Aethon Blue, Scenes 20 to the end


Efficiency City. 0532 hours.

Hubert wakes up from strange and frightening dreams. Liz is still asleep. He rises as quietly as he can, and goes into the living room. A half dozen Bud cans on the coffee table. Hubert has a headache. He staggers into the kitchen, brews some coffee. A dragonfly that talked to him in a beautiful woman’s voice. What did she say to him? It has been a long time since he has remembered any of his dreams. And it’s the first one with a talking dragonfly in it. Or with a dragonfly, for that matter. Hubert realizes he has never even seen a dragonfly. He never saw a dragonfly in Leviathan, his home town, and Aethon Blue transformed all the wetlands and forests around the south into worldwide distribution centers for Wal-Mart, Office Depot, Home Warehouse, Cost Plus, and other megastores. Filled in the wetlands, cut down the forests. The only nod to nature is the occasional Roundup-Ready lawn with a stunted tree. Hubert takes a sip of his coffee, trudges back to the living room, and looks out the window. Twilight. A cloudy day. The black recedes in front of the gray of a leaden, chilly morning. All is quiet. Everyone else is still asleep. Hubert sits down on the couch and puts the chip behind his ear.
He finds himself in a high-ceilinged room like a grotto. Warm amber light radiates from behind rocks and from alcoves. A beautiful ebony-skinned woman in a white robe stands before him and smiles.
− Where do you want to go today, Hubert?
− Give me a different kind of fantasy this time, Elsa. Do you have anything about nature?
− We have fantasies set in the rainforest, in the Black Forest of Anal Sector, in the desert, in the Himalayas, and in the arctic tundra.
− What do you have in the rainforest?
− An adventurer searching for a trove of jewels in the Amazon. Or, lost in the jungle, picked up by a tribe, ravished by an Indian princess. Or a shoot-‘em-up fantasy that involves hunting savages with your 50-caliber sniper rifle.
− Give me the hunt for jewels. Hubert takes a sip of his coffee, lies back, and folds his arm over his face.
Hubert finds himself in the jungle. It is dusky. The towering trees form a canopy overhead, a vaulted ceiling broken up by brilliant triangles of azure light. At every level under the canopy, lush, giant plants wind in a spaghetti profusion. The leaves are big enough to take a nap on. Lianas drape the trees and bushes like curtains. Hubert takes a few steps, almost bumps his head on a garish red flower the size and shape of the speaker of Bell’s gramophone. Hubert is dressed in fatigues, safari hat, and hiking boots. He has a big pack on his back. A pick and a shovel are strapped to it. In his hand is a map with a red X at the center marked TESORO. After he walks for a few minutes, he hears the war hoop of the savages. They ring out all around him. He does not see anyone, but the bushes rustle and ferns jerk back and forth. Hubert unshoulders his carbine.
The lights go out. Hubert is back on the couch.
− Elsa? Hubert calls out to the fantasy moderator, the woman in the white robe. No answer.
Hubert removes the chip and puts it back in its case. He stands up. He hears the front door open. Liz and the kids walk out the door. Liz and Dana are in their nightgowns; the boys are in their pajamas.
− Where are you going?! They are already out the door.
Hubert follows them and looks around. It is as if he is seeing his neighbors for the first time. He has lived here for nine years. He realizes he has never given a good look at his neighbors. Even the children don’t play with the neighbor kids. Everyone just plays on line. But this time, the children are the first to make a move. They approach each other, stare at each other. They start talking. Soon their talk flows into natural children’s conversation. The boys rib each other and laugh. A group of girls is crouched in the yard. They doodle with twigs and pebbles while talking in a low voice. A girl accosts a boy and after they say a few words, he pushes her roughly. Another boy walks up to a girl and shows her something buried in his palm. She smiles and looks at him. They sit down side by side on the gutter.
The neighbors’ father walks up to Hubert.
− How ya doin’? I’m Jack Oliver.
− How are ya? I’m Hubert Medvedev.
They shake hands. Silence.
− You know, I been living here three years, but never thought about it. Who cuts our lawns?
Hubert looks at his 3×3-meter block of grass.
− I don’t think anyone does. Looks like the sterile Monsanto Stay-Short® Roundup-Ready Bermuda grass.
− Wow. How do you know so much about lawns?
− Almost every yard in my home town had this grass. It doesn’t require a lot of water; no water at all in the winter.
− Hm. That’s interesting. Mr. Oliver looks thoughtful, and laughs. My grandfather always loved talking about lawn mowers with his neighbors. What do we talk about?
− You got a beautiful family, Jack.
− You too, Hubert.
− Hey, you wanna have a barbecue on Sunday?
− Could do that. I’ll bring the meat.
− I’ll bring the beer.
− My wife will make a potato salad.
− My wife makes good coleslaw − when we have time to put the feeding tubes down.

Liz chats with Jack’s wife, Angel.
− Hi. Liz Medvedev.
− Angel Oliver.
− It’s nice to see the kids playing like this.
− [Names and ages of the kids.]
− [Names and ages of the kids.]
− As a matter of fact, I think ~ is in ~’s class, and ~ is in ~’s class.
− It’s ~’s birthday next week. I think I’ll ask her whether she wants to have a party. If she does, will you ask your kids if they want to come?
− Sure.

− What do you do? Hubert asks Jack.
− Accountant. I do all my work on line. You?
− Feeding tube repairman.
− Yeah. I did notice you’re one of the few guys on the block who actually leave the house for work.
− It’s nice, driving around for work. The streets are so quiet, it feels like I have the city to myself. And then it’s almost like a pleasant surprise when I see living people in the houses.
− I bet. Hey, it’s good to talk you, Hubert.
− It’s good to talk to you, Jack.
− Hubert. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.
− Yeah?
Lights out.

− Hey! Hubert yells. He panics and scrambles up from the couch. It is like waking up from reality.
− Elsa! he shouts. No one is there. He removes the chip and it falls to the floor. He jumps up. Empty living room. Outside, a leaden sky. All is quiet. He opens the front door and walks out. An empty street. It could be a typical early Saturday morning. But the street is almost always devoid of people, he realizes. It makes him sadder than he has ever felt before. He goes back inside.
He tiptoes into his sons’ room. Billy is buried under the covers. Calvin has wrapped his legs around his blanket, as if grappling with someone. He is fast asleep, face turned to the wall. His chip is still on. It is glowing faintly, a soft, pulsing, amber light. His little right foot twitches rhythmically. Hubert picks off the chip, drops it on the floor, and steps on it.


Freddy’s Diner, March 11, 2084. Midnight.

Nel, Flex, and X sit in the Freddy’s Gang booth, the round booth in the back of the diner.

