Centaur of Attention
A Star Wars/Xanth Crossover
by Kenya Starflight
Rated PG-13 for mild violence, references to storks, and Vader and Metria being their usual ornery/obnoxious selves
Part I -- Jenny Elf
It was an unassuming datadisk, giving the appearance of being of no great importance. There were no markings on it, no labels, no signs that it had been password-locked or encoded. For all Vader knew, it could be a diary, love letter, will, or any number of things, all inconsequential to the war against the Alliance.
But the fact that it had been in the possession of a captured Rebel made it instantly suspicious.
The Rebel had denied it was at all valuable. In fact, he had claimed it was just a computer game. Then again, he'd also claimed he was just an asteroid prospector rather than the Rebel X-wing fighter pilot he most definitely was. And since he'd been most uncooperative when asked to divulge information, he'd died an exquisitely painful death.
Vader sat down before his personal computer, sliding the disk into the drive. He could have ordered an underling to inspect it, but he trusted no one but himself with the task. With the Emperor formulating an elaborate trap for the Rebellion, they couldn't risk the faction gaining an upper hand before they were ready.
Besides, he needed something to distract himself from thoughts of his son. Ever since his encounter with Luke on Bespin he'd been having the strangest delusions...
The screen blanked out. Had the disk carried a virus? No, it was merely loading a program. A figure of a tiny man appeared and addressed him.
"Hi! I'm Grundy Golem. I'm from the land of Xanth, and I speak your language. I'm your temporary Companion. If you don't like me you can get rid of me in just a minute. But first listen a bit, okay? Because I'm here to take your hand and lead you through the preliminaries without confusion. Any questions you have, you just ask me. You do that by touching the Q key, or clicking the right side on your mouse. So go ahead -- ask."
A computer game. That blasted Rebel had been right. He didn't have time for frivolities like this. He reached for the disk.
Then he wondered. The Alliance was cunning. They could have developed this game as a means of delivering a message. They'd done such things in the past. A high-ranking Imperial had once been caught betraying vital information to the Rebellion and executed, but they'd found nothing of interest among his possessions and auctioned them off for funds. Only later was it discovered that a seemingly innocuous painting among his assets, purchased by a Rebel fence, had actually been a coded message for the Alliance detailing a planned assault on a Rebel shipyard. That slip in vigilance had cost the Empire victory at that embarrassing fiasco some called the Battle of Tanaab.
No, he'd best scour this program carefully, lest it contain valuable data. With some misgivings he tapped the Q key.
A massive finger appeared on the screen and nudged Grundy so hard he staggered. "Hey, not so hard!" the golem snapped. "Okay, so you have a question. You have one of those primitive Mundane keyboards, right? So you have two ways to do it. You can type the question so I can see it, or you can touch ENTER and it will bring up the list of the ten most common questions at this stage. Then you can use your arrow keys to highlight the question you want, and touch ENTER again, or just shortcut by typing the number of the question you want. I'll wait while you decide. If you want me to resume without waiting, touch ESCAPE." He took a step back and twiddled his thumbs.
Vader thought it might be simpler to voice his own questions but decided to have a look anyway. He punched ENTER.
Grundy reached down and caught hold of a bit of string at the bottom of the screen. He pulled it up, and a scroll of print unrolled. There were numbered questions:
1.How do I get out of this crazy game?
2.How can I shortcut to the action?
3.Who is that creature on the cover?
4.Can I get my money back if I quit now?
5.How do I get a better Companion?
6.How do I save my place so I can take a bathroom break and pick up where I left off?
7.What makes you think this game is so great?
8.Can a friend play too?
9.What's the prize for winning?
0.How many printed questions are there, and can I call them up anytime?
So they had already had some player input. He tapped the 0 key.
"There are a hundred questions in this edition of the Companions of Xanth game, and there may be more in future editions as we get more player feedback. You can call up the list anytime by touching HELP and paging down. For two-digit numbers you can hold down the first number while you touch the second, and both digits will register. But it's probably easier to just ask me."
It probably was. All the same, he decided to toy with the list some more. He might ferret out a hole in the program. He typed 1.
"To quit this game, touch ALT-ESCAPE and turn off the set. But I hope you don't quit yet; you haven't given us a fair chance. We hardly know you."
They hardly knew him? Was this one of those artificial-intelligence games? He doubted it. He touched the 2 key.
"To shortcut directly to the action, touch SHIFT-ESCAPE. But I strongly advise against this, because there's more you have to do, like checking in, and you'll be stuck with me as your Companion. Once you know the ropes, you can skip this whole scene, but please don't do it this time."
