THE PLASTIC TOMORROW-CONTINUED


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Another appropriately baroque song

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12. WHAT IS MAGIC

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Mary hurried through the door without even bothering to wait for the mechanism to identify her, and, as a result, hit her shoulder on the hardpaper frame. She ignored the pain, but rushed into the living room of their unit and spotted her daughter standing up and doing little circles to the music playing on all four walls.

"Mommy," Tina said, "a big box came for you."

"I know," Mary said, "you want to go look with me and see what was inside? You've got to sanitize your hands first."

Tina stopped moving and thought for a second, her three-year-olds brain visibly considering. "Okay."

Mary walked into her small bedroom, the only other room in their West Sequoia unit. Well, she thought, if this find pays off, in publications and royalties, they'd soon be able to move to one of the towers or even buy a... No, she shook her head, that would be impossible.

The big, beige crate lay, taking up half the living space. She felt a childish urge to tear open the container immediately, but she told herself to take care of her responsibilities first.

"North wall," she said, "Access: messages."

The wall lit with the face of her assistant first, a slim, white-haired man who always wore a trenchcoat, like he expected to pull out a spade and start digging tombs any day. Boro stood in the central quarters of the Archeology Museum.

"Mary," Boro said solemnly, "We had two actual physical guests today. One of them even shook my hand," He reddened slightly in embarrassment. "Also 550,453 televisitors. You have to fix the tape on the Mycenean collection; one of analyzers no longer considers the bull as a sexual icon." He frowned awkwardly and tried to gather his courage. "I know I'm speaking into a recording but..."

"Cut," Mary announced, "next message."

Saber Truecut's handsome face filled the screen. His brown hair perfectly offset his beige and brown robe. "Mary," he said "I will assume we're still."

"Mommy," Tina announced, making a little circuit around the box, "when are we going to open the package?"

"Cut," Mary announced, and added, "next message."

"Message function," the firmly male voice announced, "complete."

She smiled, "Tina, you may open the package."

The little girl ran around the box, gleefully tearing off the package paper and tossing it into the recyclsposer unit.

Mother and daughter both stared at the contents of the box, a dull silver container that shined just slightly. A single black emblem had been embossed on the top. Her breath came in a slight sob as she stared at what had to be the last significant archeological discovery ever to be made.

"Where did it come from?" Tina said.

"Well sweetheart," her mother explained, "You know how we have an archanalyzer that sifts through the sand at sites, so we don't have to actually dig them any more."

"I think so," Tina offered. Tina had not gotten very far in her teleschooling yet.

"Well, a year ago, I set up one of the machines we were not using to search the entire Earth to find anything of archeologically significant composition, metal, altered stone, bones. I wanted to find any site we'd not dug, and that machine searched half the world until it found something: this."

"You mean," said Tina, "this was in another country, like The Central American Dictatorship or Utopia?"

Mary smiled. Tina had only heard of two countries, so she always guessed their names. "No, Sweetheart, You know how the lands of earth are floating on molten rock,"

"Like where they're building the new trainway?"

"Deeper still. Well, the computer found this floating in molten rock, just like a ship floats on the sea."

They both stared a moment, and Mary considered again the number of credits she'd spent getting the object here. She'd run the archanalyzer out of her own budget, paid a mining company to use the magnitizer to bring the object here, and run up an enormous postage bill requiring months to pay. All that, she sighed, and it looked like this, like some kind of odd coffin. What civilization could've made this, and why put it there?

"Mommy," Tina said, rising, and moving forward to touch a little black emblem with a double five-pointed star embedded. "What's this black thing here for."

Mary reached out, and, in a single, frightened movement, scooped up her daughter. She slapped her hand,

"Didn't I tell you to never touch things that aren't yours?"

Tina sniffled. "I'm sorry Mommy. But it's so pretty."

*******************************************************

Mary felt the hand running over her chest and counted the seconds of the rhythm. "Oh Saber," she sighed, "I wish I could afford that chest pump."

"You're beautiful to me," Saber stated brightly, "but this bed is a little too hard for me."

They twisted and turned, a soft music from Wankovsky playing in the background. As Mary looked in his eyes, she couldn't help but wonder what this young, forty-year-old could see in a woman of her age. Maybe, she thought, ten years didn't make so much difference any more. Her mother, at ninety, after all, had an eighty-year-old boyfriend.

Then she just felt a sighing, comfortable feeling and rolled over.

"What the buddjesus?" Saber declared, and Mary felt the entire surface under her rising. She said nothing when he added, "What kind of trick bed is this?"

Mary jumped off the rising surface. Saber shook his blonde hair and did the same. The bed rose until, finally, their blanket off the top to reveal the opened lid of the metal box Mary'd found with the archanalyzer. Only now, somehow, the top had risen off the box, to float motionlessly above the rest of the container.

For a second it floated in the air, the black emblem shining, and then it fell on the floor on the other side of the container.

Saber looked at Mary, perhaps wondering if she belonged to one of those more bizarre bed cults, but Mary couldn't help but be curious. She had no idea how long this box lay in the magma, but its mechanism still worked, and bending over the opened container, she looked downward.

Saber stood at her side, a safe distance behind. "Is this some kind of a joke, Mary, or is this a coffin?"

Mary looked over, and, somehow, didn't expect to see a bag of bones or mummified corpse, but what she did see genuinely surprised her. The box contained a body, vaguely humanoid, with two arms and legs, but a face, distinctly simian. It wore a long, dark robe that covered its muscled shoulders and a cape with stars. While it's face resembled a gorilla more than anything else, snow white skin and fur covered its face and body.

"Mommy," Tina said, "what is it?"

At the sound of Tina's voice, the eyes of the creature, tiny blue opals, opened. It took a sudden, deep breath, and looking at Tina, emitted a barking grunt, like "ka, ka."

"Mary," Saber started, "this is too kinky for me." Mary turned and watched him snatch a single robe and start running for the door. He'd barely placed it around him as he snarled, "Access: open," and ran down into the hallway, his lower body still very much uncovered.

Mary couldn't help but laugh. Though she stood in possible mortal peril, she couldn't resist the overpowering silliness of the situation.

When she looked back at the creature, in its coffin, she watched its feature make the same coughing gesture and the same "ka, ka, ka."

"Mommy," Tina said, looking at the thing in her mother's room, "What is it?"

"It's a toy, sweetheart," her mother lied, "A big toy. Now I'm going to lock it in here, and I don't want you to touch it." As she said this, she knew all things she ought to do: call Security, buy a blaster, seal the apartment. When she looked down at the creature, its blue eyes staring, she knew she couldn't. "I'm going to have the recorder on in here, and if you come in, I'm going to spank you."

Tina still stared down into the box. She put out her hand towards the massive thing, but, remembering, withdrew it. "I'll be good. It's such a funny toy."

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Mary came to her apartment door, feeling tired and frustrated. Automatically, she'd cleared all records of the package living in her unit. All her sense of law and order told her she shouldn't do this, but instinct told her otherwise. Now it'd take a doublerase closure investigation to trace her actions, and she doubted the Government would afford that kind of activity to investigate a lowly museum technician supervisor.

At the same time, she knew she could no longer ever publish her work. The thing she had looked like a refugee from a zoological chop shop, something synthesized by the gene cutters, and no one would ever believe it had a genuinely archaic identity or origin. As for the box, metal technology progressed faster every day. In fact, by the time she accessed her door, she'd all but convinced herself that the creature constituted a fake or some anthropological joke.

The door opened, and she screamed in horror. The thing she'd locked in her bedroom sat center of the main room, its hulking shoulders bent over, staring at a screen on the far wall. Before it, she could see old newsreels of the Central American Dictatorship conducting one of its terror campaigns against the Mayan Separatists.

Tina, playing with a ball, sat at the creature's side.

"Tina," Mary screamed and ran and scooped the child up in her arms. The creature's head turned slowly, and Mary thought she cold detect a drop of moisture on the side of its face. In its hand it held out a black stick. Mary thought it meant to hit her. Instead the stick flashed once, Mary felt a sudden sensation, and she looked down to find a red rose resting in her hand.

She felt the flower. One minute it had not been not there; now it was. It'd appeared in her hand so carefully placed that her fingers fit between the thorns. Ten or so technical terms passed through her mind like "telekinesis," "atomic restructuring," but as she looked at the red flower, the terms faded away.

"Mommy," Tina pleaded, "I didn't open the door. I didn't. I just turned on the screen, and it was-there."

"What do you mean?" Mary frowned.

"It just, just," she visibly searched her three-year-old's vocabulary for the right word: "appeared."

"Did it touch you?" Mary said slowly.

"No Mommy," Tina said, "it just sat down and started watching. When I started doing my dances, it tried to dance too. It danced," the little girl suddenly giggled, "really funny."

The laugh proved so infectious that Mary laughed too, and again she heard that dry "ka, ka, ka" sound coming from the creature. It turned its head to look into Mary's eyes, and then it glanced at the screen at a beautiful Mayan woman wearing a long, white dress with lace and bonnet. The simian flashed its wand at the screen, and Mary suddenly felt the dress on her body, touching her, delicately holding her, like a gentle hand.

"I don't know what you are," Mary said, "but you're no anthropological joke." She suddenly laughed, and the creature joined in her laughter.

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"Mary," Saber said, "I don't want to stay in this apartment tonight. After that coffin thing two weeks ago..."

Mary smiled and pointed to her white dress, "Do you like my new dress?"

He pointedly forced himself to smile, "It's, it's," he stumbled, "lacy."

Slowly she unbuttoned the top button. "Do you know, Saber, how many credits I make a month."

Saber worked as a C3 repairman, and she'd already researched his income. He smiled reassuringly, "I don't care how many credits you make," he said reassuringly, "I still love you."

She loosened the stays around her skirt, "I have fifteen thousand units in a trust for Tina, and I'm presently, because of a little project I'm working on, in debt to the bankcreditors to the tune of about," she paused and smiled, "one hundred fifty thousand units."

His mouth opened, "One hundred and fifty thousand units!"

She kissed him, and added "Give or take a unit."

He hit her across the face as he pushed her away: "One hundred and fifty thousand units! That could take you ten years to pay. Boddhisiva!" He turned around.

Mary stood, half dressed, rubbing the wound on her face. She restrained a cry and wondered why she'd told him. Somehow, though, watching that thing sitting on her rug, for two weeks, all day laughing, had brought this on. Now the lines in Saber's face told her how much she'd deceived herself.

Just as Saber reached the door, he turned around, his face getting redder and the strong male voice from the wall announced:

"Incoming message."

Mary's tongue stuck in her mouth, and she couldn't say a word, so she watched Boro appear again.

"Mary, I don't know how to say this, but."

"Access," she sobbed, "de-"

"You old maid nukeant," Saber roared. "You know, I don't know how anyone would ever be attracted to you. You're kinky and a b-" He paused in midsentence when he felt the hand on his shoulder and turned slowly. The simian creature stood directly in his path, shoulders bulging, muscular arms at its sides, blue eyes staring intently, and emitting a slight growl. It now wore a massive purple robe over its blue garments, and it still held the wand.

Saber raised his arms, half in fright and half in anger at the blocking creature. Instead of touching him, the simian pointed its wand towards the screen and suddenly Boro appeared in the room. Then it touched the wand to itself and disappeared.

"What the-" Boro said. Then he sighted Mary, Saber's handprint visible on her face. "What happened Mary?"

"What was that!" Saber screamed. "What was that!"

Mary said nothing, but Boro pointed to the red marks on her cheek and snarled at Saber. "You did that!" He stalked across the floor.

Though Saber outweighed and outmuscled Boro by fifty pounds, the look on the repairman's face showed he'd had enough, and he ran screaming from the room.

Somewhere, Mary thought she could hear a sound like "ka! ka! ka!"

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Later that night Mary thought she heard a sound, and she knew somehow, without looking, it had to be the creature.

"Lights," she said.

The lights turned on, but the creature pointed the wand at the lights, and they dimmed so she could see only the outlines of his massive form.

"Where were you these hours? What are you?" she said to herself as much as he. "You don't eat any food I've ever seen. You can do things that no human can do, and, in some strange way, I pity you."

The creature lifted its hands and held out a tiny jewel towards Mary. It held the shape of a ruby but sparkled like it was alive. She took the jewel in her hand and set it on her pillow.

Then it put its furry arm out and, with one arm, lifted Mary as easily as she would Tina. It pointed with its other hand, holding the wand. The purple cape fell to the ground, sparkled, and disappeared.

Still carrying Mary it walked straight to the window wall. It touched its wand, and the window opened, and then strangely, the opening grew until assumed the size of a door portal. Mary looked out at the night sky three floor above the ground and then, even before the big simian moved, she knew what it intended to do.

"Oh my-" Mary started to scream, but the creature's laugher greeted her cry. Its leg hurtled them out of the window into the night.

For a split second, their two bodies startled to fall downward, and the wind rushed past. Then Mary saw, shadowed against the moonlight, two enormous expanses of flesh jut out from under the creature's blue garment and begin to move, two white wings. The enormous shoulder muscles of the being pulled and heaved like a rower's, and the ivory wings suddenly pulled them out of their fall and upward.

The simian face, bright in the night sky, smiled in delight as it carried her above the city. A quarter mile below, Mary could see the lights of the towers, and when she shivered with a sudden July chill, found a golden robe wrapped itself around her. She took a deep breath as saw the clouds appear before her and again heard that powerful laugh as they soared, above the black clouds, higher and higher.

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Tina stared at the bauble in her hand and played with it. She pointed to the table and it started to rise in the air. She giggled, and a golden necklace appeared around her little neck.

"Tina!" her mother said, standing in the doorway "Give me that. It's not a toy."

Tina started and Mary became aware that her daughter had somehow acquired some of the creature's tricks. Where was it now, she wondered. She took the jewel that the being had given her and, suddenly, wanted it there.

When the creature suddenly appeared, its face seemed surprised, the first time it'd ever shown that emotion. Then it looked at the tiny jewel, pointed, and laughed. Mary wondered if, somehow, she'd called him back.

"It's time for you to go to bed," Mary said, and packed Tina off into the other room.

"Doorway: entry requested."

The being stopped in its tracks and razed its wand as if to disappear.

"No wait!" Mary pleaded. "Wait. It's just Boro."

The creature raised its wand and Mary, still holding the jewel, wanted, with all her might, for Boro to enter the room. At that moment, she needed, more than ever, to share her marvelous secret, divide the burden, and only Boro could she trust. She held the jewel tightly and wished to see Boro.

The door opened, and Boro took one step inside and gasped at the sight of the white simian, wearing its golden garb and purple cape and its wand raised in the air."

A flash came from the wand, and Boro suddenly froze, his look of fright embedded on his features.

"You," Mary said, in anger, "you've frozen him." She turned, surprised at her own vehemence, "What did he ever do to you?"

A voice then came from deep inside that chest, not a laugh but a throaty concentration that formed into words. "I haven't frozen him," I've-"

At the sound of words she froze.

"It's hard for me to speak." He grunted. "My kind communicated by gestures and spells. I made a surprise visits to one of your genorepair clinics," he appeared about to laugh, "but that's another story. We must talk this once."

Slowly she said, "What happened to Boro?"

He grunted, "It's not him, it's us. I've put you and me on another time-space continuum for a few moments."

"Another what?" she gasped.

"These next few minutes will only take a second of his time," his voice started to sound notable more clear.

"What or who are you?" she asked.

"I am called Kckgrrr. Millions of years ago, when your ancestors stayed in the trees, mine took to the ground. Your anthropology reels call us 'gigantopithacuses.' We called outselves Grargians. You don't have evidence we had a high civilization because we left no artifacts or buildings. Most of our high achievements were in what you call 'magic.'"

Mary sighed, "I've seen you do many things that are not, yet, possible with our science. I'm not sure I would call them 'magic.' How do you...?"

"I will try to explain. Imagine that you have a telescreen that only gets one channel. You spend all your energy tuning in that one channel, perfecting it, make its resolution dynamic, making it seem alive. Well, your civilization has nearly perfected one channel, science. You sometimes detect other channels, in your dreams, religion, and visions, but you've left them so fuzzy you deny they exist.

"My kind," and his eyes appeared to look far away: "We explored several channels and knew of many more, but explored none of them with your depth. When I make an object appear, I am merely reaching out and tuning in another channel."

"But what is your receiver," she said, "your wand?"

Now the creature did laugh, a human chuckle. "No. I use that for your benefit. It helps you to believe. My being, call it 'soul' or 'mind,' is my 'receiver-' as is that of every living creature."

Mary asked, "What happened to your people?"

"When you explore one channel deeply, the danger is people will get bored. When you explore many channels, the danger is your people will realize the fragility of that thing you call 'reality.'"

"They destroyed themselves?"

Kckgrrr considered. "A better way of saying it would be that they 'faded out.' As for me, only my sense of humor enabled me to survive."

"You mean," Mary said, slowly, "you sealed yourself in that coffin as some kind of a joke? What if no one ever opened it?" Then she looked into his eyes and saw the sparkle of wit, and she heard herself laughing grimly.

"Now," he said slowly, "I want you to reach out with the hand holding the jewel."

Her hand went out, she could feel his eyes focused intently on her face, and passed through his- without touching. Her eyes told her she was holding his massive white palm, but she felt nothing as though she'd passed through a vacuum. She shivered, and, looking, saw his eyes had lost some of their lightness.

"You're afraid," she said, knowing that he'd opened his thoughts and feelings, as well as his emptiness, to her, "You're afraid to be alone. You need someone to share your 'jokes' with you. Someone to tell you," her voice fell, "that you exist." Her voice fell into a whisper: "You want it to be me."

"Yes," he nodded, and his hand became flesh again, and suddenly she felt the warm fur. "I could be as handsome as you want, if it's really physical love you want. I could sail you around the solar system without a ship. I could be a man, a woman, or a child."

"You're too hard on yourself," she said, drawing back, her throat tight, releasing his hand. "You don't just laugh, you love. I hope your kind all did."

He drew up to full human height, pulled back his cape, his small eyes blazing, and said strongly: "I can flit into one life, change it, and flit into another. I can build a tower with a snap of a finger."

He spreads his wings out wide until they filled the room and his voice rose to a shout. "Some day, I'll be able to fly to the stars!" He looked at her, and added softly, "but not without somebody..not without you."

