[This title has always been bordering on the Acraphobic, and I think now is as good a time as any to reinforce the "mature audience only" label. So, warning: mature images ahead.] Blue Light Productions presents: ________ ____ _ _____ _ _ ____ _ | | | | | | | | | | | | BLiP | | | | | | -|-- | | o | | | | |--| |--| |---| | | |--~ |--| |--| |--- ---- | #31 | | | | | | | | | | | \ | | | | | | |___ | | | | | |~~~ | | | | _ | | | | | |~~~ | | ~~~~~~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~ ~~ ~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~~ [The cover is a faded picture of the entire Alt.Riders team (basically a photo version of the last splashpage of issue 1). Someone has put a cross over the entire picture and written "Not any more..."] -------------------------------------------------------------------------- "Future Lives" 20 years later... There are hundreds of thousands of meteorites just outside the solar system, so it is no big surprise when one of them is on a collision course with Earth. It has happened before, it will happen again. No-one spotted this one as it flew through space, tumbling and twisting. Indeed, it was too small to worry about. It wouldn't strike a major continent, wiping out civilisation. It wouldn't crash into the ocean, sending a hundred foot tidal wave washing over the land. In fact, it shouldn't even make it through the atmosphere. Something that small should just burn up from the friction, leaving nothing but a fine shower of debris. It started as expected, the heat burning off outer layers. However, as the middle of the meteorite became exposed, it refused to be burnt away. Soon a red hot fireball roared down through the air, the size of a small van, flame trailing off, forming a tail. It crashed into the city of Sin.ci.net.ty at a mere 200 kilometers per hour. However, that was enough to send out of shock wave that knocked flat all the buildings around it, laying waste to the entire city as it carved a hunk out of the earth from its impact. Earth and debris flew through the air, the collision causing a crater ten kilometers in radius to be formed in what remained. In the centre was the meteorite, now revealed to be something else. As the echoes of the destruction faded away, the white space pod cooled in the ground, the innocent bullet in the gunshot wound the Earth now had. Precisely on target. _-~-_ The telephone rang, once, twice, thrice more. The figure in the bed didn't move as the burring sounded in the air. Eventually, a click sounded. "You have reached the home of-" the electronic voice became more human as someone else said "Rick Mansfield" before becoming electronic again, "who is not at home at the moment. Please leave a message." "Rick. I'm currently outside the remains of Sin.ci.net.ty. Find me. I need your help." The voice was feminine. Very feminine. Another click sounded as the caller hung up. However, now the figure was moving. The voice had penetrated where the ringing didn't. The figure moved around, a lump under blankets on the bed. After a few moments, the struggles became more frantic, then suddenly a blade pierced the bedding. Seconds later, shredded sheets rained down around the now revealed Rick. He had a rather unkempt appearance, scraggly hair down past his shoulders, clothes rumpled, several stains rubbed into the fabric, which was all rather strange given that he was a shape-shifter. His arms returned from blades to more human appendages as he scrambled to the wall phone unit. "Pick up! Phone, pick up, damn you!" "There is no call currently in progress," the dispassionate electronic voice of the phone unit said. "You just received a call!" "You have one messages waiting. Do you wish to hear them now?" It was times like this that Rick wished he brought a more advanced unit. Struggling to get his breath, he said "Phone. Trace the phone call just received." "Please wait." Rick counted to ten as slowly as he could manage, but still felt the urge to punch a hole through the phone. "Well?" "The phone call was traced to mobile unit #2234324," the phone replied. "Where is that? Call it back!" "I'm sorry, that unit is no longer in operation. Do you wish to place a new call?" "Give me the message on a slug," Rick ordered. "Keep trying...wait, contact Sin.ci.net.ty." The phone unit obligingly ejected a small plastic slug containing a recording of the message. However, it less obligingly said, "Who do wish to contact in Sin.ci.net.ty?" "What? Anyone! I