He checked the list again. 3 and 4 were irrelevant, as the game was missing its box and he hadn't actually purchased it. 7 was laughable, as the game designers would never program negative comments into their own game. 8? He hadn't any friends unless one counted the Emperor, who was less a friend than a Master to him, and the Emperor had no use for games.
Suddenly Grundy piped up. "Maybe it's time you asked about Companions, if that isn't clear yet."
ALL RIGHT, WHAT ABOUT COMPANIONS? he typed.
"I'm so glad you asked about Companions! That is of course the name of this game, and the main thing that distinguishes it from others. In this game you are never left to flounder helplessly, guessing at the procedures. You have a Companion to guide you through. Anything you need to know, you can ask your Companion, and if he (or she, if you select a female) doesn't know the answer, he'll give you a responsive guess. He will also warn you when you are going wrong, and in general be a true friend to you. You can trust your Companion absolutely -- except for one thing. Touch Y or ENTER if you want to know about that one thing."
Leave me hanging, why don't you? he thought acidly, punching ENTER.
"That is smart of you. You see, your Companion is your truest friend, ordinarily. But there is one chance in seven that he will be a False Companion. That one will pretend to be your friend, but will lead you into mischief and doom. So if you get that one, you must be wary, and not take his bad advice. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to tell a Fair Companion from a False Companion, because they look and act the same -- until some key point in the game, when the False Companion will betray you. You must judge only by assessing the quality of the advice you are given, and recognizing bad advice. If you are able to identify your False Companion, you can not exchange him for another; once you choose your Companion, you are stuck with him throughout the game. You can ask him to go away, but then you will be alone in the game without guidance and are likely to get eaten by a dragon, or suffer some worse fate. It is better to keep him with you, but to be wary of him. It is possible to win the game with a False Companion, just a lot more difficult."
SUPPOSE I QUIT THE GAME AND START OVER, Vader suggested.
"If you try to leave the game and return, so as to get a new Companion, you will find that the layout of the game has changed, so that not only are you not certain whether your new Companion is True or False, you are not sure whether paths which were safe before remain so. If you are well along in the game, it is better to just continue. But it is your choice, of course."
Ah. A challenge. He enjoyed that sort of thing. But what was this about a prize? Somehow he'd missed question number 9. Perhaps the game was a puzzle to conceal information on this disk. Only a Rebel with the proper knowledge would be able to win the game and access the data.
But he knew plenty about computers, and while no game guru, he was confident that he could best the puzzles this game presented. He touched 9.
"The prize for winning the game, which is not easy to do, is to receive a magic talent, which will be yours in any future games you play. We do not know what that talent is, but it will surely be a good one, that will be a great advantage for you."
So the game said. But he preferred his theory. He tapped 5.
Grundy frowned. "I was hoping you would decide to stay with me. I can speak the languages of animals and plants, and learn things that others cannot." Then he smiled. "But maybe you still will choose me. Here are the six other Companions from which to choose." He pulled up another scroll.
This contained six names: Goody Goblin, Horace Centaur, Jenny Elf, Marrow Bones, Demoness Metria, and Nada Naga. He selected a name more or less at random and pressed ENTER.
JENNY ELF, NATIVE TO THE WORLD OF TWO MOONS AND AN IMMIGRANT TO XANTH. MAGIC TALENT ENABLES HER TO DRAW OTHERS INTO HER DREAMS, AND OWNS SAMMY CAT, A FELINE WHO CAN FIND ANYTHING EXCEPT HOME. AGE 15, NICE, KIND, KNOWLEDGEABLE ABOUT XANTH AND UNDERSTANDING OF NEWCOMERS. ASSETS: INNOCENCE CAN BE USEFUL AND CAT CAN LOCATE THINGS UPON REQUEST. LIABILITIES: FALLS UNDER ADULT CONSPIRACY.
What in the galaxy was the Adult Conspiracy? He decided it didn't matter. Jenny was as good a Companion as any. He pressed ENTER.
A short, delicate girl with long hair and pointed ears, wearing a checkered shirt and trousers, and carrying a yellow cat in her arms stepped onto the screen. "Thank you, Grundy. I'll take it from here."
Grundy sighed and walked offscreen.
"Hello, Player! I'm Jenny Elf, and I'm glad I've been chosen as your Companion. This is my cat, Sammy. He's very smart and can find anything you ask him to. Who are you?"
