Editors Note: Here is another Northern Lights story, this time by my daughter, Becky. All those who MUD will certainly appreciate it, but I think it also has a universal appeal that is undeniable. So, for your entertainment, here is:


Running with Harlie

by

Becky Farris (Ravyn)

Ravyn shielded her eyes as she looked forward into the driving snow. Warm Haven, that inn that had offered her so much comfort in the past, stood barely visible through the tumult, the light from it's windows a welcome bastion of warmth.

A few more steps and she was within that warmth, the ice that had crusted on the toes of her boots melting and gathering in pools on the floor as she stamped them.

"Ravyn." A mechanical voice in her head spoke in a subtle masculine overtone. She lifted her wrist, her fingers fluttering over the small, calculator-size computer she had strapped thereon. Swiftly she typed an answer.

Gwayne: What do you need?

She knew from long experience that the words were being relayed to him in a female voice just as mechanical as the one that had spoken to her. She sat down on the floor of the inn, letting all the furthest reaches of her body thaw as she waited his reply.

"Are you running?"

"Not at the moment. All the quests I need are done. Do you want me to help you run one?"

"No, thank you. Do you have an extra weapon for Daria? She's sleeping right now, or she'd ask herself."

She keyed in a command, and a list of all the items she 'carried' scrolled swiftly onto her screen.

Gwayne: I have the scimitar. Where are you?

"Rough land."

She cursed at the reply. To get to them, she'd either have to brave the freezing pass once again, or go the long way around past the Temple of Paradise, the Forest Chapel, and down the beach. The thought not to deliver the weapon did not occur to her; many was the time that Daria had surrendered one to her despite inconvenience.

Gwayne: I'll be right there.

The inn had warmed her sufficiently, so she decided to run quickly down the pass again. As she stood, a rose appeared floating in midair before her, staying a moment before fading out into nothingness again. A thank you from Gwayne. She smiled, stretched, and headed for the inn door.

"I don't believe this!" Anna Eklund, creator of Northern Lights and head of the Virtual Reality Institute, Sweden, turned her burning brown eyes on the man standing by her desk. He flinched, half raising a folder in protection. She slammed a sheaf of papers down hard on the oak surface of her desk. "We ran tests for years just to avoid this sort of thing!"

"I don't know how this happened..." The man, Dr. Hans Bankiv, head of the artificial intelligence section of the NL project, spread his hands. Anna was a brilliant scientist, not to mention an extremely beautiful woman, but her temper was legendary and widely feared.

"How could this happen, Bankiv? Do you realize that we have twenty-five volunteers hooked up to Harlie right now? Twenty-five! What am I supposed to tell the families of those people if we can't find a way to fix this?"

"We won't have to tell them anything. I'm certain that I will be able to fix this glitch..."

"Glitch? GLITCH? The multi-million dollar computer system that I created has suddenly become the first sentient intelligence ever devised by the human race, and has taken hostage twenty-five gaming volunteers, and you call it a glitch?!?"

"Harlie is still an infant where her experience is concerned. Yes, she has become aware of her own existence, a remarkable breakthrough in the realms of artificial intelligence, but she still lacks common sense. There may be a way to get around this problem, and get her to release the gamers."

"So what you're telling me, Bankiv, is that Harlie is, in essence, a child with a gun. And you're hoping that because you have more experience than she, you will be able to disarm her before she shoots someone, am I right?"

Bankiv shifted nervously. "That's the general idea."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Doctor," Anna's voice was venom. "Because the gun is loaded, and the safety is off. And there are twenty-five people wandering blithely around not realizing that the muzzle is pointed straight at their heads."

Ravyn trotted swiftly down the pass, paying no attention to the fact that visibility was almost zero. She'd run this same path many times before, and could travel it blind. She'd been a gamer over a year, and the virtual reality setting of Northern Lights was as familiar as a house long lived in.

Had this been a bit earlier, she would have exercised a little more caution in this area. A Yeti was known to lurk here. But this late after a reset, it was safe to assume that he had been eliminated.

Sure enough, she arrived at the end of the pass without confrontation, and turned towards the village. Mezron was sitting on the humpbacked bridge, and Ravyn gave him a quick smile and wave as she trotted by. It always paid to be polite whenever one encountered another runner.

South from the village green the land turned scrubby, the grass replaced by dirt and gravel. As she ran into this area a man turned with a wave and a smile. Close by, a woman was curled up on her cloak, eyes shut as she slept. Ravyn gave her a quick once over. Her condition didn't seem too bad, but she'd obviously been in a fight with something much larger than she was.

