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12 August 2015 @ 06:41 am
_Twin Cities_ part 4  
 

There was a bellow, from ahead. Animal, not human. Then human yells, screams. Cut off abruptly, and a last wail, "Dad!"

The tall grass ended abruptly, and Alice bumped Richard as he stopped abruptly in the opening. She shoved around him. At first the shorter grass looked like a lawn, green and even . . . then it got irregular, and drier, the bushes that were spotted around were untrimmed. Then it turned dry, a golden brown savannah.

Movement drew her eyes further out. A huge cape buffalo tossed his horns and something reddish flopped onto the ground.

A scream from the side. Aaron, halfway between tall grass and buffalo, picked up something and heaved it at the buffalo. The beast pawed at the thing at its feet, then turned to face the boy. Aaron backed away. The cape buffalo stalked forward.

Behind her, Lupe whispered, "I don’t think I like this game of yours."

"Not mine." Alice backed toward the high grass. "Let’s get back out of sight."

"But, but, what about Aaron? And his Dad?" Richard frowned around at her, not budging.

Lupe pushed forward. "Yeah. If Aaron lures that thing away, we can run out and grab his Dad."

Alice closed her eyes. Heroes. Worse than me. Sort of. "Uh huh. Right." She looked at her pointed stick. "Right. You two will grab the man and carry him back here, or anywhere into the tall grass. I’ll play decoy, if it’s necessary."

"Yeah." Lupe grinned, and turned to look at the tall grass. He waded in, and grabbed a slim sapling trying to grow through the crowded tufts. He snapped it off, and headed for another. Richard took the first one and stripped the leaves off it.

He shucked his coat and laid the stick on it. Lupe returned with another, and added his jacket. Buttoning them over the sticks gave them a passable stretcher.

Out in the open, Aaron turned and ran. The cape buffalo dropped his head and charged after him. Alice crouched down low, and edged forward. There were tuffs of tall grass out quite a distance. The guys followed her.

The buffalo disappeared into the tall grass.

Richard and Lupe bolted forward. Alice trotted after them, scanning the line of tall grass. She could see the tops of the grasses shaking, hear angry bellows.

Richard and Lupe stooped over the limp form. Richard laid out their improvised stretcher and they lifted the man onto it. Picked it up and ran.

Alice backed away, watching the grasses, watching the shaking and bellowing getting nearer.

Alice knotted the purple scarf around the end of the stick. And kept backing up. The shaking grass reached the edge of the short grass savannah, and a really big, really pissed off looking cape buffalo leaped out, shaking his head to dislodge trailing grass fronds. Then his head jerked around and focused on the humans.

Alice got between the buffalo and the stretcher, waving her scarf, hoping to hold the creature's attention.

Actually she appeared to have riveted its attention. "Hey, we’re just passing through, we’re not AIs, can’t hurt you at all." She threw a glance backwards. Richard and Lupe had reached the trail, and disappeared as she watched.

Now I just need to save myself.

The buffalo was stalking forward, and she retreated, edging toward the high grass, but past the trail and further.

"I don’t suppose you’ve seen a d-door? White rectangle thing? Just point the way and we’ll leave. Unless you want to talk. Negotiate a truce with Milwaukee?" The bull didn’t look interested in chatting, and it was getting frighteningly close. She shut up and shook the scarf-on-a-stick in front of its nose. It’s an AI, not an animal, and I have shockingly little experience at bull fighting anyway.

It hooked a horn at the scarf, and she flipped it up, out of the way. And back to the side. It looked beyond it, at her.

"So, what is your name? You seem to control a large piece of the city. Are you Minneapolis? St. Paul?"

The buffalo dropped its head to get the horns lined up at her. Muscles knotted . . .

She pulled the scarf back, then flicked it like a whip. It must have stung. The bull’s head turned to the side, and it spun, looking for the attacker. She backpedaled, raising the stick over the bull’s back. Popped the scarf without touching the Avatar. Backed further . . . it couldn’t be too far to the tall grass, where she had a chance to lose it.

Lupe popped out of the grass. The buffalo bellowed, swinging its head from one target to the other.