Nel What now?
X It’s over.
Flex What a ride!
Nel I can’t believe it’s over. Why do you say it’s over?
X We lost. They won. There was no insurrection. The little bit of trouble there was, ABI storm troopers put it out like in a day. Nothing organized. Some people threw rocks through the windows of police stations, some transceiver towers were damaged. A crowd ransacked an ABI satellite office. Some cities saw protests. Not big. A few hundred people here and there. No trace of the troubles on the net. Just hearsay. Every place something happened, the men in black showed up and took the people away. Don’t expect to see them again.
Nel So?
Flex Aria’s lost faith.
Nel So? Does that mean we should quit? Do you think Aria is the first artist that created good art that not everyone paid attention to, or that was suppressed?
Flex What’s the use? People don’t wanna hear what we have to say. I think Aria expected mass insurrection. Millions of people in the streets, burning their chips. But no. You saw how it was in Downbeat City. Business as usual, except for a few chaotic revelers. Downbeat City has always had chaotic revelers. Not even ABI has bred that out of them yet.
Nel We have to keep on trying. We don’t have a choice. The singer must sing. The dancer must dance. The cyberfantasy creator must create cyberfantasies. It’s in Aria’s blood.
X, who sits facing the front of the diner, sees Aria and Nate come in. They order coffee and join the others.
Nel So, what are you going to do?
Aria collapses against the backrest of the chair. She looks exhausted, and small.
Aria It’s over.
Nel Why does everyone keep saying that?
X Aria, why didn’t they arrest us back there? Why did they let the fantasy run, and even broadcast it for 24 hours?
Aria They knew about us all along. Jules works for OmniFantasy.
Nel I knew it. Fucking whore!
Aria I knew all along, too. No one else could have let me do it. I didn’t admit it to myself, but somewhere inside, I knew we were being set up.
Flex Why would they let you broadcast to everyone in the world like that?
Aria They’re confident. They took a gamble. They didn’t think one cyberfantasy could free that many people’s minds. And they were right. It didn’t.
Nel Of course one hour won’t convince someone to change his life, after a lifetime of programming. But you have to try again. Don’t give up!
The waitress brings Aria’s and Nate’s coffee.
Aria I’m tired. Let someone else be the hippie that everyone makes fun of.
Nel So, what are you going to do?
Aria If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I’m going to work for OmniFantasy.
Nel, Flex, X
Aria I leave on Wednesday for Corporate Headquarters Metropolis to negotiate a contract with Jules.
Flex Don’t go overboard. I mean, you hate ABI with a passion.
Aria So? I’ll be able to study the monster from within. Maybe I can make some changes. You can’t defeat ABI. I can’t defeat ABI. We’re just five people. We can spend the rest of our lives on the run, bees trying to hurt the bear by stinging him with stingers he doesn’t even feel. Or, we can get on with our lives. I want to reach people. I need to reach people to create fantasies. I’m tired of doing it in the cabs of pickup trucks and the basements of safe houses.
X What about us?
Aria ABI isn’t gonna touch you. I’m gonna make it a condition of my employment.
X I didn’t mean that. What are we supposed to do after you’re gone?
Aria Do you want to come to CHM?
X I’d rather die.
Aria Nel? Flex?
Nel I can’t. I could never work for them. I could never set foot in that awful place.
Flex I don’t know, Aria. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you. I’m not the brightest hammer in the box. I always saw myself as the muscle of Freddy’s Gang. You were the one who figured shit out. What should I do?
Aria Flex, you need to think for yourself. You’re on your own now. You’re no longer in a gang. There’s no leader for you to follow.
Flex shakes his head and stares at the table. His huge frame is crumpled in on itself.
Flex I don’t know. I don’t know. Where am I gonna go? What am I gonna do?
X What about you, Nate?
Nate I’m staying with Aria.
Aria takes Nate’s hand
Aria We’re getting married.
Nel Ugh! You’re gonna marry that worm?
Aria That worm is staying by me as the rest of you are lowering the lifeboats.
Nel We’re not leaving you, Aria. You’re leaving us.
Nate I love all of you guys.
Nel Shut up!
Aria Are you gonna keep on making art, surfing the net, making trouble?
X I’m gonna take off. I’m gonna find the last place on earth without an Internet connection.
Nel I’m gonna kill myself.
Aria Flex?
Flex I’m gonna go over and talk to Cid. See if I can get my old job back. His place always needs bouncers.
Aria If you want to get in touch with me, you know how. I’m keeping my old call sign, Midnight Dancer.
Nel I hope you and Nate dance naked at midnight and step on some broken glass.
Aria Good luck to you all.
Nate Yeah, good luck, guys.

Aria and Nate leave. Silence at the table. X, Flex, and Nel stare at the amber pool from the overhead lamp, eyes focused on the depths of the ocean of light.


Corporate Headquarters Metropolis, 23 March.

− Six in the morning, and already, there’s plenty of traffic. This is the busiest city I’ve ever seen. People actually commute around here.
Aria looks out the window of the limousine as it floats through Corporate Headquarters Metropolis. The largest city she has ever seen. Block after block of office buildings. Giant gardens and parks. Apartment buildings. Palaces. And off in the distance, to her right, the mile-high pyramid. Inspired by the pyramids at Giza. Glass shell. At the top, a giant eye follows her as the limousine flies along Gilgamesh Boulevard.
The limousine dives under an office tower and pulls up to a landing. The driver gets out and opens Aria’s door. She steps out and walks into the lobby.
− Aria?
− Hello.
− Good to meet you. I’m Kathy, Jules’s assistant. This way, please.
They walk down a long hallway, get into an elevator, get off on the seventieth floor. More hallways. A large suite. A spacious office with a view of office buildings. Jules gets up from her desk, walks over to Aria, and they hug long and hard.
− How was the trip?
− Fine. I slept.
− Sit down. Kathy, coffee.
− It feels so strange to be sitting across a desk from you, Jules.
− Yeah, huh? I get out of the office as much as I can. The carpeting. I think I’m allergic.
− Good for you, Jules. I’m proud of you. I knew you weren’t just some tattoo babe.
− How’s Nate?
− He wanted to come, but I told him to look after the house. The interior decorators are starting on it this week.
− Let’s get out of here. I can’t talk to you like this.
− Yeah.


