Virtual mode, p.1
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       Virtual Mode, p.1

           Piers Anthony
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Virtual Mode

  Virtual Mode

  Book 1

  The Mode Series

  Piers Anthony

  Copyright © 1991

  Cover art by Daniel R. Horne

  ISBN: 0-441-86503-8

















  COLENE had a study hall during the last period, and as an Honor student she had a regular hall pass. RHIP, she thought: Rank Hath Its Privileges. She smiled marginally, remembering a cartoon she had seen: two gravestones, one plain, one quite fancy. The plain one was lettered RIP, the fancy one RHIP. She liked the notion. No one challenged her as she got up and walked out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom.

  She was in luck: it was empty at the moment. She went into the farthest stall, closed and latched the swinging door, lifted her skirt, took down her panties, and sat on the seat. But she did not actually use the toilet. Instead she held up her left arm, and used her right hand to unwrap the winding around her left wrist. It was a style only a few girls affected: bright red cloth on both wrists, complementing her blue skirt and yellow blouse. It was attractive, of course, and Colene preferred to be aesthetic, but it was more than that.

  For as the band came loose, her wrist showed, horribly scarred. There were welts all across the inner side, some old and white, others fresh and raw. She gazed at it with mixed awe and loathing. She was artistic and creative as well as smart, but this was none of these things. This was closer to' her real nature, ugly and dull and tragic, that had to be hidden from others.

  Then she reached down to fetch her compass from her purse. A knife would have been better, but might also have brought suspicion on her. She lifted the point, set it against her wrist, and made a sudden, sharp slice across. "Oh!" she exclaimed as the pain came. She hated the pain, but it was the only way. Maybe she could get a small, sharp knife, seemingly decorative and harmless, that would cut almost painlessly, and deeper. If she had the nerve. The nerve was not in the cutting, but in the acquisition; if anyone saw her with the blade out, and asked...

  The scratch was stinging, but only a bit of blood was showing. She clenched her teeth and made another pass, in the same track, harder. This time the surge of pain was rewarded by some real blood. It welled out and flowed slowly across her wrist. It was beautiful, like a rich red river wending across a desolate terrain.

  She spread her legs and nudged back on the toilet, so that she had more space in front. She angled her wrist so that the blood could drip directly into the water below. The first drop gathered itself, bunched, and finally let go. It struck the water and spread out, losing its identity as the water diluted it. It was dying.

  Dying. There was the thought that counted. Oh to fall like that drop into the water, and dissolve, and dissipate, and be no more. Just to fade away, forgotten.

  Drop by drop, coloring the water, turning it slowly pinkish. Like menstrual flow, only more vital. Menstrual flow was associated with life, or potential life. This was associated with death, and that was infinitely more important.

  Another drop fell to the water, but this one was not red. It was a tear. That seemed fitting: blood and tears. For a man it would be blood, sweat, and tears, but it wasn't feminine to sweat, so just the blood and tears would do. Her life, gone into the water, flushed down the toilet, cleanly. Part of the problem with death was the sheer messiness of it. She didn't like mess. She liked things neat and clean and in order. If only she could find a way—

  The bathroom door opened. Instantly Colene snapped out of it. She put her wrist to her mouth, licking off the salty blood. She dropped the compass into her purse. She rebound her wrist with a practiced motion, and tucked in the end so it was tight. Then she slid forward on the toilet and used it as was its custom, taking care to make a splash so that the sound advertised the fact of her urination. There were levels and levels of concealment, and she had learned not to assume that others would get the message she intended. It had to be too obvious to miss. Nothing but pissing going on here, ma'am.

  The other girl chose another stall and settled down. She was not suspicious. Still, it was nervous business. If anyone were to catch on, Colene would just die of embarrassment. That was not the way she wanted to die!

  She stood, reassembled herself, and flushed the toilet. No blood showed; the drops had fallen cleanly into the water, leaving no giveaway stains. Yet somehow she feared that the traces were there, a guilty ambience, so that the next person who used this toilet would somehow know that a person had flirted with suicide here.

  But maybe not. A girl could have changed her tampon, and that was where the blood had come from. Not a pad, because that couldn't be flushed. A tampon would leave no evidence. Some girls used pads so as to maintain the pretense that they were virginal, but most preferred convenience, as did Colene herself. So she was covered.

  She went to a sink and washed her hands carefully. No blood showed on her wrists, thanks in part to the wrapping: red covered red. The inner layer was absorbent, and would take up the blood and help it thicken and clot. She would have to wash out the cloth at home, but she was used to that.

  Back in the study hall she brought out her compass and wiped the point on a tissue, just to be sure. Then she brought out her geometry homework, so that no one would wonder about the compass. Geometry was a snap; in fact, it was boring, because it was two-dimensional. It would have been more of a challenge in three dimensions, or four. If only they had a class in cubic geometry, or multi-dimensional constructions. Or fractals: now, there would be one she could truly sink her teeth into. Class, today we shall take our little pencil and graph paper and define the complete Mandelbrot Set.