Tears filled Mary's eyes. She wanted so much to fly again, to see flowers appear at a touch, to know tomorrow today. Then she thought of Tina playing in the other room with the jewel, using 'magic' right and left, satisfying every childish whim without a thought. She could see herself, at first, like Tina, playing happily with her new "toys." But how long would it be before she wanted nothing more than a world where each action was followed by a reaction, no more surprises, a world she could touch and know it would exist?

She sighed. What would happen to Tina? What would happen to Boro? She held out the jewel, and laid it softly in his hand, and his eyes showed he understood.

"You can fly-anywhere?" she suggested, but his wings folded slowly under his robe, and she well knew his chances in this world of science were slight at best.

His shoulders started to hunch as he shambled into her small sleeping chamber. His voice faded into a series of grunts, "Wry, ry," that sounded like the sounds of a wounded animal.

Behind her she could hear Boro's voice resuming its astonishment, and she guessed his spells were fading.

"Wait," Mary suddenly cried, "Mars is going through a cycle. It's supposed to be habitable in about two million years. We can send you out in a probe ship...." Then the thought of the expense halted her in mid-sentence.

Kckgrrr walked towards the windowwall and weakly raised his wand arm. The wall flickered twice and then finally opened its portal to the night, and a cold wind rushed in. He stood hunched over as though gathering his body for a final leap.

Mary fell down to and grabbed the coffin for support. She knew his wings would not bear him this time, "Please!" she pleaded, "Wait!"

Just at that second, Tina ran into the room and said to her mother: "Mommy, somebody's here to see you." Tina pointed to the stooped creature, perched on the ledge looking downward. "Is it time for the funny toy to go back in its box?"

"I have it!" Mary cried and threw back the blankets, exposing the metal box. She yelled.

"Kckgrrr, Human civilization isn't supposed to last more than a couple of hundred years more. Then, after that, well, my money's on the roaches or rats. We can seal you right up and put you back in!"

Kckgrrr turned slowly and his eyes met hers. He coughed once, twice, and then the coughs became a series of howling guffaws filling the entire room. He stumbled across the room and placed himself back in the coffin. Mary and Tina closed the lid, sealing him, all three convulsed in laughter until they could no longer hear his "ka, ka, ka," and the tears rolled down their cheeks.



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13. MOONSHINES

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Billy looked out the view screen from his small table. If he looked at just the right angle, oblique to the line of craters, he could see the blue and white ball of the Earth.

He sighed as he finished his paper container of water. He looked down at the reclyapaper in his hand and thought of how they'd use the material over and over again. Worse, he thought, they'd use the water, passed through his body, over and over again. He sniffed the oxygen and thought of how they'd use that again. It was as though, out here, he could make no impact on anything any more.

His eyes roved to the right and did not stop at the five tables jammed with laughing men all clad in similar gray coveralls. In his entire life he'd never been so close to this many people, and the feeling made him uncomfortable. When the men laughed, it sounded like a tidal wave blowing around the room.

"Hey, Farmerboy," a voice said, using his new nickname. "Are you taking up all those seats?"

Billy smiled at the tall, dark-skinned, vigorous old man who pointed to one of four empty chairs seated at Billy's table. He shrugged and said, "Your access, uh-"

"Shaka Speare," the big man said as he took the seat, "that's what they call me around here." Billy had seen the man a few times since his arrival but paid little attention to him. He didn't feel like paying much attention now.

The man pointed out the window, "You looking out the window for the rockets?"

Billy said "yes" though it was a lie. He still couldn't figure out why all the men here didn't sit near the viewscreens where they could at least see the Earth.

"Well, you might have to wait a long time. From what I hear, they're only sending like four or five rockets a week."

Billy grimaced, "It figures. There's not much out here anyway. It's true there's some more raw materials just like they have on Earth, but with synthe tech today-"

Shaka Speare's eyes widened, "With what?"

Billy's head turned, "You haven't heard of synthe tech?"

The older man just looked.

Billy shook his head. "You must've been out here a long-" He cut himself off and told himself: it's really none of my business.

"That's not what they built the base for anyway."

Billy was not interested in that either, but he said, "What did they build it for?"

The older man said, "Well two things. They needed an advance base for the Martian mission and," he paused, "this may sound silly, they thought they could make alien con-" He paused in midsentence. Then he said, "What about you? Is it true that you were really a farmer?"

Billy said, "Well, actually I was an agricultural technician."

Shaka Speare sighed. "It must've been nice to be out in the fields, have the smell of fresh air."

It took Billy a minute to understand the other man was trying to talk about farming. He shook his head. "No. It's not like that now. Farmbots do all the physical labor and computers the figures. My job was basically to review the operations on screen." He added, "You see as much of the soywheat fields up here on the Moon as I did."

"And then what did you do wrong?"

"Well, I started losing units, get squeezed out by a hostile corporation, so I started stealing from the farm budget."

"So," the man concluded, "they sent you out here for theft?"

"Not hardly," Billy said, "that's standard management practice."

"Then what did you do?"

Billy looked closely at the man. Recent months had taught him not to trust anyone, even his screen memories bases. Then his eyes roved around the antiseptically white walls of the Lunar base, and he decided it didn't matter.

"Me," Billy said, "I," he lowered his voice and leaned forward, "went, went" his tongue faltered at the "b" word, but finally spit it out "Bankrupt."

The older man's eyes widened. "Yeah? So? What's so serious about that?"

Billy recoiled in shock. His mind, for a second, relived the embarrassment of standing in De Moans courtroom 335B, his head bowed before the computer judge, and hearing the dreaded sentence of exile. The computer's voice proclaimed, "You have flaunted the economic laws that govern our..." Billy shivered and said, "You must've been out here a long time. What did you do?"

Shaka Speare said, "There was a man, a scientist, criminologist, and poet." He added softly, "I killed him."

Again Billy couldn't understand. Times had changed so much, he guessed, since Shaka Speare's time, "Murder? Why would you do that?"

Shaka Speare laughed, "He was a pretty bad poet!" He then paused, "Now, Farmer, you look so down. What is polluting you?" Shakespeare put his hand on his chin.

"What's 'polluting me'?" Billy asked, marvelling at the fifty-year-old slang. "You know, what's polluting me is this stupid rock. I've got one third of a unit to myself. They don't have a single entertainment reel, just, just" he spat out the word, "reelbooks." He pointed down at his cup, "And this isn't even 'beer.' It's just water with coloring. There are not lifts, just 'stairs-'"

Shaka Speare shrugged, "It is true that you cannot have everything here. But happiness is not so much in things-"

"No women," Billy continued, "not even much work. It's like some kind of primitive monastery."

Shaka Speare sighed, "Like I told you, this base was built a very long time ago, back at the time of the Martian Expeditions, and," he added a little forlornly, "some say it will be abandoned too."

Billy laughed icily, "It can't be too soon for me. Just get me out of here." He stared out the window onto the cloudless Lunar surface. He now understood why the fifty-man prison needed no guards; there was no escape.

"What would you most like to do," Shaka Speare asked, "if you could be out of here, on your Earth?"

Billy smiled, "I'd be out there in my automicar on the outskirts of the city, where no one goes any more, blasting away around corners-racing all over the place..."

As he continued on his description, Billy watched a slow smile cover the older man's face.

************************************************************

"Go!" Billy yelled as he hit the acceleration pedal on the floor of his buggy. The six-wheeled contraption took off with all of its 12volts and started across the grey plains. From the corner of his eye, he watched another similar buggy bouncing in parallel to his.

He looked in front of him and a little mechanical wiper swept back and forth to churn the dust out of the view screen. His breath came in long gulps as he felt the machine reaching its redline at 12 miles per hour.

"Come on, baby!" he yelled as he spotted their designated race ending point, a faded old piece of metal with a red, white, and blue emblam. Where Shaka Speare had found it Billy didn't know, but it served as a perfect finish line.

Suddenly he saw a place where a stray mateor had apparently exposed what looked like a slight, shiny outcropping of rock. He swerved to his left, but, intent on leaving Shaka Speare in his dust, did not slow down. Two of his tires struck the little mound and, in the light gravity, the collision tossed the vehicle fifteen feet in the air.

"Woooooo!" he screamed as, for ten long seconds, he flew above the grey dust formations to land, rolling. He could see his opponent's buggy nearly in front of his, and he whipped the slow steering wheel to set himself back on course. The big tires gripped the ground again and vaulted the ungainly vehicle forward, past the finish line, just ahead of Shaka Speare's buggy.

"Okay," Shaka Speare said over the speaker channel, "so you win the Lunar Nationals."

Billy looked up at the Earth, thousands of miles overhead, and couldn't contain his laughter.

***********************************************************

That night, in the mess hall, common room Billy sat with his older friend eating synthetic steak and French fries.

"You feel better now," Shaka Speare asked.

"Yes," Billy admitted, taking a big bite, "I do, but I still don't see how you can stay in this prison all these years. I mean, was the crime you committed really that bad?"

Shaka Speare's eyes narrowed, "You really don't understand yet. Well it will take time."

Just as he said that, the lights dimmed. One of the prisoners, a short, younger man known as Jezzlo, stood up in the small area between the tables. Jezzlo's voice sounded loud enough to fill the entire room. In the back of the room, one of the older men struck his two hands together in what Billy guessed to be physical clapping.

"Thank-you, Thank-you, you're too kind." The lights started to dim slightly, except a single light that covered the speaker. "Now I don't want to take too much of your valuable time."

He paused and one man clapped at the jest.

"We do, however, have a valuable service to perform tonight, introduce a new member of our staff. First, I want you all to welcome that master of song, that golden-voiced rooster, our own Shaka Speare."

This time they all clapped, and Shaka Speare rose from Billy's table to come to the front of the room. His white hair stood out against his dark features and made him look distinguished.

"I've got a song I want to do for you," he paused, "written by Willy Wordsworth."

Again several people laughed.

"It's called 'Everybody's Gotta Go Home Blues.'"

From the primitive wall speakers Billy could hear a sound like bass guitar and drums, and Shaka Speare took a deep breath and sang:

"You can live your life at businness,
Pushing buttons and filling screens,
Pump your body up with vibratol,
But it'll still be in your dreams:"

He paused, and said softly:
"Hey-Heeeeeeeeeey!
No matter whatcha do, or how you roam.
Some day you'll take a look around
And fiiiind you're right at home."

Now Jazzbo sang the second verse and pointed to Shaka Speare:

"You may call yourself a poet,
And write a thousand lines,
But some day before you know it,
You look out your window and you finds."

And then the two of them, an arm around each other's shoulder, sang together:

"Hey-Heeeeeeeeeey!
No matter whatcha do, or how you roam,
Some day you'll take a look around
And fiiiind you're right at home."

As they sang the chorus, it occurred to Billy that Shaka Speare hadn't killed anybody. Shaka Speare had to have been the poet! Why would anyone, he wondered, stay out here on this rock so long. Now Shaka Speare nodded and pointed the audience.

"You may say your locked in a prison,
Beyond all cries for human help,
But if you stand up and listen,
You may just hear yourself."

This time all the prisoners joined in on the chorus, and the sound filled and warmed the room.

"Hey-Heeeeeeeeeey!
No matter whatcha do or how you roam,
Some day you'll take a look around
And fiiiind you're right at home."

The sound descended to just a slow beat, and Shaka Speare's finger pointed out, directly at him. "Now," he said, "I want to introduce our new guest." Billy, feeling the look of fifty sets of eyes staring at him, shook his head.

Shaka Speare smiled and said, "Come on, Billy, just one chorus."

Billy rose to his feet, and the men applauded softly. His mouth tasted dry, but he walked over to stand between the two other men. He thought, slowly, for about twenty beats and then said awkwardly,

"They call me Billy the Farmer...."

He paused and let another 24 beats pass as he tried desperately to think of something to say. He could see the men's heads nodding, waiting patiently. He looked at Shaka Speare who's body moved slightly to the beat. The dark man smiled in encouragement and Billy suddenly felt ready to go on:

"Well, they call this farmer, Billy,
And I can't quite carry a tune.
You may think I'm really silly,"

Then he felt the raspiness come into his voice as he belted out the clincher.

"But I'll be the farmer on the Moon!"

The room roared in laugher and Billy felt the other two men each put an arm on his shoulder and he could hear his voice raucously joining that of the other men:

"Hey-Heeeeeeeeeey!
No matter whatcha do or how you roam,
Some day you'll take a look around
And fiiiind you're right at home."

*********************************************************

And out beyond the viewscreen, a pair of six-eyed heads popped up from beneath the Lunar sand. Bleep, the more impetuous of the two Moontions, indicated the Lunar base's window. He blinked two of his eyes in a gesture that plainly communicated to Blip:

"See. I told you there were living creatures."

Blip communicated back. "But are they really intelligent."

Bleep studied the scene before him, the hall filled with singing men. He recognized one of them; it had ridden in the thing with the six tires that had struck him on the head and broken his hibernation cycle.

"They may not be intelligent, but they certainly can make an impression."

Blip's pair of eyes surveyed the site, old to humans, but new to Moontions. "I still say the things they ride in are intelligent, and those creatures may be some kind of wild pets."

Bleep did not communicate disagreement. Their last discussion had lasted, counting hibernations, some thirty human years. "I think that they are attempting contact."

Blip's eyes roved until it found the two recharging buggies. "Perhaps," it communicated firmly, "but the question is whether they are ready for contact."

Bleep answered him, "Then you think we ought to hibernate on that point."

Blip didn't bother to answer but the pair, engrossed in serious contemplation of the blues singing prisoners, started to slowly sink their six-eyed heads deep into the Lunar sand.



*****************

I4. CURSERS

*****************

Dazed, Job stared across the table in the isolation booth of Macabre's, one of the worst restaurants in Fuca City. "Well," he asked Ruth, "How is the retail business?"

"Not so good," she held up a rice coin and pointed to the hollow center, "I wish they hadn't devalued the credit. Then there's the shoplifters."

She crossed her legs over the table. She used to have dancers legs, but she'd sold them. Now she wore the real thing, encased in joined star nylons. He'd seen those legs so many times, he wondered if he could recognize them without seeing her face. Job wished, sometimes, they'd renewed their contract, years ago, but, he decided, things just didn't work right any more.

"Ha," Job said as he lay the tenth bottle of Amphibeer down on the table, He hated Amphibeer; their dry beer he much preferred, but he didn't want to spend the units on the water he'd have to add to make it liquid. "How can anyone rob a department store? I mean, all you really have is a station broadcasting signals and sending merchandise when ordered. What's there to steal?"

Ruth smiled. "We do have a physical store. The young people come there sometimes just to feel the fabric, and," she paused, "each other-out of their parents' monitor range. But that's not what I mean by shoplifting. What I mean is that people tune in the channels, tape the reels, and never buy the merchandise."

Job shook his head, a little lightheaded, "I don't see how that's shoplifting. So they take the reels, so what? That sells product, right?"

"No," she said, "that's just the point. Many people's desires are satisfied just by the commercials."

Jacob thought, for the fifteenth time of trying to buy a little house, somewhere out on the prairie, "Yes indeed," he took a swig, "we live in the sick society."

"Shouldn't you drink a bit less-"

He looked into her cool brown face, "What difference does it make? I don't own an automicar anymore, so I'm taking the train home. Besides, with all the new chemicals they put in this stuff, I've seen guys walk around with 40% amphibeer blood content and work." He sighed, "and, unfortunately, I should put in another four hours today."

"Huh?" she said, "I thought you made that coal jewelry."

He chuckled, "Times change for me too, Sweetheart. I can't even afford the tools any more with the price of coal going sky high."

She frowned, sympathetically, "I'd kind of hoped when I saw that news on the screens about coal price jumping that you'd be making a fortune."

He smiled a little upset by her obvious pity, "Don't cry for me, Ruth. I always come back strong." He took another swig, "And my new business, Buy-A-Curse, is gonna make me rich all over again."

"Why would anyone," she hesitated, "Want to buy a curse?"

"Well," he took another swig, "most of the words like *&^%, &^^%, and especially %$# are just worn out. They don't shock any more. See, most of the old curse words relate to sex, defecation, and religion. The first is overrated, the second easily controlled, and third, dead."

She sat up, "You sound like your own commercial. Well, religion isn't dead with me."

He chuckled, "So you're still Jewish? With the big bad, heavy Father figure. How," he sneered, "'quaint.'"

She replied by tossing the ball of algesteak from her drink so that it hit him on the robe. She said, "God, you can be so cruel. How can you-"

He picked the ball up and sighed, "It's all too easy, I'm afraid."

He pushed a button and another bottle marked "Mayor's" popped up on the table. The list of ingredients occupied the remainder of the container. For a long moment, they sat staring, and Job hoped she didn't mean to leave soon.

After a moment, she asked, "How do you come up with these words."

Job lightly squeezed the bottle to open the top, "It's simple. You see, most cursing is done on the job, and so I make my curses job-related. At one time, I used to try creating jargon also, but most companies, these days, have jargon departments. Every day, new jobs are created, just as others disappear, so there's a never ending potential."

She smiled and Job wished again that this wouldn't be just a chance meeting 'for old time's sake.' He wished he could see his emotions reflected in her eyes.

"You see," he continued, "it's not just a case of mixing up vocabulary pertaining to a job. It has to have the right sound. Generally, I favor words that sound harsh or just plain ludicrous."

She laughed, "Oh, come on, give me a free sample here."

He moved closer to her side, and he raised his hand towards the sky, "Let's just say you're out there working on repairing the outside of your space station. So you're a satellite tech, and you drop your turbo wrench, knowing it's going to float away, hit the atmosphere, and burn up-or, if its made of carbamillenium, hit somebody on the head. What are you gonna say?"

She offered, "Oh you dirty rotten wrench?"

"Oh, come on. You can do better than that. How bout 'holy ship,' 'rocketrappa,' or even 'distawopahop'!"

She hung her arm around his shoulder, "You don't really sell them that, do you?"

"I won't give anything real away," he said as his arms went around her, and he felt like he'd not felt for a long time. "Even to Ruth."

"I'm under contract," she whispered.

"Well we can turn on the spy camera," he pointed to the blacked-out lens before them, "and put the reel out on the open market. So when your partner gets mad, he can just have either take a view or a cut of the profits."