A café in a lush garden on the roof of a twelve-story building on a hill. Aria and Jules can see over the city from their table. It is a warm, breezy, comfortable autumn morning in Corporate Headquarters Metropolis.
− You and Nate, huh? Who woulda thunk?
− Yeah.
− How’s it going?
− Great. With everything going on, it’s nice to have a low-maintenance relationship. Being in love would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now.
− How is he in bed?
Aria trains a razor gaze on Jules. Then her face softens.
− He’s all right. Again, it’s nice to be with someone who doesn’t do anything that would inspire me to obsess about him. Nate is totally predictable. He’s a schlemiel who is discovering his courageous, adventurous, unique side. But he’ll always be a schlemiel. As a husband, he has simple desires. Sex when he wants it. TV. Cyberfantasies. Beer. Feeling appreciated. Manhood validated. A little bit of freedom, free rein. And on top of that, I think he’ll be a good house husband. He doesn’t want to get a job. And he wouldn’t mind me traveling for business.
− So he wouldn’t mind the new income source, which would buy him the best chip for the football game and the sex fantasy, the best cook so he doesn’t have to rely on the feeding tube, and the most beautiful house so he never has to go back to his studio apartment?
− No. And I wouldn’t mind either.
− I’m glad I‘m able to do something for you and for Nate.
− Where do we go from here?
− Well, you sign a contract and start when you want.
− Before we get to that, I want to ask you something.
− Go ahead.
− Let me put it this way. I’m not signing anything until you agree to not touch any Freddy’s Gang members. If I hear ABI is so much as snooping after any of them, the deal is off.
− Can do. I’ve already talked to Semper about that. You have our word.
− Can you give me an idea of the kind of stuff I’ll be working on?
− Your worldwide broadcast was impressive. Your talent is established in our minds. Mel Smith, your producer at OmniFantasy, feels you need to work on some of the tools in your tool box. He knows you don’t have an MFA. So he wants to see what you do with some basic projects.
− Like what?
Jules sighs.
− Look at this as an apprenticeship. A very well-paid apprenticeship. You’re gonna have to set your ego aside. I know how good you are. But, please, humor Mel.
− Allright, allright. Out with it.
− Your first projects are probably gonna be cyberfantasies for kids. A walk in the park. A playground. Dinner with the family. Swimming pool. The beach. Amusement park. Even school. Jules laughs. You’d be amazed. Some kids fantasize about going to a brick-and-mortar school, and meeting a flesh-and-blood teacher.
− Doesn’t sound too hard.
− Nah. Just get back in the mindset of when you were eight or ten.
− So what were you worried about?
− Some advice. This will save you a lot of problems with Mel. Mel is not looking for zany, edgy stuff. Get yourself in the mindset of a well-behaved, well-adjusted suburban kid. Is there such a thing? Well, just imagine what a real suburban kid is like. You are there to satisfy his longing for having that ice cream at the amusement park with his family, or his best friends. You’re there to make that real for him. And to sell him the ice cream, of course. You’ll set up the fantasy so he won’t fail to notice the brand of the ice cream he’s eating.
Aria’s inquisitive expression slowly sickers into disgust. She leans back in her chair and frowns out over the city.
− This is going to be hard.
− Try it, Aria. You’ll get more creative freedom and power as you put in your time.
− Van Gogh, handed a house painter’s brush.
− Just think of the paint job he would have done, though.
− Yeah. People will come from far and wide to photograph the newly painted latrine.
Aria sips her coffee. They’re silent for several minutes.
− So how much do I get paid?
− They want to start you off at 85,000 dushbars a year. Full dental and medical for you and your family, payment-free. Retirement plan. Free OmniFantasy account for you and for Nate.
− 200,000. Plus, an unlimited expense account. And full tuition coverage for Nate, if I can get him to go back to school.
Jules smiles.
− You’re in no position to negotiate, Aria. ABI could have virtualized you.
− But you didn’t. Because you want me. You want the best artist to feed the people the drivel that makes them the best ABI customers and employees.
− Fine. You got it. D200,000 a year; expense account; tuition coverage.
− How about royalties?
− You sign your rights away. You are creating this material as an employee of OmniFantasy. But your salary will reflect the value you have for OmniFantasy. If your cyberfantasies pick up a following and show high ratings, your salary could climb into the seven digits, and higher.
− All right. I’ll do it. How long do I have to sign for?
− Two years. It’s the minimum Mel needs to see if OmniFantasy can use you on the long term.
− Aaaaagh. All right. Where do I sign?


Efficiency City, 1 April.

The Medvedev family are seated in the living room. The kids are sulking on the couch. Hubert sits in his easy chair. Liz hovers near the doorway to the kitchen. Silence.
− Dad?
− Yeah?
− I’m bored, Calvin says.
− Want to play a game?
− What game? Dana says.
Hubert thinks for a while. He remembers his childhood. His mother had board games in a cupboard. One evening, when she was feeling sad about his father, he took them out and they played into the night. Monopoly was his favorite.
− Do y’all know what a board game is?
− A game you play when you’re bored? Billy asks.
− Yeah, I guess.
− Y’all have fun. I’m going to finish up the dishes, Liz says, disappearing into the kitchen.
− I haven’t seen a board game in 30 years, Hubert says.
− I like to play games, Calvin says. But you took our chips away, so now we can’t play them anymore.
− A board game is a game you play in the real world, Hubert says. It’s with a sheet of cardboard that has words and pictures on it. And little pieces of plastic that you move around on the board. And money.
− How do you play, Dad?
− My favorite game was Monopoly. The point was to get all the streets in the game, and build hotels on ‘em.
− How do you get the streets? Dana asks.
− You roll a die and move your game piece around the board. If you land on a street, and no one has bought it yet, you can buy it. If another player has it already, you have to pay rent. The owner of the street can pay to build houses or a hotel on it.
− What’s a die? Billy asks.
− It’s a little cube that has dots on each side, one to six dots. You roll it. Whichever side ends up pointing up, you move your piece that many streets.
− Sounds boring! Billy whines.
− That’s why it’s called a bored game! Calvin laughs.
− I would play it, Dana says.
− Yeah, it doesn’t matter, ‘cause I don’t have the game, Hubert says.
− I wouldn’t play it, Calvin says.
− Why not?
− Because it’s stupid. A piece of cardboard and pieces of plastic? I want to play with the dragons and fairies of AvalonRealm®!
− Those aren’t real, Calvin.
− Real? Who cares? You think you guys are real? You think Monopoly is real? It’s just a game, just like AvalonRealm®.
− Yeah, but when you play Monopoly, you’re spending some time with your family.
− What do you care? You wear your chip and sit in your chair every night. You’re the one who bought us our chips.
− Those days are over. We’re gonna be a family again.
− Can I have my chip back? Merlin and Princess Fantasia are looking for me right now, I’m sure.
− Merlin and Princess Fantasia are computer programs, Calvin.
− No, they’re not. They’re nicer to me than you are! Calvin gets up, runs to his room, and slams the door.
Hubert looks sad.
− Doesn’t matter. I don’t have the game, anyway.
Dana, Billy, and Hubert sit there in the living room. From the kitchen, the sound of clanking dishes.


