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Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta

Some writers like to keep their ideas close to their chest, as if superstitious that the Muse will abandon them if they divulge any secrets. I, on the other hand, love to brainstorm and bounce crazy ideas back and forth with someone who also has a hyperactive imagination. In my career, I have taken on many collaborative projects; as of this writing, I have written novels with Brian Herbert, Doug Beason, Dean Koontz, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, John Betancourt, and my wife Rebecca Moesta, with whom I wrote this story.

Obviously, something’s working there. This story takes the collaboration concept about as far as we could imagine.

Tara held the second cable in her hand as she crept behind her husband in the dim light of the den; but he was already jacked in, impervious to all distractions.

Chandler lay slouched back in his battered college-salvage chair like a marionette with severed strings, his face slack, eyes REMing behind the translucent sheaths of his lids as he wrestled with his commissioned VR art. From his sighs, fidgety spasms, and general restlessness, she could tell he was blocked again.

Chandler always kept his art to himself, reluctant to talk about it until he finished, even when she offered herself as a soundingboard for ideas. But this time Tara would surprise him—or piss him off. Either way, she hoped Chandler would get out from under the creative block that had been smothering him. If she could just help him get over the hump . . .

Without his knowledge, Tara had installed the black-market splitter behind the wall plate. Now she could jack into the same data stream and help him directly, a true meeting of minds.

She stared at the viper-prongs of the cable in her hand, then mounted it in the socket at the base of her skull. Still moving quietly, she pried off the wall plate and squinted to see the bright silver end of the splitter’s input port, a shunt piggybacked onto the main cable. She had never used a splitter before, never even seen one. But Fizzwilly had promised it would work.

Chandler’s fingers twitched on the worn maroon fabric of the overstuffed chair, as if searching for something to clench.

By jacking in, Tara could see what was bugging him, help him work through the problem. She had purchased the illegal device from her former friend Fizzwilly, who was technically still on the run. It was still prototype hardware, he said, not completely certified, but that didn’t mean the splitter wasn’t useful. She decided to take the risk, if only to get closer to her husband.

Chandler, unaware of her presence in the dim workroom, continued breathing fast and shallow, butterfly wings in his lungs. His eyes looked sunken, lost in a nest of shadows, and his milky skin seemed paler than usual. His red-gold hair hung lank over the interface cable. In her mind, Tara caught a glimpse of what he would look like as an unhappy middle-aged man.

Before marrying Chandler two years before, Tara had spent plenty of time jacked into virtual environments. Her friends, “the wrong crowd,” had sharpened their claws by rerouting legal shipments to illegal chop-shops, altering financial transactions out to many decimal places. Tara had held herself on the fringe, amusing herself by diddling with her own grades and records at the Virtual University, not because she was unable to complete the classes herself, but because she was impatient to begin doing the “real stuff.” She’d had her heart set on a career as an architect or an archaeologist, not as an electronic scam artist.

But when the heat came down and they all got caught, Tara had been stripped of her degree, barred from ever working as anything higher than a grunt at a sprawling architectural firm, and denied all access to genuine archaeological sites; the others stumbled into jail, and Fizzwilly became a fugitive.

Chandler had saved her, dragged her back onto the straight-and-narrow; and now, with her own future as an architect slammed shut in her face, Tara felt like an outsider watching Chandler’s career explode as he created virtual worlds for purchase by anyone rich enough to own a simulation chamber.

But Tara still knew how to find Fizzwilly, and he had gotten the splitter for her. No questions asked.

Right now Chandler needed her. She plugged the second cable into the splitter.

With a sigh, she felt herself being dragged down, vanishing with a virtual echo into a whirlpool where Chandler was working. She would join him in his mind, in his imaginary universe.


In Chandler’s world the rain fell, the flowers bloomed, and exotic birds preened their iridescent plumage.

There, and yet not there, Tara’s ghost image stared at his Eden. Sapphire-winged butterflies danced above brilliant orchids. The trees seemed ready to collapse from the weight of foliage so bright and rich it looked lacquered. Droplets of dew sparkled in the sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The sounds of insects and birds and unseen small animals rustling through the underbrush made the silence deeper. Everything seemed perfect, a paradise.

