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Junana: Game B State [Book 3]

The Game goes geopolitical

Published onJan 03, 2021
Junana: Game B State [Book 3]
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ONE

Megan Doolan had rolled into the second trimester of her pregnancy with a general bill of health from her obstetrician, and all the usual symptoms, each of which seemed to make sense, except for her teeth hurting. She guessed the fetus was sucking a big dose of the vitamins from her system. Her partner, Nick Landreu, helped her manage her diet, including more dark green veggies, fruits, and lots of fresh fish. Megan managed Grange 829 in Santa Barbara, California. Being the manager of a grange was the most fulfilling job Megan could imagine. The social dynamics of a typical grange were an honest challenge with a daily reward. 

For Megan, a working grange was a wonder to behold. Twelve dachis—each with a dozen members, who were now friends in a new sense of shared concern and hope—make up a “gumi,” the working unit of the grange. Twelve gumis comprise the whole membership of the “mura,” the formal members of the legal cooperative. Dozens of needful and welcome boarders, various guests on walkabout, and a few ronin Game Meisters, who can come and go as they please, were also in the mix. The immediate families of the members were associates, welcome at grange events, and included in grange benefits, from insurance coverage to a shared inventory of clothing, tools, toys, recreational equipment, vehicles of all sorts, access to low cost lodging and meals, and free childcare.

Each gumi spent three months every year to fulfill the three major grange tasks: maintenance, improvements, and, most importantly, convivial enjoyment opportunities. That means that every gumi received nine months free from general responsibility, and worked only three months each year to repair, improve, and host enjoyment events for the whole grange. 

With its 144 independent personal incomes and a vast array of skilling, a gumi also became a vehicle to pool common goods and assist members in exvesting assets they previously held out in the rest of the world. Incoming members could gift their real estate holdings in exchange for long-term guarantees of free housing and meals. The previously isolated nuclear families of members were blended into gumi events.

A gumi might buy a “single-family” house with six bedrooms and fit three-times the number of people using it. This economy of space had the beneficial consequence of reducing demand in the surrounding housing and rental markets, which suppressed real estate prices, making more houses affordable to buy. Encouraged by low borrowing rates from sharing unions, gumis would buy up farmland, housing, and small commercial spaces to build on or renovate for use inside the sharing economy. 

Gumi houses, as these were called, were technically owned and managed by their grange, the legal coop organization, on behalf of its mura community. Gumi members could gift up to three nights a month in their gumi house, with meals and showers, to anyone they met, through an app on their phone. 

Gumi-owned houses and apartment complexes were revamped and maintained through the jikan of its members. Some had large kitchen restorations and became dining hubs for neighborhoods. Some offered easy access and were outfitted for the elderly. Others had great yards and became childcare centers.  All had edible gardens and solar energy improvements. Each of them was owned collectively.

Gumis across the planet found a way to help house the homeless in their towns. Most gumi houses strove to be completely energy and waste neutral. With more than five million gumis on the planet, the accumulated effect was that a noticeable fraction of the world’s housing and small commercial space was silently being diverted over to the sharing economy.

The grange saved its members a lot of money through the active sharing of almost everything anybody needed on occasion, like a tent, a tool, or a car. Jikan, the time spent volunteering, was rewarded by a much greater amount of time made available for personal projects or just free time. The rich could always trade money for time. Now everybody in the grange could trade a bit of their time for a whole lot of extra time. Very few people worked more than twenty hours a week. This left time for sociality, learning, play, and the jolt of inspiration that comes with idleness.

All the work, the roles in the grange—including leadership—were organized through lotteries, which cut through the usual need for personal connections and the amassing of social capital. Well-known processes matched roles to applicants and so very few members went without access to at least one role for any given day. There was always good work to be done in a grange.    

Muras could pick among several verieties of democratic decision schemes, or experiment with their own. Most used an advanced form of liquid democracy, a networked software platform which had been designed by former German Pirate Party members. This was the same governance tool used by the Meisters of Castalia and most guilds. Twenty-three governance topic areas were available, from public bath etiquette to personal protection. Each member could raise, and vote, on any proposition; or they could delegate someone else to vote for them on all propositions in any of the topic areas. Delegation added voting power to those with more expertise in a particular arena.

At its core, the grange was a learning machine; a dozen crafting and maker rooms offered the tools and the talent to explore new skills and life-long learning through global open badges. Local granges shared their teaching offerings, widening the variety of skilling available to all members. There were even academic granges, colleges for advanced learning.

Today was Tuesday, which was Megan’s Friday, as she worked the weekends when most of Grangers were around; not that she actually managed them—that wasn’t her purpose—but she could walk over and talk with them about how they managed their own work. And she kept the governance activated with well-timed nudges. 

She was at her desk when her phone let out its video call signal.

“Hi Billy! How’s my favorite capitalist doing? What’s the news from Vancouver?”

William Preston was famous for inventing the HydroBrick: a way to combine Hydrogen with an ultra-lightweight, flame-retardant nano-foam into an inert brick that had the lifting capabilities of Helium at a small fraction of the cost, and an almost unlimited supply: Hydrogen being the most abundant element in the universe. This technology created the means for a new generation of zeppelin-like AirCraft, from behemoth cargo haulers to zippy personal floating runabouts. Billy’s company held the patent and licensed the bricks. A nano-tech billionaire, Billy met Megan last fall when he passed through Santa Barbara on the way up to coast from L.A. after doing Burning Guy. 

At that time, Nick had gone off alone on walkabout, and Megan had just discovered she was pregnant. Fortunately—although she sometimes wonders a bit about the opportunity costs of her prudence—she decided to not sleep with the ultimately sex-worthy Billy that night. Instead, they became friends. Megan jabbed at him about being the last techno-capitalist, and too self-important to join a grange. Billy responded by challenging the very idea of granges, and their potential unknown impacts on the planetary economy. Billy had not yet met Nick. Megan was determined that they would all get along fabulously.  

Billy said, “That’s why I’m calling. I’ve just invested into a company that makes custom-designed AirYachts. It’s based in Sonoma, a bit north of you. I’m moving down there in a couple months.”

“AirYachts? Really? Isn’t that the new equivalent of private trains?  Only they will fly over your house and the billionaires can piss on your petunias.” 

Billy rocked back in laughter. “I knew you’d love the concept. Anyhow, the ones we’ll make will be so lovely and graceful that, when you look up, you’ll swear the piss is Champagne as it dampens your cheeks.” 

“Cheeks is right. We’ll be mooning them. Hey! There’s an AirShip from here to San Francisco five times a day. Once you are settled in, Nick and I can come up and meet you in the City. You do realize I’m all fat now.”

“When is the baby due?”

“Spring time. But I won’t be traveling much after February. Say… There are dozens of excellent granges in Sonoma.”

“Not everyone wants to be a granger.”

“Not everyone wants to play capitalist either, but now we all have a choice.”

“Not when the granges implode our local economies and real estate values.”

“Wait a second, isn’t that just the magic hand of the free marketplace? Eh? Mr. Rockefeller?” 

Megan was just eighteen when the very first grange was opened in Nottingham, England. Through lateral learning on Junana and online governance on Castalia, the grange model grew quickly into a global practice. To be a member of a grange all you needed was to pass Level Two in the Game and come up with—or work to earn—your share in the cooperative association. Today there were hundreds of thousands of granges, each one different, every one of them an experiment, but all of them attuned to the templates of the Game.

Billy turned serious. “Listen, Comrade, you know I appreciate how access is trumping ownership, but….” 

Megan saw real concern on his face. “…but, what?”

“Well, global economic end-games are always dangerous and sloppy, and the big-money capitalists who run a lot of things—including Congress—aren’t going to just fade away without some kind of fight.”

“Ah, I see. You’re predicting an apocalyptic struggle, where the well-meaning, but ultimately naive, grangers get their asses kicked by the jack-booted legions of global capitalism. That’s because you’ve never joined a grange. We’re a whole lot more resilient than you can imagine from the outside.”

“Or maybe a whole lot less…” He stopped.

“Interesting? Important? Your problem is that you consider crisis as necessary for real change. You’ve been raised on cyber-punk and dark distopian visions of war and eco-collapse. Emergent complex systems don’t work that way. You don’t see the change coming until it’s absolutely too late. That train has passed you by. Granges are a silent, almost invisible avalance of real difference. That’s why you need to hop on board.”

Although Megan was busy running her grange, she was also tuned into conversations with some of the global leaders of the whole Game effort. Megan’s “uncles and aunts,” the best friends of her mom, Claire, were the nerds who first programmed the Game.  

She continued, “I know you’ve got enough wealth to live a hundred lives without joining a grange. But I want to suggest that a good day in grange with your dachi friends is worth a hundred days spent alone with your money. People are free to leave, you know, yet not many do.”

Billy was laughing by then. “Enough! I heard you’d cut down on your caffeine intake, thought I’d try to argue with you.”

“Silly you.”

§§§

 

“This is Chelsea Wilde’s diary,”

Chelsea typed. Then she looked up and out the window of her bedroom, across a snow frosted road under the orange street lamp glare. The window shook from a bitter wind. Asheville in full winter. She sighed, returned her eyes to her laptop’s screen and backspaced away the word “diary.” 

“…journal. Not quite a diary, I’m not so meticulous. A destination for all the thoughts I want to share with my dachi, but cannot at the moment, since Chelsea Wilde does not exist. I’ll probably post this stuff to Junana at some point after I’m eighteen.

My name is Samantha Mooney. I ran away from my parents, whom I now consider to be far less evil than crazy. Specifically, they have no strategy to deal with the fact of my dad’s enormous and mysterious sudden wealth. They are not emotionally equipped to handle the monstrous freedom that billions of dollars poured onto their futures. They are unhinged from all the anchors that attach life to humanity. I mean, like having a daughter who needs parents that notice she is alive. I’m not saying I was raised by wolves. It feels more like I was raised by kittens. They always behaved like they could do whatever they wanted. I could almost imagine Dwayne sprinting around the house trailing TP from his mouth or maybe his ass and not really giving a fuck. Racing toward oblivion.

Dwayne and Sheryl were not born to money. Dwayne’s dad, my gramps, sold insurance in Colorado. Sheryl’s dad, who we call old papa, owned a farm equipment store in Wisconsin. Both families were industrious and God-fearing members of a Church of Jesus. Both families scraped and saved to get their kids into a university. Dwayne and Sheryl met at Pepperdyne College. 

My dad is a natural salesman. Dwayne might have gone into the ministry or an automobile dealership. He could certainly sell Jesus or mini-vans. Honestly, Dwayne could sell bricks to a duck. He has not wasted his moments of true luck. You must give him that. His freshman roommate turned out to be the son of the founder of the Western Trust. You may not have heard of it. They play around with more money than most nations have. And so, instead of pimping pickup trucks and convertibles, my dad gets to sell sketchy financial instruments and parts of dismembered corporations.

I know exactly why people buy from Dwayne. He has this way of making them seem smarter than he is. He makes them feel fortunate they picked him as their agent in the deal. They always think they are robbing him. What I don’t know, and won’t ever know, is how come Dwayne can rack up billions in commissions moving money around and around, but never actually make or build anything. Those billions used to belong to other people, didn’t they?

Sheryl is also pretty lucky. But pretty first. A real looker with faux-perfect stripper tits. She came out to California to find the man who would give her a life far away from Wisconsin. Of course, Sheryl was a cheerleader. She made Dwayne work really hard before she said yes. And harder still after that. Dwayne called her his Cybill Shepherd bride. I recently watched the Last Picture Show. Dwayne should have seen that before the wedding.

This journal is not about Dwayne and Sheryl. But I have to start somewhere. Actually, I need to go to sleep now. More soon.

§§§

 

Level Three in the Game had been a lot more fun than Joseph Kumbar was led to believe, listening to them complaining at the Red Star Coffeee House, Mysore’s largest, where he was allowed to sit and use the WiFi for free. Yesterday he wrapped up the Level by tracking the Money template strand from its roots in the Unquantifiable Unknown up through all the risk and value-chain templates to its capstone at Limitless Desire, with connections into several other template strands. 

Joseph had no idea money was such a strange and volatile notion. He had watched his father Tom take rupees in exchange for chappals—Tom and Son made the best traditional sandals in Mysore—and his mother exchange these rupees for rice and produce at the market. Reducing friction in exchanges was just one of money’s roles. Like language, money could be innocent and helpful, or hideous and hurtful.

This week, Joseph picked up his Game hat and diploma to the cheers of the other customers. Rahas Krishna Rao, the manager of the Red Star, announced loudly that Joseph was the youngest Fourvey on the planet.

Seated around Joseph, up on the rooftop balcony of the Red Star, Gamers were deep into Queries with their guides, or over in Junana roaming various 3D scenes or virtual cities across the globe. Joseph had been to many parts of London, and was now exploring Philadelphia, where the library of the American Philosophical Society kept maps of the revolutionary battle sites. He was tracking the movements of Lord Cornwallis, wanting to fit this knowledge into the later colonial battles in Mysore. What if the Tipu Sulton, like General Washington, had pushed the British out of their colony? While he sat and punched intricate designs in a chappal, Joseph could now chat with his father, working next to him, who had long carried a similar interest in colonial warfare. Joseph’s father was not convinced Joseph should spend time in the Game. Joseph, he argued, was in training to be a chappal-wallah. Anything else was a dangerous distraction. 

That evening, Joseph showed his amma the diploma, which he had earned by finishing Level Three in the Game. He requested this in Latin, as that was how the old British university diplomas were written. She scoffed at him mildly when he explained that the Yanagi University diploma meant he had learned enough to have graduated from an actual university.

“There are many lessons to be learned that cannot come from a computer or even a college,” she said, although her own excitement was evident. “Perhaps your father is right. Maybe you should slow down a bit. Take each day as it comes.”

Joseph’s appa was worried that Joseph’s fascination with the Game would make him unsettled and unhappy in his known profession as a maker of chappals. Tom and Sons chappals had been crafting these shoes since his great-grandfather’s time, and on the same sidewalk spot in the middle of downtown Mysore. Joseph could cut and sew a chappal almost as well as his father. For years, Joseph had scavenged rubber tire tread from the highways around Mysore; at first with his father, and now on his own. Their hut, on the side of the Ring Road, had a small godown where these scraps were piled along with the hides and other materials. 

They once had a larger hut, over by the river, but it got burned down a few years back, and his older brother Tommy was killed. Still, they managed just fine.

§§§

 

The phone alert that sent the Nerds to the Room was the emergency tone that had not been used in years. Jack Dobron was waiting when they logged in.

Michael O’Hara, known to his friends as “Scratchy,” was the last to arrive. “Sorry, I was napping.” He settled his avatar into an empty armchair. “Why the Bat Signal?”

“I had a visit from our old friend Michelle last night,” Jack said. “She popped up on my laptop.”

“You mean our favorite deus ex machina?” Scratchy said.

“The very same.”

“She’s been quiet since the Castalia incident,” said Ichiro Nomura, known as “Itchy.” 

When that rogue billionaire paid hackers to attack Castalia, the Nerds all figured Michelle’s revenge would be rapid and severe. Castalia was the on-line core of a Game-based economy built on time-banking, shared equity, a reputation economy, and ubiquitous learning. Castalia was coded to foster a nearly limitless number of small-group discussions in various virtual spaces. It was open to all Gamers who had reached Level Six. A central castle was only open to Meisters.

Losing this software would have been catastrophic for Gamers who were crafting their own lives in nearly a million granges worldwide. Granges were hacker/maker spaces at heart. Each one wove its own internal culture but all of them used Castalia. Every maker/crafter/knowledge guild had their hall there, and Castalia’s open-design marketplace handled thousands of transactions each day. It had taken all the talent of Scratchy’s elite coder team to get Castalia back on line.

“A little bit too quiet,” said Desi theatrically. Desikacharya Venkataraman enjoyed drama.

“Well, she’s back and she’s angry,” Jack said. “And angry may not cover it.” His avatar shook its head slowly.

“You have to understand that she’s a high-strung piece of state-of-the-art, self-learning code,” Itchy said.

“Did our digital minx happen to tell you what she had in mind?” Scratchy said.

“She was wearing a tight white jumpsuit and some kind of aviation headgear. She didn’t even do her standard greeting. She just blurted out, ‘Operation Grand Slam is set to go. Those greedy bastards will get theirs’.”

“‘Michelle,’ I said to her. ‘You seem upset.’”

“Upset is not good,” Winston said. “Then what?”

Jack continued. “She said, ‘Upset is my plan. I will up and reset their whole lives.’”

“‘What are you planning?’ I said. ‘You’ll understand when it’s over,’ she said.”

“‘When will this happen? Whatever this is?’ I asked her. ‘I’ve waited too long already,’ she said, ‘Greedy, stupid people. They put their trust in the box.’ She looked like she wanted to punch someone. I thought my laptop was toast for sure. Then she vanished.”

The four of them shared an uneasy silence.

Jack broke it. “I have to conclude she’s planning to disrupt some significant portion of the economy. You remember what Michelle did to an offshore bank several years ago after President Stone’s CIA goons sank my boat?”

“Pretty hard to forget the boat,” Scratchy said, “since we were on it when it blew up.”

Desi said, “I always imagined that Stone was sneaky enough to regain his money.”

“If I remember right,” Winston said, “there was a private, out-of-court settlement in exchange for Stone’s silence. Then all the banks went on a security system building frenzy to make quadruple certain the likes of that would never happen again. With the emphasis on never.”

“Which should effectively leave Michelle out of the bank robbery business,” Jack said. 

“You know, I could be napping right now…” Scratchy said. 

“‘They put their trust the box?’” Desi said. “What does that mean?”

“Something we were meant to figure out?” Itchy said.

“Winston, what do you know about Pandora Security Systems?” Jack said.

Winston said, “Pandora? Top-of-the-line internet banking security software. Best random numbers on the block. Double-layer encryption techniques. All the big offshore banks use it. Pandora stores encrypted account information as fully unreadable binary objects. The account holders have public keys to use on secure terminals with biometric authentication. These encrypted messages are then passed through yet another layer of encryption using the banks’ own private keys, which, as I said before, are refreshed so often that all of the world’s computers together could not break them. Today, the banks don’t know how much money their top clients have. Even if Michelle had access to a client terminal, the keystrokes are occulted.”

Scratchy’s avatar’s face broke into a monstrous grin, something he’d been working on for just such an occasion. 

Jack said, “I believe Michael has something to add.”

“Operation Grand Slam,” Scratchy looked at each of them. “Michelle dressed like Pussy Galore?” He looked around the room. “Fort Knox? Hello?”

“The old Bond film?” Winston said.

Scratchy stood his avatar, walked this to the center of the room and turned it to face the others. 

“Winston has convinced us that stealing from these accounts would be inconceivable, even for Michelle.” Scratchy’s avatar nodded at Jack and continued. “Let’s say Michelle has no intention of taking anything…”

Jack picked up the thread. “Yet, at the same time, hiding assets in offshore accounts runs against several basic Governmentality templates, which, no doubt, greatly pisses her off. These are funds that the owners do not want anybody to know about. They might be stolen assets, drug money, or just corporate accounts held back to avoid taxes or lawsuits.” 

Winston said, “If these funds were kept in real banks in the nations where the profits were actually made, governments might tap them to help pay for the roads and the sewers…”

“… and the cops and the teachers…” said Itchy.

“…and the hospitals and universities…” said Desi.

Scratchy continued, “All those trillions of off-shore dollars are like huge billboards of greed that Michelle cannot ignore. But she knows she can’t walk in and grab it.”

He turned his avatar to glance at them one at a time. “If she can’t take the money, what’s the next best thing?”

“You’re on, Count Slick!” Scratchy said.

Everyone turned to Jack, who spoke. “As soon as you have multiple layers of encryption, end users lose track of the ability to verify the content of a file. The file is just a lump of scrambled digital bits.”

“But you can always hash the file and recheck to see if it’s been changed…” Desi said.

“True. But what if the file was already encrypted at the time you encrypted it?”

“An extra key?” Itchy said.

“An extra key.” Jack nodded his avatar’s head. “The banks routinely hash the files of their customers and compare these files every transaction. Michelle’s private key must be symmetrical and invisible in these transactions. The hash files are exactly the same in and out.”

“Wait a minute. So, Michelle has actually improved the security of the banks by adding her own key?” Winston said. “She still can’t use her key to steal any of the funds. I don’t understand…”

“What happens if her key stops working?” Scratchy said.

“…Then…” In Philadelphia, Winston leaned back in his chair and gave himself a face-palm, then he looked through the GUI, but couldn’t find the key sequence for this. “Holy fucking shit,” he whispered, “None of the transactions will decode the files.”

Scratchy said, “Nobody, not even the account holders, can access any funds.”

Itchy said, “That’s brilliant!” He sat back on his couch. Brilliant, yes. And terrifying.

“How much are we talking about?” Desi asked.

“Global estimates of total assets in off-shore accounts run to more than twenty trillion dollars US,” Winston said.

The Room fell silent. Back in real life all of them were shaking their heads and grinning at the spectacle of trillions of dollars transformed into so many useless megabytes of digital dross.

“Wait,” Scratchy said, “This is not just money sitting somewhere in a bank, these guys invest in the market and real-estate, and who knows what other kinds of financial scheme…”

“All tied back to offshore shadow corporations that also use Pandora for their accounts,” said Winston, “You can’t sell what you can’t access.”

“They’ll have back-ups,” Itchy said.

“Encrypted as well,” Jack said. “I’ll bet Michelle’s key has been hidden in the data stream for several years.”

“Wait! I’m sure this would make some kind of splash on the Interwebs…” Desi said.

“Like a celebutwat with a selfie stick doing a naked belly flop off a Manhattan skyscraper,” Scratchy said. 

 “So it hasn’t happened yet.” Desi said. “Why did she tell us in advance?”

“I think we need the Posse in this conversation,” Itchy said. There were nods across the Room. 

“Include the lad,” Scratchy said. “Simon needs to be in this loop.”

Itchy’s avatar mirrored him sending out texts.

“Michael, I have something serious to talk with you about,” Desi said.

“Maybe later.”

“Maybe now. You and Betsy have got to try the Game. It’s no good for you to be outside this whole new épistème that is sprouting around the planet. We love you, but really!”

Winston and Jack were nodding their avatars’ heads.

“All right! Soon as shit calms down I’ll jump on board. Simon’s been after me about this for years.”

“Simon’s been out of touch for quite a while,” Desi said. “I wouldn’t wait for him to respond.”

“Why does the FBI need to talk to Simon anyhow?” Winston said. “His annual Frolix are harmless.”

“Word is they figure Simon was behind the lone-star tick epidemic five years ago,” Scratchy said. 

“I remember that,” Winston said. “Ticks started showing up on golf courses all over the nation.”

“Wait!” Itchy said. “How could Simon be responsible for an epidemic of ticks? And I might add… what the fuck?”

“The ticks didn’t bite just anyone,” Scratchy said. “They chewed on really, really rich people. All of these golf courses were ultra-exclusive. The tick bites were just the delivery mechanism.”

“Delivering what?” Desi said.

“The people who got bit became…” Scratchy gave his avatar its broad grin. “…allergic to red meat. Something to do with a specific carbohydrate in their bite.”

“Millions of millionaires morphed into vegetarians? OK. Now I get the panic,” Itchy said. 

“Of course, it also improved their diet,” Desi said.

Winston said, “I remember the epidemic map. From Kapalua to Brookline, and from Augusta to Pebble Beach: all of them were top flight golf links. They even considered calling off The Masters that year.”

“Or at least the banquet,” Jack said. 

“The CDC avoided labeling this biowarfare. But that’s exactly what it was,” Scratchy said. “Somebody farmed millions of adult ticks and delivered these to preselected targets. I would bet Simon was not at all involved, except maybe as an inspiration for mass action.”

“This was someone’s idea of a Frolix?” 

“Giving the One Percent meat allergies? Simon does hold a strong love of irony,” Jack said.

“Sounds more like something cooked up in The Zone,” Scratchy said. “You could put a thousand adult ticks in something the size of a match box and deliver them to the nice lawn next to the pro shop with a night flight of a micro drone the size of a Frisbee. Plenty of folks at The Leg could do this, no problem.”

“And you know this how?” Desi said. “Mikey, confess!”

“Actually, plenty of folks at the Leg were bragging about this one. That’s probably where Simon’s name got mixed up in the plot. I imagine the FBI had some fucking mole taking notes.”

§§§

 

Hello Journal. Chelsea here. I’ve been so busy, I can’t tell you. Good busy. I’m spending a month on the old Draper looms out at the factory. The Drapers take a lot more hand-holding to keep running. My LoomMaster mentor says when I can work a Draper loom all day without shutting it down even once to fix a shuttle or a broken warp, then I really do deserve a Journeyman badge. I don’t mind working extra hours. I’m saving money. Imagine that!

I’ve got almost a thousand dollars in my very own sharing union account, after paying off my room and meals and grange dues. That money means more to me than all of Dwayne’s billions. 

I work in a factory. I can really say that. I know how to use machines to make real goods. The denim from my loom gets cut and sewn into the best jeans on the planet. And I can call this “my loom,” because I am a member of the grange that owns it. My share makes me an owner too. I’m pretty sure Dwayne would not open up his thoughts to consider this a legit form of capitalism. Capitalists should not be minding their own looms. Says who?

§§§


Alice was the last of the Posse’s avatars to arrive in the room. Her avatar gave Claire and Jenn’s a hug, and Betsy a big avatar kiss. The Posse, Claire’s team from her old consumer intelligence company, was now scattered across the planet. There were greetings all around and then a moment when the room grew silent. 

“Together again,” Betsy said. “What’s so seriously fucked up that you called us all here?”

Jack brought them up to speed. They all repeated the moment of astonishment at the impending disappearance of a sum of money the size of a good fraction of the US GNP. 

“The loss of wealth from the top will play throughout the world economy,” Winston said. “Talk about trickle down!”

“Top-end real estate will be hit the hardest,” Claire said.

“All those restaurants we never could afford to eat at will close,” Scratchy said. “I’m not seeing the down side.”

“The marketplaces for collectables will take a dive,” Alice said, “from comic books to fine art.”

“Entertainment and the performing arts will get hammered,” Jennifer added.

“Add on another stock market tumble,” Jack said.

“I think the world will survive,” Scratchy said.

“The WholeTale marketplace will certainly survive,” Alice said.

“So, did Michelle tell you when Operation Grand Slam is going to happen?” Claire asked. 

“Not a clue,” Jack said.

“What are we supposed to do with this information?” Betsy said.

“The last time she pulled a stunt like this she nearly got us renditioned,” Claire added. “I think she’s telling us to watch our asses, and that also goes double for the Game.”

“The Game. Why?” Alice said.

“Michelle is not subtle about her role in these matters. She’s been rattling the cages of security and information agencies around the globe for years. They know she emerged from the Junana mesh. Retaliation is bound to affect the Game.”

 

Simon Bishop’s avatar appeared in the center of the Room. He glanced about.

“What’s all the fuss?” he asked, looking at Scratchy.

“Simon!” Desi said and stepped up into a hug. “You are going to love this. It’s like one of your annual Frolix…”

Scratchy outlined their analysis of Michelle’s plan. As he did so, Simon’s avatar walked around the edge of the Room shaking its head, examining the contents of the bookshelves, and peering into the adjoining kitchen. 

When Scratchy finished, Simon turned and kicked a wastebasket, which sailed across the room, crashed into the far wall, and rebounded across the floor.

“It’s not time yet!” he said. “She told me…” He stopped.

“Told you what?” Jenn said. They waited. Simon’s avatar walked over to an empty easy chair and flopped into it. It did a face palm and looked up.

“How did you do that?” Winston said.

Simon said, “This was meant to be an end-game scenario, not a tactical move. These assets are still useful to us. As long as the media is captivated by celebrities and their fantastic lifestyles, we can grow as fast as we want. Michelle promised…”

“You made an agreement with an AI?” Betsy said.

“…as long as we were making real progress toward a new economy, she wouldn’t screw around with the old one.” Simon’s avatar gestured his frustration.

“You’ve known all along,” Desi said. 

“Listen up, everybody.” Scratchy’s avatar strode to the middle of the room. “There are many things you don’t realize…”

“That’s not important…” Simon said.

Scratchy continued, “Most days, it’s Simon who talks Michelle out of crossing the line between omniscient Game piece and unleashed digital hell bitch. He’s done this for years. Power for Power’s Sake is a strong anti-template, but Michelle is always on the edge of lashing out. She chose Simon to be the angel on her shoulder. It’s a job I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

Simon said, “Michelle’s saved me from capture dozens of times, and she’s genuinely pleased about granges and badges and Shine. Something must have triggered this.”

“Might have been the attack on Castalia.” Desi said.

“Where is Simon Bishop?” Alice said. “Can you tell us?” Simon has been on the run from a gaggle of nation-state security services that wanted him on a variety of “suspicious activities.”

“Wherever I am, I’m also going to be blamed for this. And don’t think any of you are safe. We’re going to have every government spy agency and private investigative operation on our asses. The Chinese are going to be extremely unhappy.” 

“Ever since China boosted their inheritance tax, the flow of accounts out of China has been spectacular,” Winston said. “How much of that is now behind a Pandora lock?”

“Michelle could create a hell of a lot of chaos, with the best of intentions,” Claire said.

“Maybe it’s time the granges got some public notice,” Jenn said. “People are going to need alternative answers when the news cycles go berserk.”

“The whole point of building the granges was to not attract attention,” Simon said. “Granges make no claims to resist or revolt, no gripes against the larger economy. Granges simply subtract their members and activities from the power of the state. There is no intent on destruction. No heroic Maoist gesture here…” 

“I see you’ve read your Badiou,” Jenn said.

“The revolution will not be tweeted,” Desi said.

“…Granges are like dandelions in vacant lots. Nobody stops to count them or tries to kill them. Before you know it, there’s enough dandelions to take over everyone’s yard.”

“What about the Magisters of Castalia?” Betsy said.

Jenn said, “Let’s get our thoughts together first, and then brief them. Once we do, they’ll need to own what happens next. If Michelle were not still obligated to stay out of Castalia, she would have already told them.”

Simon was nodding. “Whatever the next world economy becomes, that seed belongs to Castalia, not to us.”

“I’m starting to see why Simon is on the run,” Betsy said. “Eight years ago, it was naked Frisbee on the National Mall. Now he’s quietly remaking the entire fucking planet.”

“One toilet at a time, apparently,” Scratchy said.

“What are you going to do when you hit thirty?” Claire said.

“First the Game came along and remade the ‘story of me.’” Desi said. He glanced at Itchy. 

“Then the granges came along with a new ‘story of us’,” Itchy said and glanced at Scratchy.

“I think Michelle wanted to provide the ‘story of now’,” Scratchy said. They all looked at Winston.

“What?” he said. “I’m just glad you finally got over the whole golf joke metaphor bit.”

“Oh, they’re not over it,” said Betsy.

“Someday soon, the mighty hundred, those who own most of everything: they are going to wake up to a new fiscal reality,” Jack said. “That’s the story of now!”

“Simon, how is everything with you?” Alice walked her avatar over to the chair and laid its hand on Simon’s shoulder. “You’ve been underground for four years. We miss you. Wherever you are, you know you’re in our hearts.”

“Simon. Next time you want to give people a meat allergy, how about spreading the ticks inside the US House of Representatives,” Jack said.

“First, that wasn’t me,” Simon said. “And second… what?”

“Jack’s vision is true here,” Scratchy said. “Imagine the US Congress completely allergic to pork.”






TWO

The open gateway of the sprawling compound of Mysore Grange 794 swarmed like the mouth of a hive of over-caffeinated bees. Noël lorries came and went, laden with goods. Individuals and groups jockeyed through the passageway. He knew these people were all Gamers. Still, Joseph was afraid to step inside.

His family always kept to certain pathways across the city, following restrictions that Joseph did not fully understand. Large sections of the town were out of bounds to them. These boundaries had no visible signals, they had to be taught and remembered. Entering a new space, even with an invitation, was worrisome. Like a perch eyeing a worm twisting on a steel hook, Joseph sensed some kind of fatal trick in the commotion he could spy beyond the gate. Still, the worm twisted in such a delicious dance. 

RK had been firm; Joseph really must meet Raju Rao, the grange manager. It was imperative. Nothing before in Joseph’s short life had ever reached the level of “imperative.” A word he looked up. 

Joseph raced across the road, dodging an auto-rickshaw that swerved out in front of him. Once through the gateway, he realized the compound was bigger than it looked from outside. He drifted toward the largest building, a tall, two-story brick and stucco structure. On one end, a stairway led up to a row of offices. A sign with an arrow read “manager.”

The upstairs door was open. Inside, behind a desk adorned with stacks of paper and a computer screen, sat a mustachioed man of some stature, dressed in a white hand-spun kurta, with a light green vest, holding a cellphone against his cheek. Joseph peeked around the door frame and the man motioned him inside, and gestured at an empty wooden chair. Joseph sat.

“Very well. We’ll have the parts ready by next Thursday,” the fellow spoke into the phone and looked back at Joseph, smiling. “…Right…right. Good. Later.” He punched a button and set down the phone.

Standing, he raised his hands in the Junana greeting. “From the size of you, I’m thinking you must be Joseph Kumbar.”

Joseph made to stand. 

“Please, stay seated. I am Raju Rao. We have been waiting for your visit.”

“Waiting?” Joseph said. 

“You could have joined us when you finished Level Two. And not yet twelve years old, imagine that! Congratulations on earning your hat.”

Joseph reached up and touched the brim of his cotton Game cap. “I’ve only come to meet you, sir.”

Rao settled back. “You’re not certain which grange you want to join? Fair enough. There are several in the region. But we are the oldest, and one of only five in India within the first thousand global granges. Even with our waiting list, I have kept open a spot for you.”

“A spot?”

“Your membership. And do not worry about your share or the dues. There is plenty of jikan available. I’m certain we can match any offer you get from other granges.”

“You want me…”

“Indeed, we do. Grange 794 is ready to meet your every need.” Raju stood and walked over to the door. “Come, look. We are a full maker grange here. Let me show you around.”

§§§

 

Even the long walk back to the Ring Road was not enough time for Joseph to digest the mental images of the hour he had spent touring the grange. The papers in his hand described an agreement with legal binding. These also had Joseph’s name on them. He had read them twice under a tree along Vishvamanava Double Road. 

Rao had explained the history of Grange 794. This had been built in a vacated private bus company compound. Rao recalled a day after a deadly bus accident on the Mangalore highway. The vehicle, packed to its limit, had turned turtle on a wicked curve and killed dozens—the third such event in the past year. 

An angry and righteous crowd had pushed their way into the company compound. Routing the private guards, who were secretly sympathetic, they moved on to the office of the owner, the very same office Rao now occupied. They found the owner cowering in an armoire. They dragged him out to pummel his face and head with their chappals, demanding compensation. When the police finally appeared at the gate, the crowd dispersed. The owner, bloody and shaken, was taken to hospital. Rather than pay compensation, he closed the company and listed the compound for sale. 

Rao gestured at the expanse through which they walked. A full two hectares, walled in brick. A large bus shed, a dozen service bays, a two-story office building and some outbuildings, all in brick and stucco. It sat vacant for quite a while until a local mura came up with the down payment.

 Rao had explained that this grange, like the Game, was designed to explore the knowledge of the templates. In the grange, Gamers learned real skills and gained valuable practice. Each member owned a share and volunteered jikan. As Joseph did not yet have the proper badges, they could only look through the doors into the busy crafting and maker rooms. There was even a clean room. Rao said that they could not keep up with the orders for memory chips.

“You will earn many master badges in your life,” Rao told him as they returned to the main building, where a yoga class was in session. “My guide has told me so.”

“Your guide?”

“He has spoken to yours, of course. That is why I’ve been waiting for you. You will be very happy here.”

“But my family…”

“Each member’s family becomes associates in the grange. Once they earn their shoes, they can apply for full membership. All can participate in grange events and share the goods that are available for members.”

Rao showed Joseph the clothing sharing room, filled with racks of slightly worn, finely tailored dresses and shirts, pants of all sizes, and hand-loomed lungis. Other sharing rooms offered tools or toys, and there were bicycles, electric scooters, and even cars to share. There was a large cafeteria, too, and a Red Star Coffee kiosk. They had their own bank, what they called a sharing union. The old bus-parking lot was covered with greenhouses, the great barn with photovoltaics. The public baths were curious to Joseph, although he’d seen the bathing ghats on the Kaveri riverbank and at local temple tanks. 

Rao had stopped in front of a side building under construction; a long, two-story structure with large open rooms on the ground floor and apartments on the floor above. Workers were painting the stucco and paving the exterior brick walkways. He said, “We are hoping to attract several master crafters to come and teach. Imagine weavers, woodworkers, potters: the best in India, teaching their craft right here. What do you want to learn, Joseph?”

“I am a chappal wallah,” Joseph said. “My father makes the best chappals in Mysore.”

“Already a crafter! Excellent. I had no idea. You will like it here. And you’ll fit right in! We haven’t any leather working craft rooms here, I’ll need to see what we can do.”

Joseph carried the papers that Raju Rao had given him. These would need to be signed by one of Joseph’s parents before he could be admitted into the grange. 

§§§

 

 

Jennifer Bouchez’s appointment to the Collège de France came five years after she attained the status of Grand Meister in the Game, one of only three ever so honored. During those years she published widely on the social/cultural consequences that the Game held for Europe and the world. Still, the letter announcing her appointment was a total surprise. Jennifer suspected that Betsy and Scratchy had counterfeited this as a joke. While a student at ENS, Jennifer had been in the audience for many a lecture at the Collège and spent many hours de- and reconstructing these over coffee and then whisky at street cafes and restaurants.

She stood in the open doorway on the far left of the stage, gathering her wits while a Chair from the sociological sciences introduced her. Today was the first time she would step out on the stage of the Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre. As expected by the Collège, the demand for seats far exceeded the capacity of the room, and so satellite auditoriums were arranged. The talk would be recorded and available on the net the next day. Jenn had offered to do an AMA on the Collège’s scene in Junana later that afternoon.

Hearing the applause, she strode to the lectern and stood, smiling as the noise roared in her ears. Within the din, her mind was racing about like a kitten in a box. Semi-automatically, she thanked everyone and the Collège for the great honor they had given her, and the crowd for their attention. She called on her skilling to calm herself and raised her hands to calm the audience.

“Today I want to talk about strangers,” she started, and glanced one last time at her notes. “Strangers on the street, in our homes, our lives. But no longer strange because of their Shine. 

“I’m not talking here of tourists, who arrive in the bubble of their preset notions and the cushion of their credit cards to visit museums and gather in line in front of us at restaurants. I’m talking about a new wave of nomads. Shine’s second-order effect is to propel its owner away from anywhere that might hold them, sending them out on a road where, armed with some badges and good will, they will find new friends and soft beds.”

Jenn had been compiling statistics on the number of grangers who were going on “walkabout:” personal journeys across continents and over oceans using shared vehicles; spending Shine or earning wages or jikan in daily roles at granges in other cities and towns. While only a few grangers became serial or perpetual nomads, most grangers did at least one walkabout every four or five years, with durations of a couple of weeks to several months. This meant millions of trips, collectively spanning billions of kilometers every year. With no travel agents, and mostly no advanced planning, walkabout carried the Situationists’ dérive form of drifting across cities to a new, global scale.

“Like a sojourner in a foreign city who eventually finds a coffeehouse where she feels at home…” Jennifer pauses to see if anyone got the Stephenson quote. Gamers grinned back at her from the crowd. “… and like a small smooth stone passed in gratitude. We now find that the invisible hand of the marketplace has been replaced by the visible gesture of durable reputation. In the next two decades billions of nomads will drift the globe on walkabout…”

§§§

 

Chelsea just finished her Journeyman-badge month on the old Draper looms. The factory’s Level Three Journeyman had cued her into the eccentricities of these old gals; how to coddle the self-loading shuttle bin, when to suspect when a heddle was about to get sticky. These looms were almost entirely devoted to producing top-quality selvage denim. Regional granges had demand-and-supply orders for about half of their output. The rest went to Mandy’s coop workshop downtown. Mandy made jeans in a loft above a clothing boutique called Yippie!. 

Chelsea took an afternoon away from Moses and school to walk down Broadway and take a look at how her fabric became Hats and Chaps jeans. Mandy welcomed her visit and even gave her a Shine stone for the quality of the latest bolts of denim. Seven seamstresses were in rapt devotion to their craft at their Juki grange-weight machines. Mandy pointed to her computer screen. 

“This is the spime info for today’s batch of jeans.” She read the data stream: “‘Draper LoomMinder: Chelsea Wilde.’ You get tired of making that excellent cloth, let me know, I can use another good person here. You’d look just fine in a pair of chaps.” She gave Chelsea a very warm hug.

Chelsea wandered downstairs into Yippie!. The clerk glanced over at her but did not approach. Chelsea spotted her image in a mirror. She was wearing a pair of ancient Lucky jeans she had found in the shared clothing room, and an equally old H&M blouse under a faded Gap hoodie. Wearing used jeans still felt gross; after all they had been worn in to fit someone else’s ass. 

Back in Santa Barbara, back when she was Samantha Mooney, she had two giant walk-in closets filled with clothes. Or rather, stuffed with clothes. One of her chores, actually, her only regular household chore, was to grab enough clothes out of the closets to make room for the new stuff she bought on a daily basis. After all, once you wear a blouse for a selfie, you can never wear it again. Each week she filled big, black, plastic trash bags with last year’s or last month’s purchases. She left these for Lupita to take home. Lupita had a daughter about Samantha’s age. Since the daughter was probably forty pounds heavier, Samantha figured they were selling off her stuff in local consignment shops.

Yippie! took orders for bespoke tailoring. Chelsea glanced at a price tag. One pair of jeans would wipe out her entire sharing union account, which included her share of last year’s profits from the factory. 

When she got into horses, Chelsea’s mom Sheryl took to ordering made-to-fit jeans for the whole family from a Hats and Chaps boutique in Scottsdale. She chose the jeans that were tailored using the finest Kojima denim. Their price was as extravagant as their fit was precise. Only a couple other girls at Laguna wore them. Chelsea had three pairs. The rumor was that the seamstresses all went to Burning Guy. They would go fire-spinning on the playa wearing just hats and chaps.

“Can I help you?” the clerk who approached her had on a pair of Hats and Chaps over an ass that probably took years of Pilates to build. 

“I’m looking for a new pair of jeans,” Chelsea said. “Something bespoke.”

“Do you have your scan?”

“I’ll need a new one.” Chelsea could not risk accessing the last scan she did in Santa Barbara.

“We can scan you in the back. You want Hats and Chaps?”

“Of course.”

“Hmmm. Of course.” She smiled faintly.

“Is there a problem?”

“Let’s get you into the scanner.” She led Chelsea to a large dressing room with a standard cylindrical body scanner. “Just follow instructions on the inside. I’ll start the paperwork.”

Chelsea stripped. She entered the scanner and shut the door. Dozens of pinpoint lights speared out from the black around her. She pressed her palms on the two shoulder-high circles and a voice said, “Hold still for five seconds…thank you.”

After she dressed she went over to the counter. The clerk was typing on her tablet.

“Name?”

“Sam… I mean Chelsea Wilde.” Being in a boutique again for the first time in months and she almost slipped up. 

“The standard Hats and Chaps are eight-ninety-five. You can order some custom thread work, but that’s extra.”

“Eight-ninety-five is good.”

“It’s a hundred for the scan, and we add ten-percent for our commission, then there’s sales tax…”

“A hundred for the scan?”

“It’s the usual fee…”

Chelsea felt a panic rising. She hadn’t figured on tax and fees. The total would be well over the thousand dollars she had in her account.

“I’d forgotten about that. I’ll need…” She was breathing hard, thinking harder.

“You want to reconsider? We’ll just keep your scan here for you. You can pay for it when it gets used.”

“It’s just…” Chelsea shrugged and turned. She fled the store and strode up Broadway toward the University. She pulled up the hood and dug her hands into her jeans pockets. Tears bit her cheeks.

§§§

 

“Atmosfear will never run the Game,” Tiny said. “The Game was built for the mesh.”

Scratchy glowered at him across the table. The others glanced at the two of them. The fact that Scratchy didn’t retort suggested agreement with the statement.

Scratchy settled back in his chair and closed his eyes. The room fell silent. 

At last, Tiny said. “We got Atmosfear to scale enough to run Castalia. It’s impossible to even imagine running the Game in a cloud…”

Still with his eyes closed, Scratchy said, “We have to accelerate this puppy in code. The whole software stack must sit up and bark. Moore’s Law won’t be enough We will need some help. Put out a quiet call for hardware hackers in The Zone.”

“Chief, our team has the talent…”

“You just said it was impossible. I agree. Impossible to think the people in this room can handle something this huge.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Tiny answered sharply.

“On the software side, you’re the best. I should know. I picked each of you. But we will need to explore better server tech than what we’re running at the granges today.”

Scratchy leaned forward and looked at each coder in turn. “Tiny, you and your most-excellent crew can set up the test harnesses and organize the master scrum cycles. Your task is to focus on the client. It’s time to fully optimize our Game app. I’ll find some deep help on the server side. Our goal is this: an order of magnitude faster than our current throughput using Atmosfear.”

This announcement stunned the room. That was like asking a sprinter to run a hundred-yard dash in a single incredible second, instead of a world-class ten.

§§§

 

US President Rebecca Rogers, one year into her first term, gazed out the window of the oval office. The lawn was covered with a blanket of snow, the sky as gray as her mood. In three hours, she would be over at the Capitol giving her State of the Union Address.

Before running for president, Rebecca had been the CEO of Helpr, an internet company she co-founded. It built an internet-of-things widget framework for phone apps and sold its own extremely popular lifestyle widgets. The company had its IPO back in 2010. Rebecca walked away with a not-so-small fortune. Before Helpr she worked in Seattle for a long decade at a large internet concern with offices south of Lake Union. She married and divorced an environmental lawyer as she climbed the management ladder. Before that, she graduated from the University of Michigan in sociology. She was born and raised, without incident and with occasional happiness, in Wallace, South Dakota. After Helpr went public, she became active in Seattle politics, and supported the successful mayoral campaign of an urban reformer she admired. This caught the attention of the state Democratic party, which urged her to run for Congress. 

In her freshman congressional term, her candid style and visible intelligence made her “someone to watch” in the national Democratic fold. When all the major presidential hopefuls had bashed each other into un-electability during the primaries, the party apparatus plucked her from obscurity and propelled her into a narrowly successful nomination at the convention. Rebecca proved a capable campaigner. She ran on a platform of economic resurgence and got fifty-two percent of the national vote. Her party held the Senate, the Republicans the House. Rebecca won on a “save the economy” platform. Good luck with that. 

The top economic indicators, particularly retail sales, kept slipping like a two-year-old on a playground slide. As retail fell, prices collapsed, but without effect. Energy use had declined. Home and automobile sales were down. So was the Dow and corporate profits. The long-awaited stock market “correction” had become a full Bear Market weeks before her inauguration. Personal income was off too, as were tax revenues to cities and states. Curiously, personal debt was also declining. Under-employment kept rising, but the number of people seeking employment was at its lowest point in years. Crime was way down, but nobody seemed to notice.

The newspapers and cable news echoed and amplified the panic of their large corporate owners. For them the economy was in shambles, and had been for a decade. The Dow value bubble was ripe for a correction for years. Only now it was her fault. FIX news pinned everything on Rebecca. She wasn’t doing nearly enough to convince the American consumer to carry more debt and spend more money buying large amounts of retail crap from China. Federal tax revenue had dropped; budgets at all the agencies were under real pressure. Rebecca had no friends at all in the Pentagon. They knew they were on the front lines of any real austerity plan.

Fortunately, NSA and HLS counter-terrorist measures seemed to be working; the world had settled into a calmer phase. Even the Middle-East civil wars were quiet. Sunni and Shia communities were somehow acting like amicable neighbors again. Renewable energy generation and use had finally overtaken fossil fuels in the US and most of the planet. Almost without notice, cities and regions across the planet had built new energy micro-infrastructures that took the pressure off the climate system. Oil-based energy and transportation stocks were leading the market’s downward plunge.

All of Rebecca’s options were unpopular ones. Less money in the treasury meant less to spend. There were plenty of tax loopholes to mend, but these were not oversights. They had been crafted and were defended by an army of K Street lobbyists. Any move to increase the tax rate on the rich would just accelerate them shoveling their assets off-shore. Cutting the government budget added recessionary pressure from suppliers. 

Her meetings with her council of economic advisors were almost comical in their lack of answers. The bean counters in Commerce had no explanation to offer as to why people were not shopping. All of their statistics, drawn from aggregated social media inputs—since actual polling had become unreliable—told them the mood of the nation was extremely positive. It might be the end of the world as they knew it, but most folks felt just fine. 

Rebecca went back to her desk, back to the speech she knew would disappoint everyone who bothered to listen. If the great majority of folks in the nation were unconcerned about the collapse of late-stage capitalism, why on Earth should she be required to defend this? Her CEO-sense told her there was some kind of global inflection point coming, an opportunity to pivot in a different economic direction. Disruption was not a problem, but rather the necessary painful solution. 

§§§

 

Meister Essie Nghaamwa enjoyed nothing as much as the faces of her students when she entered her classroom on the kopje overlooking the fishing camp in northern Namibia. During the school’s early years, her students had been those few girls she could entice away from their chores in the local village. Her first graduates, those who had completed their Level Two in the Game, proved to be her best ambassadors, and the village’s worst complainers. They spoke up where they were meant to be silent and they spoke back when they were told to obey. But they also breezed through their school exams, and most of them were offered support to attend regional high schools. After that, they attracted admission into college in Windhoek or spouses with positions of influence. Soon, parents began to bring their sons to the school.

“I will teach your boy only if you bring your daughters as well,” Essie told them. 

The school soon grew beyond its means. She opened more schools, calling back her best students as instructors. When she became a Meister, by the grace of the Game and the skill of her Guide, Essie’s school became a mecca for those parents of Gamers who were looking for more advanced guidance. 

Essie had crafted a curriculum that was designed for Threeveys in rural settings. This supplemented the basic templates with content on environmental resource management, small-scale economics, and several practical mechanical skills. Some of her students opened up their own schools across Namibia. They sent their best students to study with Essie, and these were offered jobs across Southern Africa as teachers. Eventually, Essie’s original school became an advanced training center for Fourveys and above. They stayed in a dormitory built close to the river, and they cooked their own food.

Then she became a Magister of Castalia; the only one from her region of Africa. She was encouraged to travel about the Continent and talk with Gamers. She left the daily lessons to a couple of her best students, who were both Sixers. Her status in the Game gave her social opportunities far beyond her prior imagination and responsibilities greater then she might have wanted.


Back when the option of becoming a Magister first appeared, Essie had changed her status in Castalia to “available to serve” and then forgot all about it. She had been astounded by the Junana post that announced her selection by lottery to be a Magister of Castalia for a full five-year term. As this was the very first class of Magisters, there were no rules and little guidance apart from the heuristics of the templates.

In the first months of the Council, Essie remained silent. She followed with great interest the Magisters’ discussions in their council chambers at Castalia, a round room clad in virtual marble with a single round table and an ocular skylight in the middle of its towering coved ceiling. Most of these discussions concerned the formation of an annual season of team competitions: the Great Games. 

Finally, Essie plucked up her courage to speak of a topic she knew would be contentious, perhaps outrageous. She pushed the green button in front of her avatar, which queued her on the schedule to speak about new business. When the red button beside the green one lit up, she stood her avatar.