"God," she said, "you're cruel sometimes."

His face drew close enough for her to smell the imitation shark odor and the aftertaste of the drinks and him to smell the odor of packing crates and perfume samples, "Oh come on," he said, "'cruel,' you're going to have to do better than that. How about 'you're a markdown' or 'what a no sale' or 'your credit is debased'?"

They held each closer. He didn't know if it was seeing Ruth again or too much drinking, but he knew he hadn't felt this way in so long. As they kissed, Job wished they could be together forever.

*********************************************************

The next clear image for Job came as a white light and the face of his mother, her gray-haired form bent over him. As he shook his head and sat up, he kept seeing a dim vision of an onrushing rocket train and feeling Ruth's hand in his.

His mother stood over him, "They're bringing you out of coma son."

He shook his head, "Broken adjectives," he muttered, "What happened to me? Did I dose off."

"Well, son, about two months ago, you had a little accident."

"With a train-" he interrupted. He could see those lights rushing directly for him, like eyes, and he shivered.

"Hm. You weren't supposed to remember that. It's so hard to find a good dock these days."

She sighed, "Actually, you were quite famous for a time. It was the first accident they'd had in years. With you in coma, though, I couldn't get more than a few credits out of selling your story or you'd be rich with the court case and all."

"What court case?" his voice sounded strangely higher to him.

"Why," she paused and spoke slowly, "Ruth's partner and her family. They took it to the Marlet District Court wanting to claim it was all your fault."

"Wait," Job sat up fearfully and he could almost imagine Ruth lying there dying on some dock's counter, "You mean Ruth didn't make it-"

"Well," his mother pondered and handed him a glass of liquid. "Here have some tomato soup."

He waved the cold glass away, and his mother continued: "Now, you're very lucky, Job, I want you to understand that. The Court liquidated your business, and appointed me executor."

She paused an said, as an aside remarked, "I do like some of those curses son. All those years you worked as a miner, I never knew you had any creative talent."

"Mother," he squeaked, impatiently, "you were telling me about the court case,"

She shrugged, "You're not in the punishment mode, exactly, though I'd say you will have a kind of 'burden' to carry."

Job leaped to his feet, and, for the first time in his adult life, his mother actually stood tall enough to look him in the eye.

"You shouldn't be out of bed for another day or two," his mother chided, "but it's good to see the gene cutters and docks did such a good job."

His hands shook as he reached down to the hem of his white robe and pulled it up slowly. He found his legs, not hairy and muscular, but smooth as silk and almost shapely enough to be a dancer's. His voice trembled:

"Are these, these," he couldn't complete the sentence.

"You're still are as you were from the waist up," his mother explained. Then she pointed to his legs, "but you're going to have to try wearing skirts a bit more often."

"Whose, whose..?" his voice rose into the soprano range.

"Well," his mother said, "they had to perform the cut and splice almost immediately, and there just aren't many accidents these days."

He fell on the ground and screamed: "Oh no! Oh God, no!!"

His mother's brows rose in surprise. "Son, I've been reviewing your reels. You've got to do better than that. Why don't you try 'Heavenly Hijinks,' 'Chopshoprop,'.."



************************************

15. THE TRASHMAN COMETH

************************************

Mathew shivered slightly from the late July cold and huddled underneath his three ragged shirts. He looked down the street and shook his head at the sight around him. Most of the houses lay in piles of rubble. Although five o'clock in the morning, and overcast by the usual dirty black clouds, enough of the houses glowed a radioactive yellow to guide his steps. Only a few, pathetic, gasoline-driven cars lay decaying in the streets, and bags of trash were piled high as the roofs of the ancient, brick-built houses. He covered his nose to shield out the stench.

"God," he thought, "how we need a trash day."

He turned to the third house on the street, one of only about five still standing. He opened the door by lifting it up off the hinges and putting it to the right. The clattering sounds from bugs, loose somewhere inside the building, masked the sound of his arrival.

He smiled at the sight of the front room, looking clean and inviting despite the world around it. The mattresses sat folded and tied to the walls. A single table rested in the middle of the room in restored pseudo mahogany and a small pile of books stacked in the center. In the corner, he spotted his prized possession: an old, fur armchair stuffed with newsprint. The long trip on the solartrain had tired him immensely. He slowly sank into his seat, so the legs of the chair would not become unglued.

"It's so good to be home," he sighed. The days of Hypogeritol, working without sleep, finally caught up with him. The second he closed his eyes and started to doze, he caught the same vision he always saw:

He could see a living cesspool, shaped vaguely like a man, advancing on him. It made funny sucking sounds and left no doubt as to its predatory intentions. Its fingers, shaped like snakes, reached out and grabbed him around the neck. The face, a mask of moving muck, crept closer; its mouth opened to emit a reeking stench.

Just as he seemed about to succumb, and his eyes could only see waste, he heard a sound of trumpets, a chorus. A light shone overhead as a dot burst through the clouds. The muck monster looked up and snarled defensively. As the dot approached, it became a figure, dressed in white, astride a sky cycle. It swooped down, a vaccume spear in one hand and in the other, a pollutant shield. Two powerful, ocean-blue eyes focused on muck monster as the long spear stabbed in a blaze of light.

The muckmonster screamed a call, like a bad rock group, and in it's death agony, reached out a slimy paw towards Mathew.

"Honey?"

Mathew sprang to his feet at the touch. Then he looked around and spotted only his wife, raggedly dressed in a robe composed of fragments from five or six previous outfits.

He stood panting for a moment, the Hypogeritol still sloshing around in his system, before something like calm prevailed. Finally, he eased himself back into the chair, and she bent over to kiss him.

"How was Australia?"

Her face looked so kind and pretty, and although her features had dirt all over them, he could still detect, the attractive, brown-haired woman he'd married twenty years ago. An old line he'd once read, came back to him: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" He didn't want to tell her he'd made only a few hundred credits.

"It's not too bad. I didn't have to sleep, so I saved a lot of money on hotel bills."

"Your clothes," she pointed to his worn overalls, "look remarkably-clean."

Mathew hesitated. He'd wanted to go to the city and repair a few of the C6 computers, work fit "for a man." He'd found they'd invented a machine able to do that work also. So he'd wandered the streets a few days, trying to find anything, contributing to the sperm banks for a few credits, and finally being picked up by one of the more twisted Ceenote Corporation executives. He'd earned his two hundred credits the hard way.

"I bought a shower pass the last day," Mathew lied, "and I cleaned everything up."

"Deradiated?" she asked, her eyebrows raised.

"Deradiated," he said, "guaranteed without side effects for six months, but let's not talk about me."

Shana sat down on the only space available, the floor. She shook her head. "It's not good Mathew. I couldn't find anything grifting this last week."

Mathew shook his head, "You mean, you went through this whole district and couldn't find a single thing?"

"You don't understand Mathew," she said slowly. "Do you want a slab of Ceriasis, or a cube of Centanol, or a cup of Water?"

"Water?" Mathew shrugged his shoulders, thinking of how much a glass of safe drinking water could cost. "Is it that bad that you can't tell me without offering me water?"

Just as he said that, their two voices were interrupted by the excited sound of voices, one high and feminine and the other even higher but faintly masculine. He could hear his two children fumbling to remove the door and then carefully replacing it.

Mathew saw the two children run to greet him and wondered how long it'd been since he'd last seen them. Arainya looked almost a woman now in her ten-rag dress that barely covered her adolescent form. How she kept so clean he often wondered, but he knew that the brushcut on her head kept away a lot of the germs that lived in his house.

Harold had grown so that now could almost see the top of his father's sunken chest, and no amount of antiseptic wash, his father thought, would probably ever cleanse his dirty brown hair. As they both hugged their father, he could hear Harold fumbling for the right word:

"Fa-fa-Daddy!"

"I'm glad to see you both." As he said that, and they gathered into his arms, he felt the chair give way and collapse, and they all fell to the floor in peals of laughter.

"Children," their mother said, "would you go out and get some more Dungaleen for the heater?"

"I can do it," Harold said, "all by myself."

"No," their mother said, "I want your sister to go with you."

Mathew shrugged his shoulders and said, "Why doesn't he get Fido to go with him?"

The three of them met his remark with a silent stare.

"I know," Arainya said. "You want to talk like 'grown-ups.' Well I'm as grown up as--"

"Arainya," her mother warned.

The daughter shrugged her shoulders. "Alright." She called to Harold. "Go get the blaster." She crossed the room to hug her father again. Mathew felt her warmth mixed with faintly challenging remark: "I hope you stay a couple of days this time."

The two parents watched them go, and her mother said: "She gets more like that every day. I think the problem is that she goes to school, instead of watching it on the telescreen like everyone else. So the only people she ever sees are her age."

"And richer," Mathew added. It's my fault, he thought: Had I followed my predictor on my father's access panel I'd have had one child only and not divided my resources by two. A family needed every credit, and I should've known then that two-degrees wouldn't guarantee employment. Now, he thought, I can't provide the proper home environment, and, of course, she resents her brother.

"Maybe," he said, "if we moved back to one of the towers, you could finish your second degree on the access school. You could do any number of jobs if we just had an access screen."

He looked across the room at the faded little square that once served as their outlet on the world. One day, the screen flickered and faded, and, with it, most of his job opportunities. He couldn't afford a repairman, nor did he think one would ever come out here to this district. It was, Mathew concluded, just another piece of the decay surrounding him.

"Dear," she said, "you always wanted to have a house, and when your parents died in that rocket wreck, you got this one. I know how much it means to you. Do you really think it would be that better in one of the towers?"

"At least," he said, "they have private disposal companies to take out the trash." He thought of those blue robot machines faithfully picking up the bags. Where they took those bags he often wondered.

"Do you know how many people who are not company directors will ever own a house?" she said. "You need two days sleep, and then you'll see it as I do."

"Where," Mathew asked, "does she get the credits to stay so clean."

His wife shook her head, "That I don't know, but I hope it will be better now that we're together."

He hesitated, "How's my boy doing?"

She smiled cheerfully, "He's doing well at the attend school. The roboteachers give him high marks, and the human teachers think he has great potential."

Mathew smiled. "He seems so happy." Then suddenly he remembered, "Where's Fido?" He stood up. "Fido boy! Fido!"

His wife took a deep breath, "Come on." She led her husband to the tiny alcove that adjoined the only safe room left in the house and pointed to the big square box that served as a house. Out limped his pet, shaggy fur to the ground, long nose pointed, and squeaking wearily. The big beast shuffled over, weakly, and rubbed against his leg.

"My rat," Mathew cried, bending over the faithful, furry form. "What happened to my rat!"

***********************************************

Later that afternoon, after sunset, the four sat around the small heater they used to warm their blankets and, on rare occasions, their food. Mathew could only think of poor Fido lying in his box, dying, a victim of one of the nukeants he ate. In four years, he'd come to love that dog-sized, grey-haired rodent and to count on him to protect them from the insects inhabiting the outlying rooms. Where could he buy another giant rat these days? All the neighbors were gone, and he could not afford the purchase price for a train ticket to transport a pet to their neighborhood from the nearest city.

"Maybe," he thought again, "it is time to leave." Yet he could not afford to even solartrain away the four of them, and he had no credit any more. Through the plasticglass window, he could see the dim three 'o' clock sun surrender to the black clouds.

"Daddy," Harold said, "would you tell me about the Trashmen one more time?"

"Well," Mathew began. He'd become a good story-teller since the access tube blew up years ago and most of the books had been traded "They come out of the sky riding white rockets."

"You mean," his daughter interrupted, "riding IN white rockets."

"No I don't." Mathew restated. He hadn't told this story in years since Arainya was only Mathew's age, but he was surprised Mathew still remembered it. "they ride on the rockets, strapped to them. They're called 'skycycles.' In their right hand, the Trashmen hold vaccume spears and in their other, pollutant shields. They suck the pollution out of the sky, they grab up the bags, and they vanquish all the waste."

As he told the story, Mathew could still feel his blood rush. How many times had he applied to the Trash Academy only to be turned down. Just two or three times had he seen a real Trashman, but the image remained vivid.

"Do they," Harold asked, "give toys to all the children?"

"No," Arainya snickered, "That's Santa Claus," and she looked directly at her father. "Another myth! Will you two excuse me," she said, "I've got somewhere to go." She stood up and walked rapidly towards the door, making no attempt to compensate for the rotted wood creaking under her feet, so the boards buckled and creaked.

Mathew's shoulders slumped. He'd never seen a Trashman in this quarter of the world. Over in Nylon City, not three miles away, they used Robodestructors. Likely, he'd never see another Trashman in this lifetime.

"Come on," his wife said, "finish your story."

"It is," Mathew said, the dark afternoon starting to cloud out the vision, "finished."

***************************************************

Mathew woke up to hear a stomping. He rose to his feet.

"What is it?" his wife said, unwrapping her arm from him.

"Something in the basement." He started to get up.

"Oh god," she warned, "don't go down there."

Mathew took a deep breath, "I am not afraid. This is my house."

He crossed the floor and grabbed the blaster from the wall. He quietly crossed past Fido's kennel and heard the rat whimpering.

"Shhhh boy."

He lowered himself down the wooden stairway, one step at a time, testing the wood. When he got to the bottom, he spied a light.

He looked and took in the sight with a single gasp. Rainya, wearing only a ragged blanket, stood under the old shower next to the waterpipes. She had strapped something to the showerhead that he figured had to be a Massive Disinfector. On a ground lay a can of Nukeoff, obviously empty because round her stood a rove troop of glowing, warrior Nuketermites, each about as big as Fido, but with mandibles large enough to chew a leg in half. They seemed to be deciding what to do with this rather large, unmoving piece of inedible trash.

"Oh my God!" Mathew screamed and fired, his blaster shot dismantling one of the outside Nuketermites. The shattering of debris momentarily confused the creatures so that Mathew closed a couple more steps and blasted another.

The second blast rocked Rainya out of her spell. She threw the can of Nukeoff at the head of one of insects and jumped over several of them, landing, next to her father, outside the insect's circle. Her father yanked her arm halfway across the room and pulled her to the stairs.

He stood behind her, guarding her, as the Nuketermites made their inevitable rush. She stood halfway up the stairwell as he blasted one.

"Daddy?" she pleaded.

His hand reached out to slap her hard on her behind. "Get moving! I'm right behind you."

He pulled the trigger one more time and heard only a harmless click. He jumped over the nearest insect and scrambled up the stairs feeling each piece of rotting wood give beneath him. When he reached the top of the stairs, he shut the door behind him and heard the crunch of bodies slamming against the decayed oak.

He breathed in gasps, "Don't we have any more charges?" He asked his daughter. By now, his son and wife had joined in a circle around them.

"No," his wife said, "I spent the last few credits on rat food."

Then he heard the crunch below him. Warrior Nuketermites had mandibles for killing, not crunching wood, but that wouldn't stop them from calling up workers. He thought rapidly:

"Wait, termites hate sunlight. They can't live in--"

His voice died as he spied the look on the others' faces. The sunlight here could hardly harm a bloodsucker. The Nuketermites own bodies provided more light than the feeble afternoon sun.

He retreated from the locked door. "Then this is the end, I guess. It's time to say good-bye to the house."

Just as he said that, the entire building and several around it gave way. The block sank, intact, six feet beneath the level of the ground. All the stomping must've loosened the entire structure of the town, which Mathew now guessed to be Nuketermite infested. He looked at his family in sudden horror; he'd read somewhere that termites liked to keep and eat their food alive.

Quickly, he crossed the room to the debris that had been his chair, and he picked up the biggest of the legs. His family closed around him, and he handed each a piece of wood. Just then, the door burst open, and several hundred Nuketermites, emerged, clicking their mandibles. Twenty or so of the big-jawed warriors led, followed by mobs of workers about half their size.

At first, Mathew felt nothing but a cold fright. Then, however, he looked slowly around at the remnants of what had been his father's house, his family's house, his house.

"This is my house!" He hissed.

He advanced, his arms flailing around him in a circle, and the first two or three insects became immediately dismembered; the others started to back away from his onslaught.

"MWWWWWAAA!" he heard behind him, a sound he'd never heard before. It came again, a loud, deep, lumpy sound. "MWWWAAAA."

The termites rushed out the door more quickly even than they'd rushed in. Something crashed through the opposite wall of the house, inches from their backs.

Mathew slowly turned to face the new menace. At first, Mathew thought it an onrushing flood of black trash, and then he saw the mess pick itself up and start to shamble towards them, standing as tall as their roof and smelling worse than manure.

"No," he shook his head, "there's no such thing as a muck monster." He protested. "This is only one of my dreams!"

The muck monster shambled towards Mathew, repeating its cry of "MWWWWAAAA" seemingly in answer to his denial of its existence.

Mathew struck it with his stick only to have the stick become stuck, covered in tarlike slime. Pieces of loose, slimy filth dripped onto its arm and burned his flesh.

"Ee," he heard over his shoulder and poor Fido waded towards the enemy and tried vainly to bite the muck monster. A rush of renewed anger came to Mathew, and he jumped forward, moving so close that black muck filled his field of vision. From his side, he thought he heard Arainya's voice screaming, and he realized it would all be over in seconds.

Then, over the creature's dripping shoulder, he saw a flash of light, and he thought, "Maybe this is-" but the light coalesced, and he heard a strident, military sounding choir. The bright spark became a rocket hovering overhead with a white, armed figure astride. The rocket turned slightly and a hand reached out, holding a pointed object, and, in a blur, a flash of light descended and struck the mucky creature.

The muck monster uttered a final cry of "Mwwwwa!" but its form, and even its sound, disappeared. Mathew looked up and saw a black cloud churning the air and then funneling the muck into a single stream that disappeared inside the object the white figure held out. He cried out in disbelief:

"It's a Trashman!"

*********************************************************

Mathew sighed as the white skycycle hovered overhead the sky, burning a clean fuel and leaving a clean, open path between the clouds. Swiftly it landed, and he watched the robed figure dismount and start to work.

"Who would've thought," Mathew said, "I'd live to see a trash day."

He watched the figure in white strolling the neighborhood. It sucked up all the cans for miles around. He could see only the slits of the person's eyes, but they appeared warm, gentle.