Tara felt like an intruder.

Chandler’s image stood staring up a tall tree, fingering a thick, ropy vine. He appeared to be deep in thought, perplexed.

“So . . . when exactly is the deadline?” she asked, hoping not to startle him too much.

Chandler whirled, dissolving into static at the edges, then snapping back to focus. “Tara! What are you doing here? How—?”

She pressed her lips together as she worked up her nerve. Chandler had always called that her most endearing expression.

“A splitter. Don’t ask where I got it. I just thought you needed a fresh point of view.” She looked away, then crossed her arms over her small breasts. “Let me help, Chandler. I want to do work that means something again!”

Chandler stood frozen in his rain forest, as if trying to put together pieces of an invisible puzzle. “But splitters—”

“They’re perfectly safe,” she said, tossing her black hair over her shoulder in an impatient gesture. “Let’s not go on about it, okay? When is your deadline?”

Chandler took a moment to collect his thoughts. Always before, he had created his own work, done his best job, and then looked for a company to purchase his virtual environment for their holo chambers. But this time he had taken an assignment, following a client’s guidelines rather than his own imagination. Constrained and worried about producing to someone else’s specifications, he had stalled.

“The office complex already has the holo rec room constructed for their execs. Occupancy in less than three weeks. If I’m going to make a reputation—”

“Keep your reputation,” Tara said.

“—as a reliable professional instead of a flaky VR artiste,” he waggled his fingers, “I’ve got to deliver as promised. But I want it to be spectacular, not just serviceable. This could be my big break.”

Her ghost went to stand next to his, looking at the details of the thick rain forest. “Then let me help you,” she said again. “I might be able to offer a few suggestions. I can take some of the burden.” She raised her eyebrows. “Why don’t you show me around?”

Chandler gave her the ful virtual tour. He started talking about his work, gradually opening up as he pointed at tall weeds, birds, colorful beetles, exotic fungi. She ducked as a bright red macaw swooped low overhead.

“It’s good—I can’t deny that,” he said. “But it’s missing something, and I can’t figure it. More birds? Different flowers? Right now it’s pretty high on the ‘So What?’ factor. I even tried putting traces of a big fire in the distance to evoke a sense of impending loss and suspense, but you can’t see the smoke unless you go up to canopy level, and that’s an advanced option.”

With his fingertip he selected a cluster of white starlike flowers and moved them to a different location near a weathered old rock. “I’ve got all the details right, accurate down to the individual leaves. And I’m planning to add the other sensory modules: a light warm breeze, dampness in the air, various scents. It’s correct by every measure I can make—but something indefinable just doesn’t work.”

Tara chose her words carefully, speaking one step behind the thoughts forming in her head. “Let me check out my first impression. The part that makes the Eden myth so poignant is not the paradise itself, but paradise lost.” Her image gestured at the jungle. “This is too perfect. It needs . . . pathos.”

She reached up to call down the virtual image palette, linking to her old archaeology databases and selected a few images to place in the midst of Chandler’s jungle. The old boulder transformed into a moss-covered idol, worn half-smooth by centuries of wind and rain.

“Step back,” she said, and they zoomed out to observe a larger part of the rain forest. Crumbling ziggurats appeared, tall Mayan pyramids hulking in the jungle, the Temple of the Jaguar, remnants of Tiahuanaco. Vines covered immense carved blocks of dark-gray lava stone while animals and birds nested in the cracks. She included no people, only the mysterious relics of a lost and fallen society.

“The mighty have fallen,” she said. “Nature conquers all with the passage of time. Think of that poem ‘Ozymandias’—nothing left of the great conqueror except for a weathered old statue in the middle of the desert. It’s a sense of loss that tugs at your heart strings.” She stopped speaking, self-conscious, turning to look at him. “So what do you think? Are you mad at me?”

“No, I’m not mad.” His face beamed, no longer a reflection of inexorable middle age, but a return to the boyish exuberance that had drawn her to him a few years ago. “You found the missing ingredient.”

