Xone of Contention

A Xanth Novel

Xanth (Volume 23 of 37)

Piers Anthony

Tor Fantasy

Edsel struggled with the program, but it just wouldn't jell. The problem really was in the software, which was unusually unintelligible. How could he make it seem easy and user friendly, when its programmers had evidently labored decades to make it difficult and hostile? This was of course how he earned his living: designing software to make other software seem nice. But in this case he needed to tweak a default in the computer operating system, and access to the key level was barred. That was the fundamental bone of contention.
"Damn you, Macrohard," he swore softly. "Just once, couldn't you give a person a break? I'm not trying to steal Doors from you, just to put a special function on the keypad 'Enter' key so Grundy Golem can work independent of the mouse. There are folk who don't like being chained to the mouse, you know; this isn't Dizzy World. Would it hurt you so bad to let someone have it his own way for a change?" But of course he knew the answer: yes, it would truly pain the company to let a user ever have it his own way. Macrohard never wanted anyone to forget for half an instant exactly who was the master, and who was the least important person in the universe. It couldn't stop third party programmers like Edsel from trying to alleviate things, but it could and did make sure that they were unable to make any significant improvements. So the bone became a whole zone of contention.
There had to be a way around this block. He had all the rest of it figured out--if he could just use this one key. If he could only get in there to redefine it. Without Macrohard catching on. He almost thought he had a glimmer of a way, but he couldn't quite grasp it. He was up against a deadline, and this one aspect balked him maddeningly. This wasn't like his problem with the printer, which Doors refused to allow to use its two paper trays; both had to have paper, but only one could be drawn from, so that he could not have one tray feeding paper while he refilled the other, cycling through without delaying his work. That had been a real aggravation when he had changed to Doors: its deliberate crippling of the useful features of his printer that he had always used before. But what could he do? Doors had become just about the only game in town, and it slammed shut on any fingers it chose. He had survived that aggravation, but he had not been under a deadline then.
Maybe if he took a break, got his mind off it for an hour, the way would come to him. Sometimes it was like that: you had to take the pressure off the gate before you could unlatch it. He remembered his frustration the first time he needed to format a floppy disk, and Doors didn't even list formatting as an option. Their Help feature did tell where to find it, but neglected to clarify that a right mouse click was necessary instead of the left one, to get the proper menu. Macrohard was a genius at providing the necessary function, but effectively disabling it by the selective omission of a key detail, so that most users could not get the benefit of it. Truly fine sadism. So he had wasted precious time before finally finding it by chance. That was too often the only way, as with evolution: time and chance. And that could be wearing on the psyche. While the anonymous Doors programmers surely laughed their nerdly heads off. They evidently loved making working folk waste time, energy, and patience.
Edsel got up and walked to the garage. There was his pride: the Lemon motorcycle. He had had it for years, and it was a great old machine. Just a little off its feed right now, but some tinkering with the carburetor should fix that.
He laid out his tools and got to work. He always felt better when with his fine machine. The nerviest thing he had ever done was to put it up as his stake in a bet with his friend Dug. But it had been important, because he had won that bet, and gotten Pia. The bet had been that Dug, who had hated computer games, would like Companions of Xanth. Themotorcycle against the girl. Not only had Dug liked the game, he had come out of it with a new girlfriend, Kim, now his wife. So his old girlfriend, Pia, was freed to be with Edsel. A win-win situation for the home team.
Or was it? Now it was seven years later, and his marriage to Pia was in trouble. Somehow they seemed to fight more than they made love. Sometimes they did both together. He was beginning to wonder whether they had made a mistake. Dug and Kim hadn't; their marriage was solid and harmonious. Which was odd, because Kim really wasn't lovely; she wasn't nearly as pretty as Pia, and not half as sexy. She also talked too much. But somehow she seemed just right for Dug. She clearly adored him, and he adored her. Edsel wasn't sure there had ever been a hard word between them. In contrast to the way it was between Edsel and Pia. Edsel had asked Dug about that once: how he had discovered Kim, and how they managed to get along so well.
The answer had been perplexing. "Sure, Kim didn't seem like much. But then she kissed me."
"That was it?"
"That was it. And when there's a problem, she kisses me again."
"When we have a problem, Pia won't kiss me at all."
"She's like that," Dug had agreed. That had reminded Edsel how Pia had once been Dug's girlfriend, and he didn't care to dwell on that.
He took down the carburetor, but the problem didn't seem to be there; it was clean and clear. Maybe in the gasoline line? That could get more complicated.
He jumped. "Yes dear," he replied, hoping this was not going to be another scene. She looked and sounded furious. Talk about a zone of contention!
"Don't 'yes dear' me! What are you doing here?"
"Why haven't you finished that Cuss Companion program yet? You know you shouldn't be goofing off here when we have a deadline! Can't you finish anything? I just got a call from Kim, asking if she can tell the buyer it's in the mail. I'll have to tell her no, because my idiotic husband cares more for his junkcycle than for his job!"
He didn't try to explain. It wouldn't do any good, when she was like this. But he did need to get back to the Companions program.
He looked at his watch. Three hours had passed! He had gotten lost in the Lemon and his thoughts, and spent way more time than he could afford. Pia had a right to be angry.
He reassembled things as rapidly as feasible, and washed his hands. He went to find Pia, hoping to explain, but she was on the phone, giving Kim an earful. It was an irony of the situation that the two women got along great. Maybe that was because Pia was glad Kim was taking up Dug's attention, and Kim was glad that Pia wasn't taking his attention. So he went to the office and put the Companions program on his computer, running through its routine. He was rather proud of it, overall.
A little figure, obviously fashioned of wood and rag, appeared. "Hi! I'm Grundy Golem, your Companion of the moment. I speak Basic, C++ and other computer languages, but you don't need to worry about that; I'll translate everything to your tongue. Please check in your name, gender, age, status, and whatever." A check-off sheet appeared. Edsel typed in his name, and checked Male, 23, Married. This part was optional, but it added to the effect.