"You are brave living out in this district," the figure announced. "Not many would dare living in Bloomfield Hills."

"Not as brave as you," Mathew said, "fighting that muck monster."

"Not very friendly creatures, a product of their pollutive origins, I think. When you make it clear that a creature is not the end product, but merely a wasteful diversion-" Suddenly Mathew thought of his daughter and all the years she'd known they'd had another child, perhaps at the cost of her future. "Have you a recyclative power station nearby?"

"No," Mathew answered.

"Pity really," the voice said and pointed a strip on its belt at the sky. A tiny piece of metal fell to the ground and then slowly grew, almost as though inflating, became a gigantic "O," and floated off into the sky. The metal "O" piece had almost touched the clouds when, with a vaccume-cleaner like whoosh, the nearest black cloud, already punctured by the Trashman's entry, disappeared into the Trashman's spear.

The "o" reached a certain level and then, suddenly, flared up to light the skies overhead. "That should give you some reflected sunlight for a time, and power your solar generators, but you have to heed the warnings."

Mathew looked at his wife and asked her, "warnings?"

His wife nodded, "I'm sorry Mathew. They condemned this whole city about a year ago. I only found out the other day when someone told me that was leaving."

He smiled, "You didn't want to tell me."

"Not-yet."

The Trashman continued circulating and cleaning until the street shone a dull white. "That's one reason the Nuketermites were here. They often build our wooden subdivisions. You may not believe this, but they can be quite social creatures,"

The Trashman paused to suck up some dirt on the floor, "I wish I had time to plant a few trees, but you'd not be here to see them grow."

"Sir," Mathew said, "can you do something about us?"

The white figure didn't change its tone of voice, "Oh we've known about your problem here for quite some time. You will be relocated." He pulled out a hose attached to his belt, and stooping, put it into Fido's mouth. A moment later, the rat rose suddenly, wagged its long tail, and ran enthusiastically to Harold's side.

"Wait," Mathew said, "how could you-" Then he didn't ask.

"Well, in your case, we've been studying your family because we think you have a possible Trash Academy candidate."

For a brief second, Mathew could see himself in the mirror, donning his clean white robe, mounting his sky cycle. Then his shoulders sunk:

"But I've flunked the test-"

The white figure chuckled softly, "It's not you, Mathew, and those tests do not make the final decision."

Mathew sighed.

"You see," the Trashman began, "it's how a person will react in certain situations that is essential; not necessarily dangerous situations, but often unpleasant. You are a fine brave man, but your values are essentially, well, family values." The voice paused, "Then again, you were not being tested, so you did not fail."

He beamed in sudden pride, "Are you going to take my Harold, then?"

Again the figure chuckled. "The value you need to join our group might be described as 'fraternity-'" The lance pointed at the shield and cleansed the accumulated muck from the protector in a single gulp. A voice came from an instrument on the Trashman's white wrist:

"Environment: clean."

What could the Trashman mean, he wondered. He'd rushed to defend his family. What other motive could someone have for braving such a situation? Suddenly, he realized, that during the fight, the sound he'd heard Arainya make was not a cry of fear but a rush to join battle and fight.

The figure put two gloves to the white helmet and drew it off, and a long swarm of curly, yellow hair rippled down to cover the white armored shoulders. The Trashman was, Mathew gasped, in fact, a Trashwoman.

Her face was not particularly beautiful but seemed more warm and healthy than anything he'd seen in a long time. Her golden hair reflected the sunlight from the doughnut-shaped energy reverter now floating overhead.

"You may say," the woman smiled, "the values our group teasures are more like those of a 'sorority.'"



**************************************

16. WATCHING THE RIVER FLOW

****************************************

Grandpa looked up at the old synthewood building. A green rug before the building imitated a lawn. In the garden, out front, he could see, sitting in resting positions, gray stone figures. Some held their arms outstretched, others looked downward, and one even spread its arms in welcome. All looked old, but now, restful, frozen in action.

Grandpa felt tired just watching them. They looked so serene and this reminded him, again, of the three times he'd tried to retire. He looked down at the little, lightweight access plate pinned to the wrist of his jacket and asked.

"Why can't I retire?"

The screen, usually filled with information on his bloodpressure, vital signs, and atomic structure, replied simply with the message: "Position unfillable."

He grimaced. Fifty years of running his Venusian mining firm, and he'd received no watch, no good-bye party. Instead, he got this: computer projections that the company would evaporate if he didn't run it any more. With their jobs dependent on him, the Directors could never let him retire.

He looked at those statues, staring out, free of all cares, seemingly laughing at him, like gargoyles, and he felt angry. He could feel the lids of glycerol keeping his heart going, psycherase that kept taking away unneeded memories, and, of course, the angipuls clearing his veins.

"It's not fair," he said to the plate. The plate responded that he shouldn't be here, outside the city Shield, and ignored his statement.

Lately, he'd put so many odd questions to the computers, like, "What's it all for?" "Why bother?" and "That's it?" that the computers had reprogrammed themselves to make vaguely metaphysical, harmless, replies, like: "Because it's there," "a river changes courses over eons, " and "a castle built on the hill can be washed away by rain," and so on.

He laughed hoarsely at the remark on his screen. "Blood always runs slow in a stone." The Company board had tried to reprogram all his accessible units so they only supplied information about work, yet he'd learned how to get around this by making strange, illogical questions. Now, he spent half his four alloted, waking hours puzzling over these weird computer replies. He looked at the outside area he figured must contain the portal.

"Portal," he gasped.

A human voice responded, after a moment's delay.

"Identification?"

"Morris P. Long," and an echo of pride came through along with the words.

"Morris P. Long," the figure exclaimed, "That's not possible. The Morris of-"

"Morris Mines."

"You'd have to be one hundred and ..." Grandpa shook his head. He really didn't know his own age. He'd forgotten so many years he'd lived, and they now wouldn't let him "cloud his perception" with memory tapes. A light went on above Grandpa and slowly swept down his figure.

"It's," the voice hesitated, "a little hard to confirm physical identity."

Grandpa stammered, "I'm on my third heart, my second liver, and half my brains cells have changed since the last time I went out of my pentunit! Of course, it's hard to confirm identity..." his voice trailed.

The portal opened, and Grandpa saw a clever-looking young man in a long white robe with a multicolored sash tied about his waist. His eyes took in the old man's bent figure in a single glance. "It's an honor, Mr. Long. I'm Locus Final. What can I do for you?" Locus pointed around at the circle of statues, roughly arranged around the synthewood building so that they appeared to stare at the entranceway. "Would you like to buy a statue?"

Grandpa wanted to make a comment about how lifelike the statues looked, but walking the block from the train had drained most of his small energy supply. "I want to see your garden, have the 'total experience' you talk about in your ads."

The man's heavy eyebrows lowered, "If that's what you want. Come on out back, Mr. Long."

He extended a hand, but Grandpa shook him off and moved forward behind him, slowly, measuring each step, across the floor and through an open portal. He tried to sit down with his legs crossed, but instead fell down in a heap on the fakewood deck that surrounded the garden. Locus ran over to help him arrange his tired body into a sitting position.

Grandpa tried to catch his breath as he surveyed the site. At first he thought he was viewing a garden. Then his vision enhancers kicked in. Just fourteen stones rested in the middle of the two unit-sized area. Around them sat a carefully raked field of gravel with lines arranged to form a stone river. Around the deck, Grandpa could see more of the stone figures, staring at the rocks.

"How," Locus began warily, "did you happen to learn about our garden, Mr. Long?"

Grandpa said, "Call me 'Grandpa.' No one has called me anything else in thirty years." He looked down and mentally commanded his legs to move up under him, and felt a dim pain as they slowly followed his orders. The plate on his wrist flashed warning messages.

"Well," Locus tried again, when Grandpa looked in place, "how did you learn about Zion Gardens."

Grandpa cackled, "Son," he said, "through my auxiliaries, I now own your company." He stared at the rocks a second more. "Now it's time for you to give me something, like a drug."

Locus looked over his shoulders hurriedly as though searching for spyreels. "What are you talking about!"

"I'm too old to play games," Grandpa said, "I'm recording this. If you deal fairly, you can have the tape when I'm done, but, if you don't give me the capsule,..."

Locus started into Grandpa's eyes and saw traces of very old iron. For a second, the garden manager appeared to be weighing his options. Then he gulped, reached in his robe, pulled out a small, cylindrical pill, and nervoulsly placed it in Grandpa's hand.

"Your units will be in your account." Grandpa said. His hand shook as he took the pill, and, after dragging his hand to his face, dropped it in his mouth. "Now, I'd really, son, rather be alone."

Locus scampered off, leaving Grandpa. Grandpa could taste the white substance going down his throat as he gazed off into the garden. He could feel his heartbeat running slower and slower. The messages to the brain came with less and less authority. Looking down, he could see the dials on his wristplate moving less and less. Everything seemed to be running down, and his eyes began to flicker.

Grandpa had now expected to see only blackness, but instead, looking out at that garden, he could the stone stream starting to move. It's foam splashed against the rocks. He didn't see fourteen stones now but fifteen. The river rose and ran in the stream with a roaring, living intensity!

******************************************************

Jimmy and Johnny, two young vigorous red-haired men dressed in jumpsuits, looked at the gray stone figure seated on the floor in front of them. "It's all my fault," Jimmy said, looking down, "I shouldn't have stopped personally monitoring him for even a second." Jimmy felt a little surprised at his own grief; this event had, after all, been anticipated for thirty or so years.

His brother pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of the old man's suit and said, "Come on, Jimmy, pull yourself together. There's always Company reorganization."

Jimmy sighed at his brother's lack of concern for anything except business. He responded distantly, "I guess even Morris Mining can't live forever."

As he said this, his brother showed him the piece of paper: "Here's his will," and his astonishment overcame him. "It was actually hand-written-on paper!"

Jimmy smiled, knowing then that his Grandfather had not been murdered. "I knew Grandpa couldn't be fooled by this cheap kind of scandal."

As he said that, the two goon guards, dressed in their company black uniforms, emerged holding Locus aloft between them. Locus' face held a couple of bruises, but he kept protesting:

"I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything."

"To think," Jimmy observed, pointing, "our great, great grandfather poisoned by this walking shark. Well, I'll bet we've got enough to put him in the punishment mode for life."

Locus screamed, "I didn't kill him! I swear to Buddha, I didn't kill him!"

Jimmy angrily pointed to the garden of statues, the old men in attitudes of prayer all around them. "You're going to say you didn't sell their clothes, you didn't lure them here, and you didn't sell their statues!"

Locus drew himself up and said, spitefully, "Well, I," he stammered. "You may be able to prove I did some of things, but, really, those are economic crimes. I'm," he paused, "a businessman of sorts, just like Grandpa."

Jimmy made a rush so violent that one of the goonguards let go Locus' arm to try to restrain the red-haired man. Locus took the brief opportunity that his arm was free to reach into his pocket, grab something, and toss it into his mouth.

By the time the other goon had grabbed the criminal, he held the white pill poised on the tip of his tongue. He said, crying, "I'm no murderer. This is what I gave them."

Locus Final swallowed the pill, and slowly shut his eyes. For an entire minute, Jimmy and the two guards just stared waiting. Then Locus eyes open again and he smiled in satisfaction: "It's all on my records. That's what I gave all of them-a salt tablet."

Johnny, having ignored this entire passage of events, looked up from the will. "Last line here, Jimmy, he instructs us to sell his clothes and his statue, suggests we use the tag 'once owned by Morris Long.'"

All of them turned slowly then to look again at Grandpa's statue. The stone figure just sat there, an abstract, serene smile across his stone face. Whatever place they moved him to, whether in a graveyard or an art gallery, Grandpa would always rest, looking at fifteen rocks and watching the river flow.



********************************

17. THE DREAM VENDORS

********************************

Jeremiah sat out in the hallway and tossed his ball for the fourth time, He didn't bother to go get the ball, as it had an automatic return mechanism, but spent the time predicting how many tosses it would take before he heard the little siren.

"An..Please stop throwing the ball."

He looked up at the plastic apparatus a few feet away from him. Although on its cylindrical tracks it stood only a few inches taller than he, the face of Sergeant Carter of the Slidonian Police Department covered its faceplate. He knew, as well the officer did, that the sound of the ball would not penetrate into the cavelike underground units, but the rules said such a noise was not permitted.

"Jeremiah Johnson," the officer began, "why are throwing the ball out in the hallways of your unit." The officer shook his head, "Why don't you go home son?"

The thought of watching his father, working on the plant security, staring at the right wall and his mother, with her artificial flowering, staring at the left didn't particularly appeal to him. Also, he knew very well they'd received a bad report because he'd read it among the day's incoming messages. The education channel had reported:

"Subject: Jeremiah Johnson, scores on all assessment tests high, but continues to show unnatural curiosity in physical objects; wishes to actually touch things rather than view their representational counterparts."

He chuckled when he thought that his parents would never even know he'd already read the report and added a phrase of his own to the end.

"Requires large number of toys."

"Aw Sergeant, it's so boring at home."

The Sergeant's face appeared exasperated, "Look son, I've had to send three units after you this week. Why can't you just sit at home and watch your screen or do something like that."

Jeremy got up and lightly tossed the ball so that it hit the head of the enforcement unit and then rolled back. He watched the little robot, number SPT 42, rocking back and forth, and the Sergeant's eyes roll in dizziness from trying to focus through a gyrating screen.

The Sergeant shook his head, "When I was a boy," he said, "I used to spend eight hours a day just completing my homework on the screen. The teaching modules I had, well, if you didn't do well, they'd simulate child abuse and then..."

Jeremiah stood up and walked over to the round enforcement unit. He took his scarf off his head and wrapped it around the eyes of the unit. He laughed as, orientation circuits confused, it started to drive in a circle .

"Jeremy," the Sergeant commanded, "you take that off..."

"I'm going to save you some energy," Jeremy said, and he reached his hand around back, placed a twisted piece of wire into the circuitry, and disabled the unit. He felt a little guilty as he did this, knowing his father would have to pay a fine, but the satisfaction of hearing the little unit go "Ooooooooooooh" seemed worth the price.

************************************************************

Jeremy pulled the rubber coin back out of the identification card slot and chuckled to himself as the elevator adjusted itself around from the top and right until it matched the size of his small body.

Then it took off in the random directions he'd chosen, screaming down the long underground corridors beneath the towers and above most of the units. As he watched the images of buildings and people careening past the view screen, he laughed in glee. For a second, he wished the elevator could not just go around that city but fly off to the Moon or Mars or anywhere different.

He remembered once how his father had talked about taking him to another city, and he desperately wanted to go somewhere. Instead, his father simply bought the reel entitled 'Wako Island Vacation' and ran it. Nobody, he sighed, wanted to play any more. He didn't like to visit his friends' units because most of them just sat around playing solitaire games on their reels.

It didn't matter, though, he told himself. Since he'd learned to work the elevators and portals, he could go inside almost any room in the city. If he couldn't play, at least he could explore, and the city held so many unlimited possibilities for little adventures.

As the elevator stopped, the portal opened in front of him, and he opened his eyes to look around. The white walls didn't look so different from his own unit, but he could see from the spread of numbers on the external walls that the units held nearly twice as much space as his. Those units, he reasoned, just had to have twice as much stuff to play with.

He closed his eyes and walked along, his special system for finding the place he'd enter, until his hand touched a solid surface. When his hand touched, he opened his eyes, and said:

"Access: portal."

The wall appeared still solid. He thought for a second and said: "Incoming message: emergency repair to communications circuits."

Nothing happened still. Jeremy wondered if he ought to give up. Then he remembered the one time it'd taken him three tries to open the portal, and, on entry, found the naked lady making those strange motions in front of the screen image. He still couldn't understand why she'd had that raccoon fur, but the thought of seeing something equally interesting, or figuring that one out, made him decide to try several other ideas on this room.

"Access: message: child delivery."

Then a portal appeared. He shrugged his shoulders because he never knew if the unit thought he was being delivered or actually had a delivery, but he didn't wonder for long because, by the light of the open portal, he saw a man lying on a long sleeping mat, his body lying prone on the floor and a strange bunch of wires, like rice strings, tied to a cap upon his head.

Jeremy looked at the tired look on the man's face. He'd seen the same look so many times on his father's face when, having worked too hard, he tried to rest. In fact, that look seem plastered, day and night, on the faces of both parents.

Jeremy walked in closer. He could see, around the form, clothes strewn carelessly, and a clothes unit, refrigerator, and food processor all still resting on the floor.

Suddenly lights turned on, and an alarm bell sounded. The man, lying on the floor, jumped up in astonishment, and an arm-long weapon lowered from the ceiling to rest in his arms. A series of flashing lights focused on Jeremy, and he shivered in fright.

The man's face, looking neither young nor old, stared intently at Jeremy. He wore only a single robe, but he seemed strong and healthy, a lot like Jeremy's father, and his face looked equally tired and worn.

"Start talking little man," he sneered.

"I'm sorry, Mister," Jeremy said, "I'll pay for the cost of the alarm trigger."

The man's eyebrows narrowed, "How did they get your voice so high, I wonder. Are you fixed?"

Jeremy's eyes went red, "Please don't fix me, Mister. I'm sorry. Really I am!"

Some calmness started to come back to the other man. "Alarm: off," he stated, but he held the blaster steady. "Which company are you from?"

Jeremy didn't know what to say. He didn't want to give his father's name, so he said simply: "I'm Jeremiah."

"Hyrdofools! They do a good job today. I'd swear you are a real child." The man appeared calm and in control. He sat down and motioned for Jeremy to sit down. "You might as well sit down. The Sitwell Circuitry Goon Squad will be here in a minute, and we've got a positive gene sketch. Did they think you could pull this off so easily?" The man commanded, "Sit down, Shorty."

Jeremy didn't know what else to do, so he sat down. The stranger opened the little refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Amoebabeer and offered it to Jeremy.

"Want a beer?"

Jeremy nodded his head. The strange man took a can of Cofohol for himself. Jeremy slowly squeezed the container until he could see it open and put it to his lips. It tasted sweet and made a warm feeling run up and down his spine. He smiled at the stranger; no wonder his father never offered him a Amoebabeer. He decided it was another thing grown-ups kept to themselves.