Standing together atop an ancient temple, their ghost images looked out across the lush rainforest.


With the success of Chandler’s ‘Lost Rainforest’ virtual ecosystem, clients offered him bigger commissions. Tara watched his confidence building, but he kept searching for the best followup assignment.

Chandler had always been driven, focused on his creations to the exclusion of the rest of the world, including her. Though they had been dating while she was messing around with Fizzwilly and friends in the network, Chandler had remained oblivious to her other activities, accepting her as just another student. After her troubles with the other hackers, he had been an anchor for her, staying by her. He had refused to let Tara give up in despair at the loss of her degree.

For two years Chandler kept telling her that she would work her way up in an architectural firm, that her talent would open doors for her even with the stain on her record. For him, she tolerated an uninteresting job as an underling for a large firm designing nuevo deco special-interest malls, though it had no future she could see.

But she wanted more, a task she could buy into with the same enthusiasm that came so naturally to Chandler. She wanted to share his passion, to sweat blood and enjoy it. . . .

Tara spent the morning jacked in, walking through 3-D wireframe displays of design modifications before submitting them to the review board. Dull work. While waiting for Chandler to come home from his luncheon meeting, Tara had cracked open the sliding balcony door, and a breeze drifted in, curling the vertical blinds.

She disconnected when Chandler came home, draping both wrists over his shoulders and tilting her face up to kiss him. She tasted curry and onions, spicy Indian food. A good sign, she thought; the Bengal Dawn cafe was expensive, not a restaurant chosen casually by disinterested clients.

Tara could tell by the excitement on his face that he had already made up his mind.

“It’s the Grand Canyon,” Chandler blurted. “They want me to recreate the Grand Canyon in ‘all its grandeur.’ Not the real canyon, but an idealized and enhanced version, the way it should be. All the strata, all the terrain. And it’s big, very big. Not just a slice of rainforest.”

Tara tried to share his excitement but did not quite understand. “How can you improve on the Grand Canyon?” she asked. “Isn’t the real thing spectacular enough?”

He shook his head, slipped his net-access plaque onto the synthetic marble countertop so he could gesture with his hands. “If they wanted the real thing, they could just set up some beam-splitters and a hologram generator and be done with it. They could even massage out the rimside resorts and the roads and the tourists to make it look pristine.

“They want me to use the real canyon as a foundation, but pump up the grandeur, make it so even the stodgiest urban cynic will gasp in awe at Nature’s majesty. It’s been six years since I hiked down into the canyon, and my own memories are rose-tinted with time. That’s the way I want to portray it.”

Chandler held out his hand, tentatively withdrew it in hesitation, then squeezed her own. “Hey, would it be all right if you helped me again? From Day One this time. We can brainstorm with the splitter. . .you can help me shape the project before I blunder down blind alleys.”

Tara felt as if she had been blindsided, but she leaped at the chance. “Sounds better than checking design mods. But I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. Is that going to be a problem?”

I have,” he said, shaking his head, and gestured to the den, where the splitter hid behind the wall socket. “And I’ll share all the images with you. I can do a direct feed.”

Tara grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the workroom before he could change his mind. “Okay, Chandler, take me to the Grand Canyon.”

In the den workroom, they both affixed cables to their sockets, joined by the splitter. Tara leaned back, closing her dark eyes and letting a numbing swirl of images flood across to her: stark corkscrewing mesas sliced out by erosion, scrub brush, incredible sunsets like pastel fingerpaintings across a huge sky, roiling clumps of thunderheads, close-up strata in ocher and tan and green-gray and vermillion, the muddy violence of the Colorado River, and finally a crisp night full of stars—like the universe crammed into the narrow alley of sky visible up through the canyon’s towering walls.

Her mind simply received the data; over the next day or so she would assimilate it, sort it out, and make sense of Chandler’s memories.

“There,” he said, disconnecting. “You know everything you need to see about the Grand Canyon.”

She sighed and smiled and blinked her eyes as the brilliant images continued to whirl across her forebrain. “It’s almost like I went with you.”


