CLONE SON

WARNING: The following story contains explicit language, violence, and sexual content. Consider it to be rated R. Not for the easily offended. Refer to Matthew 9:11-12. Additional material on the projection of moral values through hardcore environments can be found in "Clone Son Notes" (link at bottom).

Clone Son is based on a previous novel by the "Young J." It has been rescued by JRS. The poem quoted is the first stanza of "Fallen Majesty" by William Butler Yeats.

 

CLONE SON: THE NOVEL

To the test, writer, tell your story quickly because you do not have much time! The slow river of your elaborate words has almost reached the sea; it has said so much, it has said nothing. Say it in a day, or let the story die with you. Say it simply, because the world is losing the patience to right itself. If there is any point in this story at all, make haste! - United Earth, 2701. Council of Recent History.

__________

Council, I heed your words. Here, then, is the story:

_________

He is wandering on the street, a young man, 23-years-old, hair that counts as short but is still a bit wild, a hurt look in his eyes. He is like so many others who have come here, driven by some wound, but he is still new to this; he is not hardened or cynical, and he is therefore especially at risk. A frail, haggard man who seems weakened by some disease, which might only be pleasure carried to extremes, is leaning against a wall, and regards the newcomer with interest. Entertaining things usually happen in the vicinity of the inexperienced. Suddenly a beautiful woman appears, wearing a long white translucent dress, precariously held on her body by a red jewel-clasp by her throat. The young man seems astonished by her beauty, unable to decide if she is a butterfly who might land on the flower of his still intact ability to respect her, or a street cat more likely to scratch his eyes out. Then the men attack. There are three of them, and they seize her. Is it a robbery? At first, it looks like it. The lead hoodlum seizes the jewel from her throat, then watches as her exotic dress unravels, with nothing to keep it together, unwrapping her like a present for their eyes. He looks at the jewel, and casts it aside. "You are the jewel I want," he says, turning back to the woman. The woman is white, like snow, perfectly sculpted and proportioned, but with a tiny triangle of brown curly hair in her most vulnerable spot that somehow makes the goddess body seem human and accessible. "This is what I want!" the thug cries again, seizing her in his arms, while his accomplices grab her from behind, one by the throat, pulling her backwards, one by the arm, twisting it. At the same time, someoneís pants are coming off.

In an instant, the young man is in the middle of them, kicking and punching the men, crying out, "Leave her alone! Get off of her!" The frail spectator, leaning against the wall just a minute ago, has the discarded jewel in his hand, by now, hidden in a pocket of his cloak-like robe-coat. It might be fake, but then, again, if it is realÖ He looks up, amazed by the speed and force of the young manís attack. The three perpetrators are lying sprawled out on the ground. "Here, miss," the young man is saying, picking up the womanís collapsed garment, which is lying on the street. "Are you all right?"

"No!" she cries out. "I want to be raped!" And suddenly, she rears back and slaps the young man across the face. "You ruined it! You god-damned prude! Get out of here! Leave me alone!" She throws her dress back to the ground, in a kind of tantrum, then looks, with tear-stained eyes, at the three men lying on the street. "Now they canít! They canít do it!" she cries. Then furiously she turns back to the young man. "You did this! Itís on you. You have to make it up to me! Itís your responsibility! You have to rape me!"

Stunned, the young man begins to back away from her. Angrily, she seizes him by the hair. She hits him again and again, spits in his face, and scratches him. "Rape me! Rape me!" He covers up, not fighting, till she hears one of the wounded thugs stirring, and struggling to his knees. "Oh Vlady!" she cries out, running over to him. "Are you OK? Are you OK? How long till youíll be able to do it?"

"Maybe never," he says. "That son-of-a-bitch got me where it counts."

The young man is stumbling away, now, confused. The frail man decides to follow him.

__________

FRAIL MAN: Yo, son! Slow down! Slow down! Itís never good to run so fast from a beautiful woman!

YOUNG MAN: Who are you? What do you want? Ė (He asks again) What do you want?

FRAIL MAN: A protector. Anybody who can fight like that is worth being friends with.

YOUNG MAN: Iím not here to be anybodyís friend.

FRAIL MAN: (Looking back in the direction of the battered thugs) Well, if not having friends is your priority, thatís three less guys you have to worry about.

The young man says nothing but keeps on walking. The Frail Man follows him a ways. Finally, the young man turns around.

YOUNG MAN: Yes, can I help you?

FRAIL MAN: (Insistent) Be my protector. Look, Iíll pay for your services. (He pulls the jewel from his pocket, and offers it to him.)

YOUNG MAN: You slime ball! That jewel belongs to the girl! She needs it to hold her dress up.

FRAIL MAN: In case you didnít notice, she doesnít want her dress to be held up. She wants to be naked. She wants to have sex.

YOUNG MAN: It belongs to her.

FRAIL MAN: So what? Sheís already thrown away things a lot more valuable than that.

YOUNG MAN: (Agreeing) Youíre right. Her dignity. Her self-respect.

FRAIL MAN: (This isnít the point heís trying to make.) Why didnít you give her what she wanted?

The young man turns away with contempt. How could anybody even ask that?

FRAIL MAN: Is it because living up to your self-image of what a moral person is matters to you more than her happiness? Are you sure youíre moral, and not just egotistic?

YOUNG MAN: Look, donít try to play with my head.

FRAIL MAN: Why are you here? If youíve got outside values, why didnít you stay outside? This is our place, here. Our place to be shooting stars, to light up the sky with our incompatibility with the world, to crash and burn. Our place to be degenerates, perverts, killers, cynics, lost souls, whatever it is the outside wonít put up with. What the hell did you expect, kid? Go back home. Ask mama and papa to take you back.

YOUNG MAN: Shut the hell up!

FRAIL MAN: What, did I touch a raw nerve? Push the wrong button?

YOUNG MAN: I said, shut the hell up!

FRAIL MAN: OK, OK, take it easy. I want you to be my protector, not my killer. (He puts the jewel away). Look, Iím always getting myself in trouble. I donít know why. I need protection. See, thereís a lot of crazy people in here; they donít like intelligent people like meÖ Where did you learn to fight like that? You studied karate? They still teach that on the outside?

YOUNG MAN: It helps to develop the mind and spirit. It builds up confidence. It puts you in harmony with your objectives.

FRAIL MAN: Yeah, yeah. Iím all for that philosophy. I think it creates a beautiful harmony in the universe when you kick somebody in the nuts. (The young man starts to go again.) No, please donít go! Iím a philosopher, too! Ití s just that my philosophy doesnít pack the punch yours doesÖ Look, we could be a great team. You donít know your way around here yet, you are in extreme peril. Iím an old rat, I know every twist and turn of the maze. You could beat the crap out of a whole gang by yourself, but you could also get blindsided, because you donít know the scams, the cons, the tricks, the ins-and-outs of this placeÖ Look, you seem lonely. I got vocal cords. I can talk. Please - protect me!

__________

The young man feels pity for the frail man, and itís true, heís lonely and doesnít know his way around. So he agrees to protect the frail man, who identifies himself as Chister. The young man identifies himself as "Jimmy." At first, the link between the two is tenuous. Chister mouths off to a huge thug walking down the street. "Hey, Jack, you donít need a beanstalk, do you?" The thug comes over to beat the crap out of Chister, and Jimmy, who has now assumed the role of his protector has to disable the giant, with a lightning fast series of hand blocks, four rapid-fire punches to the body, an arm hold, and a kick to the head. "Amazing!" cries Chister, in glee, "a work of art!"

"Listen," says Jimmy, "itís not like I like doing this kind of stuff. Cut it out." He starts to break the deal with Chister, but Chister swears he wonít mouth off to strangers any more. "If I do, you can axe me," he assures his protector. But then, he sticks his foot out as another thug is passing, and trips him up. Enraged, the thug comes after him. Jimmy glares, but Chister points to his foot, as if to say, "I kept my part of the bargain, I didnít say a thing to him." Jimmy flips the thug; then sends him flying to the ground when he comes back for a second run at him. Now, a knife comes out. "Please donít," Jimmy says, "or Iíll have to hurt you." The thug slashes at empty air, and takes a devastating kick to the stomach. His arm is simultaneously held and struck, the knife falls away, and he crumples onto the street, clearly damaged, and broken in a serious way. "Beautiful! Beautiful!" exclaims Chister. "You are a Michelangelo of violence! What magnificence! I have become so accustomed to brute force that I have forgotten how aesthetic mayhem can be!"

Jimmy is disgusted and starts to leave.

"Chivalry! Chivalry!" protests Chister. "We agreed that I wouldnít verbally provoke anyone, and I didnít, I only tripped him. You have to honor our pact! You canít cut out, now, it would be dishonest!"

Jimmy laughs, and is surprised at himself for finding humor in the midst of events that should only be disturbing. He laughs again. Is he starting to become acclimated, after all?

__________

Not far away, as Chister tries to catch up with him, Jimmy comes upon a row of men and women standing in a line, their eyes vacant and strange, some with tears coming down their cheeks, but several also jubilant, in some kind of ecstasy, it seems. Maybe theyíre on drugs? Suddenly, he hears a thump, a strange sound a bit like an electric transformer going out. Heís been hearing a lot of these sounds since he got here, but has yet to learn what they mean. Two more thumps, and suddenly, one of the men standing in the line cries out in pain, and flies backwards as though impacted by a heavy object moving at great speed. He crashes onto the ground where he lies, writhing, and visibly deformed by what has happened to him. There is another thump and another man flies backwards. He rolls, staggers, climbs to his feet, and stumbles back into the line, clutching his chest as blood pours out. "Almost! Almost!" he cries with joy, then suddenly falls to his knees, and pitches face first to the ground. He is dead. Three more thumps follow, and from the distance, Jimmy hears someone curse. "Itís not me, itís the alignment! The tube is off!"; and someone else is saying, "No, you suck, you canít even hit someone standing still at 100 yards! Youíre of no use to me!" And thereís another thump, and a scream in the distance, and then five more thumps, and four of the people in the line go flying. One gets back up, with what appears to be a dislocated shoulder, and one rolls around groaning on the ground; the other two are silent and unmoving.

Jimmy finally understands that the people here are being shot by some kind of weapon. "Get down!" he yells, rushing forward. He hurls a young woman and a middle-aged man to the ground, as a salvo of thumps erupts, smashing four more members of the line to the ground. "Stay down!" he urges, dragging the woman behind him, like a leopard dragging a carcass back to its lair; only she is the prey of his compassion, and he is trying to save her. "Donít try to change my mind!" she cries, tears flooding out of her eyes. "They messed with me, they turned me inside out and took away everything I cared about! They might as well have cut my heart out with a knife! Do you know how sharp a sun that doesnít shine can be? Let go of me, you idiot Samaritan! Itís taken me months to work up the nerve to do this!" Meanwhile, the man he knocked down has leapt up and is shouting in the direction of the tube-shooters, "Donít forget about me! Iím still alive! Donít go! Donít leave me another day in this pitiful world!" Jimmy jumps up from where the girl is lying to try to knock the man down, but before he can reach him, the man is flying past him, with a plume of smoke coming out of his chest and a trace of blood beginning to form like a smile from the wound. Stunned, Jimmy looks up to see the girl rising, her arms stretched upwards as if praying to God. "Please, donít miss me!" she cries. She is a strange and sensitive girl, who looks like she was blown here from a hurricane, disheveled, interesting, graceful like a swan floating on a dark inner lake, her madness is like a great novel; he wants to embrace her, shelter her, confront the hugeness of the black in front of her eyes with some life-giving inspiration which her vulnerability will elicit from him, but the thump is definitive, like the crash of a guillotine that severs a beautiful, overwhelmed head from a body that does not have the strength to bear it. The girl is hurled backwards, and bounces like a tiny doll thrown across a room by an angry child Ė she is both the doll and the angry child. Horrified, he crawls over to her, to find her trembling lips mouthing out the words, " Mother. Do I have a mother? Or am I only one of those lab kids? Mother!"

"Suicidals," says Chister, joining Jimmy once again. "Look, donít take it so hard, you didnít fail. They wanted to die. They came here to die." Jimmy looks up to see in the distance, a band of men packing the death-tubes away into large black bags, then slinging them over their shoulders, and beginning to disperse, as if a sporting event had just ended. "Advorzhi and his men," says Chister.

Jimmy looks up at Chister. "Who are they? What do they want?"

"Anywhere else, youíd call them bandits. But here, the word makes no sense. Theyíre simply harder players, and a bit more organized, than most. Theyíre in search of constant target practice to refine their marksmanship, and the suicidals want to die. Itís the perfect partnership."

Chister laughs at Jimmyís grim, astonished face. "You havenít caught on to this place, yet, have you? You upset a woman who wanted to be raped, and now you almost forced people who wanted to die, to live."

Jimmy looks up at him.

"And by the way, youíre very lucky Advorzhiís men didnít snuff you out. Their hearts didnít seem to be here on the target range today. Maybe theyíre on their way to a party. Though that word doesnít make much sense here, either, since Ďpartyí is all this ever is."

"Is there a place to bury her?" Jimmy asks, looking down tenderly at the tormented girl who will suffer no more, or perhaps suffer for eternity.

"The vaporizer crews will come by at dawn. Thatís as sentimental as it gets."

Gently, Jimmy lifts her, and carries her to the corner of the street.

"Why there?" asks Chister.

"Out of the sun."

"What does it matter? The glare doesnít matter to her now. Leave her in the middle of the street, otherwise the vaporizers will miss her when they pass byÖ. You want her body to lie here for another day?"

Jimmy picks her body up and places it back in the middle of the street. Tenderly, he closes her eyelids. "Sleep well Ė will it be the first time?"

Jimmy doesnít drive Chister away this time, he realizes the troublemaker is right about his usefulness. In some places, thereís no substitute for a cynical mind.

__________

Jimmy drifts for a while, warding off his companionís efforts at making small talk. Something too profound has just occurred to be disturbed by words that have no purpose. He feels Chisterís chatter is just a way of trying to solidify a bond that isnít real. When he needs him again, heíll force himself to put up with him.

For a while, they just walk. Two giggling girls, with powdery faces, like children who havenít learned how to eat without making a mess, exchange a little box which they take turns holding up to their noses. Suddenly, one blinks, retracting from a white cloud that engulfs her, and doubles over with laughter. "Ow! It stings! Do you think I can make my eye high? " A limping man goes past, with scratch marks on his face and a womanís high-heeled shoe in his hand. He looks at the girls, starts to follow them, then changes his mind. Four young men pass in the opposite direction, eager and joyful, one of them is saying, "So, like, theyíre texting me now, an orgy is just starting up in the park!" "Wow, man, like I did so much Tranquilex, I donít know if I can get it up!" From the sides of the streets, there are periodic blasts of music and the buzz of massive accumulations of conversation, as doors open and close, bars and clubs momentarily letting the secret of their existence slip out before barricading themselves once more against the streets.

Finally, the drifting leads them into a square; there are some people milling about by an inert movie screen, but what stands out most is a slender, beautiful woman with completely green skin, and wild waves of green hair, standing off to one side. She is wearing a short white blouse that exposes her bare midriff, with a pair of pants hanging down so low that you can clearly see the provocative pelvic bones that are like the markings for a landing strip in the jungle. Her eyes are closed, she is deep in some kind of trance, her hands are extended outwards, palms exposed to the sun.

Before Jimmy can allow Chister back into his world, to get feedback on the green woman, a crippled man with an artificial power-leg with a dead battery hobbles into the square. "Damn crap-ass battery!" he is yelling. A band of three thugs overtakes him, seizes him, and says, "Cough it up!" "You damned bastards!" he yells, "I need my money for a new battery!" "Tough luck, maybe you can score a hand-out from a newbie, you shit-faced defect!" They begin pummeling him, then kick him and stomp on him where he lies on the ground. One cuts his pockets open with a knife, and finally pulls out the wallet. "Nice day fishing!" he laughs, turning to the others. "Letís spare the son-of-a-bitch, heís been kind to us. Why kill the milk cow?" Laughing, after one more kick, they leave.

Chister steps up beside Jimmy, and asks: "Well, why didnít you do something? Forget your karate?"

Jimmy looks at him. "What, you mean this guy wanted to be helped?" Chagrined, he heads over to take a look at the battered body lying in the street. "Girls who want to be raped. People who want to be murdered. But this guy wanted to be helpedÖ"

"Sure," Chister says. "This was about something more important than a life. Money."

Jimmy looks the wounded guy over, then helps him slowly struggle over to a wall, which he leans him against. "Are you all right, mister?"

"Mister? I havenít been called that for years."

"What have you been called?"

"Son of a bitch. - Damn!" he says, after thoughts finally begin to return to him, digging their way out from underneath his disaster. "All because of a stinking god-damned battery! It ran out of juice. I was on my way to get another. When itís working, this god-damned power leg works better than the one I was born with, and can outkick a donkey. Thank god, they didnít take the leg itself! - Oh yeah, good money," he tells Jimmyís puzzled look, "especially with the Limb-Cutters around. Ė What?" he asks, responding to Jimmyís lack of recognition. "How long have you been here?"

"Just a few weeks."

"In the Ďshallow endí?" That was the place where the undecideds came to sort things out, before plunging all the way in. There, there were still police, who let in just enough roughness to make people think twice about going in all the way, but not enough roughness to exterminate them while they searched their souls.

"Yeah," says Jimmy.

"Well, welcome to the real deal," the robbery victim tells him. "Freedom City Central. The Limb-Cutters, for your information, are a bunch of bad boys who broke into the prosthetics depot about eight months ago, and ever since, theyíve been busy cutting off peopleís legs and arms, so they can sell them artificial ones. To prevent the supply from running out, they periodically steal back the artificial legs, so they can resell them. These thugs, here, were just amateurs, or they never would have left me with my power leg." Wiping some blood from his head, the man looks at Jimmy, and begins laughing. Something in the kidís face is hilarious. "You his guide?" he asks Chister, still laughing, or is it wheezing? "Poor innocent baby. No Santa Claus here, boy, they shot him down as soon as they saw his fat belly coming through the chimney."

"No, they stabbed him," says Chister, and suddenly the two of them are laughing together, brothers in a jaded world, while Jimmy steps back, amazed at their cynicism.

"Money, money, it moves the world," says the robbery victim, who finally reveals his name as Almost; his real name became meaningless long ago, just a waste of time. "You want to come here, to never work, to get away from the control, the boredom thatís like cancer on a sunny day; the one stupid law after the other, thatís like being tied to your chair by some freaky mother who thinks youíre going to break her favorite teacup; the stupid reports, paperwork, repairs, BOREDOM! Like a god-damned firing squad: ready, aim, fire, your regular, normal, and safe day has killed you! So you come here to make it real, to shake dying things back to life, and what do you get? A refuge, a sanctuary for the human life force. A chance to live again Ė and to make terrible mistakes."

"Unfortunately, itís not all people like you who drop in," says Chister, hugging Jimmy affectionately, who pushes him away. "Thereís also people like us!" And he and Almost begin to laugh again: a pitiful duet of moral exhaustion that has left them stranded in a place that is not quite so hard to reach.

"So what?, we all get money Ė Freedom City money Ė at the Subsistence Office," says Almost. "I guess you havenít learned yet that it buys next to nothing."

"Store owners and service providers know they can get more. They amp up their prices so we have no choice but to diversify our money-making strategies, you might say!"

"Can you two stop laughing?" asks Jimmy. But the two veterans are in love with the devious twists their tones of voice can impart to innocent words; the way they can carjack outside language, and put another driver behind the wheel.

"We have to be economically imaginative, or else the freedom-run ends," chuckles Almost. "Who the hell could go back to the outside, and especially with those re-assimilation centers you have to go through?"

"Yeah, where you learn that shit tastes good, after all."

"So what, then Ė youíre all nothing more than a bunch of hoods?" demands Jimmy.

"No," concedes Almost. "Not all of us are up to stealing. It takes more skill than some of us have!" He and Chister break out laughing again, and Jimmy, pointing to the blood still flowing from Almostís head, asks, "Doesnít it hurt?", a way of trying to put an end to his bothersome guffaws. "No, not at all," says Almost, who continues laughing.

"Stealing is one way to make ends meet," admits Chister. "But thereís other ways, too, like hiring yourself out for services. Prostitution. Protection. Friendship." Conveniently, two men pass by at that very moment, intensely scrutinizing a card in their hands. "The dayís hint," says Chister, delighted at the coincidence, which will embellish his presentation. "Another option for the cowardly. Governmentís behind it, of course, to help keep the place afloat. They tell you the location of a treasure theyíve planted somewhere, on that card there, the daily form. Only the information is mangled beyond all recognition, and turned into some kind of infuriating riddle. Anyway, the Finders, who donít mind wasting their time with that kind of crap, spend their days running around looking for treasures, pitting their sorry brains against the overeducated weirdoes who devise the clues."

"Miss a lot of good pussy that way," says Almost. The veterans arenít happy that Jimmy wonít laugh with them, and Almost, with a trace of anger in his voice, like, "cut the holier than thou crap", says, "Thereís also gambling, and the big games."

"Jackpots galore," says Chister, trying to pave over Almostís edge of anger, because he needs Jimmyís fighting skills, and maybe he likes him a little bit, too; having a moral friend here is almost as cool as having a pet monkey. "Beat a house gladiator Ė survive a night in a den of lions, if youíre Biblically-inclined Ė swim across a pool filled with sharks. Disneyland meets the Roman Games. It beats sitting behind a desk, and wasting your life away, once you wake up to the fact that your cushy swivel seat is only a subtle kind of electric chair." Chister adds the Maze to the inventory of economic options, "Theseus updated, labyrinth supreme," before Almost reminds him of "The Minefield" - the greatest game of all. "Itís where I lost my leg," he says, and suddenly Chister is silent and reverent, as though Jesus, himself, had just appeared before them.

"A huge minefield," Almost says, nodding in agreement that it is something grand that he once tried to cross it, accepting Chisterís respect. "Land mines. All kinds of explosive devices. Always shifting beneath the surface, a giant computer is constantly rearranging the charges. You can always feel the explosion coming, the ground below you begins to vibrate, real tight-like, in one spot; it means a mine is activating. You jump away from it Ė but where to? You just might land on another mine thatís already been turned on, and blow yourself to smithereens. Which way to safety? Which way to death? Will you guess right? At the same time, youíve got unpredictable laser sweeps going on, forcing you down to the ground, so sometimes you canít jump off a mine thatís coming to life, you just got to lay low while itís revving up right below you, and pray to God, or else crawl like an animal and hope you wonít end up in one of the death pits."

Chister touches Almost like heís touching a god. "Almost - how did you survive?"

"I made it to the ĎReplayí zone," says Almost. "3/4 of the way. The caretakers pull you out if you make it that far, that is, if you get hung up or hurt or lose your nerve to go on; they give you medical attention, if you need it, and a consolation prize. I lived off that for a good, long time."

"You didnít lose your nerve?" Chister asks.

"No you bastard, I lost my leg."

"And on the other side?" asks Jimmy. "What were you trying to reach?"

"Five thousand thousand acres. An automatic farm. Shitloads of money. My own private paradise, because some rats would rather not share a cage. Control of the computer, to come and go across the minefield as I please. So I could bring in hookers," he explains. "I almost made it. Now the moneyís run out, and I just got robbed, and I canít even afford a battery for this god-damned leg, which is just like dragging 50 pounds around by the stump of the one that was blown off, god damn it! I got outslicked by a decoy vibration."

"Give him the jewel," says Jimmy.

"What? Shhhh!" says Chister.

"What?" asks Almost. "Did he say jewel?"

"No, juice, he said juice," says Chister. "I drank it all," he tells Jimmy, winking at him to be quiet.

"Give it to him," says Jimmy.

Chister canít dissimilate anymore; habit, which quickly pushed reverence to the side, is beaten Ė for now, at least. Chister must give in to Jimmyís insistence. He pulls out the jewel from his robe-coat pocket, and hands it to Almost. "Well, then, how much do you think this is worth?"

Almost wipes the drool from his mouth, and says, "Oh, it should be good enough for a battery. Itís a pretty piece of colored glass."

"You bastard!" says Chister. "It could buy artificial legs for a whole damned soccer team! Plus legs for the Rockettes! Itís a giant-ass ruby."

"So, then, rob me again. I never yet been robbed two times in a single day. After ten years here, Iím hard-up for a new experience!"

Jimmy quiets them. "Weíll go together. So thatís it?" he asks, smiling, because if you switch the dark side of the human race to another channel, somehow - perhaps as a defense mechanism - its tragedies start to become amusing, like all of mankind was slipping on a gigantic, black banana peel. "Thatís the economy of Freedom City, in a nutshell?"

"What more do you want?" says Almost. "Extreme jackpots pump big money into the system. Winners hire bodyguards, and go on spending sprees. Business prospers. Fruits grow like crazy on the robbery tree, all kinds of criminals come out of the woodwork. Itís like a blizzard of money, falling everywhere, everybodyís grabbing anything that moves to try to get some of it. Stealing, scrambling, thinking on their feet, selling something, whoring, gamblingÖ"

"And conning suckers like that," says Chister, pointing to the green girl who is just beginning to wake up out of her trance, some kind of daybreak, it seems, rising inside of her.

"Sucker?" asks Jimmy, who considers her to be striking, and far from vacant.

"Pretty, but brain-dead," says Chister. "But then, I never knew a vagina to be stupid, or a penis to be intellectual. So go on and talk to her if you want. Iím sure it will all turn out good."

Jimmy scowls, and demands, "Sucker - why?"

Chister is amazed that it matters. "Sheís one of those idiots who doesnít want to steal, or sell herself," he explains. "Perfect prey for Dr. Chlorophyll."

"Dr. Chlorophyll?"

"He told them he could transplant chloroplasts into their flesh, or whatever you call those plant structures that convert sunlight into carbohydrates, you know food? He told them with chloroplasts especially adapted for human beings he could provide them all with photosynthetic ability Ė you know, give them the ability to nourish themselves, just by standing in the sun, so they would never have to work, or steal, or prostitute themselves just to eat. He promised them complete independence. ĎNo social system will hold you in its clutches, baby, from now on, youíre free of being a slave or a predator!í All the suckers had to do was pay him a fortune to have the operation."

"So she used to have money?

"A girl like that might have worked as a high-class pro. Built up some good savings. Then blown it all. Looks like sheís losing weight, now. Poor sucker, starving herself because she canít afford to eat anymore, sheís just too good to make money here, to play our nasty games; sheís reformed, and thinks the photosynthesis will save her soul. Sheíll either waste away, or go back to using what sheís got; using whatís real and what gives men with money a hard-on. Hopefully soon, cause once she gets too skinny, she wonít be good for anything."

__________

While Jimmy watches the green girl slowly returning to the sights and sounds around her, a giant blast of trumpets sounds in the distance. Soon, it sounds again, much nearer. A group of shirtless men comes struggling in, carrying a platform on which is seated an attractive young woman wearing a black blouse and pants, with heavy doses of eye shadow and black lips. "Make way for Lofty Girl! Make way for Lofty Girl!" the men cry out. "Out of the way, itís a woman with a brain!" But it seems Lofty Girl doesnít want to be carried out of the square, she wants to say something to the rabble that is slowly seeking her.

"Female Anatomy 101," she says, speaking into a voice enhancer. "Yes, women have vaginas. Yes, women have breasts. Yes, women have asses. And guess what? Women also have heads. And inside those heads are brains. And from those brains come thoughts."

"Who cares?" someone yells back.

"Is your capacity for boredom infinite? Supposedly, you ran from the outside to escape boredom. Yet here you are reduced to a routine of jumping into one vagina after another, hello, good-bye, hello, good-bye. Not tired yet?"

"No! Not by a long shot! Not until it falls off!" someone counters.

"Worms breed with worms," she says. "Ants with ants. Mice with mice. Stay with your kind. Theyíre all only extensions of the drugs you take, anyhow. Iím not here for you. Iím searching for men of quality, who want a woman who can think, discuss ideas, challenge them, make them grow, stimulate them in ways that a headless body cannot. Anyone out there who is more than a mere appendage of their penis?"

Chister, meaning well, pushes Jimmy from behind, towards Lofty Girl. "Him! This one here! Iím too smart to try to be more than my penis, but this one, here, heís suffering from sentimentality, or some other form of mental illness, so I think you two just might be a match."

Jimmy doesnít like to be thrust into the limelight, so he starts to back away, but Lofty Girl wonít let him. She spears him with her words. "Rupert Jardinowe, yet again! What a pitiful crutch to lean on! How much did the surgery cost?"

Chister is upset with himself, he should have seen this coming.

"Look, everybody, hereís a real winner!" cries out Lofty Girl, she is merciless towards people she considers to be absurd. "The young Rupert Jardinowe, all over again! So how many do we have, now, in Freedom City, is it a hundred? Two hundred? A thousand? Poor Rupert Jardinowe. The great genius who overcame the Speed Of Light Dilemma and built the Hyperspace Network, imitated by thousands of mediocre idiots, who go to any unscrupulous plastic surgeon whoís got a mold, to copy his face, and cover up their superficiality and lack of talent by resculpting themselves to be the spitting image of a real genius. Like if you look like him, it will rub off on you? Like, after you step out of the plastic surgeonís office, we should all bow down to you? Pitiful, pitiful, insecure, imitative nobody! Iíd rather be with the ugliest man who ever lived, than be with a copycat loser like you!"

"Well, here I am honey!" says Almost, taking hope.

"Donít let it get to you," Chister is telling Jimmy, in the meantime, trying to hold him back, even though Jimmy is perfectly still; "sheís snotty, thatís all."

A bunch of armed guards surge in front of Lofty Girlís litter, with lowered tubes, expecting Jimmy to attack, but he just stands there, robbed of the gift of speech. Her eyes are shining, her body alert, like a prairie dog standing guard by its hole, she is expecting to provoke something.

"Everybody has a right to have their own style, and that applies to their face, too!" says Chister, defending his protector, shaking slightly with all the tubes pointed at them.

"Yeah!" says Almost. "Whatís the difference between your black lipstick, and his plastic surgery? Itís all about changing your look. Youíre a Goth intellectual, heís Rupert Jardinowe. You wash your masquerade off at night, he keeps his on."

"Anybody who could outthink a chimpanzee, here?" she asks, signaling her retinue to ready her departure.

"You donít have to be mean," Jimmy says. "You donít know who youíre talking to, you donít know my story, or the story of any one of us. Weíre all strangers but you act like you know us. You donít."

"Oh, so sorry Rupert," she says. "Any new breakthroughs, have you got those black hole inverters up and running yet? Any progress on cosmological management, or is this all a big castle in the sand? Oh, Iím sorry, I forgot! Thatís all over your head. Youíre not who you appear to be. Up for a game of darts and a glass of beer?"

Before he can answer, a band of men, bounty hunters, suddenly appear, and seize Jimmy from behind. He fights off three of them, but a chi-sapper comes out, a little rod that is thrust into his side, and he is paralyzed, and thrown to the ground, with a tube pointed at his head. Almost is pushed over, and Chister easily dragged off to the side. "Get a DNA sample," says one of the bounty hunters. A sample extractor, a small scraper with a tiny storage chamber, and built-in analyzer, appears in one of the tough menís hands. But before they can use it, Jimmy has overcome the effects of the chi-sapper, which is using his own energy to bind him, tying him up with his own power. He uses what his karate teacher once called "the mind behind the blows", or the "inner landscape of the martial arts", to disconnect his energy from the machine, withdrawing its availability to the controlling device; then with a slight twist of his body, gets out from under it, and begins to fight back with terrible, yet precise fury. Four competent fighters are down on the ground in less than a minute, while the man with the tube just stands there, not firing. Somehow, Jimmy knew that he wouldnít. Jimmy takes the tube out of his hands.

Outraged, Chister demands, "What the hell is all this about? You stupid thugs!" He threatens the men who are sprawled out on the ground.

One of the bounty hunters who is still standing says, "Look, weíre under contract from the outside, since they arenít allowed in themselves. Rupert Jardinoweís clone has run away. We believe heís somewhere, here, in Freedom City."

A gasp escapes from the crowd of bystanders.

"The old manís fading," says another bounty hunter. "The Life Extension Injections are reaching their limit. His mind is going. We canít do without him, a genius like that comes but once every thousand years. Thatís too long to wait. Clone son was being prepared to take his place, to carry on from where his dad left off, but now heís gone."

"Big shit," Jimmy says. "Make another one. Make a thousand, make a million, turn the whole world into Rupert Jardinowe."

"He didnít want a whole bunch of clones," the bounty hunter says. "He didnít want to become a swarm of locusts. He wanted his clone to be like a son. He wanted every resource to be devoted to him. He wanted to build him up with an entire planetís worth of support."

"Say, kid, you fight pretty damned well," says another one of the bounty hunters, rising slowly to his feet. "You know, clone son was trained in the martial arts, to improve his focus."

"You mean, he was distracted?" asks Jimmy. "A bad student? Not like his father? But, of course, that would be impossible. He was a clone."

"Where did you learn to fight?" the bounty hunter asks, wiping blood from his mouth.

"The street," Jimmy replies. "Look." He takes the DNA analyzer, and appears to scrape himself with it. "Read it."

The man looks at a little meter on the device. "Itís not a match," he says, disappointed and puzzled, his instinct overruled.

"You know, thereís lots of copycat Jardinowes around, courtesy of the wonderful world of plastic-surgery. Itís the latest face fashion, the current rage in pop style. Just ask her," he says, pointing to Lofty Girl, who for a moment was mesmerized by Jimmy, believing she might have stumbled upon a great treasure, but now regards him with increased disgust, as though he had just been transformed from one cockroach into two.

"Would you let us put this stamp on your hand?" asks one of the bounty hunters. "To show us that weíve already checked you out, and that youíre not him?" They flash money in his face. Chister and Almost embrace each other.

"Certainly," replies Jimmy. "The seal of an impostor. No, wait, Iíll do it myself." He takes the stamp, checks it out, then imprints the mark on his hand, and returns the device to its owners. "Look, Lofty Girl," he says, holding up his hand with the sign on it. "The mark of a copycat. Sure you donít want to spend some time with me? Iíd love to show you a play I just wrote. Itís called Hamlet. Or would you prefer to read my novel, The Brothers Karamazov?"

Lofty Girl snaps her fingers, and her servants carry her away. "No one here," she says, loyal to her standards. Behind her vanishing entourage, a group of scantily-clad prostitutes appears, scavengers of Lofty Girlís impossible demands, crying out, "Hey boys, who wants to have a good time? You donít need brains, you just need money!" The men cheer. Things are once again simple. Jimmy keeps the bounty huntersí tube, their assault has earned him that right, and he may need it down the road. "How about some fun?" Almost asks him, looking at the girls. "No," says Jimmy, "we have business to take care of first. A battery for your leg." "Oh, I forgot," admits Almost.

Meanwhile, Chister asks Jimmy, "Why did you scrape my hand with that frigging device? What was it? You cut me."

__________

They have just got Almost his battery, and juiced up his leg. To show them his renewed powers, he jumps high into the air, as though riding a 500-horsepower pogo stick. Then he kicks a loose stone from the street far into the distance. It almost kills someone. "Look at him run, he thinks itís mortar fire!" laughs Almost. Braying like a mule, he says, "Almost is back on top of his game. Thank you minefield, for turning me into a superman! - Now, can we go to the whorehouse?"

Thatís when they notice they have been followed. The green girl, stealthy like a cat, but without that coiled ferocity, is standing nearby, looking into a store window.

"You like that crap?" asks Chister, coming up beside her. The store is filled with second-hand clothing, lots of it with tube holes burned into it, garments gathered from the dead. "Itís more like a forensic laboratory than a clothing store."

The girl shakes her head. "No. I think itís hideous."

"But itís the best window youíve got to make it look like youíre not following us?"

For a moment, she looks frightened, which Chister enjoys, because intimidating a beautiful woman is a big sexual turn-on. But Jimmy wonít let that game get off the ground. "Itís all right," he says. "We saw you meditating in the square, before all the commotion. Then, with this money, it was good to move on. Staying in one place after getting paid doesnít seem like a smart thing to do." He reaches into his pocket, and takes out a wad of money, sheltering it with his body so no passers-bye will see. "Youíre hungry," he says. "That must be why youíre following us. Here, take this, get something to eat."

Chister, blowing kisses behind Jimmyís back, motions that she should put out for her benefactor, thatís way too much money not to get something in return for it. "No thanks," she says, pushing the money back towards Jimmy. Jimmy looks over his shoulder, and imagining what is going on, tells Chister to chill. "No, take it," he tells the green girl, "itís a gift. You donít owe me anything. Youíre hungry."