Alice turned and ran. The tall grass was like a wall, long blades woven together. She dived low, into the space between the root mounds, crawled frantically inward, then to the side. The buffalo crashed through, missing her by inches.

She froze. Staring at an edge of white. A d-door. She followed the buffalo’s progress by ear, and then slowly crawled up to the door. Pried off the ovals and then crawled in as straight a line as possible, back out to the short grass. She jerked the scarf off the stick and tied it to a tall grass head for a marker. Then she ran for the trail.

Lupe was waiting just inside the tall grass, poised to run. "Are you all right, err . . . Miss . . . "

"Street. There's a d-door down there. How's Mr. Martin?"

"Breathing."

Alice bit her lip. "Right. Let's see about getting him back to a hospital. You two carry him. I'll stay here and send everyone else through as I find them. And umm . . . you might not want to mention everything you seen. People will think you're cracked."

"But, but . . . what do we say?"

"You found him. He looks like some gang beat the hell out of him. Umm, if you have trouble with the police, procrastinate. There's a government group that will step in and take over, but I dunno how to contact them. If you get desperate, try to find a Captain M. Xicara. In DC. Better yet, call the ambulance, then leave."

Alice edged out and spotted the cape buffalo trotting back across the plains, rivals vanquished. Lupe and Richard, toting the stretcher, paused with her until the AI was out of sight. Then she hustled them down to the gate. The other side looked like an innocuous hallway. They hustled through. She shut the door after them and it disappeared.

Right. Now to find Tori, Jenni and her mother. With luck, the gate would return to the same spot, and she could send them through too.

Maybe Joe's back with Mr. Dover, and we can all get out of here.

***

Beau eyed Tex. "Look, I don't know who you work for. Or what your goal is. But you know a whole lot more about dimensional travel than we do. We've sent out nine teams, ours in Chicago was number nine, and the first to get anyone back. Can you help us find the other teams?"

Joe blinked at him. "Good grief. No one made it back until we showed you a working D-door? What cities were your teams sent to?"

"New York, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit, Denver, Miami, New Orleans, and Chicago, of course. And here." Skippy cast a quick look over his shoulder at the scraggly fellow.

"I don't think any one survived in Milwaukee. Right up to the final battle it looked like the T-Rex was going to win. And Detroit . . . Chicago took over before we met there. But I don't know if that implies enough of a connection in dimension six that the rattlesnake would have met that team of yours or not."

"A T-Rex? Like the giant snake in Chicago? " Beau eyed him cautiously. "You and Alice helped 'Milwaukee' defeat it, didn't you?"

He nodded, winced and pressed harder on his chest. "Yes. It was a very different situation, the end game between the last three AIs." He frowned out at the plains, their half grown jungle. "I think this area is beginning to spiral down fast to a single AI. Pity, there really isn't a need for a single entity to control everything."

"Really? And where have you seen cooperation working?"

"Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay . . . although I wonder if, in Atlantis, the Gorgon and the Kraken weren't both AIs. And the head Nazi negotiating with them."

"Milwaukee isn't here?" Skippy watched him closely.

"Not yet. He, it, may be looking for access, if he realizes we've crossed. I'll give some thought to how to find any survivors of your teams. Detroit should be easy enough. I suspect Milwaukee will have noticed any biological units there."

***

Joe in low grasslands with an ostrich trying to imitate a velociraptor. He lures it, while the others escape.

***

Beau with killer monkey

Desert with a turtle built like a tank—and about that size—beyond.

swamp and croc

***

Alice can't find girls, tries to follow tracks, finds elephant again. Sits down and tries to start map. Then decides to go exploring. Looks over cliff to see more grass, climbs down, rips hem of blouse to mark the climbable spot and . . . finds swamp.

"Surely they wouldn't go in there . . . would they?" Alice thought about her map. "Oh. Kay. I need to sneak out to where the tall grass ends and I can—hopefully—see what sort of avatar we've got here." She kicked off the high heels and stepped into the water. It was unnervingly warm, but the bottom was firm and smooth. Like concrete. Is there a pond? Maybe a fountain, in dimension one? She waded out. Was the sun higher? That would make it noon, and just a few hours until the very rapid sunset. And I don't want to be doing this in the dark.