That night as she dreamed, Tara’s mind continued to shuffle the memories, unlocking more than Chandler had intended. She heard the crunch of leather hiking boots on the sun-baked trail, felt sweat prickle on her/his hairy arms, saw another woman close by, smiling and panting, sharing swigs from a lukewarm canteen as they paused under a shaded overhang, sleeping naked on top of their zipped-together sleeping bag, making love under the narrow alley of night sky framed by the canyon’s towering walls . . . .

Tara sat up abruptly, clammy sweat filming her skin. Beside her Chandler slept wound in a single sheet, the blanket tossed aside. “You went with Celine!” she said.

He jerked awake, blinking his eyes rapidly to focus. He scratched the jack socket at the back of his head. “What?” he said, rubbed his eyes, and looked at her. “What did you say?”

“You went with Celine to the Grand Canyon,” Tara repeated. “I dreamed it. It must have been tagged to the memories you shared with me. I got the whole experience, not just the edited version you handed over.”

Chandler’s expression rippled with concern, but not about the same thing. “There must have been some backwash in the transfer. Maybe the splitter—”

“You slept with her!” Tara said, startling herself with her anger. “You told me you were just friends, that she was an ‘old college acquaintance’ of yours. We’ve had her over for dinner half a dozen times and you never told me you two were screwing each other!”

Chandler kneaded a lump of the sheets, as if afraid to touch her. “Celine and I are just friends. We were only lovers for a week, during that trip, and it didn’t work out between us. That was a year before you and I started seeing each other. What does it matter now?”

Tara kept her voice low. “It wouldn’t matter, if you had told me. The fact that you kept it a secret means a hell of a lot.”

He blinked at her in the wash of street light filtering through the blinds. His face passed through a sequence of emotions from confusion to stunned anger that reminded her uncomfortably of how he had looked when she had been charged with altering her Virtual University files. “I’m not the only one who’s ever kept secrets,” he said.

Tara looked away, stung. “Touché.” Chandler squeezed her shoulder, and she was torn between the desire to mollify him and the desire to knock his hand away.

Tara sighed and tried to find words for her emotions. “All right, Chandler. So we’ve peeked at each other’s skeletons in the closet. We’re even. But no more secrets, okay? We’re married. We exchanged vows, combined our lives, promised to share everything. I don’t like secrets. I want to be part of what you’re doing.”

He climbed out of bed, standing naked in the dim yellowish reflection. “Okay, mea culpa. No more secrets. We share and share alike. Genuine partners, collaborators.” With slow, smooth motions, Chandler eased the straps of the sweat-soaked teddy off her shoulders and slid it down her body.

When they made love, tentatively at first, salving the sore spots between them, all Tara could think about was the splitter in the other room. . .and how it would feel to share bodies while sharing the same mind.


Chandler licensed “The Grandest Canyon” to more than a dozen office complexes. His hazel eyes gleamed as he swept Tara toward the door of their apartment. “Kimba’s Steak House tonight,” he said, “for a celebration.”

For the past two years, they had made a habit of feasting on rich red meat once a month, whether they could afford it or not. Tara enjoyed their special meals, the evenings away from his work, though sometimes their budget had allowed them only a small filet to divide between them. Splitting a steak with Chandler was doubly difficult, since he insisted on eating his meat bloody rare, and she preferred hers medium well; as a result, they settled for medium, leaving neither particularly satisfied.

But tonight they were celebrating, and they would each have the meal of their choice. Tara sucked on a cholesterol-suppressant lozenge and handed one to Chandler as they boarded the transit tube and rode to the steak house.

Chandler talked with her about possibilities as he strode along the sidewalk to Kimba’s. He gestured with his hands, walking straighter, more confidently. Tara thought of him slumped in his maroon chair not so long ago, jacked-in and blocked for ideas—she liked the change in him.

They passed through the artificial bamboo gates of Kimba’s, next to the stuffed white lion mascot. The receptionist keyed up their reservations and led them to a narrow booth in the back near one of the shimmering fake fireplaces, under the stuffed head of an artificial ibex. Gaudy Zulu shields and long spears hung on the walls, and a soundtrack of throbbing drums and squawking birds came from microspeakers buried in the potted plants.

