Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Reptile Way

Renee was enjoying her first visit to Kansas City.  The city was more comfortable than New York while still suitably urban. She strolled past The Roan Horse Tavern in the Westport section. It looked like a cozy place. She tentatively planned to stop there for a drink after the meeting. She assumed she would leave the meeting alone, just as she always did back home. It was not for a lack of invitations. Though she was mousy, nearsighted, somewhat pudgy, and scarcely over 5 feet tall, among the singles in the New York City chapter she was almost a goddess, so several of the members had asked her out. The club had no shortage of quirky and offbeat people. Their company was fun an hour or two every week, but she had balked at dating any of them. There were first-rate alphas among the membership, too, but all of the males of that description were married, and none had expressed an inclination to cheat – at least not with her. She had no reason to expect the membership in KC would be any different than in New York.

Ostensibly, she belonged to The Sunshine Club, a small association purporting to promote solar power in the state of New York. This was a front. Secretly, the club was the local outpost of the Illuminati, or so the Inner Circle claimed. Numerous other fraternal organizations made the same claim, most of them openly, but The Sunshine Club’s leadership insisted their own descent was legitimate – that there was unbroken continuity with the secret society of the Illuminati founded by Adam Weishaupt in Bavaria in 1776. Meetings were full of secret handshakes, ceremonial robes, arcane rituals, and toasts to a strange assortment of historical persons, most recently Napoleon III. All cell phones and recording devices were strictly forbidden: phones always were surrendered at the door and returned at the end of each meeting. Renee conceded to herself that the whole thing was silly, but she found pleasure in it in much the same way she found pleasure in Halloween.

The invitation to join The Sunshine Club had come a year ago from an old high school acquaintance from Mineola, New York, named Neville. She hadn’t remembered him at first when he called her out of the blue, but then she realized he was the creepy student who sometimes stared at her in school but never spoke to her. With some trepidation she agreed to a coffee date in broad daylight at a nearby diner. He chose the off-peak hour of 2 PM. When she arrived, she found him sitting in an isolated booth at the far end of the diner. After a few awkward pleasantries, he revealed to her quietly that he was a third generation member of the Illuminati. She thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Then she thought he was crazy. She still considered the jury to be out on that one. When he invited her to attend a meeting of the Outer Circle, she was prompted by an inner urge to accept. Throughout her life, she had experienced the odd sudden afflation to do this or avoid that or invest in some other thing. She called it her inner voice, even though it never conveyed anything to her in words – which was fortunate, because that might have been a sign of schizophrenia. She assumed it was what others meant by “gut instinct,” though her version seemed to be particularly strong. The inner voice rarely steered her wrong, so she had learned to trust it.

 “How do you know I won’t attend a meeting and then go blabbing on the internet about your secret society?” she asked Neville.

“You won’t. You’ll join and you’ll choose to keep our secrets,” he answered.

“You seem awfully sure of that.”

“I am.”

Neville proved to be right. At the first meeting of The Sunshine Club she met charming oddballs, plus some movers and shakers in surprising positions of power. The ritualistic hocus pocus appealed to her sense of the absurd. She was inducted that very night. In the ensuing months she rose in the Outer Circle ranks, advancing ahead of long-standing members. This caused no rancor among them she could detect. She wondered if she was being primed for the Inner Circle for some reason. She hoped so, because she was very curious about them. Unlike the members of the Outer Circle who used their real names, the Inner Circle always kept their identities a secret, except, presumably from each other. Always robed and masked during meetings, they arrived and left from a separate entrance. If they aspired to some real political or social goals, those goals were a mystery to her, for there was no ideological consistency among the membership whatsoever. They spanned the political spectrum.  She was sure some of the longstanding Outer members must know who at least some of the Inner Circle were and what they were about, but they never spoke of it. Even Neville feigned ignorance.

The chapter’s Inner Circle chief executive styled himself the Grand Garloo. He wore different robes and masks on different days, but they always were green. On a whim, she googled “Grand Garloo.” She discovered the name was a variation on a 1960s robotic toy, perhaps one the Inner Circle head remembered fondly. That didn’t tell her much, though it did suggest his age. The Grand Garloo himself had assigned Renee to the Kansas City trip. He attended a meeting of the Outer Circle and, with only a week’s notice, informed her she would be liaison to the Kansas City chapter. He told her all expenses would be paid by The Sunshine Club.

“What would I liaise about?” she asked.

“Go there, and you'll find out. Representatives from other chapters will be there, too, I believe,” the Grand Garloo said.

She’d been about to decline when her inner voice urged her to accept. She agreed tentatively to the trip, but said she needed to check with her boss at the security firm where she did IT work. She knew her boss wasn’t rigid about vacations, but liked more notice than a week. The Grand Garloo told her he would arrange a full week paid leave for her. He proved as good as his word, because the next afternoon she was informed of her time off. She wondered who he was to have such influence with her employer.

So, here she was in KC on what she regarded as a vacation. Pennsylvania Avenue was an ostentatious name for a fairly humble street. It also was an odd name for a street in Kansas City, but then Kansas City was an odd name for a city in Missouri. The street number she sought was only a few doors away from The Roan Horse Tavern. Renee double-checked the number on the black wooden six-panel door. It was the right one. She opened it and stepped into a small vestibule with scuffed black and white tiles. A second steel security door blocked her. A conspicuous security camera was mounted in a ceiling corner. She pressed the doorbell button

“Yes?” rasped a metallic voice.

“Renee Rensalier,” representing The Sunshine Club, New York.

“Second floor,” answered the voice.

The door clicked. She opened it and faced a dark and foreboding narrow stairway. Her inner voice egged her onward, but she patted the bulge in her pocket of the small pocket knife she had bought by impulse at a hardware store around the corner 15 minutes earlier. The feel of it calmed her, though the amount of protection it offered was minimal.

Renee climbed the stairs. She knew there was a third floor to the building, but this stairway terminated at the second. She concluded there was a second entrance with a full stairway. Perhaps, as in New York, the Inner Circle used a different door than the Outer Circle. On the second floor was a truncated and barely lit hallway with a single door. The door was marked simply 2A. She already knew that this chapter of the Illuminati called itself The International Enameling Association (IEA). The Sunshine Club had the name painted on the hallway door, and even had a rudimentary website, but here there was no sign, no phone listing, and no website for the cover organization. Apparently this club preferred to be even more secretive.

She knocked the requisite seven-knock pattern. A bald middle-aged man in pince-nez glasses opened the door. He wore a bow-tie on a white shirt without a jacket. The glasses gave his otherwise common face a distinctive look. She wondered if she should get a pair. She decided against it.

“Renee Rensalier, New York chapter,” she said

“Yes, yes. Follow me. Everyone’s here,” he answered.

“Am I late?”

“No, everyone else is early.”

“Why?’

“So they wouldn’t be late, of course.”

The first room resembled the outer office of a detective in a 40s film-noir. The frosted glass panel in the inner door to which Mr. Pince-nez led her did not read “Sam Spade,” but it looked as though it should.

“Do you fellows rent the entire floor?” she asked.

“The IEA owns the building. The street level is rented to shops. Second floor is for members. Third is a residence for the hetman.”

“Hetman? Is that what you call the chapter president here?” asked Renee.

“Yes, that’s one of her jobs. Please, come this way.”

On the other side of the frosted door was a barroom of the sort one might find at a VA hall. The bar formed a horseshoe that doubled back against the far mirrored wall. The divergence from a VA bar was a stage with stripper poles in the middle of the horseshoe. Except for herself and her guide, the room was vacant.

“I thought you said everyone was here,” she said.

“They are. Meetings of the Innermost Circle are held in the Council Room. The general membership normally congregates at the bar, but the general membership is absent today.”

Renee was disquieted, but her inner voice was excited by the news. Mr. Pince-nez led her through yet another door to a comfortable if somewhat tatty library with lounge chairs and overstuffed shelves. The books on the shelves tended heavily to history. He swung open a bookcase to reveal a hidden doorway.

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked.

Mr. Pince-nez smiled. “You must forgive our sense of theater. We couldn’t resist.”

The doorway was blocked by gleaming bars. He slid the barred door open with the push of a finger’

“Are those bars gold?” she asked.

“Gilded. Plate.”

