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Daniel Richard Fruit
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances between this work and the less credible world around should be explored in depth.
THE DEFINITIVE EDITION
Copyright 1991 by Daniel Richard Fruit
Published by the House of
Witney, Barney, and Laramie, Quite Limited.
I dedicate this volume to: my sister Diane Sue Fruit, who claims I always ignore her in my dedications; Steve Brown, my cohort in crime; Linda Dmytriw, my corresponding corporate secretary; my greatest students at Yokota High School; every writer who has ripped off Philip K. Dick; and to the psyches at Hemingway's Happy Acres who helped me ever so much.
Table of Contents: Countdown To Tomorrow00 Title, Dedication, and Table of Contents, p. 01. 01 Introduction: A Critical Reappraisal p. 04. 02 And Dick Is Dead p. 06. 03 I Want To Fly p. 13. 04 Fooboo p. 17. 05 The Color of the Day p. 21. 06 The Electoral Body p. 25. 07 Beating the Odds p. 28. 08 Crime and Punishment p. 33. 09 The Grateful Dead p. 36. 10 Surf's Up p. 41. 11 Death and Taxes p. 46. 12 What Is Magic p. 49. 13 Moonshines p. 55. 14 Cursers p. 60. 15 The Trash Man Cometh p. 63. 16 Watching the River Flow p. 68. 17 The Dream Vendors p. 71. 18 The Heretics p. 75. 19 It's Not Over, Till.... p. 80. 20 The Outsiders p. 85. 21 Ha! Ha! Ha! p. 89. 99 About the Author: An Illusive Quality p. 94.
01. INTRODUCTION: A CRITICAL REAPPRAISAL
Normally at Witney, Barney, and Laramie we ask authors to write their own introductions, but this was not done in this case for two good reasons. First, our author was nowhere to be found, a situation you will find explained in the "About the Author" section at the end of the book. Second, we have a far more learned source to quote from, Dr. Thaddeus Maxtomer, English professor at Wimpnell University and the author of several books about science fiction, most notably POST MODERN SCIENCE FICTION: A TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS. Mr. Maxtomer has been intending to write a book on Fruit's fiction, and several chapters have already appeared in the periodical SCIENCE FICTIONAL STUDIES. Maxtomer's book, FANTASTIC FARMER: THE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF DANIEL RICHARD FRUIT will be on sale August 1992 by Witney, Barney, and Laramie.
The Plastic Tomorrow or A Paper-Filled Today?
From SCIENCE FICTIONAL STUDIES, Volume 30, no. 1 (May, 1991), pp. 13-25 (footnotes and bibliography removed).
In recent years, the reputation of THE PLASTIC TOMORROW has deteriorated. Critics have termed the book pessimistic, artless, and without form. Rodney Wentworth even went so far as to call the book "an extended play vacuum cleaner with covers." These charges deserve exploration as a large part of the author's reputation rests on this controversial volume.
The fiction of Mr. Fruit underwent a fairly dramatic transformation between the completion of the still unpublished dreaminess of WHEN THE BUGLES CALL MY NAME to the harsh, almost scatter-gun approach of THE PLASTIC TOMORROW. Reportedly the author wrote the entire book in an intense two-week period and made only minimal revisions. Such haste could suggest either inspired energy, a lack of self-discipline, or both; most critics seem to regard it the latter.
If BUGLES clearly created a "world" of its own with the drum corps society, TOMORROW, for all its science fiction pretensions, is clearly a reflection of present reality transformed, exaggerated, paraphrased. It is a world easily viewed as pessimistic.
The stories, in general, share a common vision of an America a few years down the road that's continued with most of the same problems and benefits present or implied in today's society. People in TOMORROW live in an America of decreasing expectations, trying harder and harder to get the American Dream of house, spouse, and safety. They spend a lot of time working and much of the rest of the time watching television-in constant interaction with a powerful computer system that they contact through their "access panels" and view on their "wall screens." Adults who wish to succeed are "three- degree holders" who can switch fields at a moment's notice as conditions change. Though they live in what might be termed a "city culture," few of the characters know what their neighbors are doing or much care. Conditions "outside" remain unknown and of little interest. Characters venture beyond the city's walls now and then as the volume progresses but not out of their own choosing.
Some critics have taken the author to task for spending little time on long-winded technical explanations of his gadgets or projected social changes. Jeremy Technocollar, for example, opines than "Fruit couldn't explain a paper clip without Photostatting the instructions." This line of criticism ignores the fact that Fruit spends little time explaining this world because, like people today, few of his people have much interest in how their world operates. Dr. Technocollar begs the question: Do you have to understand how a gadget works to measure its effects? It is this very aspect of casualty, taking every marvel for granted, that makes Tomorrow's enclosed world seem so believable and, at times, so oppressive.
Different stories display different aspects of this world. Generally, each story features an "extrapolation" of how a current trend in society, continued near to the point of absurdity, would effect the future. In "Fooboo," for example, the city dwellers have to face the reality that working parents are paying so much in welfare taxes that they can no longer have children. Their solution has a Swiftian logic. In "Death and Taxes," similarly, a defaulting nation comes up with a novel public service plan to balance its budget. In "The Color of the Day" various forms of cosmetic surgery and fashion have blended until finding the right "look" for the day has become an obsessive pursuit. Seeing these visions of the future brings to mind the picture of Scrooge at his graveside begging to know if there's still time yet left to change his present sufficiently to avoid his "plastic tomorrow," and on that question, I will defer to the social scientists.
If the various stories seem to deal with different aspects of this world, there's an overall quality of vision that some critics have termed "pessimistic." Over and over again: the smart solutions fail; the gadgets do what they're supposed to do, but that doesn't help; or, worse yet, the net result is a whole new set of problems. As in life, I would tell these critics, there are no easy answers.
Some critics have downgraded the book as simply a set of problems and solutions. Dr. Jennifer Homrecker, for example, calls Fruit's approach "question and answer sci-fi."
These misguided analytical types fail to see the Fruit artistic visions, the talent for drawing striking scenes, that reappear here in a different, but no less memorable guise. As in TALES, though not in BUGLES, these are images drawn in a few taut lines, not a few paragraphs, and are often suggested more than elaborated. This may be, as Jennifer claims, "lowbrow prose," but many of these images are ironic, and more than a few are memorable. In "I Wanna Fly," there's the final scene of the character swimming joyously in a kind of symbolic rebirth. In "Trash Day" there's the purposely cartoonish figure of the "Trashman" flying down out of the sky to scoop up all the pollution. In "The Outsiders" there's the ending with "The Shepherd" slamming his fist on the table.
A striking feature, ignored by all the major critics, and perhaps a key to understanding the book as a whole, is the profusion of two-character stories. Partly the pairs function as two parts of a Socratic conversation, as in "Beat the Odds" or "Death and Taxes." In other instances, they form a natural, though ill-formed pair, like the drinkers in "Cursers" or the couple in "'Till the Fat Lady Sings." Here the book forms a natural counterpart to, again, TALES with its individualistic heroes and BUGLES with its emphasis on groups. It is from these pairs that the protagonists sometimes draw strength or weakness. Do these twosomes love one another? I think the question may be whether they are truly capable of loving or even knowing what it means. My answer to all these would be an ironic "Yes," and "No," applied indiscriminately.
Finally, then, there is the arrangement the learned Dr. Marcus Crocus calls "random and unfocused." This is, at least partly true, but certainly the first and last stories, "And Dick Is Dead" and "Ha! Ha! Ha!," like those in TALES, rest in their respective places for a reason.
"And Dick is Dead" concerns a character, Phil, who's accidentally transported from another slightly futuristic California to our California to a house of a man who may or not be an alternative version of himself. The fun soon begins as the intruder discovers that our culture doesn't allow such necessities as legal drugs, concealed blasters, etc. While much of the story is just jokes, the ending suggests that the boundaries between truth and fiction are very thin, and that ours is not necessarily the best reality. It goes without saying that, in the typical Fruitian manner, the story is a satire of Philip K. Dick, a continuation, and also an honest tribute. The title, incidentally, is probably best taken as a question or a proposition about a set of ideas: Can a writer or his ideas really die? Having studied briefly Fruit's uses of changing repetition in his poetry, I'm beset with the idea that if this author repeats the same line, "Dick is dead," five different times, it definitely means a different thing each time, and each repetition reflects on the previous ones.
This brings us to "Ha! Ha! Ha!," attacked by feminist critic Agnes Mace as "self-indulgent and sadistic," about the poor girl who's pursued by an image of a man working a computer keyboard. I think Mace misinterprets the tale. As the story progresses, our poor girl finds, again, that the reality she lives in is starting to either break down or become suddenly transparent as glass. Finally, she can run no farther and turns to face the man at the keyboard. The conclusion suggests more than what Agnes calls "Fruit's facile conclusion that fiction is not real" as there's little in life more human, brave, and might I suggest, or "more true" than Zelda's turning on her own pursuer and facing him (or it) unafraid. While most striking at the end, this image is common throughout the book; it's implicit meanings suggest the comparisons between Mr. Fruit and his favorite artist Salvatore Dali on which I've already written in "The Surreality of Daniel Fruit," but I will not digress but conclude on this triumphal end note:
Again and again, in Fruit's opus, society and problems confront the characters, beat them down, even threaten them. The situations seem insurmountable, but the characters summon the strength to go on. That the characters still lose, lose quite often, is not the point! The fact that they don't give up is more relevant to understanding meaning in TOMORROW and leads me to rate it more highly than do my esteemed colleagues. I suggest, further, than those critics who beg to differ with me, leave their access panels off, put away those cans of cofohol, and join me for another night between the synthetic covers of The Plastic Tomorrow.
02. AND DICK IS DEAD
"Access: vanity." Phil Debit watched the sink, in response to his command, slowly lower down the wall from its place on the ceiling. Martial music blared out a strident measure or two before dissipating in a blazing chorus of the Meanold Five, a rock group. When the sink locked into place in the air in front of him, he announced "cabinet," and the blank white top portion of the unit obediently opened to display several shelves stacked with vials, pill bottles, containers, and tubes. He reached in and took out the vial of Beard Off.
"Mirror," he announced, and the panel in front of him closed behind a reflective panel showing his round face, graying beard, and pointed mustache. He looked farther down, and the mirror obediently expanded to show his green pants and multicolored, loose-fitting robe. As he picked up the vial, he heard the Meanold Five suddenly die out.
"Citizens," a voice announced, "I have the unexpected pleasure of announcing a speech by our leader!"
Phil smiled as heard that untrained voice hesitantly start reading a written text:
"Now once there was this planet called Jimcrack," the voice of the leader began, "and on that planet lived these creatures called the Whinos. The Whinos had no laws and no policemen, hadn't in generations. One day their leader, Catatonio, witnessed a serious accident. A couple of the poor Whinos had broken into her apartment and raped and plundered. Catatonio decided that it was time to crack down."
Phil smiled as he carefully spread the ointment around the edges of the beard and mustache, and the traces of hair started to fall in the sink; the edges of the goatee became sharper, but his face still retained its benevolent look.
"The only guide she had to making these laws, of course, was her own ideas of right and wrong."
Phil wondered. Did the leader here refer to the recent terrorist incidents against himself? Could he actually be suggesting that they should start a police force? Phil cringed at the thought. He felt lucky to hear this speech now, before the commentators and interpreters got a chance at it. He took a container of white powder and his little brush and starting painting his teeth.
"Their Queen, naturally, made rape the highest crime on her list, and the punishment, sterilization, well, to fit the crime. She also made unhappiness, which would lead to crime, illegal, and had her police force start searching for anyone who even looked like they might not be happy." The speaker paused and the nervousness in his voice started to disappear as his tale progressed. "People felt obligated to smile when those policemen, called 'grunges,' passed by. They even took a pill that gave them a permanent smile; naturally a drug ring started to sell these pills, which were, of course, illegal...."
Phil looked inside for his bottle of Goodsmell that would give him the proper odor supposedly to stay "fresh all day." He looked through the two shelves carefully. He could see the Geribiot, a couple of containers of Wakeup, a lone capsule of Cand-D, but not a single drop of Goodsmell. He did, however, find something he'd never seen before, an old style container with a button on the top, a collector's item. He searched for the word they used to use to describe it: aerosol. This could be worth a fortune-if anyone would be antisocial enough to buy a product using the hated fluorocarbons.
"The police started combing the slums of the cities. There were slums, of course, because some of the Whinos just kept looking in the mirror and liking that appearance of happiness. They liked it so much that they took Happiness, the name of the drug, day and night. They got it easily enough because the policemen sold it to them, and then..."
Phil fumbled with the unfamiliar container and read the label, one he'd never seen before. It said simply: "U-B-I-K"
"Well when the Queen got in bed with that drug dealer, of course, the police busted her and arrested her for violating her own law. As to the drug dealer, he was technically guilty of rape..."
How did it work, he wondered. His hands searched the slender container until he found something at the top that had to be the release button. He hesitated for a second, then shrugged his shoulders, and pressed at the top: a spray of florescent, psychedelic mist hit him in the face, and he inhaled an odd, etherlike, smell. The spray burned in his eyes, and he fell forward, hitting his face on the sink. As consciousness slipped away, he could still hear the leader's voice.
"So they finally made a law against making any law that made the Queen's doings illegal..."
When Phil awoke, he still felt dizzy and heard a faint buzzing in his ears. He struggled to his feet and his arms collided with something, and searching, he spotted his toilet, sink, and bathtub, but all apparently somehow anchored to the floor.
"Sink, toilet, and tub, up," he commanded, but nothing happened. He cursed the Utilities Men; it was just like them to all stay home listening to the leaders' speech and not choose to go to work. At this rate, every unit might need a backup power supply generator. When he turned around, however, a kind of wall blocked his entry to his second room. He'd never seen anything like it before. It appeared to be made of wood, but there was an odd, round brass piece that stuck out from the wood.
"Access: portal?" he announced, but the strange piece of wood didn't move.
Cautiously, he held out his hand to grasp the metal piece. He felt around and then slowly started to turn it. The metal knob gave before him, and then, the wooden piece swung forward into the second room. He gasped: someone had put a primitive, manual portal in between his rooms!
He stepped into the other room, still shaking his head. When his eyes cleared, however, he viewed not his eight by five living quarters but an enormous expanse, filled with enough furniture to fill two of his ceilings. He could see a couch, two chairs, a table, a high table with a small, black curved object, and a strange box with dials on it. Whoever owned this must be a collector of antiques, he reasoned, but then he remembered this was his unit. His mind struggled for an explanation. He looked behind him again, and could see his own sink unit, and then he looked before him at the strange room. The only possible explanation was that someone had altered his unit; this might be yet another unordered rebuild by the Housing Confederation.
"Hey, what the?"
The voice startled him. Another man sat on the couch, feet up on the table, wearing a bright red robe and reading a long piece of paper, folded many times and five times the size of a physical book. The man had dark hair, a pudgy body, and a face perhaps twenty years younger than Phil's.
"What are you doing in my unit?" Phil said testily. Then he remembered the gangs of poor breaking into many units lately. It also occurred to him the stranger might belong to the Housing Confederation.
"What are you talking about," the younger man replied. "This is my house."
The words "my house," started Phil laughing, "Your 'house?' You don't look like a corporation to me." The man's joke restored some of Phil's confidence. Members of the Housing Confederation never had any sense of humor, so this had to be merely a criminal. He reached into his pocket, "Here, have a few credits on me. Go buy yourself a good drug."
"You..." the younger man said as he rose, and Phil could see they stood about the same height though the younger man lacked some of Phil's stoutness "Are you trying to rob me or something. I'm tempted to call," the man's face slowed in mid-sentence, "the police."
"Oh Jehovah," Phil laughed, "you're killing me. 'the police!' We haven't had police here since California split from the Mainland." He pointed to the left wall, but a big piece of paper, showing a clock melting against a surreal landscape, halted him. That anyone would cover their screens with pictures and permanent images puzzled him. He looked to the right wall, but that held a big metal frame around a moving picture of a mountain and a tree. The image stopped him for a moment. The re-creation looked almost poor enough to be the real thing. He'd intended to show the man a picture, on screen, of how policemen used to look, but he honestly couldn't find which wall held the screens.
"If you don't think we have police," the younger man said, "you won't mind me calling them."
"Doing what?" Phil sat down in the chair. This all seemed so strange to him. He'd left his own second room, and now he'd entered what seemed a totally different unit. Perhaps they didn't make buildings the way they used to, he concluded, too much aluminum and wheatpaper.
The strange man walked across the room, his eyes never leaving Phil for a moment, and picked up the black curved object and touched some buttons.
"I don't what you're doing with that," Phil said, "but while you're playing with that, do you mind very much if I hear the rest of the speech."
"Suit yourself," the other said, "t.v.'s over there."
Phil shrugged his shoulders at the strange words. Maybe, he thought as he crossed the room to the strange box the other man had pointed to, I've been kidnapped and brought to some stranger's place. He recognized the small, rectangular device on top of the box as some kind of control. He said to it:
"Access," but got no response.
The man across the room, pointed to the control box. "Push the buttons!"
Phil shrugged his shoulders. "I've never seen a control box for anything that works physically only and no voice command. If there's a power short-"
"Push," the man commanded, grimacing, "the button!"
Phil pushed the button, and an inexact image appeared on a small, enclosing screen. After a few seconds of experimenting, he determined the method for switching the channels. He could see only 100, instead of the usual 256, but he searched the entire band. Over his shoulder, he could hear the man talking.
"Yeah, Ruth," the younger man said, Phil could hear no reply. Why the other man would talk without seeing this Ruth's image puzzled him. "in my bathroom. It's weird, all right. He seems harmless enough, but I want you to get over here as quickly as possible."