  Colene stifled a smile. The Mandelbrot Set was said to be the most complicated object in mathematics. Even mainframe computers could not fathom the whole of it. Yet it was simply an exercise in algebra, plotted on paper. How she would love to explore that beautiful picture! To lose herself in its phenomenal and diminishing convolutions, forever and ever, Amen.

  But this was mundane school, where brains were routinely pickled in trivia. No hope here.

  As the final bell approached, Julie came to sit beside her. It was Friday, and the teacher in charge knew better than to try to keep things totally quiet in the closing minutes. As long as they didn't make a scene, they were all right.

  Julie had long yellow hair, which she liked to swirl about her face and shoulders. It was a nice complement to Colene's similar brown tresses. But in other respects they differed more widely. Julie wore glasses and braces, which made her by definition unattractive; Colene, with neither, was far more popular. That was a barrier between them, and their friendship was only nominal, because it was mutually convenient to walk home from the bus stop together.

  Actually Colene had no friends, by her definition, though many others called her friend. It was as if she had an invisible barrier around herself that kept all others at a certain distance. No one touched her heart, and her heart was lonely. She wished it could be otherwise, but the truth was that no one she knew at school was the type she cared to sincerely like and trust. Maybe she was just an intellectual snob, and she felt slightly guilty for that, but only slightly. If she ever encountered someone with really solid intelligence and integrity, someone she could truly admire for maintaining standards she herself could not, then maybe—

bsp; "Did you hear?" Julie inquired in a breathless whisper. "The principal canceled the rally tomorrow!"

  Colene had planned on skipping the rally anyway, but she acted properly outraged. "The nerve of the nerd! Why?" "Too many Bumper Stinkers in the parking lot." Colene remembered: there had been a rash of bad-taste stickers, using four-letter words and concepts. Principal Brown had laid down the law: no more of them on the school grounds. Evidently some of the stupid high school boys had tried it anyway. The principal wasn't satisfied to punish the errant boys; he had to punish the whole school too. Actually there was reason for this: those stickers would keep reappearing until there was a climate of rejection among the students, and that would come only if all of them paid the penalty. Colene understood, but it would be traitorous to argue the case.

  "What will we do with Brown?" Julie demanded rhetorically. It was a matter of definition: no matter what happened, the principal was always wrong. That was one of the unifying principles of the student body.

  Colene glanced around, saw that the teacher in charge was not paying attention while nearby students were, and launched into one of her clever little stories. She was good at this sort of thing, and she enjoyed it in her fashion.

  "Why, we should hold a benefit for him," she said brightly.

  "A benefit?" Julie asked blankly, playing the straight man to Colene's act.

  "Yes. When he drives up in his Datsun with the tags saying OBITCH—" She paused, giving them time to put that together: DATSUN OBITCH. An expanding circle of sniggers indicated that the joke had registered. "Then we should stage a gala fund-raising extravaganza, a dunk-the-idiot benefit, with Principal Brown as the main event. Three balls for a dollar, and whoever scores on the target makes Brown fall on the biggest, loudest, smelliest whoopee cushion ever put out by the Ack-Mee Novelty Company!" She put the back of a hand to her mouth and blew the whoopee noise.

  It came out too loud. The teacher glanced quickly over at them, and they all had to stifle their laughter. Then the bell rang, saving them. That reminded Colene of a recording she had once heard at a party she wasn't supposed to attend: a "crepitation" championship match, in which the contestants broke wind in novel ways, each effort appropriately named, such as the sonorous "Follow-up Blooper" and cute little "Freeps," and the end of the round was signaled not by a bell but a flatulent horn. The school buzzer was actually more like that than a church bell.

  JULIE and Colene got off the bus and walked home. It was a pleasant neighborhood, with neat lawns, trees, and even some overgrown lots that were almost like little jungles. Drainage ditches were forming into the beginning of a stream that wound on out of the city. Colene had explored the recesses of that nascent river many times, on the assumption that there had to be something interesting there, like buried treasure or a vampire's coffin. Maybe even, O Rapturous Joy, a lost horse looking for someone to love it. But all she had ever found were weeds and mud.

  "Groan, I have to go in for X-rays tomorrow," Julie was saying. "Those damned hard ridges on the pictures always slice up my gums. I don't know why they can't make them softer."

  "Easy to fix," Colene said brightly. "Just bring the president of Code-Ack in for X-rays, and have his gums and roof-of-mouth cut up by those corners. Make him really have to chew down on them for retakes, and tell him, 'Don't be a difficult child now; those things don't hurt!' I guarantee: next day those edges would be soft as sponges."

  "Yes!" Julie agreed, heartened. "If only we could!" But they both knew that nothing that sensible would ever be done, and that sharp edges would continue to find their helpless victims. That was just the way of it. The people who manufactured things never actually used them themselves.

  As they approached Colene's house, her wandering glance spied something in the ditch. It was probably just a pile of cloth, or garbage tossed from a car; there were creeps who routinely did such things. But she felt a chill, and surge of excitement. Suppose it was something else?

  She said nothing to Julie. She wanted to check this by herself. Just in case.