"That's great, Edsel," Grundy said. "What do you want to know? Click your cursor on one of these words, or Select it by touching Alt and the first letter, and touch Keypad Enter." The figure held up a sign listing a number of popular programs.
Edsel clicked on Macrohard Doors Excess. "Good," Grundy said. "Now before we get into this, Edsel, I must tell you that you don't need to have me as your guide." His voice come through the system speakers; this was a multimedia program. "You can choose any of these others by Selecting or clicking on them." Several pictures appeared. One of them was Pia; it had amused them all to have her be the model for their own program. She looked great, because a program figure didn't put on weight the way a living one did.
Edsel clicked Pia. Her picture came to life. She was wearing a dark blue jacket and skirt, and had small golden earrings representing Pluto, the P planet. "Very well, Edsel" she said dulcetly. "Now how can I help you with Excess? Do you know anything about spreadsheets or databases?" She smiled. She had a nice smile. In fact she had a nice everything, in appearance.
He clicked "No."
"Well, they are both ways of storing and using information," she said. "Would you like me to walk you through the basics?"
This time he clicked No, though she had a lovely walk. She faced him, putting on a cute smile of perplexity. "What would you like, Edsel? Just type it in, and I'll do my best."
He typed "Disrobe."
"If you wish." She opened her jacket and drew it off, revealing a tight, well-filled sweater. She put her hands on its base and began to draw it up, showing a sheer blouse beneath. Then she paused, catching on. "Hey--it's supposed to be the program I'm helping you with, Edsel, not your sex life."
He smiled. He had always liked that part. That was as close as the Companion Pia ever came to quarreling, and farther on in the program she would remove the sweater if asked, and later the sheer blouse too. But it took precise management to get her to remove her bra or skirt, and that only after the user had demonstrated some competence in Excess. Her figure was worth the effort, though. To date they had had only three complaints about that feature, and dozens of notes of appreciation, and the program had sold well. One mother's letter had been choice: "Thank you so much for teaching my thirteen year old son to operate Excess. I don't know how you did it, but he learned it readily when he used your Companions guide, after getting nowhere elsewhere. He even runs through the guide for refreshers every so often, and his friends are learning too. They all say yours is the best." Obviously Mother herself had not caught on to the secret lure, and Junior wasn't telling. Modem teens were not stupid about software of the feminine kind, or about the attitudes of parents.
Edsel canned the program. It was the update for the Discuss word processor he was working on now, popularly known as Cuss. The latest revision of Cuss word was even more complicated and balky than usual, and really needed a good tutorial program. For example, it wouldn't let a file it made end in anything but .doc, as if it were a cartoon rabbit, on pain of horrendous file-trashing threats. Only by chance (as usual) had he discovered that he could get around that by putting his proposed file names in quotes. His tutorial clarified that and other dirty little secrets. If he could just make it work. He had to differentiate the two Enter keys, so that the Companions guide could have its own "Okay" key for special effects. But he still couldn't figure out how to free it from Macrohard's malign grip. Dog in the manger: if Macro didn't want to use it, nobody could. That familiar bone of contention, again.
Maybe there would be inspiration on the GigaGrid, or the Mundane Mega Mesh that enclosed the world. He clicked the Mode M site and was on his way.
"That's right--go hide in the Grid, the way you always do," Pia said sourly behind him.
"Oh, go buy another box of chocolates, the way you always do," he retorted. He would rather make love to her than fight her, anytime, but often there wasn't much choice.
She disappeared, and he forged on into the Grid. It was always this way: she had a sharp tongue, and he inevitably responded. Their marriage was on the rocks, and with it, maybe, their business. If it weren't for Dug and Kim, "Companions" might have foundered already. Kim was gregarious, so she was the saleswoman, phoning clients, emailing them, paying personal calls, bringing in the orders that were their life blood. Dug handled the shipping and handling, often delivering the larger orders personally, for he was a handsome man who always made a good impression. Pia handled the accounts, and Edsel, of course, struggled with the programs. He had let them down, this time, by trying for too much, and now he didn't have a finished program for them to deliver. He was the weak link, and he hated that. He was the lemon, this time.
Now he was cruising the GigaGrid, meandering through the Mesh, looking for inspiration. Maybe he could yet figure it out, so that he could complete the program, and they could deliver it late. He whistled in the way he had, smiling, his tongue against the roof of his mouth; it was easier than doing it purse-lipped, and fewer people knew how to do it, a double advantage as far as he was concerned. He liked being different in inconsequential ways.
He became aware that he had drifted into strange territory. There was a sign. THIS IS THE O-XONE. ENTRY TO THE MAGIC MESH REQUIRES THE RIGHT SPELL. PENALTY FOR ABUSE IS A BUNION.
Edsel laughed. This was a joke or a challenge. He liked challenges almost as much as he liked jokes. Pia had been a challenge. So it seemed that someone had set up a Mesh Leaf with a trick mode of entry, and he would see if he could get in. What would be the key?
He tried the usual run of code words and signals, but they didn't work. Then his left big toe began to hurt. It felt like a bunion. He put voice into his whistle, wondering whether this could be coincidence. How could a Mesh Leaf give a person a bunion? What kind of Xone of contention was this?
Spell accepted? What was it talking about? Oh--it must be a joke, the sign changing automatically after a moment, encouraging him to hit on this Leaf. So okay, he could play this game; where was this Black Wave gal?
He walked down the hall, and noticed two things: first, his bunion was gone, and second, what was he doing walking down a hall? This was an address on the Mundane Mega Mesh of the GigaGrid; he was gazing at his computer screen and interfacing with mouse and keyboard. Yet he wasn't; he was now walking down a hall. There were booths along it, each with a picture of a person, and a name. The colors were somehow brighter and clearer than those in his office, and the air seemed fresher.
And here was the name Breanna, under the face of a cute black girl who looked to be about sixteen. She must be the one. So he lifted his knuckle and knocked on the picture.
