Finishing up the last few minutes of work with one eye on the chron readout, Jacine got practically no work done. Since she normally worked with a complete disregard to time, this was unusual enough for her partner to remark on it with a teasing glint in his eye. She responded with a bright grin of her own. Her partner wished yet again that she would accept a date with him, but turned away instead with an invisible sigh and his best wishes for her happiness someday.
Jacine headed out of the building as soon as working hours were officially over. She wanted to get to Island City, to meet her brother and friends, but since it was the close of working hours on the eve of a weekend, the soonest Gate she could reserve wasn’t for another two hours. She took the People-Mover to her block. Walking the rest of the way to her home, Jacine reflected upon the beauty and joy of open sky and wind that had been all over the world, but not in an environmental control system. Island City simulated everything skillfully, but... Jacine shook her head. That’s why I live here, not there. Just call me Chester Cricket: ’A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’. I wonder what New York City was like? I envision Island City, or Paris, but every place is unique. Under-water salvage operations don’t give much of an idea -- or rather a very pathetic one. The US High Council hasn’t shown as much interest in reclamation as other countries, but then, the US has a lot more territory. Of course Morocco is going to spend money trying to salvage Tangier -- Tangier was its only big commercial center. The US had New York, LA, SF -- all underwater; but it also had Detroit, Chicago, Houston,... No, Chicago is Glow-In-The-Dark. I wonder how Research is doing on radiation-proofing the Skeeters we gave them... Jacine opened the door to her house.
"Good Day, Jacine! I’m surprised to see you home -- I figured you would be pacing the walls by the Gates."
"And leave all my luggage?" Jacine grinned for the joke and also at the reflection that when Wren said she ’figured’, it was more than a... figure... of speech, as ’figuring’ was a usage of ’computing’ or ’adding’, which was how computers made their way through the binary patterns -- even a sapient computer like Wren.
Much later, Jacine stepped through the Gate into Island City. She considered a transfer to a local Gate, but decided against it and took a monorail to the RCF quarters. She watched out the windows at the sprawling city below her and the energy spirals of the Shield beyond it. It is pretty, but where, oh where, is the world beyond? A man noticed her gazing out the window and started pointed out the general sights to her. Jacine noted everything down, filing it as automatically as she breathed.
"Hi Gang!" Jacine stepped off the monorail platform and traded hugs with her sibling. "So... What's the Plan for tonight?"
Rhin laughed, "We haven't got one yet! We thought we'd wait and see what we'd stumble into."
"You know, the typical." Azami added with a grin.
23 was watching the monorail car as it disappeared around the corner. "Who was that?"
"Oh, just a nice man who was pointing out the sights of the city for me." Jacine tossed her knapsack to her brother, who caught in one hand what it took her two to heft.
"Uh huh." Azami and Rhin traded glances while Tamlynn tried hard not to laugh at either Jacine or 23.
"Let's meander down to the Ritz and see what they have over there."
"Let's stop by my room first. This isn't quite light. Geez, Jas, what do you have in it?"
"Oh, this and that. I thought I'd do a little tinkering when things got slow."
They proceeded to Michael's room, dropped off the knapsack, and encountered the Seales on their own way down the corridors.
"Oh no -- it's all of the Gang!"
"Twins, Sibs, and Cousins." Connie agreed with her husband.
"We're not cousins." Tamlynn looked at 23 in confusion.
"Close enough." 23 replied with his cute, disarming grin.
The two groups merged into one for a time as they wandered around the Ritz and Pelegar. They split again when the Seales went to dinner. None of the Gang was particularly interesting in eating at the time. They moved into the mall and did some window shopping.
Azami stopped mid-stride, "Hey, I just thought of something!"
Three people ahead of her turned. The two next to her waited.
Rhin was the person who finally obliged her, "What, Azami?"
Pointing a hand at the shop across from them, Azami grinned, "What do you get when you switch the first and last letters of that shop name?"
They regarded the sign, ’Romeo's’.
"Someor? Oh! Somitor!!" Rhin grinned with delight.
Jacine perked up her flagging attention, "That's sounds great right now -- I haven't been there in ages!"
Tamlynn regarded her with curiosity, "Isn't the VR Internet essentially the same thing?"
"Nope." Jacine didn’t expand and Tamlynn put the subject to one side, since she was eager to try out Azami's suggestion.
Michael was the only person who seemed even a little reluctant, but he herded them to the nearest Gate with accelery. Jacine managed to get her code in first, paying for the use of the phone-Gate.
They arrived in a quiet corridor with people waking back and forth, across from a door that a large sign above it proclaimed it to be the entrance to 'Somitor'. The six friends wandered across the threshold into a quiet, clinical looking area. A woman seated at a desk greeted them and inquired if they were all together. When they responded in the affirmative she directed them to a room down the left corridor.
