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10 August 2015 @ 05:53 am
_Twin Cities_ part 2  
 

Chapter Four

Dimension Six, Twin Cities

"God damn." Beau leaped up the stairs and stared at the door. "Did you see what I just saw?"

Jackson pulled it open . . . the hallway . . . Silent and undisturbed. "I just saw a dozen yelling teenagers go through this door." He let the door close.

"Ha!" Beau grinned and reached around him. "What I saw was a d-door opening the other way. Push on the door." He pulled the handle. The door gave, pushing outward. Jackson tripped forward with a yell of pain. Beau jumped back, startled, then leaped for the door as it swung shut. It smacked his face as it closed.

"Ow!" He rubbed his nose, felt for the handle. He shoved on the door. It gave; his fingers crossed the shift plane and he was sucked forward, squeezed, inflated and dumped on a surface lumpy with pinecones. He climbed hastily to his feet. No sign of the d-door. No sign of Jackson or the teens.

"Bloody hell." He reached for his S&W. The hand grip was all wrong, the pistol stuck in the holster. He glanced down, stared. "Oh crap. Just like before; the parts grow different amounts." He shut his mouth. Not that anyone was around, to hear him.

In fact . . . He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled as loud as he could. Listened. No whistle, but a crashing back behind him. A hundred meters away, a bear crashed through brush and halted to study him. Lips drew back from very large teeth, and the bear reared up and walked forward.

"Grrrill you. Eeeet you."

Captain Xicara turned and ran.



Chapter Five

Dimension Six, Twin Cities

Alice snatched a quick glance around. Jungle?

She thought something rude, but Joe—almost two meters tall and muscular on this side of reality—grabbed Martin and thumped his head on the ground a couple of times.

Alice frowned. Joe was wearing camo, and his hair was buzz cut under a ball cap.

She looked down at herself. Pale hands. High heels, black nylons, short black skirt, lavender silk blouse . . . purple paisley scarf . . . her hands went to her head. Wild blonde curls, and a hard rectangle on her cheekbone. What triggered this? Adrenaline? Terror? I don't flash over to high heels and purple things at home. She grabbed Jenni and pulled her further away from Martin.

As the others untangled themselves, Alice heaved a sigh of relief. No Beau, no Skippy. Could have been worse. Much worse. Alice cleared her throat. "What’s going on here?"

Lupe boggled at her, then looked around. "Hey. Where the hell are we? Who are you? You look like a grown up version of Alice . . . with blonde hair."

"I’m . . . Alice Street. That’s Tex."

They were all looking around, clumping.

"I'm Lupe, that’s Richard. Umm, Aaron, Tori, Jenni and her mother, Sara Toppins. Mr. Dover." He shrugged. "And Mr. Martin, down there moaning on the ground. He’s a perv, grabbed Jenni, we were following them, to get her back when he jumped through a d-door."

Jenni nodded. "Yeah, umm, thanks . . . Tex. Umm, for bashing him."

Joe had glanced down once and changed his stance. No more unobtrusive klutz. Confident, balanced. Just like he looks like when he's on the pitchers mound. "Eh, anyone twisting a girl’s arm needs his head thumped. Now, we need to find another d-door and get you lot out of here before something unfortunate happens."

Reminded, Alice looked outward, studied the jungle. House plants. Probably a bunch of them in the Dimension One office building or Gymnasium where the AI is located. No telling what the local AI’s avatar was. Or should that be AIs plural? Barton Street had said that they hadn’t battled their way down to the last AI standing.

Yet.

AIs—Artificial Intelligences—seemed to be universally aggressive. Even Barton Street, but he, it, had gotten curious and that changed everything.

She tottered a few steps in her high heels, and mentally cursed a dimension that kept track of deliberate changes she’d made in herself, and applied them—not randomly, more like—semi-appropriately. She thought hard about lower broader heels. Maybe even boots. The heels lowered and broadened a bit. Nothing boot-like happened.

I need to design a really kick-ass persona, with adventure appropriate clothing, and try to stick to that.

Thick, calloused soles. I need thick calloused soles on my feet because I think I'm going to be barefooting it a lot, today.