She regards him. "You know, I can do photosynthesis," she says.

Jimmyís eyes become tender, through the hardness they are beginning to absorb and recognize the need for. "Of course you can. But it canít hurt to supplement your diet. Most plants donít walk. You may need to eat a little more than they do."

"Youíre new here," she tells him, taking the money, and hiding it under her clothes.

"Iím learning," he says.

"Donít learn too fast," she replies.

"Why not?" demands Chister. "You want him dead?"

Turning to Jimmy, she says, "You said you had a story. Lofty Girl was putting you all in the same boat, and sinking it. Whatís your story?"

Jimmy doesnít answer.

"Iíd like to hear it," she says.

Jimmy shakes his head. "I havenít come here to talk about myself. Iíve come here to get as far away from myself as I can. And thatís already saying too much. But if you want to tell me about you, Iíll listen."

__________

Theyíre in a bar. The girl is smart, but completely out of place. This is reality, and she is a creature of fantasy. There is something beautiful about her ideals, but also deadly. She is like a deer who has never heard of hunters, wandering into the open. Having lived in a place like this for over two years, if she remembers correctly, the walls of her delusions must be as thick as bunkers. Somewhere, in her mind, sheís writing a novel with reality that may end up getting her killed.

"A common story," Chister whispers to Jimmy, as the girl begins to tell her story, suggesting he not allow it to move him. "Here, have another." An ajow brew, the closest thing to lava you can pour down your throat. Chister figures that with one or two of these, Jimmy will be ready to f**k her and save his ears a lot of distress. "Your typical sob story," Chister warns, staring into his pitcher. But there is Jimmy, paying him no heed, listening away. The girl had no parents, of course not!, she is part of the test-tube element. The world still depends mainly on daddies and mommies and families, because too many other psychological deprivations require that bare concession to human emotions; and besides, a premature commitment to universal genetic engineering could freeze the biological progress of humanity, locking it into the optimum evolutionary designs of one age, while shutting out the unimagined improvements possible in another. Maybe 10% of humanity now belongs to the test-tube element, but what a trouble-ridden element it is! Test-tube baby syndrome, hundreds of thousands of them stretching their arms towards a mamma who never comes, no matter how hard they cry. For a moment it looked good, she got approved to be placed into the Adopted Test Tube Baby program, after acting out as a teenager: "I was shy and wanted to obey the rules, but I also knew the squeaky wheel gets the oil, so I got into cutting myself, and vandalism, with some shoplifting thrown in for good measure. One night, after smashing a store window with a homemade explosive , I just stood there while my vandal sisters ran away, mesmerized by the way the glass was falling down like an avalanche of ice and the alarm was shouting out my need to the world. I was crying through that alarm, and I was joyful to hear my cry, because I knew it was finally going to bring a mother running to me in the night. First the mother of the police, and then the mother of the program." But very quickly, the program went bad. The girlís adoptive father raped her, she stabbed him in the arm, ran away, got caught and put into a prison school, and later sent to a coercive work site, after being declared a genetic misfire. When her restoration request was denied, she headed out to Freedom City with two other coercion workers, one of whom died from a drug overdose, one of whom was killed by some freak sniper a few months later. Green girl survived through prostitution. Her quality was soon recognized by one of the houses, which upgraded her to a courtesan: a worthy companion, a diligent listener, and certified master of the erotic arts. But the house, which became her new home, was finally ruined by Advorzhi, the bandit general who took it over and not only lowered the girlsí take, but also forced them to serve his men for free. The last straw was being forced to make love to a man covered with the blood of someone he had just killed. Escaping with her savings, something in her seemed to snap; the only refuge from the cruelty of the world that remained, after years of seeking, was inside: inside of a mind that was determined to dance on the broken glass; to walk over Hell, across the tightrope of how the world should be.

Ever since then, the girlís life had been a dream. She had fallen prey to Dr. Chlorophyll, and chosen to right the wrongs of the world by standing in the sun with her arms outstretched like the branches of a tree.

"Youíve had a hard life," says Jimmy, desire pacing back and forth like a tiger inside a cage in his heart, that he is only one drink away from opening. And why not? Sheís accustomed to betrayals, to deceit and force, to sympathy as nothing more than a form of hunting. Hasnít he listened enough to deserve to use her for his pleasure? He doesnít want her to reciprocate by listening to him turn his soul inside out, why not just go upstairs and give him a good time? Put those hands, those lips, that center of the universe to work? He doesnít want her compassion, he wants her body. He wants a sensation without a life attached to it. Another drink appears before him, he pushes it away. "No, I donít want to be like this."

"Where are you going?" green girl asks.

"To sleep, Hetasia." Sheís told him her name. But he can call her Tassy. "This crap is too strong for me." Somebodyís laughing at him, "The kid looks like heís just seen a ghost. And heís only had two cups of ajow!"

"Want to lend me some of that money?" someone asks him.

Jimmyís tube is in his face. "Did I hear you right?" he asks.

"I said, good night, sir. Ajowís an awful drink, it should be banned. Itís worse than VD."

Jimmy goes upstairs, rents a room, and barricades the door with furniture. He lays the tube down beside him, and says, "Freedom City. I made it through one day!"

__________

It is a week later, now, and Chister and Almost have been prospering from their association with Jimmy, thanks to the cash he got from the bounty hunters and the big red jewel, which has turned out to be a stolen museum piece, from some dead queenís crown. The girl they got it from, whose name they learn is Karmela, obviously had ins with bandits. "Hope we donít meet up with her, again," says Chister, "now that her jewelís turned to liquid in my pitcher." Meanwhile, Hetasia is disappointed by Jimmyís inaccessibility. He wonít talk about where he came from, or why he came here. Heíll listen to her talk about herself, and heíll listen to her theories, which he considers to be light and airy, but which he doesnít dismiss her for, since he understands they are merely the products of her damage. Somewhere underneath her pathetic optimism, is a deep and troubled soul; somewhere, swimming in the pool of her gullibility, is wisdom.

"So why did you have your face done?" she asks. "Why did you want to look like Rupert Jardinowe?"

"Donít you admire him?" he asks.

"Sure. Everybody does."

He acts like the question is answered.

"So, like heís your role model? Like, maybe if you have his face, youíll remember to try to live up to him? Sort of like hanging his picture on your wall? Except your wall is your face?"

Jimmy answers by doing something else.

After she comes back from meditating, he gives her a sandwich. "So Ė what are your plans?" she asks.

"Why? What plans can one possibly have in a place like this, except to make it through another day?"

"Did you come here because you want to live? Or do you want to die?" she asks.

"I donít know why I came here," he says.

"Maybe you came here looking for love."

"Maybe your name is Hetasia, and not Dr. Sigmund Freud."

"I only want to understand you."

"Itís not worth the trouble."

She chirps like a songbird for a while, perched on his patience for women whose sensitivity has been vandalized. He is reading a manual about weapons, and listens to her like a man who is half-asleep as the birds celebrate the dawn which he takes for granted, but which they never seem to belittle as being certain. Something about that damned Dr. Chlorophyll, again, and the beauty of surviving without sin; and then something sheís been onto for a long time, some bunch of idiots called the New World Club, a band of philosophers who want to reform Freedom City and use it as a base to transform civilization.

"This place is nothing more than a giant viperís pit," he says, studying the range and fire options of the laser detonator and the street bombs which it can be used to explode. "Youíll never build anything worthwhile on a foundation of thugs and emotional cripples. This is where the dregs of the world gather, they donít have aspirations, they just have addictions; they donít have ideals, they just have vices. The outside uses the unchecked pleasures of Freedom City to siphon off its undesirable elements, to make its own ideals possible to attain by getting rid of those who would sabotage it if they remained within it. The exaggerated boredom of society, and all the restored injustices of Deliberate Historical Retrograde, are carefully constructed to make life unbearable for certain types of people, who are driven by their frustration to flee to Freedom City, if they canít escape through the space colonization project, that is, which can only accommodate about 2% of any generation. And face it, their evaluations are going to be too low to get selected. Itís a brilliant work of social engineering, actually, a world that lures everyone whose discontent could topple it into a baited refuge where they only end up destroying themselves."

"Thatís what the New World Club is saying," Hetasia says. "See, I knew youíd like them."

Now Jimmy is studying the range of the tube. Thereís also body armor, which is reliable at about 100 yards. It costs a lot, though. "New World Club must be high," Jimmy says. "Here, everybody is either drunk or high; their blueprints for a new world probably have lines of cocaine on them. Of course, Freedom City can become the springboard for a great global change!" he says sarcastically. "Of course, you can use bandits, whores, dropouts, and nut-jobs to build utopia! Here, in Freedom City, we can do what Athens could not do, what Rome could not do, what Great Britain and the United States in the days before world unity could not do! High people can do anything, until their drug wears off. Paradise was invented, Hetasia, to keep us from sliding down into the deepest, darkest pit in our hearts. Trying to get to paradise, we climb out of the pit, but we never reach it. Itís not a place weíll ever live in, itís only a means of escaping the worst we could become."

"You know," she says, "itís not like thereís only thugs in here. Look at us. Not everybody is a robber or a rapist Ė are we? How do you know the raw material to change the world doesnít exist in here? Youíre being too hard on the New World Club. You feel angry, and disappointed, like life is empty; and you donít want anybody to prove you wrong."

"Hetasia, I just donít want to get my hopes up," Jimmy replies. "Youíre sweet, you really are." He looks at her for a moment, then turns away, before it can lead to something. "Iíve got to learn about these weapons. This is the language Freedom City speaks."

She watches him for a moment, fascinated and somewhat frightened by his concentration as he studies the methods men have devised to kill each other. Who is he, really? Why is she hanging out with him, and his two obnoxious friends? He looks up from the book, staring at something far away, he is probably calculating distances and visualizing the range of some weapon he has just studied.

"How about a movie?" she asks.

__________

They are back in the square where he first saw her, now, the square where Lofty Girl ripped him to shreds. Thereís a big movie screen here, and theyíre going to play some movie about the Near Disaster. That was the atomic war they had, centuries ago, which wrecked parts of several countries, and finally convinced the nations of the earth that they had better form some kind of effective World Council. Lucky the war was just enough to force the world to rise to a higher level, and not quite enough to destroy it. After that came the Exchanges Ė the insertion of huge strategic enclaves of foreign populations into every major country of the world in order to mix people together so closely that no future nuclear strike could be made without destroying oneís own people. You could say, huge voluntary human shields were emplaced in every nation. Meanwhile, massive intermarriages were also promoted, connecting formerly hostile peoples. Under the cover of these programs, the final steps in national disarmament were finally made, and Council control consolidated. After that, there were occasional revolutions, and outbreaks of crime and plunges into apathy; periodic troubles which did not threaten the survival of the earth, but which discomfited the peace. Sometimes, these problems were solved by political means, sometimes by massive police actions, and sometimes by technical means, as when the great Rupert Jardinowe utilized undiscovered laws of physics to deter a major revolution that had erupted on the earth, by restoring hope to the world.

"Like, is this going to be a documentary, or a movie?" somebody is asking somebody else.

"Like a movie, man. Near Disaster. Bombs away. "

"I hope the special effects arenít too gooey. Like melting faces and all."

"Yo, nuclear war was a bad-ass thing. Take a tube gun and multiply it big time. Like a ping pong ball compared to the planet Jupiter."

"Or a flyís shit compared to an elephantís diarrhea."

"Yo, shut up, this is serious, dudes. Our human race almost didnít make it. This isnít something to make light of."

" ĎMake light ofí, oh, so the English professor is here. Look out, heís got a red pen, going to circle every word that comes out of your mouth."

A juggler, silhouetted against the screen, is trying to make a few bucks, while somebody else is going by, saying, "Friendship! Friendship here! Only fifty bucks an hour, friendship here! I listen, and I always say the right things. Iíll care about you. Only fifty bucks an hour!"

"Yo, start the movie already!" someone else is shouting.

Suddenly, the lights around the screen go out, the people cheer. When they see the words, "Pre-movie Short", they boo. But when they see Rupert Jardinoweís face, they cheer again. Heís probably the only person from the outside they feel that way about. "Hey! This short is about Rupert Jardinowe!"

__________

Footage of Jardinowe as he is today, old and stooped over, withered, but with a kind face, and his famous robot cane that always asks him how he feels. The people cheer when the cane says, "How are you feeling today?" ("Hey, the cane talks, man! Hooray for the talking cane!") "Iím doing well enough, thank you cane," says Jardinowe. "So nice to have you to lean on." (The cane replies: "The pleasure is all mine." "Hey, the cane talked again!" The people cheer.)

NARRATOR: Rupert Jardinowe, a man loved and revered by a world. Who is this man, and why do we love him? Why must we never forget what he has done?

Footage of a wild mob surrounding a huge, official looking building: World Council Headquarters. They are yelling and holding up placards that say: "We will not be ruled by liars!"

NARRATOR: 2490. The world is in crisis. Recently recovered from a century of apathy, when productivity ground to a standstill; when vandalism, and absenteeism flourished; when thousands of workers had to be dragged to work by police. This was all changed by the space program, by the colonization of other worlds. Once again the world had a dream to live for. But now, that dream has been ruthlessly betrayed. Popular representatives discover that the great colonization voyages are a sham. Hundreds of thousands of space colonists have been launched into space aboard multi-generational spacecraft that are actually nothing more than death ships, intended to rid the earth of them. The discontented are being hurled to die into the depths of deep space; reports coming back from the colonies are fake.

"Holy shit!" exclaims a viewer. "Those sick bastards!"

Footage shows a huge crowd shaking an iron-grated gate, some climbing up over the gate to attack the council.

Then it cuts to armored vehicles rolling through the streets, and rioters running from them.

Next, we see the Council members, led by the conspirators, grim and cruel-looking, now that the charade has been exposed to the light.

NARRATOR: At first, the worldís clamor for justice is met by force.

We see troops firing into a crowd.

NARRATOR: But soon the chaos becomes too much to bear. Not only are there riots; workers around the world go on strike; absentee police join the rebels, and distribute weapons. Productivity plummets. Agricultural unions refuse to obey embargos designed to starve the population into submission. The chief conspirators are finally arrested and sentenced to death.

"Yeah, kill the bastards!" shout some of the spectators. "Pigs! Liars!"

NARRATOR: But even so, the world continues to reel. Without the space program, humanity has been robbed of the vision that sustains it. Without war, there is no drama and flux in life, only survival, and that is not enough for the human spirit to get by on. Sport is merely a fantasy, it cannot carry the full weight of the human need to strive and to struggle. For a time, the council seeks to reinject passion into the world through DHR Ė Deliberate Historical Retrograde. But people resent artificial challenges and intentional withdrawals of technology. They resent intentionally induced and satisfied revolutions. What the world needs is for the space program to get back on track.

The young Rupert Jardinowe appears on the screen, filled with life, with sparkling, powerfully alert, passionately curious eyes, that seem to set the world around him on fire. Footage of him sitting in a class; speaking with professors; standing by a blackboard with complex mathematical formulas on it; pointing to a diagram of geometrical patterns, cones, and lines; standing by a diagram of an engine, with another prominent scientist from the International Space & Research Agency.

NARRATOR: They say that the great man is the man who best fits his moment in time. If this is true, then human history has known no one greater than Rupert Jardinowe.

The spectators at the movie cheer. "Jardinowe!" "Rupert J!" "The king!" "God bless the rocket man!" "Hyperspace rocks!"

JARDINOWE: We have discovered an entirely different means of traveling through the universe, a method which utilizes the vast energy sources inside stars to gain entry to hyperspace and tunnel through space-time, as it were, to distant quadrants of the celestial habitat. We have bypassed the problem of the speed-of-light altogether; in practical effect, we can surpass it many times. Actual construction of the technology is feasible within the matter of a century. After that, inhabitants of our earth will be able to reach alien planets capable of supporting life within their own lifetimes, and to communicate with their loved ones on a regular, if delayed, basis.

NARRATOR: The worldís dream is restored. Rupert Jardinowe tirelessly pursues the development of the technology unleashed by his theories, prolonging his ability to serve mankind with massive doses of Dr. Mensenís new life extension formula.

Footage of Jardinowe with graying hair, with an IV in his arm, as he talks to a fellow scientist over the phone.

NARRATOR: But this is not the only reason that we love Rupert Jardinowe.
We love Rupert Jardinowe for his integrity, and his solidarity with his fellow man. It is Rupert Jardinowe who told the Council, "I will not take one drop of Dr. Mensenís formula, unless you make it available to the rest of mankind."

(The audience cheers wildly. "Stand by me! Oh wonít you stand by me?" "Hooray!" "Long live Jardinowe! Give him more LEF! Keep him going!")

NARRATOR: It is also Rupert Jardinowe who insisted on full public transparency of the space program, to insure renewed public trust in the government.

("Yeah, Rupert! You know it!")

Once more, now, we see the aged Jardinowe, leaning on a cane, waving good-bye to a crowd.

NARRATOR: Now, as Rupert Jardinowe advances in age, and nears the end of a fabulous lifespan filled with humanitarian and world-changing achievements, let us honor him, and cherish his work by making it our own.

The short ends, to wild and sincere applause. Outcasts, exiles, and antisocial dropouts alike cheer this great man who has sought to provide humanity with an escape route from its lack of purpose to the stars. If only greater numbers of people could be absorbed by his space program, maybe this crazed, and tragic experiment of Freedom City, so much more accessible than space, would not be needed to placate (and to ensnare and neutralize) the frustrated spirit of man.

__________

As the full-length feature about the Near Disaster begins, Hetasia hurries after Jimmy, who has abruptly left the square where he promised to watch a movie with her. Heís obviously changed his mind.

"Is something wrong?" she asks him, finally catching up with him on a distant street. She corners him by a wall. He turns away from her.

"It must be nice to be so famous, to be so loved," he says. " To have done so much for humanity. To be Rupert Jadinowe."

She sees something moist by one of his eyes, in his reflection in a store window. Her hand tentatively reaches out towards him.

Forcefully, but without touching her, he strides past her back into the night. She chases after him, having to run to keep up with his walk. Sensing her by him, once again, he stops, aware of his rudeness, but equally loyal to a dark mood that is raging inside him, demanding solitude. Compromising, he points upwards. "The moon. Isnít it like that great big screen where we just watched the movie? Canít you see Rupert Jardinoweís face in the moon? So far above us?"

"Heís your hero," Hetasia reminds him, testing him.

"Of course. Why else would I have remolded my face in his image?"

"I wonder why his clone son ran away?" muses Hetasia, watching him like an eagle from behind a pose of innocence.

"Are you a bounty hunter?" Jimmy asks, turning towards her brusquely, threateningly.

"No!" she exclaims, jumping away. She looks at him. He looks at her. "Rupert Jardinoweís old. He needs his clone. The world needs his clone. To expand the space program so more people can participate. To work on cosmological management. To keep the government honest, and the people believing in it."

"What if his clone wasnít up to the task?" Jimmy asks. "What if his clone wasnít able to fill his shoes?"

"But how couldnít he?" asks Hetasia. "His clone is him. How couldnít he fill his own shoes?"

Jimmy nods in agreement, a bitter frown taking over his face. "Yes, how couldnít he? It seems to be impossible. A genetically identical human being, raised in a carefully constructed childhood environment designed to reproduce the major influences on Rupert Jardinoweís life. So well planned, the continuation. Why couldnít the clone son just receive the torch from his fatherís hand, and keep on running with it?"


Hetasiaís ingenuous side has a powerful eye inside of it, an eye that mostly stays shut, but sometimes opens to see everything around her. There is the hard rock of a strong mind underneath the soft earth of her naivetť, and if you dig long enough into her foolishness, you will find undeniable substance.

Once again, the two of them look at each other. This time, they know the truth. There is no use in pretending anymore. "Jimmy Jardinowe Ė clone son," Hetasia says gently. "Letís go somewhere and talk."

__________

Once again theyíre in a bar, this time safely stashed away in a private booth. Itís dark. They are only shadows and imagination. They have drinks in front of them, and a collection of pills, courtesy of the house. Jimmy pushes the pills away, but takes a drink. Hetasia watches him.

"So Iím not me anymore, am I?" he asks. "From now on, Iím Rupert Jardinowe. You must be crazy about me. The brilliant scientist who saved the world."

"Donít underestimate me," says Hetasia.

"It canít be the same now. I was starting to like you. But now, Iíve ceased to be me. Iím him."

"You are him and you," says Hetasia.

"But the him in me eclipses the me. Iím the desert, and heís the well. People come to me to drink his water."

"Is that what itís about?" Hetasia asks. "Coming here, to Freedom City? You want to be loved for yourself, and this is the only place where you could disappear? The only way you could cease to be him?"

"No," Jimmy protests. "Maybe I came here because I love him. I wanted to shelter him from my failure. I was breaking down. It was too hard to do it in front of him. Or maybe it was to protect him from what other people think. To them, heís perfect, invincible; then, they see me, and taking me as a window into him, they begin to discover his flaws. My defects let them see all the shit thatís inside his intestines, and they begin to look at him differently. He needs his mystique intact, more so the older he gets."

"So you came here to protect him?"

"Why should I protect him?" Jimmy growls, following his drink wherever it leads him. "Heís got the whole world on his side, millions of people who love him. He doesnít need anything from me."

"Youíre jealous?"

"No, that would be pathetic. Iím not close enough to his level to even merit being jealous. Heís accomplished great things. Why hold it against him?"

Hetasia is silent for a moment. Maybe sheís pressing too hard.

"All those puzzled bastards looking at me!" Jimmy curses. "They canít figure out whatís wrong! Iím supposed to be good at this stuff: astronomy, physics, energetic geometry, time/space manipulation, non-material engine construction Ė the works! It should all come easily to me, I should be a natural, a prodigy, my professors should be asking me for help. And here I am, floundering. Failing exams. Reading this crap over and over again and not getting it. More than that, bored out of my mind with it! Bored and terrified. Terrified that Iíll slip and fall down the mountain of ice. They say dad loved this shit, thinking was like sex for him, he couldnít ever get enough. A part of him was like a bulldog who would grab onto a question and never let go of it till he got an answer, while another part of him was like a sibyl, who things just came to. And all these teachers are looking at me like my head is on fire, or Iíve got a bullet hole in my chest. Something terrible is happening! Somethingís gone horribly wrong! Yo, can I just have a life? Without this over-the-top pressure? Without the whole world trying to squeeze me to fit into a life that isnít mine; that I donít want? Yo, heís got it covered, itís his thing, let me do something new. He did this joyfully, Iím being whipped by the highest expectations every step of the way. If he f**ked up, no one would notice, who would ever guess heíd slipped on a mountain they didnít even know existed? He could fail to become a God by a mile, and theyíd call him a great man, but if Iím half a step behind him Iím a loser. He never had himself as a yardstick to be measured by."

Tears are beginning to fill up Hetasiaís eyes, but Jimmy doesnít notice, heís staring into his drink like it just cursed him out.

" ĎYouíre behind! One class behind! We know you can do it, your father did! Maybe youíre just lazy.í ĎMaybe you should just f**k off.í ĎDonít talk to your teachers that way, son.í ĎDonít call me son. Iím you.í ĎListen, you better show me some respect! Iím not just some kid in school. Do you know who youíre talking to?í ĎYeah, Iím talking to me; and I can say anything I want to me!í "

Another drink is in front of Jimmy, and Hetasia looks at him with worried eyes, but who is going to jump into the midst of the emotional whirling blades, youíve got to wait for them to stop spinning before you try to help.

"íOh, Amy, yes, hi, Amy.í Clone girlfriend for the clone son. Very nice blonde girl, daddy was crazy about his own Amy, so why shouldnít I have one, too? He sucked her dry. It was all for a great cause, of course it was right of him to take everything she had, every last piece of her heart and soul, for himself, he was building rockets with it; she laid down in his bed and he turned the geometry of her vagina into the doorway that brought mankind into hyperspace. ĎSo, Amy Clone, what would you like to do today?í ĎI thought you had to study today.í ĎNo, letís go to the park, to our special place.í ĎI could get in trouble. If you fail your test, theyíll blame me.í Some people are just born to be somebody elseís blood supply. I wasnít a good-enough vampire to be able to love her. And thatís another difference between dad and me. He never saw anyone before him break another human being like glass; I did. - Yo, waitress, this crap is half water! Bring me another one, and this time donít dilute it. You want me to start diluting my money?!"

"Jimmy," Hetasia pleads.

"Failure! Failure! Oh my God! Just make another clone son! ĎNo, heís my son; and heís me! I wonít fail! Find a way to get him back on track!í Yeah, get me back on track. Maybe Amyís not hot enough, how about Yuki Ėif you pass the next test! What about a trip to Rome, they still have the ruins there. What do I need to see ruins for, all I have to do is look in the mirror? But Yuki? They give me a video of her naked saying ĎJimmy Jardinowe, Iím begging you to pass your next test, because I want to f**k you.í But I got snagged on step 24 of Naumannís application of the Stryzwski Formula. Bastards even took back my video!"

Hetasia suggests, "Maybe you should drink a little less."

Jimmy sneers, and gulps down half a glass, then laughs. "Maybe reverse psychology will work! Tell him weíve given up on him, we donít care what he does anymore, he can spend the rest of his life watching movies, and sleeping. Despise him, see if that will jump-start his pride. If it doesnít, we can always try the guilt trip. ĎThe world needs you, Jimmy! You are being selfish. Your failure is an act of egotism. Who will carry on with the space program, if not you? We need to make space available to at least 40% of the population. Right now we can only offer it to 2%. How can you get more energy into the hyperspace web, to hold it open longer and reach more distant targets? What about when we finally contact extraterrestrial civilizations? Itís bound to happen! And what about Cosmological Management? If you canít find some way to outfox the predicted destruction of the universe, mass depression is bound to set in sometime in the future; civilization will become impossible.í Oh, come on, cut the crap! Is there only one brain on the planet? Donít bind me to all this shit, itís too much! Cosmic collapse is so far away, and thereís so much to learn between now and then, that you can put that one on the back burner for about twenty billion years; leave me the hell out of it! As for ETs, well, just make sure youíve got a whole lot of glass beads and trinkets Ė it worked last time, why not now? ĎDonít be so damned cynical!í ĎWhy not, if you donít have talent, cynicismís the next best thing."

Hetasia extends her hand across the table. Itís on Jimmyís. Sheís overcome the fear of what his reaction will be, with the sincerity of her action. "Jimmy," she says, watching his eyes take a few steps away from the past, but still not quite into the now. "Youíre not a failure. You just didnít want to be him, all over again. You wanted to take another path. He was an innovator, a pioneer, an explorer, and you are too. Which means you couldnít give a repeat performance. You need uncharted territory to be at your best. Remember the poem? ĎThe Road Not Takení?"

"Robert Frost."

" ĎTwo roads diverged in a yellow wood.í You wanted to travel on the road you left behind; to be the self you sacrificed in order to be him. Thereís more to Rupert Jardinowe than he knows, and you want to discover it, to develop it, to live it. You donít want to be a mere copy of him. ĎCloneí doesnít mean Ďcopyí, Jimmy, thereís so many people in each and every one of us, most of whom we end up killing by having to commit ourselves to being only one of us. But you can come back, Jimmy, and be who you werenít. You can bring one of those lost people back to life. You can rescue one of those abandoned possibilities."

Jimmy squeezes her hand, her foolish green hand, grateful for her tolerance and her gameness. "So I ended up here?" he asks.

"Why?" she agrees.

"Because back there, the whole world was compelling me to be Rupert Jardinowe. Maybe this is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire," he admits. "But itís the one place they canít follow me with their expectations."

That might not be true, Hetasia realizes, but she lets it go at that. "Come on, letís go out and get some fresh air," she suggests, to get him away from the dangerous weight of the drinks. "I donít want to stop getting to know you," she says.

__________

They are outside now, breathing in the cool night air, temporarily feeling safe among crowds that are peaceful, and grazing with conversations, like herds of animals on the African plains not threatened by a lion. Even lions need to sleep; between their meals, lovers inherit the world.

Hetasia pulls Jimmy into an all-night accessories store, and buys a shared MHS (mental head set) with perspective zoom-out capability. "Pricey," warns Jimmy. "Donít be cheap," she laughs, using his money to buy it. "I want to know you as a child. I am feeling tender towards you."

"Oh no, tender?" asks Jimmy. "Does that mean, Iíll never get laid?" Then he is asking for forgiveness profusely, blaming the drinks, while she is laughing and saying, "Yo, I used to be a courtesan, donít take it so hard."

Outside, she snuggles close to him, as they fit the equipment over their heads. "Hereís the breaker switch," she says. "You can let me see what you want. I want to show you a memory from my childhood." They drift over to a corner where they can close their eyes and be out of the way. Jimmy sees a vivacious girl, in a moment of forgetting to be unhappy, dancing with a picture she has drawn, the crudely-drawn picture of a woman wearing a crown. "I made a picture of myself as a queen," she says. "This image, which I keep in my mind, has rescued me from many a dark hole, when no one else was there to lift me out."

Jimmy hugs her. Something close to adoration has exposed itself in the way he is holding her; just the way he is touching her is like a love poem. There is an awakening familiarity between them, a harmony of fractures. "Now show me one of your memories," Hetasia insists. Jimmy knows she wants to see him as a child, but the image of her dancing has triggered a memory from his teenage years. He shares it.

"Oh my God, I remember that day!" Hetasia cries. "The day the weather shield broke down over New Administrative City! I was watching it from the inside, from behind a window!"

There is snow falling down to the earth in giant huge flakes, and people running for cover; but Jimmy is outside, he has run out of his school room, and is dancing about in the snow, with his hands raised upwards towards the Heavens, spinning around and around, and yelling with joy, opening up his mouth to catch and eat the snowflakes. "They sent security out to try to bring me back," Jimmy says, "but they couldnít catch me. I was gone for the whole day, till Meteorological Administration finally completed its repairs."

"Oh, how was it Jimmy? The snow! It looks so beautiful!"

"It was. Maybe one day Ė maybe one day it will happen again."

"But those images of security guys chasing after you," she says, after a moment, a sudden question occurring to her. "They were big strong guys, Jimmy. How did you manage to outrun them?"

"Hetasia, they were all arms. And I was in good shape. Maybe this memory will help to answer your question."

Hetasia sees Jimmy as a boy, about ten years old, jumping over the rail of the moving sidewalk, which is filled with office personnel going to work, and running alongside it, with his bookbag slung over his shoulders. He is looking at the people as he passes by them, and laughing at them. "What will you do if the sidewalk ever breaks down?" he asks them. "It wonít," they say. Down the block he pulls the emergency brake ("Oh no!" gasps Hetasia), and Jimmy says "Time to lose those extra pounds!" He tells Hetasia, after admitting that he got a good lecture from the police as a result, "I felt superior to the sidewalk riders. I know that sounds arrogant, but itís because they let themselves go to pot, and I canít stand people who donít have willpower. Without willpower, there is no virtue, only convenience. I couldnít stand the thought that these lazy-ass people were allowing the human race to de-condition, that they were making it increasingly incapable of morally beautiful acts, and by turning us into a flabby, self-indulgent species, letting heroism vanish from the human repertoireÖ"

"You werenít lazy, Jimmy," she points out.

"Not physically," he agrees. "Not in anything that had to do with emotions, either. I read voraciously. The history of struggle. Battles. And poetry. Preferably dark and brooding, like a crow flying over my heart. I loved the kind of stuff that would drive other people to commit suicide, I just couldnít get enough of it. But as for science Ė well, I loved it, too, but not the lash across my back. My teachers called me lazy, but what I was, was stubborn. Thatís what being with you right now is beginning to make me think."

She is overjoyed that she is having this effect. "And then, you did all that karate," she reminds him, building on a good thing.

Nodding, he shows her a memory of himself in the dojo; he is a teenager. "They let me study karate to try to take advantage of my physical inclinations, to get my mind back; they thought it would restore my focus, penetrate through all the distractions that were confusing me, help me to think clearly once again. They also thought karate would allow me to vent, and work off some of that adolescent angst that was getting in the way of my classwork." Hetasia watches him, he is shouting; there is fierce and focused anger in his face, he is striking at the air with hands and feet in bold, precise patterns, swift and graceful like a panther as he savagely dispatches one imaginary opponent after another. "Great! Perfect!" his teacher is telling him. "More hip! More hip! More mind! Thatís it!"

"Who were you destroying?" Hetasia asks.

"My father. Myself. My obligations. Like Cyrano de Bergerac said at the end of the play, ĎFalsehood, Prejudice, Compromise, Cowardice, VanityíÖ And men I did not know I would ever meet, the bandits and the thieves of Freedom CityÖ"

Hetasia puts her arms around Jimmy, and practically hangs on him, like a wreath. The memories of karate have agitated him, brought his anger back to the surface. "Whatís the most peaceful memory of childhood you have?" she asks him.

His eyes drift; for a moment there is no recognition, then, suddenly, a light, a soft light comes into his eyes. She sees a giant pool of water, and in it Jimmy, about nine years old, is clinging to a dolphin, a big, gray, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. "Fins," Jimmy says, "my pet. Iíd get down into the pool, and his big eyes would look at me with love. And heíd let me hold onto him, and heíd drag me around the pool, with infinite patience. No one else looked at me with that kind of love, Hetasia." Hetasia sees one of Jimmyís teachers come by the pool and tell him, "After you come out, James, I want you to add the following word to your vocabulary list: anthropomorphic."

Hetasia turns Jimmyís head towards her, and kisses him. "No, I am not kissing Rupert Jardinowe," she assures him. He kisses her back, the night is going to be proud of them.

__________

Love is a beautiful thing. It puts broken things back together; in the light of ecstasy, it finds pieces in corners of the body and soul which are needed for wholeness. If you are sick, before you go to a doctor, go to a lover.

Great love forgives dingy rooms, small beds, torn curtains, dirty carpets, it turns holes into shrines, it cures the lepers with a kiss. Lives that were vanquished rise in the morning, singing.

Hetasia rolls over, yawns as though she deserves it, stretches her naked body with uncontemplated pride, displaying her beauty to the gods of sleep, as she begins to slowly wake.

Jimmy is in the bathroom, the water is running, he is rinsing his mouth and spitting into the sink; it sounds like a waterfall in paradise.

She looks at a little tattoo she has, which says, "If you can see this, you are going to have a good time." A leftover from her days as a courtesan. Now it has been blessed by Jimmyís laughter; as his joy has washed clean all of her nights with other men, which were only her way of mastering the art of love, to give to him. "You have muscles there?" he asked. "I can hold you in a thousand ways," she told him.

Hetasia, shielding her eyes from the light, searches for him from underneath her hand. He is coming to her. Last night he told her, "Today is the first day I have no regrets about coming here, to this crazy hellhole. Before, I couldnít understand it. I could have a world bowing down to me, and instead, Iím dodging bullets, and living with thieves. But now I know why I came here. I came here to love you." He said it last night. Now itís in the way he walks.

Jimmy sits down beside her, he is also naked. Her hand feels for something. "Your soul is everywhere," she says. "But this is one of my favorite places to find it."

"Until official?" he asks. Thatís the way itís done these days, before the diamond ring. She gives him the three finger shake, yesterday (which made me need you), today (in which we are in love), tomorrow (in which we will be in love). Then their hands rise together (symbolizing "growing together"). "Until official," she says, her voice hoarse and cracked. She clears her throat, and says, "Until official."

__________

Hetasia, Jimmy, Almost, and Chister, who now go by the name of Positive Potent Posse, or PPP, are on their way to see an old friend of Hetasiaís give a speech at the run-down Fenians Theater. The PPP has picked up three new members along the way, Dominatrix, a former pro-colleague of Hetasia who wears leather and carries an electric whip, and is really a good-hearted woman when she is not pounding some poor man to a pulp; Bad Boy, a huge and terrible looking guy who is Dommyís faithful "slave"; and Slicks, a reformed pickpocket who now only steals from bandits, which he figures is only fitting, "moral and ironical at the same time. Iíd give back the money and jewels to their rightful owners, except I canít find them." "A marked man," says Chister, "no wonder he wants to join us." They are going to listen to the president of the New World Club, who is trying to turn Freedom City into a base for transforming the world. "Some kind of utopian bullshit," Chister mutters, "worthy of Dr. Chlorophyll. But as long as I donít come out green, I can put up with it, I guess; I canít afford to be left behind by my posse." Of course, heís only talking to Almost, he wouldnít let Hetasia overhear him, because he knows how much she means to Jimmy. Looking at Almost, he winks: "Looks like the two of Ďem clicked last night, wouldnít you say?" "No, whereíd you get that idea?, they just took a bath together in a vat of glue and have been stuck together ever since."