It came to life. "Ouch! You hit me!"
Startled, Edsel apologized. "Sorry. I didn't mean to."
She looked at him. "What do you mean, didn't mean to?" she demanded with cute severity. "You rapped me on the noggin with your knuckle."
"I--I thought it was just a picture. I was knocking on the door. You know--hitting the site. I never thought it would be literal."
She stared at him. "You're Mundane!"
He was taken aback. "I confess I am. You aren't?"
"Of course not. Not any more. Now I'm Xanthian. In real life, I mean; this is just my Magic Mesh Leaf. How did you get into the O-Xone?"
"There was a sign, saying something about a spell, and a penalty, and my foot began to hurt, and I whistled--and then I was here. So I did what it said, and looked you up."
Breanna seemed mollified. "Okay. Let's start at the top. I'm Breanna of the Black Wave. My talent is to see in blackness. Who are you and what's yours?"
"I'm Edsel of--of Mundania, and I guess my talent is to cruise the GigaGrid. Or to make droll jokes. But I never found this--this Magic Mesh before."
"Of course not; it's barred to most Mundanes." The picture considered. It was a picture; just her head and shoulders, animate but flat, like a TV image. Yet her eyes looked at him, and she was responsive to his words. "You must have found a glitch. A spell that wasn't programmed. What exactly did you do?"
"Well, I whistled. Like this." He made a voiced whistle.
The picture wavered and became three dimensional. Breanna's lips pursed. "That's magic, all right; it just enhanced my sight."
"You mean your site?"
She smiled. "That too, maybe. I mean, suddenly I see you rounded instead of flat. Am I the same to you?"
"Yes. But you're still just a head and shoulders. I can't see your rounded portions, though I'd like to."
She flashed another smile, appreciating the implied humorous compliment. "For sure. That's all there is of me in the Leaf. I mean, how could the real me be here?"
"I don't know. The real me seems to be here, though that seems impossible."
"For sure. We'll have to patch that glitch. But you don't seem bad for a Mundane."
"Well, I hope I'm not bad, even if my marriage is patchy." He hadn't meant to say that; he was a little unsettled.
"Too bad you're not in Xanth. Marriages are forever, there."
"I know. My friend Dug went to Xanth and met Kim there, and they have a happy marriage."
Breanna's eyes widened. "You know Dug and Kim Mundane?"
"Sure. I'm in business with them. I was the one who first put Dug onto Xanth. The Xanth game, I mean; I didn't know he'd actually cross over."
"Yeah, he was in the Companions game. I wish I could have been a Companion."
"Oh? Why weren't you?"
"I was too young then, only nine. Anyway, the Black Wave had just come into Xanth then; we didn't know our way around. Sherlock went with Dug and found a good place by Ogre Chobee for us to settle in. So I guess I can't complain. But it sure sounds like fun."
"It sure does," he agreed. "Well, if I'm ever in Xanth, you can be my Companion and show me around." He felt a trace of guilt as hespoke, because he was flirting with this cute girl, and as a married man he shouldn't.
"I can? That's great!"
"Only I can't get into Xanth," he said with regret. "Dug and Kim go there only when invited. There was some kind of trial. Something about a big bird, I think."
"Roxanne Roc," Breanna agreed. "She won. She's just about the most important bird in Xanth now, except for the Simurgh. That's another great moment of history I missed. Bleep, I'd sure like to be in on a Great Moment. Well, I did get to go to Jenny's wedding." Then her picture paused, orienting on him with wild surmise. "Say--maybe we can do each other some good. Maybe you can visit Xanth, and I can be your Companion and show you around, and maybe that will be a great adventure and accomplish something nice, like patching up your marriage."
Edsel realized that Breanna was a creature of dreams. But her enthusiasm was contagious. "I'd like that. But I don't see how."
"I just got this wonderful wild notion. Here we are talking in the Interface. If we could stretch it a little farther, and exchange places, then maybe you'd be in Xanth and I'd be in Mundania. I wouldn't mind visiting it, though I sure wouldn't want to stay." Then she reconsidered. "Well, maybe not you and me changing places, exactly. Maybe I could switch with your wife, and you could switch with my boyfriend Justin."
"Justin Tree. He used to be a tree--well, he was a man first, then a tree, then we met, and now we're betrothed but we can't marry because I'm too young. We can't even smooch much, because I'm not supposed to know the Adult Conspiracy. I hate that! I mean, what's the point in making him convert early to a young man--he took some youth elixir--if we can't do anything? It's driving me crazy."
"I think I know the feeling," Edsel said, though he hardly understood all of what she was saying.
"So maybe if Justin and I could switch with you folk, and get into Mundania for a while, where there's not much enforcement of the Conspiracy, we could at least go from necking to petting. And you folk could do whatever you wanted, in Xanth, and your marriage wouldn't be in trouble, because marriages never are."
This was surely sheer foolishness, but it was wickedly tempting. "I'd do it, if there were a way."
"I'm thinking there could be a way. With the right connection. If nobody objected." She cocked her head. "Do you think sixteen is too young?"
He knew what was on her mind. "I was sixteen when I got together with Pia, and she was fifteen. A girl can be pretty mature at fifteen, and moreso thereafter."
"For sure!" she agreed happily. "And Justin's not young at all. He's about ninety nine, I think."
He thought he had misheard. "Nineteen?"
"Ninety nine," she said carefully. "But he was a tree most of that time. I told you. But now he's been youthened to nineteen, so he'll be twenty one when I'm eighteen. We think that's about right. But he's got these grandfatherly reservations about things. You know, about touching girls. I figure if I can just get him safely alone for a week or so, I can bash down those barriers." She glanced at him again. "Do you think so?"
"Uh, that depends. If--"
"Oh, right, you can't see the rest of me. Well, it's proportional. Especially when I take off my clothes."
She did have adult notions. As Pia had had, at that age. "Then if he's got the body of a nineteen year old male, and you're sixteen, and proportional, you should be able to handle him in about three minutes."
