City of Golden Shadow. Otherland (Series). Book 1. Tad Williams Author George Newbern Narrator (). cover image of River of Blue Fire. Editorial Reviews. ukraine-europe.info Review. Best-selling fantasy author Tad Williams (Tailchaser's Download it once and read it on your Kindle device, PC, phones or tablets. Use features $ Read with Our Free App; Audiobook. $ Free . Read "Otherland: City of Golden Shadow" by Tad Williams available from Rakuten Kobo. Sign up today and get $5 off your first purchase. Otherland.
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He clambered up and then slid back, laughing silently at the up-and-down of it The mountainside stretched away beneath him, a curving, glass-smooth free . Jul 24, Penguin Random House Audiobooks offers a FREE download for 48 hours of OTHERLAND: CITY OF GOLDEN SHADOW (US only). Continue. Jul 24, Penguin Random House Audiobooks is offering a FREE download of Otherland: City of Golden Shadow on July 26th, (US residents only).
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Beneath that sky, everything was gray. Mud and water. He knew the water was the flat places, so everything else was mud, except perhaps for the tall things. Yes, those were trees, he remembered. Had been trees.
Paul stood up and turned in a slow circle. The world extended for only a few hundred yards in any direction before ending in mist. He was marooned in the center of an empty space, as though he had wandered onto a stage by mistake and now stood before a silent, expectant audience. But he was not entirely alone.
Halfway across the emptiness one tree stood by itself, a clawing hand with a twisted bracelet of barbed wire. Something dark hung in its denuded branches. Paul drew his revolver and staggered toward it. It was a figure, hanging upside down like a discarded marionette, one leg caught in the high angle of bough and trunk.
All its joints seemed to have been broken, and the arms dangled downward, fingers reaching, as though muck were heaven and it was struggling to fly. The front of its head was a tattered, featureless mass of red and scorched black and gray, except for one bright staring yellow eye, mad and intent as a bird's eye, which watched his slow approach.
A hole opened in the ruined face. It spoke. I've been waiting for you. Paul stared. The butt of the gun was slippery in his fingers. His arm trembled with the effort of keeping it raised. Waiting so long. Paul winced as the screaming began again. But it could not be the dying man— this was the dying man. The dark shape was tumbling down the sky toward him, a black hole in the dull gray air, whistling as it came.
The dull thump of the howitzer followed a moment later, as though Time had turned and bitten its own tail. And then the shell struck, and the world folded in on itself, smaller and smaller, angle after angle creased with fire and then compressed along its axes, until it all vanished. He was dead, of course, and he knew it. How could he be anything else? He had seen the howitzer shell diving down on him from the sky, a wingless, eyeless, breathtakingly modern Angel of Death, streamlined and impersonal as a shark.
He had felt the world convulse and the air catch fire, felt his lungs raped of oxygen and charred to cracklings in his chest. There could be no doubt that he was dead. Of course, an afterlife in which the punishment for a misspent existence was an eternally throbbing headache might make a sort of sense. A horrible sort of sense. He was sitting upright on the rim of a vast crater, a surely mortal wound ripped deep into the muddy earth.
The land around it was fiat and empty. There were no trenches, or if there were, they were buried under the outflingings of the explosion; he could see nothing but churned mud in any direction until the earth itself blurred into gray-gleaming mist along the encircling horizon. But something solid was behind him, propping him up, and the sensation of it against the small of his back and his shoulder blades made him wonder for the first time whether he had anticipated death too soon.
As he tilted his head back to look, his helmet-brim tipped forward over his eyes, returning him to darkness for a moment, then slid down over his face and onto his lap.
He stared at the helmet. Most of its crown was gone, blasted away; the torn and tortured metal of the brim resembled nothing so much as a crown of thorns. Remembering horror tales of shell-blasted soldiers who walked two dozen yards without their heads or held their own innards in their hands without recognizing what they were, Paul shivered convulsively. Slowly, as though playing a grisly game with himself, he ran his fingers up his face, past his cheeks and temples, feeling for what must be the pulped top of his own skull.
He touched hair, skin, and bone. No wound. When he held his hands before his face, they were striped with as much blood as mud, but the red was dry already, old paint and powder.
