She bolted the diner's door and switched the antique neon sign to CLOSED. On her way back to the register she straightened a couple of chairs and cleared the last table.
Manny had fixed her a dinner. Knowing him, she didn't have to look to know it was a burger, medium rare. She grabbed a water from the fridge and padded back to his room.
Manny was already sitting at the little table in the back room that he slept in. He claimed it was cozy, but Darla knew his head was still back in the Riots: Emmanuel Kaplan had been a corporal in the UE forces during the Consolidation. He'd seen such things that to this day he was afraid to sleep above the ground floor. She knew she should be grateful that she had the upper room, but she was sure that part of her father was itching for some rioters to break in so he could make them wish they hadn't.
She sat down across from him, lifted the bun, and busied herself loading slices of tomatoes and pickles on the top of the burger. He tended to forget them.
Manny picked up a bottle and squeezed ketchup onto his fries. “Whaddaya need all those tomatoes for, anyway?” It was one of his no-fail ways of starting a dinner conversation. She would argue, they would agree to disagree, and then the conversation would turn to its real subject.
“You know very well that natural food is healthier than processed food,” she told him sternly. “You tell me where we can get organic ketchup without the added sugar etc. and I will say yea, hallelujah and fold up the roof garden.”
Manny swallowed a mouthful of fries and pointed his fork at her. “You listen to me, young lady. Our ancestors did not survive by eating grass and flowers. One stomach and a relatively short intestinal tract means we are mainly carnivores. Meat will keep you alive. Tomatoes won't, no matter how organically you grow 'em.”
“Oh really? What animal did those fries come from? A free-range potato, perhaps?” She paused, grinning. “Was it from a ranch, or did you hunt it yourself?”
“Very funny,” he grunted. “My daughter, the comedian. How are your classes coming?”
Uh-oh. “I didn't go today,” she admitted.
He glowered at her across the table. “Do you think just because education is free now, you don't need good grades? That link bed, you know we're still making payments on that?” He had a point there, she had to admit. Information was free but hardware, not.
“The test isn't for another week,” she told him. “It's not like I have to attend every day to keep up. The whole course is archived.”
“Anyone can scroll through a book,” he retorted. “It's not the same thing as hearing it explained by an expert.”
“The lectures are pre-recorded, too,” she said. “I don't have to avatar into the college on a schedule.”
Manny harrumphed. “So very convenient. So what are you going to do, wait until the day before the test, only to discover that you don't have enough time left to hear it all? Live or recorded, either way you listen in real time.”
True enough, she thought. But she couldn't let him win that easily. Time for a diversion. “Agnes called this morning,” she said. “When are you going to call her back?”
It worked. She could see the instant panic that he tried to hide. “What did you tell her?” he demanded.
Darla took a bite of her burger and chewed thoughtfully, letting him stew and squirm before she answered. “Oh, I told her that I was sure you'd call her soon. You really should, you know.” Okay, maybe that last bit was unnecessary. But she was tired of fending off Mrs. Neuburg, who was plainly determined to change her last name.
Manny wiped sweat off his forehead. “I know you don't want to be rude, but, really, you shouldn't encourage that woman. I just wish she would leave me alone.”
Darla laughed. “Agnes likes you. What's so terrible about that? You're not dead, you know. You should be dating. If not Agnes, then pick someone else. Use it or lose it, you know.” And she knew it was terrible, but she couldn't help winking at the end of the sentence.
Her father groaned. “These words I never expected from you. What is it with you? Do I have to date every woman who wants to date me? Can't a man rest?”
“You aren't dating anyone,” she pointed out. “What is it with me? What is it with you? Why are you giving up on life? I'm glad we have the diner. Glad we have a living. But are you living...or just surviving?”
“We're all just surviving,” he growled. “Don't take it for granted. It's a lot better than the alternative. You just hope you never see the things I've had to see.” He touched his shirt pocket and closed his eyes for a moment, as he often did.
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Darla had learned not to ask about the things he'd seen. She'd heard enough. Especially while she was eating.
He looked like he was ready to weep. Darla reached over and covered his hand with her own. “I know you worry about my grades,” she said. “Well, I worry about you, too. You can't keep this up forever. You need to get out, to meet women again.”
His eyes opened and he lifted his chin a little, defying both her and his own sadness. “I don't want to hear any more of that,” he said with unmistakable finality. “There are no more women for me. And you know why. So let it go. Stop encouraging Mrs. Neuburg.”
Darla sighed and raised her hand from his to pat his cheek. “That is very romantic of you,” she said, softly, “but also very foolish. However, I will humor your foolishness...since you put up with so much of mine.”