They went in and quickly put on the gear that was inside the room. The physician who came in to assist them found them already prepared and lying on their separate couches. His lips twitched in amusement at their eagerness.
"I presume you are familiar with the routine here." A series of affirmatives responded. "Please read these warnings and acknowledge your understanding of our services."
Reluctantly, the six people sat up again to fill out the forms.
The man continued, "Just to reiterate: When you first enter the Simulation, you will be in individual rooms where you will choose your forms. Then you will gather in the antechamber where the Master Computer will gather the information it needs to set up your Scenario."
They handed him the forms and settled back down on the couches. The physician checked all the connections and hook-ups and then activated the Simulation.
Azami walked into the antechamber with a sultry swing. The swing was part of the character, but it was also involuntary since she wasn’t use to having so much... bulk... up top. Or the blasted high-heeled shoes -- Good thing this body was already balanced for them. Azami liked having forms different to her own when she played, and currently she was in one that she regarded as her "just-for-fun" form; an average-height, dark-skinned, blonde-haired, Lady of the Night -- with lots of natural sex appeal. It was amusing to watch the guys react, and she was always thankful to get back to her normal form after using "Bambi" as she called this form. Of course, this time would be more interesting with Michael along... As Azami walked in with a smile, she heard a wolf-whistle.
"Oh my! Now that can’t be one of the guys! My bet’s on one of the Twins, but which one... Don’t say anything -- I want to figure this out."
Azami looked around the room in confusion, for there wasn’t anybody else in there. The voice had sounded familiar..., but it wasn’t really a ’voice’ either. A black & white cat on one of the couches stretched and then hopped down to pace around her. Azami’s mouth dropped open as she exclaimed, "Jacine?!?!"
"Oh darn. I told you not to talk, Azami. That is sure an interesting form."The cat sat back on her haunches and tilted her head to regard Azami, who started laughing involuntarily.
"It’s not nearly as interesting as yours!"
"Whose?" A tall fair-skinned woman in a smart business suit walked in. She wore her brown hair short and fashionable. Her shoes, however, were a cross between fashionable and practical, and she wore a knife at her side.
Azami greeted her absently, intent on studying the cat in front of her. "Hi Rhin. Jacine’s." She gestured down, and Rhin raised an eyebrow. She and Jacine spoke simultaneously.
"Jacine, I think 23 is going to be--"
"Azami! I was trying to guess-- What was that, Rhin?"
Rhin sighed, "Never mind." She shook her head, "Jacine, are you speaking? That is decidedly the weirdest effect..."
"It’s not ’speaking’ exactly. Cats can’t speak."The two other people in the room shot her a look of annoyance. "Sorry. What happens is that I project my thoughts, sort-of like you do when you speak, but the computer doesn’t hook the relays up to any definable brain function, such as hearing. Instead, it feeds the information of what I’m saying directly to your ’knowledge’ and you interpret it however you do."
"Now that has to be Jacine!"
"Tam!"The cat extended its wings and flew up to perch on the newcomer’s shoulders. Azami and Rhin stared at the sight of a winged cat on Tamlynn’s shoulder and then chuckled.
"Well, you two are matched, at least!"
"In originality, if nothing else! Boy, I feel ashamed."
"I know what you mean. I should have trotted out my three-eyed, tentacled, space-monster from the X-dimension form!"
Tamlynn and Jacine laughed at the Twins’ comments and mild embarrassment. Some of the forms Rhin and Azami used were just as creative as their friends’, but tonight they’d been thinking more of Michael...
Tamlynn was in the form of a cyborg. It was mostly human looking, but the Twins were familiar with it, and knew that most of the limbs and features were adaptable and changeable. The cyborg was a master of disguise, and powerful to boot. Currently, it was ambiguously sexed, teenage-boy or young woman, average height, average dark golden skin color.
The three women settled down on the couches while Jacine flew around the room. It was several minutes before anybody else walked in. He was a skinny street-rat type of kid, maybe thirteen years old. It was hard to tell under the grime and malnutrition. He stood at the door and looked around at them, not saying anything.
The women stared in amazement, unable to put either of their friends into this body. Azami’s eyes went to Jacine, who was still gliding in circles and trying fancy loop dives.
Rhin followed her eyes, "Jacine’s not surprised."
"Nope," Azami agreed. "It must be Michael."
The street-rat laughed, "Foiled by your own nosy instincts, Sib."
The cat somehow managed to convey the sense of a shrug."Oh well -- I was foiled from the beginning. I feel like Bink in The Source of Magic. Or not. Let’s see how well you do."
Michael looked over the women, "Do I have to?"