He let out a long-held breath. He was dead, but his head hurt. He was alive, but a red-hot shell fragment had ripped through his helmet like a knife through cake frosting. Paul looked up and saw the tree, the small, skeletal thing that had drawn him across no-man's land. The tree where the dying man had hung. Paul Jonas sighed. He had walked around the tree five times, and it showed no sign of becoming any less impossible. The frail, leafless thing had grown so large that its top was out of sight beyond the clouds that hung motionless in the gray sky.
Its trunk was as wide as a castle tower from a fairy story, a massive cylinder of rough bark that seemed to extend as far downward as it did up, running smoothly down the side of the bomb crater, vanishing into the soil at the bottom with no trace of roots.
He had walked around the tree and could make no sense of it. He had walked away from the tree, hoping to find an angle from which he could gauge its height, but that had not assisted his understanding either.
No matter how far he stumbled back across the featureless plain, the tree still stretched beyond the cloud ceiling. And always, whether he wanted to or not, he found himself returning to the tree again.
Not only was there nothing else to move toward, but the world itself seemed somehow curved, so that no matter which direction he took, eventually he found himself heading back toward the monumental trunk. He sat with his back against it for a while and tried to sleep. Sleep would not come, but stubbornly he kept his eyes closed anyway. He was not happy with the puzzles set before him.
He had been struck by an exploding shell. The war and everyone in it seemed to have vanished, although a conflict of that size should have been a rather difficult thing to misplace. The light had not changed in this place since he had come here, although it must have been hours since the explosion. And the only other thing in the world was an immense, impossible vegetable.
He prayed that when he opened his eyes again, he would either find himself in some sort of respectable afterlife or returned to the familiar misery of the trenches with Mullet and Finch and the rest of the platoon. When the prayer had ended, he still did not risk a look, determined to give God—or Whoever—enough time to put things right. He sat, doing his best to ignore the band of pain across the back of his head, letting the silence seep into him as he waited for normality to reassert itself.
At last, he opened his eyes. Paul sighed deeply and stood up. He did not remember much about his life before the war, and at this moment even the immediate past was dim, but he did remember that there had been a certain kind of story in which an impossible thing happened, and once that impossible thing had proved that it was not going to un-happen again, there was only one course of action left: What did you do with an unavoidable tree that grew up into the sky beyond the clouds?
You climbed it. It was not as difficult as he had expected. Although no branches jutted from the trunk until just below the belly of the clouds, the very size of the tree helped him; the bark was pitted and cracked like the skin of some immense serpent, providing excellent toeholds and handholds.
Some of the bumps were big enough to sit on, allowing him to catch his breath in relative safety and comfort. But still it was not easy. Although it was hard to tell in that timeless, sunless place, he felt he had been climbing for at least half a day when he reached the first branch. It was as broad as a country road, bending up and away; where it, too, vanished into the clouds, he could see the first faint shapes of leaves.
Paul lay down where the branch met the trunk and tried to sleep, but though he was very tired, sleep still would not come. When he had rested for a while, he got up and resumed climbing. After a while the air grew cooler, and he began to feel the wet touch of clouds. The sky around the great tree was becoming murkier, the ends of the branches obscured; he could see vast shadowy shapes hanging in the distant foliage overhead, but could not identify them.
Another half hour's climbing revealed them to be monstrous apples, each as large as a barrage balloon. As he mounted higher, the fog thickened until he was surrounded by a phantom world of branches and drifting, tattered clouds, as though he clambered in the rigging of a ghost ship.
No sound reached him but the creaking and scratching of bark beneath his feet. Breezes blew, cooling the thin sweat on his forehead, but none of them blew hard enough to shake the great, flat leaves. Silence and shreds of mist. The great trunk and its mantle of branches above and below him, a world in itself. Paul climbed on. The clouds began to grow even more dense, and he could sense the light changing; something warm was making the mists glow, like a lantern behind thick curtains.
He rested again, and wondered how long it would take him to fall if he were to step off the branch on which he sat. He plucked a loose button from his shirt cuff and let it drop, watching it shiver down the air currents until it vanished silently into the clouds below.
