Porett was rather pleased with his work. It'd taken him three
days, on and off, but he appeared to have succeeded in his aim: the link-tag
on Conley was now routed through to the comsphere-3. Naturally, the
handgrip was still important, remained something more than a mere piece
of carved wood -
Inwardly, he shuddered. It also held Elidia's focus, of course,
and fixed in the static segs of her husk. So? He lobbed it into a drawer.
The first problem he'd faced was that the nature of link matrices
ordained that he couldn't directly transfer the activation end over to the
com-3: it had to persist in the handgrip or the link would simply cease to
exist. He'd tackled that put putting a link-tag on the handgrip itself and
making the comsphere-3 its activation object; this would hopefully enable
him to chain through from there to Conley.
The second problem was that the necessary control segments
which he'd needed to splice together were almost evenly red and green, so
he couldn't prove the final sequence safe. He'd had to rip out all the
standard blue `copy' elements, and replace them with versions of a less
general (but red) one that he remembered from years back. Overall, the
final spell had been ever-so-slightly red, but then that's all he'd required to
stop its feeding back on him. Now, his other self should be able, by making
a focus, to initiate the link to the handgrip and patch from there to the
click-well. He tapped in.
His own eyes looked back at him. "Success?"
He nodded. "It's all yours, now. You want to try?"
"Guess so. I'll switch incoming calls to Caltra." He faded out.
Porett tugged at a knot in his beard. He wasn't sure whether
this was going to work. While in the crystal, he couldn't cast spells. He
could feel himself making the gestures, but nothing ever happened at the
end. He'd been resigned to that when he first wrote his personality into the
device, but a focus was different. He hoped that by making the sphere itself
a link receiver, it would be brought into his duplicate self's reality, like the
situation that arose when making com-calls. If that happened, his focus
might be meaningful, and he could link to Conley. If the plan failed, he'd
have to use his physical self, a prospect he did not relish.
He sighed. Why hadn't he put a normal tag on the second click-
well? Because Conley could have detected it, that's why. Still, he should be
safe enough, so long as Roween didn't loose her antimagic while he was
patched through. He yawned, rubbed his eyes.
When he opened them again, the com-3 was glowing green, he
tapped in. "Ready?"
"Ready. I'll try for just a few seconds, initially anyway..."
* * *
His virtual hand made a focus.
The first thing he noticed was the weight of her breasts, heavy,
unexpected. Sensations were coming in from everywhere, unscrambling as
his brain mapped them onto parts of his new body. He heard words, but
defocused before they made sense. He stared out of the com-3 at his real-
"You look dazed..."
"That was ... an experience."
"I didn't really notice, no, none I guess, nothing in here to give
conflicting signals. I think that for long sessions I should close the com-
channel, cut out all external input. Then, I can open my eyes. If you need
the sphere, you can tap in and interrupt me."
"Good idea, why didn't I think of that?" He smiled. "Want to
"I won't stay linked for too long, it's, well, disorienting. I'll
patch in for a few seconds at a time, only remain if they're talking
something interesting. I should find out where they are soon enough, I'll let
you know once I do."
"Fair enough, but try it a few more times with the call to me
still open, in case I need to do anything."
"I was planning on it." He closed his eyes. "Wish me luck!"
He was scrambling down a rubble-covered stairway, leading
into darkness. He let the first flood of extraneous sensory information ebb
over him, concentrated on what he knew would be the same. Vision,
sound, balance. There wasn't much in the gloom below, but he could hear
the rocks sliding as he made his way down, feel them cutting into his hand.
Filter out everything else, you can explore the body later, just think of sight
and hearing. No, can't ignore that rhythm, break off...
"You stayed longer that time."
"She was going down into a cellar of some kind. This is going
to take some getting used to, I'm being distracted by her physiology."
"We figured that would happen. Can you handle it?"
"From within here, I suppose so, but if it was you doing the
work, your juices would be singing by now."
"It's..." He paused. "It's maybe the link. Once I get used to it,
the effect will probably dull. But yes, it's very erotic, more so even than
husking Liddy was; it isn't even a tenth as easy to gain control of my
instincts. Best not merge until I do."
"Agreed. Ready for another attempt?"
He nodded, closed his eyes, formed a focus.
Looking back up the steps, the other girl was coming down,
unsteadily. Conley was watching Roween's feet, making sure she didn't
slip, her face wasn't clear; he knew she'd have crossed eyes, though. Did
Liddy mentioned dyed hair?
"I'll make a light," he felt himself saying. Conley breathed,
moved so effortlessly, he wanted to gasp, to savour it, couldn't. His hand
started flicking gestures, so fast he could hardly track them, never mind
follow the casting's progress. Hot hot, she's off-world, no-one's that quick!