They called up the familiar menu on the datapad set into the end of the table, punching in their selections. He picked a large Porterhouse, she chose a filet mignon. It felt extravagant to select what they wanted, rather than what they could afford.

Chandler hunched over the lacquered table, resting his elbows on it as he reached out to her. “I want to show you something,” he said. He dipped a hand into his shirt pocket to pull out a deck of newly imprinted plastic wafers, business cards with a magnetic strip containing autodialer information. She recognized the basic logo, but he peeled off one of the wafers and slid it across the table to her.

“I changed the company name from Chandler Damon, Worldbuilder, to Worldbuilders, Inc. I put your name on the ID strip, too.”

He grinned at her, his pale, freckled face looking ruddier in the cast-off light from the imitation fire. She held the plastic card in her hands, rolling the edges against her fingertips, as if afraid they might turn into razors. “You put my name on it?”

Chandler shrugged. “Well, you’re going to be a part of it from now on, aren’t you? Especially considering the new contract I got offered today—something really spectacular. We’re reconstructing ancient Egypt, an interactive diorama environment displaying the creation of the pyramids and the great sphinx. It’ll go in one of the top recreational floors in the financial center towers.”

“You mean I can quit my other job?”

He shrugged, as if not sure how she would take the news. “Well, you keep telling me how much you hate it.”

Before she could find a way to express her delight, the server placed their meals in front of them. Chandler sliced into his dripping red Porterhouse, eyeing the meat as if he were a predator. Tara talked with her mouth full, tugging out details of the Egypt project as she let the excitement wash over her.

The filet was delicious, perfectly cooked, but she had already received a far greater treat than the steak could ever be.


A hot sun baked the desert along the Nile. A simulated sky shimmered with the heat, refracted blue glinting off airbrush-smooth sands. Holographic slaves clad in dusty loincloths and rimed with sweat and mud constructed the monumental pyramids as Tara and Chandler worked at constructing the rest of the program.

Chandler’s ghost image stood up a level on the pyramid adding details to the animated work crews. The slaves hauled enormous limestone blocks into place, sliding the chunks along mud-slick tree trunks. Chandler looked ridiculous in his guise as a slave driver: arms crossed at his bare chest, legs spread apart, bright white linen wrapped around his waist. He had added a dark Egyptian cast to his normally pale, freckled skin. His red-gold hair hid under a headdress. His lips pressed together as he concentrated, an expression she had not seen him wear before.

He stared down at the work gangs roped together, sweating as they maneuvered their loads up ramps. Working with a palette grid he pulled out of the air, he adjusted their expressions and routines, altering the dirt and details of their rags.

Tara’s ghost image walked up one of the slick ramps and clambered across a network of palm-trunk scaffolding to inspect the architectural details. Playing the game, she had dressed her image in the gaudy garb of a Pharoah’s wife, her eyes black and greasy from a layer of kohl, her neck burdened with a necklace of gold and lapis lazuli, her knuckles adorned with scarab rings.

“Hey Chandler!” she said, raising her voice. Automatically the synthesized sounds of rumbling stone, cracking whips, and shouts of pain damped and faded into the background. “Do we have a revised estimate of the completion date? We’re ahead of schedule, aren’t we?”

Chandler’s image nodded from the other side of the pyramid. His headdress wagged in the bright sun. “I want to emphasize the immensity of this construction, yet leave the impression that it’s perpetually in progress. A metaphor for life: constantly building—and no matter how large it gets, you’re never actually done. Like La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona.”

Somehow Tara knew instantly what he meant, though she could not recall ever having heard of the architect Gaudi before. Deep in virtual Egypt, Tara had gotten better at interpreting mental messages from Chandler. They built upon each other’s ideas.

The pyramids had gone up with amazing rapidity, with details as sharp as a new icepick. The work was not merely interesting, it was good. She could see things with a more artistic eye now, Chandler’s eyes.

She turned her kohl-smeared eyes toward the work crews. In her years of knowing him, she had never felt so close to Chandler, had never felt so close to anyone. It was an immense relief, and something she had always wanted. She didn’t want the project to end.