Their spirits are high, until a man who looks like the young Rupert Jardinowe appears running towards them in the night. "Hey, you!" he yells, noticing Jimmy, who he practically collides with. "Face brother! Word of warning! Time to go back to the plastic surgeon. Soon. This time around, tell him to make you look like Hitler, or the Elephant Man! Anyone but Jardinowe!"

"What do you mean?" Hetasia asks, concerned.

"Everybody wants us," he says. "Before it was only chicks who wanted to sleep with Jardinowe. But now, the thugs want us, in their own way. Seems the clone son ran away from home, and theyíre all over, trying to track him down. Huge reward. Thereís bounty hunters working for the outside, for Rupert Jardinowe himself; thereís Advorzhiís hoods, hoping to score a super-hostage and break the outsideís vaults; thereís outcome gamblers, who are betting that heíll be caught or killed, and who are trying to win their bet by doing it themselves! Our face has never been so popular!"

Another guy, catching up with him, says, "Shut the f**k up, you self-absorbed jackass! Those hoods werenít after you, itís just a wild night tonight, must be some astrological crap going on, even though planets is just planets. Mayhem, sheer mayhem," the guy says.

"Where?" Jimmy asks, as Hetasia takes the other Jardinoweís hand to see if heís been stamped as an impostor. He has, but it hasnít made a difference. Jardinowe hunting season is on.

"All up and down Travis Avenue," the copycatís companion warns them.

Chister steps forward. "What about Pike Street?"

"Pike is past-tense," the informant says. "Youíll have to walk past a lot of bodies, but itís over with. Advorzhiís boys just wiped out the Yellow Claw Gang."

"I wonder if that will affect Danceosaur?" Almost ponders. Some club he has a crush on.

"Maybe we should turn back," says Hetasia.

"But why on earth?" queries Almost. "Itís just an ordinary evening here, in Freedom City. If you turn back tonight, you might as well never go out at all."

"Weíll go," says Jimmy. "This meeting could be important."

Dommy gives Jimmy a slave hood to hide his features while theyíre in the street, just in case they run into any Jardinowe hunters. "Now Iíve got two boys," she says.

"You got one," Hetasia reminds her, only half-joking.

Soon enough, they run into the carnage the informants described. Thereís bodies all over the place, but this is the safest way to go, because the danger has moved elsewhere. "Tube hits, stabbings, blunt instruments, rewired laser detonatorsÖ" says Almost. "Must have been sheer chaos while it was going on."

"Detonators?" asks Jimmy.

"Yeah, the lasers are meant to detonate bombs long distance, but if they amp them up, and double-link them, they can turn them into a horrible death ray. Advorzhiís moving up in the world. Got a good operation going, here. And look. Look around you at the buildings."

"Yeah?" Jimmy asks.

"Not as much damage as youíd expect, not with bodies that look like this. Should be a lot of ruins around. Scorched walls, broken windows. This is the mark of highly professional fighters, not many stray hits at all, they got real good aim."

Hetasia is covering her eyes, as Jimmy guides her over and around the dead. "Oh Jimmy, this is horrible!" sheís crying.

"Donít look. Donít look," he says.

"I love women who are squeamish," says Chister.

Dommy says, "Whatíd you say?"

"For Christís sakes," he says, "I didnít say nothing. What, are you going to whip us all to your point of view?"

Passing by a sidestreet, they suddenly see a bright flash. "Down everybody!" A box is flying into the air and thereís an awful explosion, they hear glass breaking, alarms sounding, and people cursing.

"What the hell is that about?" demands Jimmy.

"Oh, nothing much," says Almost. "Itís one of those historical reenactment groups, I think, call themselves the I.R.A. They blow up bombs because theyíve got to if theyíre going to be realistic. Outside, you couldnít pull that shit, theyíd be on your ass in one minute, but in here, thereís no laws, so who can stop them?" What Almost is probably alluding to is the Age of Terrorism which preceded the Near Disaster. Nations shut that down pretty quickly, after one or two big hits, by forming police states, creating new draconian laws and invasive security apparatuses and digging up the terror networks by the roots. By the time of the Near Disaster, the worldís big security problem was once again nation-states armed with nuclear weapons. "Donít sweat it," Almost is telling Hetasia, "just look at it as a bigger and better kind of fireworks."

Slicks, meanwhile, is praising Advorzhiís gang as "true professionals. They cleaned out Yellow Claw gang down to the last pocket."

"Nasty friends you got here, Hetasia," Dommy complains.

"Yeah, weíre nasty," says Chister. "If you donít like it, take it out on Bad Boy."

Dommyís giant slave glares at him, but Chister only walks next to Jimmy, and tells him, "Iíd give you a thrashing, except your mistress might get jealous."

Hetasia says, "Here we are, at the Fenians Theater. Thank God! When you listen to New World Club present its case, I want you to think about everything weíve just seen."

__________

The name of Hetasiaís friend is Janus Crick. He was one of her johns, but so what?, great idealists and world-shakers need good sex the same as anybody else. In the large, dilapidated auditorium which must have seated 2,000 or more, there is only a small smattering of people, maybe 50, and that includes PPPís 7-person crew.

"Hi," Hetasia says, giving Janus a hug. "Hi," he replies, his hand going down low to rest on her ass. Jimmy watches with cold eyes. "This is my fiancťe," she says, introducing Jimmy to him. He has removed his mask. "Oh!" Janus says, surprised that Hetasia has a serious relationship, not because there is anything in her character to suggest that she wouldnít, but because itís not what you would necessarily expect of a courtesan, and he has locked her in his memory of another night. Right away, Jimmy can tell that Janus discounts him because of his Rupert Jardinowe face; itís obviously the sign of a shallow follower of trends, a mere imitator, a devotee of appearances. He, on the other hand, Janus Crick, is a man of depth and substance, an original thinker, a humanitarian and fighter who wants to change the world. For his part, Jimmy is proud, and that manís hand has transgressed, wandered into territory that is not his. Hetasia notices their dynamics, and is concerned; she needs them to get along. The world doesnít deserve to fall through the cracks between two angry men.

PPP seats itself, and Janus ascends the stage, to look out over the nearly empty theater. "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," he says, "or in this case, with a single seat that is not empty." Somebody laughs. He tells them they are all special, and says something about a mustard seed: a little seed thatís going to become a great tree, the home of many birds. He introduces five other members of the New World Club, and says they number two hundred in total, but due to the danger of Freedom City, they never all show up at a single time or place.

And then, not allowing himself to be discouraged by his practically non-existent audience, he begins to try to save the world, a few converts at a time.

JANUS: My friends. Please allow me to call you that. We are gathered here tonight to sweep aside our misperceptions of ourselves; to overthrow the social myths which bind us to failure. We are neither as contemptible nor as lost as the perspective of the outside towards us has led us to believe. Unfortunately, we have internalized that perspective; our minds have been conquered by hostile judgments; we have come to believe that we are nothing more than drunkards, prostitutes, drug addicts, gamblers, thieves, misfits, defects and dropouts.

"He forgot to say Ďpunks and losersí," says Chister. "Scoundrels, ruffians, and pieces of shit," adds Almost. "Not to leave out Ďmofosí," insists Slicks.

JANUS: In fact, what we are here is rebels. We are rebels against a heartless, depressing, emotionally sterile, trivial, demeaning, unjust and unheroic world which is an affront to the human spirit: a vast, and intricately-organized means of wasting our precious chance to live.

"Big sentence," complains Slicks.

JANUS: We have come here, seeking to bust the chains that bind our life force to mediocre things, while the clock of beautiful possibilities ticks towards oblivion. We have rebelled against being bureaucrats, administrators, maintenance personnel, busywork employees and solution experts for DCPs (Deliberately-Constructed-Problems), which are merely meant to hold us in bondage, because there is nothing more dangerous in a world that has nothing to offer, than a man with time on his hands.

"Or a man with a dictionary," adds Slicks.

JANUS: We have rebelled against the collective fantasy that all the boredom, workplace discipline, behavior-rules and self-denial are really necessary, in a world where technological processes requiring minimal human supervision have been perfected to fulfill our basic material needs. We are freedom fighters, each and every one of us.

"We are?" asks Slicks. "And youíre George Washington and Nelson Mandela all in one," laughs Chister.

JANUS: Unfortunately, we donít realize it; our rebellion lacks consciousness. We have been convinced, by the ideologies meant to tame us, that our rebellion does not come from a deep and worthy place, from the very core of what human beings are and were meant to be; but that it comes from a selfish, self-indulgent, decadent, or antisocial place, which leaves us feeling degraded and inferior. The end result is that we end up despising ourselves, we lose the self-respect needed to change the world. We let our rebellion be channeled into the forms the outside has provided for it: corrupt and debased channels which clip its wings, and make liberation seem to be mere perversion. Without pride, it is impossible to stand up for our alternative beliefs; we plummet into new depths of corruption and self-destruction, which only seem to prove that the world was right about us all along. Because our instinct to be free does not fully understand itself, it is easily waylaid by poison options, and tricked into taking paths which guarantee its futility.

Slicks asks Almost if he has an aspirin. "Sorry, buddy," Almost replies, "but I may need it myself." Meanwhile, Hetasia bends close to Jimmy and asks him what he thinks. "Iím listening," says Jimmy, with no display of warmth towards the speaker who touched his womanís ass, even if he is trying to save the world.

JANUS: Freedom City is nothing new, my friends. Its foundations come to us from the past. It is based on Yoshiwara, the Japanese pleasure city of feudal times; that vast "red light district" in ancient Edo, which later became Tokyo, which served to dissipate the dangerous energy of the samurai during times of peace, and to relieve the overbearing pressures inherent in living in a stratified and maddeningly perfectionist society by creating an outlet for venting day-to-day frustrations by means of sexual pleasure. The orgasm, artfully orchestrated by skilled courtesans, was very literally societyís safety valve.

"Finally," says Slicks, "the guy is on to something. He did say Ďorgasmí, didnít he?" "It was somewhere, in there," says Almost, snapping out of his lethargy.

JANUS: Simultaneously, Freedom City is modeled on the ancient Roman Games, a place of excitement and manufactured meaning Ė a vast stage for life and death, erected in the midst of insufferable boredom and pointlessness.

"Now heís talking about erections," says Slicks. "Time to wake up, class!" Chister is just shaking his head, wondering if there shouldnít, at the very least, be an IQ test to qualify for being in the PPP.

JANUS: Itís also modeled on the North American theme park, a fantasy world created to replace the fairy tales killed by the industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Going way back there," warns Slicks, "Iím not interested in anything thatís more than a week old." "You sound damned nostalgic to me," laughs Chister. "Stop living in the past!"

JANUS: Finally, our current home is modeled on the German concentration camps of the 1930s and 1940s. Not outwardly, of course. But if you carefully scrutinize the intent, behind its creation there is the same rationale of cleansing society, of purifying the earth of Ďbad genesí, which drove the Nazis to mastermind the holocaust.

"Did he say Nazis?" asks Slicks. "Arenít they those cool dudes who went riding around in tanks and flying all those noisy airplanes? Donít mess with them, cause theyíll take your country over. Wonít put up with no shit from nobody. And their women got sexy uniforms, like Dommy." "Shut up, you ignoramus," she says. For his part, Jimmy has temporarily been distracted from his jealousy, even as it is growing. He wants to hear. "Yo, Slicks, be quiet!"

JANUS: I know this may sound overly dramatic (if his audience knew history, it would be), but stop and think about it! The right-to-have-children movement succeeded in capping genetic redesign at 10%. Where did that leave the philosophy of Iskarniod?

"Iskarniod?" asks Slicks. "Quick, somebody, who is he? And whatís philosophy?" "Philosophy is a form of sex practiced in the East," Chister tells him.

JANUS: Iskarniodís Proof showed us that civilization has a tendency to outrun our biological capacity to handle it. At some point, our capacity for genetic adaptation is left so far behind by the velocity of our technical developments, that we end up trapped inside a social system, and endowed with powers, which we are not biologically evolved enough to manage. Ancient genetic attributes which remain inside us, and have not yet caught up with our drastically altered psychological and material environment, come back to haunt us, with amplified powers of destruction, in the form of apocalyptic wars and revolutions which are often nothing more than eruptions of frustration which have fabricated a cause.

"Oh God!" complains Slicks, rolling his eyes. Bad Boy seems to be in agreement with him, he prefers other forms of torture. He starts to get up to leave, but Dommy pushes him back into his seat, and shackles his feet and hands. "Please, just whip me," he begs. Chister says, "Will someone please tell this Janus guy that here, anything more than three words in a row counts as a run-on sentence!" Fortunately, Janus is so self-absorbed, that he does not allow himself to become distracted by this disruption.

JANUS: For a time, after the Near Disaster, Iskarniodís Proof served as the basis of a massive genetic engineering program. It was considered the only possible way to save civilization, to close the gap between our outward achievements and our genes. But finally, political reality ground the program to a halt. The people refused to let scientists spread-eagle mankind over a map of genomes, and to operate on our essence, in order to preserve the civilization which we have built but have had so much trouble living in. It seemed too much of an affront to liberty. And so the government came up with this, instead: an asphyxiating social environment feeding directly into Freedom City. Accelerate evolutionary change by creating a gigantic killing field for nonconformists, lure them into a hellhole laced with pleasures, to commit a huge self-inflicted genocide upon themselves which will genetically alter the human race. Itís natural selection, but this time theyíre in the driverís seat. The World Council knows what genes it wants to preserve, and which ones it wants to weed out. It knows what types of people it wants to perpetuate, and which types it wants to eliminate. It knows who to keep, and who to drive to Freedom City. And everything looks so moral, because the Councilís only crime is to make society boring, and to board all the horizons shut; it gets its victims to do the rest."

"Wait a minute, what about the space colonization program!?" someone yells back at him. "Nobody made us come here! We could have waited to get into the space program! Thatís the GOOD adventure." Chister is amazed that anyone is paying enough attention to actually disagree.

JANUS: Friend, 2% of every generation is approved for the space program. Thatís all the earth has the capacity to support. That means that 98% of us are doomed to remain behind, buried alive in a society that has nothing to offer our souls. Some of us Ė millions of us Ė chose Freedom City instead.

"I wanted to be a space colonist!" the person from the audience laments. "I tried and tried; I reapplied. It wasnít fair! Iím not stupid, Iím not lazy. Why didnít they take me? And now Iíve ended up here." "Didnít take you Ďcause youíre a god-damned crybaby!" curses Chister. "Anybody got a kleenix?" laughs Almost. "Shut the f**k up!" the dreamer of space shouts, jumping up out of his seat. "Now we can finally liven up this boring-ass lecture!" cries Almost with glee, jumping up almost simultaneously. It takes great effort by several individuals, including Jimmy and Hetasia, to prevent a battle from erupting in the auditorium, as Janus keeps shouting something about "peace" and "they want us to fight, we have to resist them by being united!"

Janus goes on to tell them that it is their choice how they use Freedom City. They can use it to destroy themselves, and the progeny they will never have, and the families they will never raise, in order to genetically engineer spirit, vivacity, and powerful emotions out of the human race, as the government wishes; or else they can use it as a refuge from the outside world, a "free space" in which they can regroup, network, and begin to construct a social alternative, the foundations for a new society, which will accommodate the human life force Ė "el animo bellisimo", or "beautiful spirit", as a philosopher once called it. The key to their future lies in their self-perception, he says. "If you see yourselves as criminals and degenerates, that is how you will act, and that is what you will be, and the world will be better for your loss. If you see yourselves as idealists whose fall contains, hidden within it, the most worthwhile ideals of the human race, then you will become champions of those ideals, and become a force that can change the world."

Now, more and more people are beginning to listen. Jimmy is not pleased to realize that this man is a gifted speaker, though he would do much better in a university than in a room filled with thugs. Then, realizing that his jealousy might possibly get in the way of doing something really positive for the world, Jimmy tries to push it away. But he loves Hetasia so much, and her eyes are simply glowing as this man speaks!

Janus isnít 100% clear about what kind of society he wants to create. He just knows that they have to come together, and find a more human alternative than what the outside is providing them; that they have to leave their humanity venues that are not so extreme, not so grossly exaggerated by denial. Outside, there is the Council, which chooses its own members and replacements. There is the system of Popular Unreported Polls. There are the elected Public Advocates. There are aptitude tests and assigned jobs and absentee police, but also work redeployment counselors. There are job-switch vacations, within the confines of carefully calculated doses of tolerated inefficiency. And there are anachronistic injustices meant as decoys for shallow reformers. Janus, at this point, would keep the Council after impeaching its cynics, but bolster it with a level of "popular earned democracy" capable of influencing policy, and he would mandate the reporting of polls. Job mobility would be legalized and all the anachronistic injustices and DHRs would be abolished in one fell swoop. He would step up efforts to expand the space program (which he thinks is being deliberately retarded in order to withhold another option from the people, and to speed up human evolution by driving more people-at-risk-of-turbulence out of the gene pool into Freedom City). But most of all, he would attempt to reform society by transferring the best of Freedom Cityís pleasures and challenges , watered down, of course, back into the heart of civilization, in the form of revitalizing outlets.

JANUS: And so you see, there is much to be done here. This is much more than a haven for drugs and cheap sex.

"Who says the sex is cheap?" protests Almost.

JANUS: This is much more than a refuge for the fragile and the vanquished; much more than a paradise for muggers. If we want it to be, it can be a paradise for all humanity. It can be the place where we finally overcome our demons, by loving the beautiful repressed needs that drove us into the arms of demons. Once we truly learn to cherish our joy, and our hope, they will cease to have horns. Once we bow in reverence to the hearts that drove us here, they will shed the dark forms they have acquired, and restore us to nobility. Once we band together to make paradise here, in Freedom City, we will seduce the world with it. We will recover the earth.

Disconcerted, Slicks asks: "Does that mean Iíll have to give up pickpocketing?"

__________

It is after the meeting, and PPP and several others are standing around Janus, engaged in casual conversation. Jimmy is observing Hetasiaís reaction to him, when Janus asks Jimmy, "Well, Rupert Jardinowe (which he means as a dig in Hetasiaís presence), what do you think?"

Jimmy says, "Good analysis. But probably a little utopian."

"Jimmy," Hetasia protests. "Weíve got to aim for it if weíre going to reach it."

"Youíre working with thugs here," says Jimmy.

"Thatís right," chimes in Chister.

"Yeah," Almost agrees. "Pure blood, and proud; thugs of the world! Only thing that will unite us Ė I mean, unite them Ė is a well-conceived criminal project."

"Youíre underestimating the people in Freedom City," says Janus.

"Hereís your wallet," says Slicks, returning it to him.

Janus feigns coolness, but you can tell he is flustered. Hetasia is on the verge of becoming upset, because she detects two bucks locking antlers over a doe in this discussion which needs to be constructive: after all, a world is at stake.

"Anyhow," Janus says, "Rome wasnít built in a day. Weíve got recruiters out on the streets. Once we get a bite, we bring the fish home, we surround him with good energy and clean things to do. We give him the experience of brotherhood. Little by little weíre building a new world, one person at a time. Not everyone will come to us, but enough to tip the scales."

"You need weapons," Jimmy says.

"Jimmy!" Hetasia protests, as though heíd just unzipped his fly and begun to urinate on Janusí foot.

"Violence breeds violence," Janus counters. "If we arm ourselves, weíll only attract an armed response. Our only hope is to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves." In a world like this, thereís no need to give footnotes, thereís no one to catch you playing with somebody elseís words; you might as well claim every piece of historyís wreckage as your own. "The last thing we want to do is put ourselves on the radar screen of the bandit gangs," Janus says. "If we stick to words, they wonít notice whatís going on until itís too late."

"You act like theyíre dumb, just because they have weapons," Jimmy says. "Believe me, before a killer pulls a trigger, thereís a whole world he takes in," Jimmy insists. "It may not be the intellectual world, but it is a world where cleverness counts; and the ones who are still standing could hear a pin drop outside of their door. Youíre talking about nothing less than ending their way of life, and taking away the medium they need to flourish."

"To put it bluntly," says Chister, "if you succeed in changing the values of Freedom City, all the bitches will run to you instead of to the hairy-chested bandits. Theyíll kill you before they let that happen."

"Yo, clean up your mouth," Dommy tells Chister.

"What are you going to do, wash it out with soap and water?"

"Maybe," Dommy warns him.

"No thanks, thatís not my kink. Yo, freedom of speech!"

Seriously, Jimmy says to Janus, "Right now, you and your whole project are just standing here, like someone who is utterly naked in the rain. You should know that. Youíve seen the corpses. You need a sanctuary to grow in, you need protection to shelter you from the violence of those who canít be redeemed. Maybe you can win converts. Maybe a lot of them," he admits. "But if you donít have weapons, somebody is going to snuff you out before you can become a real threat. At some point, youíre going to have to fight, or else your dream is going to get blown away."

"You tell him, Jimmy!" cries Chister. "Why, Iíd blow it away right now if I had a tube! Just for the joy of proving you wrong, Janus!"

"Yeah," says Almost, eyeing him fiercely. "This is what youíve got to work with."

"Iíve also got Hetasia to work with," says Janus, meaning people of her moral caliber, good-hearted and only accidentally here among the human refuse. Beautiful souls searching for a better world in the only place thatís left to search for it. But Jimmyís friends misunderstand him; to them it seems like heís making a move on Hetasia.

"You wonít be working with her, you bastard!" says Almost. "So donít even try! Sheís my friendís girl. But if youíre feeling frisky, feel free to go into the bathroom and work with yourself."

"Your powers of comprehension leave much to be desired," Janus exclaims.

"What, first you want to make paradise with us, and now weíre merely idiots!?"

"Why, itís like building a fireplace out of snow!" says Chister. "Here we are, Mr. Utopia. Weíre your boys!"

And Almost is laughing: "Yeah, the fish you caught this time is sharks!"

"Jimmy! Stop them!" urges Hetasia, fearful that theyíll do something awful, like beat Janus up and hang him upside down by his feet.

But just at that moment, the little episode comes to an end. One moment of strife is superseded by another, occurring on a far grander scale. An exhausted, and blood-soaked man rushes into the auditorium screaming, "Janus! Janus! Theyíve attacked the Rose House! Theyíve killed twenty of our brothers! They grabbed our archives!"

"Who? What?" demands Janus.

Jimmyís tube is off of his shoulder; the PPP is alert and animal-like, as Hetasia starts towards the wounded man, who is quickly surrounded by NWC personnel, however, who push her back. "Weíre trained for medical emergencies," they tell her. But they have nothing to work with, and their main area of medical expertise seems to be looking at their comrade with horror.

"Bandits! Advorzhiís gang. They got past the irresistible bells!"

"What?" gasps Jimmy. "Irresistible bells???" The sole defense mechanism of the Rose House, which was NWCís headquarters until about twenty minutes ago! These bells, positioned around the house on various trees, make such a beautiful noise when rung that no one can resist stopping for a moment, as they pass by, to touch them and listen to their pleasing sound. The NWC was counting on this effect to provide advanced warning in case of an attack. After that, they had a complex arrangement of multiple exits to facilitate their escape. "Fade away from aggressors without being killed, and without killing," is their motto. "Ideas, not territory, are the essence of our movement." In its own mind, the NWC has based the Rose House on principles of ancient Japanese strongholds as transmitted through the lore of the ninjas, with the irresistible bells taking the place of the rice paper mats and creaking floorboards designed to alert residents to the presence of intruders; but apparently something has been lost in translation. Of course, the bandits stormed through without showing the slightest interest in the bells, kicked the doors down, and charged right into the middle of an NWC work group which they cut down in a matter of seconds. Only a handful of NWC personnel made it out through the secret exits to warn the other lairs. Their portable archives have fallen into enemy hands.

"Weíve got to get out of here!" Jimmy tells Janus, as the reformerís men tend to the wounded messenger.

"Right now!" agrees Almost. "Your man just ran here like a god-damned buffalo, all hooves and no brain. Advorzhiís hit squad must be right behind!"

"Did you come straight here?" Janus asks.

"I had to warn you."

"Out!" yells Jimmy, rushing forward into a hallway as he hears a door being smashed open. "Go out the back!" Before anyone can heed him, he is kneeling down with the tube on his shoulder. They hear a thump and a scream at the end of the hall.

"My God!" cries Janus. "Heís killed someone!"

The tubeís great weakness is that it takes five to ten seconds to prime between shots. Someone else is rushing forward on the heels of the man he just gunned down, but Jimmy bluffs him back. "Hold your fire, lead them on!" yells Jimmy to his imaginary soldiers, as though he is setting up a trap. The other bandit hesitates. When he finally pokes his head around a corner to case the joint, Jimmyís primed tube delivers another shot. "Good lord, he has half a head!" screams Janus. Jimmy grabs Janus and drags him after him towards the emergency exit which the others have already used to escape from. Outside, another one of Advorzhiís men who has run around to the back of the theater, opens fire from behind a wall. Jimmy knocks Janus to the ground and fires back as pieces of a wall splinter behind them. The bandit staggers backwards, falls, then struggles to his feet. "Come on!" Jimmy yells to Janus, who is mesmerized by the expression on the banditís face, who is just beginning to comprehend what has happened to him.

"I canít answer the look on his face!" gasps Janus.

"Keep on running," says Jimmy, "or I may have to kill more of them."

A few thumps call after them, but they are tearing down the street. Jimmy and Janus finally catch up with the rest of the PPP which has turned into an alley, but it turns out to be a dead end. "Oh no, weíre trapped!" cries Slicks.

Almost says, "No weíre not", and begins to kick the wall with his power leg. Soon, heís smashed a hole in it through which they are able to escape. Jimmy positions himself behind the hole, and shoots the lead bandit charging after them into the alleyway. Then Jimmy continues to retreat.

Five hours later, the PPP and remnants of the NWC numbering 120 men and women are sitting together in a hideaway, a dungeon they have rented from one of Dommyís friends in the business. Janus is complaining to anyone who will listen: "Jimmy killed them. Our cause is tainted now. Weíve stooped to their level. Weíve turned them from misguided brothers into hardened enemies! What a setback! Itís just the god-damned history of mankind all over again, the god-damned bloody art of nation-building repeating itself in Freedom City! The bandit nation against the righteous nation! Greece versus Persia! Carthage versus Rome! France versus Germany! This isnít what I wanted! We were going to transcend all that!"

Jimmy just shakes his head in disbelief, saying, "So should I apologize for saving your life?"

"Donít you understand, youíve destroyed years of hard work in a single moment! It isnít the way to do things!"

But Jimmyís friends will have nothing of it. "Shut the f**k up!" says Chister. "Here, Jimmy, give me your tube, seems the jackass prefers to be dead!" While Almost says, "Are you crazy, it was either them or us. If they lived, and we died, would that bring the world closer to paradise?" Slicks just says: "You are the craziest, god-damned mofo Iíve ever seen, I donít want to live in your stupid utopia; if itís as stupid as you are, it will probably have toilets that flush up, sidewalks made of quicksand, and all the ajow mugs will have handles on the inside."

"Jimmy had to fight," Hetasia tells Janus with a shaky voice, putting her arm around Jimmy, then reaching out to touch Janus.

"Is this polygamy, or whatever you call it?" Slicks whispers to Chister.

"No," says Chister, "itís just a lit stick of dynamite."

__________

The next week is not an easy one. The group is hidden in a dungeon, amidst crosses, racks, and chains dangling from the ceiling; it is daunting, like some kind of terrible reminder of the dark side of history, which comes from the inner disasters of men. As Dommy says: "Itís like the legs of some menís souls were broken, and never healed, so they could never walk again; so they grew the wings of bats, and learned to fly with their mangled legs hanging down beneath them." The thugs look at Dommy with terror. "Yo, thatís one twisted chick!" "Anyone up for a beating?" she asks. Down here, there is little to remind the survivors of the inner light of human beings. Add to the darkness the screams of the clients being tortured, which they can hear filtering through the walls, and it is almost more than they can bear. Only Dommy seems at ease, and Bad Boy, who is like a little boy in a candy store. "Lighten up," Dommy tells them, "down here itís all fun and games. Itís up on the street that things are bad."

And thatís true. Very bad. Janus learns from agents that Advorzhi has begun to target NWC recruiters, or "heralds", to stamp out what he considers to be a dangerous anti-bandit movement before it gets off the ground. Janusí picture is on a wanted poster with a huge reward. "Kill him before he messes with your hard-on," the sign says. "This movement is against everything you came here for."

"I canít believe theyíre writing this about me!" Janus laments. "I am misunderstood!"

Chister laughs. "Whatís wrong, Teach?! Are the kids throwing spitballs at you; are they leaving gum on your chair? "

Meanwhile, things are looking no better for Jimmy. The Jardinowe-look-alike persecution has surged out of control. Advorzhi is sending men around to catch every Jardinowe look-alike he can find. Anyone who has the all-clear stamp on his hand is promptly shot in the head, to get rid of all the "time-wasters" and whittle away the fakes so that Advorzhi can get closer to the real clone son, who he wants to kidnap and hold for ransom. Aware of this, the outside has hired a massive new crop of bounty hunters to try to beat the bandits to the capture. They have published the results of OLYMPUS, the worldís foremost outcome-prediction computer, which has foretold the clone sonís death in the near future, if he does not return home; and the bounty hunters have spread posters all around the city, begging Jimmy to call his father and work things out. "We are waiting for you, with forgiveness, and with every possible resource you could possibly need to recover from the emotional state which has caused you to make this terrible mistake," the posters say. Meanwhile, gambler gangs are also out on the prowl for Jardinowe. Those who have bet he will be saved are out to save him; those who have bet he will die are out gunning for him.

"We need weapons," Jimmy says. PPP is running low on money, and NWC wonít contribute a penny for that purpose. Janus is feeling desperate and hemmed in, but he does not want to compromise his principles, especially not in front of Hetasia. Backing down would make Jimmy be the dominant. "Look, Janus," Hetasia tells him, "maybe Jimmy is right about this. You know I am against violence, but look, these people are trying to kill us! "

"Is that why you got chloroplasts?" he asks.

"I wanted to climb out of the river of what we are all doing to each other," she says. "I didnít want to be destroyed and I didnít want to be polluted. I wanted to be above it. I wanted to get out of the road, and stand to the side."

"But now you have finally come to terms with murder?"

"Janus itís self-defense!"

"íSelf-defenseí: the pseudonym of murder."

"Janus, theyíre crazy! Their hearts are like slabs of stone!"

"The Ďotherí is always pure evil, beyond reaching. He must be destroyed."

"Can you reach Advorzhi?"

"Perhaps."

Jimmy, who sees Janus and Hetasia sitting close to each other in the dungeon, doesnít stop to say good-bye. "Come on," he tells his posse. "Letís just do it."

Heís made a plan. Over the last few days theyíve bought access to a local repair shop, and made several realistic-looking models of tubes. Now, they go out into the street, Jimmy with the one real tube, because he can use it best; Chister, Slicks, Almost and a new friend, Prankster, who is some kind of fallen technology nerd who loves to play high-tech larks, are armed with the fakes. In a local bar, they suddenly surround the Wannabe Boys, a nasty little gang with no ties to Advorzhi. "Drop your guns and hand over your cash!" Jimmy exclaims. Seeing five tubes leveled at them, the Wannabes give up without a fight. The PPP gets five new tubes, and the cash to buy another two. It isnít much to protect a movement that plans to change the world with, but itís a start. As they leave, the Wannabe boys curse and spit at them. "Oh, your ass is toast, wimp boys, just wait till we catch up with you; run to mamma, you bloody runts, before we get serious. As soon as we got new pieces, your body parts will be splattered all over the nearest wall, your god-damned sons-of-bitches!" Grimacing, the bartender comes over to them and says, "Can you pay for these drinks or not?" "They robbed us," the boys protest. Two house bouncers step up. "I donít need a story, I just need the money," the bartender tells them. Snarling, the Wannabes get up and leave. Behind them, everybody in the bar is laughing. "Big bad Wannabes just went down the kiddy slide!"

Back in the dungeon, Janus is horrified to learn of Jimmyís exploit. "What is this all about?" he demands. "Do you really think this is going to make things better? Do you really think this is going to help me? Or is it really all about Tassy? (Jimmy is stunned, the bastard has called Hetasia Tassy! What does that mean?) Is this your way of showing her that youíre more of a man than me?" Janus demands.

"Youíve got good ideas," says Jimmy, trying not to lose it, "but your street IQ is next to nothing. Youíre like somebody who wants to go to the top floor of a building, but you believe that stairs are evil; and elevators compromise your principles. You need help."

"Well, Hetasiaís green!" Janus points out. "Green! Sheís not cut out to be a banditís bitch!"

"Janus!" Hetasia protests, suddenly reacting.

"If I was a bandit, Janus, youíd be dead," Jimmy replies, standing up. Both of them are standing, now, looking into each otherís eyes.

"Finish off the sucker!" Chister cries, shouting encouragement to Jimmy. "Heís driving me insane! " About fifty NWC members rise to their feet to defend Janus, but Chister restrains them by yelling, "Hypocrites! Are you going to meet violence with violence? Reform him! Be true to your principles!" Meanwhile, the PPP has its tubes out. Almost yells, "Donít try to be men of action, now! Your ideas will perish with you!" Hetasia leaps between Janus and Jimmy. "Stop it! Stop it, everybody!" she screams. Theyíre amazed by the power of her voice. "My God," says Slicks, "she could front a heavy metal band." Dommy comes up beside her, and drags Janus back. Itís like a battle for the wolf pack, only part of the wolf pack is made up of sheep.

"Weíre in this together, god damn it!" says Hetasia. And turning to Janus, she says, "Yes, I am green, and I am so glad to be green. But I love Jimmy! - Yes, Janus, I love Jimmy, and Iím going to be loyal to him! Iím not a courtesan, anymore. So you two, stop turning this into a duel between your d**ks! A world is at stake! Youíve each got something the other needs. Jimmy, Janus happens to be a f**king genius in sociology or politics, or whatever you want to call it! If you go to his stream, and dip your pan in, youíre going to find gold there. I know youíre smart enough to see everything he sees, if you just stop blocking it out because he likes me. You should be brothers. Janus," she says, turning back towards him, "Jimmy happens to be a genius also Ė more of a genius than you know, or than I can tell you. His genius has been quick to adapt to the new realities of this place; velocities and tenacities of thought that might lead others to discover the secrets of space and time have led him to understand the dynamics of conflict and survival here in Freedom City, after only the barest crash course; while the deepest sense of being an outcast you can imagine has made him open to the characters around him, who for you are still only phantom limbs of your idealism. Donít you see?, heís just the man you need Ė a man with a mind and a heart, who can relate to the thugs. Heís the bridge you need to connect your dreams to reality."

"Thatís right," says Chister, "Jimmy, here, is more than a bunch of big words and a massive headache in the morning. For Godís sakes, when someone shoots at him he knows enough to shoot back!"

"And he doesnít make you feel like a piece of crap for defending yourself!" adds Almost.

While Prankster says, "Iíve only known the two of you for five days, but if you two could just get along, youíd be like peanut butter and jelly."

Things cool down, and the two antagonists separate. Peace returns to their dungeon hideaway. And yet, Hetasia is troubled. She feels that Jimmy may be staying here, in Freedom City, in spite of the incredible risk, because he loves her. Sheís toyed with the idea of telling him that she doesnít, to try to free him to return home. But the thought of his reaction breaks her heart. He needs somebody to love him - somebody. Pulling that rug out from underneath his feet might only end up killing him, driving him to recklessness he could not survive; at least if he dies here, in Freedom City, because he canít leave her, it will be knowing that he is loved.

And yet, loving him as she does, the danger which is slowly closing in around him torments her. "I canít be responsible for letting clone son die in a low place," she tells herself. Should she suggest the two of them run back to the outside together? But that would be abandoning her friends in the NWC; returning to the outside would mean leaving Freedom City behind to die, just like the World Council did.

"Maybe you should go back," Hetasia tells Jimmy one day.

"What? So Janus can have you for himself?"

"Damn it, Jimmy, will you move on? This isnít about Janus! Iím afraid for you. I love you, and youíre in danger here!"

"I canít go back," he says. "I thought you understood."

"Youíre proud."

"My father is ashamed of me."

"Heís said heíll forgive you."

"Heíll try to. But that look in his eyes. That look of disappointment. Who could take it? It would be better to be blown apart by a tube, to die right here."

"Jimmy, the outcome computer. It might really happenÖ"

"It probably will. But I canít go back. Anyway, are you asking me to walk away from the NWC project? I thought you believed in it, and that I was indispensable to it."