don't care." Rick picked the slug up and squeezed it. The air was once again filled with the sound of her voice. "There are currently 1,244,533 residents located in Sin.ci.net.ty," the phone unit said through the message. "Please select recipient of the phone call." "Phone," said Rick, in the calmest voice he was capable of at the moment. "Please connect me with someone in Sin.ci.net.ty now...or I will personally reduce you to atom sized components." There was a pause while the phone considered this. "Now calling Philip Aaronsdale." As the phone worked, Rick stared at the slug in his hand. It had been over twenty years since he had heard that voice, but it still sent shivers up his spine. Much had happened over the intervening years, but nothing that could block those memories. Only one person could have such an effect on him. "Unable to establish connection to Sin.ci.net.ty," the phone reported. "What?" "Unable to establish connection to Sin.ci.net.ty," the phone repeated. "What? No, why not?" "All currently listed numbers have been tried. No connection available." "No-one answered?" Rick asked, but there was a suspicion in his mind. One word from the message in particular struck a deep sense of foreboding. "The phones were not contacted," the phone said. "No connection to Sin.ci.net.ty exists." Rick sighed. She said she was outside the "remains" of Sin.ci.net.ty. If he was right, she would be directly involved with causing those remains. After all, that's exactly the sort of thing his mother would do. _-~-_ There was a discrete knock at the door, followed by the entrance of the butler. "Madam, I have a gentleman on the phone who wishes to talk to you," he said in a tone of voice that said that the gentleman on the phone was lucky to talk to the butler, and certainly would never have a chance at the mistress's attention. (His expressive tones of voice were one of the reasons he had been hired.) The madam being addressed saved the spreadsheet she was working on and looked up. "Did this gentleman give a name?" "He said his name was 'Morph', madam. I was going to disconnect him, but he was most insistent." "Well, well, well...Morph...it has been a while since I've heard that name," she replied. "You know the gentleman, madam?" This time, the tone of voice said suggested that the madam must be mistaken as she was never in such a position to be associated with the likes of the one who called. (His obsequiousness was another reason he was hired.) She gave a small smile of amusement. "From my helicon days, Jeeves." (His name wasn't actually Jeeves, but he insisted, and she had never been able to find out his real name.) "Put him through." Jeeves bowed, and backed out of the room. The spreadsheet flickered, then became a video image of Rick. "Hi, Marsha." "That's 'Lady Burgenstock'," Marsha admonished with a smile. "Long time no hear." "Yeah, well, I'm not exactly the world's most popular guy right now, am I?" "It was a very *messy* divorce," Marsha said. "But I doubt you called about that." "You're right, of course," Rick said. "Listen to this." Rick held up and squeezed the slug. Marsha listened to the voice and the message. She shrugged. "So?" "You recognize the voice, don't you?" Marsha shook her head. "Should I?" "That's Veronica Summers," Rick said. "You know, the Queen Bee? My mother?" he added. "Oh. Her." "Yes, her." "And she's back?" "Apparently. And I think she wiped out Sin.ci.net.ty." Marsha gasped. "What? Why?" Rick shrugged this time. "I don't know. That's why I called. I need your help. I don't exactly have anyone else to turn to." "Well, that's true enough," Marsha said. "Hey, no need to make me sound like a completely pathetic loser." "No, we found out all about that in the trial." "You said you'd-" Marsha held up her hands. "I know. I'm sorry. Go on." "Can you find out what happened in Sin.ci.net.ty? And see if you can locate my mother in the area." "I'll see what I can do. But no promises." She paused for a moment. "Can you afford a transpad? No? I'll send one." Rick smiled gratefully. "Thank you," he said. "Owe you one." "It'll just be another one on the list," she said as she closed the channel. A cough announced his presence, but Marsha just knew Jeeves would be standing there. Efficient, yes, but also prone to being around and hearing details that she might otherwise prefer he didn't. "Shall I prepare a room, madam?" he asked. "I don't think that will be necessary, but have the jet ready. We might be on the