The Palantir of Josef Betz, part 2
With a whistling cry, Tiercel tossed the weighted scraps high into the falcon's path. Four times the bird had stooped to the lure only to have it snatched away from her at the last instant. It was a game, in so far as there were rules to the encounter, but it was one with deadly purpose. To keep her keen.
Only rarely was she allowed to succeed on her first or second attempt but she knew better than to feint. It was not unknown for Tiercel to keep playing her six, seven, eight times if he felt she was not performing at her peak. Now, though, she had earned her reward.
Tiercel watched as the bird picked at the meat. She stood poised and erect, alert to the approach of danger or sudden opportunity. Tiercel smiled. It was a very Elvish trait. That was what had drawn him to the Art long ago: a deep respect for and identity with the birds that he flew. Hawks and martlets. Gyrs. Eagles from the high hills. Down the years he had trained and flown them all. Each as individual to him as any Elf - or Man.
Tiercel did not consider himself sentimental but there was something special about this one. He had taken her from the nest high in the Merrill Gorge two Springs ago to train for the Master's own. The memory of that dizzying climb assailed him suddenly. He had almost fallen on those high slick walls. He shook the thought away.
Nor had she been an easy bird to train. As a juvenile she could be wilful: the short scar across his cheek attested to that. And she had often displayed a wild energy that outpaced her ability to control. At the break of winter she had collided in mid-air with a wild kestrel. The kestrel was dead before it hit the ground and it had taken all of Tiercel's skill to save the falcon and urge her back to health.
But now it was Spring again. The bird was fully restored and Elrond had gifted her back to Tiercel in token of his husbandry. About him the middle valley glowed; meadow and pasture, bush and tree shaking free of the short winter's hold. Yet Tiercel's heart was not at ease. He was five days east of the Master's house and had not seen another person for two days. There was nothing especially unusual in that, considering the time of year. Still, something felt wrong. As if responding to his thoughts the falcon gave a sudden shriek and leapt into the air.
Tiercel shaded his eyes with his hand against the pale afternoon sun. For a moment he cast in vain for the bird's position. A sudden movement caught his attention. High against the upper slopes she flashed, small and grey against the sheer pine-dressed cliffs. Then she vanished, even from his keen gaze.
Ordinarily the falconer would not have been unduly concerned at the bird's elopement. She would return to him in her own time. Pigs can smell the wind, it was said. But Elves and falcons knew the value and nature of time.
Nevertheless, his earlier feelings of unease had not been quieted by her sudden disappearance. Tiercel's eyes remained fixed on the place where he had lost sight of her. She had been in mid-flight, turning this way across the dark trees as she worked to climb above them. Then she had gone, as simply and suddenly as if she had flown behind a wall. A wall that was not there.
Even at this distance Tiercel was certain she had not simply flown into the trees. He would have seen the movement of the branches. There was nowhere else for her to have gone. Nevertheless, she had gone - somewhere.
It came to him suddenly that the bird had not been startled into flight as he had first thought. Her call as she lofted, her attitude in the air, had not been those of fright, but of challenge. Had she sensed another bird in her territory and had flown off to investigate?
A wild bird - eagles were rare in the valley though not unknown - might have snatched the falcon from the air, but such a tousle could hardly have transpired without him seeing. He had seen and heard nothing.
Tiercel paused in his climb. Down there, away to his left and hidden behind a stand of oak and beech, was the flower-strewn meadow where he had been standing a little less than an hour before. He had waited for the falcon, calling her in the high-pitched tones she was trained to heed; his customary patience turning to anxiety. But she had not returned and in the end there had been nothing else for him to do but go after her.
Here in the Middle Valley the southern walls rose steeply from the lower slopes. There were no paths here into or out of the cloven vale and Tiercel had already climbed above the few tracks that wound precariously between the narrow terraces. Now he was standing at the foot of a precipitous rock-face. Two hundred feet above him the wall fell back in a series of angled steps, to which clung pine and firs in ragged lines. It was against the largest of those trees that the bird had disappeared.
It was not the physical demands of the climb that had given Tiercel pause. For nine months in twelve he walked the length and breadth of the valley with his hawks, or hunted the larger of them across the rolling moorland of Rhudaur. Once a year he journeyed the old paths that led high into the Misty Mountains to renew his covenant with the great eagles. Long miles and exertion did not deter him.
But Tiercel had never been good with heights and he trembled now at the sheer verticality of the rock wall he now faced. Only concern for the bird and the desire to comprehend what had happened to her drove him to conquer his fear and begin the ascent.
An hour later he was more than halfway to his goal. The wall was less technically demanding than his fear had made it and he was making fair progress. Even so, he kept his eyes on the rock. He paused again and shifted his hold slightly to ease the strain in his left side. Though it dizzied him he forced himself to look up and gauge his next sequence of moves. The ledge he was aiming for stood out clearly against the dark trees beyond.