Later—he had no idea how much later—he found himself climbing into growing radiance. The gray bark began to show traces of other colors, sandy beiges and pale yellows. The upper surfaces of the branches seemed flattened by the new, harsher light and the surrounding mist gleamed and sparkled as though tiny rainbows played between the individual drops. The cloud-mist was so thick here that it impeded his climb, curling around his face in dripping tendrils, lubricating his grip, weighting his clothes and dragging at him treacherously as he negotiated difficult hand-to-hand changeovers.
He briefly considered giving up, but there was nowhere else for him to go except back down. It seemed worth risking an unpleasantly swift descent to avoid the slower alternative which could lead only to eternal nothingness on that gray plain.
In any case, Paul thought, if he was already dead, he couldn't die again. If he was alive, then he was part of a fairy tale, and surely no one ever died this early in the story. The clouds grew thicker the last hundred yards of his ascent he might have been climbing through rotting muslin. The damp resistance kept him from noticing how bright the world was becoming, but as he pushed through the last clouds and lifted his head, blinking, it was to find himself beneath a dazzling, brassy sun and a sky of pure unclouded blue.
No clouds above, but clouds everywhere else: And in the distance, shimmering in the brilliant sunlight. As Paul stared, the pale slender towers seemed to stretch and waver, like something seen through the waters of a mountain lake. Still, it was clearly a castle, not just an illusion compounded of clouds and sun; colorful pennants danced from the tops of the sharp turrets, and the huge porticullised gate was a grinning mouth opening onto darkness.
He laughed, suddenly and abruptly, but his eyes filled with tears. It was beautiful. It was terrifying. After the great gray emptiness and the half-world of the clouds, it was too bright, too strong, almost too real.
Still, it was what he had been climbing toward: There was the faintest suggestion of a path across the spun-sugar plain, a more solid line of whiteness that stretched from the tree and meandered away toward the distant castle gate.
He climbed until his feet were level with the top of the clouds, paused for a moment to revel in the strong, swift beating of his heart, then stepped off the branch. For a sickening instant the whiteness gave, but only a little. He windmilled his arms for balance, then discovered that it was no worse than standing on a mattress.
The castle grew larger as he approached. If Paul had retained any doubts that he was in a story and not a real place, the ever-clearer view of his destination would have dispelled them.
It was clearly something that someone had made up. It was real, of course, and quite solid—although what did that mean to a man walking across the clouds? But it was real in the way of things long believed-in but never seen. It had the shape of a castle—it was as much a castle as something could ever be—but it was no more a medieval fortress than it was a chair or a glass of beer.
It was an idea of a castle, Paul realized, a sort of Platonic ideal unrelated to the grubby realities of motte-and-bailey architecture or feudal warfare.
Platonic ideal? He had no idea where that had come from. Memories were swimming just below the surface of his conscious mind, closer than ever, but still as strangely unfocused as the many-towered vision before him. The gate was open but did not seem welcoming.
For all the diffuse glimmer of the towers, the entranceway itself was deep, black, and empty. Paul stood before the looming hole for some time, his blood lively in his veins, his self-protective reflexes urging him to turn back even though he knew he must enter.
At last, feeling even more naked than he had beneath the hail of shellfire which had begun the whole mad dream, he took a breath and stepped through. The vast stone chamber beyond the door was curiously stark, the only decoration a single great banner, red embroidered with black and gold, that hung on the far wall.
It bore a vase or chalice out of which grew two twining roses, with a crown floating above the flowers. Below the picture was the legend "Ad Aeternum. As he stepped forward to examine it, his footsteps reverberated through the empty chamber, so loud after the muffling cloud-carpet that it startled him.
He thought that someone would surely come to see who had entered, but the doors at either end of the chamber remained shut and no other sound joined the dying echoes.
It was hard to stare at the banner for long. Each individual thread of black and gold seemed to move, so that the whole picture swam blurrily before his eyes. It was only when he stepped back almost to the entrance that he could see the picture clearly again, but it still told him nothing of this place or who might live here.
Paul looked at the doors at either end. There seemed little to choose between them, so he turned toward the one on the left. Though it seemed only a score or so of paces away, it took him a surprisingly long time to reach it. Paul looked back. The far portal was now only a dark spot a great distance away, and the antechamber itself seemed to be filling with mist, as though clouds were beginning to drift in from outside.