Movement in the corner of her eye . . .

***

The first thing he saw was a slender hand dangling purple high heels. A muddy, bare foot on a shapely leg reach out carefully to probe the footing beneath the water. Beau jumped, and taking no chances, had her arm twisted up behind her back before recognition set in. "Great. I might have known you’d show up."

Alice Street stopped trying to hit him with the shoes, and looked over her shoulder. "Beau! How nice to see you again! Please tell me you didn’t crash another airplane, getting here?"

"Oh, you and Tex are just a laugh a minute."

She wiggled her shoulder, by way of a hint. He tightened his grip, but didn’t twisted her arm any harder.

She sighed, loudly and obviously. "Is Tex around anywhere close? We’ve had an invasion of teenagers, and they keep running off."

"I lost track of him a few animal attacks ago. And that was no teenager he had trailing along."

"Yeah. Parents and chaperones, too. They’re even worse. Order us around and they keep running off." She sighed. "I sent a few of them back. How about you? I thought you guys travelled in packs?"

"Teams. Usually. This time it’s just me and . . . Skippy. And we’ve encountered the sole survivor of the team we sent in a year ago."

She looked around.

"Yes, I’ve lost them. They ought to be with Tex and his chaperone." He sighed, and released her arm. "So, what, specifically, at this very moment, are you doing?"

"I am looking for Tex, the fellow he was looking for, Dover or some such, and three women who are possibly together out here somewhere. Oh, one more boy. I sent his father back on a stretcher." She looked around. "I doubt they'd wade into this, though. C’mon." She turned and led off into the grassy swamp, stepping carefully.

The ground rose, turned into a ten meter cliff. Not quite vertical. She eased between grass and cliff for a few steps, then pointed at a scrap of material the color of her blouse, and turned to the cliff. She tucked the shoes into her waistband and edged up the hand and foot holds carefully. Beau stayed close behind her. And tried to not admire the view.

More grass on top. With a narrow path through. Beau followed close on her heels. She slowed, and the tall grass ended abruptly. From cover, she stopped and scanned carefully. "African Cape Buffalo, out there somewhere. Ill tempered, although mentioning that’s a bit redundant, around here.

He snorted. "Yes, although the Moose wasn’t too bad."

"Moose? Haven’t seen it yet. Anyhow, about a kilometer to the right, if you follow the line of the tall grass, you’ll hopefully find a purple scarf tied to a clump of grass. There was, and hopefully will be again, a d-door about ten meters back in the grass. Hopefully still enabled. You remember the drill. Pull from the right to get home. Pull down from the top to get somewhere that you can zap a computer . . . probably not very useful, here, since that would only take out one of the AIs."

He pulled her around to face him. "Why are you trusting me with this information?"

"Just because our superiors aren’t on speaking terms doesn’t mean that we’re enemies. I’m American. I’m backing the AIs that are human friendly. I think the first applies to you. Not sure about the second, but there's always hope."

He scowled. "Yes, American. Give me one good reason we shouldn’t destroy all the AIs."

"Because there's a good side to the situation. Do you want to give this up?"

"We turned off the High Q in Chicago, once."

"But you had no way to know how that did—or didn’t affect the dimensions. Did you? And . . . how many other AIs had Chicago assimilated? There would have been plenty of other true AI machinery, that might have maintained the access . . . or even the actual existence of the other dimensions. We don’t have enough information to go on."

He glowered at her. "We don’t have half the information you have." His fingers drummed against his thigh. "I hope you realize that we don’t believe you have any governmental authority at all."

"It’s really a pity that ‘No Such Agency’ is already taken. I’d love to use it. Although I think, if we have to go public, we’re going to be the Dimensional Authority. Possibly the Dimensional Exploration Company. So totally plain jane."

"Descriptive. Private sector, huh? Or just trying to look that way." He leaned closer. "So how did this all happen? How did you find out about d-doors?"

"Err . . . Accidentally. Had a hell of a time getting back, that first time. Pure luck it happened in Milwaukee’s region. Mind you he did try to fumigate us at first, but then he got curious. He’s the friendliest of the AI’s."