"Maybe you can do more from the outside," she suggests. "Maybe you can change the laws; find a shortcut to do what Janus is planning to do, cut a few centuries off the timetable. Maybe you can really expand the space program, so that thereíll be another option for all the people who were driven here. Youíre the clone and son of the most beloved and powerful man in the whole world, Jimmy!"

"Thereís a lot you donít know," Jimmy replies.

She waits to hear it.

"Dad is loved by the people," Jimmy explains, "but he is only a peripheral member of the Council. His preoccupation with scientific matters, with technical challenges, kept him to the side of politics. As long as he could solve the problem of hyperspace, or perfect the mechanics of deep space travel, the Council was free to run the world as it saw fit behind his back. Whatever political power he was given was practically forced on him by others, who were desperate to shield themselves from their transgressions and omissions with his prestige."

"Then, your father has no power?" she asks incredulously.

"He has power, Hetasia, but it is limited, and it is harnessed. In his chosen realm of Applied Physics and Space Travel, he reigns supreme. But outside of that world, he is a stranger. He is welcomed, but he is not intimate. He is only the popular face that they put on elitist politics."

Hetasia struggles with her thoughts and feelings. She decides that Jimmy should talk to his father, one last time, before deciding to stay here.

"What for?" demands Jimmy. "For him, it will be like eating broken glass. For me, it will be like being stabbed. Why do that to ourselves? Itís over. Heís there, Iím here, and weíll never see each other again. Period."

"Please," she says. "I want you to talk to him and listen to his best arguments. I donít want to steal you from something better. Iíll hate myself, forever, if I f**k up history by keeping you in the wrong place. I love you Jimmy, but I donít want my love to cheat the world, or seduce you into throwing your life away. I donít really know who you could be. Maybe you could be more out there."

Jimmy, grimacing, shakes his head. "No, Hetasia. Anyhow, by the time I could get through to him and have that conversation, theyíd be able to trace my call, and pin my location down. And wouldnít that be great?"

Hetasia sits back and just looks at him for a while. Then, smiling gently, she leans forward and touches him. "I can solve that problem, Jimmy," she says.

"What problem?"

"The problem of having your call traced. If I could put you in touch with him in a way that couldnít be traced, would you do it? For me?" No answer. "Would you do it to set my mind at ease, to let me know I wasnít committing one of the great crimes of history? Would you do it to protect me from hating myself for letting you love me? Please? In case anything happens?" She kisses him on the mouth, her arms fondling him with the dexterity of the six-armed goddess of the Hindus. She is not a courtesan anymore, but tantra is like riding a bicycle; once you learn, you never forget. Centuries of love-making flow through her, she was a magnificent student because she cared for the wrecks who came to her, seeking to be made whole for one night. What she learned now belongs to Jimmy. There is no pollution, only the knowledge to lift love to new heights. Of course, she feels guilty, his decision is being eroticized, which means it may not belong to him, but to his desire. For a moment, she feels horrible, like a Venus fly trap with a conscience. But it is the only tool she has to fight his stubbornness.

"All right," Jimmy says, at last, lying naked beside her in the bed. "Show me how I can talk to Rupert Jardinowe without being tracked."

__________

They are walking through a district known as the Soul Bazaar, which detractors refer to as the Soul Bizarre, or Fraud Central. It is the so-called Spiritual District of Freedom City. "This canít be good," Jimmy is thinking to himself. Not that he hasnít had spiritual moments Ė thereís a place for those inexplicable flashes of understanding that donít seem to fit ordinary life - the Paradox Principle has proved that. And hyperspace, which mankind is now sending flesh and blood people through on their way to other worlds, is, after all, as esoteric as you can get without meeting an angel. But this place Ė this place of wishful thinking, this place of mythological shortcuts! It offends oneís sense of fairness!

"Learn your future! Is she right for you? Is money headed your way?" An old lady, a gypsy, is hunting for palms.

"Nice rims," somebody tells Jimmy, commenting on the huge shades he is wearing to try to shield his identity. "How would you like another pair that will let you see auras? It comes with a free manual so you will know what each color means."

Jimmy thanks him and moves on, behind Hetasia, who is his guide in this strange new world. They pass by a tent where vendors are selling Inner Child Dolls. "Buy one, carry one with you, never let it go, love it! Learn to love yourself, nurture the you that nobody cares about, heal yourself. Healing starts with you loving you." Hetasia, observing Jimmyís look of skepticism, says, "Itís a sweet idea. Donít be so hard." Jimmy replies, "Itís OK, itís just my shades that are making me look mean." "Only three hundred dollars!" the vendor calls out behind them.

Next, they pass by a group of long-haired, bearded men in white robes. "Blessed are the poor," says one of them. Another one of them says, "Donít listen to him, Iím Jesus, heís just an actor." While yet another says, "If you pray to my Mom, thatís less time youíre praying to me!" "Whoís Jesus, anyway?" one bystander asks another. "Some kind of skinny version of Santa Claus," the other one replies. "The oneís got presents, the otherís got nails in his hands. So tell me, who would you rather worship?!"

Down the block, a guru in a loincloth appears to be levitating off the ground. "Holy, Holy, Be-Us! Holy, Holy, Be-Us!" he is chanting; he could have been a singer if he didnít have such a talent for violating the laws of physics. "Wow, see that, heís levitating!" someone is crying out, truly impressed. "I wonder if he takes on students?" "Wow, if I could learn that, I could be the life of the party!" agrees his friend. "Forget about lame-ass card tricks!" Someone else, an older man, is asking a disciple if his masterís levitation techniques can be applied to selective parts of the body.

Jimmy shakes his head in disgust. "Look at the exhaust."

"What?" asks Hetasia. He points, and she sees the waviness in the air about twenty yards away, off to the left, in an area thatís been fenced off.

"Heat," Jimmy explains. "Thereís massive, heat-producing equipment directly underneath him, which is venting. Probably a gravitational dimmer. "

"Youíre so skeptical," Hetaisa protests. Then, suddenly, she is running forward, crying out, "Dr. Chlorophyll! Dr. Chlorophyll!" Itís her great benefactor with his retinue, seeking new clients. "Dr. Chlorophyll! Hi, itís me, Hetasia!"

"Hello, dear one!" he exclaims, surprised. They embrace. "How are you doing?" he asks, for some reason a bit nervous.

"Oh, well, thank you," says Hetasia.

"Switch to photosynthesis!" his followers are crying, handing out leaflets to passers-by. "Moralize your life! Escape the rat race! Rise above crime! Protect your dignity! Neither prey nor predator be! Do what you love, and never go hungry! Freedom is only one step away!"

"It feels good to be green, doesnít it?" Dr. Chlorophyll asks, looking over his shoulder. One of his bodyguards, made uneasy by Jimmyís intensely stationary shades, which could be hiding a threatening stare, steps between him and the doctor.

"Yes," says Hetasia, "although sometimes I feel that I may not be converting sunlight efficiently."

"Are you exposing your full body to the sun?" he asks.

"No," she admits, "not most of the time."

"Well, maybe you need to," he says. "Some individuals need more surface area than others."

"Are you asking her to spend her days standing naked in the street?" Jimmy asks. "Around all these hormone-saturated thugs?"

"Jimmy, please!" insists Hetasia. "Donít be so protective! This is my business."

"Donít forget, mental concentration is an important part of the conversion process," Dr. Chlorophyll adds. "You may need to focus more. Well, Iím glad itís working out!" And suddenly, he is moving on, surrounded by his bodyguards. "Freedom is only one step away!" his followers are crying out, behind him.

By now, Jimmy is about ready to turn back, but Hetasia urges him on. "Itís just another two blocks," she pleads. And finally, they are there. A little hole in the wall, down a flight of steps below street level. She rings a bell. "Itís me. Hetasia. I made an appointment for my friend." A buzzer lets them in. They pass through a beaded curtain, into a room filled with what must be one hundred candles of every color imaginable. It is like a rainbow of fire. A nondescript man, with a receding hairline, is sitting there, at a table, waiting. He is the Soul Connector.

_________

Jimmy is upset, but doesnít want to hurt Hetasiaís feelings. "Youíve brought me here to have a sťance?" he whispers.

The Soul Connector hears. "Itís not a sťance," he says. "Itís a soul connection. The person you want to reach could be living or dead, which are only different locations on the spectrum of existence. We are all spirit, no matter what our state; our souls exist both inside and outside of our bodies, and there is always access."

Jimmy shakes his head. "Youíre right, Hetasia, they wonít be able to trace this call!"

"Try it, Jimmy," she says. "Please. It worked for me. With my friend Lidia, may she rest in peace." She starts to leave, to give them privacy, but Jimmy asks her to remain. Is it because heís nervous to be alone with something this weird going on, or because he feels he may need someone to restrain him in the presence of an aggravating charlatan? The Soul Connector motions for them both to sit, then closes his eyes, and breathes deeply. "The person you want will become available when you want him to," he says. Opening his eyes, he sees Jimmy just looking at him. "If you think itís impossible," the man tells him, "just imagine that weíre doing a roleplay. Iím a sensitive and gifted player. I could be anyone from Joan of Arc to Attila the Hun. Once we start, I close my eyes; I go into the zone, and pick up something from you thatís real, and then I bounce it back to you, as though it came from him. - However you look at it, youíve got to let go. Youíve got to trust."

"Give it a try," Hetasia insists.

"I wonít charge if it doesnít come off," he says. Maybe thatís the block. The fear of being a sucker. Soul Connector closes his eyes again, and seems to fade away. Within a matter of seconds, heís so out of it that Jimmy is afraid heíll fall out of his chair, knock into one of the candles and maybe catch on fire. "Yo, Hetasia, heís sleeping!" Jimmy whispers. She motions for him to be quiet. "Ask something," she whispers back.

Feeling foolish, Jimmy does. "Well, you know who. Iím here. What do you have to say about that?"

Thereís a long silence. "Is he snoring?" Jimmy asks Hetasia. She shakes her finger, genuinely irritated, be quiet, wait! Jimmy waits. And suddenly, Soul Connector is speaking. "Jimmy?" he says. "Jimmy? Is that you?"

Jimmy says, "Yeah. Whoís this?"

"Jimmy. Jimmy. .. This is your father."

"Are you sure?"

The voice doesnít respond to his skepticism. "This is your father," it repeats.

"Well, dad. You wanted to have a talk?"

"Jimmy. What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing there? Do you know how dangerous it is?" There is concern in the voice.

"Yeah, Dad I do. Iíve kind of found that out by now."

"Why? We made a track just for you. All you had to do was stay in it. We threw in every resource we possibly could. The doors to the world were open. You even had Amy. How could you do this to us, Jimmy? How could you throw it all away for Freedom City?"

Jimmyís eyes narrow. This is becoming a little spooky.

"A whole world was invested in you, Jimmy. It was a massive investment. In your hands, the gift of being able to make a difference in the world was placed. Why did you choose to run away to a place where nothing matters, to disappear, to be invisible, useless? Why did you throw away the page of history we gave you to write on? Why did you do that to us? Why did you do that to the world?"

Jimmy replies with lines from a poem: "And the angel broke its wings and jumped into Hell because one soul was still not in Heaven."

But the voice is unsparing. "You are no Bodhisattva," it counters. "Youíre not enlightened enough to stay behind. What can you bring to the damned, when you, yourself, are only a lost and troubled soul? You shouldnít be thinking of helping others, Jimmy; you need help. You need to come back home, where you can get help. And you should be honest," the voice adds. "You didnít run away to help anybody! You ran away for yourself, and for yourself alone! Because you were selfish and only thought about your pain, and getting away from it! Because the hot coals of greatness were too hard for you to walk over; because your self-respect wanted to rest on my laurels. You wanted to give in to the part that I spent my whole life fighting against, the lazy, unfocused, self-indulgent part of me that would have turned me into a loafer and a dilettante. But no, I had to overcome it, I had to be somebody, I couldnít allow satisfaction to poison me, I couldnít let one successful step up the ladder sabotage the next! I had to whip myself, Jimmy, all the way, I had to drive myself. But you Ė you gave in Ė you had to disguise your lack of will as a rebellion. You ran away to Freedom City because you couldnít stand living in my shadow! You didnít go to help anybody!"

"Clone father," Jimmy shouts, angrily, while Hetasia cries to the side. "Donít flatter yourself. You didnít whip yourself. You loved what you were doing. It dragged you behind it and you were in ecstasy, all the way. The wind was in your hair, you were playing with joy, like a child in the sandbox of the universe. No matter how challenging it all was, it was your calling, your Bacchanalia. You were like a horny centaur humping nymphs who took the form of equations. Get real! You loved this shit. They would have had to whip you to keep you away from it!"

"Jimmy! Do you know who youíre talking to?" the voice demands.

"For me, it was different," Jimmy snarls, driving past the reprimand. "By the time I came along, the well of mysteries had nearly been pumped dry. Nothing was left to inspire, now there were only drops to answer years of effort, no longer the gushing streams. The joy of breakthroughs was supplanted by the tedium of tying up loose ends. And this is what I was trained for. To spend my life mopping up in the wake of your glorious victory. Donít give me this crap about discipline, about hard work! There was a light at the end of the tunnel of your hard work; at the end of the tunnel you made for me, there was no light, there was only the sense that, even in my prime, I had outlived my usefulness, that all the important work had already been done. What you wanted me to do, in fact, was what you, yourself, didnít have the stomach for! But your own huge capacity to be bored was never detected in the midst of the excitement that existed in your times!"

"Jimmy!"

"Would you have spent your whole life tying up somebody elseís loose ends?" he demands.

"But Jimmy Ė youíre me!"

"Only when itís convenient!"

"Youíre me!"

"No, Iím only a creation of your imagination who youíre passing the buck to." And Jimmy pinches himself. "Did you feel that?"

"Feel what?"

"See?" demands Jimmy. " Weíre identical, but weíre separate. Iím not you and youíre not me. I didnít break open hyperspace, and get a parade; and when I get my head blown off by some banditís tube in the middle of nowhere, your head will still be on your shoulders."

"Jimmy," the voice pleads, after a long delay which makes Hetasia think that maybe contact has been broken. "You have to come home. Itís too dangerous to stay there! Weíll find some way to make it work for you. Thereís many important things to do, still. I promise. Iíll show you."

"Unfinished business in your agenda book?"

"Iíll show you. Iíll spend more time with you. I think I didnít spend enough time."

"Why would I want to spend any more time with myself?" Jimmy asks.

Hetasiaís face is streaming with tears.

"You just said we were separate," the voice protests.

"Weíre like a pair of god-damned Siamese twins living on different planets."

"I was always busy," laments the voice. "That must be what it was."

"Physics is pretty much an only child," Jimmy admits.

"Iím sorry. But you had the best maids. The best tutors. It wasnít like you were kept in the basement, chained to a pole."

"A head full of ideas," Jimmy says. "Not enough teats for all those hungry newborn ideas, and that punk kid who keeps getting in the way. The runt of the litter never gets the milk. Anyway, why waste time with him, wouldnít that just be narcissistic? Like spending all your time standing in front of a mirror?"

"Is it about getting back?" the voice asks, genuinely exhausted and hurt. "Running away to Freedom City? Have you done this to make me worry to death, to push me over the edge? To bury me underneath a ton of guilt? To spoil my contentment at the end of a successful life? Have you run there as a way of killing me, to offer my form and image to some pitiful bandit, to murder me with his weapon, to blast a hole through your chest to get to my heart? Is this your version of patricide?" Soul Connectorís head bangs down onto the table, he seems to collapse, the candles are agitated, but luckily, do not overturn. Jimmy is standing, ready to put out a fire, but everything is silent, there is just a terrible heaviness all around, and the sound of Hetasia sobbing. "Donít do it that way," the voice finally says, an awful pain cutting it to shreds from the inside. "If you want to kill me, just come home son, and shoot me. Donít kill me through you, come home and put the tube directly to my head. Donít stand in the line of fire. Iím old enough now, and coasting down the last barren hill of my life. You matter more. Jimmy, Iím used to picking up buckets-full of diamonds and rubies for humanity. But on this slope, the slope of my last days, there might be a few pennies I can scoop up, and thatís about it. Small change, not worth a young life. If itís all about anger, donít displace it, come to the source, Iíll sign the papers, Iíll legalize the killing. You can take me out."

Jimmy is stunned. A long silence follows. A tear is flowing down Soul Connectorís face, like colorless blood. Hetasiaís crying has become barely noticeable, it is constantly in the background, like the sound of a fan on a hot day.

"Dad," he says at last. "Sometimes a fish, to get away from a predator, rushes into the shallows and ends up jumping onto the beach, where it dies. Its action isnít driven by logic, itís driven by instinct. It runs, and ends up somewhere that isnít the place itís running from. The feelings that drove it to beach itself were too strong and immediate to subject to review. There wasnít any kind of Ďpros and consí, only Ďget away!í I didnít come here as part of any plan to punish you. In fact, itís more likely I came here because Iíve learned, like the rest of the world, to revere you; and I couldnít go on in the trajectory you wanted me to, and I couldnít stand to see the pain in your eyes when I couldnít."

"Jimmy," the voice says, breathing heavily. "Just come back. If you have any friends there, who you may have grown attached to, bring them back with you. Be whoever you want to be. Donít do this to me."

"Dad," Jimmy says. "I need something from you."

"Yes, son? What is it? Iíll give you anything. Anything I can."

"I need honesty. Total honesty. For this one moment."

There is a long pause. Honesty can be dangerous, it can do all kinds of things. The voice may be weighing its duty to the world against the overpowering pleas of its heart. "All right," the voice says, at last. "I wonít lie to you. If something canít be said, I just wonít go there. Is that good enough?"

"Yeah," Jimmy says. There is another long pause, a silence which the whole world sits in, like the sphinx, before he finally begins. "Dad. Give it to me straight. The space program. If you were young again and in your prime, what numbers could you get into the space program, and in what time frame?"

The voice is surprised by the technical nature of the question, then divines its purpose and considers deception, the habit of the socially useful myth; but ultimately returns to its original intention to be honest. Truth should bind a father and a son, now so more than ever, that death is stalking them both. "Jimmy," the voice says, "I could get it up to about 5% of the earthís population in another generation. After that, youíd need maybe three centuries to accumulate and harness power sources in a stable way before you could push it up to whatever numbers youíd like."

"And without you Ė including without me as you - how long will the process take?"

Itís hard to tell the truth about stuff like this, but the voice is honorable. "About the same, Jimmy. Scientific breakthroughs donít take long to become scientific routines. Geniuses are very quickly replaced by technicians."

"The bottleneck isnít legislative?" Jimmy inquires.

"No," the voice replies. "Itís technical. What, you think the Council is holding back on space colonization?"

"Maybe. To retain Freedom City as the main escape path. To genetically modify the human race."

"Conspiracy theory!" cries the voice. "Youíve met up with some bad influences over there!"

"Dad, you promised to be honest. You mean Freedom City isnít designed to weed out undesirables?"

"Iím not holding back on the space program," the voice replies.

"And what about Freedom City?" Jimmy insists.

"I donít go to those kind of meetings, Jimmy," the voice says at last. "Iím on the Committee of Applied Science. Thatís Stability & Politics Committee. Theyíre the ones who do Freedom City."

"Why donít you go to their meetings, dad?"

"I donít like them," he replies.

"Why not?"

"Letís not go there," the voice says. Then, alarmed by the content inherent in what he has not said, he tries to jest: "Theyíre not as interesting as hyperspace and quasars."

"And thatís it?"

"Letís not go there," the voice agrees.

There is a pause for a moment, and then Jimmy asks, carefully and thoughtfully, "What about reform? What about the idea of bringing outlets back into society, and expanding cultural free space?"

"You mean the NWC-type stuff?"

"Could be. Subject to negotiation."

The voice answers: "Jimmy. Some friends of mine on the Council brought up what you might call a Ďsoft packageí related to the NWC initiative. In spite of its Ďsmall stepí intention, it was voted to be an Ďextreme proposalí in the Ďnon-emergency archiveí, which means that it requires a century cooling-off period before it can be considered for implementation."

"So thatís at least one century that things will pretty much stay as they are?"

"Regarding the basic structure of our civilization, yes."

"And thereís nothing you can do about it?"

"Jimmy Ė Iím not as big a man as you think I am. Iíve given humanity the stars, but the earth my rockets take off from is run by other men. Iíve helped Ė 2%. 2%. Or do little improvements only stab big ones in the back? I know Iíve buried my head in the sand of space/time, it was so damned fascinating! I let them keep the boring stuff. The boring stuff that rules the lives of men!"

"Science was your Freedom City," Jimmy says. "You ran away a long time ago."

"In a different way," he agrees.

"Dad. Whatís going on here, in Freedom City, is terrible."

The voice does not answer. Soul Connectorís face is contorted with shame, the noose of an unbearable regret is tied around his neck.

"If the world doesnít begin to move in the direction of change for another century, that means that this awful carnage will continue for at least another one hundred years. Countless desperate beautiful lives will perish here among the thugs, and the hopelessly broken."

Silence reigns.

"Dad. The only hope for these people is if Freedom City can be changed from within. If its refuge value can be retained, while its self-destructive tendencies are overcome."

"Itís a small pond to take such huge risks in," the voice says. "A small pond. Here, Jimmy I offer you the threshold to the Universe."

"Dad," Jimmy protests. "Thereís millions and millions of lives that pass through here every year, and that end here. Just because itís kept separated from the rest of the earth, and locked behind walls you donít look over, doesnít mean itís not a part of the earth! Fighting for Freedom City is like fighting to save a continent thatís under attack! Whatís unworthy about that? Itís only a small pond for people who donít live here, or think about it. Itís only a small pond for you."

There is a long silence. At last, the voice answers, speaking slowly. "Jimmy. I understand. Itís been in the back of my mind for decades. Iíve tried not to think about it. Iíve tried to write it off. Only derelicts, delinquents, and sociopaths go there. But now, youíve gone there. And if youíve gone there, it means that, in some way, Iíve gone there, too. The most revered, if marginal, person on the entire planet, the very epitome of human greatness, has ended up in a black hole designed for losers. If thatís the case, who else might we be losing in there?! What birds of paradise may have been caught in the trap we set for rats?"

The understanding in the silence is deep and terrible.

"Jimmy!" the voice cries out, at last, in anguish. "Iím old! I donít have the strength! Iíve left them there to die, Iíve ignored their cries! I have stars and planets in my eyes, but blood on my hands! Iím too frail! Iím too frail to right this wrong!"

"You understand," says Jimmy, graciously, yet deeply moved, almost past the point of words. "I came here, running from the part of you that you burned behind you so no other man could follow, and running from the part of you that you left undone. I am here to escape my insufficiency, and to repair the damage wrought by your greatness. I am here to flee from my smallness, and to erase your sin. I am here to leave your time and to enter mine. To put it more simply, I am here to be me."

Soul Connector begins to sob. "Jimmy! Jimmy! You donít have to save me! Let me perish with my sins! Let me pay for what I have not done! Come home, I donít deserve to be rescued!"

Jimmy repeats. "Father, I have come here to be me."

He turns and looks at Hetasia, as Soul Connector shakes. "Hetasia. You have been offered sanctuary, back outside."

She looks up, and wipes away her tears which are so thick, it is like she is parting her hair. She looks at him with admiration, that lifts him higher than he has ever been in his whole life. "Jimmy Jardinowe," she says, "I love you. I will go wherever you go."

"I must fight," he says.

"I know," she says proudly. "And I will stand beside you. This is not our home yet. But we will make it be our home."

Soul Connector looks up, his eyes open but see nothing except something that is somewhere else, not in this room; he is like a blind man, with a delirious smile on his face. "My son. Let us not die as the enemies we have let ourselves become."

Jimmy agrees. "No father, letís make peace. You had your road, I have mine. We are more together, than either one of us is alone."

"One does not copy oneself," Soul Connector says. "Clone-son, you are free. I will call you Ďcloneí no more. From now on, you are just Ďsoní. Come Ė embrace me!"

Jimmy stands up, and Soul Connector shuffles around the table, and then suddenly lunges at him, weeping, clutching him, not letting go. They are both crying unabashedly. Hetasia throws herself behind Jimmy, and is holding onto him and crying also. There are enough tears here to save a thousand worlds.

At last, it ends. Soul Connector suddenly appears in his own eyes, he finds himself clinging to a man he barely knows, and somewhat awkwardly, disengages. "Did it go well?" he asks, hopefully. Hetasia hugs him. "You are magnificent!" "No," he says, "I am just empty. I am nothing, except what comes through me." She takes out the money. "At least your pockets wonít be empty," she says, pressing it into his hand.

He doesnít want to take it, he feels that something that dwarfs his need to eat has taken place, but Hetasia insists. Some people need to be protected from their humility.

__________

For three days, Hetasia and Jimmy stay away from the dungeon, renewing each other with love, writing their pact over and over again in different positions, preparing themselves for whatever it is that lies ahead. Hetasia stays in touch with the NWC and PPP through text messaging, finding out that they have acquired two new bases since the expedition to the Soul Bazaar: the top floor of a hotel which Prankster won (for three weeks) by manipulating a lottery drawing with magnets; and an abandoned spice factory, which Chister has plastered with biological contamination signs to keep intruders out.

Hetasia and Jimmy return to the Bio Site, first, where an irate Chister greets them. "We got three bases, now, and some more recruits, but aside from that, the crap coming out of our ass is looser than ever."

Jimmy, who was just about to bite into a meatball hero, puts the sandwich down. "Well Ė whatís wrong?"

"That damned Janus Broom-Up-His-Butt. Heís got a new girlfriend. Yes, miss, thatís right, as soon as you showed a clear preference for Jimmy, he decided he had to show you, so he got himself a lady who, if you donít mind me saying so, is a step up from you, beautiful though you are; that is, if you have no qualms about girls who wear skimpy clothes that seem more like a spotlight aimed at their nudity than efforts of at least feigning modesty. Yes, miss, sorry to say, you are beautiful, but this woman Ė well, itís like splitting Robin Hoodís arrow. Of course, you also have a wonderful mind and a great heart, which matters to people like Jimmy."

"So, whatís the problem?" asks Jimmy, glad that Janus has found a girlfriend, who will hopefully keep him well-satisfied and away from Hetasia.

"Precisely this!" exclaims Chister. "Itís that god-damned ruby girl!"

"What?" demands Jimmy.

"The one who wanted you to rape her!"

"I didnít," Jimmy promptly tells Hetasia, whose eyebrows have leapt upwards.

"Ruby Ėclasp. Falling dress. If she sees me, Iím toast!" exclaims Chister. "She must have figured out by now that Iím the one who made off with her ruby! As for you, Jimmy, well, you seen one Jardinowe you seen Ďem all, she probably wonít associate you with the crime! Youíll just be another look-alike"

"So, whatís the problem?" Hetasia asks. "If she recognizes you, you just say youíre sorry. If sheís with Janus, sheís one of us now. We can make it up to her over time."

"Word is, sheís got bandit friends," Chister warns.

Jimmy is already looking perturbed. "How did they meet?" he asks.

"Bumped into each other on the street," he says. "They say she winked. He kept on walking, because his political ideas have used up all his testosterone. She started crying, neglected-like. Somehow, he became a man again. I found them in a compromising position on the sofa. ĎDo I know you?í she says. ĎPay attention to what youíre doing,í I tell her, and Iím down the fire escape."

They decide that they better go check this out. Jimmy text messages Almost, and advises him to station extra look-outs around the neighborhood, and limit the girl to just one base. "What, you think sheís fishy?" Almost writes back. "Just in case," writes Jimmy. "Rumor has it, sheís been hanging out with bandits."

On their way to the Hotel Lujo, they run into a PA system that seems to have gone haywire. These PA systems are all over the place, little powerful boxes on top of street posts, but they are usually reserved for special announcements coming from stores or neighborhood entertainment companies attempting to broadcast news of some sale or event. Now, however, the PA is simply blasting "F**k you! F**k you! F**k all of you!" all over the neighborhood. "Hey, that voice sounds familiar!" says Jimmy. "Itís Prankster," Chister tells him. "Heís found a way to hack into the PA system with his hand-held. Heís very clever, and as you can see, very irritating. But itís good to have a tech-person on the team, so we just try to put up with him. Pure teenager. Makes the rest of us look mature." "F**k you! F**k you! F**k you!" blares the PA.

"Heís wearing the f-word out," complains Chister. "Soon, weíll have to go back to saying Ďdarn.í"

As they reach the Hotel, Chister veers away. "Not me. Not yet. Ruby-girl and me donít need to meet."

"Welcome!" Janus says, as Hetasia and Jimmy come through the elevator door onto the floor. Confidently, possessed with a new energy, no longer depressed or cornered, he embraces them. "Iíd like to introduce you to my new friend: Karmela."

__________

Karmela is an absolutely gorgeous woman. Jimmy is stunned to see her again. Her complexion is flawless, her skin unblemished, perfect. Her hair, which is infinitely creative, today is an erotic tangle of suggestion, "controlled unkempt": wild, like the flag of her soul, waving in the wind. Her eyes are big, mischievous, and potent, like coiled snakes of love ready to strike; her body moves with confident ease, like a panther that hunts by feigning helplessness. Today she seems different than the day she was begging to be raped, more in control of herself, less fallen. Is Janus already beginning to make a difference? Her dress is thin, silver and glittering, low cut and practically without a back, she innocently flies over her cleavage with polite and surprisingly coherent conversation; an antiqueĖlooking bracelet that may be worth millions seems to bite her arm with passion, small black earrings sway back and forth, at her mercy, captives of her exuberance. "Pleased to meet you," she says. Jimmyís hand is in hers, and there is a little extra squeeze that makes his heart pound. "Please to meet you," she repeats to Hetasia, giving her a little breezy hug.

"Welcome, sister," says Hetasia, run over by the truck of Karmelaís beauty, too squashed to even have a chance to be jealous. Splat! She wins!

"Karmela is now one of us," Janus tells them. He seems a foot taller. He looks at Hetasia as if to say, "Now, maybe you realize the caliber of the man you rejected."

"Iím so glad to have met Janus," Karmela is saying. "You know, although Iím ashamed to admit it, I used to be a prostituteÖ In one night, Janus changed me from a whore into an idealist. I never knew that I had it in me, I thought I was lost, just a more beautiful form of scum. Deep inside, I felt l was nothing. I thought I was a slut, a bitch; I was nobody if there wasnít a d**k inside me. I became an addict to sex because f**king was the only time I felt like I meant anything to anybody; when somebody held me and said ĎI love you!í because his orgasm needed to say something, even if it wasnít true. Itís Janus who showed me that I was an idealist, that my lifestyle was just an expression of my loyalty to the high principles the world wonít live up to. Like a baby who pushes his food away and breaks his plate because he doesnít want whatís on it. I came here in a tantrum because outside theyíre hypocrites. I protested the filth of immaculate lies by rolling around in the mud! Yesterday, all I wanted was to spread my legs for some stranger; today, I want to change the world."

Karmela is shining. Even if she had said no more than "bla bla bla", the room would have been blinded by her light. But she is actually sounding intelligent.

"Karmela has a beautiful soul," Janus tells them. "She was just so badly wounded. She needed to receive proof that she was loved every night, and she wouldnít believe it was love unless it was physical. So she used the kisses of heartless men to cling to her sense of worth."

"Thanks to Janus, I see," she says. "I see my preciousness. I donít have to prove a thing. Iím going to love myself. Iím going to learn how." She shakes her head to get at some piece of hair she wants to adjust, displaying herself in the process like a model posing for a painter. She makes tender things burn like fire.

Later, Jimmy asks Janus, "Do you know weíve heard she has connections with bandits."

"Change that to past tense," says Janus. "When she was faltering, they were a part of her repertoire of validation. Now she sees. She doesnít need them anymore."

"It could be dangerous," warns Jimmy. "Supposing she hasnít broken her ties with them. Or supposing they still want her? You know what happened with Helen of Troy."

"Her past could help us," he counters. "She knows these people. Sheís very street, though you can see her beginning to manifest the class thatís been hidden in her all this time, like a closed bud afraid to open too soon. She can help us to figure the bandits out, she knows them better than we do, she knows what makes them tick, she knows them down to the size of their d**ks."

Jimmy shakes his head. "This could be a mistake, Janus. Itís all happening so fast. Revelations occur in a flash, but that flash erupts from a platform that takes time to build. Iím having trouble with the pace of this transformation."

"I have a talent for showing people their worth," says Janus. "Whatís up with you, anyway? Youíve got Tassy, now you want this one, too?"

Jimmy shakes his head. "I love Hetasia. Sheís my girl."

"Then donít step between Karmela and me."

"Look, letís compromise. For now, just donít talk too much business around her. Donít let her know where all the bases are."

Janus draws back, insulted. "Sheís recovering, Jimmy. Sheís making progress, but sheís still fragile. If I withhold trust, do you know how much that will hurt her? Sheís smart, sheís vivacious, she wants to be included. I wonít sequester her like the women of old, I wonít put a burkha over her curiosity."

Jimmy goes out and tells Almost, "Weíve got to develop other bases, and keep them to ourselves. PPP only. Thereís trouble brewing here."

"All I ask, if sheís setting us up for the kill," he says, "is that she be the one to pull the trigger. One last look into those beautiful eyes, and BOOM! Wonít need no 72 virgins."

"Can you get working on it?" Jimmy asks.

"Iíll round up Prankster," he agrees.

Meanwhile, Dommy and Hetasia have taken a liking to the newest member of the NWC. Dommy explains her to Hetasia in this way: "Thereís a broken girl inside her, smashed into pieces by the past. Incest and iron-clad rules, the perfect formula for disaster. Life kept scratching at the wound, coming back for more sin. A beautiful woman grew around the wreck, the shattered, stunted child, attracting men like bees, making it impossible to figure out what was true love and what was only lust. It became too hard to look for the needle in the haystack. Lust became enough. Every night fake repairmen came to fix her battered soul with their d**ks: the only tool in their kit. She rode in a pleasure barge on top of an ocean of pain. Every day, a little more of her slipped away. Then Janus came, shining a light into her darkness. What he showed her Ė the real core of her beauty - gave her the courage to get back on her feet and try again."

Hetasia is drawn towards this woman, who is rebuilding herself from her vulnerability. Karmela is great fun, humorous, and sporadically alert. She can notice every last detail about items in a store window, and examines fashions with the intensity of a Native American tracker, missing not a single flaw or virtue. Sheíll stop to check out tiny facets of architecture that people routinely pass by, little faces or numbers etched into walls that have probably not been seen by human eyes for years. "Look, doesnít this look like a Gorgon? Poor Gorgon turned herself to stone!" But next minute, sheíll get lost in the middle of a discussion like someone with Alzheimerís, or fall down on a simple point in conversation, like all logic was coated with ice. Sometimes, it seems she needs the English language to be translated for her, but into what language? Into sex?

Hetasia and Karmela have great fun when they go to a carnival together. The Ferris wheel operator deliberately stalls out the machine so he can look up their dresses. So Karmela takes off her underwear, and pees on him. "Lady, youíre foul!" he curses, as they get off. "It was just my past, coming back to haunt you," she says.

But the image of Karmela that most impresses itself upon Hetasia, is that of the beautiful former-prostitute carrying around one of the Inner Child dolls which are now spreading throughout the city. You carry them around with you as though they were a human baby, holding them carefully, gently, talking to them and nurturing them as a symbolic means of returning to yourself the love you were denied as a child. There is truth in the fantasy. Little by little, if you do this long enough, you heal yourself, you recover your lost innocence; you learn to love yourself again, which is the key to making healthy life choices, to getting back on your feet. Hetasia loves to see Karmela playing with the doll. "Come on, baby, wipe the frosting from your mouth. You donít know how lucky you are. Iím the only mother who ever put chocolate cake in a milk bottle." But, then, at other times, Hetasia is horrified by Karmelaís forgetfulness, or is it indifference? Once, she sees Karmela holding the doll by one foot, and carrying it upside down, in such a way that the dollís head is dragging along the sidewalk. "Karmela!" Hetasia cries. "Your doll!" Hetasia sees, underneath the dollís dress which is hanging the wrong way because of the way she is being carried, something written on her leg. It says, "Bandits make the best lovers." "Whatís that?" she asks Karmela. "Oh, just a tattoo I gave her." Hetasia is puzzled. Karmela looks at her, flatfooted for a moment, then recovers with a disarming smile. She hugs Hetasia, and kissing her cheek with passion, says: "Otherwise, she wouldnít need to be rescued." Hetasia is reassured.