The man put the receiver down. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"No, not actually," Phil said. "I was trying to find the speech."
"The President's or the Governor's?"
Phil laughed again, "You know we don't have any governor or president. To be governor, you have to have a government."
The other man nodded, and Phil could see the other was humoring him. "Yeah, you're right. We don't have a government."
Phil looked back at the screen for a minute at four men and women talking together in a hospital. "This must be the worst commercial in history. How do they expect to sell medical services that way?"
"No," the other said. "that's the show."
"No, no, no." Phil said, "Shows last a minute at most. Commercials last an hour or two." He took a deep breath. "Now just help me out here. I've decided to go to work as soon as I see the end of the speech. Now, I don't care if you're a thief or part of the Housing Confederation or what. I don't even care if this is my unit, but if it is..." He pointed his finger around the room. "you can steal all this junk. But, right now, I want to hear the speech by Philip K. Dick."
The other man's eyes narrowed, "Dick, the science fiction writer?"
"I don't care what you call him, president, or governor, or God," Phil said, "I just want to hear Philip K. Dick!"
The other man smiled, "That'll be rather hard. Dick is dead."
The lady, Ruth, walked around the room slowly. She wore a short skirt that accented her legs, but her hair, tied back tightly behind her head and tight lips showed her operating in the professional mode. Every once in a while, she'd glance across the room at the younger man, who watched her with an interest a bit, Phil guessed, more than friendly.
"Okay, Phil," she said, as he relaxed again on the couch. "Let's take it one more time. Who is the president of this 'State of California' you live in?"
"Dick," he said, holding his head after the hours of talking to the lady, "Philip K. Dick."
"And how, exactly, did he get to be the president."
"He's not president. There is no president. There is no government."
She took a deep breath. "Okay." she said. "Let's go back a step further. You said now that California is an island."
"Of course it's an island. When they started digging those deep six units on the San Andreas fault with the neogeothermal powerplants, they triggered an explosion that split California from the Mainland."
"Okay," she noted something, "so then we're living on this 'Island of California,' and this person, this 'Dick,' gets to be extremely influential. Does this happen before or after California splits off."
"Well," Phil thought, "it's a little hard to say. It all started in the Sixties with the assassination."
"Kennedy or King?"
Phil sat up in sudden horror. "They shot Kennedy! Oh my God, those damn Legalists will do anything."
The lady noted something, shook her head, and said between her teeth. "Okay. Let's say they didn't shoot Kennedy, for the sake of argument, or King. I'm not going to ask you what those men are doing now; I'm a little afraid to ask. I will ask you this: Whom did 'they' shoot?"
"Why Nixon of course! That triggered the Rightest crack-down of the Sixties. That's why Dick went underground in the Sixties and didn't emerge as a, well," he searched for the right term, "philosopher, until the End of Time."
"The," she gritted her teeth, and broke her pencil, "end of time? End of time! You mean there's been some kind of apocalypse, and they didn't," she approached within a foot of the couch, looking angry, "tell us."
Phil laughed, "What are you talking about, apocalypse. I'm talking about the publication of MARTIAN TIME SLIP. After that, most people stopped wearing watches and using calendars."
She tossed the clipboard on the ground. "Larry! I can't do anything. This guy is paranoid, schizophrenic, delusive, and, on top of it all, he's a pathological liar!"
Philip said sympathetically, "Aw, come on. Just because you're a psyche, you shouldn't feel so inferior. There's no need for you to use all that flattery."
The woman stalked towards the doorway, "Call the wagon," she said, "just get me out of this dream."
The man she'd called Larry rose and ran after her: "Ruth!"
Phil got up from the couch in fright as he watched the two heading for the wooden portal. "Your shields, you idiots," he screamed in warning. "What if it rains!"
When the door slammed behind the psychiatrist, Larry turned around to face Phil. He gritted his teeth. "Listen you nutcase. It's bad enough you're crazy, but why do you want to tell all those lies to my fiancee. She's a good psychiatrist."
"I'm just trying to show you two the truth." He pointed to the metal screen showing the moving breeze and the swaying trees. "You see that image all day, and you might begin to think it's real."
"You want truth," Larry said angrily, "come with me into the bedroom."
"The what?" Phil said, but he followed the other man through another set of the brass, manual portals, "Wait, that's not my unit-"
The door opened revealing a solid brass bed, not just sleeping mats, and a wooden bookshelf. The other man pointed at the bookshelf.
"You must be rich," Phil gasped, "to own physical books."
Dust covered most of the titles, but there, amid the piles, Larry snatched five or six ragged volumes and held them up. He grabbed Phil's hand and turned it over so the older man's palms lay open.
"These books are not political; they are not philosophical;" Larry began, "they are only science fiction."
"So you say," Phil replied, unconvinced, "so you say."
"Explain EYE IN THE SKY, then." Larry said, slapping the softcover into Phil's hands.
"A vision of how each of us lives in his own reality. It'd be required reading in the schools if there were required reading."
Larry slapped the next book in Phil's hands, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE?"
"The horrors of the war, the failures of the American ideology to survive defeat, and the persistence of arbitrariness."
Larry hit the next one even harder, "THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH?"
"The need for enlightenment, a plea for safe drugs, a plan for the Martian colonies, and," he paused, "a vision of Christ."
Exasperated, Larry put the next book in Phil's hand, "DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?"
"A working definition of humanity as feelings instead of as just a collection of circuitry. Look, Larry," Phil said sympathetically, "Why do you need me to explain these books to you: there's a whole body of criticism; there are nightly commentators on the newsreels; you can even take a good drug. They're so much a part of our society that..."
Larry dropped the last book into his hands, gently, "And CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST?"
"Okay," Phil sighed, "so he did write one work of science fiction."
Larry said steadily, putting his head into hands, "Dick is Dead, Phil." Then he said again, almost as though trying to convince himself: "Dick is Dead."
When they got to the door of the house, Larry warned him again. "Look, you say you have a place to work. I'm going to try to take you there. On the way.."
Phil nodded sheepishly, "Yes, you told me five times. I'm not supposed to say anything to anyone, and most of all to take no action about anything I see."
"Right," Larry said, and he opened the door. Phil's mouth opened wide. He could see a real tree out front, a green expanse of grass, and a cement sidewalk. He closed his eyes and opened them, and he knew, with a sense shock, that he'd actually been looking through glass in Larry's house. He took hesitant steps behind Larry out to the big car that sat in the driveway. For the first time, he felt uncertain, scared. He looked up and saw no omnipresent black clouds overhead.
"Maybe," he thought, "I'm still dreaming. Maybe I'm lying on the floor in the second room or in some dock's unit."
Larry turned a key as he pointed to the door, and Phil guessed enough to pull it shut. The engine fired, and Phil didn't recognize the sound; looking behind him, he could see black fumes rising.
"What does this thing run on?" he asked sheepishly.
"Oh God," Phil could smell the sickly sweet polluting odor, "that's sick."
The car drove down a seemingly unending series of roads. Phil didn't bother to ask what'd happened to trains or the underground network that, when he decided to go, usually got him to work before he could even take a little nap. Larry continued to glance at his watch occasionally, and Phil tried to use the map Larry had provided. Somehow, there seemed to be ten times as many streets to the city as he'd remembered. He wondered why some of the millions of drivers on the roads didn't just work at home on their screens. It was almost as though someone forced them all to go to work.
When he'd found the correct street, Ockham street, Larry turned. Gray dirt covered the dilapidated buildings, and writing scribbled in black, green, and blue blurted out names like "Stinky #5," "Big Loser," and "Los Idiotos." A horde of bums, big men in rotting clothes, walked back and forth, eyeing the car. Finally, Larry pointed to a worn donut shop with a woman sleeping on the sidewalk out front.
"There's 1325 Ockham street," Larry announced. "That's where you say you work."
"I don't," Phil said, "work here." The sign said: "twenty-eight Varieties." He recalled the sign all right, but not the building, and the twenty-eight didn't refer to pastries in Phil's shop.
Phil shook his head in pity and opened the door. He strode over to a ragged girl sleeping on the sidewalk and pried open her hand. She stirred and quickly threw up all over the sidewalk and Phil's shoes. He bent over, and pulling out a rice towel from a pocket inside his robe, wiped her face clean. He picked her up over his shoulder and, after walking back to the car, laid her down in the back seat.
"What the Hell are you doing?" Larry asked.
Phil sighed, "This is Hell," he said, "I'm not sure what I'm doing, but it seems right."
The girl in the back seat moaned.
Larry said, "We have institutions to take care of these people. We have laws."
Phil shrugged at the word "law." "I don't believe in that. I believe in right and wrong and in people." Then he looked out the window at a group of toughs standing in front of a small open-ended truck. They wore their hair frizzled out, and one called to Phil through the open window.
"Hey, old guy, you want to buy some drugs."
"No," Phil said, "I'll go to the drug store."
The young man grimaced, and Larry hit the gas. They'd driven almost to the entrance for the expressway when Phil suddenly shouted: "Stop!"
Larry ground the car to a screeching halt. Phil opened the back seat. The girl looked at him blankly as he helped her to her feet in front of a store in a better neighborhood. He stuffed a wheat coin in one hand and a couple of capsules in the other.
"What the-" she asked sleepily.
"Good luck, sweetheart," Phil said, and patted her on the shoulder. He rushed across the street, dodging cars, and heading straight for a well-lit building that said "Wellgreen's Drugs."
He clumsily rushed through the door for to the counter and started speaking immediately to the man in the white smock. "God I'm glad to see one of you. I used to work in a drug store. In fact, if you want another drugger.." Before the man could respond, Phil laid several credits on the table in a clunk. "Now I want you to give me a vial of Phibatol, a canister of Foolie, three tables of Barbedbituetes, and a pack of marijuana cigarettes, Kools. No, make them Clark's. Register?"
The clerk's surprise became apparent, "You say you want to buy some marijuana. Here?"
"Well," Phil said, "Most of the companies have eliminated all hazards. I'll probably get cancer, some day, but that's my choice, like Dick says in-" Seeing the look of confusion on the other face he concluded, "What do expect? It's not like it's illegal or anything."
The white clerk's hand slowly rose above the counter with a big black object that Phil recognized as a gun.
"Why," Phil, puzzled, asked, "are you showing me your antiques?"
A hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. He saw Larry's angry face as he pulled on Phil's robe, getting the two of them out of the store. "I don't know where you come from," Larry warned, "but marijuana is illegal here."
"Illegal? You have a law?" Just as he said that, a big truck came barreling down the street. Two uniformed men held onto the side with arm grips, and suddenly they jumped off and picked up a pair of massive metal cans stuffed with garbage. Phil interpreted the situation: Extreme Phalangists were stealing waste materials again. He instinctively reached into his pocket and pulled out his zapgun.
Larry's arm hit him, and the energy burst went off about a half a mile in the air. Larry pinned the older man's arm behind his back and marched him across the street. When they got to Larry's car, a woman in a blue uniform was just about to place a piece of white paper on the windshield.
Phil could hear warning wailing sirens, and blue and white cars were pulling up all around them, and he knew something was vitally wrong: sires, blue uniforms, green uniforms.
Two men jumped out of one of the cars, and one slammed Phil against the side of the car while the other pried his weapon from his hand. Maybe the Ultralegalists were attempting some kind of coup? He turned, his eyes silently pleading for Larry to help him out.
"It's all right," Larry said before the other pair could search him. "I'm a police officer."
A sinking feeling came over Larry then and, for the first time, he wondered just where he was.
"Phil, you are in the wrong world," Larry repeated over the wail of sirens, "and Dick is Dead."
They sat down in the apartment. Larry looked at Phil, and his face showed exhaustion. "Now Phil, do you understand. Something is wrong here. Some parts of your story just seem impossible to me, just as some of the parts of mine must seem impossible to you."
Phil sighed, "We've been talking the whole night and not found the truth. If I just had access..."
"I thought this Dick guy didn't believe in 'enslaving machines.'"
Phil shrugged, "He also didn't believe in enslaving people. Besides, some of our commentators think the message of THE SIMULCRA and WE CAN BUILD YOU is that machines can become human, may even replace humankind only after they've learned to serve them, but it's debatable enough that most of us still use them."
"How does this guy Dick, your philosopher, or whatever look?"
"He's got a beard, a mustache, sort of like me, only about twenty years older."
Larry took another sip of his beer, "You know, it's funny. You actually look a lot like me, maybe twenty years older. When did you say, this guy takes over?"
"It's hard to tell. It seems a long time ago."
At that moment, the doorbell rang. The door opened and the psyche walked back in; this time she approached Phil very cautiously.
"I've been to the library," she said to Larry, "and I've gotten the things you wanted. God knows, it wasn't easy. When the guy died, only about two magazines even noticed. He wasn't exactly famous."
She took a seat a safe distance from Phil and laid the pieces of paper on the table, so Phil could not read them. "You could," she said to Phil, "of course, say I faked all this," she started, "but after your little trip downtown today..."
Phil shuddered. The mere sight of the men in blue questioning him over and over again about his zapgun made him shiver. The lights had just kept going on and off from those primitive cameras. Then they'd searched his clothes, and, finally, he shuddered, a naked search. He'd never felt so glad to leave any place as when Larry had "sprung him."
He'd even been willing to ignore the idea that Larry was a police captain just so long as he got away from the bright lights and the probing fingers.
"I'm ready," Phil said, "to believe just about anything."
"Now you say your favorite singers are Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis Presley?"
"Well," Phil sighed, "after Buddy Holly, and I don't think the King did anything worthwhile until he quit to drive that truck for those two years."
She turned the papers around on the table and pointed to the headlines. "Marvin Gaye Killed By Father," "Jackie Wilson Dies of Heart Attack," and "Elvis Presley Dies of Overdose." "Now," she continued, "I've already told you about Kennedy and King, right?"
"Yes," he said weakly.
"Now I want you to look at this." She paused significantly, "Are you ready?"
Phil took a deep breath. He needed a cofohol more than anything else in the world, but he held himself steady as she turned the paper around. The first line read "Obituaries" and halfway down the page, he shuddered as he said:
"Noted Science Fiction Author Dies of Massive Stroke."
"Do you live with anyone?" she said.
Phil, his shoulders slumped, shook his head. "Not any more. I just run my drugstore. I do see regular customers-"
"So nobody knows you're here," she didn't explain 'here,' and Phil didn't want an explanation. He gazed at the window and the look of actual darkness outside.
Then Phil had a funny thought, a very strange thought, and he suddenly started to laugh. "If everybody else I know is dead, and nobody knows I'm alive, maybe, I'm dead too?"
"Phil," the psychiatrist shook her head at his grim joke. Her face softened. "You're welcome to stay here as long as you like. Right Larry?"
"Um," Larry paused, "Yeah, as long as you don't blast anyone."
"We're here for you, Phil," Ruth stated, "but you have to understand: Dick is Dead."
Next morning, Phil awoke on the couch. He wondered where the couple were, and then he remembered: they had to go work. He got up, half dazed; he'd not slept well without his Signout tablet.
Drowsily, he went to the cabinet for his Beardoff, and when he opened it, he found only two shelves full of brands and products he'd never seen. He searched for something to help him trim his beard, and then he spied the container. He sounded out the letters: "U-B-I-K!"
He raised his hands and looked up towards the empty ceiling, and held back the tears: "Divine Author, please help me."
He put the can into his right hand and pointed its nozzle directly into his face. He pushed a button, and a psychedelic mist covered his eyes. He smelled a smell like ether, and when his eyes cleared, he saw his second room. He looked up, and the shower and toilet had obligingly detached themselves from the floor to rest in their proper place, folded into the ceiling. His head hurt slightly and he felt a bump on his head, but he could hear a voice still droning from the speaker.
"And every last one of those alien beings lay on the floor dead, and the queen said, 'Now we have law and-'"
"Thank god," he said, and hearing the voice, sighed, "Dick is-"
Then the voice stopped, and from the wall speaker he could hear female screams of fright.
"Assassins! Look out!"
Then there were more screams followed by a sound unmistakably that of a firing zapgun.
03. I WANT TO FLY
Watching through his seaportal as the fishes swam by, Very Gdoski had another bowl of Crimpies, the breakfast "above the clouds." He looked at the box, carefully ignoring the list of ingredients that covered three-quarters of the expanse, and focused on the single front panel: "Free contest: winner will fly without a spaceship."
He sighed. He closed his eyes, and for a second, the fish swimming outside the seaportal disappeared, and he could a clear sea of light blue with fluffy clouds, like pillows, dancing below his feet. Very wanted to fly, so badly he'd ordered a year's supply of the cereal and eaten it for every meal. He opened his eyes again, sighing sadly, and looked out the seaportals at the cold, green sea floating around his underwater unit. He knew, just by looking at the color of the water, that it was time for him to go to work.
It looked like there might be a surface storm, so he donned his heavier depthsuit, a tight-fitting outfit of synthetic polyester, and the form-fitting face guard and helmet, and positioned himself over the portal area, which opened as soon as he stepped over it, dumping him into the water.
He hit a switch on his wrist, and his herd dolphins came close and rubbed their noses softly against the side of his slippery synth suit.
"Yeah, yeah, Spot and Specs, I'm glad to see you too," he said through the little speaker on his helmet. "Now, I want you to go watch that herd of bluenoses and keep an eye out for sharks."
"Okay," they gurgled and swam off, their tails swishing like underwater dogs, and moving at a speed that made Very envious.
He swam alone just above the floor, watching carefully for the giant lobsters that he'd heard reports of lately. Apparently, the pollutant nets hadn't snagged all the Grofwu dumped a few miles away. His sound box played a tune in his ear as he floated down to repair the borders nets of his seafarm.