Between there and here the going seemed easy enough. Left foot. Left hand. Push. He moved off again. The rock was sandy, banded with hues that ran from white through pink and gold to the deepest blood red. Another reach and push. Another foot of the behind him.
Another foot to fall.
The ledge was now no more than a dozen feet above him. But there was no way to reach it. He cast about him to left and right but as far as he could see the wall was - literally - sheer. All natural irregularities and handholds had been erased. The only marks he could see upon the rock looked suspiciously like chisel-blows. As if the natural defences were not enough, someone had climbed up here and eradicated any possibility of descent into the valley.
Or ascent out of it.
Berating himself for not noticing the defensive barrier before starting this section of the climb, Tiercel considered his next move. It seemed unlikely that he would find any unprotected route - allowing the possibility that there might be one - within his ability to climb it. His best option seemed to be to descend again and hope the falcon would come back of her own accord. He should never have attempted the climb in the first place. For all he knew she was down there now, watching for his return. As to her mysterious disappearance: maybe he had been mistaken about that. There could be any number of explanations, all of which would be better contemplated on the ground.
Tiercel took his right hand from the rock. Twisting his body he reached down to the knob of stone he had used two minutes before. It was not there. It had to be there. But it was not. Panic rose in his chest. This is impossible, he told himself. You climbed this rock a few minutes ago.
He glanced about him, up and down the cliff. Impossible or not, to either side, above and below him now there stretched nothing but a finely chiselled surface of unclimbable stone. There was nowhere to go.
At that moment he felt a thrumming in his ears. Then there were wings beating wildly in his face and he felt the caress of her talons against his cheek. He tasted blood before he felt the pain of it. In self-defence Tiercel lifted his left hand from the rock to fend the falcon from him. And fell into the screaming air. The last thing he remembered was the resin sweetness of the pines as they rushed towards him.
Josef had been watching the pair for some time as they wheeled about the face of the valley wall. The smaller male falcon he had seen before - a dark crescent soaring against the sky above him as he walked the Middle Valley on another quest - but the female was new to him. He was no expert but it seemed to him that the two had recently come upon one another. Each appeared wary of the other yet was not for the moment hostile. Weighing each other as rivals for this portion of Middle-earth sky, or perhaps as mate.
This was the morning of Josef's second day inside the Game. He had entered some five miles east of Rivendell and was making his way upstream at a Ranger's pace. He had seen no others along the way, save one unlikely party comprising three Hobbits, one Man, a Dwarf and two Elf maidens who walked the grassy paths hand-in-hand, naked as the morning with flowers twined in their gold-braided hair. Josef had hailed the party, passed a merry meal with them, then bade them on their way west towards the Master's House, comfort and safety. They seemed unaware anything was wrong.
From inside the Game Josef had no access to the FirstLine battery of statistics, metrics and Breakthrough warning lights he had employed on the outside. But several times in the past two days he had sensed ... what was it? A certain pulsating sensation in the air. A tremulous shimmer where no heat haze had a right to be. Whatever it was, the effect had grown stronger the further east he travelled.
This morning, after leaving the motley band of travellers, he had forded the Merrill stream and trekked the lower slopes on the southern side. Here the land rose from the meadows and greenwoods in a series of terraced steps until they met the sheer rock face of the valley walls.
High above him now a dark line of trees marked what must be a shallow shelf standing proud from the cliff. Against the sky the falcons wheeled. Hovered. Dived. Josef stood in awe at their mastery of the air. Time after time they seemed certain to smash into one another, the rock face or the tall gaunt pines. Yet ever and again they swept danger into dazzling display.
He was about to look away when the female shrieked loudly. She folded her sickle winds tight into her flanks and threw herself at the wall. The bird seemed to fall for minutes, hours, though it cannot have been more than a few seconds. Josef realised he was holding his breath.
The air pulsed in his ears, stronger now than before, and felt a sickening elevator-drop sensation in the pit of his stomach.
What was that?
Josef followed the line of the falcon's fall. There was a figure up there, etched in dark shades against the rose-red stone. High up above the line of trees. He would have sworn there had been no-one else in that section of the valley but now that his attention had been caught he found he could not look away.
He watched her brake wildly, beating the air as she struggled to find a footfall. One arm raised to the bird in welcome or alarm. Then the body fell, and Josef could not tell if the cry he heard came from this lost soul or the birds that followed the body down from the sky, disappearing into the pine-drenched dark.