She laughed. "Yeah. That's what I figure. When I get the chance. Anyway, here's how: physical travel between Xanth and Mundania is difficult, unless you have a special pass. Oh, I mean you can do it, but you're liable to come out in some other time or place and be lost. But exchanging bodies--I think that's feasible."
"Exchanging bodies?" he asked somewhat blankly.
"You're a bit slow on the uptake, aren't you," she remarked without rancor. "If I switch with your wife, and you switch with Justin, then the two of you would be in Xanth. You'd be in our bodies, but you'd still be you. And you could do what you wanted to. So could we."
"Oh. Yes. That could be interesting." In fact, as he considered it, it seemed more than interesting. If he could embrace Breanna, knowing it was really Pia, so he wasn't being unfaithful ... 8 His thought trailed into an ellipsis with a potentially infinite number of dots. Some of them were white dots, like Pia; some were brown, like Breanna.
"So let's see about it. We'll need some magic to handle it, but I think I know whom to check with. I'll have to go out of the O-Xone a moment, though."
"What does the O stand for?"
"Other, I think. Because it's neither here nor there. It's the interface between Xanth and Mundania, a halfway zone. I'm on duty because I remember some about Mundania, so can help folk like you, though we haven't been set up long and you're the first, and you're not even a Character."
"A what?"
"A Character. Xanth folk come here to the O-Xone and pretend to be Mundanes, and I guess Mundanes try to pretend to be Xanthians, mostly in their X-Xone, and maybe soon they can meet halfway. When we get it organized. Sean's working on it."
"Sean Baldwin. He's Mundane, but he's with Willow, who's Xanthian. She's a winged elf, actually. Sometimes he has to stay in Mundania, and she has to stay in Xanth, so they can't be together all the time, so they want a connection, and maybe this will be it."
Breanna tended to provide more information than he could assimilate immediately, but it did help some. He returned to basics. "This business of exchanging bodies--I'm still not sure exactly how that works."
"Yeah, I guess you ought to try it. Maybe you should step into a picture."
"Do what?"
"Just walk on down to one of the scenes, and think yourself into it, and you'll get a sample. That's part of what the O-Xone is all about: sampling the other side. It'll give you a feel for it, though it's really illusion."
She frowned. "You are slow. Here in the O-Xone the magic's not complete, and illusion's cheap, so we use it a lot. I've got to go check with Nimby, so you take a break in a picture, and we'll meet here again when we're both done. Okay?"
"Uh, okay," he agreed.
The picture lost animation. It was just a picture, again instead of a video.
He turned and walked on down the hall, looking at the other pictures. They were of various fantasy scenes, each painted on a large leaf. One was a fancy castle, with a moat around it and fruit trees beside it, labeled CASTLE ROOGNA. Another was a monstrous gulf, labeled GAP CHASM. Another was a group of centaurs. That made him pause. The males weremuscular in their human aspects, with large bows slung across their backs, while the females were--extremely well endowed. They wore no clothing on their bodies, not even halters. Fascinating! But he wasn't ready to tackle anything like that, so he moved on until he came to a scene of a deep, quiet forest. There was a squirrel in the foreground, ordinary except for one thing: it had wings. A flying squirrel, of course.
That should do. But how did he get into that body, even in illusion? There didn't seem to be any instructions. Breanna had assumed he knew how, forgetting how "slow" he was about such things. Think himself into it, as she had suggested?
"I am a squirrel," he said tentatively. Nothing happened. "A winged squirrel." Still nothing.
He stared into the picture, pondering. Did he need to hum-whistle to invoke the magic? He tried that, and the picture seemed to shimmer and expand, but he still wasn't in it. The winged squirrel was still there, with a dark trail wending into the background.
Then, irrelevantly, he remembered a song. It was about a young man who faced a difficult trip through a forest, yet he anticipated it with joy. He began to hum it, thinking the words. "Though the path is long and dark, rocky steep and narrow/Though the wood is dark and cold, this brings me no sorrow." Because in that woodland lived his darling loved one. Edsel was married, but he still liked romantic situations. He pictured Pia in that wood, as lovely as she had been at sixteen.
Then he was in the scene. The forest was suddenly huge around him. He took a step, faltered, and spread his wings for balance. He was the flying squirrel! Could he really fly? It seemed worth a try.
He faced in the direction of a glade, spread his wings, ran on his hind feet, flapped--and was airborne! He pumped his wings frantically, trying to maintain balance while gaining elevation, but overdid it and stalled out. He dropped, landing on his tail. No damage done, fortunately.
But his clumsy effort had attracted attention. Suddenly a monstrous shape was entering the glade. It was a fire-breathing dragon!
Edsel panicked. He got all four feet under him, folded his wings, and scooted for the nearest underbrush. A jet of flame passed over his head, and he realized that the dragon had expected him to take flight, so had aimed high. But because he was really a land-bound creature, he had stayed on land--and maybe saved himself a frying.
However, the dragon wasn't through. It was reorienting, and this time it wouldn't miss. Brush would not protect him from that flamethrower.Edsel scrambled for the nearest tree, getting behind it just as the flame set the brush on fire.
How could he escape? He peered up the trunk of the tree. The top seemed worlds away, and he didn't trust his claws to hold on, for all that he was a squirrel. The dragon could toast him long before he got out of range. He heard the ground shaking is it tramped toward the tree.
He would have to make a break for it on the ground. Maybe if he ran toward the dragon, that would surprise it, and he could get by it and beyond it before it could turn around. Then maybe he could find a hole in the ground or something.
A giant foot crashed down on one side of the tree. Edsel turned to the other side--and there was the dragon's awful snoot. He was trapped before he even got started.
"I want out of here!" he cried. And there he was back in the hall, standing before the picture, which now showed a dragon crouching by a tree. His heart was pounding. That had been one close escape.
