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Xone of Contention, Page 1

Piers Anthony


  Of Contention

  Piers Anthony


  Chapter 1 I LEMON

  Chapter 2 COMPANION

  Chapter 3 MUNDANIA

  Chapter 4 TALENTS

  Chapter 5 COVENTREE

  Chapter 6 MODEMODE

  Chapter 7 MOUNTAINS


  Chapter 9 XONE

  Chapter 10 ROBOTA

  Chapter 11 FANTA SEA

  Chapter 12 WEATHER

  Chapter 1


  Edsel struggled with the program, but it just wouldn't jell. The problem really was in the software, which was unusually unintelligible. How could he make it seem easy and user friendly, when its programmers had evidently labored decades to make it difficult and hostile! This was of course how he earned his living designing software to make other software seem nice. But in this case he needed to tweak a default in the computer operating system, and access to the key level was barred. That was the fundamental bone of contention.

  "Damn you, Macrohard," he swore softly "Just once, couldn't you give a person a break? I'm not trying to steal Doors from you, just to put a special function on the keypad 'Enter' key so Grundy Golem can work independent of the mouse. There are folk who don t like being chained to the mouse, you know this isn't Dizzy World. Would it hurt you so bad to let someone have it his own way for a change?” But of course he knew the answer yes it would truly pain the company to let a user ever have it his own way. Macrohard never wanted anyone to forget for half an instant exactly who was the master, and who was the least important person in the universe. It couldn’t stop third party programmers like Edsel from trying to alleviate things but it could and did make sure that they were unable to make any significant improvements. So the bone became a whole zone of contention.

  There had to be a way around this block. He had all the rest of it figured out—if he could just use this one key. If he could only get in there to redefine it. Without Macrohard catching on. He almost thought he had a glimmer of a way, but he couldn't quite grasp it. He was up against a deadline, and this one aspect balked him maddeningly. This wasn't like his problem with the printer, which Doors refused to allow to use its two paper trays; both had to have paper, but only one could be drawn from, so that he could not have one tray feeding paper while he refilled the other, cycling through without delaying his work. That had been a real aggravation when he had changed to Doors: its deliberate crippling of the useful features of his printer that he had always used before. But what could he do? Doors had become just about the only game in town, and it slammed shut on any fingers it chose. He had survived that aggravation, but he had not been under a deadline then.

  Maybe if he took a break, got his mind off it for an hour, the way would come to him. Sometimes it was like that, you had to take the pressure off the gate before you could unlatch it. He remembered his frustration the first time he needed to format a floppy disk, and Doors didn't even list formatting as an option. Their Help feature did tell where to find it, but neglected to clarify that a right mouse click was necessary instead of the left one, to get the proper menu. Macrohard was a genius at providing the necessary function, but effectively disabling it by the selective omission of a key detail, so that most users could not get the benefit of it. Truly fine sadism. So he had wasted precious time before finally finding it by chance. That was too often the only way, as with evolution: time and chance. And that could be wearing on the psyche. While the anonymous Doors programmers surely laughed their nerdly heads off. They evidently loved making working folk waste time, energy, and patience.

  Edsel got up and walked to the garage. There was his pride: the Lemon motorcycle. He had had it for years, and it was a great old machine. Just a little off its feed right now, but some tinkering with the carburetor should fix that.

  He laid out his tools and got to work. He always felt better when with his fine machine. The nerviest thing he had ever done was to put it up as his stake in a bet with his friend Dug. But it had been important, because he had won that bet. and gotten Pia. The bet had been that Dug. who had hated computer games, would like Companions of Xanth. The motorcycle against the girl. Not only had Dug liked the game, he had come out of it with a new girlfriend, Kim, now his wife. So his old girlfriend, Pia, was freed to be with Edsel. A win-win situation for the home team.