The sharp knife in Chandler’s hand slashed down, dicing bok choy, Chinese eggplant, and celery on the wet cutting board. He chattered with Tara, distracted by his own excitement.

In the hot wok, vegetables sizzled with the pungent smell of onions and garlic in sesame oil. On the tile counter beside the wok, soft sweaty masses of turkey breast glistened like damp skin.

“I’ve already got future projects lined up,” Chandler said. “The pyramids were really a breakthrough, and my agent is searching for commissions appropriate to my—to our talents.”

“Good,” Tara said, watching from the comfortable stool as he washed another jewel-purple eggplant under the tap and brought it glittering over to the cutting board where he chopped at it with short, stuttering strokes.

She felt free now, with open doors ahead of her again since she had scraped away her unchallenging archtectural work, like mud off her shoe. Chandler didn’t care about the mistakes in her past; he let her be herself and help him.

Chandler paused in his cutting, scooped the chunks of turkey and vegetables into the hissing hot oil, then reached for a green bell pepper. “I already told my agent that you and I would be taking projects jointly from now on.”

She grinned at him. Chandler glanced at her with a shy smile as he automatically brought the blade down again, slicing his index finger.

“Damn!” he cried, dropping the knife and looking at the blood welling from the gash. “Not again! This is the same finger I cut last year. I’ll probably need another three stitches.”

Tara sprang to her feet, rushing around the counter to help him, but she froze halfway. “Chandler—I cut my finger last year, not you.”

He held his cut under the cold running water and looked at her in confusion. She lifted her right hand, extending her index finger to show him the thin white line of her scar.

Chandler turned pale. “That was you? But the memory in my head was so clear!” He removed his hand from the water, wrapped a dishrag around the cut and pressed hard.

Tara went to the medicine cabinet to get gauze and tape. Her mind buzzed. More backwash from the splitter?

She brought the medical supplies, and though her hands looked steady, she was shaking inside. “Maybe we should. . . back off a little,” she suggested. “Stop jacking together so often.”

Chandler seemed preoccupied as he wrapped his cut. His lips pressed together as he concentrated in an expression she found endearing. For a moment he seemed convinced, but then his expression changed, like plaster-of-Paris setting in a mold, growing sharper and harder.

“Let’s think about it,” Chandler said. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities, and we don’t need to rush into anything.”


Tara returned alone to Kimba’s Steak House. Chandler was off at a luncheon banquet to receive an award for his ‘Lost Rainforest’ environment, but she wanted some time alone, treading water in a vague ocean of dissatisfaction. Perhaps she had picked up some of her husband’s need for solitude.

Or perhaps she was just depressed because she had learned that Fizzwilly had finally been caught, the last of her group of hacker friends. Her only remaining connection to that past existence had been severed. Tara decided she didn’t really want to go visit Fizzwilly and commiserate with him.

Preoccupied, she found a table surrounded by the kitsch safari atmosphere. She sat under a stuffed zebra head this time, looking up at its placid face, striped black and white, as if a black horse and a white horse had somehow merged imperfectly. It reminded her of Chandler and herself.

Resting her chin in her hand, she keyed in her order and stared at the gaudy decor, wondering if any of it was real, or if it had all been manufactured as props. She decided she didn’t care: with as much time as she spent jacked in with Chandler to a virtual universe, reality had earned a different meaning for her.

Waiting for her food, Tara pondered how her life had changed, admitting how much more involved she was with Chandler now, an inextricable part of his work. Tara had dreamed about this . . . but she wasn’t sure this was what she had had in mind. She had grown together with him, but at the cost of part of herself.

The server interrupted her reverie by bringing her meal. She cut into it with her steak knife, but stopped short when she saw blood pooling on the plate. She turned to the menu pad and called up her order, staring at the words she had keyed in. She looked at her steak again.

The Porterhouse was grayish on the outside, and a rich, cold red at the center.


“—and then we’ll stop,” Chandler said, his eyes pleading.