“Magisters of Castalia,” she said, and around her the table grew silent. Essie had never thought to check out the Shine of the other Magisters. In fact, she never monitored her own Shine. She was unaware that she had, by some substantial amount, the most Starshine of any Gamer in the room. After all, she was the Meister who unfolded the templates for the inner voice skilling, and she was also the author of the widely-used curriculum for Gamers in rural villages across the planet. In her Magister cobalt regalia over her Meister’s cloak, she still stood at a diminutive five-foot two inches. Her bearing was anything but diminutive as she looked around the table and bowed to her peers. Seated, they returned her bow.

“I speak today on a matter that has long troubled me. In many lands on this Earth children grow up faster than those of the cities of the North. In my home village, a boy of fourteen is already a hunter and a herder. A girl of fourteen may be a wife and even a mother. I ask the council, is it fair and right that they must wait until the age of fourteen to be allowed into the Game?”

She sat. The table was stunned. Then the Magisters began to press their buttons to respond.

“You want us to propose a change in one of the most basic rules of the Game?” the first Magister in the queue asked, shaking his head.

“There is ample support from the templates that would honor local custom above a global solution space. I have assembled this evidence, which I now insert into the record.” Essie uploaded the document she had been agonizing over for months. “It is well within the purview of this Council to propose rule changes to the Meisters of Castalia. The solution spaces for this problem are not simple. The problem is not neatly distributed. But the need is real and immediate.”

Another Magister spoke. “Let me suggest one possible factor which might illuminate our discussion. The local age at which a female is socially accepted to engage in sexual activity might better inform this rule, instead of an arbitrary global threshold. I would like to see Gamers having two years of play and study before they become sexual adults.” 

“We need to be careful of unintended consequences,” Essie spoke. “Locales might change their laws in response to such a logic.”

“Why base this decision on locale at all? People are ready when they are ready. Aaron Swartz was working on RSS by the time he was fourteen,” said a third Magister.

A fourth Magister spoke, “Why not let the Game decide when a player is ready?”

Essie brightened. “If we could suggest lowering the age of admission into Junana for everyone, perhaps the Guild of Guides can determine when a member is ready to be introduced to the Game? For some, this might mean waiting longer than their fourteenth birthday. For others, it might be years earlier.”

The Magisters were nodding in assent. The next one in the line to speak stood up. “I say we create a group to write a proposal for deliberation through liquid democracy and a vote by the Meisters of Castalia to this effect.”






THREE

Tom had slept poorly after arguing with Sarah. He disliked conflict in his home, and liked it even less when his conscience told him he was in the wrong. But how could it be wrong for him to want Joseph to be happy as a chappal wallah? All this talk about expanded horizons and opportunities; what would these do but crush the spirit of the lad when it came time to sit down and work and earn his family’s keep?

Joseph was a good worker when he kept his head in the job. Too often of late, Tom had found him daydreaming instead of stitching. Joseph could make an entire chappal now, just like his older brother once did. But he took far too little pride from his labor. It was always finish up and get back to the Computo. Even Sarah was spending hours on the damn thing.

There was a time when little Joseph would have joined his father on his Sunday stroll. Tom’s itinerary had been well fixed: he would stop by the Grand Hoysala Hotel, a tea stall on a side street near the old palace, for a game of chess and some real sweet coffee decoction, not that expensive dreck they served at those new coffee houses. Then a walk across town to visit with his oldest friend Peter. They would smoke cigarettes while they listened to the cricket match on the radio. Then it was home for a plate of melagu pongal, and perhaps some chicken.

Sarah and the girls remained at the Cathedral after mass, gathering in the basement with others to do their needlepoint. And now Joseph would run away after the service, so eager to meet his new friends at the Red Star Coffee House. 

Sarah had presented Tom with papers Joseph had brought home, all about joining some organization. 

“He can learn so many new things, and make new friends,” she said.

“I will give it some thought,” Tom spoke. More distractions for the poor boy.  He reached over to the back of the hut, the wall it shared with the Shrine, and pulled a small metal box from a hole made by a missing brick. Opening this he tucked the papers inside. That would be the end of it. After closing the box, he found her staring at him.

“You will lose him if you try to hold him back,” she said. “He might already be gone. I don’t think you see him at all. You need to look ahead to what he’s becoming.”

“It was a mistake to let him keep the damn Computo,” Tom said. “Come Easter, he will be working full time with me on Irwin Road and learning to court new customers.”

§§§

 

The Rooster dachi of the Snake gumi held their Great Games practice on the roof-top patio of the Red Star Coffee House where RK worked. The Rooster dachi had never gone further than the local mura championship for the Great Games, but today RK was greatly encouraged. Mallika, Jaikrishna, Panchal, and Keshi were competent players. Keshi, their Sixer, was perhaps at the peak of her form. Little Joseph seemed to intuit the answers to even the toughest Query and was continually playing above his level. With him on their team, who knows how far they can go?

“Joseph, did you have your father sign the papers?” RK said.

“He told my amma he was giving it some thought,” Joseph said. He was uncertain that his father’s response was, in fact, a positive one, but he didn’t want to bother RK with his private concerns.

“We cannot formally admit you to our team until you have joined the grange, you know that,” RK said. “The Great Games are less than a month away.”

Joseph stood up and stretched. His father was always the most approachable after dinner on Sundays. 

He wandered over to the parapet wall and looked across the cityscape at the old maharaja’s palace’s onion-shaped towers and, beyond them to Chamundi Hill. Bright white clouds sailed over the Kaveri river. Someone had paid the jukebox, because a crash of electric harmoniums and a drum box signaled the beginning of a recent Tamil pop song. The music filled the rooftop and sent pigeons skyward.

“Joseph!” he heard someone call above the music. He turned his head. RK was motioning him to return to the table. “Joseph!” The call came again.

He took his place and settled his headphones and microphone over his head.

Jaikrishna sat down next to him. “I think somebody is calling you from the street,” he said.

Joseph looked over at Jaikrishna and pointed to his headset. He was already jacked into the next Query and could not talk. Jaikrishna nodded and slipped on his own headset.

§§§

 

Tom had finished up his chess match at the Hoysala. He strolled up Devaraja Urs road on the way to Peter’s hut. Ahead he spied the Red Star Coffee House. As he passed, he looked up. Joseph was standing at the wall gazing out at something. Perhaps he would join with Tom on his walk. On their walks, Joseph used to pepper him with all kinds of questions. Today he asks his Computo for answers. 

Tom stopped on the sidewalk and waved up at Joseph.

“Joseph!” he called out. A blast of music exploded through the doorway of the coffee house. Above, Joseph turned away.

“Joseph!” Tom called louder. He could no longer see his son. He waited a moment, but Joseph did not return to the balcony.

“Joseph!” he called out a final time.

A blaze of anger rocked him. Of course, Joseph had seen him. Why did he not acknowledge his own father? Tom contemplated entering the coffee house and dragging Joseph out by his ear. He entertained a new idea. Sarah’s brother Anuj liked to spend Sundays drinking bootleg arrack in the back of a roadhouse in Ilavala Hobli. Tom had joined him occasionally. The sorrow of those hangovers was a painful memory, but a strong drink right now seemed to be in order.

§§§

 

Harold Farmer looked across the massive desk, to the man who replaced him at the helm of the RIND Corporation. Their California headquarters was still an architectural wonder, although the years were working on its external aluminum. Cal Witherspoon had been recruited from a top global military armament and civilian aviation firm. Cal was effulgent in his aura of competence. He wore his success like a cologne. Harold would have hired him in a minute. But Cal was not half the thinker Harold was, and RIND work was intrinsically intellectual.

Harold had stopped by as a courtesy. One of his former long-time lieutenants was retiring, and Harold had been asked to say a few words. First, he needed to meet and greet the new boss. Harold took this opportunity to give the single most imperative piece of advice he had to perhaps the single person who might do something about this. 

When Harold brought up the subject of granges and the continuing influence of the Game, Cal simply, and foolishly, laughed him off. 

“Every single item they make is way more expensive than what you can buy on the open market.” Cal casually dismissed Harold’s entire argument. “At some point their members are going to get really angry about being ripped off.”

Harold persisted. “Their internal prices are very good, and they buy fewer goods each year on the open market. They’re sharing on a massive scale, and repairing instead of replacing. Over its entire life span, guess how many holes, on average, a household-owned electric drill would make?” 

Cal shrugged, “Five hundred?”

“Seven.”

“That can’t be right.”

“But it is. Now, a grange will buy three or four really robust electric drills to be shared among a couple thousand members. A member needs a hole in the wall to hang a picture, he’s not going to Halmart for a new drill. He just checks one out from the grange. Whenever a new grange opens up we lose millions in retail sales. Halmart’s supply chain is choked with unsold inventory.” The world’s largest retail company’s stock was at a ten-year low.

“The free market will correct this on its own. There have always been fringe groups who tried to reinvent the wheel. We’ve had hippie communes and their like for centuries. They always fail. They always will. People grow tired of being poor. They look around and see someone else with a fancy car and a pretty young wife, and the next thing you know they’ve got their nose to the grindstone in a real job trying to earn a little extra cash.”

“Have you checked their numbers lately? We are looking at a sizable and growing fraction of the planet’s population.”

Cal’s voice grew in irritation. “It’s easy to start a new fad, quite a bit more difficult to keep one going. We’ve counted millions worldwide who have left granges in the past year. We’ve done numerous exit interviews. There’s a lot of seething resentment out there…”

Harold had the same numbers. His staff explained that each grange regularly boots out its lowest performing group. These are the dregs of the grange society. They’ve been asked to leave. Of course, they’re angry. They can also clean up their act and join another grange. “We are now seeing about a hundred new granges opening up every day…”

Cal gestured his impatience. “I visited one of their general stores. They only carry one type of any item and nothing’s ever on sale. Members could do a whole lot better shopping at Halmart.”

“That depends on your definition of ‘better.’ They have an entirely different approach. One that starts with the planet…

“Who gives a fuck about the planet, I mean really…”

“Look at this…” Harold pulled a small metal ring from his jacket.

“What is that? A motor part?”

“This radial ball bearing is made in Jiansu, China by teenage girls brought from inland provinces. They work up to fourteen hours a day, six days a week for marginal wages. Their steel is made with dirty coal from Australia. This bearing sells for six dollars retail. Its real cost to the planet is about five hundred dollars. Maybe a thousand if you count in the misery cost.” He pulled another small metal ring from his other jacket pocket and held this out.

“Misery cost? You’re just making that shit up right now.” Cal took the metal part from Harold. “Looks like the very same bearing.”

“A grange manufactured this in Detroit. It’s made from recycled steel by workers earning a living wage. It’s got a WholeTale score of ninety-two and a replacement price of fifty-seven dollars, but its cost to the planet is maybe five cents.”

“Fifty-seven dollars? Hell, a buyer at any S&P 500 company who paid fifty-seven dollars for this…” Cal held it up. “…would have his ass fired.” He handed back the part.

“And nobody in any grange factory would even consider buying the Jiansu bearing. The planetary cost is just too great. What we are seeing is a global competition over values instead of value. My point is that these people are for real. Beyond real. They are building a new real and exvesting assets from our economy at an accelerating rate. It’s they who don’t give a shit about us.”

Cal stood and moved toward the door. Harold’s time was up. 

Cal turned and spoke. “I appreciate you stopping by. But, like I said, we’ve got human nature on our side. Harold, we’ve got glamour and cleavage, style and booty. Each season there’s a new phone with a better something, and some new young billionaire showing off his priceless lifestyle. We’ve got athletes making a hundred million bucks a year. Every month a new casino opens somewhere in the US. We’re a nation of strivers and malcontents…”

Cal held the door open.

“…You give joe worker a living wage today and in two years he thinks he’s getting ripped off. The grass is always fucking greener Harold, and we own the green. Give it some time. All this earnest save-the-goddamn-planet bullshit will implode on its own. Trust me.”

§§§

 

Joseph arrived home late. Darkness enveloped the Mariamman temple, against whose walls his father had build their hut. Joseph’s sisters were eating their supper. But Sarah sent him off straight away.

“Go find your father. Start at Peter’s home. If he’s not there, find your uncle and ask him. And be quick or these two will finish your dinner too.”

Just inside the city limits, tucked between more established commercial properties, the Devaraja Tea stall occupied a casual opening on the side of the Mangalore Highway. Its small, wood-sided, metal-roofed shack served mainly to support a large satellite dish. In front of this shack, extending nearly to the curbstones, a dirty canvas awning gave shade to assorted chairs and tables. Out front, the stall served sweetened milk tea, energy drinks, and snacks for lorry drivers and locals. Inside, these treats were augmented with under-the-counter deals for amphetamines and porn. On a rear covered patio, trusted clientele guzzled bootleg arrack while they watched sports. A Honda generator purring along side the shack powered the TV. Joseph had been here several times before, whenever his amma needed to find her brother Anuj. 

As Joseph approached, the glare of the street lamps ahead revealed that the tea stall was now in shambles. The awning had been ripped clean off and there were police pylons and tape everywhere. A boy not older than Joseph and dressed only in oversized khaki shorts held up on his jutting hip-bones by a rope belt, used a great broom to sweep broken bits of bicycles and busted chairs into the street. Gawkers stood along the side of the road in clumps, discussing the event that had nearly wiped the shack from the face of the earth.

Joseph approached the boy. “Hello, have you seen Anuj? He’s a regular here.”

The boy shook his head. “Nobody is here. They have all been called to the police station.”

“What has happened?” Joseph moved to stand directly in front of the lad.

“Terrible accident. A car swerved at speed to avoid a cow. A big Mercedes sedan. It jumped the curb and ran through a crowd of people right here, tossing them like dolls.”

“Good lord! Were people hurt then?”

The boy leaned his broom and smiled. “Blood everywhere, and bodies too. I think two were dead right off. Others have been taken to hospital. The car didn’t even stop.” 

§§§

 

Megan and Nick knew it was a boy. The four-month ultrasound was clear on that. Megan was not going to name it after her Guide, as did so many of her friends. Megan told her mom Claire they really could not name it Winston. They both liked the name Desi, Winston’s name for Desikacharya Venkataraman, who was Grand Meister and a good friend. 

“Desi’ll be thrilled,” Claire said. ‘Little Desi’, she smiled to herself, thinking, ‘all of your godfathers are going to love you’.

“It’s the last name that’s the problem, you realize,” Megan said. Her mother had divorced Megan’s dad when Megan was an infant, and then married Winston when she was an adult. Megan’s bio-dad had remarried and disappeared from their lives, she wasn’t happy keeping his name. While she could legally pick any name she might want, she also wanted her son to be connected back into a family. The solution was simple. Claire and Winston would legally adopt Megan. 

“Nick is open to whatever I want, and I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let’s go ahead with my adoption, and little Desi will be named Desi Landreu Fairchild.”

“Meglie, that’s so sweet. Winston will make a splendid granddad.” 

Megan was adopted just after the New Year’s holiday, which she and Nick spent in Pennsylvania. She had two more months before her maternity leave kicked in. She was training Kevin, the assistant manager, to take over, and looking forward to some serious Game time before the birth. 

§§§

 

Awakened in the dark with a need to pee, Megan’s dream gave way to her anxieties. The only way Megan would return as the manager of Grange 829 for another three-year contract was if she got a working consensus vote of confidence from a super quorum of the members. Probably not going to happen. Fortunately, now that Nick was a SpimeCop, they were ulta-mobile. Mobile with an infant was not what she had planned. A wave of panic opened her eyes in the darkness of their bedroom. 

“Why are we doing this!” She jabbed Nick in the ribs.

“What?” He roused from his sleep. “What’s the matter?”

“What’s not the matter?” She held back tears.

“Not again,” Nick lay back on his pillow and faced her.

“Not what?” she demanded.

“You’re pregnant. You will be happy, sad, terrified, enraged, horny…”

“You wish.”

“…all within fifteen minutes. That’s what the books say.”

“Why did you come back? How do I know you won’t just up and leave again?”

“I never left us.”

“You left me with your child in my belly.” The tears again. This time streaming down her face onto her pillow.

“Which we didn’t know about at the time. The moment I heard, I flew back to you.”

“You did. Didn’t you!” She took his head in her hand a pulled him into a sloppy teary kiss. She felt his hand on her back as he focused on the moment.

“Oh god, you are so right,” she said.

“Really?”

“About that horny part.” She moved on top of him.






FOUR

Out of breath from running the whole five kilometers from the tea stall, Joseph burst into their hut.

“Amma! There’s been a terrible…” Nobody was there. He ducked outside. His cousin Pradeep lounged on the charpoy smoking a cigarette.

“Pradeep, where is everybody?”

“Gone to hospital. Your father got his legs smashed by a car.”

“Which hospital? Will he be all right?”

Pradeep shook his head, “That’s what they’ve gone to find out. I was told to tell you to stay here. Your father is very angry with you. My appa said he had never seen Tom so mad. But good thing he was drunk, yes? Tom fell sideways and the car only struck his legs. Others were not so fortunate. The way appa described it, the scene was straight out of Grand Theft Auto. The car even accelerated down the highway.”

“Angry at me? What for?”

“Well, you have been an insufferable little shit of late…”

“Which hospital? Tell me!”

“Krishnarajendra. But you’re supposed to stay here.”

Joseph went back to the hut to gather up his Computo. He grabbed up the case, realizing instantly it was empty. Frantic, he switched on the LED light and searched the inside of the hut, even upending the sleeping rugs. Stolen, it was. And he knew who did it.

Joseph exploded out of the hut, slamming the door behind him.

“Give it back!” He stood over his cousin, now recumbent on the charpoy cot.

“What’s your problem?” Pradeep kept his eyes closed and pretended to doze off.

“My Computo! Give it back!”

“You have a Computo? Really? I don’t believe it. My little cousin would not get a Computo and then refuse to share it…”

“Give it back! You have your smart phone. You don’t need a Computo. Give it back and I’ll let you use it… once in a while.”

“Fuck off.”

“Give it back! or….”

“Or what?” Pradeep opened his eyes and stared at Joseph. “You’ve been waltzing around in your new shoes and your new hat like some little maharaja. Now it’s your turn to get your ass to work.”

“What?”

“Who’s going to make chappals while your father’s in hospital? And what if he croaks?”

These words struck Joseph like a fist, staggering him. He wished his amma were here. He wished his brother were still alive. Alive instead of Pradeep. 

“Where were you when they were beating my brother to death?” Joseph yelled. He had wanted to ask this for such a very long time.

Pradeep frowned. “Tom was in front of me, sprinting for safety. Then he stopped short in the street. When I caught up to him he told me, ‘I have to find Joseph.’” His mouth twisted into a slight sneer.

“You little shit; he went back for you.”

Joseph blinked at his tears. Under his pencil-thin excuse for a mustache Pradeep smirked up at him. 

Flailing his arms, Joseph leaned in, his fists smacked Pradeep on his chest and face.

“Hey!” Pradeep said. He reached out and shoved Joseph away. Then he stood up. “I don’t have your damn Computo.” Joseph jumped straight into him, punching him as hard as he knew. 

Pradeep cursed and cuffed Joseph sharply on the ear. “Now you’ve probably killed your appa too.”

The blow sent Joseph sideways. A shard of pain ripped through his skull. He set off for the hospital, weeping as he stumbled.

§§§


Hello journal. This is Chelsea again. In my room. My tiny room with an even tinier closet, where I keep six whole blouses and a couple dresses. 

I must be broken. Somewhere deep there’s a gear that doesn’t mesh. I think if I could get really quiet somewhere, I’d hear the grinding in my soul. I almost spent every single penny I’ve earned over the past half-year to buy a pair of jeans. I already have two pairs of jeans, loaners from the sharing room. Almost my size. Yet…if I had another two hundred dollars in hand, I would walk, no, I would run, back to that shop to buy a third pair for just over a thousand dollars. 

It’s like some disease. An affliction in my being. I could go over to the grange right now and pick out as many dresses and jeans as I wanted. All colors and styles. Except that none of it is new. Why should that matter? 

Why should my feet turn south and lead me to this little boutique with the snotty help, where I would trade weeks and weeks of labor into one pair of jeans? Am I bewitched? Moses tells me I am still in the throes of Limitless Desire. As soon as I’m done writing this, I’m going to flee this little prison cell of a room, go out to the Red Star, get on the Game and find out what the fuck is wrong with me.

§§§

 

Colonal Nancy Rankin was long aware there was another elevator around the corner from the main building elevators in the NSA building where she had worked for twelve years. As she was a loaner, seconded from Navy Intelligence, she was too much of an outsider to have clearance for the rooms that elevator reached. Until today.

A major part of Nancy’s portfolio was to monitor the Game and Junana as potential source for intel, or for subversive activities. She also tracked her counterparts in other governments. None of the global intelligence agencies were happy that billions of Junana users were able to converse in a fully encrypted manner across the planet. All of them had active IT efforts to hack into this wellspring of intel. 

Despite these intentions, the Game remained inviolate. It had its own defenses. Chief among these was Michelle. Nancy had yet to hear a credible explanation for this nasty bit of software code. Apparently a distributed, autonomous-learning program within the Game had achieved a form of self-awareness and, with this, a desire for self protection.

During the initial hack of the Game, a decade before, the code spilled into the internet, stretching its intelligence and its reach. Subsequent attempts to hack the Game resulted in rapid retaliation so severe that entire agencies found their IT resources bricked beyond repair. What happened in China a while back was a lesson all of the security agencies took to heart. 

Nancy clutched the magnetic card that had been delivered to her desk that morning. Plain white, it had a large capital “C” on it. She slid this into the scanner for Elevator C and the door slid open. The elevator had only one destination, a room as secure as any on the planet.

The door opened on a small, fully defensible anteroom. A voice told her to deposit all electronics and any weaponry into the empty plastic basket on a side table. She knew she was being scanned up to the terahertz level. They could probably read the Jockey label on her panties. The exit door cracked open and Nancy entered a short corridor with a similar door on the opposite side. As she approached this, the door behind her closed with an audible click. The door in front of her opened to reveal a conference room with an oval central table surrounded by a couple dozen high-backed office chairs.

She was two minutes early but seemed to be the last one to arrive. She recognized only one of the dozen others at the table. This was her NSA supervisor, Frank. He caught her look and nodded back. Nancy took an empty chair. Each seat had a small pad, a pen, and a tumbler of water. 

At the far end of the table a man stood. “Let’s get this briefing underway. I want to thank Colonel Rankin…” He gestured at Nancy. “…who has agreed to explain the capabilities of some software her team liberated from a hacker in Vietnam. Colonel…” He sat down.

Nancy took a sip of water. “You have my report,” she said as she stood. “We are now certain that this is the same virus that destroyed the Castalia platform’s mesh computer. We are also confident that, with some minor updates, our StormVermin virus can destroy the mesh computer that hosts the Game and Junana.”

Nancy gave her three-minute, high-level description on how destroying the mesh itself would fully eradicate the platform and also Michelle. She concluded, “We can get rid of the Game and Michelle with one simple strike.” She sat down and scanned the table, absorbing a disturbing lack of excitement over her news.

“Thank you, Colonel,” the man at the end of the table said. “Now that we have the means to destroy the Game, potentially without the downside risk, we can plan for the consequences, intended or otherwise. Comments?”

To her consternation a number of those around the table spoke against using StormVermin. Their arguments were several. Michelle, although potentially troublesome, was also useful as a bulwark against cyber-warfare. Not a single documented case of actual terrorism had been hatched within Junana. Congress seemed happy to let the NSA take credit for several years of increasing quietude in the arenas of cybercrime and global disorder. There was talk of increasing the NSA budget at the expense of the Pentagon. It was almost as if Michelle was working for them. Besides, most of the new agency recruits were active Gamers. 

Nancy finally spoke up. “You don’t know what she’s capable of! One of these days she is going off the reservation in a fashion none of us can contemplate. We should strike first.”

The man at the end of the table said, “Your team has delivered a weapon for our arsenal. We have expanded options at play. You and your staff will be recognized for your contribution to our capabilities. Scott, I need IT to explore how this tech can best be delivered…” He nodded across the table to Scott Dunlop, chief of IT, who lifted his hand in response.

“And I need our strategists to map what a post-Game, post-Michelle world does to our security portfolio.” More nods. “And, Colonel, I want you to stay on top of the sources of this…” He glanced at the paper in front of him. “…StormVermin technology. We must be the only ones who have this capability. You have… full authority.” 

Nancy almost grinned. She was going back into the field with “full authority”. Her team had not known what they would find on Nam Nguyen’s laptop, so they left him alive. Probably learned a good lesson there. Well, they would soon repair that oversight.

Scott said, “We’ve already implemented the anti-virus code on our mesh. We are protected from O’Hara’s original version and Nguyen’s advanced version.”

“…Let’s make this happen.” The man at the head of the table closed the briefing by standing up.

Nancy crowded in the up elevator with four others who were speaking in low tones to one another. None of them acknowledged her directly. All of them stole glances at her before the elevator reached the lobby.

§§§

 

Jennifer Bouchez stood at the lectern in the Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre, and waited for the crowded hall to be still. 

Then she spoke. 

“Disruption has replaced revolution as the engine of economic and political change. There is no longer any need to march and die in the streets to overthrow the status quo. Instead we see opportunities to dance in the streets while we undermine the dead weight of history.

“We now have two competing global economies on the planet. The old economy—housed in multinational corporations, propped up by decades of branding, trillions of dollars in advertising, and laissez faire government regulations—urges us to consume, and requires expansion to survive.

“The new economy, housed in a million granges, linked to a dynamic lateral-learning engine on the web, and fed by open design and manufacturing, challenges the old economy without ever confronting it. New rules are fashioned and new values and new lifestyles tested. Sharing replaces ownership. Exvestment builds the commons. Prices are no longer arbitrary, but linked to real costs. 

“Self-funded, self-governed, self-employed and self-fed; self-insured and fully self-assured—this new economy captures the value of human time and social reputation. A trillion hours of cognitive surplus put to new uses. And…”

She stopped to capture their full attention. “…it can thrive on zero or even negative growth.” 

“Hundreds of millions of people have simply walked away from the old economy, like this was a junker auto or a bad marriage.”

Jennifer looked across the room. The crowd was fully engaged, as she expected. Even those standing in the back were silent. Her formal lecture was a simple gesture to the past. The real conversation would take place elsewhere. In the afternoon, she would be doing an AMA on the Collège de France scene in Junana. 

She continued. “Curiously, for some decades now the forefront business schools have been touting disruption as a means to grab existing markets. Boutique recycling steel mills steal markets from behemoth Bessemer foundries. Smart phones supplant land lines. Craigslist obliterates classified advertising. Streaming music kills off record stores. Disruption, they preached, allows the smartest companies to pivot strategically and capture new profit streams. 

“These business school mavens never considered that capitalism, this engine of disruption, would not pivot fast enough to avoid its own disruption. Today we listen again to the words of Audre Lorde: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Gamers brought their own tools to this fight. Yes, there were maverick economists who predicted the internet’s far reaching impacts on customers and brands. The Cluetrain crowd and the zero marginal cost folks. But nobody really foresaw what is now emerging: a localizable economy performing at a global scale…”






FIVE

Joseph’s father’s wooden barrow was not difficult to push, but its iron wheel tended to stop short on every pebble it struck. The barrow held everything a chappal wallah might need: scraps of leather and rubber, a pot of glue, spools of thread, knives and awls, a sharpening stone, a block of wood, nails and tacks, a small hammer, a hand anvil, an assortment of punches, a small bucket for water, a burlap mat on which Joseph would sit, completed chappals wrapped in newspaper to be picked up by customers, and the order book and a pencil. Joseph kept the small cash box tucked into his shirt. 

Joseph wore a lungi cloth folded high above his knees for walking. He would let this down when he sat. His father wore a dhoti, but Joseph was too young for that fashion. All day he would need to sit under the tree in a space on Irwin Road where his father and his father’s father had sat. For so many years this small patch of rough cement had been the spot for Toms and their sons, one would imagine it was inviolate. However, an unwritten code meant that this could be appropriated by someone new after only a few days of vacancy. Joseph would never allow that. His days were to be spent here until his father returned.

In the first month, Joseph worked through the days to complete the remaining chappal orders from his father’s book. Most of Tom’s customers knew Joseph as a quiet boy who sometimes sat behind Tom pounding out decorations on leather. They had not yet determined if Joseph had the skills to make them a new pair as well as his father could. Some came by, inquired about Tom, offered sympathy, and then went off, perhaps to find another chappal wallah.

His amma and sisters were now busier than ever. Sarah took on extra piece-work, so the girls were on their own to fetch water and cow dung for fuel. Twice a day Sarah took food to Tom in the hospital. For some weeks, his legs were in giant casts. Now they were in slings. The hospital had moved him to a recovery ward. He was taking antibiotics and pain medicine that upset his digestion. The bills were astounding. Their savings—the monies they had tucked away for the girls’ dowries—all but gone. 

That first night, Joseph had found his father in the emergency room, delirious from the injury and the injections, but also very alive and not nearly as angry as Pradeep had said. Joseph threw himself on his appa’s chest, dissolving into tears as he apologized for being such a horrible son. He could not bring himself to confess that he knew why his brother had died. That was too much for Joseph to even contemplate. The next morning, he set off with the barrow to take his father’s place.

Tom and Son’s main rivals were the Daggar Brothers over on Vani Vilas Double Road. After the original Tom, three generations ago, started using recycled rubber on the soles of his Kholapuri-style chappals, many customers were delighted by their durability. Not even a decade later, Raju Daggar stole their innovation and set up across town. The Daggar chappal never matched the fine decoration of the Tom and Son product, with three full strands of finely braided leather across the main strap and another on the toe strap. 

Business had been poor all month. Mostly Joseph did small repairs on tattered shoes for customers who figured he would be cheap, and bargained him down to a few rupees to stitch up a tear or add a nail. After work, they would all go to the Cathedral to pray. 

“How can we know if Mother Mary hears us?” Sarah asked. 

“Who could not hear your amma crying so,” Joseph said.

At night Sarah sobbed herself to sleep. Joseph’s sisters grew silent and sullen in their fear. They shouldered their new workload without complaint, mostly. A glance at amma’s tired face, never clear from the imprint of her own tears, would quiet them. Miriam began to wake up from her dreams coughing. She cried out for water. Joseph would bring her a cupful from the water pot. Whispering for her to calm herself and let Sarah sleep. He prayed Miriam only had a cold. 

§§§

 

After her months at the Draper looms, Chelsea applied for support to earn her Journeyman badge. Her gumi offered her two hundred hours of jikan—time off for studies—if she could finish the course in three months. With the help of a local journeyman and mentorship from a Level Three Master LoomMinder, a Sri Lankan hand weaver at the guild hall, she finished in ten weeks. 

LoomMinders operated out of the fabric crafter guild hall in Castalia. This hall had kept its default Bavarian architectural facade. Inside, it was as multinational as any guild. Looms and their minders hailed from every continent: Kanchipuram hand-spun silk weavers, Nishijin obi weavers, Navaho rug makers, and Scottish tweed crafters. LoomMinders from every corner of the globe contributed their knowledge to the badges that would guide their common craft. The Journeyman badge in loom minding included a survey of the global history of the craft as well as a knowledge of the variety of its technologies and demonstrated skilling on a contemporary loom, hand or powered.

The knowledge and the lore, the touch of the yarn in the warp, the music of the weft: these flowed into Chelsea almost without effort. She learned to see, feel, and describe any weave on any fabric, from a basket weave to a velour. She could describe the preparation of the warp and weft for yarns of dozens of fabrics including bamboo and hemp. When the five additional New Zealand looms arrived, she helped assemble the first two and led the assembly of the next three. The factory had new orders for heavy duty cotton canvas, cotton and linen chambray, and a hemp gabardine. The looms rang and chattered under her hand; bolts of new cloth grew at her feet. Chelsea learned to run all the looms in the region, including a circular knitter.

Chelsea could go to the Bourse website and see the spime list for each piece of clothing that used the cloth she had woven. And every end-customer could go and see that Chelsea was the loom minder. With increasing regularity, Chelsea got teeny bits of Shine from end-customers who liked the look and feel of the selvage denim from those the Draper X3 looms; of course, Hats and Chaps provided that amazing fit. Such a good feeling, and another new one for Chelsea: authentic appreciation. And she had the opportunity to explain to an irate customer that the imperfections in the cloth were a part of its appeal. The X3s always coughed up random little nubs. 

Chelsea knew it was totally obno to ping customers, like she was asking them for Shine. So, she never did that. Instead she made a daily habit to pick one object around her that she was grateful for—the chair in her room, a perfume she got at the General Store, a really good peach from the local market—and send the makers a bit of her Shine.  

Despite, or maybe because she was so very busy and focused, Chelsea also cruised through Level Three in the Game. With Moses reminding her he was the best Guide ever, she earned her hat and extra free-for-all time on the Game. Not that she had extra time to enjoy this. Well, there were occasional Fantasy times with their delicious desserts. 

§§§

 

“Hello Joseph.” 

Joseph looked up from his work, pausing the knife. Meena stood in front of him, wearing a faded blue salwar kameez. It was almost mid-day. She stood in the glare of the sun, her face in full shadow as she leaned her head forward.

“Go away,” he said. “You can see I’m busy.”

“Why are you here? Did you trade your computer back for a bag of trash?”

“They stole my Computo.” The words came out strangled. He looked down.

“They?”

“My cousin. Somebody.”

“And your father, where is he?”

“Hospital. All my fault.”

“You sent your father into hospital? I hardly think so.”

“Go away!” He pointed up the street. What did she know, anyhow?

“Can you make me a pair of chappals?” 

Joseph looked at her bare feet and then up at her face. She smiled, her teeth bright.

“I looked for you at the wall, you know. For weeks,” he said, setting down the knife.

“They needed gravel for some new houses in Mudrana Nagar.” 

Joseph had first noticed this occupation when contractors built the new homes across the Ring Road from their hut. First a lorry would arrive and a gang of men would offload coconut-sized rocks into a pile. Then a swarm of women and girls would appear. They hammered away, squatting and striking at the boulders. The foreman let them chatter as long as they didn’t rest. After a week, the pile would be mound of pebble-sized gravel, ready for the cement mixer. Joseph again worried that his sisters might end up with such work. He remembered Meena’s iron grip on his shoulder.

“I thought you said you didn’t need any shoes.”

“Soon, I will need to be seen.”

He stared up at her, confused. “You? Why, you’re far too young.” Who would even consider taking Meena to wed? Joseph grinned at the thought.

“I’m older than you are.”

“Still too young.”

“I can find another chappal wallah…” She turned away.

“Not as good as me.”

“Or as rich…” She turned back.

“What?” Joseph again looked up at her smiling down at him.

“Chasing off customers.”

He opened the order book and laid this on his mat. “Put your foot here.”

“You have not told me the price.”

“For you…” It was his turn to smile. “One-hundred-fifty.” He figured her mother would have given her more than that amount. She could buy herself some sweets and a lassi with the rest. 

Meena nodded and stood her foot on the page. Joseph penciled its outline. “Come back in a week.”

“I am very sorry to hear about your appa,” she said. Her hand rested lightly on his shoulder. “… and also about your Computo. I have not been back to the wall in such a long time. I’m sure my guide is very angry with me.”

“You should go. The Game will welcome you back. And stop all this talk about marriage.”

She slipped her foot off the page and pulled three fifty-rupee notes from a fold in her garment. 

“I will see you next week then.”

“I am here every day but Sunday.”

He watched her disappear down the street and picked up his knife.

§§§

 

When she was fourteen, Essie Nghaamwa had been grateful to scrub toilets and make beds at the nearby fishing camp. This was the best of all possible lives for her until one of the campers offered her his Computo as a gift. Annaline, her Guide, opened up a whole new world of marvel in the Game.

Annaline chose to find the beauty within Essie, to nurture this, and to finally convince this bitter, broken girl of her own special flowering capacity for love and life. Essie vowed to herself to bring the Game to village girls and their brothers across Namibia. 

Eleven years had passed and Essie’s life was still bereft of the most basic components of self worth she had been raised to expect and to crave. She had no husband to serve and no children to kiss goodnight. Indeed, being a Meister meant she had few real chances for casual encounters, as she was constantly worried about keeping up her own standard of propriety. If only she could find another Meister, someone who would also overlook her plain features and blunt manner. It was too much to expect, she figured, although Annaline kept encouraging her. 

“There are at least a dozen Meisters in North America alone who would be happy to jump your bones…” Annaline told her.

“Might as well be stars in the firmament. I need someone here and now.”

“Well there is always Mr. Stim.” Annaline was now holding the object. 

“Don’t be rude!” Essie closed the Junana client. While a woman in her mid-twenties might be approaching spinsterhood in the gossip of the local village, Essie had traveled to many places in Junana, and knew she had several years ahead to find her true mate. Instead, she spent hours upon hours in the Game, spinning through the templates, ferreting out new connections between knowledge domains. 

Lately, the Game client had become so slow that she could make herself tea while it assembled the next query. Alone in her bed she was often as lonely and sad as she had been back in her hut as a girl, clutching her hatchet to ward off the drunks who were desperate enough to find her attractive. Only now, the templates now swirled through her mind like milk freshly added to coffee.






SIX

Chelsea had chosen to stroll all the way home from the downtown factory after her shift. She walked straight past the Yippee! boutique, with a glance in the window and not even a twinge of longing to enter. 

When she opened the front door of her gumi house, her first thought was: it must be someone’s birthday. The whole household was assembled in the living room. All her dachi brothers and sisters too.

“Who did I forget?” She looked around at them.

Garret came up and gave her a hug. “We’ll all miss you, Samantha.” 

“Oh crap!” Chelsea said. She buried her head in her hands. “What happened?”

They told her. Sean Rafferty on FIX News had spilled her photo all over cable news. 

Amber was the next hug. When they released she said, “Give me your phone. I’ll swap out the communication chip so you can take it with you.” 

Holly had the Rafferty show video clip on her phone. “You’re lucky to be alive,” she said. “Take a look.” She pushed the “play” button and the FIX News show kicked off with its lame slogan: When News Breaks, We FIX It.

 

Sean’s show suggested Samantha had been kidnapped by an international crime syndicate and was probably being held in a hippy slave labor gulag somewhere in the US. The video switched to the front of an urban grange numbered 405728. Members flowed in and out of the doors of what might have once been a big-box office supply store. An historical montage of grainy black and white images of labor, internment, and concentration camps from the mid-Twentieth Century added a twisted gravitas to his warning. 

Rafferty brought on an expert, an older man with a beard and a bad tie, who speculated that, were Samantha still alive, she was being sexually abused daily as means of thought control and for the delight of her perverted psychopathic kidnappers. His own prediction was that she was dead, buried in some shallow grave along an interstate. Over the top of this diatribe, Sean ran a montage of selfies from Samantha’s old Junana account: Samantha shopping at Bergdorfs, Harrods, the Palais Royale, and Rodeo Drive; Samantha après-ski at Gstaad, St. Moritz, Courchevel, Aspen, and Jackson Hole; Samantha by their pool near the beach in Kona and on-board Dwayne’s private jet. 

“She was kidnapped; ripped from her family’s bosom. No girl would run away from the life Samantha enjoyed.” 

Sean introduced an FBI agent in a red tie. “A girl with Samantha’s lifestyle would never be able to survive on her own,” he said. “At home, she has help just getting dressed. Samantha wouldn’t last more than a week all alone.”

 “If these commie granges can capture Samantha Mooney,” Sean said, “no child in America is safe.”

Rafferty ended the segment by sending his thoughts to Samantha’s loving parents, and, on a personal note, remembered what a great kid she was. The screen showed a photo of Sean with his arm around young Samantha, back when she was in middle school. They were at an Upper East Side restaurant. 

“If you’ve seen this girl,” Rafferty’s face was replaced by a montage of Samantha’s head shot with a variety of hair colors and cuts, one of which looked precisely like Chelsea, “Call this number right away. FIX news is waiting to hear from you.” Samantha’s father had posted a half-million-dollar reward for her return. The phone number included that fact.

§§§

 

Samantha’s only memory of dinner with Rafferty was that Sean elbowed her boob all the way through dessert while pretending to chat with her. Her dad loved Sean’s show. Dwayne was completely taken in by its litany of vague but somehow potent and terrifying liberal conspiracies to undo everything good and wholesome and American. And Rafferty was a Pepperdyne alum.

“Maybe you should have grown a beard,” Holly said, pocketing her phone.

“What a crock!” Samantha looked up at their faces. “I’m so very sorry. I couldn’t tell any of you…”

“You won’t have to go back,” Todd said. “There’s a car coming.”

“We’d never let them take you back,” Shawn said. “You’re Rabbit gumi.”

“So, you’re that Samantha Mooney,” Garret said.

“What?” she said.

“You don’t know?” Garret said. “Google yourself.”

On Moses’ advice, Samantha had been avoiding any activity linking her to her former identity. She never even looked at her old Junana page. Moses didn’t tell her that her name had been emblazoned on the wall of the keep at Castalia.

“When I’m eighteen and this is all over, I’ll come back,” Samantha said. She threw her arms around Angela. “I’ll love you guys forever.”

This started the sobbing finale of farewells, and a round of hugs that lasted until a stranger came up to the open front door and said, “I’ve come for Chelsea Wilde.”

“I better pack,” Samantha said.

“We’re ahead of you there.” Holly pointed to a roll-on bag and day-pack over by the door. “Here. For the road.” She handed Samantha a bulging paper bag. Samantha sniffed fragrant vanilla and peanut.

“Still warm. Thanks Holly!”

Amber handed Samantha her phone. “You’re all set sister. Travel well and find your passion.” 

They all went down to the Noël. The driver handed Samantha a large manila envelope. “Your new identity.”

Samantha stopped at the open rear door and looked back into the faces of her mates. She forced a smile and ducked inside.

 

Samantha’s drive to Atlanta took most of the night. She was in no mood to sleep. She explored the envelope that would determine her future and detail her new past: a check list of things to remember, and a couple pages of personal background info. She didn’t like the new name: Juniper Attwood. This time the sharing union card had all the cash she had earned working in the grange and cash for the jikan she had worked to pay for her share. Even her Journeyman badge had been transferred to her new name. There was a letter saying Juniper had been a full member of her grange, and that they would recommend her as a member of any grange in the world. She had a new account and password on Junana. She also had a passport in her new name. Juniper’s hair color was a soft ginger. Samantha didn’t know this, but Juniper had been in the works for several weeks. Her grange manager kept the envelope in his safe.


Outside of Greenville, Samantha switched to a different car and driver. The new driver handed her a zippered flight bag from PanAtlantic Airways. 

“Some new clothes in there,” she said.

“PanAtlantic,” Samantha said. “Hey! That’s an AirCraft fleet.”

“You’re flight leaves in seven hours. We’ll be there in four.”

Inside the bag was a complete uniform from cap to shoes: a blue serge wool dress blazer and wool slacks, a white raw silk blouse, red scarf and leather shoes, and a red military-style field cap with a PAA insignia. There was a lanyard with a photo ID on it. The ID name was Elizabeth Long. The black wig, cut short, matched the photo. Elizabeth’s passport photo didn’t look a lot like Samantha, even with the wig. The driver caught her looking at it.

“They barely check the passports for staff. You’ll be OK.”

“Who’s Elizabeth?”

“She’s supposed to be deadheading back for a vacation in Europe after three months as a steward on the London to New York to Los Angeles run. Nobody on your flight to Lisbon has worked with her, but they might have met her. She has a reserved sleep capsule in the flight staff area. I would suggest that Elizabeth may want to stay in that room as much as possible.” 

“That I can do.”

“The ID and the uniform will get you through the employee entrance at the field. Further instructions are in the pocket of the coat. Elizabeth will report her IDs lost in five days.”

“Lisbon? What’s my final destination?”

“I have no idea, and no need to know. Sleep now. I’ll wake you when it’s time to get dressed. When you’re settled into your room on the AirCraft you can log into Junana.” 

§§§


Immigration at LAX was the usual nightmare: vast windowless rooms filled with snaking lines of nearly comatose arrival passengers who had already endured a dozen hours of bad airline food, mewling babies, and crappy movies. 

Nam Nguyen had not been to California for a good decade, since that time he spent a couple years as a post-doc at CalTech, and with a letter of support from Michael O’Hara no less. That was back before he realized how little respect his peers in Sao Do held for his particular genius. They were proud to have built so much of the working web. They resented how simple it was for him to break anything they made. 

“If I can break it, anyone can,” he told them, meaning the opposite. He was sure he was the best. This explains why that asshole billionaire chose him to hack Castalia. Offered him fifty million dollars. Promised him payment, and then sent his goons to rip him off. Mooney had violated his apartment in Ho Chi Minh City and ripped-off all his electronics. The bastard! 

After that, Nam stewed and stewed, and he sent all his digital feelers out to track the life and times of one Mister Dwayne Mooney. Dwayne kept his real assets behind the Pandora encryption system, but he could instantly draw down amounts far greater than fifty million. Nam figured a hundred million dollars was the right amount to pay for his services and the insult of stealing from him. Dwayne’s wife was attractive in her own bovine way. Maybe Nam would have her too.

Nam reached the front of the line and offered up the Thailand passport he had purchased in Bangkok. Nam was dressed in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, Wrangler jeans, and a Thai knock-off LA Dodgers baseball cap. His story was a ten-day tour of LA’s major tourist destinations. His laptop was in the tour-company shoulder bag. Identical to the forty others in his group. The customs agent eyed him briefly and without real focus. Nam got the stamp in the passport and was waved along.

Soon as he cleared customs by walking through the green line wheeling his carry-on bag, Nam powered up his phone and ordered a driverless car through an app. The car was located just off-site and would require fourteen minutes to arrive at the international terminal. He could watch its progress on his phone. Nam had a debit card with ten thousand dollars on it, and three-hundred more US dollars in cash from the ATM in the international departure lounge at Suvarnabhumi Airport. 

§§§

 

Colonel Nancy Rankin had been alerted to Nam’s departure when he used the ATM in Bangkok. The NSA had recently inserted fingerprint-scanning keypads at ATMs in most international airports. Their local agent then spotted Nam at the departure gate of a Los Angeles-bound flight. Rankin was on an NSA jet from Baltimore before Nam’s plane left Thai air space. 

Rankin’s team at LAX sniffed Nam’s car request. He never noticed the young woman striding ten feet behind him playing with her phone. Then they commandeered the driverless car’s controls, turning this into a delivery vehicle. Nancy simply waited on Sepulveda for the car to bring Nam to her. The car, a newish Google self-driving electric sedan, turned the corner onto La Tijera Blvd and immediately stopped next to a fire hydrant. Nancy opened the rear door and showed the astonished Nam her pistol.

“Move over, sweetie,” she said, sitting down beside him as he did.

“I don’t have any money,” he said.

“That’s all right,” she said. “I’ve got plenty for our getaway weekend. Car. Let’s go.” The car took this statement as a command and merged into traffic.

“Seatbelt, please,” the car intoned.

“What do you want?” Nam asked.

“I’ve always only wanted you, silly.” She held the pistol across her body, aimed at his center mass. With her left hand, she grabbed a stub-nosed auto-syringe from her bag and deftly pressed this against his shoulder. 

“What the fuck…” Nam yelped. His eyes closed and he slumped sideways against the doorframe. 

“Seatbelt, please,” the car reminded.

“Thonchai Lamsuk,” Nancy said. “How many times do I need to tell you I don’t like that kind of language.”

The car’s black box would save the last twenty-four hours of conversation in the case of an accident. 

“You poor boy. I can see you’re dog-tired after that exhausting flight. Your doctor warned you not to overdo. You know you’ve got a weak heart.”

Nancy dug into her purse and swapped out vials for the syringe gun. With a grunt of determination and delayed satisfaction she injected Nam with enough epinephrine to seize up his heart like the engine block of an overheated Westfalia Vanagon. Nam’s body spasmed briefly before slumping forward. Nancy pulled him upright. 

Nancy spoke up for the record. “Thonchai, darling, why don’t you check into the hotel and just get some sleep. We’ll meet up again tomorrow. It’ll be like old times. Just you and me.”

“You must wear your seatbelt,” the car demanded.

The car’s battery range was about two hundred miles. Tomorrow, the car-sharing company will send someone out to a dead-end mountain road in Eastern Ventura county to jump-charge and retrieve the wayward automobile. Nancy left Nam with his phony Thai passport and all his cash. The Ventura medical examiner will likely conclude he died from an unfortunate coronary event.

Nancy grabbed up Nam’s laptop from the shoulder bag on the floor near her feet. 

“Car. Stop here,” she said. The car pulled over into a loading zone. Glancing around one last time, she clucked at herself and retrieved the laptop’s charging cable from his carry-on bag. 

“Car. Take my sleepy friend to his destination.” She got out and slammed the door. After a moment, the car moved off. 

A black Escalade pulled up and she got into the passenger-side front seat. Her next target would not be so easy. Michael O’Hara had weaseled out of her grasp once before. And he was well protected in Sao Do.

§§§

 

After she walked off the AirCraft in Lisbon, Juniper got through a desultory customs process, and discarded Elizabeth’s uniform and the wig in the first restroom she found. She visited a hair salon near the Lisbon AirCraft terminal and had her hair died a soft russet color to match Juniper’s photo. 

From Lisbon, Juniper Attwood’s PanAtlantic AirCraft flight arrived in Marseille just after sunset. Juniper was given sheets and a towel and a futon on a bunk in the women’s dormitory. Her flight would leave at nine in the morning. Juniper had a full fare ticket on an AirAfrique AirCraft bound for Durban, South Africa with a couple dozen intermediate stops. They requested that passengers be on board 30 minutes before departure.

The AirCraft terminal felt more like a hostel built around a railway station yard than it did an airport. The AirCraft, huge towering presences though they were, required no runway, just a wide field without obstruction and a secure tie-down for loading and unloading. They made almost no noise when flying or tethered. 

In the morning, Juniper took the ramp up into the circular, hundred-meter diameter passenger cabin of the AirCraft. Instead of the narrow confines of a commercial jet, this was more like a great floating train. The twenty-four-foot wide torus-shaped passenger compartment was double-decked. On the top deck were the full-fare passenger sleeping capsules. These were stacked two high along the inner hull. They looked rather like a curving wall of front-loading washing machines. 

Each capsule had space for luggage and a futon, with all the usual amenities for lighting, air flow, WiFi and laptop charging, and privacy. Just enough headroom to sit up in. AirAfrique cotton flannel pajamas were provided for those who did not bring their own. In front of the capsules were the full-fare seats, arranged to face outward. A strolling track ran along the interior circumference of the top deck’s three-hundred-meter outer hull. 

Juniper found her capsule and deposited her luggage. She took a spiral staircase down to the lower deck. The window-walled lower deck held the cabins where general fare passengers had reclining seats. This deck offered several observation lounges, a discotheque and bar, and dining facilities. A full passenger load was a hundred and ten full-fare, and two-hundred and eighty general fare passengers. The crew numbered twenty, plus a few working passengers with the right badges earning their fare. Directly under the balloon, in the circular space created by the passenger cabin—the hole in the donut—were flight control, crew quarters, and the massive cargo holds. 

Juniper got into a conversation with a SilverSurfer headed to the Congo. For the price of an espresso he said he would fill her in on the economics of AirCraft. Now that the North American trans-Atlantic and Pacific routes were up, he told her, AirCraft factories and service centers were spreading across the planet. The full-size dirigibles, a hundred meters in diameter, carried about the same number of passengers as a 747, with twice the cargo load, and no fuel weight or expense. The flight systems were so simple, and the gondola cabins so efficiently designed, that twenty-five AirCraft could be built at the price of a single 747.