  Or was it? Now it was seven years later, and his marriage to Pia was in trouble. Somehow they seemed to fight more than they made love. Sometimes they did both together. He was beginning to wonder whether they had made a mistake. Dug and Kim hadn't; their marriage was solid and harmonious. Which was odd, because Kim really wasn't lovely; she wasn't nearly as pretty as Pia, and not half as sexy. She also talked too much. But somehow she seemed just right for Dug. She clearly adored him, and he adored her. Edsel wasn't sure there had ever been a hard word between them. In contrast to the way it was between Edsel and Pia. Edsel had asked Dug about that once: how he had discovered Kim, and how they managed to get along so well.

  The answer had been perplexing. "Sure, Kim didn't seem like much. But then she kissed me."

  "That was it?"

  "That was it. And when there's a problem, she kisses me again."

  "When we have a problem, Pia won't kiss me at all."

  "She's like that," Dug had agreed. That had reminded Edsel how Pia had once been Dug's girlfriend, and he didn't care to dwell on that.

  He took down the carburetor, but the problem didn't seem to be there; it was clean and clear. Maybe in the gasoline line? That could get more complicated.


  He jumped. "Yes dear," he replied, hoping this was not going to be another scene. She looked and sounded furious. Talk about a zone of contention!

  "Don't 'yes dear me! What are you doing here?"

  "Why haven't you finished that Cuss Companion program yet? You know you shouldn't be goofing off here when we have a deadline! Can't you finish anything? I just got a call from Kim, asking if she can tell the buyer it's in the mail. I'll have to tell her no. because my idiotic husband cares more for his junkcycle than for his job!"

  He didn't try to explain. It wouldn't do any good, when she was like this. But he did need to get back to the Companions program.

  He looked at his watch. Three hours had passed! He had gotten lost in the Lemon and his thoughts, and spent way more time than he could afford. Pia had a right to be angry.

  He reassembled things as rapidly as feasible. and washed his hands. He went to find Pia, hoping to explain, but she was on the phone, giving Kim an earful. It was an irony of the situation that the two women got along great. Maybe that was because Pia was glad Kim was taking up Dug's attention, and Kim was glad that Pia wasn't taking his attention. So he went to the office and put the Companions program on his computer, running through its routine. He was rather proud of it, overall.

  A little figure, obviously fashioned of wood and rag, appeared. "Hi! I'm Grundy Golem, your Companion of the moment. I speak Basic, C++ and other computer languages, but you don't need to worry about that; I'll translate everything to your tongue. Please check in your name, gender, age, status, and whatever." A check-off sheet appeared. Edsel typed in his name, and checked Male, 23, Married. This part was optional, but it added to the effect.

  "That's great, Edsel,” Grundy said. “What do you want to know” Click your cursor on one of these words, or Select it by touching Alt and the first letter, and touch Keypad Enter." The figure held up a sign listing a number of popular programs.

  Edsel clicked on Macrohard Doors Excess. "Good," Grundy said. "Now before we get into this. Edsel, I must tell you that you don't need to have me as your guide." His voice come thr
ough the system speakers; this was a multimedia program. "You can choose any of these others by Selecting or clicking on them." Several pictures appeared. One of them was Pia; it had amused them all to have her be the model for their own program. She looked great, because a program figure didn't put on weight the way a living one did.

  Edsel clicked Pia. Her picture came to life. She was wearing a dark blue jacket and skirt, and had small golden earrings representing Pluto, the P planet. "Very well, Edsel" she said dulcetly. "Now how can I help you with Excess? Do you know anything about spreadsheets or databases?" She smiled. She had a nice smile. In fact she had a nice everything, in appearance. He clicked "No."

  "Well, they are both ways of storing and using information," she said. "Would you like me to walk you through the basics?"

  This time he clicked No, though she had a lovely walk. She faced him, putting on a cute smile of perplexity. "What would you like. Edsel? Just type it in, and I'll do my best."

  He typed "Disrobe."

  "If you wish." She opened her jacket and drew it off, revealing a tight, well-filled sweater She put her hands on its base and began to draw it up. showing a sheer blouse beneath. Then she paused, catching on. "Hey—it's supposed to be the program I'm helping you with, Edsel, not your sex life."