"You keep wobbling back and forth between it and him. No hers?"

"Well, that Queen of the Mermaids was probably an AI. But Milwaukee and the identifiable animals tend to use masculine avatars, probably because males are supposed to be more aggressive. So it’s easy to slip into assigning them gender."

"You do know that gender is a grammatical term. Words have gender. People and animals have sex."

She bit the corner of her upper lip and let the silence lengthen. His eyes shifted in thought, and he flushed suddenly as he rethought what he’d just said.

She let a smirk escape. "Statements like that are why people use gender, above and beyond its strictest definition."

"Look, can we get back to the subject of AIs before I kiss you?"

"Captain Xicara, we don’t even like each other. I don’t think kissing me would have a reaction you’d appreciate."

"Huh. Know my whole name do you? And are you actually Alice Street?" He watched her closely For signs of lying, not to watch the way those violet eyes flashed, darkened, shuttered and brightened as the woman thought. She's much too fair to be Alice Brown. So why the repeated coincidences—she must be shadowing the girl—deliberately confusing her own trail.

Sunlight flashed off the amethyst imbedded in her cheek bone as she looked up at him. "Well. I am actually an Alice. So . . . where’d Beau come from?" The corner of her mouth quivered, as if she were trying to not smile. Or laugh.

"Its . . . an old family name." Inflicted on every other generation unto infinity.

"I think my parents plucked ‘Alice’ randomly off the ‘Boring Names List.’ Maybe I should try out something more exotic."

"Oh, no. Alice in Wonderland fits you perfectly."

She snickered.

He leaned and kissed her. And got a startle reaction, and nothing resembling a kissing sort of motion of her lips, in return. I refuse to believe she's never been kissed.

She swallowed. "Right. So. Where’d you last see Tex?"

"Hell if I know. I don’t suppose you have a map?"

"Heh. I’m working on a rough." She pulled a pad of paper out of her shoulderpack. "Let’s see. I need to add the swamp. Did you meet the AI?"

"Well, I observed a Very Large Crocodile. I went out of my way to avoid meeting it."

"Ugg. Reptiles. This tall grass is an edge between territories. If you follow the curve to the right, past the scarf and another hundred meters, there’s a path to an elephant’s region. There’s a boa constrictor looking Avatar much further over to the right. These paths through the grasses fork and curve . . . it’s really easy to get lost." She flipped through her note book. "So swamp and croc here."

"Desert with a turtle built like a tank—and about that size—beyond. Fortunately slow. Let’s see. It was the killer monkey beyond that, sorry, not a clue which direction. Low grasslands with an ostrich trying to imitate a velociraptor. Then the Moose. That’s where we met Tex. He was coming from the right, we came from the left, Forest with Squirrel. Normal size, major league pitcher of acorns. Tex was running from a wolf. He killed it and let the Moose do that pixilation thing to it." He sighed. "Beyond the squirrel, a bear. Across a canyon."

She finished scribbling. Arrows leading everywhere. "So, shall we explore further to the left?"

"Sure. Sooner or later you'll find a critter to kill me."

She tossed an amused look over her shoulder. "Yeah . . . All I have to do is not get eaten, myself." She sobered, stopped and looked up at him. "Look I don’t mean to be indelicate, but, when any of your people have been killed, do the AIs try to assimilate them? I know you lost at least one man in Chicago."

He hunched his shoulders. "The snake ate him. Just swallowed him whole."

"Oh . . . Well. I’ve seen the AIs here eating. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. So, they don’t necessarily treat us like they do other AIs. I wonder why they are so aggressive toward us, anyway. Perhaps they think we're spies for other AIs." She shrugged and started walking.

"They're right, though. You are a spy for Milwaukee."

"Ambassador. Milwaukee has come to enjoy conversation. Not to mention speed chess with Green Bay. I think the complexity of operating an avatar slows them down to our speed. Or maybe here, we speed up . . . except when a watch keeps working it's still on time when we get home. Hmm."

"Good to see there's a lot you don’t know."

"Yeah, I'll bet it'll be years before the physics types start publishing results—for some values of publishing, no doubt with a big fat 'Top Secret' stamp all over it."