__________

Janus has convened a major meeting while they still have the hotel space, to plan the next moves for the NWC. He insists that things are getting better. First of all, Jimmyís situation is improving, due to the fact that the World Council has inexplicably canceled the search for clone son; there will be no more payments to bounty hunters and no more rewards offered. In a terse statement, spokesmen from the outside say: "Rupert Jardinowe, in the wake of an undisclosed intuitive experience, consistent with the inter-clone comprehension phenomenon, has asked that his clone son be left to forge his own destiny in Freedom City. All efforts by the World Council to recover him have therefore been suspended." Regarding the NWC, a major surge in recruits is underway, in spite of the harassment of NWC heralds, due to the increasing aggressiveness of Advorzhi. Vendors from the Blue Zone who are resisting incorporation by his bandit empire have fled this way, and many are now eager to join up with the NWC. The union of bar bouncers from Blue Zone is also here; they have been displaced by Advorzhiís own thugs. Many of these men are of interest to Jimmy, because of their experience in fighting. "We need weapons for these men," he says.

"You and your weapons," says Janus, rolling his eyes. "The broken wheel of an old thought, going round and round. Iíve said a million times that violence attracts violence. The more we challenge Advorzhi by expanding our arsenal, the more certain is his retaliation. For now, evasiveness serves us best. Spread the word, advance the coming paradigm, lay low. Advorzhiís got lots of enemies, letís not rise up to the top of his list. Heís got so many projects going on, it will be easy for us to get lost in the crowd. School of fish. Herd of zebra. The lesson, straight from Darwin is, donít stand out. Men with guns stand out."

"I canít believe after all the hits youíve taken, you still donít want to fight," says Almost. "They shot up your lairs, mowed your own people down like wheat under a tractor, and youíre still singing ĎGive peace a chance.í Well, Itís been given a damned chance, and it fell on its ass."

"Janus, you have some crude associates," says Karmela, who is sitting beside Janus with her Inner Child Doll lying in her lap.

"Oh, so now Little Egypt has become Mrs. Social Register. Am I holding my fork the right way?" complains Almost.

Janus says, "Lifting the world out of the streets begins here."

"Amen," says Karmela.

Almost looks to Jimmy to see if itís all right to talk back, but this is a serious meeting with lots of people, not just their little rough-edged group thatís gotten used to its own lack of manners. Jimmy motions for Almost to bite the bullet.

"As I see it," says Janus, "our main priorities now have to be the acquisition of safe spaces, and the accumulation and proper management of financial reserves, not to buy weapons with, but to maintain those spaces, and to develop a supply network to sustain the rapid growth of our movement."

"Weapons," whispers Almost.

"We also have to begin to train additional orientation leaders and recovery counselors."

"Yes," says Karmela, "Janus is going to have to learn how to delegate authority, because" Ė she kisses him Ė "heís a very busy man."

Most everybody laughs, but as he continues speaking, basking in the prestige which this beautiful woman by his side has conferred on him, Hetasia notices something that frightens her: Karmelaís smile momentarily melts into a cynical and amused look which she tries to hide, by transforming it into contempt for a troublesome earring. Later, something Janus says about the corruption of the bandits draws a scary look of hardness into her eyes, as though something in Karmelaís mind is lining Janus up in the crosshairs of a primitive world that does not want to die. When someone else notices the knife in her gaze, she looks down to her blossoming bosom, drawing his eyes there, where he loses the trail. Hetasia fidgets. She looks at Jimmy to see if he has noticed. She sees him silent, eyes cast down, but with some kind of alertness directed towards Karmela, while the rest of the room is utterly oblivious, existing on the obvious level of their business.

Thatís when it happens. There is a sudden flash, and a sharp pop, like a firecracker and the smell of smoke all around them. Karmela has fallen backwards and is lying on top of Janus. Stunned, she looks down at herself, there is a hole in her side, and blood is gushing out of it. "I Ė Iíve been shot!" she cries out in disbelief. Jimmy is yelling to Almost: "Battle posts!", and he is simultaneously leaping forward to seize the Inner Child doll which is sprawled beside her, smoke spiraling out of its neck. Its head is gone.

"Karmela! Karmela! What happened?!" Janus is screaming.

"Secure the hall, and clear the room!" Jimmy shouts.

Hetasia is beside him.

"Hetasia get out!"

"Whatís happening Jimmy?!"

Heís now ripped into the doll, he looks to Prankster who, with wide-open eyes, understands, and hands him a tool. "Itís a bomb!"

People are now screaming and running out of the room.

Jimmy disconnects something thatís smoking, and says, "Get it into water!" Bad Boy grabs it and shouts, "Ow, itís hot!" He juggles it like a hot potato all the way to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Jimmy has a pack of high-powered plastic explosives in his hands, enough to kill them all, and probably wreck a few floors of the hotel at the very least.

"Whatís going on?!" Janus is screaming, while Karmela groans, "You shot me! You NWC bastards shot me!"

"The detonator misfired, or weíd all be dead. There was a bomb hidden inside that Inner Child Doll!" The bomb is defused now; the defective detonator is in a bathtub full of water, and the inert explosive pack is in Jimmyís hands. He passes it to Prankster, whose eyes light up at the thought of the power.

Stunned, Janus turns to Karmela. "You brought a bomb to the meeting? You tried to kill us?"

Hetasia is now beside them, trying to get something over Karmelaís wound, to slow down the bleeding. Dommy is there, too, stunned and shaken, with intense moist eyes. "I didnít bring a bomb, you bastard!" protests Karmela. "All I brought was a god-damned voice analyzer! The doll had a voice analyzer inside it! You shot me for a voice analyzer?" And she looks at her blood-drenched hands, and screams.

"But why? Why?" pleads Janus.

Hetasia has ripped a piece of Karmelaís dress off, to try to stop the flow of blood. Dommy is beside her, now, also. "Weíve got to get her to a doctor, like fast!"

"Why?" weeps Janus, unable to stop.

"Because youíre suckers!" Karmela cries. " Because youíre all a god-damned bunch of suckers!" And gasping at the confluence of several rivers of pain, she says, "I did it for Advorzhi. Because he loves me."

"He loves you?" asks Dommy with pity. "He used you to deliver a bomb to blow us all up, and didnít even wait for you to get out. Thatís how much he loves you."

"Liars!" she weeps. "He put a voice analyzer in the doll. So he can track you through your phone calls. So what, I did it because he loves me. Heís good to me. You didnít have to shoot me! That wasnít right! Who did it? That damned Jardinowe look-alike? The one who thinks heís Julius Caesar?"

"Nobody shot you," Dommy shouts, infuriated by her stupidity. "And Advorzhi didnít plant a voice analyzer in your doll. He put a f**king bomb inside it, and then he blew it up right in your f**king hands!"

"No!" cries Karmela. "No! Youíre a liar!" She begins to drift away. "Advorzhi loves me. I finally found someone who loves me." Her voice is fading. Bewildered, a couple men from the NWC continue to watch, amazed by the beauty of her body, revealed by the dress Hetasia has removed to work the wound. Their eyes try to blot out the gaping hole, the blood, to imagine Karmela in her prime, the sun that you see through the window of a bed. But now the body, robbed of its laughter, is mere perversion, they turn away, ripping themselves from their fascination which is careening into the macabre. Soon, this thing of beauty will be a corpse.

"Weíve got to get her to a doctor!" Hetasia is crying.

"Weíve got to leave," says Jimmy. "Can you carry her out?"

Dommy looks up at Bad Boy, who lifts her up over his shoulders.

"What have we got on the street?" Jimmy is asking Almost, who is in charge of the lookouts.

"About twenty of them. Obviously they expected the bomb to do the work. But theyíre all chattering away on their phones; thereíll probably be a hundred of them in a matter of minutes."

Jimmy consults with Prankster, who has already used some of the captured explosives and discarded soda cans to put together a series of homemade grenades. "Try to get us street cover," Jimmy urges Prankster, meanwhile distributing the grenades to several former bouncers from the Blue Zone. Prankster understands what Jimmy means. Dommy covers Karmela, who may already be dead, with a blanket. "All right, get ready," Jimmy says.

"And itís an Ė ORGY!!!!!" a voice cries out over the PA system outside the hotel. "Thatís right, and itís an Ė ORGY!!!! Right here! Right now! First come first serve! No prudes allowed! And itís an Ė ORGY!!!!!" Dommy looks and sees Prankster, typing away on his hand-held computer and talking into his mike, with a big smile on his face.

"Sick bastard!" Dommy says. "This is a f**king crisis, and the f**king nerd is making a practical joke?" She thinks about hitting him, but then she sees Jimmy is vigilant and optimistic. "Whatís going on?" She figures it out. Soon the hotel is emptying as people pour out into the street to try to find the elusive orgy that is taking place somewhere, while crowds from other blocks also begin to stream into the neighborhood. Under cover of this distraction, the NWC/PPP slips out of the hotel, and splitting up into small groups, fades away into the multitudes which are swarming all around for blocks. Jimmy, Hetasia, Dommy, Janus and Bad Boy, carrying Karmela who is wrapped in a blanket, run into a picket of Advorzhiís men. Hetasia covers Janusí by-now famous face with her hand, saying, "If you look at other bitches, Iíll scratch your eyes out." Meanwhile, Jimmy tells Bad Boy, "Never let her mix ajow and vodka again!" He has disguised the dying Karmela as a mere drunkard. As they pass by the picket, they hear one of Advorzhiís men cursing over the phone. "The hotel didnít blow up. Something went wrong. Of all the rotten luck, thereís a god-damned orgy. Yeah, right now! No, we wonít join in!"

When, at long last, they reach Chisterís base, they are finally able to lay Karmela down on the floor. She is still alive, but barely.

Janus breaks down again. "Karmela! Karmela! My beautiful waif! I tried to save you!"

"We need a doctor!" cries Hetasia.

But suddenly, the weak body and the laboring breath transform. The body stiffens, straightens up, almost rising to a sitting position; then slowly, slumping, it sinks back to the floor, gently lowered according to its own movement by Hetasiaís arms. The eyes open wide, there is a look of fear. It is not the fear of dying. It is the fear of being abandoned. The eyes freeze in that position, they have nothing more to say to the world.

Hetasia, exhausted, looks at the rest of them. Everyone knows what it means, except for Janus.

"Take her pulse," he urges.

Some time later, a doctor arrives to confirm her death.

__________

It is night time now, but the dawn is fast approaching. The time most people sleep is coming. The time the vaporizers lumber by. Hetasia, Dommy, Bad Boy, Janus, and Jimmy are huddled on the sidewalk, inside an archway, with Karmelaís body, which is wrapped in a blanket, lying beside them. Since it was too late to do this last night, they have kept her in a bathtub all day, covered over with ice, like a fish in the market. Although crowds gathered once if she but showed her face, And even old menís eyes grew dim, this hand alone, Like some last courtier at a gypsy camping-place Babbling of fallen majesty, records whatís gone. Now they are silent, tear-streaked, waiting. At last, they hear the rumble of the engines. Dommy and Bad Boy carry the body out into the middle of the street and lay it down. Soon, the huge armored vehicle will be here to suck Karmela up with its powerful vacuum, straight into the vaporization chamber which will disintegrate her earthly form. There are no graveyards here, no permits to bury, and precious little earth to dig a hole in even if it were tolerated. This is the best they can do. Hetasia stands up as the headlights of the vehicle approach. She scatters some flowers which she has picked from a tree potted in a mall, over the body of the defunct prostitute. "Good-bye, my poor, lost sister," she says. Dommy breaks down, and Bad Boy embraces her. "Some wounds never heal," weeps Dommy. "They never do." "Maybe next lifetime," says Hetasia.

Jimmy stands up and takes Hetasia by the hand. Gently, he leads her out of the street. The glare of the headlights engulfs them, they are all lit up like prisoners caught in the middle of a jailbreak. The front of the vehicle is enormous, it is as huge as a prehistoric creature. The sacredness of the moment is marred by the deafening roar of the engine, which will not allow them to imagine that it is an angel who has come to take Karmela away. "Good-bye sister!" Hetasia cries again, trying to beat the machine, to get in one last farewell before it sucks Karmela up into its obliterating insides. They hear the swoosh, and stand helpless and reverent on the side of the road.

"Sheís gone," whispers Dommy at last, as the truck rolls on.

A puff of steam escapes from a vent as the vehicle recedes in the distance.

"There goes the most beautiful woman in the world," whispers Janus.

__________

The death of Karmela has galvanized them, convinced them, in their very different ways, that they must throw themselves without reservation into the process of changing the world. It is one thing to have confidence in the forces of history, but without men and women who are willing to embody those forces, what is inevitable merely withers on the vine of possibilities. False futures capture time. Impostor histories imprison worlds.

For Jimmy, the need to acquire weapons becomes the overriding priority. For Janus, impaired by mourning, but also aware of the urgency of their situation, nonviolence must grow taller, and quickly.

Advorzhi is on the move, swallowing up neighborhoods, taking over businesses, hiring dozens of new thugs every day. And the destruction of the NWC is now his top priority. The friendly dungeon where they have been staying for some time is overrun. Bad Boy, who is lying on the floor immobilized in Japanese rope bondage when the bandits attack barely survives; Dommyís friend Keiko manages to untie him just in time. Within a day, the bandits have turned the dungeon into their new "House of Fact-Finding." The luxury hotel is, of course, also useless; and one other base, a flophouse with a secret basement, is hit. The effects of Karmelaís erotic talents have outlived her. But no one blames her. As Almost says, running with the rest of them out of a burning building, his face blackened by the smoke, "Well, at least Janus has got good times out of this!" Now only Chisterís "biohazard stronghold" remains.

"Where are you going?" Hetasia asks Jimmy, who is leaving with Chister, Almost, Slicks and Prankster in the early morning hours of another uncertain day. "Weíre going to pick up some money," he says. "We need it for weapons."

"I hope you donít have anything dangerous in mind," she says.

Chister laughs. "Are you kidding? Just crossing the street in Freedom City is dangerous!"

"Weíll do our best to bring him back alive," adds Almost. "But if he dies, Iíve got first dibs on you."

"F**k off!" she says.

He laughs, he enjoys being cursed at by beautiful women.

"I want to go," she pleads.

"No," Chister says, "youíll only get in the way. Youíll put us all at risk."

"You slimy creep," Dommy says, "Iíll bet she can run faster and punch harder than you can!"

"She can probably punch harder," agrees Chister, "but I doubt she can run faster."

"Please stay here, Hetasia," Jimmy says. "I want to focus on business. Weíll stay within our limits, I promise." And before she can say another thing, they have slipped out the door.

On their way to where they are going, they have to avoid one random tube attack, some idiot outcome gambler trying to take Jimmy down on the off chance that he might really be the clone son.

"Yo, idiot, havenít you heard?" curses Chister, "the bets are off! Clone Son isnít on the boards anymore, Rupert Jardinowe shut the money down!"

"That applies to the ransom," curses the would-be assassin, "but not to the gambling outcomes!"

"Are you disrespecting Rupert Jardinowe?" Almost gasps.

The Jardinowe-hunter stops to reflect. "You mean, shooting his clone son down would offend him?"

"He might never build a rocket again."

The hunter seems confused, then disappointed. He starts to say one thing, then another, then finally exclaims, "You donít say!" Appearing dazed, he wanders off down a side street, allowing them to continue on towards a situation that is a hundred times more threatening.

__________

"Welcome to the Coliseum," a lovely hostess, garbed in a nymph-like transparent chiton, tells them on the other side of the weapons check. "Coming as spectators, or as participants?"

"Spectators," say Chister, Almost, Prankster and Slicks.

"Participant," says Jimmy.

"Do we have to say gamblers?" adds Almost.

Jimmyís crew takes their seats in the gigantic open-air theater which rapidly fills with fans from all over the city, some wanting nothing more than a good show, others hoping to strike it rich with a lucky bet.

Meanwhile, Jimmy is led down a VIP corridor, past rooms filled with hardened gladiators and past cages filled with wild beasts, straight into a luxurious private waiting room. He has hardly had a chance to look around, when six beautiful completely naked women come in through a side door. One is African, one is Latin, one is Asian, one is Scandinavian, one is Arab and one is Indian. "Take your pick," says the Indian. "Pleasure before death." Itís one of the incentives to keep the fight pool from drying up. He is stunned by their magnificence. "Were you engineered?" he asks. "None of your business," says the Indian. "Now, which one of us do you want?"

"Iíve got a girlfriend already," he says.

They burst into laughter. The Indian says, "Youíll be dead before the day is through, so thereíll be no explaining to do." He imagines that the goddess Kali must look something like her.

"Iíve got to conserve my energy," Jimmy says.

They laugh again. "All you have to do is lie down," protests the Asian.

The Arab twirls around and snakes her arms into the air, then, frustrated, says, "I need at least a few shreds of clothing to do a proper belly dance!" The Scandinavian does a model walk up and down the room. "My ancestors burned down monasteries and killed monks." She presents it as a plus. The Latin says: "Would you like me better if I was balancing a bowl of fruit on my head?"

"Thanks," says Jimmy. "You are all very beautiful, beautiful beyond belief. Iíve had my good times. I just need to focus, now."

They look at each other, surprised, then turn to the Indian for direction.

"Are you being condescending?" the Indian woman asks him.

"No, not at all."

"We are trained professionals," she says, "and behind the veils of our carefully choreographed stereotypical behavior, we are compassionate souls. We are nurses of the dying."

"I understand," says Jimmy. He folds his hands together, and makes a bow of respect.

They bow back to him.

"Good luck," says the Indian.

"Well, thatís one less chance to get VD," says the Scandinavian as they leave.

"Do you want me to write you up?" the Indian warns her. The door closes behind them, and Jimmy is alone with the destiny he has chosen.

Back outside, watching the brutal games unfold, Almost suddenly asks the others: "Yo, this is even more f**ked up than they said it was. What happens if Jimmyís killed?"

"Donít talk like that," says Chister, still haunted by the sight of a headless man running ten yards across the sand.

"For me, it will be back to picking pockets," muses Slicks.

"Iíll build a diving board over my beer mug," agrees Almost.

But Prankster has another perspective. "If Jimmy is selective in the risks he chooses, and remains within his strengths which are not known to the audience, then he may not only survive, but our gambling activities could be highly lucrative and even lay the foundations for future empire."

"What did you say?" demands Slicks.

"Do not let morbidity and sentimentality influence your betting decisions. Think clearly, and make your dollars count."

__________

When Jimmy comes out, it is mid-afternoon. Theyíve already announced him, itís the Amateur Hour, and heís one more fool who wants his moment in the sun. Jimmy is unarmed, dressed in street clothes, with a remote bet-placer attached to his belt.

"Kill the punk! Kill the punk!" the crowd is chanting.

"Yeah, no mercy for the Rupert Jardinowe imitator! " someone shouts. The "Kill the punk!" chant changes into "Kill the copycat!"

Chister has a handkerchief in his hand, and is wiping the sweat from his face.

"So now, Jimmy, itís that time! Time to pick your category!" shouts the deliberately pompous master of ceremonies, who is, behind his inflated exterior, a genius of his art, a Rembrandt of showmanship. The scoreboard lights up with the options: "Ancient Warriors", "Savage Beasts", "Guess?" and "Chimera of the Day."

Jimmy is still taking it all in Ė the great marble amphitheater encircling him, filled with cynical, wasted souls, a disheartening human desert; the brilliant sand of the arena, sparkling with the light of the sun which it has turned into a torment; the absurd rows of columns, some fake ancient shrine at the north end of the arena, meant to enhance the ambiance of the killings.

"Youíve got to be in it to win it!" the MC shouts into his mike, which floods the entire stadium with sound. "Which category will it be, Mr. Jimmy?"

Jimmy smiles, there is no doubt in his mind. "Ancient Warriors," he says. The crowd cheers, just because things are about to get underway.

"Today we can give you seven choices for Ancient Warriors," the MC says. The choices appear on a scoreboard above the arena.

"Number three," says Jimmy.

"That will be three ancient warriors armed with the Roman gladius, or short sword. Do you want weapons parity?" the MC offers.

"No," says Jimmy. "Iíll face them unarmed. Iíll subdue them all, without killing them, and without being cut."

At that bit of bravado, the crowd screams with excitement. Jimmy taps a bet into the device on his belt. Back in their seats, the PPP does the same. "A hundred to one odds!" cries Almost, thrilled to the core. "Throw in every last cent. Weíll be millionaires in a matter of minutes!" "Hold some money back," warns Prankster, "just in case he gets nicked."

"Three men? Unarmed? Maybe we should bet on him to die," says Slicks. They give him dirty looks. "After all, isnít this about expanding our financial capability?"

The fight begins, the three warriors come out with drawn swords, walking confidently towards him.

Jimmyís got great skills, but he plans to win this fight with a book: Livyís history of ancient Rome. Who says reading is a waste of time? When he was supposed to be studying math and science, Jimmy would sneak in hours of history: Livy, Tacitus, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Caesar, Suetonius, this was his form of comic book. "Bring it on!" he tells the warriors. Eyes bright with bad intent they move in, but suddenly he gives them a head fake and bolts away from them.

The crowd boos, Almost looks puzzled, and Chister exclaims, "Thatís it, Jimmy, run them to death! Turn it into a bloody marathon!" But Jimmyís plan is different. The angry warriors, knowing that the crowd will become very upset if they donít catch him soon, bolt after Jimmy, chasing him around the arena; he counts on the fact that some of them are likely to be faster than others and that after a short while, their differing speeds should spread them out according to their speed. In fact, this happens after only a moment, whereupon Jimmy turns on the first one, fakes, kicks, breaks an arm, seizes his sword and charges against the second of his pursuers before the third can catch up. Using the sword to block, he gets in another devastating combination of kicks, then takes his time to disable the third opponent. He has succeeded in turning a three-on-one fight into three one-on-one fights. The crowd is screaming with satisfaction, and the PPP is jumping up and down shouting, "Weíre rich! Weíre rich!"

"Not quite," says Prankster, "our initial investment capital was quite small. But next time around, with these winnings as a base, weíll be able to make more, as long as the odds remain extreme."

"After that show of skill, weíre not likely to get those odds again," laments Almost.

Meanwhile, the MC is congratulating Jimmy for his brilliant fighting skills and strategy. Jimmy knows this is only something that an ancient Roman warrior thought of and executed centuries before. "Iíd like to give my thanks to Livy," he says.

"Must be his girlfriend," someone in the audience says.

Of course, Jimmy is not yet ready to quit. PPP needs money, and this is the ticket. He chooses "Ancient Warriors 4", the option of facing a six foot-five Scotsman with a giant broadsword. Again, he takes him on unarmed. The crowd has seen "Clay Moore" fight before, and thinks Jimmyís martial arts may not be up to the task of getting inside the sweeping arc of the big manís blade. "Itís all a question of how fast the big man can get the sword around again," one seasoned analyst tells his friend, as Slicks pretends not to listen, with his fingers poised over the bet-placer. "This one comes down to a contest of speed, between the Scotsmanís back slash, and the amateurís rush in past a forward slash miss."

"My, this carnage is technical stuff!" Slicks mutters to himself. "You canít get away from science no matter how hard you try, not even by chopping off heads." Odds of three-to-one against Jimmy go up on the scoreboard, drawing a sigh of disappointment from the PPP. "Thatís still very good for us," says Prankster. "Put it all down."

"Thank you very much, nerd boy," says Slims, "but Iíll bet as I please. What the hell do you know about back slashes?"

Once again, Jimmy puts his knowledge to use. Thatís after he finds out that the Scotsman has overpowering arms and tremendous wrists which impart uncommon velocity to his huge sword. Jimmy starts to come in, draws a full slash, evades it by jumping back, and then tries to run in; but the back slash is there before he can get inside, he is nearly dismembered and only escapes by dropping to the ground. He barely avoids a savage cut to the side of the head as he tries to recover from his mistake and maneuver out of the broad swordís range.

"OK," says Jimmy, moving away from the exhilarated Scotsman who is stalking him with absolute confidence, certain of an impending kill. "Time to go back to the books." He retreats towards the fake shrine, where the statue of some long-forgotten god, which seems to be nothing more than a giant marble man with sculpted pubic hair and penis, stands staring into space. A giant Scotsman in an ancient Roman temple seems a little grating, but with this crowdís knowledge of history, a Napoleonic battle could probably be staged here without offending anybody. Once the Scotsman has entered the shrine, the columns cramp the mighty arc of his sword stroke; the effectiveness of his weapon is drastically curtailed and Jimmy is able to find an opening, block the flat of the sword, go under it and block it again, seize and disable his opponentís arm, kick him back, separate him from his sword, and finally knock him out with a brutally sweet series of kicks and punches. Once more, the crowd is ecstatic, shouting, jumping up and down, and throwing punches and kicks at the air in imitation of Jimmy. "Hey, look out!" someone yells.

Jimmy apologizes to the God in the temple, just in case; you never know: paradox principle. He tells the MC, "Iíd like to thank Homer for this one." It was the Iliad, some giant axe-man tricked into fighting in a narrow defileÖ

To no oneís surprise, Jimmy takes one more number from the "Ancient Warrior" category. This time itís an armored knight of the Middle Ages, who comes riding in on a horse with a lance. Jimmy will take him on unarmed. Betting is crazy, the odds have the knight up twenty-to-one. Jimmyís plan is to run to the side as the knight is charging, get him to overextend his lance, and catching it in his hands once itís out of position and lost its power, use it to drag the knight to the ground and disarm him. However, the knight, seeing Jimmy standing before him unarmed, protests. "Sir, put on your armor. This is not a fair fight," he explains. "The codes of chivalry forbid me from making war on you in your present condition."

The crowd is furious. "F**k your god-damned code of chivalry, just kill the bastard!"

"Itís a fair fight," Jimmy says. "Trust me."

"You donít have a suit of armor?" the knight asks him.

"No. Who can breathe in that shit?"

"Then Iíll remove my armor, and come down from my horse."

The crowd is outraged. "Yo, heís f**ked up the god-damned odds! No, you idiot! Is it too late to cancel my bet?"

The knight dismounts and takes off his armor, piece by piece.

"Boring!" somebody shouts. "If I wanted to see a strip-tease, Iíd have gone to the strip club, thank you very much."

"But we must use weapons," the knight is telling Jimmy; "to fight without them would be undignified. I have but one sword. However, I have two daggers, this one and a spare. Weíll have to use them, pitiful though they are. Itís the only way to arrange an equal match."

"Chivalry is dead!" the crowd is chanting. "Roll over, Ivanhoe!"

Respectfully, Jimmy takes the dagger, but he doesnít need it. With a stunning eruption of kicks and punches he has sprawled the knight unconscious onto the ground. "Iím so sorry," Jimmy says. Out of his pocket, he slips him a card that says "NWC/PPP: The Future of Freedom City." "Give us a call when you feel better."

__________

The PPP has by now come into good money, and Chister is becoming anxious that Jimmy should quit while heís ahead. For his part, the MC is pushing for one more performance, to get the most out of his high-octane participant. However, three Ancient Warriors is enough. "Pick one more challenge from any other category," the MC promises, "and the house will triple your earnings for the day." Thatís one hell of a temptation, especially with Advorzhi on the move and the NWCís desperate need for weapons. The MC advises Jimmy that the biggest jackpot he can win will come from fighting the chimera of the day. "OK," Jimmy says, "give it to me." This time, there is no choice, no number, there is only one chimera of the day, pre-selected by the House: there is no way for Jimmy to know what creature will come out to face him.

"Taking a chance there," groans Chister.

The MC hands Jimmy an "emotion stick" with which to defend himself from the creature. Itís a very lightweight stick, but filled with micro high-technology that receives brain waves, and relates to certain emotions, channeling them into high-impact force. If you succeed in matching your emotion with the pre-set emotion of the stick, then your feelings will activate the stickís converter, and turn it into a devastating energy club. However, if there is no match, your emotions will be blocked from the converter, and you might as well hit your enemy with a cardboard roller. The MC tunes the stick to Jimmyís mind, meaning it will pick up his brainwaves, and not the creatureís. However, it will then be up to Jimmy to empower his stick with the correct emotion. This is a weapon that only people with deep feelings can wield with success.

"Do you have to study calculus to understand this?" curses Slicks. "Hey, do I look like Isaac Newton? Would I be here if I was?"

On the scoreboard screen, the audience gets a sneak preview of the creature, which is holographically barred from Jimmyís angle so that they can make informed bets, while he remains in the dark about exactly what it is he will have to face. "Holy shit!" exclaims Almost. "Itís like something from f**king mythology!" "Somebody wake up the knight!" agrees Chister. "Arenít they the ones who fight dragons?!" The odds go to forty-to-one against Jimmy. Jimmy sees the odds, but throws every last penny on himself. "Iíve got this far, Iím not going to lose now," he tells himself. He closes his eyes and lovingly thinks of Hetasia. A second later, when he opens them, he is staring at something from the opposite end of the spectrum of lifeís possibilities.

It is a chimera, a genetically-engineered creature made of carefully interfaced hybrid genes extracted from a variety of animals; some of these genes have, additionally, been "reconstructed" in the laboratory to accentuate the natural characteristics of the "base animals" to alarming degrees. Proudly, the MC is announcing: "Please welcome the chimera of the day: it has the body of a rhinoceros, replete with a hide so thick you couldnít drive a nail through it; its feet have the claws of an eagle, artificially hyper-sized; its elongated neck was created from anaconda genes, and its head is 100% Nile crocodile; it has been juiced up with wolf genes to enhance its stamina, no wearing this baby out; and its tail, as you can see, is a fully functional and independent king cobra!" To Jimmy, it is more simply, a monster, a human nightmare come true, the dark side of five thousand years of fairy tales; and it is headed his way.

In the stands, the fans cheer wildly as it approaches him. "God bless you, scientists, thanks for keeping our lives interesting!" "Imagine that Ė they made the neck out of an anaconda!" While Chister is shouting, "Beat its head in! Beat its head in!" And Prankster is saying, "This is the most terrifying thing Iíve ever seen, after the Kronosaur fossils of Australia."

"Well," Jimmy thinks, "hereís to us: two products of genetic engineering. Two manipulations of nature. May the best freak win."

Planting his feet firmly, but flexibly, he smashes the emotional stick into the reptilian head that snaps out at him from the end of the lunging neck. Nothing happens. A fly might just as well have landed on the creatureís head. "Just be natural," Jimmy tells himself, not trying to outguess the stick. Miyamoto Musashi, the devastating samurai, once advised his students of swordsmanship to strike with the intent to cut. Too many students, he said, strike with the intent to touch, but you must go well past the point of mere contact in your mind, to a point deep within the enemyís body. You must want to slash him, to wound him, to maim him, to kill him, and you must transmit this design to your sword. You have to mean what the sword is all about, this is absolutely real; it is no longer the practice hall. Jimmy, taking Musashi to heart, grits his teeth, he smashes the probing monster head with every ounce of ferocity he has, but the stick merely irritates the beast, which rushes in at him. But it comes in too fast, overrunning its optimal distance for engaging him, Jimmy, with a quick move, is able to slip around its flank. The incredibly elastic head almost doubles back to snatch him as he runs by, and the cobra tail joins in the hunt, nearly striking him, as well. The crowd is frantic with enjoyment. "Damn!" says Jimmy. "Perseus needed a winged horse to beat his chimera, all I have is this damned stick!" Again, Jimmy maneuvers himself into a strong position, provokes a lunge, and strikes the creatureís exposed head. Again, it has no effect. "Anger, rage, hatred, savagery, none of the instincts nature has given us to defend our lives against the horrible injustice of predation, is working! Whatís the secret of the stick? I may not have long to find out!" The monster, propelled by its wolf genes, is relentless, it is not tiring in spite of its massive size. Jimmy retreats back into the little shrine where he beat the Scotsman, but the monsterís elastic head is perfectly at home darting in and out of the narrow spaces between the columns. Jimmy has no advantage here. "It must be something counterintuitive," thinks Jimmy, staggering out of the shrine. "Maybe love. Maybe this fairy tale is meant to have a moral ending," he muses, "to teach us that love is stronger than hate, that only love can save the world." Jimmy thinks of Hetasia. "I love her," he whispers. "I love her." He hits the beast. "I think my love for her went back to being anger towards him, just before it reached his head. Got to try again, and make it to go all the way. Love. Iíve got to think love! Love!" Using its neck and head like a mace and chain, the beast smashes Jimmy to the ground, and bounding forward, seeks to stamp him into the dirt. Its talons shred Jimmyís shirt, he is bleeding profusely now, but the wounds are not life threatening. Somehow, heís managed to stagger away, and to deflect the lunging cobra tail at the same time with a tap of his stick.

"Take him down, chimera!" someone is shouting, "I promised Anna a diamond ring!"

"Shut up, you got to root for the man!" someone else is saying.

"Love your enemy," Jimmy tells himself, not yet through with the love idea, probably because itís the most obvious inappropriate emotion he can imagine, and the most likely way for the stick to hide its power from him. "Donít think of Hetasia, anymore itís not working; thinking of her only makes me mad again, because the monster is trying to come between us by eating me. Heís worse than Janus. Got to go straight to the beast with love. Yes, that must be it. Poor, poor beast Ė poor genetically-engineered freak! No natural habitat. No mate. No possibility of freedom, because he is imprisoned by what he is. Can you imagine him let loose on the plains of Africa? Alone, all-powerful for nothing. Love your enemy. ĎPray for them which despitefully use you and persecute youÖí " Softness in his eyes, Jimmy approaches the monster, saying, "Even though you are trying to kill me, I love you." But this emotion doesnít get Jimmy very far. The stick, which he taps on the monsterís head, answers him with a pathetic hollow sound of emptiness, the crocodile head nearly seizes him, then loops behind him as he tries to get around it. Jimmy avoids the jaws, but the anaconda neck scoops him up and begins to coil around him with amazing dexterity. By the barest of margins, Jimmy manages to squeeze out of the closing death trap. He rolls underneath four sets of slashing talons, and struggles back to his feet.

Meanwhile, from the stands, Chister is yelling, "Fear! Fear, Jimmy! Youíve got to be afraid of him!"

"Idiot," says Almost, "he must have hit him with fear already! Who wouldnít be afraid of him? Even samurai have fear!"

"That is debatable," says Prankster.

"Panic!" screams Chister. "I mean, all-out, shit-in-your-pants panic! That must be it! Thatís the emotion that will turn the stick on!" But Chisterís voice is just one of thousands roaring at him, it doesnít stand a chance of reaching him in any coherent way. For Jimmy, the seats in the theater, and the people screaming at him, are like a foreign country. "Panic," agrees Prankster, pulling out his messager.

Sweating profusely, covered with blood, Jimmy continues to feint, to move, to slip away, to look for openings, as the monster, with no sign of slowing down, pursues. Then Jimmy notices that his remote bet-placer is ringing. Itís the recharge signal, but Prankster is using it to call his attention. Attempting to get rid of the device, which is distracting him, Jimmy notices a message flashing on the screen. "PANIC Ė Prankster."

"Panic. Yes, of course!" gasps Jimmy, attempting to poke the crocodileís eye out with his stick, as he barely avoids the beastís jaws smashing shut, luckily with no part of him inside. "Panic. All I have to do is give way to panic!" But itís easier said than done. Years of training have focused Jimmyís mind, years of philosophy. He feels fear but has learned how to fill it up with adrenalin and turn it into an extraordinary weapon, controlled by his reflexes. All the raw emotions have been harnessed by something that is quiet, calmness with a hundred arms of fire; he has turned his old self into the tool of his new self. He fights by infiltrating his enemyís movements with the perfect counter, by becoming who he is fighting on a higher plane, by taking the shortcut to the place his enemy is headed. Anger, rage, cruelty are close enough to what is going on to be unleashed from the stillness Ė but panic? Panic is foreign, he has buried it under years of inner work, changed the Universe to make him unafraid, locked it behind ten doors of pride. It is the one thing he cannot make peace with; it is the devil.

"The chimeraís going to eat me!" Jimmy tells himself. "Itís going to hurt! Iíll be decapitated! Iíll never see Hetasia again! I have to get away from him!" Jimmy smashes the stick on the monsterís head, but it almost seems to be laughing at him. "Can crocodiles laugh?" he asks himself. Again he tries. Again the blow has no effect. On the one hand, Jimmy is proud of himself. "Good work, samurai. Youíve overcome your fear. Yes, ĎWith the right thoughts, itís even cool inside the fire.í" But this isnít going to help the world. Right now, the PPP needs more than a brave death. It needs somebody to beat the odds, to hit the jackpot.

