buildings were so close, in fact, that even Paul agreed to have a drink after they reserved some rooms for the night. "But only one, mind you." And he brought his guitar, mindful that their funds were limited and hoping that a bard might attract some coin in a pub.

Expertly carved wooden bears regarded them from either side of the entrance to the Owner's Head. Past this dubious welcome was the first truly crowded place they’d seen in Ta’akan: a large, well-lit room of small tables and lively conversation, a long bar topped with white-veined black marble, a few children, chalkboard menus, platters of sandwiches whisked around, servers squeezing between chairs, and clay mugs clunking on wood. Smells of beef and fresh bread and beer mingled and set even Paul’s mouth watering (though he silently berated himself for this lapse). The walls were most appealingly paneled with white oak and adorned with hammered metal decorations, many of them gold or silver.

And about three-quarters of the customers were short-haired and armed to the teeth. For sheer deadliness, they made the Idris look like toy soldiers.

"Oops, heh heh," said the four, abruptly changing their plans and starting to back out. But the patrons, first the few near the door and then the entire room, started beckoning and calling to them, and it didn't seem wise to just walk away. "What are you selling, olyrr-sars?" "I'll buy all your spells!" "Don' lishen t'shar, shar's d'unk! I gah more money'n shar dosh…."

And as their presence and qualities became generally known, a harried long-haired young woman in a splattered apron came rushing out of the kitchen, crying, "Olyrr-sars! One of you is a bard? Stay, play, and I'll pay you ten golds and your appetites! Sit there—" she fluttered her fingers at an empty table near a wall "—I'll have someone take your choices. No, no, don't play now! The sars will ask you when they're ready." Which killed any chance the four might have had of leaving the pub.

Smiling uncomfortably (Paul and Ringo) or simply looking uncomfortable (John and George), they picked their way through the tables (John having a particularly difficult time not brushing his back against anyone), murmuring "No, sorry, we don't have anything to sell," dodging outthrust valuables and sloshing mugs of liquor, and glancing in morbid fascination at a woman's head mounted on the wall over the door to the kitchen. Her eyes followed them on their journey and then flicked sideways to watch a new set of patrons entering the pub.

Finally they won through to their assigned table and slid into light wooden chairs in relief. None of them wanted their backs exposed, so they crowded round the sides of the table nearest the wall, Paul resting his guitar where he could keep an eye and a hand on it.

John, of course, had to straddle his chair backwards. "If anyone asks me that bloody question again, I'm gonna pull me trousers down and say yeah," he grunted, deliberately ignoring the glances of Paul and George, who had suddenly remembered his condition. "Fuck, it's too warm in here for this thing." He held up a fold of his cloak and let it drop. "Guess I'll have to get used to it, though."

"We may as well’ve stayed with the Idris," Ringo muttered, glancing around at the other customers. "At least they weren't allowed to get drunk. Look at the axe that woman has! Christ, it’s as tall as she is! Get out of her way when she's pissed."

They studied the menu on the wall near the head, which had a most disconcerting habit of winking at anyone who looked directly into its eyes. Most of the items offered were so much babble: vax, kansilabresan, thief, sitkan. At least the word beer was appended to a couple of adjectives, so when a serving girl tooled round, they felt reasonably safe requesting aga beer.

John also ordered a couple of beef sandwiches, prompting Paul to blurt, "What, you're hungry again?"

"No, I'm buildin' a cow," John snapped.

They sat quiet and cranky and nervous until their order came, the sandwiches and four mugs of a dark, almost black beer with an amber head. Ringo took a swig and his face lit up. "Eh, this is good! Kind of like a German lager."

"Well, here's to us," said John, hoisting his mug. "We've survived so far."

"May we get home soon," added Paul.

They clicked mugs and drank, George chugging his. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "I needed that."

With the beer mellowing them, they were soon talking amongst themselves, filling each other in on the fine points of their solo adventures. When the serving girl came by and offered them more liquor, they prudently (if reluctantly) turned her down, only to have the young woman in the apron bustle up with mugs of green liquid, insisting they try her home-brewed kansilabresan—"I want it known on every world," she explained. She was by far the friendliest person they had met in Ta’akan, so how could they refuse? The drink proved tasty, so they drained the mugs, and potent, so they objected not at all when the young woman came back with purple vax. And foamy sleva beer. And more sandwiches and rolls for those who wouldn't eat meat. And light fal beer. And the bubbly sitkan….

Eventually a woman came to the table and asked for music. Paul responded by sitting on the table (knocking a few empty mugs off as he swung his guitar up) and launching into a spirited, if slurred, rendition of "Long Tall Sally." A few bars into the song, Ringo got up and started dancing, beating on a plate as if it were a tambourine. Some of the Ta'akanians looked surprised and displeased when Paul's screams cut through their conversations, and the young woman in the apron poked a stricken head out of the kitchen, but most of the customers seemed fascinated by the strange music and behavior of the outworlders.

