The Palantir of Josef Betz, part 3
Davidson stood motionless before the embroidered wall hanging. He had visited this room almost daily for three months yet he never tired of the tapestry: a great beech tree rising majestically from floor to ceiling. Each leaf was rendered uniquely and distinct. Each detail pricked in intricate threads of muted greens and gold. A work of almost Elven Art.
He had dismissed it at first as the worst kind of faux-nostalgic reproduction: indeed, it had taken him several days to cross the room for a closer inspection. As he looked on it now he could still feel the frisson of excitement and surprise he had first experienced when he realised it was anything but a fake. To his eyes - those of a collector rather than an expert - it appeared original. If so, it had to be at least six hundred years old. He estimated its market value at several million dollars.
He could barely guess how Josef had come by such an artefact. Tolkorp paid its top Rangers a salary judged sufficient to retain their talents but this was out of Josef's league. And then some. Davidson smiled to himself. He turned his head towards the figure stretched out on the bed in the corner of the room.
"What was it, Josef? A family heirloom? Bequest to a favourite nephew? Or something darker, perhaps? Skeletons lurking in the Betz family closet?"
He turned back to the tapestry. "Of course the condition of the thing ... it is in need of some attention." Davidson's fingers lightly brushed the edges of the fabric. "These bindings are frightfully frayed, dear boy. And that waterstain ... Perhaps I could take it away and get it properly restored for you? I could have it back here in no time at all ..."
There was no response from the figure stretched out upon the bed. Davidson had not expected any: Josef had neither stirred nor spoken in three months. He wondered if his employee was in any way conscious of what went on around him. The medics said not. Nevertheless, there were times Davidson had the distinct impression that Josef was rather less comatose than he appeared. This was one of those occasions.
"Don't worry, old boy. I wouldn't touch it, you know that. It's just my little game."
The body of Josef Betz lay in apparent repose upon the crisp white sheets. His upper torso was bare, traced with the wires and tubing that monitored and maintained his body's condition. These aside, the room was exactly as it had been when Josef lay down and re-entered the Game.
The tapestry formed the only decorative element in the white-washed room. The expensive nuwood flooring was mostly hidden beneath a cheap carpet of mottled browns. Beside the bed, Josef's Palantir game controller sat upon its turned wooden stand.
Davidson left the room and returned a moment later with a painted metal chair from the computer hall beyond. The chair chimed a discordant note in the white room but despite his tanned good looks the Tolkorp Chairman was no longer a young man. Over the past three months he had spent many hours in this room with Josef stretched out before him on the white bedding. Waiting for a sign. Only the gentlest rise and fall in the Ranger's chest attested to his being alive at all. That and the liquid pulsing of the MUI controller at his side.
"You know, Josef, I don't really understand the technology. How does this thing work?"
He leaned forward and carefully lifted the sphere from its stand. According to Crawshaw's technical report it was a standard gaming Palantir; nine inches or so in diameter and reassuringly weighty for its size. For a few thousand dollars you could buy one online or at any of three million franchise outlets worldwide.
Davidson raised the ball to his face in order to examine it more closely. The glassy surface was delicately ridged and whorled which made it disturbingly skin-like to the touch. The dominant colour was a pale green-grey that in a more romantic man might have suggested moonlight on the ocean. But threads of light pulsed deep within it, recalling nothing so much as the promise of distant thunderstorms.
Beyond the texture of its surface and despite the logical certainty that it was in fact an artefact, a thing, Davidson had the uneasy sensation that what he held in his hands was in some way alive. Alive and inextricably linked to the condition of its owner.
Davidson turned the ball over in his hands. There were no cables. No sockets. Nothing beside the tiny etched logo to indicate what it was or what it did. Despite his self-deprecatory remarks a moment earlier, Davidson knew a good deal about how the technology worked. He made it his business to understand every aspect of the Foundation's business. The Game was not only Tolkorp's biggest money-spinner it was also central to the Council's agenda. Board members tended to dismiss the Game itself, seeing no further than the latest quarterly projections. But Davidson knew better than that.
The devil is in the detail. Wasn't that how the old saying went?
He knew, for example, that the device acted as an interface between Josef's mind and the Real Middle-earth session playing out on the array of multi-parallel computers humming away in the next room. So long as the Palantir remained where it was and Josef remained within a dozen feet or so from the controller he would stay locked into the Game. Josef's computers were themselves interfaced with the ReMe mainframe: bypassing the numerous firewalls and gateways, drawing on the aRda substratum in ways Davidson's security people had always assured him was impossible.
He chuckled quietly. "You know, Josef, I really am most impressed! They told me no-one could hack so deeply into the Game. Logix still don't have a clue how you did it. If you ever come back to us you are going to be in so much trouble. But I knew you'd find a way if anyone could. And to do it using one of our own devices too ... a delicate touch."
Davidson looked at the Palantir again, caught suddenly by the potency of the thing. Earlier that morning he had played plasball with his three year old grandson. The ball was about the same size as the Palantir. On a sudden impulse he hefted the device three feet into the air. It hung above him, motionless at apogee. Davidson watched as fingers of fire flicked red and gold from deep within the crystal. He seemed to have all the time in the world to watch it: a thing caught out of reality and between worlds. Then the ball dropped back into his outstretched hands. He hugged it tightly to his chest, his heart beating wildly at what he had done. At what he might have done.
What was I thinking ..?
He set the device down and pushed his chair back hard, rucking the carpet in his desire to get away. To remove himself from the temptation to do something like that again. Without another glance at the Palantir or a word to Josef, Davidson returned the chair to the computer room and left the apartment.