“Still, they must have cost a fortune. Will we be locked in?”

“There is no lock. Try it yourself.”

“That’s OK, I believe you.”

She passed through the door. Her guide, remaining outside, slid it shut behind her. He then closed the swinging bookcase.

In all but one aspect, the Council Room in which she stood room had the workaday appearance of a meeting hall for a small municipality. Thirteen people – eight men and five women – sat in chairs behind a long podium faced with plywood veneer. They wore ordinary street clothes and no masks. Facing the podium were twenty-four folding steel chairs. Half of them were occupied by an ethnically diverse mix of people. Renee took a seat in one of the chairs. The one obvious dissimilarity to a municipal meeting hall was a cage to the right of the podium. The size of a small jail cell, it had gilded bars like the sliding door by the bookcase. Inside the cage, a young woman sat in a leather recliner chair. On her head was a skull cap with a tangle of fiber optic wires flaring of it. The wires tied together into a single cable in back of the chair.

At the far right of the podium, a middle-age woman with curly gray hair and a severe gray business suit banged a gavel.

“For those of you visiting Kansas City for the first time, I am Judith, hetman of the Directorate of the Innermost Circle” she said. “Now that we are all here, I want to welcome you all to this international meeting of the Illuminati. A select dozen of the world’s chapters are represented today, called here to witness something exciting. Before we start, I wish to ask the New York representative, who has just arrived, whether she has any questions.”

“Me? Um, OK. Why is there a caged woman in an easy chair?”

“I’ll explain that shortly. Anything else?”

“I’m not sure I know enough yet to ask any useful questions, ma’am,” said Renee.

“My name is Judith. You can call me Judith or Hetman Judith.”

Renee was distinctly uncomfortable calling any member of this chapter’s “Innermost Circle” by a first name, so she included the title. “Alright, Hetman Judith. I do have another question. Back home our Inner Circle is disguised and uses false identities. You don’t. Is there a reason for the difference other than local preference?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Renee could see smiles on the faces of other liaisons.

“Renee… May I call you Renee?” asked Judith.

“Of course.”

“We also maintain secret identities and disguises when the general membership is present. They are not present. This is a closed meeting of the Innermost Circle, and we are all friends here, are we not?”

“But…”

“But you do not belong to the New York Inner Circle. We know. By my authority you are a member of the Innermost Circle.”

“Oh. Thank you,” said Renee.

“Don’t thank me yet – not until you learn what duties attend your elevation.”

“Duties?”

“In good time, Renee. The other liaisons here today were selected for several reasons, but most of all because of the trust we have in them. You were chosen primarily for another reason.”

“What reason?”

“I’ll explain that in about 10 minutes.”

“Alright.”

The hetman cleared her throat. “Fellow illuminated ones. Since the founding of the Illuminati, our researchers have explored the uses of what we now call ESP for pursuing our goals. Centuries ago we called it by various other names including mesmerism and mind reading. Our early experiments lacked rigor, and we repeatedly were duped by spiritualists and frauds. In the mid-20th century we finally put our investigations on an adequately scientific basis, and we have continued with them up to the current time.”

Judith held up a pack of cards.

“Most of you are familiar with what I am holding in my hands,” she continued. “These are standard Zener cards, which have been used for testing telepathy since the early 1930s. They contain five symbols: star, cross, circle, wavy lines, and square. A tester looks at the card while keeping it hidden from the subject; the subject then tries to determine what card the tester sees. The likelihood of the subject guessing the correct symbol by pure chance is 20%. Except in experiments in which the methodology was later disputed, there never was a replicable and consistent violation of the odds – until recently. At long last we have identified individuals whose results cannot be explained away as statistical flukes. They do not violate chance by very much – none scores as high as 25% – but they violate it consistently, thereby demonstrating the effect is real.

“Enter modern technology. I’m not talking about paired cell phones, in which two people with headsets learn to communicate by manipulating their brainwaves instead of their voices – though we have experimented with this, too. What we have done is much more revolutionary. We can enhance the innate psychic ability of these already gifted individuals. A natural psychic when connected to our device can transmit and receive thoughts from someone who is not connected to any technology at all. When boosted, several of our subjects regularly score over 70% on the Zener card test. The woman in our gilded cage, the one about who Renee queried, is Colette. She is our best subject to date.”

Colette waved to acknowledge the hetman’s reference to her.

 “Unboosted, Colette averages a score of nearly 24%: impressive but still low enough for doubters to question the legitimacy of the results – for them to ask, for example, if she is picking up hidden cues somehow. But boosted, she scores close to 90%, even under the most rigorous testing conditions. Furthermore, she can project her thoughts to other natural psychics. If she reads the cards when boosted, her unboosted partner will score better than 30% – not a huge improvement, but a significant one. You can see the possibilities: we are developing the tools to influence people at a distance. If we can we put a card symbol into someone’s mind, we also can plant thoughts in that person and influence his or her decisions in ways that serve our agenda.”

Renee felt tingle of excitement inside her. It was mixed with something else. Alarm? She wasn’t used to that from her inner voice.

“Remember,” said Judith, “when boosted, she can read anyone whether that person has any innate psychic ability or not. She needs another natural psychic as a partner only when projecting her own thoughts.”

Someone four seats away from Renee raised his hand.

“Yes, Mbutu?”

“Hetman, how common are these natural psychics whom you can boost,” he asked in an accent Renee hadn’t heard before.

“They are less than 1% of the general population.”

“What does this boosting device do to the scores of the other 99%?”

“Good question. The answer is nothing. They continue to average a purely random 20%, but it is possible we eventually can find a way to tap into their latent abilities, too. We will now give a demonstration. I know this is not a rigorous setting, but you will have the opportunity later to satisfy yourselves that this is not a trick. For this demonstration, all of you will play the role of tester. Renee, will you please come here and shuffle this pack. ”

Renee did as Judith asked, though as she shuffled the classic card sharp’s line kept running through her head: “Pick a card, any card.” She returned to her seat.

 “Neither I nor Colette will see these cards directly,” said Judith. “I’ll present their faces to all of you. Colette, please tell us what they are seeing.”

Judith held up the cards one by one.

Colette spoke from the seat in the cage as Judith held up each card: “Circle, wavy lines, circle, cross, square, circle, star, square… Mbutu is trying to fool me. He is deliberately thinking of wavy lines, but he sees a star, as do the others. Square, lines, cross, star, star, circle…” She continued through the full pack. “How did I do?” she asked.

“Perfect score,” said Renee. She was genuinely intrigued, but had been to too many magic shows accept the result at face value. Staging this would have been no difficult task for any modestly competent magician. Colette easily could be cued through that bizarre headset, for example.

“Miss Rensalier thinks it’s a trick,” said Colette.

“Is that correct, Renee?”

“Yes, ma’am… I mean Hetman. But Colette’s guess about that doesn’t require psychic skill either. There remain alternative possibilities for the results.”

“She means ‘this is probably a fraud,’” said Colette.

“No doubt she does,” said Judith with a gentle smile. “We on the directorship also had similar doubts at first, but we have been convinced. Now we intend to convince you.”

“Why is it important to convince me?” asked Renee.

“Do you know why you were asked to join the Illuminati? Why you were advanced in the ranks? Why you were chosen to attend this meeting?”

“No, to all three.”

“I instructed Neville to recruit you,” said the hetman.

“You? Why?”

“When we identified the traits associated with innate psychic ability, we began a search for people who had them, and who also met certain other criteria that suited them for membership in our organization. Neville filed a report on you when you were still in high school.  Subsequent tests confirmed that you are part of the 1% of population with enhanced ESP. So, last year, you were invited to join.”

“I didn’t take any tests.”

“Yes you did, you just weren’t aware that’s what they were,” said Judith.

“But I’ve never experienced ESP…” she stopped herself as her inner voice tingled.

“I believe you have, even if you don’t think of the experiences in those terms.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“We’re telling you now. Would you please take Colette’s place so we see what you can do?”

Her inner voice conveyed a rare sense of caution. Then it nudged her forward.

“Alright.”

“Charles, please help Renee into position,” said Judith.

The Director named Charles nodded and stood up. White-haired, mustached, and of short stature, Charles looked like an aging classics professor at some rural college. In his a three piece suit he was the most formally attired in the room. He was definitely a Charles, not a Charlie.

