Drifter
Chapter Four: Interlude

by Russ Allbery and David Anastasion
© 1994

The faint glow of pre-dawn twilight shines through a Net.York engine house, where Winterbrand Speed Shuttle #700 waits to be coupled to the Net.ropolis Express. The scrape of metal on metal breaks the silence as the tall doors of the engine house slide open. Crewmen walk inside, mechanically performing tasks they have done year after year, with no end in sight. A look of slight sadness lingers in in their eyes as they remember their young ambitions that will never be fulfilled. They disconect a couple of power cables, start the primer sequence on the onboard computer, and lock in the starter code. With a quiet hum the machine lives again.

Not far down the tracks a shuttle is methodically deactivated and crewman begin the daily inspection, fixing the hundreds of minor things that must be attended to after a night of service. Resting on top of the shuttle train, unnoticed by the crew, is a collapsed man, his black trenchcoat blowing in the wind and a bald eagle perched on his left boot. The crisp morning air fills Windrider's lungs as he quietly awakens his injuired friend.

==Drifter, we've reached the stopping point.==

Drifter tries to stand, but his body replies with shooting pain. His mouth tastes like battery acid and his nose stings with the burning smell of ozone.

==Can you get up?==

--...No. My spine feels like it's on fire. I can open a portal, though.--

==Okay, we need to get you to a hospital. Concentrate on the coordinates I'm giving you...==

Drifter concentrates and opens the portal, but the effort is almost too much for him. As he slips into unconciousness, he feels himself being pushed through the portal.


The man sits in shadows, his eyes focused on the bank of dead monitors in front of him but his mind obviously elsewhere. Behind him, a figure approaches with a strange mechanical stiffness and stops ten feet behind his chair. Silence fills the room for several minutes before the seated man stirs.

"Report."

"Preparations are complete. The relays have been constructed." The voice is coldly precise and totally devoid of emotion.

"Good. You are dismissed."

As the figure turns and leaves, the man turns back to the screens and brings several of them to life. The light of the images flickers across his face as he makes his final preliminary observations.


The first thing he notices is the smell. Antiseptic...medication...bad food...obviously a hospital. He tries to open his eyes, but everything seems to swim and shift and he closes them again. Faintly, as if from a long distance, he hears two voices.

"Good, it looks like he's finally awake. Schedule the tube to be removed, and place him on these medications."

"Yes, doctor."

Drifter tries to come fully awake again, but a familiar voice in the back of his mind stops him.

==Go back to sleep. You aren't well yet.==


Drifter opens his eyes and stares directly at a dull white ceiling. The smell of medication and disenfectents fill the flat air. There's an uncomfortable ache in the back of his throat, but otherwise he feels fairly good. Memories flash through his mind as he remembers why he's here.

==I see you're awake.==

Drifter turns to see Windrider perched on the windowsill.

--I hate hospitals.--

==I'm not that fond of them myself. At least you slept through most of it.==

--How long have I been out?--

==Almost a month.==

--A month!!! Why?--

==As I understand it, almost getting electrocuted does some rather massive damage to your body chemistry. You also had some fairly nasty burns that took a while to heal. The good news is that once you are concious and functioning, there isn't any need to stay here.==

--Good. I'm out of here.--

Drifter sits up and starts to get out of bed, but a nurse comes in.

"What do you think you're doing? Get back into bed; you shouldn't be up yet! I brought you breakfast."

Drifter takes one look at oatmeal and jello and turns away disgusted. "I feel just fine and I'm going to leave."

A doctor comes through the door carrying a folder full of papers. "What is he doing out of bed?"

"He says he's leaving."

"And why is that bird in here again? I thought I told you to get rid of it."

"I'm not trying that again. Last time I tried to get rid of the bird, I ended up bouncing off the wall. I don't know what it is, but I'm leaving it alone."

--Sounds like you found something to entertain yourself with.--

Windrider's only answer is a mental chuckle.

Drifter grabs his clothes out of the closet and goes into the bathroom to dress. As the nurse starts to go after him, he slams the door in her face.