Four hours later the Tolkorp chairman stood to address the hastily gathered meeting. Behind him a wall of vidlinked Mallorn trees swayed idly in the breeze that blew across their razor-wired arboretum.
"Gentlemen," Davidson began. "- and ladies ..." He bowed his head towards Evlyn Crawshaw. She was the corporation's Technical Director and, despite the plurality of his opening address, the only woman present.
"You will no doubt be wondering why I have called you here in person at such short notice."
He turned his head to the wall behind him. Several minutes passed as he observed the play of artificially corrected sunlight across the green and golden leaves. The meeting waited, patient but uncertain, for him to continue.
Including Davidson, six of the corporation's eight strong executive Board were present. The two absentees were abroad on business and could not have been recalled in time. He had considered including them via vidlink. Comms were secure - in principle - but even had he trusted Logix more than he did the matter could only be communicated in person. Marqueson knew the score. Galbraith would do as he was told.
Two of the Board were also members of the shadowy White Council. These two were Davidson himself and Evlyn Crawshaw - whose position as head of Tolkorp's technical division had been of such value to the Council in recent years.
Although positioned in the highest echelons of the corporation's governing elite, the White Council represented broader interests than Tolkorp's business affairs. Like the masonic lodges of earlier centuries the composition, indeed the very existence, of the Council was - to those who found themselves outside it - a matter of mingled envy, fear and supposition.
At length Wiles ventured to break the uneasy silence.
"Come on, old boy. Get on with it."
Hubert Wiles was Vice Chair of Tolkorp and the closest thing Davidson had to a closest friend. Wiles had been watching him closely over the past three months, since this business started. If, indeed, that was when it started.
The number of Breakthrough events had been growing steadily throughout the last year, though at meeting after meeting Crawshaw had treated the issue as a purely technical - and wholly manageable - affair. Most of those around the table now, Chairman included, had appeared happy to leave it at that. The Game had remained online and officially everything was normal. Indeed, better than normal. Tolkorp's market share had risen steadily and above projections, gaining seven points in as many months.
It hadn't been hard to trace the reason. The Qnet chatboards had buzzed with players' tales of enriched experiences in the ReMe gamespace. Whatever was causing the Breakthrough displacements, the Correspondence Engine had kept them from interfering negatively with the gameplay.
Accounts differed widely and were frequently contradictory, as befitted something as personally tailored as Real Middle-earth. Nevertheless, a pattern began to emerge. To a majority of players the game was more realistic than ever before; the terrain more detailed, especially in regions previously poorly served, and supportive of a richer diversity of plants and beasts.
It might have been a different game.
The fact that the changes had appeared without the media circus that routinely surrounded an official release only seemed to multiply the appeal - though there were inevitably those who saw the very lack of hype as a cynical, manipulation by Tolkorp of the gaming public. Not that the "gaming public" seemed to care. In the immediate run-up to the current crisis there had been in the region of a million players active in Real Middle-earth.
Then things had begun to go wrong. Davidson had recalled Josef from his holiday in the middle of the largest BT outbreak in the game's history and secretly sent him into the fray. Trusting his most experienced Ranger to resolve the matter - or at least to provide some information as to the origins and nature of the attack - the Chairman had rejected calls to evacuate the Game and Real Middle-earth had remained online.
At the time the decision had appeared sound. There had been no adverse reports from players and the Quantum Correspondence Engine was operating within safety margins.
Josef had not returned but forty-five hours later the issue of the Breakthroughs had resolved itself in a manner no-one could have foreseen. A pulse of substratum realignment swept the face of Middle-earth. The game had never been designed to handle so wholesale a change in its reference data and all sessions then in progress had been summarily terminated
Of the quarter million players in the region most severely affected - the lands west of the Misty Mountains from the Ettenmoors in the north southward to the Glanduin and as far west as Bree - many had suffered severe, litigable distress. Thousands had been hospitalised. Twenty-seven people had died, from a combination of shock, neurological trauma and cerebral dysfunction.
The scale of the disaster gave Davidson no room to manoeuvre, even had he wanted to. The Game had closed in a welter of media interest bordering on hysteria. For three months Real Middle-earth had remained off-line, though the applications remained running to aid investigations into the disaster. The cost to the Corporation, both in revenue and lost market share, could be conservatively estimated in billions.
The investigations had been led by Crawshaw's technical division, working closely alongside Logix, the Qware and communications consortium which maintained and operated the ReMe mainframes on Tolkorp's behalf. It was an uneasy alliance, as all such associations are when backs find themselves against the wall. Tolkorp demanded - and failed initially to secure - full access to Logix logistics, which raised the stakes on both sides. They were scared, Wiles recalled as he waited for the Chairman to continue the meeting. We all were.
Throughout the past three months - arguably the most fraught for the Board in a generation - Evlyn Crawshaw had displayed admirable strength of character, keeping her cool and the Board informed throughout the crisis. As far as could be determined, the disturbances in the region of the upper Rivendell valley had suddenly and catastrophically coalesced into something far greater.
A "Correspondence Wave" of staggering potency and magnitude had washed over the surrounding lands, engulfing the region west of the Hithaeglir. Within hours the wave had broached the geographical barrier of the mountains and in the ensuing days there was not a portion of the ReMe arena unaffected. Faced with mounting casualties and situations far outside any operational controls, Logix had done the best they could.
Special commendation was given to those Rangers who had risked their own safety to go in and rescue players lost in the inundated regions. Ranger Josef Betz, holidaying in the Rivendell valley when the wave broke, was listed amongst the fatalities.
To most of the other members Breakthroughs and the like were tech stuff. They didn't understand such things and didn't need to. That was Crawshaw's job. Despite genuine shock and concern at the number and extent of the casualties, what most of them wanted to know was when the Game could be brought back online.
