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“Tad Williams is the brightest and best of the fantasists.” ―Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods
Otherland. Surrounded by secrecy, it is home to the wildest dreams and darkest nightmares. Incredible amounts of money have been lavished on it. The best minds of two generations have labored to build it. And somehow, bit by bit, it is claiming the Earth's most valuable resource—its children.
Only a few have become aware of the danger. Fewer still are willing or able to take up the challenge of this perilous and seductive realm. But every age has its heroes, and unusual times call for unusual champions:
Renie Sulaweyo, a teacher and the backbone of her family, proud of her African heritage, has fought all her life simply to get by. She has never wanted to be a hero. But when her young brother is struck down by a bizarre and mysterious illness, Renie swears to save him. When people around her begin to die, she realizes she has stumbled onto something she is not meant to know, a terrifying secret from which there is no turning back.
!Xabbu is a Bushman, come to the city to learn skills which may save the spirit of his tribe. With the heart of a poet and the soul of a shaman, he will journey with Renie on this quest into the very heart of darkness.
Paul Jonas is lost, seemingly adrift in space and time. As he flees from the bloody battlefields of World War I to a castle in the sky, and onward to lands beyond imagining, he must not only evade his terrifying pursuers, but solve the terrible riddle of his own identity.
Fourteen-year-old Orlando is also the invincible barbarian Thargorm, but only in his imagination. However, youth and frailty are not enough to get you excused from saving the world.
And Mister Sellars, a strange old man on a military base, a prisoner of both the government and his own body, may be the greatest mystery of all. Is he part of The Grail Brotherhood? Does he oppose them? Or, as he sits like a spider at the center of a vast web, does he have ambitions of his own?
The answers will only be found in Otherland.
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Mister Jingo's Smile
NETFEED/NEWS: Failed Chip Leads to Murder Spree
(visual: Kashivili at arraignment in body restraints)
VO: Convict Aleksandr Kashivili's behavioral chip suffered an unexpected failure, authorities said today after the mod-paroled Kashivili-
(visual: scorched shopfront, parked fire trucks and ambulances)
-killed 17 restaurant customers in a flamethrower attack in the Serpukhov area of Greater Moscow.
(visual: Doctor Konstantin Gruhov in university office)
GRUHOV: "The technology is still in its early stages. There will be accidents. . . ."
One of the other instructors pushed open the cubicle door and leaned in. The noise of the corridor swept in with him, louder than usual.
"Again?" Renie set her pad down on the desk and picked up her bag. Remembering how many things had gone missing during the last scare, she retrieved the pad before walking into the hallway. The man who had told her-she could never remember his name, Yono Something-or-other-was several paces ahead, vanishing into the river of students and instructors moving leisurely toward the exits. She hurried to catch him.
"Every two weeks," she said. "Once a day during exams. It makes me crazy."
He smiled. He had thick glasses but nice teeth. "At least we will get some fresh air."
Within minutes the wide street in front of Durban Area Four Polytechnic had become a sort of impromptu carnival, full of laughing students glad to be out of class. One group of young men had tied their coats around their waists like skirts and were dancing atop a parked car, ignoring an older teacher's increasingly shrill orders to cease and desist.
Renie watched them with mixed feelings. She, too, could feel the lure of freedom, just as she felt the warm African sun on her arms and neck, but she also knew that she was three days behind grading term projects; if the bomb scare went on too long, she would miss a tutorial that would have to be rescheduled, eating up more of her rapidly-dwindling spare time.
Yono, or whatever his name was, grinned at the dancing students. Renie felt a surge of annoyance at his irresponsible enjoyment. "If they want to miss class," she said, "why the hell don't they just skip out? Why play a prank like this and make the rest of us-"
A flash of brilliant light turned the sky white. Renie was knocked to the ground by a brief hurricane of hot, dry air as a tremendous clap of sound shattered glass all along the school facade and shivered the windows of dozens of parked cars. She covered her head with her arms, but there was no debris, only the sound of people screaming. When she struggled to her feet, she could see no sign of injuries on the students milling around her, but a cloud of black smoke was boiling above what must be the Admin Building in the middle of the campus. The campanile was gone, a blackened, smoking stump of fibramic skeleton all that remained of the colorful tower. She let out her breath, suddenly nauseated and light-headed. "Jesus Mercy!"
Her colleague clambered to his feet beside her, his dark skin now almost gray. "A real one this time. God, I hope they got everyone out. They probably did-Admin always clears first so they can monitor the evacuation." He was speaking so rapidly she could hardly understand him. "Who do you think it was?"
Renie shook her head. "Broderbund? Zulu Mamba? Who knows? God damn it, that's the third in two years. How can they do it? Why won't they let us work?"