The doctor starts to protest. "We still have tests we need to run...there are x-rays and CAT scans—"

Drifter interrupts from behind the bathroom door. "Did I break any bones?"

"No, but it's standard procedure...we have certain tests that we need to run before you go..."

The bathroom door slams open, almost hitting the doctor in the face and Drifter pushes past him. "You aren't running any more tests."

"Plus, there's the matter of your bill..."

Drifter stops short. --I hadn't thought of that. We do need to pay them.--

==Don't worry about it.== Windrider sends a mental grin. ==I had to do something while you were out cold...I was getting bored.==

--What did you do?--

==There was a group over on rec.games.frp.dnd that was raiding a stronghold and they needed a scout. My share of the treasure should cover the bills nicely. It's in a sack in the closet.==

Drifter gives Windrider a quick grin and strides over to the closet. Grabbing the bag, he throws it to the doctor who almost buckles under the weight. "Here, that should cover the bill." --And thanks.--

==Like I said, I was getting bored.==

Drifter turns and opens a portal.

"But...but..." the doctor stutters, "you can't just leave! This is totally against procedure!"

"I...don't...care!" Drifter steps through and closes the portal behind him.


The room has the feel of a library — that intangible atmosphere of scholarship and quiet reading. Shelves of books are scattered around, intermixed with study tables and the kind of reading chairs guaranteed to put you to sleep after a half hour. Lots of direct light illuminates all but the darkest corners. Only two things indicate that this room is subtly different: first, among the desks and shelves there are elaborate models on small tables, and second, there are no walls. The room stretches on as far as the eye can see in every direction.

Most of the models are deserted, but several of them are surrounded by small groups of people. Debating various fine points of the design, these people continuously make small modifications. Although some of the arguments become heated, they shortly subside after nearby scholars begin to look up in annoyance. No matter how heated the debates, no librarian ever comes.

Suddenly, a robot appears out of nowhere next to one of the more popular models. Vaguely humanoid, it starts screaming at the people working on the model, attacking their backgrounds, qualifications, and political affiliations. Most of the people at the table try to ignore it, but some start yelling insults back, and the situation gets worse. The robot dumps toy soldiers all over the table, and the soliders try to kill every human in the model. People at nearby tables look up in annoyance at the disturbance and then try to concentrate on their own work, with varying success.

From the end of a deserted isle between two shelves full of archaic Arabic books, a tall figure watches this scene. Despite the excellent lighting, he appears to be in a shadow of some kind, and it is impossible to get a clear look at his clothing or appearance. He is closely examining the bot, as if he were measuring it for strengths and weaknesses. After a couple of minutes, he turns away from the shouting match that is still going on, selects a book from a nearby shelf after a moment's examination, and lays it on the floor in front of him. He then taps a few buttons on a hand-held controller, and a miniature model similar to the ones throughout the room forms from the book.

The robot stops abruptly, swivels to look at the man and the new model, and then turns back to the group it is attacking to deliver a few parting shots. It then disappears, only to reappear in front of the new model and begin attacking it. The robot freezes in place, however, when the man lays a hand on its side.

"Now, my little robot, I believe I have a job for you." The man removes a plate on the back of the panel and examines the circuitry inside.

"Yes. Yes, you will do nicely."

He places a small device inside the robot, closes the panel, and puts his hand on the side of the robot again. It jerks suddenly, swivels slowly around, and then jerks in some strange direction that the eye can't follow and disappears.

The man looks around the room to make sure they weren't observed, smiles in satisfaction, and fades into the shadows.


Drifter is sitting at a corner table of a tavern, playing an improvised game of solitaire with heavy pieces of parchment and watching the other patrons. The tavern is medieval with no electricity or modern bar fixtures, and most of the patrons are about three feet tall and overweight. Drifter seems out of place, but the tavern staff treat him with respect.