At the end of the song Paul took a long pull at his mug. Suddenly he jumped to his feet and bellowed, "ARE YOU HAVIN' A GOOD TIME?"

The room went totally, utterly silent for a moment. Then:

"What's a ‘gud time’?" about a dozen people called.

Too drunk to understand what had gone wrong, Paul's face fell. "Thought y'were." Then he brightened. "RIGHT, I'LL FIX THAT! YEEEEEEAAAAAH!" He scratched furiously at the guitar, something like "Tutti Frutti" emerged, and he began jumping around like Little Richard. But the makeshift strap on his guitar snapped, and the instrument crashed to the floor. Now the crowd responded, cheering and yelling "More music! More music!" Flushed with success and liquor, Paul obliged them, this time sitting on the table before starting again. And if his playing grew more and more ragged, and if Ringo’s dancing degenerated into a kind of swaying shuffle, well, they were performing in the best bar band tradition.

Meanwhile, George was getting quieter and quieter as he drank, and looking at John more and more, until with a great sigh he put his head on John's shoulder. "Fine feddered f’end," he murmured. “Are you’n angel? Don’ wan’ you t’be’n angel. You’re not ‘n angel.”

"Uh-huh," John replied distractedly, looking in his mug—his eighth, yet he was as sober as ever. He couldn't credit it; the drinks had certainly affected the others, and typically he was really, really good at getting smashed. Maybe that bird wants me sober for some reason, so she gave me special stuff. He tried George's drink and it tasted the same, which didn't surprise him; why would the young woman bother? Besides, if anyone should have been kept sober, it was Paul.

Then it dawned on him: maybe he'd changed even more than he'd thought….

"Fuck, how much is there?" he snapped, and George, slipping down his shoulder, mumbled agreement as his head hit the table. John set his mug down in disgust. Can I get drunk at all? How much will it take? More than he wanted to drink, at any rate; he was already sloshing, though he didn’t have to pee yet.


John turned to see a very drunk, very muscular woman sway up to Paul. "Don' wan' no more mus'c. Sheath it." She slapped the guitar and it spun out of Paul's grip, crashed to the floor. Paul looked at it bewilderedly, unable to figure out how it got down there. Ringo bopped for a few seconds more, until he realized the music had stopped, and came back to the table, snapping his fingers and swinging his head to some internal rhythm.

An anticipatory hush fell over the pub.

A round-faced man at a nearby table, not as quite as drunk as the woman, made a distressed noise and got up. "I want music, dung eater!" he snapped, picking up the guitar and giving it back to Paul.

The woman regarded the man with interest, then punched him in the chest. He staggered back into a table, and mugs flew left and right as the people seated there jumped up, roaring.

Suddenly, as if everyone had been waiting for someone to break the ice, the whole pub erupted into a fight, chairs smashing over heads and liquor flying into faces and tables overturning as all ages and both sexes swung into it with equal abandon. All the servers and table-cleaners hurried into the kitchen.

Altogether it was as lethal an atmosphere as the Hamburg-trained John had ever seen, and of course the four had to be right in the middle of it! "Get down, for Christ's sake get down!" John bawled frantically at George and Ringo, who paid no attention; the former was falling asleep on the table, and the latter feebly punched the air, imitating the action around him.

"Ah, shit!" With one eye on Paul sitting in a stupor as fists and chairs flew past his nose and over his head, John picked up George and shoved him under the table. He did the same with Ringo, then dived through the fray to Paul, praying his cloak wouldn't be yanked off. He shoved his hands into Paul's armpits -

- and a man in purple and white lunged, fists balled. "Fight, olyrr-sar!" he sang.

"Piss off!" John whipped his right hand free and smashed the man in the jaw.

"Unh!" The man flew backwards into a couple of women beating on each other; all three fell over, but only the women got up.

Time froze as John stared at the unconscious man lying in a puddle of beer, then at his fist. Good God, did I do that?

Then a mug soared past his head and shattered on the wall, and time started up again. John dragged Paul—who was dead weight now, the neck of his guitar clutched tightly in his hand—to safety under the table. The other two hadn't budged, to John's relief. The table top was as good as a cage for them; they hit their heads on it every time they tried to get up.

Assured of their passivity, John positioned himself in front of the table, ready for the worst. But no one came over to challenge him, and after a few minutes he saw why: a number of people hadn't entered into the brawl, but sat or stood and watched as if the floor show had come on. The neutrality of these individuals was carefully respected; John even heard a muttered apology when someone crashed into one of them by accident. And he also noticed that all the fighters were short-haired, and the vast majority of onlookers were long-haired.