The previous meeting had been promising. A truce seemed to have been drawn with their Logix partners. Whilst still unable to account for what had happened both sides were claiming that the underlying aRda stratum was stable. The "Correspondence Wave" had reset metrics across the entire ReMe arena but so far as could be determined there had been no detrimental effect on the Correspondence Engine or the other Game components. Only the base data had been altered and in ways that seemed wholly positive.
"So what you're saying, my dear," Davidson had asked her, in one of his playful moods. "Is that you don't know what went wrong, but it's a good thing it did?"
Evlyn Crawshaw had flushed at the remark but had been forced to concur. Wiles smiled at the recollection.
Davidson had dismissed them on that high note. The next scheduled Board meeting wasn't for another three days. Perhaps the fact he had called them together early meant there was good news.
Looking across the table at Crawshaw now, Wiles wondered if she knew more about all this than she had let on. At twenty eight she was the youngest member of the Board by twenty years and one of Davidson's personal appointees. There had been the inevitable frisson of scandal at her appointment but neither she nor Davidson had evidenced the slightest scent of impropriety.
Alright, old boy. Play your little games.
Right now, though, she seemed as uncertain of what was unfolding as anyone else and glanced across at the Vice Chairman as if to ask "What next?"
Wiles was about to attempt another interruption when Davidson turned back to face the meeting. He was smiling broadly.
"Forgive me my moment of reverie, my friends." Davidson flashed a keen glance at Wiles. "But the trees are wonderful, are they not?" The question was rhetorical and those who voiced their agreement found to their discomfiture that he had already moved on.
"Two hundred genetically perfect Mallorns, decked in a majesty of red and gold, swaying gently in the breeze ..."
Where was he going with this? The truth behind the Tolkorp Mallorns was a commercial secret but well-known to those present around the table. The genetic formula had been extracted twenty years ago from the ReMe substratum and the first specimens cultured in vitro by one of the Foundation's offshore subsidiaries. Mallorn-wood artefacts were now manufactured commercially and constituted one of Tolkorp's more profitable lines.
In the present climatic situation mature trees of any species were rare and save for the hardiest species could only be maintained at exorbitant expense. Despite their corporate significance - Tolkorp's logo was up there with Microsoft and Nike - the semi-mature grove showing on the Boardroom wall cost the Foundation more to maintain than many of its Executive considered justifiable. Financial Controller Leo Galbraith had been particularly vocal in calling for, at the very least, some commercial logging. But Davidson was staunch, almost obsessive, in their defence and as long as he was Chairman the trees would remain.
"- give or take an Ent or two ..."
Davidson's sudden allusion was unexpected and caught his audience off their guard. Wiles found himself reminded of Bilbo's leaving speech before the great and the good of the Shire. They'd had no idea what the old chap was on about either. Right up to the point he disappeared in a puff of smoke, Wiles reminded himself. In which case, it would be prudent to prepare oneself for sudden surprises.
It was damp and cold in the narrow rock-cut passage. After the initial elation of reaching the ledge Josef found he was shivering, his tunic drenched from the exertion and danger of the climb. He turned to his companion. Although they stood less than four feet apart Josef could see little more than a vague presence beside him in the cloying dark.
"Yes, my lord Aradan?" Despite the gloom Josef knew his friend was mocking him gently for the title he had taken upon himself at their first meeting.
"I don't think I can go further without rest." And food, he added to himself.
These past three months had taught Josef a good deal about the realities of life. For years he had imagined himself hardy and resourceful. As Aradan, self-styled Ranger of the northern kingdom, he had stalked the breadth and the length of the ReMe gamespace, rescuing misguided players and mediating such conflicts as the Correspondence Engine could not resolve. Outside the Game, when he wasn't pursuing his own interests, Josef investigated defects and hotwall breaches, kept an eye out for Logix improprieties and generally shovelled whatever shit Tolkorp had found for him this week.
It wasn't glamorous work but it paid enough for Josef to rent a fourth storey apartment in one of the least polluted districts of the city and maintain the hardware he needed to pursue his own dreams.
He also had the professional satisfaction - no small thing - of knowing he was good at what he did; arguably the best, though that was difficult to judge as he saw little of those he might consider competition. From time to time he would happen upon his fellow Rangers as they went about their own duties in the ReMe wilderness. Then there might be words around a camp-fire, over a mug of ale, perhaps, or a pipeful of Westman's Weed. But none lived within five hundred miles of the city and he had met none of them face to face. In the modern world, as of old in the Third Age, life as a Ranger was lonely work. It suited both his personality and his preference.
But if the challenges Josef faced were demanding, those were almost wholly intellectual, technical, strategic. His exertions within the Game neither sapped nor honed the strength of a body that might lie for thirty hours at a time on the bed in his white-washed dayroom. It had taken him precisely two days with Tiercel to realise how ill-equipped he was physically for the reality that had overtaken him.
"It is not far. Then we can rest. And eat a little." The voice came again out of the darkness, this time with no hint of playfulness.
The ledge on which they stood was not a place to tarry. There was little enough danger from attack: here at the furthest extremity of Elrond's demesne geology replaced the need for complex mazements in keeping out the wayward or malign. But if enemy assault could be disregarded the possibility of a rock fall was never far from the Elf's mind and in this spray-slick place a moment's carelessness might send them both into the chasm below. Tiercel had cheated death once recently: he did not feel eager to test his fortune again.
It was three days since he had put aside his vertigo and led Josef into the Merrill Gorge. From atop the glittering Starry Falls they had looked back eastward over the pleasant meads and pastures of the Middle Valley. Through all that land the river ran like a silver thread until it disappeared at the limit of Josef's vision in a rainbow haze. There stood the vaulted halls of Rivendell above the least and yet the prettiest of the valley's cataracts.