A blast of sound and large thumping feet pulled her thoughts back to the local dangers. Alice gulped. "Tell me that isn’t an elephant." The whole group was backing away from the sounds.

"C’mon." Tex turned and snaked between big fronded plants. "There a path over here. I think we need to leave."

Aaron dropped back to help his father stagger to his feet. They followed, casting baffled glances behind them.

The path was narrow, and the jungle closed in. They ducked under fronds, tripped over tree roots. Alice started studying the foliage. /// name names of houseplants. Most of it looked like house plants on steroids. Then the path dropped away and they slipped and slid as the brush retreated and the trees thinned. Grasses took over, grew taller, head height.

Not Pampas, thank goodness, no serrated edges. Some of it's reddish, like that Japanese flame grass.

Tex stopped. "I think we need to scout carefully. This . . . area of change ought to be fairly safe."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Dave Martin shoved forward.

Richard stepped in front of him and glared. "Shut up, Perv." He turned and swapped his glare to Joe. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Umm, well, this pathway is probably a connection between the domains of two AIs. Artificial Intelligences. So we’re not trespassing on the next domain, and the AI over there probably hasn’t noticed us. Yet."

Alice walked around the group, practicing her "I’m an adult" posture. "You are in something like an out-of-control VR domain. It is dangerous; you really can get hurt. As soon as we can find a d-door, we’ll get you out of here."

The elder Martin snorted. "I don’t buy fantasies from a stupid bitch with a purple booger stuck on her face." He turned and shoved through the head high grasses and disappeared.

"Dad? Dad!" Aaron stood on his toes and tried to look over the waving seed heads.

"VR, my ass. I am so out of here." Mrs. Toppins tossed her blonde curls and marched past Joe.

"But we came from the other direction!" Mr. Dover took a couple of steps back up the hill. "And I thought Joe came with us. He could be hurt!" He started climbing up the path.

"Dad!" Aaron plunged into the grasses. A few whipping seed heads were the only way to track him.

Tori and Jenni swapped glances and trotted after Mrs. Toppins.

"We really ought to stay together." Joe looked over at Alice. "I’ll grab Dover, and then try to find the Martins. Meet you back here . . . sometime."

Alice nodded, and waved Richard and Lupe after the girls. "I’ll try to keep them together and alive."

Joe pulled an oversized multi-tool out of his pocket and sawed off a small, straight, sapling, sliced the top off at an angle and tossed it to her. She started stripping off the leaves and twigs as she followed Lupe. A pole was better than no weapon at all, and maybe she could put a better point on it. I need to buy a multi-tool like Joe's, and start carrying it.

***

The ground rose, then dropped away; Beau was at the crest of a low ridge, and what he could see of the terrain between trees was more ridges. He dropped partway down the far side, crouched down and turned to run along the ridge a bit before dropping down into thicker cover. From the shelter of a broad tree trunk and scraggly red barked bushes, he watched the bear, back on four feet, crest the ridge and charge down this side.

He tried to parallel it, staying well to the side, and listening carefully. Was it just running in the direction it had last seen him, or was there something important this direction that it was rushing to protect?

***

"Mr. Dover?" Joe stifled a desire to curse. Or maybe scream in frustration. He kept his voice down and kept looking around. He’d cut himself a "spear," but it wasn’t something he wanted to face an elephant with—not even a pretend one. Or is that, especially a pretend one? Whoever the local AI is, it obviously sees itself as large and powerful. And how did that old guy get so far ahead of me? Did he leave the path?

Loud thumping and a strangled scream from the left. Joe slid into the foliage and froze. More thumps, and a ear-damaging trumpeting. He crept carefully closer, found the edge of a trampled circle. A tree in the middle, with the biggest friggin’ elephant ever stomping angry circuits around it.

"Help!" Mr. Dover’s voice, from somewhere up in the leaves.

The elephant reared up and rammed both forefeet against the tree trunk.

The tree shuddered, with ominous crackling noises. And a scream.

Joe eased back a bit and looked around. He was going to need some vines . . . like those up there. He started climbing. The vines looped from branch to branch and in between trees. Perfect for Tarzan. He crawled carefully out on a branch to intercept a vine as it crossed from the neighboring tree. It was tough, and took a lot of sawing. Could it hold an elephant? Well, long enough for them to get away? Only one way to find out, and if it wouldn’t, well, the spear was looking worse and worse, as a weapon.