"Huh," said John, still wary but much less concerned. He sat on the table and watched, intrigued, because despite the chair-bashing and broken mugs, the fight had a peculiar grace to it. People bobbed and weaved like pro boxers, skipped nimbly from beneath plunging objects, and moved with such fluid expertise that John felt he was watching a dance rather than a brawl, an impression strengthened by the bright clothes and abundant jewelry of the participants. No one was using real weapons, either, in accordance with some unwritten (or maybe written?) rule. The most anyone employed was a piece of broken furniture, and even that was rare.

"Olyrr-sar! Olyrr-sar!"

John looked in the direction of the cry. From the other side of the fight, a man in brown clothes waved like mad, trying to catch John's attention. When the man saw he had it, he began to thread his way through the chaos to John, pushing past a pair of wrestling women, dodging out of the way of a swung chair, hopping over someone on the floor.

"No! Don't bother, I'm not sellin' anythin'!" John bellowed. The man smiled and nodded and kept coming.

John winced as a mug whizzed past the man's face. Jesus, watch out, you daft fuck! Feeling sort of responsible for the man, John thought about getting up to try and clear a path for him or to meet him halfway or something, but the idea that a combatant might drag his cloak off kept his rump firmly on the table. Besides, the man seemed to be doing fine on his own.

Then: Shit! As the man nudged past a red-clad woman who glared into the fight, apparently looking for an opponent, the woman did a double take and pirouetted to face the man's back. Her face contorted with fury, and she drew a dagger, aimed carefully.…

"Watch out!" John screamed. He snatched up an empty mug and flung it at the woman, hit her in the arm.

She yelped; the dagger dropped. The man turned, sized up the situation, and punched the woman in the stomach. Doubling over, she dropped to her knees. With a grateful glance at John, the man dove on his assailant. Through the general din John could hear the two bumping around on the floor, but he only saw them once more, when the woman staggered out of the pub, clutching her right side, and the man limped after her.

I hope I didn't save him so he could kill her, John thought, actually sliding off the table and standing up before shaking the impulse to follow the two. Don't borrow trouble, Lennon, I'm sure it'll find you soon enough. It's probably some kind of mating ritual, anyway. Besides, he couldn't leave the others. So he sat back down on the table and resumed watching the brawl, occasionally sipping some leftover vax he found in one of the mugs.

So caught up in the action did he become that he was actually disappointed when the fight petered out into panting and laughing and back-slapping. The brawlers, some sporting scratches or black eyes, others moving stiffly, went back to their seats, righting undamaged chairs and tables on their way. The kitchen door opened and the waitstaff flooded back into the room, each carrying a small full bag and a large empty one. From the full bags, patrons took vials of healing potion, and they poured money into the empty ones. Within five minutes, the only signs that a fight had taken place were disheveled clothing and the spread of broken crockery and furniture on the floor—

there seemed to be less of it than John had first thought—

there was a lot less. Utterly thrilled, John watched the pottery shards and wood bits melt away, shrinking like scraps of ice on a hot griddle. Other small bits of garbage and puddles of vomit and liquid (and blood) were disappearing the same way, but larger things, like broken chairs and unconscious bodies, were not affected.

John stuck his head under the table. "Quick, look at the floor!"

But the other three were fast asleep, tangled like puppies.

Suddenly a little lonely, John straightened up. "Well, that explains why the streets are so clean," he said aloud, hoping someone at a neighboring table would chime in with an explanation or an agreement. "Like to buy this and sell it to New York."

He glanced around at the patrons, but none of them were paying any attention to the miracle under their feet. A few tables away, the man he'd hit was drinking the second of two healing potions and tenderly feeling his jaw; "Must get a toothgrow at sunbirth," he complained to his companions. Noticing John's eyes on him, he opened his mouth, pulled down his lower lip, and showed the Earthman a missing tooth. John tensed, thinking the man was going to come over and demand compensation for his wounds, but the Ta'akanian just turned back to his friends.

Wondering if it wouldn't be a good idea to offer compensation and perhaps defuse a vendetta, John started to reach into his pockets—but his attention was stolen by a couple who strolled past the table laughing: a short man with a forked beard, with his arm around the shoulders of a bare-chested woman who was slightly taller than him.

John almost fell off the table. That was the man who'd been stabbed in the street fight. Alive. Perfectly healthy. Even his orange shirt had been fixed.

It can't be, he thought. It's got to be his twin brother.

But he recognized the woman. Her wounds were also gone.

"Man, I wonder if they can cure cancer too?" he said softly, watching the couple leave the pub. Better question: what couldn't be done around here? No wonder Lyndess had been contemptuous of “tinkerings”!


~Sixty-eight! I couldn't've arranged things better on purpose! When's that beauty gonna show up?~ Estimate manifestation time of ]@!

.... 2.12 C-d

~Two C'hovite days, huh? Okay. What's the best way to reveal this to Shag and Varx? I gotta do this with flair—no fun just waiting for it.

~Okay, I know. Gotta stick a little subroutine in their program, but they won't find it if I bury it deep enough.

~Boy, this run may turn out decent after all!~

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