move." Jeeves bowed and left. "Phone, Turner." As the call went through Marsha sat back in her chair. It looks like her past life wasn't quite over yet. _-~-_ Rick walked out of his house in Alt.oona, and peered up into the sky. He quickly spotted the speck which rapidly grew closer. The person-size pod touched down on the pavement, and once again Rick envied Marsha for the money she had. He entered the capsule, felt the familiar tug of molecules being scattered through the ether, then exited inside Marsha's mansion. And mansion was exactly the right word. He was in the downstairs hallway, with rooms leading off in every direction, and a grand stairway sweeping to the floors above. Rick suspected that it took an army of cleaners to keep it sparkling and dust free, but had yet to see any of them during his previous visits. As he walked through the hallways, heading for Marsha's study, he didn't look at the sumptuous surroundings, but at the slug in his hand. He squeezed it once again to hear her voice. His mother. Veronica Summers. During the latter part of the twentieth century she had built up a staggeringly large empire, the greatest Earth-bound corporation there was, Queen Enterprises. And then, at the turn of the millennium, she had thrown it all away. On a whim, as far as he could tell. It was during that event that he had met up with her. At the same time, she told him she was his mother. At that same time, he had helped her leave Earth for deep space, she having told him she wasn't coming back. Except now she had. And he doubted it was so she could see her son. Reaching the study, he knocked and entered at Marsha's invitation. Marsha was sitting in her chair, and it wasn't the first time he received the impression of a queen on her throne. Certainly, she looked damn fine for someone in her forties, her bare brown arms still shapely, and the dress she wore hugged her body in the right places. Shaking his clear to clear his mind of such thoughts, he asked "Any news?" Marsha gestured, and Rick turned to see a large screen image on one of the walls. Currently, it was an aerial shot of a crater, with a caption reading 'Sin.ci.net.ty, Oh.IO.' "...and so far no-one has stepped forwards to claim responsibility for the thousands dead," an announcer said. "All that has managed to be recovered so far is this pod from the centre of the crater." The image changed to the inside of a laboratory, where the space travel pod was being held. "It's all over the news," Marsha said, as she lowered the volume. "They have no idea what happened." "We know," replied Rick grimly. "At least, we know who was involved." The image changed again, and Marsha quickly increased the volume again. "...spokesman had this to say." The picture was now that of a press centre. There was a man behind a podium, whom both Rick and Marsha recognized. The caption now read "Allan Knewbee". "Details are sketchy at this time," Allan said. "We are looking at the reports as they are coming in. All we can say so far is that this is not an attack by Flipside, nor any other superpower we are aware of. Certainly, there is no basis in the rumours that this is a Dorfian reprisal. We have instigated a sweep for any other objects on an Earth trajectory, but so far have discovered nothing significant." A reporter raised her hand, then quickly asked, "Mr. Knewbee, what of reports of the woman who was seen leaving the area? Eye witnesses say that she was the only survivor, but now no-one can find her." Rick and Marsha exchanged quick, guilty, looks. "That she can't be found is the best reason for us not to take all these reports seriously," Allan replied. "There are many reports, not all of them making sense. Rest assured we will get to the bottom of this as soon as possible." Marsha muted the sound again. "Looks like she got away clean." "Or they caught her and don't want to admit it," Rick pointed out. "Do you really think that's possible?" "Well, no," Rick admitted. "Besides, I have my people out looking for her, and we have a better idea than anyone else who to look for." "Any progress yet?" The phone bleeped. "We'll see now. Phone, accept." The image on the phone unit revealed an elderly grizzled man, greying hair, but still in good shape. "Any news, Turner?" Marsha asked. "Not yet, Lady Burgenstock," Turner replied. "We're sweeping the area around Sin.ci.net.ty, but so far no luck." Marsha turned to Rick. "Is there anything you can suggest that will help us bring her