"I wish," he grumbled, "they'd sell me some better fertilizer for this algae."
That night he rode his watercycle to the Big Bubble nearby. He sat drinking his fifth beer, looking around at the rough interior of the bar, the depthsuited farmers, the rough, seafarm girls with seaweed in their hair, and brooded. He'd finished about his fifth drink when two of the girls, Serenia and Chilla, suddenly came up to him and dumped him over the portal. He barely had time to grab his helmet and toss it over his head before he was floating towards the bottom, the two girls' laughter playing out of their speakers into the dark water.
In the darkness, lit only by their helmet lights, they danced a rough water ballet to a tune they'd all dialed on their helmet speakers. Lower and lower, they sank until Very could almost see the bottom of the ocean, and his ears rang with pain and the sound of chords. Then they floated back up until they burst through the portal of the Big Bubble and all lay on the styriron floor gasping and laughing. When he remembered the beautiful angels on the cereal box, however, Very's laughter faded to a chuckle.
That night, alone in his unit, Very ran through fifteen different reels of women, spending a considerable amount number of credits, and found himself totally without interest. Instead, he said:
"Access: Play: Crimpies ad."
The screen on the wall of his unit filled with a crowd of people, average people, but dressed in long white robes.
"Are you tired of living here on Earth?" and as the voice said that provocative line, the group shed their robes, revealing the scantiest of triangles covering their well-formed bodies. "Well, then come up to the clouds." With that remark giant birdlike wings emerged from the sides of the men and women's arms making them look like sensuous angels.
After another chop in the ad, the camera showed the winged people as small dots, rising, flying above the towers. Another chop and they rose to level of the dark clouds. Yet another chop and Very watched them, as mere specs, gliding to a rest on an aerial swing attached to the Crimpies' flagship, an enormous dirigible hotel, silhouetted against the sun.
"Come try Crimpies," the voice commanded, "the cereal that makes you fly."
He ran the commercial five times and dozed off during the final showing. That night he dreamed that he could fly; the clouds disappeared below him, and he rose all the way up, not to the big, solar powered Zepplin, but beyond. He could see beautiful women, clad in nothing, flying with him until, rising, rising, they finally left the world altogether.
He awoke to the sound of the message bell, and, when his eyes opened, the picture of flying angels dissolved into that of swimming angelfish and groupers. He looked out the seaportal, searching for the cause of the bell, expecting to see a band of marauding rogue sharks up on screen. Instead, he heard his computer's female voice:
"Screen." he replied shaking the cloudy vision from his eyes.
The screen covered the wall with a hawk-eyed, well-dressed little man with an enormous pen smoking in his mouth. The man said:
"Congratulations. I'm Mr. Crunchly. You've won the Crimpies' sweepstakes Mr.-"
"Gdoski. Very Gdoski."
"Why thank you. Very Gdoski to you too."
Very corrected him: "No. That's my name."
The man shrugged in obvious disinterest. "Do you," the man paused to gather speed, "hereby verbally waive all rights to reproductions, story sales, and any other imaginable chances for making a credit relating to your victory."
"I guess," Very said, his eyes distracted by something off screen, behind Crunchly's face, a waterdragon, a big, long-necked creature sweeping down on one of his swordfish.
"Do you hereby," and the man took another long pause, "verbally submit to the process of body alteration donated by The Company and realize that if you decline the process, The Company will not reimburse you."
Very picked up his waterblaster as he saw the waterdragon devour the swordfish and start to move towards his plastiglass dome. It had to be a twenty-footer. "Sure," Very said.
"Do you understand, that if there are side-effect problems, you cannot sue The Company, and, in fact, The Company will correct the reels to make it appear that the alter took place correctly."
Very put on only his helmet, which sealed around his neck, and, dropping the waterblaster, picked up a cannon.
"Sure," he said.
Very, ignoring the voice, dove through the floor portal and submerged within a foot of the snout of black creature, just as it opened its mouth to try to eat Spot who was vainly trying to save the herds. Very, without even bothering to slow his descent, raised his arm, aimed a cannon shot directly at the big carnivore's face, and pulled the trigger. The shell burst in the creature's face, and the dragon let out an audible howl of "BWWWWAA" and fled in the opposite direction in search of sharks and other, safer prey.
Very swam up, and the portal opened before him. As he pulled himself into the dome, he said, "Yeah. Yeah. Mr.-"
The face on the screen had lost some of its calm and appeared to have seen some of the action with the water dragon. "What the..."
Very, ignoring his wet clothes, sat down in the chair and pulled off his helmet. "Now, what was that you were saying?" He asked nonchalantly.
"You won the Crimpies contest," Crunchly concluded, "You're gonna be able to fly."
Very wiped the sweat from his face, and he laughed so loud that the sound filled the little round dome on the bottom of the seafloor.
When he awoke from coma, Very looked around the small unit that served as his sick unit. A very attractive dock stood near him, her hand on his shoulder. Then, he knew, from her too pleasant expression, something had gone wrong.
"Okay," he said, "what happened?"
"I told you," Dock Ames started, "there's only been a 50/50 success rate with this. One of the guys we worked on last week came out flying all right, but he looks like a pregnant airdog, and we consider him as a success."
Very took off the robe they'd used to cover him and took a walk around the unit. His feet felt strange, and when he looked down, he observed a strange webbing between them that made walking almost impossible. He could feel something on the top of his head.
"Mirror." he announced, and he looked at himself. He looked half human and half bird, his back covered with rubberlike feathers, and big wings had taken the place of his arms. Square, green scales covered his body, a crest of almost lizardlike dimensions topped his green skull. No angel here, he thought, but he'd been warned so many times before the alter that he was prepared for anything.
The dock looked away, her face showing a little nausea.
"So can I fly?" he asked.
"All our simulations say," she turned her head away, "'no.' Now if you'll excuse me.."
A portal opened, she left quickly, and Very sighed. He'd taken a chance and failed. He knew he'd no longer be able to work as a seafarmer; he'd be lucky to get even a job as a comp psyche, his third field. He hobbled towards the portal. Apparently the mechanism, used to alters, recognized enough of his genes to open, and he waddled into a long hallway. It took a long time just to negotiate that path with his webbed feet and reach the room he'd seen so many times in the commercials. Long before he'd reached there, his chest began to hurt, and he felt a strange shortness of breath.
The crowd that stood there curiously looked at Very. He'd seen them many times before the operation as the docks tried to talk him into signing away his rights to the alter.
An older one, a man with the closest thing to real wings and feathers on his face, said: "Well, son, did it work?"
"No," Very said raspily.
The "angels" huddled together near the perch, a long piece of simuliron that anchored them together like a strange flock of birds. They sat together, in a room that opened onto the sky at the utmost stern of the dirigible, never far from flight. Most of them held deep vials of liquid. Except when flying, they stayed together a lot, unable to walk far, and drank-a lot.
One of them said to Very, "Well, had mankind been meant to fly..."
They all chuckled together even before the completion of the line. One girl, Sarah, with pretty hair and upper body, and an ostrich's legs, said: "Well, it's too bad for you really, but, as they say," she started to get up, "we've 'got to fly.'"
With that, she jumped out of the end of the open room at the end of the ship, landing on the perch, like a trapeze artist, and started to beat her wings. Then she let go and started to fly. One by one, the others followed after her, laughing, seemingly happy with at least one part of their existence. Very watched the last one let go and fly off, silhouetted against the sun.
As the final flying man became a dot, Very suddenly felt more alone than he'd ever felt before. It occurred to him that this perch was, for the "angels," like the door on a bird cage: They could no longer walk in the world of men any more than they could fly off and leave the dirigible and its supply of food and drink. They are truly caged birds, he thought, but what am I?
He looked down at his ruined feet and green arms and felt a sudden anger partly at the fleeing flock of "angels" but mostly at himself. In a violent motion, he squatted down on his birds' feet and jumped forward into the air out of the end of the dirigible.
He strained at his arm muscles and felt the weird patches of skin move in response. He felt a sickening sensation of falling before his hands instinctively opened to catch the bar.
He remembered, only as he tried to grasp that piece of metal, though, that he no longer had hands but twisted pieces of flesh covered with odd feathers. He could not pull himself up into the room or even hold onto to the bar until someone came to rescue him. There was no hope.
He hung from the bar looking ahead of him at the last dot disappearing above the black clouds. From the corner of his eye, he could see the tail end of the massive dirigible, and he wondered what all the people would think as they watched him plummet down to the ground. Then he looked down and tried, vainly to see where he'd land, but he could see only black clouds. It seemed forever that he hung there, but it was only a few seconds. He balanced between earth, sky, and clouds.
Then his talons slowly slipped away. For a hundred yards, he beat and beat with his useless wing discovering that the rubber skin could never hold his weight. He looked up, one last time, at the solar-powered zeppelin fading away with music still blaring and the lights saying: Crunchies!
As he fell down, he kept flapping anyway, feeling it somewhat slowing his descent. The crash, he knew, would kill him, but a human, he thought, has to try even if it's hopeless. At the idea of "human", he felt himself suddenly laugh, and his hands beat still harder as he watched the clouds surrounding him so that he could see neither above, below, or around. There was a brief flash as the clouds cleared, and then he felt the impact.
He struck not the hard ground but a heavy cushion of water, and, opening his eyes, he could see nothing but bluegreen. With a start, he realized he'd landed in one of the oceans, and instinctively, he took a massive breath even as he shot downward into the depths.
He'd seen no lights, and he knew the nearest port must be hundreds of miles away. If he surfaced, he'd just delay the inevitable a little longer. The best thing to do, he decided, would be to take one last look at the sea and then open his mouth. Somehow, though, he held unto that breathfull of air that was his life.
As he sank down, he opened his eyes. He could see the fields of kelp planted by the seafarmers, schools of fish swimming left and right, dolphins herding swordfish, and the odd floating squid or shark. They darted from his path as he sank rapidly past them. He pulled in his arms to streamline his sinking body, and, after a few seconds, he felt his webbed feet touch the sandy ocean floor.
He almost exhaled in surprise when he spotted the dim red and yellow lights of a dome not fifty feet away from him. If he could only swim close enough, the portal would let him in. He spread his rubber-winged arms, pulled himself out of the descent, and started to try to swim forward. To his surprise, he found the weird webs between his hands propelling him rapidly, the green skin keeping him warm even in the deep ocean, and his feet, webbed like a sealion's, hurtling him forward so that, in five seconds, he had to slow himself to keep from passing under the dome.
He pulled himself under the "P" sign and waited for the portal to open.
The portal didn't open.
His lungs felt about to burst, and he fought to contain a sudden panic. For the first time since waking, he felt like he could live again. If only the portal would open! He violently pounded on the bottom of the dome with his webbed hands.
The portal didn't open.
With a sudden horror, he realized what had happened. The alter had so changed his genes that this portal didn't recognize him as human. That thought came to him as watched the last drops of oxygen dripping out as bubbles and floating towards the faint sunlight far above him. Then the seawater rushed into his mouth and lungs in a cold rush that tasted of salt. He expected to see nothing but blackness.
As the water rushed in and out, strangely, he could feel his body drinking it in, like wine. The shortness of breath he'd felt suddenly disappeared as he sucked in mouth after mouthful of sea water. With each taste of the liquid, he felt himself growing stronger.
He swam in a rambunctious circle that made the sand bottom rush in a swirl like a living painting. The fish darted right and left around him. He swept his fins right and left and glided through the warm sea in a dance of joy. He knew now that he'd truly come home.
Alice shifted back and forth on her feet, playing with the rope that held her flowered sarong, as she pleaded:
"But Mommy, he followed me home."
Her mother looked at the wall and continued to apply the green paint to her eyelashes. Looking at the mirror panel, she turned so she could see her lips, "Dear, I have told you at least one hundred times that you are not mature enough to have a pet."
"But Mommy," Alice stomped her foot and the echo vibrated around the room, "I'm almost seven-years-old, and lots of other girls in the fifth grade-"
Her mother turned patiently. "All right, sweetheart, you remember the nuke ants, right. You promised me that you would feed them every day?"
Alice stared down and just nodded.
"Your father and I were cleaning up plutonium for a week," her mother put the two black nylon stockings on over her arms, "and then there was the strangler fig. I'm still paying for the Jonson's rats." She nodded her head to the mirror and put the green brush in a pocket inside her sarong.
"Mommy," she said, "this is different. This is..."
"What's all the stomping," she heard, and turned to she her father emerge from the second room. Even in his plastic full-length dress coat, his four-inch lifts and red beard made him appear tall and imposing .
"Daddy," Alice yelled and immediately ran to hug him. She really felt glad to see her father, after four months, but she also knew he'd probably take her side. "How was work?"
"Ah," he yawned, "you've seen one volcanic floor, and you've seen them all. Now, what is all this about a pet, my pet?"
Alice said, "It's waiting outside. Can I go bring it in?"
Her mother slipped her shield into a square pouch on her back. "Look, I'm only twenty minutes from work, so if you would-"
Her father laughed, "Sandra, I've never known you to be late to anything. The rockets engines will still be there when you get there. Now let's take a look at what Alice has out there."
Alice ran pounding to the door, avoiding their single table by leaping over it. She yelled. "Portal!"
The door opened to reveal a figure, no longer than Alice, but male. It had a square face and ragged strands of hair. Over its body it wore little more than the remnants of clothes underneath a rain-burned yellow poncho. Layers of dirt and pollution covered its whole, small body. Its eyes stared lifelessly forward, like it could've stood staring at the outside of their unit all day, and its scarred face might've been five or twenty-five.
"See," Alice said, "it's a boy."
Her mother sat down on the floor, ignoring the wrinkles it made in her exposed white seams. "What kind of child is that, and where did you find it?"
Her father backed up against the wall and put his hand on his chin in thought. Alice paused, "I found it under the school."
"I told you," her mother said, looking at her father, "I said 'don't send her to school until college. Let's pay for the access school.'"
Her father ignored the comment but looked at Alice, a little suspiciously. "Under the school?"
"Yes," Alice answered firmly. She'd committed herself to this lie, and now she'd stay with it. Actually, she'd spotted it in the Signfor department store. How it'd avoided the monitors and security men she didn't know. It'd stood outside the infant's section, staring at the row on row of babies and repeating a single, meaningless word. She knew it couldn't read the signs that said: "Only two days old," "Our finest: presidential genes," "twins: buy one get one free," or in one space: "Last chance on year old-only fifteen credits." It'd just stood there staring and repeating the word "Fooboo. Fooboo." It'd taken all of her wits to get it out of that building undetected and, then, it'd actually followed her as she said. She didn't like lying, but her father, a former professional sophist, often said that there's a time to "hide the truth."
"Look at that poor child," her mother said. "Why can't the city do something about this kind of child, like money or family support, or...?"
Her father called, "Amphmilk," and as the refrigerator popped down, he snatched a bottle and took a swig, "Now Sandra, don't go soft on me. Is it 'our' fault this, this, can't really call it a 'child,' this 'thing' is like this?"
Her mother looked at him, and Alice knew her mother usually avoided arguments with father, but this time her mother continued: "We have no Public Enrichment programs any more, no private gifts."
"Do you remember," her father said, "you once told me that your grandmother had no children, couldn't afford it?"
Alice remembered the story. The Public Enrichment programs had become so expensive that all of the working people, except the extremely rich, burdened with overwhelming tax burdens, could no longer afford to spend the time or money to have children. Meanwhile, the poorest continued to have ever larger families until finally nearly every child born started life in a poor, run-down tenement. Crime and gang involvement became a burden. Hardworking people, such as Alice's grandmother, lived out their childbearing years working, barren, until finally the New System came about.
Alice's mother said, "What has the New System done for this child? Look at him."
Her father took another swig, smiling. Even though he now worked his second career, as an environment builder, he still enjoyed a good debate. "I am looking at him. He's the perfect argument for our system. Who should have the children? Why the poor and the unfit for work, of course, as they have the time and money. Who should raise the children? People such as you and I who have the values and the credits to do so. Now you look at Alice."
Alice grinned obediently, hoping this might win her some favor.
"She's a successful student, she's well-adjusted, and she has a great future. Had we been rich, we might have contracted with her parents to bare her. As it is, we got her from the most reputable department store around, complete with a gene chart and a guarantee. As to her maternal mother, undoubtedly, she got some five or six hundred units, maybe enough to get another degree, maybe enough to get her along till she's ready to have another one."
Now her father got up and pointed to the figure still standing in the doorway. "This," he said, "is undoubtedly a child of one of the Squatters or the Outsiders. Undoubtedly, he sat on the shelves, almost free, a couple of years, and then they turned him loose outside." His face became serious. "Barb, if we didn't have our present system, using genes of the successful and the intelligent, carefully mixed, they'd all be like this."
Her mother started to get up and a panel opened to produce her small tool kit, and she looked at her husband, "Maybe."
As her mother walked through the opening, the panel closed behind her.
"All right, Alice," her father warned, "you'd better take good care of this, or we let it go."
Alice ran over to the small figure and pulled it inside the doorway by the arm. She threw her arms around it and spoke, "You hear. You get to stay."
The figure stared, uncomprehending, but the touch of the little girl's arms seemed to make it smile: "Fooboo," it said simply. "Fooboo."
Her father shook his head. "I can't call it an 'it' though I can't call it a 'human.' Let's just refer to it as," he paused and smiled as though thinking of some joke, "'the dwarf.'"
Alice ignored the dwarf's dirt spilling on her clothes and said softly into its ear, "I'm going to take care of you," She hugged the little being, "Fooboo I love you."