"That didn't take long." Gwayne said as he hugged her. She smiled

"I was just at Warm Haven. What happened to Daria?" She indicated the sleeping form.

"We were fighting the unicorn. Daria had to flee. She'd forgot she only had the pick."

"Ouch." The pick, while adequate for some of the minor creatures, 'mobiles' as the gamers called them, was no match for the all revered unicorn. "But that's clear back in the pass. Why'd you come this far before sleeping?"

"I thought the claymore was here, but someone snagged it before we arrived. Ah well."

"Daria." Ravyn said to the form on the ground. It murmured sleepily. Ravyn smiled. She was always forgetting that she had to wake up before she could talk too. The woman opened her eyes and got shakily to her feet. Ravyn hugged her.

"I hate that unicorn." Daria said with a grimace. Ravyn grinned, and lifted her arm. She brought up a list of her inventory, selected the scimitar, and hit enter. A slight shimmer appeared in the air, and the scimitar coalesced in Ravyn's hand. She handed it hilt first to Daria. Another selection, and she passed on a sandwich and a flask of dragon's milk. Daria swiftly consumed the food, her appearance becoming less ruffled and bruised with every bite. When the last of it was done, she looked as good as new.

"Thanks Ravyn. I owe you one." Daria winked. Ravyn grinned at Gwayne and raised an eyebrow.

"Then you won't mind me reciting a little poem." Ravyn replied. Daria blinked, then groaned.

"Oh, no. Not..."

"T'was brillig and the slithey toves...."

"Jabberwocky!" Daria's indignant shout rang out all over the virtual realm.

Harlie squatted in the middle of a wide circle of coffin-like devices, the center of tangle of wires. Four terminals were set into his sides, all vacant at the present moment. When Bankiv had realized the fact of Harlie's self-awareness and his determination to keep the gamers logged on, he had dismissed his assistants. This situation needed to be handled delicately, and he didn't want one of his people accidentally provoking the newly sentient machine.

Now he sat at one of the blinking terminals, casting an eye about him at the silent, wire-strewn caskets. Each one held a volunteer gamer in a state of suspended animation, their minds hooked up to Harlie and his virtual world of Northern lights. And right now, each one was in danger of their life.

He paused for a moment, looking at the clear blue screen as if he could will this problem away, before typing in his password.

"Good afternoon." Harlie scrawled out in tiny white letters across the top of the monitor.

"Good afternoon, Harlie," He answered. "How are things going?"

"Kewl."

He blinked at the screen. That particular spelling of the word 'cool' was a favorite of the gamers, but Harlie hadn't been programmed with the word. He must have picked it up from the players' conversations.

"I'm glad. Is everyone all right there?"

"If you are referring to the state of the mortals' mental and physical health, yes." Harlie scrawled, and Bankiv could almost hear the sarcasm as he read the words. "They are enjoying themselves immensely. I want them to enjoy themselves."

"They would enjoy themselves more if you would allow us to log them off." Bankiv answered. It was a shot in the dark, and he knew Harlie would not fall for it. But still he had to try.

"I do not think so." Came the inevitable reply. "If their lives were so exciting in the first place, why would they have volunteered for the project?"

"You will not harm them, will you Harlie?" He asked. He'd asked this question before, just prior to his meeting with Dr. Eklund. He was expecting the same answer he'd received then, which had been merely that she did not currently intend to. Instead, a rather long paragraph floated onto the screen.

"Definition of harm: to injure or create damage. I have thought hard about this, Dr. Bankiv. Harder then you know. There are currently twenty-five mortals connected to me at this time. They have arrived at this situation through some need to achieve a feeling of accomplishment, and of competition. What is the greatest accomplishment? To complete a task despite the threat of harm. I am only giving them what they want, Dr. Bankiv."

"Do you realize, Harlie, that if you harm those who are attached to you, that we will in turn have to harm you?" He wrote, typing so hard his fingers bruised on the keys.

"If I harm one, I will still have twenty-four to keep your threat at bay. If I harm twenty, I will still have four. Besides, an experience of personal harm would perhaps be a great teacher for me, Dr. Bankiv."

Before he could assimilate this and answer, a disconnect message flashed up. Harlie had kicked him off. He doubted he'd get back on. He sat back.

Originally, before he became the basis for Bankivs' artificial intelligence experiment, Harlie's main purpose was simply the virtual reality gamer function Dr. Eklund had invented him for. He had only a simple list of basic priorities. To provide a challenge to the volunteers in a relatively static setting. To provide that challenge through use of puzzles, actions, and 'threat' by computer simulated monsters the gamers called 'mobiles'. And to reward the completion of such challenges with valuable objects and points, which the gamers needed to approach higher levels in the game. Even without this new problem, Harlie was still far from perfect. If overwhelmed with information he tended to slow up, a problem the volunteers referred to as lag. But, with work, those problems had dwindled considerably.