in? She is probably trying to avoid everyone." Rick shrugged. "Short of going out there ourselves, not a thing." Marsha nodded. Turning back to Turner, she said "All right, Turner, we're coming out there." "Hey, I didn't mean-" Rick started, but Marsha held up her hand. "And get the holograph packs broken out. Let's give her what she's looking for." _-~-_ The jet touched down in Port.mouth, roughly 150 kilometers to the east of the crater. Turner led a team of men into the jet, and minutes later lead a team of Ricks out again. Inside, the real Rick was wired up on a couch, slowly trying to remove leads without ripping off his skin in the process. Fortunately, he could make his skin slippery enough to simply make the pads fall off, but still wanted to make sure nothing of himself remained on the pads. "It could work," Rick said as Marsha watched him. "Those holograph packs are the latest design," Marsha assured him. "And now that they hold your image, we should be able to make the Queen think she's seeing you." "She's not the Queen Bee anymore, you know," Rick said. "Would you prefer me to call her 'Mother'?" "Veronica will suffice." "Then all we need to wait for is for Veronica to approach one of our team, then we've got her." "What exactly do you tell them to do?" Rick asked carefully. "Simply make sure she came with us." "Simply? No incentives?" Marsha didn't meet Rick's gaze. "My men must be properly armed, of course." "You could have just asked me," said a voice, and they both whirled to see Veronica Summers standing in the doorway. She wore a bulky black one-piece suit that was more for protection than appearance. Around her head she had a white bandanna, tied back to keep her long hair out of her face. "And 'Veronica' will be fine." While Rick gaped, Marsha thumped her hand down on a panel. "Brock. Heatly. Come in." "Don't worry, they're all right. Just...sleeping," Veronica replied. "Mother?" Veronica smiled. "Hello, Rick. Nice to see you again. You're looking well. Hello, Marsha. You're looking...well." Unlike Rick, Marsha couldn't make her appearance whatever she wanted it to be, and Veronica didn't look any different from what she remembered, but she knew all too well what the years had done to her. "Hello, Veronica. And it's Lady Burgenstock now," Marsha said. "Oh, what happened to your mother?" Veronica asked, her tone innocent. "Such a physical lady." "She was murdered by vanity," Marsha said, her tone ever so slightly bitter. "One operation too many." Veronica tutted. "Such a sad way to go. And so good to see you're not letting yourself be concerned by such minor trivialities as appearance." Rick quickly stood and placed himself between the two woman. "Let's not get too caught up in pleasantries," he said. Turning to Veronica, he continued. "Perhaps you could tell us what prompted your return to Earth." "Yes, do tell why you felt the need to wipe an entire city to announce your presence," Marsha said, slowly settling down. "I can't remember," Veronica said simply. "But I'm sure they don't matter." "What the hells is that supposed to mean?" Marsha demanded. "I can't remember why I returned," Veronica repeated. "That's why I'm here. To find out." "And Sin.ci.net.ty?" "As I said, it doesn't matter. None of us do." "So nice to have such a forgiving philosophy, but I doubt any families of those you killed will be so genial." Veronica sighed. "As I said, it doesn't matter. You don't matter," she said to Marsha, before turning to Rick. "You don't matter either." Rick reacted like she slapped him in the face. "Even I don't matter. But I can't remember why." "And that's supposed to make us...what?" Marsha said. "Help you? At the moment, all I'm willing to do is make the call then drop you off at the nearest police station. Although I don't think you would remain there long before others got a hold of you. And they'd be a lot more unforgiving that we are." "Fine," Veronica snapped. "They were killed for effect. To make the point. A gesture against the pointlessness of it all. And to get your attention," she added. "I'm going to need help, yes, and a lot of resources. I don't have any to call on any more. Except Rick." "Except I don't matter," Rick spat back. "Yes, you don't," Veronica was unwavering in her resoluteness. "But if you've both got what it takes to protect me from whatever the destruction of Sin.ci.net.ty brings about, you've got what it takes to help me." "That was a test?!" Marsha yelled, jumping to her