"A storeroom, maybe?" the other girl remarked. She had an
undistinguished voice, accent maybe Cala's Inner Stretch area, flat A's. He
tried to attend to what he could see and hear, disregarded what he could
"Empty, though. There's a doorway here, looks like the wood's
rotted away." Light burst from his hand. Conley looked down at it, he
could see the source cupped there, could see her arm, his arm, elegant,
slender, sleeve rolled back and tied at the elbow. He dropped his focus."
"Better that time?"
"I'm getting used to it, but it's frustrating, amazing. It's like
she has everything physical any man ever sought in a woman, but it's so
much stronger than just looking at her, I can't ignore it. I'm really in there,
it all compounds the effect, complete. Pictures of nudes are nothing against
it, it's so strong, the suggestiveness, so true. But I can't do anything,
though, that's what irks me. I'm going to have to be practical about it, but
"Any idea where they are?"
"No - looks like some old castle. I'll try again."
The corridor was long, Conley's light didn't reach either end.
There was another door across from theirs, and more placed in pairs
opposite each other, both directions.
"Is that writing? Hold up the light?"
He raised his arm, strained to read. Didn't she have night
lenses? Roween must have blotted them. Just a number.
"Looks like we've found the old storage area, Con. Well,
you're the explorer, which way do we go?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. It was so smooth, so fine,
silky. "I don't think it matters really, let's try to the left."
They walked to the next pair of doors. Porett felt an unwilling
pawn, his hips swinging with Conley's easy movement, bound by her
whims, her will. He could now make sense of all the sensory input
incoming, his subconscious mind somehow able to build a usable spatial
map of Conley's physique. That the human brain was capable of such feats
never ceased to dismay him, but it bothered him considerably more that in
the comsphere-3 he didn't actually have a brain, he was a projection in
glass, nothing more. He noted that he felt little different "down below", as
he'd have phrased it, just a mite shrunken and static. Perhaps his ersatz
brain was sparing the deeper, more primitive parts of his emotional make-
up from such potentially grievous information?
He didn't know whether he was deeply attracted to Conley, or
to being Conley. He suspected the latter; everything he'd desired in women
he now had himself, at least by proxy. He let his concentration wander,
searching her body with his thoughts, his awareness spreading through her.
Her legs, lithe beneath loose breeches; her waist, slim, curving, high, so
different from his own. He wished he could control her movements, wanted
her to brush the soft skin of her face with her hands, his hands, running
gently across her lips.
He opened his eyes, broke the link, flashed green to the outer
"There a problem?"
"I'm going to have to think about this for a while. It's opening
too many doors that are better closed."
"Should we merge?"
"Definitely not!" He disengaged the sphere.
What was his problem? If he could specify it, maybe he could
properly address it. Well, it was what he'd suspected that it would be
originally, why he'd made Liddy use the link. At the time, he'd feared that
he might actually enjoy being one with Conley, and that it might awaken
within him certain urges, urges that he did not wish to have thrust unbidden
upon him. In practice, though, it was far worse than that, because sure
enough he was getting aroused from the link, but he had no body of his
own. Conley's could not react in any way to his heightening excitement,
and he could envisage himself becoming increasingly tormented at having
At the Academy, Porett had always been obsessed by all things
magic. He was one of a small group of like-minded students who'd spent
all their spare time cutting: delving into every aspect of the subject,
knowing the ins and outs of anything plausibly relevant to the business of
casting spells, from first principles up. Experimenting with new gestures,
risking unproven spells because they "felt" like they should work; he
sighed, those were fun days. He and the other cutters had spurned the usual
kind of undergraduate activities - going on shot-binges, cooking savoury
Ilathic food, politics, dating one another. It was just something cutters
didn't do, even the female ones. Hot, he remembered the day some goof
from one of the History colleges had made a pass at Roenna, she'd looked
at him like he'd asked her to eat eighteen sticks of chalk.
He chuckled. He'd never understood why it was like that, but it
just was. Cutters enjoyed having control, and bringing other people into
your life at that kind of level meant losing it. Fantasising about girls beyond
his reach, well, that was fair enough - he guessed the other cutters did
similar things, too, but no-one ever talked about it, gauche in their circle.
This patching in to Conley, though, was way beyond fantasy. It
was living her. Too tangible - it was undoing all his carefully-maintained
repression. If he did merge with himself, then once back in his physical
body he'd be suffering again, having the memory of being Conley - and
once more the means to deal with it - but not having the immediacy of the
actual stimulus itself. He might even be tempted to link directly from there.
There was no time for that kind of indulgence, he had a business to run,
status to maintain, an edge. Besides, he was becoming increasingly aware
that it could become very addictive. He wanted to share her again right
And the merge itself could prove traumatic. It was often
confusing for a while when his two halves had different ideas and opinions
on certain subjects. If he merged back now, he'd be bringing on board an
expanded emotional apparatus that would clash with what his real-world
self was using.
So what alternatives did he have? Merge now, before it was too
late, so his other self would know the score? No, he'd gone over-far
already. Never merge ever again? Dangerous - merging was the only reason
his real-life persona tolerated a copy in the com-3; he could use it to justify
to himself that his dual existence merely implied an extension of his
personality, not the creation of a different individual. He had to be able to
trust his comsphere counterpart.