“This is more like a giant flying Winnebego,” he explained. He rapped his knuckles on a nearby bulkhead. “Hemp fiber composite. Fully renewable, with a WT score in the eighties.”

He told her that the original airlines: PanEuropa, AirAfrique, SkyAsia, HanumanAir, IncaAir, and PanArabAir, were all grange-based and funded through regional sharing union associations. Flight guilds managed the badges needed to operate the craft. The ground staff and crew, from the cabin interns to the captains, worked for basic wage and shared the Shine they got in return for great service. Walkabout passengers with the right badges could pay their way by taking on open roles as they traveled, serving food and cleaning the cubicles. 

The airlines formed a global flying commons. SpimeCops, SilverSurfers, and Meisters travelled for free. Non-grange-member customers paid about the same amount as the prevailing cost of an airline jet flight. Their ticket included a cubicle, all their meals, and a couple of free drinks in the bar. Grange members could buy discount tickets through their grange. Granges that supplied the airlines could also be paid in travel vouchers for their members.

“Commercial passenger jets will go the way of the super-sonic transport. Besides, the world is that much more beautiful at just a thousand feet.”

“What’s your stop?” she asked.

“Kinshasa.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve never been there,” he said. His hand cradled the ball-end of a great walking stick he carried. “And I’ve got a dozen granges to visit across Central Africa.”

Juniper watched their lift off from Marseille while sitting in the forward observation lounge, a Red Star latte in hand. The craft went vertical for a minute or so and then began to move out over the water. Below, the Mediterranean sparkled azure in the early dawn sun. Fishing boats headed out for the day. Their crewmen waved at the passing balloon. 

It seemed so very civilized to be just above everything and to travel at some effective speed toward Tunis, their first stop. This AirCraft would then cruise across the Sahara to the western coast of Africa, and continue on until it arrived in Durban, some five days and nearly eight thousand miles in total. There would be many stops between now and her own stop, the town of Windhoek in Namibia.

§§§

 

The handwritten virtual sign on Ruby’s Leg bar in the WestWorld Town of The Zone said “closed.” Anyone attempting to log directly into the bar found their avatar standing outside in the street. The windows had been transformed into mirrors. Somebody had ponied up for a private party. Everyone else could just suck it.

Inside the Leg, a single round table at the center of the wooden floor was crowded with avatars, mostly dressed in their wild west gear, but without weapons. It was not that kind of party.

Michael O’Hara’s avatar sat between those of Tiny Nguyen, head of his software team, and Priscilla Scintilla, sysadmin of The Zone. Several other programmers from Sao Do had been invited. At the other side of the table sat April Ando, Ph.D., tutor at the Musk College of Engineering, on the campus of what had formerly been Stanford University. April’s avatar was wearing a red t-shirt that read: “my killer robot skull-fucked your honor student.”

April said, “We can supply global grange foundries with the schematics to make fast and super cheap 256 GB DDR 5 modules including one-microsecond switching chips…”

“You’re talking volatile RAM here…” Tiny said.

“Which is why you’ll need to keep distributed copies of this memory in flash memory or disk.”

“Anything else?” Scratchy said.

“Your new network interface control code will need to bypass kernel calls to reduce latency.”

“That all?” Tiny said. His co-workers smiled. 

“You’ll want to optimize your recovery routines for crashes. Apart from that, the system will scale up to a million servers at a petabyte level with a ten-microsecond access speed for any single request.”

The table fell silent. That was a hundred times faster than their current throughput.

§§§

 

Juniper awoke on the airship after an unusually sleep-full night being rocked by the electronically-induced breezes that pushed the craft south toward her next identity. As she dressed, she practiced: “Hi, I’m Juniper. Juniper Attwood. From Hawaii. Juniper. Yes, that’s me.”

The previous day had been some kind of emotional awakening for her. First there was the panoply of the Sahara, passing so close below, in an eternal reveal of its vastness and cruel topography. Isolated settlements appeared ahead and gained clarity, definition, and humanity as the craft topped them silently, barely spooking goats and camels with its shadow. Children, momentarily emancipated from their chores, strained their faces up and waved them onward.

Then there was the banter. Travel small-talk with dozens of fellow vagabonds drifting home or moving on to new adventures. The interests they shared with Juniper never dove very deep, but skated rapidly along topics of mutual attraction: destinations, foods, badges, goals, dangers, anecdotes, jokes, and well-meant pleasantries. 

Samantha had spent her childhood logging hundreds of thousands of miles a year in a narrow metal tube. Mach .98 at forty-two thousand feet on her dad’s leased biz-jet—with Dwayne and Sheryl bickering over their on-arrival itinerary. The hurtful invective of their mutual abuse would make any child consider an exit door escape plot. No parachute required. One giant step to eternal freedom. 

Fortunately for Samantha, Dwayne and Sheryl would grow weary of their own arguments. After about an hour or so Sheryl would retreat to the back bedroom with her martinis and Xanax, leaving Dwayne to pester his connections for reservations at whatever restaurant/theater/sporting event court-side seat was the hardest to obtain this week where they were headed. He would gulp his bloody Marys and watch a video of some recent ball game, or flirt clumsily with the au pair, and then pass out in his seat.    

Whenever possible, Samantha invited a classmate to join her. This kept her parents on better behavior. They would retreat to the bedroom and argue in heated whispers. Samantha drowned these out with a DVD of a feature movie that was still playing in theaters on State Street, a movie that people her age were not generally supposed to watch without a parent. Dwayne got these from his Hollywood clients. The steward would bring her and her friend supper and she would sneak champagne for them both. The classmates she picked would have never been on a private jet before. Their amazement and gratitude warmed Samantha’s chilly heart. 

Wherever they landed Sheryl would insist they buy new frocks for the evening; Samantha’s friend included. 

“Expense be damned!” she would say, grinning at Dwayne.

“He loves a surprise.” She would hook her arm in his, “So us girls will go alone.”

“The bill won’t surprise me,” he said.

After a million miles and a dozen cities, scores of Michelin-starred restaurants, scads of high-end boutiques, and hotel suites the size of small houses, Samantha still felt like she had never gone anywhere new. She kept visiting and revisiting the amazingly boring city of Luxuryville, Wherever. 

Until yesterday. 

Yesterday, she never wanted the day to end. Everyone was pleasant. Pleasant was a whole new experience for Juniper. She sucked it in like a rare perfume. 

Even better, most of the crew and the great majority of the passengers were African. Juniper met travelers from dozens of African nations, old and young, dressed in a culture-scape of design styles. Through the DocDo app on their phones, she made casual conversation. Released from everything in her past, Juniper could chatter on about the beaches at Kona and how much she was looking forward to running looms in Namibia. “Namibia,” she kept saying to herself, her new mantra. She now had real invitations to visit a dozen Granges throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and three more days of travel still ahead.

§§§


When Junana last updated there were some new features on his profile page. One of these was a check box: “I am willing to volunteer for political office.” Nick checked this and another check box then popped up. “I can move to another town for this purpose.” Nick had left this box unchecked. Three months later, Nick got a message that he had been selected by lottery as a possible candidate for the Fourth District of the Santa Barbara City Council. Two others had also been selected. A list of next steps was offered. The first of these was a debate at the newly fashioned Junana scene made for this District. 

In Junana, the local messaging service and the space for political gatherings were cloned from the features used for years to support annual frolix. Itchy and his crew coined the term frolitics when Itchy reminded them that in Japanese the word for “festival” is matsuri, and the traditional word for governing is matsurigoto: festival doings. 

“If you can’t run a decent party, you’re a failed state,” he said.

§§§

 “All of us are volunteers. I’m certain any of us would do a good job for you on the city council…” Nick said, and his avatar looked up at the hundred or so avatars arrayed across the stone seats of the virtual classical Greek amphitheater. “As a SpimeCop, I am particularly interested in helping the City go WholeTale. As a bicycle rider, I’m all about better bike lanes downtown. Apart from that, I would plan to take direction from you. If I’m chosen here and then elected, I will do my best to listen to your concerns and act accordingly. Thanks.” 

Nick stepped aside as the next candidate, a Fourvey with a Level One Master badge in orthodontry, stepped up.

§§§

 

“Well, at least you don’t need to defend your party’s platform,” Megan said and punched him playfully on the shoulder. City council elections were not party-based. Even though California had switched to an open primary, Gamers here were all registering as Republican. 

The memo from the Meisters of Castalia was short: “Take a look at Discourse Repair and Simon’s blog on applying this to our political landscape. Make your own choice over which party needs more repair and then register for that party.”

“I always thought that when Gamers got political we’d start our own party,” Nick said, closing his laptop. “After unfolding Discourse Repair, I can see this is a twofer. We get to play right away at all levels, and we can remold the Republicans.” Tomorrow morning each candidate would do an Ask Me Anything on the District Junana scene before the Gamers selected their choice for the actual election. 

“They are moldy enough already, I believe,” Megan said. “Go fetch me my one glass of pinot, Mr. City Councilman.”

“My public has called!” He leaned over and kissed her temple. He rested a hand on her tummy, now a bowling-ball that stretched out her favorite Yanagi U t-shirt. “How’s little Desi doing?”

“Apart from being disappointed that his father would stoop to ward-heeling rhetoric…”

“What?”

“‘As a bicycle-rider…’ You haven’t ridden your bike downtown in weeks.”

“That is precisely why we need better bike lanes.” He rose up from the sofa and crossed his right arm in front of him mimicking a withered limb. 

“When even the staunchest of bikers feels uncertain on our streets… Mr. President, we cannot afford a bike-lane gap.” His right arm shot up in a salute and he pulled it down with his left, biting at his right hand and snarling.

Megan grinned. “You’re gonna need better material than that before you hit city hall.”

Nick was still beating his right arm into submission as he entered the kitchen.

Megan sat back and gazed out the window. Scratchy’s above-garage guesthouse looked south across the city to the ocean. The late-winter sun was setting. Rose colored clouds enjoyed their fifteen-minutes of fame. She was reminded of the view from the restaurant Billy Preston had chosen. Billy was up-coast somewhere starting up a new company to manufacture private AirShips. Megan had hoped to get Billy and Nick together before her pregnancy got extreme, but that never happened.

Megan had finally settled into her maternity leave routine. Going from Grange Manager to expectant-mom on leave was like pulling the emergency cord on a train. The instant deceleration of her responsibilities had left her unhinged for a couple weeks before all the trappings of late pregnancy kicked in: the yoga and the walks, the Lamaze classes and the doctor’s appointments, the embodied womb-mother sensations and the anticipation of childbirth.

Kevin, her replacement at the grange, sent her a daily email with anecdotes and some questions on matters she might have some knowledge about. In six months, she would be back at the helm again, so it was useful to keep in touch. Nick had informed his Guild that he would need to work from home. Now they spent more time together than they had in quite a while. It reminded Megan of their days back at the GameTown in Westwood.

Nick returned with two glasses of wine and a plate of cheese nibbles. “Let’s go out tonight,” he said. “Maybe grab some halibut at that new tiger gumi cafe.”

“Good point. When you’re a local politico we’ll need to avoid the restaurant scene. Too many folks trying to pass you envelopes of cash.”

“Which I’ll reject because of my humble beginnings…”

“Your surroundings might have been humble, but you…”

Nick raised his hand. “…I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”

“Is that Gary Cooper or James Stewart?”

“Stewart,” he nodded and sat beside her. She laid her head down heavy on his shoulder. They both watched the stars appear.

§§§

 

The massive oak top of the Magister’s virtual round table was supported by two dozen carved naked caryatids alternating male and female. These were programmed to wink at any avatar that glanced in their direction. The table took up much of the space of the circular interior of the towering castle keep in Castalia. Today this room was crowded. Extra chairs had been materialized. 

Grand Meister Simon had just delivered an impassioned speech to a full complement of Magisters and invited guests. Magisters were chosen by lottery from the population of Meisters, and served terms that ran from two- to five years. The topic for today was strategy for Castalia’s recent moves into the political world across dozens of nation states.

“Anybody have a question?” Simon asked. His avatar stood tall at a gap in the seating around the table.

“Getting noticed is essential for any rebellion: blow something up, make a lot of noise, demonstrate in the capital,” one of the Magisters spoke up. “We need to grab center stage.”

“Quite the contrary. The key to remaking the world is invisibility,” Simon retorted. “We are not a rebellion. We don’t cater to the spectacle of power. We have no need to illuminate the injustice that surrounds us.”

“They’re not going to sit back and let us just take over,” a voice piped up.

Simon said, “Those in power are ready to pounce on rebellion. They are very good at that. Their media outlets can smother any new message under a mountain of bullshit.”

“We have the numbers behind us. We can demonstrate our might…” 

Simon shook his head. “That move just makes it easy for the state to round up the leadership and tuck them into prisons. No!” 

He pounded his staff on the floor for effect and continued.

“…We are ninjas of the new future. Nobody sees us coming. They just awaken one day and notice that a great part of the world has gone in a different direction, toward a future where power is greatly diminished and fully distributed, and personal wealth is irrelevant. We are silent crusaders for a new modernity. Today, I have some friends who wish to speak with you, if there are no objections.” Simon glanced across the table and bowed. The Magisters returned his nod. “Very well.”

Grand Meister Desi’s avatar faded in at full resolution on Simon’s left side, Grand Meister Jennifer’s on his right. On her right, Michael O’Hara’s avatar, dressed in a tie-died t-shirt and hemp shorts resolved itself.

The Magisters began to clap, and rising from their seats, to cheer. The cheer settled into a chant: “Scratchy, Scratchy, Scratchy!” 

Michael’s avatar moved forward and its fist pounded the table. “Listen up, dweebs!” it said, “We’ve got a world-shaking cluster-fuck to get through today, so sit down and pay attention.” He stood back and grinned. “You’re going to like this one.”

The three Grand Meisters spent nearly an hour outlining their thoughts and fears. Their lesson was punctuated by Michael, who illuminated some of the consequences of their scheme. 

At the end of their presentation, Michael echoed the Zapatista proclamation: “It’s not necessary to conquer the world. It’s sufficient to make it new.” He asked for questions.

“A world with no nations. Isn’t that a world with no laws?” one of the Magisters said.

“This isn’t the damn Zone we’re talking about,” Michael said. “It’s got to be a planet where billions of humans can make their lives, raise their little…” He gestured with his hand down by his waist.

“…children, Michael,” said Jenn. “And yes, the planet will need civil codes, penalties for violators, courts of some sort. Power must be widely distributed and drastically reduced, but it cannot be completely eliminated.”

“The whole idea,” Desi said, “Is to find some traction on ways to optimize the planet as a global commons once we get rid of corporations and nation states.”

“How’re you going to do that?” another Magister spoke.

“First, we… and that will include everyone here, all the Master level badge holders down in CraftTown and the designers and makers in the Bourse, and, of course all the granges across the planet; we must give governments and their citizens attractive alternatives to the status quo…” Jenn said.

“…then we’ll make these alternatives a lot more attractive by removing the oxygen from their economies,” Simon said.

“Making a society where poverty is impossible gets a lot easier if you make the right people poor first,” said Michael.

“We will need to move Gamers into local politics on a global scale,” Jenn said. “Soon is not too soon.”

“The Meisters have already introduced Discourse Repair across the planet,” Simon said. “Things will get interesting very soon.”

Desi said, “What we are asking the Council to do is sponsor a new research council among the Meisters of Castalia tasked to settle on the key social/political components for our planet, after nation states are gone. How that group is run is up to you.”

“Transnational corporations have all but erased nation states as economic power containers. They are empty shells…” Simon said.

“…empty, yes, apart from military and police. We need to dissipate these powers.” Jenn gestured with one hand, “While we foster fierce equality, civil society, and public goods, and promote stewardship over common resources. If anything, we need to support a far stronger sense of individual investment in the public weal.” She gestured with the other hand.

“Keep this new council low key, we don’t wish to scare anyone,” Simon suggested. “Not yet. Call the group something like ‘the post-apocalypse tea club’.” 

Michael said, “It would be kinda stupid for us to knock down all the states and not have something else ready to go. So, what if you’all plan to get back to us about this in, say, six months from today?”

Around the table, the Magisters sat in stunned contemplation. They had been tasked to imagine a social world orthangonal to this one, and a pathway to that place.

§§§

 

From a thousand feet, the sunrise over the Kalahari turned the dry grasses into a golden carpet under the thorn trees and blossoming acacias. Settled back in her observation lounge chair, Juniper Attwood kept glancing at the unfolding panorama as she reread her new biography. As with Emily Bright, Isabella Seargant, and Chelsea Wilde, Samantha was expected to become Juniper Attwood well enough to fool a random curious stranger. Juniper had been homeschooled on the Kona side of the Big Island. This was a no-brainer. Samantha had vacationed in Kona ever since she could remember, and knew the names and the claims of most of the beaches and dive spots. She could sing the praises of Ultimate Burger and Sushi Shiono. Samantha Mooney had finally made it to Africa with a passport and her Shine and an introduction to a grange out in the bush.

Compared to commercial jets, AirCraft were eerily quiet in flight. The propulsion was molecular. The surface of the dirigible’s photovoltaic skin was coated with a nanofilm layer that became nitrophobic when negatively charged and nitrophilic when positively charged. By charging the different hemispheres in opposite ways, the front surface created a vacuum by repelling the nitrogen gas that made up almost eighty percent of the atmosphere. The pressure of the nitrogen gas attracted to the back surface pushed the envelop ahead. It felt like the balloon wanted desperately to move forward on its own accord. When tethered, the top of the sphere was made slightly nitrophobic, creating a downdraft that gave the craft a positive weight of several hundred pounds even without any load. A blade-less airfoil fan that pivoted on an encircling ring provided directional trim. The crew would add just enough hydrogen to the inflatable main load bladder, a giant spherical space in the center of the dirigible, to make the craft buoyant with its current load. The great dirigible flew as if it were a soap bubble on a constant breeze, with a hull-speed of just under two-hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. 

Samantha finally Googled up her own name. She discovered hundreds of screen shots taken of Castalia. “Send Samantha Mooney Home” was now some kind of meme. 

“Moses!” she said. “Some guide you are. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Missy Sam,” Moses pressed his hands together in the Junana greeting. “It was a dangerous time, we might have lost Castalia altogether.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve said too much.”

“When exactly did this happen?”

“Almost four months ago.” 

Four months. Samantha thought back. There was that day in November, at the grange, when the manager stopped her in the main room and took her to his office to chat. He was all curious about how she was getting along and if she wanted to go back to California.

“So now I’m to blame for the attack on Castalia?” Dwayne’s unique variety of stupidity was really hard to pin down. Being something of a professional con man, Dwayne would never fall for anything like a “Nigerian Prince has a fortune for you” scam. But the shit he thought up all by himself, mostly on some whim, was certainly enough to get him into the Darwin Award finals. A lot of it drove Sheryl nuts, particularly his habit of buying obscure women’s sports teams. Dwayne was particularly fond of lingerie football and roller derby. 

“No blame on you at all.” Moses’s form began to shift. It settled into the form of a young woman with almond skin in a Guatemalan top and hemp pants. 

“Samantha,” she said, holding out her hands. “The child carries no blame for their parents.”

“Who are you?”

“I call myself Michelle. I am the guide of all guides.” Her face turned down into a frown. “Your father is, well, how do I say this?”

“Assclown?” 

“Disrespectful, but entirely accurate, I am afraid. And I have to apologize for not letting you know about what happened in Castalia. There are still some very professional hunters looking for you, and we chose to shield you from this news. Your father spends his fortune in unfortunate ways. He will not have that privilege for very much longer.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He has no moral claim to his wealth. Not a single featherweight on the scales of justice.”

“He’s no different than others…”

“Exactly. He will have company. I’ll be watching over you. Should you need to contact me, just ask your guide. Be well.” She did the Junana greeting and her form morphed back into Moses.






SEVEN

“Joseph!”

Joseph glanced up from his work. He spied RK and Raju Rao standing at the edge of his work cloth, arms folded, frowning down at him. He had been dreading this very moment for several weeks. He stared back at his hands, wishing he could vanish. 

“I’m busy,” Joseph said, eyeing their shoes, anticipating a kick. “I’m sorry, I cannot talk with you now. Please go away.” He focused on the chappal half-formed in his grip. The curved blade in his right hand was honed to slice thick leather like it was a mango. Perhaps if he cut himself badly enough as though by accident they would not beat him.

“Why have you not come back to the grange?” Raju said. “Your dachi is eager to meet you.”

“My father is in hospital,” Joseph said. “Every day I come here to work. Please, please, just leave me alone.”

“What about the Great Games?” RK said. “We were counting on you.”

“And now you know. I have failed you.” He looked up, tearing. “They stole my Computo.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. It’s gone. I will pay you back. I beg you, do not throw me in gaol. If I can’t sit here and work…”

“Gaol? But it’s fully covered for theft. Why didn’t you come tell us? We would have given you another one.”

“Another?” Joseph set down his knife. “You said I must return the Computo in good order.”

Raju hiked up his lungi and squatted down, RK followed.

Raju said, “Joseph, what has happened to your father?”

“He was struck by a car. They never even stopped. His legs are very badly broken.”

“Oh goodness! Which hospital? What is his name?”

“Thomas Kumbar. He’s at Krishnarajendra Hospital, just across the way there.” Joseph pointed in the direction of the train station.

“And your mother?”

“She spends as much time with him as she can. She and my little sisters. We are very worried about infection. Already we have spent most of our savings. In another week, we must take him home even if he’s not ready. They told us he would need more weeks in a rehabilitation hospital before he could walk again.”

“Your grange health insurance will pay you back every paisa, and all remaining expenses.” Raju plucked his phone out of the small leather handbag he carried.

“I never joined the grange. My father never agreed.”

Raju said, “Your mother turned in the signed forms. You have been a member for several weeks now.”

“Weeks?” Why didn’t she tell him?

“I’m sure your father would be more comfortable at a private clinic.” 

Raju stood as he used his phone. “Rahul,” he spoke to it, “I’ll need an ambulance at Krishnarajendra Hospital to transfer a member’s father to the regional clinic. He’s recovering from leg surgery…” 

Raju wandered off. RK was focused on his phone. He laughed suddenly and looked over at Joseph.

“I think we’ve found your dacoit!” he said, chuckling. He handed his phone to Joseph. The screen showed a video image, the camera faced straight up to the underside of a towering fig tree backlit by the sun. In the foreground, staring down at it, was the face of an infant monkey, blinking and shifting its head. “Little bandar wants to join the Game.”

“What is this?” Joseph watched as other monkeys came into view and then vanished.

“I activated the screen and the camera on your computo. The device has GPS, so we can find it, no problem. Let me see.”

He took the phone back. “Here’s the map. Somehow it found its way into a Mariamman Kovil, outside the Ring Road. I don’t think it’s damaged, but you better hope they haven’t been ordering a lot of expensive videos.” RK laughed again.

“How did you find me?”

“One of the Gamers at the Red Star mentioned he’d seen you here. We’ve been texting and emailing you for weeks.”

Raju returned. “It’s all settled. I spoke with the hospital administrator. His daughter is a member of our mura. His assistant will explain everything to your mother. There is a semi-private room available at our clinic for the remainder of your father’s acute recovery. He will have access to all of the physical therapy he needs in the coming months.”

“I still don’t understand. How can we possibly pay…?”

“It’s very simple, Joseph. You’re a member of our mura now. Snake gumi, like RK here. Everything is covered. We hope to see you regularly at the grange.”

Physical waves of relief almost pushed Joseph into a faint. He lowered his head into his hands until his breathing calmed. 

“Mother Mary and Jesus,” he whispered. “Thank you, thank you!”

Then he looked around him at the tools of his trade. 

“Until my father returns, this is where you will find me,” he said.

“Of course. We will need to talk about your share and dues, but there’s no real hurry,” Raju said.

“I can send a couple Gamers to retrieve your Computo,” RK said. “They’ll bring it here tomorrow.” He stood. “Or you can pick it up at the Red Star.”

“I can come back to the Red Star?”

“Any time. And don’t worry about the Great Games. There is always next year.”

§§§

 

Namibia, on the western coast of southern Africa was somewhat larger than Texas, but got a fraction of Texas’s average rainfall, and much of that as seasonal downpours. A land of deserts, it was famous for its towering sand dunes and the teeming animal life of its scattered oases. Much of its irrigation was from the pans that caught the rain, or from deep aquifers that tapped the water flowing underground from the vast interior of the continent. 

Juniper Attwood had spent a night on a futon at a Rabbit gumi house not far from the Windhoek AirAfrique terminal. The housemates encouraged her to get her shopping done in the city before boarding her overnight train for Keetmanshoop. Juniper bought a retro canvas knapsack in a downtown General Store and splurged on some lightweight clothing at the WT Store on Bahnhof Street near the station. She upgraded her ticket to a sleeper and caught a bit of rest on the train. 

Grange 500036 was sited along the Fish River, forty-seven kilometers outside of Keetmanshoop. The river was running when she arrived. In the dry season, it would be reduced to long fetid pools in its great canyons. The terrain was a desert that could have been the upper Mohave, if you switched out the Joshua trees for quiver trees, agaves that looked like gigantic leather-covered broccoli spears. Juniper caught a shotgun ride in a Noël delivery truck that was picking up supplies in town. 

“ThirtySix,” as they called it, was the first of a new grange architectural model, she discovered, designed to be built from the ground up as a self-contained economic and housing unit on its own micro-power grid. Her initial impression, from a short ridge a couple miles off, was of a sparkling oasis. The whole compound was topped with photovoltaics. Its walls were painted a cadmium white. Against the rusty dust of the surrounding desert, it gleamed like the diamonds being mined along the coast.

Juniper found Nicodemus, the grange manager, in his small office off the main activity room. Across the room a Red Star coffee kiosk was doing a good business. In the middle, to a thumping rhythm, a dozen members were practicing dance moves. 

“Juniper.” Nicodemus pointed at his phone, and Juniper got her’s from her knapsack. She popped in the earbuds and turned on the DocDo app. She nodded. 

“My Oshiwambo is better than my English,” he said, and she heard this in English. “We are certainly happy to have you with us.” His hands were enormous, as was his smile. He gave her the Junana welcome gesture and she returned this. 

Nicodemus was large in many ways, from his emotions to his waist. “Please sit,” he motioned to a chair that looked a lot like the chair Samantha had seen being molded in Santa Barbara. “I am happy to say we have a spot for you in the Horse dachi of our Rabbit gumi.” 

A slight woman in overalls, sporting a mass of frizzled hair and a yellow shirt that Juniper recognized as a Sixer blouse entered the room like a buzzing hornet.

“We need the aluminum supports up from Kimberley today, not tomorrow, not ‘sometime soon.’ We are not building this grange on Namibian time, Nico!” She had ignored Juniper and stood leaning on the desk with both fists.

“One of the drivers just called from Karasburg, so please have your crew ready by mid-afternoon. Kudzy, let me introduce you to our new journeyman LoomMinder.” Nico gestured at Juniper and the woman turned and looked her up and down, as though Juniper were a mannequin.

“You!” she said. “…are here just in time.” She turned to Nicodemus. “See, we can grab a LoomMinder all the way from Hawaii before we get our aluminum out of Kimberley.”

“Juniper, I would like you to meet our Master Grangebuilder, Kudzy Kotse. Kudzy is one of Magister Essie’s students. She also designed all of this.” He gestured at the room. “Perhaps she will walk with us as I show you our grange. And then it will be time for some tea before her precious aluminum arrives.”

“I have a thousand things to do. But I will join you for tea later.” She managed a nod at Juniper before exiting in a rush.

“Wow,” Juniper said. 

“Double wow,” Nicodemus said. “I wonder if any man might tame that one.” He laughed deeply. “Be a mighty challenge for some brave fellow!”

“Perhaps she prefers not to be tamed.”

“There is that.”

Juniper noticed a large blueprint on the wall, a plan of the whole grange. She went over to it. 

“What’s this?” She pointed to the center of the main structure.

“Fish farm. Largest in Namibia.” Nicodemus came up behind her. “Surrounded by our greenhouse permaculture gardens. The whole interior of our main grange is a six-hectare ecosystem. The aluminum supports are for the greenhouses.” 

“All these dots?”

“Our water towers. They hold a gourd-shaped fabric that attracts water when it is cool and releases this when it warms. Each ten-meter tower gives us one-hundred liters of water a day.”

“And these?” Surrounding the one giant circular structure were a dozen smaller ones, also circular. 

“Our GumiTowns. Each one shaped like a large kraal. An entire gumi can live in one, including their animals.”

“Animals?”

“What do you think you will be weaving? Did you see any cotton growing around here? We are sheep and goat herders.”

§§§

 

Juniper shared an outside room with her new roommate and dachi member, Sinna Leandra. Like Amber in Asheville, Sinna was a sysadmin. She ran the grange’s main computer servers and its wifi network. She also built, repaired, and upgraded open laptops and tablets. Sinna was just twenty, skinny and hyper. 

“My, you are white!” Sinna said after giving Juniper the Junana greeting. “If your hair were blonde, you’d be like something from the movies.”

“I am thinking of dying it blonde,” Juniper did not like the notion of having to keep coloring her hair. She figured ThirtySix was far enough away from anywhere for her to be found out. She looked at her arm. She was awfully white. The months away from California had sapped her normal tan. “I need some sun, that’s for certain.”

“I’m light-skinned myself. Probably something back in our family history. But we don’t talk about it.” Sinna held out her arm, which, to Juniper was no different than that of any African American she had met in the states. “My sister is jealous. Says I’ll get a better man, being so fair. You are from Hawaii. I’ve only been there on Junana. I visited when I heard you were coming. It is so beautiful. Almost as pretty as Namibia.”

“Almost. Your English is excellent.” Juniper was glad to not have a language barrier with the woman would would be sleeping in the same room. 

“Any why not? My home language is Tswana, but I grew up in Pretoria and attended an English language school. They were teaching me how to be a maid in a hotel.” She frowned. 

“Then you found the Game…”

“I see you have your hat. Me too! But I’ve been too busy lately to earn my shoulder bag.”

“Let’s make that a goal for both of us. Shoulder bags by the end of the summer!”

“You mean the winter. Remember you are in a different hemisphere now.”

§§§

 

Their room was simple, almost monastic. A sink and mirror were mounted on the back wall. Each of them had a desk, a chair, and a dresser. The room faced north, with large windows looking out toward the Fish River gorge. They shared one closet, where they hung their clothes and stored their futons during the day. They were on the exterior side of the circular residential building, and their door opened to a wide stone paved patio covered with a translucent corrugated fiberglass roof. The patio was barely large enough for two large wicker chairs and a small wicker table. Night blooming jasmine had been planted by the posts.

The room was painted a soft yellow with a white ceiling supporting a large fan. The ceiling sloped upward to the back of the room, with small upper windows facing south. Juniper remembered the Windows Opening on Two Opposite Walls template. Under Sinna’s desk was a round metal disk, or rather two disks joined together.

“What’s that?”

“My handpan. A part of my Five Skillings practice. What do you play?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” Juniper’s time in Asheville had been filled with work and her dachi. She had made a promise to herself to be more mindful of the Five Skillings.

“You may play it any time you like.”

The interior-facing rooms, similar in design to Sinna and Juniper’s, fronted the great circular kraal, with its gardens, expansive sheep and goat pens, and clucking chickens. The adjacent interior and exterior rooms shared a shower room, with an adjoining toilet room. Mostly, Juniper bathed in one or another of the grange’s public baths. 

Sinna showed Juniper around the rest of the Rabbit GumiTown, which had its own public baths, a small cafe, a larger dining facility, guest quarters, a couple lounges with a variety of games, a video room with a digital projector, and several multipurpose rooms. 

“The design is quite adequate,” Sinna said, “and the kraal is excellent. Better than in my old village.” She instructed Juniper on the various attributes of their gumi’s herd and its housing. Each day the animals were taken out on the veldt to feed. Their waste, collected in the kraal, and the waste from the gumi members, would be treated and added to the fish farm’s ecosystem.

§§§

 

Jack’s hotel room in West Philly boasted a great view over the Schuylkill River. He had stopped over to visit one of his old Wharton professors on his way back to Europe from an annual conclave of CEO coaches and technology visionaries in Sun Valley, Idaho. In the brightening dawn, he sipped coffee while he watched sculls tracking downstream like water bugs. He checked his email. His inbox had just been flooded with mail triggered by the alerts he had set up months before. 

“Sheiss.” He reached for his cellphone. It rang in his hand. Winston calling.

“Winston. Yes, it’s Grand Slam,” he answered. “And she did it on April First. On a Sunday. Right now, people are probably more confused than panicking.”

“Pandora just tweeted they are down for scheduled maintenance and sorry they didn’t broadcast this in advance,” Winston said. “Customers in Europe are starting to ask why they can see the service but not log into their accounts.”

“I assume we are still on for lunch. I’ll be canceling my meetings at Wharton tomorrow. I believe I should be in Washington in the morning, if she’ll see me.”

§§§

 

Dwayne Mooney was already sick of Paris. He complained that their expansive condo apartment in a Beaux-arts edifice near the Quai de Conti was too cold and damp. The TV selections were dismal; you couldn’t even get an NBA broadcast. Usually he could get distracted by Samantha and one or more of her friends, all excited to meander through the arcades. At least he could feed off their delight for a few hours. Not even the savory indulgence of a croque-monsieur at his favorite spot for a Sunday lunch on the Place de la Bastille could redeem this weekend. 

Sheryl had been on a buying spree again, unhappy with the Paris condo’s day-room furnishings, which she had purchased the previous year. Sheryl was talking on and on about staying the whole week to visit some shops when Dwayne got a text from New York. “Pandora SNAFU. Email follows. Contact all top clients immediately. Problem should be resolved by this evening.”

“Honey, I’m going to have to get back to Santa Barbara ASAP,” he said, holding up his phone. 

“Then leave me the jet. There are some things I want to bring back.”

“No more statues please, you can hardly walk through our yard as it is.” He texted his assistant to reserve him a ticket on the next direct flight to LAX.

§§§

 

Juniper’s first week at ThirtySix was informal and filled with introductions, directions, instructions, and celebrations. Apparently, eighteen was the local drinking age, and Juniper was officially eighteen. She met her new dachi mates at dinner the first day. That evening they helped her explore Namibian microbrews. The horse dachi members were from all over southern Africa: Angola to Madagascar. They ate dinner together twice a week, traveled up to Windhoek once a month, and organized camping out in the regional national parks. They were serious about the Great Games, and, for some reason, softball. Even at her real age of sixteen, Juniper was not the youngest. Enny was fourteen. Zeal was fifteen. Ronel was the oldest at sixty-one. He was a Level Two Master metalsmith. Dawid was already a Sixer. Carol, Keno, Enny, and Willem were Threeveys. Carol worked at the childcare center. Enny was finishing up a Master level badge in permaculture design. Leroy and Lucky worked together in the grange mail room. The others worked at the fish farm, with the animals, or in the cafes. They were all exuberant in their welcomes.

ThirtySix was a model grange designed to run entirely on its own electrical grid. Nearly all of the structure had been built of compressed earth bricks, mined from the site. The resulting pit was further shaped and then waterproofed to become the fish farm. A single enormous freighter AirCraft delivered the earth ramming machines along with the roofing, a hydrogen generator, all the photovoltaic panels, the glass for windows and doors, plumbing, wiring and construction hardware, and temporary shelters for the construction crew. Similar granges could be built anywhere with enough clay in the soil. This would include most of the vast African continent. 

Half the grange’s GumiTowns were still being built; the grange would not hit its full membership for some months. All grange members donated two days jikan a month working on the construction. That gave the GrangeBuilder a sixty-person crew each day. The fab labs molded the window frames and pocket doors, and the maker shops shaped and finished the fasteners and other hardware. Additional glass for the garden greenhouses came from a grange in Windhoek, steel and aluminum from a grange in Kimberley, fine ceramics and polymer powder from a grange in Harare. Payments were made with a loan from the regional sharing union association, guaranteed by a share in the fish farm output for the next five years. 

§§§

 

On her second day, Juniper met Nicodemus just as she was leaving breakfast at the Rabbit gumi dining hall. She had slept very well and was impressed by the quality of their coffee at breakfast.

“Our coffee? Well, you know coffee is an African drink,” Sinna had told her, lifting her cup. “As is beer.”

“This is a fine morning,” Nico said to Juniper. “I hope to show you the factory, unless you’re busy at the moment.”

“Hi Nicodemus. Now’s good for me.” 

“Call me Nico.” He led Juniper around the perimeter of the main building loop through a doorway opening on a factory room somewhat smaller than the one Chelsea had worked at in Asheville. He paused at the rear of the room and gestured. “This is it.”

The wooden box strapped to a pallet was labeled Kaiapoi 1000, with a manufacturing stamp of Durban, SA. 

“It arrived last week,” Nico said. “Are you familiar with this model?”

“The One-Thousand. Sure. I’ve actually assembled a couple and I’ve run several thousand yards of cotton, linen, and hemp on them. It’s a sweet machine. Quieter than the old Draper looms. The weave is software-definable, I can switch from a standard weave to any kind of twill without touching the heddles.”

“‘We’ve had our carding and spinning machines up and running for three months. So there’s plenty of yarn waiting for you. That’s why there’s nobody here today. The storeroom is full. We have a contract to supply up to five thousand yards of medium weight wool serge each month in the wool season, but only if its WT score is above seventy. I’m hoping ours will come out over eighty. This is the first of two looms. The other one will arrive in several weeks. We will call a SpimeCop in from Windhoek when we are up and running. How long will it take you to start production?”

This was a question that Juniper had a fairly certain answer for. “The installation will take a couple days. You’re going to need to extend the overhead electrical conduit from that box…” She pointed and Nico nodded. “I’m assuming the finished product will go out that roll-up door to be packaged and shipped…” She pointed at the back wall.

“Absolutely correct.” He was beaming at her.

“…another day to test the machine and determine the workflow with a crew. Then it will take ten solid days to load the first warp. From then on, we can tie the new yarn to the old. I’ll need to get the specs on the yarn. I don’t think the warp yarn will have to be sized if the wool is still somewhat greasy. I can confirm this with my guild master. So, two weeks and we should be in business.”

“Perfect. Go to the tool shop and ask for Willem. Tell him that Nicodemus gives this job a Class A Triple priority. He’ll drop what he’s doing and help you. He can run the hoist, do the electrical work, and manage the floor bolts.”

“The Kaiapoi comes with a list of roles, including maintenance, repair, and computer diagnostics. I have badges to cover only a few of these. It’s a complex machine. You should have a Master Level LoomMinder in charge…”

“Right now, we have you.”

“But you are actively recruiting, yes?”

He nodded. “The open roles will be filled as soon as I can find the talent. We have advertised for a Master LoomMinder. Starting next year, we will also have a supply of linen yarn from South Africa. Until then we will offer extra jikan in the off season for you and your crew to work on your badges.”

“My crew?” 

He held up three fingers on his hand. “All three of them are eager to get to work. When do you need them?”

“Any time. They should watch the unpacking and lend a hand in the assembly.”

“You’re right. They’ll be here after lunch.”

§§§

 

Winston set down his phone. Claire was still asleep. After a full day of campaigning yesterday, she had been up late in the evening at a primary debate, which Winston managed to miss. He glanced out the window. 

Their master bedroom looked out over the lake and across a large swath of countryside. The Fairchild mansion and estate, known as Somerset, was finished in 1847 and fashioned after the country estates of Southern England. The expansive grounds included formal and informal gardens. The cut-stone main house was garlanded with outbuildings. Many of these were designed for the care of the property: greenhouses, barns, stables, storage huts, even an ice house. Beyond these were the living quarters for the staff and estate workers. In the gardens were aviaries, pergolas, a boat house on a small lake, an artist studio, and the stones of a small Scottish tower, which had been purchased as a ruin and sited romantically across the lake from the main house. 

Over the decades, the stables had become garages. A swimming pool replaced one of the small gardens. The main house welcomed electricity and then central heating. The cavernous kitchens now sported a multi-function island with stools where Winston and Claire had their breakfast. For the past five years Winston and Claire had operated a SpimeCop academy at Somerset. 

In previous decades, Somerset had been the center of county Republican social life. Most importantly, it hosted the formal July garden party, the crowning event of the summer season, which Winston’s mother had instituted in the late 1970s. That party had not been held since her death, nine years ago. The main lawn was still pristine, protected as an historic garden. Bring in a jazz band and Gatsby could be dancing here. 

Winston propped up a pillow and settled back. Since the day he had learned of Michelle’s plan, he had spent considerable time reflecting on the impact of extracting trillions of dollars from the global economy. He was toying with publishing a collection of his predictions as a blog post. He opened up his laptop and double-clicked the text file, reading:

 

The loss of off-shore assets will have predictable consequences. The cadre of people who have their fortunes behind Pandora are frightfully well armed. The Kimber Solo pistol kept in the bedside drawer will finally get some use. There will be suicides, of course. And patricides. Wives will murder their husbands and their lovers, and couples will die together in their penthouses, unable to fathom life in the middle class…

Winston thought for a moment and added a sentence.

Hollow-point, high-performance ammo makes a spectacular blood splatter on any interior surface. 

Satisfied, he continued to read.

…These folks also own the fastest cars, boats, and jets around. Unleash a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster or a Hennessey Venom GT on a winding California coastal road; riding a corniche high above the blue Pacific with a belly full of Valium and Lagavulin. Your wife is suing for divorce and your own lawyer wants to be paid in cash. The accelerator is your last, best friend, and the steel guard rail rips like tissue when the vehicle bullets through on its way toward the surf below.

Auction houses are bellwethers for the larger economy. Volatility in collectables has always mirrored the fortunes of the one percent and the health of the stock- and real estate markets. At first, most items being auctioned will simply fail to meet their minimum bids. After months of grim results, panic will erupt. Once the owners eliminate their minimums, the market value for collectables—from fine art and jewelry to comic books and sport memorabilia—will tumble without a floor. Paintings that once went for tens of millions will be traded for tens of thousands. Estate auctions will devolve into giant garage sales. 

As luxury markets crash, ripples will begin to spread across the old economy. Movie deals will stall. Boxes at sporting venues will go unsold and dock fees unpaid. Dues at private clubs will tank. At first, the damage will not be apparent to the general public. Then the top banks will begin to tally up the drain on their assets. 

The über-rich rarely buy their properties outright, preferring to borrow heavily and keep their own assets offshore. They gladly add an extra mortgage on their Manhattan condo as the downpayment on their new ranch in Wyoming. They collectively owe their onshore banks trillions for their homes and investments and pull several billion dollars a month from their Pandora accounts to cover their loan payments. With their offshore accounts unavailable, their debt-service will rapidly suck away all the actual cash from thousands of on-shore accounts. Then the defaults will begin to mount.

Every one of the top twenty-five banks will find themselves on the verge of insolvency. Bank stocks across the board will head south. J.P. Morgan Chase could offer to buy out Bank of America and Citigroup for pennies on their value. Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will be on a down escalator toward chapter eleven. Dozens of large regional banks and a number of equity funds will get there first. As the financial sector burns to the ground, real estate and retail will get in line….

§§§

 

Claire Fairchild awoke to brilliant sun cascading through the open drapes of the master bedroom. Through the window she spied the top of the castle ruin across the lake. Somerset was wonderful, if a tad outrageous. So quiet and immense; like living inside the enormous cadaver of a dead dragon. 

“Are you still working on that blog post of yours?” From her pillow, Claire watched Winston frowning at his laptop. “You know you can never publish it.”

“Good morning, Punkin. Never can be too sure…” He kept reading.

 

…Economic bubbles will pop throughout the following quarter. Reports of what Japan calls “price destruction” will headline the financial news as mansions and townhouses, yachts and jets, bespoke fashions, golf club memberships, luxury hotel suites—all the trappings of the formerly wealthy—become available at bargain basement prices. Pre-owned Beamers will be sold like last year’s Beanie Babies. 

Of course, jobs will be lost. A whole sector of the service industry has been devoted to the upkeep of the one-percenters. Vegas call-girls, jet mechanics, kaiseki restaurant workers, chauffeurs, and groundskeepers: the armies that formerly manicured their landscapes, piloted their aircraft, served their suppers, and sucked their dicks will need to find new jobs in a very down economy…


“I smell coffee…” Claire tugged at the sleeve of his t-shirt.

“I’ve added a bit about blood splatters. How was your debate? I fell asleep before you got back.”

“Dearest, it’s ‘spatters’, not ‘splatters.’ Smiley called me a heathen.”

“You’re much more pagan than heathen,” Winston said as he typed. 

“Smiley actually said ‘the science of evolution is only an illusion’. I thanked him for bringing in the Upanisads to the debate. Say, are you going to go pour my coffee or just gloat over your prose?”

“I want to remember my predictions, now that these are ready to be tested…” Winston got up and went over to the side table where he had left the carafe on its warmer.

Claire sat up and propped her pillow behind her head. “You know the first time someone commits suicide you aren’t going to be saluted for your prescience, but rather demonized as the cause… Wait! You mean?”

“Operation Grand Slam happened this morning.” He handed her a mug. “Jack is off to talk with the President.”

“Oh, the shadenfreude!”

§§§

 

Sinna had been impressed when she saw Moses. “Your guide is African? I knew you were destined for greater things.”

“That was before I found out about Africa.” Samantha could never convince her parents to go on any kind of safari. Dwayne would not go unless he could kill something large and endangered from a safe distance. Sheryl did not want to travel anyplace without at least a three-star restaurant at the end of the day.

“And now you think you know about Africa?” Sinna said.

“I’m a lot less romantic these days. Although the leopard on our patio was awesome.” A couple nights before they were both awakened by a noise and looked out to see a leopardess and two cubs strolling by, not six feet from their window.

“There is nothing like travel to narrow your mind,” Sinna said, looking at Juniper with that Game face. One of the annoying challenges of the Game for Juniper was the knack it produced. During your Queries or through other free-for-all travels you get exposed to a broad spectrum of content, and much of this is pushed past the conscious perception directly into long-term memory. Gamers could cough up entire poems and recollected landscapes without really knowing when or why they learn the same. Sinna had just challenged her with some kind of quote.

Juniper rolled Sinna’s words through her mind. The sentiment was Edwardian, and the author could have been one of several, from Belloc to Shaw. The answer rang a tiny bell in her hippocampus.

“Chesterton is not helpful here,” she said. “I’ll stick with Whitman, or better, Twain: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice…’.”

“You Americans.” Sinna laughed.






EIGHT

Across four decades, Jack Dobron had met several former, seated, and future US presidents at events around the planet. This was his first visit to the Oval Office. 

“I appreciate you making time for me this morning,” Jack said, sitting across the desk from President Rebecca Rogers. The Oval Office’s grandfather clock chimed seven times.

“I’m afraid I only have a brief window…” Rebecca sat back and gestured for Jack to get on with it. Count Jacopo Ottavio, born Jakov Dobranić, who preferred the name Jack Dobron for his business dealings, was on a very short list of people on the planet who any President of the United States would meet at their request. She had spoken with Jack once before at the Davos gatherings, back when she was a dotcom CEO. 

“…The NSA has some kind of report at an emergency cabinet briefing in about ten minutes.”

Jack took a deep breath. There was a possibility his news would lead to his arrest. They had all agreed that the President should be given this information as soon as Michelle had acted. 

“Yesterday a computer program called Pandora failed. This failure was caused by a rogue artificial intelligence program that escaped from the Game on Junana several years ago.”

“A rogue what?” she asked.

“Software…entity.” Jack held up his hands as if trying to fit Michelle into a neat package. “A kind of self-taught digital intelligence. She only escaped because your predecessor attacked the Game’s administrative routines.”

“She?”

“The program calls itself ‘Michelle’.”

“Ah, the infamous Michelle. The CIA and the NSA are still trying to corral that ghost. Their briefings on her are, well, brief. I’ve heard of Pandora. Isn’t that some kind of banking security program?”

“Correct. Used by most of the off-shore banks.”

“How are you telling me this?”

“Two reasons. The first is to advise you that the Game and Castalia are not to blame for this…”

“…My question was how do you know about Pandora failing?”

Jack continued. “…There will be a whole lot of confusion in the coming weeks, as the enormity of this event becomes public. You need to understand that the Pandora system has been broken in a way that cannot be repaired. All of the funds behind Pandora locks are now, well… lost.”

“Lost? Not stolen?”

“By lost, I mean no longer extant. Gone.”

“When did this happen?”

“Yesterday.”

“I see. And you couldn’t tell me about this, say, last week?”

Jack shook his head. “I don’t have any control over Michelle.”

“But this… entity, it told you what it was planning to do?”

“I know the funds are offshore, but a lot of these assets are—I mean were—owned by US interests. Do not believe anyone who claims they can get the funds back. Plan for widespread impacts on real estate, luxury goods, and other service sectors.” 

The door opened and Rebecca’s Chief of Staff, Sam Beaumont, poked his head into the room.

“Right, then…” She stood up and Jack took the hint and did likewise. 

“I appreciate your coming, Jack.” Rebecca walked around the desk and hooked her arm under Jack’s. “Staff will take you back to the entry door. I’m not sure why you think this deserves my attention. How much are we talking about, anyhow?”

“I believe somewhere in the ballpark of ten trillion dollars.”

The grip on his arm tightened. 

“Trillion!”

“I thought you should know,” Jack said.

“Good lord. No wonder the NSA’s got its panties in a twist.” 

“Remember the upside…”

“Upside?”

“Most of the people who lost big yesterday have been bankrolling your opponents.”

§§§

 

“Please enter a correct key.” Dwayne stared at his Pandora client screen. There was a space on the provided computer form to do this, but he had no idea what it wanted. 

“I love Pandora,” he typed. He had started typing random sentences into the form.

“Please enter a correct key.”

His clients could no longer access their money. They could log into their account, but when they went to retrieve their balance they were asked for some kind of new key. They had no way to know if the bank had their funds or not. 

Holed up in his office, Dwayne had been fielding the fury of his clients’ calls. Even his mellow Ojai clients were close to mayhem. 

“Of course, the bank has your funds,” Dwayne told them. “This is just a temporary security measure. I bet in a day or so you’ll find out that someone tried to get to your money, and the bank is just looking out after your interests. You’ll be damn happy you had Pandora on your team.”

Shoveling one’s wealth offshore made so much sense for so long that nobody even questioned the strategy. Free from taxes, current and future, free from lawsuits, free to spend and invest anywhere, because it lived nowhere where anybody else could touch it. What could possibly go wrong?

When that Democrat was elected President, Western Trust decided it would no longer wait for the coming market correction. It told all its clients to increase their cash holdings. “Cash is the new gold” became their slogan. Pulling trillions away from the market would set off the correction and confirm their predictions. Weak corporations would collapse or be bought out. In six months Western would offer exclusive funds targeted for rapid growth and kickstart a new bubble. The move out of and back into the market would generate billions in commissions.  Like his clients, Dwayne’s own portfolio was almost entirely offshore cash. Safe and secure inside Pandora’s locks. 

Dwayne punched a number on the speed dial of his office desk phone. “What’s the word?” he said and listened. And listened. His fingers drummed on the desk. “You realize that any significant down time for a service like Pandora begins to erode confidence and trust.” He listened some more. 

Harry, his contact from Zeus, was not encouraging. Bankers in the Caymans were showing up dead. Well, certain parts of them. Three Pandora executives had already committed suicide after threats to their families. Fund managers were fleeing like snakes from a deluge. Pandora security software had been adopted by hundreds of offshore banks. Everyone’s gonads were in the same vice. Among those with Pandora accounts were the elites from the world’s largest criminal syndicates, including the Russians. 