Alice paced nervously in her white pinafore. She turned back and looked at the display she'd made. In her five-square feet of the auditorium, she'd made a little plastic forest with a gnarled tree. She straightened the pair of pants and shirt she'd put on Fooboo. She combed his hair back behind his ears. He smiled either from the syntherol pill she'd given him or at some thing of his own.
She glanced around the room at the competition. The Constant Companion Petfood show filled three of four of the amphitheater walls. Directly across from her, she could see a black looking man with a minilion, a creature no bigger than a mouse, with a tiny veldt displayed behind him. She watched the man stroking the cat and heard its tiny "rrrr" that substituted for a growl.
Far across the room, she could see a cone swarming with five fuzzy, giant bumble bees. The old lady out front hurriedly composed some kind of candies from the wax the bees buzzed around dropping all over their house.
On her right, a man walked his land porpoise around the room. Each of the creature's flipper-like legs was encased in a brand new tennis shoe, and its high voice flipped out comments. "See, I see the sea. Did you ever hear the one about..."
Way in the distance, a buzzard stalked around a plastic set of bones; its owner gently stroked the bird's fur and talked to it:
"Polly want a zebra," he said. "Polly want a zebra?"
To her left, she could see a man with a strand of manteca plants arranged in a miniature garden. As the man stroked each plant, a sound would come out. She could see him wandering around, trying to make the plants sing a song.
By far the strangest, to her, however, was the giant amoebae, slithering around in a glass case at the end of the hall, its lone eye appearing to watch her.
Next to her, she spied her archival, Genny Gadiva, with a pinafore on just like hers, and one of the teddy bears, a black fur ball just small enough for Genny to hold to her chest. She strolled over towards Alice, still holding the declawed, black little bear:
"So you're here too, Alice," she began with mock courtesy. "How nice."
Alice longed to reach out and stroke the black fur, but she didn't want to give Genny the satisfaction. "Nice bear you got there."
Genny's noise pointed up, "Thank-you Alice. That's a nice." She looked at Fooboo in confusion. "What is that?"
"It's," Alice stammered, "it's a dwarf." She smiled because the vet's examination had shown that Fooboo, perhaps due to poor nutrition, would never get any larger, nor would he have to be fixed.
"Are they synthe, or do they live outside?"
Alice looked at Fooboo. His eyes passed from hers to Genny's with no comprehension. She could only wonder what it really thought. She'd heard stories of cannibalism, war, all kinds of things outside.
"They live outside;" she said, "they tend these gardens of fruit trees and make little huts to keep out the rain and the sludge." She could almost see the forest she'd imagined. The vegetarian gardens she'd naturally conjured from her mother's worried insistence Fooboo eat no meat.
Genny shook her head. "Well, I hate to tell you, Alice, but this is uglier than your nuke ants."
Alice watched Fooboo's face. She didn't know if he understood anything she ever told him, and she told him, and she told him EVERYTHING, but she thought he knew an insult to him. His smile seemed more vapid.
Impulsively, her arms shot out around him, "I don't care what you say, Genny. He's my dwarf, and I love him." Then she said spitefully, "Besides, he can talk."
Genny looked incredulous, "What can he say?"
She felt the warmth of his cotton outfit, "Say, 'Fooboo' for me."
He said, "Fooboo."
Genny said, "You call that talking? A rat can say its name. I'll bet it can't even think." She stroked the bear in her arms, "Now, Reggie here is a real pet."
Before the argument could continue, the two girls heard a blare of music that told them to get into their places. Each stood in front of his or her display, and, at the far end of the amphitheater, a portal opened to admit a panel of white-robed judges. Each bore a tiny hand access box in order to record critical comments and buttons on his chest that flashed commercials for company products. As they walked along, Alice could see their lips moving and a conversation, on isolation, taking place.
She released Fooboo and straightened out her pinafore. On the fourth wall, she could see company commercials being run over and over again, not just for Constant Companion, but for all the companies in the Megalith Corporation Conglomerate. She'd seen many of the commercials hundreds of times, but their quality still drew her attention. The sound of her competitors slowly gave wave to the sound of the screen.
"Come to the Signfor Department store, a world unto itself." The lights on the screen blared, and the giant screen filled with cut and paste images of the various departments.
"Young lady," she started, and one of the judges, a big man with a long nose, spoke to her, "what exactly is your pet?"
"This is a dwarf," Alice stated, the same isolation area as the judges having moved so that it now included her; she could only see the charged images from the corner of her eye as she pointed to Fooboo. "They live in the forests of South America."
The man laughed, "You'll have to do better than that. There are no forests in South America any more."
"Let's see," said another judge, "what he can do."
Alice took a deep breath and looked Fooboo straight in the eye, "Stand, Fooboo." The dwarf picked itself up, still looking at her.
"Turn around." Alice said. Fooboo took one slow turn.
"Say Fooboo." Alice asked. Fooboo looked at her and then at the judges, poised with their boxes in their hands. Slowly his eyebrows lowered. Alice pleaded, "Say Fooboo," but the dwarf just stared.
"Not very communicative," the first judge noted.
Alice jumped up on the platform and joined her arms to that of the dwarf.
Near tears, Alice whispered. "Please, dance Fooboo." The dwarf just stared at the strange men, but when she raised her two hands into waltz position, he joined his hands to hers, and the two started to move in three-step progressions.
"Not bad," the second judge observed.
"The shark," declared another, "danced better."
Suddenly, Fooboo stopped moving, and his arms released Alice's with a sudden motion. Looking over her shoulder, he raised his hand, and yelled: "Fooboo!"
Alice turned and followed his finger. She could see, on that fourth wall, an image of a man in a white suit walking around the Children's Department of the Signfor Department store. She could see all the infants spread out in their boxes with prices printed above. Fooboo cried out again "Fooboo!"
"Not very well trained," the first judge said.
"Limited comprehension of language," the other observed.
The little dwarf suddenly started to run, and Alice took off behind him. "Fooboo!" he yelled at the massive image of the infants. "Fooboo!"
"Come back," Alice cried. "Fooboo, it's not real. Fooboo!"
Hands outstretched, the dwarf collided with the screen wall, breaking a hole right through, and fell outside. Suddenly, the lights in the room failed, and Alice could hear the sound of howling pets and humans in the darkness. She could see, against a clouded moonlight, the outside: dead grass, piles of trash, and the dwarf, still running as fast as his short legs could carry him.
She got to the hole in the wall and, not pausing, passed right through after her pet, still yelling, "I love you, Fooboo! Come back! Fooboo!!!!"
Tommy shifted back and forth, back and forth, across the floor to his unit. His mother, a small, aged woman looked out at him narrowly and frowned at the thing he had with him. It appeared to have been a girl once, but it's growth had stunted, and its hair hung in limp strands. His mother doubted it could think very much, and its eyes looked glazed over.
Tommy said, "I found it at the Signfor Department store this morning. Please, Mom, can't I keep it? I swear I'll take care of it."
His mother put her hand on her chin and looked into the blue eyes of the little dwarf girl. The creature opened a small mouth and just said, "Fooboo."
05 THE COLOR OF THE DAY
Ulysses stepped out of his shower, and, looking at the nearby wall, announced:
He looked at the image, the deep, rich lines of purple and the polka dots that covered his whole face and the fine, goatlike white beard. As he dressed, he hummed to himself:
"Ah yeah, the color of the day." He announced: Speakers." The speakers in this small second room wailed in response to his musical command:"The color may be aqua, The color may be maroon, The color may be rocky road, Well, I'll be wearing it soon."
He reached into his cabinet and pulled out his dyecomb and started to carefully stream through his hair and beard till they both shone a snow white."When you're rocking at a snaggy place, I'm the expression of designer taste. I'm always dressed the stylish way, My body dye's the color of the day."
"Will you turn that thing down," he heard his mother's voice from the other room, "or isolate it or something."
"Isolate and reduce," he said, and the sound now traveled only to his ears. It followed him as he stepped out into the main room of their quarters, a large rectangular unit with a single piece of foam in the middle for sitting and a drop down kitchen.
"Come on Uly," his mother chided, "you're a grown man, listening to that garbage."
His mother wore a long robe, and her face lay in a lazy shade of blue with fading white in her hair and hint of red on her cheeks. Her forehead wrinkled as she said, "And I wish you'd take a little less time in the second room."
"Mother," he stated firmly but not harshly, "although you found this unit thirty years ago, that doesn't mean you have to control it. It makes me want to vote for the Youth Party."
His mother took another bite of the Chocolate Doggy she was eating. "I'm sorry, Uly. I know you pay most of the rent, and you're very kind to me. It's just it seems like you waste all your credits on face paint and clothes."
Her son's face softened. He looked down at his new white jumper, judged it was marginally acceptable to wear to work, and shrugged his shoulders.
"How are you," his mother continued, "ever going to get together the money to rent your own unit or ever purchase a baby?"
Even through his purple paint, Uly blushed. "I don't think you have to worry about me buying a baby, at least for a while. If there's one thing you've taught me, it's that a person should have a partnership, at least for a year or two, during a child's growth."
His mother shook her head and sighed, "Well, I want you to be happy."
Uly shrugged his shoulders again, a gesture he'd acquired up from an old telereview the night before, "Who says I'm not happy. I have a unit for rent, I have my mother, and I have an actual go-to-work job." He didn't need to add how many his age spent most of their time just searching for a job or trying to get the money to make a down payment on any form of living quarters.
His mother frowned, obviously unconvinced, and Uly knew she'd have to turn on the screen and get working in a few moments. "Now, why don't you get a new paint down at the beauty shop?"
"What's wrong with red, white, and blue?" His mother asked. "Don't you believe in, in..."
Uly could see her memory of history failing her. As a three-degree man, he couldn't help but help her, "I think, Mother, it's called 'America.'"
"Yeah," she nodded, her joke completed, "Don't you believe in America?"
"Not particularly," he said, "Access: portal" and a panel opened on the wall, "but it was a nice story to tell anyway."
Uly quietly nursed his Cofohol at the table at the annual Directorate Ball. He watched the dancers out on the floor doing The Scuffle. Most sported white tops and purple nylons, the current wave for men and women of. Others, a week or so behind the fashion, wore red, white, and blue shorts or one-piece robes. He looked at the far table at the Old Man, the Director. He wondered if the Old Man knew that his black and white-striped overalls and, an archaic touch, bow tie bound him hopelessly to the ancient past.
He thought of the new outfit he seen on the telescreen the night before: a pink, formal jacket, adorned with white gauntlets. What color paint would they design for that, he wondered, purple still, or pink?
This led him to wonder what Chey might wear tonight. He remembered her in her simu-leopard skin with the yellow, black polka-dotted nylons she'd worn on their first date. When she prowled into the Directorate office to meet him, her eyes made up like slits, blown blond hair puffed out like a mane, he could've sworn even the staid Director started to stare in admiration.
Her lovely face he remembered in so many different guises. It helped, he thought, to have friends in the beauty shop business, who could change an eye's shape or color in an hour, and to be a certified chop shop body adjuster. Even now, he could still see her eyes almost almonds, like a mysterious cat's, and round, like pills, and, even dilated like a blind woman's.
Well tonight, he thought, looking at genuine steel band between his fingers, would be the beginning of a new look for both of them.
The Cofohol's drone picked him up and down. He hoped, she'd give herself a breast pump, so that when they danced together tonight, all of his cohorts from work would look on in envy. On stage, he could hear the metallic edged voice of the mechanical DJ:"Hey Fimp, so you think you're toughle? Well get on out here and do the scuffle; And treat your partner to a wrist, fist fight. Give her a bruise that will last all night."
He sighed and watched the couples, arms swinging, and legs outstretched doing the new dance. The noise of the violent concussion of bodies and squeals of pain almost fit the rhythm to this week's popular dance. A video played on the ceiling screen, an image of an imaginary moon, while the walls around presented an everplaying picture of a sunset. He could hardly wait to take his place with the couples on the floor. Once Chey got here, he thought, he'd feel six-feet-tall. In fact, thanks to today's leg splice, he was six-feet-tall, .
"Uly?" he heard a meek voice, and he felt a hand touch his shoulder.
He turned and stared at the speaker, a girl not over 5'2" tall. She wore a simple beige cloth dress. Her face with its simple flat nose, brown eyes, and slightly oversized lips, looked dull and plain. Her short hair curled into an untamed mess above her head. Automatically, he put his hand in his pocket and produced a half unit coin.
"I don't know how you know my name," he stated, "but take your coin and get out of here." Uly didn't particular like beggars; they generally smelled and looked so bad.
"Uly," the small voice repeated, rising to cover the sound of the DJ, as the girl moved across from him, "It's me-Chey."
Uly snorted and rubbed his white beard. "Oh, come on. This is one of Joy's stupid jokes, I'll bet." He pointed to the next table over where an older woman sat together with the Director. "Joy!" he yelled.
"Isolate!" the girl's voice came in a fury that belied her small form. The voices behind them suddenly faded into silence, and Uly could only hear the unamplified, harsh breathing of the ragged-looking girl.
Uly turned again, and looked at the anger in the girl's eyes. He said, "I don't know why Joy gave you an access code,-"
"Ulysses Wanda Stedman," the girl said icily, teeth gritted, "Access Code: High Security. Works on Special Assignment for The Directorate. This is Chey, Sheilene Shayne Jones, trying to talk to you."
Uly's mouth stood open, "Then this isn't some kind of a-" Then he noticed a faint light behind her features, an animation that could only mean Chey. Then he smiled at what he guessed to be a bold attempt at humor.
"No," she said evenly, "it isn't a joke."
Uly looked at her small form again and then looked around uneasily at his workmates. He could see the Director glancing in their direction. Everyone in the room might be unable to hear this isolated conversation, but they could see.
For an instant twenty pictures of Chey ran through his mind, but none of them resembled the small, plain girl standing before him. He shook his head and said:
"Chey-can we go outside and talk?"
"No," she snapped, and her voice echoed around in the isolation zone. "Are you going to invite me to sit down?"
"Chair," he said, and a metal chair unfolded to place itself across the round table from him.
As she slipped into the chair, he wondered what had happened to her. Perhaps she'd had too much Vitahol; it had strange side effects sometimes. "What is it Chey," he finally began, "Are you broke? I can lend you the credits for a paint and a pump."
"Uly," she said slowly, "I've thought about this a long time. Now just wait a second and look at me and listen to me. My father was a dark-haired Irishman. My mother was an Afro-American." She paused and pointed with her hands to her form. "Without any body adjustments, without any paint, without anything but the cotton both parents worked, this is me."
Uly repeated slowly, "No face paints?"
She shook her head.
"No body adjustments?"
Suddenly Uly felt a certain shock; somehow it seemed vaguely obscene to appear this way in public, "This is...is sick."
She smiled, bringing out the fullness of her oversized lips.
"This is the real me."
Uly stared at her short, curly hair for a moment: "It's all that datera you studied for your first degree in social economics." He leaned back and crossed his spliced legs. "You're half black? So what. You're half Irish? So what. Today you can be anything you want; you can make who you want to be."
She paused, took a glance at the mob of purple and white dancers, and then said softly, "What if this is who I want to be?"
Uly took a quick swig of his drink. In his mind, as he did when confronting a difficult work situation, he deliberately started doing some routine thinking: counting computer chips, analyzing social statistics. This had the advantage of allowing a comforting mental picture of figures and machine language to form in his mind and temporarily blot out anything disturbing him.
"Uly," she leaned forward, and her face burst through the row of numbers. "Look at me!" She frowned intently: "Do you know what you look like, the real you?"
Uly sighed as she forced him back to the situation.
"The real me," he said, "is what you see before you."
"Well," Chey asked, "What ethnicity are you? What race are you? Where did your people come from?"
Uly quickly took a swig of Cofohol, "There's no such thing as race or ethnicity any more. So your great, great, great, great grandmother was a slave. So your great, great, great, grandfather picked potatoes. What difference is it to you? Of course, I don't know that stuff."
"It meant something to them," Chey said. "They were not all alike, and they were not some products to be molded and merchandised. There were different cultures-"
Uly cut her off. "It's mere trivia, and if you thought about what you've learned from your real field of expertise, body adjustments, you'd see it in the proper perspective. In the chop shop we can find true equality. Why don't you go home and-"
He felt a faint drop of perspiration on his back and smelled the Amber body smell mixing with it to form a polite fragrance that reassured himself.
Chey angrily started to rise, but then stopped herself, as though not finished. Uly could see the strain showing through her eyes. "Uly, it's taken me a long time to find out who I am, or at least part of who I am, and my past is part of my present."
Uly could feel the drink starting to give a pleasantly distant quality to the entire exchange. "The past," he said, "is a newsreel we edit." He pointed to her, "Why choose this past, anyway. Why not wear lion skins and carry a club? Why not wear a kilt and go hunt Protestants?"
She shook her head slightly, but his lines did not appear to penetrate her calm. Her small hand reached out across the table to grasp his hand. He could feel her warmth and smelled, not a bottled fragrance, but something more powerful, the smell of hand-woven cloth and of things stranger and more primal.
"Uly, I know, you wanted to ask me to marry you tonight, and that's why I'm dressed as I am. I'll marry you all right, and I'll wear glow-in-the-dark pastel shades, if you want, but I've got to warn you, at any time, I may feel that I have to look like this again, to see, the real me."
She slowly released his hand and stood up, but her brown eyes still blazed into his, "If you still want me, don't call, come, tonight, but you'd better not be wearing the 'color of the day.'"
She rose, her small figure moving with a natural grace and slid out the nearest door.
"Wait," Uly suddenly cried. "I, I, I,...."