If this was illusion, he wasn't sure he would care to try the reality. He'd better tell Breanna the deal was off. He walked down the hall toward her Leaf.
Then, bothered by something, he turned back to the picture. The dragon was now looking around, evidently having lost the squirrel. That was what Edsel had wanted to know: that the squirrel had escaped. He had not led it into a frying or chomping. He turned away again, relieved.
As he approached the Leaf, it came to life. "Oh, there you are," Breanna's face said. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"Not exactly," he said, abashed.
"I thought maybe you'd try the one with the mermaids in the pool. I hear they can be very friendly with human visitors."
"I didn't see that one," he said, with real regret. He could have entered a scene with friendly mermaids? He had heard it said that a mermaid had all the good parts of a woman, and none of the bad parts. As if there were any bad parts.
"Or maybe the one showing the Faun & Nymph Retreat. Naturally I'm not supposed to know how they celebrate all day, being underage, but I have a suspicion you'd find it interesting."
More than a suspicion, he was sure. He really should have checked out all the pictures before choosing one. "No, I got into one with a flying squirrel."
"That one? I hope you watched out for the dragon."
"I did run afoul of the dragon. It almost got me. A couple of those fire jets just missed me."
"Yeah, it's enchanted to just barely miss each time. To make it seem realistic. Even if the dragon scored on you, it couldn't hurt you, because it's illusion. A score that didn't work would ruin the effect, but a near miss can be scary."
"Yes." So he had been taken in by illusion, when there was no danger. That gave him new respect for illusion.
"'Sokay. I checked with Chlorine, and she says it's fine, except that I can't go to Mundania."
"You can't? But that's not fine, because you wanted to visit there, with Justin to--you know."
She shook her head. "No, it's okay. Really. Because I'm getting something better. I'll get to be your Companion in Xanth. And maybe, if there's some slack time, like camping overnight, if I try to stretch the Adult Conspiracy a little--
"I won't even notice," Edsel said quickly. "Or tell. It's your business, nobody else's."
"Yeah," she said gratefully. "Chlorine understands, too. She used to be plain, before things changed."
"Chlorine? Where I come from, we put that in water."
"You aren't where you come from," she said with half a smile. "You'll meet Nimby and Chlorine tomorrow. But there's more: they're going to visit Mundania, by switching bodies with you. They'll need Companions too, to show them around, because Mundania can be just as dangerous as Xanth for strangers. So can you dig up a reliable pair of Mundane Companions?"
"Mundane Companions? I suppose we could ask Dug and Kim--"
"Great! Bring them here this time tomorrow, and your wife, and I'll bring Nimby and Chlorine, and Justin, and we can work it all out. This should be a great adventure."
Just like that? But of course Dug and Kim had had experience in Xanth, so should have good advice. What Pia would think of this he wasn't sure. But it was worth a try. "I'll do that," he said.
"Great!" Breanna repeated. "See you tomorrow." Her picture reverted.
Bemused, Edsel faced the O-Xone exit and walked. As he came to the marked portal, he saw it was a wall. He did his hum-whistle, and suddenly he was out. He could tell, because he was looking at a monitorscreen with a cursor blinking in front of him. The hall with pictures was gone.
He exited the Mesh, and then the GigaGrid. He had some talking to do, to several people.
First, Pia. She was every bit as understanding as usual. "Have you been doing drugs?"
"No," he said patiently. "This is a Mesh interface. And maybe a chance for us to get into Xanth for a visit. The way Dug and Kim do."
"Just because they're crazy enough to believe in fantasy is no reason we have to," she retorted. "How could you fall for such a line of crap?"
"Pia, please. I thought it would be good for our relationship. To have a break. A vacation in a magic land. Maybe we could mend fences, or something."
"As if you even care!" she said witheringly.
"I do care. I--I'm sorry that things are going wrong."
"Maybe they're going right. Did you ever think of that?"
"Going right?" he asked blankly.
"Maybe it was a mistake, us getting married. Maybe now we're finally catching on. Maybe we're getting ready to set things right."
"I don't understand." But he feared he did.
She softened. "Ed, some marriages aren't meant to be. I think we should consider divorce."
He was stunned. She had said the D word. He had thought she was going to recommend counseling. "I--I don't want that."
"But maybe it's best. To recognize the situation, and take appropriate action. There should be less pain that way."
She was serious. She must have considered this pretty carefully, and that knocked his world for a loop. But what could he do?
He decided to go for double or nothing. "How about this: let's make a deal. You give this fantasy visit an honest try, and if it doesn't work, then I'll--I'll not oppose a divorce. If that's what you want."
She eyed him appraisingly. "You won't fight it?"
"I won't fight it. Though I don't want it. I'd rather make love than war, anytime. But I'll go along with it. If that's the way you feel."
She nodded. "Deal." She extended her hand.
"Deal," he agreed, shaking her hand.
Edsel called Dug immediately. Dug and Kim lived within a mile, and the two couples often visited each other socially as well as for business reasons.
Kim answered the phone. "Yes?" she inquired politely. She had a nice voice.
"Edsel. We--could we come over? Now? There's something we need to discuss."
"Of course. I'll tell Dug." Her tone indicated that she realized that this was not routine.
Dug wheeled out the Lemon, and Pia climbed on behind him, putting her arms around his waist. He had always liked riding with her, feeling her thighs against his hips, her bosom against his back. Her body wasn't quite as good as it had been, but still appealed to him. He wondered how he had changed to turn her off, or whether she just had a short romantic attention span.
He started the machine, and the engine came alive. It skipped a little, then settled down. He still hadn't fixed the problem, but it was marginal rather than serious, so far. He guided the Lemon out into traffic. Two things he loved: the motorcycle and his wife. Now the one was weakening, and so was the other. But the game wasn't over; maybe he could save both.
"You should have dumped this junk long ago," Pia muttered. "For a decent car."
"But I thought you liked my bike," he protested.
"Times change."
Painful truth. Her feeling had changed, for the motorcycle and for the man. If only he knew why!