feet. "All that was just to see if we're good enough for you? Rick, get that woman off my plane," she ordered, fury in her voice. "Marsha, wait. Mom, if you could step outside for a moment?" Veronica watched the intensity in Marsha's eyes with amusement, then turned and stepped away from the room. Rick drew a breath, then turned to face Marsha. "There is nothing you can say to stop me from handing that woman over to Allan and whatever things they'll do her," Marsha said. "Now, look, she's not diplomatic, it's true," Rick conceded. "But she also wouldn't come back here and do this if there wasn't a good reason to. If what's she saying is true, then there's more to this than either of us are aware of." "She said we don't matter," Marsha said. "I know I do." "Yeah, I'm not too happy about that either, but we need to know more. We can't just hand her over to Allan. We both know she wouldn't survive." "She wiped out a city on a whim! I say she gets what coming to her." "Marsha, please. Let's at least hear her out. If she hasn't got anything worthwhile to say, then..." Rick paused, then continued. "We'll give her over." "Into the valley of death, rode the Alt.Riders?" Marsha paraphrased. "What remains of us, at least." "Well, I hope it won't end up like that, but..." Rick shrugged. "One last outing?" Marsha glared at Rick, but finally nodded. "Twenty-four hours. That's the most I can give her. After then, they'll know she's here, and probably that she's with us, so we'll all be in danger." Rick impulsively reached out and gave Marsha a hug. "Thank you." "Oof. One more condition." "Yes?" "Take a shower." _-~-_ They had to return to the mansion before Veronica would talk. In her study, Marsha reclaimed her chair, and completely failed to offer Veronica a seat. "Make this good," she ordered. "I had to leave my team back in Port.mouth. They're now providing aid...not that there's anyone left to give aid to...to explain why I went there, but that cover won't last forever." Instead of replying, Veronica reached up and untied the bandanna from her forehead. As it dropped away, her hair cascaded down, now more grey than blonde. Also, markings were revealed, and Rick and Marsha winced as they realized that the markings were etched into Veronica's forehead. The markings were a circle, a vertical line that went through it, and then another line through the circle at an angle. | / _-+-_ / / | /\ | |/ | | /| | \/_ | _ / / -+- / | "Ouch," said Rick. "Doesn't that..." he trailed off. "Hurt?" supplied Veronica. "Only immensely." "Good," replied Marsha, then she notice Rick staring. "What is it?" "That symbol..." he said. "It was on him when I..." Marsha realized what Rick was talking about, but Veronica asked. "What? You know what this means?" "Later," Marsha hissed. "I don't know what it means, but I have seen it before," Rick said. "I have no idea why it would be on your head though." "It's some kind of curse," Veronica said. "It's the symbol of an injunction that's been placed on me to stop me remembering. Whatever it is, I need to get it removed." "And that's why you felt it necessary to wipe out a city?" Marsha asked. "Whatever did this has the power to wipe out this entire solar system, if not the whole galaxy, so if you don't stop whining on, you'll be responsible for a lot more than I ever did." "And that's what you need our help for? Finding out what this symbol is, and how to remove it?" Rick asked. "I doubt it will be that easy, and that's why I need your help." Veronica seemed to finally take a moment to really consider their position. "Speaking of help, where are the others? Weren't you a whole team? That flashy guy with power? The blue thing? And that quiet guy, what was his name again? Patter, or something, wasn't it?" Veronica got no further as Marsha slammed into her, knocking her to the floor and pinning her there with an arm to her throat (although there wasn't a lot of pressure an arm made of marshmallow can apply, the feeling can be rather unpleasant). "Never mention Peter again," Marsha growled in a low voice. "Hey, hey." Rick grabbed a hold of Marsha and made her stand up. "She doesn't know. She's been in space for over twenty years." Marsha shook Rick's hand off. "Just tell her to watch herself," Marsha said, before stalking back to her chair. Rick next helped Veronica up. "Peter died while saving Marsha's life," he explained quietly. "She never really got over it." "I know how that can be," Veronica said. To Marsha she