Against that pastoral view they had set their backs. Never broad, the canyon became ever more constricted as they journeyed eastward until far over their heads the walls, now deeply undercut, met in the narrowest of openings. The slot was hopelessly overgrown with heather and stunted, wind-worn gorse which hid the line of the gorge as it ran its course towards the mountains. But if it provided concealment the vegetation also prevented all but the palest of daylight from filtering into the subterranean world.
For reasons of his own Tiercel would light no flare or fire and Josef had to be content for illumination with the pale glow that seemed to issue from every rocky surface. Even the stream glowed in this weird land, flaring in sudden flashes where the waters splashed and churned along their rocky bed.
That morning they had been forced to halt their journey upstream. Ahead of them the stream burst from the foot of a pier of stone that stood out from the northern wall and closed the gorge from side to side. The walls, slick with spray, reflected the water in a frenzy of iridescence.
Tiercel had explained that their goal lay beyond the pier of rock. There were the Landon Falls by which the Merrill stream fell eleven hundred feet from the rolling fells in a single vaulted cascade. They had left their belongings on the southern shore and forded the stream.
Josef had seen little purpose in the crossing: the north wall appeared as unscaleable as the south and there could be no access through the narrow channel from which the boiling waters poured. Nevertheless, he had followed the Elf along the bank to where it failed at the base of the jutting stone and Josef had seen that it folded back upon itself as it broke from the valley wall.
Into that fold Tiercel had led them and for two hours they had laboured to climb the chimney. There was only the slightest glow from below, curtained as they were by the pier of stone. Far above stood the promise of the open sky but no hint of daylight penetrated so far into the cleft.
It had been a miserable undertaking for them both. Josef had little fear of heights but the extremity of the climb sapped every reserve of strength from his limbs. He was shivering violently now. His tunic was ripped, his knees and elbows dripped blood into the darkness.
Tiercel was little happier. Although his body was hale and the demands of a life spent abroad in the wild lay light upon him, nevertheless he preferred his feet set firmly upon the ground. Each foot of the climb had been achieved through a mist of nausea and dizziness. Not for the first time Tiercel questioned his reasons for bringing them so far from the woods, plains and pastureland that he knew and loved so well.
For the past three months he had been trying to make sense of Josef's appearance: of the day they had met. The day his hawk had disappeared in plain sight against a wall of rock as he watched from the valley below. Then too he had dared his fear, climbing after her with racing heart and sickening dread ... until the rockface shifted about him and he fell headlong into the trembling, pine-soaked air. It was an uneasy recollection in their present predicament and Tiercel shook it away.
The fall should have broken him on the rocks below - and yet he had found himself, hurt but alive, upon a higher ledge. The bird stood close by, picking at her jesses and mewing softly as if calling him back to her. It was in such a moment that Josef Betz climbed into Tiercel's world. He claimed to have seen the fall and called himself Aradan, Ranger of the north, for all his wayward gear and strangeness of tongue.
But this was no time for puzzles. The Elf's keen eyes could see well enough in the gloom and it was plain Josef needed not only rest and food but fire too. Rest could be afforded once they reached their goal. Of food they carried only waybread, having stashed their other provisions by the river bank, but it would suffice. Fire was another matter. No flame was allowed east of the entrance to the gorge. Yet Josef's condition grew extreme. A man cold, wet and exhausted might easily succumb. Hiding a mounting fear as best he could, Tiercel urged his friend to action.
Josef groaned but he too could see the urgency. "Lead on, Master Falconer! I will think more carefully the next time you offer to show me the wonders of the valley!"
Then Tiercel laughed out loud. After three months he still found much to surprise him about the man. But a bond had grown between them and as Tiercel led the way ahead he was careful with the path so that Josef should not falter.
"- as no doubt you are all aware," Davidson continued. "Our organisation arose in troubled times. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate what things were like in those distant days - even for us, Wisest of the Wise that we are ..."
Mention of "The Wise" suggested the White Council, and not only to those who were members of it. The Chairman paused just long enough for the reference to register with his audience; just briefly enough for them to neither fully assimilate it or respond. It occurred to Wiles that the Chairman was deliberately baiting the meeting. Unsettling them. Not leading now but driving, herding.
"Troubled times," Davidson repeated. "NewLine were reaping rewards not even Jackson could have anticipated. So great was the demand for Middle-earth that there are those -" He paused again momentarily, scanning his audience with a piercing glance. "That there are those who have attributed no less than the development of the Qnet, vbooths and all that came after ... to those first four movies."
This had the recommendation of the familiar and his audience - most of them - relaxed into the familiarity. The development of so vast and ubiquitous an entity as the Quantum Internet could hardly be traced to a single source, not even to one as important as the Middle-earth Quartet. Nevertheless it was a deceit that Tolkorp - inheritor of the Jackson/NewLine mantle - was prone to encourage. It was a corporate in-joke. The braver amongst them ventured a smile.
"In 2011 Turin Turambar was released to an audience equivalent to eight percent of the global adult population. Think of that, my friends!" Davidson opened his arms wide, encompassing the entire room in his enthusiastic embrace. "Of every hundred adults on the planet, eight of them logged in to watch - to experience - one of the greatest stories ever told. And of course, they paid for the experience."
Hubert Wiles sat forward in his chair. The statement was literally true: the massive audience had paid extravagantly for the first first-person interactive experience of JNL's Middle-earth. But there was more than literal truth behind the Chairman's words. Wiles still had no idea where his old friend was taking them but it was certain the journey had begun.