Colette removed her headgear. She slid open the cage door and stepped out.

“This way please,” said Charles to Renee.

Renee followed him into the cage and sat in the recliner. Charles helped fit the wired cap to her head. Renee felt ridiculous. She was sure this wouldn’t work for her.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Renee said. “By the way, why the golden cage?” she asked.

“Think of it as a sort of Faraday cage for psychic energy, but it works on different principles,” said Charles. “There is an outer cage built into the walls, floor and ceiling of this room. We found that gold provides the greatest effect. We don’t know why. It just does.”

With Renee situated in the chair, Charles withdrew and closed the barred gate.  “We’re electrifying the bars now. Don’t touch them, they’re dangerous,” he said.

“What? Wait! You didn’t do that with Colette!”

The lights dimmed briefly as Judith flicked a switch mounted on the podium.

[The reptilian named Slinter tried to switch off his resonance chamber, but found that he couldn’t move. Just the barest sliver of consciousness remained in his own body. On the other hand, he was pulled forcefully into full control of the human host called Renee. He never had taken full control of her before. Instead he had experienced her life in the usual passive way, giving her only an occasional helpful hint or nudge. A mere ghost of her consciousness remained in her body – far less than enough to challenge his control. With a start, he realized her consciousness had been impressed in his own body. The small piece of him remaining on the other side was overwhelmed by her. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It never had happened to any gamer before. He turned Renee’s head and stared at the directorate with a deadly gaze.]

“I see we have your attention,” said Judith. “I suspect you’ll be disinclined to talk at first, but bear in mind that Renee is over in your world at the moment, something that may not be good for any of us, so the sooner we understand each other the better.”

 [Renee wondered where she was. Had these nut cases knocked her unconscious and sealed her in some kind of box? Had they buried her alive? Nothing felt right. She didn’t know how to describe the sensations she was experiencing.]

“I’m listening,” said the creature speaking through Renee. As was usual in cases of full possession, he had access to enough of Renee’s memories to be able to communicate in her own language. It worked best if he didn’t think about it. If he did, he could become tongue-tied. He had nothing to lose by hearing what the humans wanted. Besides, he needed to buy a little time. He was aware that Renee wanted out of the resonance chamber. If she opened the lid, the gravito-magnetic circuit would break, and both of them should snap back into their proper selves.

 [Renee reached for the lid. She realized she knew how to work the device if she didn’t try to think about it. She tapped a code sequence. The lid unsealed and opened. She sat up and looked around. She looked at her clawed hands and then at her body. What had they done to her? She had reptilian scales and resembled the Creature from the Black Lagoon.]

Fear enveloped Slinter. Renee had opened the lid on the other side, but he was still here! How was it possible? Had the humans duplicated the resonance technology? But how? The physics in the universes were different. He pulled the skull cap off her head. Nothing changed.

“It’s too late to leave,” said Judith to the creature in Renee. “Only we can let you go. We pulled more of you over here and pushed her over there, and now we’re blocking you from withdrawing.”

“What do you want?”

“First, thank you for not wasting our time with protestations that you are just plain old Renee. We know basically what you are. We’ve known for hundreds of years, which is why you and your fellows have labored to destroy us all that time – it is why you were so eager to infiltrate us when we offered Renee membership. Second, you should know that you are not in some obscure cozy corner of the Illuminati,” said Judith “This is the global headquarters and we are the Innermost Circle Directorate for the entire organization. Kansas City is a well-connected city large enough for anonymity but small enough to be overlooked by our enemies as a likely HQ. For decades, we’ve had the ability to detect your kind. We spotted you inside Renee early on. The device in which you sit is new, though. It sets up a resonance with your plane of existence, which allows us for the first time to counter you on your own terms. We assume you use something similar to infest people here. Your universe is as big as ours, however, so we couldn’t hope to find your world by just poking around aimlessly over there. So, we needed to capture one of you in order to direct us to the right place, which is why you are here. How did you creatures find earth, by the way? Blind chance?”

“Our devices are more sophisticated than yours are or can be,” said the creature in Renee. “They rapidly can locate points of psychic resonance within large swaths of space. We found many other intelligences, but, of those we’ve examined, your people make the most congenial hosts. While I admit to being impressed by your technical ingenuity, your device is an incredibly crude one by comparison. Besides, it can’t work in exactly the same way as ours for reasons of physics. I’m amazed it works at all.”

“I see. Thank you again for not pretending with us,” said Judith. “What should I call you?”

“‘Slinter’ is about as close as you can manage. Hetman Judith, if that is what you wish me to call you, you’ve put yourself and your entire civilization at grave risk. When Renee makes her presence known in my world, my compatriots will strike at you – they may decide to knock your technology back to where you can’t build any more resonance devices. I’ll let you imagine how they might do that.”

“The way we look at it, Slinter, we’re already at risk. We’ve suffered grievously at the hands of your puppets for centuries. You creatures… are you really reptiles by the way?”

“Our biology is completely different. You can’t apply your taxonomy to us, but I suppose we would look like reptiles to you.”

“I see. Back to the point, you reptiles control this world, and look what you’ve done to us. Hitler, Stalin…”

“No, no. Those were your people. The worst thing that can happen to earth is to have humans fully in charge. The fascists, communists, and other populist authoritarians were an unexpected reaction to World War One, for which we do accept responsibility. They disrupted our influence in a way that wasn’t fully restored until 1990. Despite the occasional war, you are better off when we manage things.”

“World War One was just a minor little thing in your view?” asked Judith.

“It wasn’t as bad as it would have been had we left you entirely to yourselves – not that we are trying to help you. We’re just not trying to destroy you. Many of you on the other hand are hell bent on destroying each other.”

“What are you after, then? Are you really feeding off our psychic energy as David Icke and his followers claim?”

“No. It’s just a game.”

“What?”

“A game. It’s just a game. You play Grand Theft Auto. We play Earth. When we resonate with host humans, we sense and feel all they feel, even when we don’t take full control of them. We hardly ever take full control, actually, because this can do bad things to a host’s sanity when he is released. We usually just observe and discreetly nudge our game pieces. We play against each other and experience our hosts’ victories and losses. It’s fun and exhilarating. Humans clearly have sensed something of the sort for a long time. The basic idea is everywhere in your popular culture, whether it’s the old notion of possession or the modern premise of movies like the Matrix, Stargate, Surrogates, or Avatar.”

“A game! Don’t you have anything better to do in your own world than play in ours?”

“Not really. The physical needs of our People were been met by our self-replicating industrial robots ages ago. We successfully extended our lifespan so that, barring accidents, we are effectively immortal. For that reason, we don’t like to take many risks in our own world. We prefer to take them here. When a host dies we can find another easily enough. We typically work several at once, rotating our presence from one to the other. Certain bloodlines are easier for us to possess than others – the same 1% you say have innate ESP talent. It isn’t much fun experiencing the lives of peons, so we’ve assisted our favored bloodlines into positions of power. Not all members of them. Renee, for example, leads an average life. Average lives have some attraction for us, too. I believe you’ve suspected all this as well.”

“Indeed we have. How many of you are there?”

“Fewer than 10,000. We aren’t the breeding machines you people are – in fact there hasn’t been a birth on our world for a century. Hetman, we have been doing this since Sumeria. You owe your civilization to us. Do you really think you can free earth from us, or that you would be better off if you did?”

“Yes.”

“You are mistaken. I’m afraid I have to leave now, and inform my People of what you have done.”

“We can’t allow that,” said Judith.

“I’m not requesting permission. When our pawns die, we simply return to our own bodies. You’ve been warned.”

“But…”

Slinter pulled out Renee’ folding knife from her pocket and slit her throat. A look more of puzzlement than panic was on her face as she slumped to the floor.

“I was going to say,” said Judith, “that your return to your body will be prevented by the same golden resonance cage that’s been keeping you here until now. Resonance works by imprinting your way of thinking upon your host – it alters the current flow through the host’s circuits. You are blocked from re-imprinting yourself back into your body on your world. You should have known that – or are you an artist rather than a technician?”

Slinter didn’t hear Judith’s explanation or her question. He had terminated with Renee’s body.

“What about Renee on the other side?” asked Director Nicole, who sat next to Judith.

