Scene 15

Jules clambers up the last rocks and reaches the summit. She sits down against a boulder, takes out her Nalgene bottle, and swigs several gulps of water. She can see the mountains in all directions from here. Mountains as far as the eye can see. Lushly forested mountains, shrouded in mist. It is a very quiet morning. All she hears is the breeze, wetting her hair with tiny droplets. The air is cool, delicious. She feels the misty air on her skin, in her hair. She can smell rich, live earth. The world from here looks like the Garden of Eden, where the first humans were struck by awe, wonder, and fear of the unknown. ‘What lurks in that forest down below? I don’t know, and I’m scared. But I’m thrilled and curious. I can’t wait to find out. Here we go,’ they might have told each other.

Jules sees another hiker deftly climbing toward her. He’s wearing jeans, hiking boots, a sturdy workman’s shirt. A baseball cap. He is tall and athletic. He climbs right up to her and sits down against the rock next to her.

− Beautiful morning.

− Yeah.

They sit side by side silently for a few moments, contemplating the view.

− Makes you remember there’s something out there beside yourself, huh?

− Umm.

− It’s good for me to get out of that awful box and see the world once in a while. Especially Productivity Sector. I climbed around these mountains when I was a little kid.

− I have a hard time imagining you as a little kid, Semper.

Semper Wombat laughs.

− I’m just like anyone else, no one special. Sometimes I wonder whether people think I was served up on the half shell when I was born.

− People probably think the Hounds of Hell dropped you off outside the gates of Styx.

Semper laughs again, this time humorlessly. He is silent for a moment.

− That’s why I like you, Jules. You speak your mind. You don’t hide your feelings from me. You’re not afraid of me, and you’re not trying to kiss my ass. Without a few honest associates, I would never have gotten this far.

− What did you want to speak to me about?

− How are things coming along with Freddy’s Gang?

− I haven’t talked Aria out of her dream of launching that cyberfantasy.

− I’ve been thinking about it. It would be easy to disappear them all, Freddy’s Gang. They’d never be heard from again. But I looked over Aria’s work, the cyberfantasies she created for the online ‘zines. She is too talented and valuable. No one is going to be able to dissuade her from pursuing her dream. So, go ahead. You have my green light. Let her do it.

− How?

− I’ll talk to my people. Just tell Aria you’ve made progress with your contacts, and they’ll be able to open a window into cyberspace for the time she needs. Set her up with a headset, and let her perform the cyberfantasy live. My people will make sure it’s broadcast around the world for 24 hours.

− You’re not worried about the consequences?

− The main reason I rule the world is because I understand people. I know what they want, and I know what they are afraid of. I know how to inspire them to do what.  They are going to see this fantasy, and then, nothing. The main outcome is going to be that OmniFantasy will be flooded with phone calls. People will complain and ask why the company broadcast a fantasy they didn’t order.

− What if some people get inspired by the fantasy and rebel against the system?

− Do you think the system is perfect? No matter how much control Aethon Blue exerts over people, no matter how carefully we teach people from the earliest age, there are always those folks out there that think they know better. Nothing can cure them. They’re going to think differently, act out, no matter how much we try to influence them. Those are the guys we subvert. We use their creativity for our own purposes. We hire them at OmniFantasy or put them to work on some other creative endeavor in some part of the world where they’re not going to do too much damage. Heck, we channel them into Zen Buddhism. We give ‘em a job as a nature guide. We draw them into a university. Or maybe they’ll live out their lives in a garret, fuming out insane, unpublished poetry. If they get out of control, they land in prison or a mental hospital. If they are too dangerous, they disappear. Killed or virtualized. Don’t matter. Their effect on the consciousness of the masses is negligible.  The really charismatic ones, the ones who are dead-set on leading the people to rebellion, the ones who have what it takes to do it, we upload them into the computer. Take the hacker Lugnut, for example. We locked her in a virtual cage from which no one can hear her, see her, feel her, smell her, or taste her. Her consciousness is still in there. But the only times we perceive her is when we poke our heads in and examine her for research purposes. After the machine scanned her brain and body, cell by cell, gene by gene, molecule by molecule, energy field by energy field, and the machine uploaded her completely, we burned her body until all that was left of her was a pile of very fine gray dust.

− I think that’s what you’re gonna have to end up doing to Aria.

− I hope not. We’ll see. She’ll get to run her cyberfantasy. I predict it won’t have its intended effect. Just in case, the security forces and secret police will be on high alert. We’ll monitor people carefully through OmniCyber. We’ll blast some soothing cyberfantasies at them for a few weeks. We’ll subdue the ones who start thinking out of line or start acting up. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.

− Then what?

− I think Aria will be disillusioned. She’ll be despondent that her fantasy didn’t trigger an awakening. That’s your moment. Dangle the job at OmniFantasy again. Tell her it’s time to stop shrieking in the wilderness. It’s time for her to come home. It’s time for her voice to be heard by the people. And OmniFantasy is going to make it happen for her.

− One unsuccessful fantasy, and you think she’ll be ready to concoct drivel for your company?

− Not overnight. I think she’ll at least give it a try. She’ll take the job to see what it’s about. It’s a war of attrition. We’ll give her these mindless assignments. She’ll scheme to insert a little meaning, a little edginess, a little rebelliousness, into each one. That’ll be the compromise with herself. She’ll tell herself that at least she’s reaching all these people. And if they read between the lines, maybe they can learn something from the slop she serves them. And hey, at least she lives well, she’s comfortable, and she’s powerful. Gradually her interest in fulfilling herself at work will subside. Maybe she’ll take up some interesting hobbies. Hey, maybe she’ll become a cyberfantasy junkie, too.

Semper smiles as the sun rises above the mountains and spreads a blanket of glimmering gold over the hilltops. Jules looks at him. How can someone so evil be so pleasant-looking?

− Freddy’s Gang is still on The Land, Jules says. I’ll meet them and set them up.

− Keep your reports coming. This is turning into a very interesting story. Aria is going to do some wonderful things.

− What do you have planned for her?

− I don’t know. We’ll see. Worry about your own career. If you nab Aria, and she turns into the star I expect her to, your reputation will be secure. You’ll be an agent with stripes.

− I hope not everyone I scout in the future will be this hard to hire.

− Don’t worry, they’re not. Most artists drool at the chance to work for us. Your problem isn’t going to be talking people into signing on. Your challenge is going to be finding real talent.

As the sun climbs into the sky, it burns off the tips of the mist, which continues to swirl in the shadowed valleys.

− Ah, the Smoky Mountains. The Indians called it ShaConage, “Like Blue Smoke.” There’ll be plenty of blue smoke in the air soon, but that’s going to be from the exhaust pipes of earth-moving equipment. TyphonTek has found giant mineral deposits under these mountains. In about a year’s time, all these mountains will be dug up. It’ll look like a giant sandbox that dogs and cats crapped in.

For the first time, Jules’s face expresses an emotion: Disgust and horror. She quickly composes herself.

− Hey, why not keep some of the old world around, even if just for research purposes?

− The old world is dead, honey. I am the new world.

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