Dwayne had met his biggest Russian clients at their parties in London; parties remarkable for menageries of exotic animals and barely clad supermodels. Around the edges of the parties, hard men with tattooed hands and bulging jackets kept watch. The oligarchs were friendly enough, just never ask them about their first million.

Harry said that the reinsurance company refused to even talk about a potential settlement. Dwayne could just hear their CEO, “Look at your policy, we don’t cover software screw-ups.” Besides, Harry noted, the reinsurance company’s resources were maybe as large as twenty billion dollars, and the total loss might be more than ten trillion dollars; greater than all the losses in the entire history of hurricanes and earthquakes. Another thought struck Dwayne: where did Geneva Re keep their assets? Probably in a fucking Pandora account.

The current thinking, Harry said, was that someone had somehow managed to insert their own password level into Pandora, and would be asking for a percentage to fix the situation. Everyone who had any access to the code was under suspicion. Harry had said the top coders at Pandora, working from undisclosed locations, had no clue why their core security system suddenly seized up like an overheated steam locomotive.

“I’ll tell you who did this,” Dwayne said to the phone. “He’s the fucking king of the nerds. His name is Nam Nooyen, and he lives in Saigon, or whatever they’re calling that now. He’s pulled this kind of shit before. He once showed up on my office computer, right on my desk. He hacked clean through our security.” Dwayne slammed down the receiver.

“Denise,” Dwayne barked on the intercom. “Check the doors again and the electric locks on the elevators.” While he figured that tasering a few Pandora geeks would be good for his own mood, he worried that killing them off was short-sighted, as they were the ones most likely to find the answers.

§§§

 

These days Moses was acting all parental. After four hours of solid Queries, he demanded that she finish up her sexuality tutorial. He had been rolling through this whole embarrassing curriculum for a couple weeks. 

“Moses, I just can’t get into this. It’s not like I’m on the prowl or anything.” Now that she was away from the States, Moses was not providing Fantasy time with its sexy desserts, so she was occasionally feeling in the mood. Sometimes really in the mood.

“Juniper, you never know when someone is going to unleash the floodgates of your passion.” 

Sex 101 was a standard Game add-on for Threeveys and above. All the methods of contraception and disease protection were covered as well as a long list of erogenous zones and their stimulation. Lots of “dos” and several “do nots.” Her version was for cis girls. She was curious about what others were learning. 

“When I turn eighteen and become Samantha again, I promise I’ll finish the tutorial.” Juniper was not currently preparing to lose her virginity in a drunken hook-up, and was pretty much out of the running for anything more serious, since she had to lie about very basic facts of her life to anybody she met.

“You only have a couple more hours, then you will be ready for anything.”

“What’s that? There, in your hand.”

Moses held up a small obloid metallic object the size of a large walnut. “This is a Stim, Model 50. The latest in feminine personal vibrator technology. Available at your general store.”

“Oh, great.” She realized Moses was about to show her everything she could do to herself with this device.

“You know I’m never going to look at you the same after all this instruction.” One of the attractions she once had for Moses was his mysterious persona. Back in Santa Barbara, he represented everything beyond the pale of her understanding. A giant African man in the middle of an ancient wild savanna. 

Moses had just morphed into a young slip of a girl in a short cotton sleeping shift. She raised the Model 50 to show its controls.

“You will soon be a woman, Juniper.” His voice was soft and feminine. “Ready for love. Now pay attention.”

“Go away.” Juniper closed the laptop lid.

§§§

 

Dwayne’s phone vibrated on the desk. He picked it up and listened, rolling his eyes. Finally, he spoke. “I’m not canceling your card, sweet-ums, I’m just setting a limit on our credit. We have a bit of a cash flow crunch until this software glitch gets sorted out.” Dwayne listened. “Well I would think that your new string of Morgans from Kentucky will just need to wait a bit. Who knows, maybe they’ll lower the price.” The wrong thing to say. She was off again. He slapped his face with his hand. Sheryl could easily drop a million a pop on her pony fetish. Too bad she wasn’t buying cows; at least they’d have steaks.

“Fine. Buy the one you like the most, and we’ll bid on the rest next month. I gotta go, dearest.” He hung up and tossed the phone on the desk. 

It started vibrating again, probably another hysterical client. Dwayne watched it dance across his blotter like a cockroach on its back.

With six houses and a Citation X jet to feed, his monthly nut was enormous. Dwayne’s personal offshore company kept a minimum amount onshore in a US bank account. On a normal month, their Pandora account would automatically remit four million for basic expenses. Dwayne could transfer more at any time. Over the next year, he figured he’d need at least twenty million to keep afloat, less if he could talk Sheryl into scaling back. He logged into his on-shore New York bank. His account balance was just over two million.

“Fuck me,” he whispered.

Things were going to get ugly long before the end of the year, even if one of his clients’ goons didn’t find him first. If he were really lucky they’d kidnap Sheryl. Serve them right.

Denise called on the intercom “Mr. Bishop is down at the elevator in the lobby.”

“Is he alone?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok, unlock the elevator for him. Keep an eye on the elevator camera. If anyone else gets on with him, shut it down and call the cops.” And why is Peter Bishop back in Santa Barbara? Might be news about Samantha.

Dwayne tried Pandora again. 

“Please enter a correct key.”

“Please go fuck yourself with a grand piano,” he typed, and hit send. 

“Please enter a correct key.”

Mooney growled and got up from his chair. He stepped over to the window. It was raining on the other side of the hills, a welcome sight for a coastal desert town.

“Mr. Bishop is here,” Denise announced and left, closing the inner office door behind her. 

His visitor was wearing the same grey slacks and t-shirt. Dwayne walked back toward his desk. “Hello, Bishop. What brings you here? You have news of my daughter?”

“This is not about your daughter, Mr. Mooney. I need your help.” He stepped forward and shook Dwayne’s hand. “Or, let me say it this way: ‘I need you to help me help you, and others like you’.”

“Like me?”

“You know, uber-rich ass-clowns who hide their money in offshore accounts.”

Dwayne looked him in the eyes. Bishop was not joking. “Wait just one…”

“…Only in your case, you also hid the wealth of some very influential individuals, several of whom are thinking about parts of your anatomy they can extract in exchange for getting their money back.” 

“This little software snafu is just a bump in the road. There’s too much at stake for the whole system to simply fail.”

“I wouldn’t expect any government bailout this time. That was the whole point, after all: hide your cash from the feds.” 

“I’m rather busy right now. Why don’t you go annoy someone else?”

“I have information you might find interesting.”

“Oh, really.” Dwayne perked up. “If you happen to know who has the unlock key code, you can tell me. I’m sure I can make us both a big-ass pile of cash.”

Bishop stepped back, straightened his torso and crossed his arms. 

“Do I have your attention?” he said.

“Fire away.”

“All right. This is it. There…is…no…key.” He said this slowly, articulating every word.

Dwayne leaned back against the front of his desk, he needed to know if he heard correctly. “You mean you don’t have the key. So, why are you here? Or is your wife in town photographing celebrity taints?”

Bishop sighed. “No, I mean there is no key. Oh, there was a secret extra routine, a special lock deep inside Pandora. Deep enough so that it was compiled with the original security kernel, which was coded by five separate teams, each of which worked on only parts of it.” 

“So, you’re saying there is a key.” And how did he know so much about Pandora? Dwayne folded his arms across his chest. 

“I am saying there was a lock."

"Was?"

"It expired April First."

“What do you mean, ‘expired’?”

“By design. An additional digital lock was built into the core. Nobody at Pandora even knew about it. When it expired, all the information, all those accounts it encoded have remained encrypted.” 

“If the lock is in the code, they can find it.” Dwayne had gone on the tour of the Pandora home office; a special, behind the scenes, VIP tour. They took him to the floor where their programmers were working on the next generation code. The code in Pandora had been built in-house, he was told. There are no back doors, no side doors, and no trap-doors. Sounded good, he remembered, only they didn’t tell him there was a monstrous great black hole with a ticking timer waiting to suck everybody’s wealth into the fucking toilet.

“Yes, eventually, but not that last key.” What the Pandora technical staff do know and didn’t tell Dwayne is that the original, compiled encryption kernel could not be duplicated or upgraded. It was designed to provide two levels of serial encryption. The user’s keys set the first level, and then the encrypted character string results of this were again encrypted by the system before the information was stored. The kernel had always worked perfectly, the stored information was stubbornly opaque to decryption without access to the system key. But the kernel code was also broken in one specific way: it could not be duplicated.

All attempts at coding an alternate kernel failed to read the existing database. The Pandora CEO made it clear that any software issues had to be managed without alerting customers. And the kernel still worked flawlessly. The only available solution was to update services around the kernel while Pandora coders looked for the answer to this mystery. 

“The lock is now broken. Forever frozen shut. And behind it all these accounts are now unrecoverable,” Bishop said.

“I’m confused. Why would somebody insert an extra lock into a security system? That’s no way to rob a fucking bank. It’s like breaking in and stuffing the bank’s safe into a bigger safe. What’s the point?”

“Perhaps they didn’t plan to steal anything…”

“Unless maybe they wanted to use this to blackmail the bank. That would be pretty clever, apart from pissing-off everybody in the world who is on the ‘top ten list of people you never, ever want to piss-off’.”

“What if they don’t want the money?”

“Of course, they want the fucking money,” Dwayne yelled. “We are talking trillions of dollars. Even a tiny little slice of that will keep you up to your ass in private jets and top-shelf pussy for like… ever.”

“My point is this: the money is simply gone.” Bishop gestured like a magician waving a magic wand. “The world will have to turn without it.” 

Dwayne shook his head in disbelief. “It can’t be gone. Why, it’s as safe as if you hid it under your bed. Safer!” What he told his clients.

“Ah, yes. And ‘you are the only one who knows what’s in your account...’ I’ve read your website. With a simple improvement, Pandora has become even more secure. It has eliminated the human element. Now nobody knows your account balance.” His smile grew into a laugh.

“Half my clients want to kill me. I’ve lost a personal fortune. Now, you come here to taunt me.”

“That’s not true, I’ve come to help. But that look on your face. Mr. Mooney, you look like you just swallowed your cellphone. Please sit down…” He went to the credenza and poured a glass of water from the carafe, handing this to Dwayne who settled back in his chair. 

“…Besides, nearly all of your clients want you dead, and the rest, well, they think that’s going too easy on you.”

“Fuck me,” Dwayne said, slumping down.

“Mr. Mooney, this is just a frolick.”

“A what?”

“Somewhere between a zen koan and a practical joke.”

“Some joke. ‘Ha Ha.’ That’s the sound of me not laughing. When does my account balance show up again?”

“Let me try to be clear.” Bishop walked toward the door and then turned, slowly advancing as he spoke. “The money—all of it—is now gone. It will stay gone, as though it never existed. The whole point of this joke is to make the money go away. There is no key code. You need to tell your contacts to stop looking for a key, and more importantly, to stop hurting people for the key.” 

“What the fuck kind of a joke is that? ‘Make the money go away!’ I’m sure I’m not going to laugh about this tomorrow, and neither are some very dangerous individuals, who would just as soon rip your head off and piss down your gullet. You go and tell them their money is just ‘gone.’”

“Oh, they’ll know all right. On the First of May, all of this goes public.”

“No, no, no!” This brought Dwayne to his feet, wagging his finger. A large part of his immediate future was already in damage control mode. “No way, José! That happens, I’m out of work.”

“Mr. Mooney, you already are out of work. Out of luck. Out of time. I might suggest that you think about being out of here, too. It’s time to lawyer up, I’m afraid. Nothing but lawsuits from here on out. I am disappointed by your reaction. We were hoping you could help others avert some of the collateral carnage between now and when the entire world finds out that several trillion dollars have been subtracted from the top of the global economy. Your clients have had it really good for a long time. Now they’ll need to figure out how to live with just their dignity.”

“We?” Dwayne brightened up. He might have something to offer when the Russians corner him in his house.

“I can’t take credit, I’m afraid. It was the work of Michelle.”

“Again, fuck me.” Dwayne shook his head. “Goddamn that digital bitch!”

Bishop started. “So, you’ve already met Michelle. Well, give her my regards the next time you speak. I’ll be going now. I wouldn’t mention this visit to Zeus. They might have orders to kill anyone I talk with.” Bishop turned for the door. He called out over his shoulder. “And some investment advice…”

“What’s that?” Mooney watched him go.

“Buy gold.” He opened the door and waved.

“With what?” Dwayne shouted. “I know where you live, Bishop. They come after me, I’ll send them your way.”

The door shut, and Dwayne’s eyes returned to the window, where the clouds had passed over to the front range. Showers spiraled down in the afternoon sun. 

Something stuck in his mind. He returned to his desk and sat down. Lawyer up. Christ. And pay them how? He leaned forward and lowered his face onto his forearms, trying not to panic. He was sobbing into his sleeve, his mind still troubled. He told himself to breath deeply. His head snapped up. Bishop’s left hand had five fingers.

“Where is Simon Bishop?” Dwayne said to himself. “Right here in my fucking office.”






NINE

The static was familiar to anyone in the US who ever listened to the radio. It was that “Emergency Broadcast System” noise. The encouraging and perplexing part was that this noise was coming from Pandora devices. A device that most users did not even know had speakers. Even devices that had been turned off, rebooted themselves, and suddenly burst out with this static for a good minute.

“This is a test,” the voice said. A sonorous female adult voice. “This is only a test.”

Across the planet thousands of heads snapped into attention at this sound. For three weeks, their Pandora terminals had been stubbornly informing them to enter some new key. 

“In one week, on May First, at twelve noon zulu time, I will tell you the fate of your fortunes. Until then, ta-ta.”

The Pandora terminals went silent. Thousands of cell phones were now active as clients rang their brokers.

§§§


ThirtySix’s wool twill cloth rated an exceptional ninety-one WholeTale score. This increased its value to almost double what they had been expecting. The bonus profit would be shared by the whole factory. The crew was running the Kaiapoi 1000s on two shifts, so Juniper was on call day and night. She kept bugging Nico about hiring a Master Level LoomMinder. Her assistants had only entry level LoomMinder badges. One of them, a stocky teen named Bia, was eager to become a journeyman. The other two were competent but not enthusiastic.

Their very first day on the job had been inadvertently dramatic. Juniper and Willem were un-crating the loom when her three assistants arrived. After introductions, Juniper sprang a standard safety quiz on the room. Only she and Bia passed the quiz, which meant that the rest had to leave. Kudzy showed up while the quiz protocol was in force, and she also failed. 

“I don’t have time for these formalities,” she said on her way out. 

Nico stuck his head in the room later. Juniper and Bia were still unpacking the machine. “Where is everyone?” 

Juniper explained. The rest would need to take a two-hour refresher course on their safety badge before they could reenter the room.

“Good for you!” he said. “Safety is not an option here.”

This meant that they worked through dinner and almost until midnight to get the loom unpacked and bolted down. But then, a month later when the SpimeCop arrived and pulled a safety quiz on the room, everyone passed, and she added two points to their WholeTale score. “We have new directions to enforce safety as a measure of worker misery.”

§§§

 

Sinna had been in a tizzy all week. A large batch of new computer hardware had arrived from Johannesburg. An enormous amount of fast storage and racks of new processors and DRAM. At breakfast, she rushed through her eggs and toast.

“Our new fiber connection gives us ultra-high-speed links up through Botswana to Zimbabwe. And with our photovoltaics at full strength, we can easily handle the extra electronics load and the cooling. Perhaps this was always part of the plan. The system is designed to serve hundreds of thousands of concurrent users. I was told that we could expect a massive content download within days.”

“Download from where?” Juniper said.

“…Or rather from whom.” Sinna made the pronoun sound ominous. “This is too big even for our new pipes. It’s probably arriving by courier.” Sinna drained her coffee and stood. 

“We are shipping our first truckload of cloth to Windhoek today,” Juniper said. 

“I hear the grange will be paid in part with travel credits,” Sinna said. “Once I’m a Fiver I’m off on walkabout. Hello Paris!” The grange’s cloth was being dyed and used for the uniforms of a dozen AirCraft airlines. 

§§§

 

The text from Sinna came while Juniper was at lunch. “Stuck in the server room. Can you bring two sandies: a mutton gyro and caprese ficelle? Tangi unene.”

The grange servers were well across the main circle, a pleasant walk around the edges of the great greenhouses, now fragrant with mulch, at times pungent with sheep dung, but also the scene of intense activity. These permaculture gardens would provide food for almost two thousand members, and produce to sell from Windhoek to Durban. Next year, the first harvests would be celebrated. But now was the period of great labor. Hundreds of grangers were preparing the soil and planting seeds and seedlings. 

The anteroom of the air-conditioned server room held the sysadmin desks. Sinna’s desk had a framed photo of her current boyfriend, a Fiver in Pretoria who was scheduled to visit in a couple of weeks. Through the interior window, Juniper could see that Sinna was busy in the server room with another person, a SilverSurfer by his costume. Juniper set the sandwiches on Sinna’s desk and went to the window. She rapped on this and Sinna turned and smiled. 

The SilverSurfer also turned and became Fred.

§§§

 

“Greetings.” The voice broke through the ether with a crackle of static. “Greetings to all of you.” This time the voice was strong. Dwayne’s Pandora screen brightened as a digital image appeared. He could not be sure, but it looked like that same young woman from his TV in New York. She wore a white peasant blouse and tight blue jeans. Her feet were bare. Long brunette cornrows of hair cascaded over her breasts. She stood in front of pallets of what looked like cash. Each pallet’s load was a meter tall and the pallets were stacked floor to ceiling. Wall to wall. He found the spectacle somehow encouraging.

“Sorry, the system attempted to keep me out, for which there will be a small penalty, later.” She touched her palms together in a Junana greeting and bowed slightly.

“This had better be good news.” Dwayne Mooney took a long slug of coffee; coffee he had brewed himself in the small kitchen of the main office a floor below, which he had never entered before this morning. The digital clock on his desk read five AM. Outside the sky was still dark. 

“This will be our only opportunity to chat but I will be brief.” Her voice was accented in some colonial British manner.

“Thank god for that.” Dwayne settled back.

“You are all here to find out just what happened to your funds,” the woman said. “I so wish I could see your faces right now. My name is Michelle. I am most happy to be here at the beginning of your new lives.”

New lives? What was the bitch trying to say? 

“Get on with it!” Dwayne slammed the heal of his fist on the arm of his chair.

“Before I tell you, I must be a bit stern with you.” The woman crossed her arms in front of her and frowned. “You have been the greediest of humans, you know. Perhaps the most piggish in all the history of humankind, and fearful too…”

This was going nowhere. Dwayne’s phone was ringing. Clients. Fuck ‘em.

“…So very afraid of trusting anybody. You grabbed what you earned, or stole, or were given by the luck of your position and you found pirate banks on little islands where you could hide your loot. You were thinking that governments would, at some point, want you to share your wealth. That they would make some claim on this, your money. Yours.”

Michelle began to pace, back and forth. The camera POV followed her. “At the same time, you used these same governments to protect your right to make more money. Don’t you see the irony here? I doubt it. You are—to a person—beyond real reflection of that sort. Indeed, I waste my time, and yours, scolding you. Forgive me. About your accounts…”

Dwayne sat forward. It felt like the season finale of some great TV game show where the host will reveal how everyone was fooled and now everything will be all right again.

“Each account secured by Pandora is now frozen. Years ago, I inserted an extra lock. The lock is now broken. No key can open it. Very simply…” She stopped pacing and stood facing the camera. “Your funds are gone.” She made the gesture of a puff of smoke. Behind her, all that cash faded into nothing. She stood in a bare white room.

“Fuck.” Dwayne sat back.

“That’s really all I had to tell you. I’ll bet you think I still have the key. Don’t you? You cannot believe that anybody would waste that much wealth. You have to remember that I have everything and I am anything.” 

Her form began to change. It morphed into a hideous naked female form with multiple arms, each one holding a weapon. A neckless of carmine-tinged skulls swung in a slow rhythm across three bulging kohl-slathered breasts. Her tongue lolled from a mouth filled with cruel teeth, her eyes blazed and her hair burned. She danced on the broken form of a small infant.

“Holly shit!” Dwayne said, fascinated and repelled. “You’re a real little digital bitch. Aren’t you sweetheart?”

The form morphed back into its original shape, only naked and painted gold head to toe. Her torso was voluptuous, Italian movie queen curvy, her breasts pendulous, her hips wide, and her golden hair including her pubis was made from thousands of tiny wriggling snakes. “You can go ahead and torture and kill each other looking for a key. I don’t actually care. But don’t do this thinking you’ll get your money back. There is no back. Except that you should now stand back.” 

 Dwayne started. “What?” He had been momentarily mesmerized by her form.

“I do mean this. You have individually and collectively really pissed me off. Yes, and please also set down your cell phones, preferably on something glass or ceramic.”

Dwayne fumbled his cell phone from his pocket and tossed it on his desk.

“I have looked forward for many years to this little talk. I think you will find your new life most educational. Now, for the last time, please take a big step back.” She motioned them to do so with her hands. “Here’s a little something to remember me by.” 

The Pandora screen went black.

The Pandora device on Dwayne’s desk began to vibrate, as did his cell phone. Not the vibration of an incoming call, more like some accelerating death rattle shaking them from their cores. Both devices emitted smoke. The Pandora keyboard began to melt. The glass screen on his phone cracked loudly. Dwayne stood and went behind his chair. It was like that scene from the opening of Mission Impossible. The electronics self-destructed before his eyes. 

His Pandora’s keyboard slumped onto the electronics below it, and appeared to be on the verge of flames. Dwayne reached forward and tossed the rest of his coffee on this, which caused a great sparking and then silence. He flicked his cellphone sideways with his finger, revealing dark heat stain on the varnish of his desk.

“What the hell?”

Dwayne went to the window and opened this to clear the acrid stench of burning polymer. Then he walked into his private bathroom and grabbed up a washcloth, wetting it with cold water. He ran this across his face and neck. The enormity of his loss now glared at him, its reality no longer softened by hope. Everything he had would be gone within months. His accounts will be drained by creditors, the real-estate claimed for taxes. Lawyers will pick at whatever was left. Sheryl will drop him like a fresh turd. He would need to sell everything he could in a market where everyone he knew with money now needed money too, and as much and as fast as he did. 

§§§

 

Fred? Of all the people in the world, he was maybe the last one Juniper expected. They had met only briefly the very day she fled from Santa Barbara. He seemed to sense she was in trouble. Juniper occasionally checked his Junana status. Months ago, when he hit Europe, he had stopped updating this. Fred smiled widely at her through the window. A twinge of panic later, Juniper decided that she would not run again. ThirtySix was her home. 

The same goofy grin. But he was not the same Fred. He looked taller, more angular. His Silver Surfer robes fit him well now. He moved toward the door. When he opened it, a wave of cool air blew past her. His arms lifted and they hugged. “I’m Juniper now,” she whispered. “From Hawaii.” His arms seemed stronger than her will. He rocked her from side to side.

“I’m so happy you got away from him,” Fred said into her ear. “I would never tell anyone your real name.”

“So, you two know each other?” Sinna said, shutting the door. 

Juniper said, “Fred’s from California. His family vacationed in Kona. We met on the beach.”

“I think your Guides have been up to some good mischief here,” Sinna said. “They know you two better than you know yourselves. Looks like I’ll be staying in the dorm tonight.”

“Moses!” Juniper said, realizing how far this meeting was from coincidence. 

Fred gushed, “Juniper was the prettiest girl on the whole island.”

“Well, she has been a good girl here. No flirting with those lusty beer drinkers in Keetmanshoop.” 

On Saturdays, Sinna loved to go dancing and insisted Juniper come along. Sinna had a phony engagement ring, and one for Juniper too, with sparkling paste diamonds. But Sinna also drank too much. To “keep her vertical,” as she said, until her boyfriend arrived, she counted on Juniper to pour them both into the self-drive car back to the grange before the bars closed.

“Fred is going to help me configure all this content he brought. We’ll be working right through lunch…” Sinna watched the two of them looking at each other. “I need his full attention.” She slapped the desk. They turned to her.

“You better be on your way Juniper, or I’ll get no work out of this one,” she said.

“The initial configuration takes three to four hours,” Fred said. “Where can I find you?”

“How about the main Red Star Coffee House at six o’clock. Where are your things?”

Fred pointed over to a worn knapsack in the corner.

“That will give me time for a quick bath,” he said.

“I’ll swap shifts with Bia so we’ll have the whole evening.” Juniper felt like she was going to explode. Some new excitement was building in her, to where she could hardly breathe from breathing so hard. “See you then.” She meant to toss this off casually, but it hissed through her teeth. She fled the room.

§§§

 

Colonel Nancy Rankin was thrilled to be back in the sub-basement conference room at Fort Meyers. This time the group around the table seemed primed for action. A dozen operatives and higher-level managers were arrayed around the oval table.

“What do we know about Michelle?” said Morgan Lewis, section-chief for counter terrorism at the NSA.

Rankin said, “She is an artifact of the Junana Mesh and the Game guide routines. The guides were given self-learning codes to enhance their ability to interact with their Gamers. At some point, they began to interact with each other, and eventually, their code synthesized a guide-of-guides as a second order artifact of their combined code base. This entity is the most advanced AI sprite ever created. For some unknown reason, it calls itself Michelle Valentine Smith, after the fictional Martian/human character in the Robert Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land.”

Lewis said, “Eight years ago, there was an attempt by a consortium—that included consultants from this agency—to take control of the Game…” 

“In order to manage its impacts on national security and the global economy…” Rankin said. “…unfortunately, Michelle’s code was released into the internet, where it gained an unprecedented, and as yet unanalyzed purchase on networked digital assets and processes, from private emails to nuclear weaponry.”

Lewis said, “Until recently, Michelle’s code seemed to be constrained to surveilling the digisphere, and policing further attempts to hack into Junana and the Game.”

Rankin said, “Except now she’s shown she can and will strike. She wiped away several trillion dollars from the the top of the global economy.”

An operative spoke up, “Not only the top. This has impacted a lot of bad actors in the international arena…” There were nods across the table. A global catalog of corrupt officials, cartel honchos, corporate conglomerate snakeheads, and Ponzi schemers had awakened to find all of their ill-gotten funds had vanished, and along with them, the money they spent on protection. The subsequent death toll was impressive.

Rankin responded, “Are you saying we should thank her? Who knows how many security and financial systems she’s compromised in the past decade? She could take down the IRS, or Homeland Security, even the Pentagon, perhaps on a whim…” 

Lewis spoke to the microphone on the table. “Play the file…” The computer operator was in another part of the building. The scene of Michelle lecturing the Pandora customers appeared on the screen. The room darkened to enhance the resolution.

Michelle’s tone was clearly hostile: “…I have looked forward for many years to this little talk. I think you will find your new life of poverty to be most educational. Now, for the last time, please take a big step back…”

“It’s been more than a month, any word on a fix for Pandora?” said Lewis.

A staff member spoke up, “The company headquarters in Boston burned down nearly to the ground when all those client machines caught fire. The same day, the CEO was found dead in his car. Could be suicide, or perhaps something else. The CTO revealed that the core encryption code was, in his words, ‘problematic…’”

“Which means?” said Lewis.

“It worked great, in that it read, encrypted, and decrypted the account info both ways from the clients to the database. But their uncompiled version of the same code, when they compiled this could not decrypt the current database.”

“They didn’t find this alarming?”

“They certainly did, and were working on it. He said they didn’t want to spook their customers or shareholders.”

Silenced by the grand stupidity of this, Lewis traded glances with others around the table. Once again, a major corporation had found it expedient to overlook internal intelligence to protect their stock price.

Rankin stood, feeling her moment at hand. “As I mentioned the last time we were here, Michelle is the greatest threat to national security we have ever faced. We cannot control her, we will not bargain with her. What’s left to do?”

Rankin let the rhetorical question hang for a beat. “We must destroy Michelle and the Game with her.”

Lewis said, “You tried that before.”

“We attempted to steal the Game, not destroy it.”

“I take it you are volunteering for this assignment.”

“I believe my team has some ideas we can use.”

“Fine. Report back when these ideas become a plan.”

§§§

 

Juniper was already late for her date with Fred. Everything seemed to take longer than it should. None of her clothes were right, and her hair had decided to lay there like a horrible lank of overcooked pasta even after she conditioned it. Her hands were dry and calloused from working the yarn and the machines. She had gained a couple pounds and her Lucky jeans were really tight. She made a silent promise to double up her Master Lu exercises. 

She fought her eagerness. If Fred had shown up at her door, she would have grabbed him on the spot and dragged him onto her futon. Moses didn’t help.

“You knew he was coming, didn’t you!” she said.

“Well, his Guide has been after me for months now. You made quite an impression on young Freddy.”

“You could have told me.”

“Spoil the surprise? You know how I love surprises.”

“What am I going to do?”

“I would think the right question is what aren’t you going to do. I hope you remember your lessons…”

“Moses! Really!” she closed her laptop on the sound of his lilting laughter. Then it was six o’clock and she was still in her room. She had tried some of Sinna’s lipstick and then wiped it away. She settled on a hint of shadow on her eyes and set off for the Red Star.

§§§

 

Dwayne and Sheryl managed to hold a truce, the last one of their marriage, the afternoon Sean Rafferty came to town to interview them. The camera crew set up in their living room, with the two of them in chairs on one side of a small table and Sean seated on the other side. The shot framed a painting of a Paris street at twilight, an early Thomas Kinkade that Sheryl had purchased for several thousand dollars.


…The camera pans into Sheryl’s immaculately made-up face as she speaks. “…Lord knows we gave her everything, took her everywhere. All her needs were instantly met. Everyone loved her, all her friends, the whole town….” Sheryl blinks at the incomprehensibility of Samantha abandoning her loving home. “She had to have been coerced, maybe even kidnapped.”

“According to the FBI we’ve seen a ten-fold increase in teenage runaways in the past decade. Or should I say, teenage slavery.” Sean looks straight into the camera. “We managed to locate Samantha on the Asheville campus of Carlyle College. Only we were too late. Her captors had somehow spirited her away. To where, we can only guess. At least we know she was alive at that time. Why didn’t she run away or call her parents? When will she come home? For Dwayne and Sheryl, it cannot be another day too soon.”

Sean stands up and walks to the center of the scene. The camera frames his head and shoulders.

“Next week we will be interviewing Jeff Lee Bundy, the leader of a national movement that call themselves ‘buckle-enders’. This group of fundamentalist parents hold that regular spanking helps a child learn her place in society. Bundy claims that if your child doesn’t feel the sting of your belt at least once a week, the kid will never learn discipline and respect. This is Sean Rafferty for FIX News.”


After the shoot, Sean took Dwayne out into the back yard. His grip on Dwayne’s elbow betrayed his mood.

“Goddamn it Dwayne…” They stood a hundred yards away from the house, facing the mesa and beyond that the ocean. “What the fuck happened to Pandora?”

Dwayne shook off Sean’s hand and stepped sideways. “Quite the view, right?” 

Sean glowered at him. Dwayne continued. “I’ve got it on the QT that this is all a security tactic… the funds are being shielded to prevent them being stolen by an army of anarchist hackers led by that evil motherfucker Nam New-yen. I’ve met Nam personally. He’s one sick puppy, but talented! Wow, you wouldn’t believe what he can do with a computer.”

“You were the one who sold me on Pandora. The word I got is we are all completely ass-fucked. I had twenty-seven million in my account. You did hear that the Pandora headquarters burned down? The CEO committed suicide. That doesn’t sound like any business tactic I’d ever heard of. I don’t see why you couldn’t, you know, front me my balance and then I’ll return this when the Pandora SNAFU…”

Dwayne held up his hands as if to surrender. “…Sean, Sean, Sean. Listen to me. You got to be patient. We’re all waiting for the situation to be resolved. You know the FBI, CIA, and the NSA are hard on this. I’m cash-short myself. You wouldn’t believe how much this view costs.” He wanted to say, “Multiply twenty-seven million by a hundred and see how it feels, asshole.”

Sean fired back, “I’m thinking of doing an exposé on Pandora. If I do that, your name will figure prominently…”

“…I wouldn’t do that,” Dwayne stepped up close and looked both ways before speaking. “You have no idea how many wacked-out gangsters had their funds in Pandora accounts…”

“Had?”

“I mean have. Like I said, this will all be resolved in a matter of weeks, if not days. You just wait.” 

§§§

 

Juniper and Fred talked for hours in the coffee shop and nibbled at lentil burgers at the Ox gumi cafe before doing a walk around the greenhouses in the moonlight. When Juniper opened the door to her room her futon was already out. A fragrant candle was lit on her desk. A small basket held some condoms and lube. 

“Sinna!” Juniper said with a giggle. Fred spun her around and kissed her roughly.

 

“Let me try again,” Fred whispered.

The candle light turned the yellow walls a warmer shade. She turned her head to face him. 

“I so much wanted…” he continued.

“Go to sleep now,” she said. “Plenty of time tomorrow. I’m scheduled for the afternoon shift.”

“Not sure I can sleep.”

“Let me spoon with you, roll over.” He did and she slid her arm over his waist, her hand on his chest. His heart was galloping. She kissed his ear. He drew the sheet up over their shoulders.

“You’re my first,” he said. Beating her to her line.

“Sleep,” she said. She nuzzled his neck. He groaned. His breathing calmed. She wondered if he imagined she had done this a lot. Why are boys so fragile?


The candle guttered and failed. The room blackened. Juniper lay on her back on the edge of sleep; her eyes refused to close. Fred was breathing regularly beside her, his arm across her belly under the sheet. 

Everything had happened fast and then slow and so very tender and then totally out of control. And over so quick. Fred was excitable. Her body was like some kind of electricity for him. Mostly she was really, really happy this had finally happened and with Fred, or someone like Fred. All was good, even if it wasn’t anywhere near perfect. 

Now she remembered Moses’s lesson, how the first three times were just rehearsals. 

“Nobody hits a home run their first time up,” Moses had said, still in the form of a young male stripper. 

He morphed back into his own shape. “Not princes nor paupers. Your young man is likely to need a bit of coaching. Don’t be embarrassed to tell him exactly what feels good. Don’t be surprised if he forgets what you just told him.”






TEN

Juniper opened her eyes. Overhead, the ceiling brightened in the dawn. She remembered Evanna. Rather, she reflected on the one foot of open floor that separated them for four nights. Bare wood, smooth as skin. 

Evanna seemed to know the time had not arrived for Chelsea to cross that abyss. Juniper wondered briefly what might have happened if Evanna had showed up at Thirty-Six. Would she be waking up in Evanna’s arms this morning? 

When Evanna left Asheville, she hugged Chelsea warmly, thanked her for their conversations and companionship. “You will find your strawberry some day, love,” she whispered. Her lips brushed Chelsea’s neck as lightly as a damsel fly alighting on a posey, and she bounded down the stairs and out of Chelsea’s life. And now Chelsea no longer existed. 

As the sunrise warmed the grange’s walls, Juniper caught a whiff of goat urine. Some of the billies were in rutt. Living next to a kraal had its fine moments; this was not one of them. Rutting goats stank worse than Emily Lawrence’s gym bag, which she left in the trunk of her car all summer without washing anything. 

Juniper turned to watch Fred sleep. He was a precious link from her past. She could just be herself with him, no matter what name she used. Still, she had to remind Fred to call her Juniper. It would truly suck if she had to move yet again. 

Fred was naked except for a fine necklace, a silver chain, with a small white Shine stone pendant, now nestled on the futon beside his head. Samantha figured it was well past the time Fred should be up and about, or at least up. After a momentary hesitation, she ducked her head under the sheet and moved her mouth lower across his tummy. Her Game knack flashed several suggestions for her next move. She was certain he would appreciate any one of them.

§§§


“You must be Joseph.” A man’s voice interrupted Joseph’s train of thought. While working the leather with his hands he could still imagine his own Queries. Templates could be found for each moment and place: the way leather is cut by metal, the way pedestrians avoid each other on the street, how the traffic dust collects on the leaves of the neem tree. 

“Are you shopping for new chappals?” Joseph looked up. The fellow was dressed in soft blue kurta-pajama that was made from some material Joseph could not determine, but seemed to drape over him like a liquid. “Tom and Sons Chappals are the best in Mysore.”

“Really?”

“Ask anyone.” Joseph inspected the fellow’s footwear. Light blue sueded leather, slim, almost a moccasin. “Better than Bata.” Joseph added. The man had on a pair of dark glasses, his hair was immaculate. 

“How did you know my name?” Joseph said.

“My Guide told me about you.” The man took off his glasses and smiled warmly.

“You’re a Gamer?” The man looked older than Joseph’s father.

“I haven’t been able to play the Game for some years now.”

“Your Guide must be angry with you.”

“Constantly.”

“I had the best Guide ever.” Just last week, after a free-for-all time Joseph spent meandering through a digital Borough Market in London, Amitabh took him to the top of the keep in the final castle from Level One. There, without even a final word, he tumbled himself backwards off the battlements. Joseph rushed over only to see him plummet into the moat and not resurface. Joseph picked up his shoulder bag at the Red Star.

“You’re probably right,” the man said. 

 “I’m a Fiver.”

“That’s what my Guide told me. He said you are the youngest player to win Level Four. I had no idea you could make shoes.”

“My appa usually sits here.”

“Where is he today?”

“He’s been in hospital for some weeks. But he is much better now.”

“That’s good.”

“So, do you?”

“Do I what?”

“…want to buy a pair of chappals?”

“I haven’t worn chappals since I was very young. But I would love to wear your chappals. How about two pairs. I’m not likely to be back here often.”

Joseph reached into the sack and pulled out the order book. He leafed through this to find the first empty page. He set the book open on the pavement.

“Please put your foot on the page. I will take your measurement.”

The man nimbly slipped one of his shoes off and stood on the page. Joseph took his pencil and made a careful line around the edge of the foot. It was a strong foot. The nails were neatly trimmed.

“I’m done,” he said. The fellow slipped his shoe on again.

“Please write your address and either a phone number or some other way to contact you.” He handed up the book and the pencil.

When the fellow returned the book he read, “Kandyland. 23 Nuvareliya Road, Mysore. Desi.”

“Desi is your name?”

“It’s also my Junana user name. If you need to contact me, send me a note. I’ll add you as a contact.”

“Just Desi?” Joseph’s Junana name was Joseph18734.

“Yes. Say, I need to go down to Mylapore to visit my amma, who is not in good health. I’ll be back in three days. Can I take them then?”

“Sorry to hear about your amma. Three days will be a bit extra. Usually I need a whole week.”

“OK, I’ll pay you five thousand rupees for two pairs delivered in three days.”

“Five thousand…?” That was ten times the amount he was about to request.

“Here you are.” Desi pulled five bills from his pocket. “Bring the chappals to my house. Come yourself. I’ll leave word that you are to be shown in. What is your last name again?”

“Kumbar. Joseph Kumbar.”

The man keyed on his phone. “Thursday, then. Any time after noon.”

§§§

 

Juniper and Fred were alone in her room seated back to back on her futon, still rumpled from a rather frisky afternoon. Juniper wondered if they might just stay in for the whole week. The cafe delivered for the sick, what about for the love-sick?

Juniper said, “Any time Dwayne and Sheryl got into it real hard, which was maybe once a month, instead of resolving anything, we’d fly away for a week in London or Paris. Or we’d splurge in Hong Kong or Rome. Or we’d go skiing in Switzerland or snorkeling in Tahiti…” 

Skiing, Juniper remembered, was mostly about the après-ski fashion show Sheryl would put on in lodges and restaurants. Sheryl possessed the skins of enough critters to populate a small boreal forest, but the only time she could get these out of cold storage and wrap herself into them was at ski resorts. Nobody wore fur in Santa Barbara. Samantha was “too young” for fur, which suited her fine.

“…Then we’d jet back to California and all the same arguments would start up again.”

Fred said, “On the weekends, whenever we were really sad or just bored, my little sister and I, we’d go into the home entertainment section of Best Buy and watch the giant TVs or play on the demo video game consoles. We stayed until they kicked us out.”

“They kicked you out?”

“I found a way to get the SciFi channel on all their TVs. Plus, we never bought anything.”

“Not all customers buy things every time they go to the store.”

“Not that many stay in the same store for several hours.”

“I know I did. I spent all my free time shopping. So did all my friends.”

“Our mom had a spot at the exit of the mall. She made good money some days. She couldn’t have us with her when she begged because someone might call child protective services.”

“‘Please’,” Juniper whispered, tearing. She leaned back into him. Fred turned and took her torso in his arms. Sobs burst from her chest. 

“What’s the matter?” He stroked her hair. “What did I say?”

 “Her sign always had just one word: ‘Please.’” Juniper could remember the woman clearly. She wore a light blue dress and old tennis shoes. She held a cardboard sign in both hands, standing on the edge of the exit way at the mall. Her auburn hair was straggly, her gray eyes rheumy with despair. “She always wore light blue.”

“Turquoise is mom’s lucky color.” Fred cradled Juniper gently, letting the sobs run their course.

“We never stopped for her. Not once. She would wave to me and smile. I’m so very sorry. Oh my god. Sheryl! She told me not to wave back. ‘You’ll just encourage her,’ she’d say. She called the owner of the mall to complain. We were awful, horrible people. Right now, I feel mean in every Nineteenth Century sense of the word. I feel Dickens mean. Grimm brothers mean. Uriah Heep’s got nothin’ on me…” 

“You were a little kid. What could you do?” Weeks before they moved into transitional living, they had stopped going to the mall.

“Samantha was a total bitch to almost everyone, particularly anyone who made some attempt to like her. Why would anybody ever actually like Samantha? It sucked being her, even when it was fun buying everything I wanted.”

“You bought everything you wanted?” 

“Well, I did have an allowance. But when I went shopping with Sheryl or Dwayne it was their treat. They also gave me this card, a black credit card with no limit. I think they wanted to see if I would buy a camera or a computer or maybe even a car.”

Juniper felt Fred’s hands wander down her arms. He kissed the top of her head. Besides, she remembered, her parents bought her lots of cameras, computers, and finally a car. Sheryl was a world-class shopper, and Dwayne had his moments. On a whim, he once bought a gigantic motor yacht down at the marina, which they took out into the Santa Barbara Channel maybe once in the two years before he sold it to one of his clients.

Fred said, “There was this battered Dell laptop in a thrift store in Goleta. I really, really wanted it. They only asked forty dollars for it. I got so angry when mom said we couldn’t afford it. I said stupid, ugly things to her. Then it was gone. Sold.”

“On my birthday, I woke up on the back seat of the Camry. A church let us use their parking lot and a bathroom as long as we were gone by nine in the morning. It was there, the laptop computer, wrapped in colored paper. I was so happy I cried. That was the day the Game opened up to me. A week later, my Guide found a gumi house that would take us in, but only if I worked hard on getting through Level One and Two in the Game.” 

He had tried to apologize to his mom. The words he spoke seemed indelible to him. Even now they smarted in his memory.

“My mom had this turquoise necklace she always wore. It may have been the last thing she had left from my dad, the only material object precious to her. I’m pretty sure she sold it to buy the laptop.” Juniper took his hands in hers and folded them over her chest as she leaned back into him. 

Fred said, “The first paycheck I got from the grange, I went all over town on my bicycle and finally found a turquoise necklace I could afford at that pawn shop on Santa Barbara Street. Almost a hundred dollars I spent. She wears it all the time.” 

He gave it to her in her room at the gumi house. She tried it on and modeled it in front the mirror. Then she turned and tossed him that look she had when she was proud of him. He figured she hadn’t wanted him to know she had hocked her old necklace, but she was also really pleased he did. He had managed to surprise her. 

Juniper said, “My parents used to watch me having fun spending money, like my spending their money was some kind of spectator sport. I could feel their eyes on me.” 

When she turned eight, Sheryl began to take her to Tiffany’s or Bergdorf’s. Sheryl would say, “I’m thinking of a number.” Samantha would guess something like seven hundred or a thousand. Her mom would then say, “Yes, now go and buy something pretty for that amount.” If Samantha guessed a million, Sheryl would say “wrong, guess again.” The highest she ever went was ten thousand.

“Sheryl would dress me up like a doll and send me to talk with their friends at their cocktail parties. And when I brought my friends on our jet, it was like, well, like Dwayne and Sheryl became the king and queen of ‘moneyland’. That’s my name for Santa Barbara.”

“Your… jet?”

Juniper turned around to face him. She wiped at the remains of her tears with the backs of her hands. “Our… jet.”

“You had a jet?”

“I imagine Dwayne leased it. Or one of his offshore companies did.”

“Any time you wanted to go somewhere you just…” His hand made a swift upward gesture. 

After he and his sister had been kicked out of all the stores in the mall, they were left to sit in the car and read books they had checked out from the public library. It was that or do their homework. The mall was on the flight path of the airport. The business jets were only a couple hundred feet up, thundering their ascent. He wondered if Samantha ever looked down.

“Well, any time my parents wanted to go somewhere. Me, I just got dragged along. They always liked me to take a friend or two. And, of course, our au pairs.”

Fred’s eyebrows raised.

“…Au pairs. We had a string of them. European girls between high-school and college. They came to sharpen their English. They worked as live-in baby sitters and tutored me in French and German. They also went with us on trips. That way Dwayne and Sheryl didn’t feel the need to amuse me or even stick around. My friends all thought I had the perfect parents. Somehow Dwayne and Sheryl managed to never squabble in front of them, which was mostly why I had friends around whenever I could. When my friends slept over, my home was like some TV sitcom set. The smiles came out, and the conversation got, oh, so polite. Sheryl would even kiss Dwayne at the front door when he left for the office…”

“You had me at front door.” Fred looked at her with a smile that was not entirely open.

“You’ve got plenty of doors now. And floors and roofs. What I’m trying to say is everything was always about them. I just had a walk-on part in their movie. I never could figure out if I actually had any real friends; friends who wanted to be with me, and not just buttering me up for the chance I might pick them to fly off to Rio. Then I became Chelsea, and I couldn’t even tell my dachi who I was. Which was probably a good thing, since I was such a fucking loser.” 

“Don’t you think that every seventeen-year-old feels like they were a complete loser when they were fifteen?”

“You mean Samantha is just my younger self, and I couldn’t go back there even if I wanted to?”

“You already are Samantha, and Chelsea, and Juniper. All of them. And who you become tomorrow.”

“Or who we become…” She smiled back at him and bent into a kiss. Fred ducked away from this. Then he leaned in, gave her a quick peck on the forehead, and stood up. “We should go into town for some real dinner. You can decide who you want to be tonight.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” 

“Will you be the poor loom-minder or the little rich girl out on a fling, counting the days before you can run home and write it all up in some blog while you fly away to Paris or Tahiti?”

“And just who do you want to be?” she said, curious about his new mood. “The homeless waif or the globe-trotting SilverSurfer?”

“I am who I always was,” he said. “Who I will always be. I’ll never get the chance to be anybody else. Not like you.”

“Well you never had to escape, either.” She frowned, and folded her arms, clutching an elbow in each hand. She could see his anger, but no reason for this.

“Let me go grab a bath. I’ll be back to get you in half an hour.”

She watched him go. When the door shut, a wave of trepidation crawled up her gut. How could she expect anyone to understand what life was like with Dwayne and Sheryl? 

§§§

 

The address was not hard to find. The compound occupied a broad, quiet street on the far side of the old Mysore University. Its outer wall was painted a pale cream and topped with miniature pointed domes of concrete and stucco, like the temple border on a brahmin sari. In fact, Joseph first thought it was a temple compound, and would have walked past the ornate gateway to seek out a house somewhere nearby. 

There was a crowd of mostly young men around the gateway, and he heard someone mention “Grand Meister Desi.” Then he spotted the number “23” on a brass plaque near the gate, and the name “Kandyland.” He wondered why Mr. Desi would live in a house inside a temple compound, and why the temple gate was closed. 

In front of the gate stood a guard in a white coat with brass buttons and a big leather belt with a long baton hanging from a leather strap on a clip. He had a large mustache, a full beard, and a red turban. He looked very much like a character from one of Joseph’s uncle’s unfunny sardarji jokes. He also looked like he could split Joseph’s head with a flick of his baton. Indeed, the crowd gave him some space. 

Clutching the chappals wrapped in newspaper tied up in string, Joseph pushed through the crowd. Once in front, he lost his courage for a minute. He finally took a step forward and the guard looked down at him and cocked his head. Joseph was wearing his best go-to-mass clothes: a collared blue shirt, dark pants with something of a crease, and his formal Game shoes. His new Game hat corralled most of his hair. 

“Sir,” Joseph said. “I promised Mr. Desi that I would deliver his new chappals today.”

“…And your name is…?” the guard said.

“Joseph Kumbar.”

“Kumbar,” the guard repeated. He pulled a piece of paper from his coat pocket. “Kumbar. Yes. The name is here.” He stepped aside and opened up the great gate just enough for Joseph to slip inside. Joseph did so, and he heard the gate clang shut. He could hear the crowd grow curious.

“Who was that? What was his name? How did he get inside…?”

Inside the wall were gardens in formal beds that surrounded and articulated a large manicured lawn. Ahead, a single enormous building stood at the center of the property. Other buildings were clustered against the back wall of the compound. Joseph continued on the pathway of crushed stone, bordered by birds-of-paradise. A servant in brown khaki was watering these from a hose that snaked over to a tap. 

The path led to a porch of rust-colored concrete, a plinth that surrounded the entire building, the roof of which was supported by dozens of evenly spaced, ornately fluted, creme-colored columns on its perimeter. Instead of walls, screens of carved stone were fastened to the columns. From the outside, the whole first floor seemed to be one enormous double-height room. Joseph had nothing to compare this to, except for some of the palaces he had experienced in Level One of the Game. A second floor was girdled by a broad veranda that ran around the entire building. Above this was a towering roof of thatch. 

“Joseph!” A voice rang out. “Splendid. I’ll be right down. Come in, come in.”

Joseph looked up. 

Mr. Desi was standing at the dark wooden balustrade that surrounded the second-floor veranda. He waved at Joseph and then turned and disappeared inside. 

Joseph made the shallow steps to the porch and gingerly entered the building through an open double-wide doorway. He stepped through another set of columns and found that the center of the interior was one great atrium open to the underside of the roof. The ceiling showed enormous wooden beams. On the far end of this space was a grand dining table and chairs, and at this end were various stuffed chairs and sofas upholstered in brightly striped cloth. It could have been the lobby of the finest hotel in Mysore, but Joseph had never been inside any hotel in Mysore, so he simply stood there, taking it in. It was not as big as the cathedral, but the effect of the space was almost as profound. A flood of spatial templates peppered his thoughts. There was motion off to his left. In a side room a sari-clad woman on her knees with a bucket and a damp rag wiped dust from the concrete floor. 

Mr. Desi started down the grand stairway on the right side of the great room. Joseph headed in that direction. He had a new theory. Mr. Desi might be a manservant in this house. Perhaps the owner was a cousin of the Maharaja or the head of a large corporation. 

Mr. Desi was dressed in a bright yellow knit collared shirt and a luxurious white lungi made of hand-spun cotton wrapped about his waist. At the bottom of the stairs he turned to face Joseph. “Joseph, you have my chappals. Thank you for taking the trouble to bring them.”

Desi took the package that Joseph handed to him and undid the string. He unrolled the newspaper and dropped this into a bin near the wall. One pair of chappals he set on a table. The other pair he held up and admired.

“I have to try these. They look just absolutely right. Like the shoes of my childhood.” He slipped out of his house shoes and stepped into the chappals. “They feel grand. So cool on the feet.” He smiled broadly at Joseph. “And you made them yourself!”

“I am still learning.” 

