In the next hour, Brenda learned quite a lot about the combination of software and often custom-built hardware that literally surrounded Wendy – but, she learned a lot more about Wendy herself. She was a bright girl, very upbeat in spite of what had happened to her, and willing to work to overcome her difficulties – and had a very devoted sister who was willing to push her if she had to. Wendy was probably one of the smarter people Brenda had ever met, anyway, and she was certainly one of the all-around most knowledgeable. Most of all, she really was a lot of fun to be around. And, while Wendy may have been a prisoner of a useless body, she had a mind that was running free and far ranging, and had the tools to allow it. She had friends all over the world, e-mail friends, of course, and several of them were quadriplegics, including the Eino she had been writing an e-mail to when Brenda and Carole came in – he was in Finland. She used internet voice, too; she was a busy net-surfer – the trackball had only speeded things up and made some things easier. Jeeves could also operate a telephone for her, run the TV, the radio, and do a number of other physical tasks.
The computer support had been helpful in many ways. Wendy was physically weak, almost by definition, except for the muscles in her neck, and her endurance was low; she slept a lot, and was often awake at odd hours. She only rarely left her seat, which required a lot of help, and it was as often as not for treatment of bedsores that she could not feel. Without the computer support, she'd be dependent on someone else for almost everything, actions as simple as turning on a light, taking a drink – or turning the page of a book. With it, she could go a long way toward living a wide-ranging life, and she knew, although vicariously, about a huge range of topics.
It hadn't come easily, Brenda learned over the course of the afternoon. While the Carters were not poor, they were not wealthy, either – but they were talented, and they had friends. Dan Carter was a mechanical engineer, with experience in software applications and robotics. He was the sort of guy who liked to tinker with things and adapt controls normally used for other purposes – and he had help of other friends, a lot of it from Mark Gravengood of Marlin Computer, the local computer store. Mark was another tinkerer, and had been tinkering with the things that could be done with computers clear back to the Altair 8008. Jeeves, whose brain was software running on a run-of-the-mill Pentium 90 with a huge com card and lots of RAM, was experimental, cobbled-up, often out of junk discarded from other things – and Brenda soon understood that he/it had performed a near miracle.
Brenda didn't get to know Dan and Denise Carter very well that first weekend. They had been just been leaving for church when Carole and Brenda showed up; when they came back, it proved that they were a pretty neat couple too. There was no getting away from Wendy's relative helplessness, but it was a normal part of the household and no one seemed to resent it. There was a "we're all in this together" attitude, which she found refreshing.
One of the things Brenda found a little, well, interesting, was Wendy's attitude toward Carole's continually wearing handcuffs. She teased Carole a lot about it, but it couldn't be considered contemptuous. But, every now and then, Wendy would say something about them that could be considered understanding, even considerate. But, the cuffs weren't a major topic of discussion, and Brenda sort of wondered about their parents' attitude toward them – nothing was said. Probably just a part of the scenery, she thought; Dan and Denise had to be as used to them as they were to Wendy's situation. Still, it made her wonder.
Dinner was really rather open-form; Wendy couldn't feed herself – unless it was liquid. Jeeves could bring her a mouth tube, although someone had to set it up – but Dan said he had some ideas about some solid food for when the software got a little bit better, and after Wendy's hand control was better, too. That would be something to see, Brenda thought. Clearly, they didn't have any intention of letting Wendy turn into a pampered vegetable, and for that matter she was happy to do what she could for herself. There was a mental toughness in the girl that went a long way toward overcoming the limitations of her body.
After dinner, Dan and Denise decided to take the opportunity to get out by themselves for a while, and the three girls continued their discussion of whatever happened to come to mind. Brenda soon decided that Wendy was happy to have her around; she was someone new to meet, someone to exchange new ideas with. And, Brenda was happy to be there; Wendy was proving to be as neat a person as her sister. God, even with everything, it's got to be boring at times, she thought. She's the kind of girl who needs to keep her mind active . . . and then there was a thought. "Hey, Wendy," she said, out of the blue. "You ever play any online games?"
