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11 August 2015 @ 05:25 am
_Twin Cities_ part 3  
 

Chapter Six

Dimension Six, Twin Cities

The path through the high grass wound around just enough to hide what was coming. Not that any of her companions had the faintest clue they really were in a dangerous place.

She had trouble keeping up with the guy’s longer legs. Mrs. Toppins was setting quite a pace. "Please be quieter, and slow down a bit, we really, really do want to see what we’re getting into before we’re too deep to get out." She kept her voice down, probably not one of them heard her.

Alice caught an occasional call from Aaron, getting more distant.

The path split. She looked down at the two dusty trails. Scuffs going both directions. Had the guys not caught up to the girls? Were the two meter high grasses along that one slightly less dusty, as if people had brushed by?

She listened carefully. To a slight wind blowing through the seed heads up above.

Aaron had gone off to the right . . . She kicked off the wretched still-too-high heels, picked them up, and jogged down the right-side path.

***

"Where are we?"

Joe looked back at Mr. Dover. Poor man looked exhausted.

"There’s an odd effect of some d-doors. We’re either in another dimension, or in an out-of-control VR game. Take your pick. It doesn’t really matter, just so long as you realize that you really can get hurt, here." Joe listened carefully. "I don’t hear anything. Let’s slow down a bit and see if we can find . . . well, the edge of this section of the game. It can be just about anything. Including a sharp edge with nothing beyond it."

"That slope down into the grasslands?"

"Yeah. That's less distinct than what I’m used to, but I think this city is broken up among a dozen or so AIs. Advanced computers with Artificial Intelligence. The elephant was an avatar, probably run by the local AI. Some AIs are friendly, others think humans are vermin. Or active enemies."

"Like that elephant?"

"Yep. Now, does it seem to you that the ground is rising, that direction?"

"Yes!" Mr. Dover scrambled to his feet. "Does that mean the elephant can’t go there?"

"Not necessarily, but lets check it out." Joe squirmed between plants—that all looked a lot like houseplants—hoping he was heading away from, not for, the elephant.

The ground climbed, steepened, and they were abruptly faced with a rock outcrop four or five meters high. It was rough, cracked and broken. They had no trouble climbing it, but Joe doubted an elephant could even get started.

Beyond, the air was chilly, and a wolf howled in the distance.

***

The squirrel spotted them.

/// bronx accent, taunting.

Caruthers took off running, Jackson followed at Beau’s wave. Beau paused. "You know, we get along pretty well with some AIs." He flinched as an acorn zinged past his ear. "Really. Want to talk? Ooo!" That one hit him in the ribs and he started retreating. The squirrel grabbed another acorn, and he gave up. Turned and ran.

***

Joe turned right, following the edge of the new area. Mr. Dover kept looking over the edge, nervously reporting how much taller the cliff was, and finally that he couldn’t see the jungle—or anything else, any more.

"Keep checking. There’ll be other places, or bridges across to other places. Unless we're at the edge of the whole city-wide grid. In which case we're probably going the wrong way. We need to locate the grasslands where we left the others."

"That was stupid of me, to try and go back, wasn’t it . . . Joe."

Joe looked back at him. "Yeah. But call me Tex, here, please. I’ve met some governmental types exploring this . . . phenomenon, and I’d just as soon they didn’t know who I am, in the real world."

"Huh. I suspect so. And that . . . new woman, that was Alice?"

"Shhh! The government thinks she’s like, some totally high powered operative from the Dimension cops. Funny as all hell."

"Dimension . . ."

"Yeah. And we just found out about this accidentally, and we’re almost as lost as they are. As far as I can tell, it’s a defect of the d-doors. Or rather, an unintended side effect. But that’s just a guess." He flashed a grin at his teacher. "Until I get into college. Think of the doctoral thesis."

Mr. Dover looked down into the abyss. "It should be a doozy."

***

There were snowcapped mountains on the horizon. A lake in the middle distance, a thin forest of pines and aspens all around them.

Beau walked cautiously, looking all around. Caruthers was trying to not cringe, and Jackson was bringing up the rear.

"Was it worth it? What we did?" Carruthers looked worried. "We killed King Kong . . . and there was like, an earthquake. The jungle just went all crazy, up and down, and there's a volcano—it erupts every couple of weeks or so. And then all these other smaller animals started popping up."

"The strain went away, then came back part way." Beau looked around. "I guess, once you destroyed the master AI, all the little computers . . . grew their own AIs? Beats me."