"I've got to ask," the stranger asked, and then suddenly the man, remembering something, extended his hand. "I can't forget to be a good host, can I?"

Jeremy took the big man's hands and felt the warm blood flowing and the tough skin. He realized then that, despite all the reels he'd seen showing the action, he'd never shaken anybody's hand before.

Then the man continued, "How is that they get you so small like that? I mean if you're a genetic defect, they'd never be able to sell you anyway unless," and suddenly the man looked alarmed, "you're an Outsider."

"Naw," Jeremy said, feeling a little dizzy, but feeling more comfortable. "I'm a Space Trucker."

The man frowned at the fib. "That's weight allowance. You'd be skinny, not short."

"My Daddy," Jeremy said truthfully, "when I'm bad, he just cuts my pituitary allowance."

The other man laughed so deeply that Jeremy laughed too. "Next thing you're going to tell me is you don't have anybody to play with."

Jeremy shrugged, "I just play with the security machines." Jeremy took a deep slurping drink from the can, just like they did in the reels, and almost coughed it up. He was starting to feel good now. It was so long since he'd really had anybody just talk to him; his parents always were so busy.

After he finished laughing, the big man said carefully. "Why exactly, did you break into my unit?"

Jeremy thought a second, "I wanted to see the naked ladies."

The other chuckled, "I guess I can understand that."

By now the other man seemed thoroughly relaxed and the haggard look on his face seemed to have disappeared. "I've got to know this," he asked, "How did you get inside my unit?"

Jeremy didn't know if he ought to tell some of his prized ideas for having fun, but the man seemed to enjoy everything he said, so he confided: "It's a secret."

"Well," the other man said, rising, "it won't be a secret after the Company security goons get here. They'll give you a dose of verdarol, and we'll find out who's trying to rip us off."

Jeremy didn't like the sound of this answer, though he didn't know what verdarol was, so as the man rose, he started thinking of what he would do if the goons came.

"Hey," the man said, pointing towards what Jeremy imagined to be a second room. "I'm going to go get dressed up and clean for these people, but you make yourself at home." He pointed at the junk lining the apartment, "There's lots for you to 'play with.'"

Jeremy shrugged. He watched the portal disappear behind the man. He crossed the room to the strange hat. He carefully placed it on top of his head and the chin strap adjusted around his neck. The small dose of Amoebabeer made him feel very sleepy, and the man's bed, still on the floor, suddenly looked very inviting. He looked up at the wall as he wrapped the warm blankets around him. As his eyes started to flicker, he could suddenly see his own image up on one of the walls, laughing and jumping.

************************************************************

The Chairman, Mr. Hypeanieu, paced back and forth, angrily speaking at the big man in the red robe, but pausing to alternately address screens showing Mr. Johnson and Sergeant Carter.

"Look," Mr. Johnson began, "I don't know what to tell you. He isn't like other boys. He won't sit around and do his homework and watch the reels. I'll pay for the damages."

"You bet you will!" Mr. Hypeanieu snapped. "Do you know that stupid son of yours was monkeying with our cerebral recorder? That's a half-million unit apparatus. We've only got two of those to supply the whole market!"

Then the Old Man started to pace, giving off a standard lecture, "Most people don't even enough time to sleep, and when they do, they wanna get their money's worth. I mean, the only vacations most working people can have these days are dreams."

Johnson and Sergeant Carter heartily nodded in agreement.

"We've finally got a machine so they can get some leisure time in, and what do you two do? You let a kid play with it! We haven't had a hit in ages, and this department is operating at a deficit!" The expression on the Chairman's face started to wilt, and his voice trailed almost as if he were talking to himself. "'Tired dreams,'" that's what the critics are saying, all we have to sell are 'tired dreams...'" He lowered his worn, square face in his hands, "must be the machine, must be the machine."

"Sir?" the Sergeant said, and the Chairman suddenly seemed to remember him. His face regained its angry energy:

"As for you, how could you let this kid get by unit security and break into a restricted chamber like that-and then escape?"

"I don't know, sir," the Sergeant exclaimed, "but I'll tell you this: He thinks that breaking security is some kind of a game. He disabled one of the enforcement robs by-"

"I don't want to hear it!" the Chairman snapped, and then he turned to Phaestus, the man whose apartment Jeremiah had entered. "And as for you, Mr. Phaestus, you shoulda shot that kid on sight. You're supposed to repair that thing, not lend it out. What if the competition gets this? You get that thing back working, and on one of the pro's craniums, and record some dreams the public will BUY, or you'll be back editing docureels in a unit so small you'll sleep standing up!"

"Yes, sir," Phaestus said.

"Everybody's paying for their stupidity on this one," the Chairman concluded, "except the Company."

Jeremiah, his body on top of the table that hung from the ceiling, couldn't totally understand the meaning of this conversation, but one fact appeared all too clear: He was in trouble, lots of trouble, and he'd have to go somewhere safe and hide for a while.

**********************************************************

A little boy walked along the lower corridor and listened to the sounds of the machines, deep below the surface, digging a new row of units. He threw his ball as far as he could throw it.

The wall next to him lit suddenly, and he feared he'd tripped an alarm. Instead, a face appeared on the screen, a face he recognized as belonging to the loud voiced man he'd heard in the stranger's unit. He knew it was just an advertisement.

"When you lay down after a hard day of pushing buttons and analyzing, don't settle for blackness of those old dreams: shootings, sports, vacations; buy a young dream. Now is the time for you to buy that best seller: Young Dream."

The screen dissolved and filled with a green park full of boys tossing a ball between them. Several big, furry rats ran among them playing with the boys. A kindly, middle-aged man strolled through the park, stopping to join in the pall game. A clear sun shone overhead as the voice continued, and the boys laughed and giggled.

"That's right, men, a dream of a world with a sunshine and lots of people to play with-at a price you can afford."

Then one of the boys walked up close to the screen, and Jeremy stumbling back in confusion. The face he'd seen looked just like his.

Jeremy looked away as he heard the ball hit in the distance and, for a second, he expected it return until he remembered that he'd fixed it. Jeremy wandered back towards his hiding place, a ground out section of sand lined with a few old rags. He looked inside and spoke:

"Fetch." The enforcement unit rolled on its tracks to disappear around the corner of a corridor. It emerged a moment later, rolling the ball in front of one of its tracks.

"Thank you, Spot," he said and looked into its blank viewplate where he used to see the Sergeant talking to him. He looked at the white cylindrical machine, sitting in front of him, and he imagined the robot must feel sad at not being able to see Sergeant Carter for so long.

"I'm sorry Spot," he said, "but I don't think we can go home yet."



***************************

18. THE HERETICS

***************************

One morning, after his morning exercises, his third cup of cofohol, and two hours of working, while still dressed in his cuts, Norton Styles received an incoming message from his assistant, Morris Smedly:

"Norton," Morris said, "I've just had a revelation."

Norton shook his fist at him, "I'm going to have to get some kind of delay on your calls. This is the third time this week you've just barged in like this." Norton pasted his handlebar mustache on his face and donned a long, purple robe. "Now," he said, "what is it?"

"I heard this voice inside my head," Morris began. Morris' face, to Norton, always seemed the embodiment of the average with his big nose, hollow cheeks, and black, paste-on beard. Only his eyes, which glowed as a side-effect of the minor brain surgery, ever seemed other than bland.

"Well of course it's in your head, ever since they put that speaker up there."

Morris sighed, "That's not what I mean. I had this idea for a new reel."

"Yeah, so?" Norton pasted on his beard so that he looked faintly distinguished.

"We do a religious epic."

Norton sighed, impatiently, "I swear. I should never have promoted you out of the synthaprop department. I mean alien movies, maybe, a kinky sex story, perhaps, but who's going to care about a flickin' religious epic?"

Morris grimaced when he heard the sound of that curse. "No. That's just it; it's not been done in ages."

The girl behind Norton slowly rose and put her arms over his shoulders. She whispered in his ears in her best impersonation of a babydoll voice, "Now you're sure that you can sell that reel." Norton, however, only glanced at the girl, patted her shoulder reassuringly, and continued to listen to Morris.

"You've just got to see how I do this, but it's going to have to take a pretty big budget."

"Alright, alright. You're the creative type. I still remember when you actually made a real cow. Now," he paused, "what's so unique about this?"

"Simple. We're going to DO the story, not recreate it, so the movie will just be kind of a newsreel.

"Oh, Morris," Norton turned to the girl only after she'd taken a less than playful bite from his ear and handed her a few units from his pocket, "Go buy yourself a new paint."

Then Norton returned his attention to the screen, "How are you going to get anyone to believe a bunch of reel actors 'getting religion,' or are you going to cut and paste from the company files-"

Morris put his hand to his head, and Norton could see him getting another of his headaches. After that slush skiing accident the docks had told his assistant to take some synthasol tablets, but Morris never did claiming they hampered his creativity. "We don't use reel actors. We use non-actor types that still know about entertainment."

"I don't understand," Norton said, "but I'll follow you a few steps further. If we're going to be creating some kind of news event, what's to keep all the other companies from sending crews out to pick it up."

Morris' other hand went to his head, and his eyes filled with the pain. "At some point," he said slowly, "the leader of our little group will stop believing in media coverage and ban all reel crews, including ours."

Norton nodded appreciatively. "I'm going to make a reeldirector out of you yet. So then, since our leader bans all the coverage, the public gets excited, and then people inside the group 'leak' the story out, and it just so happens it leaks to us."

Morris just nodded in agreement.

"Who are you going to get to play your 'prophet?'"

Morris' voice said weakly, "You."

"Me?" Norton started. "I've got twenty porno reels out on the market, even if," he winked in the direction the young girl had disappeared, "nobody ever buys them. The public might snatch them up after the story starts, and then where would we be?" His mind searched for other possibilities. Norton knew the less people that involved the greater the possibilities for profit, "How about-"

Morris nodded and looked up at the screen gritting his teeth. Norton sighed at the look in his friend's eyes and vowed that never, never, never would he, Norton Styles, go slush skiing. Slowly, Norton smiled as his finger started to point.

***********************************************************

The crowd of twenty approached the big tower of the Windsome Building in the center of the city of Seria. Norton glanced around at the twenty or so gigantic towers arranged in a circle around this central point and wondered how many millions lived in them and in the underground complexes below and how many of them would be watching. Together he and his assistant walked quietly up the plastic boardwalk that led to the city monument.

"I still think," Morris said, "we ought to demonstrate right on the steps of the Winsome Building. After all, it has the City government contract now."

"Our character," Norton said, wiping his hand across his brow, "isn't interested in government. He's interested in belief. ."

He watched his friend place a coolant towel on his forehead and his white headdress over his hair to cover it so that only his glazed eyes appeared.

"That's it," Morris nodded in approval. "Now they can't see much more than your eyes."

Morris nodded, "Can you review him, again, for me, the character as the writers have drawn him?"

"His name," Norton began, "is Mohammed."

"That sounds familiar," Morris said.

"Yeah," Norton agreed, "it used to be the name of that camel-smell cologne."

Morris turned to inspect the group of women and men, dressed in multicolored shirts and pants and bearing posters saying "No more war," "Make peace," "Black is Beautiful," and "Burn Your Bra." He asked, "What's with these posters and the funny colors?"

Norton shrugged, "We got them out of some old newsreels; they'll add some 'mystery' elements." He paused, "Now you are supposedly against immorality, infidelity, and insurance."

Morris shook his head, "Well, I know what insurance is, and the rates are pretty deadly, but what are those other two things I'm against?"

"Immorality," Norton struggled to think of a definition, "that's like when you violate another man's contract with his partner and you don't give him any units."

"I thought," Morris said, "they called that a 'court case?'"

"Well," Norton shrugged, unperturbed, "and infidelity is when your company has a contract, and it can't be carried out."

Morris said, "I thought they called that 'bankruptcy?'"

"It doesn't matter," Norton snapped, "Mohammad, I'd better start calling you that, no one ever looks through a religious program like a company plan. Besides, you can always ad lib."

Morris, now called Mohammad, asked, "One last question. What am I for?"

Norton thought for a moment: "Like I said, you can always ad lib."

Norton signaled the group to move forward. As they moved, Norton hoped they wouldn't make any mistakes. He'd had a terrible time finding anyone not working or in school on a Sunday, so he'd placed an ad for lonely singles on the Love Channel. He'd contacted each personally until he found enough to bare the signs. As he looked at their faces, a man in flower covered hat started to sing the song Norton had dug from the archives:

"It's a long way out to Texas,
But that is where I'm bound."

The group, on cue, joined in him:

"Where they fill your glass with whiskey,
And they pass the rum around."

As he did so, he observed all the towering buildings, their walls projecting commercials for their products, surrounded the like crowd of marchers like synthetic giants. He could see small cameras, like eyes, following them as they walked along the pathway that led to the center and the city monument, a big, triple life size statue, cast in stone, of a man kneeling in front of a wall, looking up, gazing in wonder. The song continued:

"Texas, it's the home of the free.
Texas, shine from sea to shining sea.
Texas, the hottest state that'll ever be,
Hey Texas, that's the plaaaace for me."

When Morris-Mohammad reached the steps of the monument, he turned and raised his hands, and the voices stopped. He glanced around at the eyes following him, and Norton wondered, vaguely, if the security forces might rush them. That would make great publicity.

Morris started to speak, "My followers, my name was once Morris, but it is now 'Mohammad,' for I've seen the light." He pointed upward at the sun, but his finger pointed to only a sun projection on the city Shield. Morris continued, "for there is a light even behind the light, and there are voices that can be heard only in your head."

Norton chuckled at Morris' line. Since his accident, Morris ears no longer worked correctly, and so the transmitter inside his head converted sound into thought impulses and placed them directly inside his brain.

"I'm here today because the voices, they tell me that things have gone wrong here. There is Evil."

At that signal, the crowd broke into cheers of "Hell no, we won't go! Hell no we won't go!"

"I'm here," the speaker's voice gathered intensity, and Norton could see pain again coming to his assistant, "to speak out against insurance," he paused, "infidelity, and, and, and......" and then he faltered. Norton wished he'd taken the time to feed the speech to his assistant's wrist access panel; he mouthed the word silently, "immorality, immorality, immorality!"

Morris leaned forward, and then fell to his knees. A couple of the marchers gasped, but made no attempt to help him. Morris eyes' glazed a dull red, and then, his mouth open in pain, he slowly turned his gaze upward. He stopped when his eyes met the city statue.

"Inhumanity. We," he said, "have worshipped false Gods. We've fallen in love," he rose suddenly, the anger of his pain translated to the words, "with our own image."

He pointed to the towers and their continuing progression of commercials, "We have become mere watchers as the machines do the living."

He stretched his arms out, and shook his fist at the happy looking statue: "We have to build ourselves back up again by tearing down the false Gods!"

The followers, all twenty, started to cheer about the same time as the security forces rolled out. One officer, armed with a blaster, escorted ten or so self-propelled guncarts.

As the enforcement units slapped their plastic cuffs on Morris, Norton exclaimed, "Great job. Great," but his friend simply moved along tears coming from his eyes.

**********************************************************

Norton didn't know what to make of what he saw outside his window. Since their public disturbance case, he'd hardly seen his friend. Now Morris rode silently in the constricted back seat in the back of the leveler.

"Why," Norton asked, "do we have to go outside?"

Morris spoke, still lying down, "Well, Court 84C ordered that I make a payment to 5,000 credits to the access repair fund. What more effective way to defy the authority of the Court than the flee the City entirely?"

Norton sighed. They'd driven down the road from the walls of the city to the edge of the outside. He'd seen the the Squatters huts on the edge of the city where the last normal-looking plants appeared. Further still, he'd spotted crumbling walls, stunted pines, and the scurrying, inhuman looking men he guessed had to be the Outsiders. But for hours they'd driven on the remnants of the road in this five-tracked leveler without seeing any signs of life at all. The last scrub pines had faded into sand, and beyond the metal of the vehicle, his view screens showed nothing except desert.

"Isn't this far enough," Norton said, "I mean..."

Morris sat up and pointed to the viewscreen over their heads showing the sky above. "Look, Norton, like I said, the sun."

Norton did see it now, a light blazing with an intensity they'd never seen in their entire lives. He'd heard rumors that somewhere outside the sun still shone, clean and warm, but he laughed bitterly at the irony: the sun shone only over the lifeless desert. He looked at their driver, one of the unemployed his assistant had hired for this shoot. His clothes hung in rags, and his big hands covered the dials of the machine like he'd driven many times before.

"How did you get this leveler?" Norton asked.

The man stated nonchalantly, "I stole it."

Norton shook his head and looked in the rear viewscreen at the shielded cartload of fellows Morris had brought with him: poor mothers, the unemployed, even squatters. "What are you paying those people, Morris?" Norton asked.

"I'm not paying them anything," Morris replied. "They are actual followers."

Norton said, "I don't like this Morris, playing with the law, using people under false pretenses. Credits can buy many things, even justice, but..."

"So now," Morris said, with a sudden intensity, "you're into to Right and Wrong. What an interesting set of concepts. Before we get into them, though, I'd like you to stop calling me Morris. It gives me a headache."

Just as he said 'headache,' he suddenly yelled: "Stop!" The leveler ground to a halt as its five tracks dug into the sand, and Morris jumped out of the hatch of the big vehicle.

The followers climbed out of the cart behind them and followed Morris across the sand over a small hill. Running after them, Norton felt the perspiration as the hot sun beat down on him. When he saw Morris suddenly halt, Norton saw that Morris had found whatever he searched for.

He could see the followers, shedding clothes, all except for the white headdresses they wore on their head as they ran towards a small building, rectangular-shaped, no more than a story tall, and barely wide enough to fit three men inside. It stood on a small hill above the sand.

"Here, it is Norton," Morris said, and Norton wondered that, during the entire trip, he'd never seen Morris consult a map panel. Then Morris, leaping up beside the small structure, raised his voice, "Here it is everybody! The heart of the city, the monument to the Gods!"

"What is it?" Norton asked.

Morris laughed, "This tiny building, built in the middle of nowhere, with no defenses, houses the entire macromicrochip bank of the city: movie reels; history; diagrams; control accesses... It's all here."

Norton gasped as he looked at the little building that housed all the essential data for the entire City of Seria. He knew that the City Hall supposedly held all this, but it occurred to him now that the building had been hidden to try to save it from enemy attacks.