As Tara looked at him, she caught an image of the gaunt, middle-aged man again, riddled with self-doubt and the fear that he would be unable to complete the job he had taken on. “Just help me finish this one,” he said. “You’ll enjoy it. I promise.”

Tara turned away, uneasy and afraid to meet his eyes. “Tell me again what’s wrong,” she said.

Over the past week or so, she had refused to jack in at all. Spooked by the growing evidence of the crumbling barrier between their personalities, she had decided to back off, worried about the danger of using the prototype splitter.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with it!” Chandler lashed out on the verge of panic. His eyes glittered in a silent plea. She had never seen him look so helpless. “It’s missing something at the heart. Without your help it’s only a shell. I’m falling flat on my face.”

He reached out in desperation and clung to her hand. He hadn’t done that in a long time. “Please?”

As the refusal died in her throat, Tara realized how drastically their needs had changed, as if they had swapped insecurities. Chandler needed to become more a part of her, and she retreated, trying to build barriers and maintain her own soul.

But as she looked at him grasping her hand and silently begging, she saw the man who had stood beside her when her bright future had been stripped from her, who had let her share in his growing success and giving her a new chance. She saw him redefining his company to include her, asking her to become his partner in everything.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll make this one our masterpiece, a final flash of glory. Then we’ll stop. You’ll be on your own from now on.”

“Sure,” Chandler said with obvious relief. “It’s for a whole shopping mall. It’ll be really big.”

Tara went to the wall jacks, wondering why he would think that the size of the implementation had anything to do with her decision to help him.

She carefully mounted the viper fangs of the jack cable into the socket in the back of her head. Rushing and fumbling with his own socket, Chandler linked up. They plugged into the splitter, and both swam down into the virtual world.

He took her to Mount Olympus.

Chandler had chosen the assignment to pique her interest, since in her student days she had traveled through virtual Greece, visited the ruins of the Parthenon, the Acropolis, statues of Apollo and Athena.

Tara looked around under the bleached-bright sky of Chandler’s land of the gods. Mount Olympus towered, reaching to the clouds, where Zeus and the other gods dwelled, working their mischief by playing games with mortal lives.

Tara’s image had entered the world at the foot of the great volcano. On grassy hills stood weathered, half-fallen remains of Greek architecture, a random mix of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, small temples and larger structures scattered in no particular order, as if Chandler had captured their images from a mixed-bag database and pasted them to the slopes as the impulse struck him.

Black obelisks of volcanic rock thrust out at the base of the mountain. Steam and sulfurous fumes curled from fissures, and a blistering glow rose from a large opening, accompanied by loud sounds of clanging metal, a sighing forge, and someone massive stirring.

She saw no image of Chandler waiting for her. They had both jacked in, but he had gone to a different place. As Tara listened to the grunting, clanging sounds in the fire-filled cave, she knew where to find him, where he wanted her to go. He was playing some sort of game with her.

She stepped inside what she guessed would be the forge of Hephaestus. The sharp-edged cave walls reflected the burning-hot light rising from a river of incandescent lava that flowed, rumbled, growled through the chamber.

On a flat rock in the midst of the lava stood the incarnation of Chandler—Hephaestus himself—his head a mass of wiry black hair matted with perspiration, a voluminous beard, eyebrows like feathers from a bird of prey, a face lumpy and ugly. He wore only a soot-stained loincloth. Sweat trickled down his bronzed and muscular frame. One of his feet was crushed and shriveled; Tara remembered the myth of an angered Zeus hurling Hephaestus from the top of Mount Olympus.

He withdrew a sharp metal object from the lava—the glowing tip of a new trident for Poseidon. He looked up, his eyes flashing reflections from the fiery, molten rock. “How do you like it?” Chandler asked. His familiar voice sounded strange issuing from the vocal cords of a massive Greek god.

Tara glanced down at herself to see her body a sculptured model of absolute beauty, pure alabaster, clad in sparkling white flowing robes. She felt luxurious tresses of hair draped between her shoulders. She rolled her eyes at the irony of being too lovely to touch—cool and aloof, unreachable. “Am I supposed to be playing Aphrodite to your Hephaestus?”