He still sat at his table an hour later, his table lined with empty disposaglasses. He looked out on the emptied dancefloor where the imaginary sun was still setting and image of the moon still remained posted overhead.
The Director lowered himself into the empty chair across from him.
"Who was that girl you were with tonight?"
Uly smiled wryly, "A stranger."
The Director's brows narrowed, and he said sympathetically, "Why don't I have one of the company Automicars take you back to my place. You look all worn."
Uly looked into the Old Man's kindly, unadorned, craggy face and smiled. Uly rose and inhaled deeply as though smelling some exotic fragrance. "No, but thank you," Uly said.
He stretched his arms wide with a natural motion that extended the gesture from his head to his feet. "I've got to go home and take a shower. There's somebody," he said, turning from the artificial sunset, "I really have to see."
06. THE ELECTORAL BODY
John sat at his table mesmerized by the telescreen. A single long face filled it, a kind, but craggy face, made longer still by the black beard, and on its head a stovepipe hat. The voice rose high, but proud.
"Citizens of New Slidonia," the face began, "our city is like a cabin, alone in the wilderness, and we are its family facing the harsh bears and wild Indians. Only the Indians we face are a tax deficit, and the bears..."
John picked the plate up and tossed it. The Groat cereal, red and pink, stuck to the screen, like blood, even though the plate slid down the wall to hit the floor and bounce. The speaker continued, undeterred.
"To tame that bear of intracity competition, it is necessary..."
This time John tossed his pop up cup, and watched the Cofohigh leave black stains on the man's face. The screen started fizzling, and then, tuning itself, came back into full focus.
"So I ask you," the kind man said, "fellow citizens,.."
John could take no more, "Arrrrrrrrrrr," he growled and rose to his feet, spoon in hand.
"Access," his wife said, "Commercial channel."
"Which of the 125?" the screen unemotionally asked.
"54," she said.
Obediently, a picture of a naked man filled the screen. "Hi," the man put his hands on his hips, "I'm Jerry Number Five here to tell you about our new Simusex tapes..."
"Johnny," his wife said, shaking her head and surveying the mess he'd made of the unit, "you have got to stop watching these election broadcasts. There are only two channels on the whole entertainment telescreen that show news and 156 that show commercials. Why do you insist on watching the news show?"
Johnny, calmed now, sat down. He addressed the telescreen: "Access: work."
The screen became a large scale schematic of a Massomicro computer with a flashing red arrow indicating the area in need of repair. Johnny said, "I'm okay now." He picked up a hand access plate and methodically relaying the information so that the broken circuits would be prepared.
His wife sat down next to him. "No, you're not." Johnny could see her visibly assuming her professional role of psychiapsychologist and wanting to "talk out" his problem. He smiled and knew he'd have to go through this one more time.
"I-I," he said, "I can't help it. I just hate that guy. I hate Him."
His wife nodded, accepting. "This would be fine, Honey, but you don't have a cause for hating him. Me, if I got you mad, I could see how you'd hate me." She looked so pretty, he thought, and she tried so hard. "Now, why, again, did you lose your C-70 customizing business."
John sighed. It was not a question she was asking but a review. How long had it been, he wondered, since his hands actually touched real machinery. It had felt so good to not just take something and fix, but to make it better to actually build something, make something new!
"All right," he conceded, "The City changed the electronics repair regulations so that my business became technically illegal." Then his anger returned, "but He wrote me the letter. It said: 'When in times of war, even trade war, it is sometimes necessary to give up one's rights for a time...."
He could almost see that penmanship in his mind, a florid, beautiful, damning letter written in backwoods characters.
"Honey," his wife said, taking his shoulders, "Could 'He' write you a letter?"
Johnny sighed, "No."
She held his shoulders firmly, her brown hair combed back behind her tanned face, "Who is the mayor of New Slidonia?"
The writing started to fade in his mind, "The mayor is a group of advisor's acting in accordance with the dictates of a programmed simulation which we, the voters," then he paused and angrily, "well not me, I don't vote any more," then continued, "but the voters put into office."
"Is there a 'He?'"
His teeth came together, "No, the NeoRepublican party simply fed all the information about his life into a computer and then tested it against historical situations until the program attained a 99.98% percent predictability. Then, they updated the program so it could act the way this Person would act," then emphatically qualified the statement, "in THEORY," and continued, "in today's world."
"Johnny," she said, her face showing some satisfaction but still concerned. "You are not going to today's rally or watching it on telescreen. You will not be fooled!"
John shook his head as he angrily remembered the program's statement the week before: "You can fool some of the data banks, some of the time..."
"'He' will not be there," his wife stated. "You will stay at home and earn some credits repairing Mesomicro computers while I'm out."
The screen showed a diagram, but in his mind, he could still hear that voice: "Four years, and seven days ago, our programmers set out to make a New Slidonia...."
The big Automicar Elite rolled into the cheering crowd in twenty-foot area that served as City Center. The campaign manager's cameras roved the nearby buildings, whose walls played the usual assortment of commercials, and only spotted about twenty actual viewers, but he calculated perhaps a half million telescreen viewers. Fabian looked at the panels of screens, displaying different views the City center, covering the entire ceiling of the automobile, but his eye stopped at the exposed, shapely leg of his media assistant. He spoke to the access panel on the roof:
"Turn up the cheers, please."
The cheering rose.
He turned to his assistant next to him. Both wore the long white robes popularized by his party during the NeoRoman campaign two years before. His hand reached out and ran slowly up her exposed leg.
"Fabian," she chided, "what are you?"
He smiled, "God, this political stuff gets me going."
She scowled, "I thought you were supposed to be a watcher type and not a physical-"
He laughed: "You actually read the office dossier file on me, and believe it?"
She smiled, "Well, I've got to get him moving." She flicked a couple of switches on the panel before her and watched the results through one of the viewscreens piped in from one of the nearby buildings.
The form, six-foot-high and powerful, emerged from the back seat of the car. It donned its black hat and straightened its tie. Its voice rose to address the citizens.
"My Fellow Slidonians, when I was a boy, I used to work splitting rails. I'd stick my axe in the stump first, to make a crack, and then, I'd lift the rail and slam it to the ground to shatter it.
Fabian's hand continued to inch up Augustina's leg. She giggled and said: "Do you want to be in on this?"
"No," he said, "not my style."
She shrugged, "Diced chips." She pushed another button on her console and on the screen they watched her image emerge wearing the same robe as she wore in the car and a slight wind lifting the end of the skirt. Her image stood by the great man's side looking up in apparent admiration.
"Why don't you," Fabian's hand ran slowly higher, "give it a little more breeze."
"Come on, I don't want to distract from the speech. Besides, we already have enough sex in this campaign."
Fabian laughed and put his free hand around her waist, "Never enough sex in any political campaign. Now, you stick to speech presentations, and let me work on strategy."
He pulled her over on top of him, just as the speech reached its climax, a ringing report, and Fabian raised her robe above her knees.
"Every job we lose," the tall man declared, "is another loose nail in our cabin. Every contract lost,...."
"Oh my God," Augustina declared.
Fabian chuckled in self-admiration.
"No," she said, pulling herself away from him, "not that. The screen!"
Fabian sat up and yawned. "Replay: last minute."
They both sat side by side as they watched the black figure and heard a sound that could only be a blaster. The screen image of the speaker suddenly held its head and flickered out.
"My god," Augustina declared, "they shot him;" she paused and added: "They shot him again!"
Fabian shrugged, unperturbed, and remained half lying down. "Well, if you want, I think we can find the guy with the blaster on the other channel. Do you want to see it?"
"What are you talking about?" she said, sitting up away from him. "There has been a shooting, a murder."
Fabian shook his head slightly, "Yeah. 25,000,000 credits down the drain. Not counting research. Guess that means," he paused and smiled, "another tax levy." She turned and gave him a look of sudden horror and drew back.
"How, how, can you-"
Fabian chuckled, "Our program predicted a 98% probability this would happen. That's why I arranged this 'public speech' so late in the campaign season." He paused, "You see, the guy's wife called me. I've been telling her to encourage him. She's a psyche, so it was no problem; she knew all the buttons to push. She wants me to give her enough money to open some kind of computer shop or something like that. The Party can afford it, but we may have to change a law or two."
The color started to drain from her face, "But the guy is a murderer."
"He's not a murderer," Fabian said, starting to move towards her, inch by inch. "He destroyed a hologram connected to a programmed simulation."
He smiled with obvious relish as he continued: "Here's what we do. We arrest the guy. Charge him with the crime, and then, after the election, we pardon him."
His hand started to run up her leg, and the color returning to her face. She said, predicting the headlines: "'Lincoln pardons own assassin'?"
Fabian laughed as his hand went around her shoulders. "Yeah, we could make another hologram to go with the program, but, my psyches say the public'd never accept it. 'Lincoln assassinated,' that's the ticket, and we pull the sympathy vote."
His face pressed close to hers, "I love politics," he sniffed her perfume, "nearly the only sport left."
Her pleasant smile had now returned to her face. "Then who becomes mayor?"
Fabian chuckled as he spoke almost into her lips, "We already have another program cobbled together. The guy's perfect for our purposes: Richard Nixon."
He started to kiss her, but she protested, "Richard Nixon! But he's a ----"
"It doesn't matter who we run really," He lay down and pulled her over him onto the fold-down seat, and this time she did not resist. "The NeoDemocrats simulation program is gonna lose anyway. After all, who wants to live in a city run by Jesus Christ?"
07. BEATING THE ODDS
Joe watched the lights start to dim in the silver city barely visible on the horizon, a compact little metropolis with steel towers and trees lining the avenues in between. Nearer him, he could see a broad expanse of well-ordered parks, and, nearer still, tall growths of healthy trees.
"Harry, I've got to hand it to you," he said. "You must be the biggest liar left on the face of the planet."
When he turned behind him, he could lines of machines slowly rolling forward in the twilight. Nearest came the wire cutters, televisor black-out units. Behind that various rolling boxes of destruction armed with blasters or explosives. Behind these came big hovertanks and debilitators, and floating overhead, five or six armored whompers, their metal piles poised to pulverize. Somewhere, behind the lines, he could imagine the corps of technicians running the powerful force.
"Give me a break, Joseph." Harry said, "I didn't tell you one thing that wasn't true, right?"
"Maserchips," Joe swore, "you lied about everything."
Harry started to pull the clear, plasticized top over their foxhole. "I said you looked tired, like you ought to get out, right, and you said you were 'tired of working the sports desk,' right?"
"Yeah," Joseph said, and, he watched the machines rolling closer and closer to their position between the advancing army and the peaceful city.
"I said you ought to get out and do something physical, something with a big of danger, maybe go somewhere for the weekend. So I told you I knew about a place where I was going on assignment, and that your green khakis would look perfect."
"Right," Joe admitted, dryly. "That's your idea of a weekend's entertainment, going to a war? " As the machines stopped directly in front of him, Joe wondered vaguely how they would avoid hitting this spot Harry had selected. He started at the wirecutter, a four-sided box with wheels that sat about two feet away and gave off a distinct odor of gas and frying motor oil.
"It's just like Wompball, really," Harry explained, "There's two sides. One wins, and one doesn't. The team's owner makes a fortune; either that or he cuts his expenses. Sports or war," he concluded, "you're out to win and make money. Now will you excuse me, I have a call to make."
Harry pulled a switch and the lights in the bubble suddenly turned on, so that the entire facing army could easily spot their little hole in the ground.
"Harry," Joe said, "how do you know they're going to avoid shooting at us?"
Harry picked up his wrist and looked at the small screen and access dial, "I told you 'some danger'? Besides, they'd never risk losing their screen rights. Now, Sh. I gotta make a call to the Chase Manhattan Bookie Agency."
As Harry looked at his wrist, Joe watched the enormous army behind him suddenly covered by a blare of lights from the machines flying overhead and heard the sounds of the army's Parcussian National Anthem as small screens started to pop up on all the Parcussian machines:
"When the time has come for a hero, And your bank account reaches zero, There's a man to take your helm: He's the realer our realm. Zoy Parcussion! Zoy Peacussion! The man with the hand that heals- Zoy Parcussion! Zoy Parcussion! The man who makes the deals."
The song only had a single verse, written by the dictator himself, but the amplified angelic all-girl choir, repeated it three more times for good measure. Behind the army, he saw a giant telescreen hung on one of the whompers showing the ruler of the attacking country: Zoy Percussion, a thin, short-chinned man with a receding hairline. He wore a blue uniform with a pink sash over his pudgy, five-foot form, and the sword that hung to his belt appeared about to pull him over.
Joe remembered well the first time he'd read about Zoy, when Zoy purchased the Sterling City Oofs of the National Backickers League. He knew from the research for that article that Zoy first made his money in real estate, buying up a worthless patch of Greenland. When that patch, after the world warming, became the city of Stalopolis, Zoy invested his earned trillions of units in many things and became one of the richest men in the world.
"Still 20 to one," Harry said to himself.
"Harry," Joseph asked, "How did Zoy get the rest of Greenland?"
Harry shook his head, "Don't you ever watch anything but the sportsreels? He bought it, acre by acre, except for the city of Soriasis that you see over there. Incidentally, it isn't called 'Greenland' any more. It is officially called 'Parcussiana,' and you'd better learn that name because it'll probably be recognized by the Assembly of Disjointed Nations after he wins tonight."
Joseph took a deep breath, "How do you know that the big battle's going to take place tonight?"
"It has to take place tonight," Harry said impatiently as he fumbled with the dials on the recording equipment. "He contacted all the media and sold all the rights. How do you think I know to be here? See, even if he loses, with all the hype and the flicks, he probably wins."
As he said that, the anthem ended, Parcussion, after combing his hair forward, spoke:
"Citizens of Stalopolis, countrymen of Parcussia, evil enemies of the city Soriasis before us, patrons of the media, viewers in screenland, and all my computer monitors, lend me your eyes."
With that the business giant paused, and bowed slightly as a mechanical chorus of cheers broke forth from the screen.
"He gave this same speech when he bought the Oofs," Joseph said.
"Quiet," Harry cautioned, "I don't want your comments picked up. You don't have the credentials-"
"There is a time," the little ruler continued, "to expand your horizons, merge your interests, diversify and conquer. It is the fate," Zoy paused raising his hands into a small fist, "of great corporations to survive this chaos we call 'the battle for survival'" and, as Zoy's hand went upward, "riiiiiise to the top."
Zoy paused again to bow, and the applause sound effects grew a little louder.
"Now, the evil city before us has resisted my merger offers, vanished my loyal bankbuyers, and closed its stocks to my computer purchasers. It is time for the great hand," and he held his small hand close to the screen to enlarge it to a more appropriate size, "of War to reach out and grab, so that the healing hand of Destiny can put everything----Right."
Again the mechanical cheers rang out, and this time the roar of engaging engines and firing reactors answered his remark. Two beautiful maids, dressed in pink Percussion clothes, the Zoyettes, appeared at the ruler's side as he put his hand to his blade, and each grabbed a shoulder to steady the dictator as he drew the heavy sword from its holster. With the sword held before him, Zoy prepared to conclude his speech, and Harry could think of nothing so much as the President throwing out the first plastic ring at the Backickers' World Series:
"Let the war," Zoy said, his voice cracking, "begin!"
Harry looked down at his watch again, "Now only 15 to 1."
Joseph drank his third cup of Nearwater as he watched the big whompers of the fourth wave come forward, stomping right and left, big metal rods coming down to crush any objects in their path. He turned around to look back at the city. By now, the sky in front of them showed nothing but fire blazing from destroyed buildings and burning grass. A persistent sound of whirring machinery filled the night air.
"I hate to say it," Harry said, opening the bubble case, "but I think the show may be over."
No sooner had he said that, however, than they heard a sound, like screaming.
"Harry," Joey said, a bad feeling coming to his stomach, "what is the other side fighting with. I know Zoy has all that hardware."
"Well," Harry sighed, "it was rumored they had some atomics," Harry said, "but I doubt they'll use them. Would you want to radiaze the entire area around your city? The people there are basically democratic, so I doubt there'll be any kind of last ditch, diehard, blow-the-city-up stuff. Then, they've got some mercenaries."
"Mercenaries?" Joe snorted, "That doesn't answer my question. What kind of weapons do they-"
Then the sight before him suddenly answered his question. A crowd of little dots, ants compared to the massive machines, rushed into the park before Joe and Harry's foxhole. From their direction of advance, the forms could've only come from the city streets themselves. They fanned out onto the plains, distant from the city, and went into action, leaving Joe to wonder what had happened to the first three waves of attackers.
When the black dots emerged a few yards away, Joe, with a start, saw that they were not small machines or even soldiers but ordinary people: some wore business suits, some dressed in rags, even a few draped in little more than their underwear. They rushed forward with knives, table legs, and hand blasters into halflit clouds of explosions and flying metal. The people ran up under the hovertanks and threw dirt in their exhaust; the debilitators they tipped over on their sides. They seemed oblivious to the blasts of destruction ringing around them, intent only on stopping the Parcussian army.
"I was afraid of that," Harry said.
"God," Joseph sighed, his stomach turning as he watched a man's body shattering in multiple parts. "It's horrible! They're fighting that-that-that Junk with almost their bare hands."
Harry, however, didn't answer his comment, and Joe turned to see Harry wasn't even staring in the direction of the trees, but back towards Zoy's side, as ten five-tracked, ground hugging, missile-toting, duel-turreted, nuclear- powered, machines rumbled onto the plain. The mere sight of these mechanisms sent the city dwellers into a retreat back into the remnants of the woods.
"Levellers! The bastard," Joe sighed.
"That solarblocker," Harry added, and they both said at the same time:
"He went to Rent-An-Army!"