He turned and found that the door he had sought now loomed before him. It swung open easily at his touch, so he stepped through. But it was not quite that, he realized a moment later. Vegetation grew thickly everywhere, but he could see shadowy walls through the looping vines and long leaves; arched windows set high on those walls looked out on a sky busy with dark storm clouds—quite a different sky than the shield of pure blue he had left beyond the front gate.
The jungle was everywhere, but he was still inside, even though the outside was not his own. This chamber was larger even than the huge front hall. Far, far above the nodding, poisonous-looking flowers and the riot of greenery stretched a ceiling covered with intricate sharp-angled patterns all of gleaming gold, like a jeweled map of a labyrinth. Another memory came drifting up, the smell and the warm wet air tickling it free. This kind of place was called. A place where things were kept, he dimly recalled, where things grew, where secrets were hidden.
He stepped forward, pushing the sticky fronds of a long-leafed plant out of his path, then had to do a sudden dance to avoid tumbling into a pond that the plant had hidden. Dozens of tiny fish, red as pennies heated in a forge, darted away in alarm. He turned and moved along the edge of the pond, searching for a path. The plants were dusty. As he worked his way through the thickest tangles, powdery clouds rose up into the light angling down through the high windows, swirling bits of floating silver and mica.
He paused, waiting for the dust to settle. In the silence, a low sound drifted to him. Someone was weeping. He reached up with both hands and spread the leaves as though they were curtains. Framed in the twining vegetation stood a great bell-shaped cage, its slender golden bars so thickly wound with flowering vines it was hard to see what it contained. He moved closer, and something inside the cage moved. Paul stopped short. She turned, her wide black eyes wet.
A great cloud of dark hair framed her long face and spilled down her back to merge with the purple and iridescent green of her strange costume. But it was no costume. She was clothed in feathers; beneath her arms long pinions lay folded like a paper fan.
It was all a dream, of course—perhaps just the last hallucinatory moments of a battlefield casualty—but as her voice crept into him and settled itself like something that had found its home, he knew that he would never forget the sound of it. There was determination and sorrow and the edge of madness, all in those two words. He stepped forward. Paul stared at her, although he could not help feeling that he was doing her some insult, as though her feathered limbs were a sort of deformity.
Perhaps they were. Or perhaps in this strange place he was the deformed one. But I don't feel like a ghost. You must! The Old Man will be back soon. More dust fluttered into the air. She moved to the edge of the cage, grasping the bars in her slender fingers. Go now! She shook her head. You must go before the Old Man returns. Only ghosts visit me here—and the Old Man's evil instruments.
He says they are to keep me company, but some of them have teeth and very unusual senses of humor. Butterball and Nickelplate—they are the cruelest.
Overwhelmed, Paul suddenly stepped forward and grasped her hand where it curled around the bars. Her skin was cool and her face was very close. I will free you. She jerked her hand away. And you cannot survive if the Old Man finds you here.
Have you come hunting the Grail? You will not find it here—this is only a shadow place. Paul shook his head impatiently. Something, it meant something. I have nothing to hide from you, and I would not see you. I would not see you harmed. Go, you fool! Even if you could take it, the Old Man would find you no matter where you went. He would hunt you down even if you crossed the White Ocean. Paul could feel the fear beating out from her, and for a moment he was overwhelmed, unable to speak or move.
She was afraid for him. This prisoned angel felt something. And the grail, whatever it might be—he could feel the idea of it, swimming just beyond his grasp like one of the bright fish. A terrible hissing sound, loud as a thousand serpents, set the leaves around them swaying. The bird woman gasped and shrank back into the center of her cage. A moment later a great clanging tread sounded through the trees, which shivered, stirring more dust.
Something huge was coming nearer, huffing and banging like a war engine. A harsh light flickered through the trees. The noise was becoming louder; the walls themselves were quivering, the ground pitching. Paul took a step, then stumbled and sank to his knees as terror fell on him like a black wave.
He crawled into the thickest part of the undergrowth, leaves slapping against his face, smearing him with dust and damp. A loud creak sounded, as of mighty hinges, then the room was filled with the smell of an electrical storm.
Paul covered his eyes. The long silence was broken only by that hiss like escaping steam. At last the bird woman spoke, faint and tremulous. The floor shuddered, and Paul could hear a discordant creaking like a bridge in high wind. Paul cursed and staggered to his feet, surrounded by head-high branches.
