It was getting dark in the grounds of the simulated Asklepeion of Epidaurus. But it was darker for some than for others. Much darker, for a woman, a lover and a mother, had died.
Manny's cheeks, too, were wet as he watched Machaon and Alexanor cry together. His thoughts were a swirling chaos; his emotions a discordant din of helpless frustration, mindless rage, vicarious grief, shocked amazement, and blackest despair.
Helpless frustration, at witnessing his virtual grandson and great-grandson in the throes of an agony that no one could alleviate. Mindless rage, at the cruel machinations that had torn Machaon from his love and Alexanor from his mother. Vicarious grief, at witnessing their pain, a pain he knew from his own experience, when he held baby Darla in his arms watching the mushroom cloud that he'd been certain contained the ashes of his wife Elizabeth. Shocked amazement, to have just witnessed the appearance of Zeus (the Zeus!) and that other god, the Egyptian one. And blackest despair, at the realization that Yahweh presided over a universe in which a mother could be compelled to kill herself in order to save the lives of her lover and their child.
It was a long time before he could speak. What was there to say?
Manny's head jerked toward the sudden burst of light that momentarily brightened the steps near him. He found himself facing an woman who seemed vaguely familiar. Her hair was gunmetal blue, gathered at the back into a ponytail, and her brown eyes were flicking left and right, as if she were searching for someone or something. What now? he wondered.
She got right to the point. “Florence D'Arcy, from UNN,” she said, flashing him a rendered news badge. “Are you too late, like me, or did you see it? What just happened here?”
Now he remembered her, from the segment he and Liz had seen from their virtual flat in Eternium. Automatically, he opened his mouth to answer, then realized she had no idea who he was, or of Darla or Liz's connection to the recent events. And he wanted to keep it that way. Lifting his eyebrows, he shrugged. “Beats me. Ask someone else; maybe they got here in time. Must've been something, I guess, from this crowd.”
Then he reached out to lay a hand on Lizzie's shoulder. “Honey, he said, casually, “it's getting crowded here. Why don't we head back to the cave before our company arrives?”
Lizzie blinked and then nodded. “You're right, it's almost time for the party.”
He was back at Cheiron's cave on Mount Pelion, mentally crossing his fingers and hoping she was on the same page.
Lizzie appeared in front of him, next to Cheiron's old boulder with the depression on its upper surface for grinding herbs.
Manny realized he had been holding his breath. He let himself exhale. “Quick, send a message to Darla! They have to get out of the Asklepeion before that reporter notices her, or her private life is going to be headline news.”
“I already did,” she told him. “But if anyone there recognized her, it's already too late. And if PanGames milks the free publicity, which we both know they will, it's only a matter of time before UNN tracks her down in the real world.” She sighed and slumped down on the boulder. “I'm afraid you're going to have to move, before I even see your diner in Orlando.”
Now it was his turn to sigh. “You're right, damn it. There is no way they'll let go of a story like this. What are we going to do?”
Darla, Machaon, and...(what was the boy's name again?) had appeared in the clearing by the cave. Machaon and the boy looked confused. Darla seemed to be concentrating. Manny wondered what she was thinking until there was another flash a few seconds later and Machaon's armor and sword belt appeared lying on the grass.
Machaon stood up, his arm still around the boy's shoulder. “What was that about?” he asked. “What was so important about jumping back here?”
Manny closed his eyes for a second. Oh, to be so innocent, he thought. “Listen very carefully,” he said. “Do you remember how nervous it made you when you appeared in that place for the first time?” Darla was showing the child Cheiron's cave to distract him.
“How do you know about that?”
Manny tried to explain the concepts of reporters and global news networks to him. “I heard about it on the news,” he continued. “What you did, appearing at Victor's service, well, let's just say it attracted a lot of attention. To most people, your father, if they even heard of him, well, they thought he was just a legend, an old story. Your appearance made it headline news.”
He hoped Machaon was getting all of this. “And that was just you, telling a few dozen witness that you were the son of a god of healing, a god hardly anyone remembers these days.” He took a breath. “But this time Zeus put in an appearance. And Zeus is famous. By the time...” he hesitated, then forged ahead. “By the time Zeus disappeared, the word had gotten out and a United Network News reporter appeared on the scene. We had to get you out of there, or they would have never left you alone again. Or your son.”
“He's right,” agreed Lizzie. “In about thirty seconds that amphitheater was going to be absolutely packed with people, and a lot of them would be reporters shouting questions at you, like 'Who are you?' and 'Who just died?' and so on. They'd have no respect for your feelings at all, I'm afraid. They'd just love to broadcast a live feed of you weeping to the entire world just to boost their ratings.”
Machaon eyes filled with water again, and then as suddenly they glared with incandescent rage. “Why? Why would they do that?” he growled.
“Because people are arseholes,” said Lizzie.