Another voice floated from behind him, "Not necessarily. I can tell you that one is Tamlynn." 23 was rather predictably in the form of a handsome, strong, athletic man. The women hid their grins as his gaze traveled past the cyborg, hovered between the business woman and the hooker, and settled on the cat flying around the room. He quickly hid the look of chagrin on his face, but not before they’d all seen it, except, of course for the black & white cat trying to catch her tail in the air. Azami and Rhin traded their own amused/chagrined looks for their plans to seduce Michael in the Simulation. Somehow, with the form he had chosen, it didn’t seem likely.
"Jacine," Rhin changed the subject with a question that had been on her mind, "When you ’talk’, does everybody around hear you."
The cat stopped doing air flips and spread her wings in a long glide."Not unless I want them to. I can broadcast on general wavelength, which I’m doing now, or I can narrow it down to individuals. Actually, it’s amusing -- some people absolutely refuse to accept any information that does not input through a normal source, such as ’hearing’, and they never understand me."
23 looked around quizzically, "Was Jacine trying to say something?" Eyes turned to him and he spread out his hands, "Just kidding."
Rhin looked back towards the cat, "What?" There was a moment’s pause. "Okay. One."
Azami’s curiosity was solved when she heard Jacine,"You next, Azami. Say ’two’."
"Two," she repeated obediently.
"Three," Michael spoke next.
"Four," 23 chimed in.
"Five." Tamlynn spoke with finality.
Then another voice spoke,"Six."
The cat’s wings stopped beating the air and she headed in a nose-dive for the floor. Three people jumped to stop her from crashing, but her wings extended and she glided out of their range. She settled on the floor."Who the bloody-blue-blazes was that?"
The humans and the cyborg looked at each other and then back at the cat "It sounded like you."
"It wasn’t me!"
"Good Evening." The Main Computer’s synthesized voice slid smoothly into an awkward pause that was the result of Jacine’s pronouncement. "I am prepared to set up your Scenario, but I require some more information from you. First, do you desire an active scenario -- a game, a quest, a fight, etceteras; or a passive one -- a story, a scene, etceteras?"
The group was unanimous, "A Quest!"
"What placement of levels of danger do you require?"
Three voices spoke, "Low." Two voices remained quiet, and one demanded,"High!"
Michael glared at his sister. She turned to lick her wings, but broadcast sullenly,"Fine. Low."
The Main Computer spoke again, "Your Scenario has been chosen. You will be placed in a pre-industrial town with occasional magics -- and flying cats. Choose your partners now!"
The cat launched itself in a long dive for a shoulder before the computer had even finished speaking. Michael felt an invisible something attach itself to his leg. As everybody else took the fraction of a second to translate spoken words into meaning, the antechamber faded around them and a city took its place.
"Rhin? Tam?" Azami looked around the small room. Not much chance of Michael being in there... no, darn it, I'm thinking of his real person. Even so, there wasn't any skinny street rat there either. Cats? "Jacine?" No answer. All right, that's what the computer meant at the end there. I wonder how Jacine twigged to it so soon. Oh that's right, she's using a telepathic character -- doesn't have to wait for the audio signals to translate. Azami spoke outloud, "There's a quest to be solved and companions to be found! On with it!!"
23 crept around the corner, following the barely recognizable trail. Over the past several hours (subjective in the Simulation), he'd been strained to the limits of this character's strong and dexterous body. Exactly what he liked to do, in Fantasy. He didn't do this often, but enjoyed it when he did. The RCF could get frustrating with all the physically perfect people around him. This was fun, and he was careful not to let the feeling get too addicting -- in spite of its disadvantages, he liked the body he was 'hatched' with.
Suddenly, there was a movement and 23 darted in quickly. He held a brown mouse with pink eyes. 23 sighed in frustration, then narrowed his eyes: The mouse had a collar on, exactly the same shade as its fur. He took it off and unwound the paper inside it. Cursing, he realized he couldn't read in this character -- not a common talent in pre-industrial worlds.
"Here. Let me see it."
23 spun around in surprise. "Michael!"
The street urchin grinned at him, "Call me Jimmy."
"Puss!" Tam ran over to the crumpled black and white furball. "Jacine!!" She hadn't forgotten that it was only a simulation, but only one thought went through her mind: What am I going to tell Michael?
"Don't tell him anything and see if he notices."
Tam looked at the body, but it was quite definitely dead. A brush on the side of her leg made her jump. A large orange alley cat sat there with a purple key in its mouth. It spat the key out and turned its head to chew at its shoulder-blades.
"Boy, these things itch as they're growing in!"
Tamlynn covered her eyes with her hand as she groaned, "Jacine?"
