|After some excellent Java and cookies, Conan's mind turned to the problem
of escaping the Mountain of Dreams with his credit intact. He had never
thought of foxes as acquisitive creatures, but all through their meal,
his companion had regaled him with descriptions of the wonders he had seen
in the vendors' booths. They exited the café and Conan collected
FirstSearch's reins. Tents and stalls with their flashing signs extended
down the mountain as far as the eye could see.
Suddenly a group of boys ran around the corner from the back of the
café tossing metal objects indiscriminately into the crowd. People
ducked and cursed; some scooped up the projectiles and returned fire, but
the boys were too fast. Reynard scampered this way and that to avoid being
trampled. Conan found the fox panting and scratching behind his ear with
a hind foot beside a large, yellow wagon parked around the corner from
the café. He was growling curses under his breath, the only intelligible
word of which was "spammers."
"The best thing to do is to ignore them, Reynard," Conan said. He picked
up a square tin from the middle of the road. On its side was written "Scattered
Placement Advertising Missile." He tossed it into a trash barrel unopened.
"I just duck when they come by," said the wagon driver with a smile.
He was taller than Conan, but more slightly built. He slouched beside his
wagon eating a large moon pie and sharing the crumbs with a fat grey squirrel
on his left shoulder. Block lettering on the side of the vehicle read:
TOURBUS. The two black draft horses that pulled it swished their tails
and rested one foot at a time. The squirrel flapped his tail and chattered
angrily at Reynard.
"Quiet, Bama. Mind your manners," the driver said, straightening up
to his full height and shoving the last of the moon pie into his mouth,
"these boys might be customers."
"Excuse me," Conan said, "are you in the business of guiding tourists
through the Web?"
"That's right, Bubba," the driver responded, "but y'all don't look like
you need a ride."
"I don't," Conan said, patting FirstSearch's nose, "But I was wondering
if you knew a quick route down this mountain."
The driver smiled. "I always stop here. It pays the bills; keeps our
little bus on the road. But that's not why people ride. In fact, our next
stop is the Pueblo of Free or Low-Cost Publications. Follow us down if
Before Conan could thank him, the passengers started returning from
all directions, chatting happily and carrying packages. The bus was soon
full. The squirrel shot Reynard one last dirty look and flicked his tail,
as the driver resumed his place and gathered the reins. The horses pulled
against the harness and the wagon lurched into motion. Conan mounted, Reynard
took his place in the saddlebag, and FirstSearch fell in behind.
When they reached the foothills the vendors thinned, the road widened
and the bus picked up speed. Conan would have continued to follow it if
he had not seen the building.
It stood partially hidden among the trees, an ancient structure with
an arched roof. Two sets of tall windows flanked a large double door of
weathered oak. One of the doors hung askew on broken hinges. Through the
gap, came the unmistakable golden glow of a hyperlink.
"When the Web was new, it is said there were only a few entrances to
it," Conan said, "This looks like one of them."
The door swung inward at his touch, with only a low, rusty groan. The
passage was large enough to lead the horse through. Once inside, Reynard
jumped from the saddlebag and ran from corner to corner sniffing. The building
smelled of disuse. Dust streaked the windows; mold dotted the ceiling;
gold leaf peeled from the carved moldings. Underfoot, the mosaic floor
was chipped, its once-brilliant colors muted by dirt.
"Not been upgraded in years," Reynard said, sniffing the floor.
"The third kingdom was founded when mosaic was still in fashion," Conan
said, standing by the spot in the floor from which came the glow of the
Reynard cocked his head and scratched behind his ear. "That could lead
anywhere," he said.
"Do you have a better idea?"
"No." he said, dubiously, then scratched again.
"Then we go," Conan said, taking a firm grip on FirstSearch's reins
and stepping into the link. The fox jumped after him. When the swirling
greyness dissolved, they found themselves in the midst of a dark forest.
© 1998, by Hadley V. Baxendale