Joseph could see the commercial in his mind. Two men, one blue and other red, wearing matching khaki outfits and standing in front of a gigantic tracked vehicle:
"Do you suffer from chronic revolutions?" the blue man said.
"Do your neighbors often bother you with invasions?" the red one added.
"Are you ignored at dictator's balls?"
They said together, "Then come to Rent-An-Army!"
The blue man pointed to one of the slightly rusted vehicles. "Just look at these savings. Here we have a standard government issue leveler, fresh from the foreclosure on the Central Asian Meritocracy. Do you know much it would cost to buy one of these things? 200,000 credits." He said as an aside: "That's a lot of rice!"
"And," the red man added, "you'd probably have to read a couple of books by Win Fall Fu just to have the right ideology to use it."
Both chuckled before the red man continued, "But now you can rent it for the weekend for the low, low price of just 200,000 credits," he patted the vehicle's track fondly, "with a tank of plutonium. That's right 200,000-"
"What," Harry said, his voice interrupting so that Joe's picture of the commercial faded, and he focused again on the deadly machine noisily crushing across the plain. "13:1. Damn, I'd better bet now. Somebody must be getting in big."
"Harry," Joe said in exasperation, "how can you bet on a game right now with those things about to crush all those people?" The big machines lumbered forward, blaring out the Parcussian anthem from their speakers, as the city people scampered for cover in what remained of their woods.
Harry looked at him in surprise: "What do you think I'm betting on-one of the handwhack tournaments! Now do you want in or don't you?"
The nearest leveler opened up a panel on its top, and a giant screen rose, and Zoy's face filled the screen, "Now my people, it is time to get some real estate!"
Joseph could suddenly stand no more. He rose to his feet and, pulling out the blaster that he'd brought along at Harry's insistence; he opened the outer edge of the plastic bubble casing and climbed onto the ground. He could feel the perspiration starting to drip down his back as he watched the two-turreted machines before him spitting out body missiles towards the scampering defenders. He felt so angry, however, that his feet started forward, and his hand slowly raised the weapon to point directly at the nearest powerful machine.
"Are you crazy!" Harry yelled behind him, "There's a war going on out there!"
The turret on the leveler turned, and he knew the electronic sighting had already found a target, him. In a second, Joe knew, a grapeshell missile would scatter his atoms over a wide area, but he steadied his shaking arm and firmly grasped the trigger.
"AHHHHHHHH!" a battle cry came from the woods, and the missile fired at the same instant, but the turret was already turning, automatically sighting the louder target, and Joseph felt a shell whiz by him into a turn and blow up a few feet away. Tiny fragments of metal hit him in the leg, and he fell to his knees as an intense pain ran up and down his spine. He fell on the ground helpless but able to watch the unfolding events. His ears throbbed with the sounds of whirring shells and running mechanisms.
The shout he'd heard materialized into a group of men. They wore black uniforms, but he knew very well that they were not from Percussiana or Soriasis. They bore no weapons, save a single sword hung at their sides. After that yell that have saved his life, he could hear these men, not yelling, but singing, walking forward, ignoring the shells bursting around their ranks."Freedom I will fight for you. Freedom you will guide me through."
It took forty body shattering seconds of enduring that withering fire from the Parcussian army, but then the surviving swordsmen crossed the clearing, vaulted on the sides of the Levellers and, with just their swords, pried open the hatches and the roofs, and stabbing downward, shorted out machinery. Of the hundred who'd emerged from the woods, perhaps half died, but the rest just kept coming and singing."Freedom I'm not afraid to die. Freedom as long as I can try."
Behind them came the "army" of Soriasis, emerged again from the burning woods, bearing odd pieces of metal and swarming over the remaining machines like a wave of a great ocean. One by one, the lights of the Parcussian army started to blink off, the whir of turbines and reactors die away until, suddenly, all the lights were off and there was a strange, strained silence.
Joe looked out at the field littered with bodies, shorted out machines, and perhaps five hundred of the city dwellers. For a minute, there was no sound, and then it was broken by weeping. Joe looked around for its source and couldn't find it, and surveying the scene, he had a strange feeling that the plains, the grasses, the trees were weeping.
More people emerged from the woods, docks and psyches and family members. They escorted a group of perhaps fifty of Zoy's techs who'd run the Percussian army. As the survivors started to pick up the pieces, the solitary weep grew into a wail.
Harry's voice said, behind Joseph, "You stupid idiotic, circuit sucker. What do think you are, some kind of hero?"
Joe pointed to the figures in black, starting to quietly care for their casualties. "They're the heroes."
"Heroes!" Harry snorted. "They're mercenaries."
Joe tried to stand and Harry propped him under his arm. "I can't believe anyone can pay them to fight like that."
Harry laughed so hard he almost dropped his friend, "Pay them to fight? Pay them to fight! Those guys pay TO fight. Most of them are heavy duty executives, out to work off a little boredom. They buy their own gear, their own training; sometimes they even have to pay the side they're on to let them fight."
Joseph suddenly felt sick to his stomach. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."
"Well," Harry grudgingly admitted, "they do usually pick their side. I doubt that they'd work for a guy like Zoy Parcussion, but I got a bad feeling about this battle, and I have ever since the odds came in. I'm glad I bet on Soriasis."
Joe watched the entire, ragged force starting to coverage on one last leveler, which still held a screen above its carcass with an image of Zoy still speaking to the world.
"You see, this battle," Harry said, "the whole Parcussian side anyway, was very badly fought, not the kind of work I'd suspect out of The Man Who Bought Greenland. Then there's the odds thing. I can believe the odds went down after his speech, which was pretty bad. But why, I wondered, did the odds fall after the Levellers came out."
Joseph had a terrible thought as he looked on the hoards of wounded and suddenly reached the same conclusion as Harry. "That's sick, Harry, positively sick."
Harry nodded, "Yep, he brought out the Levellers when he knew the mercenaries would take them out so that he could lose the battle, or, as you'd say in sports, he 'threw the battle.'"
Joseph's hand still held the blaster, and he hissed: "And he bet against himself!"
Harry shrugged, "Joe, war is the dirtiest game."
The screen picture of Zoy Parcussion flickered on, on and off:
"Well," Percussion shrugged, "even Napoleon had a bad day."
Joseph could hear the sound of that song, ringing in his ears, "Freedom," His arm raised the blaster, and he pointed it at the picture of Zoy Parcussion. "I'm not afraid to die. Freedom as long as I can try..." The picture of Zoy Parcussion fizzled as the bolt of light shattered it into buzzing and, finally, silence.
Joe stared at the nearest mercenary, a man not overly tall or particularly big, but hard. The man slowly started to turn, perhaps aware than another was watching him, and when he saw Joseph, he smiled grimly. Under the moonlight, Joseph could the mercenary's smile slowly cover his own face.
08. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The defendant, the plaintiff, and the two lawyers stood in the small unit that served as the 15Ath Circuit Court of the City of Nihl.
"Will the prosecuting attorney please submit evidence and arguments?" a deep voice began.
The prosecuting attorney, dressed in his blue shorts and blazer, stepped up to the small box in front of the judge and put the information packet into the slot. He bowed slightly towards the screen. Mr. Jones, the plaintiff, took another Wiredown tablet to ease the pain to his head. When his lawyer got back, he whispered: "Well, I hope he's in punishment for a long time." The vision of the defendant rushing at him with a plastic rake, he thought, might remain in his mind for months. Thankfully, the report of his psyche would enter into the court records and his pain considered.
"Analyzed," the voice announced. Jones recognized that voice. It belonged to Marvin Midnight, one of the pornoreel stars. He guess that letting the judge use Marvin's voice must've been part of the settlement for the star's conviction on charges of water discharge.
"Will the defense attorney please submit evidence." Jones smiled at the rather shabby young woman stepping forward with the packet. Her features seriously needed a reshape, and his industrial intelligence men reported even the defendant had no use for her charms.
After she'd put her packet in the other slot, the computer asked. "Does the plaintiff have any final remarks to make?"
Mr. Jones started speaking. He knew the anhilalyzers would grammatically resort his statements and sift through for the facts, so he spoke as he would, "It's a sorry day, when some stupid plantman can attack a major corporate president on the steps of his own building. I think the Court's decision today is about law and order." He continued, "As for the facts, they are clear: this, this, man attacked me for no reason. I want to see him serve his time in punishment mode."
As he sat down, Jones remembered how long he used to wait for court decisions. Now, the computer could weigh all the evidence and arguments, even compare the decisions to the needs of society as recorded in its literature, in a matter of seconds. Not only that, the court always found a way to have its services paid for.
"Does the defendant," the judge asked, "have any final statements before decision?"
Josiah Quiggly looked up and combed the gray hair from his eyes. Jones expected him to make a passionate plea, telling how he had no job, how his wife's position as an aqua marine gave him an inferiority complex, how he'd only been able to afford a single pint-brained son, and how the ills of society had made him do it. Jones' information service had certainly found enough for the defendant to beg about.
"No, your honor," Quiggly said, "I did exactly what Mr. Jones said I did, and I'm willing to do my time."
"Remain standing," the computer voice pronounced, "Verdict is guilty. Defendant will be in the punishment mode. Contract with the defendant's wife is void. Child is to be given to wife along with stipend from punishment mode. Since the defendant can only do one job, gardening, and is presently unemployed, defendant will become chief gardener at Jones Towers facility called 'Marvin's Gardens' and remain so until all dock, psyche, and court bills are paid. Projected time of completion is four years, two months, six days, and twenty-five minutes."
Jones smiled; now not only would he get revenge on this crazed man who'd attacked him for no reason, he'd get to see justice worked out, credit by credit.
"Court," the voice said, "adjourned."
Mr. Jones looked at the window at the garden. He'd spent untold units buying the broadleafed wazuka trees, the green dwarf pines, the pink snodgrass, even the hypo worms so that employees could come on to this terrace of life during their breaks and lunch periods.
Now, as he looked up from his lunar company flow charts and graphs of that dead little world, he could see Mr. Quiggly walking around, trimming each little wazuka, putting the green fruits inside a basket to make into homemade Wazuka beer.
They all liked Mr. Quiggly; everybody did, from the highest directors to the lowest circuit breakers. He talked to them about everything, and, unlike the executives they met all day, they knew they had nothing to fear from the gardener. They'd all heard about the case, but the second they spotted Quiggly in his worn overalls with his unkempt curls, they just couldn't believe the garden could do anything wrong.
Jones thought of how tired his own nerves felt today, how badly the meeting how gone with the vice-presidents, and how much he'd have to do this afternoon. Then he looked at Quiggly slowly but surely caring for every plant, seemingly without care except for these living things.
Now, as Jones thought of that chart due in an hour, he watched Quiggly, his morning chores finished, slowly lying down under the shielded sunlight to take a luxurious nap. Quiggly turned his head slightly, and, for a moment, appeared to laugh in the direction of Jones' spymonitor.
Quiggly, he thought, was not being punished and, it occurred to him suddenly, Quiggly had gotten just the kind of job he might've wanted by his attack. Quiggly had, as the Court recorded, lost his job as a gardener when the Company liquidated his facility in New Harias, so there was a kind of revenge factor to the assault. The whole thing, the entire attack, however, might've been a coldly calculated move to get this exact position as gardener. Jones clinched his fist and rose. He wanted, at that moment, to find that rake to hit Quiggly with that hard plastic, just as Quiggly had hit him.
He calmed himself down. With his ability to pay, the court might make a ruling requiring him to give Quiggly a lot of money or even a job for life. The thought of seeing Quiggly out there, every day, enjoying a gain he'd gotten from his pain, made Jones shiver.
He touched a panel before him, and a package of martini seeds popped up. As he chewed them, planning, a smile covered his face. Suddenly, he started to laugh.
The next morning, he watched the replay of the spyreel over and over again. Quiggly, tools over his shoulder, whistling a tune, walking out in the gardens and seeing, not gardens, but a company lounge, couches sitting where the trees used to sit, and green carpeting in place of the grass. On a few of the tables, sat synthetic pieces of wax fruit. It fact, the whole garden had been redone in a synthetic mockery of the living objects it had replaced.
Quiggly stumbled in dread despair, over and over again, as Jones replayed the reels, before falling down in a faint.
"Boss," he heard his assistant secretarial auditor informed him, "you've got another summons from the Court. Quiggly's claiming psychological damage."
The same two gentlemen, and their lawyers, stood in front of the computer, awaiting its judgment. Nearly five seconds, and Jones could imagine those twenty billion or so micromacrochips searching for justice. Then the voice began.
"Yes?" he asked.
"The Court rules that since you were hired to work as a gardener at Marvin's Gardens, and the garden no longer exists, you are no longer a gardener for Mr. Jones."
Josiah's face fell in obvious disappointment as the strong voice continued: "Since, however, you still owe Mr. Jones a debt, you will work in his company filling in for a temporary vacancy they will presently have. At the salary for this particular position, you will have the debt paid off in two months."
"Wait," Josiah said, "what position are you talking about?"
"Mr. Jones," the Court continued.
"When you destroyed the garden, you essentially repaid the psychological harm you had received from Mr. Quiggly's attack, but there is another interest here, that of your employees." The computer's voice paused.
"Now, the laws do not require you to have such a garden, but since you'd chosen to have one, your employees naturally looked forward to its benefits and atmosphere. In other words, you'd placed a reasonable expectation of a garden in their minds, so withdrawing it is a kind of non-negotiated cut in their benefits."
"I-" said Jones softly and then he wished he'd gone out in the garden more often, wished he could be there at that moment, under the wazuka trees, sitting on the grass, instead of standing in the small white courtroom. "I want to replace the garden."
"The Court," the voice continued steadily, "orders you to replace the garden, in fact, enlarge it, pay all court fees, and, as punishment for the damage done, to work for two months as its gardener."
"As for Mr. Quiggly, during your tenure as gardener, he will replace you as company president."
"What!" the two men exclaimed.
"Case closed," the computer and, in its pornoreel star's voice sensuous voice, with simulated relish offered:
09. THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The Commissioner sighed as he looked at his watch. Four hours and still no sign of Ms. Markem. He looked at the outdated flowcharts one last time before clearing the screen. Finally, he looked at his phone. At the second his eyes made contact with the plastic casing, the screen sprang up. He sighed softly:
"Access: Miss Markem."
The screen flickered, faded, and showed an empty desk. He looked through computer screen without an occupant. He shook his head but vowed to try a search anyway:
"Search all access points."
If she were still in this reality, he thought, she'd probably deny entry. Her picture crossed his mind again, a young, slender girl, so natural she'd not gotten the body implants so popular in BOGUE two year before. He'd driven around the city for a week trying to find someone more able to dictate to a typeputor than she. And now?
"Entry neither requested nor denied," the computer announced in its pleasing soprano voice. "Subject located."
The screen filled with an image, a darkened bedroom. A single figure shone a ghostly white, prone and unmoving, black hair combed neatly for a final exit scene, and the Commissioner sighed.
"Subject-deceased." the computer finished.
He couldn't help making the remark; there was no one around, just he and an inanimate computer screen: "It's so hard to find good help these days."
The computer replied. "Searching-subject 'it's hard to find good help these days.'"
The Commissioner pushed a button on his wrist plate to cancel the search, and he pushed another to locate Mr. Johnson. He thought how old-fashioned he was pushing buttons in an age of voice and body access. It didn't matter, he said, not much would matter soon.
The screen filled with Johnson, his thin, bony face hidden by brown locks of hair. His eyes shone from behind his cheeks like a skull, and it occurred to the Commissioner that Johnson could be twenty or two hundred. In fact, he thought, he'd never bothered to check his assistant's age. What difference, he wondered, did it make?
"Mr. Johnson," he announced, "I'd like to see you in my office."
Johnson rose but did not react. Seeing persons face to face was one of the Commissioner's peculiarities that Johnson never questioned. The screen dotted out, and the Commissioner knew Johnson had to be climbing the stairs. No one had fixed the ellelator in a year.
"A world can change," the Commissioner said, "in a year."
Johnson entered the room a few minutes later, and his long strides ate the distance between the two men. The Commissioner marveled again at the energy that Johnson could still put forth just in walking across the room, and he remembered, was it fifty years before, seeing the Olympics on the primitive two-dimensional televisions.
"You wanted to see me, Commissioner?" Johnson asked and the Commissioner laughed. He liked seeing those old, old reels, and the line came from a film by Clint Eastwood, but Johnson would never know that.
"Yes," the Commissioner chuckled. "Do you have any more candidates to fill the secretarial position?"
"Sir," Johnson reported, "the personnel pool has shrunken considerably."
"I don't care who you get. I want to run this Bureau, and I can't do it by myself. Now I want you to scan the records. Do we have anyone that meets these qualifications: human being?"
Johnson paused, touched a button in front of him and glanced at the pop-up screen. "Yes. We have access."
The Commissioner nodded, "And can we drive over and interview the person."
Johnson shook his head. "No. The driver finished on the way over."
"*&^%" the Commissioner said.
Johnson raised his thin eyebrows. "No. He didn't. He 'took the trip out.'"
Twice in the last minute Johnson had mentioned what had happened, but to the Commissioner the language used, the slang, still hadn't said what really happened.
"He's dead!" the Commissioner snapped. "He killed himself."
Johnson shrugged his shoulders. "Yes, sir, that's true. I'm not sure getting emotional, though, is the right reaction."
The Commissioner took a deep breath. "All right. All right. Do we have a driver?"
Johnson shook his head.
"Do we have any busses running any more?"
Johnson shook his head.
"How far away does this girl live?"