“I don’t see how we can help her,” said Judith.

“So, what do we do now?”

“I imagine we find another reptile-infested human to take Renee’s place. Let’s open the matter for discussion with our liaisons.”

 [Renee felt herself die earthside. The remnant that was still Slinter reached out for control on this side, but he didn’t have the power. Instead, she could feel him blend with her. The process was rapid. She remained predominately Renee, but the blend imparted to her a reptilian ruthlessness. She began to see possibilities. She explored a few rooms of her manor and reassured herself that the robots responded to her as though she were still Slinter. She realized she owned hundreds of square kilometers of land – and Slinter wasn’t especially rich by the standards of the People. She would have to examine her possessions more closely later, but for now she had something pressing to do back on earth. She returned to the game room and slid back into the resonance chamber. She knew how to search for a suitable host nearby the Illuminati HQ.]

The man in pince-nez swung open the bookcase.

“What is it, Sergeant-at-arms?” asked Judith.

“Excuse me for interrupting, Hetman, but a woman claiming to be Miss Renee Rensalier is at the door. She doesn’t look anything like the last one.”

“Really? How odd. Let her in.”

A few minutes later a tall attractive blonde dressed for a night out appeared outside the bookcase. Renee had found the potential host sitting at the bar of The Roan Horse Tavern. She had liked the look in the mirror. Possession was an easier way of improving one’s appearance than diet and exercise. She also liked what was in the woman’s purse.

“I’m not going in the conference room,” said Renee in her new form. “I know there is a secondary cage built into the walls. If you want to talk to me, come out here.”

Renee entered into the interior of the horseshoe bar and sat on the edge of the central stage. The Directorate and the liaisons filed through the library into the barroom.

“Come on, take the seats,” Renee said.

The members slowly seated themselves, with Hetman Judith directly facing Renee.

“Are you really Renee?” asked Judith.

“Yes. At least, as much as I can be. I regret the necessity of taking full possession of this woman, which means dispossessing her from her own mind. She isn’t likely to get it back, even if I let her go, but let’s make sure her sacrifice counts for something. Judith, dear, you referenced the Illuminati ‘agenda’ earlier. There isn’t any such agenda beyond power itself, is there? You don’t particularly care about ideology so long as you are in charge.”

“What’s your point?”

“The only way this secret society truly can take charge is with my help – and I won’t provide it unless you appoint me the new hetman. I’m offering you a chance to be my lieutenant. With a foot in both planes of existence, I can get human allies into other reptiles, and before you know it we’ll be the dominant gamesters on two worlds. Colette, you have the right bloodline. How would you like to be immortal – to occupy one human life after another?”

“Sounds interesting,” said Colette.

“It sounds horrific,” said Judith. “How would your rule be any better than rule by the reptiles?”

“I never claimed to be better.”

“I forbid it! I’ll issue an executive order forbidding any co-operation with you – in whatever guise you take. We can identify possessed individuals.”

“Yes, and that ability will come in handy while gaming. It may surprise you to know that we can’t always recognize each other’s pawns. But I can’t allow you to issue any such orders.”

Renee removed a 9mm from her host’s purse and summarily executed Judith.

“Any other objections to my elevation to the post of hetman?”

There were none.

“I presume you can dispose of the bodies,” she said.

“We’ve done it before,” said the pince-nezed sergeant-at-arms,

“Good. Other gamers have tried to disrupt or suppress the Illuminati in the past, but taking it over will be a master stroke. If all of you do as you’re told you’ll be rewarded beyond anything for which you might have hoped. If you don’t… well, I think the consequences of that are obvious. Inform all the chapters to stand by for orders. You silly people soon will get what you’ve been after for centuries. The Illuminati conspiracy is on the verge of success.”




Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sidewalk Love

Preface: I wrote this back in 1977. Yes, as long ago as that. It is set the previous year because a 1976 clean-up campaign in NYC is useful to the plot. New York in the mid-1970s was far different from today, especially Times Square and the area west of Broadway. Today, Times Square is Disney-fied, and the whole Theater District is full of trendy restaurants, pricy office space, and pricier living space. In the free-wheeling 70s, the area was much seedier. It was the center of the city’s sex trade, and the trade was not hidden away out of sight. In those days when STDs were believed curable (and most were), strip joints, peep shows, porn shops, and massage parlors abounded amid the legitimate theaters. 8th Avenue from 42nd to 52nd Streets was the Minnesota Strip (named for the Midwestern origins of many of its denizens), always lined by scores of streetwalkers asking passersby for dates. Inside the surrounding parlors and fleabag hotels were hundreds more working girls (and working boys). I was young enough in those days to find the people and the scene intriguing. Hence this tale about a worker and a customer. While my own 1970s were far from innocent, this particular tale ought not to be considered autobiographical.