Beau smirked. "We're faster than you academics. In disseminating info, even if we lack your sources."

"Well, making friends with Milwaukee gave us an unfair advantage, so to speak. You ought to open a branch office there."

"Recruit a few . . . odd people?"

"Hmm, do you co-operate with the FBI? Tex got the impression that they tripped across an enabled door. But I’d be surprised if they weren’t pursuing the phenomenon."

The man sighed. "I think they got warned off, after Milwaukee got Stephanopolis to help retrieve the passengers from the Bahamas. Rumor has it, you went back and found a whole bunch more of them."

"Yeah, well, we couldn’t just leave them there." She cleared her throat. "Although a couple of them looked pretty torn, and at least six of them ran off into the forest and refused to return." She shrugged.

His longer stride had put him up next to her. He eyed her, but kept quiet.

"With a stretch of good satellite linkage, Milwaukee was able to influence a few things. Made it less risky to go there, even if he didn't really control the region."

"The President is . . . mulling things over. Not that it matters, he hasn’t got a chance in hell of getting re-elected."

"Huh. Kinda depends on who the other parties run. The Greens have a couple of well known names. The Tories or the . . . well, who knows. I have more interesting things to do than follow politics."

"Not to mention being too young to vote." Ha! Spotted you reacting to that.

"Eh? Oy. You’re still stuck on me being George Brown’s daughter? Ha."

And heard those lying voice tones. "Politics do matter. With a more aggressive President, I could have your whole family arrested."

She stopped and looked him up and down. Shook her head. "I liked you better when you were trying to suborn me by kissing me. Oh, and Alice Brown is just fifteen, so, if you think I'm her, maybe you ought to rethink that option. Land you on the sex offenders list."

"Yeah. Threats are tacky. Could be interesting, to find out what your cyber buddies would do, though."

"Beau . . . I have never mentioned the possibility of manipulating the financial records of individuals—or organizations—to Milwaukee. Please. Let’s not even go there."

"Oh. Hmm. Thank you for your silence. I will not suggest arresting the Browns, singly or en masse to my superiors."

"Well, our best current information is that the Pittsburg link will start testing sometime next summer. It might be a good idea to . . . co-ordinate any response. Possibly even cross over in DC and have a chat with this Pentagon AI you think is in control of the East Coast. Perhaps we can make nice and convince it that co-operation between AIs is better than a battle for domination."

He eyed her. "Will you show us how these d-doors work."

"I’ve talked it over with Milwaukee. I think he and Tex gamed it, their conclusion is that they want you on their side, which probably means showing you how the d-doors work. That way you can meet your AI and decide if it is safe to let it run things."

He glared. "You probably already know more about the Pentagon AI than I do!"

"Not really. Milwaukee has encountered it through lower bandwidth connections. He thinks it’s going to be a winner-takes-all mess when the link opens."

Beau walked along in silence for a moment. "How many other AIs do you know?"

"I've met the AIs in control of Madison and Green Bay. I know about some others. I know the Denver AI controls most of the West Coast through the I80 optical cable that the super strand will be replacing over the next few years. And, of course, the Kraken, that nasty Mermaid and the Nazi."

"But you've only communicated with three?"

"Yeah . . . " Alice slowed, eyeing a faint break in the wall of grass. She pushed through and followed the line of least resistance to a well worn path. "Let’s see if this goes anywhere."

"And what’s going to attack us on the other end." Beau grabbed a handful of curly hair. "Gentlemen first."

"Pity there aren't any around."

But she did let him go first.

 
 
 
matapampamuphoff on August 12th, 2015 11:46 am (UTC)
Rereading this, I think I see why this story went nowhere. Alice is way too young for the scene, as written.
hollybambolo on August 13th, 2015 05:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was just abut to say this is getting too icky.

Maybe Beau can push on the get my superiors talking to yours thing instead.
matapampamuphoff on August 13th, 2015 06:28 pm (UTC)
Alice is acting way to grown up for the way she was portrayed in the earlier books. I think her getting back to being a kid playing dress up, and Beau boggling over the idea that this really is a couple of kids with a secret world to play in will be the way to go, if I ever get around to rewriting this one.