  They walked on. Julie's house was beyond Colene's house, so Colene turned off. Her parents weren't home at this hour, of course; they both worked. Not that it mattered. She had ways in her imagination to glorify the empty home. She liked to pretend that the drainage ditch behind was a great river that wended its way past the most illustrious regions: the Charles. Her simple residence became a gloomy mansion on the bank of this river, where death was a familiar presence. Thus it was the Charles Mansion, a takeoff on a grim killer in a text on legal cases. Her folks wouldn't have thought that funny, and her schoolmates wouldn't have caught the allusion. That seemed to be typical of her life: she couldn't relate well to either parents or peers. But she was the only one who realized this.

  She unlocked the door and entered. She set her books on the table and walked straight on through to the back door. She unlocked that and went out, glancing back over her shoulder to make sure that there was no one to see her. It was fun being secretive, despite the fact that her whole life was pretty much an act, papering over her secret reality. She fancied that she was a princess going out to discover a fallen prince from a far land. What she would find would most likely be garbage, but for thirty seconds she could dream, and that was worth something. Even garbage might be better than tackling her stupid homework early.

  She came to the cloth, and froze. It was a man! A grown man, lying face down on the weedy bank. His clothing was strange, but it was definitely a man. Was it a corpse, thrown here by some drug gang? Such things did happen, though not in this neighborhood. Of course the neighborhood wasn't what it represented itself to be either; a lot was covered up for the sake of appearances.

  Thrilling to this morbid adventure, she approached. Death fascinated her, though she hated it. This was as good as watching her blood flow. Would the body be riddled with bullet holes?

  She remembered one of her favorite lines, from a song she could not otherwise remember. It was about some great Irish or Scottish battle, and a sore wounded soldier had staggered back from the front line. But he had not given up. "I'll lay me down and bleed a while, then up to fight again!" he declared. She knew she would have liked him. Maybe this was such a man, who had laid him down to bleed and had forgotten to get up again before overdoing it.

  Then it moved. Colene stifled her scream, for all that could do was alert the neighbors and bring a crowd, and her little adventure would be over. Cautiously she approached.

  The man lifted his head, spying her. He moved his right arm, reaching toward her. He groaned. Then he sank back, evidently too weak to do more.

  But if she stepped within reach, he might suddenly come to full life, and grab her ankle, pull her down, and rape her. It could be just a ruse to get her close. After he had his way with her, he might kill her and roll her body under the brush near the trickle of water that was the river. After several days she would be found, covered by flies, and he would be long gone.

  It was as good a way to die as any. When it came right down to it, it hardly mattered whether death was pretty or ugly; what counted was that the escape had finally been made. A certain amount of messiness could be tolerated for the sake of the novelty. She stepped deliberately within reach.

  But the man did not respond. He just lay there, breathing in shudders. Maybe he was sick with some deathly malady, and she would catch it, and die in horrible agony of a disease unknown to science.

  She squatted. "Who are you?" she asked.

  The man reacted to her voice. He lifted his head again, and uttered something alien, and sank down once more. He really did seem to be too tired to do more. He hadn't even tried to grab her ankle or to look up her skirt. He didn't look diseased, just worn out.

  That clothing was definitely strange. His language, too, was unlike anything she had heard before. Could he be a diplomat from some faraway little kingdom who somehow got off at the wrong stop and got hopelessly lost? Unable to speak the local language, perhaps with no loca
l money, he might simply be starving.

  Or he might be hideously dangerous in a way she couldn't fathom. As an innocent fourteen-year-old girl, she definitely ought to get quickly away from him and phone the police. They could handle it, whether he was a diplomat or a criminal. That was the only proper course.

  Colene felt the thrill of danger, and knew she was about to do something monumentally stupid.

  She leaned close to his ear. "You must come with me. I will help you. I will help. Do you understand?"

  His hand slid across the ground, toward the sound of her voice, the fingers twitching.

  Maybe he was dehydrated. The day had been hot, though the night would be cold; that was the way fall was in Oklahoma.

  "I'll be right back," she said.

  She straightened up, paused as dizziness took her because of the sudden change of position, then walked quickly back to her house. She went to the messy kitchen and fetched a plastic glass. She filled it water from the tap, and carried it out.

  The man had not moved. She sat down beside his head, set the water down in a snug depression, and reached for him. "I'm back," she said. "I brought you water. Can you drink it?"

  He tried to raise his head again. She put her hands on it and lifted; then she scooted on her bottom so that she could set his head in her lap. She held it tilted up, then reached for the glass. It was a stretch, and she had to lean over his head. Her bosom actually touched his hair. He did not seem to notice, but the contact sent new waves of speculation through her. Wasn't this the way the Little Mermaid had rescued the drowning prince? Holding him close, helping him survive—until he recovered and married somebody else, never realizing what he owed to the mermaid. The tragedy of not even knowing!

  She got the glass and brought it to his face, which was now propped against her front. "Water," she murmured. "Water. Drink. Water." She touched his mouth and tilted the glass.

  Suddenly he realized what it was. Eagerly he sipped. She tilted further, spilling some, but he managed to drink most of it. She had been right!

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