Chapter One: Arrival

by Russ Allbery and David Anastasion
© 1994

In the countryside outside of Net.ropolis, the weather is beautiful. A bald eagle effortlessly glides over a high class residential neighborhood. Below is a fairly large country manor surrounded by extensive grounds, a part of which has been landscaped into an elaborate hedge maze. There are various other small buildings and a target range on one side.

A person is standing outside the front door, waiting patiently for someone to answer it. When the door finally opens, the man goes inside, talking excitedly. Extremely keen hearing would pick up a snatch of the conversation before the door closes: "You won't believe what happened..." The eagle, who appeared for a moment to be watching this scene intently, banks to the right and glides off in the direction of Net.ropolis.

Seven figures stand in the midst of a featureless white void. The nothingness appears to be without beginning or end, and all sense of distance is lost. Six of the figures look around in disbelief for a moment but then concentrate on the seventh, who removes his wide-brimmed hat. All are too engrossed in conversation to notice a small black speck appear above their heads.

The eagle slowly circles, intently watching the small group. A small room forms around them, followed later by a wall when two of the figures fight momentarily. Shortly, however, the seven figures vanish, and the room and wall slowly fade into the white background. The eagle circles several more times and then abruptly disappears.

Under the cold and distant sun of mid-winter, Net.ropolis stretches out across the countryside. An eagle flies slowly across the city, fighting a bitter head-wind. Below, the streets are emptier than usual because of the weather. The eagle flies steadily toward his goal, either not noticing or choosing to ignore a skyscraper that suddenly moves three blocks south as if it realized that it was in the wrong place.

The packed buildings of the city gradually give way to residential areas, and a large complex appears ahead. The only thing that remains constant about it is its size; its shape, appearance, style, and organization change suddenly at random intervals. Occasionally a sign will appear in front of the building, indicating that it is the headquarters of the Legion of Net.Heroes.

Suddenly, a hanger door opens in the side of the structure, and an advanced flying vehicle of some kind rockets into the sky at extreme speed. There is barely enough time to see that the ship is triangular and carries three people before it disappears into the distance. The eagle spirals slowly upward until he is out of sight.

It is late morning in Net.ropolis, the dead time between the morning rush and the lunch hour. Here near the outskirts of the city, the streets are nearly deserted. The man emptying the garbage from the breakfast crowd has just gone back into the side door of a restaurant, leaving the alley empty except for a few stray cats. No one is around to see a shimmering green portal open, let a man through, and quickly close again, leaving no sign it ever existed.

The man is tall with a strong build and dressed entirely in black. His trenchcoat blows in the gust of wind created by the portal while he looks around in obvious astonishment. The few people walking by ignore him as he steps out of the alley and stops once again to examine the buildings in surprise.

After a moment he tears his eyes off his surroundings and looks up at an eagle circling above the city. He concentrates momentarily, and a mental link slides into place with a fluidity born of long practice. Immediately he hears a dry chuckle in the back of his mind.

==I told you it was detailed!== the voice says and chuckles again.

--Yes, I know, but I never imagined anything like this! I've never seen a newsgroup reality with this level of complexity! Everything is complete down to the last detail, and there aren't even sudden reality shifts between different sections! Surely all of this couldn't have appeared in stories?--

==A surprising amount of it actually has, but you are correct. There are places in alt.comics.lnh that have never appeared in a post, and yet they are just as real as the main parts of the reality. I'm not sure why that is; perhaps the level of creativity is so high that even the implied background becomes real.==

--Well, there must be something special about this group if Master Workload would target it specifically.-- The man glances around him again.

--This is fantastic! The last couple newsgroups were a real disappointment, but this will make up for them and more!--

Adjusting his trenchcoat, the man turns and strides off down the street.

He walks endlessly through the city, the eagle flying high to direct him to the more interesting pockets of activity. Towering buildings seem to be made completely of glass. Little shops everywhere sell absolutely anything that could possibly be sold. The street performers do what they can to get attention. Pickpockets bump into snobby-looking executives. The smell of hot dogs is everywhere.

People murmur excitedly and point high in the sky as the soaring eagle dives. He majestically glides over the crowd to land the arm of the dark stranger, who transfers the heavy bird to his shoulder. Minutes turn to hours, and night begins to close on the streets.