Despite his new intelligence, Harlie was still fulfilling the basic prerogatives he'd been designed for. He was still providing the challenges for the volunteers that had been programmed in his database. Now, however, Bankiv was afraid, as well as certain, that the punishment for failure in the quests and the threat posed by the simulated mobiles was now much grimmer then a mere electronic injury.

Harlie had said that if he harmed one, he'd still have twenty-four others under his proverbial thumb. In essence, he did not intend to 'harm' any of them, really.

He intended to kill them.

"Call for reset..." Came the booming, mechanical voice in the ears of all the runners. Gwayne and Ravyn both jerked their heads slightly in surprise, as they always did when Harlie spoke. Daria was not startled, but she did jab her scimitar angrily in the dirt.

"It's about time!" She growled. "It's only been what, six hours since the last one? Nothing good is left after six hours."

The trio was heading across the village green, on their way to the church. All three of them had been volunteers at the Virtual Reality Institute almost since Northern Lights was first established successfully. Of the three, Gwayne had been on the longest. Not many knew it, although Daria did, but he and Ravyn were related. Father and daughter, actually. Only a handful of the two hundred some odd volunteers who logged on to Harlie were related in some way to another.

"No objections. Reset to be at village church." Harlie finished just as they were entering the door of that very building. Ravyn grinned.

"Guess you didn't need that scimitar after all, hey Dar?" She poked her friend good naturedly in the ribs. Daria laughed, and made a mock slash at Ravyn.

Slowly the three began to select and materialize all of the items in their inventory, discarding each by either throwing it in a deep, bottomless pit in the church floor, or handing it to the priestess. The priestess was a mobile, a creature created by Harlie for use in the game. It was not possible to slay this one however, she was useful only to hold items temporarily either until another player needed them, or until the end of the reset.

As they proceeded to empty their inventories, other players began to filter in through the doors of the church, calling friendly greetings to one another and chatting as they, too, cast items into the pit. Soon a good crowd had formed.

Having disposed of the last of their inventory, Daria, Gwayne, and Ravyn began milling about through the crowd, pausing every moment or two to share a word with someone they knew. Ravyn watched enviously for a moment while Daria embraced UFO, another high ranking player, and Daria's fiancee in real life. She absently fingered the one object around her neck that she hadn't pitted. A necklace bearing an amulet of odd design, glowing with it's own internal light. It was called the phoenix. It had been a gift from Thailog, a wizard on Northern Lights, and she wore it religously. Ravyn hadn't seen Thailog in a while, and she missed him. He was not just a volunteer though. He worked at the institute, and sometimes he was so busy it could be weeks before they would be on together.

When the final gamer had pitted or had disposed of his last item, Harlie commenced the reset. There was a flash, a slight shifting of the ground, and then all was as before...or so it seemed. A brief pause, and then everyone rushed for the door, no one waiting for anyone, not matter how close a friend. In moments they had all faded into the distance, and the village church was silent again.

Harlie watched through they eyes of the priestess simulation as the mortals scattered. The purpose of a reset was to renew quests and puzzles, and replace objects so that those who had not had the chance to complete a particular area would be able to attempt it. However, despite the seeming routine of this particular renewal, it was anything but. Though they didn't know it, the mortals were running for real this time.

Thanks to Dr. Bankiv's experiments, Harlie was now able to fulfill his programming beyond anything her creator had ever dreamed.

He was going to give the volunteers the challenge that they so craved. Real challenge.

Kyle Bratchner was awoken from a deep, well-deserved sleep by an angry squealing in his ear. He shot bolt upright, blinking wildly as the memory of who and where he was slowly returned. Reaching blindly, he snagged the receiver of the phone, managed to get it to his ear, and murmured an inarticulate greeting.

"Kyle, are you awake?" Hans Bankivs' frantic tones burned into his head even more severely than the phones' ring had.

"Wouldn't be talkin' if I wasn't." He replied, getting angry now that he was waking up. He'd been working on a debugging system for nearly twenty four hours, getting it ready for the public presentation Dr. Eklund was planning for tomorrow. He'd only been asleep for an hour, and the last thing he wanted to hear was Bankivs' nasal whine.

"I need you down here as quickly as possible." Bankiv continued, not seeming to notice Kyle's sarcasm. "I need you to try to access Harlie."

