Conan the Librarian on the Information Highway
Chapter 5
The land Conan travelled was flat. Fluffy white clouds dotted the expansive blue sky as he rode past low hedgerows and fields gone fallow. The road was free of rocks and pounded smooth. It grew wider as other paths joined it. Traffic grew heavier, too, raising a dust that smelled of clay. Some rode, most walked. When travelers met, they exchanged a nod, but rarely spoke. 

Hedgerows and fields gave way to prairie grasses crisscrossed by a hundred paths all converging upon a granite wall rising 20 feet above the plain and stretching as far as the eye could see. The road led straight to an entrance as broad as itself. Upon the lintel was carved the designation: Comp. A steady stream of traffic moved in and out; there were no guards or toll takers for everyone was welcome in the Uselessnet. 

Conan had been here many times before seeking tips and tidbits of information. By the map, it was also the shortest route to the Second Kingdom, and he calculated he could save two days' ride by traversing its center. That the center was depicted only by the international symbol meaning "here there be monsters" did not bother him. 

Inside the gate, the road became a maze of paths always intersecting at precise right angles and lined with 20-foot high walls of polished stone. On top were carved directional signs, but most of their surfaces were covered by immense rectangular areas inlaid with a polished white surface and labeled with names of groups. Though the paths were broad, they were clogged with traffic as seekers of information gathered to read messages or add their own. The only sounds were the shuffling of sandaled feet and the squeaking of quill on stone. The smells of inks and cleaning fluids were stronger than the smell of the crowd. 

Conan watched the signs carefully; it was considered gauche to ask directions, especially in this part of the net. Soon Comp.z gave way to Sci.a. The sky, where he could see it, grew overcast. Low clouds obscured the top of the wall in places. Still Conan rode on, deeper into the net. The area of Rec was more crowded. The people were more energetic and many wore brightly-colored garments. But they were just as intent upon reading their groups as Conan rode through them. 

The sudden sound of galloping hooves made him draw FirstSearch to the side before being nearly run down by two black chargers drawing a strange engine. He ducked as it splattered each group it passed with processed meat. At once, all the readers responded by covering the remaining space in their groups with indignant messages. 

As he rode on, the fog thickened and the air grew chill. He could no longer see any directional postings and he knew the map became unreliable here. Still, an information warrior knows many tricks, and soon he found what he sought: a niche in the wall containing a bowl carved of the same stone and etched with the initials FAQ. Conan placed two coins and a piece of sandalwood into the bowl, lit the incense and waited. In the swirling smoke, the face of an old man took shape. The eyes were kindly as he said, "what is your question?" 

"I seek the shortest passage through the net to the Second Kingdom," Conan replied. 

"Through?" The face looked puzzled. "Surely you seek one of our discussion groups? The net is a treasure trove of information." 

"I am a traveler, seeking passage only." 

"Travel? That would be in Rec. We have a multitude of groups on every..." 

"Not recreational travel," Conan interrupted, "directions to the exit closest to Ithaca." 

"Ithaca appears in many groups, including Rec, Pol, News,..." 

"The only thing I need to know about it is the shortest path from this place to that." 

"I see." The FAQ paused, "You really want the shortest route?" 

"Yes." 

"No matter where it may lead?" 

"Yes!" 

"Then ask also how to prepare, for the journey will take you through the realm of Alt, where even warrior women don masculine disguises and from which wanderers do not always return." 

"The rumors of people disappearing have appeared on alt.urban.folklore. They are usually teenagers who prefer the net to their studies." 

"Well, that is the official opinion of our legal department. It is also their opinion that no credible evidence supports the theory that the Uselessnet was originally constructed by the ancient King Minos as a way to dispose of his enemies and his daughter's unworthy suitors." 

"Then why tell me?" 

"Just standard disclaimers required by our legal department. Now the path you must take..." And he proceeded to recite. 

© 1995, by Hadley V. Baxendale

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