As they cleared the forest and walked out to the lake shore, Beau spotted a big bull moose hock deep in the water, munching some sort of lily pad. It raised its head and watched them.

"Uh, oh." Caruthers skittered around behind them. "I really hate the big ones."

Beau stopped. "The Moose?"

"Yeah."

"I don’t understand why they pick these avatars." Jackson grumped.

"Pick them?" Caruthers shot him a quick look. "You think they have a choice?"

Beau shrugged. "I got that impression from Milwaukee. It’s not much different from people choosing avatars online. They pick an animal with a reputation that fits their personality. Giant Rattlesnake in Chicago. Mermaid, Kraken and Nazi’s in Atlantis."

Jackson took up a position where he could watch both moose and their back trail. "Milwaukee was a human. Or looked mostly human. And talked. But after they killed the rattlesnake, he, like, absorbed it or something. I think he controls both Chicago and Milwaukee, now."

Beau nodded. "He didn’t mind having humans around. He called some of them friends, worried about them. At least, I think they were human. And I think they know how to get your d-door to let us out of here."

"Huh. So . . . Are they Russians? Chinese? Or . . . please, not Arabs!"

"Worse," Jackson growled. "FBI."

"Maybe." Beau shrugged. "I’m thinking domestic terrorists. Except . . . that purple Alice could be Chinese, with bleached hair. Her eyes were a bit oriental. And Tex had the worst fake Texas accent I’ve ever heard."

Jackson nodded. "But there was a connection with the FBI."

"Yeah. They only showed up when Inspector Brown was here in Never-Never Land." Mixing up my kiddie stories, now. If only I wasn’t living them . . . Beau sighed. "So far as we know. Maybe they cross regularly. Hate to say it, but maybe we ought to spy on ourselves."

"And whatever they did, fixed the dimensional strain in Chicago. The brains say the anomalies here come and go. So far it hasn't gotten strong enough to cause popping. Perhaps we're worrying about nothing, and all these AIs aren't ever going to be a problem." Jackson looked hopeful.

Beau shook his head. "There is a bad anomaly in the Atlantic; two airplanes crossed over into the other dimension. Probably because they had cubbies onboard. The anomaly is still building up. It may start grabbing planes whether they have cubbies aboard or not. We've got to find the cause and stop it."

The Moose was still watching them, still moving nothing but his jaw.

"Let's just back away, and see if we can find another way around to this grassland of yours."

***

Alice trotted around a curve of the path and tripped over Jenni's outstretched legs. "Oops, sorry." She looked around. The high grasses ended at a drop off to a stream. Big trees on the other side. Back to the Elephant's jungle? "Where is everyone?"

Jenni waved at the tall grasses. "Calls of nature, you know?"

"Yeah. Boys one way, girls the other?"

"Boys? I thought they followed Mr. Dover?"

Alice winced. "No, I told them to follow you. There was a split in the trail, back there. Maybe they went the other way."

Mrs. Toppins slipped carefully through the towering grass fronds. "Oh, it's you, again. Well? Where are we now?"

Tori shoved out of the grass. "That was just gross. I need to wash my hands." She looked over the drop off. "It's like stairs. No problem." She disappeared over the edge. Jenni scrambled to her feet and followed her down into the gully. Mrs. Toppins was a bit slower. Alice scanned the jungle on the far side, and finally walked down the irregular steps of jutting stones. It was only three meters down or so. The stream bank on the far side was lower, a bit under two meters, with a more gradual slope. Most avatars would have no problem accessing the stream from that side. Alice moved upstream of the others and drank. The stream was big enough, and looked deep enough to be tough to cross. The water was chilly, and tasted of snow.

Alice scanned the sky, but from down here, the grasses up on this side and higher trees on the other side blocked most of the view. No sign of snow clad peaks, at any rate.

"Oh . . . !"

Alice jerked around. Tori was backing away from the creek, her eyes up on the far bank. A bit of movement, almost like wind disturbing fallen leaves on the sun spotted floor of the jungle.

Tori turned and scrambled for the steps up. Mrs. Toppins screamed, and Alice's eyes suddenly registered the long sinuous area of slight movement, the gentle undulations in dark and light spots. A giant snake slithering between tree trunks. They all rushed for the steps.

From the top, Alice looked back. The snake's head was dabbing at the stream, the body led up the two meter bank and back into the forest. Way back into the forest.

"Boa constrictor. It's even bigger than the one in the zoo." Tori quavered.

"I guess it doesn't like cold water."

It slithered forward, into the water.

Tori turned and ran.