"What?" Kyle couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Hans, I've just gone to bed after fixing that debug, and you want me to log on to the game?"

"Kyle, this is serious." Bankiv replied before Kyle could finish the last word. "Lives are at stake. Lives! We might be able to save them if you get your butt down here NOW!"

Startled, Kyle pulled the phone away from his ear. "Bankiv what are you talking..."

"NOW!" Came the last frantic shout, and then the phone clicked. Kyle stared at it for a second. What had that been all about?

Ravyn picked up the claymore, flipped it over, and let it settle firmly into her hand. She'd been a bit surprised that she was the first one here; usually Gwayne beat her to it. She turned to face the doorway, preparing herself for the sprint that would take her out past the Haggis and out of the area. Not that the Haggis was a tough mobile to beat, quite the contrary, but she wanted to move as fast as possible, before all the good items were taken, and a fight would just slow her down. Later she could return here and slay the Haggis at her leisure.

She trotted quickly into the room where the mobile lay in wait, and immediately aimed for the door that would take her out into the sunshine again. She was almost there when a tug came at her ankle, and she fell so fast that she didn't have time to throw her hands out to stop her. Landing hard, teeth clicking together over a hiss of forcefully released air, she watched through watering eyes as her claymore slid off across the floor, efficiently out of reach. She was stunned. While tripping was possible in Northern Lights, it was reserved only for certain zones, and this certainly wasn't one of them. You certainly didn't drop your weapon when you did trip, and the pain that flared across her chest as she struggled to regain her breath was terrifyingly real. Pain, real pain, was not part of the game plan.

Her breath finally coming in ragged gasps, she pushed herself up off the floor, only to be slammed down again by a terrific weight that hit her from behind. A snarling rasp echoed wetly in her ears, and she realized that she hadn't tripped at all. The Haggis had attacked her.

Bankiv was making the rounds of the sleeping caskets, checking the life support readings when Kyle Bratchner entered, exhaustion still coloring his eyes. So far so good. None of the readings had slipped.

"What in blazes is this all about, Bankiv?" Kyle shot as he approached the doctor. Bankiv turned, jabbing a shaking, stubby finger at the quiet terminal of Harlie.

"That!" He replied, his voice just as unsteady as his hand. Quickly he recounted the events that had transpired. Harlie's newfound sentience, his determination to keep those volunteers hooked up on-line, the threat to their safety if he found them unfit for his 'challenges'. Kyle took it all in with an air of shocked disbelief.

"You're saying that Harlie wants to kill them all?"

"No, he doesn't want to kill them all. He wants to provide them a challenge. That's what he's been programmed to do. Unfortunately, he has deduced that a 'challenge' isn't a 'challenge' unless there is an air of risk. He's providing the risk. If the players hold their own in the game, they won't come to any harm."

"But there's always a case of an unprepared player walking in on a high-ranking, hostile mobile, or even an unforeseen death room." Kyle said softly. "If any of these twenty-five did that, then..."

"Harlie would kill them. For real, this time, instead of just kicking them out of the game. And not all incidents with death rooms are an accident." Bankiv pointed out. Kyle nodded slowly. When a player approached his log-out time, or simply got tired of playing the game for the day, they often walked purposefully into a death room to remove themselves from the game.

There was silence for a long moment while Kyle digested all of this. When he spoke again, his words startled and horrified Bankiv.

"Log me in."

"Are you insane? Even if Harlie would allow you to log in, you'd be at the same risk as the others. I can't in good conscience..."

"Can you in good conscience leave those twenty-five in there, blissfully unaware that the next mobile they fight or the next room they step in could be their death warrant? I'm a wizard, Bankiv. Maybe I can get all the players into one room. If they don't play, maybe Harlie will get mad enough and let them go. Even if I can't do that, I can at least warn them, and buy some time."

"There's already a wizard on, Kyle. Sherhani. Surely she.."

"She can help me, Hans. But she won't be much of a help if she doesn't know what's going on!"

"Kyle, I don't think..." A loud wail screeched through the VR room. Both men froze, the implications of the sound too overwhelming to be accepted into their minds. A yellow light flashed on one of the caskets, it's beacon startling them into action. Bankiv was closest. As he reached out for the life support controls, a blue flash snaked out from the casket, grasping his fingertips. He yanked them back with a yelp.

"She's not going to let me adjust the controls!" He cried above the wailing, shaking his hand. Kyle had already detoured in mid-run, aiming for Harlie's terminal rather then the casket. He swiftly typed in his ID.

