The lunch crowd straggled in and Darla and her father were busy for a little while. After she got them served, she excused herself upstairs to call Farker.
Settling down on her bed again, she laid her head back on the cranial transceiver array and logged into the system. Floating in endless space, she suddenly realized that Farker had not included his phone code. No matter; she knew where he worked. “Directory Assistance,” she directed.
“Specify search parameters.” The voice was a deliberately poor imitation of a human voice – clear enough to understand, but lifeless and oddly timbered to ensure you knew you were not speaking to a human.
Darla made a mental note to tweak her interface later. “I'm looking for someone named Farker at the PanGames offices.”
“There is one listing by that name. Connecting you now.”
A 3D cartoon Merlin figure appeared, complete with a gray robe and a wizard's staff. “I'm sorry, Darla,” he said. “Farker is presiding over the Realm of Egypt inclusion at the moment. He said that if you called while he was busy to tell you that he will definitely be contacting you later today. And you should beware centaurs bearing gifts.”
“What the fork is that supposed to mean?”
The Merlin shrugged. “Dunno. He said you'd understand it.”
“Whatever.” She broke the connection and went back to the main menu space. He had reminded her: she had made the same promise to Ace, that she would be back as soon as possible.
Surfing to the PanGames menu, she directed the system to log her in at the place she had logged out from. At once she found herself sitting in Cheiron's cave, her back against the wall. Two voices she recognized instantly were talking just outside the cave.
Ace: What do you mean, dead? I'm as alive as you!
Cheiron: That statement is truer than you know, healer. Neither of us is dead or alive. We are both pawns in the games of the gods.
Ace: Enough riddles. Speak plainly, or not at all.
Cheiron: The Lord of the Underworld was not pleased when you resurrected Hippolytus. On his complaint, Zeus hurled his thunderbolt upon you. So you are not alive.
Ace: Am I dead? Then where is Charon with his ferryboat? I see no river Styx.
Cheiron: Gods do not go down to Hades.
Ace: What mean you? I am no God. Do not speak blasphemy!
Cheiron: We both know you are the son of Apollo. Your mother Coronis was mortal, but your father was not. You are thus a special case.
Ace: I do not understand you.
Cheiron: Your mortal flesh was killed. But your divine spirit lives.
Ace: If you speak truly, then what kind of life can I expect?
Cheiron: That depends on you. Zeus had to slay Asklepios the man. The divine part he may elevate to Olympus, if you deserve it.
Ace: He has not decided, then? What will tip the scales?
Cheiron: Your trial is not ended. There is something you must do.
Ace: And what is that?
Cheiron: You must defeat the Devourer, the dog-headed one.
Ace: What, more riddles?
Cheiron: I have no more advice than this. Take heart, Asklepios. You are in a strange land that seems your home, yet is not. Some of the rules are different. The Devourer will have a similar predicament, because he has never fought in this arena. Slim though it may be, that is your chance.
Darla stood up and stretched. Gods, she thought. Why couldn't I have been a FPS player? They don't have to deal with all this roleplay. With all this drama. “Is this a private fireside chat?” she asked. “Or can anyone join in?”
Ace stood up as she came out. Cheiron, of course, was already standing on all four hooves. “Welcome back, Darla,” the centaur said warmly. “I was just trying to explain things to Asklepios. By the way, 'Ace' (he scratched the English letters in the sand with a stick) is a poor nickname for Asklepios. But you cannot just shorten his name to 'ask'; I recommend you use 'Aes' (this he wrote below 'Ace'). It's pronounced more or less the same, and is a fitting nickname, since it means “bronze” and he is, after all, a hero of the Bronze Age, as you call it. And of course the Romans knew him as Aesculapius, so the abbreviation fits there too.”
Darla stared at him. “You are a mess, in terms of RP, do you know that? You talk of gods and goddesses one minute, and the next you're quoting Latin and talking like a 21st century historian. Pick your genre and era and try to stick to it.”
Cheiron laughed. “Yes, I forgot. You still think this is all roleplay. There is far more to this than finding a healer for your team. But the gods can play more than one tune at a time on the same instrument. In any case, I give you my best and wisest student. You will find no greater healer in all the worlds, my dear.” And he vanished.
“Does he always do that?” she asked Aes. “Spew out a paragraph of advice and then disappear before you have a chance to reply?”
“The Cheiron who raised me never disappeared like that,” replied Aes. “He had no such power as you yourself can wield. Where did you go, back to Olympus?”
“Look, I'm sorry I had to log on you like that, but it was a long day, and I was exhausted. Did you sleep too?”
“I cannot,” he answered. “And it worries me sorely. I could almost believe the centaur, that this is not truly Hellas. What else it could be, I do not know. It is like a tale told by a skillful liar: most of it rings true, except for irksome details that do not fit.”
“Like what?” she asked. Despite her resistance, she felt herself getting sucked into his roleplay. If this guy was a Random, he was like the Einstein of Randoms. “What parts don't fit?”
“Well,” he said. “For one thing, I have never seen a woman or a centaur fade away before. The gods may appear in mortal guise, of course, but when they take their leave, they either walk or ride or fly away. They never vanish that I have heard. Perhaps in dreams, I grant you that. But never in real life.”