Alice ducked back into the grass walled path. "When you get to the fork, take a hard right!" She hoped Tori was close enough to hear that. Then she started running. Just in case the snake could get up this side of the gully. The side wasn't nearly high enough for confidence. And an AI just might be able to figure out how the rough steps worked.

***

Joe kept paralleling the abyss. Mr. Dover stayed at his heels. Nervous.

"We'll be trapped, if something else comes after us."

Joe nodded. "But following the edge is better than wandering aimlessly. This way we'll find . . . things like that up ahead. I think we've found a corner."

"Corner." Mr. Dover sighed. "I've always known you were smart, but . . . I really thought you were such a nice, quiet boy."

Joe shot a grin over his shoulder. "No clandestine adventures allowed? That's the problem with judging people instead of studying them. Take Alice, for instance. I think she's smarter than I am. But her parents are control freaks and she's always in trouble for the silliest things. But you teachers, you just think that she's a trouble-maker and thus can't possibly be a good student and thus can't possibly be very smart. When we get back, you really ought to check her academic records."

Mr. Dover scowled. "It takes more than not getting into trouble to make a teacher think someone is smart."

"Oh sure. But my dad is so absent-minded and casual about parenting that, well, the first time I got stuck in here, it took me five days to get out—and he never missed me."

"But you weren't doing anything bad."

"Neither was Alice. But I'll bet you that when we get out of here, her father will be all over her about being out of touch and turning her phone off, and she'll be grounded, again. And she'll get blamed for us missing the finals."

Mr. Dover sighed. "In about twelve hours. I'd almost forgotten the contest."

"Yeah. Actually, we can blame it on Mr. Martin and Mrs. Toppins. Trust me, you don't want to talk about this out loud. People will wonder what drugs you were taking." Joe peered over the edge at the corner. "There's another forest, down there. And a fallen tree from here, that reaches it."

"Umm, and a wolf, up on that hill." Mr. Dover pointed.

"Right. I motion we climb down that tree, quickly."

"Seconded. Passed. Run!"

***

Beau kept a wary eye on the Moose as they edged past. The moose waded out of the water and followed them.

"That's not good." Caruthers muttered, and picked up the pace.

Jackson loped after him, and Beau brought up the rear, casting frequent glances back at the moose. It kept its distance for some indeterminate amount of time, then coasted to the side and galloped up to flank them.

"There's a path here." Jackson called and turned up it.

Beau stalled. "Do we really want to go where the moose herds us?"

The moose dropped its head to present antlers, and stalked toward them.

Caruthers cackled. "Do you really think we have a choice?"

Beau back peddled. "Umm, hi? We're friendly. Just looking for the way out. If you've seen any d-doors, you know, big white things? We'd just love to leave you alone."

The moose picked up speed.

Beau turned and ran.

The path wound through pines interspersed with occasional groves of aspens. And ended at the base of a cliff twenty meters high.

No, first it dropped away to invisible depths, then it rose up a good twenty meters.

On the top of the cliff, the pine forest continued, with a fallen giant leaning over the edge, over the gap, with the top ten meters of the tree laying on the ground on this side of the gap.

"We can climb it." Jackson sprinted for it.

Caruthers leaped and grabbed him, pointed. "No! The wolf! That's the wolf that ate Bredon!"

"And he's about to eat someone else." Beau squinted at the two figures half way down the tree trunk, climbing through and around all the branches in the way. A wolf the size of a small horse was following them, but froze and eyed the soldiers. Or rather, the moose. Beau tossed a glance behind. The moose was staring at the wolf, and ignoring the humans.

For now. Beau eased away, shoved Jackson and Caruthers toward the fallen tree. "That's Tex, coming this way."

Jackson's head jerked to look at the humans. "Oh, yeah. We need him."

They all jumped as the wolf raised its muzzle and howled. And charged down the tree. Tex turned to face it, a spear in hand. He braced it as the wolf leaped, but the beast—or avatar, or whatever—jerked back from the sharp point. Tex backed shakily down the dwindling tree trunk, trying to keep the wolf at a distance, but the small branches made the long spear unwieldy.

The wolf leaped and snapped. Tex fell off the trunk, crashed through branches and landed on the edge of the gap.

Rolled and raised the spear as the wolf leaped.

The wolf twisted in mid-air trying to avoid the point. Tex braced the spear, and as the wolf hit, the man rolled away from flailing claws and snapping teeth as the beast died.

His chest was red with blood.

Beau whistled as he realized how close the wolf had come to killing the human. A slashing bite, high on the left chest had missed the man's neck by a few centimeters. "Looks like you came close to being wolf chow."