A vast shadow hung over the room, blocking the soft gray light from the windows, replacing it with the stark blue-white of its own nimbus of sparks.
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Paul flung himself forward, smashing through the clinging leaves, his heart beating like a greyhound's. The door. Paul splashed through the pond and almost lost his balance. He could see the door, only a few yards away, but the great clanking thing was just behind him. Even in his terror he knew that she would suffer some dreadful punishment for this; he felt that he had somehow betrayed her.
He reached the door and flung himself through, skidding and then rolling on the smooth stone floor. The huge gate stood before him, and thank God, thank God, it was open! A hundred steps, maybe more, difficult as running in treacle. The whole castle shook beneath his pursuer's tread. He reached the door and flung himself through and out into what had been sunlight, but was now twilight-gray. The topmost branches of the great tree stood just above the edge of the clouds, a seemingly impossible distance away.
Paul bolted toward it across the field of clouds. The thing was pushing through the door—he heard the great hinges squeal as it forced its way. Lightning-scented air billowed past him, almost knocking him off his feet, and a great roar filled the sky: Paul sprinted across the cloud-trail, his breath scorching in his lungs. The tree was a little closer now. How fast would he have to climb down to move beyond the reach of that terrible thing? Surely it couldn't follow him—how could even the great tree bear the weight of such a monstrosity?
The clouds below his feet stretched and jounced like a trampoline as the Old Man stepped from the castle. Paul tripped and fell forward; one of his hands came down to the side of the trail, pushing through the cloud surface as through cobwebs. He scrambled to his feet and sped forward again—the tree was only a few hundred paces away now. If he could only. A great gray hand as big as a steam shovel curled around him, a thing of cables and rivets and rusting sheet iron.
Paul screamed. The clouds fell away as he was jerked high into the air, then turned to dangle in front of the Old Man's face.
Paul screamed again, and heard another cry, dim but mournful, echo from the distant castle—the keening of a caged bird. The Old Man's eyes were the vast cracked faces of tower clocks, his beard a welter of curling, rusted wire.
He was impossibly huge, a giant of iron and battered copper pipes and slowly turning wheels that steamed at every crack, every vent. He stank of electricity and grinned a row of concrete tombstones. As the great maw opened wider, Paul kicked and struggled in the cloud of choking steam. Shrieking, Paul fell down into oily, gear-grinding darkness. Something trickled into his mouth and burned down his throat. He coughed explosively and struggled to sit up. This time he was allowed to.
Someone laughed. He opened his eyes. Finch was sitting beside him, almost on top of him, framed by the mud of the trench top and a sliver of sky. Sad to say, it's not enough to get you home, old man. Still, Mullet will be pleased to see you when he gets back from shifting his bowels. I told him you'd be fine. Fritz suddenly decided the war wasn't over yet. We've been pushed quite a way back—don't you remember? Paul struggled to hold onto the diminishing tatters of his dream.
A woman with feathers like a bird, who spoke of a grail. A giant like a railroad engine, made of metal and hot steam. To me? Finch reached behind him and produced Paul's helmet. One side of the crown was dimpled inward. But not enough to get you shipped back. Not very lucky are you, Jonesie? So it had all been a dream. Just a hallucination after a minor head wound.
Paul looked at Finch's familiar face, his grayshot mustache, the weary eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles, and knew that he was back where he was supposed to be, sunk once more in the mud and the blood. Of course. The war went on, uncaring of the dreams of soldiers, a reality so devastating that no other reality could compete. Paul's head ached. He reached up to rub his temple with a dirty hand, and as he did so something fluttered from his sleeve into his lap. He looked quickly at Finch, but the other man was rooting in his bag, hunting a tin of bully beef, and had not seen.
He lifted the object and let it catch the last rays of the sun. The green feather sparkled, impossibly real, impossibly bright, and completely untouched by mud. Convict Aleksandr Kashivili's behavioral chip suffered an unexpected failure, authorities said today after the mod-paroled Kashivili—. There will be accidents.