"Not really," Wendy said. "I've only recently picked up the trackball control and I'm not all that good with it. There's no way I could use a joystick."
"I mean a text-based game, like some role-playing games."
"I used to role-play a little while I was still going to college, and that was fun, but I'm really pretty slow typing with the mouth stick. Every time I've looked at on-line games, they seem to require a fairly fast reaction."
"Then you haven't looked at enough," Brenda said. "There are plenty of games where you input a move and can then take your time making the next one. Lots of logic puzzles, things that need some thinking, sometimes a lot of thinking."
"I've never come across one," Wendy frowned.
"Any way I can run that computer of yours for a bit?" Brenda asked.
"Yeah, there's a keyboard already hooked up. Mark uses it for software tweaking," she smiled.
In a couple minutes, Brenda was sitting in a kitchen chair next to Wendy, keyboard on her lap, and logging into Dragonslayer.
"Crap," she said, almost immediately. "I'm down to ninth. That little snot Falconswing did it to me again." I guess it doesn't matter if it's Jason or not, she thought; Dragonslayer isn't real life. "I was first for over a year under my old game name, but I can't play it often enough these days to keep up with it."
It took most of an hour to show Wendy how the game worked, make a few moves, some of the ins and outs. "Yeah, I could do that," Wendy said finally. "It'd take me a while to learn how to do it like you do."
"You've got the time," Brenda smiled.
"Yeah, I guess I do. How do I set up a game account?"
"It's a little tricky if you haven't done this stuff before," Brenda said. "But you come into the game at a novice level, which is fairly easy. When you build up enough points, you go to the next level. There are five levels. When I started the new character, it took me weeks to get back up to the master level. OK, now we need a game name. You see the kind of game names that are on there, most sort of medieval, or mystical, or mythological."
Wendy furrowed her brow for a moment. "How about 'Cassiopeia'? It seems sort of appropriate with Andromeda sitting over there."
"Don't push the allusion too far," Carole grinned. "Cassiopeia was Andromeda's mother, not her sister."
"Yeah, but Andromeda is still waiting for Perseus to come along, anyway," Wendy laughed.
Brenda shook her head; she recognized a couple names there, but couldn't place them in context. Well, she'd look them up later. "Cassiopeia sounds pretty good to me," she said.
"Yeah, I like it," Wendy said. "Cassiopeia it is."
In a few more minutes, they finished the login, and Brenda helped Cassiopeia make some opening moves. "It'll take a while for something to take place," she said. "Stuff happens pretty slowly at the novice level. We'll log back on in an hour or two and see what happens."
Brenda was just a touch concerned; although the novice levels were easy, Dragonslayer was a fairly complicated game for a newbie gamer. "Look, I'll drop by and help you get going though the first few days," Brenda promised. "You run into problems with it, give me a call. It'll probably take you a while to get the hang of it, but when you do I think you'll find it fun."
"Thanks, Brenda," Wendy said. "I think it will be. This'll be something new. I'd be happy if you dropped by again."
"I have to," Brenda grinned. "This is more than just simple friendship now. You're a fellow Dragonslayer."
It was a long and fun afternoon, and, in time, afternoon became evening and it was hard to quit. "Look, I hate to say this," Wendy said not long after her parents got home. "But I'm fading fast. I'm not running you out of here, but I am going to fall asleep on you if you hang around. But Brenda, it's been good to have you here today. I really enjoyed it."
"Wendy, I did, too. I just want to thank you and Carole for asking me over."
"Feel free to drop by any time," Wendy said. "Or, just call me up if you feel like talking. You can call any time, day or night. If I'm asleep, the J-guy won't wake me up, but I'm often awake at weird hours."
"Sure, I'd love to," Brenda said.
