by Miriam English

Night. The sky churns with dark clouds that glow forbiddingly red within like vast hot coals. Distant sheet lightning flickers and flashes and rumbles almost continually. It outlines a huge dark castle not far away. How very clichéd, Zoe thinks to herself as she looks around. Her other self agrees.

Nothing alive -- just bare wet rock and mud. Wait... there seem to be worm-like things, about finger thickness, sliding in the mud. It is hard to make out in the darkness, but at times they look like they have legs. Oww! And pincers! She sees now that there are thousands of them in the mud around her, streaming toward her. Obviously this is contrived to keep visitors moving.

She trudges as best she can through the muddy puddles and the cold drizzling rain toward the castle.

What a dismal scene. This world shouts of a disturbed mind. Zoe can "see" the programs around her that ensure that this world is always like this. Her special ability to understand and manipulate the fabric of virtual worlds enables her to see the pain and discomfort that are the motive behind this world. Her mind can directly apprehend the structure of data and programs that are a virtual world. Where others see only shapes and color and movement she sees data geometry, attributes, programmed sequences and their dependencies. She doesn't need to read the source code to understand it, just as someone with perfect pitch doesn't need to read the musical score to know the key. She is a prodigy.

But she is unwilling to show her capabilities just yet. She doesn't know yet how powerful he might be. He built this world and maintains it and she must not underestimate him. She must maintain the appearance of hapless victim. This is what he preys upon. She plays the bait.

Her friend Viv had stumbled across the mechanism by accident, and had sought Zoe's advice. It was a program hidden in a worldlink that seemed to duplicate people who passed through it. The odd thing was that only one person came out the other side of the link. Further investigation turned up a very nasty bit of information: the creator of this mechanism called himself Bloodstorm. He had disappeared without a trace decades ago during the first wave of emigration to VR. Nobody had missed him.

Bloodstorm was a creep who had been connected with some terrible acts of torture. He was a sadist of the worst kind. There have always been sadists, but most are good and respectable people who maintain self-control in their sexual proclivities. Not Bloodstorm.

Zoe had decided that the only way to investigate this was to jump through the link to this world -- his world, hidden from normal view -- with a secret link to the other copy of herself outside.

A blue glow lights the courtyard beyond the castle's entry arch. As she approaches she can make out that it is a man, luminous with pale blue light. On either side of him are bedraggled forms -- people on hands and knees with forheads to the wet ground. Blue guy had to be the Bloodstorm jerk. Well, at least finding him was easy.

Zoe stops before him. She figures she will play along until she knows more. "Can you tell me where I am?"

The jerk smiles a cat-with-canary smile. "I am Lord Bloodstorm, and you are in hell." (Gee, doesn't this guy have any idea of how cornball this is?) He raises his hand and Zoe suddenly has heavy, metal manacles around her wrists and ankles and a thick, spiked collar around her neck joined by a chain with links the size of her hands. She lets it weigh her down pretending she can't throw it off, but keeps her eyes on him.

"This is a joke right?" Zoe asks.

He turns and beckons with an imperious wave. The two slaves flanking him rise and grab Zoe's chains, following him as he leads into the castle. Inside, it is just as uncomfortably cold as outside and stinks with a sharp smell that Zoe can't identify. She is led down into subterranean corridors to a large, wet dungeon divided into many cages populated by unkempt people. Zoe is pushed roughly into one and it is locked behind her. Bloodstorm then leaves, followed by his slaves.

Zoe notices that she is hungry. How strange! She hasn't felt that in almost a century! So he has quite a lot of control over this world.

Zoe turns to the poor, emaciated, grubby person in the cage next to her's. "Hi, I'm Zoe."

The woman looks at her for a while then down at the muddy floor. When she speaks she sounds tired and broken. "I'm sorry you've come here. There's no way out again. You can't even die unless Lord Bloodstorm decides it... and you will wish for death." She has large scars and cuts that can be seen through her ragged clothing.

"Has anybody ever escaped?"

"And go where? There is nothing out there; just rain and mud. And we need to eat in this world. The only food is here in the castle. If you try to eat the mud-biters you become sick. Nobody can defy him... you'll learn that. He takes pleasure in breaking people."

Zoe smiles warmly and reaches through the bars to lay her hand on the other woman's arm. "Well, we'll see if we can't fix that, huh?" Zoe changes part of the program about her and the chains vanish, then she walks through the bars as they evaporate. She floods the dungeon with warmth and it is suddenly dry. All the people who had previously been wetly huddled in corners of their cages are now dry and clean and dressed in soft, warm gowns.