“You’re my wife, aren’t you?” Chandler asked with an eloquent shrug. He began to hammer the smoking trident on an enormous, misshapen anvil; the sledge blows sent thunder reverberating through the grotto.

She indicated the cave, the forge. “Well, the exterior of Mount Olympus needs work, but you’ve surpassed yourself here.”

Chandler looked at her longingly, his large green-tan eyes glowing beneath the bristling brows. “That isn’t why I wanted to bring you here,” he said. He laid down the trident and stepped down into the flowing lava as if wading across a stream.

“In here, metaphor becomes reality—or whatever reality can become.” The molten rock rippled around his naked thighs as he took another limping step on his deformed leg and sank up to his waist. “I need you Tara,” he said, holding out a grime-blackened hand. “I’ve become a part of you, I’ve become addicted to you. And I can’t do my work without you inside me.”

Tara felt alarm well up inside her. “What in the world are you talking about?”

“I think you know. Come into the fire with me,” he said. “Together we have unlimited potential. You must know it. Merge with me, once and for all. All or nothing. No secrets. Remember what you said? We exchanged vows, combined our lives. We’re supposed to be partners.” He dropped his voice. “We can share everything, down to the smallest thoughts. We’ll both be in each other’s head: a complete synthesis.”

He took another halting step forward, stretching his hand toward her, imploringly.

“Oh, Chandler, I wanted to be closer to you,” she said, “not to become you.”

Chandler shook his head. “You won’t become me. We’ll become us.” Swirling thoughts screamed for her attention, but Chandler kept talking. “We won’t even need the jacks anymore. We can do it ourselves. Our minds have already started growing together. We’ve intertwined. I’m in you, and you’re in me.”

She tried to respond, but found no words. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have constant mutual support, shoring up each others’ weaknesses, never to be alone, always a part of a team? She thought of herself, and wondered how much she really had to lose.

Tara found her own hand lifting toward his as she stood on the brink of the fiery river, gazing at him, knowing she was the image of perfect beauty, fragile yet enduring. And he stood in the lava, powerful, a symbol of unending labor in all its grimy ugliness.

Her hand hovered in the air as the molten rock continued to bubble and hiss. She longed to join with her husband, but she knew that one personality would ultimately prove stronger. For now, Chandler could stand unharmed in the purging fire—but eventually one or the other of them would be consumed.

As Chandler touched her fingers, Tara viciously jacked out.


With an abrupt motion, like a drowned woman gasping back to life, Tara wrenched the end of the jack cable from the illegal splitter in the wall.

Reeling and disoriented, she suddenly found herself back in her mundane den, where Chandler still sat on the floor beside his old maroon chair, his face slack, his mind lost on Mount Olympus. Tara threw the jack cable down with a sharp gasp, as if it had stung her. She looked at it lying on the floor like a disembodied tentacle, and uncontrollable shudders wracked her body.

She never wanted to go back into the same data stream with Chandler. She had no boundaries left, and neither did he. They would keep merging, averaging. She had to get rid of the temptation—before Chandler could talk her out of it.

Tara dug behind the wall plate, routed Chandler over to the main network access, and disconnected the splitter. The clunky-looking gadget made of plastic and wire snapped like cracking knuckles as she ground it under her heel. The prototype had not been made for durability. She tossed the pieces into the kitchen incinerator and came back to stare at her husband.

Crouched in a lotus position, Chandler remained unaware of her presence. His eyes REMed back and forth; his red-gold hair hung limply over the interface cable. She wondered if he was grieving in the forge of Hephaestus.

They were already intermingled. Their minds had touched and shared and come away with pieces of each other. But from this point on they would no longer be on the same path; partners, yes, but not two people averaged together. From here, she and Chandler could move on parallel life roads, or they could diverge—but they would not be stepping in the same footsteps.

She could be part of him, and apart from him. The best of both worlds, if he would settle for that.

Tara’s eyes filled with tears as she stared at Chandler, who now seemed separated from her by an impenetrable wall. When she called his name, he didn’t answer, and so she reached out and caressed his hair instead.

* * *

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