The only viable solution was deliberate suicide, for this merging
at least. He found it disturbing to think of it that way, but it was a fair
representation of the truth. His experiences linking to Conley had developed
his psyche in a direction which made him a different person to the Porett
outside, distinct. If he merged, he'd live on, but if he didn't then that
would be the end of him as he now was. He was sacrificing his existence to
spare his corporeal self the details of his knowledge. Could he perhaps live
as before, knowing what he did? Yes, but life wouldn't be as good. Better
than no life at all? Depravity beckoned.
He remembered what he'd decided when he first started using
the com-3. If ever there was any conflict of interests, the real-world self
took precedence. The com-Porett was completely subservient, and should
always do whatever was in the best interests of his physical being. If he did
merge as he now was, he'd be very angry with himself for doing so.
Schizophrenia was something that had always haunted him about fusing into
one his double identity.
He determined his fate, flashed on the comsphere. "I'm going
to continue to link to Conley until I can find out what we want to know. I'll
tell you, then explain a few things about what it's like linking to her, so
you'll know in future. When I've finished, I want you to overwrite me, re-
initialise the com-3: you don't want to have memories of what it feels like
He broke off again before the other Porett could reply.
* * *
"all the others." His slotting back into Conley's form was by
now almost natural.
"Well, we have plenty of time, and at least there are no rats
"Something that's been nagging at me, Ro." When Conley
spoke, there was a sort of reverberating in his head of her words. It took a
little getting used to, her voice was pitched octaves above his own. "I
thought we were in a hurry to reach Liagh Na Laerich?" Liagh Na what?
Oh, in Elet, right.
"That's true, we were, but we can tarry awhile now." Roween's
flat tones echoed from the bare, stone walls of the empty room. Conley was
looking at her, and he could see those strange eyes. He wondered what it
might be like to see through a squint like that; probably intolerable -
Roween's brain would blank away images from a lazy eye, but he'd see
"We didn't take it slowly before we got here," he said, "we
were even on schedule to reach the coast a day earlier than we'd reckoned.
We raced alongside those refugees, and now, just when we are almost
ahead of them, you sidetrack to this monastery." He could feel a wheezing
in his chest, coughed.
"Let's go outside, talk about it. There's nothing down here."
Roween put her hand on the small of his back, slid it to the
nearside of his waist. Hot! He waited for the rush of adrenaline, but
nothing came. It wouldn't, would it... What he regarded as erotica, Conley
held to be commonplace. Why do women touch one another so much?
Down the corridor, outside, up a clearer flight of steps in a
room they must have found when he wasn't patched in. He revelled in
Conley's fluidity, savoured every new sensation, wallowed in her being. He
had nothing to lose, he'd cease to be in a while, he may as well enjoy his
liberation of (to?) desire.
"So, are you going to tell me?" he asked.
Roween was looking down as she walked. "We've run enough.
I thought we'd wait for the displacees and their herders to pass by, then
head up north again, catch us a boat. There'll be local ferries to Bleuchurt,
from there we can take a timetabled service to Bridges."
Conley was nodding through all this, he'd noticed she did that a
lot while listening. A trait of hers? Of most women? Oh, how could he
hope to generalise?!
"I've been wondering about the Altinnians, too. There's a
regulated stream of them, almost in a straight line, right across the Purasan
northlands. It's like they were a river we had either to cross or let carry us
As they passed through a broken archway, Conley's hand rested
on an upright, support while she negotiated the slippery stones underfoot. It
was wet, she's going to dry it, wipe it on something! He calmed with
expectancy, her thigh perhaps? Her chest? She pulled a rag from her
pocket, used that. Another anticlimax.
Roween was still looking at her feet, avoiding the fallen blocks.
"It sounds real stupid, but I think... No, I'm imagining it."
"You suspect our presence and the stream from Altinn may be
related? Someone deliberately ousted them and drove them all this way to
try and sweep us up?"
Roween blushed. "Well, I might, it's just a thought, not really
likely or anything, its chances of success would be too small for anyone
seriously to attempt it..."
"But there's no harm in staying here until it blows over, in case
it really is a trap?"
"Well... It's - you're so noticeable, so pretty, if anyone had
Conley stopped, looked over her shoulder. She flicked back her
hair, so soft, so light. Porett was beginning to hate himself for his
indulgence. "I'm so - ? Sorry, didn't mean that, I'll run with your theory.
How long do we wait?"
The lingering ache of his impotence had grown too much.
"Two weeks enough?"
* * *
"You think you have enough to find them?" he asked from the
"Derelict monastery, northeast Purian country, in Ansle's
refugee stream. No problem, you know that."
"You want me to contact Ansle, find the precise route the
Altinnians are taking?"
"No, I'll do all that when I supersede you."
"Best get it over with, then." I'm going to die.
"I'm already making the gestures..."