He considered using an alias, since the Rebels might have programmed the game to be sensitive to the names of high-ranking Imperials and prevent them from winning -- uh, cracking the code. But the desire to show the scum exactly who they were dealing with won out.
LORD DARTH VADER, he typed.
Her eyes went wide. "Oh, you're a Lord!" She set Sammy down and curtsied politely. "Pleased to meet you. Shall I call you Lord Vader, or can I call you by your first name?"
Then the game recognized him. Would it make much of a difference? At least it hadn't been programmed to insult him or eject him directly from the game. LORD VADER WILL SUFFICE, he replied.
"I'd like to hear all about you," she said eagerly, "but that can wait until we're in the game proper. I must ask you to do a few things so we can really enjoy this. First, you need to refocus your eyes. See those dots at the top of the screen?"
He looked. Two black spots glared back. YES.
"I must ask you to refocus your eyes until you see three dots instead of two. That way, we can see each other as rounded images instead of flat. Try it."
Wondering what this was supposed to accomplish, he gazed at the dots and relaxed his eyes, letting them drift out of focus. The two dots blurred, separated into four, then merged into three as he corrected their focus slightly. When he looked upon Jenny again he was startled to see her features stand out in sharp, three-dimensional detail. So this game was similar to those computer-generated "magic" 3D pictures so popular among the galaxy's youth.
"That's better," she noted. "You look much better with a shape than flat. But the next task is going to be trickier. You see, to properly play the game you have to suspend your disbelief in Xanth."
He blinked, puzzled. Suspend his disbelief?
"It may be hard for you, being Mundanian and all, but if you can do it you'll be able to truly enjoy your experience in Xanth. But if not... well, we can still win the game."
What was this nonsense? The Rebels expected people to actually believe this rubbish? Dragons and demons were all the stuff of children's tales. But then, if the Rebels believed they could overthrow the Empire, they probably believed such drivel as dragons, demons, and a fantasy world called Xanth.
I CANNOT DO SUCH AT THIS TIME.
"Oh," she replied, looking crestfallen. "Well, we can play anyway. And don't worry. The first Player I was Companion to had a hard time believing too, at first." She motioned as if expecting him to follow her. "Let's go!"
The screen moved as if he were truly following in Jenny's footsteps. The screen was filled with a lush jungle glade, each leaf and vine and flower standing out in 3D relief. He had to give it to the game creators -- this was a pretty realistic game. Though why they'd put so much painstaking effort into a concealed message baffled him at the moment.
WHERE MIGHT WE BE ABLE TO FIND THE... PRIZE? he typed.
"We can ask Sammy to find it," Jenny replied, scooping the cat up in her arms. "He can find anything except home. But the problem is, once he knows how to find something, he just runs off toward it, and we'd have to chase him so we didn't lose him. And we don't know what dangers lay between here and the prize."
THEN WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST WE DO?
"I think we should go to the Good Magician. He knows the answer to every question there is to ask. He usually charges a year of service for the answer, but I don't think that rule applies to Players."
VERY WELL. LET US FIND THIS GOOD MAGICIAN. Very creative name, he thought.
She set Sammy down. "Sammy, find a path that leads to the Good Magician's castle. Not a safe enchanted path -- the game bars us from those -- but a game-approved path."
The instant her mouth closed on the heels of the last word the cat was off in a blur of tawny fur. She shouted for him to wait for her and ran off after him, while Vader followed via his screen.
PERHAPS THAT ANIMAL SHOULD BE KEPT ON A LEASH, he advised, then caught himself. Why was he giving advice to a computer program?
Sammy came to an abrupt halt, yowling. But there wasn't a path to be seen, only a pair of vicious-looking droids.
"You may not pass," the first rumbled in a monotone voice.
"Authorized personnel only," the second added in an identical voice.
Vader studied the droids carefully. They weren't any droid he was familiar with. Quadrupedal like AT-ATs with feet resembling cloven hooves, their bodies were stocky and animal-like, with long necks and muzzles and audioreceptors that resembled long ears. They were plated in gleaming silver metal, and their photoreceptors glowed blood-red.
WHAT ARE THOSE?
"I'm not sure," Jenny replied. "I think they're a special game challenge. Hold on; I'll ask them." She stepped up to the first one. "Excuse me, may I ask who you are?"
"We're assassin droids," it boomed. "We were told to guard this area and kill anyone not authorized to pass." It regarded her coldly with one fiery photoreceptor. "Are you authorized to pass?"
"Well... ah... I don't know..."