Falling somewhere between an early holographic movie and a second gen Vbooth arena, Turambar appeared hopelessly dated by modern standards. But back in 2011 a decade of movies, merchandising and franchise operations had created a fanbase desperate for their next fix of Middle-earth. To such as these, Turin arrived as a taste of miruvor in a parched land.
The highest saturation marketing campaign in history, the largest infrastructure investment outside the US military. The cost had all but broken JNL. The profits set them on the road to the stars. And out of that success the Tolkorp Foundation was born.
"But of course, not everyone succumbed to the NewLine vision of Middle-earth. A vocal aggregation of the literary elite -" Davidson savoured the phrase. "- refused to sanction any versioning of the Professor's works. A position that owns a certain respect. Or don't you think so?"
His audience collapsed into consternation as Davidson's flashing eyes again held their own. This time the question appeared to require a response.
Officially, Tolkorp venerated the Professor's works in the very act of appropriating them to the corporate cause. So far as docrine ran, Tolkorp's vision of Middle-earth - built stone on stone upon its JNL foundations - was indistinguishable from Tolkien's own. Early editions of Lord and A Hobbit's Tale had displayed alarming inconsistencies, both with each other and with the larger Christophian canon. But it was fifty years since the fourteen volume Rectified Tales of Middle-earth had emerged under the Tolkorp impress. The suggestion that Real Middle-earth could legitimately be considered as no more than a version of the real thing came to those assembled with the discomfiture of a slap in the face.
But Davidson waited neither for agreement nor protest. While those around the table struggled to engage he crossed to the window. Seven storeys below him stretched the sculptured garden with its fountain and lawns and neo-classical accoutrements. Unlike the vidlinked Mallorn grove this view was real. Davidson was proud of his garden, maintained at ridiculous expense against the city's atmospheric tribulations. Tolkorp's garden, he reminded himself.
He turned back to the meeting. It is almost a pity, he thought. To open their eyes. Crawshaw sat poised, alert. But only Wiles held his gaze, a keen expression playing across his face. An image came to Davidson of the Palantir he had held between his hands in Josef's room: its subtle traceries of ice and fire. Do you know, old friend? Do you suspect?
"No matter," he continued. "Ranged against them stood the serried ranks of the Mearthlings. Millions-strong and mindless, nurtured on movie and magazine, Vbooth and Qnet experience, they cared nothing for the purists' wailings or their sullied heritage. Their hunger, their endless quest for Middle-earth, more Middle-earth: more, more, more, more! was the wave that Tolkorp rode to its success. Until today there are few who know or care there was a Middle-earth before all the Tales were Rectified. Before the Quartet. Before us all."
The atmosphere stood charged. Electric. For all Tolkorp's commercial dealings and chimera, no chairman had ever spoken openly with such contempt. Was this some sort of test?
"But there was always a third way. The way of the Artist. For him Middle-earth was neither book nor corporate commodity. It was and is a playground. An open country. A canvas on which to paint. A stage to strut upon ..."
They clutched again at the familiar, recognising the reference for all the Bard's cultural disfavour. The Chairman caught their moment of relief; radiated it back to them in sudden joy. His face broadened in a smile that encompassed them all. He was their friend once more. Their mentor. Leader. Wisest of the Wise.
Wiles continued to watch him closely. With the others he had responded to his friend's sudden warmth, yet he was old and wily enough to take nothing at face value. So far they had been treated to little more than a history lesson. History was old news. He waited for the sudden flash, the clouds of smoke. Almost he expected the Chairman to disappear before his eyes.
Josef was close to collapse as they emerged at last from their dizzying climb, some four hundred feet below the head of the falls. The muted roar that had been their constant companion in the darkness erupted into such a barrage of sound that Josef fell back against the rocky wall. The sudden daylight blinded him.
"We are here, my friend!"
Josef could barely distinguish the shouted words over the din but he understood their meaning. He allowed himself to be led along the narrow path that skirted the abyss. Now the falling water was no more than an arm's reach ahead of him.
For a long moment Josef stood helpless before the cataract. The noise was overwhelming and he felt his entire body taken up into its awful music. There were lights, too, in the water that danced before his eyes, wild and mesmerising. He reached out one hand toward them. Something caught at his memory then, though in his exhausted state he could neither latch on to the thought nor trace it to its source. He took one shuffling step closer to the edge. Beneath his feet the rock was dark and wet, worn to smoothness by millennia of falling water.
Suddenly Tiercel, who had turned away from the ledge, realised the danger. Heedless of his own safety and pounding vertigo the Elf leapt to the edge of the shallow ledge. He dragged Josef back to the wall; and along, and behind the crashing waters. Into the broad chamber beyond.
There both friends collapsed to the floor, sinking inches deep into glittering sand. The noise was much less than outside the falls but strange musics echoed from the many-coloured walls. It was several minutes before either was able to speak.
"Thank you," Josef said at last, gazing up at the Elf knelt close by his side. "I don't know what happened. I stepped towards the water and the world began to shift again. All I could see were the lights; threads of green and gold. Only now there was music too; music in the water." He closed his eyes; exhaustion had brought him close to unconsciousness. "I can still hear it ..."
"Save your tale," Tiercel replied. He pressed a half wafer of waybread to his friend's lips. "Take this, Aradan. It will help."
This time there was no hint of mockery in using Josef's self-appointed name. Perhaps it was the extremity of the climb, the incident upon the ledge or something in the nature of the crystal chamber itself. Tiercel could not have said. But in the face of the man lying before him he saw that Josef Betz had become indeed Aradan, Ranger of the northern kingdom. Or perhaps the two were one: had always been one.