As a Ranger it was Josef's duty to assist other players in need. At this distance he couldn't tell if the faller was indeed a player but the Game did not maintain non-player characters for fun. Either he had chanced upon a Gamer who had fallen - if not to his death then certainly to serious injury - or ReMe had generated the NPC as part of his own Game. In either case he was bound to attempt the rescue. But he hesitated.
Josef knew he could come to no physical harm. Whatever happened inside the Game, outside it he was still lying on his bed in his whitewashed apartment with its embroidered beechtree hanging on the wall, its artificial daylight and its plaswood floor. Beside him his Palantir controller pulsed on its polished Mallorn stand.
There was always the danger of the Resurrection Bends, a collection of psychological symptoms which occasionally followed the trauma of "dying" whilst in character. In the past fifty years an entire branch of psychiatry had sprung up around the numerous psychoses, neuroses and other problems associated with such VR worlds as Real Middle-earth.
The Bends affected even seasoned gamers; indeed the effects tended to be the more serious and prolonged in experienced players whose characters had been built up over many months. Years even. Josef was not immune to the Bends but if he did fall to his "death" on that wall he was not afraid of the consequences. It would hardly be the first time.
As for psychoses, neuroses and the rest, Josef considered that far from inducing strains in his personality, ReMe kept him sane. It frequently seemed to him that inside was considerably more real - whatever the word was supposed to mean - than outside. Outside, where "wooden" flooring was grown in commercial vats and the few living trees remaining in the world raised their branches behind razor wire in the syndicated arboreta of the mega-rich.
Davidson had once shown Josef the Tolkorp "forest": two hundred vidlinked Mallorns, projected in real-time against the boardroom wall. More trees than Josef had ever seen. Ever imagined seeing. It had taken him six months work but eventually he had managed to trace the link and access the video feed from his own machine. These were real trees, in a Tolkorp compound somewhere on this planet, distant but real. Even so, Josef could not touch them. He longed for trees he could touch. Feel. Only in Middle-earth could he realise his longing.
More practically, there was also the fact that a "fatal" fall would terminate his session before he had succeeded with his mission. Real Middle-earth had strictly limited save/recover capabilities and players could in fact save only once every week of Game-time. Two days into his session there was thus no opportunity for Josef to save his position before attempting something as hazardous as a two hundred foot, rope free, solo climb up a sheer rock face. It was something to consider.
Tolkorp's position was that the restrictions made the ReMe experience more realistic. Naturally, not everyone agreed and there had arisen any number of multsave or immortality hax for those who had the technical wherewithal, the disposition - and the money - to employ them. Some hax had attained such universality that they were considered a core part of the game by many ReMe newbies.
Officially, Tolkorp opposed all third party attempts to modify the ReMe experience and it was part of Josef's job to watch out for any such illicit coding. In practice a degree of latitude was exercised. Simple savehax which could be considered part of an individual player's setup were unofficially tolerated. After all, if the Game allowed such variants as neo-Christian Istari and flying Dwarves (both of which Josef had encountered in his travels), it was surely reasonable for players to be able to secure their game whenever they wanted. Personally, however, Josef eschewed such artificialities. They cut across his perceptions of ReMe as a real world.
And there were far more hazardous scripts out there: malicious hax that did not seek to enhance a player's gameplay but burrowed deep within the fabric of ReMe for reasons of its own. The most dangerous and penetrative of all were dubbed "Qcode" by both the hakkers who wrote it and those such as Josef who attempted to thwart them.
Qcode targeted the Quantum Correspondence Engine, seeking thereby access to the uncharted complexities of the underGame. Deliberately or otherwise, by subtlety or brute attack, through genius or malign happenstance, occasionally one such strand of code would navigate all the inbuilt defences and expose the aRda substratum itself. Such "Breakthroughs" were the bane of the FirstLine gurus and a royal pain in the ass for Rangers such as Josef who had to go in there and sort out the mess.
A Qcode attack was one of the first things Josef had thought of when Davidson sprang all this upon him. But from inside the Game he was less certain. This weird heat-haze phasing he kept experiencing and the aural dissonances were like no BT he had ever encountered.
Josef shrugged to himself. Whatever the nature and extent of the risks he really had no choice. Not just because he had committed himself to solving another operational glitch for his employer. Whatever was going on, whatever was causing the angry lines of Breakthrough warning lights he had seen from Outside, was jeopardising more than Tolkorp's cash-cow monstrosity. It threatened his Middle-earth too, where his heart could beat beneath the trees.
And so he settled his pack evenly upon his shoulders and began the dizzying climb.
"Give me your hand!"
Josef looked up. He was no more than a couple of feet now from the ledge. Above him, outlined against the trees, knelt a tall figure dressed in brown. His right arm was extended towards Josef. Upon his left wrist stood a female falcon.