Actually, he feared he did know why: because Pia was as shallow as she was lovely, perhaps incapable of a meaningful long-term relationship. She had always used her looks to get by, and never developed a serious unselfish commitment to anything. Yet he remained smitten. What he truly wanted was perhaps not even theoretically achievable: the looks of Pia as she had been at age sixteen, and the character of Kim. Or at least Pia's present appearance, and an uplifting long term goal. Something she truly believed in, that didn't directly benefit herself.
They pulled into Dug and Kim's drive and parked. Pia got off, but didn't go to the house. She was waiting on Edsel, not from courtesy so much as an indication that this was his stupid notion to present to the other couple.
Kim opened the door. She was tall and lean, in jeans, and her face was garden variety, but she had a contagious enthusiasm for things. She had short curly light brown hair and blue eyes. Edsel wondered for thenth time what Dug saw in her, for Dug had always been just as fascinated by sexy women as Edsel was. She had been a string bean at sixteen, and remained one at twenty three. Pia, in contrast, had lustrous long dark brown hair, sexy green eyes, a cute heart shaped face, and a figure that remained not far short of great. There simply was no comparison between them. Yet Dug plainly doted on Kim. Ever since she kissed him, he said. As if that made sense.
Edsel paused to let Pia enter first. She was in a form-fitting light sweater and a snug short skirt, and her walk was a delight to behold. No mystery what he saw in her.
Dug met them inside. "Sit down," he said. "Kim says it's important."
Edsel sat on the living room couch. Pia did not join him; she chose an individual chair across the room, crossing her legs. That left Edsel with mixed feelings. He would have preferred to have her sit beside him, but he had always been wowed by her legs, especially from this angle. She well knew her power over him, but didn't look at him.
Dug took another chair, facing Edsel rather than Pia. Dug had once been Pia's boyfriend, but he had treated her like a sister ever since Kim came into his life. Edsel suspected that that bothered Pia on some level, though she wanted nothing romantic to do with Dug. The men she dumped weren't supposed to do as well as Dug had.
Kim was left to join Edsel on the couch. She folded her legs beneath her and faced him expectantly.
How to start? Suddenly this seemed complicated. "I--I found a new Leaf on the Mesh. An interface with Xanth, called the O-Xone."
"They've set up the O-Xone already?" Kim cried, delighted. "Wonderful! Now we can talk with Xanth folk without having to go there. Who's there?"
"A black girl called Breanna. She--"
"Breanna of the Black Wave! Of course. She's ideal. She's from Mundania, originally. Great girl."
"Uh, yes. She and I talked, and decided to work an exchange, so Pia and I could visit Xanth, and two other folk could visit Mundania."
"An exchange?" Kim asked, picking right up on it. It was easy to talk, when she was the other party.
"Yes. We would take the bodies of two people in Xanth, and they would take our bodies. So there would be no actual physical crossing, but we'd seem to be in each other's worlds."
"Fascinating," Kim said enthusiastically. "That will make it much easier to visit Xanth. It gets complicated to do it physically, though with illusion it can seem real."
How true! "Yes. But the thing is that we'll need guides, because--"
"Companions!" Kim said. "Of course. Xanth is dangerous for unaccompanied strangers, even when it's all in a game, and I guess Mundania would be just as bad for Xanthians." She glanced at Dug.
"Worse," Dug agreed, on cue.
Edsel envied their camaraderie. They got along so well. Pia, in contrast, was staring vaguely at the ceiling, bored, not trying to help at all. She was letting the world know that she didn't care one way or the other.
"So if you go to Xanth, you'll need good Companions," Kim said. "And the ones who take your bodies will need good Mundane Companions. Dug and I will be glad to do it."
Edsel was starting to catch on to what Dug saw in her. Kim had not only anticipated his awkward request, but agreed to it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Thanks," he said, much relieved. "Breanna and someone called Justin will be our guides in Xanth, but I was concerned about imposing on you."
"No problem at all," Kim said, glancing again at Dug, who nodded. "We're glad to help with anything connected to Xanth. This is such a great breakthrough ! We thought it'd be another year before they got the O-Xone set up. Who is coming here?"
"Someone called--" Edsel scratched in his memory. "Nimble, I think. And Corinne." He remembered the name meant something, like a pool cleaner, but couldn't quite recover it, though Breanna had spoken it several times.
Kim shook her head. "We don't know them. But we don't have to; we'll get acquainted soon enough. So they'll look just like you two, but their minds will be from Xanth."
"Yes. I agreed to have us all come in to the O-Xone tomorrow at noon, so we could meet and work out the details."
"That's great," Kim said. "You have worked it out perfectly." Impulsively she leaned across and planted a firm kiss on his mouth.
The world seemed to turn over. Edsel was floating on the elevated side of a Ferris wheel, high among pink clouds, dizzy but happy. Suddenly the rest of the mystery evaporated, and he knew what Dug meant. That was the best kiss he had ever experienced--and it wasn't even serious. If she had wanted to seduce him, she could have done it merelyby holding the kiss longer. Of course that was not her intent, and everyone knew it. But what a kiss!
The clouds dissipated, and he became aware of friendly laughter, not shared by Pia. "I should have warned you," Dug was saying. "She kisses." He thought Edsel was merely surprised. That was the least of it.
"Sorry," Kim said, half mischievously. "It's just that it was such a relief. We thought you were going to discuss something awful, like the two of you breaking up."
Now Pia met Edsel's gaze. Then she spoke. "We're considering it. But first we'll try visiting Xanth."
Things got abruptly serious. "You are considering it?" Kim asked, and now there was no mischief or humor in her expression or tone. Edsel realized that she had not forgotten that Pia had been Dug's first girlfriend. Surely she didn't want Pia on the loose again.
"We hope that a change of venue will help," Edsel said quickly. "Like a vacation. Second honeymoon."
Pia opened her mouth, and by her expression nothing sweet or sentimental was about to come out.