One of the other instructors pushed open the cubicle door and leaned in. The noise of the corridor swept in with him, louder than usual. Remembering how many things had gone missing during the last scare, she retrieved the pad before walking into the hallway. The man who had told her—she could never remember his name, Yono Something-or-other—was several paces ahead, vanishing into the river of students and instructors moving leisurely toward the exits. She hurried to catch him. Within minutes the wide street in front of Durban Area Four Polytechnic had become a sort of impromptu carnival, full of laughing students glad to be out of class.
One group of young men had tied their coats around their waists like skirts and were dancing atop a parked car, ignoring an older teacher's increasingly shrill orders to cease and desist. Renie watched them with mixed feelings. She, too, could feel the lure of freedom, just as she felt the warm African sun on her arms and neck, but she also knew that she was three days behind grading term projects; if the bomb scare went on too long, she would miss a tutorial that would have to be rescheduled, eating up more of her rapidly dwindling spare time.
Yono, or whatever his name was, grinned at the dancing students. Renie felt a surge of annoyance at his irresponsible enjoyment. Why play a prank like this and make the rest of us—". A flash of brilliant light turned the sky white. Renie was knocked to the ground by a brief hurricane of hot, dry air as a tremendous clap of sound shattered glass all along the school facade and shivered the windows of dozens of parked cars.
She covered her head with her arms, but there was no debris, only the sound of people screaming. When she struggled to her feet, she could see no sign of injuries on the students milling around her, but a cloud of black smoke was boiling above what must be the Admin Building in the middle of the campus.
The campanile was gone, a blackened, smoking stump of fibramic skeleton all that remained of the colorful tower. She let out her breath, suddenly nauseated and light-headed. Her colleague clambered to his feet beside her, his dark skin now almost gray.
God, I hope they got everyone out. They probably did—Admin always clears first so they can monitor the evacuation. Renie shook her head. Zulu Mamba? Who knows? God damn it, that's the third in two years. How can they do it? Why won't they let us work? Her companion's look of alarm deepened.
It's in the Admin lot! A security guard who was trying to cordon off the area shouted at him as he ran past. Idiot" Renie felt like crying herself. There was a distant ululation of sirens. She took a cigarette out of her bag and pulled the flame-tab with trembling fingers. They were supposed to be noncarcinogenic, but right at the moment she didn't care. A piece of paper fluttered down and landed at her feet, blackened along its edges. Already, the camera-drones were descending from the sky like a swarm of flies, sucking up footage for the net.
She turned and found herself confronting a slender boy with yellow-brown skin. His short hair curled close to his head. He wore a necktie, something Renie had not seen in a few years.
She stared. The top of his head barely reached her shoulder. He smiled, a swift crease of white. There are few of us left who have the pure blood, the old look. Most have married into the city-world. Or died in the bush, unable to live in these times.
I am a university student" He said it with some pride, but a hint of self-mockery as well. He turned to look at the drifting plume of smoke. She shook her head and suppressed a shudder. The sky, stained with drifting ash, had gone twilight-gray. Xabbu asked. It seems that we will not get back into the university for some time.
Perhaps we could go to another place—perhaps somewhere that sells beer, since my throat is dry from smoke—and do our talking there. Renie hesitated. Should she just leave the campus? What if her department head or someone needed her? She looked around at the street and the main steps, which were beginning to resemble a combination refugee center and free festival, and shrugged. Nothing useful would be done here today.
The train to Pinetown was not running—someone had jumped or been pushed onto the tracks at Durban Outskirt. Renie's legs were aching and her damp shirt was stuck to her body when she finally reached the flatblock.
The elevator wasn't running either, but that was nothing new. She trudged up the stairs and dumped her bag on the table in front of the mirror and stopped, arrested by her reflection. Just yesterday a colleague at work had criticized her short, practical haircut, saying that a woman as tall as Renie should try to look more feminine.
She scowled and examined the dust streaked down her long white shirt. When did she have time to make herself pretty? And who cared, anyway? No one answered. She poked her head around the corner and saw her younger brother Stephen in his chair, as expected.
Stephen was faceless behind his net headset, and he held a squeezer in each hand as he tilted from side to side. Renie wondered what he was experiencing, then decided it might be better if she didn't know. The kitchen was empty, nothing in sight that looked like a hot meal being prepared. She cursed quietly, hoping it was just because her father had fallen asleep. She cursed again, anger rising. It was clear from his slurred tone that her father had found something besides cooking to while away his afternoon.
