Rainith the Red flew a long way, travelling mainly by night, navigating by the stars. By day she rested. She knew the border facing the trade route from Under Hill Market would be watched by the Elves, so headed south-east instead of directly south, hoping to pass into Elvish Wiltunscir unobserved from the West. Once there, she'd have to travel far into their territory, all the way to Forest of Ancient Oak, where she believed she'd find Noutan. She needed to travel in secret. Fairies from Mercia were not forbidden to enter Wiltunscir, but only with the approval of the Elves, and only if their business were known. A lone traveller with no reason to be there would be escorted out of the territory. Or worse, perhaps, if the Elves realised that the lone traveller was Rainith the Red, who'd killed Alavasti, the Elvish fencing-master.
Finally she reached the western borders of Wiltunscir, coming to rest in the row of ash trees by the brook that marked the boundary. Sensing no one in the area, she slipped into the forest, flying just below the level of the treetops. It was almost dawn, and she needed to find a place to hide, where she could sleep through the day. She landed in the uppermost branches of another ash tree, and looked around. There was no one in sight. As far as she could tell from her map, there were no Elvish settlements nearby. The main road running east was still some way south of here, so she hoped she might travel a long way into Wiltunscir without risk of being observed. Rainith floated down to the lower branches, disappearing into the undergrowth. She settled on a thick branch with good cover, foliage thick enough to keep her warm and hidden, but as she landed she sensed that she was being observed. She looked round quickly. There on the branch was an owl. It stood as tall as the fairy, and was staring at her suspiciously.
Rainith stared back at the owl. She thought she could sense something Elvish about it. 'Is this an owl who talks to the Elves?' she wondered.
The owl stretched its wings, preparing to take off. But by now Rainith had reached beneath her cloak, producing a short, curved fairy bow. Rainith had not used her bow for some time, but earlier in her life, while studying fencing, she'd often practiced her archery. As the owl rose in the air, she shot it with an arrow. The fairy bolt pierced the bird's heart and it fell down dead on the forest floor. Rainith fluttered after it.
'Elvish spy,' she muttered.
She kicked the owl's body under some leaves. Then she took off again, deeming it wisest to move further into the forest before finding a safe place to rest.
Mixt and Nakishdan rushed home.
'I can't believe there's a new expansion for Star Metal Planet and we didn't know about it!' Mixt turned on their Playstation while Nakishdan hurried to the kitchen to put the kettle on, and bring beer. New downloadable content meant they had a long session of their favourite game coming up, and they'd need to be well supplied.
'Look,' said Mixt, as he re-appeared. 'There's even an onscreen message for us.'
'Star Metal Mercenaries - now available for download.'
'I don't remember that ever happening before,' said Nakishdan. 'Our own personal message.'
'They must know we really like the game.' Mixt pressed the link. It would take some time for the new content to download, even through their fast connection. Nakishdan hurried back to the kitchen, where the kettle had now boiled, and made tea. He brought it back on a tray, with biscuits and cashew nuts, and they both sat down on the floor, their backs to the couch, and watched eagerly as the bar showing how much there was left to download slowly dwindled. Between fifty and forty percent, it seemed to go agonisingly slowly, but picked up after that.
'Here we go.' Nakishdan opened two cans of Japanese beer, one for each of them.
The splash screen opened showing a new picture of Star Metal City. In the background were a shadowy group of figures.
'Must be mercenaries.'
'Lets get them.'
Mixt pressed the button to start. Captains StarMix and StarNak were once again heading for the violent - though sometimes beautiful - world of Star Metal Planet. They were ready for anything, game-wise, but unprepared for what actually happened. Both found themselves tumbling forward in an orange tunnel of light before being dumped roughly on a patch of wasteland between two dilapidated warehouses.
'What on earth?'
'Where are we?'
Mixt looked up at the twin yellow suns. 'We're in the game.'
'We're in Star Metal City. Look at the suns.'
'How can we be? It's a game. It doesn't really exist.'
They looked round in confusion.
'Did we miss thirty years or something? Has complete virtual reality been invented now?'
'I don't think so…'
'This is not good. How do we get out?'
'I don't know.' Mixt looked down at her chest. 'Hey, I'm still female.'
'Usually I'm male in the game. But I'm still female. And you're still male. Mixt looked at her sleeve. She was wearing the same clothes she'd been wearing at home, but there was now a small device on her wrist, apparently a real-life version of the equipment control normally used during the game. She pressed a button. A transparent screen appeared in front of her. It was blank,
'We don't have any weapons. Or armour. Or shielding. Or money or food. What will we do?'
'Run,' said Nakishdan.
'Because there's a gang of mercenaries coming round that corner and they're pointing laser rifles at us.'
Mixt and Nakishdan fled round the corner. They'd been pitched into a new reality and before they even had a chance to find their feet they found themselves pursued by deadly mercenaries. Making it worse, they were unarmed. Both knew they didn't stand a chance if the mercenaries caught up with them. They found themselves in small street with a few small shops. Nakishdan noticed a sign in a window.
Anti gravity boots
'This way!' he yelled, and dragged Mixt down a small alley at the side of the shop.
''This looks like a dead end!' protested Mixt. She didn't recognise the alley but was experienced enough in the world of Star Metal Planet to know that these small lanes often led nowhere. Nakishdan didn't reply. He kept on running. Mixt kept pace with him, hoping he knew what he was doing. There was a turning in the alley. As they raced round Mixt saw that it was indeed a dead end.