But Dug intercepted it. "Xanth will surely do it. There's no place like it. We'll be there tomorrow to meet the others, in the O-Xone." And this time he shot Kim a look.
Kim jumped up. "Right. And we'd better get our work done today, in case that takes some time. Sorry you folk must rush off so soon."
Beautiful, Edsel thought. They were a perfect team, always working together. In a moment he and Pia were out of the house and mounting the motorcycle.
"This had better be good," Pia muttered as they started off.
Edsel didn't answer. He didn't want to risk getting into a quarrel now, lest she change her mind about the deal. It was clear that Xanth was his only hope.
That afternoon he tackled the Cuss word Companions program, and this time found a way to finesse it so he could address the key he needed. After that things fell together, and he completed it in good order. He copied it to a backup disk and took it to Pia. "Now you can tell them it's in the mail," he said.
She stared at the disk. "You got it? You're sure."
"I'm sure. Put in it on your system and see."
She hesitated. Then she came to a decision. "Wait."
He waited, uncertain what was on her mind. She phoned Kim. "The Discuss Companions is ready. Tell Dug we'll bring it to you in an hour, and he can copy it and ship it before the day is out." She hung up.
"An hour?" Edsel asked. "We can have it there in fifteen minutes."
She stood, stepped into him, and kissed him. Then she led him to the bedroom.
Bemused, he realized that she was truly pleased to have the program done, so that they would not default on a deadline. And maybe she was jealous of Kim's kiss, too. Pia never apologized, she just changed her mind, like the popular conception of the ideal woman. She had one effective way to make everything right, and he was not about to object. Whatever other problems they might have, they had none in bed when Pia was amenable. He knew that this was merely a gesture of the moment, and that nothing long-term had changed. But it would be one phenomenal moment.
He was correct.
Next day they coordinated by phone, then got on the GigaGrid. Edsel was on his system, and Pia on hers in the other room, and Dug and Kim on their two systems at their house. They "met" at a private online site they maintained, checking in. "Follow me," Edsel said, knowing that they would lock on to his name and be carried along with him.
He made his way to the Magic Mesh. When he came to the warning sign, he typed "Party of four: Edsel, Pia, Dug, Kim." Then he did his voice whistle.
The sign shimmered. WELCOME TO THE O-XONE. Then they were standing in the hall of pictures.
"Oh!" Pia breathed, amazed. She tugged at her skirt, as if not believing that it was real. Maybe it was illusion, as was her body, but it was tangible.
"It's the O-Xone all right," Kim said. "They have done a nice job." She checked her own clothing. She had put on a skirt and blouse for this occasion, and looked decent.
Edsel led the way to Breanna's Leaf. This time he did not knock; hitting was too literal here. "Breanna," he said.
The picture animated. "Good; you're here. This time we're set up for it. Come in." The picture expanded as her image fuzzed out, and became an entrance to a comfortable chamber.
They stepped inside. The room seemed larger from inside; in fact itwas like a huge living room, with easy chairs around the edge, facing in.
They stood in the center, uncertain whether to sit. Then from a hall on the opposite side a man and a woman entered. The man seemed to be of college age, and the woman of high school age. In fact she was Breanna, this time complete. "You're right," Edsel said, surveying her body. "It's proportional."
Breanna smiled. "You've been kissed recently, Edsel. It shows. So I guess it's okay for me." She walked up to him, embraced him, and reached her face up to kiss him.
It felt real. Not destabilizing in the way of Kim's kiss, or sexy in the way of Pia's kiss, but solid and pleasant. He had never been kissed by a black girl before, and was almost surprised to discover that it was just like any other kiss. She was a very nice little package.
Breanna stepped back. "This is Justin," she said, indicating the young man. He looked quite ordinary. Not at all like a tree.
"This is Pia," Edsel said. "And Dug, and Kim."
"I know," Breanna said. "We haven't met before, but they are well known in Xanth."
"And we know of you," Kim said. "We got a report on Jenny's wedding, and you were there."
"For sure. So are we ready to meet Nimby and Chlorine?"
Kim's jaw dropped. "Who?"
"Those are the names," Edsel said quickly. "I guess I garbled them."
Breanna glanced at him sharply. "You don't know who they are?"
"I never heard of them before yesterday."
Breanna smiled. "Maybe that's just as well. They are the ones you'll be exchanging with. They want to visit Mundania. In fact it turns out they set this up, so they could do it."
"Set this up?"
"Ah, here they are now."
Two more people entered the room. The man was handsome to the point of looking princely, while the woman was so stunningly lovely that it was hard to look directly at her.
"Nimby and Chlorine," Breanna said.
Edsel tore his gaze from Chlorine. "Uh, this is--"
"Thank you," Chlorine said smoothly. "We know. Now thereshould be no misunderstanding, so I will spell it out. Nimby is a demon who normally assumes dragon ass form in Xanth, but he can take any form he wants, and give any form to his companion. We will borrow your forms in Mundania, but we think that something else is better for you in Xanth." She glanced around the room.
Edsel glanced too, as he wasn't sure what she meant. Dug and Kim both seemed awed, as if they were seeing something miraculous or incredible. What was their problem?
"Better?" he asked blankly.
"This." Then Breanna and Nimby changed forms, becoming exact likenesses of Edsel and Pia, complete to their clothing.
Edsel stared, suspecting that this was a mirror effect. But Pia was standing beside him. His head swiveled, looking from one woman to the other. They were identical; he could not distinguish them. It was evident that Pia had a similar problem with him.
"So you can be yourselves, in Xanth," Chlorine continued. "Except that you will have to have magic talents, because everyone in Xanth does." Then she and Nimby reverted to their original forms, abating the confusion.
Something else occurred to Edsel. "Pia--she's diabetic. Will she be the same in Xanth?"
Chlorine turned to Breanna. "Diabetic?"
"It's a problem handling sugar in the body," Breanna said. She glanced at Pia. "Do you have to take shots?"