For the first time, Norton realized this part they'd created had gotten out of control. Morris, perhaps due to his headaches or the security psyche interrogation, really seemed to believe the things he said. Norton's hands shook as he watched Morris take out a hand blaster. A shiver ran down his spine.

"No. Morris. Don't!"

The followers turned and looked at Norton angrily. They surrounded him and held him to make sure he didn't interrupt their leader. Morris, watching them, seemed surprised by the violence of their actions, and said: "Let him go people."

They released Norton, and Morris' eyes started to take on that glazed appearance. "Do you see," he pointed to the black little building. "if I made one shot, their Gods would die."

"You idiot!" Norton yelled. "All life supports are tied into those channels. The clouds would RAIN, and there'd be no Shield. There'd be no communication. It might take them weeks to get back to normal."

"There'd be no screen schools," Morris said in obvious pleasure, "there'd be no science!"

"There'd be no elevators, no food dispensers!"

"They'd have to learn to cope with their neighbors," Morris concluded triumphantly, "instead of just closing the portals and turning on the screens. Their Gods would die," he sighed, "and then they'd see."

"Morris," Norton pleaded as he closed the distance between them, "If you do this, then you're telling people what to worship, whom they should believe in. Then you're playing God too."

Morris eyebrows lowered beneath his towel, but he aimed the blaster upward towards the machine. Suddenly his head bowed down in pain, and Norton made a violent rush towards him, hitting his hand, and a charge flew torching a single corner of the building, frying it instantly into a black pile of dirt. Morris crumbled to the ground holding his head in pain.

The followers crowded around their fallen leader, ignoring Norton in their alarm.

"They'll be here in an hour," one of the followers said, "but no cameras recorded that. We can get Him off."

Norton could smell the burned up circuitry but didn't bother to look at the building. Instead, he stared over the follower's shoulders at his former assistant. His friend looked so small, lying there in a pile of sand his face half covered by his white robe. Norton crowded in close, and he saw his friend's red eyes open.

"Norton?" he said, looking upward.

"Morris," Norton answered, "we're in real trouble here. You've damaged a City installation. God knows how much it'll cost to repair."

"Norton," the other said, looked directly at Norton, but looking still more dazed.

"Before we do anything else, though," Norton said, "you've got to tell me something. You wouldn't have really burned that whole building?"

"Norton?" Morton repeated, and then added slowly, "I can see you, but I can't hear you."

Then Norton knew that whatever the blaster shot had done to the city, it'd also discontinued the electronic hearing services it provided to its only critic.

Morris sat up and then shakily got to his feet. He said to the circle. "My name is Mohammad Morris." He picked up the fallen blaster and handed it to Norton. "Do with it what you want."

Morris started to walk, not towards the leveler, nor towards the city building, but in a totally different direction, off into the desert. Whether the desert extended in a hundred miles or a hundred feet, no one knew.

"Where are you going!" Norton yelled, but he knew that the other man couldn't hear him. Mohammad would hear nothing from the outside any more. With each stride in the sand, Morris seemed to gain strength. The followers split, a few shambling after Morris Mohammad and a few fleeing towards the leveler.

Morris had gone a few hundred steps when he turned, as though he'd forgotten something important, and looked back, directly at his former boss. Norton could see his friend's eyes, machines circuitry off, but still lit, head silhouetted against the warm desert sun. The deaf man's hand slowly extended in a silent motion towards Norton that said: "Follow me."



************************************

19. IT'S NOT OVER TILL.....

**************************************

Ron cursed himself as he watched the screen started to fix on a single, hefty female form dressed in a silver space suit. She opened her mouth and out came a song:

"Oh let me hold the stars again,
You hold my lover in your arms.
The ground can hold me no longer...

"Haih," he shook his head. "Return to work station." The screen cleared in front of him and he picked up his technolizer and looked, again, at the character profiles for the Null's company. How many times had he searched these dossier's, files, before, he wondered.

"Steth," a voice snapped, and Ms. Heindeman's sharp features filled the screen. Her curly blonde hair sat on her shoulders uneasily, and she shook her head.

"I was," he started, "just reviewing the file folders one more time."

She shook her head, and her look suggested she'd been monitoring him for some time, "Steth. I've overridden your program controls in the office. You can't seem to stay focused on the problem at hand." She sighed, "All my reports on you indicate you are one of the top social systems analyzers. Yet you can't find one single, disfunctioning employee?"

Ron Steth shook his head. "I'm sorry, MS. Heindeman. I realize I've not done the job for you yet. Perhaps you should replace me-"

"How would that look," she snapped, her middle-aged features contorted. "We bring in an outside consultant to solve our morale problem, the computers analyze it as a single employee, and we still can't find that person. Our stockholders will panic."

She didn't wait for his response, "Now what I've done is I've cut you off from everything except company personnel records. You will come here each day, working nine to eight, just any other office station employee, until you find that single person."

"That's not in our contr-"

"As compensation," she ignored the interruption, "Nulls Corporation will give you permanent access to all our entertainment reels, free of charge." She paused. "I don't know what you're watching in there, and I probably don't care, but you won't do it on my company's time."

The image snapped out, and Ron shook his head. He couldn't break a contract with Nulls, or he'd be ruined as an independent social systems consultant. Someone here spread dissatisfaction, and he had to find that person.

***************************************************

When he got home that night, he immediately sat down at his console, and announced:

"Access: Nulls Company, all entertainment records pertaining to opera."

"Opera," the pleasant female voice, hummed, "'opera' must be defined for search."

He snapped his finger, and a metal box lowered from the ceiling and opened. He pulled a vile of algaebeer from his pop-down refrigerator and snapped his finger again. As the refrigerator popped up, he said: "Opera is a form of musical entertainment with no speech, except to light accompaniment of a stringed instrument, like a mandolin, and performed like a play, a very bloody play."

The listing appearing, and he spied all the standard repertoire: MACBETH, REAGAN AND THE CONTRA HORDE, THE FALL OF CHINA, VITO AMBROSIA, ZEN COMPUTERS, THIGHS OF LIFE, THE NEGATOR VIRUS, and, of course, THE MARTIAN MISSION.

The list of orchestra and singers, however, showed him nothing new. He'd heard them all before. The mere thought of listening to Gopo Kikone and the Slimonian City Orchestra drone through THE FALL OF CHINA, again, almost made him want to clear the screen.

"Access: list alphabetically according to female lead singer." A flash, and then the listing reappeared, and he thumbed through the listing, and spotted a name he'd never heard before: Aria Denied. The name, he knew, must be some kind of a psuedonym. The listing called for the Greenich City Orchestra. For a second, curiosity overcame him, but then the long hours of fatigue caused him to grit his teeth and announce:

"Play: Nancy Fina and the Greenich Symphony Orchestra perform THE MARTIAN MISSION.

Obediently, the drone of synthelizers and halopianos began as the orchestra began its meticulously played version of the overture. Ron stifled a yawn when the long number ended.

Then the stage, a long hallway with white corridors, like the actual base, filled the screen. Out waddled the hefty lead soprano, the dean of this generation of sopranos, Nancy Fina, draped out in a white spacesuit. Over the single synthalin, she sang the first few lines:

"Long have we dreamed of the stars,
White dots like gods in the sky.
Now another world's beneath our feet.

"And sometimes we wonder why," Ron blurted out. He knew that wasn't the correct line. His line would rhyme, and opera, these days, never rhymed. Ms. Fina, however, had finished the correct line by this time, and launched into the aria that had made her famous on art telescreens across the country: "Half a Million Dreams From Home."

"Half a million dreams from home,
The windows fill with storms of red.
I could love just to look at an ocean
Or a sunlight that fills the sky."

Ron heard that voice, reaching two octaves above his, hitting each note with the precision of a computer. He shook his head, and said: "Access: fidelity panel."

A tiny square appeared on the edge of his wall and showed: "distance from perfect pitch: 0.015," "errors in delivery: 0.13," "distortion of reproduction: .001..."

He took another sip of his drink and listened:

"Where are holes with their houses,
The towers that rise towards the clouds?
We dreamed we'd find a stairway to the stars;
Oh for a way to go hoooooome."

As the song continued, Ron slowly slipped into sleep.

***********************************************************

Ron watched the look on the older man's face. The man knew that everything he said went on record. Ron waited, feigning impatience, clicking his finger on the desk as they talked in the little room.

"So you say that you don't know that productivity is down in your section."

"Productivity," Mr. Lion Sedric stated, "is not down. We are talking about seasonal produce, so there's a natural slump in production."

Ron looked directly at the man, "Isn't it true, Mr. Sedric, I can call you Lion, right."

"Call me anything you want," Mr. Sedric said testily.

"Okay Lio," Ron sneered, "isn't it true that you have a serious interest in gardening, and in fact, don't like to see plants harmed."

Mr. Sedric looked at him, "What are you trying to say?" The man stood up, tall and thin, and slammed his hands on the table: "On second thought, I don't really care what you think. They can fire me if they think I'm not doing the job, but I'm not taking this!"

Before Ron counted to three, the man had left through the portal, and Ms. Heindeman reappeared on the near wall screen. Obviously, he guessed, she'd been observing.

"What are you doing?" she said, the anger and exhaustion showing in her features. "Face to face interviews?"

Ron knew using physical presence as a tool constituted something a little unethical for his profession, but he'd not the found the problem, even after two weeks of uninterrupted work. Why did Nulls have a ten percent productivity drop? Why did the morale monitors say employees had a high dissatisfaction index? Only fifty human employees work for Nulls, and he couldn't find the problem. It seemed more elusive than finding a good opera.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Heindeman, I'm about ready to give up."

"If you do," she warned, "you're finished," and then she lowered her head into her hands, "and so am I."

He thought for a split second of his second degree and going back to agricultural engineering. As he thought about it, the smell of plants, even synthe plants, would do better than these four-walled offices. Ron suddenly felt a vague pity for the angry woman staring at him, "I'm sorry that I have to bring you down."

Ms. Heindeman's reading the look on his face, hardened, "I wish you'd stick to your job-" she concluded, "while you have it."

****************************************************

Ron scanned the list for the twentieth time, and again he saw the listing for Aria Denied, and he took a deep sip of his purewater before announcing: "Play: Aria Denied."

The opening few minutes seemed very familiar. A clinical version of the opening overture. It took a minute to identify the orchestra, and then he knew that this production had taken Nancy Fina and the Greenich Symphony Orchestra's recording and simply replaced Nina with Aria Denied, whoever she might be. He shook his head Some companies would do anything, he thought, to save a few units. Still, he reflected, as the camera zoomed in on the familiar white hallway, what did it matter? With sound filters, computer tone collators, etc. every note came nearly mathematically perfect anyway.

When the figure emerged in the hallway of the deck, however, he noticed white foam of unfilled image around the edges of the trim, vaguely pretty brunette. Usually, a singing star, he knew, took Bulgeall to fit into the size frame of the other lead soprano, so all sopranos needed to be considerably girthed.

When the brunette looked forward, however, she moved not like a stock character, but like a real person, and something about her said something, something different:

"Long have we dreamed of the stars,
White dots like gods in the sky,
Now another world's beneath our feet."

She didn't sing the notes, barely stuck to the rhythm, but spoke like a whispered poem, and Ron, watching her, knew that she really wanted to be on Mars, to be on that mission, in some way, wanted to feel that Martian missionary girl's pain. He sat up, and she walked forward and shook the curls out of her hair:

"Half a million dreams from home,
The windows fill with storms of red."

He could hear her, not exactly hitting all the notes, dragging some, putting on a quavering vibrato:

"I could love just to look at an ocean
Or a sunlight that fills the sky."

It struck him then. She'd not used any of the recording equipment, any of the corrective devices. She'd just sang this as she felt it.

"Hold!" he screamed, and the screen froze with her hand raised to look at the portal supposedly open to the Martian sky. This was not perfect; it was not technically correct; it was, was felt, alive. "Access:" he said, "Company records pertaining to anyone matching physical image of singer in still."

"Searching-" the soprano voice declared, "-none."

An amateur, he thought, an amateur. "Search all opera files in my library for physical match."

"Searching," the warm, female voice replied, "None."

One last try he thought. "Search all records accessible for match." He knew that would search the records of the whole City, possibly the country.

"Projected completion time: one week, plus hundred hours. Warning: cost will cause credit overl-"

"Fine." He sat up and looked at the screen again. "Release hold."

"Where are holes with their houses,
The towers that rise towards the clouds?
We dreamed we find a stair to the stars.
Oh for a way to go hoooooome."

As she held that note, and he saw the look of longing, longing to long, a shiver ran down his spine.

*****************************************************

"I don't know, what you are trying to say."

Ron watched the back of his own blonde head shaking, in the replayed reel, saw his own confusion, heard his own voice stammer, "Your relationship with female computer just seems more than professional.."

"Cut," Ron announced, "Home work station: Subject: Jennifer Wells." The screen tuned in and he watched Ms. Wells lying on her back, her stuffed poodle under her arm, staring at the wall right back into his eyes. He swallowed.

"Cut," Ron announced, "Fish Research Facility Nanook Island: Subject," he couldn't think of the man's name. Three months of research, and he'd forgotten an employee's name.

He shook his head: "Clear screen," he said, After eight hours, he could take no more, "Play transportable inserted labeled: 'contraband.' Forward to opening aria."

The left wall filled, and he could see it again, the corridor on Mars and hear the orchestra starting to play.

The voice started to sing again, and he took a refreshing breath, like he'd just gotten a bottle of Oxynol.

"Mr. Steth," Ms. Heindeman's tight, controlled, voice rang on the other wall, and he could see her face, brown hair curled her head, and looking clear across the room. "What are you-----"

Hearing the soprano voice on screen, Ron didn't really care. "I'm watching something beautiful," he said.

For a moment, her eyes remained transfixed on the slender figure surrounded by the field of white. Then her eyebrows narrowed, "Opera?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "This girl is the only one I've seen in years that has any real feeling. She-"

"That's it," Ms. Heinemann said angrily, her brown eyes still fixed on the screen. "You have one week in which to come up with the answer. And I want you to return all Company records at that time, including," she hissed, "entertainment tapes."

"It's, not perfect, but it's alive, Ms. Heindeman," he sighed, "and I don't think it matters very much to me, right now, if I find your problem. This reel you can take from me, but I'll always have this performance."

**************************************************

Ms. Heindeman, wearing a dull black jumpsuit, her hair tied back tightly in a knot, walked into his small office.

"Okay," she said to Ron, and did not sit down, "what is it you have? Your deadline is up today?"

He touched the small, fluffy green fern in a rice plant container before him and heard it make a gentle cooing sound. "You know," he said, "it took the labs years to come up with this plant, to make the natural sound of the plant magnified so that a human ear can hear it."

She shook her head, "So what?"

He sighed, "Sit down."

She took the seat opposite him, saying, "Do you know where the problem is or not?"

He carefully pushed the plant across the table to her. "Here. Touch it."

She cautiously ran her hand across the plant and heard it coo. She started to smile but then looked at Ron. "The latest reports show that we no longer have a problem. Did you identify the viral person, the one spreading the discontent?"

He smiled, "If you didn't hear that plant, if we hadn't genetically magnified it 10,000 times, would it still make the cooing sound when you run your hand across it?"

"Is that supposed to be a tautology?" she said impatiently. "I'll play along. Yes it would coo."

"What if you didn't run your hand across it, caress it?"

She shrugged, "Of course not. Are you trying to tell me that we have someone here that doesn't give enough positive feedback to our employees. Well, all our monitors show that to be incorrect."

"What I'm saying," he said, "is you have a plant that wants to coo so badly, but is being ignored." He stared, then, directly at her.

She looked uncomfortable, "Is this another of your interviews? I'm sorry, my psyche profile says I do not need a lot of physical and even less sexual contact."

Ron turned his eyes away and stared at the plant:

"Now, the Company problem disappeared about a weak ago. You see, I accidentally touched this forgotten plant, and it cooed so loud that the entire company felt it."

Her eyebrows rose, "Then you know who it is?"

"You know," he said, "I had my computer begin a gigantic search to find that singer I'd seen in this chopped together version of THE MARTIAN EXPEDITION. I had it stop the search, after two days, because as soon as I saw the results from the company morale monitors, I knew immediately who the singer was. You see, there was only one person who saw even a second of that tape."

"Okay," she said softly, her eyes looking down, "I made that tape, ten years ago. It's amateurish, and it's poor. I'm a Company personnel director not an opera singer." She looked him the eyes and gathered her composure: "I'm not even fat enough to fill the screen image."

He reached across the table and put his hand gently on hers. "All that plant does is produce oxygen. That's its job, but that's not all it is. There's more to a person than his or her job."

Gently Ron stroked her cold hand and said: "You've turned so against a part of yourself that it has effected your work."

He waited for her reply, but she responded only by turning back down towards the table. He turned his head slightly and saw a tear running down her cheek.

"But what does it matter. What difference does it make?"

He crossed the table and helped her to her feet. "You know as well as I do. You can't lie to yourself any more. So long as one person is listening, you can sing, you must sing...."

He put his hand very gently under her chin so he could see into her eyes, "Come on."

Her face screwed up like someone who is lost and far away from home. "I, I can't," she pleaded, "not any more."

"I'll give you the words: sing for me. It starts with," and his voice broke against the notes,

"Long have we dreamed of the stars,
white dots like gods in the sky,
to see what no others have seen,
but we found only clouds of dust."

His arms still held her up and she spoke shakily, completing the line: "Half a million dreams from home. The windows fill with storms of red."

Then she sang softly:
"I could love just to look at an ocean
Or a sunlight that fills the sky."

Then Ron let her shoulders go slowly, and she remained standing gaining strength with each line:

"Where are holes with their houses,
The towers that rise towards the clouds?"

She looked towards the sky waiting for some imaginary rescue mission from the Earth that, in all the fifty productions Ron had watched, never arrived.

"We dreamed we'd find a stair to the stars,"

A shiver ran down his spine as he sang the last line with her, two octaves below, his tenor terribly bad. Neither voice perfect, but both were alive:

"Oh for a way to go hoooooome."