Johnson sat silently, remembering the screens of information he'd absorbed. "3.83 miles." He added. "You did, in your previous citations, specify a range of four miles, so I assumed..."
The Commissioner stood up, "That may be the only thing I did correctly this week. Let's go."
Johnson stood up slowly and added. "I think you may have made one other correct judgment-"
"Come on," the Commissioner said, "let's go!"
The Commissioner could feel an early November frostiness and wrapped his long overcoat tightly around him. His feet covered the dirty streets of what used to be called the "bad" section of town. Now all parts were equally bad. He walked purposefully down the center of the street, for he had a fear of someone jumping from a building and smashing him. Johnson walked, at his superior's side, matching his long, economical strides to the Commissioner's short, abrupt juts.
Suddenly, the Commissioner stopped. Between four crashed cars, half rusted in the middle of streets, he'd spotted a human skull directly in his path. Two rats nibbled at whatever remained of its store of marrow. For a second, he remained frozen to the spot, the November cold blowing around him.
Johnson thrust a foot back, and, like a handwhack player, nonchalantly kicked the skull fifty yards away. The Commissioner looked at his assistant's face, but the other simply pointed obviously to a nearby building:
"I think this is the address sir."
"You just-" the Commissioner said, gasping, "you just-"
"5432 Herald Street."
Then the Commissioner started to hear the Voice, the voice that had meant the end of the world as he knew it. It came from no radio, but inside his head, a deep voice with the sound of music, that rang like thunder:
"The day of salvation has arrived, The dead shall see the Lord, The Angels shall rule the Earth, And all the world be cleansed..."
"Goddamn it!" the Commissioner said, "Get out of my head." The voice rang on and on, and he talked to himself as loud as he could in a vain attempt to drown it out. He could see white, a mountain of clouds, a kindly old man's face covered with love. He tried to clear his mind by singing at the top of his lungs:"Mine eyes shall see the glory of the coming of the Lord, he's trampling." In irritation he said, "No that's not it." He looked at the stairway to the house and Johnson standing there waiting. He thought, ironically, "And she's climbing the Stairway to Heaven," He hit himself on the leg to try to create a pain to occupy his thoughts. "And those who hear the call Shall hear My voice Coming from the mountain top Come to me, my children."
The Commissioner felt again that hunger, longed to taste that sweetness, when he heard that voice that called out every day at 17:32.45, more regularly than the most correct solar-driven timer.
Then he tried to force the beautiful face from his mind. He conjured images he'd seen of the streets lined with bodies, jobs deserted, people blowing their brains out, lovers kissing with lips of cyanide, smiling people jumping in front of cars, always at 17:32. 45, until they'd almost emptied an entire city. In fact, since all external communication with New Detroyet had ended months ago, for all the Commissioner knew, they could be hearing The Call everywhere. All the peoples of earth might be departing...
Johnson stood by his side, shaking his head at his superior's convulsions. The thought of that girl, upstairs, hearing The Call, sent the Commissioner into a sudden panic. He cried out:"Sh-sha-sha shake it up Baby. Shake it up baby. Twist and shout, Twist and shout. Come on, come on, baby. Work it on out, Work it on out. You know you twist so good,"
He put every inch of his old body into his movements, jumps and jives to stay alive,"You know you twist so fine, Twist so fine, Come on, Come on, Baby, I wanna know that you're mine. Aw-Aw-Aw."
He danced up one step and then the next, on a slow climb to the fourth floor:
"Sh-sh-sh-shake it up, Baby..."
When they got to the door, at precisely 17:37.48, the picture in his mind suddenly disappeared, and the song snapped off.
He looked at Johnson again. The long face looked empty and devoid of all emotion. How could anyone withstand that call; he could hardly believe he'd fought it off for a year. Builders, mothers, presidents, people whose lives made this world, had all succumbed, but he'd fought for a year. When he thought back, he wondered why. Perhaps, working in the Bureau all these years, he felt he owed something to the living; perhaps he just had this ingrained public servant's feeling that you never left your office without tidying up your desk. Objectively, he sometimes wondered if the voice was really from above or just a Siren's song, but subjectively, he had no doubts of its authenticity.
"Johnson," he said, slowly, "don't you ever feel it, hear it?"
The other man shrugged his shoulders. "Hear what, sir?"
The Commissioner opened the door. The apartment consisted of a single room. He wondered, for a second, why anyone would remain in such a tiny room when they could move to any room in the deserted city. Even with the suicide of so many maintenance workers, many buildings would run on automatic for years to come.
When he looked around the room, many things suggested the age of its occupant or occupants. Dolls and toys covered the walls, strewn in no particular direction, like a two-year-old might place them. Food tins lay in various locations around the room.
"Johnson you didn't tell me-"
Then the Commissioner saw her. Long blonde hair stretched in a ponytail behind her head. Her face looked so pale it had to be natural, and he estimated her age about seventeen. For clothes, she wore a pinafore that ended only about two inches below her thighs. A layer of dirt covered her shirt and face as though she'd not taken a bath in several months.
For a brief second, seeing her, the Commissioner felt glad to be alive. How long had it been that he'd met someone new and even vital. She was not beautiful, but she was demonstrably alive. Then she spoke.
"Hwoo," she said smiling sweetly, "My name is Amber. Do you want to play dollies with me?"
His legs crumpling away, the Commissioner sat down on the floor. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead. "No child. I don't want to play any more. Do you have any access outlet?"
The girl stood up and pointed to an object. "That's our access outlet, but my Mommy told me never to touch it. She's at work; she has been at work a long time. She should be home soon."
The Commissioner looked at girl's face and shook his head. How could he tell her she had no mother any more? Her mother's worn husk could be lying on the sidewalk, or under a subway's tracks, or floating on the ocean. The mother had left this poor mentally-deficient girl to fend for herself.
"Johnson," he sighed, "will you access?"
The man in the trenchcoat walked over to the phone and touched the buttons to punch in his Bureau code. A tiny pop-up screen shone. The teenage girl stood up:
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm," the Commissioner said, "a friend of your mother's. She asked me to take care of you."
"Commissioner," Johnson said, and the Commissioner glanced away from the little girl, "the personnel pool is now empty."
"Huh?" the Commissioner said.
He could hear the girl crossing the room, "I have something I'm going to show you."
"Yes, yes," the Commissioner said, not looking at her. "What do you mean, 'the personnel pool is now empty.' For that to be true, every single human being in the city would have to be-"
"My Mommy says: 'don't talk to strangers.'"
The Commissioner gently waved his hand over his shoulder to silence the girl. "Can you be quiet a second." He repeated to Johnson, "For the search menu, I specified only that the person had to be a human, correct?"
The blast shook the entire room. The Commissioner sprang to his feet. From the corners of his eyes, he glanced in both directions. In the one, he could see the girl with the big nuetrocannon resting in her arms; in the other, Mr. Johnson lay on the floor amid a heap of clothes and toys.
The Commissioner considered. If he moved to his left, he could easily overpower the girl, and if he went to his right, to help Johnson, she could kill him. The thought of Johnson lying there, unmoving, however, proved too much. After a few seconds, he took two steps and knelt down. He couldn't see any blood nor even any sign of any injury. Over his shoulder, he could hear the girl softly breathing, and he was aware she could kill him at any time.
She sniffled, "I'm sorry I hurt the tall man," she said, "but my Mommy said..."
Suddenly the Commissioner felt the girl's around him and her warm tears spilling on his weather-beaten coat. It was so long since he'd a display of emotion that he almost cried in sympathy, but instead he spoke softly.
"It's okay child; he's not hurt."
He turned Johnson over on his back and spotted the big brown spot left by the blast. He knew then that indeed the girl had shot Johnson and the blast had, somehow, been neutralized or absorbed.
He looked at the access outlet as a thought came to him, "Access: Johnson." He pulled the wallet from the man's trenchcoat and found the identification card. "Bureau 456789765HJ6789P."
"Subject," a male access voice spoke, "Located."
The screen filled and, for the first time, the Commissioner knew his assistant: "Johnson model android. Function: Simulate human form for purposes of government infiltration." He read down the build sheet of programs and mechanisms. His accessed the data using his hand plate and found for "sexuality: functional, using sperm bank specimens, preference-male."
He suddenly realized Johnson's real job. Johnson was, in fact, an android spy for The Other Side. That thought made him chuckle at the irony. The Other Side had spent thirty years infiltrating the Bureau, and now no one would want the information. The child, still holding onto his shoulder, echoed his laugher.
"Here I am, maybe the last man on Earth, stuck with a mental defective, and a homosexual android."
The Commissioner knew now there was no more Bureau. His job, his function, his life, no longer existed.
"What do those lines mean," the girl said, pointing to the screen.
"You can't even read, child?" he said.
"The day of salvation has arrived,
The dead shall see the Lord,"
The Calling started again, triggered, he could only surmise, more by his own thoughts than by the usual time table. Maybe the senders upstairs wanted to clean up the mess a little more swiftly so they could get on with their work:
"The angels shall come to Earth,
And all the world shall be cleansed..."
He pried the child's arms away from him and crossed the floor to pick up the discarded cannon. He placed the end of it inside his mouth. Angels would indeed rule the Earth.
"Can you hear the calling of Heaven,
Saying, come, children come..."
His fingers tightened on the trigger. He felt almost a hunger for the taste of that warm shot from the cannon. Just a twitch more and he'd join all the others in Paradise:
"Mister Man," the child said, "when is my Mommy coming home? Do you know?"
He turned around and saw again the face of the deserted child looking up at him. The Commissioner's fingers reluctantly loosened, and he looked at the dirty, disheveled girl and the disabled mechanism of the android sprawled on the floor like a lump of clay. He sighed, and old ways of thinking started to return.
"Child, your mother sent me to take care of you. That's just what I'm going to do."
He looked at the disabled android, "As for you, Mr. Johnson, I thing I know enough about android repair machines to put you back together and getting you running, for a while, at least. I certainly can fiddle with your programming so you can walk on the other side of the street and appreciate a pretty girl if you see one."
The child smiled and picked up one of her stuffed animals and hold it to her covetously.
"You can take that toy with you;" He said gently, "And I'll take Mr. Johnson with me, and we'll go out into the country. I'll even give you both names. You, little girl, I'm gonna call 'Eve.'"
"Eve?" the girl shrugged her shoulders but smiled.
"Yes 'Eve,' and Mr. Johnson we'll call 'Adam.'"
He heard the last strains of the Calling:"That day has arrived When all shall be right, A time in the sunlight An end to the night..." He smiled and sang to the child as she stared at him: "Truckin' down to New Orleans...."
"What's that song?"
"It's something by a group of people I used to know," he said, rising to his feet. "They were called 'The Grateful Dead.'" *********************************
10. SURF'S UP
"Hey Dude, are you gonna like, catch some clouds with me tomorrow?"
Stephen's dyed blonde image appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, and bore a big whole in the drawing of the pistreionic cell Marty had painstakingly constructed using his access panel. As always, Steve seemed to be grinning, and Marty wondered if Steve actually grinned that much or simply used a filter on his channel.
"Come on, Steve, you know I have homework in molecular engineering that I have to do."
Steve laughed, as though it meant little to him. "You mean scratching together a few of those quarks and electrons for Old Man B35? You gotta go sail that stratosphere."
Marty sighed and pushed the button that would save the drawing, minus his friend's face. At times like this, he really wished that Steve hadn't taken that elective course in projected stupidity, or, at least, that his friend hadn't gotten an "A."
"But Steve," he said, "My father says that if I don't put in fifty hours this week, he'll cancel our access to the female peek channel." The thought still alarmed him all through his adolescent body.
"Listen, dude," Steve interrupted, "take a synthasleep tonight, and you work all night and just pick up the board and you go."
"I don't know," Marty said, he could see his father's round preacherly face and voice: "Work well my son. Take no drugs not prescribed. I have a grand future in mind for you." He knew very well that even though his father seldom talked to him, he constantly monitored his access time.
Then he thought of his sky surfboard. Ever since he'd bought the board, he'd wanted to use it, and yet, every single weekend, he put off the activity.
"You know Dude," Marty said, "I'm beginning to think you're just a little cloud shy. Why I'll bet Leticia is better than you are."
"Leticia," Marty gulped, "is going?"
"Yeah," Steve added, watching his friend's reaction. "I have to babysit The Kid, somehow."
"All right," Marty said.
The image faded and he carefully placed the last macromicrochip into place. A small sentence appeared on the screen:
"Congratulations, Mr. Beltshniff, you have successfully constructed a pocket franistaner. Now well begin to use this for some industrial applications."
Marty sighed at the hated teacher. He wished that he'd had someone easy like Program B37. Then he thought again of Steve's sister, sighed wistfully, and said:
"Yes, let's do some applications."
Steve deftly placed a plastic card inside the open lift, a small box floating before them. While he did this, Steve scanned around to make sure that no one could watch them.
"Wait," Letty said, "do you mean you don't have permission to-"
Steve turned on the girl, "Listen, Babe, I'm only cresting you along because you promised to stay clean."
The girl didn't say anything. Steve looked at her and saw that her facial features resembled Marty's vaguely, but her hair, long and dark, obviously came from another genetic source. Despite Steve's denials, Marty guessed her to be about the same age as her brother and Marty.
She said, petulantly. "Steve, if you call me 'Babe' one more time, I'm going to tell mom that you're using substandard language."
"Then," Steve shook his head, "Let's stop talking and get going before that storm blows away."
The box expanded until it reached a size twice as tall as Marty and five times as wide. After the machine's sight scan, a portal opened, and Steve stepped inside. Though they were about twenty Omniport employees working at their screens, they seemed not to notice the three teenagers clad in form-fitting pollute suits.
The elevator opened, to admit the three of them, closed, and then adjusted its external dimensions to fit their size.
"Transport," Steve announced, "roof."
For a second, out the viewscreen in front, Marty could see walls, shapes, passing in blinding flashes as the machine traveled the most direct route from the basement to the roof.
"Steve, how do you get them," Marty said, and suddenly he became aware of the girl's blue eyes, "to let you use the lift."
"Basic, Dude," Steve said, "my Old Man works here in legal. So I got myself registered as a part-time employee."
Suddenly, the screen stabilized, the box stopped, and the front panel slid open. The three emerged on the top of the building with their rectangular boards held in their hands.
After they left the left, the lift folded itself into a square the size of Marty's hand and rushed away to answer another call.
Marty started to prepare his board, but his eyes wandered to watch as Letty doing the same task. With four quick snaps, her rectangle unfolded into a long, rectangular shape as big as the girl with a fin at the end. The skyboard immediately started to float upwards until Letty placed her foot on it. Marty sighed at the sight of those curves.
Letty turned her head slightly as she caught him staring at her:
"What's the matter with you. Haven't you ever seen a girl before?"
Marty said, "Oh, um...Well yes," Then he considered for a moment. He'd done all his schooling through the computer. His father had never signed a contract. He restated. "No, I've seen screen images, but I've never, um, actually I've never seen an actual, physical girl."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Well, except for Steve," she started, "I've never actually-"
"Hey, Children," Steve said, "are we here to talk or carve some clouds?"
Marty looked downward and unfolded his own board. He lay on the floating object and spread his body limbs over it. He shifted his weight so that the rounded front end pointed upward. Slowly it bore him up behind his until he could see the thin layer of material that guarded the city.
As he stood, balancing above the roof, he looked off at the vista around them. He could see the other towers, their outsides covered with running commercials for their products, casting shadows on the ground far below. Somewhere, his unit rested far below, underground. As he looked off into the distance, away from the city center, he could see the last of the fifty or so towers of Victoria. The city pollute Shield, that stretched in a bowl from the dark clouds above to descend to the ground just outside the central towers, made the distant ramshackle buildings and unhealthy looking scrap forests beyond look fuzzy and vague.
He watched Steve hovering in front of him, and when Steve pointed upward, he followed. Slowly Marty shifted his weight backward, and his board started to float upward at angle. He could feel his stomach starting to turn and resisted the temptation to look down again.
Steve's board crawled forward and upward and crossed the 50 meters between the top of the building and the grey, translucent Shield. Suddenly, Steve reached the foggy, mist of the Shield and disappeared into it, leaving a hole of white through which a ray of dim sunlight shone. Marty followed, lying low on the board, towards the hole in the material.
Marty watched as the tip of his board slowly approached the grey barrier. He knew that breaking through the Shield was technically illegal, but the alternative, surfing from the ground in the dangerous areas outside the city center seemed a less desirable option. As the tip of his board disappeared from sight, he could see the particles of pollutant absorbents, and though he tried to fly directly through Steve's hole, a few of the cleansing abrasive fragments hit his face shield, and he wiped them away quickly before they could burn the material.
When his eyes focused, he could see Steve carefully standing up on his board, balancing on it; and the buoyant body continued to rise, borne on the slightest air current, until it reached the nearest cloud. Steve stood, his suit a little torn from Shield particles, waiting until Marty and Letty closed within a few feet.
"All right, Dudes," Steve said, kicking the tail of the board to start the converter, "Let's carve some cumulous!"
Marty, standing up, kicked the tail of his board and started to gain speed, feeling his way across the gray layers of fluffy moisture. He was starting to feel confident, as he followed the contours of the clouds, when he felt a rush of air hit him in the shoulder, almost knocking him off.
"Make way," he heard Letty's voice announce as he watched the girl leaving him behind. As he kicked board into motion again, he watched her lithe body in front of him, perfectly balanced, the rounded muscles in her legs moving like a dancer's.
All three surfers started to gain speed, the tiny motors in the boards taking the drops of water and translating them to energy, sailing across the field of white. When he looked downward, he saw not the outlines of Victoria, or even the Shield, but a vague forest of scrub trees, and beyond that, open fields, and even the gray outlines of what could be another city.
