________ ____ _ _____ _ _ ____ _ | | | | | | | | | | | | BLiP | | | | | | -|-- | | o | | | | |--| |--| |---| | | |--~ |--| |--| |--- ---- | #30 | | | | | | | | | | | \ | | | | | | |___ | | | | | |~~~ | | | | _ | | | | | |~~~ | | ~~~~~~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~ ~~ ~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~~ [The cover is of a bed in a hospital. The scene is sterile white, with clean sheets and machines going beep. In the bed is a gravestone reading "R.I.P. Barry Knewbee".] --------------------------------------------------------------------------- "The Worst of Both Worlds" The man on the bed lay still, barely breathing. The crisp white sheets outlined his body, pristine against his ravaged appearance. Tubes ran from his arm, and a mask covered his face, leading to machines that kept his body alive. The woman sat in a nearby chair, hardly moving herself. Haunted eyes stared from her face at the man on the bed, red rimmed from crying, but now the tears had run dry. They were husband and wife. The best parts of their lives had been spent together. And now he was dying. A commotion at the door took a few moments to register with the woman, but she finally looked over to see three figures enter the room. She blinked, and had to concentrate to focus her eyes before she could recognize who they were. "Hello Marsha, Rick, Missy," Alice greeted them. She didn't rise to meet them, but by the look of her, they were surprised that she was able to talk at all. "Hello Alice," Marsha returned, her voice quiet in this sterile atmosphere. "We came as soon as we could." Alice nodded, then turned back to her husband. "Barry's dying," she said, a note of fatality in her voice. "There's nothing any of you can do now." Rick moved to her side. "We...uh...Missy would like to take some readings. If you don't mind, that is," he said hurriedly. "There might be something she can find that the doctors didn't." Alice shook her head to indicate she didn't mind, and Missy went to the other side of Barry at Rick's nod. She concentrated on taking readings with her scanner, not wanting to catch Alice's eye until she had something more to offer than the possibility of knowing more about how Barry was going to die. "The others are busy right now," Marsha said. "But I'm sure they'll be along soon." "I didn't expect Agent would come," Alice replied, not looking away from Barry. "But..." Marsha winced. The Net.Elementalist didn't want to have anything to do with Barry, despite the fact that they were the same person. No-one was quite sure what had happened to split Barry from the Net.Elementalist, but now it would appear that that split would kill at least one of them. [The split was discovered in _The Alt.Riders #25_ - Footnote Girl] "How's...how's Abby?" Marsha asked, trying to find some kind of conversational opening. "She's with neighbours. She..." Alice closed her eyes, and tears started to come again. "She was the one who found him." "Alice," Marsha whispered, reaching over to hug Alice to her. Rick caught her eye, and made a head motion towards the door. Marsha frowned and shook her head, but Rick replied with a more insistent motion. "Alice," Marsha said quietly. "Let's go get something to drink. Have you eaten?" "I'm not hungry," Alice replied faintly, but she didn't resist as Marsha helped her up from the chair, and led her from the room. Rick watched them go, then turned to Missy. "Anything?" "His wave packet is destabilizing," Missy said. "What does that mean?" "He dying." The reply, simply stated, was like a nail in Barry's coffin. "Yes, but what's causing it? Is there anything we can do to stop it? And what is a wave packet?" Missy checked some more readings before replying. "You know about net right? We live in it?" Rick nodded. "I didn't know for a while. Then read what I could find. Interesting metaphysical conceptualization," she said, surprising Rick that she could even pronounce the words. "World living in virtual construct." "And?" Rick prompted. "The net not one thing. It billions of nodes, where information is passed from one server, one computer to another," Missy continued. "These information called wave packets. They what make us what we are. Like DNA in net." "And Barry's?" "Are destabilizing. He losing what make him him. Lose too many..." Missy shrugged. "At least, I think so. Not entirely a well researched field." "And is there anything we can do?" "Depends on cause. If internal corruption, like virus, maybe transfusion from Net.Elementalist help. If packet not being generated properly, nothing." "So there is something then?" Rick said, studying the prone body on the bed. "Maybe." Missy wanted to help, but wouldn't