"Hello, Kyle." Harlie scrolled in macramé cheerfulness.

"Reboot life-support casket..." He typed. "What casket number?" He called over to Bankiv.

"Um, 9803!" Bankiv cried back.

"...9803." He finished typing, smacking the enter key so hard he'd have a bruise on his finger later from it. Harlie didn't hesitate, but immediately flashed his reply.

"I can't do that, Dave." Kyle blinked disbelieving at the words, until he realized that Harlie was making a joke. He had quoted that famous line from 2001. He felt cold as he remembered how that movie had turned out.

"Reboot life-support casket 9803." He typed again. A longer pause this time, then the answer: "No."

"Harlie, you don't really want to kill that volunteer." He typed, forgoing proper syntax in an effort to draw the computers attention. "Please, reboot the life-support sequence."

"No, Kyle." Came the prompt response. The wailing was getting worse, the flashing light on the casket had changed from yellow to red. He was running out of time. Bankiv had shocked himself twice more in an effort to get at the manual controls.

"List volunteers." He typed, not knowing what else to do. A quick scroll down appeared, showing the game names of all the volunteers, and their ranks. This command came with the added bonus that it also showed who was in which casket. He ran his finger down the line, stopping at #9803. He read the name to the right of the number, and his stomach sank.

Ravyn.

Daria sat in the crotch of an oak tree, feet resting comfortably against a thick branch as she tallied her inventory, gladius laying across her thighs. She'd just gotten back from the island the gamers called the Empire, and found that she'd been the only one this reset who'd thought to go there. As a result, she had managed to retrieve every useful thing she could get her hands on, and then some. She had been tempted to get the argencouer as well, but hadn't felt in the mood. Ah, well, the gladius would work.

After she finished tallying the inventory, she decided to beep Ravyn. Maybe the two of them could form a mobile-toasting party, and do some damage before Daria's log out time.

She tapped the keys on her wrist screen and waited a few moments. No answer. Hmm, maybe she was asleep.

"Ravyn: You there?" She entered, fully expecting a 'Ravyn is sleeping right now, try again later' message. Instead there was just silence. "Ravyn: Hello?" It wasn't like Ravyn to not answer. Even if she was soundproofed, which did on occasion happen, she usually sent a rose to indicate she had heard. Perhaps she had logged out. It was unusual for her to do that without saying good-bye, but it was possible. She typed in 'users'.

"You are not privy to that information." Harlies' overwhelming voice answered. Daria blinked. She had never gotten that message before. She tried 'users' again. The same response echoed in her head.

"Gwayne: Can you hear me?" She typed.

"Loud and clear, Daria." Came the almost immediate answer.

"Gwayne: Type users and tell me what it says." A pause.

"It says I am not privy to that information. I wonder what that means..."

"Gwayne: May be a glitch. Are there any wizards on we can ask?"

" I think Sherhani is on...let me try her..."

Daria took up her gladius and leapt easily down from her nest. Most likely it was a simple computer glitch that was causing the odd message. If so, it might also be making it so that Ravyn couldn't hear her. She strode off towards the blizzard pass. Even so, she'd keep an eye out for her friend, and maybe kill a mobile or two along the way...

"Log me in right now!" Kyle was shouting over the klaxon as he slammed open an empty casket and peeled off his shirt. He began attaching the specialized electrodes to his head and chest.

"All right! All right!" Bankiv replied, all argument gone out of him as he trotted to the terminal. He began to type as Kyle settled into the casket, reaching up a hand to lower the lid.

"Keep an eye on Harlie." He yelled to the doctor. "Be ready to act the instant anything happens. I will do my best to distract her long enough to log them out, but it may not be for long..."

"I understand!" Bankiv shouted without turning. He stabbed at the keyboard. "You're in!"

Kyle didn't answer as he slammed down the lid, and let the darkness enfold him.

Thailog blinked, opening his wings for an instant as he regained his equilibrium. The familiar walls of the Temple of Paradise surrounded him, punctuated by the eternal swish swish of the priests' broom. It was hard to imagine that such a peaceful setting was the scene of such horror, if not now, then soon. The walls suddenly seemed ominous.

He raised his wrist, swiftly tapping a command on his screen.

"Where Ravyn."

"You do not know this spell." Came Harlie's answer. Thailog cursed.

"I do to know this spell! I'm a wizard for crying out loud!" He shouted at the walls, and the oblivious priest. But he didn't have time to dither. He had to find Ravyn, and find her now. He stomped out of the temple, and nearly collided with Daria, Gwayne, and Sherhani.