*************************************

20. THE OUTSIDERS

*************************************

With an angry shove, Derek threw the big rat from him. In the clearing under the stunted pines, its eyes blazed an angry shade of red. The animal snarled and leaned back on its haunches for a final leap. Derek felt the unfamiliar weight of the blaster in his hand, and as the creature leaped, at point blank range, he pulled the trigger. A short bolt of light and an explosion turned the rat in bundle of fried fur that landed in his lap.

Derek threw it from him on the ground and lay gasping. The horrible tension of the last few days suddenly penetrated him, and he started sobbing. Even as the tears ran down his cheeks, however, his overpowering hunger turned his stomach over and over. His eyes slowly cleared and started to focus on the body of the rat. The smell of the roasted flesh and his own hunger got to him, and he started to get up and move towards it.

He took two slow steps, but, as he looked down at the rat's body, he had the feeling something watched his every move. He looked up and spotted an enormous man, almost black, wearing only the remains of a few pieces of cloth and a blue bandanna; the man held a wooden spear aimed directly at Derek.

Derek could think of nothing, at that brief second, except his hungry awareness of the fried meat before him and that the other meant to take his rat. He raised the blaster and pulled the trigger, only to hear a quiet "click."

The black quizzically looked at Derek's pointed weapon even as he slowly approached with the spear. The man's head still remained turned in curiosity as he moved towards Derek.

Derek saw that spear point coming closer and closer, and he realized there was nothing he could do. He looked at the complex weapon he held in his hand and felt an exasperated fury at the blaster more than anything. He thought, a thousand years of technology, and I'm about to be killed by a spear.

His anger caused him to throw the piece of metal and, to Derek's surprise, it hit the other on the head. The polished carburondum handle collided with a "crack," and the strange, dark man fell to the floor in the clearing, dead.

Derek shook his head. It occurred to him then that he'd killed a man. He wondered what he should do about it, but then that days' old hunger predominated over all other emotions. He sat down on the ground and took the warm rat carcass and picked it up. He ripped it open with his bare hands and started to eat. The violent motions he made vaguely reminded him of the rat's rushes when he accidentally stumbled upon its mound. As he tore at the body, voices seemed to sound in his ears:

Rational voices: "Sir, Mr. Neolite, no chemical rocket technicians are needed just now." "I'd say, Derek, that chemical rockets have become obsolete." "Rocketry is a lost art, and with it, the jobs." He pulled one leg from the rat and stuffed the flesh from it in his mouth.

Businesslike voices: "Shepherdry? No we've got all we need, sir." "No, it's fish with us now." "Sorry, buddy, but only use artificial fabrics these days." He ripped another leg from the creature.

Female voices: "Male companion? Sorry, I'm into images." "You're a little too 'small' for me, Charlie." "You?" He bit into the forelegs and fed his two-days-starving stomach.

Computer voices: "All searches complete. No jobs. Access bill unpaid. Service: discontinued." His hand reached into the creature's mouth and extracted its brain.

A familiar voice: "Sorry honey, the contract's over. I can't support you forever." His hand extracted the rat's heart.

And angry voices: "No credits, bum, no unit. Pack your stuff." "Hey, jerk, get out from under my building!"

Looking up, across the clearing, he remembered how only a year ago he'd led a troop of Cook Company boy scouts outside. Then they'd erected roped shields against the rain and brought bottles of water, and, now, he could only look at his tattered remnants of clothes in disgust and wonder what the boy scouts would think of him now. As he drank some of the rat's blood, he said:

"I've got to try to keep some semblance of humanity about me, or I can never go back to that city again."

Again, he had the feeling someone watched him. He looked up and spotted a man looked at him from the trees. The man had brown, tanned, scarred skin covered with a few aged rags and a red bandanna holding his long black hair. He looked at Derek, and his head turned in curiosity. He held a wooden spear pointed downward.

Derek stood up and faced him, his two hands forming into small fists. The other said, "Horalee, vato. Kick back. You can have your rat."

The words startled Derek, and he realized he'd not heard a word since wandering off from the outskirts of Newcastle two days before.

"Who," Derek could hear the harsh voice coming from between his clinched teeth and knew it had to be his, "are you?"

"Me? I'm a Rata," the other stated with obvious pride, "My name is Mortero." He looked at the remnants of Derek's black and blue bathrobe. "So what!" He threw last remark off like it answered some question and challenge. When Derek did not respond, he asked, "And what are you?"

"I'm," Derek hesitated, "I'm chronically unemployed."

The other puzzled for almost a minute. "Hey, man, I never heard of them."

Derek put in, "There's lots of us around, but not here."

"You got a tag?"

Derek guessed what the other wanted: "My name is Derek Neolite,"

Mortero shook his head, "That too long."

Then Mortero spotted the dead black man lying in the clearing and pointed his stick at the body. "You kill a Mutha," Mortero said, "you be okay."

Mortero extended his dirty, scarred palm, and Derek took it, only to have the other swing him around twice, smack him in a somewhat playful manner, and hug him, before releasing his hand again.

"You never shake hands before?" Mortero frowned.

"The unemployed don't do that so much," Derek said.

"What am I gonna do with you, essay?" Mortero asked, and for another minute he sat puzzling. At the end of that time, he looked Derek straight in the eye. "I'm going to take you to my Uncle. He know what to do."

Mortero turned without bothering to ask Derek what he thought about his decision and Derek, shrugging his shoulders, fell into step behind him. The brown man led along a mile long path in which the vegetation got progressively more barren with each few hundred yards, until only stunted pines and strands of black shark grass remained. Once, they forded a small stream that poured forth from a broken hole in a pipe up on a hillside. Here and there, Derek spotted a rat's mound a walking shark or two, but no other signs of life.

All along the way, however, Derek noticed odd writing and carvings. Sometimes, he'd see stones marked with dirt, in other places, parts of old houses marked with odd, dark red paint. He couldn't recognize the language, or even the characters, and, at one point, he asked Mortero:

"Hey," he pointed, "What does that writing say?"

Mortero shrugged and pointed, "I don't know what it 'say'" he puzzled, "but it means territory of the Ratas." He touched one particularly crude set of lines topped by a tiny skull, "See, essay, that's me."

Finally, the trail emerged at a small clearing. In the center stood the remains of four of five old buildings, only one of which still had a roof, interspersed with strands of black sharkgrass. The writing completely covered the outsides of the buildings, one set of marking splotted over another, and a few of the peculiar characters had been crossed out.

About fifteen or so brown-skinned men, most of them fat and dressed little better than Mortero sat or slouched in front of the near wall of the one remaining roofed building. They held pointed wooden sticks in their hands, but to Derek's eyes, they seemed less guarding the building than simply attached to it.

They stared at Mortero and Derek with only a distant curiosity. Their blank stares gave Derek the curious feeling that they might've been standing there a hundred years, with nothing better to do or think of doing, and that they might remain there until the last ruins of that wall faded into dust.

One of the men emerged from the building then, a powerfully built man with a mustache and a piece of broken glass in his hand, like a knife. He scowled at Derek and approached warily.

Derek guessed this man had to be a leader. From his limited conversations with Mortero he concluded the other knew little English, and he decided to try something different.

"Habla espanol?"

The other's teeth clinched, and he looked at Mortero angrily. "Where'd you get this from. He don't even speak American." He slapped Derek's shoulder with his open palm, "He aint no gangster either."

He struck his hand out harder this time, but Derek's reflexes, tempered by two years as company handwhack champion, triggered an immediate, three-move reaction. Before the attacker knew what'd happened, Derek held the gangster's arm twisted up into his back and was slowly breaking the wrist holding the piece of glass.

"Kick back, Chile, Neo," Mortero pleaded.

The other men slowly converged on the three, taking a while to decide what they'd do. They'd formed a circle to consider a while longer when a voice from the woods cried.

"Mosquitoes, homboys, mosquitoes!"

The whole group rushed back into the one standing building just as Derek could hear the buzzing sound coming from the woods. He looked over his shoulder and saw the big insects gathering for an attack. The Ratas went to the windows of the small, dirt-floored hut and used their wooden sticks to try to keep the five-foot-long stingers from finding a target.

In their haste, they completely forgot Derek, who rushed in the building with them and then stood in the center of the room watching them and looking around. The one room building contained a number of ragged piles of nest-like cloth and one real, metal bed. On the bed he could see a grizzled old man.

The one called Chile left his post at the window to go over to the bed. He whispered something, and the old man propped himself up weakly and called to Derek:

"Extrano."

Derek crossed the floor warily, keeping his eyes on Chile. When he sat down near the bed, he could see the man's form, covered with scars and a couple of pictures burned onto his skin. The man's bones nearly stood out through his emaciated chest, and Derek could smell the old-timer suffered from some kind of wasting disease.

"What are you?" the old man asked.

Derek grunted, looking at Chile, "I'm a chemical rocket technician, a female companion, and a shepherd. Most recently, I'm gainfully unemployed."

The old man glanced at Chile. Chile's face questioningly looked at the old man waiting to see his reaction, and the old man nodded at Derek automatically. "Of course. I understand." Chile still looked puzzled and the old man said, "You may leave Nephew."

For a moment, Derek felt optimistic. Here he'd located a person in authority who might actually understand something. With his own learning, maybe he could do something here:

"So," Derek asked, "You are the 'Outsiders.'?"

The old man looked confused. "What is an 'Outsider'? Are they like the Muthas?"

"Old man," he began.

"No, joven, I'm called 'Uncle.' I am the Uncle, the Giver of Names, of the Ratas."

"Do you know," Derek began, he could hear the buzzing of insects and the cries of the Ratons, "that less than two miles," he corrected himself immediately, "a short time's walk from here there are better fields, water that's almost unpolluted, and more food than here?"

The buzzing had started to die away. The man sat up painfully on his ragged bed, and he pointed off with both hands at the stunted pines, the shark grass, and the painted walls around them, "This," he said, "is our barrio."

Derek tried again, "But this about the deadest place in the entire world."

The old man did not seem to understand the meaning of Derek's remarks. He said simply, "These are our walls. These are our streets. The bones of our pandilla go here. This is the place of the Ratas."

Derek could sense the others moving closer to him, and they grunted approval of their leader's remark. The wasting old man sat up painfully as though his statements had settled everything.

Looking at the old man, Derek knew, then, that many of things written about the Outsiders must be true. As the stories said, there appeared to be no women among them. He also doubted if a single one of them could read or write, had ever even been to school. They probably could not even repair the shacks they occupied. The stories said that the Outsiders had lived in their places ever since the times of the old cities because they did not know enough to move.

"Are you ready," the Uncle asked, "to take a new name, to live with us, to enjoy the ceremony, to become a Rata?"

Derek's mind didn't waver. He had nothing to lose; he had no place to go. Derek replied ironically, "I already am a rat."

As they started to remove his clothing, Derek heard Chile's remark whispered in his ear. "You're lucky you're not becoming one of the Saints. Their ceremony makes your voice high!"

One after another, they came at him. Throughout, beneath the pile of men, Derek wanted to scream, but he held his tongue. When the last of them had removed himself, the sweat and defilement dripping from him, Derek opened his mouth and let off an inhuman yell of pain and rage.

**********************************************************

Cyrus followed the man named Mortero into the hut of the dreaded Leader of the Ratas. Mortero looked at Cyrus' soft hands one more time and then shoved the prisoner unto the dirt floor.

Cyrus looked around the hut. It looked handmade from scraps of old wood. On the right hand side, he could see a shelf lined with rotting skulls, beneath them, written in some crude red ink, the word "Mothers."

On the walls, he could also see crude drawings that ran in a circle, like a cartoon strip, and scribbled slashings, that might be characters, topped by various animal symbols. Against the other wall, rested a great bow made of wood and a pile of carved, fire-hardened arrows feathered with parts of mosquito wings.

Then his eyes traveled to the center and the wooden table strapped together from scrapwood and placed next to the small fire.

"Uncle," Mortero said, and Cyrus looked across the table at the Leader. He looked as dark as the other, and he wore little more than rags over his body. He wore a robe of sewn-together raincoats over his head tied in place with a red bandanna. Between this headdress and his black, crudely-trimmed mustache, Cyrus couldn't see much of the man's features except his eyes. A scarred hand reached out to grasp a vial made from some hollowed bone.

The Uncle's voice said, from beneath the robe, "What, are you?"

"I'm," Cyrus began, "a nuclear physicist, an animal psychiatrist, and a teacher, but most recently, gainfully unemployed."

The Leader roared with heavy laughter and spoke aside to Mortero, as though addressing someone vastly more important than Cyrus, "See Mortero. Here is another of my old homeys. I told you if we moved to the edge of the city, we'd make the Ratas like no other pandilla."

"Si, mi patria," Mortero answered.

Just at that moment, another man entered the tent. He looked little different from Mortero, except that a long scar ran on the right side of his face where there had once been an ear; he shook hands with both the Leader and Mortero in a three part movement before bowing slightly towards the hooded man.

"What is, Chile?" the Leader demanded.

"Uncle, we have put the Holy Stones and the bones of our dead Uncle on the ccc-," he struggled.

"Cart," the Leader cut in, "Good. Then we are ready to move!"

Chile bowed slightly and left. Only then did the Leader turn his attention back to Cyrus. He said: "Well, do you think you could use some of that 'nuclear technology' to make us," he pointed to the wall, "some better arrows than these?"

"Well," Cyrus began, and suddenly he felt in control of the situation. Knowledge, with these uncivilized people, might go a long way, "actually, I think you might better use my talents to start raising some domestic animals, like rats." He leaned back slightly, "Or maybe I might teach some of these people how to read."

The Leader's hand came down so hard on the wooden table that the liquid in the cup spilled. Cyrus swallowed as he looked at that fist resting on the table with wine dripping from it like a bleeding stone.

"Homey, I don't want to hear about 'domestication,'" he snarled and stared directly at Cyrus. "It's not for that I'm called 'Shepherd'!"

Cyrus felt the shivers as he looked directly into the man's eyes for the first time. He could see only reflections of the fire burning, burning, burning.



********************************

21. HA! HA! HA!

********************************

Zelda Syche looked in the mirror in dissatisfaction. She could see little more than the vaguest outlines of feminine attributes to her body. Her face formed a little square topped by black curls stacked like microcells. She frowned, but in the mirror, she spotted her prized possessions and decided to give them one more look before going to sleep.

She stared at the boxes and keyboards. One, rather crude, machine held letters that looked like Rackintosh and a tiny view screen that ran on electricity. Another held a round screen and two big dots at the bottom like eyes. Some day, she hoped, she'd own a dozen of these antiques and open a museum.

She called "chair," and her single chair lowered down. She played with it a moment passing between the desks before placing it before her new addition, a computer that said IBM, which, she guessed, stood for Inusuky Boyard Machines, a very old company. She eased her stumpy legs into the chair and touched the keys on the primitive access panel. She let her imagination free for a moment and wondered what they did on this machine. Did they design those crude rockets, try gene cutting, or attempt to cure hypoleria?

An image came to her mind of a tan-skinned man, somewhere between twenty and fifty. The man had brown hair that collapsed limply atop his forehead, an average nose, and hazel eyes behind those things the museums called 'glasses.' His uninteresting figure rested before the keyboard, maybe making something, maybe contemplating the then unheard of power of a few hundred megabytes. The image seemed ludicrous until she watched the stranger open his mouth and silently mouth her own reaction.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

She jumped up, startled. The scene seemed so real, so alive, and somehow frightening. She wished she'd not seen the Company soc and heard his advice about collecting being a cure for her "delusions of impermanence."

She pulled down the sleeping mats and fell into a shallow sleep. In her dreams, she did not see the epic dream of "Desert Rats," promised by Sitwell Circuitry, but she saw him again. His fingers worked the keyboard, and a tense look covered his face. His green eyes looked somehow mischievous. Each keystroke seemed to somehow touch Zelda's body at the same time as the machine, like a hand organ playing its strings.

When she woke up the next morning, she decided she'd get into the shower immediately and then turn on the work station. That, she hoped, would banish that image from her mind. Work, she thought, always worked. She stepped into the second room, and as she started to drop her sleeping robe, she had an odd feeling someone watched her every move.

When she'd finished her shower, and it'd folded back onto the ceiling, she said: "Mirror," and immediately a picture appeared of a beautiful dark-skinned, brown eyed woman, with the curves of a reel actress and, in the girl's naked state, hiding none of them.

"What?" she yelled at the stranger. "No, I said-" Each word she said the dark-skinned girl said with her, and the girl seemed equally startled, frightened. Zelda closed her eyes and said, "Mirror."

When she opened them, however, the other girl remained. Slowly, an odd thought occurred to her, and she looked down at her body. She jumped back at the sight of those brown-skinned curves. Slowly, she ran her hand over herself to convince herself.

"Could someone have actually taken me to the chop shop," she said, "without my noticing it. How could I pay the bill for this?"

As she looked in the mirror, she saw something behind her shoulder, a tanned man with his fingers working the keyboard, glancing up to look at her and to appreciatively nod his head.

"You!" she screamed, She ran out of the room, the portal barely opening in an emergency operation as moved. She could just imagine his face forming into an expression that said:

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

********************************************************

Leonard Bartz, the Company soc, nodded slowly as Zelda finished her story. "You say," he said, "you saw this man two or three times, dressed in primitive clothing?"

Zelda groaned. Leonard's fancy clothes and wild lifestyle kept the office staff amused, he was known as a Scuffler without parallel, but Zelda hadn't ever found much to amuse her. She rose to her feet, She tossed her green robe to the ground, leaving her in just a single red undergarment she'd bought to fit quite a different body. "Look at me, Mr. Bartz. I had to pass a gene analysis test just to get through the entranceway today."

His eyes slowly moved from her head down to her feet. "Wow-" he said, swallowing, "those were some alters they made."

Zelda frowned. She'd had more people watch her today than noticed her in a lifetime. First there'd been Macbre's bar, then the old men by the weird statue shop, the hordes lined in front of the tax office, and even the men before Courtroom B36. Once she'd imagined that beautiful women and men had an easier time in life, but just a few hours had seriously altered her conviction.

Most unsettling of all, however, had been the boy with the enforcement robot following him who asked her, quizzically, if she wanted a fur piece.

She snatched the garment and put it around her hurriedly, "Mr. Bartz, let's keep professional here. Now, I'm just an assistant plastics garments analyzer with Dullton; where could I get the money for this?"

