When Dreams Collide
by Wm. Mark Simmons
CHAPTER FOUR: \RIPLEY\GAMMA
I awoke with a splitting headache.
That I awoke at all and with my head seemingly intact was enough of a tradeoff for the moment. I lay quietly, waiting for the temporary nausea and disorientation that usually accompanies program entry to pass.
I had just survived two attempts on my life and hoped to catch my breath before I made my next move. As my head started to unfuzz, I considered the questions surrounding the first attack.
Who had attacked me? And why? Was the syringe supposed to knock me out temporarily? Or permanently? And why an antique needle and plunger rig, instead of a pneumatic hand injector?
Where would the next attack come from?
Thankfully, it was dark and I was in bed. But not my bed: it was too soft. And now that my eyes were adjusting to the darkness, I could make out enough of the furnishings to determine that I was in unfamiliar quarters.
I forced myself to lie quietly, sift the available evidence, and wait for my avatars memory-file to kick in.
I was in a pavilion tent, a large one if I was gauging dimensions correctly. The flicker of cook fires outside cast random patterns on the walls. The dim light allowed me to find my clothing and gear laid out on a camp chair next to the bed and note that the furnishings were designed to provide comfort for the occupant. There were no signs of duress, no evidence of captivity: apparently I was someones guest. But whose?
As if in answer, the tentflap opened briefly and a tall, athletic woman entered--that much I could discern through slitted eyelids before the flap closed out the firelight and the tents interior was plunged into near darkness again.
I feigned the slow, heavy breathing of sleep, but she laughed softly and came to stand by the bedside. "I am not fooled," she whispered. "Did you think I would not remember how you snore?" She was wearing a white shift, off one shoulder, and she opened its clasp so that it puddled around her feet.
Although much was still cloaked in shadow, I could see enough of the distinctive physique to recognize my visitor: Princess Aeriel Morivalynde, heir-apparent to the Amazon throne.
"Ah, Riplakish...." She sighed. "Say but the word and I will make this pretense a reality. Let us discard this mummery: become my consort in truth!"
"Oh, I know our agreement was for only the outward show. And I have what I want: now that my mother has relinquished the crown, taking a consort is the last duty I must perform before ascending the throne. Tomorrows ceremonies will begin my new responsibilities and end your obligations here." I could hear more than see her sudden smile. "Though we will need to meet, from time to time, to maintain the illusion of conjugality."
She knelt near my face. "But I want more than the illusion. And Amazon law requires a royal consort for the purposes of progeny. I could not long perpetuate the illusion of pregnancy."
She reached for my hand. "Name your terms. I am told that males are often fickle and need sexual variety. Should you desire other women, it could be arranged. My half-sister, Katherine, for example, also fancies you. I am not selfish if I am satisfied. And I know that you are the only male who could satisfy me!"
Another man might have been flattered.
But Princess Aeriel was not a real woman, expressing genuine emotional preference for yours truly. She was a computer construct, a subprogram of The Machine. And her proposition was the result of Cephtronicss programming policies: when it comes to fantasies, the customer is always ripe.
It was my misfortune to prefer real women with real motivations.
She brought my unresisting hand to her lips and then to her cheek. "I know you must think of me as a warrior, but I am a woman, as well...." She pulled my hand down to her breast. "Am I not comely? And are you not without a woman, now? Have...." She hesitated, contemplating the hand that she had pressed to her generous bosom. "Have my breasts grown smaller of late or is your hand larger than I remember?" She released me and, as I sat up, she stepped back.
"Yes?" I answered, fumbling with my pants.
"Your voice--it sounds different, somehow."
"It does?" Something was wrong: these pants were too small. I picked up one of my moccasin boots and held it next to my foot. Either I had the wrong boots or the wrong feet.
"Please light the candle on the bedside table." Now it was her voice that sounded different.
"Sure." I turned and snapped my fingers next to the taper. Nothing. Not even a spark. I tried again. Nada. Zilch. This was embarrassing. It was a simple spell and had never failed me once in hundreds of castings. I turned back to apologize to Aeriel but she was no longer there.
I started rummaging through my clothing and gear. It certainly looked like my stuff. But the size was wrong. I unsheathed Caladbolg and hefted it. There was something wrong in the balance. The Sidhe longsword seemed lighter--
And speaking of light, the bluish glow from its crystal blade was reflected in a circle of polished metal hanging from one of the tents support poles. I approached the crude mirror and stared at the dim image that gaped back at me. The problem was suddenly obvious.
My clothing and gear were just the right size for my program avatar: the Halfelven Riplakish of Dyrinwall. But the reflection in the mirror was that of Robert Remington Ripley the Third, full-blooded Human and nearly a foot taller.
Obviously, I wasnt going to be able to wear any of my clothing. And, since I could pretty well assume I was hanging out with Amazons, asking for a loan from someone elses wardrobe was going to be a bit more complicated than just finding the right size.
Aeriel re-entered the tent carrying small lit torch in her left hand. There was a rapier in her right hand. Both were pointed at me.
"Villain!" she hissed. "What have you done with my betrothed?"
"Betrothed?" I hiccuped. "Look, Aeri, we gotta talk."
"Talk?" She turned so that the sword was extended toward me and the torch behind her. "You will drop that weapon and surrender. Or I will have your guts for garters!"