Sidewalk Love

Is paid sex romantic? Variation on an old joke: it is if you do it right. How one does it right may best be explored with a mythic tale of a boy and his tart.
Do not confuse myth with fiction. There really was a Trojan War even though the details grew fabulous through the retelling. There quite possibly was an Aeneas though the truth of who and what he was is deeply obscured by the mist of time. Perhaps there was an Arthur, whoever and whatever he was, to inspire the legends of Camelot. Accordingly, let us borrow this last name for the hero of this mythic tale.
Mythic romance is an epic theme that requires a suitably pompous voice. We shall strive to achieve this. We shall forego dactylic hexameter however. That is as difficult to write as it is to read and the author is no Vergil or Homer. But he has heard the story of a moment spent by a modern Odysseus in the arms of his Calypso, so of those arms and the man I sing.
Arthur lived in a place called Roxbury, NJ. This was a far flung suburb of the mythical city of Gotham, sometimes called New York, a great metropolis of a mythical country known (with the degree of sardonic humor customary to that time and place) as the Land of Liberty. Our hero was in his early 20s, epigone of a well-heeled family that had made its modest fortune in a construction supply business. He now worked in that business although the precise nature of his job and authority was unclear, especially to the workers for whom the son of the boss is by long tradition risible.
In accordance with the custom of the land, Arthur had received 17 years of liberal education which prevented him from properly learning the family business or any other suitable livelihood, but at least taught him the philosophy to live without the independence the education itself obstructed. So, while he was inept at distinguishing spruce from fir in the family lumberyard, he could distinguish Euripides from Sophocles, and quote both aptly and accurately.
Let us look in on Arthur walking the Gotham pavement.
The bright sun affected his eyes so as to give the world a bluish hue, but it had failed to crack the bitter cold. The February wind could be felt beneath his winter coat, a red plaid hunter’s jacket ordinary in his hometown of a few thousand people but conspicuous in the city. Our hero’s hands pushed deep into his jacket pockets. His fingertips complained bitterly at the cold. Perversely, Arthur hoped the pain would continue. His hands displayed a certainty and urgency of response that somehow his mind had stopped showing.
Arthur, like many a young man, was given to uncompromising pronouncements on this or that subject. In politics, he favored third parties because they allowed him to “be involved” without the risk of electoral victory and subsequent disillusionment. But his pronouncements were intellectual play only, devoid of real emotional content. Had he actually been asked to join in a pledge of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” one suspects he would have coughed and excused himself to the kitchen. Again like many a young man, especially of the literary variety, he had acquired a taste for nihilism. He believed the material world to be indifferent and humans to be careless when not malevolent, but he no longer was able to work up any animus about this state of affairs. It seemed a waste of energy. In consequence, a creeping numbness had overtaken him. He generally thought this for the best.
Weekend walks through New York City relaxed our hero. He liked the city’s hard edges that so contrasted with the leafy fuzziness of his own town. Today, however, he walked with an ill-defined restlessness. He crossed Broadway and passed the Times building at 43rd where trucks unloaded a forest in the form of giant rolls of paper. He crossed 8th Avenue, nicknamed the Minnesota Strip, and walked north past the sidewalk princesses. He was merely window-shopping. Our hero had no objection to the ladies or their line of work. He in fact had succumbed on one occasion when he was 18 and a virgin. Having found the episode rather more mundane than expected, he refrained from further incursions into the demimonde. He had pursued more conventional arrangements with women although all of these to date had been in some regard unsatisfactory. Still, his hormones nudged him onto the Strip.
Arthur ambled for several blocks while deliberating grimly on the worthlessness of humankind, the paucity of pulchritude necessary for survival on the Strip, and the gloomy fate of the Republic. He scarcely heard the iterations of, “Hi, you want go out?” It was an unusually pitched voice rather than the aforementioned hormones that caused him to glance left and catch the hazel eyes of an extraordinarily attractive young woman. Her face was unexpectedly innocent in its expression, her hair had the hint of red that for some reason appealed to him, and her frame seemed a happy compromise between the delicate and the athletic. She strongly reminded him of an old college favorite who had not in fact favored him. She stood as a repudiation of his thoughts except perhaps those about the gloomy fate of the Republic. This irritated him and he continued walking toward Central Park. He imagined the admiration of the other pedestrians for his strength of character. He also contemplated the role of cowardice in his retreat but he was able to push that thought away quickly.
Before long he reached the park and now was at a loss for a goal. He searched for a bench that was unbroken and distant from the impecunious and the peculiar. He found one and sat to watch the traffic. Crisp white clouds moved swiftly across the sky. The sharp taste of ozone was strangely invigorating. The chill of the gelid bench was uncomfortable through his pants.
The image of hazel eyes and strawberry blonde hair returned to him. “Don’t be a low life,” he chided himself aloud as a nervous man self-consciously looked his way. “Oh, I don’t care what people think,” he lied to himself more quietly, and to prove it he retraced his steps down 8th Avenue. After all, the route is in the general direction of the Path subway terminal, he rationalized. But to avoid looking deliberate about getting a second look at the girl, he crossed to the opposite side of the street.
The girl who had chosen the appellation “Brandi” leaned against the half-empty brick building on the corner of 48th. Her real name was Rebecca. The beginning and ending sounds of “Brandi” were close enough to her childhood nickname “Becky” for the street name to be comfortable.
She wished her feet would stop feeling the cold. She was quite successful at her job despite a caution not all of her competitors demonstrated. She made no apologies for being at least a little picky. Even guys in business suits sometimes were dangerous or crazy. One had mutilated a woman in a hotel across the street the previous week. So, you had to trust your instincts about potential customers when the vibes weren’t right. She had been arrested repeatedly, but since New York courts placed prostitution in a category with spitting in public, there never had been a penalty more severe than a couple of hours in jail and a $50 fine.
Brandi had few complaints with her status. It was an improvement over her early life. Rebecca grew up outside of Tallahassee, Florida, as one of 4 children in a poor family. Her father was a violent alcoholic gambler who wasted whatever her mother, a NATO bride from Luxembourg, earned. She had been shuffled among aunts who made no secret of the burden of her existence. At 15 she had enough, informed the appropriate aunt of her departure with sufficient impoliteness so as to raise no objection, and hitched a ride north.
Brandi went to work as soon as she reached the city. At first she rationalized that it was all she could do. Today at 23 she frankly admitted that she was too lazy to do anything else. Occasionally she would find a customer disgusting, but in general the work struck her as neither difficult nor unpleasant -- and it was very lucrative. She earned thousands in a three or four day work week, spent freely and enjoyed a comfortable apartment near Gramercy Park.
Today business was dead, though her girlfriend Janet had picked up a date a few minutes earlier. She thought she had a prospect earlier with a young guy who must have been an out-of-towner with that plaid jacket. Some men show every emotion on their faces. She could read his well enough when she asked, “Would you like to go out with me?” But like so many others he walked on past. The trouble with working in public, she reflected, is that it is in public. She knew that more men would accept if they were not in full view of others. Some girls handed out business cards but the police didn’t like it and they always fell into the wrong hands. Police were usually OK if you weren’t so brazen as virtually to dare them to bust you.
Brandi creased her lips in annoyance as a passing woman about her own age gripped her husband’s arm and glared at her from behind pink sunglasses. She smirked when the man apologetically shrugged her shoulders. Across the Avenue she espied a familiar plaid jacket. There really was no reason to walk down 8th Avenue twice except herself and the other girls. She smiled that he was on the other side of the street. Do men ever grow up? She waved. He discreetly waved back. The light changed to WALK and Brandi crossed the street to meet him.