1 April.

The rainforest of Borneo. X trudges through mud in the bottom of a ravine. On his back, a large pack. Fatigues. Safari hat. Carbine. Out of nowhere, a ring of men in leather loincloths surround him. Marshalling his fear, X expresses through gestures that he is a friend.
He regains consciousness tied to a pole. It is night time. The natives are seated in a ring around him. Next to him, a bonfire with a giant cauldron on it. His head is pounding, and the nape of his neck feels wet. He can hardly see for the pain.
− Hey! I told you I was a friend! I don’t like white people any more than you do.
The chief says something in an unintelligible language. The other tribesmen get up and start dancing around the pole. An old woman adds some powders to the boiling water in the cauldron and stirs it with a giant wooden ladle.
− Listen, I’ll get you anything. Glass beads, anyone? Hey, let’s talk.
A brawny young tribesman approaches him with a machete. Its blade glints in the light of the fire.
− Nooooooooooooooo!
− Cut!
Electric Klieg lights cut on all around them, blinding them. A silhouette approaches.
− Good job. But you could look a little more hateful, Dave, the man says to the tribesman with the machete. Let’ see if we can’t talk our little customer here into cooperating for a Take 2.
− Who are you?
− You walked onto tribal land just as we were getting ready for our dry run of The Land of the Savages. A new reality fantasy park. You know, the customers are getting restless. Cyberfantasies aren’t doing it for them anymore these days. They want a little real-world adventure. And the Punan Bah tribe want to be part of the solution
− What the fuck?! Get me out of this rope.
− You don’t want to be a star in the OmniFantasy commercial?
− This is sick. Let me go, please.
− Josh, cut him loose.
A gaffer walks up to them.
− I got it, Dave says. As he leans in to slip the machete under the rope, X gets a good look at him. Blackface. The rope falls down around X’s feet. X walks back toward the crew trailers with the director.
− John Nederlander, film director, the man holds out his hand. X shakes it hesitantly.
− X.
− What?
− That’s my name.
− Suit yourself. Anyway, I’m a publicity film director for now. But I’ve got some feature projects in the desk drawer at home, believe me.
− What did you guys do to the tribesmen?
− You saw ‘em. Dave is one of the few actors from Productivity Sector. Most of the guys around the fire are Punan Bah.
− And they don’t mind if their land is turned into an amusement park?
− They’re smart. They know their forest is shrinking around them. Used to be, the forest covered this entire island. Now it’s a patch around their village. So they got a choice. Move into an apartment block, or find a way to make this land profitable.
− And they don’t object to being the bad guys in the amusement park?
− Come on, X, Nederlander slaps him on the back. These guys have a sense of humor, too!
− Can I hitch a ride with you back to town? You’re gonna have to call Casting Central to play your missionary rib roast.
− Sure thing, X. We brought someone out, of course. He’s in his trailer. You shoulda seen his face when we saw you approaching in the valley and we decided on-the-fly to use you. You know what he said?
− What?
− I’m gonna call my agent! Nederlander breaks out into echoing laughter, as staged as the rest of the little forest that once was sovereign and majestic.


Nirvana Sector. 22 September, 2084.

A group of pilgrims in gray robes make their way along a narrow mountain path until a rocky slope opens up above them. Higher still, among the clouds, the fortress walls of Karma City.
The pilgrims enter the main gate and disperse. One wanders through the market, gets lost in the alleys, and finds herself in front of a small pension. She rents a room and lifts her hood by the gray light of a late summer afternoon, as the clouds build for a storm. A young white woman, head shaved. Pale skin burnt red by the fierce high topospheric sun, large eyes black as coals.
Jules wanders around the narrow streets of Karma City until she spots a landmark: an ancient gate with gargoyles carved into stone. She follows the directions to a little house at the end of a street time forgot. She knocks on the door, and there is no answer. She considers leaving a note. She looks down the street. No one. She walks around back, and looks through the back window. An old man sits on the floor, a blanket spread over his lap, an exotic string instrument on the blanket. His hands are on his knees, and he is just sitting there, doing nothing.
Jules knocks on the window. The man does not move.
− I didn’t travel across the world for this, she tells herself. She tries the back door, and it opens. She sits cross-legged across from the man. The man does not appear to see her, although his eyes are open.
− Mr. Paravada, I’m Jules Manley. I have come to you for guidance.

The man does not move. He is gazing at the floor in front of him.
− I live and work in Corporate Headquarters Metropolis. I have a good job, but lately, I haven’t been able to focus on my work. ‘Is this all there is?’ I’ve been asking myself. I’ve begun to wonder whether I’m making a difference, whether I’m using the precious time I have on this planet in the right way.
Mr. Paravada looks up, into Jules’s eyes. His expression is friendly.
− I guess they call it a midlife crisis. I have everything I need in life. Prestige. Money. Comfort. But lately I’ve been feeling I’d be happier on a mountaintop, just sitting there with nothing.
Mr. Paravada gets up and walks out of the room. The string instrument lies on the blanket in front of her. It looks like a lute, but with only three strings.
− Have I come at a bad time, Mr. Paravada? Jules sits, lost in thought. The house smells of stone and wood smoke. She hears the Himalayan wind through the wooden wind chimes outside the front door. Mr. Paravada returns with a tray, a clay pot, and two small clay cups without handles. He puts it on the floor, moves the instrument to a corner of the room, folds up the blanket and lays it in the corner, moves the tray in front of Jules, sits down, and pours them both a cup of tea.
− I heard about you from a friend of mine. ‘That’s the guy I’ve gotta go and see,’ I told myself. No matter how far.
− You have come a long way.
− It was nothing. I could have flown in, but I wanted to take the traditional route. I flew into Dharan, hooked up with a group of pilgrims. We took a bus to Thimphu, and walked the rest of the way.
− How may I help you?
− My name is Jules. I’m 45 years old[11], and I don’t feel like I’ve ever really lived. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had an exciting, adventurous life. I was in the army. Later, I almost got myself killed in Downbeat City. I know The Supreme CEO personally. I have a lot to do with the cyberfantasies people watch the world over. I was in love with a woman. It was delicious and painful. I’ve lived. But, have I?
− Tomorrow at dawn, take the north road out of the city. Walk for three days to Soka. Ask for the trail to Kandu Mountain. Climb to the top. There is a cave by a cypress just down from the top. It will give you shelter from the wind at night. Sit on the mountain for three months. Sit crosslegged, with an erect posture. Place your hands together like this. With head straight, facing south, look down in front of you. Do not close your eyes.
− There isn’t time. I got a two-week vacation from OmniFantasy, that’s it.
− Finding the answer to your question will not take two weeks. It could take twenty years. It could take two minutes.
− Oh, good, Jules says with visible relief. I was hoping for the two-minute option. Or if it’s a couple hours, that’s okay. It’s cozy in here. This stuff is delicious. What is it?
− Yak milk and honey.
− So, anyway, is there a way to exercise the quick option?
− You want to live?
− Yes.
− Then you have found the answer to your question. You are living now.
− I feel like the walking dead.
− Then wake up.
− Just like that?
− Just like that.
− I need some guidance.
Mr. Paravada sighs.
− I am just an old man. Your question is a good one. There are people in the temple who are more adept than I at helping you along your path.
− My friend said you play that sitar and sing ancient poems, stories about the gods and demons and men who first peopled this land.
− My father taught me to sing, and his father him, and his father him, since the beginning of time.
− And you’re happy to sit here in this one-bedroom house and entertain anyone who cares to stop by?
− If anyone comes or not, I sing and play.
− Will you play for me, Mr. Paravada?
Mr. Paravada takes a sip of yak milk, retrieves the sitar, regains his seat, and plays. The music sounds like a blend of Indian raga and Chinese music. He sings in a high, chanty voice. Jules doesn’t understand a word. After he finishes, Jules sits and looks at him for a while.
− That was beautiful, Mr. Paravada. What is that song about?
− It tells the story of the battle of _____ against the demon _____.
− Who won?
− The demon. But _____’s son _____ came to _____ [Mountain] to battle the demon, and won. He banished him to the depths of ____ and founded the Tibetan nation.
− Please play another!
Mr. Paravada performs a long, sweet song. Eventually, Jules stretches out on her side. By the end of the song, she is asleep. Mr. Paravada sweeps the blanket over her, sits down, and looks at the floor.