Her companion's look of alarm deepened. "My car! It's in the Admin lot!" He turned and ran toward the explosion site, pushing his way through lost-looking students, some of whom were crying, none of whom seemed in any mood for laughing or dancing now. A security guard who was trying to cordon off the area shouted at him as he ran past.
"His car? Idiot." Renie felt like crying herself. There was a distant ululation of sirens. She took a cigarette out of her bag and pulled the flame-tab with trembling fingers. They were supposed to be noncarcinogenic, but right at the moment she didn't care. A piece of paper fluttered down and landed at her feet, blackened along its edges.
Already, the camera-drones were descending from the sky like a swarm of flies, sucking up footage for the net.
She was on her second cigarette and feeling a little steadier when someone tapped her shoulder.
She turned and found herself confronting a slender boy with yellow-brown skin. His short hair curled close to his head. He wore a necktie, something Renie had not seen in a few years.
"I believe we had an appointment. A tutorial?"
She stared. The top of his head barely reached her shoulder. "You . . . you're . . .?"
"!Xabbu." There was a clicking sound in it, as though he had cracked a knuckle. "With an X-and an exclamation point when the name is written in English letters."
Light suddenly dawned. "Ah! You're . . ."
He smiled, a swift crease of white. "One of the San people-what they sometimes call 'Bushman,' yes."
"I didn't mean to be rude."
"You were not. There are few of us left who have the pure blood, the old look. Most have married into the city-world. Or died in the bush, unable to live in these times."
She liked his grin and his quick, careful speech. "But you have done neither."
"No, I have not. I am a university student." He said it with some pride, but a hint of self-mockery as well. He turned to look at the drifting plume of smoke. "If there will be a university left."
She shook her head and suppressed a shudder. The sky, stained with drifting ash, had gone twilight-gray. "It's so terrible."
"Terrible indeed. But fortunately no one seems badly hurt."
"Well, I'm sorry our tutorial was prevented," she said, recovering a little bit of her professional edge. "I suppose we should reschedule-let me get out my pad."
"Must we reschedule?" !Xabbu asked. "I am not doing anything. It seems that we will not get back into the university for some time. Perhaps we could go to another place-perhaps somewhere that sells beer, since my throat is dry from smoke-and do our talking there."
Renie hesitated. Should she just leave the campus? What if her department head or someone needed her? She looked around at the street and the main steps, which were beginning to resemble a combination refugee center and free festival, and shrugged. Nothing useful would be done here today.
"Let's go find a beer, then."
The train to Pinetown was not running-someone had jumped or been pushed onto the tracks at Durban Outskirt. RenieÕs legs were aching and her damp shirt was stuck to her body when she finally reached the flatblock. The elevator wasn't running either, but that was nothing new. She trudged up the stairs and dumped her bag on the table in front of the mirror and stopped, arrested by her reflection. Just yesterday a colleague at work had criticized her short, practical haircut, saying that a woman as tall as Renie should try to look more feminine. She scowled and examined the dust streaked down her long white shirt. When did she have time to make herself pretty? And who cared, anyway?
"I'm home," she called.
No one answered. She poked her head around the corner and saw her younger brother Stephen in his chair, as expected. Stephen was faceless behind his net headset, and he held a squeezer in each hand as he tilted from side to side. Renie wondered what he was experiencing, then decided it might be better if she didn't know.
The kitchen was empty, nothing in sight that looked like a hot meal being prepared. She cursed quietly, hoping it was just because her father had fallen asleep.
"Who's there? Is that you, girl?"
She cursed again, anger rising. It was clear from his slurred tone that her father had found something besides cooking to while away his afternoon. "Yes, it's me."
After a rattling thump and a sound like a large piece of furniture being dragged across the floor, his tall shape appeared in the bedroom doorway, swaying slightly.
"How come you so late?"
"Because the train's not running. And because someone blew up half the university today."
Her father considered this for a moment. "Broderbund. Those Afrikaaner bastards. For sure." Long Joseph Sulaweyo was a firm believer in the indelible evil of all white South Africans.
"Nobody knows yet. It could have been anyone."
"You arguing with me?" Long Joseph tried to fix her with a baleful stare, his eyes red and watering. He was like an old bull, she thought, enfeebled but still dangerous. It tired her out just looking at him.
"No, I'm not arguing with you. I thought you were going to make dinner for once."
"Walter come by. We had a lot of talking to do."
Had a lot of drinking to do, she thought, but held her tongue. Angry as she was, it wasn't worth going through another evening of shouting and broken crockery. "So it's up to me again, is it?"