His face appeared about to say something witty, but instead he frowned sympathetically, "I'm sorry, Ms. Syche. Zelda, isn't it? I can call you, Zelda, right." He paused. "This must be terribly trying for you. Quite a shock."

Her eyes narrowed, "Yes, it is."

"The images keep appearing in your unit. Well, I think you ought to spend a few days away from your unit."

"I can't afford a hotel."

"Yes that's right," he said, and rubbed his chin in an apparent attitude of deep thought. "You know, I've got a spare room."

She thought she heard a sound almost like: "Ha!"

*********************************************************

Leonard felt so warm against her and so comforting. With him, this close, she felt nothing could get to her. Zelda wondered if all those stories about him were just false. He'd almost finished telling about his poor mother, his real mother.

"So my mother took the money she'd made from selling all the other kids just to send me to college." His hand stroked her black hair, gently.

"That's sweet." she sighed.

"But you know what happened, I had just gotten my first job. I was just about to send for her and let her move in with me when," he paused meaningfully, "an automicar hit her."

"Awww," she said as he pulled her closer, "that's sad."

She felt his naked chest against her tight underobe and dazzedly glared over his shoulder. Suddenly her eyes froze.

The man at the keyboard appeared in the mirror across the room from her typing away. The look on his face had gotten more terrifying because, as he looked at Leonard's handsome shoulders and listened to the end of his sad tale, the man appeared ready to explode with laughter.

"Oh my God!" she said, rising to her feet.

"Wait," Leonard, "I haven't even-"

She pointed as she pulled her outer robe back around her. "It's him. He's here with us right now."

Leonard rose to his feet and turned to follow her eyes. His clenched fist rose and then slowly fell. "I don't see anything," he said, and Zelda suddenly remembered the banquet scene in a play she'd seen by Shakespeare. The ghost, in that, had been killed by the murderer, and only the murderer could see him come to the banquet. What had she ever done to that that man, or whatever it was, that was chasing her?

She gathered her clothes in a bundle and ran out the front portal, hearing over Leonard's agonized screams of "Wait! Wait," a sound like:

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

***********************************************************

In the flier, far above the ground, Zelda felt safe. Here she carried no mirrors and had only room for one. She'd mortgaged the next two years of her credits to get this little seat with the motor underneath, and, yet, she couldn't remember such a thing being on sale even a day earlier. The budget squeeze drained her resources so badly that she'd only had enough to buy fuel to get her to her destination, not back again, but she didn't care. She never wanted to see Sterling City again.

"Don't come out here," she heard her father's voice on the access panel declare, "it's too dangerous honey." She had guessed he referred to the battle scheduled for Parcussiana.

"Ha!" she said and the sound of her own voice startled her but showed that she felt she, more than her father, knew real danger, and it didn't come from the feet of a whomper.

She watched the ground far below change from city towers, to squatters huts, to broken outsider ruins that said "Muthas", to the desert. Strangely, miles outside the city, she'd spotted a lone leveler. As she looked down at it, she saw a man with a cloth around his head look up and directly point at her.

The skies seemed so busy today. She'd had to avoid running into a big Crimpies dirigible, and, as she'd driven underneath some kind of fish had almost collided with her flier. Then there was that winged, simian-looking creature with the cape who flew past her and nodded in a strangely sympathetic manner. When she'd lowered the level of the flier towards the clouds, she'd almost run into a one of the Trashmen flying around on a sky cycle. Suddenly the speakers blazed out a tune at full volume:

"The color may be aqua,
The color may be maroon,
The color may be rocky road,
Well, I'll be wearing it soon."

Zelda liked this song, but at the deafening volume it was coming out, it scared her as much as a wild nukeant. She searched desperately for a place to turn down the music, but the song continued:

"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."

"Oh, my God," she screamed as she spotted the growing mushroom cloud in front of her. For a second, she considered turning back, but if she did so, she knew she'd run out of fuel and have to return to the City. She gritted her teeth and thrust the repellalator to "forward" and felt the flier bounding right and left between the clouds. For thirty seconds, she could see nothing but billows around her, and then, suddenly she'd cleared the formation. She sighed for a second and tried to relax despite the blaring music:

"Hey, baby, you're in my wavy!"

She turned towards the sound of the voice and saw a big, blonde-haired boy on a sky surf board riding directly towards her.

"Ah," she grunted and pulled the steerer to the right but felt the tip of the board strike the side or her little machine with a loud "Bonk!" She breathed a sigh because the music suddenly stopped.

The teenager's face passed within a few inches, and she heard him call out as he whooshed passed.

"Keep your tail to the wind, Babe!"

She shook her head. Maybe, she decided, all was clear. She looked up at the clear skies, beyond the polluting clouds and the shields, and wondered if there were still a space station in orbit and penal colonies up there on the Moon. As she was looking, however, she saw something hurtling downward at gravity-defying speed. She swerved the little seat desperately, but the object struck a glancing blow anyway making a sound like:

"Ka-clunk!"

She looked and saw that the falling object was a gravity scarred turbo wrench. She cursed, "You dirty rotten wrench!"

"Put. Put," she heard the engine cough. The little flying seat fell towards the earth. She pulled its parachute, and felt sure the trees would scatter her newly altered body over a wide area, but, suddenly, a tree branch appeared that grabbed the chute, so she was lowered softly to the ground between the tall, healthy pine trees.

She smiled at the smell of real wood, grass, and even decaying forest because it all seemed so reassuringly alive and real. She started to walk along in the proper direction and felt little thorn bushes, like fingers, touching, tearing, her tough green-khaki jumper. Each rip tore a little more fabric, and she had the odd sensation that the bushes were somehow gently disrobing her.

At the edge of the woods, she spied a clearing and a little pool of fresh water, and she bent over to try to get a drink. As she bent over, she could see herself, and found the bushes had torn away every scrap of clothing except the minimum required by City law, and yet her brown skin shone without a mark.

Then, in the clear blue water, she saw the man at the keyboard hitting those keys again, now with his face an almost animal leer. She two quick steps in retreat when she heard a deep base:

"Grrrrrrr."

From behind a bush, a foaming tiger jumped into her path, not a foot away, an animal almost three times her size. Though she knew she'd met her end, she couldn't help but notice the beautiful contrasts in her surroundings, the tiger, yellow and black, the woods, green and brown, she, a figure of black and tan, and below, the man in his blue lake. It was like a cartoon picture she'd seen in one of those fantasy entertainment reels.

"No," she said, as much to the man as to the tiger, and just as the beast settled down on his haunches to prepare a rush, a small white ball hit the tiger in the head, and the tiger, apparently having forgotten her, whimpered and scampered off.

She looked in the pool and saw only her own frightened figure, but she heard a voice saying:

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

***********************************************************

She emerged in the clearing. A tall man stood there in his best jacket, beige colored hat, and golfing pants. She ran twenty-five feet to hug and hold him close.

"Ahm, Ahm," he faltered, "I think Miss, am..."

"Daddy," she said, "it's me, Zelda."

He stepped back and whistled slightly, "Wowee. They can build anything in the city. I'm going to have to send your mother there."

As he said that, she heard that word: "Ha!"

She took a deep breath and ignored it, "What happened to the tiger?"

"Well," her father said, "I gave him the four iron. That pesky thing goes around bothering people too much."

"Isn't it?" she began.

"Of course not. It's synthe. You think I'd keep a real tiger around as a pet? The thing eats grass mostly. I think they made it out of some kind of pig."

"Ha! Ha!"

Her father started to walk away slowly, indicating for her to follow. She looked around the calm woods for a second and took a deep breath. Then her eyes spotted something. It looked vaguely human but stood only about three-feet-tall and wore torn rags. As it looked dully at her, it started to form its mouth into a word that started with "F-"

"Oh Dad," Zelda cried, and he turned, and she placed herself firmly under his arm. She looked forward at the sight before her on the prairie: rows upon rows of single-story houses. Each held a single, sturdy healthy maple growing from its green lawn.

"What is this place you live in now, Father?"

"Well," he said, "I'm a caretaker. This is a museum."

"Ha!"

Zelda shook her black hair, "I don't understand father. It doesn't seem dangerous. Then why did you tell me not to come?"

"Never can tell who monitors these channels these days. If people knew about this place, they might even want to live here."

"Ha! Ha!"

He led her inside the nicest-looking red brick building through a manual doorway to a living area that seemed almost a furniture museum with three wooden chairs, a desk, and a comfortable couch. On one wall hung a two-barreled blaster and a trophy of a ground shark, its teeth still pointy. A single shelf held about twenty-five books, twenty-four by one author named Philip K. Dick and the twenty-fifth a critical volume by Thaddeus Maxtomer. At the end, as a kind of book-end, rested a single portareel tape of Aria Denied singing THE MARTIAN MISSION.

On the other wall, over her father's shoulder, Zelda could see a picture of her mother and father, dressed like farmers, standing side-by side, stern expressions on their faces, and holding pitchforks. Underneath the portrait the painter had signed his name as Grant Woodnt.

"Ha!"

"I'm going to go get your mother down the street," he said, "She's going to be rather," he paused, "surprised to see you."

"Ha!"

"Please don't go father," she begged. "Please stay with me."

"No honey, you'll be okay for a minute," but even as he said that, she could see the picture over his shoulder slowly dissolve until it showed the strange man. His smile remained, but it showed a kind of pity, and, to Zelda's surprise, each word her father said seemed accompanied by three to five keystrokes. Her father paused with the door half opened, "I don't know what you're so spooked about."

As he said that, he shut the door. Zelda got up and backed away from the picture into another adjoining room. As she passed through the doorway, she grabbed the heavy weapon and dragged it after her. She kept her face towards the door and shut it. Then she frantically shoved the bureau in front of the door. As she stood there, waiting fearfully, for sounds of pursuit, tears started to run down her cheeks.

She slowly turned around to see two bunkbeds and a poster of man wearing a cap, a cape, and weird visor over the lenses of those antique glasses. The cap stated "Rapman." Slowly the black caped figure dissolved into that of the man at the keyboard.

"Stop," she begged "please!" She felt her torn fragments of clothes slowly disappeared to form a long, white gown, trimmed with lace, and a train stemming from the back of her head. Dead plastic flowers appeared in her hand, and the hair that streamed onto her shoulders turned a wine red.

She tossed the flowers on the floor angrily and picked up the blaster. She aimed it directly at the picture and fired.

"Click."

"Ha! Ha!"

She stood and dug her heals into the ground. Her arms that held the gun suddenly lengthened as she dropped it, and then she felt a beard tickling her chest. She looked down to find she'd grown considerably taller and now wore a stovepipe hat. "I'm, h-" and she heard her voice, sounding like a man. Then she pleaded, "Come on, please, give me a chance!"

Then she felt herself shrinking three inches. Her hair turned a wheat blonde like a Valkyrie's. She looked and could see she wore a robe just like she always wore when working, only now her dimensions tore at its seams so she could hardly breath. She looked at the figure who silently whistled.

She tore the plastic robe away until she wore only the lacy white undergarments he'd somehow dressed her in. The provocative garments somehow her look strangely angelic.

He sat the keyboard, fingers moving slowly, looking up to admire her from every angle as her father had done when he first saw her come from the woods.

She said in desperation. "Well let's get it over with then." She leaned, shivering back against the bed. "Here I am. You want me? Then come on."

His bushy brows fell slightly, but she shook his head. He didn't move from the machine but kept silently working. Zelda's arms fell slowly. What could that thing want? Why wouldn't it just go away.

Then, looking straight into the man's eyes, she sat up. She took a deep breath and put her feet on the floor. Her hands were still shaking, but she steadied herself.

"I'm not afraid of you any more," she said, advancing towards the picture. "You can turn me into a toad, dress me in iron, make me fall from a building, kill me..." Then she raised her quavering fist, "but you can't change the ME about me."

She stepped forward, to within inches of the frame, eyes bearing straight out at him, "You see, I see you there," She straightened up, "Every time you look at me, I see you."

She smiled with a touch of cruelty in her voice: "I see you fading, aging a little with every glance."

She chuckled, her voice gathering strength: "But me, I'll always be here, and you can't do a thing about it because I," And now she screamed, "I MAKE YOU REAL!"

He made no reply, but the fingers on the keyboard kept working, and the look on his face became serious.

"That's it, isn't it?" she said, and she waited, her body held taut and ready for any response, studying his impassive face. Finally, he looked up, and, for a second, his fingers stopped moving, and she knew she would get no more hints.

"I know you," she said, kicking her foot on the floor. Now she stood close enough that had the face been three-dimensional she might've kissed it or bitten it, "And I know you're not done with your little 'tricks' with me,"

She raised her hand, "Well before you do anything more to me, I just want to know one thing," and she put her fingers on poster, "I want to why, why, why, do you torture me?"

Her hands reached out and tore the poster off the wall and ripped it into one hundred pieces. She sobbed: "Why is that you can't ever just let me be happy!"

With that, she tossed the fragments of the torn paper on the floor. The omniscient smile, spread across the floor of the room, slowly faded, and then the image of the keyboard and the strange man disappeared in a dull flash.

Zelda sighed in temporary relief and, looking down, she knew her body had changed once again. She didn't bother to look at herself yet, but stood panting and preparing herself to go on, no matter what. As she stood, tired and weary, but determined, she felt something touch her shoulder. Looking out, she saw a tiny piece of paper fall to the floor.

She bent over to look at and saw that it had been typed, apparently on some kind of ancient machine, and she could all too easily imagine that green-eyed, dark-skinned man lightly playing at the keyboard.

It said:

"I'm sorry for the things I've done to you; it hurts sometimes to learn. But just like you, I do what I have to do, and I just can't imagine a happy ending."


Ha! Ha! Ha!

********************************************

99. About the Author: An Illusive Quality

By Gerald Ironiac

********************************************

This wasn't supposed to be a hard assignment. All I was supposed to do was write a little about Mr. Fruit. I started out immediately after I'd read the manuscript for the volume in your hands, and, naturally enough, I contacted the House of Witney, Barney and Laramie to find out what information they had. I received, in the mail, a very slender folder from them whose entire contents I will reveal:

"Fruit, Daniel. Born 1960 in Pontiac, Michigan; grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan; received B.A. with honors in English and history Albion College, 1982; received M.A. in literature, Indiana University 1984; began teaching 7-9 English and creative writing at Stevenson Junior High School, East Los Angeles, 1984, leave of absence granted, 1990; currently teaching English 7-8 at Yokota Air Force Base, Japan, began 1990. List of publications: too numerous to list."

The file did not contain a forwarding address and phone number. At that point I remembered a line from the "Electoral Body:" "You actually read the office dossier file on me, and believe it?" How could we possibly have an author as controversial, though poor selling, as Mr. Fruit and no address? Then I started considering other strange factors. Could anyone really have a name as ridiculous as Fruit? It was no more logical than Zelda Syche. It just had to be pseudonym.

I started asking around in the office. Had anyone actually seen this, Mr. Fruit? No one had. I then called up this Stevenson Junior High School. I talked to several teachers there. Indeed they had known a Mr. Fruit, a quiet, teacherly sort of fellow, but the man they'd known had gone off to teach in Iraq at Baghdad International School. Iraq? I paused. Something very funny is going on here. Now I had to find out the truth.

In desperation, I tried to contact the man who'd built his critical career on Mr. Fruit's work. Using the office phone book, I called Thaddeus Maxtomer's number at Wimpnell University:

"Hey Baby," the voice at the other said, "this is Rent-A-Critic, Egghead talking!"

It was at that point I decided that I would go to the Yokota Air Base and find out who, or what, was living there. I will spare you the details of how I got there or how I got through the tight, military security to find Mr. Fruit's alleged room. By now, it occurred to me that whatever was going on here had to go up very high.

I will tell you, though, when I got to the room, the door was open. I saw no one there. It was a barren little monk-sized cubicle filled mostly with cassettes, a few books, and some old clothes. I thought to myself: this is the end of the line. The entire thing must be a hoax. Someone has created this whole man's identity, and he does not exist, either that or I don't.

Then I heard a strange "clack" sound. I crossed to the front of the apartment and found a computer. It sat on the old desk communicating silently with its partner, the source of the clacking, an old-fashioned daisy wheel printer. As I stepped closer, the "clacking" suddenly stopped, and I knew it was finished writing.

I never did find this supposed "Mr. Fruit," if there really was such a person in the first place. I will tell you what was written on that last page of computer print out. It said only this:

THE END

Ha! Ha! Ha!



The Original Back Cover

Why Are The Critics So Excited About

THE PLASTIC TOMORROW?

"It's not really fantasy or science fiction, but a new modern mythology. We have here Icarus with his wings, Orpheus with a synthalizer, Theseus cast off to live among the wolves. It's the most important book in a generation." Franz Joseph, THE OLD YORK TIMES.

"The implications of this book are scary. It's a call to revolution, an analysis of where we're going, and a thorough re-examination of who we've been. Everyone interested in politics ought to read this, from Marxists to Neoplatonists." Ted Thunder, THE REVOLTING WORKER.

"Who would think that in this modern age anyone would try to get away with writing anything positive, even sentimental?" Ned Blunder, SINICS WEEKLY.

"I would buy it even if they hadn't paid me to write the critical introduction," Thaddeus Maxtomer, noted intellectual.

"I've already bought three copies, and I haven't even started covering my Christmas list," Daniel Dumas, GREATER STERLING BOOK REVIEW.

"It just proves they'll publish anything." Tom Thumb, THE INDEPENDENT JOURNAL OF JOURNALISTIC INDEPENDENCE.

"It's so hip, it hurts." Greven Grum, VILLAGE IDIOT.

"I may not be literature, but I'd buy it for the drawings alone." Joe Smith, unemployed elf.

THE PLASTIC TOMORROW is a literary experience of the first order. It is a collection of stories about ordinary and not-quite-so-ordinary people living in a world of the near future. In a world with problems directly descended from our own, they try desperately to somehow "muddle through." Along the way, they learn and love.

Don't just take the critics' word for it, read THE PLASTIC TOMORROW. Experience the wonder, the humor, the horror, the silliness, the seriousness, and the weirdness of a unique book.

$4 or best offer

Witney, Barnie, and Laramie, Quite Limited