Arthur occasionally experienced dissociation, the sense of being an observer of the scene in which he was acting. The most dramatic case was when he had fallen out of a tree as a child. To this day his recollection of the event is from above the scene at an altitude of some 50 feet. He clearly envisages himself on the ground below. He tended not to mention these episodes in case they indicated some psychosis. One such episode began the moment the young woman addressed him in an odd mixed accent best described as Southern-fried Manhattan.
“Hi. Mah name is Brandi.”
It was only when climbing the second flight of stairs in the Mayfair Hotel that he recovered enough self-possession to ask himself, “What am I doing now?”
“Did you say something, sweetie?”
“Nothing important.”
Seemingly committed barring an unseemly fuss (our hero could be cowardly about such things), he decided to make the best of it. This proved quite easy. Brandi was talkative, had an extremely pleasant disposition, and was determinedly normal. His limited experience had not yet shaken the stereotype for hookers of streetwise hardness and arms with needle tracks. Ludicrously, it was the girl who lived next door to him out in the suburbs who fit that description better. Besides, Brandi was the most attractive woman he ever had been invited to touch. As the winter gear dropped the prospect looked less and less like a bad idea.
Arthur found himself appreciating the simple honesty of the transaction as compared with the unspoken contractual provisions of conventional dating. Without unrefinedly indulging in unnecessary detail, let us say that the next hour was spent in pleasant conversation in both the literal and euphemistic sense. He traveled home relaxed and with an intent to revisit his new acquaintance.
In the next few months, such afternoon hours were a recurrent and refreshing feature of his life. He fretted a bit over dollars but in truth she was less expensive than some of his other dates. He soon lost any lingering disquiet. Surprisingly to Arthur, after 8 years in the business Brandi still displayed sensitivity about it. Let us listen in on one occasion when our hero picked the wrong way to be playful.
“Brandi, why do I like you?” he teased.
Not playful at all. “Why, am I that hard to like?”
“Well, uh …”
“Yeah, I know. ‘Get yourself a NICE girl. All I want is your money. Right?”
“Well, uh … “
“I AM nice, and I don’t take advantage of anyone. I’d never do that to a guy. Like I’d never marry him, you know? I don’t take anything a guy doesn’t willingly give me. Does my being a hooker bug you or something?”
“Well, uh …”
“Nobody cares anymore except prudes and closet fags.” Although not squeamish at all about servicing mixed couples or engaging in other gender bending activities, Brandi sometimes voiced extraordinarily rude remarks regarding male homosexuals – perhaps a trade bias.
Arthur backed off the subject. He was secretly amused that she did not refute the “only after your money,” but was wise enough not to mention it. Any doubts he might have had that their relationship was strictly business, at least on her part, were dispelled when, during the warm afterglow of lovemaking, he suggested another type of date.
“Brandi, there are a couple of shows over on Broadway. Would you like to see one with me? Maybe get dinner?”
“Do you really want to?” she asked noncommittally.
“I asked if you would like to.”
“How much were you thinking of spending on this evening?”
“I don’t know. Broadway is getting expensive. Altogether, a couple hundred, I guess.”
“I would rather have the money. I’ll make it worth your while.”
She did, too. Arthur did not propose expensive activities afterwards. Yes, our hero was growing fond of Brandi, and found himself flattering her simply because he enjoyed doing it. Witness:
“Do I look OK?” she asked, primping herself in the mirror at the end of a session.
“Gorgeous.”
“Stop it! That’s no help at all. You always exaggerate.”
“No. You’re beautiful.”
“I’m cute, sweetie, but I’m not beautiful.”
Arthur disagreed. He didn’t recognize this as a danger sign.
Summer arrived. The Democrats planned to convene in New York to throw parties and to nominate a Georgia peanut farmer for president. Financially insolvent New York City hoped to impress the present and future distributors of taxpayer dollars. As a possibly misguided part of this effort, the city initiated a campaign to “clean up” 8th Avenue prior to the convention. Laws against prostitution previously had been difficult to enforce, since (except in sting operations) neither witness was inclined to testify, but the Assembly passed a new anti-loitering law which could be used instead and eliminated the need to prove solicitation. The police, of course, were expected to enforce this selectively.
Armed with a new law and eager to protect the morals of conventioneers, the city sent its 30,000 strong police force into action. (The Republicans convened in Miami that year where they were left dangerously at the mercy of loiterers, but that is outside the realm of our tale.) The impact in Gotham was immediate and total.
Brandi was furious. Arthur didn’t care much. She had given him her phone number prior to the crackdown, so he simply could call ahead and arrange dates. In principle Arthur opposed the law as yet another busybody intrusion by lawmakers, but he didn’t get emotional about it. Our hero still was not getting very emotional about anything. Or so it seemed.
A hint that all was not as it seemed was present in his admiration of Euripides. The ancient playwright, after all, is the ultimate gut twister. No soap opera can match his pathos. His characters often are fanatics. They indulge themselves in some emotion or other and bring themselves to disaster. Witness Medea, Hippolytus, or Pentheus. Like a later playwright’s creation, all would have been better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That our hero liked this kind of thing indicated that romantic excesses brewed in him beneath his placid surface after all. They might yet bubble over.
During the summer, Arthur’s visits to New York decreased in frequency. In the whole month of August he was sufficiently motivated to make the journey only once. It was the height of the building season and so his days were busy at the family supply business. His leisure time was filled with innocent diversions except for once when he and his buddies drank to excess. On the day after he was reminded why he had let so much time pass since the last occasion he had joined them in this activity.
He hadn’t given up Brandi by any means, but sometimes New York seemed a long way to go.
On the first day of September our hero stopped at the local delicatessen. Standing outside the store was a cadre of teens in their last week before the reopening of high school. When Arthur walked past them to his car and bent to enter it, his wallet slipped from his pocket. Nary a one of the teens spoke or raised a finger – not even the middle one. Instead, when Arthur backed away from the curb one of their number stepped off the curb and stood on the wallet as he drove away. Contained in the wallet was a card saying Small Engine Repair on one side and sporting Brandi’s number on the other.
          Having arrived home, Arthur discovered his loss and panicked. He drove back to the bologna emporium but the politicians of tomorrow had vanished. Arthur thought first of the money and his credit cards. Then he thought of his license. Then he thought of Brandi. What was that number? Why couldn’t he quite remember the order of digits? Was it 794-6496, 674-9476, or 674-7496? Or maybe a digit was not transposed but was wrong. Maybe he remembered two of them incorrectly. That put the possible combinations in the thousands. He tried the few sequences that seemed to him most likely to be right. All were wrong numbers.
          It might seem strange that our hero did not know where our heroine lived, but it is not strange at all. Arthur, after all, was a good customer but still a customer. Brandi liked to keep her home and business separate. Consequently, they always had met in modest hotels that charged by the hour for their liaisons. Arthur allowed momentary free rein to a sense of romantic loss. It was surprisingly powerful. It lasted until the solution occurred to him of simply looking her up during business hours. Enforcement of the loitering law had faltered after the Democrats left town though sporadic animation by the police still had an effect. Nevertheless, Brandi had mentioned to him her intent to take the risk in order to recover some of her lost income. He reprimanded himself for having enjoyed the loss overmuch.
A few days later our hero launched his reconnaissance mission into New York. The time and place were right but Brandi was not in sight. Neither were her competitors. The police must have done a sweep. He decided to try later. After a hike downtown and an extended browse through Barnes and Noble on 18th he returned to 48th. Brandi was not there but a thirtyish brunette was. She looked as though she hadn’t slept for days.
“Hi. You want to go out?” she asked.
“No. I’m looking for Brandi. Blondish. Works this block.”
“Why ya lookin’?”
“A friend.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah, I know her. She don’t work here no more. Cops were hasslin’ her. Can’t I do somethin’?”
“No. Know where I can find her?”
“How should I know? Try Lex. Or one of the parlors. Why, ain’t I good enough?”
Refraining from an impolitic response, our hero mumbled a thanks and walked eastward. En route to Lexington Avenue, one of the other solicitation hot spots, Arthur grasped the serious prospect of never finding her at all. What if she had taken an indoor job? From this moment on his illicit mistress grew in his estimation and seized his heart. True to his fears she was not on Lexington. He asked one of the street’s workers if she had heard of her.
“No. I’d know her if she was here in the daytime. Try at night or real early, like 3 or 4. I don’t know what else to tell you. Maybe one of the parlors.”
Not prepared to investigate scientifically every one of the city’s brothels, our hero felt his hopes dashed. In his mind Brandi became Apollo’s Daphne, Cupid’s Pysche. Exquisite loss! Arthur was charmed by the violence of the emotion and he cut the reins he briefly had relaxed the night he lost his wallet. He would search for her, of course, but it would be in vain. Visions came to him of Candide and Cunegonde, Tom Jones and Sofia, Pepe le Pew and the cat. He indulged in the bittersweet taste of resolution in the face of doom; a taste that makes us feel noble. His life acquired a 19th century romantic sense it had been denied previously.
By a remarkable coincidence, WOR-TV ran Walk on the Wild Side that night. In the movie the hero tries to find Hallie, a lost lover who is working in a New Orleans brothel; so, he hitches a ride from Texas in a truck with Jane Fonda and... well, there is no need to recount the entire plot. Suffice it to say that our hero hopelessly identified with it and sank ever deeper into the swamp of his emotions. It troubled him briefly that Brandi didn’t make a convincing Hallie but then in the movie neither did Capucine.
Every weekend for a month our hero forayed into the city without result. Another full month then passed before our hero returned again. The fires of longing had abated slightly but to his satisfaction flickered still. He had arrived in town not to continue his quest, however, but to seek out the Lionel Casson translation of The Selected Satires of Lucian. Lucian was lighthearted, cynical, and enjoyable. Arthur still loved the classics but had lost some of his taste for his former favorite playwright. The asperity of Euripides’ final acts bothered him of late. Yet, he was in town and making an effort to find his love was a dramatic necessity in his own personal theater. So, after leaving the bookstore he went on with the show. He took the A train to 42nd and walked up 8th Avenue.
Arthur was lost in thought and paid little attention to the sights on the Strip. His eyes focused on his feet as he rushed to make up for the lost time the detour on 8th was costing him.
“Well hi there stranger!”
Arthur looked up into hazel eyes. Our hero could think of nothing adequate to say. He settled for, “Brandi, do you know how hard you are to find?”
“I imagine. I was in California. Backpacking in the Sierras. I needed a break, Arthur.”
California.” Only by luck did he not repeat “Arthur.”
“Why? Did you miss me?” she asked,
“Yeah, a little.”
Our hero rejoiced in rediscovery. But during his recent agonies he had acquired a more realistic eye. He realized Brandi was right: she was cute rather than beautiful. The familiar pleasures of the next hour were warm and comfortable, but in her presence his emotions lacked the edge they had in her absence. The business transaction somehow felt less refreshingly honest than it had before; instead it was close to banal. In the most intimate of circumstances our hero stifled a yawn. He looked forward to getting home so he could finish the 3rd volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Before they departed, Arthur re-obtained Brandi’s phone number and placed copies in different pockets. He also handed her a card with his own number.
“Now that I think of it, I’m surprised you never asked for this,” he said, referring to his phone number.
“I never ask for it. I don’t want to talk to anyone’s wife.”
“I’ve always told you I’m single,” he said.
“They’re all ‘single,’ Arthur.”
“Well, this one actually is.”
Brandi smiled and shrugged. They kissed goodbye. Arthur ran to catch the Path train to Hoboken.
The train pulled into Hoboken with 1 minute and 46 seconds to spare for the 4:30 Dover connection. Arthur hustled up the stairs, picked out the right train among the row of tracks, and clambered aboard with only moments to spare.  As the train lurched forward, Arthur found an empty seat near a window. Erie-Lackawanna still operated the ancient electric carriages that Arthur had ridden since his boyhood. An autumn chill was in the air but the car was unheated. He watched as the familiar yards slipped past and gave way to heavy industry. A spotty carpet of brown leaves rustled across the asphalt in the petroleum storage yards. Our hero closed his eyes and listened to the steel wheels on steel rails. He marveled how it was better to have loved and lost than to have loved and found.
EAST ORANGE!” the conductor bellowed.
“How long does it take to get to Millburn?” asked a nervous woman passenger.
“Not long,” the conductor answered cryptically. In the conductor’s mind, as he clipped her ticket, Old 97 hurtled toward its fateful bend.



Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fault Lines

A familiar meow made Zach cringe. It was pitched like fresh chalk on a chalkboard. Zach had read somewhere that wildcats don’t meow. It’s a technique used by domestic cats to annoy humans.

“Is that you, Arpie?”

As Zach headed for the kitchen, he imagined for moment getting an articulate reply, “Of course it’s me, dumbass!” Instead, Arpie wailed again. It meant the same thing. The grey tabby stood in front of her dish and looked up at him expectantly. Arpie was wet and dirty, but appeared to be unharmed. She had been AWOL for three days.

The name “Arpie” came from the initials “RP” for Royal Pain. Her voice had earned her the moniker. The cat had shown up in the kitchen on the day he moved into the house two years earlier. He assumed she had belonged to the former owners. They were a married couple who had been killed when a fight with a neighbor over politics escalated out of control. Without the big price discount on account of the murder, Zach never could have afforded the property. Enough buyers are superstitious about such things to make most crime scenes bargains. So, it all worked out well for him, though Zach resolved not to get to know any of his neighbors. The house was only four years old, and boasted a SecurePlan, the most fortified of the four home models in the development. The house was modest in size, but was the next best thing to a bunker

The two cat doors, apparently custom-ordered, were chinks in the home’s armor. One was installed in the steel door between the kitchen and the garage; the second was built into the far concrete wall where it exited behind bushes. A grenade or Molotov cocktail easily could be tossed through the outer cat door. However, the garage contained an excellent fire control system, so the risk of serious damage to the rest of the house was minimal. If he planned on keeping the cat, he figured the risk of the keeping doors unblocked was lower than that of opening a full size door to let the animal in or out. He had second thoughts about this the night a rabid raccoon entered the house through the doors, but he had dealt with the crisis quickly with a 9mm. It was possible the animal had been pushed into the garage deliberately, but he couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t had the exterior cameras turned on at the time. He kept them turned on permanently after the incident, but none was currently working. He didn’t know if they had been shot out or if the back-up batteries simply had worn down.

Zach opened a cabinet and withdrew a can of something promising “Seafood Flavor.” The can didn’t specifically promise seafood itself. He emptied it into the cat’s bowl. Arpie ate unfussily. She then marched off to the dining room, jumped on a padded chair, and curled up to nap. She left much needed grooming for later. Zach opened the pantry where he kept most of his own food, and looked at the sparse contents on the shelves. He needed to go grocery shopping very soon, or he would be sharing cat food with Arpie.

Zach hadn’t heard gunfire for two days, and Arpie’s presence was additional evidence the streets were quiet. Her survival instincts were excellent. She knew when to hole up and when to travel safely.

Zack decided to look. He opened the sash window above the kitchen sink, reached through the steel bars, and unlocked the steel and Kevlar shutters. He moved to one side and cautiously pushed them open. He intended just a quick glimpse, but the pretty view held his attention. Light snow covered his back lawn and bushes though it was no more than two centimeters deep. He went to the living room, opened a front window, and bravely pushed open the shutters. The scene out front was peaceful, too. Snow made everything look clean.  There were no tire tracks on the road. Zach shut the sash and walked around the house opening more shutters.

With more hope than expectation, Zach retrieved his VirtiGlasses from the coffee table. For the past 48 hours he had been cut off from the outside world. His fiber optic connection went dark the day after the riots started, and no wireless signals had gotten through for the past 48 hours. He was as isolated as though he were living in the 20th century. His grid electric power was out, too, but the solar panels on the roof at least kept his overhead LED lights on. Zach tentatively slipped on the glasses. He sighed relief as the internet booted up. He was catching a signal so weak that it was no wonder it had failed to penetrate his brick walls, metallic roof, and armored shutters. A heads-up notice appeared from his internet provider: “The loss of a microwave tower on the West end of Cordialville may cause some gaps in coverage.” The lost tower was barely a kilometer from Zach’s house.

He called up the local news on heads-up display. In a live feed the mayor was taking credit for the restoration of peace while blaming her political opponents for the violence: “Thanks to the hard work of city administrators and our first-responders, security has been restored to our citizens. We want to thank the National Guard for their additional help. Opponents of our fine administration in this election year need to take responsibility for their inflammatory rhetoric that has incited so much violence, property damage, and death. I’ve instructed the district attorney to look into the possibility of criminal charges on that basis!”

As far as Zach knew, the riots had nothing to do with city electoral politics. He doubted the mayor rightfully could take credit for the current calm either. Weather always was more effective than law enforcement in these situations. The rioters – or activists, as nearly all preferred to be called – of all the various stripes had been willing to face rivals and police, but not an unseasonable chill.

A message from the city Violations Bureau flashed on his glasses. It was an e-Ticket. Zach had been fined $200 for not sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house within 24 hours of the snowfall as required by city ordinance. He looked out the window at his neighbors’ properties. None of the other sidewalks was clear. The city would be recouping some of the riot-control costs.

Zach connected to his employer’s website and signed in. Zach expected a termination notice for failure to show up to work at the Forty Winks Hotel where he serviced the hotel’s computers and electronics. Clerks had been replaced long ago by digital desks, so the only employees in the hotel usually were himself, a security guard, and one or two maids, who did little more than supervise the cleaning robots. A notice popped up, but it was not a pink slip. It was a temporary suspension without pay “pending reconstruction.”  Zach did a news search for Forty Winks and learned that the hotel had been closed for a week; it had been targeted in separate attacks by radical conservatives, anarcho-feminists, neo-Marxists, and four different ethnic gangs. Each had objected to different activities or biases “tolerated” at the hotel. The hotel had been damaged by rifle fire, RPGs, and fire bombs. Several of the guests had been dragged out of their rooms and executed. The security guard was missing, and had failed to return home. Zach was relieved. He didn’t want to go on some database as a possible disgruntled former employee.

Food was the only pressing issue for Zach. The latest models of affordable 3D home printers had replaced the need to shop for almost anything else. Online retailers and delivery services had seen sales and business plummet in the past year. Even complex products such as TVs simply could be printed. The new printers could accrete products from any mix of materials, fusing metal powders with lasers – and Zach had one of the newest. He also had a plentiful supply of all the necessary powders, and, if need be, his home Kem-Kit device could make more. The Kem-Kit, among other useful capabilities, could recycle trash, separating it and converting it into various compounds – or all the way down to powdered elements, if so desired. Together, the two machines turned every home into an omni-purpose factory. As much of a boon to consumers as they were, however, they had a dark side: the spread of truly dangerous weapons. In addition to churning out radios and laundry soup, they just as easily could make rocket launchers and nerve gasses. Software for producing such weaponry was illegal to distribute, of course, it was simple enough to find and download on the internet from safely encrypted sites.

The clock on the wall thermostat caught his eye. It was blinking 12:00. Utility grid power had been restored. This meant his printer and Kem-Kit were functional. Zach decided to check on them before leaving the house. He light-footedly descended the stairs to the basement. His basement was a walkout in one corner, but this was not a security weakness: the heavy steel double doors, held shut by a hefty steel cross bar, were safe against anything less than armor piercing 20mm fire. He re-checked his printer supplies. He reassured himself that the quantities were ample.

Just inside the double-doors was his pride and joy, and he was happy to hear it humming again. It needed grid power – the home photovoltaics were not enough to power it – so it had shut down when the power went out. He couldn’t believe how lucky he had been for having been selected to “market test” the device for free. Called Philosopher’s Stone, it was a radical home assembly that went a leap beyond 3D printing. Manufactured by FinalWord Enterprises, a non-public company, Philosopher’s Stone could transmute elements using miniaturized lasers and particle accelerators. Only a dozen other lucky people around the world had been selected to test the device. Internet searches turned up nothing about the manufacturer – not even a company address – but Zach understood the need for secrecy. A machine such as this surely was worth millions per unit. FinalWord had contacted him online and made absolute secrecy part of the deal; Zach agreed readily, not least because his possession of the device, were it known, would make him a target for thieves. The machine had arrived in an unmarked van; men wearing masks set it up in his basement. It seemed unnecessarily melodramatic, but, at the same time, exciting. Zach tested the machine at once on a platinum ring. The process took days to complete, but the machine little by little vaporized the ring and re-deposited it as gold. True to the machine’s name, and the claims of the manufacturer, Philosopher’s Stone could indeed transmute elements. Many transmutations were possible, but some transitions were simpler than others. The process wasn’t fast and it was energy intensive (Zach’s energy bills soared through the roof), but it worked. Zach placed his hand on the humming device, smiled, and walked back upstairs.