offer guarantees. Rick patted Barry's hand, nearly drawing away as he felt its cold clamminess. "Don't worry, Barry. We'll get help. Even if we have to shoot him again." _-~-_ "You want me to help you hunt down the Net.Elementalist again?" Joe Forsythe's expression of surprise was easy to read, even over the video link. "Has Alice talked to you recently?" Rick asked, as he sat in their car.thingee outside the hospital. Joe grew quiet. "Not yet," he said. "I only found out when I got back here. How's she doing?" [Joe was one of the LNHers caught up in events in Got.ham in _The Alt.Riders #28-29_ - Footnote Girl] "Not good. But Missy thinks the Net.Elementalist might be able to help us cure him. If we can find him." "And he's disappeared?" "Agent can't find him," Rick replied. "He might be trying to do something to avoid thinking about Barry, but the Net.Elementalist isn't the most subtle of people. We should have heard something about his whereabouts by now." Joe nodded. "I'll see what I can uncover this end. The LNHHQ has some pretty extensive monitoring devices, not to mention the satellite recon we can hook into." "I'll leave that to you then," said Rick, breaking the connection. He sat back in the car, and wondered if he dared to tell Alice there might be a hope after all. _-~-_ The Net.Elementalist didn't have his head buried in the sand, avoiding the situation, but he was underground. He had heard stories of something infesting mines in Af.rec.a, and thought he would take a look. The rock creature he had found (well, one of many) pounded him hard in the face, knocking him back along the tunnel. The Net.Elementalist let loose a burst of flame, but the fire didn't harm the rock creature much. He switched over to net to lag the creature and give himself some breathing space, and heard the beeping. From a pocket inside his outfit, the Net.Elementalist drew out a communication.thingee, and he glared as it rang in his hand. He had decided not to bring one along, to ensure he wasn't disturbed, but there was someone who could make sure he had grabbed one anyway. He activated it, keeping one eye on the creature, and growled. "Retcon Lad, I told you never to get in my way again." "It's about Barry," Retcon Lad replied. "We think there's a cure, but we need your help." "I've told you before, I don't care. And I have a few problems of my own." "We're aware of the situation and can send someone else to deal with it," Retcon Lad said. "But we need you to help with Barry." "Don't care, goodbye." The Net.Elementalist squeezed his hand, crushing the device, but not before he was surrounded by a golden shimmer. "Nooo _-~-_ ooo!" The golden shimmer disappeared, leaving the Net.Elementalist standing in the hospital he had been trying to avoid. Marsha, Rick and Missy were standing nearby, but not moving, and the Net.Elementalist realized this was because he still had his lag powers up and running. He was tempted to keep that going, but sighed and gave in to the inevitable. Dropping his abilities, his outfit returned to black, and the others started forwards. The Net.Elementalist threw the remains of the communication.thingee at their feet, and the teleporter lock-on beacon slid from the pile. "Do that to me again, and it won't be lag I'm using." "Sure, sure," Rick said. "Now are you going to help us or not?" "Are you going to give me a choice?" the Net.Elementalist asked, then turned to glare at Missy, who was now scanning him. "Well?" Rick prompted. "His wave packet stable," Missy reported. "But..." "But?" "Minor variance just detectable," Missy said. "He got same thing as Barry." Their faces fell, and the Net.Elementalist glowered at them. "Someone care to explain what the hell is going on?" "Your..." Rick considered how best to explain this. "Your body is starting to break down. It's the same thing that Barry has." "Great. So now I'm going to die too. Well then, I guess you won't have to worry about me killing myself then." "This isn't something to joke about," Marsha snapped. "If you can't treat this seriously, then think of how Alice is taking this!" That quietened the Net.Elementalist down. "And what do you think I can do about it?" Rick drew a breath, then released it. "We did hope you could help stabilize Barry, but now..." He looked at Missy. "Still do that," Missy said. "But not permanently. And also deteriorate himself faster." "Hey, I'm not giving my life for his," the Net.Elementalist stated. "I can still be out there doing something before the end. I am not to spend my last days in this hospital on some last ditch effort that isn't even going to work." Marsha reached out and slapped the Net.Elementalist, the act hurting more than the marshmallow