He climbed over to the next branch and cut away the attaching tendrils, headed for the next branch . . . In the end he dropped maybe thirty feet of vine to the ground. Doubled it up in to a loop, propped it carefully up. A sapling bent over would put enough tension on the loop to close it. He tied the end to a small tree that just might have enough flexibility to keep the vine from snapping instantly . . . Joe swallowed. "Dover!" He cleared his throat and tried to get louder. "Dover! I’m going to distract the elephant. Get ready to run for it!"

The thumping was coming closer and faster. Joe backed away, looked behind to be sure he could run, spotted the shaking trees and darted to the side, trying to keep the trap between him and the elephant. He saw the elephant's front foot step right over the raised side of the loop . . . "Crap!" He turned and dove into the foliage, wiggling frantically between ferns and bushes and trees and palms and veering to the side and ducking under . . . behind him the elephant screamed and thrashed. Joe kept going, trying to circle, to find Mr. Dover . . . Sudden close, thumping. Joe spotted a downed tree trunk and crawled between it and a bush. The elephant stomped past, a loop of vine trailing from one hind leg. After awhile the sounds of the angry AI faded.

Joe looked around. "I am totally and completely lost."

"Me too." A very pale Mr. Dover peeked out of a clump of ferns.

"Well." Joe looked around. "Let’s go this away. If nothing else, it’s away from the elephant."

"Good plan."

***

Beau spotted the bear when it stopped to pace up and down a stream. It was staying back from the water, and appeared to be eyeing the ground. Surely it wasn’t looking for footprints. And why wasn’t it sniffing the air? Beau frowned, looked up at the tops of the pines. No wind. Or maybe pretend bears don’t have much in the way of senses of smell? Computers have cameras, heat sensors, pressure sensitive buttons. Touch screens. But nothing that could be considered the equivalent of smell or taste. Interesting. Might even be useful, somehow.

The bear turned and lumbered off to the right, downstream. It was back in a few minutes, and kept going up stream. Up on the ridge, Beau turned to the right and headed along the ridge. Where did a stream go, in cyber land? Why had the bear come back so soon?

Listening carefully, Beau could hear the roar of water. Not the stream, or rather, the end of the stream. The ridge ended in a sheer cliff. Beau looked cautiously over. A drop of several hundred feet into misty depths. Nothing could be seen of the bottom, only the roar of the water assured him that there was indeed solid ground below.

Across the canyon, another sheer wall of stone, a few lesser streams pouring over the edge . . . and something . . . he shifted, looking carefully. Was there a line, a rope, crossing the canyon? He turned away from the stream, and dropped down off the ridge. At the bottom of the swale between ridges, a rough break in the canyon edge had given someone a spot to tie off a rope about a meter down, barely within reach.

Who? Why? He grabbed a tree root and reached down. Tugged hard at the rope. Thick, heavy and strong. Who would be insane enough to cross on it? He fingered his belt. On its last hole it would be loose enough to loop over the rope. He could hang down, feet over the rope, pull himself along with his hands . . .

He snorted. "No way in Hell am I insane enough to do that. Besides, there’s as likely to be a door on this side as . . . "

The snap of a twig drew his eyes.

The charging bear was ten meters away and closing fast. He jerked reflexively at his gun, then turned and jumped for the rope. He swung hand over hand out a few meters, then looked around.

The bear skidded to a halt at the edge of the canyon, roaring and furious, it swiped at the ground, clawing up dirt and rocks, then it reached down, long claws reaching for the rope.

Beau reached and swung further from the edge, then turned and started swinging his legs, got his feet crossed over the rope and started inching along. Wasn’t I planning on getting my belt over this thing? The rope quivered and leaped as the bear clawed it.

He hung on, then realized that only getting across was going to be of any use whatsoever. He closed his mind to the bear and focused on the rope as it bounced and swung. Pull, slide the feet, pull, slide the feet . . .

He felt the sudden jerk and loss of tension as the rope broke. He fell, the rope tightened and he swung, death grip on the rope. He hit almost immediately, a sharp pain in his shoulder. He scrambled up the rope. Five meters to the cliff edge; the rope continued on up, into a broad spreading tree.