Zach perused his social network pages. They were filled with rants from his NetFriends, all of whom vented their offense at the rants of other NetFriends. They rudely raged about each other’s discourtesy. Zach was glad for the impersonality of the internet. He hadn’t socialized with a friend in the flesh in six months, and these postings were a reason why. He had no wish to argue like this over politics while within the reach of an interlocutor’s fist – and his friends seemed to want to discuss little else. He’d even given up on dating except for the love-bot he kept in the closet, if that counted. When turned on and connected to the VirtiLife gaming site on the net, the robot displayed the AI personality he had selected for her. Her simulated personality suited him quite well, and he thereby escaped the hassles of the real thing.

Zach scanned the local headlines. He learned the nearby microwave tower had been destroyed by the radical eco-group 3RockFirst, who objected that the tower was powered by electricity derived from fracked natural gas. A statement on the group’s website said the company was to blame for inciting the attack with its violence against the Earth. The power company website in turn announced it had authorized the use of deadly force against future incursions by 3rdRockFirst, and said the group had only itself to blame.

Zach zipped quickly through the headlines, briefly opening the occasional article. It seemed every nut-job with a cause had joined in the riots, and the blame always lay with whomever they had harmed. Some of the assaults had been serious. A sarin gas attack had been unleashed on a street where tax objectors battled tax fairness protestors, killing scores of each. Each side blamed the other for the attack and promised retaliation. A video zoomed on a man of ununclear affiliation beating an already senseless and bloody prone body with a baseball bat: “What are you making me doing this?!” the man shouted. Politicians in DC joined the blame game. Congressman Geneen Offmyer of the Social Equity Party denounced “the depravity of right-wing extremist pundits, who must take responsibility for the violence.” Senator Loophorn of the New Federalist Party blamed “the hate speech of the loony Left which deliberately incited the violence against our nation’s wealth creators.” The bulk of the rioters, though, had agendas that went beyond the traditional left/right divide. A local Men’s Rights group blamed “femo-fascists” for bombing their local offices while the President of Cordialville Community College blamed “troglodyte” patriarchalists for burning down the Women’s Studies building. The actual perpetrators remained unknown in both cases. Then there were the racial gangs. Radicals from various religious groups fought with each other and with the atheists. There even was a melee of vegetarians and carnivores.

Among all the rioting factions, there was one constant assertion: it was always the other side’s fault. No one yet had totaled the casualties. It was known that IEDs killed hundreds. Gas attacks had killed thousands, but no more exact numbers than that were available. Zach sighed and turned off the news. He remembered fondly the simple days when a “polarized electorate” meant two sides misrepresenting each other’s opinion with a level of sarcasm that by comparison was polite. Current politics were multi-polar with (literally) a vengeance – the sitting President had won with only 27% of the vote in a six-way race, and retained little confidence even from that 27%. She was a unifying force only to the extent that a large majority of Americans hated her.

Zach called up a view from a traffic drone and zoomed in on his route. The roadways to the mall looked clear. Zach decided to risk it. He went to the bedroom and donned his Kevlar travel suit.

Zach climbed into his natural gas hybrid sedan, remotely opened the garage door, and backed into Amity Road, his neighborhood’s cul-de-sac street. A low-flying drone circled overhead. He hoped it was a police drone, and not one owned by some radical group – or even some loner. Drones, too, could be home printed from plans off the internet, complete with air-to-ground missiles. He turned onto Elm Street. Zach once again wondered about the name, given that there were no elms on either side of the street. There was a copse of buckthorn, though, and it was from there that the two rounds that pinged off his bullet-resistant windshield were fired. The gunfire might have been simple playfulness, but it also could have been in retaliation for the negative votes on school bond funding that came from his neighborhood, where few children resided. Zach felt naked without his own guns, but mall policy expressly forbad them and the mall’s security devices could detect them.

There were no other incidents during the drive, but burnt cars and charred buildings lined both sides of the road. He passed a small strip mall with smashed windows. It was an older structure that hadn’t been fortified to modern standards. The stores had been trashed and looted. He approached the razor-wire topped wall surrounding the Cordiality Mall. Just outside the gate were demonstrators carrying signs: “Zero tolerance for intolerance!” “Hate the haters!” “Behead Extremists!” He wasn’t sure what faction they represented or why they were here, but they seemed peaceful enough. He pulled up to the security gate. Cameras and other devices scanned his vehicle. The gate swung open. He drove through. Inside the wall, guards patrolled with submachine guns. The central mall structure looked unscathed. Far to his right he noticed the gate open at the service entrance. A Carbo-Bake delivery truck entered. Given the recent emotional political battles over food legislation, which restricted the sale of pastries of the type made by Carbo-Bake by banning their sale to minors and imposing heavy taxes, he thought it took some bravery for the driver to wheel the honestly marked truck on the streets. The truck drove around to the back of the mall to the loading docks.

Zach parked near the mall’s main entrance. The parking lot was less than a quarter full. He entered the building. The interior had the generic pleasantness of most large malls. A fountain gurgled in the center of a domed atrium from which aisles radiated. Four teenagers sat by the water seemingly staring into space, but more probably playing videogames on their VirtiGlasses. Zach felt some of the tension go out of him as he took in the normality of the scene. He walked past the fountain to the interior entrance of the U-Name-It-Mart. He grabbed hold of a push-cart just inside the entrance and rolled it to the grocery section. He had expected the shelves to be empty, but the store was well-supplied except for baked goods and dairy. Zach wanted canned goods anyway. In case violence had a second spurt, it was better to avoid perishables.

He loaded his cart quickly, and pushed it to the check-out counter. As he self-scanned his choices, a pretty browned-haired girl no more than 17 with the name “Nicole” on her nametag smiled at him as she oversaw the checkouts, keeping the shoppers honest. The woman in back of Zach asked Nicole “When do you expect fresh bread?”

“Probably tomorrow,” she answered, once again with a smile.

“I saw a Carbo-Bake truck enter the lot,” said Zach, “if that counts as fresh.”

“It’s not here for us,” Nicole said. “Our delivery is tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” said the woman.”

As Zach put his last bag in his cart, Nicole said “Have super awesome day.”

The explosion erupted from the back of the store. Zach guessed instantly that the blast had come from the unscheduled Carbo-Bake truck. Someone had hijacked it and filled it with explosives. The shockwave threw him down next to the counter. The counter helped protected him as the roof came down. When the roar of the collapse subsided, Zach took stock of himself. To his own surprise, he was unhurt. He pushed away debris from over his head and stood up. The sounds of survivors’ moans grew steadily louder. Not from Nicole, however. An aluminum rod protruded from her chest. She would have no more super awesome days. Zach picked up as many food cans as he could find in the rubble and stuffed them into bags. He carried them back to his car. Shoppers from other parts of the mall, not knowing if there would be other bombs, were fleeing in a panic.

As Zach drove home, he was more than ever convinced that this cycle of hate had to end. He was uniquely positioned to make a contribution to that end. He could prove that they needed to find a way to get along. What folks needed was an overwhelming demonstration of force. They were making him do it. They had brought it on themselves.

Back at home, Zach put away his food and then checked on the Philosopher’s Stone. Getting hold of depleted uranium had been easier than he had expected. It was scattered here and there around the world in expended ammunition, and was easily obtainable on the net. The Philosopher’s Stone was busily converting it to plutonium 239. The 3D printer already had finished manufacturing the suitcase bomb, using plans downloaded from the internet. It lacked only the plutonium sphere the Philosopher’s Stone was accreting. The website predicted a 30 kiloton explosion. He briefly wondered if similar spheres were taking shape in any of the other dozen basements with Philosopher’s Stones. He shook the thought aside. Regardless, it was for the greater good. All those people who refused to take responsibility for their own actions had brought it on themselves. It was their fault, not his.