Hubert Wiles opened the door and stepped through it into the white-washed room beyond. He had only been here once before and he took a few moments to reacquaint himself with the surroundings. Upon a bed in one corner lay the body of Josef Betz in what might have passed for quiet repose. Beside him on a polished hardwood stand lay a mark VI Tolkorp "Palantir" game controller, lights pulsing gently within the plasglass sphere.
Wiles crossed the ragged carpet to the opposite wall and its tapestried hanging. This he had seen before; indeed, it had hung formerly in his own study. And will do again, he thought to himself.
Davidson had been right about the artefact's authenticity, though woefully adrift in its pedigree. The hands that stitched this thing had worked not six hundred but nearer six thousand years before.
A work of almost Elven Art.
Wiles raised the forefinger of his left hand to the delicate tracery of stitches. Up close it was clear that each leaf on the tree had been individually worked: each exquisitely, uniquely different. Yet it was only on stepping back that the greater design could be apprehended.
"You saw something of that design," he declared without looking up from the tapestry. "I recognised it in your eyes when you first came to us. Daniel saw it too, of course. I'm afraid, Josef," Wiles turning now to face the figure in the corner. "I'm afraid you haven't been treated very well by either of us."
He retraced Davidson's steps to stand at the foot of the bed. As Davidson had related at the meeting, the body of Josef Betz appeared to have suffered little in the past three weeks. Biometrics revealed a steady degradation in muscle tone but that was to be expected given the period of immobility. His heart and brainwave patterns fluctuated within ranges normal for ReMe immersion. The Palantir pulsed gently. As far as anyone could tell, Josef was having a good time.
"Are you, Josef?" Wiles asked quietly, continuing the train of thought. "I wonder. Your set-up here -" He gestured to the wall, behind which Josef's ranks of hardware hummed away in thermostatically controlled aggregations. "You've led Crawshaw's boys a merry dance! The way you mapped your way through all the blocks - well, you hardly need me to tell you! But I wonder if you realise what you have achieved?"
A sudden flaring of livid green caught Wiles' attention to the Palantir. He laughed aloud. "Well, now, maybe you realise perfectly well!"
Of course he does. He's a Baggins!
The line appeared uninvited at the forefront of his thoughts and he choked his laughter short.
"Not a Baggins. No. But you are - special. Did you suspect that? I think not. Not even Daniel with his eager mind and intricate schemes ... But I do my homework."
Wiles looked down at the body laid out before him.
"It's a wise man that knows his own bloodline, Josef. Something of a hobby with me, you know. Not that there's much of note in the Wiles pedigree. But you now ..."
He paused, uncertain if he should be revealing so much. Josef might or might not be aware of what went on in the room - privately Wiles doubted he was - yet for all his precautions the room might still be bugged. He had revoked the 24/7 monitoring - AV and biomed - but there were limits to a Vice Chair's authority. The thought galvanised him into action.
In the cave Josef had slipped into unconsciousness. Tiercel stood at the mouth of the chamber. At his feet a shallow pool of water mirrored the cascade and cast its lights in dizzying array about the shimmering walls. Here they had come at last, to the end of their journey.
Faced with his own uncertainty, the impossibility of Josef's existence in his world, the Elf had brought him to this chamber. He had done so against the will of his lord, for by Elrond's personal decree the Landon Falls and the secret they protected were forbidden to mortal eyes.
And he was about to break another prohibition. Daylight was fading. Within the hour it would be dark - and cold. Without fire, Josef would not survive the night.
"This place -" Tiercel spoke aloud, his eyes unfocussed, staring out through the tumultuous cascade. "This is the Chamber of Singing Lights. If I had taken you to my Lord's House you might have heard the tale of Ioron - the Old One - and his sister Lindiriel. She was fairest in voice of the Elder peoples and found first the stair we have just climbed."
Tiercel turned from the water and looked upon his friend lying on the crystal sand. His falconer's hands were not those of a healer but he had nursed enough sick and injured birds to recognise the extremity of Josef's situation.
"I should not have brought you here, Aradan. Yet this place lies between the Old Days and the New, even as you stand between my world and your own. When you fell into the air our worlds were changed. Or became unchanged. Else you had been broken on the rocks and I, coming down to you, had built a cairn for the stranger who risked his life to save me. And so I found you, yet never a bone in your body broken. Whole you were, Aradan of the northern kingdom, as I myself was whole. And glad I am at the mystery of it!"
"I'm sorry, Josef. Really." Wiles was working quickly now. At any moment he might be interrupted - or worse. Tolkorp had friends in some very high places; friends who might not take kindly to what he was about to attempt. And that was not even to mention the White Council. He sighed. It was twenty years since he had extricated himself from that grim fraternity.
"We were always friends, you understand," he continued, hands busy at the mess of wires that snaked away beneath the bed. "From our first days in the Foundation ..." With a surgeon's dexterity Wiles isolated the wiring that regulated Josef's breathing and cardiac functions.
"One day Daniel told me he'd had a dream - a vision. That Middle-earth was real. That it could be realised. Found. And he was the one who was going to make it happen, to open the Way to Middle-earth. And the Game was the key to it all." He paused for a moment, caught up suddenly in the insanity of it all.
"I told my father. The Council were very interested in Daniel's vision - and in Daniel. That was the start of it all. The intrigue and excitement: subtleties of infiltration and disguise. We were young. And the years went by."
He took a leather manicure set from his pocket and removed the pair of silver-plated nail scissors.
"How much of it did he tell you, Josef? How much did you work out for yourself? To Tolkorp the Game is no more than a cash-cow. Gold for them to hoard; for Galbraith to count. They have forgotten their lineage. Daniel at least was right about that!" He permitted himself a smile, recalling the faces of his fellow Board members at the meeting.