Jimmyís wearing out now. Heís put up an incredible struggle, but the monster is unphased, and simply impervious to distraction. When a few sympathizers throw bottles at it from the stands, it keeps on plodding after Jimmy as though it was merely walking through a light drizzle. Jimmy, enraged, goes back to smashing it with fury. "You son of a bitch! You brainless biological pair of mismatched socks! You dreamless, murderous pastiche of idiotic beasts! You loathsome plaything of scientists and mobs! Iíve beaten you! A thousand times over! You have no talent except your invulnerability!" And then he is in its jaws, being shaken, but somehow he falls out of them as the beast is trying to open them to get more power to execute the fatal bite. Jimmy isnít sure if he is cut wide open or only scraped. He is staggering backwards, then feels himself bumping into a wall. The crowd is roaring. He is trapped in a corner. He is going to die. Laughing, Jimmy says, "If only I was Chister! If only I could scream my head off like him, and shit in my pants, Iíd be able to live!" And suddenly, the idea of Chister defeating the monster and not him seems so funny, he canít help laughing, even though he is about to be torn into pieces. "Good old Chister, god bless him, the St. George of our modern age!" And as the beast lunges in at him, Jimmy hits it one last time across the head, and suddenly it drops down at his feet and dies to the amazement of the crowd. Jimmy limps away from its massive carcass, bewildered, and reprieved. "Who would have ever guessed?" he thought. "The monster was killed by a sense of humor."

"What about one more?" the MC offers, coming up beside Jimmy to congratulate him as the death crew moves in to drag away the beast, and the crowd roars with delight. "Rich is good, but not as good as richer." Jimmyís remote bet-placer is buzzing again: "NO Ė Everybody." Jimmy laughs. "What do you have in mind?" he asks the MC. "The five beast special," the MC answers. "This time, lab free. One bear, one wolf, one lion, one tiger, and one komodo dragon. You get a spear." Jimmy laughs. "Which way is the exit?" "Plus a complementary slab of meat," adds the MC. Jimmy looks at him. The MC explains: "You can throw it to them. Our very own version of the golden apple of discord. Why fight the beasts, if you can get them to fight each other?" "Letís see the piece of meat," says Jimmy. The MC has it brought out. Jimmy takes one look at it and says, "No thanks, I can already tell, I taste better than that." The crowd laughs and cheers him as he walks away.

After a shower, and a visit from the stadium doctor, the woman from India again appears to Jimmy, with her five companions standing beside her. "Well, Mr. Jimmy, it seems youíve had quite a successful day. How about now?"

"Oh no," he smiles. "I donít have the energy."

"Before you had to conserve your energy. Now youíve used it all up," says the woman from India.

Jimmy laughs.

"Well, come girls," she says, "weíve been upstaged by a chimera."

Although she is naked, she extends her hand to Jimmy as though this were the conclusion of a formal business meeting. "Congratulations, you have beaten back the dark forces of boredom for another day." He smiles, if he wasnít with Hetasia, this woman would be the one.

Outside, the PPP gang is all over him, like big slurping dogs. Theyíve got the certified checks, and an armed stadium escort, including countersurveillance experts to make sure they arenít being followed, to bring them safely home. "Youíve done it! Youíve done it Jimmy!" they cry. "Yo," says Jimmy. "Donít spend it all on ajow."

__________

For a little while, Jimmy is on top of the world. Nothing like being a hero, the idol of at least a few people around you even if the rest of the world still gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night without the slightest idea that you exist. Now, to the man on the street, Jimmy is no longer just the parasite of someone elseís glory, trying to steal someone elseís achievements with a face. He has an identity of his own. He is a gladiator, a man of action, a courage-man, a virtuoso of life-and-death moments, and in the eyes of Freedom City, he has earned the right to be called a "general." Best of all, he gets to be nursed back to health by a beautiful woman.

"You shouldnít have done this without letting me know what your plans were," Hetasia chides him, cherishing him far more than criticizing him. "You told me you would stay within your limits. Jimmy Jardinowe, you lied!"

"I did stay within my limits," he insists. "Look, Iím here." She gives him a disapproving look. "If Iíd come out without a scratch, I would have missed out on the pleasure of having you change my bandages." The way she washes his wounds and wraps clean bandages around frightening proofs of his human vulnerability is almost religious; his battered body is a shrine she has come to pray at, she worships something beautiful she almost lost, bowing down to every gash and bruise in the way she touches him. He, in turn, worships her, reaching up to fondle the light of her hair as he lies in the dark bed of his wounds; he is like a broken horse let in to the pasture of an angel. This is another way of making love, which shows there is a world of truth underneath the steam of their passion.

But this tender bonding cannot be prolonged for too long. The "important things" of the world are envious. They have no patience for lovers who want to turn their backs, if only for a moment, if only to have one personal reason in the midst of all the horrifying gratuitous dilemmas that other people have filled the earth with Ė the sick flypaper that even the beautiful have become stuck on and are compelled to try to liberate themselves from. Jimmy must get back into action, because Advorzhi is not the kind of man to sit still. Soon, Jimmy has turned his victory in the Coliseum into an enormous arsenal. Traveling to the best weapons stores in Freedom City with Almost, Prankster, Chister, and Slicks at his side, as well as a new assistant, Kordaz, the unemployed former security chief of the Blue Zone Merchantsí Association, he spends several days examining and purchasing a wide variety of armaments. For his companions, it is pure shopping bliss; they are like fashion-conscious girls in a clothing store with an unlimited credit card, overjoyed by dresses, shoes, purses, belts, hats, and totally superfluous accessories that they donít have to say no to. Kordaz helps to keep them on track. "What the hell do you need a vintage German 88 mm. antitank gun for?" he exclaims. He pulls a Jivaro blow gun with curare-tipped darts out of Slicksís hands. "Put that back!"

"All right, letís start with tubes," says Jimmy.

"Buy the store out!" screams Chister.

"First thing we need to do is buy some tranquilizer for Chister," curses Kordaz.

Prankster giggles, then suddenly falls victim to his own fashion weakness: "My God, look, itís a V2 rocket from Penelmunde!"

"Come along , gadget boy!" orders Chister, eager for revenge.

They start with a basic purchase of 700 tubes. "Of course," warns Kordaz, "the tubeís great weakness is the primer interval. Weíve just bought ourselves top-of-the-line tubes, but that still means 5 seconds between shots, while theyíre re-revving, which means we could be bum-rushed and swamped by superior numbers in the meantime."

"So, we counter that by giving each fighter two tubes, first-fire and back-up, and training our men to master the art of synchronized shooting," says Jimmy.

"Train?" snorts Chister. "Train who? Us?"

"Thatís right," agrees Almost. "You might as well train snakes to high-jump."

"Back-up to the tubes is swords," says Kordaz. "In case it comes to close quarters. Some generals opt for a line of spearmen to cover their tubes, but in my opinion thatís a lot of firepower wasted, and anyway, the spearmen are too exposed and your whole formation is packed too dense trying to get behind them, so that you become a perfect target. So you give your tube-shooters swords. See? Of course, vintage machine guns would be nice, the perfect answer to mobbing, but theyíre so damned expensive that if you choose to go with them youíll end up with nothing else. Maybe four or five, and the rest of your armyís throwing punches."

"Weíll get two," says Jimmy.

Kordaz grumbles, but the rest of Jimmyís companions approve. "You carry the ammo cases," Chister tells Almost, "Iíll do the shooting. Rat-a-tat-tat!" "The bullets come out from the front," Almost growls as Chister almost shoots the salesperson on the practice range.

Next, they move on to the artillery section, and put in an order for ten mortars, plus twenty laser detonators with the standard complement of long-distance bombs. "We can wire these into about six death ray machines, and keep eight as detonators," suggests Prankster. "Another Dr. Faust, here," says Chister. "The road to Hell is paved with doohickeys." Before they are able to leave, Almost tries to convince them to get a Napoleonic cannon that fires grapeshot. "It worked wonders at Waterloo or Normandy, I donít remember which," he says. Kordaz manages to distract him by pointing out a Roman catapult. But a historical reenactor has already made a down-payment on it.

In the defense department, they grab up 500 suits of lightweight body armor, 100 smoke-screen bombs, and 80 entrenching kits, including drills to cut foxholes into streets and sidewalks. Slicks dances around with a tube-proof vest, waving his middle finger at them all. "Now, you SOBs, you want to know what I really think of you?"

"Remember," warns Kordaz, "that armor wonít protect you if the shot comes in from under fifty yards."

"I think youíre the best mates a guy could ever have!"

They also buy 500 pairs of infrared goggles, 20 critical-sound-enhancers (in helmet form), 2 communications monitoring systems ("one for each of Pranksterís arms," grumbles Chister), and 5 automated medical stations.

Everybody wants to buy lots more, especially Prankster who feels he can use parts from Mental Head Sets, available at any electronics store, to reconfigure vintage GE heat-seeking missiles to home in on Advorzhi and his bandit chiefs. "Weíll target memories which they alone could have." "Yo, get the kid out of the toy store!" Almost exclaims.

"How come he gets the grand piano, and all we get is tin whistles?" agrees Chister, adding parody to the protest.

"We still need money for logistics," declares Jimmy, cutting the trip short.

"Logistics?" demands Slicks. "What the hell do we need to study languages for? I donít give a shit if the Japanese donít use verbs or if Eskimos donít have a word for Ďmeí. Logistics, my ass!"

"Do they sell brains here?" asks Chister.

"Jimmyís right," agrees Kordaz, sidestepping the distraction. "We need to be able to feed our supporters, and we need to acquire more safe spaces to hide in until weíre able to organize an army around these weapons. Right now, we might have about 500 members and sympathizers, maximum, most of whom have the fighting instinct of a herd of zebra. Advorzhiís got at least 10,000 hardened thugs. We need time to grow into our shoes."

"Holy shit," gasps Almost. "10,000!?"

"This is where Janusí BS comes in," says Chister. "Itís time for him to get up on the soapbox and reel in some more suckers."

"Weíre in this together," Jimmy reminds them, surprised at his magnanimity . "We want to make a better world. We want to rise above all this crap."

"Thatís right," agrees Chister, carrying two tube guns, with a samurai sword slung over his shoulder. "Weíre peaceniks. Sorry, I forgot. Say, can we stop off at the bar and drink a toast to utopia?"

Meanwhile, Prankster is giggling underneath his sound-enhancing helmet. It is supposed to weed out superfluous noises and tune in to important battlefield cues, like footsteps, the sound of weapons being loaded, soldiers whispering to each other. But heís already adjusted it to pick up the sounds of people making love in a hotel above them. "Hot! Hot!" he laughs.

Jimmy just shakes his head.

__________

Boyís Day is finally over, Jimmy comes back to Hetasia with a bouquet of roses.

"Beautiful!" she exclaims. "Theyíre real."

He kisses her. Her lips and tongue answer, still filled with the memory of how close she came to losing him. Her kiss almost decapitates him.

"Theyíre only roses," he says.

"I hope you didnít have too hard a day," she says at last, finding water for the roses, because everything in the universe deserves a home. "I know how much you guys hate shopping."

"We had an awful time," agrees Chister. "Iíve never been so bored in my whole life."

Prankster nods. "I would have had a better time watching a candiru swim into my body cavities." While Almost says, "Weapons are such depressing things. Why canít we all just get along?"

Janus, for his part, finally shows his face, his look is strangeÖ On the one hand, he seems crestfallen. Jimmyís incredible victory at the Coliseum has utterly upstaged him, turned him into a mere vestige of his own organization. The PPP is now the tail that wags the dog; all the power and force of the embattled NWC, yearning for brotherhood and a day of peace, is now gathered into its military arm, and people are looking up to Jimmy as its leader. The philosopher has been eclipsed by the man of action, the founder by the late arrival, the ideas have been swept away by mere glamour, or so it seems to Janus, whose high principles are being left behind by peopleís fascination with success. People want results, not enlightenment. They still want to be tall according to the obsolete measures of yesterday. On a more personal level, Janus has been struggling ever since Karmela was taken from him. The beautiful woman who elevated him in the eyes of others was only playing with him; she is now no longer proof of his virility, which is indispensable to a man of ideas (who is always, otherwise, doubted), but merely proof of his gullibility. More than that, she is gone: she and her incredible ability to mesmerize the world and to cover over his every weakness with her beautiful smile. In loneliness, Janus sees Hetasia, life-filled and dedicated at Jimmyís side; a beautiful human being who persists, which makes him think of his goddess, who died. Janus is haunted by his loss, and by the things he lacks inside himself. He doesnít want to combine his soulís with Jimmyís to be the complete man, he wants to be able to be everything by himself: the thinker, the hero, the idealist, the realist, the pure man who gets things done in a world of thugs. At the same time as this long depressed shadow covers his face, there is a strange nervous excitement flashing in his eyes; something is going on, there seem to be little duendes running around inside his defeat: mischievous spirits playing with the darkness.

"You know," he says, half-heartedly but compulsively, knowing that what he is about to say is expected and will be dismissed, "your success is more likely to destroy us than to save us. It will destroy us from within, by corrupting our ideals, and turning us into exactly what it is we wish to overcome. Besides that, it risks provoking an all-out response from Advorzhi before we are prepared to meet it. For now, this arsenal, which is so huge that we cannot possibly absorb it or use it to defend ourselves, can do nothing more than trigger his insecurity, and unleash his wrath against us. It is a magnet, and it will attract an apocalypse."

As he knew would happen, PPP members jump all over him. Chister says, "Time to learn a new tune, ĎMary had a little lambí is getting old." While Almost shouts, "They blew a hole in your f**king sweetie, and youíre still on that crap? Whereís your balls, you god-damned bastard? You should want revenge! And now we wonít ever get to salivate over her again!" And Almost nearly starts to cry. Meanwhile, Slicks joins in, slashing the air around Janus with a samurai sword, screaming, "Who are you talking to? Do you see ears? Do swords have ears?" Jimmy quickly pulls Slicks back, and puts an end to his wild slashes. "Missing people takes skill," he says. Then he turns to Janus: "Janus, this is old ground. Advorzhi has attacked us several times already. His intent is clear. Weíre going to have to defend ourselves, and the only way we can do it is with weapons. Heís not going to understand anything else. Darwin doesnít have to be everything, but you canít throw him overboard, either Ė not in a world like this."

"You donít have to respond to teeth with teeth, and to claws with claws," counters Janus. "You can respond with hooves, and with wings; you can use your mind to make a fire in the night, to keep the beasts at bay. Darwin gives us a thousand ways to fight. Youíve chosen the path that fits your wounded psyche, that lets you use your anger."

"Are you still fighting for Hetasia?" Jimmy asks, observing Janus looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. "Trying to woo her with your idealism? To walk on water back to her heart?"

"Jimmy!" Hetasia protests, who hasnít noticed Janusí glance, and perceives Jimmyís reply as utterly unwarranted.

"Primitive buck in mating season," Janus tells an NWC associate. "Lower the antlers, break the world in two!"

Slicks reaches for his tube, but Jimmy restrains him.

"No, I wonít let you carry NWC down into the mire with your anger," insists Janus, rebelling more each minute against his displacement. "I wonít let you kidnap its beautiful ideas for your personal use, or harness it for your rage. This is a movement meant to save the world, not to satisfy your need to get back at somebody who hurt you somewhere along the way."

"And what about you?" spits Chister. "Daddy must have had no hands to spank you with and Mamma must have had sugar coming out of her breasts."

"And first toy he got, before rattles or a teddy bear, was rose-colored glasses," agrees Almost.

"Say what you want, you donít own NWC, Jimmy. What youíve got in the PPP is a band of thugs and a shitload of weapons."

"At least he can say Ďshitloadí," notes Almost approvingly.

"And thatís it! For that reason Iím supposed to accede to your bellicose mystique and let the NWC become a mere vehicle for thugs? The golden carriage is to be pulled by diseased horses?"

"What are you talking about?" demands Jimmy. "No oneís lowering you down on the totem pole! Itís all in your own mind! Youíre lowering yourself down, because youíve never fired a gun and even though you try to tell yourself youíre a great idealist because you havenít, deep inside you feel like youíre a coward. How are you going to convince the world to accept a new concept of man if you canít even accept it yourself?"

"Youíre wrecking NWC from the inside, Jimmy!" Janus warns. "Youíre a slave to your testosterone!"

"You need an injection of some!" snarls Almost.

"Janus, your damned ego is wrecking the NWC!" Jimmy retorts. "Itís all grand and beautiful, but it has to be you. You have to be the one to come down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in your hands. Weíve all come together to make a new world, but it has to be in your handwriting. I wonder Ė is this about the world to be, or is it all a giant gate leading to you?"

"Damn it!" shouts Hetasia, who has been waiting for the perfect moment to intervene, but finding that there is none, just jumps in now. "Are all you saviors nothing more than a bunch of dogs pissing on a lamppost?"

"Either that or a fire-hydrant," agrees Almost.

Jimmy is stunned and hurt, Janus only smiles cryptically. "Hetasia," he says, "I am fighting to defend the borders of a great dream, which is being invaded by convenience. The means must never succumb to the goal. I have my own way of standing alone on the sands of the arena." Meaningfully, he walks away, followed by some of his close supporters.

"Hetasia," Jimmy protests, "itís not about territory. Not on my part. The guyís whacked, thatís all. If itís not a star in the sky, he doesnít understand it. Heís leading NWC like a bunch of lemmings into the sea of his pacifism. Heís jealousÖ"

"So are you," Hetasia says. "Youíre both jealous of each other. And the world is paying the price."

"Jealous of him? Why? I can be everything he is, in addition to everything I am. Heíll never be more than what he is. I can work with ideas, he canít fire a gun."

"Youíre both proud," she says.

"Honey," he says, reaching for her, trying to apologize for something in him that she doesnít like.

But she just walks away.

For him, it is like she was ripping off the bandages she so lovingly wrapped around after his return from the Coliseum.

He wants to be wounded again, or maybe, this time, to die.

__________

A few days pass. Jimmy retreats from Hetasiaís rebuke, which is the product of her idealism, by attempting to build up the PPPís defensive capabilities. It keeps his suffering away, and delays the need to make up. Agents are sent out to look for promising spaces to rent, and to acquire stockpiles of foodstuffs, which they will later transfer to those spaces. Kordaz and Jimmy spend hours poring over maps, and devising formations and tactics for the new infantry corps they are planning to construct. The rabble they have to work with will require discipline, and Dommy is appointed to be the Baron von Steuben of the outfit, beginning with the simplest drills, which 50 uncertain recruits are subjected to. The appointment comes just in time, because when her predecessor told the men "Attention!", they told him, "Screw you, why the hell should we stand around like a bunch of robots?" and he told them, "Fine, do what you want, please just donít hurt me!" But Dommy with her electric whip wonít put up with any lip. That, plus her kinky outfits and unique system of rewards, keeps the men in line. Within three days, they are all marching, saluting, and even beginning to learn the basics of synchronized shooting.

But Fate has a way of picking up the pace, and not giving time for preparations. It is as if it wanted the human race to think on its feet, and had no sympathy for people who were careful and deliberate.

One of Kordazís agents comes running up to them, saying, "The bandits are concentrating. All through the Blue Zone, the Red Zone and the Violet Zone. Weapons, porters, hundreds upon hundreds of them, this looks like the real thing."

Jimmy is filled with apprehension for a moment, they are so not ready!, before his discipline rushes in. "They donít know where we are," Jimmy reminds them all. "We still havenít opened up the new spaces we bought, but this base is good. Isnít it?"

"If itís not, weíre goners," says Kordaz.

"None of the scouts have come back here, have they?" demands Jimmy. "Theyíre all operating from outside rooms?"

"Thatís correct," says Kordaz.

"Whatís wrong?" demands Janus, attracted by the agitation that is surging through the PPP, people grabbing weapons, sending messages, running back and forth. "Youíre buzzing like a bunch of bees at a bearís paw in the honeycombs. Is someone trying to get into the hive?"

"Advorzhiís on the move," Jimmy tells him. "Thereís a massive bandit concentration going on nearby, and we might be the intended target."

"Impossible," Janus tells them.

Jimmy looks up at him.

"I can assure you," Janus replies, "that nothing of the sort is taking place."

Kordaz looks up from a map which is being used to mark the bandit positions, it is beginning to look like the jaws of a great monster closing shut, with NWC headquarters about to be swallowed.

"Explain yourself," demands Kordaz.

"I knew there was another way besides violence," he says triumphantly.

Menacingly, PPP members begin to gather around him, but he is unphased, beaming, optimistic.

Hetasia appears from another room, aroused by the commotion. She has been reading a book of poetry, poems of love and loss that fit her mood and remind her of how much she loves Jimmy. "Donít put off love for another day," says one of the pages, "the world wonít wait to see if you get it right. The world doesnít care if youíre alone. Donít put off love for another day, sunshine goes home at night. Snow covers hearts that have become stone." She, in fact, was on the verge of coming out to tell Jimmy that she loves him, and that if she was angry with him it was only because he is just one step away from being perfect in her mind, and she wants him to take that one extra step. But now, itís the chaos thatís brought her, and become lifeís single color.

The first thing she hears is Janus saying: "We were about to repeat history. To start off those endless cycles of war, those endless illusions of good fighting against evil that contorted our world from its inception, and nearly destroyed it. About to accept violence as a legitimate tool of justice, the trickster of time who deceives good men into becoming beasts."

Almost, eyes blazing, is about to unshoulder his tube and blast a hole in Janusí heart. Someoneís hand, able to see clear futures, stops him.

"PPP is a threat to Advorzhi," explains Janus, "it activates his survival instinct, it provokes war. PPP is the long way to peace."

"Get to the point," says Kordaz, skimming a new series of urgent text messages that have just come in.

"The shortcut to peace is Advorzhi, himself."

Stunned, they look at him. Some machine, flooding the room with documents, churns out neglected pages which pile up like a train wreck.

"Raise an army, and Advorzhi is compelled to attack," says Janus. "Therefore, accept Advorzhiís power! Do not challenge his supremacy with your self-defense, which he interprets as aggression. Reach out to Advorzhi, ensnare him with an ideology which can consecrate his power by granting it an aura of legitimacy; heíll see the fusion of philosophy and force as another weapon in his arsenal, but it really will be his undoing. It will lead to an inner shift that he wonít detect and will not be able to resist. While he defends the fierce shell of his power, what is inside of his ring of outward-looking guns will evolve beyond his control. As ideology slowly becomes an indispensable part of his defense, it will begin to constrain him, first with hypocritical concessions to maintain its vitality, and finally with genuine influence. Slowly, without ever intending it to be, the bandit chieftain will be transformed into the guardian of a new vision which has become more powerful than he is. He will become the vassal of ideas which he used to trample on. I call it the ĎConstantine Principle.í"

There is not a sound in the room. Finally, Jimmy says: "You want to bring Christianity to the Roman Emperors. To convert the man who sits upon the throne. To win history from the top."

"I want to short-circuit centuries of warfare, Jimmy. Why them versus us? Theyíre already there. Why do we need to construct an us? Use what weíve got, which is philosophy. Infiltrate them with an idea. They will drag us behind them for a few years, then they will be ours, because ideas are stronger than guns."

Kordaz cuts the philosophy short with his business-like mind. Sometimes, impatience can accomplish wonderful things. "Have you been in contact with Advorzhi?" he asks.

"Of course," replies Janus. "That is how I know he is not planning to attack us. I told him that right now he is merely a bandit, bound to the laws of animals, and that one day he will finally wear out and then a younger, stronger animal will come along to take his place. If he embraces our program, however, he will gain a new, enduring source of power, one that is not based upon brute strength but upon the human capacity to dream. He expressed interestÖ"

"Did you tell him where we live?" asks Kordaz, eyes narrowing, while the others gasp in disbelief.

"No, of course not!" protests Janus. "Do you think Iím an idiot? I know itís a process that will take time. Weíre exchanging text messages, via relays. Itís a work in progress."

"Let me see your messager," demands Prankster, with the alarming aggressiveness that socially uncouth nerds are capable of. The messager is in his hands, and he is pushing buttons at an incredible velocity with a look of fear on his face, as though he is about to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. A minute passes, which seems like an hour. Then Prankster looks up at them, with a horrified triumphant look in his eyes. His awful hunch has been proved right! "Itís WiVi 86," he says grimly.

"Yo!" growls Almost, "just spit it out in English, kid!"

"Itís a virus. Youíve received a virus, Janus. Itís burrowed into your GPS system, and has sent our coordinates to the bandits, through the mobile relay phones. Youíve given away the position of our base to Advorzhi."

"Must be his peace delegation on the way," sneers Almost.

Slicks draws his sword again, but an NWC person restrains him from behind. Jimmy, overcome with overpowering rage at Janusí dreadful blunder, which may well cost all of them their lives, but most especially Hetasiaís, aims his tube at the philosopherís heart. "Traitor!" he shouts. But before he can fire, Hetasia leaps in the way, screaming, "No! No, Jimmy, no!"

"Pocahontas to the rescue!" snorts Chister, disappointed.

"So you do love him!" Jimmy cries out in rage.

"No! Iím doing this because I love you!" she shouts.

And Jimmy, understanding exactly what she means, suddenly stops, stunned; he looks at the tube in his hands, then crumples to his knees, crying. "No. No, not me!"

"See what I mean?" gasps Janus, breathing heavily, sweat pouring down his face. "See what it does to us? We canít fight fire with fire! Weíll only become like them!"

"Shut the f**k up!" the entire PPP team responds in chorus.

"Heís not a traitor," Hetasia insists, crouched down now beside Jimmy, as the rest of them return to their military activities. "He meant well. He didnít share his idea with us, because you and he have never stopped being competitors. He was going to outdo you, to show you. To show all of us. To come back with the biggest Christmas present of all times. Peace. He was going to surprise us, to put it under our tree at night. He blew it."

"You saved me," says Jimmy. "Even if I die later tonight, Hetasia, you saved me."

"Everyone has it in them," she says. "The darkness. Itís not a shame to have it, itís a shame to use it. I know you were going for him because of me," she adds. "Because Iím in danger, now. And because in your mind, heís always lurking on the edge of our love. Donít ever give up your soul for me," she implores. "Your soul is the reason Iím here. D**ks come a dime a dozen. Not that yours isnít nice," she assures him. "Now, god damn it, letís stop acting like teenagers!" They hug, a hug of power, trying to squeeze as much of forever into each other as one minute will allow. And then itís time to fight.

A huge salvo of tube-thumps erupts just outside, defenders and attackers are mingled together in a tangle of mutual destruction. Then there are flashes of light, and doors are blowing open. "Quick, to the escape hatches!" shouts Kordaz. There are hatches, and underground passageways leading out, but the assault is so rapid that it looks like they are going to be overrun. Everybody is shooting and shouting, running here and there without coordination. Pure, disjointed instinct is the only defense. Thatís when Bad Boy comes staggering down a flight of stairs in his underwear to see what all the commotion is about. He hasnít been well for the past 24 hours, itís food poisoning, some awful leftover sushi that he ate one night, after being beaten. His body is covered with gigantic red rashes and hives, though his face is as pale as a ghost; there is shit running down his leg, and as soon as he sees Advorzhiís bandits pushing forward into the factory, he vomits all over the floor. The bandits stop in their tracks, horrified. They have been told that the "biohazard" warnings which Chister plastered all over the building were just a ruse to keep people away, and that this is really an abandoned warehouse which the NWC has converted into its headquarters. But now, seeing Bad Boy staggering towards them, they have second thoughts. Maybe this is some kind of biological deathtrap, after all! "Quick, letís get out of here!" they scream.

"What the hellís going on?" Advorzhi demands as he sees his men come fleeing out of the factory, looks of utter terror on their faces.

"The plague! The plague!" they shout. "Dudes are f**ked up inside, looks like they got ebola or leprosy!"

By the time Advorzhi can send in a trained reconnaissance team to assess the situation, the NWC/PPP has slipped away, and is using underground passages to escape the trap. But they have had to leave behind a lot of weapons, and Advorzhiís scouts pick up their trail, as soon as they pop out of street hatches to flee towards the Green Zone.

__________

"Weíve got to disperse!" says Kordaz, as Dommy caresses Bad Boy and tells him, "If we ever get out of this alive, theyíre going to write how the world was saved by a piece of rotten sushi."

"No, we ought to stay together," implores Janus.

"For what?" curses Chister, ready to oppose anything that Janus says. If Janus tells him not to hang himself from a tree, he will.

"Weíre a family," he says. "Well, trying to be one," he admits.

"We canít hold them off, weíre vastly outnumbered, and weíre too easy to track when weíre together," Kordaz insists. "Weíve got to split up."

"Theyíll just pick us off one by one," predicts Janus. "Weíll never recover from our dispersion."

"We split up tonight after setting rendezvous points," explains Kordaz. "We regroup later."

"One pair of nuts in a vice, and screw the rendezvous points!" curses Almost. "Advorzhi will be there waiting for us!"

"Look," says Dommy, "I didnít train these boys for nothing. Letís stand and make a fight of it, right here."

Hetasia looks to Jimmy for advice, heís the one she trusts. "No issue," he says. He points. A new wave of Advorzhiís shock troops is surging forward. "Dommy," he says, "get your guys over there fast. This is a crappy position, it wonít last for long. Give Advorzhi a taste of hell, then follow the rest of us. Kordaz and I will set up an ambush point down the road to cover your retreat. Weíve got to head for Carnival Ridge. If we can get there before they do, weíll have options for either fighting or running." Kordaz, looking at a map, nods. He agrees with Jimmyís call.

As Advorzhiís lead troops rush into view, Dommy orders her men down, then gives the command to fire. "Fire one! Second line! Third line! Fire two! Second line! Third line! Fire one! Second line! Third line!" On it goes for a moment. Still Advorzhiís men are coming on, staggering through the wall of tube volleys. "Vintage boys, now!" Dommy screams. A heavy machine gun opens fire, an old war creeps out of the closet, surprised that there are still men to reap after so many centuries. "Third line, draw swords, prepare to take the front!" she commands, stunned by the enemyís persistence. But suddenly, the charge has ended. The street is filled with bodies. Random tube shots soar over their position, from a few wise soldiers who held back. Dommy sees columns headed towards other streets to bypass and surround them, so she orders the retreat. Theyíve done their job. She doesnít let her boys see that she is shaking, she just takes out a cigarette and struggles to light it as she runs.

About a mile away, a new company of bandits following on her heels and beginning to pick up their rate of fire, is suddenly caught in a deadly crossfire coming from a hotel and a construction site. It is the ambush Jimmy and Kordaz have set up to protect the retreating rearguard. The bandits take heavy casualties. After a few moments, the NWC/PPP fighters slip away, while the bandits lose precious time dropping mortar shells into the abandoned construction site, and sending commandos to secure the hotel.

Meanwhile, Janus is amazed as they continue the retreat towards Carnival Ridge. He is amazed by the way over one half of his supporters have already melted away into the night. "Theyíve deserted me!" he exclaims. "In my hour of need! They said they would stand by me, through thick and thin, endure any trial, to create a better world. They said they believed in our dream. And now, when the moment of truth has arrived, when the furnace has finally reached the fierce temperature in which all tomorrows are made, they have run! Fled from the conviction that makes fantasies come to life. Is this nothing more than a fairy tale? Does the world truly belong to darkness?" He is also amazed by the attitude of the people they pass in their flight, who show no interest in their plight, or solidarity with their cause. Seeing the flash of Advorzhiís death rays in the distance, and the explosion of flares above, and the eerie beauty of the tracer rounds slashing the dark face of the night, they are gathering around with wonder and delight, exclaiming to one another, "Look! How pretty!" "Is it the Fourth of July, or Bastille Day? Is it Rupert Jardinoweís Birthday?" "No, itís just some f**king battle!" "Cool, letís not go to the movie, this is going to be a lot better!"

"Weíre trying to save your world!" pleads Janus, tears rolling down his cheeks, grabbing at the sleeves of strangers.

"Yo, get away from me!" "What the f**k, heís drunk!"

"Weíre doing this for you! Please, help us to help you!" weeps Janus.

They laugh at him. "Wow, man, are you wasted or what? Yo, I got 200 bucks on the bandits Ė any takers?"

"Hetasia!" weeps Janus, looking at her bewildered. "They donít care! They donít care! What are we sacrificing our lives for? We, who can dream and love? Why are we throwing our lives away for people like this?"

"Donít blame them, Janus," she says. "This is the world they know. The people who come from your world will be different. But your world is still far away. Youíll have to walk over hot coals to get there. Janus, are you through? Do you want to give up?" Her voice is earnest, without judgment.

He is horrified by how sweet the offer sounds.

"Yahoo!" someone is yelling. "Look at all the fireworks! Do you think theyíll have the sparkly ones, the ones that are like big growing balls that you think are going to fill up the whole sky?"

"I am dying for people who are less than I am," he says with profound sorrow in his voice.

"For people," Hetasia says, "who are hurt. People like Karmela."

"She was beautiful," he whispers.

"Advorzhi killed her," she replies.

"Revenge is low. I wonít stoop to it."

"Compassion is high. Will you climb to it?"

Just at that moment, Jimmy, Kardoz, Dommy, and the PPP catch up, and Janus looks with wonder at the loyal band of thugs still gathered around Jimmy. Though theyíve borne the brunt of the fighting, there is still no quit in their eyes. "Why?" Janus asks Hetasia. "Why havenít they run yet? Theyíre a bunch of hoods. They have no ideas, no principles, no reason to change this hellhole, which theyíre so well adapted to. Why are they still fighting? Is it for him? For Jimmy? Some sort of primal bonding, the ancient call of the wolf pack? Is this something Jack London would understand?"

"They love him," Hetasia says simply. "Heís not telling them what to do, or who to be, heís just embodying it. And look at them, theyíre learning. Oh, they still talk the same, if you judge their progress by the way they speak, youíll think they havenít grown an inch. But thereís something silent and real between them. They donít say it because they donít want to jinx it, and they wonít admit it, because that would be like kneeling down to you, but itís headed your way, Janus. They donít want to live in paradise, without a "god damn!" and a "f**k!", but if you leave them with a few pet vices, theyíll die for you."

Janus doesnít really understand, but he sees Chister giving a drink of water to Slicks, who is gasping for breath. "Yo, you bastard, donít put your lips on it, just open wide; I donít know where that god-damned mouth of yours has been!"

Janus looks at Hetasia. She watches him, without giving him a cue.

Janus picks up a tube, and looks at it. Socrates chose hemlock before exile. Jesus chose crucifixion instead of revolution. In the distance, Janus hears tube-fire, and the sound of bandit voices. He looks again at Jimmyís thugs. "The wheel of history spins with overwhelming centripetal force," he says, at last. "It spins without mercy, binding us to the eternally recurring drama. Paradise, youíve got one hell of a karma!" He slings the tube over his shoulder, and joins the fighters.

__________

There are a few more skirmishes on the way to Carnival Ridge. For a time, it is clear that the bandits are delaying, as Prankster hacks into PA systems behind Advorzhiís advance, broadcasting sounds of screaming men and exploding tubes to make the bandit chief think he is being attacked from behind. In the interim, as they retreat, Hetasia and Jimmy pass by a ULLR Center. "Letís go in," says Jimmy. "Just for one minute." No one objects, this night could be their last, and it is a good time to do whatever needs to be done before the end.

"Welcome," says a newly-trained host, too friendly to be credible. "Are you here for a manicure, hairstyling, cocktails, or an Unlived Life Review? Weíve also just recently opened up a library, and a massage center."

"Weíre kind of in a rush," Jimmy tells him. "Take us straight to the ULLR."

The kid blabbers on as they pass through a dimly lit hall till he finally comes on a vacant room, indicated by a green light. "Payment is in advance," he says. Jimmy gives him a charge card. "Two times one thousand," the kids says, to make sure there will be no misunderstanding. Jimmy nods. Itís a little luxury, but theyíve earned it; and there may not be another night to spend it.

The kid leads them into a dimly-lit space with reclining chairs and headsets. He hooks them up, and starts to give them the mandatory speech. "Long ago, in Near-Death experiences, it was noted that at the end of peopleís lives, there was a tendency for the mind to play back the most significant memories of the soon-to-be-deceasedís life. In a matter of seconds, or minutes at the most, the dying personís life would unfold before him in an emotionally powerful flashback, or life review. About five centuries ago, a technique for inducing this process in healthy individuals was developed; two centuries later, a technique for extending this life review into the unlived future was developed by spiritual psychologists, as a way of compensating those who were about to die without realizing their dreams; as a way of overcoming the unbearable pain of dying young, of being cut like a flower from the branch of life before blooming. Equally well, the technique could be used to look back at unlived alternatives as a way of soothing the old and the unfulfilled, lost on the wrong road, who never lived the life that was meant for them. Of course, there are many possible alternative lives for each of us, branching off from the many different choices that could have made a difference in our lives and set us moving in another direction. The ULLR will take you along just one of those branches, to either an unlived future, or an unlived alternative past that you passed by. We, at ULLR Center 4, are 100% committed to your satisfaction, but at the same time must advise you that the results and consequences of this experience are wholly the responsibility of the participant, and that we at ULLR Center 4Ö"

Jimmy motions for him to stop. "Thanks. Youíve been very helpful, but weíre running on a tight schedule. Can you please just start us up?"