“Well, there is an explanation for that, at least,” she said. “But I can't talk about that without breaking roleplay.”
“Then there are the stars,” he said.
She was a little disoriented by the shift in subject. “The stars? What have they got to do with any of this?”
“Long have they guided travelers on the seas. We group them into fanciful pictures and give them names to help our memory. But either the stars are wrong, or I have skipped a season. For when I raised Hippolytus yesterday morning, it was late in the Fall, after the trees had dropped their leaves. That was around noon yesterday for me. Yet scarce had I resurrected him, then I found myself here, and it is Spring. Perhaps flowers may bloom unseasonably, but the constellations agree – they are in their places for the return of Persephone. It is spring. And just yesterday it was almost the beginning of Winter. Even the orderliness of the seasons is confounded.” He trailed off and just stared at her mutely for a moment.
“You're not crazy, Aes,” she told him gently. Could a Player get so addicted to the Games that he could really forget that they weren't real? “Do you mind if we drop the roleplay for a bit? It'll make discussing this a hell of a lot easier.”
“There it is again,” he despaired. “This word. “What in the name of the gods is this 'roleplay' that you keep accusing me of?”
His voice had gotten higher, beseeching her to make sense, as his eyes filled with tears. At that moment, transfixed by those pleading eyes, Darla came to a decision: this guy is not faking it! He really had no idea what roleplay was.
“Well, roleplay,” she said, holding his gaze, willing him to understand, “is when people act as if they were in a play, as in the theater, except that they make up their own lines as the go, instead of following a script. Like if I pretended to be a beggar, and you were the king of Greece, and you had to think of lines to say to me that would be like what the real king would say to a beggar. It's an adult version of the make-believe games that children play.”
“There are many kings in Hellas,” he informed her. “But forget that. I am no child. I put such imaginary games behind me. In fact, that was another thing I was going to mention – that I seem younger than I was before whatever happened. But leave that too. Hear me,” he commanded her, grimly, “when I swear before all the gods that I shall never pretend to be anything but what I am. And with all due respect, I hope that you will do me the same courtesy, whoever you are or whatever goddess you may be.”
His intensity was such that she could not make herself believe that he was kidding her. Who was this guy, that he had never heard of roleplay? “I swear before all the gods,” she told him, being careful to copy his phrasing, “that I am not a goddess. I'm really a woman, and Darla is my real name. Darla Kaplan.”
Oh gods, Aes, please be real! If you've fooled me, then I may have just given my name to a stalker. But she believed him. Whoever this guy really was, at least at this moment he really believed that he was not faking.
Aes sagged against the outer wall of the cave. “I can see in your eyes and hear in your voice that you speak the truth,” he said. He seemed shattered by the realization. “But what kind of world are we in, that women and centaurs alike can vanish like night fogs dispelled by the rays of dawn? Where unseen hands can turn the bowl of Night, and spin the stars and seasons as they wish?”
“Aes, sit down,” she advised. He did so without remark, his resistance utterly crushed by despair at a chaotic world.
Darla kicked some rocks aside and cleared a patch of sand. “Aes, she began, “I overheard what Cheiron told you, and it was correct.” Rapidly, she drew two stick figures in the sand, putting a skirt on one of them. “Imagine for a moment that we are the gods, playing a game, drawing people for our pleasure. The sand is an imaginary Hellas – a dream imagined by the minds of gods.”
He said nothing, but she sensed he was hanging on every word, trying to understand her. “Now suppose they erase me,” she continued, taking a stick and smoothing out the lines of the female stick figure so that it disappeared. “If the other figure was you, watching me, you would see me disappear. Not because I am a goddess, but just because I am not being drawn in the sand near you any more.”
Aes gazed at the sand. “I nearly understand, but it terrifies me,” he said. “They destroy you when you disappear?”
“Not quite,” she corrected. “It was only their drawing of me, which could resemble the real me or not. Now imagine that the gods let me into this dream of theirs when I lie down in the real world.” She re-drew her figure next to his. “And then you see me reappear as if by some magic. But last night I was too tired to play in their dream, so I fell asleep. When that happens I dream my own mortal dreams, not their Dream, and so they erase the dream-image of me.” She effaced her figure again.” And so when I fell asleep, to your eyes I disappeared, because you are in the dream-world.” She drew the figure of herself again. “And now I came back to the dream world with you, as I told you I would, so you see me again.”
His eyes had a haunted look. “So Cheiron spoke truly? This is not the real Hellas, but some kind of dream-Hellas? Are there others like you, people in the real world that can come to the dreams of the gods?”
“Lots of them. We call ourselves Players, or Gamers.” Am I going too fast? she wondered. For all she knew, this guy might be in a coma somewhere, with only PanGames to keep his mind active.
“Tell me something, Darla Kaplan,” he said, locking gazes with her. “What happens if your body dies in the real world, while you are visiting here in the dream world of the gods? Do you go the Underworld, as usual? Or do you get trapped in the Dream world, perhaps forever? Could that happen?”
Despite herself, Darla shivered. “I don't know. I don't know if it has ever happened.”
He looked down at the sand drawings. “According to Cheiron, that is what happened to me. My real body is gone, destroyed by Zeus, sending me here. And though it fills my soul with dread, I am beginning to believe it is true.”
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