After a rattling thump and a sound like a large piece of furniture being dragged across the floor, his tall shape appeared in the bedroom doorway, swaying slightly. Her father considered this for a moment "Broderbund. Those Afrikaaner bastards. For sure. He was like an old bull, she thought, enfeebled but still dangerous. It tired her out just looking at him. Had a lot of drinking to do, she thought, but held her tongue.
Angry as she was, it wasn't worth going through another evening of shouting and broken crockery. He swayed again, then turned back into the darkness of his bedroom.
I'm not hungry.
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I need some rest—a man needs his sleep. Renie waited a moment, clenching and unclenching her fists, then stalked over and pulled the bedroom door closed, trying to make herself some room, some free space. She looked over at Stephen, still rocking and jiggling in the net. He might as well be catatonic. She slumped into a chair and lit another cigarette. It was important to remember her father as he had been, she reminded herself—as he still occasionally was—a proud man, a kind man.
There were some people in whom weakness, once it had appeared, grew like a cancer. Mama's death in the department store fire had found and revealed that weakness. Joseph Sulaweyo no longer seemed to have the strength to fight back against life. He was letting it all go, slowly but surely disconnecting from the world, its pains and disappointments. She bent down and tapped the interrupt button.
Still faceless in his headset, Stephen spasmed in indignation. When he did not lift the insectoid visor, Renie held the button down. We've never gotten that far before! Come on, Stephen. There was a bomb at school today.
It was frightening. I'd like to have your company over dinner. He made a face, but was seated and pushing it into his mouth before she returned from the kitchen with a glass of beer for herself and a soft drink for him. He grimaced in disgust, then wiped grease from his chin. In SchoolNet. Someone said that some guys from Upper Form did it as a graduation prank. He's only eleven, she reminded herself.
Things outside of his narrow circle aren't very real yet. Killed them dead. But the blowdown on SchoolNet killed a lot of Crafts and even some high-level Constellations, backups and all. They'll never come back again either.
Renie sighed. Crafts, Constellations—if she were not a net-literate instructor herself, she would probably think her brother was speaking a foreign language. Have you read any of that book I gave you? As a concession to her young brother's tastes she had purchased the expensive interactive version, full of historical video footage and stylish "you-are-there" 3D re-enactments.
He chewed. We got this flowpast off a guy in Upper Form. We were almost downtown! Open ticket! Big fines. I'm serious, boy. Don't do it. Might as well tell children not to swim in the old fishing hole.
Stephen was already nattering on as though she hadn't said anything. She sighed. From the level of excitement, she knew she was in for a forty-minute discourse, full of obscure Junior Netboy argot. It was chizz major sampled. We dodged three Bully-boxes. But we weren't doing anything wrong," he said hurriedly. But it was so flared!
We met someone who got into Mister J's! Stephen's look suddenly changed; Renie thought she saw something flicker behind his eyes. Kind of like a club. Bring me a glass of water. Renie winced, but went to the sink. For now, Stephen deserved something like a normal home life, but when he was finally out on his own, things would change around here.
When she got back, Stephen was finishing his third helping, but she could tell by his jittering leg and half-out-of-the-seat posture that he was aching to get back to the net. Now something almost like panic flashed across his face, and Renie felt her stomach go sour.
He was definitely spending too much recreation time plugged in if he was so desperate to get back. She would make sure he spent some time out of the house. If she took him to the park this Saturday, she could make sure he didn't just go over to a friend's, plug in, and spend the whole day lying on the floor like an invertebrate.
City of Golden Shadow
She did, and he listened carefully and asked questions. He seemed so interested that she also told him about her first meeting with her student! Xabbu , how small and polite he was, his odd, old-fashioned style of dress. Renie thought of! Xabbu as he had waved good-bye, his slender arm and sweet, almost sad face.
Would he, too, get sick somehow, physically or spiritually? He had said that few of his people did well living in the city.
She hoped he would prove an exception—she had liked his quiet sense of humor. Stephen got up and cleared away the dishes without being asked, then plugged in again, but surprisingly accessed Marching Toward Freedom, disengaging from time to time to ask her questions about it.
After he finally went to his room, Renie read term papers for another hour and a half, then accessed the newsbank. She watched reports about a variety of faraway problems—a new strain of the Bukavu virus forcing quarantines in Central Africa, a tsunami in the Philippines, UN sanctions on the Red Sea Free State, and a class-action suit against a childcare service in Jo'burg—and the local news as well, including lots of footage about the bomb at the college. It was strange to be on the net, watching in degree stereoscope the same thing she had seen with her own eyes that morning.
It was hard to tell which experience was more convincingly real.
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And these days, what did "real" mean anyway? The headset began to feel claustrophobic, so she pulled it off and watched the rest of the news she wanted to see on the wallscreen. Full surround was a bit of a busman's holiday for her anyway. It was only after she had made everyone's lunch for the next day, then set her alarm and climbed into her own bed, that the feeling which had nagged her all evening finally surfaced: Stephen had manipulated her somehow.
They had been talking about something and he had changed the subject, then they had never got back to it. His subsequent behavior alone had been suspicious enough to suggest that he was avoiding something. She couldn't for the life of her remember what they had been discussing—some netboy larking, probably. She made a mental note to speak to him about it. That's what I need. She was bleary with approaching sleep: I don't need more net, more full-surround realism, more pictures and sounds.
I just need more time. Xabbu contemplated the apparently distant white walls of the simulation. You say this is not a real place? She turned to face him. Even though she herself was only vaguely human in appearance, beginners were comforted by retaining as many of the forms of normal interaction as possible. Xabbu , in this beginner's simulation, was a gray human-shaped figure with a red "X" across his chest.
Even though the "X" was a normal part of the simuloid, Renie had inscribed a complementary scarlet "R" across her own figure—again, anything to make the transition easier.
Please don't be offended if I tell you something that seems very obvious. Xabbu's simuloid had no face, hence no facial expression, but his voice was light.
And I know I am an odd case, but there is no net access in the Okavango Swamps. Please teach me what you would teach a child. Again Renie wondered what! Xabbu wasn't telling her. It had become clear in the past few weeks that he had some kind of weird connections—no one else would be jumped into the Polytechnic's advanced networker program without any background.
But he was smart—very smart: Then again, she thought, how long would I survive naked and unarmed in the Kalahari? Not bloody long. There was still more to living in the world than net skills. You know the basics about computers and information processing.
Now, when you say 'Is this a real place? An apple is a real thing, yes? But a picture of an apple is not an apple. It looks like an apple, it makes you think about apples, you can even choose one pictured apple over another in terms of which might taste better—but you can't taste either of them.
You can't eat a picture—or at least, it isn't like eating a real apple. It's only a symbol, no matter how realistic-looking, for a real thing.
Got that? You could imagine what it would be like to go inside it, but you couldn't actually go inside it. That's because it didn't fully replicate the experience of going into a real house, with all that entails. But what if you could make something that felt like a real thing, tasted like it, smelled like it, but wasn't that thing—wasn't a 'thing' at all, but only a symbol of a thing, like a picture?
Xabbu said slowly, "where you see water, a pool of sweet water. But when you go to it, it is gone. Xabbu agreed. He seemed to be ignoring her illustration. It is hard to imagine something that is real and not real. Renie led him across the bare white floor of the simulation to the pool she had conjured. See the reflections? Now watch me. It ran out between her fingers, drizzling into the pool. Circular ripples crossed and recrossed each other. But even with what we have, this looks like water, does it not?
Moves like water? Xabbu bent and ran his gray fingers through the pool. Renie waved her hand. There are external simulation rigs so well made that not only would this move just like real water, but you would feel it, cold and wet on your skin. And then there are 'cans'—neurocannular implants—which you and I won't get to use unless we wind up working for the top government labs.
They let you pour computer-simulated sensations directly into your nervous system. If you had one of those, you could drink this water, and it would feel and taste just like the real thing. If I did not drink real water, I would die. It's a good thing to remember. A decade or two ago you used to hear about a netboy or netgirl dying every couple of weeks—too long under simulation, forgot they needed real food and real water.
Not to mention ordinary things like pressure sores. Doesn't happen much anymore—too many safeguards on the commercial products, too many restrictions and alarm routines on net access at universities and in business. Add to Cart. About Otherland 3: Also in Otherland. Also by Tad Williams.
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