"It's getting late," Carole commented. "Were you going to get in a run today?"
"I ought to," Brenda said. "I hate to miss a day, but I've got a lot to do."
"Don't skip a day," Wendy counseled. "Or you'll find it easy to get out of the habit."
Brenda nodded. "Guess I'll have to make the time."
"I need to get out, too," Carole said. "Brenda, I'll run you back over to your apartment so you can change, and we'll go get a couple miles on."
"Get a couple on for me, too," Wendy grinned.
Brenda grinned inwardly. Now, she was going to have Wendy pushing her about her exercise program, too. Well, that was just fine with her.
The sun hadn't quite set yet, but was getting low in the West as Brenda and Carole trotted down the sidewalk along the lakeshore, taking it easy so they could talk. "Thanks," Carole said after a ways.
"Thanks for putting up a good front with Wendy!"
"What good front?" Brenda said. "I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Your sister is a neat person, and if something like that had to happen to her, she's incredibly lucky to have such a warm and caring family and friends. Carole, I never knew something like Jeeves existed, but I can see how life would be considerably different for her without it."
Carole laughed. "Yes, it would," she said. "But we've come to refer to Jeeves as 'him'. He's a valuable member of the team. Believe me, I see people in her condition who don't have that kind of support, and life is a lot more barren for them."
"I can imagine," Brenda said. "You two seem very devoted to each other."
"We are," Carole said. "You know, the thought has crossed my mind more than once that if I ever do get married, it's going to have to be to a pretty special guy, because in a pretty real sense, he's going to be marrying both of us."
"Lucky guy," Brenda grinned.
"You think so?"
"Of course I do. He's going to have two fascinating women to deal with."
"I don't know about that," Carole shook her head. "I always figured he'd need more like the tolerance of a saint. Look, this morning, I told you I try to stay pretty upbeat around Wendy. Sometimes, I get bitter, but I suppose it's because I remember the way she used to be, before the accident. I mean, considering who I am and what I do, I probably shouldn't think this, but it just seems like she's so much less than she used to be."
"Carole, I didn't know Wendy before the accident, of course," Brenda said thoughtfully, "But aren't there ways that she's so much more than she would have been without the accident?"
They jogged along silently for a time; Brenda could see the wheels turning in Carole's head. "In some ways, yes, I guess," she said finally. "But, it doesn't seem like a fair trade."
"Of course it isn't," Brenda said. "But all in all, life isn't fair. You have to play the cards you're dealt, and you and she and your family seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. I can see your support there, Carole. I see a lot of it. I think it's pretty incredible."
"Thank you," Carole said. "Like I said, I guess I do get despondent about it sometimes. Thanks for listening."
"No problem," Brenda smiled. "Any time. Like I said, thanks for asking."
It was after dark when Brenda got back to her apartment, now with a long list of stuff to do, starting with changing out of her grubby running clothes and taking a shower. All in all, it had been a pretty memorable day; there had been a lot of impressions, a few insights, lots to think about. She got a load of laundry running while the computer booted up.
First, Dragonslayer. She'd made the moves she'd intended for Mithrian earlier in the day, showing Wendy how the game was played, but now she had something special in mind. Rather than logging on as Mithrian, she went to the setup board, and began a new character. She'd done that before, as Wolfling, after she'd decided to retire the character, she still played it while she brought Mithrian up through the less-challenging novice levels.
Such extra characters were called "sock puppets" on Dragonslayer, and were considered bad form, but not necessarily against the rules. It was always tempting to run a character that didn't mean anything through a trap to find out what was there, then go in with the real character and get the real points. While sock puppets weren't unknown at the lower level of the games, they were tedious to maintain with enough points to play at higher point levels, so were only rarely used. But, this sock puppet had a different purpose, and experienced players, like Brenda, occasionally used them to help beginners to learn the ins and outs of the game – which is what she was doing now. Since she didn't plan on playing the sock puppet long, she didn't worry much about a game name or identity, but glanced at the jewel case of a CD laying by the computer. The CD was by Windham Hill; that would be fine; she let the game program generate some novice points to start with, then, playing as Windham, made an attack on Cassiopeia. It was not a particularly skillful attack; there was a huge logical hole there to defend with, and another one for a counter-attack. Wendy ought to be able to easily fight her way through it, building a little confidence. Maybe it's a little patronizing, she thought, but it's also training.
Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Brenda thought as she sent the moves up to Dragonslayer. Let's find out what that's all about. The first Alta Vista search came up with a lot of astronomy websites, but the context that Carole and Wendy had used didn't seem of have much to do with astronomy, so she refined the search by adding "myth" to the search string. Within seconds, she was on the Gutenberg project, looking at Bulfinch's Mythology. Thank God for the Gutenberg project, she thought momentarily. Over the course of the afternoon, she'd learned that a reliable page-turner was something that Dan Carter had yet to crack, but Gutenberg was a huge repository of books online – mostly classics, many long out of print, virtually all with expired copyrights, but almost all worth reading. Wendy spent a lot of time there, she'd learned, and probably had read Bulfinch. Maybe that was where she came up with the names.
Brenda soon learned that there was a constellation named Cassiopeia, and in mythology, was a queen who circled the sky, forever doomed to be seated on her throne for having her beautiful daughter Andromeda – another constellation – chained to a rock for the sea monster Cetus to devour. The hero Perseus had rescued Andromeda, and cast the sentence on Cassiopeia.
The story was a lot more complicated than that, and, as Carole had said, the allusion didn't want to be pushed too far, but how apt – the queen permanently on her throne, and the beauty chained to a rock on her whim. An interesting thought, mixed in with some of the other things that had been said, both today and earlier . . . of freaking course!
The epiphany stunned Brenda; she just sat there at the computer screen, unseeing, her mind exploring the notion. That was why Carole had been wearing handcuffs for years!
Carole must have a survivor's guilt complex a yard wide. Maybe she didn't realize it, or covered it up, but how could it not be there? Hell, Brenda could feel some of it herself. How could she be so lucky to be active and normal, with normal wants and desires and problems and joys, when compared to this beautiful, vibrant girl doomed to her chair forever?
The Soliels might not have turned into a permanent part of Carole's life if she hadn't been already wearing them when the accident happened, Brenda surmised. The days following had to have been agonizing for all – and again, it was sheer guess, but a logical one – somehow the handcuffs had become a way for Carole to share her sister's plight, to share her grief at least a little bit! In time, they'd become habit, become a way of life, just like Wendy's condition, tragic though it was, had at least reached a point of being accepted by her, by the people around her . . . as the handcuffs were with Carole.
Damn, it made sense! It was all guesswork, of course, but it answered a lot of questions, maybe all of them. Of course, Carole had been right when she said she was wearing the Soliels because she wanted to. She did. It had seemed like a glib answer at the time but . . . Carole wanted to. Oh, she had plenty of justifications; Brenda had heard many and expected to keep hearing them. Valid though they might be, they were excuses that covered up the main underlying reason . . . it'd be interesting to get Wendy's take on it, if she could manage to sometime when Carole wasn't around . . .
From habit, Brenda brought up her journal, and typed quickly, going over this interesting day, some of the experiences, some of the insights, and, this enlightenment that had come across her. She typed quickly, and she typed a lot, but it was in the sense of recording a mystery that had been solved. Carole wasn't a mystery woman anymore; just a friend, a friend with some unresolved problems, sure, obviously, but who didn't? Brenda had plenty of her own, but it was possible to work to overcome them or overlook them . . . just like her friend Wendy had done.
God, it was good to have friends. So they might have a few problems, so what? It beat the hell out of being lonely. Maybe she wasn't as much of a loner as she thought she was.