Chlorine glanced at Nimby, who nodded. She turned back to face the others. "Yes, she will be the same."
Edsel wasn't sure whether that was good or bad. But it would be nice to seem to be themselves. Still, he wasn't quite satisfied. Where was the catch? "Why are you two acting as if you see ghosts?" he asked Dug.
Chlorine smiled, and the room actually brightened. "I will answer that, in a moment. But you must agree to tell no one else."
Edsel had a programmer's mind. He didn't like open ended processes. "How can we agree, if we don't know what we're agreeing to?"
"I will tell you, and if you then agree, you will retain the memory. Otherwise you will lose it."
He was really suspicious of this. "You can do that? Wipe memories? When we're not even here, really?"
"Nimby can. You are in the O-Xone."
He looked at Dug again. Dug recovered enough to speak. "He can do it," he said. "You'd better agree."
"But nobody can do something like that!"
Now Kim spoke. "Nobody in Mundania."
Edsel shrugged. "Okay, tell us."
"I am an ordinary girl," Chlorine said. "In my natural state I look like this." She became rather plain, with straggly hair and ragged clothing. "Nimby changed me, outside and inside, making me beautiful, healthy, smart, and nice. When I met Nimby, he looked like this." She paused.
The handsome young man became a weird dragon with diagonal stripes of pastel pink and bilious green. His head was that of a stupid donkey. He also smelled like an overripe swamp.
"A dragon ass," Chlorine said. "But when I asked him to change, he assumed a nicer form." The princely man reappeared. "This isn't his real form either, but I am satisfied with these two forms. I like being a damsel with a dragon. Nimby is actually a crafted form of the Demon X(A/N)TH from whom all magic flows. I speak for him, and guide him, because my compass is small enough to concentrate on scenes and events that are for him like ants on a distant slope; it is an effort for him to focus on them. Your friends recognized him, and are properly amazed."
"Well, I'm not," Edsel said stoutly. "You expect me to believe that this donkey prince is the source of all magic?"
Chlorine glanced again at Nimby, nodding.
Nimby reached out with one hand, toward Edsel and Pia. The hand expanded, becoming huge. The fingers closed around the two of them. Pia screamed as they were lifted right out of the Leaf and through the ceiling, which fuzzed away. They soared high above the landscape of Xanth, whose outline looked much like the State of Florida, or possibly Italy, Korea, or some other large peninsula. The hand held them firmly, but the arm trailed into a mere string, as if they were being flown like a kite. Then the whole thing melted into swirling colors. They became two birds, flying toward a castle. Their wings beat in the air as if it were water. They flew into a window, into a chamber, where a woman walked who had a tiny moon circling her head. She glanced up, seeing them as they joined its orbit. But then they flew on, back out the window, and across the landscape to a great lake, where they dived down into the water and became two flying fish, touring a fabulous magical underwatersetting where mermaids and mermen were just the beginning. Then back out to air, to the coast, which glistened like polished brass. On to another castle, and into that one, and to a room where six people stood. They landed, resuming their natural forms. They were back in the chamber with the others.
"Who was that woman?" Pia asked.
Chlorine knew whom she meant. "That was Princess Ida, whose moon has all the folk who ever did, ever will, or ever might live on Xanth. She's very perceptive."
"Yes," Edsel said. "She saw us."
"Ever might?" Pia asked. "Like whom?"
Chlorine looked at Nimby, then answered. "Like people Xanth doesn't have room for yet. Like Dol, the son of Magician Grey and Princess Ivy, whose talent is to turn inanimate things living. But they already have three children, so he must remain a might instead of an is."
"I suppose that makes sense," Pia said dubiously.
"There are also Xanth Waves from the future hidden on those moons," Chlorine said. "If they came to the Xanth of today, there would be amazing complications."
"For sure," Breanna agreed.
"And that brass coast," Edsel asked.
"In the realm of dreams, or the gourd, there live the Brassies," Chlorine said. "Men and women made of brass. They have set up a vacation resort in Xanth proper, near the Gold Coast, where things are less precious."
It was a persuasive demonstration. It might be illusion, but it had seemed real. "Okay," Edsel said. "We won't tell." He looked at Pia, who nodded agreement. "But just the brief glimpses we saw--would it be all right to use some of them in our software? I mean like maybe an animation of a Xanth theme park, with all the creatures of the land, air, sea, tiny moons, and magic? I think folk would love it, even just in a computer game."
"That would be all right," Chlorine said. "As long as there is no mention of Nimby."
That reminded him. "No mention of Nimby. But why does anyone with this much power want to go to Mundania in someone else's body?"
"There are other Demons," Chorine explained. "Most are associated with what you call planets, though their essence is not planetary butdemonic. The demon X(A/N)TH felt no need of a lot of territory, so took only a small segment of one globe, leaving the rest to the Demon E(A/ R)TH. But now, with increasing interaction between the denizens of Xanth and Earth, he would like to explore that other region. However, he has no magic power in Mundania, and the Demon E(A/R)TH might do him mischief, being resentful of his status among Demons. So he needs to do it privately. This seems to be an opportunity."
Edsel was satisfied. "It works for me." He looked at Pia. "You?"
"Yes," she agreed faintly. Not much impressed Pia, but this session evidently had.
"Good enough," Breanna said briskly. "Let's take a week to set things up, and meet here again, when the four of you will exchange, and the four of us--" she glanced at Justin, Dug, and Kim"--will be your Companions, to keep you out of mischief. We'll have to organize special tours, so as to get the most out of it. Okay?" She looked around.
"Okay," Edsel said, feeling exhilarated. If a tour in magic Xanth didn't change Pia's mind, nothing would.
"Okay," Kim said.
"Of course," Chlorine said.
Then the scene dissolved, and the four of them from Mundania were standing at the O-Xone exit. Edsel hum-whistled, and they were back on their linked computers. Back in Mundania. Already it seemed dreary.
Copyright © 1999 by Piers Anthony Jacob