  He smiled. He had always liked that part. That was as close as the Companion Pia ever came to quarreling, and farther on in the program she would remove the sweater if asked, and later the sheer blouse too. But it took precise management to get her to remove her bra or skirt, and that only after the user had demonstrated some competence in Excess. Her figure was worth the effort, though. To date they had had only three complaints about that feature, and dozens of notes of appreciation, and the program had sold well. One mother's letter had been choice: "Thank you so much for teaching my thirteen year old son to operate Excess. I don't know how you did it, but he learned it readily when he used your Companions guide, after getting nowhere elsewhere. He even runs through the guide for refreshers every so often, and his friends are learning too. They all say yours is the best." Obviously Mother herself had not caught on to the secret lure, and Junior wasn't telling. Modern teens were not stupid about software of the feminine kind, or about the attitudes of parents.

  Edsel canned the program. It was the update for the Discuss word processor he was working on now, popularly known as Cuss. The latest revision of Cuss word was even more complicated and balky than usual, and really needed a good tutorial program. For example, it wouldn't let a file it made end in anything but .doc. as if it were a cartoon rabbit, on pain of horrendous file-trashing threats. Only by chance (as usual) had he discovered that he could get around that by putting his proposed file names in quotes. His tutorial clarified that and other dirty little secrets. If he could just make it work. He had to differentiate the two Enter keys, so that the Companions guide could have its own "Okay" key for special effects. But he still couldn't figure out how to free it from Macrohard's malign grip. Dog in the manger: if Macro didn't want to use it, nobody could. That familiar bone of contention, again.

  Maybe there would be inspiration on the GigaGrid, or the Mundane Mega Mesh that enclosed the world. He clicked the Mode M site and was on his way.

  “That's right—go hide m the Grid the way you always do,” Pia said sourly behind him.

  "Oh, go buy another box of chocolates the way you always do," he retorted He would rather make love to her than fight her, anytime, but often there wasn't much choice.

  She disappeared, and he forged on into the Grid. It was always this way she had a sharp tongue, and he inevitably responded. Their marriage was on the rocks, and with it, maybe, their business. If it weren't for Dug and Kim, Companions might have foundered already. Kim was gregarious, so she was the saleswoman phoning clients, emailing them, paying personal calls, bringing in the orders that were their life blood. Dug handled the shipping and handling, often delivering the larger orders personally, for he was a handsome man who always made a good impression. Pia handled the accounts, and Edsel of course, struggled with the programs. He had let them down, this time, by trying for too much, and now he didn't have a finished program for them to deliver. He was the weak link, and he hated that. He was the lemon, this time.

  Now he was cruising the GigaGrid, meandering through the Mesh, looking for inspiration. Maybe he could yet figure it out, so that he could complete the program, and they could deliver it late. He whistled in the way he had, smiling, his tongue against the roof of his mouth it was easier than doing it purse-lipped, and fewer people knew how to do it, a double advantage as far as he was concerned. He liked being different in inconsequential ways.

  He became aware that he had drifted into strange territory. There was a sign THIS IS THE O-XONE ENTRY TO THE MAGIC MESH REQUIRES THE RIGHT SPELL PENALTY FOR ABUSE IS A BUNION.

  Edsel laughed. This was a joke or a challenge. He liked challenges almost as much as he liked jokes. Pia had been a challenge. So it seemed that someone had set up a Mesh Leaf with a trick mode of entry and he would see if he could get in. What would be the key?

  He tried the usual run of code words and signals but they didn’t work. Then his left big toe began to hurt. It felt like a bunion. He put voice into his whistle wondering whether this could be coincidence. How could a Mesh Leaf give a person a bunion. What kind of Xone of contention was this?


  Spell accepted? What was it talking about? Oh—it must be a joke the sign changing automatically after a moment, encouraging him to hit on this Leaf. So okay, he could play this game, where was this Black Wave gal?

  He walked down the hall, and noticed two things first, his bunion was gone, and second, what was he doing walking down a hall? This was an address on the Mundane Mega Mesh of the GigaGrid, he was gazing at his computer screen and interfacing with mouse and keyboard. Yet he wasn't, he was now walking down a hall. There were booths along it, each with a picture of a person, and a name. The colors were somehow brighter and clearer than those in his office, and the air seemed fresher.