She rose and gathered their plates, ignoring his attempt at helping, and dumped them in the recycler before heading up to her room.
Alone again, she felt like screaming. Gods! Why was it, she asked herself, that men either love too much or too little? Her father was like a leper who would rather pick at his sores than see a doctor. It had been so many years that she barely remembered her mother. The image had faded to nothing for her. Not so for Manny. Elizabeth had become his Testament, enshrined so brightly in his mind, burned so deeply into his gray matter that he could not let her go.
She stood in front of her mirror. And it's partly my fault, she reflected. Look at me. Every time he sees me, she thought, he sees her again. Every day, I remind him just by existing.
Not that she was bad to look at. She had Manny's curly black hair, but there the resemblance ended. Her mother's blue eyes stared out of a younger face. She had the same fullness of eyebrow and lips, the same upturned nose, the same tiny ears. Basically, she was her mother, but with Manny's hair. He used to say that she was her mother on the outside, but him on the inside, with all his stubborn defiance.
She stuck her tongue out at her reflection, who returned the favor. The hell with it. Turning, she went over to the link bed and lay down on her back, letting her head nestle into the pillow's cranial transceivers. They were as much a part of her life now as whatever it was that her father kept in that shirt pocket.
Fog enclosed her. No one else would see it, of course. It was a side effect of Linking, a little like the static you got on those ancient museum televisions with analog UHF dials tuned between stations. This static was infinitely finer, though, and three dimensional, so it looked like fog to her.
The fog cleared as she and the bed tuned into each other better. In moments she was floating upright in infinite space, mistress of all she surveyed. Some people found this moment of weightlessness unsettling. Agoraphobics found the infinite emptiness terrifying, she knew, and had to have their systems tweaked to start them in the illusion of an ordinary-sized room. Not Darla. She reveled in a freedom she could never know when she was IRL, unless of course she changed majors and got a job in high-orbit habitat construction. When she was In Real Life there were always boundaries, walls, floors, roofs, limitations to movement's range and speed.
In this magic Web, however, there were practically no limitations. She could be infinitely vast or incredibly small, completely motionless or flying through the galactic atlas at any speed whatsoever. She could handle planets and molecules with equal ease.
So what if it wasn't “real”. Unimportant. A video map wasn't real – but you could learn real things from it. The diagrammed lines of ink in her tech class illustrations were not real circuits...but she used them to calculate how circuits would behave IRL. And the avatars she teamed up with in PanGames were not real. But they were driven by other real humans, lying in their own link beds.
“PanGames” she thought, feeling a little guilty as the beginning menu room appeared. She really ought to catch up on her studies. But the team absolutely needed a healer. If they kept total-wiping like they did today the team was doomed. None of them would stay, and she couldn't honestly blame them. They'd wander off and find more successful teams. It was as inevitable as dogshit.
She frowned as she considered her options. Her team played in several Realms, but they tended to favor the one where they could be superheroes.
There were a number of reasons for this. When you went from one Realm of PanGames to another Realm, your avatar was automatically reformatted to fit into the current genre. If the sentient races in the new realm had more options than simply human, of course, you could take the default that it gave you or edit it to another race before you began playing. That was not a problem for them.
The real problem with reformatting-to-fit was simply that not all Realms had the same avatar archetype selections. Nearly all Realms had the standard teaming roles: tank, DPS, healer, crowd control. But the role of Damage Per Second was filled by different types of avatar in each Realm.
As a dual-wielding DPS swordmaster, Darla never worried: swords are too simple to exclude – they work in all Realms. Similarly blessed was the tank Sherman, since fists exist in all Realms. Wherever he went, Sherman would be a one-man mobile riot.
The others had it a little harder. Sam was a blaster for his DPS role in the superhero Realm. All well and good. But if the team went to, say, one of the medieval sword-and-sorcery realms, reformatting would force him to appear as a wizard or warlock. This of course meant that all his powers would be reformatted too, so that he would have to remember to “cast” Mystic Missiles instead of just “blasting” a Fire Bolt from his hand. Or something equally unfamiliar. Rita would no longer be doing her Crowd Control role by freezing opponents motionless. She would have to reformat as a Witch or Druid and use completely different CC powers.
Maybe if you switched Realms often enough, it would all become second nature, she supposed. But they didn't. It was less confusing and they leveled more consistently. Maybe she and Sherman could have done some duo-teaming in the medieval Realms. But she found him too much to take, one-on-one. He was too bossy and too reckless. Without more DPS and at least one CC to help with groups he would end up getting them wiped every time.