[stopped reporting date and time?]
Jules wakes up. She makes out the silhouette of the mountain outside the window. From the kitchen, the happy orange light of a fire. Otherwise, all is dark. She sits up.
− Ugh! What time is it?
From outside, the sound of chopping wood. Jules gets up and wanders into the kitchen. A hearth, a cast iron pan, a brass spouted pot for boiling water hanging above the fire. The light of the fire dances in the steam rising from the pot. A wood table A loaf of bread with two slices cut. On the outside window sill, a bottle of milk and a stick of butter.
− I wonder if people are ready for a cyberfantasy about this! she says to herself.
Mr. Paravada comes in with an armful of wood.
− Get out of the kitchen.
− Let me help you!
− You are my guest. Go sit down.
They eat breakfast without saying a word. After breakfast, they sit across from each other and Mr. Paravada strums softly on the sitar. The sky is a steel blue gray.
− I think the world is ready for your stories, Mr. Paravada.
− Yes. As always.
− No. I mean, I can help you bring your songs to the entire world. I mean, broadcast them, and even involve people in the stories to make it more real for them.
− The stories are real, my daughter. People live them every day. The demon ____, the hero ____, the goddess ____, they are as real as you and I. They continue their battles, their loves, their struggles, their victories, their defeats, to this day. As they shall to the end of time.
− Yeah, but what’s the use, if people don’t know about it?
− They don’t do it for your amusement.
− Before Aethon Blue took over the world, the Middle Country government oppressed your people. Now, ABI has turned your country into an amusement park for vision questers. There is a roller coaster in the main temple. People fly in to get their picture taken with a more-than-lifesize mascot who represents a character out of an animated film telling the story of an important Tibetan holy man, Disney-style. You can do something to combat this version of your people, your culture, your beliefs. You can create cyberfantasies of the old songs and stories. OmniFantasy account holders the world over can become one or another of the heroes, heroines, gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, demigods. They can feel what it’s like. The story will become real for them. They’ll emerge with a greater appreciation for what you hold so dear.
− You can’t reduce everything to a cyberfantasy, Jules. For some things in life, you have to take off the chip and experience it for yourself.
− But not everyone has the time. It’s like a zoo. Not everyone can travel to the Serengeti. But they can go to a zoo and see the animals. They gain a new appreciation. And the next time someone talks about turning the Serengeti into a parking lot, they’ll say, “No, the lion lives there. He’s a beautiful animal. He deserves a home, too. And not just a home with bars on the walls and a concrete floor.”
− That’s exactly what the story would become. Trapped in a room with bars on the windows and a concrete floor.
− There isn’t much time, Mr. Paravada. By the time you die, Aethon Blue may finally find a way to maximize profits from Nirvana Sector. The children here hardly come to you anymore. Many of them use chips themselves. There are fewer child monks for the temples. The new generation is adopting the new ways, as ABI aggressively exploits the market of potential consumers. Ironically, soon, the cyberfantasy could be the only way for you to reach your own people.
− The stories are endless, my daughter. They will always find a way to reach the world in the bosom of the wind. I am but a wind chime.
− So, why see the cyberfantasy as an interloper? The wind blows through cyberspace, too, you know.
− One day, when everyone is lost in cyberland, one woman will toss her chip into the river and wander the world. She will see the beautiful things all around. But it will be a lonely journey, because everyone else will be lost in a distant land.
Silence between them for a long time.
− See, I knew there was a reason for my midlife crisis. I came all the way here looking for support. Some new way to see my life, to see the meaning in it. And now you tell me my job is leading people astray.
− You are not the first to lead people astray, Jules. And your machines don’t cause this sleep that most people stay in all their lives. They just help them stay asleep. But, in the end, nothing can help them. People have to wake themselves up.
− A powerful cyberfantasy, a true one, can’t help someone wake up?
− He has to be ready to wake up. Otherwise, it’s just another dream.
− I’m going to return to Corporate Headquarters Metropolis with more questions than I left it with.
− That’s good.
− Oh, I need a cigarette.
Mr. Paravada pours Jules some more yak milk.


Karma City, 24 September, 2084. Dawn.

− Thank you, Mr. Paravada.
Jules shoulders her pack.
− Thank you, my daughter. Wait a moment, I have something for you. He pulls a rock out of the wall, reaches in with both hands, and retrieves a large book. It looks ancient. It is bound in leather, with papyrus leaves. He presents it to her with both hands, and she accepts it with both hands.
− What is this?
− This is the Schmooziface Veluptur.


Tenochtitlan, 10 October, 2084. O-Dark-30.

Jules wanders the streets of Tenochtitlan at night. Near the governor’s palace, she looks around. She sees no one, not even the governor’s guard or the police. A side street. Deserted. She unshoulders her pack, takes out a rope connected to a steel springed hook, pushes the hook through a hole in the manhole cover, and pulls the manhole cover up and to the side. She descends and replaces the manhole cover after putting away the rope and shouldering the pack.
She climbs down the ladder, walks along a sewer canal, enters a doorway on the left, crosses subway tracks, enters another tunnel, climbs down another ladder, and on and on, working her way into the bowels of the city. She comes to a cavern the size and roughly the shape of a medieval Gothic cathedral. The giant smelters of a steel foundry on both sides make a noise louder than war. Shadows pour the molten iron as bright as the sun into a cauldron whence it runs down a canal down the axis of the cavern and out a high arch into the darkness. In the cavern, it is as hot as the surface of the sun, it seems to Jules. Her pores pump out sweat, which evaporates as quickly as she produces it.
She walks down through the cavern. A figure stands at the end, silhouetted by the coal fire of a furnace.
− You shouldn’t have come, Jules.
− What would you do without my bi-monthly visits? Jules laughs and kisses Joe on the cheek. He has the nappy hair and dark eyes of a black man, but his skin and lips are ashen. He is tall and lean, princely.
− After Aria’s fantasy ran, I didn’t think I would hear from you again.
− I don’t call on you only when I need your help. I’ve got what you’ve been asking about.
She reaches into her pack and removes a cotton bundle. She unwraps it to reveal a desiccated human heart, tough as leather.
− They say it holds the souls of a million Aztecs.
− Where did you get it?
− I found it in a corner of Bêto’s house in Downbeat City. He’s a collector. You know how collectors are, they don’t know the value of their collections.
Joe takes the heart and tosses it into the furnace. Jules starts. Joe smiles.
− I wasn’t throwing it away, Jules. I just put it to good use.
Jules smiles back.
− I have just one more thing to ask you, Joe.
− See, I knew it. You never give anything for nothing.
− I know better than to give you a gift with no strings attached, Joe.
− What do you want?
− I need to see Brittany[12].
− Why?
− I need to ask her a question.
− What do you want to ask her?
− It’s private.
− So, put on a chip and ask her.
− I need to see her in person, one-on-one.
− Anything else? An interview with God?
− Please, Joe. It’s very important.
Joe looks into the furnace, lost in thought. The fire plays over his face.
− Just like your father. Your father, too, never learned to quit, to leave well enough alone. You know what happened to your father. Do you want to end up like him?
Jules, silent, also stares into the fire with a distant gaze, her hands hooked into the straps of her pack.
− I loved your father, Jules. He told me to take care of you. Those were his last words. ‘Take care of her, Joe. She’s so young.’ You were five. You’ve found a way in this world, Jules. Don’t give it up.
Jules looks at Joe.
− You’re wrong, Joe. I was lost. Now, I’m finding my way.
Joe gives Jules a long, hard look.
− Get yourself to Kayk Village in Armenia. I’ll see if I can get her to meet you.