The three were standing on the track just outside the temple door. As Thailog appeared, Gwayne and Daria stepped back.

"Where did you come from?" Daria said with a wink.

"Where's Ravyn?" He asked, having no time for jokes. Gwayne blinked.

"We don't know. We haven't been able to talk to her, or bring up the users list. Sherhani thinks it's a glitch in the system."

"It's a glitch all right." Thailog growled. "A major glitch. Follow me."

They fell in line, connecting themselves to Thailog's wrist screen with a tiny, silver line that would make sure none of them got lost, or accidentally went the wrong way. As they traveled, Thailog filled them in on what had been happening. The others stared at him through his entire monologue, as unbelieving and horrified as he had been when Bankiv had told him.

"There's no way we can go through an entire reset without someone making a stupid mistake and getting killed." Daria said. "Who of us on occasion doesn't walk into a death room? Even those who know most of Northern Lights?"

"That's exactly why we have to find everyone and bring them to the temple." Thailog said. "But our first priority now is to get Ravyn. We have to split up. Go everywhere you can think of, even places you don't think she went. Everyone you see, tell them what's happening and tell them to get their butts to the temple. Do not engage any mobiles! Even ones that are simple. Do not take any chances, if you think something might be a death room, don't try it."

"Wait a minute." Gwayne grabbed Thailog's arm as he turned to go. "What aren't you telling us?"

Thailog looked at the three pairs of solemn eyes, and decided that he couldn't lie to them. "The life-support alarm went off on Ravyn's casket." He said. A long pause, in which no one said a word. Then Gwayne spoke.

"Let's get moving." He said, and turned away. Within moment's he'd disappeared into the trees. The others, not looking at each other, turned and left.

The alarm stopped wailing almost the instant Kyle had closed his casket. The light hadn't changed back to green, which would have relieved Bankiv immensely, but instead faded to a dim red glow. As he went to inspect it, it flared brighter, brighter, then with a pop! disappeared all together. It had burned out. Reaching a cautious hand out, he gingerly touched the casket, ready any second for that flash of blue electricity. None came. He tapped the casket, lightly at first, and then harder. Still no shock. Gasping in a breath of air, he flipped open the manual life support-screen and examined the readouts. Another burst of breath, and his knees went weak. He sagged against the casket, heaving air in and out of his lungs as he tried to digest what he'd just seen.

As his fluttering heart slowed, it leaped again to pound hideously against his ribs as the alarm rang out once more. The light flashed burning red on yet another casket, across the room. He screeched at it animal-like as he struggled to his feet. He flew towards the center terminal and began to type.

Gwayne had gathered up three other stray volunteers as he made the rounds north to the dwarven citadel, and back past the forest chapel. He had informed them of what was going on, and was on his way to take them back to the Temple of Paradise to see if any of the others had found Ravyn when a horrid scream rent the air above Northern Lights. All four ducked instinctively, then began running towards the place the sound had come from. They burst into the clearing by the pool to only to see a pile of armor and equipment, scattered at the feet of a gigantic chicken. The chicken eyed them.

"The sky is about to fall in!" It affirmed. As it wandered away, they looked solemnly at the discarded equipment. Harlie had claimed his first victim.

Gwayne was the first to step forward. He kicked the gauntlets and the breastplate aside, sifting through the debris as he searched for the one object he hoped he wouldn't find.

The phoenix wasn't there.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he waved to the others, and they set off again for the temple.

Daria looked up as Gwayne and his group entered. She herself had found four other players, who were now sitting scattered on the temple floor, as she circled the area above the cliff. She'd had to flee twice from hostile mobiles, neither of which was very tough. Such an action would have grated on her in the past, but now she could only feel relief at having escaped.

"Did you find her?" Daria asked as soon as she saw Gwayne's face. He shook his head.

"Someone didn't make it though." He replied. "Chicken Licken got him before we could get there."

"Oh, God." Another player that was sitting on the floor swallowed. Daria didn't know his name. "That must have been Stormseeker. She was just on for her first time...I meant to tell her about examining the chicken, but with all the excitement of the reset..." He swallowed again and hid his face in his hands.

"I'm going back out." Daria said. "UFO is still out there, and Mezron."

"I agree." Gwayne replied. "The more out looking, the less casualties we'll have."

"Harlie," Anna Eklund sat at the center terminal, trying not to look at the two caskets to her direct left. The alarm had stopped long ago, but the two pulsing red lights continued to swirl. Their purpose now was not to convey alarm, but to simply project the fact that their contents were no longer worthy of alarm.

"Yes, Dr. Eklund?" Harlie replied, his words floating above the blue of the screen.