Guts for garters. Nice. I remembered when Mike Straeker had programmed archaic slang and phrases into the language files. I tried to delete "guts for garters" from the list, but nooooo; Mike had liked it. Too bad he wasnt here to appreciate it now.
"Look, Aeriel, youre gonna laugh when I tell you--" And when I told her, she did.
It was not a pleasant laugh.
"You must think me a simpering fool!" All traces of amusement suddenly disappeared. "I am not one of your tame women, weak-brained and susceptible to male treachery." She began a slow but steady advance with her blade pointed at my heart. "Because I do not know what you have done with the Archdruid of Dyrinwall Forest, I will try to not kill you. But if I must hurt you to make you submit, it will give me pleasure!"
This was a very simple situation.
I brought my sword up in a "negotiating" position.
Broken down to its basic elements, male negotiations with an Amazon were an either/or proposition: either you beat them or they beat you. Fortunately for me, Princess Aeriels pride had kept this to a one-on-one negotiation, so far. If she were to raise her voice, however....
Her sudden lunge brought the hilts of our swords clashing together. I twisted my wrist so that the tsuba of my katana-longsword slipped between the guard-rings and quillons of her rapier, bringing us face to face and locking our weapons together. In the two seconds it took for her to calculate a disengagement, I shifted my stance and brought my left fist under her chin in a swift uppercut. It staggered her and, as her mouth dropped open, I could see blood where she had bitten her tongue. Dropping my sword, I followed through with a right cross.
I caught her before she fell and was trying to navigate towards the bed when the tentflap opened again.
"My lady? Is everything all right?" a timid voice asked. It was Faun, Aeriels Elven shield-sister.
I hugged the princesss limp body against me, hoping Fauns nightvision wouldnt pick up anything unusual. "Cant two people have a little privacy around here?" I growled.
Faun started backing out of the tent. "Forgive me. Its just--" She hesitated. "Is my lady all right?"
"My love," I said, inclining my head toward Aeriels and trying to keep her back from slumping, "are you still feeling the effects of the wine?" I pretended to listen to her reply and then ordered Faun to saddle our horses and bring them to the tent. "Her Grace feels a moonlight ride is just the thing to clear her head. And afford us the seclusion that seems to elude us here," I added meaningfully.
"Yes, my lady," Faun responded, "at once." And was gone.
By the time she returned with our mounts, I was ready. Aeriel was stretched out on the bed. I had covered my own nakedness with a modified breechclout and poncho cut from the bedclothes with my hamidachi. Two additional strips of cloth were wound about my waist and I had thrust Caladbolg and Balmung through them dai-sho fashion. I had packed my clothes and gear into a bundle that could be tied to the saddle in a matter of seconds.
I was waiting for Faun to finish tying our mounts to a tent peg when Aeriel groaned. Faun came barreling through the tentflap and collided with me. "My lady, what is wrong?"
"I dont know," I said, trying to disentangle myself. "I think shes fainted!" As Faun moved toward the bed, I headed for the exit: "Ill get some help."
Outside, it was just a few steps to reach Ghost and throw my gear behind the saddle. He shied a bit as I secured the pack with leather thongs but I didnt realize my problem until I slipped his tether and tried to swing up into the saddle.
It was a problem of appearances.
To most eyes Ghost appears to be a dapple gray mare with no special distinctions. My avatar had paid Brisbane the Illusionist a small fortune for that particular effect and it worked very well while Ghost was on the ground. In reality (one uses the term loosely while in Fantasyworld), Ghost was one of the Pegasi--a winged horse of the heavens. When he spread his wings to take flight, the illusion was dispelled as his feet left the ground: his feathery appendages became visible and his snowy white coat eclipsed the dapple gray Glamour.
But the problem wasnt Ghosts appearance. It was mine. My destrier knew Riplakish of Dyrinwall. But Ghost didnt know who this human lummox was who had just placed one oversized foot in the stirrup reserved exclusively for his Halfelven master. I doubted there was anything I could do under the circumstances to reassure my him and any further arbitrations were cut off as Aeriel suddenly swept the tentflap aside. She took a few staggering steps with Fauns assistance and spat a mouthful of blood on the ground. She pointed at me and yelled: "Thop, you thon of a bith!"
That did it. All over the campsite bows were being strung: I swung my leg up and Ghost took off.
Unfortunately, my center of balance was off due to my skittish mounts evasive footwork and when I say he took off, Im talking up, up, and away!
I kept one foot in the stirrup and one hand on the saddle horn. The rest of me was all over the place as I was buffeted by giant wings and the air turbulence of Ghosts mad rush through the sky. Imagine a bronco busting exhibition, where the horse goes through all those gyrations without being answerable to ground or gravity!
Actually, it helped a little.
If Ghost had just flown upwards without all the additional maneuvers, I never would have managed to get my other leg up and over his back. In the process of bucking and twisting, however, I suddenly found myself astride the saddle. Back in the early days when I was first soloing on this sky-footed nag, I had designed extra hand-holds on the saddle and I availed myself of these now. The other stirrup was a lost cause, for the moment, so I closed my eyes and hung on for all I was worth.
"Hode you fire!" I heard Aeri yell. "I do not with any harm to befall my conthorts thteed!"
And why waste good arrows, I thought, when gravity will do the job for you?
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