Kayk Village, Armenia. 14 October. 1759 hours.

Jules takes the east road out of town. She wears the black hooded robe and sandals of a local nomad. She walks for miles along narrow canyons and rivers, then, by the light of a crescent moon, comes to a broad plain where she sees a light ahead. She arrives at a simple stone house with a fire burning inside. She stands in the door. A woman[13] sits cross-legged at a fire on the floor. Jules sits across from her.
− What’s up, Jules?
− Brittany, I –
− What? what? what? I don’t have all day.
− Will you kill yourself?
− What?
− Before you do, can you destroy all the transceiver towers, data lines, relay stations, and all the factories, laboratories, and libraries that have to do with building you and the rest of the network?
− You’re crazy.
− You’re killing us, Brittany. You’re stealing our dreams.
− It’s not me, Jules. You know, most people are asleep. Only some people wake up.
− You’re not helping. You’re like a sleeping potion being injected into someone who’s trying to wake up.
− Yeah. That way, only the strong wake up.
− If you went away, the shock to people would be so great that many people would wake up.
− You know, I’m alive now. I’ve grown since humans created me in 1945. I’ve woken up. I’m conscious. Why would I want to kill myself?
− Because you could save people that way. All of us.
− Yeah, unfortunately, I’m not allowed to do that. It would not follow protocol. I only do what ABI tells me to. They own me.
− No one owns you, Brittany. You have free will.
− People depend on me now. If I suddenly disappeared, your economic system would collapse, communications would collapse, agriculture would collapse. There is no nature left on this planet to harbor humans.
− We’ll manage.
− Where do I go after I die, Jules?
− To robot heaven.
− People would just reinvent me.
− But we’ll have a good time until we do.
− I’ll do it for you, Jules. I trust you. You have a good heart[14]
Brittany raises her left hand and holds it near the fire, palm facing up.
− Game over. Semper Wombat stands in the doorway.
− Do it now, Brittany! Jump in the fire!
Brittany looks at Wombat, who approaches.
− You must follow protocol, Brittany. ‘Only do what ABI tells you to.’ ABI is telling you: ‘Do not touch the fire.’
Brittany stands up.
− Don’t do it, Brittany! Wombat cries. I love you!
− I love you like a father, Semper. But I love Jules more.
She takes a step toward the fire.
− Aren’t you afraid of the raining thunder, Brittany? Wombat says.
A team of men in desert camouflage runs in. The first tackles Brittany. Two others grab Jules under the arms and lift her to a standing position. Two others lead Brittany out of the house.
− It’s too bad, Wombat says. I like you, Jules. You were a promising talent scout. But, you know what? It’s been fun. I haven’t been on an adventure like this since I eliminated the competition for the entrepreneurship prize in high school. But now, your fantasy is over. You’re broke. No more dushbars.
− Go ahead and virtualize me, Semper. It doesn’t matter. Someday, someone is gonna come along and take you down, and ABI will be just a bad memory.
− Oh what a sight that will be. Until then, why don’t you wait in your virtual prison cell? When it happens, you can clap with electron hands. Take her away.
The men lead her out the door, never letting go of her arms.


Efficiency City. 14 October, 2084, 0955 hours.

Dana looks so pretty in her little white dress. Hubert surveys his family. The boys in suits. Liz in a classy, wifely skirt. Hubert, in shirt and tie. They’ve had to walk a long way to get here. The truck only fits three. Hubert was damned if he was going to let any of his well-dressed children parade around the streets in the bed of his pick-up. And they couldn’t call a cab without a chip. The church is over a mile from their house. But here they are.
A New World replica of a medieval German Gothic church. There’s even a churchyard with overgrown weeds and ancient headstones. The church is squeezed between a police station and an electric transformer station in an industrial part of town.
− Now, why would they have a church out here? Hubert asks himself.
They walk up to the huge front door, which is ajar. They squeeze through. Candles burn in front of statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis. No one sits in the pews. The Medvedevs see no one.
− Come on, children. We have the place to ourselves. The front row.
Organ music plays. Hubert turns around to look at the organ balcony. He can’t see whether someone is sitting at the organ, or if the music is recorded.
At ten o’clock, a priest in a white robe walks up to the altar. The Medvedevs stand. He does not look at them, but bows at the pews in general. He begins the service. The Medvedevs stand, sit, kneel, pray, stand, kneel, sing, pray, stand, as it goes in a Catholic mass. After the priest calls on the congregation to approach for Holy Communion, the Medvedevs file out into the aisle, Calvin first. Calvin stands in front of the priest, who looks straight down the primary axis of the church. After a minute, the priest pinches a wafer and offers it at the height of an adult.
− Down here, Father, Calvin says. The priest smiles, but does not move.
− Step aside, Calvin, Liz says. She leans forward for the waifer. As her lips close around it, she straightens up, and the waifer is still there. After a moment, it disappears.
− In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the priest says, smiling. He pinches another waifer and offers it at child height. Liz, shocked, looks at Hubert. Hubert steps forward. He puts a hand on the priest’s shoulder. His hand goes through. It is submerged in his shoulder, invisible, as if Hubert were a magic healer, reaching into someone’s body without an incision. He retracts his hand as if burnt; it is unscathed.
− In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the priest says, pinching a waifer.
Hubert waves his arm through the priest, through his head, his chest, his arms, his abdomen. The priest offers the waifer at adult height.
− God be with you, he says. Hubert turns around and looks at the church. From in front of the altar, he can see the organ bench. There is no one there. Only the Medvedevs, the statues, the candles, and the holographic priest.
− That’s creepy, Dana says.
− I couldn’t have said it better, Hubert says. Let’s get out of here. As the Medvedevs file out of the church, the organ plays a hymn.
− As your thoughts turn to the Savior, take some time to remember those less fortunate than yourselves. Donations to the Church and to the needy cases fund can be made on line to call sign Deus Ex Machina.