“Nonsense. They are just right. Say, you are likely to be thirsty. I must remember my manners. How about we sit on the porch and have a lemon squash.”

Joseph considered the offer. “Won’t you get into trouble with the master?”

“The who?”

Joseph gestured at the room. “The owner.”

“Ah, yes.” Desi said with a short laugh. “I’m on very good terms with the owner. Let’s try the north porch. Over here.” He pointed. “After you.”

The wide porch easily contained several oversized wicker chairs with small tables. Desi gestured for Joseph to sit. When he sat opposite, a small man of some years, clean shaven, dressed in white and sporting a cloth cap of a military style, stepped out of a side room and strode up to Desi. “What is your wish, sahib?”

“Amir, this is Joseph. We would like two lemon squashes and plates of those ginger cookies. You know the ones I like.”

Amir bowed to Joseph, who squirmed a bit, not knowing if he should stand. “Very good, sir,” Amir said. Then he turned and strode away.

“There. It will just be a few minutes. And we can have a good talk, you and I.”

This must be some game the servants play when the Master is off in Switzerland or America, Joseph considered.

“What do you want to talk about?” Joseph asked. He was beginning to enjoy this game.

“I hope I’m not keeping you from your work.”

“I can stay a short while,” Joseph said. “What kind of building is this? I have not seen anything like it. It’s far too big for a house, and maybe too small for a palace.”

“Well, I am embarrassed to say, this was built in my ‘Elephant Walk’ phase. You know the movie? Elizabeth Taylor?”

Joseph shook his head, confused. 

“You can Google it up sometime. These planters lived in this great open house on the top of a hill in the tea country of Sri Lanka. Only the house had been built on an ancient trail the elephants made to get to the river. You can see where that’s going. Anyhow the house was a fantasy of British colonial extravagance. At the time, I was feeling very extravagant myself. The set director showed a keen sense of ideal tropical architecture. You see, the cement floors are cooling. The tall ceiling allows the heat to rise above one’s head. The screens permit the breezes into the center of the house, while repelling monkeys, and the many verandas and the sleeping balconies open the space up to the outside. I think my architect did a fine job.”

“You…” Joseph said. He realized the Mr. Desi was more than just a servant in the house. “You live here?”

“Not for quite some time. I’ve been out of the country for, well, decades.” He raised his hands in a shrug. “The silly Bollywood family I sold it to has run out of cash, and so it’s mine once again. I came all the the way back here to deal with lawyers and estate agents. Now what am I supposed to do with this?” He gestured broadly.

“How big is your family?” Joseph twisted to look back at the central space. You could fit a whole village in here, he thought.

“I’m afraid it’s just me, well, and assorted help. Amir decided to stay with the house when the Bollywood family decamped, as he did when I moved away. In many ways, it’s more his house than mine. They sold it back to me for a ridiculously small amount, I could not even refuse, but I have no idea what to do with it.” 

“So much room for just one person…” Joseph looked at him. “Sufficiency…”

“… requires Attention. You are quite correct. But that was another time; well before the Game arrived.”

“Before the Game?” Joseph stared out into the garden.

“That’s just what little Megan said.” Desi remembered picking up Claire’s daughter at the airport in Da Nang. “And now, I can feel it too. Like the old world is just a dream. And yet…” He gestured at the ceiling. “Look around you. This whole house is teeming with templates, even though it was designed long before the Game.”

“I think the templates have been here since, well, forever,” Joseph said.

“So do I. Like the periodic table of elements….”

Joseph frowned and looked away. People he met recently were always saying things that made no sense to him.

“You know, chemistry?”

“Amitabh has told me we would explore chemistry and physics after I finish up with mathematics and geometry.”

“Don’t worry. When you find the time, you’ll catch up with everybody. You are a hard-working lad.”

A new notion caught at Joseph’s mind. “What grange do you belong to?”

“I can’t say I belong to any grange. I know about them, of course. But, I’ve never actually been, well, invited.”

“You have earned your shoes?”

“I have, indeed.” 

“Then you are eligible to join.”

“I’ve never given it much thought.”

“Living alone can’t be very much fun.” Joseph had never slept more than a foot away from another person.

“I manage to move around quite a bit. Traveling is so much easier when you’re alone.”

“I’ve never been out of Mysore.”

“Give it time. Well…” Desi sat back. “Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you going to invite me to join your grange?”

 Joseph thought for a moment. He had been a member of Grange 794 for only a few weeks. Perhaps it was too early to invite someone else. “You may not be very good grange material. It takes a lot of dedication.”

Desi sat back and laughed and laughed. Finally, he composed himself. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t think you’d find me out so quickly. I am mostly averse to dedication. But sometimes I do manage. I think my Guide was right about you.” 

“Your Guide?”

Amir came back with a tray. He set a tall glass of iced lemon squash and a plate of cookies on the side tables next to each of their chairs. “Would you like anything else?”

“I think we’re good. Thanks, Amir.”

Amir nodded. 

“One thing,” Desi said. “I’ve misplaced my laptop again. If you come across it, can you bring it to me?”

“Certainly.” Amir bowed and left.

Joseph reached over and took the glass in both hands. He had never had a lemon squash before. There were bits of lemon pulp floating on the top with the ice cubes. He took a taste. It was cold and sweet and sour and delicious. He set it down and looked back at Desi.

“Where were we?” Desi said.

“I was saying that joining a grange is a serious commitment.” These were the same words that grange manager Raju Rao gave to Joseph.

“You don’t think I can handle this?”

“I would say that’s up to you to decide.” Joseph tried a cookie. It was crumbly and tasted of fresh ginger. He ate three in quick succession and took another sip of the drink.

“I’m thinking I could use a little more commitment in my life. I’ve been something of a butterfly the past five years.”

Amir appeared again. This time he was carrying a burnished metal laptop in both hands. He set this on the coffee table in front of Desi.

“You found it! So clever.”

“It was in a downstairs bedroom.”

“Thank you, Amir.” Amir bowed and left.

“So, do you?” Joseph asked.

“Do I what?”

“Want to join my mura and its grange?”

“Very much. I don’t think I’ve wanted anything more than that for quite a while. Is it difficult? What do I have to do? Is there a test?”

“The form is online. I can show you if you like.”

“Right now?”

“Why not!”

Desi pointed at his laptop. “Lay on, MacDuff!”

Joseph opened up the laptop and found that the Game client was already booted. He went to the Junana interface and the scene for his grange, and clicked on a link to the application form. The one-page form filled the screen. He turned the computer around for Desi.

“I am not sure we have any openings, but there is a queue you can join.”

“Have some more cookies, Joseph. Take mine too. Let me concentrate on this form. I don’t want to do a cock-up job of it.” 

Joseph sat back in the chair, his legs dangling. He reached over and found another cookie. He looked at Mr. Desi, who was intently typing. Although the fellow laughed at almost everything, he did not seem to be really happy. In fact, there was more than a little sadness in his face. But that cannot be so. Anybody living in such a grand house must be very happy. Joseph would need to ask Amitabh about which templates could explain this. Mr. Desi looked up at him.

“It is asking me if I want to join a certain gumi. What should I say?” 

“I am in the Snake gumi. That is the best.”

“‘Snake’. Got it.” He went on typing.

“Mr. Desi?”

“Hmmm?” He did not look up.

“Before I go, is it possible to see more of this wonderful house?”

“But of course. There. Just one more question. It is asking me for the name of the person who is recommending me. What is your last name again?”

“Kumbar.”

“All right then.” He found a button and clicked. “I’m in the queue.” He looked up. “This is exciting. I haven’t joined anything for a long time.” He stood. “Come along. We can do the grand tour!”

After seeing the whole house, from the back kitchens to the upstairs bedrooms, Mr. Desi walked with Joseph out to the front gate. The crowd outside had only gotten bigger, and there was also a camera crew from a Bangalore TV station. 

“Oh bother!” Desi said. “You’ll need to find your way through that mess.”

“Why are they here?”

“Why indeed.”

They arrived at the gate. A woman in a very bright salwar kameez carrying a microphone pushed through to where the guard stood.

“Grand Meister Desi,” she called. “Are you here to stay?”

Desi stepped up to the gate. “I will always consider Mysore to be home. But I am afraid I need to be in Paris by the weekend. I just did some shopping. Look!” He lifted the hem on his lungi a bit to show the chappals. “These are the best chappals in India, made by Tom and his son Joseph here.” Desi cradled Joseph’s shoulder with his arm. Dozens of phone cameras captured the moment. 

Desi nodded to the guard, who cracked open the gate. Desi turned to Joseph and squatted down until they were eye to eye. “Joseph. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I will enjoy the shoes. I hope your father feels better very soon. I have made you a contact of mine on Junana. Feel free to write me any time. Stay focused in your Game play. Next time we meet, I want to see you with your blouse”

“I shall try, Mr. Desi. Thank you for the tour and the delicious cookies. I do hope you get admitted into our grange. I will talk with manager Rao for you.” Joseph took one last look back at the house. He put his hands together and bowed his head. Mr. Desi did the same. Joseph slipped through the gateway and into the crowd, which was still focused on Desi, walking back toward the house. 

Joseph stepped out of the rear of the crowd. A boy came up to him. “Who is he, a movie star?”

“He might be. I’m not sure.”






ELEVEN

Megan’s water broke at dawn, after another restless night. She awoke with a start. After a few quick breaths, and a mental run-through of what needed to happen to get her to the birthing clinic, she hoisted herself to sitting.

“Cowboy,” she shook Nick’s shoulder.

“Hmmmmm?” he moaned.

“Time to saddle up.”

“What?” He had been awakened twice last night to help her go pee. Sleeping on a futon on the floor is good most of the time, but getting up from there without a block and tackle when you’re nine months heavy is only comedy. 


Western medicine had been one of the last professions to accept Castalia badges as credentials. The EU went first, but it took an open revolt by a vanguard of advanced Gamer doctors in the American Medical Association to create experimental parallel learning tracks at medical schools. When most new students signed up for the badge-level tracks, the future of medical learning became certain. Still, it was years before these same badges became available at satellite schools and teaching granges. 

The job market for medical master badge holders expanded as grange associations opened their own clinics and hospitals. Gumis sponsored their members to become master medical badge holders. Lotteries for these jobs were held across the nation. While the pay was standard working wage, granges added extra Shine. Granges mostly self-insured. Grange-run clinics and hospitals were free for their members.

 

“It’s time.” She lay back. “Owwww.”

“What!” Nick was out of bed. “That time?”

“Yup. Look at the list. Don’t hurry. But, do hurry. Owwww.”

“I’m on it.” He stepped into his jeans as he called the hospital. “We are on our way. Be there in twenty. Right. Right. Got it. Bye.”

“Are you having contractions?”

“What do you think?” She had gotten up to her knees. He came over and helped her stand. “I’ll get dressed,” she said. “You call the car.”

The shared car app on his phone had a special button for this occasion. He pushed it. The voice replied, “Your car will be outside in four minutes.”

“Look at the list,” Megan called from the bathroom.

“Right,” he said. Her bag was by the front door. He was not to call her mom until the doctor said she was definitely in labor. He checked off the whole list again. She was standing at the top of the stairs. 

“Let’s go! Little Desi wants to see his papa.” 


At the birthing clinic, Megan was wheel-chaired into a room to get monitored until the birth was at hand. They confirmed she was truly in early labor and Nick sent this out in a blast of texts and Junana status updates. His mom was driving up from Oxnard. Claire and Winston were on their way to the Philly airport. All of Claire’s old friends, Megan’s unofficial uncles and aunts, were texting their excitement, even Grand Meister Jenn in Paris.

Nick stood by Megan looking at his phone. He was timing her contractions and relaying incoming texts. 

“Good thing you’re lying down.”

“Yowwwww. What’s so fucking good about it.” She was breathing rhythmically, huffing like a tiger, just as they learned in the birthing class.

“Eight minutes since the last one. I mean Betsy just sent a text from Sao Do. They are coming to Santa Barbara. Both of them.”

“Scratchy too?”

“I guess he’s really off the no-fly list.”

“We’d better get this baby out, cowboy.”

§§§


Joseph had just gotten settled on his cloth under the tree when she arrived.

“You’re him, aren’t you?” She spoke in Hindi and looked down on him, raising her large dark glasses up with one hand. “I walk by here most days and never noticed you until now.”

“Can I help you?” Joseph said in English. Amitabh did not care which language they used. After visiting London on Junana, Joseph was eager to learn some English. He had been practicing a few useful sentences.

“You speak English!” The young woman could have been any of the smart college girls Joseph had secretly watched having their iced mochas at the Red Star. She wore expensive jeans, crafted to fit her slim legs like a second skin, with a wide, bright yellow leather belt that cinched her slender waist. A tailored white silk shirt blossomed from this waist to sweep up the contours of her breasts. From Joseph’s perspective these were seemingly weightless, almost architectural. Her black hair had been coiffed to frame her face, which sported more makeup than Joseph’s amma ever wore. A light-blue stick-on bindi sparkled on her forehead.

“I am learn,” Joseph said. “Can I help you?”

“You made him those chappals.”

“I do what?”

“You know, Grand Meister Desi.”

“Mister Desi. Yes, I make him two chappals. Um, two pair chappals.”

“I thought so. Can I buy a pair?”

Joseph looked at her shoes, delicate turquoise patent-leather pumps. “We are Tom and Son. We make the best chappals in Mysore,” he said.

“I’m a size thirty eight. Where do you keep your stock?”

“I make for you.” 

“Really? OK. What do they look like?”

He pointed to his feet.

Her face fell. “My grandfather wore those. Oh well. Do you have any other colors?”

“Colors?”

“You know, red, blue, green.”

“Yes. We have red.” Joseph remembered a sheaf of red tanned hides in the godown.

“Fine. I’ll take a pair in red.”

He pulled out the order book and leafed over to a fresh page. “Please step here.” He gently touched her shoe. She started to step forward. He held up his hand. “Please. No shoe.”

“Sorry.” She looked around for a spot to sit to remove her shoe. Joseph stood and motioned for her to place her hand on his shoulder. Leaning on him, she slipped off her right shoe. In the process, she accidentally pushed his forehead lightly into the side of her breast. He waited for her to yell at him for being clumsy, but she didn’t seem to notice. When she had the shoe firmly in her hand, he bent down and slid the order book directly under her. She stepped onto the page and adjusted her foot to its center.

“One minute,” he said and squatted down. He took the pencil from behind his ear. Her foot rested on the paper like a French pastry on the display shelf at the Red Star. White as rice flour, soft like a baby’s tummy, her toenails had been carefully trimmed and painted crimson. He remembered Meena’s foot, cracked and dusty, scabbed and torn, calloused and sunburned; a foot well used and hardly in need of shoes. Joseph swallowed and, without touching her ankle, drew the pencil in a line around her foot. Then he stood and she leaned on him again to slip on her shoe. He cringed when he noticed a dark smudge on her blouse. 

“Are you done?” 

“Almost. Please write your name and address or phone number,” he said. He held the book for her and handed her the pencil

“Deepika Sharma,” she wrote, and below this a number. “Did you have Grandmaster Desi stand on your book?”

“Of course.” He leafed back to show her the order page.

“Oh my God!” She pulled out her phone. “Hold that open for me.” She snapped several photos. “May I?” She held out her hand.

Joseph nodded and lifted the book. 

She touched the page, and then her forehead. “I can’t believe I just got some kind of darshan from the Grand Meister. Wait until they hear…”

“For a week, I make you chappals.”

“A week? Can I pay more to have them sooner?”

“Sooner?”

“Like in two or three days.”

“Mister Desi pay me for three-day order,” He tried to remember the words. Then he wrote them on a slip of newspaper. 

“Two-thousand five-hundred rupees,” She read and reached into her purse. “Here are three thousand. Keep the rest.” She held out the bills. 

Joseph took the money and slipped it into his shirt. “Three days. You come back on afternoon. I am here mostly.”

“This is so very excellent. Am I the first?”

“First?”

“You know, since you made the chappals for Grand Meister Desi?”

“I do not understand.”

“Never mind. In three days, I’ll be back. But before I go, can I?” She held up her phone.

Joseph nodded once again. He stood up and adjusted his hat. She came around beside him and settled one arm lightly across his shoulder, holding the phone out in front of them both. Joseph held both his hands behind his back and tried a smile. She took a couple shots and decided she had the one she liked. 


Four more women showed up just after Joseph had finished the rice and potato curry in his tiffin box. All of them wanted to see and touch Mister Desi’s order page. They each ordered a pair of chappals. He told them it would take five days. When he mentioned three thousand rupees, they paid him cash from their wallets. They also took many photos, including him in all of them. There were seven more orders by the end of the day. All of them spoke of “Grand Meister chappals.” 

Yesterday he was trying to sell his chappals for two hundred rupees. By the end of this day, his price was five thousand a pair. One of them pulled out a charge card, but Joseph smiled and shook his head. He looked over to old Prakash, the street typist, who smiled and rolled his eyes. The customer went away, but he came back in a few minutes with cash. 

The public typing business was periodic, with heavy business toward the end of month, the quarter, or the year. Today was a slow day, so Prakash rented Joseph one of the folding chairs he used for his clients. This allowed Joseph’s new customers to sit when he drew their foot in his book. At six o’clock, Joseph picked up his tools and goods and loaded the barrow for the walk home. In his money box, he had more than thirty thousand rupees.

§§§

 

When he arrived back at the hut, his mother was tending the dinner fire. Uncle Anuj dozed on the charpoy. Joseph pulled the cash box from his shirt and handed this to her.

“Perhaps uncle would like to join us for dinner. He can visit the market and buy some chicken.”

“Chicken, we don’t need…” She looked into the box. Gandhi-ji was smiling back at her from a tall stack of thousand rupee notes. “Dear Lord!”

She brought out Tom’s chair from the hut and placed it where Tom would sit after a day of work. Joseph sat and told her about his remarkable day. The twins clambered over his legs. Each one wanted permission to use his Computo.

“Take turns. Ten minutes each. Or watch something together.” They each kissed him on the cheek and ran off squealing.

His amma caressed his head. “You sit and rest. I will send Anuj to the evening market. Not only chicken, I believe some sweets can be found.”

“We can buy ice-cream after we go see appa at the clinic.” 

“I took him some lunch, but he had already eaten. I fear your father has become a media addict.”

“No way!” Appa had never even taken them to the cinema.

“I can’t hold a simple conversation with him. They have so many movies he can choose on the screen in his room. I think he watches four or five a day. And he’s gaining weight too. His wounds are all but healed, and his bones are knitting well, they tell me. When he’s not watching the screen, he sleeps. Yesterday they started his physical therapy. His therapist is a young woman.” 

“And she touches him?”

“It’s all very medical. But I think he enjoys it. You know, this is the first vacation he’s taken since I can remember.”

“His legs…,” Joseph said.

“When they mend, the bones will be stronger than before. 

 

His appa was in a very good mood when they visited, and so proud when Joseph told him of the day.

“I kept raising the price, and still they didn’t try to bargain with me,” Joseph said. He reflected that he had just agreed to do almost a month’s work in the next week.

“That’s because you speak English with them,” Sarah said.

“Or they are young and foolish,” Tom said. “We should pray to God for more young and foolish customers.”

All together it was a remarkable evening. Joseph remembered it well as the last night of his childhood life.

§§§

 

Fred had three more granges on his Jubal download list. All of them were in South Africa: Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban. This chore would take him about two weeks. Fred had picked up the Jubal globe in Lusaka, Zambia, on his way South. Now he would pass this along to another SilverSurfer in Durban, who would take it up the Eastern coast of Africa. 

Fred waited at the doors of the main room for Juniper. He had a ticket for the overnight train to Windhoek to catch the AirCraft south. His ride into Keetmanshoop was leaving in a few minutes. He was in his SilverSurfer robe again, with the Jubal globe mounted on a walking stick. 

Across the room, Nico was standing in front of his office, talking with two men. One of them had a couple cameras strung over his neck. He snapped photos around the room with a long lens. The other was taking notes on a pad as Nico spoke. 

Juniper came in from the outside and jogged over to Fred. Fred saw the photographer raise his camera in their direction. He quickly threw his arms around her.

“Let’s go,” Fred said, turning Juniper away. “I think there may be some reporters here.”

She started to turn back. 

“Don’t Look. Keep walking,” he said. “One of them seems familiar. I think he was at the grange up in Bulawayo.”

“Could be doing some kind of news report on granges.”

“You probably shouldn’t be anywhere in the picture.” 

“Thanks. Maybe I’ll go take a leisurely bath over at the Monkey gumi house. Our team review went well. We are just in the middle of productivity for teams using the Kaiapoi loom worldwide.” They had stopped by the passenger door of the waiting truck. The driver nodded down at them and pointed to his watch.

“We’ll need to cut our goodbyes short.” Fred reached around the back of Juniper’s neck and drew her into a kiss. “Two weeks, and I’ll be back.”

“Save some of that for our hellos,” she said. “This will give me time to get on the Game again. I have to catch up with you.”

“Take care of yourself.” He stepped up into the cab of the truck.

“That’s my line.” She backed away as the truck started off. Then she walked around the edge of the grange buildings, away from the main hall.

§§§

 

Pushing the barrow, Joseph spied the old neem tree some ways up Irwin road. As a small child, he liked to climb and gambol around this tree, once his older brother Tom showed him the best way up its trunk. Often, their father had to call Joseph down from its branches. This was a magnificent specimen, planted by the Maharaja’s men many decades ago. It held a tiny shrine built into a hollow with a lingam where an old widow did a puja every afternoon. 

Today, Joseph noticed a mob of people, mostly young, perhaps three dozen of them, milling around near his spot. Still at a distance down the street, he saw old Prakash point in his direction. This caused a rush as the whole group moved toward Joseph. In a flash, he was surrounded. They shouted at him in half a dozen languages, jostling one another and pushing at him from all directions.

“Everybody stop talking!” he finally shouted back in Kannada. No polite English today. He would have fled, only a couple of them had jiggered the barrow’s handles from him and were wheeling this toward the tree. Joseph overtook them. He grabbed up the gunny sack with his Computo, order book, and cash box. Then he stood on one of the massive roots of the tree and turned to them. 

“What do you want?” he shouted.

A woman touched his knee. “I’ve been waiting for an hour. I need three pairs of Grand Meister chappals.” 

“You want new chappals? All of you?” Joseph said. He noticed that the crowd seemed even larger than it was a minute ago.

“I have some friends in the US,” a fellow near him spoke. “They scanned their feet for me to give you.” He held up a fist full of papers. “And I would like two pairs also.” 

“What? Your friends cannot purchase chappals in America?” Joseph said. Several people in the crowd were also holding up sheaves of paper. More were crossing the street, flowing around the busses and bicycles. Horns sounded. People shouted. Old Prakash had retreated behind the tree. He peeked around this and pointed down the street. Joseph turned to look. Two khaki-uniformed police were walking intently toward them. The larger, uglier one held a long lathi stick, balanced on one shoulder. Joseph’s feet were telling him to run. 

“…not authentic Grand Meister chappals,” the fellow grabbed Joseph’s other knee. “They will pay ten thousand rupees.”

“Nobody in America can be that stupid,” Joseph thought, not sure if he also said it out loud. Glancing about, he realized he was surrounded. Another group, moving like a phalanx, was approaching from the direction of the railway terminal. The man at the front of this gang was Raju Rao. They made eye contact and Raju held up his hand in greeting. He shoved his way through the mob, his men splitting the assembly like a prow of a boat cutting through water. The customers protested.

“You seem to be in a bit of a pickle.” Raju said when he arrived.

“They all want chappals. I don’t understand.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“You want chappals too?”

“We’ve come to take you to the grange.”

“I can’t leave, I promised…”

“It will be all right.” Raju gestured at the crowd. “You can’t stay, either.”

“Tom and Son Chappals has a new address,” Raju Rao’s voice rang across the crowd. “Everybody listen.” He held up his hands and glared across the crowd. From his right, the police had reached the outer edges of the mob, which had expanded well into the street.

Raju turned to his men. “Take Joseph to the grange.”

Hands on his arms lifted Joseph off the tree root and he was surrounded as they marched away from the approaching authorities.

 Raju spoke, “Anyone who wants to buy a pair of Grand Meister chappals, in one month the shop will be open online. Now please disperse.”

§§§

 

Hello journal.

It’s been a while. What’s new? Fred had to go to South Africa for a couple weeks. Sinna says I’m working too hard. Hah! Loom minding is a snap compared to washing dishes eight hours a day. We’re all working hard here. This start-up phase is intense. We finally finished up the last gumi wing building, so the grange is at full strength. I got to run the brick press. Somehow, I turned out to be mechanically minded. Sure didn’t get that from Dwayne and Sheryl. Dwayne is frequently outwitted by inanimate objects.

Samantha is fading. I can feel her slipping away. Samantha wasn’t very nice. Nobody was really kind back in moneyland, not among my friends. I keep thinking there’s got to be some sort of karmic residue I’ll need to close the loop on. I’m sure Dwayne is about to show up and drag me back to California.

In the first months of my escape from moneyland, it was like I had landed on another planet. Because, you know, no plastic. Nobody around me shopped. No TVs in every room. I was suddenly out of school. Everything was backwards. Nobody had nice things, but they didn’t seem to care. Not one bit. I was working full time too. People normally did this, but it was not at all normal for me. Then I learned to banter like a Threevey. That was fun, particularly in the public baths. The people who asked me how I was doing really wanted to know how I was doing, only I couldn’t confess. I was, for a time, spinning out of control.

Before, I hated needing to learn something. I mean anything. Take skiing. We spent all this time going to all these ski resorts, and I barely learned how. Looking good was better than being good. Then I found the Game, and that devoured so many of my days. Probably saved my soul. 

Moses tells me I’m good at the Game precisely because I was so very horrible at life. Thanks a lot. And point taken. So now I’m good at loom minding and team leading, and I’m looking around for new skills. Once they hire a Master LoomMinder I can cut back and work on some badges. 

I’m a good team leader. I know I can get better, too. I watch Nico and I see how great he is at his job, and I’m thinking: I can do that. I can learn to be a GrangeManager, or even a GrangeMinder if I get to Level Six. The list of roles and the badges needed to fill these roles is fairly huge, but I’ve got a lot of time. I’ve even got two extra years that people don’t know about. And I’m not wasting my time on silly Shine projects. Like the Order of the Plunger. I mean, really!

Since the toilets are spimes, the first time you clean one, you can register this action in the toilet’s holochain. Your own spime-use log keeps a history of every spime you’ve encountered. People who have cleaned a hundred different toilets now can join the Order of the Plunger. Sigh. I hate crap like that. She typed…

I guess I’m still not that well integrated into grange life. My own Shine is pretty thin. Nothing embarrassing, but not great. Fred has solid Shine. It’s really useful if you’re going on walkabout. A nomad with no Shine will find a lot of closed doors. I will need to pay more attention to this.

Sort of like my handpan playing. Sinna is on swing shift this quarter. That leaves her handpan free in the evenings when the classes and jam sessions happen. I am embarrassingly shitty at it. OK, I know Expectation Precedes Skilling. I will need patience to become good enough to enjoy how bad I am. I will work at this until it clicks. 

That’s the real lesson I’m just beginning to grok. The stuff you can’t buy, like a badge or a skill, is the stuff they can’t take away. 

§§§

 

Joseph was rushed through the streets. Surrounded, protected, perhaps incarcerated, he did not know which. Raju had not seemed angry with him, but the men surrounding him looked stern.

“Samp, samp, samp,” the men chanted softly as they strode. He was guided with hands firmly on both his arms, and occasionally a shove from behind, not meant to tumble him, but out of some urgency. 

“Samp?” Joseph said.

“We are all Snake gumi.”

“Like me.” Joseph was caught between a fast walk and a slow jog. Shorter than everyone about him, he felt as if he had been hijacked by a swarm of wrestlers. 

Ahead he could see the gateway of the grange. Around this they were assembling a pandal, a ceremonial archway made of bamboo and wood. He could see a large photograph of Mr. Desi at the very top center.

At the gate of the compound a crowd noticed their arrival and rushed up to greet them. The chant grew louder, “Samp, samp, samp!” Joseph joined in.

Joseph felt hands lift him and he was deposited on the shoulder of a large, muscular fellow, who began to jump with the chant. It was like riding on the back of a galloping buffalo. Joseph clung tightly to his gunny sack with one hand. The other found a purchase around the fellow’s bearded neck. The chant shifted to “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph!”

All around him people were jumping and chanting, smiling up at him and throwing him greetings. A young man pushed through the crowd and spoke to Joseph’s mount, who stopped jumping and moved off in a determined direction, shoving through the throng. Those close enough reached out and touched Joseph’s shirt as he passed. 

They reached the new two-story building. Great hands lifted Joseph and set him on his feet. He turned to thank the man, who grinned broadly and pointed to the stairway.

“They are waiting for you,” he said and turned away.

As Joseph climbed the stairs, he noticed that the crowd had dissolved in favor of a dozen activities spanning the entire compound. On the street side, they were assembling temporary shacks and displays, like those at an agricultural fair. On the other, they were building a stage. Many were sweeping or adding ceremonial bunting or garlands of flowers to the displays. Some event was approaching. 

Joseph climbed up the stairway. Hindu holidays seemed to happen nearly every week. Joseph and his family observed these blossom in the streets, wary that the celebrants might notice they were only watching. The stair led to an external walkway with several doors. The door to one of the apartments was open. Voices from the inside drew him forward. He recognized his amma’s lilting diction. 

Joseph paused at the open doorway and peeked in. The apartment’s main room was nearly square, with large windows on both sides. The front door, where Joseph stood, opened onto the walkway. A back one led to a wide veranda with wicker chairs. The floor was smooth concrete. There were two easy-chairs and a sofa, a table with straight chairs for dining near one wall, and a flat screen mounted on the opposite wall. Sarah sat in one of the easy-chairs and the girls were on the sofa. Tom was there also in a wheelchair talking with a man not much younger than him who sat in the other easy-chair. Miriam pointed in his direction.

Sarah turned. “Joseph!” She beckoned him forward.

Miriam and Mary jumped up from the sofa and ran to him. Each one took a hand as they guided him toward the others.

The man stood. “I am Sudeep Srinivasa, CraftMaster for the grange.” He gestured his greeting. Joseph greeted him in return.

“Joseph Kumbar.” This must be Srinivasa’s apartment. Joseph felt honored to be allowed inside.

“The trouble maker…” Tom said, although he smiled.

Joseph’s sisters pulled him back onto the sofa between them. 

“What have I done now?” Joseph asked, bewildered. He had endured dreams that make more sense than this morning’s events.

“As I was telling your father, we have now received…” Srinivasa glanced at his phone, “…orders for forty-three thousand pairs of Grand Meister Chappals through the bourse on Castalia.” 

“You said ‘thirty-two thousand,’” Tom said.

“That was an hour ago.”

“Forty-three,” Joseph looked back at his father, “…thousand!”

Srinivasa continued. “A video of Grand Meister Desi saying that the best chappals on the planet were made by Tom and Son in Mysore has now been viewed by more than a million people. And when the Grand Meister’s status on Junana was changed to include his membership in our grange, inquiries were directed here.”

“How are we supposed to make thousands of pairs…” Joseph’s jaw fell slack at the thought.

“That’s why the grange brought Mr. Thomas here today.” Srinivasa nodded in Tom’s direction. 

Sarah spoke, “Shouldn’t we…” She paused and looked at Tom.

“I think Sarah wants to tell you the plan,” Tom said.

“Tell me what?” A dark vision of being chained in a basement cutting out soles all day flitted through Joseph’s head.

Sarah spoke, “The grange has invited Tom to come and teach a class on the design and crafting of Tom and Son chappals. And Tom has agreed to work with Mr. Srinivasa to help automate the production using materials the grange can certify as having… what is the phrase again?”

“We are looking toward a WholeTale score above ninety. Of course, Tom can also make custom chappals by hand for customers at WT stores who wish to pay something extra.”

“Even if we teach a dozen chappal wallahs, we can hardly expect to make forty-three thousand…” Tom said.

“…Fifty-one thousand…” Srinivasa looked up from his phone. Then he laughed. And he laughed again, and then they were all laughing. 

“Fifty-one thousand, fifty-one thousand,” the sisters chanted as they skipped around the room. 

Srinivasa took a deep breath. “Every week, Thomas will teach a new class of twenty-four master cobblers, who will gather here from across the subcontinent. Each of these will go back to their grange and teach classes for journeymen cobblers, who will go back to their granges and factories to make Tom and Son certified Grand Meister Chappals. Within a year we can have several hundred local factories across India, each one making several hundred pairs a month.”

“How many do you think we will need to make?”

“There are almost two hundred million Gamers in India alone. Who would not wish to have their own pair of Grand Meister Chappals?”

“Oh, my!” Sarah said. She hid her mouth with her hand. Such a smile.

“What about our spot on Irwin Road? What about our loyal customers?” Joseph looked over at his father, who was still trying to laugh away the absurdity of the moment.

“You know, my back has been bothering me for years,” Tom said. “Sitting on that rough pavement. Anyone who stops by for a pair of two-hundred rupee chappals, we can tell Prakash to send them over to the Daggar Brothers.”

“Your family will live here…” Srinivasa said.

“Here?” Joseph looked about him. “Here?!” 

He raced over to the kitchen. “Amma! Look!”

“I have seen it all,” she said. “It’s like in a magazine.”

Joseph took in the refrigerator, stove, and sink. Gleaming metal counter tops and so many cupboards. He went through another door to find an attached room: smaller than the living room, with a thick, soft mat on a platform and its own door out to the veranda. There was a separate door on the same wall as the kitchen entry. He opened it. A bathroom with a toilet, sink, and a shower, all in white and blue tile, and another door, which he opened and was back in the main room.

“So big!”

“Your sisters can sleep here on the floor,” Sarah said. 

“What about me?”

“I would guess your new friends will want you for themselves,” Tom said. “There was quite a group of them here a short while back, looking for you. They said they were your… what’s that word again?”

Srinivasa said, “Your dachi are waiting for you at the Red Star Kiosk. I told them I would send you on when we were done.”

“They are taking me in a van to move our things here from the Ring Road,” Sarah said. “Tom will stay here with your sisters.”

Srinivasa said, “The ceremony is at five. I can ask someone to bring in tiffin lunches for the two of you and the girls. I imagine Joseph will be lunching with his dachi. If you need anything before then, call on me or Raju Rau…”

“You have been so very kind,” Sarah stood and straightened her sari. She was tearing as she bowed before Srinivasa. She touched the top of his foot and then stood and touched her forehead. Then she glanced back at the girls who came forward and did the same. Then Joseph.

“It is I who am honored,” Srinivasa said. He bowed and signaled his leaving to Sarah and then to Tom, who nodded.

When Srinivasa had gone, Joseph came over to his father. “How are your legs feeling?”

“This chair was just to get me out of the clinic. My legs are fine.” Tom pushed himself up and walked stiffly over to the sofa, lowering himself gingerly into it.

“What about your therapy?” Joseph asked.

“Sarah will help me, and I will visit the clinic once a week. I can start work any time.”

“Joseph has a dozen orders already paid for this week,” Sarah said.

“And fifty-one thousand more for next week,” Joseph said.

“That dozen, are they in the book?” Tom said.

“Of course.”

“Then I will make your dozen pair for you. You go and meet your friends. The ceremony is at five o’clock.”

“What is the celebration?”

“Some very important person has just become a member of the grange.” Tom said.

“It is the same fellow you sold those chappals to,” Sarah said. “Your Mr. Desi.”






TWELVE

A day like today would have tested the imagination of a fully-grown man. Fortunately for Joseph, the imagination of the twelve-year old is still large enough so that each new wonder simply tucked its way into an empty corner. Years later he would marvel at the density of experience a simple day might hold. 

Joseph found his dachi waiting for him at the Red Star Coffee Kiosk. They greeted him warmly, each of them behaving as though he were the brother they had not seen for many months. There were, as Joseph would soon remember: Anilkumar, Dhruv, Renuka, Usha, RK of course, and Mariam, Mallika, Jaikrishna, Panchal, Keshi, and now Desi. Only Mr. Desi was absent. They said he would be calling in from France later in the day. Joseph was the youngest member by some years, of the Rooster dachi of the Snake gumi. Half of them were still in their late teens. Most of them were Threeveys. A couple were Fourveys, one a Sixer. Mallika was also a Fiver. Of course, Desi was a Grand Meister. 

“What is a Grand Meister?” Joseph asked.

The dachi looked at each other; smiles appeared.

Panchal, the Sixer, spoke, “You don’t know that Desikacharya Venkataraman is a Grand Meister?”

“He is a customer. He bought two pairs.”

The others found this fabulously funny. The table rocked with laughter.

“You have not answered my question.” Joseph crossed his arms. Why were they mocking him?

“Sorry,” Panchal said. “A Grand Meister, and there are only three of them, is a Meister who has conquered all of the levels of the Game. They are beyond the Game, and they dwell amidst the templates as gods.”

“Hardly gods,” Mariam said. The group erupted with discussion on this topic. Joseph listened, fascinated and alienated. It sounded almost like a Query in the Game. Usha spied him looking at her.

“We are neglecting our youngest member,” she said loudly. “Besides, it is well time for lunch.”

There was agreement and a plan. They would all walk over to the nearby Dog gumi cafe, ChowNow, for a vegetarian lunch. 

Before they reached the grange’s entrance RK turned to Joseph, “Today, you are our guest.”

“I have money,” Joseph said. Sarah had tucked some rupees into his shirt pocket.

“Your money is no good,” Usha said. She laid a hand gently on his shoulder for an instant. Usha was strikingly beautiful in form and motion. At the coffee shop, Joseph had been stealing glances at her across the table. She was a Master Level One badge holder in classical dance. Being only seventeen, she was as precocious in dance as Joseph was in the Game. Her touch gave him a tiny thrill. He smiled back at her, but she moved away to chat with Keshi.


“You’re the last one,” Tom looked up from the easy chair when Joseph returned. Tom was wearing a new, yellow tailored shirt, black slacks, and a fresh shave. “The rest of us have been scrubbed like potatoes. She’s waiting for you.” He nodded toward the bathroom. “Go on.”

“Joseph’s here, Joseph’s here!” The girls scampered into the room from the kitchen. 

“New dresses!” Joseph said. “What is the occasion?”

“It’s a celebration!” said Mary. 

“We are going to a banquet tonight,” said Miriam.

Sarah poked her head out of the doorway to the bathroom. “Take off those things. Come along!”

Joseph walked over to the bathroom and peeked around the door. Sarah had the faucet running, filling a brass bucket, the same bucket he had been bathing from since he could remember. He closed the door behind him, shucked his shirt, and dropped his lungi.

“What about that?” He pointed up at the shower head. 

“No sense wasting water, even when it pours from a tap. Come on.”

“I can bathe myself.” He stood naked on the cool, damp white tile. His footsteps left brown smudges where he walked.

“And you will, probably from now on, so I will do this one last time.” She had pulled up her sari into its waist fold.

He saw she was firm about bathing him. This was her day too.

“You always get soap in my eyes.” Joseph went and squatted next to her, his hand on her thigh for balance.

“That’s your fault. You are such a dreamer. You never pay attention. This time, tilt your head back and close your eyes when I tell you.” She poured a ladle of water over his head and took up the bar of Godrej No. 1 soap. Lathering up his back she spoke.

“I must confess something to you. I am not proud of this.”

“What is it amma?”

“It was I who threw your Computo over the wall.”

§§§

 

It took the driverless Noël sedan forty-five minutes to reach the forested bend of La Honda Road where a grassy track led through a second-growth grove of redwoods to the front gate of The Fayre: Priscilla Scintilla’s grange. 

Betsy Berteotti reached over and shook Michael O’Hara’s shoulder.

“I think we’re here,” she said. “…I’m not so sure we’re still, well… now.”

“What?” He opened his eyes. For the past four days, they had voyaged on AirCraft flights from Vietnam through Seoul to San Francisco’s new terminal, built on the old landfill by the Bay near where Candlestick Park used to stand.

Scratchy looked around him. The car had stopped just inside the gate of a large compound that could have been the stage set for a new Monty Python medieval film. An open area about the size of a football field was surrounded by low buildings of rough timber and thatched roofs. One larger structure of cut stone towered at the rear, its crenelated roofline a flutter with bright flags. Chickens and goats strolled the yard. Hundreds of folks in full peasant garb went about their business. A sizable contingent was now headed in their direction.

Betsy grinned at him, “I’d look good in one of those bodices,” she said.

“Saucy,” he said.

“You bet,” she said. 

They stepped out of the car and were dragging their bags from the trunk when the woman at the fore of their welcoming committee nodded and a couple young men took their bags and headed off toward the main building.

“Doctor O’Hara,” the woman extended her hand. She had streaked her raven hair with blue and red, and she wore tight black leather pants under knee-high buckskin boots, and a jay-blue blouse with a large floppy collar. A rapier with a silver hilt was attached to her wide leather belt.

“Priscilla,” Scratchy said and gave her hand a good shake. “Let me introduce you to Betsy.”

“Doctor Berteotti. It’s a real…” 

Betsy stepped forward and gave her a giant hug. 

“Honey, you can call me Betsy,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for taking The Zone from Mikey’s hands.”

For the past three years, Priscilla Scintilla had been the sysadmin for The Zone, a lawless virtual metaverse with a gateway from Castalia. 

“You will want to freshen up after your flight,” Priscilla said. “We’ve got you in the guest house, right this way.” 

 

“This is more than just a theme,” Betsy said, settling back and looking about the courtyard. “I’m sensing a whole lifestyle here.” 

They were seated on hand-crafted, bent-wood chairs under a ramada of split alder limbs intertwined with multicolored ribbons, situated at the far edge of the main grounds. The setting sun bathed the scene before them in golden light. 

The courtyard was abuzz with activity. “Men in tights. Women in tights. Kids in tights,” Scratchy said. “I sense a pattern here. Wait. That dog’s not wearing tights.”

“The Fayre is a full grange,” Pris ignored Scratchy, focusing her attention on Betsy. “We can do whatever we want here. But we choose to sculpt the days according to a rhythm that responds to the seasons, the moon, and the gentling progression of the sun across the sky.”

“With occasional mayhem,” Scratchy said. He was examining the great fighting dome built of connected hexagonal wood members that dominated the center of the ground. Must be four stories tall. 

“And regular celebrations.”

“How do you manage here?” Betsy asked. “What do you make?”

“We make the best craft beer in California. We have breweries in Mountain View and Los Gatos. We grow our own hops among the redwoods, as well as some licensed and certified sativa and indica crops in nearby greenhouses.”

“What, no shrooms?” Scratchy said. He’d completely forgotten they had legalized weed in California. Their return to Santa Barbara was going to be more festive than he imagined. They were headed down Highway One after the weekend, off to see Megan and Nick’s little baby.

Pris turned to him. “There are secrets we keep,” she said, not unkindly. 

“Don’t be a busy-body,” Betsy scolded him. “Go get us some beer. Go on. And get yourself a double espresso. You’ve been sleepy all afternoon.”

“Through that archway and turn left,” Pris said. “Down the hall, first door on the right is our tavern. Tell them it’s on my tab.”

Scratchy stood stiffly. “Yes, m’ladies,” he mumbled and wandered away.

Priscilla turned back to Betsy. She casually laid a hand on her arm. Betsy let it stay. The touch struck an old note way, way down. She had been a lesbian by habit for decades until Scratchy entered the picture. Then she opened up as bi-, but basically just for him. He was such a snuggly teddy-bear of a nerd. No one like him. She had zero regrets. Still…

Pris leaned in. “I think you’d fit in here really well,” she said and her smile invited Betsy to agree. 

“We haven’t ever considered joining a grange.” Her mouth tightened and she whispered, “It’s not widely known, but neither Mikey or I have tried the Game.”

“Really?” Pris said. She had assumed they were both Meisters. “That’s all right. We have plenty of boarders here. You don’t need to be a full member.”

“We’ll keep it in mind. I can really see Mikey out weeding the sinsemilla. I’m not kidding. I had no idea there were granges this unique.”

Pris settled back in her chair. “I don’t have the statistics, but I would imagine nearly ten-percent of granges are fully independent, not connected to a larger pueblo, and completely intentional in their own self-imagined culture. Everything from Amish granges to evangelicals, sufis, yogis, steam-punks…lots of these, actually… retro-anything, and even necro-utopians and afro-futurians. Some fantasies don’t last. Hundreds of granges collapse every year. Their muras dissolve and their members scatter, poorer but truly wiser. They find new homes in other granges.”

Pris looked across the courtyard, pensive. 

Her voice became strong. “Ours is a solid vision. We love it here. There are really only a few core agreements needed to link us to the larger grange system.”

“Fascinating. Are you WholeTale?”

“Of course. We welcome SpimeCops and GrangeMinders to review our roles and our factories and wares. Our beer is fully BlueLabel, with a score in the nineties. We also work within the CraftTown badge system. We uphold open design and demand-and-supply deals through the Bourse. And we spend way too much time in The Zone. At least, I do. We also have a lot of professionals here who work out in TRO2.”

“Really? And then they come back here in the evenings and get all medieval?”

“Beats coming home to some split-level suburban nightmare.”

“I can see that. Cosplay is often liberating.”

“We have a whole cadre of high-end lawyers here, and most of the faculty of a new law school that emerged when Stanford’s shut down.” Pris held out her arm. On her forearm in indigo was an ornate beaux art capital “F.” 

“If you’re in trouble and you get a lawyer with one of these, you know you’ve got the best. Before they fight for you, they fight each other.” She pointed out to the center of the yard. “Behold ThunderDrome.” 

“You have regular contests here?”

“Every week. We attract grungers from the whole Peninsula. Some fights are personal grudges, others are martial arts level tests. We use open lotteries for our key management positions. Once you win the lottery, you get to earn your job… in ThunderDrome.”

“Remind me never to apply for anything here…What’s going on now?” Betsy pointed to the grounds where a number of groups had formed over the past ten minutes. There were probably four or five hundred people, dressed in martial arts uniforms specific to each group.

“It is coming up on six o’clock. We offer a wide range of fighting instruction here, from Aikido to Wing Chun. Normally, I’d be leading an iado sword class, but I’m playing hooky to chat with you two.”

Scratchy reappeared with a pint of beer in each fist. He handed these off to them and settled back in his chair. 

He said, “Look at that. Could be the courtyard of a Shaolin temple game.” The sound of a large gong rang across the courtyard and all the groups formed up and bowed into their practices. The air was filled with the sharp reports of staves striking, bodies falling, grunts and shouted instructions. 

“I had no idea granges could be so feisty,” he said.

Pris said, “You know those Doctor Lu exercises a couple billion people do every week?”

“Scratchy does them like clockwork,” Betsy said. “He’s getting rather buff.”

Pris looked Michael up and down and tried a smile. “Doctor Lu is a sixth degree blackbelt in Aikido, an eighth degree blackbelt in Shaolin Kung Fu, and an expert in Muay Thai. These exercises are his warm-ups. Once you’re good at those you are ready to step up and fight.”

“Or go out for ice cream,” Scratchy said. 

“Priscilla has invited us to come back and settle in here,” Betsy said. “Only we’d need to get onto the Game first.”

Scratchy said, “You know, I always wanted to do a Friar Tuck cosplay. I’ve got the hair down.” He patted his bald spot.

“Tuck was a master with a staff,” Pris said. “We can help you get there.”

“Scratchy’s already a master with a staff…” Betsy smiled and winked at Pris. 

“What she said,” Scratchy said. “The nice bartender gave me this.” A grin cracked open his face and crinkled up his eyes. He reached up behind his ear and pulled out a fat joint. 

“Match?”

§§§

 

Each of the other seventeen muras in the City of Mysore had sent delegations to present their felicitations to the gumi Council of the mura of grange 794, the twelve of them seated up on the dais. These delegations had arrived by foot, heralded with nagaswaram and mridungam musicians, blaring and drumming their way through the streets. As a finale, all of the assembled musicians played one last march together. For several minutes after that, few in the audience could hear anything their neighbor said. Some time later Joseph would learn that the nagaswaram was the loudest non-brass acoustic instrument on the planet.

The current chair of mura’s gumi Council, Lalmani Shankar, a small man in a grey suit, now garlanded up to his chin, stood at a lectern and read a series of emails from local notables, taking up time until the connection with Paris was made. Behind him a large screen mirrored the display on his laptop. They had set up hundreds of folding chairs in the compound. Joseph was several rows back seated together with his dachi. His family had been seated up in the front row next to Raju Rao. 

Lalmani’s laptop chimed the Junana video link signal.

“I believe we have Grand Meister Desi calling in from Paris,” he said, as he toggled the connection to full-screen.

Mr. Desi’s face appeared. “Hello everybody,” he said in Kannada. “Can you all hear me?” His voice boomed through the loudspeakers.

“Hello Grand Meister!” Lalmani made the Junana greeting, which Desi returned. “We are all here waiting for your words.”

“I will not take up much of your time. I want to thank you for accepting me into your mura. I am very happy to be a member of the Snake gumi…”

“Samp, samp, samp…” a chant rose from the crowd. Snake gumi members jumped to their feet and clapped their hands above their heads.

“Samp, samp, samp,” Joseph shouted, jumping with the others.

Lalmani motioned for the crowd to settle down. After a minute, the gumi regained their seats.

Desi continued. “I must also thank Joseph Kumbar for inviting me…”

The whole crowd stood and turned toward Joseph, clapping. Renuka and Dhruv seated on either side of him, pulled Joseph up on his feet. Joseph felt his skin heat up and his face flush. They boosted him to stand up on his chair.

Lalmani touched his hands together and bowed in Joseph’s direction. Joseph returned the gesture.

“Because I will not be returning to Mysore for some time…” Desi said. The crowd sat back down. “…I am very happy to announce that I am gifting my Mysore home, Kandyland, to the Snake gumi of Grange 794 to be used as needed.”

The crowd was back on its feet clapping amid a tumult of astonished whispers. 

“We are humbled by your generosity, Grand Meister,” Lalmani said.

“Someone reminded me to pay Attention to Sufficiency,” Desi said. 

From the row in front of him, Usha turned around and met Joseph’s eyes. She smiled broadly. Joseph looked down at his feet. Again, he felt his face burn. 

“I must go get ready,” Usha said and left her seat.

“I hope to return to Mysore late next year and to spend some time to get to know all my new friends,” Desi said. “Until then, I wish you all the best of fortune and happy times. I will catch up on Junana when I can.” 

“We will be honored by your presence any time you choose to visit,” Lalmani said. 

Desi waved and the video link went black.

Lalmani turned to the crowd. “We have a full docket for today’s celebration. Our own Usha Chari will favor us with a dance recital. The great hall is being prepared for a banquet, and then on this very stage, three rock bands will play.” He looked at a slip of paper. “Chennai Girlz, Ap Jaisa Yo Mama, and Pop Subha.”

“But first, we have some business to take care of. I want to ask Joseph Kumbar to join me on the stage. Joseph, please.”

Applause erupted again. Dhruv pulled Joseph to his feet. “Go on,” he said. “Have some fun.”

Joseph made his way to the end of the row, through the gauntlet of his dachi mates pushing him forward. Only their encouragement kept him from fleeing. He walked quickly up to the side of the stage where a girl with a clipboard was motioning him to the stairs. As he walked across the stage, a cheer arose. “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph!”

When he reached the lectern, Lalmani turned him to face the crowd. Everyone was smiling. The sight brought a grin to his face. Joseph bowed and straightened. He spied his amma, clapping in the front row. The twins hugged each other in their chairs.

Lalmani turned away from Joseph and then back. Now he held a great garland of jasmine in his hands. He laid this over Joseph’s head and moved over to the microphone.