==Well, what do you think?==

--It's still hard to believe that it's so detailed.-- The man rubs his throat. --Boy, that hot dog was really dry. Can you see a place near here that would sell something to drink?--

==I'll check.== The eagle moves down to the leather glove of his trusted friend and is launched. The bird of prey climes into the dusk.

--See anything?-- the man questions doubtfully.

==Not much, Drifter...you've really wandered off this time. I warned you not to.==

Drifter shrugs. "I got carried away," he mumbles.

==Found a place.== The bird glides between the buildings to land on an outstretched glove.

--Where, and what is it?-- He rubs his throat again.

==A bar, and just a couple blocks down the first street on your right hand side.== The bird moves back to the Drifter's shoulder.

--Thanks, Windrider.-- His thirst drives him quickly down the dark street.

They arrive at the parking lot of a run-down shack. The only light to guide their path comes from a half-working neon sign flickering above the door. Five motorcycles rest in front of the entrance, and two cars are parked in an alley beside the building. A broken cry of help comes from inside the bar. Drifter's trenchcoat blows in the wind, and a deep chill overcomes him. He looks up at his friend already perched on the high end of the sagging roof, sighs deeply, and walks in.

The inside of the bar matches the outside, looking as if it has never seen a mop in its life. Peanut shells crunch under the Drifter's feet. A young man lies unconscious on the floor, his head sitting in a pool of liquor surrounded by the scattered remains of a glass bottle. A group of bikers in a booth laugh, and one of them holds a struggling young lady by the wrists. A sawed-off shotgun lies on the table.

Anger races through Drifter. He kneels and checks the mans pulse, and as he rises the bartender gets the bikers attention.

"Boys, look what breezed in."

"Awww, look! This asshole thinks he's hot stuff!" the leader slurs, followed by laughter.

"Guys I gotta take a piss. I'll be back." He says the famous Arnold line and the group laughs. Two stand up ready to defend their prize.

"Come on motherfucker!"

The dark stranger walks to the pool table, and gathers some balls. One of the two starts to speak, but Drifter beats him to it.

"Wanna play? Guess not. Well you know what, I bet you haven't seen someone juggle in a while. Am I correct?" The biker tries to speak again but fails.

"Doesn't take much really." He begins to juggle. "Just got to know when to throw. Think I can do four? Nahh, how about nine, okay?" The two men watch the balls as they seem to fly in a continuous circle.

"Tell ya what, you wanna see something amazing? I'll need one volunteer. How about you?" He points to one of the two. "Yeah, come on over here."

"You going to fuck with balls, or are you going to fight?" The biker walks forward. The others seem mesmerized by this performance, and temporarily forget about the girl.

"Now just stand right there, and don't move."

"Why?" Pete asks, just all nine balls fly at his groin. A look of absolute pain flashes across his face as he drops to his knees. The bikers roar in laughter.

"Oh, yeah, you're suppose to catch those." Drifter gives his best "oops" look. "Anyone else wanna try?"

The group quiets to a hush and cross their legs.

"How about you fine lady?" the Drifter asks in the direction of the girl as he picks up another six balls off the table and begins to juggle again. The bikers push her towards the pool table.

"Now, what's your name?" the Drifter asks, stalling for time. --Windrider!--

"Melanie." she replies in a broken voice.


--Can you find a cobra?--

==Drifter, what have you gotten into now?==

--Look, the one thing I don't have is time. Can you get it or not?--

Drifter hears a sigh. ==I'll try.==

The leader walks out of the bathroom, sees his prize over by the stranger, and roars at his gang. "Boys, what fuck are you letting that asshole do?! He's got the girl!" None of the men move.

"Come on! Get him NOW!" He pushes one of the men off the bench.

"Not till he puts those balls down boss." They look down at Pete writhing in pain.

"What the fuck happened to him?!" He looks down at Pete crying.

"He got his nuts crunched boss!" The man takes a step back.

"Okay son, put down the balls and give us the girl and we won't hurt you." A smirk grows on his face.

"no..." Melanie sobs, shrinking back.

"Here, I'll toss them out the window, okay?" The leader nods. The Drifter stops juggling and throws the pool balls through the window. A small flash of green light reflects off the shattering glass.