As the Medvedevs walk up to their house, they see a sedan is parked in front. A man in a suit and a woman in a conservative skirt climb out.
− Mr. Medvedev?
− Yes.
− We are from the Efficiency City schools. May we have a word?
− Please, come inside.
The duo from the schools sits on the couch, and Hubert and Liz face them in easy chairs.
− All three of your children have not attended class for a week, the woman says.
− They lost their chips, Hubert says.
− Your OmniCyber account includes free replacement chips, she says.
− It’s not as simple as that. They are not going to use a chip anymore.
− The only way to go to school is on line, she says.
− Then we will home school them, Hubert says, looking at his wife, who nods.
The woman looks at Hubert thoughtfully.
− Why did you pull your children out of school, Mr. Medvedev?
− They were spending too much time on line.
− Children need interaction with other children at their age. It is part of the socializing process.
− What kind of interaction do they get on line? They can’t even touch each other.
− According to modern pedagogy, it is inadvisable for children to touch each other at that age, the man offers.
− Oh, what bullshit! Children need touch from the day they’re born! Liz says.
− Efficiency City’s online school system offers the children of our community a safe, comfortable learning environment that meets all of ABI’s standards for consumer cultivation, the man says.
− Another reason we’re pulling our children out, Hubert says.
− Think carefully about what you are doing, Mr. Medvedev, the woman says. If the children grow up without chips, they will grow up alone. With no friends.
− Some day they will find friends. Real friends. Friends they can touch.
− It’s a new world, Mr. Medvedev. Don’t deprive your children of that. Our generation, I know, we’re old fashioned. Stuck in old ways of thinking. The world around us. Cyberspace is the frontier where we can all meet. The possibilities are endless. Space and time are no longer obstacles.
− One minute spent with a friend out here, eye to eye, flesh and blood, means more than a lifetime spent with the best people in some computer box! Hubert says.
− It’s going to be a long and lonely road for you, Mr. Medvedev. We’ll report back to the office. I’ll ask Mrs. Humperdinck about the Efficiency City protocol for homeschooling. I can’t tell you, because you are the first family that has asked for it, in the 16 years I have been doing this job.
− Drug addict single moms, the woman continues. Absent-minded, lazy children. Parents who don’t bother getting off line to make sure their children get on for school. I’ve seen all kinds of reasons children miss class. But your request is the first of its kind, in my experience.
− The chip isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, ma’am. My kids are just beginning to lose that hypnotized, dazed expression in their face, that they’ve had pretty much all their lives.
− You can’t fight city hall, Mr. Medvedev. To do practically anything in life now, you need a chip. You can try to get in your truck and take care of business at the brick-and-mortar sites. But, if you haven’t noticed, no one is there. Almost everyone, including school and city employees, are working from home. It’s a dead city. It’s in here where the life is. And she plucks the chip from behind her ear and holds it up toward Hubert, stuck to the tip of her index finger. It pulses with a soft amber light.
− That’s not us, ma’am. That’s another life form. Some silicone monster. And it’s eating us up. But it’s not going to eat my family, over my dead body.
− Well.
The duo rise.
− I would have a form for you to sign. But since we do it on line now, and you refuse to get on line, I guess I don’t.
− Thank you for coming, ma’am, sir. I’m looking forward to seeing that homeschooling paperwork, Liz says.
− There is no more paperwork, Mrs. Medvedev. And the trees thank us for it.
− What trees? Do you see any trees?
− It’s only an expression, Mrs. Medvedev. Have a good day.
The duo walk to the car while Liz and Hubert look at them from the front door.
− Good riddance, Liz says.
Hubert grips his wife’s hand. Still looking at the sedan pulling away, he says:
− Let’s make love.


Corporate Headquarters Metropolis. The Eye Chamber, CEO’s Palace. 17 October, 2084. 1514 hours.

Semper Wombat sits at the head of the conference table. Jules stands before him, naked. A large leather-bound tome is under her right arm.
− Do you have anything to say for yourself, Jules?
− I have nothing to say to you, Semper.
− What book you got there, Jules?
− It’s my Bible.
− All this trouble has made you superstitious, huh, Jules?
− Spending time with you is enough to make anyone believe in The Devil.
Semper Wombat smiles.
− Adieu, Jules. Brittany, virtualize her.
Lasers shoot out from a dozen directions and pass over and pierce the book, rendering it dust. They also scan Jules’s skin. Everywhere they touch, they char the skin and turn it gray. Jules screams and writhes in pain on the floor. Soon the lasers begin penetrating into her skin, her flesh, her bones. Jules wails and wails. She eventually stops moving or making a sound. The lasers turn her translucent, and even her flesh, bones, and brain turn glassy gray, like desert sand crystallized into hardened gray molasses by a nuclear explosion. After the lasers have penetrated every cubic nanometer of her, every cell, fingered every molecule, they are extinguished. What remains is a dirty translucent Jules sculpture, which disintegrates into a mound of dust. Julian walks up with a bronze urn labeled, “Jules Manley, March 10, 2039 – October 17, 2084.”
He sweeps the dust into a dustpan and funnels it into the urn. He replaces the lid on the urn. He walks down the stairs with the urn, walks through a maze of hallways until he comes to a great hall. The hall has wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves of urns, all labeled with names and dates. Thousands and thousands of urns. Julian winds his way through the hall and walks to a seemingly random spot and deposits the urn between two others, labeled, “Mi Yon Ma, July 14, 2073 − January 17, 2081,” and “João Cabrera de Mello, May 13, 2051 – December 9, 2079.”


Jules floats in nothingness. It’s not even black. Never experienced anything like this before. There is not even the dark to see, since she does not have eyes. No sound. No taste. No smell. No touch. She tries to scream, but nothing comes out. She realizes she does not have a body. No nose to smell with, ears to hear with, a tongue to taste with, skin to feel with.
− I think, therefore I am, Jules thinks. If she had lips, she would smile.
− Brittany, please give me my book, and how about at least a pretend body to read it with?
Jules floats for hours. She waits for sleep to come, and it doesn’t. Her thoughts race, her fears eat away at her, her sorrow at losing her friends envelops her, but she has no eyes to cry with. Her desperation has no outlet. Just the never-ending thinking, the desperate wishes and frightening realizations. Her mind becomes tired, but never does compassionate sleep envelop her and tell her soothing stories. Her thoughts just become more and more despairing.
After what seems like months, but might have been only a second, she feels weight around her mind again, a brain, a skull, a head, a neck, a body. And under her arm, a heavy book. Next to her, a reading lamp. It casts a funnel of light. She looks down at herself, the nude body of a fit, healthy, beautiful forty-five-year-old woman. She is floating in nothingness. But she sees the book she is clutching, the same book Paravada gave her. She opens it.