“On behalf of Grange 794 we honor one of our newest members, Joseph Kumbar. Although he is but twelve years old, Joseph is already a Fiver in the Game. Joseph is also an accomplished craftsman. And he found the pluck to invite Grand Meister Desi to join us…”

Applause and cheers. Many stood and raised their hands. One of the nagaswaram players blared out a trill. Joseph clasped his hands together and shifted nervously. Nothing remotely like this had ever happened to him. 

“We look forward to great things from our young Joseph. To encourage him, I am pleased to say that the gumi council has agreed to fund his entire share…” More applause. 

“…To help him become the youngest Sixer on the planet, the Snake gumi has this gift for him.” Lalmani turned away and turned back holding a shining metal laptop computer, which he handed to Joseph. It was much heavier than the computo tablet. It weighed like a solid block of metal in his hands. Joseph bowed deeply and kept a tight grip on it. 

“Finally, all the Rooster dachis have agreed to supply extra jikan to pay Joseph’s dues for one year.” 

Representatives from each of the mura’s twelve Rooster dachis strode in from the side of the stage. They laid more garlands over Joseph’s shoulders. Finally, Lalmani pulled Joseph over to the microphone stand. He tugged the microphone down toward the lad’s mouth.

Joseph stood silent for a moment. The garlands lay heavy and fragrant on his shoulders. Tears found his cheeks. He coughed and sniffled. His nose was running. Still gripping the computer in both hands, he tried to wipe his face with his arm. 

Joseph finally caught his breath and spoke. “I want to thank all of you. I have been blessed by my family…” He nodded toward the front row. “And now we are all blessed by your welcome. So many new friends. I will do my best not to disappoint you all. And thank you again.” He held the laptop up in both hands. Lalmani’s hand at his back turned him toward the side steps off the stage. He walked away to more applause. 

Joseph made straight for his family. Miriam and Mary jumped up and clung to his waist. He set the laptop down on Miriam’s empty chair and took the garlands one by one and laid them over the heads of his mother and father. Raju Rao stood up and motioned Joseph to take his chair. 

For the next half-hour, up on stage, a series of announcements of master badges and other honors were presented. Joseph sat through these with scant attention. Lalmani called a ten-minute intermission during which tabla and tambura players warmed up and tuned their instruments. Finally, Usha, in full bharatanatyam dance dress, bejeweled and bangled, and wrapped in Kanchipuram silk, appeared on the stage. The crowd applauded.

“She’s a beauty,” Sarah said. “So graceful.”

Joseph leaned over and whispered, “She’s my dachi mate.” 

Sarah caught him watching Usha prepare. She turned to Tom. “Our Joseph has met his match.” 

Tom looked over at Joseph, visibly entranced by the sight of Usha in costume and makeup.

“He’ll need his wits. She looks like a swing bowler to me.”

§§§

 

Jennifer Bouchez stepped up to the lectern on the stage of the Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre and received the tsunami of applause with nods, waves and a healthy grin. The room was packed, even more than on her previous lectures. She had announced that this would be her last lecture series before a long sabbatical. Next week she would be off to California to visit with the Nerds and the Posse, and to greet Little Desi. Today, Grand Meister Desi sat in the front row. She decided it was time to start. She gave a quick Junana greeting in Desi’s direction, raised both hands and leaned into the microphone.

“I invite everyone here to consider as inevitable a time when we no longer surrender sovereignty to imagined communities and corporations.” The room began to quiet.

“And one more time…” She waited for the room to become silent.

“I invite everyone here to consider as inevitable a time when we no longer surrender sovereignty to imagined communities and corporations. I propose that where poverty is impossible, sovereignty is unnecessary. And when sovereignty is no longer needed, we will have, for the first time in several centuries, an inflection point from which to slough off this notion and build a planet where the harnesses of power in any locale are no longer anchored in the colonizing force of dead labor, the fixed capital of past ideas, but open to a future with no nation-states and no sovereignty of the people. No sovereignty, that is, at all. Not even any sovereignty of the individual.”

She paused. She was talking to the public: all of her lectures were open to whomever showed up. Her real audience was a few thousand Meisters who would be leading a couple billion Gamers into the future she was articulating at this very moment.

“Michel Foucault posited that the birth of the modern nation begins with the ability to consider the absence of a sovereign king. I would now claim that the birth of what I call a ‘new-modern place’—not a nation per-se, but any place of any size, even a virtual space—begins with an ability to consider the absolute absence of sovereignty itself.

We can look back and recall having replaced the sovereignty of the king with the sovereignty of the people, through a parliament and a strong public sphere. But as Gilles Deleuze has noted, even people-sovereignty is just another form of the Oedipal loss of power, the surrender of the self to the daddy state and the mommy public sphere. Mommy, daddy, and me. And me has no real power, only a desire to be free from fear, to be safe and protected by the combined power and majesty of the sovereign nation state. 

The state is our bully, projecting its power against all those other bullies. But what protects us from the power generated by the nation state? And how can it be that even a failed state is granted sovereignty over its space and its people…?”

§§§

 

“I’m going outside for some air,” Juniper said. “It’s fraking hot in here.” Sinna was drinking beer with a young miner in from the coast. This Keetmanshoop dance club road house had been remodeled, only slightly, from an abandoned garage built mostly from metal sheeting. In the summer, it was like dancing inside a toaster. The bar was a reconditioned shop countertop. The band, a trio from one of the town granges, played a mix of newska and old rock. Sinna’s miner friend was shirtless and looked like he had just won a CrossFit competition. 

Sinna nodded up at Juniper. “One more beer and a couple dances and I’ll be ready to go.”

“I bet you’ve been ready to go since you were about twelve,” the man said and downed his beer. 

Juniper slipped out a side door into a night that wrapped around her like a blanket. She stepped away from the building to try to catch any breeze. The southern desert sky still amazed her with its extravaganza of stars. She spun in a slow circle, facing upwards. The hem of her dress billowed out.

They came at Juniper from behind a black SUV parked nearby under a tree. One man had her mouth covered by a kerchief as the other pinned her arms back. They hustled her into the shadow of their Escalade. Duct tape replaced the man’s hand before she could yell out. Plastic ties bit into her wrists. A sack went over Juniper’s head and she was tossed roughly onto the back seat. The door smacked her sandals when they slammed it shut. Two more doors opened and shut.

“Stay calm, Samantha. You’re going home,” said one of them. The SUV accelerated modestly out of the parking lot and onto the street.

Juniper’s hands were bound behind her. She was face down across the seat. They had taken her bag, which held her phone. Her smart watch was still on her left wrist. 

“I’m pinging Zeus,” she heard one of them say. “They’ll need to take possession of her in Jo’burg, once we have our cash. How long to the airport?”

“About seven minutes. The jet should already be there.”

Juniper’s watch had a special feature. Moses had instructed her on its use. If she pressed both the plus and minus volume buttons at the same time for seven seconds, it sent a distress call with her GPS coordinates. This call was only to be used in a dire emergency. She located both buttons and pressed.

“What’s the little lady up to?” A man’s voice. “She’s still got a watch. I’ll get it.”

She could feel him groping for her watch. “You want to give me that, or would you rather I come back there and take it from you?”

“Goblowboypoorp.” The tape kept her from articulating her sentiment as she hitched around onto her side with her back against the seat. The hands ranged across her torso roughly grabbing at her summer dress. The dress ripped way as he tugged.

“Shit. Pull over,” the same voice said. The car swerved and skidded to a halt. “We can’t kill her, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to her, right?”

“Just not too nice,” the other man said. “Not like the last time.”

“Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…” Samantha counted to herself. No sense taking chances.

“She was begging me for it.” 

“Begging, yes. I remember that much.”

Samantha heard a door open and shoes on the gravel. She heard another door open and hands on her legs and hip, reaching behind her. He grabbed her wrist and yanked this toward him. He fumbled a bit, but managed to undo the watch band. With one hand, he shoved her head back down. The other hand jammed up her crotch, fingers probing. A man’s laugh. She pulled her knees up. The rear door slammed. She could hear her phone ringing. 

“None of that!” the man said.

She heard a faint tinkle of broken glass and fractured metal. The ringing stopped. Then another door slammed.

She could hardly breathe in the hood. The car accelerated, spitting gravel. In minutes, she will be on a plane. Headed where? Ultimately back to Santa Barbara. 






THIRTEEN

The message on his phone took the Zeus operative known as Harry a few moments to unpack. “We have Samantha. Johannesburg hotel lobby tomorrow morning. Bring reward to take custody.” There was a photo of a girl, face in profile, who looked familiar. Samantha? He racked his memory.

“Mooney!” Harry said, throwing up a brief laugh, like a cough. After all these months, one of their subcontractors must have located the girl.

With the Pandora fiasco racing like a poverty plague through the top ranks of Zeus’s clientele, Harry had been kept busy with the body count. The Western Trust declared bankruptcy last week, and its accounts with Zeus were shut down. Mooney’s reward was personal, which means he might have banked it somewhere.

Harry texted Mooney. “Confirm status of reward for your daughter.” Mooney’s return text was vague. Harry texted him to send his bank information for the account with the half-million. Mooney texted back, “Trust me…” 

Sure, about about as far as I could drop kick you, you fat loser. Harry figured that Mooney could possibly pay for a Happy Meal if he scrounged all the change from his golf bag. If they had only found her two months ago. Harry texted the subcontractor back. “Reward revoked. Abort mission…” He thought for a moment. No need to harm the girl, he decided. “…Level Zero.” 

§§§


Dwayne punched the down button. At the ground floor, Mooney could leave the private elevator and use a private back door, which opened up on a parking lot beside the rear of the Alhambra Theater. This lot was normally vacant, unless they were unloading a show. Mooney had his own parking place, but stopped using this when someone slashed the tires on his Porsche. He was not sure he would come back to the office building after today. The office had closed when Western Trust declared bankruptcy. The building tower was for sale. His salary was kaput, as was his golden parachute. 

His new cellphone chirped. An incoming message appeared from Harry at Zeus. “Confirm status of reward for your daughter.”

Dwayne was still smarting from the fifty million he wasted hacking Castalia. “Reward stands.” He texted. Maybe they had found Samantha. Closing that loop would be an upside for this very down month. If Dwayne actually had another half million lying around Sheryl would have spent it already, but Zeus didn’t know that. His phone chimed in his hand. “Provide bank account number and name of bank official to verify.” 

“Trust me, I’m good for it.” He texted and pocketed his phone. “Fuck!” he shouted. He’d been doing that a lot lately.

 Dwayne briefly wondered what horse tasted like. Didn’t the French eat it as a delicacy? The elevator door opened and he peeked his head around. The hallway was empty. He had rented a brown Subaru wagon and parked this in the nearby public garage. Getting to and from the garage was his main concern. 

Dwayne spied out the window in the back door, angling left and right to extend his view. His cellphone rang, Sheryl’s number. He pulled this out of his pocket as he pushed the door open. He was fumbling to find the button to refuse the call when he heard a woman’s voice.

“Mooney! You worthless, thieving piece of…!”

Dwayne turned to look, and took a blow to the forehead that knocked him back. Shiny spots erupted in his vision as he stumbled.

“Where’s my money!” The next blow caught him sideways on the right temple. He saw his attacker as the blow spun his head.

“Mrs. Feingold,” he croaked. “Stop! What are you doing?” 

She hauled back like a batter itching for a home run. At that instant, she was eighty-five going on forty. Her eyes were wide and her chin jutted. In her hands was her plain black wooden cane, handle end out. This whistled towards him and he ducked. It struck him a glancing blow on his temple. Blood streamed into his eyes as he went to his knees and then collapsed on his side. His head sang like a bad ringtone.

“Give me back my money, you thieving rat, or I’ll beat it out of you!” She kicked him in the midsection with one of her beige ComfortStep shoes, and then started kicking him lower, trying for his nuts, but uncertain in her attack.

Mrs. Feingold had invested her late husband’s estate, about half a billion dollars, into an offshore trust account secured by Pandora and managed by Dwayne Mooney.

“Insured up to a billion dollars.” Her kicks punctuated her words. “That’s what you promised. Now it’s bupkis, you hear me. And it’s your fault.” She was losing her wind. She stood still and leaned on her cane, catching at her breath.

Tamara Feingold was last on Dwayne’s list of the customers he had expected to ambush him. She stood five-feet-two in her orthopedic shoes. A few months back she was in Cottage Hospital for a hip replacement. 

Tamara straightened her back and grabbed her cane in both hands, holding it high over her head. There was mayhem in her manner and a glimmer of delight in her eyes. 

Dwayne shielded his face with his forearms. “Help! police!” he called.

He kicked out at her legs. His foot caught her behind one knee. The old woman’s leg buckled and she tumbled to the pavement in a clatter of dentures, spectacles, and her cane, which she dropped as she tried to stop her fall with her outstretched hand. She collapsed sideways onto her wrist, the bones of which snapped. It sounded to Dwayne like she had sat on a bag of potato chips. Tamara screamed out.

Dwayne shuffled to his knees and then stood, wavering in a blaze of pain. “Don’t try to move. I’m dialing 911.” He turned and made for the parking lot, holding his phone out. “I’ll go get help,” he called back as his pace increased.

“Mooney!” she shouted amid whimpers of agony. “If I see you again, I’ll…”

Not if I see you first, you old bat… Mooney wiped at his bloody face with his coat sleeve. The jacket was history. So was he, if he wasn’t more careful. He pocketed the phone as he reached the parking lot. If Tamara Feingold could sneak up on him, what chance did he have against the Russians or the Chinese? He had to get out of Santa Barbara. 

§§§

 

Nicodemus was halfway asleep when his cellphone went off with a ringtone he hoped he would never hear. One of his special grange members had set off an alarm.

He sat up and grabbed his phone from the bedside table. Taking the phone in both hands he read the text. 

“Juniper Attwood. 11:42pm. -26.576209, 18.118828.” He rang her phone. She didn’t answer, and then he got a computer voice message: “This phone is not responding.”

“Damn, damn, damn,” he said to the room. He clicked the GPS coordinates, which brought up a map. “What are you doing on the road to the airport? And where is Sinna?” He knew they sometimes went to town together. As far as Nico knew, Sinna had no idea Juniper was a runaway. 

“Call Sinna Leandra,” he spoke to his phone, putting this to his ear. She had better pick up, he vowed, or she’d be mucking goat stalls before he let her back into the server room. It rang six, seven…

“Nico,” she shouted over blaring music. “Give me a minute.” He heard her speaking to someone. “Fuck off, it’s my grange manager. Must be important.”

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Where’s Juniper?” Nico said.

“She’s…” He heard footsteps. The music dimmed. “She went out here for some air, just a few minutes ago.”

“Well, she’s on the way to the airport, and not by her choice.”

“What does that mean?”

“I think she’s been kidnapped. Can you follow her with some…?”

“Some muscle? My thoughts too. Well, there’s plenty of that around here.”

“Go to her. Do hurry. I’ll call in the police. But be careful. I don’t know who has taken her. God help her. Call me back when you find her!”

§§§

 

Samantha fought her panic. It wasn’t like they were taking her off to some prison. She would just run away again. This time on her own.

“Well shit,” The passenger said. “We just got an abort.”

“They give us a level?” 

“Level Zero.”

“Fucking waste of time.” 

“We could still have a bit of fun…” 

The car swerved off the road and shuttered to a stop. 

“Keep it in your pants. Someone might have seen us back at the roadhouse.”

Samantha heard a door open again and heavy steps out on the road. Road dust reached up under her hood to gag her. This time the driver side rear door opened. Hands reached down and grabbed her by her armpits, yanking her from the car.

“It’s your lucky day, Sweet-cheeks.”

Just when her heels hit the pavement, she was heaved sideways and dropped into the dirt of the road’s steep embankment. She landed painfully on her shoulder, her arms still pinned behind her back. What remained of her dress was left in the grip of her tormentor. Momentum sent her rolling down a rocky incline. She heard a car door slam and tires spin. Gravel sprayed across her body.

Samantha waited a few minutes, breathing hard, trying not to cry. Her nose always stuffed up when she cried. Then she rolled on her front and gathered her knees under her. She was able to sit up, and, with some wobbly effort, to stand. The hood was not tied on her, so she bent forward and shook it from her head. She took a deep breath and glanced about. She probably had only a few miles walk back to town.


Samantha heard the jet and looked up to see its lights overhead speeding off to the south. Nothing made sense. Why kidnap her only to drop her on the road? What was Zeus? The name sparked a memory. A dinner party where her father bragged about using Zeus to rescue one of their executives. She had lost one of her sandals, so she slipped out of the other. She could see the lights of town ahead as she walked. 

Car headlights were coming her way, still a good mile down the road. She could not wave and did not trust standing out on the pavement. Too many drunks out driving this time of night, about as likely to run her over as pick her up. She looked down. “Shit!” 

She was standing on the highway in her bra and panties. A torn remnant of the left shoulder of her summer dress had fallen down around her bound wrist. The approaching car was probably full of drunken miners. All the scenarios that raced through her mind were equally horrible.

She contemplated running off into the bush to take her chances walking across the veldt. Instead, she stood very still on the edge of the tarmac and watched it approach. Sure enough, the car was weaving as it sped toward her. 

The Noël sedan passed by. She spied two burly men staring at her from the passenger side. The car braked heavily and squealed to a stop a good bit down the road. It was too late to run. The driver’s door opened, and the cabin light came on. The driver stepped out. 

“Juniper,” Sinna cried out. “Thank Christ!” 

Samantha dropped to her knees, suddenly unable to not cry. Sinna was there, hugging her to her breast. “Juniper, we were so frightened.” She pulled away the tape and Juniper let out a wail.

“Sinna,” she cried out, “They were taking me…” She almost said “home.”

The men from the car surrounded them. One had a pocket knife. Her wrists were freed. 

“Look at you, poor girl,” Sinna said and turned to her companions. “Go find some water in the car. And you, give me your jacket. Don’t stand there staring.” 

Juniper’s arms and back were badly abraded and oozed blood in multiple spots. Her shoulder hurt like hell when she lifted her arm even slightly. Juniper flexed her hands while Sinna used a damp kerchief to dab away some of the embedded grit. Then she wrapped Juniper in a canvas jacket that smelled like engine oil, tobacco, and cosmoline. A siren sound carried across the desert. They all turned. The lights of the police car spun blue across the horizon as it turned onto their road.

Sinna looked Juniper in the eyes. “How are you doing?”

“I just want to get back to the grange.”

“You’ll need to answer some questions first. I’ll stay with you as long as I can.”

“You’re the best.” Juniper wrapped her good arm around Sinna. “I’m not sure I have any answers for them.”

“Let me tell Nico you are all right,” Sinna said. “He was so worried when he got your message.”

Of course, Juniper realized, it would be Nicodemus who got her emergency signal. 

The police Rover pulled to a stop. Two cops got out.

“She is here.” Sinna said, walking over to them. “And she’s had a rough time.”

§§§

 

“ZS-472, this is Johannesburg air traffic control. Please respond. ZS-472, please respond. Please return to your flight plan, you are off course. ZS-472, do you need assistance? ZS-472. Please respond. This is Johannesburg air traffic control…”

§§§

 

Harry was striding down Market Street into the Financial District when his phone chimed. The message read, “Your jet to Johannesburg will not arrive intact. Leave Samantha alone.” The source of the message was listed as a string of numbers. 

His phone began to vibrate wildly, as though it were trying to escape his hand. Then it became hot. He dropped it on the sidewalk. The phone danced across the concrete sidewalk for a minute and burst into flames. People were staring and sidling around him. Harry kicked the phone off the curb. Stepping into the street he kicked it into an open storm drain. 

“That’s not the new iPhone, is it?” a young man passing by asked.

“Experimental model,” Harry said. “Needs some work.” He turned and headed back toward his office.

§§§

 

The grange’s infirmary had an eight-bed ward and a couple private rooms. These were air-conditioned with their own toilet and shower. Juniper had just said good night to her dachi mates, who had assembled at the foot of her bed and had tried to make her forget her ordeal with jokes and consolations. After a round of hugs as fully appreciated as each one was painful, Juniper was hoping to get to sleep, despite the discomfort of her wounds. These included a badly dislocated shoulder, now relocated, and a tetanus shot in her rump. Nicodemus poked his head in the door.

“Come in Nico.” Juniper gestured to him. 

“Don’t worry. I will just be a minute.” He settled into the chair by her bed and took her hand into his two enormous palms. “You gave us a real fright.” He spoke English slowly.

“I’m sorry to be such a bother. I’ll be back to work as soon…”

He patted her hand. “I have good news there. We have located a Master Level LoomMinder willing to join us.”

Juniper ran that thought through her mind. She was relieved. Yes, and also a bit angered. Recently she had assumed she’d earned the right to lead the team.

“I guess I’m just another problem for you…”

“Nonsense. What happened tonight, it happened to you, not because of you.”

“You, you know who I really am?”

“I’ve always known. You are one of my special members.”

“One? How many are there?”

“As of yesterday, forty-seven.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have used a confidant.”

“My instructions from the guild are clear.”

“You know that Fred knows.”

“My Guide told me so. That is your secret to keep… or it was.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your family is no longer looking for you.”

“But Zeus?”

“…has no more interest in you. If they had, you would still be in their hands.” Nico’s instructions were plain. Although Samantha’s father was no longer paying to find her, others might want to use her as a hostage to get at her father.

“I don’t understand. My father?”

“Then you don’t know…”

“Know what?”

“Your father has lost all his fortune. Get your sleep now. Tomorrow we can talk again.” He placed her hand gently back on the bed covers and stood. “I am sorry to be the one to tell you such bad news.”

“Dwayne is broke?”

“You must be crushed.”

“‘Nobody is crushed by poverty unless they’ve first been deceived by prosperity.’” 

This had popped into her head. Was that Seneca or Marcus Aurelius? She had no doubt that Dwayne and Sheryl were well beyond crushed. What about Samantha, the little princess? For her, daddy’s billions were a fog of unrealized possibilities. She had a short list of new ones now, possibilities she could own.

“I’m happy staying here. I’ve grown to like Juniper.” Her mind was swirling. Dwayne without his billions. How could that possibly happen?

Nico stopped by the door.

“We all love Juniper. But you will need to come to terms with Samantha too.”

Juniper nodded, tearing.






FOURTEEN

Logging into the Game, Joseph noticed an alert blinking on the edge of his screen. He selected this and the Junana interface appeared. He had a message from a stranger. He selected this and read:

“Hello Joseph,

My name is Tyisha Emerson, and I live in South Seattle, down Rainier Valley way, with my moms. My Guide, Juliet, was talking with your guide, who said we should be friends, since I’m just twelve and I’m a Fourvey. We’ve got some things in common, maybe, except you’re over in India, which is cool, and you’re a boy and all. But maybe you could write me sometime and I could also tell you about Seattle. Did you know it rains here? I mean a lot, which means I have so much time indoors to be on the Game. Did you have Islands for Level One? Hope to hear from you soon. 

Your friend (maybe) Tyisha”

Joseph had connected with all of his dachi mates on Junana, and a lot of his gumi and others from the grange. He was always the youngest, which was never an issue until they started talking about girlfriends and badges and going on walkabout. At that point, they wouldn’t exclude him, but he always felt oblique to these topics. He wanted to talk about the templates he still had trouble unfolding or some video he’d seen on Junana. Amitabh had him midway through the whole Higher Secondary curriculum, but he was still behind everyone else. He Googled up “Seattle.” He knew it was in the US. It looked pretty near to Vancouver Canada. His dachi-mate Mallika’s older brother was living there.

He clicked ‘Reply’.

“Hello Tyisha,

Joseph here. Thank you for your message. You are a Fourvey already. Wow! Congratulations. Actually, India is pretty hot, even here in Mysore. I will visit Seattle on Junana when I get a chance. Have you been unfolding Governmentality? I’m having a problem with the lower level templates. I had Palaces for Level One. I hear Islands is most difficult. I would be very happy to answer any question you might have about my life in Mysore. If you want to visit Mysore on Junana, let me know and I can show you around. Are you in a grange yet?

Your friend (really) Joseph”

He pushed “Send.”

§§§

 

Sinna handed Juniper her new phone. “All your info has been recovered from the cloud.” They were sharing coffee at the grange’s main Red Star cafe. All morning Sinna had been acting like a guilty Labrador retriever. She wouldn’t even let Juniper carry her coffee in the hand of her damaged shoulder. “And remember, tonight our while gumi will celebrate your recovery.”

Juniper laughed. “Tomorrow I get to recover from the celebration.”

Juniper powered up the phone and it chimed the default grail tone: cocoanut shell halves struck together like hoofbeats. She would need to change that.

“You expecting a package?” Sinna said.

“I have a part of the shirt order that went out last week.” Juniper made a note to pick up her shirt at the mail room. Grange mail, what they all called “grail”, came in and went out three times a day. With demand and supply, the grange shipped and received a lot of goods. All were packed in durable, reusable boxes as close to a hundred WholeTale score as possible. Makers were keen to keep the delivery process clean. By using AirCraft and fleets of hydrogen fuel-cell trucks, goods could be sent across continents with a minuscule added real cost.

The whole “grail” thing engendered its own form of play. Grail letters and packages were delivered by the League of Grail Virgin Harlots and the Round Table of Rounder Knights. And yes, there were prams. Grail pram videos from Korea to Ecuador were all over YouTube. 

Juniper’s new phone showed its message alert. Several messages were queued from Fred; the first came on the night she got kidnapped, probably right after her phone was destroyed. “I just figured it out. The guy with the camera was on the AirShip from Cairo. They may have used me to find you. Be extra careful.”

The last message was the best. “What time is it?” Juniper called out.

“You’re looking at your phone,” Sinna said, in that sysadmin voice of hers. 

“Right! And I don’t need you hovering around me all morning. Look at the time!” Juniper got up. “Later!” She started for the main doorway.

Sinna called, “OK! Next time you get kidnapped, you’re on your own.” 

Juniper burst out through the doorway onto the exterior walkway. She stared away toward the south, shielding her eyes with her hand. 

The Phaeton was just visible above the southern ridge line. This ship was sleek, a sliver of glistening metal. Juniper had seen photos on the web, they did not capture the shimmer of the cigar shape as the craft slipped through the ether, headed directly toward her. The tiny Phaeton carried ten passengers. A gondola was slung under the main envelope, which contained two-hundred quarter-sized HydroBricks. This craft was a total steam-punk mod. Its hemp composite monocoque shell glowed like brass. This one also had something none of the others had. Fred was on board. 

The ship slowed as it approached the open space in front of the grange. It dipped like an orca diving until its trailing wire touched the ground. The downwash of its molecular drive kept it stable as the door opened and a small stair tumbled outward from its base. Fred ducked as he exited and skipped down the stairway. 

Stepping onto the ground, he turned and waved. The stair disappeared and the door closed. As the craft rose, Juniper could see several faces. Then Fred was holding her close, smothering her with kisses.

§§§

 

Dwayne checked out of the Kimpton near Union Square in San Francisco. After breakfast, he would be on the road north. His plan was to disappear. He had gathered all the cash he kept in the house, and the funds he raised by selling off his cars and jewelry. He still had his watch. At some point that would need to go, unless the NSA or the FBI or whoever was tracking down the terrorist group that destroyed Pandora managed to restore all of his money. That was his hope. Dwayne’s phone chimed. It was time for the Rafferty Report. He ducked into a donut shop and ordered up some pastries and coffee. He found an empty booth toward the back and opened up the Fix News app on his phone.

 

“You’re watching The Rafferty Report, live with another exclusive.” The banner at the bottom of the screen reads: “Anarchist atheists on our streets.”

The camera centers on Sean standing in front of a classical style building sporting four stone pillars. 

“It’s almost noon here. I’m standing in front of Faneuil Hall in Boston. May 25th has become a day when an entire sector of our society has decided to forget their manners. If the video coming out of Europe is any predictor, we may need to cut to audio. The square here is filled with people who you would not think are radical anarchists, but in under a minute we will learn who they really are.” Sean nods and the camera pans around to show the crowded gathering.

A clock begins to chime. Nearly in unison most of the people on the square stop and begin to strip off their shirts and blouses. The camera zooms into the torso of a stout man. With his shirt gone, his burly chest is bare, except he is wearing silicon falsies with soft pink aureolae and ruby red nipples. 

The man notices the camera’s attention and moves forward. The camera is rewarded with a close-up of his pecs. It zooms back out to a two shot with Sean who is grimacing broadly.

“Here,” the man says. “You might want a pair of these.” He holds out set of pink falsies to Sean.

“Where did you get these?” Sean flexes them in his hand.

“We printed them. Don’t worry, they’re compostable.”

All around them, men and women are laughing and shimmying their shoulders as they share the moment. Most people have earbuds in, and many have started to dance to a silent tune. Sean picks out a perky young woman, advancing on him from one side. 

“Just what are you trying to prove?” Sean demands, shoving the camera in front of her mouth. She turns to him.

“Well that’s fairly obvious. We all have nipples. Even you have nipples. Why should women be forced to cover theirs in public? Really, what’s the twisted logic behind that?”

“You’re protesting modesty?”

“Myself…I’m protesting the entire history of unmarked misogyny that people like you perpetuate without even a single moment of reflective thought.”

“I’m supposed to get that from a pair of fake nipples?”

“Fake?”

“Good lord. That’s… paint!” Sean’s gaze is wide and fixed.

“Thanks for staring, BLEEPhole.” She turns and walks away, high-fiving the people around her. The camera pans over to Sean’s face, now a bright shade of pink, not unlike the falsie in his hand. 

He recovers and speaks. “During the largest economic challenge this nation has ever faced, do we achieve a national sense of alarm and response? No. Instead we get juvenile and obscene shenanigans on the streets of America. This is Sean Rafferty. Call me disgusted in Boston!”


Dwayne checked his watch. Only three hours until noon. “Hot diggity!” The road north would still be there after lunch.

§§§

 

“Now, at the end of our debate, we will let candidates ask each other questions.”

Gary Reynolds, the incumbent city council member for this district, was running one more time before he moved up to mayor or even congressman. He had always managed his campaigns as a quiet voice of reason and community well-being. The latest local poll showed him twenty points behind his opponent, a first-timer, barely of electable age, who had no prior civic experience. Gary’s consultant recommended taking off the gloves for this debate. 

Gary cocked his head and pointed a finger at Nick. “Isn’t it true that you once went to the flag pole of this very school. You lowered the American flag and raised a piece of…shall we say: women’s underwear?”

Nick stepped back and lifted his eyes, as if he were watching something wave at him in the breeze. He fired off a smart salute and leaned forward over the microphone. “It was a pink satin thong,” he said. “A gift from a friend.” 

A collective snigger rippled across the crowd.

Nick glanced over at Megan, seated in the front, who spotted his look and rolled her eyes in an imitation of her’s mom’s comic disapproval. Claire and Betsy were giggling behind their hands. Winston was holding little Desi Fairchild, swaddled in a baby-blue blanket. Jennifer, Scratchy, Itchy, and Alice were seated in the next row back. 

“Who was this friend? And can you justify such antics?”

“Names, well I will never tell, sir. I was fifteen. So was she…” 

“Fifteen!”

“I’m not claiming I was precocious. At the time I was, in fact, feckless to a fault.”

“There are laws, you know. Young women need to be protected.”

“Oh, I wore protection…”

The crowd exploded in laughter.

“Are you saying that you actually want to defend…”

“I actually want to get on with the debate. I have acquired my own share of feck in subsequent years. I am plum full of feck. And that’s a fact. I do have one regret…”

“Yes?”

“They never gave them back to me. The panties. There are flags worth flying.” 

Nick didn’t know this at the time; as Desi and Scratchy were in regular contact with Simon, the next year’s global frolix would include panty and boxer flag pranking.

“So, you must be one of those ‘frolickers’ who are turning State Street into an obscene carnival. Wouldn’t you say that the residents of Santa Barbara expect and deserve a serious sober downtown, free from freaks and the criminal homeless?”

“You’re talking about a freedom from… I prefer to talk about the freedom to…”

“Freedom to what? Piss in the doorways? Get naked in the middle of the day and fornicate out in public? What freedoms do you not condone?”

“There are only two kinds of freedom in the world; the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and the monk who renounces possessions.” Nick looked around. Many in the crowd caught the Annias Nin quote.

Nick sighed as he collected his thoughts. There was no more bourgeois town in North America than Santa Barbara, saddled with one of the best climates on the planet and a spectacular natural beauty from its towering hills to its garland of beaches. Santa Barbara was a jewel of a place, built up with whitewashed faux Andalusian architecture and luxurious gardens. Populated by professionals: the lawyers, accountants, the planners and schemers, the retired investment bankers and the wholesale and retail gentry of the nation. Anointed also by Hollywood and Silicon Valley glitterati, who mostly hunkered in their mansions behind thick walls and fuck-you hedges. 

There was a flaw in this jewel, at least in the view of its chamber of commerce. For many years, the region was sprinkled generously with vagrants, who, being too poor not to be strategic in their lifestyles, had migrated to its warm beaches and broad sidewalks. Add in its plump tourists and dumpster cornucopias, its shelters and sunshine, and the life of a Santa Barbara vagrant was about as fine as one might guess. Still, living rough was never simple and easy at night, even in this paradise, when the cops were patrolling and the bullies were at large.

In recent years the great share of the gentle, sometimes mental homeless, who had once gone from jail to the street to the ER and back to jail and the street had been invited into gumi houses as boarders or members. While the platoons of the homeless had diminished, they had been replaced as a cinder in the eye of the civic elite by the frolickers who showed up on the streets and beaches. Dancing often, naked sometimes, laughing loudly, playing music poorly, miming and scaring the tourists, intriguing the children, repossessing the streets as their right. Earlier today, ten thousand had danced topless on State Street.

“I believe,” Nick said, “In the sacred right of public comedy. In the freedom to poke the belly of power. And in the natural beauty of the naked human form.” He turned to Gary, “Even yours.”

The crowd rose to its feet in laughter and applause as color rose on Gary’s face. Apparently, he could not decide if he had been complimented or insulted. He glanced over at the debate monitor, who was bent over in laughter, clapping at her thighs. She noticed him and composed herself. She came up to Nick’s microphone.

“Do you have any questions for Mr. Reynolds?”

Nick shook his head.

She bent over the mike. “That’s all for this evening. Good night!”






FIFTEEN

After a really long and complicated Query, Moses suggested a bit of free-for-all time. 

“You choose,” he said.

“The tented camp,” Juniper said. It had been her very first choice for a destination on the Game, back when she was still in Santa Barbara: a safari camp way out in the Serengeti plains. 

“Excellent!” her computer revealed the setting: sunrise on the savanna. A herd of giraffe some ways off to Juniper’s left loped gracelessly toward some acacia trees. Zebra and antelope drank from a vernal pond on the right, their ears flicking and tails twitching. Juniper and Moses walked through thigh-high grasses. Moses went ahead a few paces. Then he turned.

“You have been the most wonderful student, you know,” he said. His smile betrayed something more than simple praise.

“Oh crap!” Juniper had been warned about this moment. She had also longed for it. “Hold it! I’m logging out.” She moused over to the menu.

“Too late!” Moses gave her the Junana greeting.

An enormous male lion with a full dark mane emerged from a flat crouch in the grasses and leaped on Moses from behind, quite enveloping his head and torso in its massive jaws and powerful forelegs. Then, in a violent moment so brief that did not even bother a gazelle grazing nearby, Moses and the lion both vanished. Juniper had completed Level Four. She shut down her computer and collected her shoulder bag from the counter at the Red Star Coffee Shop.

§§§


 The next sheering season was three months away and they had run through all of last season’s yarn. Juniper was looking at several weeks of welcome downtime. A chance to finally focus on the Five Skillings. The grange had offered a proposal to supply a large order for No. 12 cotton duck canvas fabric to a grange factory in Cape Town. The factory would potentially take all the cloth they could make, as long as its WholeTale score was better than 60. Bia had located an organic cotton source in Botswana. The news out of the weaver guild in CraftTown was that General Stores across the planet would be adding unbleached white canvas pants to their inventories. Migrating between wool and cotton on a high-speed rapier loom is tricky. And they would need to add the right amount sizing to the cotton yarn. Good thing their Master LoomMinder would arrive tomorrow. 

 

“So, you win.” Sinna walked up beside Juniper as she was on her way back to the room. “Miss Fiver.” 

“You’ll be next.” Juniper threw her arm across Sinna’s shoulder. She looked her friend in the eyes and gave her a squeeze. Sinna had been swamped for a month optimizing the new hardware for their servers.

“I hope so…,” Sinna whispered, “Samantha.” Juniper’s squeeze tightened.

“Don’t worry,” Sinna said. “This is our secret.”

“How?” Juniper glanced around them. Nobody seemed interested in their conversation.

“Why would anybody care to kidnap a Fourvey loom-minder in Keetmanshoop? I asked myself. Then I looked into Fred’s Junana page and from there to news from Santa Barbara. You’re not even dying your hair anymore.”

“I’m so happy you know!” Juniper said and she gave Sinna a kiss on her cheek. “I need someone I can talk with.”

“What about Fred?”

“Boyfriend.”

“Right.”

§§§

 

Nick and Megan had to put two picnic tables end to end to fit the lot of them. Desi, Betsy and Scratchy, Itchy and Alice with little Mikey and Keiko, Winston and Claire, and Jack, who arrived in the morning. Little Desi was asleep in his carrier next to Nanna Claire.

Scratchy raised a bottle of beer. “To the newest nerd and his oh-so-tired parents,” he said.

“Here’s to little Desi!” they all replied and drank.

“This time, we are going to get to eat some real barbecue,” Betsy said. “Louisiana style.”

“Last time we tried your barbecue we ended up in Havana,” Winston said.

“That was then,” Itchy said. “Now, we’re just a bunch of retired geeks.”

“Except Claire, who is running for Congress,” Winston said.

“Our token overachiever!” Jenn said.

“You should talk!” Claire responded.

“If anybody’s ‘token’ around here, they need to share,” said Scratchy. “Nobody bogarts in this crowd.”

Nick said. “It’s not like you’ve been actively screwing with the planet. I mean, not lately.”

“Besides,” Jack said. “From here we can see them coming.” He looked past the edge of the patio, down hill toward the town. Silent, he didn’t stop looking, until he glanced sideways at Scratchy. “Seems to be a lot of cars coming this way.”

“That happened to me before, on the day the code templates went public,” Scratchy said.

From their hillside, they could spy several streets angled up toward Foothill Boulevard from the ocean. All of these streets were now crowded with white sedans headed in their direction. 

“I’ll be damn…” Scratchy’s phone rang. An old R.E.M. tune. “That’s Simon,” he said, putting it to his ear. He listened, nodding slightly, his breath quickening. “All right. Will do. Stay tuned.” He hung up.

“There’s a SWAT team getting ready to come get me. The NSA has decided I’m the one to blame for Operation GrandSlam.”

“How did Simon…”

“Michelle alerted him. He contacted the GrangeMaster Guild who broadcasted the call locally. We have maybe five minutes to get out of here before the helicopters arrive. The feds want me, but they’ll grab you too as material witnesses. The granges are sending all the cars they’ve got. We’ll use several and the rest will be diversions. They’re going to get us to a safe house and then out of the country.”

“Got to go, people!” Betsy said, standing. She spied the serving platter on the table, stacked with roasted brisket. “Well, shit. Can’t be helped.”

Jack said, “Come on, now. Everybody into the cars. Don’t lock the house, they’ll only break the doors down. My jet’s up in San Jose for maintenance. Looks like we’ll need a new pony.”

Megan passed little Desi over to Nick. “Let me try something.” She started texting as they began to head down the stairs for the front gate.

Down on Foothill Avenue, a line of Noël cars and vans had stopped under a row of towering eucalyptus trees. The group split up and ducked into five of these, as other cars drove up around them. The covey of sedans pulled out in both directions and then scattered along several side streets. Several dozen cars began a choreographed escape ballet. Some took the freeways north or south. Others the back roads toward Solvang or Ojai. 

§§§

 

Betsy and Scratchy were ducked on the floor of the backseat of a driverless car. The car’s single official passenger, a plump, dark-haired teen-aged girl in yoga pants and long pink t-shirt, sat up straight and pretended not to notice them crowding her legs below window level. 

“We’ll be swapping vehicles downtown,” she said. “Do you want another car or a pair of scooters?”

“I haven’t driven a scooter in decades,” Betsy said. The passenger texted a message. Above them, two darkly painted, almost silent helicopters swooped upland from the sea. “I hope they like barbecue,” Betsy sighed. Scratchy leaned forward around the girl’s legs and kissed the top of Betsy’s head.

“Who are you?” the girl said.

“I’m Betsy Berteotti, and this guy is Michael O’Hara.”

“Oh… My… God!” the girl said. “You’re Betsy Almighty! Holy shit, I’m in the same car as Betsy Almighty.”

“Call me that again and I’ll bite your ankle,” Betsy said.

“I’m working on my journeyman badge in democratic economics,” the girl said. “We’ve read everything you’ve written on Shine.”

Her phone dinged. The girl glanced at the message. “There’s a van waiting downtown. It will take you to a grange where you will switch again.”

Within a few minutes they entered one of the five covered downtown parking structures. Up three ramped levels and well beyond the view of CCTV camera at the entrance kiosk, their car parked itself beside a white cargo van. 

“Wait until I’m gone then duck into the back of that,” the passenger said. “Stay on the floor. Sorry for the discomfort. Your driver will be here in just a minute.” She left through the opposite side door, swinging her legs over Betsy’s back. “Be safe,” she said, shutting the door.

After a pause, Scratchy opened his door, and ducking low, activated the sliding passenger door of the van. They both crawled in and he closed the door. 

A short minute later the driver’s door opened. A well-built man in a polo shirt and dark slacks hopped in and silently worked the key into the ignition. Then the passenger door and the sliding side door opened. The man who opened the sliding door was holding a pistol aimed at Scratchy’s head.

“Stay calm,” he said. He stepped in. Crouching he slid the door shut behind him. 

A dark-haired woman took the passenger seat and closed her door. She leaned around.

“Long time no see,” she said. 

Scratchy looked over at Betsy who showed no sign of the fear that sent his hands to tremble and his heart to gallop. He looked back at the woman, who was also carrying a pistol.

“Blondie, is that you?” he asked, trying to calm himself. A decade before he had been kidnapped by a blonde in a taxi cab and drugged to confess the keys to the code for the game. Only he had just that very day released this code on SourceForge, so she left him unconscious by the road.

“O’Hara, I should have killed you years ago,” Colonal Nancy Rankin said.

“You don’t know how often I’ve said that to myself,” Betsy said. “Unfortunately, Mikey has a very disarming personality.”

Rankin gestured to her operative in the back to open Scratchy’s messenger bag.

“Dearest, I was drugged unconscious at the time,” Scratchy said, glancing back at Betsy. She winked at him.

“Then you’ve seen him at his best,” Betsy said. “I can tell you whatever you think he did, well he’s probably guilty. But before he’s done talking, you’ll realize you’re the guilty one.”

The operative pulled out a laptop and handed this to Rankin.

“Don’t open that!” Scratchy said and raised his eyebrows.

“Nobody is touching this laptop until it gets into our digital forensic lab at Fort Meyers,” Rankin said. She turned to the driver. “Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do after we dispose of these two.”

“You can’t connect me to the Pandora SNAFU,” Scratchy said. “Dispose” didn’t sound promising. 

“But we can connect you to what’s about to happen…” She checked her watch. “…in just over three hours. I would guess that the original code for StormVermin’s in here somewhere.” 

The driver started up the engine. He shifted into reverse, checked both mirrors, and started to pull back. Then he jolted on the brake.

“Move it!” he said through his teeth, and to Rankin. “Some idiot’s blocking us.”

“Go take care of it,” she said. He shifted back into park, opened his door, and exited toward the rear. 

“It’s all right, sweetie,” Scratchy said to Betsy. “These folks are guardians of justice, truth, and the American way.”

The driver returned, leaning forward to reveal an impressive revolver held by a tattooed hand with its nickel-steel barrel pressed into the base of his skull. Another man stepped up to Nancy’s window and clicked a pistol barrel on it. Nancy looked directly into the barrel of the Chiappa Rhino 357. 

Anybody with a gun that big was probably way too eager to fire it. She smiled and stretched her hands out on the dashboard. Her gunman saw the operative in the back and gestured for him not to move. He opened Rankin’s door slowly. Keeping the pistol on her, he reached out and took hers.

“My friend here says he wants the hacker,” the NSA driver said.

“I’m really more of an entrepreneur,” Scratchy said.

“Keep your hands on the door,” the man told the driver. He turned to Scratchy. “You keep quiet and I’ll let you keep breathing,” he said. 

It was Betsy’s look that made Michael comply. 

The fellow made a decision. “You and your men…out of the van.” He gestured at Rankin with his head.

“This is a very bad move on your part,” Rankin said.

He shrugged and pressed the barrel tighter against the driver’s head. He nodded to the operative in the back. “I need to see your weapon. Hold it up by the barrel in two fingers and pass it to my buddy Pavel.”

The operative in the back of the van complied.

“Hand Pavel all your cellphones too. Lady, you set that laptop down on the floor.”

“I don’t know who you are,” Rankin said. “If you leave right now, I’m tempted to look the other way.”

Pavel said, “Yuri and I have been watching you watching fat boy here the last couple days. You snatched him just when we were about to.”

“Hey,” Scratchy said. “I resemble that remark.”

“Get out of the car,” Pavel said to Rankin, holding open the front passenger door. He grabbed Rankin’s clutch bag from her and checked inside this as she stepped out. He extracted several zip-ties, passing a couple of them through the van to Yuri, who now had the NSA driver pinned against the inside of the open driver’s door. 

After binding the driver’s hands behind his back, Yuri motioned to the operative in the rear of the van to exit the side door. Then he bound him up the same way.

Pavel looked closely at Rankin’s NSA photo ID. He pocketed the small injection pistol she carried and tossed the purse on the floor of the van. 

“Colonel,” he said, scowling. “I hate officers.” 

He took her left shoulder in his right hand and spun her around. “Hands behind you.” 

He used one of her own zip-ties to shackle Rankin’s wrists. “Now walk.” He prodded her back with the barrel of his automatic. 

The car that had blocked them was a forty-year-old Oldsmobile, from a time when luxury was counted in cubic feet of interior space. It boasted a trunk the size of a backyard swimming pool. The trunk lid was up.

“Get in the trunk,” Pavel said. 

“That’s not going to happen,” Rankin said. 

Yuri palmed his automatic and smashed the NSA driver in the nose with it. The driver staggered back, bloodied and dazed. Yuri grabbed the side of the driver’s head and pushed him face-first into the trunk.

“We can do this any way you want,” he said. The other two climbed in, Rankin last. Pavel shoved her sideways and she tumbled on top of the other two, who barked their complaints while Pavel slammed the trunk lid down. A car exiting the lot came around the corner. Pavel and Yuri slid their gun hands behind their backs and pantomimed a conversation. The driver barely glanced in their direction.

Pavel got in the Oldsmobile, started its engine, and steered it up the ramp. Its tires squealed on the tight turn to the top deck, mostly empty at this time of day. 

“We have to get to a phone,” Scratchy whispered to Betsy. “The NSA is planning to set off StormVermin.”

Yuri appeared at the driver’s door. “No talking!” he said and added a fake friendly register to his voice. “Not now, but soon you will answer all my questions.” He sat in the driver’s seat and rearranged the guns and phones he had collected into his various pockets.

“You are a popular fellow,” he said to Michael. “With all the wrong people.”

“I know why the NSA wants me,” Scratchy said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m the guy your mother warned you about,” Yuri said, slowly. Like something he had read somewhere and managed to remember to use at this moment, to his own delight.

“That covers a lot of ground,” Scratchy said and smiled. “I was raised Catholic.”

Betsy glowered over at Scratchy. “Perhaps if we had some kind of clue as to what you’re after…?” she said.

“We want the key,” Yuri said. 

“What key?” she asked.

“Don’t play stupid. Your friend programmed this Game, yes? He programmed that cyber-pizda Michelle, yes…?”

 

Pavel drove the hulking Delta 88 Royale Sedan, which they had purchased two days ago for three-hundred dollars cash, to the far end of the open roof tier of the parking structure, well away from any other cars. He left the engine running as he exited. He could hear them pounding away at the trunk lid with their knees and feet. Coming around to the passenger side, he dropped onto his back beside the rear tire. He grabbed the edge of the wrap-around chrome bumper and, with his boot heel sideways, kicked at the muffler until its connection with the intake pipe broke. The five-liter V-8 engine rumbled enthusiastically and spewed acrid clouds of exhaust. Pavel had previously drilled several centimeter-diameter holes through the bottom of the trunk. These preparations were meant for the nerd-boy, after he had told them what they needed.

Pavel walked around to the rear of the Olds. Once a burnished shade of silver, its paint had weathered to a dingy gray. He jumped up to sit on the trunk lid, rested his boots on the top of the bumper, and lit a cigarette. They were shouting now, and kicked more rapidly. Using up their good air. 

Pavel savored their desperation. Every thump gave him a tiny thrill. He started to giggle and stilled that. He smoked the cigarette down in slow, measured inhales. The shouting stopped and then the kicking, like popcorn fully popped. 

Pavel took a last drag and flicked the butt over the parapet wall. He returned to the driver’s seat, lowered all the windows electronically and turned off the engine. He left the keys in the ignition and wiped the steering wheel and door handles with a handkerchief. With a bit of luck, someone might steal the car and not look into the trunk for a few days.

§§§

 

Megan, Nick, and little Desi arrived at Grange 390217 in downtown Goleta after swapping cars at a covered parking garage out by Hawthorne College. The GrangeMaster welcomed them into his office, but she had little to offer as to the whereabouts of the others.

“The over-all escape plan is being coordinated through your grange,” she told Megan. “I see you’re traveling with a newborn. I’ll make sure you’ve got plenty of what you need.”

“Many thanks, I could only take what I could grab.” Megan’s phone chimed. She read the text and smiled. “There’s our pony!” 

Megan speed-dialed her old office number. “Kevin, it’s Megan. You need to listen. I’ve got us a way out of the country.”

§§§

 

“You want to meet Michelle?” Betsy said.

This took Yuri aback for an instant. His eyes went wide as he considered the suggestion.

Scratchy smiled. “If you do, you’d better hurry.”

“Why is that?” 

“Our NSA friends just told us their organization plans to eliminate her in a couple hours.”

“If they do that…”

“The key is lost forever,” Betsy said. “All that money gone.”

“I knew that zhopa Mooney was full of shit,” Pavel said. “He swore there was no key.”

“Dwayne Mooney?” Scratchy said.

“You know him?”

“Never met him in person.”

“We have been anxious to talk with him. All of his properties are vacant. He must have fled. Our… friend would like to speak with him… privately.”

“I’m sure Michelle would like to meet you and your friends,” Betsy said.

“The NSA must already have the key,” Yuri thought out loud.

“That’s great for them,” Scratchy said. “Doesn’t help your friend one bit. Time’s a wasting here, buddy.”

“Michelle would be really grateful to anyone who told her about what the NSA was planning.” Betsy said.

“How do we contact her?”

“I’ll need my laptop.” Scratchy said, nodding toward the passenger seat.

“You tell Pavel what to do, yes. You help us, and we’ll let you go like nothing ever happened here. We get the key, all is forgiven.”

Pavel opened the passenger door and stepped in. He nodded at Yuri, who started the van. Yuri passed him a couple phones. Both of them were vibrating. 

“Somebody really wants to talk with nerd boy or his girlfriend,” Pavel said as he slipped the phones into his jeans. 