The second droid opened metallic jaws, and a beam of acid-green light streaked toward Jenny. She screamed and ducked, and the blast struck a tree and blasted it to flaming splinters.
"Oh dear," she moaned. "That was such a lovely pie tree."
IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU, Vader remarked. I MUST SAY, THESE ARE UNUSUAL DROIDS. I'VE SEEN MANY KINDS OF ASSASSIN DROIDS, BUT NONE LIKE THIS.
"I think it's because most things look different in Xanth," she replied. "It has something to do with the name."
WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
"Well, an ass is a Mundanian animal, with the body of a centaur, the head of a sea horse, and long ears. And there's two here. So they're ass-ass-in droids."
Vader rolled his eyes. The game programmers had a truly bizarre sense of humor.
"You in the black," the second droid croaked. "On the screen. Are you authorized to pass?"
He decided to be blunt. IT DEPENDS ON IF YOU ANSWER OUR QUESTIONS, YOU ASININE HEAP OF MALFUNCTIONING CIRCUITS.
The insult had its intended effect -- both droids were too taken aback to fire. He pressed on.
WHO ASSIGNED YOU TO THIS AREA?
"The demon Grossclout," the first replied.
"He's the one running the game," Jenny whispered. "So they're a game challenge, I'll bet."
AND WHAT WERE HIS EXACT ORDERS?
"To guard this area and not allow anyone through that the demons haven't authorized to be in the area," said the second.
"I'm authorized!" Jenny exclaimed. "I'm a Companion, recruited by Grossclout himself!"
"You may pass," the first droid growled.
"What about the cat?" the second demanded.
"Oh, he's authorized too," Jenny assured them.
The first droid lifted a hoof to let Sammy go by. "And the screen -- is he authorized to pass?"
"Yes, he's a Player..." Jenny began.
"Did Grossclout give him permission to pass through this area?" asked the second.
The first droid opened its mouth. The screen jerked as if he were dodging the shot, and a loud crack echoed from the computer speakers as the blast struck another tree. The droid prepared to shoot again.
NOW JUST A MINUTE, YOU STUBBORN SCRAP PILE ON FOUR LEGS!
"Yes?" asked the second droid.
I AM A PLAYER. THE GIRL SAID SO.
"But you haven't been given permission by Grossclout to be here," the first croaked.
I'M IN THE GAME, AREN'T I?
"Apparently," the second conceded.
AND I MUST BE AUTHORIZED TO PLAY, OR ELSE THIS GROSSCLOUT FELLOW WOULD HAVE EJECTED ME BY NOW, RIGHT?
"Indubitably," the first agreed.
SO I'M HERE IN THE GAME.
"Most definitely," the second noted.
AND I'M AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE GAME.
"Quite probably," the first allowed.
THUS, I MUST BE AUTHORIZED TO PASS THROUGH HERE.
The droids were silent.
WELL? he demanded.
"You may pass," the second said grudgingly.
"That was amazing, Lord Vader!" Jenny said in awe as they followed Sammy again. "You were great!"
I HOPE THAT WAS THE WORST OF OUR CHALLENGES.
"Don't count on it. Very few players are supposed to make it to the end of the game."
Sammy came to a halt, sat back on his haunches, and proceeded to groom himself. Before them was a well-worn path that forked off in two directions. The first fork was marked with a sign that read "Good Magician's Castle and Ogre-Fen Ogre-Fen." The second had a sign indicating "Good Magician's Castle and Com Pewter's Cave."
"Both these paths should take us to the Good Magician," Jenny explained. "But each one has a different obstacle along the way."
WHAT PATH DO YOU SUGGEST?
"That's up to you to decide. You're the Player."
WHAT IS THE OGRE-FEN OGRE-FEN?
"It's where the ogres live."
AND WHAT IS AN OGRE?
"A huge, stupid, enormously strong, and incredibly ugly monster that vaguely resembles a giant human. They like to talk in rhyme and destroy or chomp anything they meet."
AND WHO OR WHAT IS COM PEWTER?
"He's an evil machine. Actually, he was made nice by the Zombie Master's daughter, but he's evil again for the game's purposes. If you stumble into his cave, you're his to toy with to his whim unless you find a way to escape."
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I THINK WE'D BEST TAKE THE PATH TO COM PEWTER'S CAVE. I'D RATHER DEAL WITH A MACHINE THAN GIANTS.
Jenny smiled a smile that seemed to illuminate the entire screen. "After seeing you outsmart the ass-ass-in droids, I'm sure you can handle Com Pewter."
Even though the elf girl was only a computer image, he was strangely touched by her comment.