But she was on her own tonight. She had to find them a healer, and talk him into helping before Sherman's attitude drove him (or her) away.
She decided to look into the sword-and-sorcery medieval Realms. With no modern medicine and no hospital teleporters, maybe they'd have more healers wandering around. All she had to do was find one that wasn't on a team. Male, preferably. At the moment, the team was half-and-half (she suspected Sam and Rita were a partnered couple). If she brought in a female healer (which the majority were, given the tendency of males to prefer fighting), Sherman might feel outnumbered and suspect she was staging some kind of Amazonian takeover of the group.
So she had to find a male healer. A little harder, but still possible.
After some consideration, she decided Realm of Valhalla was a waste of time. Plenty of mayhem, but the healing was all automatic there. It appeared that there simply was no Healer role in the fighting there at all, a baffling exception to basic Realm compatibility.
Where to now? She wondered. So many choices.
For no reason she could put her finger on, she found herself selecting the Realm of Legends.
Like the other Realms, it was a complete Earth that appeared in the infinite virtual space in front of her. To the left of the globe a date slider appeared. Apparently, it had several temporal sub-realms so that you could chose your epoch or whatever.
More choices! Darla bit her virtual lip. It was always the way of the world: computers were supposed to make life easier and simpler, yet often did the opposite, presenting more options to decide from.
She was no History major, but she seemed to remember that the oath med school graduates swore (what was it called, again?) had originated somewhere in Greece. The Hippocratic Oath. “Zoom in Greece,” she thought to the PanGames menu, and reached out to set the date slider to Ancient(1300-1000 BCE). She paused, though, before logging in, and spoke to the PanGames menu.
“Why such an arbitrary date range?”
“It is a period that includes such alleged occurrences as the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey. The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War.”
“Whatever. Okay, log me in.”
There was a flash so bright it should have left spots on her retinas...except she was not using them. The link bed's quantum interference projectors were feeding data directly into her occipital lobe. The blinding flash was merely the default artifact of a Realm transition.
She found herself on a rocky coastline. The PanGames AI had not bothered to ask her about reformatting preferences since sword-wielders were a universal archetype.
Perhaps it should have, though, she thought grimly, looking at herself. The colorful wrap-around robes she was wearing had no belt, however, only a cord...and therefore, no scabbards. Her powers would still work, but the RP would be awkward. She'd be magically pulling swords out of nowhere.
Hugging herself, she drew steel. TZING! She gritted her teeth. The animation was not smooth – the blades just seemed to materialize in her hands after the draw. She could just imagine what Sherman the tank would say if he could see her irritation. He would intone his avatar's RTFM motto: Read The Fucking Manual! She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing herself to let go of the rage. After all, she really wasn't here to fight, right? All she had to do was find a healer. She flicked her fingers and let the swords disappear.
It was a relief and a vexation that she was alone on the beach. No fighters and no healers. Oops, she thought. No travel powers here. She couldn't just fly around looking for people.
She began walking down the beach, for want of any other plan. To her eyes, it was not really much of a beach. More like a rocky coast that was level enough to walk on. I could menu out, scroll East and go check out the Trojan War, she thought. But she quickly abandoned that idea. There was too big a chance that she would get embroiled in battles and waste the evening. Not that she didn't like a good fight – you don't get a lot of pacifist sword masters in PanGames. But still. She had to focus.
Still seeing no one on the beach, she turned and climbed up to the mainland. Once she got up over the edge it was less rocky, but a breeze whipped her loose robes into flapping so loud she felt like a UE flag.
She had expected a grassy plain, but what she got, mainly, although it seemed less rocky at first, was the same amount of rock but with more vegetation obscuring it. It appeared that there was no coastal plain, just a gradual upslope. Eventually she realized she was climbing a broad, old mountain.
She stopped and looked back toward the sea. The rocky shore went to her left, then out and around to the right clockwise, making a hook-like peninsula. She imagined it would almost resemble the letter “J” if she had been able to fly out and up and see it from the right angle.
Resuming her climb she tried to avoid grumbling about the absence of travel powers. But she just didn't get it. Our ancestors have been crawling around on the Earth for like a million years, she thought, and then what do we do? We create imaginary Earths that we can pretend to crawl around on. And what in the hells was the point of imaginary exercise? She wasn't really using her muscles. Her body was lying supine in the link bed in the technological equivalent of REM sleep. The same natural paralysis that kept people from acting out their dreams kept her body from jerking around and falling off the bed.
At least she was incapable of getting tired. It would have been great if she were sightseeing, but in her present state of mind it was just boring and irritating. She was not here to ooh and ah at the fine details of the simulation.