He sighed and as the speed increased, he swerved right and left, following the shapes of the clouds. Riding, layers above the gray, miles above his underground living quarters, he heard no sound but the silence and the blue. He could see why his father had forbidden him to buy a board because up here he could forget about everything but the now.
Then, seeing a sudden flight of clouds starting to rise from below them, he started. Ahead, Steve took the first quick moving black puff, and, swerving right and left, picked up speed. Marty could well imagine his friend laughing as those burst of energy moved him faster and faster. These clouds, though, Marty had seen somewhere before, and they frightened him. The formation exploded from the ground at ten times the normal rate of expansion and moved upward and out like an exploding sponge or a mush-
Then Marty remembered where he'd seen the clouds: Z36's history class.
"Steve! Letty!" he yelled as he twisted on his board, bearing off to the right, away from the formation, but Steve, either not heeding or not caring, continued straight forward, apparently intending to ride on top of the clouds peaks.
Letty, trying to turn too quickly, accidentally swung her sky board in a full circle, and Marty crashed into her. Their two bodies colliding, and they fell off their boards.
They tumbled helplessly as they scrambled for the bouncy regulators on their pollute suits. The angry billows continued to expand in all directions and toss both of them around and around in the air.
"Steve!" Marty called, "Steve!" He could only watch, though, as Steve, speed increasing by the moment, vanished into the morass of growing blackness with a triumphant cry of:
Marty and Letty, five feet or so apart, slowly floated downwards outside the city. Their pollute suits had taken a beating but seemed to have enough buoyancy left to bear them down.
"Marty," Letty said, "do you know what happened?"
Marty shook his head, "I can guess: a micronuke. They use them a lot in urban renewal projects."
"You don't think it was a war?"
"Naw," he said, "nobody fights wars these days. It's too expensive when you can just do a takeover."
Suddenly Letty's fall started to accelerate.
"My suit," she gasped.
Marty reached out his hands to grab her, and clutched her tightly. At his touch, her eyes opened in surprise, and she tried to break away. His arms, however, held her with all his strength, and his damaged suit managed to slow their fall to a rate they could conceivable survive.
"Marty!" she said, as the ground rushed up.
"I love you!" he said, just before they collided with a plane of grass.
Eventually both got up and moaned for several minutes. Letty asked, rubbing her bruised behind, "Why in the RAM did you do that?"
"I said:" Marty repeated defensively: "'I love you.'"
She shook her hair, covered with white dust. "You've been watching too many entertainment reels."
This was not the reaction he expected after having possibly saved her life. He pointed back towards the City.
"Will you walk back to the City with me?" he asked. He held out his arm.
She looked suspicious, "All right," she paused, but pushed his arm away "but no funny business."
"Look," Marty said, "I'm sorry I said I loved you. It's just the only girls I've ever seen are on a screen."
She said, "Well," and she stamped her foot, "what do you think I feel like?" She asked slowly, "Why do you want to go touch me anyway."
Marty shrugged and offered: "Honestly, I don't know. It's just you're physically attractive."
"So?" she said, starting to walk and still talking "So are you. That doesn't mean you have to go touching and getting people all booted up. You know in psyche 550 our teacher taught that there is.....I had C55, you know...."
"So really," Letty concluded her analysis, "you're only wanting something that you've been told to want and-" she paused point to the ground.
Marty, during the several hours it had taken to walk from the field to the towers, had already noticed the sprinkled of dull gray powder covering the buildings. None of the trains or lifts had been running, so it had taken a very long time to get to the city.
"What do you think happened?" Letty asked.
Marty shrugged. Atmospheric mechanics was not his strongest field. "Snow?"
"Wait," Letty said, "I know, the explosion in the strange city must've punctured a big hole in the Shield so that it temporarily collapsed. Then the ash fell down."
Marty nodded, and finding the nearest public access monitor, dropped his card inside and ordered: "Unit 5265 part C132."
The screen did not access, but his father's voice answered, "Yeah, what do you want?"
"Dad, this is Marty?"
"Heh?" the voice said, and then the panel added:
"Close panel," he announced. Something must be wrong, he thought. He'd tried the correct unit. The two of them found a lift and rode to Steve's unit. When they arrived, Letty said, "Marty, you don't have to come in."
Marty sighed, "I was with Steve just as much as you were. I ought to be here to tell his father what happened." Marty had not physically talked to many people, but, in this situation, he felt he ought to tell Steve's father what had happened.
"May I help you?" the man at the opened portal appeared to be an older, calmer version of Steve. Like Steve he had long blonde hair meticulously sprayed into a point above his head. He looked at the pair in front of him.
"Can I enter your unit for a few minutes," Marty began cautiously.
The man shrugged his shoulders. "Suit yourself." he answered. Marty entered and Letty followed into a two room sized area with a single chair sitting on the floor and three walls covered with some sort of entertainment show. A couple of sitting mats and an access control panel lay carelessly tossed on the floor.
"Mr. Hefnel," Marty began, "I'm afraid we have some bad news for you?"
"Oh, really," the man answered. "I've heard that some of the facilities were mangled in the explosion. I hope I still have a job with Omniport."
"No," Marty paused, "it's about Steve. You see, we were out there cloud surfing when the accident occurred."
"Really," the older man put in, looking at their soiled pollute suits, "that's very interesting. I'll bet you really had fun."
Marty looked at Letty. The man was making this incredibly difficult. Marty knew very well that Mr. Hefnel possessed three degrees, including one in communication. Why couldn't he just guess?
Marty sighed, "Steve, he, he," he could see those dark clouds again rising, full of angry dirt, "surfed right into those clouds and he," he could see Steve's omnipresent smile at the moment, "he rode the clouds right out of our vision." Marty could feel his eyes filling with tears. "He's probably dead."
"Not 'certainly dead' then." Hefnel concluded as though examining the system on a macrilink channel. "That could mean a costly search program. If you'd merely change your story a little to make him 'certainly dead,' that would save somebody some units."
Marty looked at him through his tight eyes. Mr. Hefnel's face showed no more emotion than his words. "But I'm sorry," Marty said.
"No reason to be," Mr. Hefnel stated promptly, "I couldn't expect you to understand company write-off procedures immediately. That's what lawyers are for. Now, I'll contact you later about my fee. Right now, I have some work to do."
When he turned, Letty chimed in angrily, "Father, your son is dead!"
Mr. Hefnel turned slowly, his eyes opened wide in surprise, "Now that's very interesting. You see, I don't have any children."
Marty rose to his feet, overcoming his shock enough to grab Letty's arm and pull her after him. When the portal opened and closed, leaving them together in the hallway, he wanted to do nothing more than hold unto her, hold onto someone.
Instead Letty almost crushed him with her sudden hug. "I don't understand." As he looked over her shoulder, Marty could still see Steve's form, crashing along atop a layer of black and white clouds. The city, covered with a gray ash, looked strangely old.
Just as he said that, he heard a familiar voice behind him:
"Hey Marty, you don't have to watch her quite that closely."
Slowly Letty released her arms, and they both turned around. Marty said. "What the...?"
"You guys shouldda trailed my sail. That was like waxing the board! We've got to try like more of these Restricted Areas."
Marty unbelievingly stared at a figure wearing a layer of radioactive trash covering the ragged remnants of a pollute suit. Burned brown hair stuck out from the sides of a very soiled head, but the face was triumphantly grinning.
"Steve!" Letty cried and rushed over to hug her brother. Marty just stood staring.
"What the channel happened?" Marty said.
"What do you think happened, Dude?" Steve said smiling at his friend. "We wiped up big time. Now if you guys are done analyzing this hole, let's get out of here." He paused and sighed. "We gotta do this next weekend."
As Steve herded the confused pair down the hallway, he exclaimed: "Man you shoulda seen that atomic surf! Positively-nebulous!"
11. DEATH AND TAXES
Juan finished his last cup of Vibratol and carelessly placed the cup on table. He looked around the four walls of his one-room housing unit. He lazily lifted his legs in the air, and desk rose to meet them. He addressed the far wall.
He looked at the telescreen and yawned at the signs of fighting in the Central America war and the shouting faces of the politicians in Janwanaland. The State Debt had reached a half trillion units, and there was another tax levy predicted to prevent a default.
"Juan," he heard an alarmed voice sound from one of the wall speakers, "will you clear the channel so you can speak to me?"
He recognized his brother's voice immediately. He said:
"All right. Access: incoming message."
His brother Carlos's wide face filled the screen and his hair lay in the usual disarrayed curls. "Juan," he said, "they're taxing me again. I paid just two years ago."
Juan sighed, "So? What do you want me to do about it. You own a business. I'm a director, not a politician, a businessman same as you."
Carlos cringed, "With the friends you got? Come on," Carlos pleaded, "can't you do anything?"
Juan shook his head, "Carlos, you know how it works the same as I do. When it is your turn, you have to pay. It's the only way the government can balance the Budget and maintain the high level of services. You don't want an inflation war such as happened in Irkuska or a return to anarchy such as in..."
"Cut the Neoplatonist *&&^," his brother cut in, "If I'm gone now, my business will collapse, and then what about my family?" He concluded his face starting to scowl: "This is too much. I will not do it!"
Juan rose to his feet, "My brother, you have to learn to be more rational. We all have to pay our taxes; that's the way it works. Now when is payment due?"
Carlos shook his head, "Today!"
"I'll be over there with the Automicar in fifteen minutes, as long as there's no traffic, and I'll drive you down."
"You can do what you want, but I tell you I'm not paying. Next time I vote for the Arsonist Party."
"Fifteen minutes," Juan reminded him, "I'll take you down. Access: screen closed."
The picture disappeared.
Juan put his feet up on the dashboard as the guidance system of the car automatically looped the car around the back roads of the city. He glanced out the window and watched the crowds shopping and leaving work.
Every fifth or so person he spotted wore a black, one-piece coverall with a hood and shield covering the head and features. Every step the robed figures took seemed unnaturally purposeful. Some of them bore small sidearms, others paintbrushes. He spotted one group of them methodically painting over a wall that screamed in five colors:
"Kill me before you tax me!"
He shook his head at the disloyalty of those who'd written that slogan. They didn't remember when the Debt rose above the four trillion mark, paper money became worthless, and rioting occurred in the streets of even backwoods cities like his. Now, you just paid your taxes, the Neoplatonists balanced the Budget, and all was well.
He took one last glance at the crowds, and the faceless, black-robed figures, before announcing:
The windows shaded until he could see nothing. He turned off the dashboard and vowed he'd get some sleep in the hour or so it would take to cover the five miles to his brother's store.
The car stopped in front of a small shop, no wider than ten feet across, packaged between a row of similarly thin buildings, that ran a flashing sign saying: "Carlos' Mechtronics: All Credit and Deficit Cards Accepted. Cash By Special Arrangement."
Carlos stood in front of the shop, his five-foot tall figure wrapped in an old windbreaker to guard against the late June cold. He stepped forward and the door of the long, black Ford opened to admit him.
"Juan," Carlos said, sitting down and crossing him arms, "I don't want to do this." The door closed behind him, locked, and the machine started to move again.
Juan pointed to the dashboard, "Come on. Why don't you watch a music bite or two, or play a game? You can even go in the back and sleep."
"Where'd you get the money for the car," Carlos asked.
Juan smiled, proudly, "The Directors get cars."
"But you only go to the office once a month. You can do everything by screened telemeeting."
Juan didn't answer, "Proceed: destination. Blackout." The windows blacked out around them, so they could see nothing except car, "How is Guyana taking this?"
Carlos said, "Not well. She thinks I should refuse."
As he'd mentioned Guyana, Juan remembered his own wife Jenny. He'd not seen her for months. He wondered where she was now, and, even more, when or if she'd return.
A cold shiver ran up and down his spine as he thought of the expressionless figures in the black robes. She might be paying taxes, but it was possible she'd left. He'd tried "Access: personnel search" but gotten no response. A year or so would be long enough for her to return or to show that she'd never return, but, glancing at his watch, it occurred to him, he'd not even remembered to note the day she'd disappeared.
Suddenly the car ground to a halt, throwing both men forward in their seats. The computer's mesosoprano announced:
"Sorry for the inconvenience. Designated route blocked. Searching: altern-"
"Override," Juan commanded. "Clear windows."
The black cleared, and the two men looked down the street. Ahead they spotted a ragged mob of men and women wearing cast-off or stolen clothing. Layers of dirt, from having not used the City's water supply in months, covered their faces. They rushed at the car like lean animals that have spotted their prey. Juan, who knew they couldn't see him, pointed at them for his brother's benefit:
"Is that who you want to be? A Revolter? What kind of life can you lead scuffling for food." He pointed at their posters, that screamed "You can tax my dead body!" or "No taxation without representation!"
Juan continued, "Do those slogans mean something to you, to us?"
By now the crowd started beating on the windows.
"You **&&^! Give us some food!"
Carlos shivered, "Can't they break into the car?"
Juan ignored his brother's remark. "Paying taxes is a symbol of citizenship."
"Come on out, you cowards!"
Carlos didn't appear to be listening to his lecture. "They're hitting those windows pretty hard."
The computer spoke: "Excuse the emergency interruption, but this vessel is near damage point to hull."
"Access: New system: Nemo and Chariot."
"Running. Added to new configuration."
Pleading and demanding, the rioters grew wilder. Suddenly there was a brief flash of light as an electric field struck out, throwing everyone touching the car a good ten feet away. Juan nodded in satisfaction.
"Access: visualization of the Chariot."
On the dashboard, a view from the street show a cartoon version of the Ford Automicar with knife blades suddenly jutting from its hubcaps. Cartoon rioters, drawn in yellow and green retreated hastily away, their cries expressed as balloons: "Food. Help!"
The car started to move forward, directly on its original path, and the rioters scattered in all directions.
Carlos sighed, "God, the power we have."
Juan patted the dashboard, touched a button, and cartoon car was replaced by his favorite entertainment reel: Nymphs and Satyrs. He yawned, "But power doesn't come for free."
The single, long tax payment line at the STPC, Social Tax Payment Center, ended with a counter manned by four auditors. Juan watched as, one by one, the citizens stood before that counter, were scanned, and then filed in through one of two permanently open portals to the right and left of the counter. They always entered the right one that said "payment."
Juan studied the reactions of the various people standing in front of him and his brother. Some cried, some laughed, and some showed no emotion whatsoever, as though already in a payment mode.
He looked down at his watch panel, "Access:-"
Carlos spoke to him, "Please Juan, just talk to me. Can you take care of my business?"
"You know small businesses aren't my thing." Then, however, he nodded his head, "But I'll do what I can."
Just at that moment, the left door that said "no entry" opened, and a group of figures emerged. Ten minutes ago they'd looked like everyone else, ready to go shopping, to have fun, to make a place in the world. Now they wore black robes and masks over their faces and heavy boots, and they would use every moment of their time serving the public factories, the social services, their state until they'd paid every last cent owed for taxes. The fruits of their labor, minus the minuscule costs necessary to maintain them in the payment mode, would supply the credits the Neoplatonists used to balance the Budget.
Carlos pointed to a tiny, robed figure, undoubtedly a child, wearing a blaster that could rip a hole even in an Automicar. He knew the Tax Service often used children for the Security Missions because children didn't have the skills to do much else but blast, and their temperament and youthful vitality made them naturals as twelve-hour-a-day Securitymen or Riot Police.
"You see," Carlos said, pointing to the faceless child, "that's why I want to get rid of the Neoplatonists."
Juan swallowed. He remembered his first payment, when he was only ten, the first time he received the shots. Two years later, he'd walked out of STPC center and returned to his interrupted education and life.
Even now, he couldn't help but conjecture at what he'd done in his tax payment periods when, all his conscious thoughts blackened out, he'd, like these men in robes, mechanically served the Tax Service. Had he been out blasting malcontents, guarding penal colonies, picking up garbage, or cleaning up graffiti? He knew he'd never know: The purpose of the shots, after all, was to clear the mind and the conscience. In a way, he felt both relieved and cheated.
"Next," the voice said. He stepped forward beside his brother and faced an expressionless mask behind a control desk. He could see no eyes, no sign of humanity. He knew the masks were designed to give the public servant anonymity, but he couldn't repress a vague feeling of fear. For all he knew, this could be his wife collecting the taxes.
"Ah," he started, a shiver running down his spine, "McCorma." He couldn't say his brother's name, but he knew that Carlos stood even with him. He could see his sibling now standing, straight and tall, courage returned, ready to do what he had to do. Juan felt proud.
"I'm here," his brother announced, boldly, "to pay my taxes."
"Scan," the black figure said, and a light quickly passed over both men. "Debts added. Step forward."
Juan reached out and hugged his brother and prayed, for the first time in years. Let nothing bad happen, he asked. He hoped Carlos' business was worse off than he'd anticipated so the taxes would be low or that the Neoplatonists' latest promises of "equity" meant that everyone served equal time. "I love you, Carlos," he whispered.
Carlos walked forward through the right portal and disappeared. In a few minutes, he'd emerge, hidden to the world, his arm full of a numbing narcotic, and his brain shut off from all personality. He'd do his duty.
Juan started to turn around when he heard the voice of the black figure behind him, speaking again with that inhuman calm. "Juan McCorma."
He turned around, "That is correct." He snapped and looked at the plate of dark glass.
"Juan McCorma-" the voice continued.
Getting angry was useless, but he snarled anyway. "What more do you want? You have my brother!"
"Juan McCorma," the icy voice repeated, "you have not responded to the message left at your unit."
"What 'message'!" he sneered.
The figure said evenly "Assessment: It is time to pay your taxes."