soft touch. "Stop that! You cannot say that you have anymore right to live than he does, especially not with your attitude to death. Now, either help out voluntarily, or we shoot you again and do this without your consent." "Beside," said Missy. "His death might trigger yours." The Net.Elementalist looked at the three arrayed against him and threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine, let's get on with this then. But just think of the lives I could have saved while you've got me strapped on some bed." As the Net.Elementalist stalked away, the others shared a look. "We might be saving more lives by keeping him here," Marsha muttered as they walked after him. _-~-_ "Thank you for doing this." The Net.Elementalist stared at the ceiling, avoiding looking at either the figure in the other bed, or at Alice's face. Right now her eyes haunted him in ways he couldn't name. "You do know this isn't a real answer," he said. "We're still going to die." The Net.Elementalist could hear a sob as Alice turned away. Marsha lent over him. "You are one sick bastard," she hissed. "I'm not the one giving her false hope," the Net.Elementalist replied. "Can we start now?" Marsha looked over to Missy, who nodded. She and Doctor Stomper, who had turned up with Joe, had constructed a device that was more wires and circuit boards than actual machine. It was now connected up to the Net.Elementalist and to Barry, and was humming, despite no visible source of power. "I must say, this is fascinating," Doctor Stomper said, in a low voice. "An actual transfusion of net particles. If I hadn't seen it for myself, I would never believe it possible." "Not working yet," Missy replied. Together they reached for the main switch. It was just possible this might cause a feedback loop that could well destroy the entire hospital, not to mention collapse the entire net. The device hummed louder as the switch was thrown. Immediately Barry and the Net.Elementalist arched up in their beds, their backs taught. They collapsed, and strange blue energy played over them for a moment, before subsiding. There was a faint smell of ozone in the air, but nothing else occurred for the moment. "Is it working?" Rick finally dared to ask. Missy was scanning both of them. "The rate of wave packet decay decreasing," she said, after scanning Barry's body. "Wave packet decay has increased," she said, after scanning the Net.Elementalist's. "How...how long?" Alice asked, her voice as pale as her face. Missy and Doctor Stomper ran through some calculations swiftly. They didn't speak for a moment, then finally Doctor Stomper said gently. "Two days. Then Barry... we're not sure what will happen to the Net.Elementalist then." Alice gasped, and collapsed in a chair again. While Joe, Rick and Marsha comforted her, Doctor Stomper drew Missy outside. "I can't say I would ever wish something like this to have happened," he said to her. "But this is something I've never seen before. The net essence becoming the source of the problem. Admittedly, Barry...the Net.Elementalist...has some unique net based powers, but that this could happen...it opens up so many possibilities. How did this occur?" Missy shrugged. "Not sure. The Net.Elementalist said that he trapped in a killfile while fighting Faq Lord, but escaped. We never heard from Barry what happened." [The fight happened in _The Alt.Riders #21_ - Footnote Girl] "And now they are two separate people." Doctor Stomper peered back into the room. "I wonder if one of them is real, and other one is a copy." "Actually, I have a different idea about that," a voice said, making them both turn to see Agent standing behind them. "I think neither of them is real." Doctor Stomper and Missy stared at Agent. "How is that possible?" Doctor Stomper eventually asked. "Think about it. How come this doesn't happen to everyone else?" Doctor Stomper considered the idea. "Well, presumably, the wave packets are like anything else in the body, and is generated as part of the normal bodily functions, like blood and cellular decay. In this case, that generating function of the body has become interrupted, due to them being separated, and is now failing. Quite likely, the presence of the Net.Elementalist, not so long in our universe, may be exacerbating the effect now that he is here." "Exactly what I thought," Agent said wryly. "But that is only the effect, not the cause. How could they become separated in the first place?" "The killfile?" Missy ventured. "Oh, yes," Doctor Stomper said. "If, because of his net based powers, the Net.Elementalist could enter a killfile, but Barry, with no net power, couldn't, their separate selves would be split off. Barry would return here, whilst the Net.Elementalist was trapped." "They are the same person," Agent replied. "There isn't two people to split up." "Well, what is your idea then?" Doctor Stomper challenged. "Barry traveled as wave packet information when he entered the killfile. As you know, wave packets can be mis-routed, or bounced back." "Indeed," said Doctor Stomper. "But only a small percentage. Otherwise, we'd probably find major parts of ourselves suddenly going missing. Although that would explain some medical cases I've heard of..." he mused. "I think Barry hit a major server problem when he entered that killfile. More than the usual wave packets were bounced back." "And the bounced wave packets caused doubles?" Missy asked. "Yes, like bad transporters sometimes cause clones," Doctor Stomper picked up the idea excitedly. "The original passes through, but a signal, a copy, is reflected back!" "In this case, two signals," Agent said. "One being mostly Barry, and the other mostly Net.Elementalist." "So, that means..." Doctor Stomper and Missy grew quiet as the implications set in. "Barry never escaped," Agent said. "He's still out there, trapped in that killfile." _-~-_ "Let me get this straight," Rick said, as the Alt.Riders, with Doctor Stomper and Joe, gathered in an out of the way hospital room. "Barry, our Barry, is currently in a killfile somewhere out in the net. And you want us to find him. Wherever he is." "If we don't, and those copies die, we'll be without any Barry or Net.Elementalist," Agent pointed out. "Okay, I'm with you on the rescuing Barry part," Rick said. "I'm just not sure how you expect us to locate him in the entire net. Even assuming the killfile is still around and hasn't been destroyed or formatted or whatever by now." Agent turned to Missy and Doctor Stomper. "Is there anyway you can trace him through those copies?" "You mean maybe trace back through the routing path of their wave packets, and see if some common server can be located that would indicate where the bounce happened, and thus the probably location of Barry?" Doctor Stomper asked. "Er, yes, that sounds about right," Agent said. "I have no idea," Doctor Stomper admitted. "It's never been tried. I don't even know how to go about trying to build something that could track it." Agent turned to Joe. "Can you do anything? Perhaps make it so that he arrived at particular server?" Joe shook his head. "That was too long ago. If you can find him, I might be able to help so that he could survive it, but other than that..." "There is something you could try," said Doctor Stomper slowly. "But it is highly dangerous." "I haven't heard any other options so far," Agent said. "Well, you know where the Net.Elementalist was when he activated the killfile in the first place?" Rick nodded. "Egypt." "If you went there," Doctor Stomper said, speaking even more slowly. "In a net.thingee. And set off another killfile... you might be able to ride the thread disturbance, and hopefully end up in the same place as Barry did." "Doesn't that depend on their location in the net as well as geographically?" Joe asked. Doctor Stomper nodded. "Indeed, but I can't think of anything else to try." "Okay then," said Agent. "Volunteers." He looked at Rick and Marsha, who raised their hands, bowing to the inevitable. Joe also raised his hand. "I'd like to give it a go. I might be able to help out with the luck as well," he said. "Go now?" asked Missy. "We have a bit to get organized first," started Agent. "What about Barry and the Net.Elementalist?" she asked. "It's Barry we're trying to retrieve," Agent said. "And what of the copies?" Marsha picked up. "We aren't just going to let them die, are we?" "They are just copies," Agent said, making Rick and Marsha turn away disgusted. "That doesn't mean they don't have a right to live," Joe put in. "It will take time to get this sorted out," said Agent. "There's nothing we can do for them." "If get back in time," Missy said. "Original can stabilized copies." "And," said Doctor Stomper. "We have no idea what condition Barry, original Barry, will be in. The copies might help him as well." "I'll make some calls," Joe said firmly. "Get this underway right now." "Okay, but we only have forty-eight hours then," Agent reminded them. "Make this quick." _-~-_ Twenty-four hours later, Rick, Marsha and Joe were standing underneath the hot desert sun in Egypt. A net.thingee was beside them, some little shade provided by it, but Joe was sweating because of more than that. "One small mistake," he said, "and we'll be sucked into this killfile before we know about it." Carefully, he prodded the control panel on the killfile device, which looked too uncomfortably like a bomb. "I can't believe the LNH has a stockpile of those," Marsha said. "Not ours," Joe replied. "We got them off Doctor Killfile, and kept them stashed. Frankly, I didn't think we'd be able to get our hands on one, but this is an emergency situation." He stood back. "I think that's it. We can detonate it from inside the net.thingee." Climbing into the craft, they activated the engines before looking out the window at the killfile generator. Joe pointed the remote, and pressed the button. "How long do we have?" Rick asked. "Not sure. It's not entirely stable," Joe replied. "I think the timer is set for three minutes, but that was before they were packed away. Something might have happened to it since." "Like that!" yelled Rick as the device suddenly started trembling. It distorted before their eyes, somehow being sucked into itself, and creating a kind of whirlpool. "It'll take out some of this desert, but also nearby newsgroups," Joe said. "Move us out of this one!" The engines of the net.thingee strained as it fought the power of the killfile outside. "Careful," said Rick, as Marsha and Joe manipulated the controls. "We want to ride the wave remember." "Won't be a problem if we can't concentrate," Marsha yelled back. Outside faded away as the net.thingee entered virtual net.space, the ether in which the newsgroups existed. Eddies in the net.space tugged them along, the killfile still making its presence felt. Despite their controls, the craft began to tumble, gaining more momentum the closer it got to the killfile. The killfile itself rove through the net, riding the electric currents through servers, sucking out messages, consigning email to oblivion. Inside the craft, Marsha and Joe were tossed against their safety belts as the craft was knocked to and fro. Occasionally, they saw a large beach ball bouncing around the back, Morph's solution to the turbulence problem. "The killfile should be running out of power any moment now," Joe shouted between bumps. "Hopefully, it'll settle near where Barry ended up!" The shaking continued for another minute before showing signs of slowing down. However, the screen had settled on one image. "We're going in!" Marsha yelled. "Attempting to pull away!" The engines strained harder, and faltered. Changing from a beach ball into a large boot, Morph slammed into them. The engines gained more power, and managed to pull free of the killfile's influence. "That'll work," Joe admired, as he started running scans. "There are a number of killfiles in the area," Joe reported. "Attempting to sort by datetime stamp." "Found one," Marsha called out. "Matches the date we fought Faq Lord. It has to be the one." "We've got an Undo command, supplemented by plot.devicium, with a rabbit's foot tied onto it," Joe said. "But we only have the one. Are you sure?" "Punch it," Marsha said. Joe hit the launch command, and the torpedo carrying the Undo command flew from the net.thingee and crashed into the specified target. There was a dazzling display of energies as removing and repairing programs fought, but the rabbit's foot clinched it. The killfile disappeared, leaving a body floating in the net.space. "One body," Marsha reported. "It looks like him!" "Bringing him aboard." Maneuvering carefully to avoid the other killfiles in the area, Joe brought the ship around to slide the body into the airlock. Morph hit the controls to cycle the airlock, and in moments a body fell onto the deck. "It's Barry," Rick confirmed, reaching down to touch the body. "Damn. We're too late. It feels like he's dead." "Let's get him back to the hospital," Joe countered. "We might just be in time." _-~-_ "He's so cold," Alice said, looking down at the newly recovered Barry, now in a bed alongside the other Barry and the Net.Elementalist. "He is Barry? The...real Barry? Is 'real' even the right word?" "He's the original of which the others are net.copies," Agent said. He looked over at Missy and Doctor Stomper, who were hooking more pieces onto the device they had created earlier. "And what will this do?" "We're not entirely sure. Hopefully, it'll stabilize them all. But anything is possible," Agent replied. "I wish we could test this somehow," said Doctor Stomper, trying to stop a circuit board from falling off the pile. "But I doubt we have time." "Not meant for three-way," Missy added. Finally, they stood back and took in the situation. On one side was the Net.Elementalist, and beside him the Barry that had been in the LNHiverse for the past few years. On the other side of the room was the Barry they had recovered from the killfile. "Kill or cure," muttered Doctor Stomper under his breath, making sure Alice couldn't hear him. Louder he said, "Who will throw the switch? Shall we have a count down?" "Enough of this melodrama," Agent said, reaching out and flicking the toggle. The device emitted a piercing noise, causing them all to cover their ears. The room lights darkened and brightened as energy was sucked off the power grid into the device. Blue energy lines coursed over the bodies on the beds, making them twitch. Then the device exploded, sending out flares of sparks in all directions, a miniature fireworks every moment. The blue lines around the Net.Elementalist and Barry beside him intensified, until the bodies were covered by blue light. Slowly, through the blue, golden particles of energy floated up off the bodies, and through the air to land on the original Barry. As each spark landed, his body twitched and shuddered as energy lanced through him. The amount of particles sped up, until a flood of gold streamed from the two copies into Barry. Blue light flashed, blinding the on-lookers. When they could see, the room lights had returned to normal, allowing them to witness a smoldering pile of electronics and two empty beds. Turning slowly, they saw Barry, the original Barry, lying in his bed. Alice and Missy rushed to his side, one to hold his hand and brush his hair away from his eyes, the other to run a scan. Everyone waited with bated breath, until Missy turned to them. "He normal," she announced. "He fine." There was a collective sigh of relief, then Missy continued. "He sleep for a while. Be awake soon." Focusing on the bed, they saw that Alice was now lying on the bed, her head resting on Barry's chest. And Barry's arm had encircled her protectively. "He'll be fine," Agent said, turning to leave the room. After a moment's contemplative pause, the others followed. _-~-_ "It's weird," said Barry, a few days later, as he sat up in the hospital bed, moving the food on the tray around without feeling brave enough to try any of it. "I have these collected memories. I was in the killfile all that time...and I was with Alice and Abby...and I was the Net.Elementalist, roving the net. They're all me, and yet they aren't." "I'm sure that'll settle down soon," Joe assured him, speaking as someone who also had to sometimes deal with multiple conflicting memories of events. "And then you can get back to being our Game Master. I hope you remember where we were up to?" Barry smiled. "We'll see how that goes. I might just have to kill you all off and start again." "And I hope you'll be joining us soon again too," a voice said, and the pair of them looked up to see Rick and Peter enter. "We could do with you back in the Alt.Riders," Rick continued. "Yea, about that..." Barry looked at Joe. "Do you mind giving us a moment? There's something we need to talk about." "Sure," Joe replied. "I'll just go see the doctor to make sure you are being discharged tomorrow." Nodding to the others, he left the room. "What's up?" Rick asked. "I do want to join the Alt.Riders again," Barry said. "I can remember all that, but I also remember being with Alice and Abby. It was good spending all that time with my family. I don't want to go back to not seeing them again." "I see." Rick and Peter shared a look. "Look, we do want you back, but that's up to you. We won't force you. Perhaps we could work out a part time deal?" "Perhaps," Barry ceded. "I see you got your normal sight back," Peter put in. "Yeah, I can properly control the suit now, including the visor," Barry said, proving his point by making the visor grow around his head, and covering his eyes (but leaving his glasses there), then removing it again. "I have a lot more control over my powers, but I don't think I'll be up to...er...his level of control." "Considering what his control did to him," Rick said. "That might not be a bad thing." "I can't believe you guys actually kept him around. He was insane!" "And you aren't?" Peter asked. "Well, yeah, you trying being trapped in a killfile and see how rational you can be afterwards." There was a moment's uncomfortable pause before Barry continued. "And why'd it take so long for you to come looking for me?" "Hey, we've had our problems too," Rick replied. "We were stuck in limbo for a long time, and then got free to find Bennington had been messing with our minds." "And then there was the circus," Peter added. "Sounds like you've had an interesting time of it," Barry said. "Why don't you tell me all about it..." -------------------------------------------------------------------------- NEXT ISSUE: Where will you be in twenty years time? Where will the Alt.Riders be? Join us next time for a look with "Future Lives". CREDITS: The Alt.Riders are mine. Joe Forsythe is Saxon Brenton's. Doctor Stomper is public domain.Back to the Index.