said. "I'm sorry. Losing a loved one is never easy." The sincerity in Veronica's voice took Marsha by surprise, and she briefly gave Veronica a nod of apology accepted. Moving the conversation on, Rick quickly put in. "But she has a point," he said to Marsha. "If anyone can find out what that symbol is, Lillie probably could." Marsha considered this. "Yes, she could. But I lost track of her a while ago. Give me some time to find her." Veronica looked from one to the other. "Who's Lillie?" _-~-_ Lillie was currently tripping across the light fantastic, dipping into alternative streams of consciousness, speaking with Lucy in the sky with diamonds. For anyone else, this was only achieved after imbibing some of the more hardcore forms of hallucinatory recreational drugs, but for Lillie it was simply a matter of letting go of her body. Translating her mental self through a prism of reality at fifty-two point seven degrees off the axis of normalcy, she became the shade of right, the colour of seven, the feel of spin, an emotional state only reachable after revivication from death. She was on the order of 27 dimensional twists away from the concept of what anyone else conceived of as reality. Where sanity was an atom, she was the entire universe. Where time was measured from the big bang to the final crunch, she was aging at the rate of negative several eons a picosecond. And yet the phone still disturbed her. Reforming her body in its original state, Lillie glared at the phone unit until it picked up. "Hello, Lillie? Are you there?" Silence was the response, except for the sound of fingers drumming on a bench in extreme annoyance. "Ah, right. Of course. Look, sorry to disturb you, but we could use your help. Can you meet us at the Burgenstock mansion? You still remember the address, don't you?" Lillie walked to the phone unit, then through it, traversing the electronic conduits at the speed of light, passing through phase space, ground state and implied magnetic resistance. Exiting the other end, she was face to face with Rick, and she glared right into his eyes. Rick took a step back in surprise. "Er, hi." Marsha stepped forwards, cool in the face of oddity. "Hello, Lillie. It's good to see you again." She took the phone piece from Rick's frozen hand and placed it back on the wall. Lillie raised her hand, palm upwards, in a gesture of askance. "I'd like...well, perhaps like is too strong a word," Marsha was unable to stop herself from muttering, "to introduce you to Veronica Summers." Lillie turned to look at Veronica, and Veronica in turn took in Lillie. It wasn't that Lillie was over two meters tall. It wasn't that she was blue. It wasn't even that she was naked. It was that her body was built like some kind of statue, dedicated to physical perfection, and yet aside from the well formed muscles and breasts as large as watermelons, there were no external features of any kind. Oh, there was the eyes, nose and mouth, and hair, of course, but the rest of the body was completely smooth. There were no nipples. Her legs merely met at the top and became her body without anything else there. There wasn't even a belly button. The word 'built' was exactly right. Veronica could spot a construct made merely to house a consciousness when she saw one. "Hello, Lillie," Veronica said politely, holding out her hand. "I assume you know Missy?" Lillie looked at Veronica, then down to the offered hand, then over to Marsha. "Missy went back to her planet," Marsha said. "Lillie stayed behind to take her place. She doesn't say much." "I'd gathered." Rick had recovered from his near heart-attack over Lillie's sudden appearance. "Lillie, won't you take a seat?" he offered. Lillie merely looked at Rick, then tapped her wrist. "Right, of course." Rick looked wryly at Veronica. "She knows some very human gestures though." "You want quick, I can do quick." Veronica walked to Lillie and pointed to the symbol on her head. "What does this symbol mean? And how do I get rid of it?" Lillie looked at the symbol, peered at it intently, examined every aspect of it, gave it complete focus. Veronica staggered backwards, a flash of pain spiking through her head. She collapsed onto the floor, not hearing Rick's cry of astonishment, then all she could see was blue. Rick took a step towards the fallen body, but Marsha grabbed his arm. "There's nothing you can do," she said. Rick hesitated, but she was right. He looked at the figure of Veronica, now enshrouded in a blue