"And so you have the mockery of Middle-earth that the Game has become."
It was by no means certain his plan would succeed. Indeed he hardly knew what would happen if it did, only that he had to do something. They had to be stopped. He wasn't sure he knew who they were anymore.
The Council's response was difficult to judge. His father was long gone. It was a new regime. He had turned his back on them these long years. But in time, when they knew all the facts, they might see his actions as justified; judicious - even necessary. They could afford to take the long view.
He doubted Tolkorp would be so forgiving, though even there one could never tell. Donaldson, at any rate, was history. Crawshaw would probably emerge from this mess as the next Chair. He was certain she was a Council appointee. If she wanted him, if they thought he could be useful, his position might be secure. If he survived the next twenty-four hours.
He found to his surprise that he didn't much care one way or the other. He wasn't doing this for Tolkorp or the Council, certainly not to save himself. Why then? The question brought him up short, in the act of severing the first of the multicoloured strands.
"For Middle-earth, Josef. And for you, believe it or not. The irony is that we wanted the same thing, you and I. Daniel too, at least in the beginning. To find a perfect world. To discover Middle-earth, as it was. As it could be. To capture reality. You are an Artist, Josef, something I am not. Something I could never be. All this -" Wiles waved his right hand, still holding the scissors, in the direction of Josef's computer room.
"To me it was always technology. Alluring, but cold. Dead. In your hands, it is the stuff of sub-creation. That's what Daniel was trying to say at the meeting. It took an Artist to make it happen. To draw everything together. To enter the heart of ReMe. To bypass the locks and firegates ..." Realization dawned.
"But perhaps, they allowed you in. Daniel - or Evlyn. Playing their dangerous games. I doubt they told you, though. They wanted you keen and fresh. Unsullied. And as you wrought and crafted, honed and hewed your perfect world, you were getting so close. Do you know what you have achieved? A perfectly complete and consistent world, down to the last blade of grass and breath of air? And you thought you were making somewhere to take your vacations!"
The time had come. Holding his breath, Wiles cut the first wire. Nothing happened. He straightened, eyeing Josef and the Palantir suspiciously.
"That was what they had always wanted, of course. The Council. Why they needed the Game. The base data was there, in the Marquette archives. But it was incomplete. Down the years they have tried so many things. Computing alone could only go so far. Only he found the key, and it was lost." Lost
"The son had knowledge, but not the vision. The Artistry. That lesson was a hard one to learn. Genetics on its own is not enough."
Wiles bent down and cut another wire, disconnecting the cardiac pacemaker. This time there was a flickering movement behind Josef's closed eyelids. The Palantir pulsed wanly. Wiles found his own heart was racing.
"But with ReMe there was a chance. At the interface of a billion players' versions of Middle-earth - there creativity might be harnessed, there truth might be found." Patterns, Josef. Everything is patterns.
"For decades the Game has been accreting Middle-earth; slowly, stone by stone, mile on mile. But the Council - and my father too, Josef, in his time - were becoming ... hasty."
Give or take an Ent or two.
Snip. Snip. Snip. The Tolkorp Foundation's Vice Chairman rose from his handiwork beneath the bed, placed the scissors in their little case and returned it to his pocket.
He looked down at the body of Josef Betz. The rash of electrodes were still attached to his forehead, chest and abdomen but they were useless now; their connections severed, their urgent voices mute. Josef was on his own. For a minute or two nothing untoward appeared to happen. Josef's chest rose and fell gently as it had done these past three months. Wiles crossed to the tapestry again.
"Eru help me but it was me who first saw your potential, when you were working FirstLine. Your passion for the Game. Your extracurricular activities. A certain naivety but you showed promise. You were -" he searched a moment for the word. "Nurtured."
"I thought you'd escaped them - us - when you went away. But maybe it was less an escape than I thought. Daniel never doubted you would return ..."
There was a sadness now in Wiles' voice, at the end of it all. The tapestry was incredibly well preserved for an artefact six thousand years old. Nevertheless, the colours were faded, the threads worn here and there. It would never again look as it had of old.
"I hope you appreciated the hanging, Josef. It was my father's - which is to say he stole it from the Council many years ago. He was the best of them but even he knew the dragon's lust. I hung it here on the day you came to view the apartment. When you came back to us. I thought it might - inspire you. Call it a house-warming present, if you like."
He paused, but there was no reply. The room was silent. Turning, Wiles could detect only the slightest movement in Josef's chest, the faintest glow from the Palantir. It was done, then. He had not wanted it to end like this but it was perhaps better that it had. Less - complicated. There was still work to be done but the first, the hardest part, he had accomplished. He sighed.
"I know. There will be others. But we are not yet ready for the Truth. You came so close to the reality of it. To realising Middle-earth ... That is what they wanted. Lusted for. Why they took Daniel. Why they groomed you. But - what is the line? - Even the very wise cannot see all ends. There were ... side effects. Those Breakthroughs, Josef, that was you.
"Your Middle-earth, as it unfolded, sub-creating itself, was changing aRda. It bypassed the Correspondence Engine and all the safeties. Updating the files. Filling in the blanks. I don't think Daniel realised what was happening. Maybe Evlyn ..." It would explain a few things. Wheels within wheels ...
Wiles reached up and at full stretch unhooked the tapestry from the wall. It was heavy and he struggled to lay it flat on the floor. With a care bordering on tenderness he rolled the ancient thing and placed it by the door.
