Conan the Librarian on the Information Highway
Chapter 18
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 you'd like." 

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 hyperlink. 

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

Follow Conan Through the Web: 

TOURBUS is a virtual tour of the best of the Internet, delivered by e-mail to over 80,000 people in 120 countries, and it's FREE! 

The Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, CO has the full text of the Consumer Information Catalog available for downloading and many of the free pamphlets in full-text, too. 

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