“More to the point, because pathos holds the attention, and attention means a bigger audience, and higher ratings,” Manny added. “The more people they get watching their news broadcast, the more they can charge for commercials.” And then he had to explain about commercials.
Machaon just looked confused again. Well, thought Manny, we'll just have to show him. He turned to his wife. “Can you get us a news feed, fixed so the child can't see or hear it?”
“Finder,” said Lizzie. “pipe us a video-audio feed from UNN, but exclude Alexanor from seeing or hearing it.”
A flat virtual screen appeared floating in the air outside the cave. They could see that Lizzie's prediction was fulfilled: the theater of Polykleitos was jam-packed with avatars, so many that Manny could not even see the steps. Just the people in them, shoulder to shoulder. Florence D'Arcy was gazing straight out of the screen, which meant that she wasn't the avatar acting as the walking camera. We got out just in time, Manny thought.
“...reporting from the PanGames Asklepios Wellness Center, where apparently all is not well. I'm told that two giant avatars appeared here minutes ago and ordered a couple of the spectators to attack each other. We have not yet been able to reach employees of the PanGames Corporation for comment. Excuse me ma'am, I'm from UNN. Did you see what happened?”
The camera angle swung to a woman trying to untangle her pampla from her himation. It was clear she was unused to the traditional clothes of Hellas, and the Realm transition reformatting had caught her unprepared. “Are you kidding me? I'll never forget it! Two of the biggest avatars I've ever seen popped in here and it went absolutely crazy after that. One of them said – “
“Mute it,” said Lizzie. “He doesn't need reminding of what happened.” She turned to Machaon. “What we need is a plan while your son is still growing. I'm sure Alex will shoot up to adult as quickly as you did, but there's no guarantee the next fighter from the other side will wait even that long.”
For answer, Machaon silently picked up his armor and his sword. “Let them come,” he said grimly, buckling on the sword belt. “I've got nothing left to lose.” He thrust the dagger under the belt so savagely that Manny winced.
“Actually,” said a familiar voice, “you do.”
Cheiron walked out of the mouth of the cave with Alexanor on his back and Darla following. The boy, Manny noticed, had stopped crying and seemed almost cheerful. What the hell?
“He'll survive without me,” growled Machaon. “But blood must answer blood. She died to save our son. I can do no less.”
“Actually, she didn't,” the centaur retorted. “You're not thinking clearly. Remember, this is a world of avatars, not physical bodies, no matter how real they seem.”
“So?” challenged Machaon. “Sekhmet wasn't like Manny and Elizabeth. She couldn't just log out and rise up from a link bed. She was like me – that digital body was all she had. And it's gone now, its resources reclaimed by the system.”
“She also has a soul,” Cheiron told him. “All true sentiences do.”
“Wonderful. So she'll reincarnate somewhere in another body. Either way, I'll never see her again.”
“Not true,” Cheiron insisted. “Normally, yes, once the soul is separated from the body it finds a new habitation. But not this time. The gods can intervene in the process, as Zeus did when your father died, bringing him home and completing his apotheosis. Asklepios is safe with his wife Epione, whom Zeus promoted to First Quantum status as part of his reward for defeating Am-heh. They both dwell in Olympus with their fellow Immortals.”
“Wait a minute!” interrupted Lizzie. “Are you saying Am-heh is a god again, too?”
“No.” Cheiron smiled. “He was less successful. Atum does not reward failure. The Devourer of Millions is back on the wheel of karma, incarnated again, I know not where.”
“And Sekhmet?” queried Machaon. “Do I even want to know what Atum did to her?”
“Relax,” said Cheiron. “She's fine. Zeus gave her political asylum and has refused to hand her over. Atum's practically foaming at the mouth about it, but there's nothing in the Covenant that forbids Zeus from promoting her back to First Quantum.”
“Then take me to her!” Machaon demanded. “I want to see for myself that she survives.”
Cheiron shook his head. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Can't do that.”
Machaon's hands clenched. “Why not?” he gritted.
“Well, think about it. First, you just told off Zeus in front of everyone. I'm not saying he won't get over it, but he can hardly let you sass him publicly and then do you favors. And he can't put her back into the game. You know that. Once a champion dies they're out of the war zone for good. We talked about that before, when you were younger, remember?”
“Then I'll go to her!” Machaon's jaw was jutting defiantly, reaching for the dagger.
“No, you won't,” the ancient centaur told him. “Zeus is not a big fan of suicide, even if he weren't annoyed with you at the moment. Sekhmet got points for it only because hers was a selfless act – she thought she would never see you again. You, on the other hand, would be doing it for the selfish goal of seeing her, not to save anyone's life. And anyway, your son needs you, especially now.”
Machaon looked like he was ready to explode. “Why especially now?”
Cheiron actually grinned. “Because Zeus has chosen Alexanor to be the third Champion for the Olympians! Can you imagine how pissed Atum is that he didn't think of it? Technically, the boy belongs to both sides – but Zeus claimed him first.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish