47 Jeng's emergency escape pod hung motionless in the void. Fourteen Trees worked on her calculations. Geeda Lala sat in a chair formed by a blue force field, worrying about her erstwhile companions. Though she'd spent her time trying to avoid the attentions of Mixt and Nakishdan, she didn't dislike them. She appreciated the way they'd helped her though dangerous encounters. She wondered where they were, and hoped they were safe.
She was more worried about Rainith. The fairy could look after herself, but she was so rash. Her desire for revenge and her refusal to compromise was bound to lead her into danger. Rainith wouldn't retreat if threatened. Whatever happened, she'd keep on going, and probably be killed. Geeda sighed. She remembered the first time she'd seen Rainith. It was in 1980, at a gig in the University of London Union. Geeda had enjoyed all the punk gigs she'd come to the late 70s to see, and stayed on, intrigued by what came next. The post-punk years had thrown up a lot of strange sounds. Some enjoyable, some not so enjoyable. A band called Mass had been playing at the student union and she'd not been sure what to make of them. As they played a long, tortuous version of their song Fuck All Here To Cheer For, the student audience hung back, puzzled by the unusual noise.
There's fuck all here to cheer for, intoned the singer, many times, over a slow, grinding riff laced with feedback. Geeda looked round, wondering if it might be a good time to go to the bar for another drink. Some way to the side, she noticed a small woman with long red hair. Geeda, an outsider in this world, saw that there was something other-worldly about her. As Geeda watched, the woman with long red hair started an argument with a young man who had a lot of blond hair and a kimono. Geeda backed away, troubled. Since fleeing here she hadn't encountered anyone who didn't belong in this world. She'd thought she was safe from pursuit, but now she wasn't so sure.
Onstage the singer, in a long black coat and a battered top-hat, was still singing the same song. There's fuck all here to cheer for. The guitar ground on, an endless three note riff.
'Not going out their way to entertain the audience,' mused Geeda. She'd come here because last year she'd enjoyed seeing Rema Rema at the Acklam Hall in West London, and knew that some of the same people were involved. Even so she left the gig early, not wanting to encounter the red-haired woman. She was suspicious of her and her companions, though she didn't learn till later that they'd all been sent back to look for her.
She turned to Fourteen Trees. 'Can you find Rainith?'
Fourteen Trees shook her head. 'No. I don't understand why not. From here I should be able to trace anyone, anywhere. But the Fairies and Elves are hidden. Whatever dimension they exist in, we can't see it.'
'Oh.' Geeda was disappointed, and still worried.
'Do you want me to look for Mixt and Nakishdan?'
Walking down Andromeda Street with Mixt, Nakishdan was annoyed, and showed it. Mixt quickly became irritated.
'Will you stop scuffing your feet, sighing, kicking stones, scowling and generally doing everything possible to express displeasure?'
Nakishdan kicked an old tin can out from under his feet. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'You've been sulking since we left the shop.'
'No I haven't.'
'Yes you have! Just because you couldn't buy a new outfit! We couldn't afford it, we needed to upgrade our weapons.'
Nakishdan paused to look at himself in a shop window. 'I hate this basic combat armour. It's too bulky. I look misshapen.'
'You look fine. Come on.'
They carried on. Above them flew several small advertising drones. All around were aliens, mainly blue-skinned. They were basically humanoid, but there were a few stranger creatures as well. Mixt and Nakishdan recognised them all from the game they'd played, and had now been thrust into.
Mixt paused to take her bearings. 'I recognise this junction. The Asteroid Tavern should be just round the corner.'
'I don't want to go there.'
'We need information. You wanted to talk to the barmaid.'
'That was before you made me wear this terrible outfit.'
'For goodness sake, Nakishdan!' Mixt was exasperated. 'Could you stop being unbelievably vain for one minute?'
'It's not vain to want to be wearing a better outfit before I talk to the barmaid.'
'That's exactly what vanity is!'
To his distress, Nakishdan had found that his normal powers weren't working in their new environment. Had they been, he might have been able to psychically alter his clothes, but as it was he was stuck with the basic combat armour, and not at all pleased. Mixt was focused on survival, and rapidly losing patience with him. 'I didn't realise your vanity had actually reached mental illness proportions. When we get back home I'm telling our therapist.'
'That's just the sort of sneaky thing you'd do,' said Nakishdan. 'To divert attention from your own multiple mental problems.'
They were taken by surprise by a brief flash of yellow light. They reached for their laser pistols but halted when they saw Fourteen Trees and Geeda Lala grinning at them.
'Hi,' said Geeda. 'We've come to help.'
'How did you get here?'
'Fourteen's mathematical brilliance.'
'Can you get us out?'
Before Geeda Lala could answer there was another flash of light, this time accompanied by an explosion. There was screaming in the street, and the sound of gunfire.
'Mercenaries!' yelled Mixt. 'Take cover.' They dived behind the only available cover, a large silver hover car parked outside a weapons shop. 'Stay down,' Mixt ordered Fourteen Trees and Geeda. 'Let us deal with them.'
Weapons drawn, Mixt and Nakishdan cautiously peered over the top of the hover car. They were both very experienced in street warfare in Star Metal City, having spent so many hours playing the game. Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees lay on the ground. Fourteen looked quite young and scared as the gunfire erupted over their heads. 'This doesn't seem like a very nice place.'
Geeda nodded. 'Fuck all here to cheer for,' she muttered.
Rainith the Red knew she was in a dangerous predicament. It would surely not take the Elves of Wiltunscir long to discover the bodies. She needed to travel a long distance quickly to elude capture but was unable to fly until her wing healed. The Fairy King's special nectar would repair the damage but she couldn't afford to wait. She hurried back down to the River Bless. There she selected an old tree branch and used her sword to hack off most of the twigs. She pushed it into the water, then lay on the branch, paddling with her hands. The current was not especially fast but she made steady progress downriver. This would take her some way in the wrong direction but it might be enough to shake off pursuit. If she were fortunate it might confuse any trackers. Following a fairy who did not want to be found was not easy, and following her over water would be particularly difficult. The River Bless would disperse her aura.
Rainith paddled through the night, travelling north with the current. At one point she sensed Elves on the riverbank, not far away, but she drew her makeshift raft close to the tall reeds at the side of the river, and slipped past silently, unobserved.
Rainith hadn't entirely forgotten the unexpectedly powerful memory of her mother. It still made her feel uncomfortable. Worse, it had brought on another memory. She thought she remembered playing with fairy children on the riverbank. She couldn't say for sure if that was a real memory or not. As far as she could recall clearly, she hadn't had any friends when she was a child. Had she? Now she wasn't sure. She tried to banish all memories, true or false, annoyed to be distracted when she wanted to concentrate on killing Noutan.
When the sun came up she drew her craft into hiding in the reeds and slipped into the trees to hide, satisfied that she'd managed to travel along way. With luck, she'd have avoided pursuit.
Some way to the south an Elvish Council had convened for an emergency meeting. They were alarmed by the invasion of their territory by a hostile fairy, one who'd already killed an owl and two Elves. Despite the best efforts of their trackers the fairy had eluded them, and they didn't know where she was. Orders were sent out to all parts of Wiltunscir, instructing the Elves to look for her, and to be on guard for intruders.
There was a furious battle on the streets of Star Metal city with laser fire and plasma grenades lighting up the streets. Fourteen Trees and Geeda Lala kept their heads down but as Geeda dared to glance up for a moment, she was surprised to see that Mixt and Nakishdan seemed to be doing very well. She was impressed by the way they remained in cover behind the hover car before rising very briefly to fire at their opponents, then taking cover again. Despite the danger, both seemed quite calm.
'Rooftop on the right,' Nakishdan said.
'I see him,' replied Mixt.
There was a whining sound of laser fire.
'Two more sneaking up next to that alley.'
'Target the car.'
There was more laser fire, followed by a tremendous explosion as a vehicle exploded. After that there was silence.
'I think we got them all.'
Nakishdan and Mixt peered out from their protection. Mixt stood up 'All gone. Geeda, Fourteen, you can come out now, we should get moving.'
Fourteen Trees scrambled to her feet. 'How did you do that?'
'Defeat all these mercenaries?'
'We've got a lot of experience,' said Nakishdan.
'But that's in a game. This is real life. Or something like it.'
'It seems the same,' said Mixt.
Geeda Lala rose very cautiously. 'Are these real people you killed?'
'Don't think so. Half of the bodies disappeared when we shot them.'
Despite that, Geeda noticed that there were still quite a few bodies strewn around, victims of Mixt and Nakishdan's deadly laser fire.
'What about them?'
'They have loot. Which we're going to collect right now.'
Mixt and Nakishdan hurried forward, stopping by each body and opening the small screens that appeared above their wrists. They emptied the inventories of the fallen mercenaries, taking weapons, ammunition, credits and medical packs. Fourteen Trees noticed that after each body was looted, it too soon vanished.
'We sell this, upgrade our stuff then get back to our hotel where we're safe,' said Mixt. 'Then we figure out what to do. Do you know how this happened?"
'Mathematician Girsin,' said Fourteen Trees. 'He made this simulation.'
'Can you get us out?"
Fourteen Trees shook her head. 'Not yet. It's completely closed off. Maybe I can figure something out.'
They headed off, back down the street.
'We got a good bundle from these mercenaries.' Nakishdan sounded cheerful. 'Should sell for a lot. I can get a better outfit.'
'You must have been really good at playing this game,' said Geeda Lala.
'We were,' agreed Mixt. 'Though we were always handicapped by Nakishdan's vanity.' She turned to Nakishdan. 'Before you go spending our money on some ludicrous costume, we'll need to buy armour and shielding for Geeda and Fourteen. They're not going to survive here without it.'
Nakishdan scowled. 'I'm not going to survive either if I have to keep wearing this stupid basic combat armour. It just doesn't suit me.'
'I think it looks good,' said Geeda Lala. 'Strong and warrior-like.'
Nakishdan, who liked nothing better than for his clothes to be complimented, was mollified a little, but still hoped they'd have enough credits to upgrade after they'd bought apparel for their companions. Mixt was right: Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees did need better protection if they were to survive. So far they'd faced mercenaries, but these low-ranking foes were only a minor threat compared to some of the enemies they'd run into in the dangerous world of Star Metal Planet.