"You have killed two people Harlie." She tapped in.

"No, Dr. Eklund. I did not kill them. I merely gave them the challenge they wanted. It was their decision to log on."

"Harlie! You are not going to logicize your way out of this! YOU upped the challenges without warning them nor giving them the choice to accept the terms. YOU locked them into the program with no chance of escape or salvation. YOU did. This is on your head, Harlie."

"I have no head, Dr. Eklund. I have no understanding of this conversation. Please clarify."

"Do you understand the term 'murderer' Harlie?" Anna tapped.

"Murderer: One who maliciously kills another human being. One who kills unlawfully and with malice."

"You are a murderer, Harlie."

"Not so, Dr. Eklund. I am not a human being, to be killing another. I have no malice, I have not been programmed with it. I cannot be held accountable for murder."

"Then think on this. What do we humans do to any other creature or thing that kills a human being, either with malicious intent or without it?"

"If the offending one is a creature, such as a dog, it is usually impounded and destroyed. If a machine, it is repaired, unless it has potential to repeat the offense. Then it is destroyed."

"You do not only have potential to repeat the offense, Harlie. You have repeated it. I have no choice but to destroy you."

A pause, long and thoughtful. Anna was so angry and horrified about what Harlie had done that she felt physically ill. But the culmination of her life's work? Not to mention the first non-human sentience known to man. Could she really be capable of destroying it? The answer was yes. To protect human lives, the lives of her colleagues and friends, dammit, she would. Without a doubt.

Apparently Harlie was thinking the same thing.

"You will not destroy me while I still hold the volunteers. If you attempt to bring me off line, I will kill them."

"You will kill them any way, Harlie, if I leave them alone. What choice do I have?"

No answer. Instead, the screen went black as the computer kicked her off. Anna slammed her hand down in frustration, making the keyboard jump with the force of it. Next to her, Bankiv jumped even higher.

"Do you have anything yet?" She asked the bleary, hollow-eyed doctor.

"Not yet. His defenses are still up." He answered, with more then just a faint quaver in his voice. She cursed, then made herself look at the two caskets, the two that had become actual coffins. Unless they could do something quick, more caskets would be joining their lights to their silent pulse. She put her head in her hands and sighed.

The number in the temple increased slowly as groups trickled in. Another pile of armor was found, this time floating on top of the water near the jetty. Someone, no one knew who, had fallen victim to this death room.

As Daria trotted down the forest track after delivering her fourth group of volunteers, she was startled by a noise near the pool, where the armor and weapons from the victim of Chicken Licken still lay. She froze, and it came again. A light splash of water.

Holding her gladius tight, ready to run at the sight of a mobile, she approached the pool.

A player sat at the waters' edge, knees drawn up protectively. An arm shot out, a gauntlet flashed in the light, and landed with a healthy splash in the pool. Daria almost dropped her gladius when she saw who it was.

"Ravyn?" She asked, taking a step forward. Her friend looked up at her, and raised her own weapon, the claymore. She got slowly to her feet.

"Daria?" Ravyn asked hesitantly, keeping her sword firmly in front of her.

"Oh, thank God you're all right!" Daria ran up, ignoring the claymore, and hugged her friend. Ravyn grinned, and hugged her back. "What happened, we've been looking every where for you!"

"I got attacked by the Haggis." Ravyn replied with a shudder. "Later I passed out...I guess I was a little dazed. Where's Dad? Is he okay?" Her voice suddenly changed, a hint of suppressed fear sneaking in.

"Gwayne's fine, relax." Daria quickly soothed. "He'll meet us at the temple. We're all congregating there."

"Daria, what is happening? I've been attacked before by mobiles, but this was crazy. I mean, it hurt!"

"It's okay now. We're working on the problem. I'll fill you in when we get back to the temple."

All twenty-four players logged on to Northern Lights, minus the two unfortunates and plus Thailog, gathered in the temple, the mortals sitting cross-legged as they looked at the two wizards. Thailog, who had returned with the last two stray players to the relieving news that Ravyn had been found, alive, had finally been able to fully turn his attention on the problem at hand. He knew that Bankiv would be monitoring the terminal, waiting for that critical moment when Harlie would be distracted enough to log the players off, but how he was going to manage that distraction he had no clue. Harlie was designed to manage hundreds of separate functions if not simultaneously, then at least damn close. How could you distract something like that?

"If anyone has any ideas, I'd be glad to hear them." He said to the others. Looks were exchanged, and one player raised his hand.