The kid nods, because, after all, "the customer comes first." He checks their connections one last time, then heads over to a control panel, pushes a series of buttons, and pulls down on a prominent red lever. Then he leaves with exaggerated quietness, like a garbage truck pretending to be a mouse. He closes the door behind him.

Jimmyís eyes are closed, he is aware of his breathing. The darkness in his mind seems to fold into itself, becoming darker still, black is becoming blacker, deep black, pure black, astonishing black, he didnít know that this shade of black existed. And suddenly, images begin to appear to him, vivid, moving by themselves, free of will or effort; it is like a puppet show, like little manikins were moving around in his mind, except that they look absolutely real, and suddenly he is no longer watching a movie on a canvas of black, but he is there, inside the puppet that is him, and it is just as if it were happening.

Hetasia is dressed in a long, flowing, magnificent wedding dress, she is coming down the aisle of a spectacular church-like space, but the stained glass windows have pictures of the great lovers of history and myth, both carnal and platonic: there are Orpheus and Eurydice, Ulysses and Penelope, Eloise and Abelard, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano and Roxanne, Yeats and Gonne, Frida and Diego, Tristan and Isolde, Shahriar and Scheherazade, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, Erroll Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. The pews of the love church are filled with people. Many of them are strangers, but some of them are people that Jimmy knows. The PPP is there, fidgeting but doing their best to behave themselves. Jimmyís sensei from the dojo is also there, and a delegation from the outside. Jimmy is standing at the end of the aisle in a dark blue kimono with a ceremonial sword hanging at his side, he is waiting for Hetasia to reach him. Beside him are standing the Justice-of-the-Peace and Jimmyís best man, who is the Soul Connector who is channeling Jimmyís old dolphin buddy, Fins. The PPP just loves the way that Soul Connector has been squeaking and whistling throughout the ceremony. "Throw him a fish!" suggests Chister, before Dommy can silence him. Eyes downcast, hidden underneath a veil, Hetasia approaches, to a beautiful melody played by wooden flutes. Her body, supple and unashamed, is held in reverence, in a ritual pose of humility, for this is a sacred moment. Beside her, to give her away, dressed in a long lab-coat, is one of the scientists from the Test-Tube Baby program. After all, Hetasia never had a father. The fact that he is by her side reinforces the importance of love; for her this moment will mean twice as much as for anyone else.

"Jimmy Jardinowe and Hetasia CW-Series," says the Justice-of-the-Peace. "Today we gather for the purpose of holy matrimony, to unite two loving souls in an undying bond of solidarity and love. " He is silent for a moment, to let that idea sink in. Then he goes on. "Today, marriage comes after sex. No one wants to tie the knot without meeting their prospective life partner. And itís just as important to meet them in bed as anywhere else. You have to know if itís going to be good. We all know that. We live in a grown-up world, now." Again, he waits for his words to take effect. "However, for some people the end of sexual taboos has also led to the end of romantic love. Mere sensation has replaced friendship; pure pleasure has replaced dedication. ĎA moist, slippery feeling of pleasure between the legsí, to quote the ancient Cyrenians, has taken over the whole world of male-female relationships. Now we have become nothing more than burglars of sensations, while great hearts languish in the desert of our lust. Once our genitalia were persecuted by our minds," he says. "Now they eclipse our minds." Soul Connector must leave for a moment to immerse himself in a fountain; then somebody helps him to climb out, and the Justice-of-the-Peace is free to continue. "For several centuries, marriage floundered, relegated to the graveyard of historical absurdities, along with stoning, anti-prostitution laws and cannibalism. But then, in the vacuum of our liberation, it began to beckon us once more, with our insatiable human longing to be not only desired, but loved. We began to understand that our orgasms wanted a morning after. That we wanted the world to last longer than a single night." On cue, a chorus of young women garbed in white lines up to sing: "Will you still love me tomorrow?" Soon, several members of the audience are wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs. Chister is merely watching, stunned. "Today, many of us are returning to the ancient concept of marriage," the Justice continues, as the chorus files away to applause. "We find it to be sensual, intimate, the ultimate tantra which insures that the love-making never ends, because now we can make love with every part of us: not only with our gentials, which are bound to our physical limits, but also with our minds, our hearts, our souls, the full extent of our visible and invisible bodies. Now we can f**k each other hard in bed, and afterwards f**k each other slow, for hours, with minds that lie side by side, exchanging ideas, and sharing thoughts."

"Did the Justice-of-the-Peace just say Ďf**kí?" gasps Chister.

"From being an act of bondage, marriage has now become an act of recovery, of reconstructing the whole human being in the healing environment of a genuine relationship. By learning once more to go beyond coveting to cherishing, we are reclaiming a beautiful, lost part of ourselves. We are becoming whole again, which is the first step to making our world whole. Jimmy. Hetasia," the Justice says.

They approach.

"Do you persist with the intent that brought you here?"

"We do," they reply, still only looking at each other out of the corners of their eyes, because that is the ancient protocol, the most powerful form of flirtation ever devised which rescues them from their familiarity to make this new. Her body which he has held in his arms is again elusive, his love which has been poured all over her is uncertain.

"Jimmy Jardinowe," says the Justice. "Do you promise to take this woman as your own, to love her and cherish her, to respect her through good times and bad, to struggle to grow with her; to seek to understand her before blaming her; to never forget that she is a conscious and sensitive human being in her own right and not a mere appendage of your needs; to try to make things work? Do you promise not to run at the first disappointment, not to flee at the first sign of discord, not to hold her to impossible standards or to measure her by unrealistic expectations which can only be the prelude to abandonment? Do you promise to do the work on yourself which is the only thing that can sustain love? To seek solutions, not excuses? To give time, energy, and effort to this love? To do your best for her in this world?"

"I do."

"Hetasia CW-Series."

"Yes sir?"

"What I have just asked Jimmy to do for youÖ Do you agree to do it for him?"

"Yes, your Honor, I do."

"Do both of you agree to never allow the other to efface himself or herself for your sake? To never allow him or her to abandon a precious dream, or to sacrifice something that is at the center of who he or she is, just because it will make your life easier, or leave more time for you?"

"We do," they say, with a full understanding of the meaning of their assent.

"Do both of you agree to honor the power and legacy of love, by embodying it in yourselves; to carry the torch of the great lovers for your generation; to give the spirit of love a home, in your bodies, to protect it from the cold and the dark, and to care for it while it is in your trust; to preserve the most precious of human assets while you are alive?"

"We do," they say, with an earnestness that is almost painful to hear.

"Jimmy," the Justice says. "Place your ring upon the finger of Hetasia." He does. It is slender and gold, simple and sincere, not cheap but not exorbitant. He will not degrade this moment with ostentation, by turning Hetasiaís finger into a display of his prowess.

"Hetasia," the Justice says. She has begun to tremble, unable to stop herself. It is as though she had hypothermia, like they had just pulled her out of the icy waters of the North Atlantic after a shipwreck, except that she is boiling hot. "Place your ring upon Jimmyís finger." With her shaking hand, it takes a moment to accomplish, but finally it is on.

"Jimmy Jardinowe, you may lift the veil from the bride and kiss her. I now pronounce you man and wife!"

As the pews erupt into wild cheers, Jimmy raises the white veil from Hetasiaís face. She is crying profusely, with a look of utter helplessness in her eyes, trembling. It is the powerful souls that surrender most completely to lifeís glory. Jimmyís eyes fill with tears to see that someone loves him this much. Their lips meet, their mouths commune. They eat the souls from each otherís tongue. This kiss is the mystery of Eleusis, it is the fallen wheat returning as a new crop in the barren field, it is the closeness of gods, and the immortality of everything beautiful, taken out of deathís hand.

There are people getting up to congratulate them, and there is a giant cake that Jimmy is about to cut, but suddenly, he feels faint, everything goes black, jet black, jet black, he is falling into something, falling forward, then he is only leaning back into something soft, and the blackness is beginning to fade. He feels someone touching him, tugging at something that is attached to them. With great effort, his eyes struggle to open. He sees Hetasia sitting in a chair across from him looking like she has just awakened from a century of sleeping, and the kid from the ULLR is saying something that no one is paying attention to. Slowly, Jimmy struggles to his feet. He extends his hand to Hetasia, who laboriously rises with his help.

Her eyes are sweet and soft with love. "Jimmy," she says. "We got married."

It will probably never happen, they will probably die tonight.

Jimmy embraces her, and they kiss a kiss, deep with visions of a place they will never reach.

"At least Iím glad we saw it," she says, as they return to the real world which is hunting them.

Outside, only ten minutes have passed. The ULLRs themselves never last more than a couple of minutes.

Only Almost is waiting for them as they come out. "The rest of them are on the way to the ridge," he says. "The bandits are starting to move again. Are you ready?"

Jimmy nods. Almost observes the way Hetasiaís hand is holding Jimmyís. He smiles. He doesnít have an ounce of jealousy for something he never had. Somehow, itís just nice to know that somebody has it.

__________

The men cheer as Jimmy, Almost, and Hetasia appear at Carnival Ridge. Kordaz at once rushes out to see Jimmy, along with Prankster, who has unilaterally appointed himself as the PPPís Minister of Technology. Someone else is also following them out of the shadows.

Kordaz unrolls a map in front of Jimmyís face, while Prankster shines a light on it. "Weíve dug in, from the Haunted House to the Ferris Wheel. Iím a little bit worried about Circus Point, and thereís a gap between the Arcade Center and the roller coaster ride."

"You need Hill 2 also," Jimmy says. Itís a little hill to the northwest, by the zoo.

Kordaz looks at him. "We donít have enough men to hold this position. How are we going to expand the perimeter?"

"You need Hill 2 to flank the approach to the ridge. You remember Crecy?"

"What, one of those ancient battles?"

"Medieval," says the stranger who is coming up behind them. Itís the knight who Jimmy defeated in the Coliseum, devoid of armor, but accompanied by his faithful sword. He shows them the card Jimmy left beside his unconscious body, inviting him to join the NWC. "Sir Robert, at your service." Two firm handshakes are exchanged, while Kordaz taps his foot impatiently. After shaking Almostís hand, Kordazís hand (against his will), and bowing his head to ceremoniously kiss Hetasiaís hand, he informs Kordaz: "Crecy was a bad day for knights, indeed, but a great accomplishment in the annals of military strategy. Extended positions of English longbowmen raked formations of French knights from the flanks as they charged in against lesser bodies of English knights, wreaking havoc upon them. You might say that firepower overcame gallantry, to the political benefit of England, and the future benefit of the popular classes."

"Thank you very much, but I donít have time for history lessons," Kordaz growls. "History is being made here, right now, and itís not looking like a pretty ending."

"Hill 2 will help protect Carnival Ridge by blanketing the approach with crossfire. Besides that, it makes it possible to cover a retreat from Carnival Ridge if necessary, towards Orange Zone."

Kordaz agrees. Behind them is the huge Minefield where Almost lost his leg. If the bandits drive them from Carnival Ridge, theyíll be pinned against the Minefield, doomed, with no possible retreat. But with Hill 2, they could angle a retreat past the northern edge of the Minefield and possibly break out to clear space. "Thatís retreat option 1," says Jimmy. "Retreat option 2 is to simply disperse into the amusement venues of the carnival area. Weíll cease to exist as an army and weíll have to try to regroup later."

"Good, good," agrees Kordaz, "but that still doesnít solve the problem of how I can hold onto Carnival Ridge and Hill 2." And, eyes narrowing, he asks Jimmy, "You havenít heard about the pistols yet?"

Jimmy is stunned. While Almost gasps, "No, not those suckers!"

"Thatís right, pistols," says Kordaz. Pistols are a rarity in Freedom City, even in the vintage weapons shops, because of the draconian handguns ban that was imposed many centuries ago, after years of ineffective efforts at gun control. Then, when law enforcement and military forces switched to other weapons and methods, their handguns were systematically destroyed. But, sure enough, some pistols are still floating around Ė old-school gunpowder things, some of them using rotating chambers to hold the bullets, and others using clips. While PPP is using swords to back up its tubes at close range, a bandit unit with pistol back-up could overwhelm the PPP in hand-to-hand fighting, if they succeeded in making it past the tube fire.

"Like, how many pistols are we talking about?" asks Jimmy.

"Donít know," replies Kordaz. "Some revelers, who were mistaken for us, got shot a while ago, seems like Advorzhi might have one or two companies armed with tubes and pistol CQ (close quarters support). So you see, spreading ourselves thin isnít exactly a good idea. We could be overrun."

"We need Hill 2," Jimmy repeats, tenaciously.

Kordaz is frustrated.

"Thin out the line at Circus Point, and expand the gap between the Arcade and Roller Coaster," says Jimmy. " Leave nothing more than skirmishers. Let them fire one or two volleys, then clear out. Weíll use the manpower we pull out of those positions to hold Hill 2."

Kordaz is looking at him, waiting. He is disposed to tear into this idea, but has learned to respect Jimmy in the little while he has had to get to know him. "If the bandits break through at Circus Point, all the better," continues Jimmy. "We let them through, then hit them from behind and pin them against the Minefield. Our right flank comes over in support, to help close the trap. If the bandits try to outflank us on the right, it wonít matter, they wonít be able to utilize their advantage because of the Minefield. After this stage of the battle, we assess our situation to decide if we stay, or try to break out behind Hill 2."

Kordazís eyes light up. Janus and Dommy come over now, to share in the strategic briefing.

"Dommy and Prankster, youíre in charge of Carnival Ridge," says Kordaz. "Iíll take over Hill 2. Sir Robert, you must come and help me out at Hill 2. Janus, we will need some of your NWC men. Sound good, Jimmy?"

Jimmy nods.

"Where are you going to be?" Hetasia asks Jimmy.

Jimmy draws her to him, and clings to her for a moment, he is trying to feel everything that is great about life one last time, he does not want to risk dying with an empty soul. No, he has not been imagining things, there really is beauty in this hellhole; and dying here is all right, because he never would have met Hetasia if he had stayed outside, in safety. If the price of loving her is to die, then itís been worth it. He fights back a tear from his eye. "Itís a good plan, Jimmy," she says, hopefully. "I want to be with you," she adds.

"Go to Hill 2," he says. "I wonít take a set post. Iíll float between positions."

Worried, she grasps him fiercely, winds of war, donít blow him away! "We have to get down to business," he tells her. "I love you, Hetasia. You know that those words donít do justice to what I feel. If I could be every great poet who ever lived simultaneously, I would just lay an empty piece of paper at your feet. I wouldnít blemish it with a single word."

"I love you! I love you, Jimmy!" she cries out.

"Itís time," he says. "May God help us!"

Sir Robert takes Hetasia by the arm. "Come along, fair thing, I promise to shelter you in the absence of your beloved. James, if it comes to it, I will take the bullet for her," he assures him.

Kordaz and Jimmy remain alone as the rest of the party drifts away towards their assignments. Kordazís enthusiasm is rapidly returning to common sense. Who doesnít get excited by a brilliant idea? But experience teaches us not to get carried away. The biggest stars burn out fastest.

"Itís a grand plan, Jimmy," he says, "but you know, the numbers just donít work. The way I figure, we should be outnumbered about 60 to 1 by now. Plus, their combat experience dwarfs ours. Those odds are simply off the charts."

Jimmy nods. "Thereís been some authenticated cases of major victories being won by forces outnumbered three to one. Once, a band of Crusaders outnumbered ten to one defeated an army of Seljuk Turks. Iíve never heard of an army outnumbered 60 to 1 pulling off a victory," he admits.

Kordaz regards him. "Jimmy, what is all this shit about floating? What are you up to?"

Jimmy puts his arm over Kordazís shoulder. For a moment, the two of them drift like brothers through the dark, masters of the same terrible talent. Until finally, the security chief exclaims, "Thatís crazy! You canít do that! We need you!"

Jimmy says: "60 to 1. Here, at Carnival Ridge, if weíre lucky, we can inflict heavy damage on the enemy and get out. It will be fitting to punish him in this way. But sooner or laterÖ"

Kordaz agrees. "Sooner or later. A noble but doomed effort."

"The hero who failed. Hector. Who was greater than him? But his city burned."

"The Charge of the Light Brigade."

"Thermopylae. Here fell the 300 SpartansÖ History is enriched by these beautiful sacrifices. But paradise is put on hold. I want the people I know, now, to live. I want their dream to come true, in their lifetimes; I donít want to give history another shining disaster. I want to give it Eden."

"Jimmy," Kordaz says. "If our chances are desperate, yours are a hundred times worse. It looks to me like you are throwing yourself on the funeral pyre of a glorious gesture. You are choosing to become Hector. You say you want to accomplish something, not die in vain, yet here you are signing your own death sentence. This is like fighting ten chimeras! Letís just disperse, Jimmy. Letís just call the whole thing off! Fugitives are better than martyrs. He who runs away lives to fight another day."

"Youíve got to do your part," Jimmy insists. " All of you! Youíve got to fight like lions. Youíve got to hold them off long enough to see if I can do it. Promise me, you wonít waver!"

Kordaz looks at him. Seconds, that seem like minutes, pass. At last Kordaz nods in agreement. "Weíll do what we can." And his hand is in Jimmyís, squeezing it with all the power his respect can muster. "Godspeed, soldier."

"Godspeed."

__________

Jimmy is standing in front of the Minefield, gazing out over the black sea of land that no one has ever crossed. How many years of trying and death is it? He smiles, the very idea seems preposterous, arrogant; what an absurd act of hubris! "I am the new Bellerephon!" he laughs. And yet, is this not the same arrogance with which Rupert Jardinowe once faced the mysteries of the Universe, looking into the expansive night of stars, imagining he could wrest its secrets from it? "I can do this," he tells himself. My will is too great, my life force too mighty, my purpose too important, to be deterred by this field of death. Somehow thereís a way to cross it, to outthink it, to seduce it, to defeat it, to conquer it. On the other side, there is safety for the people I love. There is Eden, or what will become Eden. If I can reach it, I can turn the minefield off. I can make a highway through the minefield for my friends, then turn it back on and shut the world out. We can regroup, turn it into a sanctuary. We can begin to extend our dream outwards from the safety of this invulnerable base. Matter, antimatter, time, hyperspace, black holes, quasars, I tore them all from the Universe and gave them to Man. No, it was him, not me, but that was only circumstance. That was his life, his accomplishment. This will be mine. His brain burned like fire, he thrust it in the face of the unknown. My feet, my ears, my eyes will be my mathematics; my movement across the minefield will be the equations with which I solve the problem of history; I will give idealism giant flaming engines to propel it to reality, build rocket engines for the philosophers. I will not die, because I am all mankind.

Jimmy feels the night breeze blow across his face, it is cool, refreshing, it comes like a new religion. He feels he is awakening.

Suddenly a manís rough voice is calling out to him. "Say, Jimmy, where the hell do you think youíre going without me?"

Jimmy turns around to see Almost coming up behind him.

"No, AlmostÖ" he tries to say.

But Almost only laughs. "Jimmy, I did this before. I know this baby. I can get you started. I can cue you in to the little hints of disaster, and to the mere diversions that throw your timing off; I can share some of the tricks. We can double-run it for a while. If we do it right, weíll make it pretty far together. Maybe youíll learn enough to make it all the wayÖ A man with your moves."

"No, Almost," Jimmy is saying, "donít try it. Please. Last time you lost a foot."

"Most people lost their whole bodies," Almost says proudly. Then he laughs again.

"No," Jimmy pleads one more time. "Youíre dear to me."

Almost doesnít say a word. "We donít say those kinds of things," he says at last. "But surely I have equal rights, then. I wonít let you go in alone, Jimmy," he says. "When I saw you walking this way through the dark, I knew what you was up to. And Iím in on it. So, when youíre ready, let me know, and Iíll lead you in. What weíre doing is too important for you to say no. Why, my experience here could help to save the world, and wouldnít that be a blast?!"

It is impossible to deter Almost, so Jimmy sits down for a moment, lost in deep meditation, while Almost jumps up and down, warming up, saying, "Come on footsies, Power Leg meet Flesh and Bone Leg, Flesh and Bone Leg, meet Power Leg; Flesh and Bone Leg, if you donít want to end up like Power Leg, listen to Almostís brain, heíll be talking to you through his nervous system, if I remember my biology correctly. Nervous nervous system! Ha! ha! ha! Yo, Jimmy, I got a good feeling about starting now!"

Slowly, Jimmy rises to his feet, stretches, and does some slow motion, virile movements that impress Almost. "I bet thatís how a tiger would do ballet. So, wait a minute now, rhythmís bad Ė OK Ė NOW!" he screams. He runs full speed into the Minefield with Jimmy racing after him: moments of waiting that have exploded into action.

All at once, they hear a huge click, and suddenly, there are towers lit up in front of them, and sweeping search lights cutting past them, and the hum of huge laser engines warming up in the distance. "Listen with your feet," Almost warns. "Your ears will be too slow." They run a bit more, and then Almost shouts, "Jump! Safe spot, hit the deck!" A tremendous explosion hurls a shower of dirt up into the air behind them, as pieces of violent shrapnel slash the air in all directions. "There Ė did you feel that?" demands Almost. "Yeah," says Jimmy. "Thatís a basic vibration," Almost says. "You can feel it in the earth, beginning to shake towards an explosion. Did you feel it in your feet?"

"Yeah," Jimmy says, "the ground was shaking, my foot picked it up."

"Thatía boy!" exclaims Almost. "Get up. Woah, hit the deck!" A huge laser beam bursts into being above them. "Hot enough to incinerate us!" shouts Almost. "Did you hear it coming?"

"A little buzzÖ"

"Change in the tone of the engines. You got it?"

Jimmy nods.

"Speak, boy! I canít hear nods!"

"Yeah!" says Jimmy.

Now, theyíre up again. "Look out," Almost says, "itís quiet here. No underground movement. See how quiet it is?"

"This is where youíre likely to find a patch of compressor mines," Almost explains. "The others are sensor mines, do you get it? Change velocity and direction frequently, even if it seems to expose you more, by making you take longer. But these compressor mines, you just step on a trigger and they blow. No vibrations. A piece of El Alemain, or is it Tobruk?, Afrika Korps real-estate. Here, use your phone, type in Ďtop receptioní, youíll get the Ďincompatibleí sign, meaning interference. Thatís reacting to these mines, see theyíre all around here. Iíve got myself a stick, poke, very shallow angle, very, very shallow angle, gentle as touching a butterflyís wings. Thereís one. Careful. Now look out, the laser loves to throw you into a panic right about now." Sure enough, a giant swath of laser bursts out into the night and swings wildly towards them like a huge sword of light. "Just crouch down, and donít jump. Stay cool." The laser slashes at them for a minute, fierce but impotent, then shuts down. "Now in the sensor mine section that would have been a problem," Almost says, "because while the laserís keeping you down, one of the vibrating mines could be searching for you from below."

They are back over the vibrating mines once again, moving quickly, fluidly, alertly. More vibrations send them leaping away and diving to the earth. Gigantic explosions shout at them, tearing up the places where they have just been, they get up, staggering, covered with dirt. "About now," Almost says, panting, "it starts to get a little bit hard. You got to deal with your tiredness. Youíve been running, jumping, falling for a while now. Can you jump as fast and as far? Can you keep up those hair-trigger reactions? What about your alertness? Youíve got to hold onto your clarity now, itís like a wound sheet thatís being pulled down into a hole by a little troll, you got to grab onto it and not let it go. Donít let him take it away from you! Canít get fuzzy, not now. Jump! Down!" Suddenly, as they start up again, they get hit by a hopscotch pattern. Almost doesnít have time to say a thing, Jimmy just follows his lead. Little mines are blowing straight up all around them, Jimmy and Almost are dodging, rolling, and jumping, the vibrations are coming only a split second before the explosions, giving them next to nothing in terms of warning. "Other mines are like rattlesnakes," Almost gasps as they stagger out from the barrage, "these ones are like cobras, they just bite." They jog a bit more, and Almost shouts, "No, itís a decoy! Down!" There is a big vibration, and Jimmy almost jumps to the side, but falls down on top of the rumble, instead, as Almost advises. Sure enough, the safe spot he was about to jump to erupts with a mighty roar and showers of dirt which spray them like a geyser. "Could you tell it was a decoy?" Almost asks, wiping the filth away from his eyes.

"Youíre cut," Jimmy tells him.

"Itís nothing, I was just grazed by shrapnel, by a baby of the shrapnel family. Could you tell it was a god-damned decoy?!" he rages.

"No."

"It has a hollow feel, not as full as the real mine."

Almost urges him to go back. "Look, itís still on. Feel it, Jimmy, you got to feel it. Canít you tell? Itís not real. Itís like the other one is impure, thereís a mixture of rumbles that blend together, this one just has the top rumble. Look, god damn it, I know it doesnít make sense, did you ever play an instrument?"

Jimmy shuts his eyes for a moment. He knows how esoteric the martial arts can be. What about the time the brilliant samurai Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in his famous training manual, The Book Of Five Rings, that in one type of swordplay, one must feel that oneís blade is sticky? It makes absolutely no sense to the outsider, but to anyone using a sword, it is perfectly comprehensible; it conveys a mental state, a sense of awareness coordinated with the body, that allows one to control the enemyís sword by the nature of oneís contact with it, as one seeks to create an opening through which to strike. You literally push the enemyís sword out of the way, not giving it a chance to slip away, and then, most likely, if your opponent is good, strike him with another arm wielding another weapon, or else get through to him through a gap he has created attempting to recover his swordís position, on the second or third try. Jimmy opens his eyes. There is, indeed, only one tone here, it is like a chorus without a bottom, missing the baritone. "I get it," he says. "Decoy."

"Thatís how I lost my leg," says Almost, with respect. "Only it happened farther up ahead, when I was more tired. Come on," he says. "This is only the tip of the iceberg."

A bit further on, they run into their first line pattern. "Side!" Almost shouts. A few mines all in a line, erupt in a synchronized series of explosions, meant to nail anyone fleeing from the first one. No one could outrun the whole package. "Feel an ellipse!" advises Almost. "Mine ahead stretches the vibration towards it; same with mines to the side. The vibration is distorted, and pulled in the direction the trap is set."

What Almost is saying is crazy, itís like someone on hallucinogens attempting to explain the nature of the universe. But if you let the metaphors mix, if you let mindsets disintegrate and madly chase a passion like Pablo Neruda, youíll begin to get it. Feel an ellipse with your feet, begin to hear the whispers of distant triggers, begin to feel the nature of the computerized, explosives-wielding beast in the dark, which is only your human frailty perfectly understood.

"F**k!" Almost is suddenly screaming.

Jimmy thinks Almostís been hit. "What is it? What is it, Almost?"

"Itís one of those god-damned rolly-pollies!"

Jimmy looks behind them; a hole has opened in the ground, a black globe about the size of a bowling ball has just popped up out of a chute. "Itís got sensors!" Almost exclaims, "and itís packed full of plastic explosives. Itís going to follow us and try to blow us up! Run, boy, run!" Wildly, Almost surges ahead, Jimmy on his heels. The deadly little ball begins to roll after them, gathering speed as it goes. A minute later, another ball pops out of the earth to join in the chase.

"What do they sense?" asks Jimmy.

"Donít try to outwit them!" warns Almost. "You can only outrun them! They sense heat, sweat, and urine, because most everybody has pissed on themselves by now! Look out, theyíre herding us like sheepdogs! Must be mines ahead!"

Jimmy stops for a moment, unzips his fly, and urinates on the ground. Then he speeds after Almost, who is cursing, "What a time to have to take a leak!"

But sure enough, one of the rolly-pollies grinds to a halt over the spot where Jimmy has just urinated and detonates itself.

Almost laughs. "God bless you, boy! Thatís the most useful piss since Gulliverís! Look out, Iím running into vibrations, here we go!" But Jimmy rushes straight over a patch of vibrations, as though he wants to die. "NO!" screams Almost, "get out of there, veer right!" The ball rolls after Jimmy who sprints away at the last minute and takes a headlong dive onto the ground. The rolly-polly is caught on the active mines just as they come to life. Itís blown to smithereens. Coughing and limping, Jimmy staggers through the dust into Almostís arms. "Brilliant, Jimmy! Brilliant! What timing! You lured the rolly-polly right into the middle of an explosion that was meant for us. Ė Get down!" he screams again. There is no time to savor triumph here. Now it is a laser sweep. This time it is very close to the ground, and its intense heat is burning them even as they cling to the earth, with their faces pressed against the dirt. "Shit! Vibrations!" says Almost. "Crawl, Jimmy, crawl! Make believe youíre a snake! This way!" Behind them, huge explosions reach upwards into the sky with hands of death. They canít see, dust is everywhere, and their heads are down because of the laser; explosions are now going off all around them, it is like a munitions factory was blowing up undereath them. "Shit!" screams Almost, again. "Itís a death pit! Iíve crawled into a god-damned death pit!" This, of course, is part of the combination: laser sweep, mine detonations, death pit. "Just like a f**king lobster!" yells Almost. He couldnít see where he was going, he was just crawling and feeling the vibrations with his hands. Now, heís suddenly run into one of the pits, with its steep, super-slick slopes. Heís slid twelve feet down right to the bottom, which has a five-foot deep bed of quicksand to hamper his movements, as he grasps at the walls above him which might as well be made of ice. He hears the time-bomb buried just below his feet start ticking. "T-minus 120 seconds till no more Almost," he says, wiping the mud from his face.

"Your power leg!" screams Jimmy.

Almost nods, and tries, but the quicksand steals too much of his velocity, he leaps up, clutches at the slippery wall, and falls back in. "Lobster special," he says with resignation.

"Try again!" screams Jimmy.

"No use," says Almost. "Look, Jimmy. I want to tell you about the mines of light before I expire. Can you imagine a cross between hopscotch and tic-tac-toe, only on a greatly expanded scale? Red means the mine is active. Violet is the safest color, orange means itís on the verge of blowing. Get it? The mines go from violet (safe), to blue (safe), to green (safe), to yellow (worry), to orange (danger), to red (youíre dead). Itís like a beautiful color show, except it kills you if you make a mistake. Circles with a grill around the edge shoot up into the air so you canít jump over them, the others only blow if you actually step on them. You canít avoid the circles, because everything outside of them is wired up to fry you with thousands of volts."

Jimmy lowers his shirt, which heís removed and knotted like a rope.

"Shut up," says Jimmy, "and start climbing."

"What, and pull you down in here with me?"

"Take it!" screams Jimmy.

"You donít have leverage. Youíre too close."

Jimmy takes off his pants. "Nice shorts," Almost says. "Look, Jimmy, I also wanted to tell you something else. About us. You know, PPP. Present and future." Desperately, Jimmy is expanding the length of the rope by tying together his pants and shirt. "Weíre not like you, Jimmy. And weíll never be like you. Not you or Janus, do you understand? But thanks to you, weíre better than we were. And maybe we can still be better than we are. Youíll never make utopia out of us, but maybe something thatís a little better than where we came from, and where we ran to."

Jimmy lowers the rope to Almost, crawls back away from the pit, and shouts, "Now! Climb! Climb Almost! Climb!"

"I wanted to thank you," says Almost. "And to let you know that Iíve never had so much fun in all my life! Why saving the world is better than ajow, and almost as good as sex."

"Climb, god damn it! Climb!" Jimmy feels Almostís weight on the other end of the rope, Jimmy digs his feet into the earth and struggles; slowly he is being dragged towards the edge of the pit; at the same time he feels Almost rising. "Just a little bit more! Just a little bit more!" Jimmy shouts. But suddenly, there is no more weight at the end of the rope, Almost has seen Jimmyís foot sticking over the edge and lets go before he can pull his friend into the pit with him.

"The world needs you, Jimmy," Almost says.

"No!" screams Jimmy.

"Donít fail us."

And suddenly there is a huge muffled explosion, a huge pillar of heavy mud and slime flies into the air, and Jimmy sees Almostís mangled body mixed up with it; then it all crashes back down into the pit. Almost is saying, "Donít I got the perfect name?", and then Jimmy, weeping and covered with mud and blood, sees Almostís smiling face sinking beneath the quicksand.

For a moment, he cannot leave, he stays there, paralyzed by the tragedy. But soon he hears Almostís words, reverberating in his head. "Donít fail us." He knows the only way to honor Almost is to go on.

__________

Sure enough, not long afterwards, Jimmy comes upon the Field of Mine Lights. The field is huge, it is like walking onto a giant surface of polished, perfectly-level glass, with a dazzling array of moving circles, constantly shifting in color, from violet through every color of the spectrum until they reach the fatal color red, before returning to violet. Itís timing, being in the right place at the right time, running through the rainbow, just donít step on red. "You canít use logic on this," Jimmy tells himself. "Itís too fast, too mesmerizing." Jimmy takes a quick look, but it canít be outflanked, either Ė mines have been turned on all around it to channel him here. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Then, searching for a safe entry, he jumps into it. Hopscotch and tic-tac-toe... The hopscotch part is obvious, yellow and orange (leading up to red) appear, he jumps away, towards violet, blue, and green, the safe colors. Soon, he is hopping, skipping, and jumping like a schoolgirl. Then the tic-tac-toe part becomes apparent. Amidst the shifting patterns, yellow and orange are trying to dominate the space, to block out violet and blue and shut down his escape routes, to give him no place to jump except from one active mine to another. Simultaneously his eyes narrow and widen. You have to take it all in without letting your mind stop on anything. Let one threat snare your attention and others will overtake you. It is a constantly shifting world, and you must be as fluid as it is. Once, Jimmy saves himself by turning back, as yellow and orange begin to monopolize the field ahead of him; most playersí instincts keep them moving ahead, or at least to the side like a sailboat tacking in the wind, no one wants to lose ground; it seems like you are just prolonging your danger by avoiding the finish line. But it is a wise decision, Jimmy escapes from an overpowering pattern of death by retreating, then waits for things to clear, jumping from circle to circle in the meantime in an area whose patterns are much more balanced. It is like waiting for a storm to pass. Another time, Jimmy saves himself by navigating his way over a series of dangerous yellow circles, instead of going towards violet circles whose transformation towards red is accelerated, effectively turning them into lures. Once again, Jimmy is protected not by the ability to think in a moment which leaves no time for thinking, but by the ability to violate one instinct with another instinct that is just as certain. He lives not by overcoming instinct, but by switching instincts, according to circumstance. Several times, he makes huge flying leaps over red circles, onto distant safe circles ; he could be an Olympic long-jump champion, it seems! Another time, forced to jump onto an orange circle with a red/grilled circle directly in his path (the kind with overhead detectors), he hurls a set of keys in front of him. The red mineís sensors detect something flying overhead, and it explodes prematurely, sending a fierce blast skyward. Jimmy leaps through the smoke that is its wake, just as the mine he is jumping from turns to red. It all happens in a split second, but it is brilliant.

And then, suddenly, Jimmy is staggering out of the Field of Mine Lights into the Replay Zone. Heís ĺ of the way to the finish! Heís got a lot of money coming to him if he stops now, and an escort out if he wants it: but no sanctuary. No ownership. If he was in this just for himself, it would be more than enough, something, in fact, he would never have tried. But this isnít for him, itís for his people. He must go on. Almost made it here. He must take it one step farther.

From a hidden chamber, a minefield attendant appears, asking Jimmy if he wants to stop now. "Thousands of people are watching you on close-circuit," he tells him. "Youíre tonightís number one item on BAR TV, youíve got the highest ratings, youíre even ahead of some war thatís going on."

"Whatís happening?" Jimmy asks the man, who he imagines may have a TV down there somewhere, in his bunker underneath the Replay Zone.

"Big battle on Carnival Ridge," the attendant says. "Canít you hear it?"

Temporarily coming out of his focus, Jimmy hears the fierce battle raging behind him. Salvoes of mortar fire, the crack of Pranksterís death rays, machine gun fire, and swarms of thumps, smashing everywhere in the night. "Sounds like some kind of Armageddon," says the attendant.

Jimmy, who is naked except for his shorts and a piece of tattered shirt tied around him like a cape, and a belongings pouch hanging behind him like a tiny backpack, takes another breath. "Iíve got to go on," he says.

"The pace picks up beyond here," warns the attendant.

Jimmy listens to the sound of battle raging behind him, the sound of his friends fighting to the death, with Hetasia somewhere there, mixed up in it.

"Thanks," says Jimmy. "In a little bit, Iíll be your new employer." He jogs forward while the attendant merely shakes his head, and goes back down his secret elevator to watch TV.