He staggered into the forest, and sagged down, his back against the tree. "What the hell crosses a canyon like that on a rope?"

"The Squirrel from Hell and Army Officers."

Beau spasmed halfway to his feet before he recognized Jackson’s voice. He thumped back against the tree and slid back to the ground. "Fucking A. How big is it?"

"The squirrel? Not very. It’s the attitude that seems to be the problem." Jackson sank down and glanced back at the forest. "I think he’s channeling a major league pitcher."

Beau eyed the sergeant’s face. Three bruises. And the mustache was even bigger and hairier . . . surely it would still come off. "Great. And apart from the abyss, have you noticed any . . . dividing lines between areas? Or, apart from the now nonexistent rope bridge, have you noticed any routes between regional . . . ecologies?

"Oh, like the spooky trail that leads back out to the plains where the buffalo roam? Or in this case, a single African Cape Buffalo? Never knew I could run that fast. Fortunately the squirrel showed up and started throwing acorns, or somesuch. The buffalo was behind me, so I caught the first ones, then the squirrel switched to the bigger target. The Buffalo rammed a couple of trees, but the squirrel couldn’t be shaken loose. Finally, the buffalo turned tail and galloped off homeward.

"While they were busy, I snuck off." He tugged at the mustache. It seemed to be firmly adhered.

Beau sighed. "That bear talked. Sort of. It was growling, so I’m not sure if it said ‘kill’ or ‘grill,’ but the ‘eat’ part was fairly well enunciated.’ So I ran over a ridge and retreated so I could watch it. The only revelation was that it has no sense of smell." He grimaced. "So, if we’ve got bears, buffalo and squirrels . . . are they nuisance Avatars like those damned little lizards in Chicago, or is there a batch of squabbling AIs?"

"They attacked each other. . . so I’d guess we’ve found a battle ground in the AI wars."

Beau nodded. "Or maybe a stand-off, with each one protecting their own territory." He glanced back at the canyon. "And stringing ropes to sneak in and attack the others. Well, if this works like the other spots, a d-door will get us home."

"Ha!"

They spun around at the new voice. A scraggly wildman, lean and hungry. Wearing the remains of Desert camo BDUs?

The wildman had a spear, the point lowered and aimed roughly in their direction.

Jackson gathered himself as if to jump him. Beau shook his head.

"I’m Captain Xicara, and I think I recognize you under all the hair. Caruthers or somesuch, isn’t it?"

The wildman blinked, then sagged. "Oh damn. I was hoping you were someone who knew how to get out of here." He wiped unselfconsciously at a tear track running from eye to beard. "I’ve been here for ages." He blinked again, then pulled himself up straighter. Saluted. "Corporal Leon Caruthers, sir!"

Beau returned the salute. Not reg, when he was in civvies, but it seemed important.

"It's been, like, over a year since Team Seven was sent." Jackson sounded horrified. "Have you seen any d-doors? We got out of Alter-Chicago through one, and the Captain escaped from the Bermuda Triangle."

Caruthers scratched his beard. "I’ve seen several, they just stand up in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes they stick to a cliff or tree. But they never work. I can’t get out."

Jackson looked hopeful. "Do you know where any of them are, right now?"

Caruthers shrugged. There’s a place that one of them comes and goes from, now and then. Maybe they all do that. But that one I know about."

"Where is it?" Beau tried to not feel too hopeful. No reason it should suddenly start working, just for me. But . . . Alice Street . . . No, Alice Brown is too young, undeveloped figure, ethnic skin tones and dark hair. And Joe Mata was easily thirty cems too short to be "Tex," damn it. Because whoever they are, I’d really love to run into either of them again.

Jackson must have been thinking the same. "I don’t suppose you’ve seen a big guy in a Texas A&M ballcap?"

Caruthers shook his head. "I haven’t seen anyone since the wolf killed Bredon."

"All this and wolves, too. Goody."

Caruthers sighed. "Only one of each. Leopard, elephant, moose, wolverine, and chimpanzee, too. Every one of them madder than hell and ready to fight. And they sort of talk, sometimes. Even the boa constrictor."