mist. The mist enveloped Veronica, and permeated every aspect of her being. Not just the symbol, but the context, the history, the nature, the why, the how, the who. Lillie absorbed it all without comment, letting it flow through her and her through it. Understanding was not necessary but comprehension was. The mist slowly rose from Veronica's prone form, much to Rick's relief, but then he and Marsha staggered as DISCONTI NUITY the mist rushed over them and through them on its way to the nearby bookshelf. FLASH -image of metaphysics- BRE AK in reality, the entire works of Shakespeare enacted before them, BLURR /symbol after /symbol after /symbol/ rushing through their minds, faster, faster, fasterfasterfastefastfasfaffffff SNA P reality folds in on itself, order remade in the likeness of a dice, CRACK LE book after book after book after book after PO P match alignment finding locating mixture making combining together DISCONT INUITY as the mist descended from the books, slowly coalescing back into the form of Lillie, now holding a book. "I hate it when she does that," Rick said. Marsha didn't reply, holding onto the back of a nearby chair to keep herself upright and, more importantly, to stop herself from vomiting. Lillie stood there, book proffered, until Rick was able to regain enough of his senses to reach out at take it. Before he could look at it, a groan from the floor drew his attention to Veronica, and he bent to help her up. The gesture would have meant more if he hadn't collapsed beside her. "What the hells was that?" Veronica asked, pressing a hand to her forehead. "Just the entirely of the space-time vortex being reshaped so Lillie could find that one piece of information," Rick replied, managing to rise on his second attempt then helping Veronica to stand. Veronica took a moment to regain her balance, then turned and bowed to Lillie. "Thank you," she said formally. Lillie bowed back, then casually stepped beyond the range of the normal seven senses humans possessed. "Strange girl," Veronica muttered, before turning her attention to the book. "You have no idea," Rick replied, opening the book and flipping through the pages. It took them a few minutes, but finally they found a matching picture to the symbol above Veronica's eyes. "The Seal of Tonac," Rick read. "This seal is used to secure a change in events that would otherwise be unsustainable. Cannot be removed except after a quest for the Staff of Ha'ano. XP Value: 10,000. GP Value: 100,000." Rick paused, puzzled, then flipped back to the cover page. "Encyclopedia Arcania, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 7th Edition," he read. "What are you doing with an AD&D symbol on your forehead?" Marsha asked. Veronica shrugged. "Suffering in pain. Does it say anything about the Staff of Ha'ano?" Rick flipped through the book, and found the requisite entry. "The Staff of Ha'ano can be used to reveal what is lost, show what is hidden, and discover what is obscured. Also useful for removing seals and curses. XP Value: 20,000. GP Value: 300,000." Rick whistled softly. "Powerful." "No clue as to where it is?" Veronica asked, but Rick just shook his head. Marsha went to her personal computer screen. "Computer, trace 'Staff of Ha'ano.'" "One moment please." At the sound of the voice, Rick shot Marsha a quick look, but she was intently looking downwards. Neither of them had to say that the voice was based on their fallen comrade. Rick gave Veronica the book and went to stand at Marsha's side, but paused when he heard her gasp. "What is it?" "Ha'ano," said Marsha. "It's an island. In Tonga." Marsha looked up and caught Rick's gaze. Both of them knew exactly what that meant. However, Veronica had to say, "That's great. Can we go there now?" "There's been a few changes since you left," Rick said slowly. "All the Pacifi.net Islands are now pretty much under the protection of the Net.Elementalist." "Ah, yes, lots of powers, not much else. I remember him. You can get him to help us, yes?" said Veronica. "Um, not this one," Rick replied. "We might have some...trouble." -------------------------------------------------------------------------- NEXT ISSUE: Not this one? How many are there? Find out about this other Net.Elementalist in the next issue. CREDITS: All mine. NOTES: Veronica is fun to write for! (He says after having her start by wiping out a city.) And I have definite ideas about what's happened by this point, so stay tuned to find out!Back to the Index.