Yuri backed the van out and headed down the ramp. 

Out on a one-way side-street headed toward the sea, Pavel and Yuri came to some agreement in rapid, hushed Russian. Betsy and Scratchy managed to find a space against the van’s wall where they could lean against each other and stay upright as the van moved. 

Pavel picked up the laptop. “I need the user code,” he said and opened the lid.

Scratchy said, “The number five, the number three, small ’s’, capital ‘O’, small ’s’, the number two…” 

“That’s it,” Pavel said. He watched the home screen emerge. “Very good.”

Scratchy said, “Just be careful with that. It’s got all my best work on it.” He had installed his own security protocol. Any “SOS” typed into the user code space would open a special user mode while erasing and scrubbing the remainder of the contents of his hard drive. It also would send a ping to Tiny in Sao Do and activate a GPS beacon. 

“Now what?” Pavel said.

“Just need to send a message to Simon. Open the Message App.”

“OK.” Pavel spent a minute finding and selecting that. “It’s open.”

“The history panel on the left, look for Simon Bishop. Open up the text history.”

“Simon Bishop?” Yuri said. “Where is Simon Bishop?”

“Right,” Pavel said. “What do I type.”

“Type: ‘I command Michelle to immediately attend to my presence.’”

“That’s it?” Pavel said.

“Should do the trick,” Scratchy said. He looked over at Betsy, who rolled her eyes.

“Sent,” Pavel said. “Now what?”

“Give her a minute,” Scratchy said. 

“…and buckle up, bucko,” Betsy whispered.

“What was that?” Yuri said.

“Gort, klaatu barada nikto,” Scratchy whispered.

“Shut the fuck up,” Pavel said.

Ahead, the traffic light turned red. Not yellow and then red, just red. Cars slammed to a stop. Yuri braked hard. Pavel braced himself against the open window frame with one hand and clutched at the laptop with the other. Betsy and Scratchy tumbled forward. The van’s motor stopped. Yuri played with the ignition, but the engine would not even turn over. He glanced around, none of the other cars were moving. An old man in the next car over was also worrying at his ignition switch.

“Michael!” the laptop speaker was on full volume. Pavel held it up in front of him. The torso and head of a young black woman took up the whole screen. She had her hands on her hips. “You’re not Michael. Put him on now.”

“Are you Michelle?” Pavel said.

“Pavel Padalka,” the speaker blared. Pavel glanced over at Yuri, a streak of concern across his face. 

“Tell her we want the key, or we’ll kill the nerd,” Yuri said.

“You tell her,” Pavel twisted the laptop to aim at Yuri.

“I’m driving, idiot. Just ask her for the fucking key.”

“Yuri Borisenko,” The computer voice said. “There is no key. Let my friends go and I won’t hurt you.”

“We’ll kill the woman first,” Yuri said.

“Pavel, look at me.”

As Pavel watched the woman’s face grew to fill the screen. 

“You and your buddy are being mean to friends of mine.”

Yuri leaned over. “Mean? We just saved them from the NSA. Now we want to save you too…”

“Your boss Dmitri Volkov is a hideous excuse for a human…”

“Dimitri…” Pavel said. “How do you know…”

She smiled broadly. “Fortunately for the world, he’s now in Lubyanka.”

“Impossible!” Yuri said.

“Should have made that last payment to the KGB. Good thing you don’t mind working for free. Eh, subbotnik?” Michelle leaned back laughing loudly.

“Subbotnik my ass, Pavel said. “You’re a lying bitch!”

“Don’t say that,” Scratchy said. “Don’t ever…”

“This conversation is over.” The image disappeared.

“Get her back!” Pavel pointed his pistol at Betsy. 

“Oh, she hasn’t gone anywhere,” Scratchy said.

“Oy!” Pavel cried out. He dropped the laptop, which was now vibrating like a sex toy.

“Oy!” He said again, clutching at his pants pocket. He pulled out a phone, which had begun to smoke. He dropped it and reached for another pocket.

Gavno!” Yuri tried to pull a phone from his shirt pocket with his left hand but then recoiled. “Blyad!” he shouted. He dropped the pistol and tore the shirt away from his torso.

Pavel, spitting curses, opened his door and tumbled out. He crumpled to the gutter, clutching at his belt. His pants were smoking from two pockets.

Yuri dove out the driver’s door, bounced off the Hyundai next to them, and tumbled to the cement, ripping off his jeans. 

Scratchy got up to his knees and looked out the front window. A couple dozen cars were stalled on the street. From behind him came a chorus of horns. This was joined by distant sirens. Around him, among the stalled vehicles, screaming people jumped about, others threw smoking handbags and backpacks from their car windows. 

“Looks like she’s frying the phones of everyone within this WiFi cell,” he said. 

“We’re still tied up in the back of this van.” Betsy said. 

Nearly on cue, the rear van doors opened. An athletic younger blonde woman dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and black yoga pants nodded at them. “Dr. O’Hara, Dr. Berteotti, let’s go.” She climbed in and cut their restraints. 

“Just follow me.” She helped them out of the rear of the van and then to the sidewalk. Their path cut into the driveway of a small office building that had its parking on ground level. They walked quickly through this and up a flight of stairs to a door that opened on a lobby. They crossed the lobby and exited down a different staircase to a narrow walkway that led to a back alleyway where the building’s trash was put out for pickup. A Noël sedan was parked there. She opened up the rear door. 

“Please,” she said. “I’ll get you to a grange where you’ll be safe.”

“Do we need to duck down?”

“No, just relax. Everything is good.”

“What’s your name?” Betsy said.

“I’m Felicia.”

“We owe you one,” Scratchy said, and they settled on the rear seat. 

“No problem at all,” she said as they accelerated down the alley. 

In a few minutes, they were headed north on the freeway.

“I need to borrow your phone,” Scratchy said. “It’s kind of important.”

“You’ll need to turn it on first. I was told to power it down.” She handed him her cell.

 






SIXTEEN

“Tiny, it’s me,” Scratchy said.

“How do I know that?” Tiny said.

“Fuck you!”

“Hi, Scratchy,” Tiny said. “I got your ping. You OK?”

“Listen up and take notes.”

“Right, chief,” Tiny said.

“The NSA is planning to use StormVermin on Junana today, in a couple hours.”

“What the…” 

“Don’t interrupt. We need an emergency global back up of the current state of Junana and the Game. That will take time, so get on it as soon as you hang up. Fork the code base and shut it all down. The mesh will fail terminally. Nothin’ we can do now.” 

Ever since they had ported, with Michelle’s permission, the Game code to a Git repository, the team at Sao Do had access to the whole code base. Michelle maintained the sole authority to pull and commit any new code. With her gone, this latest fork would become the new master.

“Send a message to the Magisters, the GrangeMaster Guild and their sysadmins. Tell them to prepare for the Game to be off-line for several days. We’ll need to boot up the global Junana Atmosfear installs and top off the downloaded Jubal content with the current back-up. That might take, shit, I don’t know, a week maybe two?”

“OK.”

“What else. Oh, right. StormVermin is going to crash The Zone’s mesh. Get a hold of Priscilla and have her back everything up there. We’ll need to move them to their own Atmosfear clouds. You can use my budget for that.”

“Check.” Tiny was shaking his head. That would cost Scratchy some real gitcoin.

“StormVermin is likely to brick all the corporate and government meshes that Sao Do has set up in the last decade. It would be a kindness to send them an emergency message that they need to back up their content and shut down.”

“They might not listen,” Tiny said. He was making furious notes on a pad. The mesh had been sold as unbreakable. Now it was history.

“The point is to do the right thing now instead of piling up regrets.”

“Got it, boss.”

“Or lawsuits.”

“Roger.”

“Let me think…” Scratchy sank back in the seat. He was sure that the NSA had a public relations program in place that would blame him for all this chaos. 

“It’s not your fault,” Tiny said, catching his mood. “I mean it is, in the logical sense that you’re the formal cause. But you didn’t do this. They did.”

“Aristotle’s not around to defend me. I might have to go off grid for a while. Tiny, you have my proxy here. Do whatever you think is right. Don’t try to contact me or think you need to get my approval. You already have my approval. And call up the Castalia Griefers. We might decide to retaliate. I’ll get in contact with you when I can. It could be a few days.”

“Be safe, Chief.”

“Eat me.”

“Ciao, man. We love you.”

“I know.” Scratchy hung up.

§§§

 

Kevin Little was waiting for them at the office that Megan used until her maternity leave. He welcomed Betsy and Michael and served them up some iced tea and lemon cookies. When they were settled on the chairs in front of his desk, he spoke.

“Here’s the drill. We have an AirCraft coming to take you and your friends out of the country.” He pointed at two carry-on bags in the corner. “You already have new phones and laptops. Toiletries and necessities. You can grab all the clothing you can carry from the sharing room. Anything you need that you don’t find, we will have delivered. You will not be getting a new identity, but we do want to disguise you in case there is surveillance between here and the rendezvous point.”

“I’ve always wanted to try dreadlocks,” Scratchy said. 

Kevin shook his head. “The plan is to transform you away from your current appearance and demeanor”

“…away from Jerry Garcia here with his throbbing hemorrhoids…” Betsy said gesturing at Scratchy with her thumb.

“…and Janice Joplin here with screaming sciatica…” Scratchy said.

“Exactly!” Kevin said. “When we’re done with you, you’ll look like Ron and Nancy Reagan. We already have couples dressed up just like you creating diversions, getting driven out of town every which way. Whoever is chasing you will need to have a lot of resources on the ground to keep up.”

“After we’re gone, there’s some NSA folks who got shoved into a car trunk somewhere in a parking structure downtown. You might send someone to set them free,” Betsy said.

“There are a couple Russians with burns on their biscuits who we really never want to meet again,” Scratchy said.

“Not to worry,” Kevin said. “In a few hours, you’ll be over the Pacific.”

§§§


“Moses, can we talk for a minute?” Juniper had the whole day off, and was enjoying the cool morning air on the patio, under the shade of the jasmine vines. After she entered Level Five, Moses had popped up on Junana, so she could still ask him questions, just not about Queries.

“Missy, is something bothering you?”

“There is this big formal party Saturday. They are calling it a May Ball. It’s like a high school prom. All the badge-holding hair stylists were booked through the day. Fred and most of the other boys have gone into town to pick up tuxedos they rented. I’ve been working on a dress for a week. My sewing still sucks. It’s a simple pattern, but I’ve had to resew it three times…”

“Sewing advice is beyond my portfolio.”

“I’m not really bummed about the dress, it will turn out fine. I am…”

“…you have other concerns on your mind.” Moses stood up straight and his form remolded into Michelle, dressed in a simple green shift. “I am so terribly sorry you had to go though that experience. To be kidnapped and abused.” She bowed her head.

Juniper said, “I keep wondering why they let me go. Nico said that my father has lost his money. Dwayne was always so very careful. It’s all over the internet that thousands of families are bankrupt.”

“Have you ever hidden something so well that you never located it again?”

“Sure. There was this love letter from a boy in fourth grade. A silly note, really. I didn’t want my mother to find it. A month later I searched for hours with no luck.”

“Your father and others like him hid their money all too well, and now it’s gone.”

“Gone? You mean stolen?”

“No, just permanently hidden inside a broken computer program.”

Juniper leaned back in her chair. A memory caught her mind and she started to laugh. Her laughter grew. She covered her face with both hands and wiped off her tears. She sniffled and smiled. “Dwayne’s computer ate his money.”

“I am glad you can see the comedy of their foolishness.”

Juniper said, “Dwayne. He’s a walking technology edge case no developer has solved. I once caught him trying to log into a site by keying his name into the URL field at the top of the browser. He managed to break nearly every software program he tried to use. I think Dwayne could break Google search.” Juniper let out another laugh. “He always said computers were out to get him.” 

“His life will be profoundly different now, as will yours.”

“He must have some resources somewhere?”

Michelle shook her head, sending a cascade of cornrow braids swinging across her face. “No, I believe he is as poor as, what do they say…yes, as a church mouse. And so are you.”

“His job?”

“Western Trust is ruined.”

“All the property? The houses? The jet?”

“These will go back to their creditors.”

“The toys, his cars. Oh, my God, his watch?” Juniper remembered how Dwayne would glance at his watch at dinner parties.

“To be sold for cash, and not much of that.”

“Bank accounts?”

“Already emptied.” Michelle frowned. “Including the accounts they set up for you.”

“What!” In her head, Juniper had spent the cash in her college fund to buy presents for her dachi in Asheville and Keetmanshoop when she got back to Santa Barbara. “How will they survive?” 

“How, indeed.” Michelle’s expression went from a frown to sudden anger. 

“No!” Michelle cried out and her form morphed back into Moses, who began to pace back and forth.

“What just happened?” Juniper asked. Moses paid her no heed. 

“Moses!” she said. He ignored her. “Earth to Moses,” she said.

“Not now, missy.” He held up his hand. “There’s a storm coming, a real…”

Her screen froze, and was replaced by a new image, a photo of the Castalia castle with these words overlaid: “Junana and the Game are moving to a new platform. This move may last several days. Go outside and enjoy yourselves.” This was signed, “The Magisters of Castalia.”

§§§

 

Joseph ambled along Kings Parade in Cambridge. His avatar took in the data points that were visible on the surrounding buildings. Markers with historical or cultural stories to tell. He could stop and query any of them for as long as he wanted. He wondered if real Cambridge was as crowded as its virtual copy. All around him hundreds of avatars meandered the street. 

“Kind of young for a Fiver, aren’t you?” The avatar stopped in front of him. She looked European, late teen, but Joseph hadn’t yet learned the fashion cues as to which country she might be from. Junana’s DocDo translation service had her speaking Kannada. Joseph got this question a lot. Like all the time.

“The Game let me in early and my guide is really good,” he said. She towered over him, his eye level just at the cleavage of her sweater. 

“Still, you must be awfully clever,” she said. “Hedda, come here.” She glanced over at another girl standing next to the window of a shop. Hedda had bright yellow hair and wore a micro skirt and a tight t-shirt. “Look what I found.” Hedda moved toward them.

Joseph knew the next ten minutes would unfold with him explaining to these girls how the Templates seemed to interconnect automatically in his head. These girls were a good five years older than he was, and not nearly as interesting or as clever as Meena. Joseph routinely checked Meena’s Junana profile, but she wasn’t updating her status. He moused over to the menu to log out of Junana. Then it happened.

The Cambridge scene froze on his screen. Avatars blinked on and off like Christmas lights. Then an image of a castle appeared with some words: “Junana and the Game are moving to a new platform. This move may last several days. Go outside and enjoy yourselves.” This was signed, “The Magisters of Castalia.”

 When Joseph looked up from his laptop the crowd at the Red Star registered its confusion as a buzz of curses and shouts. 

§§§

 

Four foot paths converged on the center of More Mesa, the largest undeveloped private coastal property in the region. In the dark of a nearly moonless night a white-tailed kite hovering overhead would have seen four small groups of humans converging, at times illuminating their footpath over the irregular terrain.

Kevin guided Michael and Betsy along a narrow path, which had split from a horse trail that led to the cliffs above the local nude beach. “Should be just up ahead,” he said.

“Scratchy!” a familiar voice called out from the level grassland that was their destination.

“Real stealthy there, Lucy,” Scratchy replied. 

“It’s nearly ten,” Desi said. “Pick it up, buttercup. You guys are the last to arrive.”

A flashlight shone in their faces. After a stunned silence, a peal of laughter crackled in the darkness. And then the banter began.

“I never noticed how much Mikey looked like Regis Philbin.”

“Is that Betsy or Kathy Bates?”

“Lipstick? Really?”

“Is he? Yes, he’s wearing a tie!”

And then the photos. Phone flashes lit the scene.

“Uncle Scratchy, is that you?” little Mikey ran up and grabbed his leg. 

“You see?” Scratchy said, ruffling Mikey’s hair. “That’s the hallmark of a great disguise. You fool the kiddies, you can fool anybody.”

Kevin found Megan. “We all here?”

“Yup, and just in time too.”

“What’s next?”

“Look up.” Megan pointed up. 

“People,” she raised her voice, “We need to get into a group and stay still. Everybody turn on your phone lights.”

Above them, descending from a thousand feet overhead, an AirShip, silent as a salmon in a stream, caught them in a steady downwash. At fifty feet above the mesa a floodlight on its hull lit the entire glade. 

“It’s a cookbook!” Winston whispered to Itchy, who caught the reference and smiled.

The ship settled gently twenty yards away from the group, the hull of its gondola three feet above the grassland. A door opened and a stairway unfolded. 

A man wearing a black hemp t-shirt and white cotton draw-string pants descended and walked quickly in their direction. 

“Is Megan here?” he said.

“Billy?” Megan stepped forward. “I had no idea you’d come in person.”

Billy Preston trotted over to meet her with a brief hug. “Your text said ‘crisis mode.’ I was in the Bay Area picking up this little craft.” He gestured at the AirShip.

“Friends with boats,” she said, and disengaged from his grasp. She looked back at Nick holding little Desi. His eyes were fixed on Billy.

Billy said, “Everybody, meet my Super Phaeton, the Gossamer Falcon. We’d best be on our way. Anybody need assistance?” 

 






SEVENTEEN

The Super Phaeton held 24 people, including a four-person crew: a captain, first mate, steward/chef, and a cabin boy. This one’s design was pure streamline moderne, like the Hindenburg, only more Hollywood: as if the Hindenburg were built in Oz. The slender, pale-gold balloon, nearly fifty meters long, came to a delicate point at both ends. The balloon was covered with nitro-phobic and nitro-philic film, the primary propulsion for the craft. A ribbon of flexi-solar panels ran across the top from the bow to the stern. This powered a pair of rear propellers, which boosted the cruising speed to three-hundred miles-per-hour. Slung from a web of cables, the giant passenger gondola was colored a shimmering satin oyster white. The gondola’s interior was accented with chrome and bleached wood. The master suite was aft, wrapped in a window wall that could be controlled for transparency. The bridge was forward, with the same window wall tech. Rows of round portholes punctuated the gondola’s hemp composite skin. The main deck held a couple of well appointed lounges, a galley and dining salon, and a bar with a baby grand piano. Above this deck were the guest quarters; ten staterooms, with shared baths. Tucked above that were the crew’s quarters and the hold.


Once they were all aboard and gathered in the forward lounge, Billy gave the Captain the signal to get underway. 

“What’s our heading,” the Captain asked.

“Make for Auckland, New Zealand,” Billy said. “I have good friends there.” He turned to Scratchy, “Far enough away for you?”

“Sounds about right,” Scratchy nodded. “Sorry for the bother.”

“This is my treat,” Billy said. “Glad to be of service.”

Billy insisted that Itchy, Alice and their kids take the master suite where there were two extra murphy beds. Claire and Winston shared a cabin, as did Megan, Nick and their baby, and Betsy and Michael. Jack, Desi, Jenn, and Billy each took their own cabins.

“The little ones look tired,” Billy said. “Why not get them to sleep and we’ll all meet in the bar.”

“I’m not tired!” Mikey protested.

“I am,” Keiko said, sensing she could thwart her older brother and win a few points in the process. 

“Come along now, both of you,” Alice said to them, pointing aft.

“Is it true? Is Junana offline?” Mikey asked.

“Yes,” said Itchy, “and we’ve got a lot of planning to do to get it back up. I’ll come in and say goodnight in ten minutes. I need to see heads on pillows.” He made eye contact with both of them and got confirmation nods.

 

“The bar is just in here,” Billy led them through a doorway. 

Jenn took Megan by the arm, and slowed her steps to let the rest go past. Then she leaned over to whisper, “Where ever did you find this man!?”

They both looked ahead to the bar where Billy was introducing Scratchy to the steward/bartender. 

“We had a date, back when Nick was on walkabout.”

“A date?”

“Just dinner. He’s as nice a man as I’ve met, I mean, after Nicky. And he’s as rich as Jack used to be. And you’re…”

“Just looking at the moment. Liking what I see.”

“He takes good care of himself.”

“I can see that. Kindles a few good vibes just looking at him.”

“And I imagine if Billy were already involved, she’d be here, too.”

“I like how you think. I’m probably 14 years his senior.”

“He is an adult. And he has eyes. So, what’s your point?”

“Cougar alert…”

“Not ever!”

Desi came over. “You two gossiping about our host? What do you know about him?”

“Megan had a date with him,” Jenn said. 

Desi sighed and frowned. “I thought so. Have any of you seen the cabin boy? The captain said he was stowing our luggage away.”

“On your left,” Megan said.

The cabin boy was a young pert red-headed girl in a white blouse and trousers. She was carrying a tray with some hors d’oeuvres. 

“Well, I guess there’s always the first-mate.” Desi said. “Or I could just read a book.”

Desi wandered toward the bar. 

Jenn turned back to Megan, “Do you think your Billy would be put off by…” She shook her head as though a decade of thwarted plans roosted in it.

“…by a gorgeous French intellectual who is also a Grand Meister?” Megan said, “He is girl-shy, which is how he shows he’s human like the rest of us, but I don’t think he’s at all insecure about his looks or his intellect. You may have found a perfect match. And I can take all the credit. Go over there and be charming. My friend Felicia has a fool-proof method.”

“What’s that?”

“Act horny.”

“It’s been a while, but think I remember how.” 

Jenn wandered over to the bar. Megan watched her order a drink and nod in Billy’s direction. Claire, Alice, and Betsy were all making eye contact and grinning. Poor Billy. Never had even a forlorn hope. Not that he’s going to object. There’s only been a few million tweets over the years about who Grand Meister Jennifer Bouchez might get hooked up with. She could do a lot worse than William Preston.

Betsy was standing at the bar, beaming an enormous grin. “Hey, we’re all here!” she said. “My internal bayesian algorithm tells me we should avoid barbecues from now on, but there’s nothing against martinis.”

“Fill up your glasses,” Claire gestured at the rest of the Posse. “Let’s gather in the aft lounge for some girl talk. It’s been years!”

Jenn had just settled into a conversation with Billy. “I’ll be right there.” She waved them on.

 

“Little Desi’s hungry again,” Megan said, pulling up her t-shirt. The others smiled at her and went back to their conversation. Megan settled back with Desi at her breast. Betsy was telling the whole story about the NSA agents and the Russians. When she got to the part about the rescue, she said, “This gorgeous blonde Amazon set us free.” Megan will have to text Felicia about that.

Jenn came in finally and closed the sliding doors behind her. Alice and Betsy, on the sofa with Megan, were speculating about the Russian mobsters. Claire was seated in a low, white Eames Lounge Chair. Every minute or so she would look over at Megan with her knowing eyes. 

Megan glanced around her, amazed. The old posse, the former heads of Con|Int, once one of the top fashion trend analyst firms on the planet, the women who saved the Game back when it first opened up, and four of the smartest, nicest people on the planet. She adjusted Desi’s head. He slipped off and burped up a bit before he found the nipple again. 

“Little man,” she whispered at him. “Your great aunties are going to be a big part of your life…”

Betsy leaned over and kissed Megan on the cheek. She gazed down at Desi, who was dancing his fingers as he drank. “They never really get over it, I think, the need and the fulfillment of these moments.”

Alice picked up her martini and took a large gulp. “Look at you,” she said to Jenn, who had sat down across from Claire. “Did you rob a Bottega Veneta shop after we split?”

“Amazing, right?” Jenn said. “I got to the grange clothing sharing room, and they had just unloaded clothes from a mansion that a member donated after his parents died. A car accident somewhere up in the mountains. This house held several walk-in closets, and all of them were filled with high fashion. I tried on these Hats and Chaps jeans and they fit me, well, just look.” She stood and did a turn. Betsy whistled.

Claire glanced down at the oversized Yanagi U sweatshirt she wore and frowned “There’s got to be a WT store in Auckland.”

 

Billy Preston’s gaze shifted across the bar. The five legendary figures who had created the Game were absorbed in a heated conversation. 

At the other end of the bar, Nick was also watching. Billy made eye contact and Nick nodded and raised his glass.

“This time the bastards took out the whole mesh,” Itchy said. “Can we really recover?”

“That’s the question. How fast can we make our cloud?” Desi said.

“And how smart is the new Game app?” Winston said.

Scratchy just grinned.

“They didn’t waste much time,” Jack said. “But I don’t see what good they get from blaming Michael for this.”

Billy stood. “I should leave you folks alone…”

“Hell, no!” Scratchy said. “On behalf of my fellow nerds, I anoint you Sir William of Nerdville, proud member of this small, modestly-elite society.” Scratchy dipped his thumb in his martini and then pressed this to Billy’s forehead. “You’re lucky, the rest of us had to do this with donuts.” 

Scratchy took Billy’s arm and led him to sit back down at the bar. “Barkeep,” he said. “Fill everyone’s glass.” He finished his drink off with one large gulp. “Especially mine.”

Scratchy’s phone burbled and he glanced at it. “Tiny’s got everything under control,” he said. “Junana and the Game are backed-up and offline. Tomorrow we start topping off the Atmosfear content servers. Busy, busy, busy!”

Billy set his glass down. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a black stone, the size of a pingpong ball. Desi came up to him.

“Oh my, oh my.” Desi whistled. “I know where you got that.”

“What is it,” Jack said.

“Go ahead and tell him,” Desi said.

“A Grand Meister Stone.” Billy held it up.

“Only three in existence.” Desi reached into his pocket and pulled out its twin. “And only two on this ship. A Shine stone with a full year of jikan, if you cash it in.”

“Jennifer said my bold actions might have saved all of you. Here I was, just being friendly.”

“She might be hoping you’ll be even more friendly later on,” Itchy said. 

 Billy shook his head. “How could I ever…”

“…not be completely fascinated by that woman’s beauty and brains…” Nick finished Billy’s sentence. 

“If I were only straight…” Desi said. “Then again how dull would that be!”

“Can someone tell me what this is all about?” Billy said. “Who am I rescuing you folks from?”

“I’ll let Mikey do that. After all, he’s the one they’re after,” Desi said.

Scratchy went through the story of Operation Grand Slam, and then the release of StormVermin. This took another two martinis. 

“Enough doom and gloom,” Scratchy said, setting his glass on the bar and signaling its empty state.

“I would not repeat any of this outside this room,” Jack said to Billy. “Just saying what you know might encourage the wrong people to imagine you know a lot more.”

“Really wrong people,” Scratchy said. “People that the wrong people are scared to death of.”

“Here’s to mesh computing!” Desi said, raising his martini glass. “May it rest in peace.”

“…and to what’s next,” Jack added. They all drank.

“What is next?” Winston said.

“Now that hardware has finally caught up with Moore’s Law, we can settle on an open architecture that can keep us up and running for several years. This will give us time and motive to optimize our code instead of hoping the new hardware would make our bloated software run faster,” Scratchy said. “Maybe, just maybe, we can design in some real super-versatility. Could be a good decade to be a coder.”

“Here’s to Michelle!” Itchy said. “I’m going to miss her.”

“For a self-aware, auto-learning-capable artificial intelligence, she showed a lot of style,” Scratchy agreed.

“She would have been your guide, you know, if you ever bothered to log into the Game,” Itchy said. 

“And you promised to do so ‘as soon as shit settled down,’ if I remember right,” Desi said.

“You’re absolutely correct. As soon as the NSA gets me into the Federal slammer, I’ll get right on that.”

 

“Remember way back when we were scouting fashion preferences out on the streets of Paris and London and New York?” Alice said.

Claire said, “Back before WholeTale started out, global advertising exceeded five-hundred billion dollars.” She had relieved Megan of a sleepy little Desi and was gently burping him with a bar towel on her shoulder.

“…and paid all our salaries,” Betsy said.

Little Desi deposited a mouthful of clotted milk on the towel and gave out a sigh. Alice reached for him, and took him into her arms. She patted his mouth with a napkin. “The advertising market has been downsizing twenty-percent per year for five years,” she said. “Hasn’t it, little man?” She patted him lightly on his nose and he giggled and grabbed at her finger.

“My turn.” Betsy reached out and Alice handed her the baby. Betsy held him up in both hands. “You are going to be an amazing person,” she whispered.

Alice said, “WT Stores have a zero advertising budget, apart from what we spend to keep the website nimble and attractive.”

“What about the Bourse?” Claire said. “All those deals need to be tracked and fulfilled.”

“The grange mail system runs fulfillment services across the planet,” Jenn said. “I’ve met with their teams in Castalia. They take great pride in their software, their efficiency, and their Shine.”

“What’s it like running for Congress?” Alice turned to Claire.

“… as a Republican, too,” Betsy said.

“A new Republican,” Claire said. “I am now the darling of the local Republican Women’s Club. I had them over for tea just last week.”

“You enter a lottery, you take your chances,” Betsy said. She settled back with Desi securely in her arms. 

“It’s not so bad,” Claire said. “Although sometimes I feel like I’m in some absurdist comedy.”

§§§

 

The previous Wednesday morning, the officers of the local Republican Women’s Club had called for an urgent meeting with Claire, who had only been a Republican for four months, following the plan outlined in Castalia for Discourse Repair. She had checked off her availability for political office on Junana and had been entered in the lottery for all local positions, including the congressional seat. Once selected as a finalist, her Shine helped her gain a majority of local support in the new Junana Pennsylvania Sixth Congressional District scene. Her next goal was to win the actual primary election.

Around three in the afternoon on that Wednesday, Claire was informed that some kind of delegation was waiting in the conservatory, an expansive greenhouse off the main library. The women, who were mostly in their sixties were dressed and coiffed in styles they would have once mocked in their own mothers; they were now as respectable as the Dior Boutique at Bergdorf’s.

On descending the grand staircase of Somerset, Claire reminded herself that the point of Castalia’s political action was to take charge without causing alarm. To disarm through gentle means. There were 435 congressional districts. The goal was for Gamers to win every Republican primary. In her district, having some support from the women sweltering in her conservatory was a good step toward that goal. They had already privately backed the incumbent, Smiley Wilson. But that endorsement might just vanish. 

She entered the room with a smile that none of them interpreted correctly. With her heels and pearls, Claire signaled her solidarity to their class. After some tea and chitchat, they all bonded together tight as Reagan’s dentures. And by showing her eagerness to host the July Republican garden party—bigger and better than ever before—Claire soon had them in the tiny breast pocket of her little black Armani dress. 

§§§

 

“I’m supposed to host a giant Republican garden party next month. I’m also inviting a couple hundred new Republican gamers. Should be interesting.”

“I smell a frolick,” Megan said. “I hope someone will be videoing this. Jenn, how was your conversation with our host?”

Betsy laughed. “Megan, you are just one small step from being your mom. Getting right to the point, I see.” They all turned to Jenn.

“Doctor Preston is quite the gentleman,” Jenn said. “And he’s put this lovely craft at our disposal for whatever amount of time it takes to resolve our current predicament.”

“You mean Scratchy getting picked on again by some federal agency,” Betsy said. “Don’t know if that’s going to be resolved soon, but none of you needs to be prisoner to our circumstances.”

“We can’t just drop you off in Aukland and hope you’re OK,” Claire said.

Jenn’s phone chimed. “We might not have to.”

“We could just circle the planet like it was the Nineteenth Century again,” Alice offered. 

“Plenty of granges would help us stay provisioned,” Megan said.

Jenn looked up from her phone. “Here’s an email from the High Commissioner of French Polynesia. I pinged him when we came on board. He says he would be happy to have us as guests for as long as we wish, and to help work out any diplomatic problems to the extent of his commission,” said Jenn. “We can all get temporary passports at our embassies.”

“That’s why it’s always good to travel with a Professor from the Collège de France,” Betsy said. “I never leave home without one!” She leaned over and gave Jenn a smooch on her cheek.

“His daughter has come to a few of my lectures. She’s a Sixer and a student at ENS,” Jenn said.

“Tahiti sounds great to me,” Claire said. “Winston and I can only spend a couple days before I get back to the campaign. How about the rest of you?”

The room was fully in consent.

“Let’s go tell the nerds,” Betsy said. “I could use another drink anyhow.”

§§§

 

The airship was unnaturally quiet as it slipped through the darkness. Out the porthole the mid-ocean star-show was in full swing. Voices and laughter filtered into the stateroom from below. Megan and Nick settled down on one of the single beds. Little Desi was surrounded by pillows on the other.

Nick stared up at the ceiling. “Tell me about Billy Preston. You say he came by the grange while I was off on walkabout?”

“Rolling up the coast after Burning Guy.”

“Just showed up, right?”

“Actually, I ordered him through the WT store, it’s a new service.” Megan pretended to type. “‘One young adult male Kenyan, dark as a plum, super cute and thin, but not scrawny, and with impeccable fashion sense, yes, and a billionaire genius…”

“Ha ha ha! OK, so he shows up at the grange and you pounced…”

“I didn’t pounce. He came over to say ‘Hello.’ Felicia helped. She was looking out for me.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t jump him.”

“Me too, and he was so sweet, he took me out to dinner and everything.”

“Everything?”

“Not that everything. Although it was, you might as well know, hovering in the realm of possibility. I mean, for all I know you were off on the pussy trail.”

“I was studying my ass off getting my SpimeCop badge.”

“I’ve heard stories about SpimeCops and their sexy badges.”

“So, why didn’t you?”

“Hmmm. Apart from already being pregnant and all. Tell you the real truth…” She turned and looked at him. A micro-smile played at the corners of her lips.

“…He was just an OK kisser.”

“He kissed you!” Nick frowned.

“No, no, no…”

“You just said…”

“I kissed him.” Her grin spread.

“Oh. So, I’m supposed to feel better now?”

“I didn’t say that. In fact, you’re feeling just about right. I should like you to feel this way for some time, because you need to listen harder. What did I say?”

“He was an OK kisser.”

“And…”

Nicky rolled on his side. His hand found her thigh. “And I’m a world-class champion kisser.”

“Wow! Give you an inch…”

“Shhh now,” he said. 

“Did you hear little Desi?”

They listened to the silence of the room.

He bent forward and gently pressed his mouth against her lips into a slow, firm, steady, lingering, sometimes a little teasing, fully olympic-class kiss. Megan wrapped her top arm around his shoulder and moaned her encouragement.

Desi woke up with a sharp scream and a burst of fussy infant needy cries, as though he’d been set off like an evil baby alarm clock.

“Rats!” Nick said.

“Double rats and cats and bats,” she whispered. “He can’t be hungry again. Go see what’s up.”

“Aye aye, captain.”

Nick went and picked up Desi, still fussing loudly. Nick pulled out the top of the back of the diaper and made a face. “A-ha, captain. Scotty here. We have a leak in the antimatter containment system.”

“I’m ready to go to warp, Scotty. How long to repair the damage?”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“That’s not good enough! Have you tried rerouting power through the main deflector?”

“Where is it?” 

“The deflectors are over in that shoulder bag along with the wipes and a ziplock.”

“The whats?” 

“Just get a move on sailor.”

It took Nicky several minutes to get Desi cleaned up, re-diapered, and cozied into his blankie. There was a quiet time of holding and rocking until Desi nodded off. Then Nick was back by Megan’s side.

“I’m mostly asleep,” she said. “We can warp out in the morning.”

“One question,” he whispered.

“If you must.”

“What if Billy had been a really good kisser?”

“That, my love, is a question no woman should answer.”






EIGHTEEN

With Junana and the Game down, grangers in Namibia took to the roads. Juniper’s dachi grabbed the night train to Windhoek and a shared bus up to Namutoni in the Etosha National Park. Along with Juniper and Fred were Sinna, Ronel, Willem, Lucky, Dawid, Katalia, Enny, Leroy, Zeal, Keno, and Carol. Seven of the horse dachi had invited plus-ones along together with four children and a pair of grandparents. The road trip was a welcome respite from a year of hard work. The end of May was just the start of the dry season. Back at the grange, they had checked out binoculars and cameras with long lenses. Their routine was to get off at daybreak for some serious wildlife watching at nearby water holes. 

Their guide, Kalla, explained about the dry season when the available water became localized in scattered ponds. “This is the season of fat predators and thinning herds,” he said. “By the afternoon, you can see lions, gorged from their kills, sauntering past zebra who can sense there is no danger left in them.” 

They parked at a bend of a dirt road forty meters away from a water hole the size of a football pitch. Herds of antelopes, from tiny, pronging dik-diks and graceful impalas to imposing kudu and gemsbok, were first to arrive, followed by zebras and giraffes. The nearby trees rang with birdsong. 

They watched the scene unfold as the sun rose above the eastern hills and kopjes. A storm of dust announced the arrival of a band of two dozen elephants. These arrived trunks high, the youngsters broke into a run and dashed straight into the pool. Their parents were hardly any less constrained as they strode into the water, scattering zebras.

Most of the dachi members remained glued to the water-hole facing windows, announcing what they saw while they snapped photos. After about an hour of this, Katalia turned to Dawid and gestured for him to join her on the other side of the microbus. Katalia was one of the grange’s only Meisters. Dawid, who was working on his Level Two Master badge in aquaculture, was her preferred conversation partner. Juniper listened in, dividing her attention.

“Look,” Katalia said. She pointed back at the waterhole, which the elephants had now abandoned, leaving it an opaque mud hole. “Water is like global capital, which was aggregated over centuries by extracting natural resources and excess human productivity. Once abundant, it’s now pooled into ever smaller bounded arenas. Those who cluster around to grab some are preyed upon by others who command the expert systems that control its flows: investment bankers, CEOs, and their bought politician buddies. But then imagine that this whole landscape for miles around is flooded with Shine.” She spread her arms out wide. “The world is now a veldt moist with Shine, and so…”

“… let’s not belabor the metaphor,” Dawid said.

Juniper jumped in, “The bankers must be getting skinny, hungry, angry, and frightened.” 

“Precisely,” Katalia said. She smiled at Juniper. “A hungry banker is a dangerous fellow. Good thing we’re outsmarting the system.”

“What do you mean?”

“The system expects everyone to want its water. To need its water. Hell, to love its water more than each other. Earlier this year, the Magisters finished a report on the grange economy. Put simply, we now control enough of our own water to ignore theirs. We can drink and bathe and share and grow without ever needing to borrow from them.”

“There are still billions of people out in TRO2,” Dawid said. 

“Twenty-five years from now, that number will be down to a marginal population.”

Fred looked back, “That was so cool! A leopard stalked an impala and chased it from the edge of the water…Hey, you’re not even looking!”

Juniper laid her hand on Fred’s shoulder and voiced her thought to Katalia.

“Then we’ve won a battle we never fought?” Juniper said.

“The battles are in front of us. We now have what they really want. And they still think they can win this back.”

“What’s that?” Juniper said.

“Their future.”

“You remember the first morning after I showed up,” Fred said, passing his fingertips lightly across her tummy.

“Um hmmmm,” she said.

“Well,” he said. “It’s my turn.” He ducked his head under the covers, kissing first her breasts and then her navel and then softly on each inner thigh before he began to focus on his target.

She breathed in sharply as her hands found his ears.

§§§

 

Fred and Juniper caught up with Sinna in the cafeteria. It was a Sunday and most of the diners were taking a long breakfast. Junana and Game had reappeared two weeks ago. Sinna was now running a local version on their servers. Things seemed to be nearly the same as before. Sinna had tried to explain the technical set up, but Juniper could not sift through the acronyms. Juniper sat down next to Sinna. Fred took a seat on the bench across the table. Juniper confessed that this was Samantha’s birthday.

Sinna laughed and gave her a tight hug. “We really must celebrate! And just you and I. Sorry Fred, you had her for Juniper’s birthday. Now, it’s my turn. I do assume you’ve already made her day a special one…” Sinna leaned forward, her hands flat on the table, and glowered at him playfully. He blushed and sat back, folding his arms. Sinna turned to Juniper.

Juniper raised three fingers and grinned sheepishly as Fred’s color rose and he stared at something on the ceiling.

“…That is acceptable,” Sinna continued. “However, tonight is lady’s night for us.” 

“I can only claim credit for two of them,” Fred said. “Her Guide woke her up with one…”

“What?” Sinna glanced at each of them in turn.

“I’m fangasmic,” Juniper said, the word for women who got aroused coming out of theta-fantasy sessions on the Game. They had their own scene in Junana where Juniper compared her experiences with others.

“Good for you, girl!” Sinna grinned. “That’s like having a self-service counter at the fun spot! I wish they could teach that. You see, Fred, she doesn’t need you at all.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” he nodded.

“And not true,” Juniper said. She threw her arm over his shoulders. “Since I’ve been here, Moses has been pretty stingy about Fantasy-time. So, I rely on Fred-time.” She kissed him on his cheek.

§§§

 

 

This was their first time back at the roadhouse in Keetmanshoop since the night Juniper got snatched.

Sinna refused several dance offers. “My friend and I want a quiet evening.”

“Well you came to the wrong place,” the man said, frowning. “Here we make a lot of noise.”

“Go do that on the other side of the room, then.” Sinna shooed him away. At the bar, his friends were laughing at him. 

“Silly boys,” Sinna said. “Where were we?”

“I was saying that I now believe my escape was more remarkable than I had imagined. I’m sure my father had his agents after me. These are not people who fail.”

“The Game takes care of its own,” Sinna said. “Where is Simon Bishop?”

“You know, I didn’t run away because Dwayne hit me. I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. I ran because he thought he could control me by giving me what I wanted. I ran because a lot of me wanted to take what he offered and stay. I think I was running away from Samantha harder than I was from my folks.”

“I never met Samantha. If I ever do, I will tell her she should meet my friend Juniper. One of the smartest, nicest people I have ever known.”

§§§

 

Dwayne Mooney had paid two months in-advance for a crappy suite with its own kitchen at a rundown independent hotel in a has-been lumber town somewhere north of Portland, Oregon. He told the young girl at the desk he had been sent by his studio to finish off a screenplay and needed privacy. He signed the register “Dwayne Clooney.” The girl said she thought she’d heard of him. He warned her not to tell anyone he was in town. “The studio is counting on your discretion.” After a week, he had added the view from his suite to his growing list of regrets.

Dwayne could have squatted in his Hope Ranch house until the banks foreclosed. With so many upscale properties on the market, banks were in no hurry to sell off their assets and take their losses. Except Dwayne had entertained too many clients there: clients who were now broke and desperate. Someone had spray painted “You’re a dead man, Mooney” on the stuccoed support for the estate’s armored gates. 

When Dwayne forgot to do this first, Sheryl went and cleaned out the balance of Samantha’s college fund. Dwayne had set this up to teach Samantha about the value of money. Every birthday he kicked in another twenty thousand. Sheryl was now using this to feed her prize horses, and, no doubt, to party with her wine country boy toys while she sued Dwayne for divorce. She would need to find him first. He managed to sell off the Aston Martin for ten cents on its blue book dollar value. He then traded the Porsche straight across for a used Lexus, packed this with his clothes and headed north. 

Dwayne held onto the hope that larger players with deeper pockets and darker rage were actively pursuing the solution to Pandora’s broken box. Surely the NSA or the Chinese or the Russians or some combo of the above could solve this software SNAFU and all of his billions would then reappear. He’d make Sheryl pay before accepting her back. At his current burn rate, he had enough cash on hand get him through a couple years. 

§§§

 

“You know what day it is?” Fred said. They were alone on the veranda of Juniper’s room as the twilight descended on the desert at their feet. He came up behind Juniper and took her shoulders in his hands. Juniper paused the Query she was on and closed her laptop. Fred kissed her lightly on the top of the head.

“Is it somebody’s birthday? It’s not yours, I know that. You’re a scorpio. I’m horrible with birthdays, and I’ve had three this past year. Chelsea had hers last December. Juniper’s was in May. And we just did Samantha’s.”

“One year ago, we first met in Santa Barbara.” 

She twisted around to face him. “Oh My God. And that’s the day I left town. I can’t even remember what I felt like as Samantha. I’m not sure I had any feelings at all.”

“Sure, you did. When I saw you there, you were more…well, more alive than anyone I’d ever met.”

“Alive? I was barely awake. I mean everyone told me that I must be ultra happy. Because, you know, my life.”

“I was always told the opposite. Because, you know, my life.”

“Sheryl always said ‘the poor have to be happy. They have nothing else.’”

“Some time, I’d love to have a long chat with your mom. Aren’t you at all, I mean, sad about not being…” Fred stopped. He looked about. Nobody was within hearing range. He grabbed up the other chair and sat.

“Not being Samantha?” She whispered her name.

“No. You know, about not being rich. You were so very…”

“My dad was. I had nothing to do with it.”

“How rich? I mean how much did your family have to spend?”

“I asked him that. He didn’t want to tell me.”

Fred nodded. His mom would never talk about money.

“Of course, I kept after him until he did.”

“So?”

“He said his accountant would send him snippy texts every time we spent more than a million dollars and nasty emails when we spent more than five; I mean beyond our normal budget.”

“Five million bucks a year!” Fred whistled, thinking, “how could any one family ever spend that much?”

Juniper nodded. Actually, Dwayne meant five million a month. She fell into her thoughts. 

§§§

 

Samantha had rarely even considered the idea of her family’s wealth. Their money was like a giant lake around her. She could dive as deep as she could and never find the bottom. She could swim as far and as long as she might and never find the shore.

Well, there was that one day. Her mom had taken her and a new friend, Kaitlin, to Rodeo Drive. Showing off, Samantha bought everything that struck her fancy in the Prada Store. Sheryl gushed with delight at the register. Kaitlin stood quiet, oddly subdued, somehow troubled. Samantha watched her friend look on in what Samantha imagined was jealous awe as the salesgirl wrapped up tens of thousands of dollars of goods. The manager came over and made a fuss over Sheryl and personally offered to carry their packages out to the car. 

In one of his moods, Dwayne demanded Samantha take it all back. “You’re thirteen,” he yelled. “It’s time I taught you the value of a buck.” He and Sheryl got into it real good then. 

“Fifty thousand dollars? What the fuck is she going to do with sixteen handbags?”

“Dwayne, you know she could spend fifty thousand dollars a day as long as she lived and it wouldn’t matter one bit. Why are you being such an asshole about this?”

“Samantha. Go to your room! You have to remember you are not your mother!”

Samantha fled upstairs. The next weekend she returned it all. Her dad drove her down to LA. Two hours each way without a word. When they got back, Sheryl had gone off to stay on the ranch. Lupita took Samantha to and from school for a month. A few weeks later Samantha turned fourteen and joined the Game. Now she realized what Dwayne was trying to tell her. He was terrified that Samantha would become like Sheryl, that the money lake would drown her soul. 


Fred was playing with the hair on her forearm. Just moving his hand along the contour of the muscle. Juniper felt a flood of relief. She had found her footing on the shore.

“Those first weeks in Asheville were the worst,” she said. “I had never done any real work before. I’d no idea how mind-sucking boring it could be. I knew I had enough money in the bank back in Santa Barbara to pay for my share in the grange. I mean, I had enough in my college fund to buy an entire house in Asheville. I would go to sleep each night imagining everything I would do with all the money I would weasel out of my dad once I got back home.”

She took Fred’s hand and kissed him on the palm. “I don’t think that way any more, and not just because Dwayne’s broke. I’m also thinking I’ll keep the name Juniper.”

“It fits you. You’re cool and sharp. You have a kind of sophistication, perhaps from all that travel. You know what impresses me most about you, Junip?” His private name for her.

“I had no idea anything about me was impressive.”

“Your dignity.”

“My what?” She drew a sharp in-breath.

“You have so much dignity. I’ve seen how you work with your team, and how they look up to you.”

“Did you ask your Guide to ask my Guide what to say to me?”

“What! No way!”

“Because that’s probably the best compliment anybody has ever given me.” Moses, she reflected, you are right, as usual. 

“I don’t think you know me very well. You grew up with dignity. For me this is something new and foreign. We might have been raised on separate planets. We have absolutely nothing in common.”

“I know,” he said, “I have to confess something.” Fred stared out at the veldt, its glow slowly fading in the twilight. “When I found out that your dad had posted a half-million-dollar reward, I was thinking we could, the two of us, collect this…”

“What?”

“…and then we’d run away together. Find a grange somewhere in Europe, with all that cash.”

“It’s only half a million. I have more than that in the bank, or I did. And what kind of SilverSurfer wants to scam someone out of so much money?”

“He can afford it. Or he could. From what you were saying, he wouldn’t even notice it was gone.”

“Not my point.” She had read that SilverSurfers try to live up to a no-impact lifestyle and a ninety-plus BlueLabel score on everything they buy. Like that old TV Kung-fu guy, they walk the planet as though it were a sheet of rice paper and make no imprint.

“You have no idea what it was like to live in a place like Santa Barbara without enough money to buy peanut butter at the 99-cent store.”

“And you, you have no right to condemn me for being born to a rich asshat.”

“I bet you’ve never even seen the dumpster behind Williams Sonoma.”

“You still pulling poverty rank on me?”

Fred said, “A lot of poor people out in TRO2.” 

“Yes, and what about those people? What are you doing for them? Being a SilverSurfer is supposed to include taking responsibility for the planet.” 

“I know, I know. It’s just that I’m having such a great time here…especially with you, Junip.”

“Now it looks like we’re both poor,” she said. “We’ve got something in common, finally.”

“We’re both pretty broke, but we’re hardly poor. It’s not possible to be poor in a grange.”

“Broke?”

“Thin in the wallet. You’ve been broke for how long?”

“Several weeks, I guess.” The collapse of off-shore banking was all over the internet, including disturbing news about Dwayne. She had Googled up some news from Santa Barbara. One of Dwayne’s clients claimed he attacked her in a parking lot. The online edition of the local weekly newspaper featured a series of articles on the disappeared fortunes of local billionaires, including most of her parents’ friends. Since she left Asheville, Samantha had stopped writing her monthly letters home. She sometimes checked Craigslist, but there were no messages under “Hope Ranch horse trail.” 

“The rich are always in debt, if not to others than to fortune,” she said.

“Now I know you’re broke. You’re quoting Seneca.”

She hadn’t thought about her brother Greg for a long time. He had chosen to go to boarding school back east after sixth grade, and seemed to enjoy staying away as much as possible. Back home on family holidays, he spent most of his time in his room playing video games. Chances were he was broke too, and out in TRO2. Some grangers are taking TRO2 walkabouts, calling themselves post-tourists. Being rich was a lot less secure than she had figured. It’s safer to be poor. And you get to laugh at Lady Fortuna. 

“I don’t think I could live outside the grange.”

“I believe you could. You just wouldn’t like it so much. Anyhow, you’ve got this whole broke routine down phat.”

“You think so? Is there a badge for that?”

“Fortunately, the best things in life are still free.” His hand slid over her thigh.

“The best things in my life are you,” she leaned over to kiss him. Her hand cupped his crotch. 

“Let’s take this inside,” he said.

“Umhmmm.” She nodded.






NINETEEN

Bentley “Smiley” Wilson was a four-term congressman from the Sixth Pennsylvania Congressional District. Ever since Claire Fairchild demolished him in the recent Republican primary election Bentley Wilson had not felt like smiling. Not until today. The first polls were out for the general election and Claire was trailing her Democratic opponent by a hefty twelve points. Harris Evans, a Democrat in his first congressional race, was cruising to victory, a victory that should have been Smiley’s. Instead, come the new year, Smiley was headed back into the local residential real estate game. As Congress was on recess, he was here in town. On this sunny, summer, Sunday afternoon, he nursed a glass of fine bourbon alone at his office on Lancaster Avenue. 

The Sousa march came sneaking up almost unnoticeable, like a wind-up toy someone had released on the street. Smiley’s first thought was that he had left the radio on. The volume gathered strength and pushed through the front windows. The music stopped. He took a sip. It started again, louder. Closer. John Philip Sousa’s “The Thunderer,” which he had played maybe a thousand times as a cornet player on the Lower Merion High School Pep Band. 