Moving briskly now, he went through into Josef's computer room. Rack upon rack of glass blocks, their signal lamps twinkling in crystal constellations, rainbow cables snaking between them. Josef seemed to have skimped on nothing. Crawshaw may have replaced him after twenty years as head of Tolkorp's technical division but Hubert Wiles felt right at home.
All that said, the ageing monitor gave him pause. It was clearly the terminal Josef used to run his Middle-earth sessions. Wiles seated himself at the console. These 3d interfaces were defunct even in his hey-day. He chuckled grimly. It seemed to him fitting that Josef, discoverer of the Road to Middle-earth, should have had such a romantic predilection for the artefacts of another age. Patterns. Another piece of the puzzle.
Banks of biostat warnings flashed criticality across the range of parameters monitored by Josef's Palantir. Pulse rate was erratic and weak. Respiration barely detectable. He was failing fast.
"I'm sorry," Wiles muttered as he began closing the session down. "You were just too good. When Daniel pulled you from your vacation, you were almost there. But there were so many Breakthroughs - he got scared then. I told him to close the Game but he wouldn't do it." The memory stung behind his eyes.
"He believed in you, Josef. Trusted you to sort it out. That might be some consolation."
Little by little, Wiles was shutting down not only Josef's session but the entire framework which supported it.
"But when he sent you back in, something happened. Some kind of resonance pattern. A 'Correspondence Wave', Evlyn called it. It swept everything away. It wasn't pretty, Josef. People died."
She told us you were dead.
He stopped for a moment, passed his hand across the display to summon Josef's current position within the game. The multi-layered mapping was poorly rendered on the ancient monitor but it showed Josef's position clearly enough at the easternmost extreme of the Rivendell valley. Wiles zoomed in gradually, feeling his way through the unfamiliar interface. Contours shifted about him as he struggled to keep Josef centred in the display.
"I truly regret this - but Daniel lost sight of the bigger picture. He stood up in front of the Board and offered them Middle-earth - not ReMe but the real thing. Real. Middle-earth."
Such excellent and admirable Hobbits ...
"But there is always a price."
Wiles had him now. There seemed to be some sort of chamber hollowed out from the valley wall. Was that a waterfall?
"You see," talking now to the tiny VR avatar displayed before him. "You are connected through your Palantir to this game. Your computers are connected to ReMe. It's all connections, Josef. Patterns." Like stitches on a canvas.
"And somewhere in all this you found the Way. The Straight Road. But you are a part of it. You are the Road, Josef. Daniel and Evlyn - all her tech boys - they dared not disconnect you to let anyone else in, disconnect all this, in case they lost it."
At the limits now of the monitor's resolution, the display was choppy and unsteady. It looked as if there was another person in the chamber with Josef.
"He should never have told them. The Board. But I don't think he could keep it secret any more. And they were baying for ReMe to be put back online. He thought if they knew they would wait until Evlyn had worked out how to sort it out."
Wiles closed the VR with a movement of his hand.
"I don't think half of them believed what he was telling them - who would believe it? - but just the possibility that it was real, that they could package Middle-earth, market it. The real thing ... I was sat there and you could smell the reek of it."
With ReMe off-line the Foundation was mere months from meltdown. Now their Chairman had offered them a vision of their own: not just of commercial salvation but of a Tolkorp greater and more powerful than any of them had ever dreamed.
They had been in no mood to wait. They wanted Middle-earth and they wanted it now. Davidson had cajoled them, remonstrated for patience. He had lost control. And Wiles had sat, silent and aghast, as Crawshaw, galvanised by the enormity of the miscalculation into trying to rescue her own - and the Council's - position, stood to address the meeting.
In what was far too detailed to be unrehearsed and bore the stench of Council retrenchment, she had promised the Tolkorp Board no less than they demanded. Within three days Josef would be disconnected from the Game - forcibly if he could not be recalled. The shock would probably kill him but there was a gambler's chance that she could buffer the session sufficiently to keep the gateway open.
There was so little time.
There was so little time.
Night had fallen beyond the crystal chamber. There was light still from the falls but the rainbow hues that danced about the walls would not keep Aradan from a fevered death.
Tiercel knelt in the sand beside his friend. Against such desecration as he was about to commit the Elf had brought a little fuel, and that lay stacked in a shallow hearth. In his hands he held a small tinder box, the instrument of his sacrilege.
A moment of pause, when the very pulse of the earth seemed to still. And then a spark. Another. And the tinder caught. Flames licked at the pile of shavings. A little smoke and the scent of pinewood arose, redolent and aromatic. Tiercel fed the fire carefully, slowly. There was so little fuel and every ounce of warmth was needed to keep Aradan alive. He turned and watched the firelight play across the Man's face lending a warmer glow to the pallid skin.
Then by the glittering walls the fire was taken up, refracted, amplified and mingled with the glints that came from the falling water. And the water shimmered brighter now and the lights flared green and gold like falling leaves in the morning of the world and like the furnace in which the world was birthed. And the air pounded with the noise of the waters and the song of the waters and amid the noise and the song Tiercel knelt over the body of Aradan, Josef, Ranger of the northern kingdom. And in tears amidst the chaos he sang in the Chamber-of-the-Lights-that-Sing, of the pain and the glory in his heart. And for his friend who had crossed worlds to save him.
Hubert Wiles sat closeted in the small computer room. He really ought to leave. His job was done. About him the crystal hubs were silent now, the blinking of their lights stilled at last. He had closed the session; erased the programs, the complex paths and routings. In the room beyond, Josef's body lay still on its bed and if there was life in the body it would soon have ebbed away.
Then to Wiles it seemed that he heard a thrumming in the air, and a music and a distant singing. And he turned to the door that stood ajar. And from beyond the door there blazed suddenly a glare of light, terrible and wild. And green and gold.