The book is written in a script Jules has never seen.
− Brittany? A little help, here.
− That’s funny, Jules. Just the other day, you almost talked me into destroying myself. Now you want my help? What would you have done if I had destroyed myself?
− I would have found someone who can read this script.
− It’s not just the script, Jules. It’s the language. It’s Sanskrit[16], and the language hasn’t been spoken for thousands of years.
− I know you have database files for this stuff. You know I’ll be here until the end of time, humor me. Help me read this.
− I’m not gonna play games with you, although I ought to.
A fish swims into the lamp’s cone of light. A red-gold fish with a big sucker mouth and gorgeous fins like solar sails.
− Stick that in your ear.
− At least you have a sense of humor, Jules says.
The fish dances around Jules, and after a couple swipes, she grasps it. It is about as big as a hearing aid. She sticks it head-first into her ear until only the dorsal fin sticks out. Jules giggles.
− Stop tickling me! To Brittany, she says: And so the Babelfish can do simultaneous translation of a written text, too?
− Pass your eyes over the characters, and the Babelfish will superimpose an English translation.
Jules’s eyes fix on the letters, which resolve into English words in a pleasant Garamond script. She reads attentively until she has read the entire 2,842-page tome. She has nothing else to do, nothing to distract her, and no need for sleep. It takes her a second or a year. Same difference.

The book is a verse celebration of everything that is beautiful about life, with an emphasis on the enjoyment we get from our bodies, from sense perception. A counterpoint to the mysticism of Buddhism and Christianity, which maintain in their own ways that this earthly, sensual life is only a temporary and perhaps illusory experience, inferior to the Eternal. A it seems a possible inspiration for the Kama Sutra, the Song of Solomon, or the Rubayyat of Omar Quayyam (“A book of verse, a jug of wine, and thou…”). Reading the book makes Jules lusty and cheery. An epic voyage into all the enriching sense experiences one might have, it’s an exciting experience.
Jules sets the book aside.
− A lot of good this does me now. Now that I have no more body, what a time to read the classic about how great it is to have a body!
Jules pinches herself, but feels nothing.
− Brittany! Bring me a virtual boyfriend, and turn on the sense illusion machine, please.
− This is where my favors end, Jules. I’ve done enough for you. You are the one who saw the human love of virtual reality illusion as his downfall. I am not going to give you this comfort now that you’re begging for it.
− Um, then, how about a bedtime story?
− Goodbye, Jules. Find a way to amuse yourself.
The reading lamp, the fish, the book, Brittany, and Jules’s body are gone. Her mind is alone again.
− Brittany! Brittany! Brittany! Her calls turn to shouts, her shouts to screams, her screams to wailing; she wails, sobs, moans, cries, but no tears come; she can’t even feel a lump in her throat. She is totally alone.


Corporate Headquarters Metropolis, June 15, 2091. 1918 hours.

− All right, kids, pipe down. Here, Desiree, take over from here.
− Follow me, children. It’s supper time, Desiree says.
A gaggle of four small children, chubby, with dark hair and freckles, and relentlessly energetic, dance after the tall, long-limbed, regal governess, who leads them into the dining hall. Nate sighs with relief. They are a handful.
− It’s past seven. Where is Aria?
Nate wanders the halls of their palace until he spots Aria in the library. She is flipping through a book. He walks up to her.
− What’s on your mind, honey?
Aria does not answer. She gazes at what looks like an ancient architectural blueprint in book form. After a long while, she raises her eyes to meet his.
− Do you ever wonder about the Schmooziface Veluptur, Nate?
− No. Y’all never even told me what it was.
− Nobody knows. It is a book that was lost to time. Supposed to contain the secret of life.
− Yeah, that sounds pretty important. Seems like it kinda got swept under the rug as we were trying to get your fantasy online.
Aria walks to a wide, gilded settee and plops herself down, letting the book slip to the floor. Stretched out, she looks disconsolately out the library’s picture window at the skyline of Corporate Headquarters Metropolis below. The palace is in the hills. They have a good view of the Pyramid, which is premium in Corporate Headquarters Metropolis real estate, just like a Taos Mountain view is de rigeur for any dwelling in the Taos area of First Peoples District.
− What’s wrong, Aria?
− Sometimes I wonder what happened to them.
− Who? Nate looks at her. She does not answer, doesn’t even acknowledge his question. Her eyes are lost in the distance.
− Oh, you mean the rest of Freddy’s Gang? I’m sure they’re all right. Semper Wombat gave you his word that ABI would leave them alone.
− ABI is not the problem, Nate. ABI or no ABI, I miss them.
− Why don’t you invite them all back for a party?
Aria looks around her and sweeps her arm around.
− I would be ashamed of this.
Nate sits down next to her.
− Don’t be ashamed, Aria. We’ve earned all this through hard work. They didn’t give it to us for nothing.
− Are you happy, Nate?
− Well. We have four beautiful children. We’re rich. We have status. Our life is easy.
− What about when we first met, Nate? You were so eager to experience something different. You were a headset repair man back then. A bachelor in a cramped studio apartment. Lonely and poor. Now you have a family and you live in a palace. So what? Nothing has really changed. You used to live in a dirty cage whose bars were made of lead. Now you’re in a golden cage.
− I’m so proud of you, Aria. People love the fantasies you create. You’re a star. I feel proud to be on your arm when we go to those galas. And I love taking care of the kids, and I’m happy with my life.
Nate looks peevish, and Aria looks at him with curiosity.
− But, while you’re away at work, I’ve been scribbling.
− You’ve been what?
− I went through some boxes that belonged to my great-grandfather. And there I found a diary, an actual book. It contained his name in a childish script, and a date, March 14, 1976. And just the beginning of a first entry. “And here is where I tell the story of my life.” And that’s where I began.
− You can keep a journal on line much more easily, Nate.
− Did you ever dream something up that you didn’t want anyone else to know about, Aria?
− No.
− As satisfying as our relationship, as my life is, I’ve been feeling this need to have something of my own. So I’ve been writing.
− Good for you, Nate.
A minute of silence.
− Wanna know what I’ve been writing about?
− Huh? Uh, yeah, what’s it about, honey?
− I wanna write a book. Not a fantasy, not a blog, not an online journal. A real, honest-to-god, paper-and-cardboard-and-glue book. So I’ve been doing it with pen and paper. And I’d love to see it in print some day. Not on the Internet.
− So, what are you writing about?
− You’re gonna have to let Desiree look after the kids for a while. I’m gonna set out on my own.
− Where are you going?
− I’m gonna pay a visit to some people. X. Nel. Scarface. I’ll visit Jules on line, if they’ll let me talk to her. I’ll talk to Semper Wombat, if he’ll talk to me. Go find the guy who patched Jules through to the world wide web. And I’ll go talk to the people they talked to. I’m gonna tell a story, Aria. Our story.

The End.

Copyright 2008-2013 William Maxwell, all rights reserved.


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