Tex straightened, pretending he didn't hurt a bit. Beau curled a sarcastic lip and set himself to hide his need for the man's cooperation.

"Well, well. I didn't notice the Oz Express, this time. I hope you didn't arrive via another plane crash, that's just not a good idea." He looked them over, frowning at Caruthers. "So. Here we are, together again. Cap'n Bligh, Skippy and . . . Robinson Crusoe, I presume?"

Caruthers straightened indignantly. "Caruthers."

Tex's forehead crinkled. "No, I'm pretty sure it's Robinson Crusoe. It's an old book." But his eyes tracked behind the soldiers.

Beau shoved the others forward, beyond Tex, as he turned to look for the moose.

It was close, and managing to look vicious.

Tex sidestepped away from the wolf carcass. "We are strictly biological. We cannot assimilate computers. I am a friend of the Milwaukee AI. He wishes to negotiate. He needs cooperation on coordinating the growth of the Super Strand network. He sees no need to assimilate everything in his path."

The moose stalked up to the wolf and plunked a huge hoof on the body.

The wolf started pixilating . . . then crumpled into dust.

The moose looked at the humans.

"Do you know where there's a d-door? If you will point us in the right direction, we'll leave your territory as quickly as we can."

The moose tossed its head, jerking the deadly antlers off to the left and behind them.

Tex turned and started walking around the downed tree top. The other man scrambled the rest of the way off the tree and rushed up to him. "Do you need help? I know some first aid."

"Just pad it, and wrap it. That's the best we can do now. We need to find these students of yours and get out of here." Tex looked down, opening his bloody, ripped, shirt.

Beau followed them. "Caruthers knows where some d-doors show up. But they won't work for him. Can you get them to open?"

"Milwaukee is monitoring us as well as he can with barely a toehold on the local grid. If he realizes I'm near a door, he'll enable it." Tex was holding his arm against his chest, and the middle aged man with him—oh hell, it was one of the teachers who'd come with Alice Brown and her team from Milwaukee—was taking off his own shirt, and fashioning a sling for Tex's left arm. Beau made a note to check all the Twin City autodocs for a "dog bite" injury to the left chest, if the man got away from him again. Tex led off, glancing behind often.

Beau glared at his non-working watch and brought up the rear, keeping an eye on Tex all the time. He didn't look back until the crack and crunch from behind. He whipped around in time to see a huge chunk of the cliff split off and fall. The ground shuddered as it hit, jammed into the gap, and leaving an angled chip out of the cliff, a steep slope up to the top. As the dust settled, the moose leaped up to claim its new territory.

"At some point, one of the AIs, maybe the moose, will gain enough of an advantage to start rolling over the other AIs, until there's only one." Tex was right behind him, watching the moose pick a path up the slope.

"Or your Milwaukee will cruise in and take it all." Beau studied the man. Two meters of muscles. The pad on his chest was soaked through with blood. "Does having a man as an avatar hinder his fighting abilities?"

"Yes, but he quickly realized the main advantage of humans."

"Brains? Hands?"

"Friends." Tex turned and walked away.

Beau stalked after him. "Friends. Right, you're just helping him out of the goodness of your heart."

Tex chuckled. Winced and pressed on the crude bandage. "Actually the lure of adventure is a good part of it. C'mon Cap'n Bligh, admit it. You got to fight pirates. With a real cutlass. And if you'd lost, you have died. What a rush, eh?"

"Real Texans don't say 'eh?' I'm not an adrenaline junkie."

"So I'm an out of state student. Sue me." He threw his head back and took a deep breath. "Look at this place. A whole new frontier. A fight, good guys against bad, a headlong rush into the unknown. It's incredible!"

Caruthers looked at him in horror. "How many times have you done this?"

"Umm, well, this is my third city fight. But I cross over in Milwaukee all the time."

"With the d-doors." Beau eyed him. We need to know how to use d-doors, so we don't lose troops. We need to develop weapons that will work over here. Speaking of which . . . He veered to the edge of the forest. A giant hardwood had fallen, and shoots had sprouted from the old roots. Strong and straight. He searched through pockets and pulled out his "gentlemanly" pocket knife, with a single blade. Larger than it had been, but . . .

Tex pulled out a multi-tool and tried to one hand it. Grimaced and handed it over. "Third blade is a saw. Cut one for everyone. There's an elephant around here somewhere."

Caruthers shivered. "You think a spear will work on the elephant?"

"I know bare hands won't."

"Point." Caruthers took the first shaft and started stripping leaves off it.