The stunned silence is broken by a crack of thunder and a collective gasp from the abductees as Bloodstorm appears in the dungeon on the landing of the stairs, scowling with contempt. He theatrically raises his arm at Zoe and the air shimmers between them. (Wow, how predictable is he!)

Zoe neutralises it and puts a transparent shell around all the people in the dungeon to protect them. Now she turnes all her attention on the bad guy.

He is furious and trying all he knows to trap and subdue her. He is theatrically waving his arms and throwing bolts of energy and shouting "spells". Zoe deflects and nullifies these easily. Meanwhile, she probes his program and notices something odd. His mind is modified slightly. "Hmmmm," she says, thinking aloud, "I couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy a place like this for long; the titillation would lessen with time. You worked out how to remove the boredom so it would always be fresh for you." She turns her mind to the others in the room. "But not for them, I see." She has been finding all the program controls he has linked in to his mind.

Bloodstorm is clearly torn between fury and astonisment, and pauses for a moment.

Suddenly great rips and tears appear in Zoe's torso and she gasps as blood spurts from the wounds. The invisible attack violently dismembers her and she falls to the floor in pieces as the people in the room back away in fear and the Lord Bloodstorm steps forward triumphantly raising his arms, clearly about to deliver the final blow... there is a flicker and Zoe is standing undamaged as she had been, and Bloodstorm and all the other people are again in the positions they'd occupied some seconds ago. The protective shell has disappeared.

"Huh??" is all Bloodstorm can say.

Zoe, annoyed that she'd had to use a saved-positions ploy and trembling at the echoes of pain, deletes all the program controls she'd found that let him manipulate his world. "I am so tempted to squash you like the bug you are," she growls.

Zoe, angry and defending against Bloodstorm

He can't do any of his "magic" tricks anymore. He yells furiously and incoherently.

Zoe mutters, "Oh shut up." And he can't utter a sound.

He runs at Zoe, intending to attack her physically, but just runs through her. In surprise and frustration he strikes at one of the nearer abductees who tries to twist out of harm's way. She needn't have bothered. Bloodstorm's arm whisks harmlessly through her as if she was a ghost. Now he backs away from them and trips over the bottom step. He lands heavily, and terrible realisation spreads across his face: he can feel pain.

Zoe turns to all the others in the room, who look as confused as Bloodstorm. Silence. They are obviously unsure of whether someone so powerful can be trusted -- not surprising, considering what life under Bloodstorm must have been like. Zoe smiles, "Relax, I'm here to get you out. First we need to work out a couple of things."

She sits, cross-legged on the dry and carpetted floor. "Now, you folks don't realise it, but when you jumped through the world-link and were abducted, at the same time you weren't. There are two of each of you. Bloodstorm managed to evade detection for so long by duplicating people who used the link and abducting one of them. The mechanism was only found by accident.

"This is going to seem like a silly question, but do you want to go back? I am a duplicate too and I have been sharing what I have learned with my other self (we have a communication link). When this is finished I shall terminate myself... or rather this branch of me." She frowns, "What it felt like to be torn apart will disappear with me. I don't care to be plagued by that." She looks up at the others in the room, "For most of you, your other selves have been living happy lives in other worlds. Do you want to burden them with what you have experienced?"

One slender man haltingly answers, "I don't know about everybody else, but to have survived through all this and give up now seems a waste. I want to leave here and live."

Zoe points out, "You realise that you probably can't go back to the life you had -- your duplicate is living that and doesn't even know you exist."

An older, dark woman says, "I would like to live, but I don't want the emotional baggage of this place."

"Difficult, but can be done... but be sure you really want it. Changing the fabric of your mind is no small task, and not to be taken lightly. The ramifications of memories can be far greater than you expect."

One angry man hisses, "I want revenge."

Another chimes in "Me too!"

And several more, "He has to pay!" "He should be destroyed!"

Bloodstorm is looking very worried. He knows very well what he has put these people through.

Zoe smiles, "I don't actually believe in revenge, but I think I have a fitting solution. I have already removed all his control over this world and reasserted his ability to feel boredom. After we leave I'll delete the link to this world, effectively sealing him in."

She turns to Bloodstorm with a wicked smile, "You want this world? You can have it... forever."

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