It was hard to imagine anything was actually wrong here.
It was the nicest Kansas spring anyone could imagine, the broad prairie sky patched with cottony white clouds. Redbuds cheeky as schoolchildren waved their pink blooms in a momentary breeze, and a huge white oak spread an umbrella of shade over the road and for quite a distance on each side.
As he crossed a little wooden bridge, Orlando Gardiner saw the birches rustling along the edge of the stream, exchanging secrets with the murmuring water. The stream itself was bright and clear, flowing over large, smooth rocks of many colors and festooned with long tendrils of moss that undulated in the current. Fish swam below him and birds flew above him and it seemed like it would be May in this spot forever.
But if everything was as nice as it looked, why was he here?
To: HK [Hideki Kunohara]
From: OG [Orlando Gardiner, System Ranger!]
RE: field dispatch, kansas simworld
i’m sub-vocalizing this while i’m actually onsite investigating, so sorry for any confusion. i know you think the kansas world was hopelessly corrupted from the first, and if it really has gone bad you’ll utterly have my vote to de-rez it, but first impressions are that everything looks pretty good here, so let me finish checking it out before we make any moves. Like you said, I’m “the one who’ll have to deal with the bullshit if it goes wrong,” and that’s what I’m doing.
He could see the modest roofs and central spire of Emerald in the distance, everything as neat and well kept as a town in a model railroad. The first time he had seen this place, it had looked like something out of a medieval painting of Hell: dry, blasted, cratered as if it had been bombed, and populated with creatures so wretched and freakish they might have been the suffering damned. But it was the only Oz simulation in the Otherland network, and Orlando had fought hard to keep it running; it was good to see it thriving. Oz had meant a lot to him when he was a kid confined to a sickbed. When he had been alive.
But that still didn’t answer the main question: if everything was good in Kansas, why had he been summoned?
Whatever the reason, someone seemed to be waiting for him. She would have sparkled if the sun had been on her, but since the Glass Cat was sitting in the shade grooming, Orlando didn’t see her until he was almost on top of her. She looked up at Orlando but didn’t stop until she had finished licking her glass paw and smoothing down the fur on her glass face. The Glass Cat might be a sim of a cat—and a see-through cat at that—but she was every inch a feline. The only things that kept her from looking like a cheap glass paperweight were her beautiful ruby heart, her emerald eyes, and the pink, pearl-like spheres that were her brains (and also her own favorite attribute).
“I expected you to show up,” said the Glass Cat. “But not this quickly.”
“I was in the area.” Which was both true and nonsensical, since there really was no distance for Orlando to travel. He existed only as information on the massive network and could visit any world he wanted whenever he chose. But as far as the Glass Cat and the others were concerned, there was only one world—this one. The sims didn’t even realize they were no longer connected to the Oz part of the simulation, although they remembered it as if they were. “I hear there’s a problem,” he said. “Do you know what it is?”
She rose, swirling her tail in the air as gracefully as if it had not been solid glass, and sauntered off the path, heading down toward the stream. “Am I supposed to follow you?” he asked.
She tossed him an emerald glance of reproach. “You’re so very clever, man from Oz. What do you think?”
Following a snippy, transparent cat, he thought: Just another day in my new and unfailingly weird life. Orlando’s body had died from a wasting disease as he and others had struggled against the Grail Brotherhood, the network’s creators, a cartel of rich monsters and other greedy bastards all looking for eternal life in worlds they made for themselves. But now they were all gone, and this was Orlando’s forever instead.
“I hope this is important, Cat,” he said as he followed her down the embankment, into the rustle of the birch trees. “I’ve got plenty of other things to do.” And he did. Major glitches had looped Dodge City—the simulated outlaws had been robbing the same simulated train for days—and the gravity had unexpectedly reverted to Earth-normal in one of the flying worlds, leaving bodies all over the ground. He planned to fob at least one of the problems off on Kunohara, who, like most scientists, loved fiddling with that sort of programming problem.
“There,” the Cat said, stopping so suddenly he nearly tripped over her. “What do you think of that?”
Orlando was so irritated by her tone that for a moment he didn’t see what she was talking about, but then he noticed a leg and the long, curled toe of a boot lying half-hidden in the tall wheatgrass. “Ho Dzang,” he said softly. “Who is it? Do you know?”
“I think it’s Omby Amby.”
“The Soldier with the Green Whiskers? The Royal Army of Oz?”
“If you mean the Royal Policeman of Kansas, then yes,” the Cat said. “You know we don’t use those titles and such from the Old Country.” She yawned. “I found him this morning.”
“What were you doing way out here?” Orlando bent down. The top half of the body was still hidden by grasses, but he could see enough of the man’s slender torso and green uniform to be sadly certain the Cat was right.
“I get around.” She rose and writhed herself in and out of Orlando’s legs. “I travel, you know. I see things. I learn things. I’m curious by nature—isn’t that why you chose me to help you?”
“I suppose.” As far as he was concerned, she was merely an informant, but of course the Glass Cat would see herself as more important than that. He bent lower to pull back the grasses. “But if you really want to help me, you’d stop bumping m—”
He never finished his sentence. As he exposed the rest of the green-clad figure, Orlando Gardiner was arrested by the sudden realization that while this might indeed be the body of Omby Amby, Royal Policeman of Kansas, that was all it was; his neck ended in a cut as neat and bloodless as if someone had chopped a potato in half with a surgical knife. His head and famous long whiskers were nowhere to be seen.