The leader sits down at the booth and gestures at the standing biker. "Dick, get the girl," he orders, "and kill the asshole." Dick begins to walk forward and a green portal opens in front of his groin.

"NO!" Dick cries as the six balls hit their mark. He doubles over and passes out on the floor.

==Okay, I've got a cobra, but....==

--It'll have to do. Drop it in front of the window.--

The remaining bikers are distracted by a green flash from the broken window. "What the fuck? That happened just before the balls—"

"Here, catch!" The Drifter throws a snake at the biker's booth.

The other two bikers jump out of the booth as the snake lands in the leader's lap. "Shit! Shoot the fucking thing!"

Bob lunges for the shotgun, but just as he reaches it, the leader manages to fling the snake away. Aiming wildly, the biker misses the snake entirely and empties the shotgun into the leader's chest.

"Got it boss! Oh, shit!"

The snake lands on the other biker's head. "No! No! Get it off!"

Bob turns to look at his partner, but the shotgun is wrenched out of his grasp. The next thing he feels is a sharp pain in his wrist as it is twisted behind his back. The Drifter grabs him by the jacket and shoves him toward the broken window.

The Incredible-Man-With-No-Life is out patrolling some of the worst parts of Net.ropolis because, well, he doesn't have anything better to do. Innovative Offense Boy, who came along looking for a good fight, is getting impatient. "Come on, where the ^*&! are all the ^*&!ing druggies and rapists?! I want to kick the ^&*! out of some #%^hole!" Just then, they see a man go flying through the window of a near-by bar.

"Alright! It's about ^$&!ing time!" The Crude Crusader runs for the door with the Incredible-Man-With-No-Life close behind.

As they enter, they see a man dressed in black kneeling over an unconscious young man. Three other men lie on the floor, and a woman is collapsed against the bar, sobbing hysterically. As the IMWNL walks towards the stranger, he sees another man in a booth, obviously dead from a shotgun blast.

"What's going on? Did you kill all these people?"

"No, they're just unconscious, except for the guy at the booth. There was a snake, and one of the bikers got a little carried away with the shotgun."

Drifter stands and nudges something on the floor with his foot. "Speaking of the snake..." --This thing isn't even alive!--

==rec.pets.herp was too large...I couldn't find anything fast enough.==

--Where did you find this thing?--

==alt.shenanigans. It's rubber.==

The IMWNL walks over to Drifter and looks down. "Why is there a rubber snake on the floor?"

"It would take too long to explain."

Drifter looks behind the bar and reaches down, pulling the bartender up by the shirt collar. "What happened to the young man? It looks like he's been hit over the head with a bottle."

"Well, he and his fine girl over their came in asking for directions to Net.ropolis (what assholes huh?). And they," he points to the unconscious bikers, "decided they wanted the girl, they asked to have her for a couple of hours, he said no, and well you can tell the rest."

"Yes, I can. And tell me, how can you allow them to do such a thing, and not call the police?!" The Drifter grabs the bartender in a choke hold.

"Fuck you! They pay their tabs and bring me good customers; why the fuck should I care what they—ulk! So dizzy...*" The bartenders world spins to darkness, and he slumps to the floor.

Turning, the Drifter hears a chuckle in the back of his mind.

--What's going on?--

==Come outside and take a look.== Windrider chuckles again.

Drifter heads for the door, and the IMWNL, who is obviously not sure what is going on or what, if anything, he should be doing about it, decides to follow.

Outside, Innovative Offense Boy has the last biker backed up against the side of the shack and is unleashing an incredible torrent of swear words.

==The biker tried to swear back for a while, but he never stood a chance.== An obviously amused Windrider swoops down to land on Drifter's outstretched arm.

The biker finally faints and slumps to the ground. IOB turns around with a huge grin on his face.

"^$&! that was fun! It's been ^$&!ing eons since I could let loose like that!"

"You'll want to take care of that girl inside and make sure her boyfriend gets to a hospital. Looks like they were in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of night." Drifter turns and walks off down the street.

"Wait! Who are you? What's going on?" The IMWNL stares bewildered after the retreating figure.

But Drifter was already lost in the night.

Dedicated to Phil Collins and David Crosby, for the inspiration.

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04