  And here was the name Breanna under the face of a cute black girl who looked to be about sixteen. She must be the one So he lifted his knuckle and knocked on the picture.

  It came to life "Ouch! You hit me!"

  Startled, Edsel apologized "Sorry I didn't mean to."

  She looked at him "What do you mean, didn't mean to?" she demanded with cute severity "You rapped me on the noggin with your knuckle."

  "I—I thought it was just a picture I was knocking on the door. You know—hitting the site I never thought it would be literal.”

  She stared at him "You're Mundane!"

  He was taken aback "I confess I am. You aren’t?”

  "Of course not. Not any more. Now I'm Xanthian. In real life. I mean this is just my Magic Mesh Leaf. How did you get into the O Xone?"

  "There was a sign, saying something about a spell and a penalty and my foot began to hurt, and I whistled—and then I was here. So I did what it said, and looked you up."

  Breanna seemed mollified "Okay. Let's start at the top I'm Breanna of the Black Wave. My talent is to see in blackness. Who are you and what's yours?”

  I'm Edsel of—of Mundania, and I guess my talent is to cruise the GigaGrid. Or to make droll jokes. But I never found this—this Magic Mesh before.

  "Of course not; it's barred to most Mundanes." The picture considered. It was a picture; just her head and shoulders, animate but flat, like a TV image. Yet her eyes looked at him, and she was responsive to his words. "You must have found a glitch. A spell that wasn't programmed. What exactly did you do?"

  "Well, 1 whistled Like this." He made a voiced whistle.

  The picture wavered and became three dimensional. Breanna's lips pursed. "That's magic, all right; it just enhanced my sight.”

  "You mean your site?"

  She smiled. "That too.
maybe. I mean, suddenly I see you rounded instead of flat. Am I the same to you?"

  "Yes. But you're still just a head and shoulders. I can't see your rounded portions, though I'd like to."

  She flashed another smile, appreciating the implied humorous compliment. "For sure. That's all there is of me in the Leaf. I mean, how could the real me be here?"

  "I don't know. The real me seems to be here, though that seems impossible."

  "For sure. We'll have to patch that glitch. But you don't seem bad for a Mundane."

  "Well. I hope I'm not bad even if my marriage is patchy." He hadn't meant to say that; he was a little unsettled.

  "Too bad you're not in Xanth. Marriages are forever, there."

  "I know. My friend Dug went to Xanth and met Kim there, and they have a happy marriage."

  Breanna's eyes widened. "You know Dug and Kim Mundane?"

  "Sure. I'm in business with them. I was the one who first put Dug onto Xanth. The Xanth game. I mean; I didn't know he'd actually cross over.”

  "Yeah, he was in the Companions game. I wish I could have been a Companion "

  "Oh? Why weren't you?"

  "I was too young then, only nine. Anyway, the Black Wave had just come into Xanth then; we didn't know our way around. Sherlock went with Dug and found a good place by Ogre Chobee for us to settle in. So I guess I can't complain. But it sure sounds like fun."

  "It sure does." he agreed. "Well, if I'm ever in Xanth, you can be my Companion and show me around." He felt a trace of guilt as he spoke, because he was flirting with this cute girl, and as a married man he shouldn't.

  "I can. That's great!"

  "Only I can't get into Xanth," he said with regret. "Dug and Kim go there only when invited. There was some kind of trial. Something about a big bird, I think."

  "Roxanne Roc," Breanna agreed. "She won. She's just about the most important bird in Xanth now, except for the Simurgh. That's another great moment of history I missed. Bleep. I'd sure like to be in on a Great Moment. Well, I did get to go to Jenny's wedding." Then her picture paused, orienting on him with wild surmise. "Say—maybe we can do each other some good. Maybe you can visit Xanth, and I can be your Companion and show you around, and maybe that will be a great adventure and accomplish something nice, like patching up your marriage."