The climb had proven less difficult than it had looked. Nevertheless, Josef took the proffered hand gladly. A moment later he was standing upon the short turf.
The falconer did not respond immediately but regarded Josef closely. Like a hawk, Josef thought. The man appeared unscathed, apart from three livid streaks upon his cheek where the bird had left her mark. Given how far he had fallen, Josef was surprised to see him alive.
"Why are you here?" The sudden question caught Josef off guard.
"I saw you fall." He glanced up at the wall which stretched above them. "From up there -"
Now that Josef was nearer he could see how fundamentally unscalable it was. From fifty feet or more above the tree-line the rock rose almost vertically. The surface caught the afternoon sunlight, shimmering it back in a glitter of rose-red hues. It looked unnaturally smooth, as though it had been worked by hand. He was amazed anyone had managed to climb so high. Or survive the fall.
He must have landed in the trees, Josef thought. Even so ...
"- I came to help you."
"I am Tiercel, falconer to my lord Elrond," the other declared. "Whose Valley this is," he added, glancing about him, as if momentarily doubting the truth of his own words.
The name stirred something in Josef's mind but he could not place it. Tiercel returned his attention to Josef. He did not speak but the question was plain enough.
"My name is Aradan," Josef answered, using his character's name. "Ranger of the northern kingdom."
Tiercel appeared little reassured.
"For a Ranger you are strangely dressed. And I know you not. But I thank you, if indeed you climbed to give me aid." He opened his arms as if to display his lack of injuries. Momentarily unseated, the bird fought to regain her perch. "Yet as you can see, my lord Aradan, I am unharmed."
"That is plain - and I am glad to see it! And yet to fall so far and suffer so little hurt is a great wonder. In honesty, I expected to find your body broken upon the ground."
Tiercel did not respond. He appeared lost in thought. Without warning he lofted the bird into the air. She dropped out of sight below the cliff edge, then reappeared and soared away to the left. The falconer stared after her. Then, seeming to come at last to some resolve, he turned back to Josef.
"You truly watched me fall?"
"Not more than an hour past."
"Tell me, Aradan, what exactly did you see?"
Josef moved to where a rocky outcrop erupted from the turf. He sat down. As he began to speak, Tiercel came to stand before him.
"I was in the pasture lands below, this side of the river, when I heard the falcon cry out. I looked up and saw her stooping down towards the wall." Josef paused, unwilling to describe to the other the details of his death: a death he had all too clearly survived.
"Continue, my lord."
"Then it seemed that I saw a figure fall from high upon the wall. Into those trees," he added, nodding behind him. "And I would say that was you, Master Falconer, unless my eyes did not deny it."
"They do not. And yet ..."
Once more Tiercel hesitated, as though trying to decide if the Ranger could be trusted. Then he moved to sit next to Josef.
"You saw me fall, Aradan. I awoke in pain - yet uninjured, as you see me now. Amongst those trees." He indicated a stand over to their right, hard up against the rocky wall. "I was climbing after the hawk -"
"I thought she was a falcon ..."
For the first time, Tiercel smiled. A broad smile that lit his weathered face. "You are right of course. But all such birds are 'hawks' to those of the Art."
Josef inclined his head to acknowledge the correction.
"She disappeared into those trees. At least, she disappeared ... And I began the climb to find her. Then the rock shifted. It shifted and was smooth and she flew at me and I fell I fell up - to land upon this ledge. And now you, Aradan, Ranger of the north kingdom, who know this land yet of whom I neither know nor have heard. Now you appear and say you saw me fall from high above, where I have never climbed. Where none could climb because -"
"Because the rock has been worked by hand," Josef said, recalling suddenly details of the valley defences from the ReMe statpacks. Elrond had rendered all climbable walls impassable in the early days of the valley's occupation. "Nevertheless, Master, you were on that wall, else how -"
"No," Tiercel insisted. He strode over to the edge of the rocky shelf. Josef joined him. Two hundred feet below them the land sloped away towards the river: a terraced tapestry of fields, greenwoods and grassy pasture.
"I was there." Tiercel pointed at a point some dozen feet below them. Josef leant further to look. There were handholds in plenty and a deep crevice cut across the face in such a way as to make light work of the ascent. It looked easier than the route Josef himself had taken and he took a moment to berate himself for making his own climb harder than it might have been.
The female falcon swept across the edge of his vision and he turned his head to follow her graceful line. Hanging now far over the ledge he heard a now-familiar ringing in his ears. The view below him shifted suddenly, as though reality had all of a sudden become translucent, revealing a different world beneath. He heard Tiercel cry out in warning, but it was already too late. The rocky ledge upon which Josef was leaning completed its transition into un-being. And Aradan, Ranger of the northern kingdom, fell through the world into the pine-drenched dark.
The story concludes here ...