"Of course. Didn't you know? Cats have--"
"Nine lives," Tamlynn finished. "I do know that, but wasn't this suppose to be a 'low danger' situation?"
"Well, yes. But with nine lives, the risk is proportionally higher. And call me Puss. Next time I'll have the boots."
Picking up the purple key and putting it in her pocket, Tam stood up. As she looked at the body of the black and white cat, she wondered what to do.
The orange cat sniffed, then shrugged as well as it could."If it bothers you, I could get the pink mice over... Probably."
"No, that's okay." Tamlynn concentrated for a moment and managed to contact the Main Computer. A troop of cheerfully whistling dwarves came around the corner, picked up the body, and walked away with more cheerful New Orleans' funeral tunes.
Sitting down and using a back leg to scratch its shoulder-blades, the cat gave a mental whistle."That was nice!"
"Better than pink mice."
"Hey, not my fault -- I inherited them!"
As Tamlynn started to walk away, the cat gave a massive leap and landed on her shoulder. Tam stumbled.
"Oufff. I think I liked your other body better. At least it was lighter!"
"So, Michael, you never did finish -- why do you like that character?" 23 brushed the ash off his shoulders.
Michael's character was in the shadows, dusting off an invisible gremlin, who thanked him politely. Michael chuckled, "It gives me a chance to think."
Repeating his statement, Michael moved into the main alley and the invisible something followed him. Michael expanded, "When I'm in the RCF, people tend to treat me just as a strong muscle-man with special senses, and little intelligence. I have to be careful not to start thinking that myself -- strength is intimidating, and usually fairly effective. In Simulation, I like to take weak characters because then I have to use my intelligence to get me out of scrapes, and that way I keep my ideas fresh for use in everyday as well."
23 nodded in understanding -- he understood the trap very well indeed.
The gremlin faded into view, then out again."Okay, so why do I use Simulation?"
Michael and 23 looked in frustration to where it probably was. "Chester! We don't even know who you are! How could we possible know why you're here?"
"Oh yeah. I forgot."
Michael rolled his eyes, "I swear, it's almost like being with Jacine!"
23 stiffened and went down on one knee, instantly switching back into character. "Jimmy! Over there -- to the left."
Michael looked over, "I see it, Huck. Chester, try to get around to its side."
"But I don't control my invisibility... I could turn visible right in front of it and scare it off."
"It's still worth a try. Go Chester!"
The gremlin went. 23 moved to one side, ready to jump when it came out. Michael moved back to get a more overall view.
It edged out and the gremlin moved to block the hole. There was a giant 'SLAM' and a dustball of ashes and bodies obscured Michael and 23's view. Two simultaneous thoughts projected out,"Oufff!" "That hurt!!!!" A shout came from around the corner and soon a body followed it, running anxiously towards the scene of impact.
When the dust cleared, the gremlin was visible, sitting stunned next to a small calico kitten holding a golden mouse in her mouth.
The cyborg skidded to a stop, "Jacine! Are you okay?"
Before the kitten could respond, there was a shout from above, "Look out below!"
Heads swiveled up and Tam and 23 dove to the ground to avoid being hit by a golden bird in a low dive trying to avoid Rhin in a glider. The owner of the voice leaned out of an upper story window and dropped a net as the bird flew in Azami's direction.
The kitten instinctively tried to spread her wings and follow. She let out a frustrated, "Meow" when her young wings wouldn't support her.
When the cat opened her mouth to meow, the mouse escaped. Michael, 23, and Tam all scrambled to recapture it. The gremlin shoved Jacine and itself out of the way as the bodies converged.
Jacine looked at the gremlin as it started to fade back into invisibility, "Oh! You must be Six-Ball!!"
The Gang stumbled out of Somitor's, laughing and joking amongst themselves.
"Oh, that was fun!" Azami leaned on Michael's shoulder, happy to have all seven feet of him back in normal proportions.
23 looked to one side, "Jacine?"
She grimaced, "Sorry. I was trying to thought project. It always takes me awhile after one of these to get use to speaking out loud again."
Rhin found herself watching invisible dustballs in the corridors, "We never did find out who Chester was."
"And he didn't come out with us. I wonder if we'll ever know?" 23 felt sad, he'd come to like the little gremlin, and felt quite protective of him.
"It's a Quest!" Tamlynn grinned and the others laughed.
"I think I'm Quested out for the moment. See me in the morning!" Despite the Simulation having taken place while they were flat on their backs, Jacine was limping heavily. She was smiling as she spoke, and didn't appear to notice any difference.
"Jas, it is morning!"
Tam groaned, "I need at least a few hours of sleep."
The others agreed, and they headed back to their respective quarters -- The next night would be soon enough for the usual slumber party at Tamlynn's house.