He swayed again, then turned back into the darkness of his bedroom. "Suit yourself. I'm not hungry. I need some rest-a man needs his sleep." The bedsprings rasped, then there was silence.
Renie waited a moment, clenching and unclenching her fists, then stalked over and pulled the bedroom door closed, trying to make herself some room, some free space. She looked over at Stephen, still rocking and jiggling in the net. He might as well be catatonic. She slumped into a chair and lit another cigarette. It was important to remember her father as he had been, she reminded herself-as he still occasionally was-a proud man, a kind man. There were some people in whom weakness, once it had appeared, grew like a cancer. Mama's death in the department store fire had found and revealed that weakness. Joseph Sulaweyo no longer seemed to have the strength to fight back against life. He was letting it all go, slowly but surely disconnecting from the world, its pains and disappointments.
A man needs his sleep, Renie thought, and for the second time that day, she shuddered.
She bent down and tapped the interrupt button. Still faceless in his headset, Stephen spasmed in indignation. When he did not lift the insectoid visor, Renie held the button down.
"What for?" Stephen was already demanding before he had finished pulling the headset free. "Me and Soki and Eddie were almost to the Inner District Gateway. We've never gotten that far before!"
"Because I made you dinner, and I want you to eat it before it gets cold."
"I'll wave it when I'm done."
"No, you won't. Come on, Stephen. There was a bomb at school today. It was frightening. I'd like to have your company over dinner."
He straightened, the appeal to his vanity effective. "Chizz. What'd you make?"
"Chicken and rice."
He made a face, but was seated and pushing it into his mouth before she returned from the kitchen with a glass of beer for herself and a soft drink for him.
"What blew up?" He chewed rapidly. "People killed?"
"No one, thank God." She tried not to be disheartened by his clear look of disappointment. "But it destroyed the campanile-you remember, the tower in the middle of the campus."
"Chizz major! Who did it? Zulu Mamba?"
"No one knows. But it frightened me."
"A bomb went off in my school last week."
"What? You never said a word about that!"
He grimaced in disgust, then wiped grease from his chin. "Not that kind. In SchoolNet. Sabotage. Someone said that some guys from Upper Form did it as a graduation prank."
"You're talking about a system crash on the net." She wondered for a moment if Stephen understood the difference between the net and real life. He's only eleven, she reminded herself. Things outside of his narrow circle aren't very real yet. "The bomb that went off at the Poly today could have killed hundreds of people. Killed them dead."
"I know. But the blowdown on SchoolNet killed a lot of Crafts and even some high-level Constellations, backups and all. They'll never come back again either." He reached out for the rice dish, ready for seconds.
Renie sighed. Crafts, Constellations-if she were not a net-literate instructor herself, she would probably think her brother was speaking a foreign language. "Tell me what else you've been doing. Have you read any of that book I gave you?" For his birthday, she had downloaded, at not inconsiderable cost, Otulu's Marching Toward Freedom, the best and most stirring work she knew on South Africa's fight for democracy in the late twentieth century. As a concession to her young brother's tastes she had purchased the expensive interactive version, full of historical video footage and stylish "you-are-there" 3D reenactments.
"Not yet. I looked at it. Politics."
"It's more than that, Stephen. It's your heritage-it's our history."
He chewed. "Soki and Eddie and me almost made it into the Inner District. We got this flowpast off a guy in Upper Form. We were almost downtown! Open ticket!"
"Stephen, I don't want you trying to get to the Inner District."
"You used to do it when you were my age." His grin was insolently disarming.
"Things were different then-you can get arrested these days. Big fines. I'm serious, boy. Don't do it." But she knew the warning was useless. Might as well tell children not to swim in the old fishing hole. Stephen was already nattering on as though she hadn't said anything. She sighed. From the level of excitement, she knew she was in for a forty-minute discourse, full of obscure Junior Netboy argot.
". . . It was chizz major sampled. We dodged three Bullyboxes. But we weren't doing anything wrong," he said hurriedly. "Just tapping and napping. But it was so flared! We met someone who got into Mister J's!"
"Mister J's?" This was the first thing she hadn't recognized.
Stephen's look suddenly changed; Renie thought she saw something flicker behind his eyes. "Oh, just this place. Kind of like a club."
"What kind of club? An entertainment place? Shows and stuff?"
"Yeah. Shows and stuff." He toyed with his chicken bone for a moment. "It's just a place."
Something thumped on the wall.
"Renie! Bring me a glass of water." Long Joseph's voice sounded groggy and stupid. Renie winced, but went to the sink. For now, Stephen deserved something like a normal home life, but when he was finally out on his own, things would change around here.