Wondering if she should just log and do some homework instead, she was interrupted in her internal grumbling when a butterfly passed her from behind. It circled counter-clockwise around her annoyingly, then stopped on a flower to her right for a moment. The wings opened flat briefly, as if inviting attention, so she took a closer look. The wings were mostly yellow and black, but on the rear edges there were little blue dots ringed by black borders, and on the very back, on each wing, there was a reddish dot ringed in black.
The lepidopteran took flight again and circled Darla three times before moving uphill. A few yards ahead of her it paused again, as if waiting for her to catch up.
She shook her head at it, amused in spite of herself. “What is it, Lassie?” she said. “Did Timmy fall down the well again?” It was an old joke, something gamers said when a NPC was trying just a little too hard to get your attention. She had never been able to find anyone who could explain it, though. It was a pre-UE saying, like “bend it like Beckham” or “shock and awe” and no one seemed to remember where it had come from. But it must have meant something, once. She should ask a historian sometime.
Are we losing our culture? She wondered. Or just leaving it behind as we create new culture? She was aware that the W3 virus had killed more grandparents and grandchildren than it had parents. Those whose immune systems were worn out with age were among the first to go, along with those whose immune systems had not fully formed yet. The babies, of course, were quickly replaced by new births. But most of the seniors were gone. A generation grew to adulthood bereft of the wisdom of the elders.
Woolgathering again. She looked up. The butterfly was still waiting for her, fluttering in place as if impatient. For a fleeting moment she wondered if it was an avatar, a fellow player. But who would want to be an avatar that couldn't talk? She shook her head again and followed. What else was there to do, on this hill?
Presently they reached the crest of the hill: finally, a mostly-level bit of grass. The butterfly flew to the center, where it joined several others in a seemingly useless cavorting.
There were no flowers in sight. “What are you guys doing up here?” she wondered out loud.
“Hill-topping,” a deep voice said, behind her.
Darla spun, startled. And she went on being startled (although she shouldn't have) as the centaur joined her on the hilltop.
“Sorry if I startled you,” he said, smiling. From the waist down he was a chestnut-colored horse. Where his human waist joined the equine body he was wearing a tool belt. Above the waist he was bare. The hair on his chest was the same chestnut brown, but thin and scarce. His chest was broad and powerful, and above it his head was crowned with a full head of hair and a beard that would have looked fine on Santa Claus. Both the beard and his head hair were almost completely white. His eyes were green and glowed as he smiled at her.
He must be an Player, she thought. Non-Player Characters (NPCs) rarely spoke unless spoken to. “Hill-topping? What do you mean?” she said as she tried not to stare at him.
He saw her not staring and laughed. “These are Papilio Machaon butterflies. The males seek out the highest elevation nearby for their courtship displays. The females come up the hill to find them, looking for the ones near the center which are presumably the strongest and healthiest males.”
“How do you know that?” she asked doubtfully.
He laughed a deep laugh. “Oh, I've been on Mount Pelion all my life, and watched them here many a time, although their species extends across the world, even found 6000 feet up in the Himalayas.”
“I see,” she said noncommittally. “What does the name mean?”
“The name of the genus, Papilio, from the swallowtail butterfly family Papilionidae. Papilio is the Latin word for butterfly. Linnaeus named the species Machaon after a son of Asklepios.”
“Latin? Hey, pal, I think you're stepping out of character there. This isn't Rome,” she pointed out, amused. “I might not know a lot about history but I'm pretty sure the Romans came after the Greeks in terms of empires.”
He laughed again. “You are entirely correct. I myself prefer the Greek word for butterfly which is 'psyche' meaning soul. The Greeks saw the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis as a metaphor for the soul leaving the body at death.”
“You're way too well informed for a period NPC,” she informed him. “Are you a GM, or a player like me?”
He smiled enigmatically. “Oh, I'm no Game Manager as you understand it, but I'm not a player, either. I am a meddler, really. No warrior, but I help out.”
Suddenly Darla recalled why she was here. “Are you a healer?” she asked him suddenly. “My group needs one pretty badly. I'm Darla, by the way.”
“Oh, I don't go into battles, Darla. Sorry, can't help you there. But don't despair, I can still help you. My name is Cheiron, and some of my students are the best healers you could hope to find, anywhere.”
“Now we're getting somewhere,” she said. “Can you tell me where to find one of them?”
The centaur laughed. “I can do better than that. I'll loan you one.” But suddenly a shadow passed over him and he looked up. “Oh, crap, just what we need. A CIO who thinks he's a GM. Don't go away, I'll be right back.” He disappeared before she could reply.
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