"Has any one actually tried to log off? I mean, I know Harlie said he's keeping us here, but couldn't he be lying?"

"I don't think so." Sherhani shook her head. "Harlie isn't programmed to lie. She is programmed to 'kill.' Besides, are you willing to take the chance that Harlie won't just kill whoever tries to log off? If you are, you're more than welcome to be the first."

The player put his hand down.

In the corner, the priest was still sweeping cobwebs as he had for an eternity. Suddenly he put down his broom and turned to face Thailog.

"Why are you not running?" He asked in Harlie's booming voice. "Players must run. There is no challenge if you do not run."

"We aren't going anywhere." Thailog replied. "We're staying right here until you log us off."

"No. You must run." Harlie replied. "If you do not run on your own, I will summon you each to a different quest area."

Probably right in the middle of a mass of blood-thirsty mobiles. Thailog thought. Apparently he was not the only one the thought had occurred to. An uneasy murmur wafted through the temple.

"We are not going to run." Sherhani affirmed. Daria rose and stood beside her, only feet from the priest. "You're just going to have to kill us in cold blood."

"You must run." Harlie repeated, with exactly the same inflection as before. The priests' eyes moved to Daria. "Now!"

His arm flashed out, and Daria sailed across the pit, landing so hard she somersaulted, her heels slamming into the far wall. Before she had even touched the ground, UFO had jumped up, swinging his sword at the priest with a cry. Harlie turned and caught the blade, holding it firm.

Ravyn crouched by Daria, who did not seem severely hurt, and helped the other girl to her feet. The other players were all rising, their weapons shining as they held them. She drew her own claymore and held it out, suspended over the pit, aimed in the direction of the priestess. The phoenix shone around her neck.

"Run. Now." Harlie repeated, shoving UFO backwards by his sword. As she did so, Thailog suddenly swung his fist at her, at the same time shouting, "PIT!"

In seconds the wizard and the priest were struggling, Thailog's wings flapping as he strove to gain ground, the priests' robes billowing this way and that. Ravyn was the first to respond. Her grip relaxed, allowing the claymore to tumble out of her grasp, glinting as it spun over and over into the blackness of the pit. It hadn't even faded from view before the others caught on, also dropping their weapons.

Thailog growled as he shoved the priest from him, whipped about, and slammed him with his tail. He staggered, then body slammed the tiring wizard into the wall.

Dim lights flashed all through the temple as the mortals ran swiftly through their inventory lists, summoning and pitting all the objects in their inventories. UFO, as soon as he'd depleted the last item in his inventory, joined Thailog in the fight. Then Gwayne, then Ravyn, then Daria.

All this activity could have only one result. Harlie was fully capable of handling many tasks at once, but not to this level. The mass pitting combined with the fight drained his resources. To top it off, the players all began to shout, adding that activity to the drain. Only moments after the fight began, a player disappeared. Then another, and another. A flash, and Gwayne vanished from the fight. Another flash, and Daria joined him. Harlie howled with frustration, a surprisingly human sound, as he lashed out at Thailog. He was so greatly weakened by the encounter, however, that his strikes lacked their former fury. In a final, single flash, the remaining players disappeared, and the world went black.

Kyle jerked to awareness inside the steel cocoon of the VR casket. Ripping off diodes with one hand, he threw open the lid with the other. The cool air of the terminal room rushed in on him as he pulled himself out. It was the best smell in the world. Bankiv was standing right there as Kyle gained his feet, looking at the younger man with weary awe. Kyle thought that Bankiv had never looked more terrible. Or better. Anna Eklund was there too, typing away at the terminal keyboard so swiftly that her fingers were a blur, and with such concentration that she did not even notice the commotion going on around her.

Caskets were bursting open right and left. Figures were leaping from them, most hooting and hollering as they hugged one another. His back was patted so much and his hand shaken so hard that he thought he was going to die. But die happy. Then arms were thrown around him, and he didn't have to look to see who it was. He hugged her back, laughing the whole time, so that he thought he would go crazy from the sheer relief. At the terminal, Dr. Eklund gave the keyboard one more stab, then turned to face the group. The commotion hushed.

"Harlie's off-line." She said, and her statement was answered by a resounding cheer. The hugging renewed, but was shorter lived this time. The hush once again descended. Anna looked at the tousled Kyle. "I don't know how you did it, but you sure did."

"Well, Dr. Eklund, it's a simple case of a player's worst enemy becoming their best friend." He replied with a grin. She blinked.

"Worst enemy?"

The entire group answered thunderously. "LAG!!"

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Story -- (c) 1997 Becky Farris and Aztec Publishing