'Damn it, Nakishdan - '
Nakishdan rushed to a small metal container at the end of the alleyway. He yanked it open. Inside were two laser pistols.
Mixt was baffled. 'How did - ?'
'I'll tell you later!'
They each took a laser pistol then flung themselves to the ground, taking what cover they could from metal container. They barely had time to load their weapons before the mercenaries rounded the corner. They came round carelessly, apparently not expecting to face armed opposition. Mixt and Nakishdan opened fire. Both had played Star Metal Planet for weeks at a time, sometimes spending whole days in front of their games machine. It seemed that some of their acquired skills had transferred over. They cut down the mercenaries, their laser pistols piercing their shielding. Two fell immediately and the following pair lasted only a few seconds.
Mixt rose to her feet. She still didn't understand quite what was going on but she wasn't about to let their advantage slip. She sprinted towards the mercenaries' bodies, opening her wrist-screen on the way. As she reached them she saw, to her satisfaction, that the mechanics of goods transferal seemed to work the same in this reality as it had in the game. Displayed on her screen were all the items belonging to the mercenaries. Mixt and Nakishdan could now take them, which they did. Moments later they were dressed in level one mercenary uniforms, with some shielding and armouring. There were more laser pistols, two laser rifles, a lot of ammunition, and several health packs.
'That feels better,' said Nakishdan. 'Let's go.'
As they left the alleyway the mercenaries' bodies vanished. Whether they'd been real people or not, they couldn't tell.
'How did you know where to find laser pistols?'
'I dreamed I was here when I was in hospital. Some sort of vision. I hid the pistols then.'
'That doesn't make much sense,' said Mixt. 'But well done anyway.'
'Where should we go?'
'Somewhere safer. No one survives long in the streets in Star Metal City.'
Geeda Lala was finding life stressful in 1971. Fourteen Trees, Six Trees, and Two Rays of Sunlight were hopelessly in thrall to Marc Bolan. All they talked about was T Rex, their music, and how good-looking Marc Bolan was. On the day of the gig at the Roundhouse, their squat was in chaos as all three spent hours rushing round getting ready, applying and re-applying glitter make-up, trying on and discarding outfits, tottering around in platform boots and hot pants and trying to copy hairstyles from the teen glam magazines which were strewn all over the floor. Electric Warrior was playing on the record player, as it had been all day. This record player, a Dansette portable, had at first been scorned by the Kesh girls who regarded it as the most primitive thing they'd ever seen, but they'd rapidly grown to like it and were now adept in stacking up T Rex albums or singles on the spindle, to drop down and play one after the other.
Beneath the Mambo Sun
I got to be the one
with you ooh with you
The girls sang along. Geeda Lala gritted her teeth. She'd liked the album when they first bought it but hearing it on repeat every day had started to grate. She'd considered not going to the gig but she didn't trust her companions to act responsibly. Left on their own there was no telling what might happen. Even Fourteen Trees, previously a responsible friend apart from her occasional chocolate binges, seemed to have lost her mind. She, like her friends, had never encountered teen idols on their homeworld. Now they had, they'd been smitten badly.
Girl I'm just a jeepster for your lo - o - o ve
Girl I'm just a vampire for your lo - o o ve
'Isn't Jeepster the best song ever?' yelled Six Trees, passing through the living room with an armful of clothes.
'I liked it the first ninety or so times you played it,' muttered Geeda Lala. She tried to check her bad temper. After all, her friends were enjoying themselves. Given their stressful situation, hiding from 102 Woo, that wasn't such a bad thing. As long as they didn't do anything foolish enough to give their location away, she supposed it didn't matter if they all went insane about T Rex for a while.
Geeda thought about her friend Rainith. She wondered what the fairy would have made of Marc Bolan. Would she have hated him, like she hated all the sixties and seventies progressive rock? Or would she have looked on him more kindly? She hoped Rainith was all right, though she feared the worst, knowing she'd gone back to her own time to deliberately walk into danger, looking for revenge.
You're dirty sweet and you're my girl
Get It On, Bang a gong, Get It On
Geeda noticed an old brown envelope on the floor. Dropped by the girls, no doubt, who were quite messy around the flat. She saw that it had handwriting on it. She frowned, and studied the rows of mathematical symbols. Her eyes widened in alarm.
Geeda hurtled into the kitchen where Fourteen, Six and Two were struggling for space at the table with their make-up and small mirrors. 'What's this?' she brandished the envelope. Six Trees and Two Rays of Sunlight immediately looked guilty.
'What is it?' asked Fourteen Trees.
'Historical mathematics! Calculations for making currency! They've been manufacturing money to buy all this stuff and hiding it from us!'
'No we haven't.' said Six Trees and Two Rays of Sunlight.
'Yes you have! You worked it out on the back of an envelope!' Geeda Lala brandished the offending envelope. Fourteen Trees studied it.
''Why did you do this?'
'You'd have found out if we used our screens.'
'And we needed money for stuff.'
Fourteen Trees looked uneasy. While she'd been caught up in the T Rex mania she wasn't as irresponsible as her young companions.
'This is bad. 102 Woo are looking for any temporal disturbance.'
'We were careful,' protested Six Trees. '102 Woo won't have noticed.'
At that moment there was the sound of the front door breaking down and heavy footsteps rushing into the squat.
'Eliminate everyone!' came the familia voice of Captain Lir.