By now, Jimmy has encountered the basic elements of the Minefield, it is just a question of speed and fury. Its activity is intensifying, he has come too far. The game wants to cut his run to glory short. Jimmy avoids several traps, as vibrating mines try to drive him towards others that are activating simultaneously. He feels the energy in the field swelling to incredible levels. He is nearly deaf from nearby explosions roaring up out of the ground at him, like lions lunging at him, he can barely hear the laser revving up, he falls to the earth just in time; the ground grows hungry underneath him, he crawls desperately away from new vibrations, he nearly falls into a death pit. Turning back, he encounters a rolly-polly rushing in at him. He jumps up to run, this is the only way he can escape the rolly-polly. Leaping over the laser sweeps which are coming in at a height of three-and-a-half feet, instead of trying to stay under them, he flees back towards the death pit. Faking a move in one direction, he gets the rolly-polly to rush ahead in an effort to cut him off. It ends up plunging into the death pit. A perfect maneuver. Once more, Jimmy drops to the ground as the sweeps persist for a few more minutes. But finally the lasers back off. Jimmy climbs back to his feet. Now the vibrations start up again. There is a belt of decoy mines, but suddenly, Jimmy feels there is something wrong. Heís got to get out of there, he doesnít know why. Itís just too obvious, too convenient, too perfect, a little haven in the midst of mines blowing up everywhere else, an uncharacteristic flaw in the computerís deadly expertise. Jimmy runs through a gauntlet of exploding mines, at the same time as a missile fired from some underground silo lands onto the little island of decoy mines from above. The computerís now raised its game a notch, it knows it is pitted against an expert: someone who can distinguish a decoy mine from a real mine. From now on, the decoys may be real, and the real mines may be fake. Can you hear the truth, Jimmy, can you hear the truth beneath your feet? Another laser sweep comes in. Wait, donít go down, donít hit the deck! The sweep actually burns into the ground, charring a hole in the earth where Jimmy would have hid. But Jimmy has stayed up and hurdled the fierce light. His flesh is burned, but he is still moving forward. And suddenly, this great terrible computerized hellhole is falling into place, he is merging into its rhythm, divining its purpose, he is inside of it, anticipating its every move, it is his shadow, trying to outguess him; therefore, it comes from him, he can control it, he can bend it to his will. This is kiai, the most esoteric of the martial arts, the merger of minds; you break into your enemyís source of power and you turn him into your pawn, you make his sword create an opening for yours, you freeze him by sending all his fury back to him where it becomes his fear; there is no longer a separation, and your will is stronger, because what you are aiming for is higher. It is mystical, and easily misperceived as magic, but it is the manifestation of the oneness of all things, it is the avenue by which Rupert Jardinowe plunged into the secrets of the Universe, secrets of which he was a part. It is the avenue by which Jimmy Jardinowe is plunging through the Minefield that has claimed the lives of thousands towards the possibility of paradise. And suddenly, it is as though the Minefield were nothing but a great gate made of explosions opening before him, admitting him back into Eden; its thunder and terror are only the guardians that have been saving it for him through time. For the last half-mile, though he runs, he jumps, and he crawls, it is as though he were walking calmly down a country road towards home. The illusions of the outer world demand outward concessions from the body; but the inner spirit exists on another plane.

At last, as Jimmy jogs between two high towers, mounted with laser engines, and search lights, a huge siren goes off, then a wild chorus of bells, pealing from other nearby towers, chimes of victory, chimes of success. Fireworks erupt into the air, golden rockets hurling arms of light into the night, and rapidly expanding globes of green and red, surging out of the dark. Over loudspeakers, a chorus begins to sing: "Congratulations! Congratulations! Itís a miracle you still exist. Congratulations! Congratulations! Weíve waited years for this!" An audio feed-in throws together the combined sound of hundreds of barroom spectators, the air is filled with wild cheers. "You did it! You did it! F**king A!"

"Say, arenít you that gladiator guy?" says an attendant, emerging from a trapdoor.

"Yes I am," says Jimmy, "and now Iím also your boss. Whereís the control room?"

__________

Over on Carnival Ridge, the PPP and NWC have been going through sheer hell. The slopes of the amusement area, in fact, are covered with the dead, if Matthew Brady was still around, he would have had the time of his life. Hundreds of Advorzhiís men have perished attempting to storm the ridge, hammered from the ridge itself, and raked from Hill 2. A bandit withdrawal followed, succeeded by a massive mortar bombardment which turned the position into an absolute nightmare. "Anybody seen the four horsemen?" Chister cried out to his peers. "No," Slicks answered him, "but I seen three of them!" Two new bandit assaults followed, one against the ridge, and one against Hill 2. Dommyís troops, supported by machine guns and Pranksterís lasers, drove the first assault back in bitter fighting. Janus shot at least four bandits in the battle, Chister kept count. "Thatís four marks against perfection, soon youíll be one of us." Still Advorzhi didnít show his pistol troops; astute tactician that he was, he knew that the decisive moment had yet to come. Somewhat later, a bandit column which broke through Circus Point to the minefield, got hit from behind, by Dommyís troops which were reinforced by the right flank. As Jimmy had predicted, it resulted in the defeat of a sizable bandit force. Meanwhile, Hill 2 held out by the barest of margins. Kordaz and company had to break out swords once their tube line was overrun by sheer numbers. In this fighting, Sir Robert excelled, terrifying the bandits who crossed blades with him, and cutting down "a frightful quantity." Luckily, close quarters fighting was broken off after only several minutes, and tube lines reestablished before Advorzhi could bring up his pistol troops. One wave of these, arriving late, was driven back by tube fire.

After all this, the NWC/PPP forces are still holding onto their positions, but they have gained a sense of what they are up against, and understand that soon their valiant resistance is going to be ground down by sheer numbers. Their successes are leading towards failure, because Advorzhi can keep throwing more men into the struggle, he can literally drown them in a flood of bandits. In fact, Kordaz has now ordered Dommy to begin moving her forces from Carnival Ridge towards Hill 2 in order to link up with him and effect a withdrawal. "Weíve given them a taste of our courage," Kordaz says. "Now itís time to look to the future and get out of here."

Janus agrees. "Now, perhaps, they understand the power of an idea! The might of a dream that could inspire men to risk anything!"

"What they seen is thug power, right back in their face!" curses Chister.

Itís just at that moment that they see the massive victory signs coming out of the Minefield. The fireworks, the bells, the flashing lights and the sirens. The rest of them donít understand the full meaning of it. "Wow, some god-damned bloke chose tonight of all nights to beat the Minefield!" says Slicks. "We couldíve used a god-damned bastard like that in our army!"

"We got a god-damned bastard like that in our army," says Kordaz. "His name is Jimmy!"

The troops look at him with wonder. "What?" they ask. But Kordaz is too busy jumping up and down to tell them anything more, he is screaming, "Itís a miracle! Itís a miracle! Weíre saved! Head to the minefield, you bastards! Screen us from Hill 2; set up a picket at the log-fume ride; and get your asses over to the minefield!"

Hetasia, exhausted and soaked with sweat, weighed down by a tube that is still hot from firing slung over her shoulder, staggers up and seizes Kordaz by the collar. "What? What did you say?" she demands.

"Thatís Jimmy," Kordaz says, pointing to the Minefield. "While we were fighting here, he went over there to find us a sanctuary."

Hetasia looks at him amazed, then slaps him in the face. "You bastard! How could you let him go like that!?"

"He made it," Kordaz reminds her.

"You bastard!" she cries, slapping him again.

__________

The control room is spacious, sparkling white, it looks like a space control center, like something Rupert Jardinowe could be found in, looking at monitors and giant screens with panoramas of the stars. In this case, for this Jardinowe, it is the command center of the Minefield. He puts through a call to Kordaz, giving him the coordinates of the entry point. Jimmy is going to deactivate a swath of the minefield, opening up a lane that will allow his people to come through, into the sanctuary nestled within the deadliness he has just traversed. Then heíll turn the mines on once again, and shut the door to keep Advorzhiís bandits out.

"Wow, what a night," he tells himself. Glancing at a computer screen he sees a familiar calendar date. It is already the early morning hours of Sagittarius 7, the exact day which the outsideís spectacularly accurate outcome-computer, OLYMPUS, predicted he would die. Considering his recent ordeal crossing the minefield, the prediction came amazingly close to being realized. But somehow, something in him threw it off, some undefined power of his heart or mind, some underestimated potential of his soul that was not figured into the calculations. "Thatís two computers Iíve beaten in a single night," Jimmy muses.

An attendant, coming over to him with a glass of water and a towel, says, "Aye Caesar, the Ides of March have come but not yet passed."

"Nothing like an erudite pessimist," Jimmy says. "None of these wounds are life threatening and Iím sitting here in an armored control room behind a few miles of mines." He takes the water gratefully, and begins to work a keyboard and a cursor, drawing a corridor into the minefield, then typing in "Off" and "Enter." He would be joyful if he wasnít so tired, if he hadnít lost Almost, if his people on Carnival Ridge hadnít made such a sacrifice. But now they are escaping, they are fleeing into the corridor he has just created. Jimmy boxes in two belts of compressor mines on his computer map Ė mines which he cannot turn off Ė and types in "Indicate" and "Enter." Small glowing lamps like footlights rise up out of the ground to cordon off these pockets of danger, so that Kordaz can steer clear of them.

Opposite Kordazís rearguard, a sizable force of bandits concentrates. It knows what is going on. Its understanding began with tips from the bars, news that the brilliant gladiator-general of the PPP was attempting to thread his way through the Minefield; then came the telltale signs of jubilation, the victory rockets fired into the sky, the bells, the sirens, the flashing lights, the "jackpot signal." And now, finally, there is the NWC/PPP withdrawal from Carnival Ridge, and its reconcentration by Hill 2. "Theyíre going to escape over the minefield," a lieutenant warns Advorzhi, who only laughs at him. The bandit chief, dressed in night-black commando clothes with a Sound-Enhancer helmet, two tubes slung over his shoulder, a German luger and 9 mm. at his side, a grenade belt around his waist, and 2 daggers strapped to his legs, says: "Youíre only figuring that out now?"

"We have to stop them!" the lieutenant cries.

"If we donít," Advorzhi tells him, "theyíll be beyond our reach. Theyíll be able to come and go across the minefield as they like, to proselytize with impunity, to wage guerrilla war against us, to reach out to our victims and eventually turn them into an army. With the jackpot Jardinowe-Face has just won, heíll be able to provide them with the best weapons and support systems money can buy. Worst of all, it looks like theyíve finally got that idiot Janusí ingenuousness under control. Neville Chamberlain just became Rambo."

Advorzhi orders an all-out mortar attack to disrupt the retreat as he prepares a new assault to overwhelm the NWC before it can escape Ė "Pin them down while we move!" - but Prankster sabotages it with a brilliant hacking scheme, which takes over the central tracking computer being used to feed coordinates to Advorzhiís artillery crews. As a result, their mortar fire is directed to incorrect locations, and is actually used by PPP Tech-Wing to knock out several of the banditís own artillery batteries with "friendly fire."

Now, Kordaz is actually moving into the minefield, under cover of Dommy and the rearguard. Advorzhiís pursuit has been delayed by the hacking attack. "Theyíre getting away!" curses the bandit lieutenant, a look of desperation and the hunger of a famished beast in his eyes. Advorzhi is intense but calm; he is utterly luminous; sometimes people with no conscience have a way of shining, they are angels of cynicism, liberated from every inhibition, from all the taboos and myths which tire the good; they have not lost their energy to social contracts; they are too strong to need compromise, to sign peace treaties with the weak, to succumb to codes which shelter those who doubt themselves; they soar above the morality of men who are afraid to die. They will dive to the bottom of the ocean for a pearl, and that is admirable. There is something extraordinary in their independence.

"Theyíre getting away!" screams the lieutenant again. Advorzhi only smiles. He points to a handful of chosen men, signaling them to join him, then orders the lieutenant to send a massive column of bandits charging directly into the NWCís rearguard. "Overrun them," he commands.

From the NWC vantage point, a band of stragglers is fleeing from a massive bandit charge, shooting back at the bandits over their shoulders as they run towards safety. "Let them in," Dommy orders. Then, after the last of the stragglers has passed by, she orders her unit to open fire. "Give the bandits hell!" she shouts. "Weíre almost free! Donít break down now!" Wave after wave of bandit soldier rushes forward, into the fierce and disciplined shooting of Dommyís inspired troops, the bandits pile up in heaps and soon are forced to climb over their own dead, as if they were scaling a wall, in order to continue the pursuit.

Back in the control room, Jimmy opens fire with the minefieldís powerful lasers switched to manual, supporting Dommy with precise blasts of piercing rays which turn the battlefield into a scene straight from Hell. Jimmy grimaces, how can nobility sow its seeds like this? But Janus tried, and his way failed. There are centuries when you can turn the other cheek, and centuries when you have to respond in kind. Gladly, he sees that Dommy is now moving deeper into the minefield and that the banditsí pursuit is faltering. On his map, he boxes in the leading perimeter of the minefield, then types "ON" and "Enter." A bandit company which bravely persists in pursuing, has suddenly come upon live mines. Explosions rock them, bandit soldiers are flying into the air in clouds of dust and smoke, they rise like birds and fall like stones. After a couple of minutes, a hundred men has become a dozen. They lose their way in the chaos, some of them start to shoot each other thinking they have finally caught up with Dommy. Sometime later, a single bandit staggers out of the minefield back to his own lines. "The minefieldís on," he tells them.

"Thanks for letting us know," his fellow bandits reply. And someone shoots him, saying, "Your orders were to charge."

__________

Jimmy is a mixture of emotions: jubilation and mourning, pride and guilt, righteousness and confusion, everything riddled with intense exhaustion. He has sealed the minefield back up behind the arriving forces of the NWC/PPP, and consolidated their escape. Now, he wants to struggle up out of his command chair, and stagger out into the dawn to greet his dear friends who are weary and worn, some euphoric, some grief-stricken, some merely stunned and empty, with undecided hearts. They are beginning to trickle into their new sanctuary. He wants to hug them all; most of all, he wants to find Hetasia and to collapse into her arms.

But it is at this very moment that he hears a ferociously loud buzzer begin to shout at him, throughout the entire command complex. It is in the control room, and in the hallways, it is blaring everywhere. "Whatís going on?" he demands, turning to the attendant.

"Someoneís broken in," the attendant replies, concerned. "Look, I am here to service this place, not to fight for it. Iíll be seeing you later." He rushes to a door in the hallway, and opens it.

"You better stay by me," Jimmy warns. "If thereís a security threat, I can protect you."

"The Ides of March," the attendant reminds him, adding, "Next to you is the last place I want to be." And suddenly, he is shooting down an elevator into some secret hiding place where Jimmy cannot follow.

Jimmy locks the control room door behind him, and begins to walk through the hallways of the command complex, searching. He has no weapon on him; he takes an iron lever down from the wall which can be used to pry open shorted-out doors in the event of an emergency, now it is a club; it is the best he can do.

Suddenly, a man appears in the hall. The intruder lowers a tube and fires. Jimmy ducks, he turns and runs, he is aware of the weakness in his legs, which have lost their spring after a night of running and jumping. A light fixture above him shatters like shrapnel, the man is trying to shoot him while pursuing and he just unleashed a wild shot. Jimmy rushes around a corner, fleeing like he has just seen a ghost, then stops and waits. A second later, he steps into the man who is flying after him around the corner and smashes him into inertness in less than two seconds. He helps himself to the manís two tubes, and a .38 caliber revolver that says "NYPD."

Alertly, Jimmy breaks out his phone. "Yo, Kardoz," he says. "I need back-up, NOW! Inside the control center! Yeah! Thereís bandit infiltrators! Hold on!" Kardoz hears a series of thumps on the other end of the line. "Jimmy! Jimmy!" he cries out. "Are you there? Are you there, Jimmy?"

"I got him," Jimmy says, breathing heavily. "Look, you got to get our people in here! I donít know how many bandits are in here! But if they get control of the computer, they can deactivate the Minefield, and the whole god-damned bandit army can just come charging right through to snuff us out!"

"Damn it!" exclaims Kardoz.

Jimmy hears Hetasia screaming, "Whatís wrong!?" in the background.

"Weíre coming, weíre coming right away!" Kardoz tells Jimmy. But minutes later, heís calling to tell Jimmy that the entrances into the command center are being held by bandit snipers. "Itís going to take us a few minutes before we can fight our way in," he says. "Theyíve seized the perimeter. Youíve got to hold out till then!"

"Hang on, Jimmy!" Hetasia is screaming in the background.

"Donít rattle me!" Kardoz shouts. The connection is lost.

Another bandit appears in the hall, he starts firing some strange vintage weapon. Jimmy takes him down with a perfect tube shot, then looks down to see a bloody gash in his side where he feels like heís been slashed open by a wire made of fire, but itís not life-threatening. Itís a bullet thatís passed through his flesh at a superficial angle, or else he would be dead. In the context, the ugly-looking wound seems like an incredible stroke of good fortune, and Jimmy is as happy as if his horse had just won at the races. Going over to the dead man, he lifts up an AK-47, "weird looking thing," he says. He dons the dead manís body armor, and examines the assault rifle for a moment, before a voice interrupts him, calling him by name over the PA system.

"Jimmy. Jimmy PPP," the voice says. "You are the clone son, arenít you?"

Jimmy is stunned. He goes over to an intercom mike on the wall. "Whoís this? Whoís talking to me?" he demands.

"Who else? Advorzhi."

There is a long silence. Jimmy adds video to the sound, and out of interference on a screen appears the face of the bandit chieftain. He is mesmerizing, the charismatic trickster incarnate: there is almost a feminine beauty to his virility, grace in his brutality, manners in his savagery, he is a charming monster on a pedestal. No wonder his bandits die so willingly.

"Of course you are the clone son," says Advorzhi. "I can see the genius that opened hyperspace, by the way you piss in the gutter. Your dad launched rockets, you fight and f**k . I love you. Youíre proof that heís no better than the rest of us. Every dark thing in his psyche he couldnít bear to witness, and couldnít bear to be, he put in you, and then he cast it here into the fire to burn. The hypocrisy of others is what has made me great. Thanks for bringing down the worldís last idol. Now, Iíll finish the job he built Freedom City for."

"You canít separate us," Jimmy says. "Weíve reached an understanding. Weíre no longer divided. "

"I donít want to separate you," says Advorzhi. "I want to kill you both. Him for turning away from the earth, and trying to run away from its people and its problems with his rockets; you for coming here with his genius to threaten the last place left in the world for people like me to be great. Freedom City is my world, clone son, and I wonít let anyone take it from me."

"Youíre a monster, Advorzhi," Jimmy snarls. "The way you used and killed KarmelaÖ"

"She was beautiful," he admits. "But not as beautiful as my ambition."

"Your ego has no limits."

"Neither has your foolishness. You should have stayed home and been a good boy, clone son. You should have dedicated your life to cleaning the test tubes in daddyís lab. He knew his limits. You donít know yours."

Suddenly, as Jimmy is talking on the screen, he gets the impulse to turn to the side, where he sees two men aiming tubes at him. Jimmy drops to the ground opening fire with two tubes simultaneously: no mean feat. Both bandits are hit, one fatally; the other is only wounded, and gropes for his other tube. But he is too slow. Jimmy brings his assault rifle to play in the interim and finishes him off.

Advorzhi is no longer in the video picture, but Jimmy hears him over the PA system laughing at him: "Happy Sagittarius 7, clone son! Iíll meet you at the obvious rendezvous point!"

__________

Outside, the PPP is in chaos, swirling with confusion, recriminations, orders, and questions.

"How the hell did they get in here?" Hetasia is demanding, as tube shots continue to pour out of the command building at the rescuers desperately trying to get to Jimmy.

"The doors are locked shut, we canít break in!" someone is telling Kordaz.

"You need to bring up an explosives team!"

"The snipers have already taken one out!"

"Youíve got to get to him!" Hetasia is urging, before she once again demands, "How the hell did they get in here? Where did the bandits come from?"

"They must have come in posing as our own people," Slicks says. "They must have infiltrated our unit as it was retreating onto the minefield."

"The stragglers!" curses Chister. "At the last minute, that big-hearted dominatrix who beats people till theyíre black and blue let a whole bunch of stragglers into the column!"

"It was all mixed up near the end," Slicks admits. "Some of our units barely got into the escape column with the bandits breathing down their necks."

"For your information," Dommy protests, "the stragglers you are talking about happened to be shooting at the bandits, and the bandits were shooting at them!"

"AND?" demands Chister.

Dommy looks at him.

"For Christís sake, you hang people upside down and put clothespins on their balls, and the thought hasnít occurred to you that this ruthless bandit whoís blown up his own beautiful girlfriend in front of our very eyes might not mind shooting a few of his own worthless scumbags to front like heís one of us?"

The amazed and stunned look on Dommyís face amuses Chister. "Dommy, youíre a ruthless bitch with feet of clay. What are you, an undercover hospice worker?"

"How many Ďstragglersí did you let in?" demands Kordaz, as he simultaneously motions for a new unit of soldiers to go forward.

"I donít know. Not many. Some," says Dommy.

"About fifteen or twenty," says Chister.

"Sixteen," says Slicks.

"Most of them will be holding the perimeter against us, while a hit squad goes after Jimmy," says Kordaz. "Thatís not a very large team. But itís probably made up of top-notch fighters."

In fact, it is made up of the best. It is the largest team Advorzhi could slip into the retreating NWC column, but large enough for his purpose. He, too, like Jimmy is a student of history. The histories that most fascinate him are those of Cortes and Pizarro, who with small numbers of Spanish conquistadors, infiltrated their way into the heart of gigantic Native American empires, through a combination of manipulation, statecraft, deceit and treachery, until they finally reached the exact strategic point of vulnerability which could topple those mighty empires. Thus fell the Aztecs and the Incas, victims of the incredible audacity and unsurpassed killer instinct of a handful of invaders. It is with this same spirit that Advorzhi dares. His confidence is supreme. If he can get over the minefield by hiding within the enemyís retreating column, he can take over the command center before his enemy can consolidate its power there, he can take over the computer that controls the minefield, he can turn it off and bring his gigantic bandit army across. It is a gamble, it is a risk. But the threat of the NWC with this huge sanctuary at its disposal is daunting. Better to take a chance right now while everything is still in flux, better to play with the chaos, to leap into the center of the unmade world and see if he can destroy it before it is born. So far, Advorzhi has accomplished everything he has wished to. Now there is only Jimmy Jardinowe standing in his way.

__________

Of course, the final battle takes place outside the control room. This is where the two great stags lock horns. Under other circumstances, this might have been a duel, a fight with swords in a field, or in the tower of a dark castle: the white knight against the black knight, Ivanhoe against the Knight Templar. But Advorzhi is a practical man, a builder of empires in a world that has enraged him with peace. He could do without the beauty of Karmela, and he can do without the aesthetic satisfaction of a perfect and artistic battle. He is, in this way like a businessman; he wants results. Thus, the battle begins with exchanges of tube shots, fired around corners and through doorways. The distances are close, but too great to charge through, especially since they both know that the other has CQ for his tubes, and can fill up the primer recharge time with vintage gunfire. Jimmy feels the advantage is his, heís got the control room covered, and it is Advorzhi who will have to expose himself if he wants to break in.

Suddenly, a grenade comes flying at him, Jimmy ducks back into the doorway as an explosion rips into the hallway outside Ė a pane of impact-resistant glass on a door cracks, shattering into beautiful patterns of lines still imbedded in solid form. Lying on the floor, Jimmy pushes his AK-47 around into the hallway and fires blindly, but Advorzhi has not charged forward in the wake of his grenade. Instead, he has gained position on the wall and is looking to blow Jimmyís head off as soon he peeks around the door to regain his view. Jimmy climbs to his feet and pokes his head out on a higher plane than Advorzhi is waiting for. By the time Advorzhi can lift the angle of his weapon, Jimmy is firing. Both of them pull back from simultaneous near misses.

"Hold on," Jimmy is telling himself. "Just hold on. My guys should be breaking through any minute. All Iíve got to do is keep him at bay." Jimmy becomes aware that he is battling with exhaustion; the war to cross the minefield, and now this fight here, has drained his strength to dangerously low levels. Advorzhi, though he too has spent a great deal of energy this night, is a lot fresher. The one is fading, the other is bright. "Willpower!" Jimmy tells himself. "Willpower! Just a little bit more! Just a little bit longer! Too much is at stake to give in!"

Suddenly, Jimmy hears a grenade blast from behind the wall where Advorzhi is positioned, and hears the bandit chief cursing, in a voice cut by agony, "Shit! Shit! God damn it!"

Advorzhi has held onto a grenade for too long, and it has blown up in his hands. Jimmy rushes forward to finish him, but uninjured, Advorzhi leaps from behind the wall firing. He has blown up one of his own grenades to feign an accident and draw Jimmy in. In this battle, the defender has the advantage over the attacker, and so Advorzhi has lured the defender to attack. Simultaneously, a tube hit rips into Jimmyís body protector as 9 mm. bullets fly into his chest. Jimmy spins his body away from the barrage with a last dose of aikido, beloved partner of his karate. Spin away from the attack, direct it elsewhere, make the front oblique, deny the charge, whirl the assault into nothing. Of course, this is meant for unarmed combat. Jimmy has been hit and spins, crashing, into a door, which flies open depositing him into another room. Lying on the floor, he pushes the door closed with his foot as Advorzhi rushes into the hallway to finish him off. A few kicks against the door nearly smash it open. Jimmy staggers up to secure the lock, then notices that he is feeling nauseous and faint; he sees a trickle of blood beginning to stream down from the left side of his body armor, signs of vulnerability leaking out from underneath a pretense of immortality. Nothing is immortal. You cannot secure immortality with an armored vest or with a clone.

Jimmy listens, like a mouse cornered by a cat, for signs of Advorzhi trying to reach him through the door. Then he realizes that Advorzhi is no longer interested in him. He has bypassed him altogether. He has pushed on to the control room! Jimmy vomits and clings to the wall. "Someone Ė do something!" he gasps. "Is that someone still me?"

__________

Outside the minefield, now in possession of Carnival Ridge, the bandit army waits for the outcome of their leaderís daring gamble. They have formed up into assault columns and sit alertly, weapons at hand, anticipating the moment when he will signal them. "Do you think he can do it?" one lieutenant asks another. "I donít know, heís up against a great foe. But if anyone could pull it off, itís him." "Itís our future thatís on the line," says the other. "What do you mean, we have them penned in like horses in a corral," someone else butts in. They two lieutenants look at him. "How little do you know," they say.

The wait is long and tense. Bandits are no strangers to anxiety, especially when their roar wears off. After the charge lets go of them, they shrink back to the size of ordinary men. The ridge is filled with cigarettes and exhaustion.

Suddenly, the sky above the Minefield erupts with lights and new displays of fireworks. Bells start ringing and sirens start screeching. An all-clear horn is activated. "Heís done it! Heís done it!" the bandits cry out with joy, clutching each other, tearing at each otherís clothes, beaming, crying, for they are now to be the undisputed masters of Freedom City.

"Stand up!" the bandit lieutenants order. "Assume attack formations! This isnít over! More fightingís on the way!"

"Without their mines, the NWC is nothing!" the men reply. They donít respect the retreat, theyíre like dogs who canít resist going after a man who runs from them. "Forward! Forward!" They shout encouragement to each other. "Tear them to shreds! NWC, youíre dead!"

The dark columns, moving through the gray morning push forward, at about the same time that vaporizers are rolling through the streets behind them, cleaning up the mess of the battle, and collecting the bodies of people who are like stray flowers scattered amidst the carnage, addicts, drunkards and lovers who died for other reasons on this night, in the personal eddies that swirl about unnoticed in the waters of history.

"Shitload of bandits," says one drunk to another, miserable about his night at the carnival being ruined.

"Is that a f**ng giraffe?" his friend asks him.

The zoo is in shambles from an artillery barrage. "And an elephant, too," the other replies. "And a camelÖ And a zebraÖ"

"Looks like their headed to Noahís Ark," his friend says. "Maybe we should follow them."

Other burned-out revelers join them on the hill to watch the bandit army pouring over the defunct minefield; the battle which was so amusing in the night has now become a bit sad, just as the drunken ecstasy of parties gives way to hangovers and unchanged lives. "Too bad," one person says to another, "those NWC idiots werenít so bad, after all."

"They fought pretty good for being wimps," agrees another.

"Now, weíll have to polish Advorzhiís boots between dances," adds still another. "Come here, Hildie, Iím gonna punch you in the face."

"I thought you loved me."

"If you got two black eyes and a broken nose, the bandits will be less likely to take you away from me."

It is just about at this moment that they begin to notice sounds coming from the distance, faint wisps of thunder. Then thereís more of them. "Itís some kind of artillery or something," says one of them. "Bandits must be across the minefield and the battle must be starting up again."

"Yeah, that must be it," agrees another, seeing small puffs of smoke and dust clouds erupting from the earth, as the rumble of the explosions intensify. "Wow, itís picking up! Heavy artillery! Bombs away!"

"Wait a minute," says another. "The bandits arenít across the minefield yet Ė theyíre still in it."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. They havenít got clear of it, yet." The manís face is pressed into a pair of binoculars which he usually uses for peering into the windows of whorehouses. "Holy crap, it may be that last pitcher of ajow I drank, but I swear, the minefieldí s come back on, and the bandits are trapped inside it!"

"Here, let me look into those, will my eyes get infected?"

"Just look!"

And the people begin to cheer.

"Yo, what are we cheering about?"

"I donít know. "

"Iím cheering," Hildie tells her boyfriend, "because now you wonít have to punch me in the face."

__________

"Where is he? Can I see him?" Hetasia demands.

Kordaz, red-eyed and dirty, more tired than any other time in his life he can remember, leads Hetasia in to the command center by the hand. There are walls charred by explosives and lasers, cratered by tube shots, and pockmarked by bullets. There are also pools of blood. "By now you should be used to this," Kordaz says.

"Iíll never be used to this," she says.

Janus follows them, stunned by how he has changed, dirty and limping.

They enter the doorway of the control room and see a body still lying on the floor. It is dressed in black, there is a pale brilliant face with shocked unblinking eyes staring directly into the bright lights, the mouth contorted in recognition of some incredible irony. There is a hole in the protective armor and an ugly red mess that started to come out, until the heart stopped beating.

Emotionally, Hetasia steps over the body, she parts the crowd gathered around the central control panel. There is Jimmy, sitting at the desk draped in bandages, two IVs in his arms, one plasma bag held by Chister and another drip bag held by Prankster. "My technical expertise doesnít apply to medicine," says Prankster, "so Iím just holding it with my hands."

"Jimmy!" weeps Hetasia, pushing forward and collapsing on top of him. "Jimmy!" Her voice is hoarse and worn out to the core. Her love reaches out to him through exhaustion and through visions that haunt her. "Jimmy! Jimmy!"

"Careful, an embrace could kill him right now," says Kordaz.

"Jimmy!" she weeps.

He is working on the computer with both hands, his face turns towards her, his eyes too are filled with pain, they are grazed by oblivion, yet still capable of showing gratitude. He tries to kiss her with his lips but misses, kissing the air by her cheek, but it is the most beautiful kiss she has ever had. She is nearly dead from the ordeal of it all, but still has the strength to cry.

Dommy, who has just left Bad Boy lying in a bed, "sick as a dog but without any bullet holes", comes up to ask Kordaz, "How did he do it?"

Kordaz whispers, "Apparently, Advorzhi thought Jimmy was dead or dying. But Jimmy managed to drag himself out of the conference room where he crawled after being shot, and came back here to the control room for one final firefight. Advorzhi turned to meet him, but Jimmy fired first."

"Wow," Dommy says.

"When you get the chance," adds Kordaz, "take a look at Jimmyís body. That is, if Hetasia will let you. Itís got a nice tube burn and a couple slashes from bullets as well. But somehow, he used that martial arts stuff to spin away from the line of fire so that he turned shots that could have blown right through him if theyíd hit him square into what we call Ďdeep grazes.í Heíll need a lot of rest and TLC, but he wonít die."

"So what about resting right now?" asks Dommy.

"Oh no, heís still busy. You see, once he got the control panel back from Advorzhi, who never actually got down to altering the minefield, he got another one of his great ideas. Why not pretend Advorzhi had won, and open up the minefield as Advorzhi was going to do? Why not lead the bandit army in, and then turn the minefield back on before they got here, trapping them on it? These are men who were going to fight us another day, even with Advorzhi dead and gone. These were men who were going to rob and steal and rape and murder and kill NWC and PPP wherever they could find them. Why not give ourselves a big head start in the days of conflict that are sure to follow? Why not climb another rung of the ladder of our dream while we have the chance?"

"Thatís a lot of men to die in one night," whispers Janus.

Slicks who hobbles in at that moment hauls off and punches Janus, but he is so weak from everything he has undergone in the last hours, that the punch barely affects Janus, and Slicks falls over from the exertion.

"Better find a bed for him," Kordaz tells a soldier.

Janus and Dommy go up to the control board, next to Jimmy and Hetasia. Weakly, Jimmy looks up at Janus. "Iíve made a safe box in the minefield," says Jimmy. "Iíve also showed Kordaz how to use the controls. Youíre not going to be allowed in here, quite yet, if you donít mind. Itís still the hour of baboons, and Australopithecus - Cro-Magnon is a bit down the road. However, in consideration of your humanitarian values, which I share in a less extreme version, Iíve made this box which you could consider to be a kind of prison inside the minefield. Kordaz can make lanes from the bandit columns into it, and from there, NWC can decide what to do. At the very least, youíll disarm them, and hopefully the worst of them will not be permitted back into circulation."

"Weíll have to develop methods and protocols," says Janus, eyes lighting up.

"Donít forget, youíre one of us now," Chister tells Janus. "Iíve seen you handling that tube. Donít try to go back."

"Iíve learned a lot," says Janus. "I donít know how to integrate all the lessons. But with timeÖ"

Jimmy is standing now, supported by Hetasia. Kordaz is sitting down in front of the controls. Jimmy faces Janus again. "Janus," he says, "from this base you can spread the values and philosophy of the NWC. The minefield and a small patrol will keep us safe. Weíll come and go, weíll spread your influence. Things wonít change in Freedom City, or in the world beyond it, overnight. But with this giant chunk of the bandit army weíve taken out tonight, the process will be a lot easier. Of course, other bandit empires will attempt to form. Your ideas will have to be able to stand up to what is primal and what is selfish in the human heart. Your idealism will have to be accessible and livable. Your compassion must be able to gaze at the bright sun of what is best in us and to look out upon our dark waters. Utopia loses some of its height when it marries reality, but it also becomes possible."

"My ideas and yours were only tributaries until we met," says Janus. "Now they have become a mighty river."

Jimmy and he shake hands.

Jimmy is about to leave with Hetasia, and his escort of IV helpers, so that he can rest and begin his recovery, when one last thing to say detains him. They all know about Almost now, their step is heavier because of it. Jimmy says, "Today we lost many dear friends, and brothers and sisters on our path. Among those who we will most miss is our great friend Almost." They stand silent, listening to him. "He made it clear to me in his last moments that what he was about to die for was this Ė what we are trying to make. His name was Almost, and he almost got here. Let us carry him the rest of the way with what we do here; and with how we live our lives."

There is an earnest chorus of assents, and then Jimmy and his support team is moving away, towards a building filled with beds, and spacious airy rooms fit for the recovery of those who have earned their rest.

Hetasia is smiling stupidly, holding onto Jimmy as he walks slowly down the corridor, too proud to be carried on a stretcher. Love makes brilliant people stupid, which is beautiful to the one who is loved.

"Guess you were too much for Sagittarius 7," says Chister, who is now in on the whole thing about the deadly date of the outcome computer, which hadnít occurred to him lately.

"Our dream is like that," says Hetasia.

Chister thinks he doesnít understand her because heís exhausted.

"The outcome-computer of history says it will never work. That we human beings will keep on being the same forever: hating, killing, lying, inflicting injustice on others. That utopias are pipe-dreams. That weíll fail here. But we wonít," she says. "Jimmy defied the destiny which the computer gave him because he believed in something greater and more noble than its prediction. Weíll do the same."

Chister wipes a tear from his eye, and thinks, "Maybe there is more to a woman than a body."

Jimmy looks at her with love. He is sure, now, that their unlived life will be lived, and that they will fulfill their vow of keeping love alive for their generation. And it will be a love that is greater than two people who use each other to become lost, because the whole world will be in it.

 

THE BEGINNING

 

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