Conversation is muted and intermittant. It is still only late afternoon, so the bar is mostly empty and no one is drunk yet. Drifter leans back in his seat and admires the view out the window. Rolling green hills stretch off into the distance with scattered spots of dark green pine forest.

Drifter is lost in the scenery when he realizes that all conversation has come to a sudden stop. He glances back towards the center of the room and sees a vaguely humanoid robot standing in front of the fireplace. Everyone in the room is staring at it, and it's obvious that none of them have ever seen a robot before. Drifter stands and moves towards the robot, but it disappears with a strange sideways jerk.

--Windrider, something really strange just happened...--

==What?==

--A robot just materialized inside the tavern, and then disappeared again. Normally, I'd think it was just a post to the wrong group, but that robot looked strangely familiar... There is something strange going on.--

==You'd better get outside. I think I found it.==


Outside, Windrider circles high in the sky with another eagle fully twice his size. Below, in a farm across a path from the tavern, the robot is screaming insults at a farmer while turning turkeys into soliders armed with automatic rifles. There are already several soldiers wandering around the farm, shooting at anything that moves.

Racing across the path, Drifter catches one solider by surprise and knocks him to the ground unconcious. The other soldiers turn and start firing randomly in the direction of their fallen comrade, but Drifter grabs the rifle and takes cover behind a wagon. The soldiers obviously have no grasp of tactics and rush the wagon, and Drifter easily picks them off one by one in the open ground.

The robot meanwhile has ran out of turkeys to transform. It swivels slowly to scan the countryside, yells a few final insults at the farmer, and disappears.

Drifter stands slowly, brushing off dust from the road, and notices that the bodies of the dead soldiers have turned into dead turkeys.

--Wait a minute...robot, soldiers, turkeys...--

==Serdar Argic.==

--What is Serdar Argic doing in rec.arts.books.tolkien? I've never seen him leave the soc.* hierarchy!--

==He's crossposting. I was watching him when he disappeared, and that was no normal dimensional jump.==

--And if he's crossposting, I can't track him. This could be bad; if he is attacking rec.books.tolkien, he might be attacking most of Usenet.--

Windrider glides down to land on a nearby fencepost, followed by his companion who perches in a dead tree. Drifter bows slightly in the direction of the larger eagle.

"Gwaihir. I am honored to see you again."

Gwaihir inclines his head toward Drifter. "Windrider has informed me of your conclusions. This Serdar Argic poses no threat to this area. The elves could take care of him easily."

==True, but other groups do not have this reality's intrinsic defenses.== Windrider broadsends so that both Gwaihir and Drifter can hear him.

"We need to stop him before he does some real damage." Drifter turns to his companion. "Windrider, can you determine the pattern of his attacks? You can move through realities faster than I can."

==I might be able to...I can feel his crossposts if I concentrate. Windlord, it was an honor talking with you, but this requires my attention.==

"I will be here the next time you come, Windrider. We can continue our conversation then." With this the mighty eagle springs from his perch and soars off in the direction of a distant mountain range, gaining altitude rapidly. Windrider also takes to the air and circles above the farm.

==The feeling is very faint. This is going to take some time.== He vanishes abruptly.

Drifter turns and heads back toward the tavern to wait for Windrider.


The place is news.software.readers. Free-standing blackboards with problem explanations and solutions are everywhere, and the floor is littered with scraps of paper. Examples of virtually every type of computer and setup are scattered about to be used for demonstrations. People are everywhere, talking, testing, and examining different systems. Away from the popular areas are workstations for testing more obscure solutions.

Suddenly there is a brilliant flash of light, and a man appears. Although his clothing is not impressive, blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, anyone actually in his presence gets a sense of vast, controlled power. The reaction among the people is immediate. All conversation stops, and everyone respectfully gives way as the man strides through the crowd to stop in front of a completely ordinary college student.

"What is your name?"

"N-N-Noone. N-Noone@anywhere, s-s-sir. I'm a k-k-killfile example."

"Killfile? Perfect." The man raises his hand which begins to glow with energy.

"W-w-who are you?"

"I am Newsreader, boy. And you are now the Avatar of the Killfile Force."

With this, Newsreader releases a beam of energy that transfixes Noone. More and more energy flows between them, and the beam gets brighter and brighter. Noone looks like he is being torn apart and put together at the same time, but then Newsreader raises his other hand and the brightness doubles. The other people have to turn away to keep from being blinded as the intensity of the light grows and grows until it couldn't possibly get any stronger. Then it doubles in one final flash and everything goes dark.

By the time everyone's vision returns, Newsreader is gone. Noone lies on the floor, unconcious and subtly changed.


Drifter stares down at the cards on the table. He's always liked solitaire. It reminds him a little bit of himself — quiet, calm, and unpredictable. With a sigh, he leans back against the wall of the tavern.

It feels great to be exploring again, he muses to himself. Things were really getting monotonous for a while, but the last few days have been exhilarating. It's been a long time since we've been able to explore a large reality together.

alt.comics.lnh was very impressive, and we haven't been back since Omaha Project. Now that it's been moved to rec.arts.comics.creative, I ought to consider it the next time I want to stay in one place for a while. I've never met any group quite like the LNH. Need to meet more of them...maybe Kid Kirby or Ultimate Ninja.

Drifter turns to look out the window. Almost all signs of the brief battle are gone, as the reality returns to its normal course. Something about this feels different though...nothing specific...sort of a vague feeling... Windrider caught me by surprise with that mental blast, and it seems like he's been far more open about his abilities lately.

Strange that after all these years I still know very little about his power...

==Drifter, I've found Serdar. He hasn't had much success, but he's been able to start flamewars in several groups and he's still trying.==

--Can you find a good place to head him off?--

==He's heading straight for rec.arts.comics.creative.==

--Meet you there.--

Drifter stands and digs out the money to pay for his food. Doesn't matter. I may not know all his powers, but I know Windrider. And I couldn't ask for a better partner.

There is a brief green glow, and the corner booth is empty.


Kid Kirby is sitting in the library of the LNH reading The Art of Jack Kirby when his armor picks up a transmission on the LNH communicator frequency.

"Kid Kirby? This is Multi-Tasking Man. I'm picking up something on the monitors that you need to look at."

The Kirbian reluctantly puts down his book and heads for the door. Pliable Lad looks up as he strides past.

"What's up?"

"Multi-Tasking Man wants me in the Monitor Room. It sounded urgent."

"I think I'll come along...nothing better to do right now."


As they enter, Multi-Tasking Man is attempting to focus the monitors on a farm in the countryside outside of Net.ropolis (while reading Usenet, scanning an ftp site, and playing a game of nettrek). "There is some kind of disturbance at the Daviston turkey farm. The energy signature seems a little strange, and I can't pinpoint it..."

Kid Kirby examines the readings and looks thoughtful. "Yes...that is strange...I have not seen that pattern before. One moment." He opens an access panel in the computer and attaches a transdimensional signal integrator to the monitor control circuitry.

Multi-Tasking Man taps a few buttons to bring up the modified pattern. "That energy source is definitely from outside this dimension."

Kid Kirby straightens and studies the computer screen. "I'd better investigate. That energy signature is fairly strong. If something is trying to invade the Looniverse, it must be dealt with." With this he turns and strides out of the room.

Pliable Lad follows him out the door, muttering under his breath. "Aliens attacking a turkey farm? I've got to see this."


Ordinary Lady is just coming out of a training session in the Peril Room when she sees Kid Kirby heading in the direction of the hanger, followed closely by Pliable Lad.

"Wait up!" she calls after them. "Where are you going?"

Pliable Lad stops and turns around. "There is some kind of other-dimensional invader at a turkey farm outside of town. Kid Kirby is going to investigate and I'm tagging along."

"Well, I could still use some more combat practice," Ordinary Lady says. "I think I'll come along too."

"Okay, but if you're coming, hurry up. Kid Kirby is liable to take off without us if we don't get to the hanger soon."


Dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien, who knew how to tell a story.

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