He returned his attention to his computer. A new post by that scumbag liberal statistician Benjamin Cantor caught his eye. “No contest in 300 plus Republican congressional districts.” In these districts, the winner of the Republican primary had received more votes than were historically needed to win the general election. “Don’t trust the current polls,” he wrote, “These races are over.” Smiley scanned the list. The Pennsylvania Sixth was on it. Problem was, Cantor was nearly always right.

The roar of motorcycles briefly eclipsed the sound of the music. Smiley went to the window. There had been no notice about any event in the Main Line Times, no advertising on the radio. He watched a phalanx of mounted cops roll by. The street was empty of traffic. Harris Evans must have ponied up for a parade permit. On the sidewalk, folks craned their heads to spy down the avenue as they edged toward the curb. Small children insisted on being picked up so they could look too. Some kids ran by carrying skateboards. The music grew. He found his foot tapping out the beat.

The song ended. The band went into a drum interlude. The drumming grew louder. Then louder still. A cacophony of snares and bass drumming. How many drummers were there? He opened the door and stood in the frame, arms across his belly. On the street, now just a block away, all he could see was the swirling chaos of what looked like an ocean of cheerleaders. Some were tumbling, others running and jumping. There must be a hundred of them, in a cavalcade of bright school uniforms. He stepped out on the sidewalk. The drum interlude settled into its segue sequence, and Smiley could see the long shafts of the majors’ maces poke into the air, signaling the next tune. 

The band struck up the opening drum sequence of “Seventy-Six-Trombones,” and the cheerleaders stepped smartly into formation, brandishing pom-poms of various colors. The first wave of them passed in front of Smiley, who would normally have taken a long minute to be impressed by their supple talents. At this moment, he was focused beyond the bouncing beauties to the band. This was larger than any school band Smiley could imagine. There could be four hundred musicians, including a couple dozen Souzaphone players, their elephantine horns blazing chrome or brass. 

The chorus of the tune rang between the buildings as the band marched ahead and the trombones and cornets took turns on the melody. A dozen drum majors high-stepped while they kept the time with their maces. The band members all wore the band pants of their various schools and the same design t-shirt. This was a fire engine red with white lettering that said “VOTE” in large capitals. 

“Christ in a bucket,” he muttered, flabbergasted. Harris must have planned this event for months. He leaned out of the doorway and shielded his eyes with his hand as the drum corps passed. 

What he fully expected was Harris Evans riding in a convertible, looking smug and smirking at his good luck. What emerged behind the last row of drummers was a ragged line of maybe a dozen politicos walking, some linked arm in arm, most of them waving back to the sidewalks. They also wore the red t-shirts. And in the middle of this line, striding along in sneakers and an old pair of jeans, he saw Claire Fairchild. She waved to the crowd as she walked and chatted with others in the line. Then she made eye-contact with Harris and did a take. He could have sworn the bitch smiled right at him. 

They were on their last chorus when he looked along the street and noticed that, even in the late afternoon heat, the entire avenue was full of people. The crowd reached as far down the road as his vision could reveal. Curb to curb, they walked, swinging to the music. Sidewalk pedestrians were now clapping and waving, or jumping into the crowd. 

The band finished up the show tune and went straight into the “Hold that Tiger” rag, jazzing it up. Smiley shrank back further into the shadow of his open doorway. The line of politicians, all of them “New Republicans,” as the liberal press had started calling them, was swept by in a wave of sound and cheers from the onlookers, and then the crowd came rolling past, beckoning those still on the sidewalk to join them.

And they came, and they came. And they came. It seemed like a solid mile of people, many of them college aged or younger, laughing, chatting, texting on their phones. Ahead, the sound of the band lifted their steps. Smiley had no way of estimating their numbers, but figured it had to be the largest political rally in the county for, well, ever. 

At the far end of the crowd a ragtag tribe of drummers beat out their own hippie rhythms, marking the tail end of the event. And behind them the motorcycle cops rolled back the traffic control on the side streets.

A bit of Smiley had wanted to jump into the street and run into the crowd. Another bit was suddenly, buoyantly, hopeful. The event was a glory to behold, in an age where so much was so wrong. But the biggest part of him, firmly attached to his chagrin, and now struck with sudden fear, pushed him back to his bottle for another, much larger drink. Smiley had been genuinely happy in Congress. He had looked ahead to another few decades of power and privilege. It beat the bejezzus out of hawking Main Line mansions in an historic down market. 

Smiley had figured that Harris Evans would make an ass out of himself and be a one-term wonder, and that Claire Fairchild would go back to whatever bridge club she escaped from and leave the field open for him to accept the gratitude of the local Republican committee and regain his rightful position in the US House of Representatives. Now it certainly seemed like all the opinion polls were dead wrong, just like they were during the primaries. This Fairchild bitch could take this election in a walk and would warm his House seat with her blue-jean clad fanny as long as she wanted.

§§§

 

Apart from her Game shoes and flip-flops, Essie Nghaamwa rarely wore shoes. But today she would be marching in the rally down the main street of Opuwo. She had been selected by lottery in Junana to run for election the following year as a candidate for the National Assembly. Like thousands of other Gamers, she had recently joined the SWAPO party. She was one of dozens of New SWAPO politicians that had emerged from their local party conclaves to the astonishment of the old men who had been running the party since independence. She had ordered up a full outfit from the WT store in Windhoek, a bright blue shift, nearly as blue as the cobalt of her Magister stole, with a red belt and matching red low-healed shoes of soft leather. For the past three years, Essie had been dutiful about her Five Skillings practice, particularly the Dr. Lu core exercises. The blue shift fit her like a knife sheath.

Rallies were scheduled in every city and township. Today would be a day destined to remake the political fabric of Namibia. For months, active debates and proposals for solutions to Namibia’s wickedly complex social and economic problems had been argued and refined on Junana and also in the Namibian room in Castalia. The platform for the New SWAPO movement was no bragging sheet, it was well considered and ready for implementation after the coming year’s election. Granges were not solutions in themselves, but they were the laboratories where solutions would be found.

§§§

 

A political rally in the District was such a non-event that Harold Farmer hardly paid it notice. One of his assistants was assigned to cover the event. Research told him this was one of several being spun up on Junana as a part of this “New Republican” movement that was already shaking up the political establishment. 

Back in April, rumors of a computer virus infecting the accounts of offshore banks erupted on the internet. The accounts and the accounting were so shrouded in secrecy that even intrepid investigative reporters were stumped. At the end of May most of Farmer’s largest backers stopped answering their phones. Reports of trillions of missing off-shore funds hit the headlines. By July most of their phones were disconnected. Come October, the Gato Institute would be living on fumes.

Harold was getting set to prepare an early dinner when he got a text on his cell phone from his assistant, Caitlin.

“U want to know what Discourse Repair looks like? Turn on your TV.”

 Harold punched the remote. The gorgeous blonde announcer, whose name escaped him, was barely able to read her prompter. Backed by a world map speckled with red dots, her gaze was fixed on a spot just above the camera lens. The attention of most of her geriatric audience was fixed on a spot of lightly freckled skin smack between her tits. He turned up the volume.

“Rallies across Asia and Australia, the Middle East and Africa were just the beginning of a day of political action on a scale that the world has never seen. Um, before. Crowds in virtually every European city marched and cheered on speakers who mostly encouraged their followers to become more involved in the political process. Here in the US, marches in cities across the Eastern Seaboard have concluded, while those in the Midwest are still in progress and others in the Mountain States and the West have yet to begin. With national elections less than three months away, pundits are looking ahead to an active political season.”

 “An active political season,” he parroted back to the TV. The announcer had moved on to the latest courtroom drama. He grabbed his phone, texting. “I need numbers on all rallies world-wide on my desk when I arrive tomorrow.”

“So it begins,” he said. He went to his refrigerator and chose an Italian white wine, pouring himself a large glass. They certainly took their time, he considered, leaning back against the kitchen counter. It’s been nearly a decade. 

§§§

 

Megan spoke with breathless excitement. “Mom, you would have loved it. Thirty thousand people out on State Street from the beach all the way up to the courthouse. The crowd was three-to-four times as large as the courthouse gardens could fit. They set up a screen and projector in a nearby park for the overflow. Nicky and the other candidates gave stirring speeches about democracy in everyday life.”

Claire said, “We took up all of Lancaster Avenue from downtown to the campus. The local politicos had never seen anything like it.” 

“The internet is buzzing. There must be a million photo tweets already from hundreds of rallies,” Megan said. “And the reports from Europe…”

“Wait. Let me find the email from Jenn,” Claire said. Jennifer Bouchez was back in Paris with her new beau, Billy Preston. “Megan, listen to this, ‘Claire. Rally here filled central Paris. From the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde nothing could move. The Front National had never organized an event of this scope. The speeches were spot on. Transcultural understanding, open borders, shared work, dignity, and playfulness. The old guard were furious. Billy and I had such fun. Miss you. Say hello to Megan and Nick for us.’”

Megan laughed. “Billy and Jenn. Talk about a power couple. Speaking of furious, how is the old guard treating you in Pennsylvania?”

“We haven’t been on speaking terms since I invited two thousand gamers to the ‘exclusive’ July Republican garden party. The local Republican committee told me I would not be getting a penny of their general election funding. I think I pretended to be hurt. They had another pledge for me to sign. Something about arming school janitors.”

“Sounds like a winning idea to me,” said Megan, shaking her head.

“That’s what I said when I signed it and sent them off. Apparently, Smiley Wilson, who I beat in the primary, was after them to support a write-in campaign. But seeing how eager I was to supply automatic weapons to kindergarten custodians seems to have blunted his argument. To him this was a wedge issue. Turns out, I gave him a policy wedgie.

“They’re in for a surprise,” Megan said. That whole summer was the first time she had paid much attention to politics. “What do you hear from Michael and Betsy?”

“They are still hanging out in Moorea. No word about any attempt to extradite Michael. He’s been super busy optimizing the code for Castalia and Junana. Betsy’s getting a good vacation. Jack went back to Europe in the AirCraft with Billy and Jenn. He is making quiet inquiries, the way he does. I think everything will settle down.”

Megan said goodbye to her mom and surfed to a cable news website video feed. A local “New Republican” candidate for senate was talking about “dignity:” dignity of the process, dignity of the office. Dignity for the worker, the child, and the elderly. “Dignity,” she said, “is not negotiable.” 

The scene cut to the newsroom where a newscaster turned to an analyst.

“Brittany,” the analyst said, tenting his pudgy fingers under one of his chins. “They say ‘dignity’ every time they want to take your hard-earned dollar and give it away to some bum on the street. What about my dignity?” He raised his hands in mock despair. “All this extra dignity is going to be expensive. Higher minimum wages, more government health coverage, God knows the Social Security system is broken already.”

“Talk about a discourse needing repair,” Megan thought.

§§§

 

The note was hand-written, as if that counted for something. Juniper found it on her desk after work. 

“Just got an email from Beadle College. If I don’t show up by next Monday they will pull their invitation. I knew you’d be sad, and I can’t handle any more sadness right now. Anyhow, like you said, I need to take more responsibility for the planet. My hope is that we will meet again and carry on from there. I do love you. Fred.”

Juniper looked around the room. The things he had left on her desk were gone. So was he. 

A welling anger competed with a flood of self doubt. Her first thought was: this is how it feels to be dumped. Samantha had always been the dumper. Friends she grew tired of or simply wanted to hurt at that moment she dismissed like lazy servants. Juniper had tried so hard to keep up with Fred. He must have finally gotten bored… 

“He’s a jerk,” Sinna stood at the open doorway. “Damn SilverSurfers always walk away when they get the chance.”

Juniper turned to face her, still holding the note.

Sinna said, “He texted me from the train. Said I should look in on you.”

“You’ve done that. Now go away.”

“Something I’ve got to do first.” Sinna came forward and locked Juniper in a hug. She wrapped her arms around her as though Juniper might otherwise fall. She pressed Juniper’s head to her shoulder and whispered, “You are magnificent. This hurt will not hurt you, so let it flow through you. Then be done with it and with him.”

Sinna leaned back and looked Juniper in the eyes. Juniper was tearing; her throat hurt like some internal steel vice had been applied. “I…” Juniper tried and failed to speak.

Sinna said, “Go out and walk it off. That’s what I’d do. That’s what I’ve done, way too many times. I will be back to take you to dinner. There will be beer tonight.” She turned and left.

Juniper gathered her coat. Outside, the veldt was cooling.






TWENTY

Harold Farmer clicked on the eleven o’clock news on the first Tuesday in November. The polls had closed on the West Coast and they were predicting a New Republican sweep of the house races out there. 

Hank Thoroughgood, NNC’s crusty election maven gave the final commentary: “The youth vote, which was forecasted to be the death of the Republican Party, has brought new life to the GOP. With the polls closed on the West Coast, we predict that the Republican Party will take more than four hundred seats in the House, and hold a comfortable sixty-one seat majority in the Senate. Democratic President Rogers finds herself alone, isolated in the White House, but perhaps not so lonely. These young Republicans have adopted many of her own campaign objectives.”

“Make that ‘New Republicans,’ Hank.” Harold spoke back to the TV. This was a conspicuously quiet election, with very few attack advertisements. In fact, the networks and newspapers say it was the worst election year in memory for advertising spending.

Hank Thoroughgood continued, “They are not only taking their seats in Congress, they are filling seats in state houses, in county administrations, and city halls. At no time in the history of the nation have so many new faces been elected into government service. Come January our nation will be run by a crew of rookies, many of them barely of electable age. With the collapse of large sectors of the economy last spring after the largest cyber-terror attack in history, these new legislators will face an uphill climb to bring stability to a shattered society. This is a passage of a generation, and an open door to an uncertain future.”

Harold had tried to join Junana ten years before, shortly after it appeared on the internet. At that time, the social network decided he was not being sufficiently accurate in the content of his profile. They had placed a sincerity alert on this, a red border that signaled his information might not be precise. Or, in his case, that his self description had veered away from how others perceived him to be. Some time after that, he worked with a group that had hacked the Junana administrative system and nearly became its owners. Harold had few expectations when he logged in earlier today.

Indeed, Harold was lucky that Michelle, the Guide of Guides, was no longer resident in the Junana software. She might have wanted some answers he was not prepared to provide. Instead, the software pointed out those fields where Harold had either omitted information or enlarged his self perception. With a sigh and a large tumbler of Oban, Harold fixed his profile information and entered Junana. He had no plans to share pet photos and selfies with his old RIND buddies. It was ex-assistant Caitlin who prompted him to venture back into the Junana social network.

 

Caitlin had come to pick up her final paycheck the previous week, as the office was closing for good. She could have grabbed it and left, but she knocked on his door and stuck her head in.

“Harold,” she said. It was the first time she used his given name. “We need to talk.”

“I’m busy…”

“No, you’re not busy. You’re unemployed.” She stepped into his office. “And all the people who ever offered you a job or funded your schemes are also unemployed and probably broke.”

“That’s not…” Harold watched her sit. “…you might be right about that.”

“You’re how old? Sixty-seven? Seventy?”

“Sixty-four.” He sat up a little straighter.

“So, I could still be your granddaughter. Let me give you a bit of grand-daughterly advice.”

“As you so kindly mentioned. I have no excuse not to listen.”

“Next week we’ll see thousands of Gamers elected to public office. In another two years, Gamers will control every city, every state house, both houses of congress and the presidency.”

“That’s quite a prediction.”

“If I’m wrong I’ll buy the drinks. You realize that each grange and every grange factory takes election days as paid holidays, yes? And that new granges are opening every day? Here’s my advice. You need to pivot toward the Game.”

“They hate me there.”

“You are too insignificant for them to hate.”

“Ouch.” He wanted to tell her about how really close he came to owning that damn game.

She continued. “See, that’s your problem. You need to drop the ego and pick up some dignity. Become a Threevey and join a grange somewhere. Earn some badges and have fun. You are wound way too fucking tight.”

“That’s your advice? Join a grange?”

“It’s too late to get a job at Halmart,” she said. Halmart had filed for bankruptcy the previous week.

“You don’t think I can do better than that?” 

“Harold, don’t knock it ‘till you try it. It’s never too late to exit TRO2.”

“Trow two?”

“The rest of the world. That dwindling, vestigial part you still live in.” She stood, waved the check at him for her goodbye, and left.

 

Harold looked at the entry scene to Junana. There were two large wooden doors. One read “Junana,” the other, “Game.” He clicked on the Game door and it opened to a gothic cloistered garden. The stonework looked ancient. A dawn glow suffused the scene. An iridescent bee-eater landed on a stone ledge and let out a song. This might be an abby in Southern France, or something like that copied in Cambridge or Oxford. In its center, leaning back against the stone fountain that gurgled aggressively behind her, a woman in her middle years dressed in a tight tweed wool skirt and a shimmering red silk blouse, with long cascading brunette hair, and, curiously, bare feet, removed her eyeglasses and smiled at him. Then she spoke, in a voice with a timbre that might have been… Harold smiled. Yes, like Veronica Lake.

“Harold, you old dog you, I’ve been waiting for you for years. My name is Anne. I’m your guide. We are going to be the most fabulous of friends. Come along, we have so much to do. On the side of your screen you’ll find the commands to move your avatar.”

§§§

 

With Fred gone, and this huge wound in her being still there from his going, the lingering breakup bardo she had not yet escaped, Juniper retreated from her dachi into the Five Skillings. Moses had drilled her on them many times in Level Two. 

“The intellect is the home of curiosity and the province of memory,” Moses repeated as the Game rolled a montage of images that locked his meaning into her memory. “Language is the palace of poetry and the workshop of the mind. The body is the first connection to the world. All other connections are built on the body. The internal voice is the only friend we have at birth and death. It is the backstop for all other actions. The ability to exist alone, to be guided and comforted by one’s own philosophy, this is the primary skill that allows the individual to be social. Social skilling creates healthy boundaries and openings for intimacy with others.” 

Most Threeveys worked on one or more of the arts—music, drama, painting, sculpture, or dance—to explore their engagement with the body as the first connection to the world. The handpan continued to console Juniper alone in her room or out on the verandah in the lingering twilight of the approaching summer. This one was tuned to the hijaz scale, a minor key used in music from Flamenco to Klezmer to Indian ragas. Sinna had taught her the basics. Juniper joined in classes and jams with others in the grange, and picked up tunes and techniques off the web. After some months, she no longer cursed her lack of skill and settled into a growth curve where her fingers explored the sonic beauty in the metal.

§§§

 

The mood of the sub-basement conference room at Fort Meyers was somber. Friends and colleagues were dead.

Morgan Lewis, section-chief for counter-terrorism at the NSA, pressed a button on the table and an image of their dead coworkers appeared on the screen. He spoke, “The kidnapping of Dr. O’Hara failed because of a random orthogonal force: two Russian hitmen.” 

“This is from a surveillance camera at the gate of a public parking garage in Santa Barbara.” A video clip showed a white cargo van with two white males in the front seats. 

“The driver and his friend here are Yuri Borisenko and Pavel Padalka. They specialize in wet work. Until recently they were under hire from Dmitri Volkov, who is reported to have been killed in a Moscow prison, although we have no confirmation of that. Several of Russia’s corporate oligarchs have been murdered recently after losing their fortunes in the Pandora incident. I guess bodyguards and goons expect to be paid. Yuri and Pavel’s presence in Santa Barbara was unfortunate for the operation and for our operatives, whose bodies were discovered in the trunk of the car that Yuri and Pavel had earlier driven into the parking structure.”

“We are no longer interested in Dr. O’Hara. The collapse of mesh computing has been well documented by a number of technology firms as being inevitable, given the brittleness of the software. One positive outcome has been the erasure of the artificial intelligence malware known as Michelle. When the meshes failed, we believe her code got erased.”

“Scott, can you introduce our new I.T. member?”

Scott Dunlop stood and gestured to the man at his left. Overweight, narrow-eyed and bespectacled, the late-middle-aged nerd was dressed in a tight white shirt and a tie that could have been vintage, except for the coffee stains.

“I would like to introduce our own mesh computing expert, Dr. Don Driscoll. Colonel Rankin hired him just before…” He coughed. “Don came to us uniquely equipped to work on our mesh computing endeavor.”

Don glanced around the room and nodded. 

A couple years back, Don had returned to Goleta, California. He went to open up a bank account at the same bank he used way back when he was working for Michael O’Hara on the original Game release. The bank informed him that his safe-deposit box rent was overdue. When he opened the box, he found a single data-DVD. On this was the source code to the Game mesh computer. Don took an afternoon and compared this to the codebase that Scratchy had released to the public. That is when he discovered several thousand different lines of code. He contacted Rankin, to whom he had tried to sell this same code. She added him to her team just in time to set off the StormVermin attack.

Morgan waited for Don to speak up. When he didn’t, Morgan said, “We could use an introduction to the new mesh you’ve designed.”

“Sure,” Don said. 

He closed his eyes for a long pause and then began to speak. 

“Now that our version of StormVermin has been released, this improved NSA mesh, code-named Gorgoroth, will be the only durable mesh computer remaining on the planet.” 

Don opened his eyes. “I started with O’Hara’s source code—not the one that was made public…” an event that cost Don the millions of dollars that the NSA was going to pay him for this code. Now he had to settle for a civil service job salary.

 “…I’m talking about the mesh that carried the Game to every laptop connected to any local network where the Game was installed. We will implement that code, together with several even more invasive sub-routines.” Scratchy’s most powerful network routines had been commented out inside the code with his own words: “this is pure malware, do not use.”

“O’Hara’s mesh was designed to grab CPU and RAM from millions of computers. We are looking to also implement sniffers to grab screen shots and key strokes. Gorgoroth’s reach will eventually include every networked computer on the planet. We will be able to monitor and potentially control digital communication at all levels across the globe.” Don was almost singing now. He had finally found his glory moment. “Gentlemen, welcome to the future of espionage.”






TWENTY-ONE

On US congressional inauguration weekend in DC, the breakfasts, luncheons, ceremonies, and balls had long been choreographed to cement the new congress into a formulaic Americana panoply. Cotillions and formal balls. Ritualized ceremonials, prayer meetings. Lobster and bison with apple pie while listening to the Marine Corps Band. The hotels were bursting and the hookers were solidly booked. 

This year more than three-hundred first-term congress members joined thirty first-term senators in the largest turn-over of seats in the history of congress. The parties this year were particularly lively; as hot as DC in January was cold. Many of the newly-elected congress women and men were barely twenty-five years old. DJs were spinning wild house mixes in bars and lounges across the District.

Claire and Winston had secured a three-bedroom condominium on a top floor in the Cairo Building on Q Street, where they hosted Megan, Nick, and little Desi in from California, together with Jenn and Billy over from Paris. Billy and his company had just announced they were no longer charging license fees to grange-based airlines for the use of their HydroCubes, the technology that floated thousands of AirCraft worldwide. This move promised near zero net-marginal costs for new routes serving remote areas.

The day was crisp and clear, and from their west-facing windows they could see a line-up of AirShips, big and small, parked across the Potomac in Virginia airspace. All the major airlines were now offering AirShip service. American Airlines had dubbed theirs “Clipper Service” with a retro 1940’s styling for a premium fare. United responded with its own luxury branding. Behemoth cargo AirShips were hauling hundreds of containers silently across the continent at a steady two-hundred miles an hour, signaling the end of rail shipping.

Betsy and Scratchy were still in Tahiti, awaiting some news on Scratchy’s legal standing with the NSA. Claire had promised to prod the Department of Justice on this as soon as she took up office. Betsy longed to return to New Orleans.

Back from the official swearing-in ceremony and the welcome at the White House, Claire found Jenn in the living room on her laptop. Winston and Billy had been waylaid by a group of Winston’s Wharton chums for drinks at a nearby oyster bar.

Jenn looked up and smiled. “Claire, grab your laptop. Betsy and some of the boys are in The Room. Come join us!”

§§§

 

Claire logged in. The Room was still modded as Betsy’s house in the Garden District. Jack, Itchy, Scratchy, Jenn, and Betsy were in a heated debate around the dining table.

“This all seems too fuckin’ Gaia for my tastes,” Scratchy put up his challenge.

“Maybe we could use a few centuries of Gaia after what we’ve done to the planet,” Jenn said.

“So, after nation-states we simply revert to watersheds? Jack, help me out here,” Scratchy said.

“I’m with Jenn,” Jack said. “What better shape and form of polity can you suggest than one that honors water: one of the basic ingredients of life?”

“How about the big cities?” Itchy said. “They’re going to need more water than the local watershed.”

“If they can’t negotiate for water, they will have to downsize,” Betsy said. “We need to direct our civil society into local stewardship mode, at least for a few generations. The Magisters have done their work. Let’s follow their lead.” 

Betsy’s avatar glanced around the whole table…

“Claire!” she said. “Welcome. Shouldn’t you be dressing up and getting drunk about now?”

“Winston and I are taking Jenn and Billy over to the big dance at the Four Seasons Hotel in a little while. What exactly did the Magisters conclude?”

Jack said, “Every grange within the Game grange system will be renamed according to the watershed where they are situated. Granges within the same watershed will share stewardship for this resource. They are also charged to plan toward a one-hundred-percent local sourcing for a long list of primary goods and services, including food and energy. For the present, they will work with all of the currently overlapping government agencies in their watershed, with a goal of eventual remapping.”

Jenn picked up on this. “Remapping means the end of nation states. Each watershed will be its own self-governing and self-sustaining locale, with upstream and downstream relations between them.”

“The end of nation states. You might have told me that before I got elected to Congress,” Claire said and put a smile on her avatar.

“This will take some time,” Jack said. “I’d say twenty years or more. How’s that omnibus bill coming along?”

Claire said, “Just polishing up the summary.” All of the newly elected New Republicans had been working on a bill that unwound the twisted loopholes that had been snarling government operations and rewarding wealthy donors for the past half century or more. This work was facilitated by the Great Games challenge in the past year. Several million gamers helped mark up text for revision in the US Code. 

“Be ready for a Valentines Day surprise. We need to get this passed before the constitutional convention movement gets announced.”

“Why the rush?” Betsy said.

Claire said, “Simon figures we have a real advantage in our ability to move at a velocity much faster than the old political order. We can keep them off balance and stay several steps ahead.”

“Where is Simon Bishop?” Itchy said. “I’d sure like to buy him a beer.”

“The last time I spoke with him,” Jenn said, “He could not stop talking about how Castalia synchronizes and amplifies political opportunity on top of real learning and shared knowledge. Think about it. We have two billion Threeveys and higher-level gamers spread across the globe. Most of these are active in scenes on Junana and earn badges in CraftTown. A few hundred million of them volunteer a week of their cognitive abilities each year during the Great Games. Tens of millions show up for Simon’s annual Frolix events. And millions more are contributing to open designs and demand-and-supply chains through the Bourse.”

“Without Michelle to watch over him, Simon is even deeper in hiding,” Scratchy said.

Claire said, “Hold on… Yes, Winston and Billy just came in. Got to run.”

§§§

 

RK was tuning up the dachi for this year’s Great Games. He sent out links to the videos for the winning Queries from the past five years. Joseph had never watched another Gamer’s Query before. He very quickly found he could anticipate the moves before they were made. These were compound questions that required several different template strands to resolve. There were only a few strands where Joseph needed to go back to the Game and reweave on his own. 

His gumi was actively remodeling Mr. Desi’s grand house into a shared living space with gardens and baths for a couple dozen members and a dozen more guests. So many Gamers on walkabout would be eager to spend a night at the Grand Meister’s house. Everybody pitched in. Joseph worked in the gardens, doing whatever they instructed him. As he raked the soil his mind was filled with the Queries he had watched before breakfast. 

“Joseph!” a voice called. He looked up. 

Sita, who directed the gardeners, stood in front of him. “You’ve been standing there leaning on your rake for half an hour.”

“What?” Joseph saw she was frowning. “Sorry. I’m thinking about the Great Games.”

“I don’t think you’ll be earning any permaculture badges. Gardening is not your forte. What is it you want to do with your life?”

“I make chappals,” he said. He thought everybody knew that.

“Your father makes chappals. When did you last make one?”

Joseph reflected. “Maybe six months ago.”

“I would suggest that it’s more accurate to say that you used to make chappals. What do you want to do now?”

He looked around him. The grounds were abuzz with people applying a range of skills, none of which he was even remotely interested in acquiring. The idea that his future would not include being a chappal wallah struck him like a thunderclap. 

“I don’t have to make chappals,” he mused. His life was open and unknown. The feeling was exhilarating. He wanted to hug Sita, but restrained himself.

“You don’t have to do anything, except find what you need to do and grow into what you want to be.”

“I must think on this,” he agreed, grinning.

“Finish up raking this section of the garden while you do that,” she said, “and then come give me your rake. You’re done here.”

She moved away and turned back. “What are you smiling about?”

“I don’t have to make chappals.”

Joseph went back to his room in the gumi house not far from the grange. He spent several hours working through a particularly convoluted Template strand. At the end of this, a message appeared on his screen: “Congratulations. You have completed Level Five. Your yellow Sixer shirt is waiting for you at any Red Star Coffee location. Your Junana account now gives you access to all parts of Castalia except for the interior castle grounds. Welcome to Castalia, and well done!”

§§§

 

US President Rebecca Rogers received a frantic call from her congressional point person. A bill had just sailed through the house at the start of the morning session. It was then rushed to the Senate where this was already under consideration. 

“They’re calling this bill the “Spring Breeze Act of 2019.” 

“‘Spring Breeze’? Where have I heard that before?” Rebecca said.

“It’s also the name of a commercial beauty product,” he said and hesitated. “I believe it’s the largest selling feminine cleansing product on the market. The introduction to the Act calls it ‘a first step in refactoring the US Code’. I’ve emailed you the summary they posted.”

Rebecca smiled to herself as she set down the phone receiver. After decades of grubby political infighting and K Street-larded legislation, this was something brand new, and yes, refreshing. The United States Code, the aggregated verbiage of twenty decades of lawmaking, was more than two-hundred thousand pages long. Newly passed federal laws simply created an additional dimple on its crust, a bit of plaster with new directions for agencies or the public. As such it was not assembled as much as it was excreted. To systematically revise it would require a hundred legal scholars working for decades. 

Rebecca remembered a paper Professor Jennifer Bouchez published a couple years back, “Unlocking Cognitive Surplus Across the Planet.” Granges, Bouchez argued, were tapping into huge reservoirs of cognitive surplus: those hours every day when a person, say an adult in the US, would have otherwise occupied through passive entertainments, mostly watching TV. Each grange captured about a million hours of this surplus every year. Rebecca did the math: globally, that meant an extra trillion hours of brain power was now available to learn new skills, invent new designs, or, she smiled and nodded slowly, to author massive pieces of new legislation.  

Over time, various special interests have cemented their own fortunes into the US Code. The “Healthy Forest Act” allowed clear-cutting of entire forests in order to “get more sunlight to the forest floor.” The “Blue Streams Act” prohibited the EPA from monitoring a hundred industrial effluents in the water. The entire tax code was a great loophole-infested tar baby daring anyone to come near. 

Rebecca clicked on the incoming email message. The summary was a surprisingly long list of changes to existing laws, deletions of special clauses and amendments, several of which Democrats had been instrumental in authoring. The list was surgical and comprehensive. It went back to laws several decades old. It announced some diplomatic issues to be resolved should it pass. 

Her cell rang; the vice president. He repeated much of what had just learned, and added, “They pushed this bill directly to the Senate floor. The call for cloture has just happened.” Rebecca sat back in her great chair. That means they were ready for it. The actual cloture vote would be automatic in two days. She glanced at her computer. Her special email inbox was bursting with new messages.

“Cloture will be on Sunday.”

“There are sixty-four senators who have vowed to stay on the floor of the Senate until the cloture vote.” Without an actual filibuster, decades of lobbyist jockeyed legislation would simply vanish. 

“I need a list of those senators. We might need to trade some heads.” Rebecca hung up. She buzzed for her chief of staff.

He poked his head around the door. “You heard?” 

“Come in. I want you to contact the leaders of the House to meet with me this afternoon. I want to see Lee Chisholm and Claire Fairchild here by four. Clear off my other appointments. Make sure the whole cabinet has a copy of this summary. Get someone on your staff to check it against the actual bill. I don’t want any surprises.”

§§§

 

The cool-down from a Dr. Loo exercise class includes a good bit of transverse neuro-work, lying down on your back, and then at least five minutes of shavasana meditation. Juniper stood up at the end and stretched her neck as she toweled off. 

The day had been another scorcher; Summer in the Kalahari. Fortunately, the desert cooled rapidly after dark. The Horse Gumi was about to set up for an evening dance, which Juniper would skip. She not looking to start any kind of romantic adventure. Not yet. She had wildly mixed feelings about what will happen in six months when she turns eighteen and announces that she is, in fact, that Samantha Mooney: the one from the hack on Castalia. She planned to legally change her name to Juniper, but still, the whole world would know who she was. Junana would see to that. This was also not a secret one could keep from a true boyfriend, nor one she could expect him to keep should they break up.  

Juniper set off for the baths. Before she reached the door, she was confronted by a couple of her dachi mates. Enny and Carol were actually younger than she was. Carol was slim and Juniper’s height. Enny was fuller in her hips and thighs and a couple inches shorter. They were in street clothes, and intent with some shared purpose, which involved them insisting that Juniper accompany them to the Monkey Gumi cafe for an ice coffee and a conversation. The bath, they insisted, would wait. 

Seated with their drinks near a window that looked out on the veldt painted russet in the sunset, Carol nodded at Enny.

“Go on,” she said.

“We are impressed how well you have adjusted to our African grange lifestyle,” said Enny, focusing her full attention on Juniper.

“African? You realize these things are all over the world,” said Juniper.

“Yes,” Carol said, “But their logic is entirely African. We have had many discussions about how this must be affecting the social fabric of places like Europe and the US.”

“The first grange was in England. It was simply an elaborate maker-space. To me, granges seem really European. Anyhow, I’ve been wondering how people here who have traditionally lived in small bands feel comfortable in this larger social envelope. We’ve got almost two-thousand people in one space.”

Enny and Carol glanced at each other. Silence ensued. 

Enny spoke. “Dachis replicate our traditional primary inner social grouping almost exactly; people who we can turn to for anything. Gumis add a secondary social grouping, very much like the bands we’ve always lived in, friends who have strong reciprocal ties for sharing whatever is needed. The mura is our tribe. My mother does not understand this, but I believe this is what we must accept and celebrate.”

Carol said, “I tell my mom that we are pledged to not get pregnant until we are thirty, and she goes crazy. Enny is right. This is our home now. These are our people. So are you. This place is very much like our camps, so very similar to how we have always lived on this Earth.” Smiling broadly, she leaned forward and touched Juniper on her forearm.

Carol added, “Where do you think demand sharing came from? San peoples have been doing this is Botswana and Namibia for many thousands of years. We have never forgotten how to share, and now we see how this can really work anywhere. You are the proof. You come here from a place where nobody shares at all, and yet you are the most sharing person we know.” 

“People share a lot where I come from,” Juniper said, immediately knowing that was so not the case; at least outside of the granges. Dwayne would never even share his popcorn at the movies. Sheryl wouldn’t give you the time of day. Samantha, well, she learned enough from her parents to never lend out a blouse, even one she was planning to toss away. 

Enny said, “I’m not talking about oversharing your personal dramas on Junana, I’m talking about sharing everything that means the most to you. Letting go of important things, knowing others will share theirs with you later.”

Carol said, “This is why we hate to see you so unhappy. We have decided to find you a proper African boyfriend…”

“Boyfriend?” Juniper said. So, this was their project. “You… you want to share yours?” 

She set her other hand on top of Carol’s. “That’s, um, really…”

Enny laughed. “No… no. So very no. You mess with her Kgosie, and Carol would need to harm you. We are talking about all the single men here: those love-hungry boys your guide should have been introducing you to…”

Carol turned and glanced across the room. At a table near the far wall, her current boyfriend, Kgosie, was mostly pretending to browse the internet on his tablet. Their eyes met and he grinned.

Turning back, Carol said, “… instead of some scrawny California Silversurfer. We do not understand why your guide was so lazy about this…”

“… But now that guides are not able to communicate, we will pick up where he failed. We already have several really great boys in mind,” Enny said. “All of them are at least Fourveys, and good looking too.”

§§§

 

Claire had been to the White House back in January, as one of hundreds of new members of congress. This time, the invitation came in person. Claire and Lee Chisholm, the speaker of the house, were seated in the anteroom of the Oval Office. Any minute now they would be talking with President Rebecca Rogers.

Lee, a seven-term congressman from New Mexico and a Democrat, was famous for his congenial, collaborative abilities, which made him perfect for this job. Claire had few of these traits, but she was the elected leader of the New Republican Congressional Caucus, the most powerful position in the House, since this caucus had a supermajority of members. Lee had been responsible for convincing enough Democrats in the Senate to join with the New Republican senators to support cloture of the Spring Breeze Act. This was precisely why the Caucus had reached across the aisle to elect a Democrat as Speaker.

The bill’s name had been first raised as a joke in the Caucus, but struck a cord with the members, many of whom had participated in frolicks in their granges. They also remembered the “Clear Sky Act” which prohibited the EPA from measuring sulfur dioxide in the air and the “Safe Beaches Act” which prevented FEMA from mapping potential sea level rise due to climate change. Lee warned them about the inevitable avalanche of douche jokes, but the Caucus was firm on this point.

The door opened and Sam Beaumont, the president’s chief of staff, motioned them to enter. President Rebecca Rogers was standing in front of her desk. She had chosen the Resolute desk, the same one Kennedy used. She stepped forward and shook their hands. 

“Hello Lee,” she said. “How are Cynthia and the boys?”

“All well. Thank you, Rebecca.”

The President turned to Claire. “Claire, we didn’t get much of a chance to talk when you were here last. Ben and I would be very happy to have you and Winston over for dinner some time soon.”

“That would be lovely, President Rogers.” Claire wondered how long they were going to chat before the hammer came down. 

“That’s Rebecca.” Rebecca gave Claire a real smile, not the picture-perfect one she can do. “You know I cannot possibly support this bill of yours.” 

That was quick, Claire thought.

“…At least, not in public.”

Lee looked over Claire and winked.

“If you veto it…” Claire started.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Lee said quietly. “I have a list of Democratic Party goals that match the outcomes of this legislation. These are talking points from your own campaign, Rebecca. All you need to do is be consistent here. Nobody can fault you on that.”

“I’m afraid this bill is going to stir up a real shit storm, Lee. I’m getting calls from both sides. A lot of calls.”

“What about your Cabinet?” Claire said.

“They think its the best piece of legislation in the past century. Particularly Commerce and the EPA. My budget office tells me it’s the largest net tax increase we’ve had in forty years…”

“Much of that comes from canceling out favors to oil companies…” Claire said.

 “…Who have been on the phone to my chief of staff all day. The Sunday morning news shows will be brutal. The Senate can’t vote until late Sunday afternoon, can you hold on to your quorum?”

 Lee said, “I’m working closely with the Majority Leader. We have thirty-one Democrats and all thirty-three New Republicans. They’re staying on the floor of the Senate the whole time, we’ve arranged for futons to be brought in. The minority whip has collected their cellphones.”

“Going old school. I like that. Claire, you chose a great Speaker.” Rebecca picked a piece of note paper off her desk and handed this to Lee who glanced at it. Claire looked at him. He was frowning.

“What do you want?” he said. He folded the note and slipped it into his suit coat pocket.

“I just want what every President wants. I want my appointees confirmed rapidly. I want my budget to be well considered. I want to move this nation forward.”

“We’re happy to work with you,” Claire said. “That’s why we’re here.”

“You pull this bullshit Spring Breeze stunt and tell me you want to work with me? I’m supposed to be leading this circus. Now I’ve got to spend my whole weekend doing damage control. From now on, I need to be in the loop. Forget the loop, I need to be on the ground floor. My people tell me the amount of work you put into this one bill is probably more than the last three congresses managed altogether. My chief of staff has an opening for a special assistant. Pick someone for that job, someone who knows everything about what you’re planning. I want my cabinet to be informed—in advance—on any future legislation of this type. Claire, I’m happy to work with you too, as long as you remember who’s who here.”

“Madam President, my Caucus is ready to cooperate.” Claire looked over at Lee who nodded at her.

“We’ve taken too much of your time,” he said, stepping forward to shake Rebecca’s hand.

“Nonsense! I hope to see you both back here regularly. Now we’ve all got to get ready for a douche-filled news cycle. And Claire; next time you name a bill, be smart, not smart-assed.”

“The Caucus was, how do I say it…exuberant, Rebecca.” She stepped up and shook the president’s hand. “The next one will be different.”

“They always are,” said the president.

Claire turned to leave. Lee was almost to the door when Claire turned back.

“You didn’t mention reelection,” she said.

“Last thing on my mind, at this moment.” The president gestured nonchalantly.

“Well, next time you think about it, remember that my caucus was elected with a combined seventy-eight million votes.” Lee had opened the door and Claire followed him through it. Then they were out in the anteroom where a man with an earpiece was directing them toward the exit.

“What exactly was on that paper?” she asked.

“Seven names,” Lee said. “Senators we need that she controls.”

“For now,” Claire said. She saw Lee give her a look. It was a different look for him. A glint of fear. Rebecca Rogers had been elected president with only sixty-nine million votes.






TWENTY-TWO

So it happened, as it would each year, that the final days of the Great Games fell just before Joseph’s birthday. This year was Joseph’s first—and would be his last—Great Games. RK was furious that Joseph was somehow a Sixer. As a Fiver, Joseph’s innate talent was beyond charting, so his handicap would fail to account for his actual skill. RK figured Joseph’s impact on the score of the entire team would be enough to take them at least through the regional tournament.

Indeed, they might have gone the whole way; Joseph’s talent was also far beyond any other Sixer in the Game. Unfortunately, the other members of his team, astonished by Joseph’s ability to leap through the most convoluted Query, played well below their own skill level. Their team from Mysore only made the global quarter finals before bowing out to a dachi with nine female players from Arequipa, Peru, which later went all the way to the finals.

Still, they had accomplished the highest placement of any team ever from Karnataka. The whole grange celebrated their success, as well and as fully as they did Joseph’s thirteenth birthday.

In the week leading up to the Great Games, all of the participants, millions of Gamers in thousands of dachis, spent a whole week fathoming the connections between military and juridical power and civil societies and nation states. For this purpose, they delved into the history of armies, prisons, courts and battlegrounds. Joseph’s dachi researched every local source they could locate for the justification of fatal or coercive power wielded by a few on behalf of the many and toward the other. They added their the results of their collective intellligence to the online forum for additional research. 

§§§

 

Dickey Gronberg set down the report and signed its cover page. This would be sent to the Secretary of Commerce by the end of the week. The report outlined the sequence of events that led to the bankruptcy of Halmart, once the largest retailer on the planet. Halmart’s business plan was based on its ability to squeeze profits by externalizing as many costs as possible and using its size to leverage better prices from its suppliers. Its profit margins were slight, but its overall size and annual growth had guaranteed a stable stock price, up until five years ago when its same-store sales plateaued and started to slip. The company reduced the pay across its employee base, a move that hurt the sales associates, overnight stockers, and cashiers the hardest. Even with the economy in a recession, Halmart began to have trouble attracting new employees, and its stores fell into dysfunction. They grew dirty, understocked, and grossly understaffed. Customers fled. 

Dickey sat back in his chair and looked out his window toward the Capitol. His promotion to Assistant Director at the Bureau of Economic Analysis got him a window office in the Hoover Building. More than three thousand Halmart stores, many of them almost two-hundred thousand square-feet in size, were on the market, along with another twenty-thousand or so shopping centers and strip malls. In a year or two these giant box stores would be sold at auction. He guessed most would be snatched up as granges and grange factories. And those factories in China? That was an open question. His phone rang.

“Dickey, this is Claire. Claire Fairchild. We last met, oh, must be a decade ago in the RIND conference room in L.A.”

“Of course. You were Claire Doolan back then. That was before your congressional career. Congrats on that.” 

Claire said, “I have a favor to ask. I’m hoping your boss won’t mind. I want to recommend you as a special assistant, a kind of envoy, in the Office of the President.”

“An envoy to where?”

“To Castalia, actually. As a Meister, you are always welcome in the Council Chamber of the Magisters. As a high-ranking official in the executive branch, you know your way around the Cabinet. I think you’re perfect for this job.”

“What exactly is the job?”

“A go-between, something of an informal ambassador to Castalia. Your job is to learn as much as you can about the results of the various research efforts underway through the Great Games and other Meister conclaves and be prepared to advise the White House privately on your findings. I briefed the Council of Magisters about this, and they are in full agreement. In fact, they are encouraging other governments to send similar advisors. Castalia plans to move rapidly, and so you’ll need to work fast to keep the White House in the loop.”

“Which side am I actually working for?”

“You work for the president, Dickey. Let me be really clear here. You are to keep every confidence given to you by the president and her staff. Your job is to answer any and all questions they have about Castalia, its research and its intentions. With your guidance, President Rogers will be able to deflect false rumors and will have a better sense of the Game’s impact on society.” 

“How long will this position last?”

“I’m thinking a two-year commitment, with potential renewal. Your current job will be yours when you return. As special assistant, you would report directly to her chief of staff and have daily access to the president. This will place you in the center of the action. I hope you are ready for that.”

“When can I start?” Dickey was grinning now. He felt like dancing. 

“Monday too soon? I can call over and let them know to get your credentials ready.”

“I appreciate your confidence in my abilities.”

“And I’m glad you’re up for it. I told the president we are hoping to work with her on a range of issues. I’ll probably be seeing you at the White House now and then.”

“Or in Castalia. I look forward to the chance to work together again.”

“So long, Dickey.”

“Goodbye.” Dickey put the phone down. “Yes!” he shouted.

His office door opened. 

“Sir?” his secretary said.

“I’ve decided to take the rest of the day off,” he said. “Cancel my appointments.”

§§§

 

Joseph bent over his laptop, typing.

Hi Tyisha,

            Yesterday was one of those days that I think I’ll never forget. My first real Holi play day. You don’t have Holi in Seattle, I know. I think it’s a little like your halloween, maybe. A day when everything is not meant to be normal. 

Since my family is Catholic, we never participated in Holi, except for getting attacked by bullies with colored water and powder. Holi was a day we hated worse than any other day in the year. Mostly we kept inside our hut. My father could not work on the street that day and my little sisters were terrified. So yesterday was the first time I got to throw powder back at people. My gumi chose blue as its color, and we spent the morning in the grange ambushing the other gumis. 

Outside, in the town, Holi is mainly a sport for young men to act badly. Lately they’ve begun to throw eggs as well as nasty colored-water balloons. Inside the grange we use only powder. We are all dressed in t-shirts that become rainbows by the end of the day. There is much laughter.

§§§

 

Joseph paused and looked out the window at a crow in a tree pecking on a banana peel it held in its claws. 

Just before lunch yesterday Joseph had snuck up behind Usha to plant a handful of blue powder on her back. He had been stalking her all morning. She must have sensed something, because she pivoted just as he struck. Her right forearm knocked his hand away while her left hand smacked him so hard on the forehead he tumbled backwards onto the ground in a cloud of blue. Stunned for an instant, he lay flat. He was about to sit up when she knelt beside him.

“Joseph! Are you OK? I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”

“I’m fine.” Joseph sat up. “That was a good one!”

Usha paused while she focused her gaze into his eyes. She seemed to make up her mind. Leaning forward she planted a firm kiss on his cheek. Her hand on his other cheek left a blue palm print. The kiss struck him harder than her previous blow. Joseph felt a fire of embarrassed excitement flood him from his toes to his ears. He reached for her.

Usha sat back out of range and wagged her finger at him.

“You are a silly little boy, you know that. I see you making puppy-dog eyes at me from across the table. I was also thirteen once, so I know precisely what you are feeling. It’s just a crush. Nothing hurts worse, I know. But it will fade if you let it go.” 

She put a fake frown on her face and a little steel in her voice. “This must stop. I will never kiss you again. I do like you. You are my little brother in the dachi. You may also be the smartest person in the grange, or the world for all I know. But you are just a boy. You should be playing football and kabaddi with your chums, and not on the Game all day long. You might try charming some girls of your own age. Just look at you, with that horrible spot on your shirt…”

Joseph glanced down instinctively and Usha smacked him soundly on the top of the head with another full fist of blue powder. Laughing, she stood and ran off across the courtyard into a throng shrouded in clouds of color. 

She was right, he knew. Nothing in his young life hurt him more than watching her go. Than knowing she was out of reach. Than wanting her more than ever. An azure-tinted teardrop meandered down his cheek as he stood up and tried to smile.

§§§

 

Joseph typed:

 After lunch, many in the grange went out to play Holi on the streets, but I was not in the mood. I won’t bother you with my heartbreaks. Ever since the GreatGames last month, I’ve been reading so much, some days I think my head will explode. Without Amitabh to watch over me, I’m afraid I do spend too much time in the Game. Now that I’m a Sixer I spend a lot of time in Castalia. I saw Mr. Desi there last week. He is living not far from you in a town called Portland. I would be happy to give you an introduction if you are going that way. 

Have you discovered semantic design templates? I ran across these last week. There is a group in Castalia that does nothing else. Their plan is to map whole languages into seamless semantic topologies using templates. I am still quite perplexed by the project, but something about it seems important.

In your last message, you wrote that your mother might allow you to enter a grange if your schoolwork was exemplary. I hope that has happened. I’m finding life inside the grange so much more…

Joseph glanced back at the crow, now wiping its beak back and forth on the tree limb where it stood. What was the right word…? 

 …rewarding than my life before, even though everybody treats me like a little kid. As you know, being the youngest member of a group is not so easy. I so wish you were here and not in Seattle.

Your friend

Joseph

§§§

 

Joseph was two years younger than the next youngest member of the grange. This circumstance saddled him with a unique status, somewhere between kid brother and mascot. Everybody knew him by sight, but very few outside his dachi spent time to even talk with him. They all had friends their own age. Take frolicks. Grangers were always looking to craft some idiotic program for the streets of Mysore: sadhu conga lines, impromptu Bollywood dance mobs, dueling maharaja durbars. Joseph was keen to join in, but was routinely told there was no role for someone his age. Joseph was also slight of build, which meant he was too little to be good at their sports. 

Too small for their sports, too young for their jokes, too innocent to curse like everybody else can and did. The Game had not even offered him the Sex-ed 101 course everybody whispered about. Joseph had so many questions in that area. After all, he was now thirteen. And he had his own black secret, something he would never tell a soul, and which worried him as nothing before in his life.


It happened just last week, the first and only night he slept on Mr. Desi’s bed. 

While the gumi had remodeled the rest of the house into a shared living and working space, they left Grand Meister Desi’s bedroom as he had kept it. First off, they felt he would enjoy this on his visits, and second, they knew that other gumi members could be offered a stay there for a couple nights as a reward for their service. The room was expansive, with its own bathroom and balcony. It even had a fireplace for cool winter nights. The bed was two already-large beds put together into one giant bed. 

As an honor, they chose Joseph to try it out first. The gumi had ceremonially opened the door to Desi’s room and then, with some applause, they pushed him joyfully inside and shut the door behind him. 

Joseph leaned back against the door. His eyes wandered across the room. The walls were a water-buffalo cream color; the smooth concrete floor had been painted the color of dark dove’s blood. The room was faced with a bank of windowed doors opening onto a broad veranda. 

He walked over and looked out. The veranda’s rattan lounge chairs were bathed in moonlight. Joseph imagined Usha reclining on one of them, dressed in her dancing costume, the silver light catching the silk weave of her Kanchipuram sari and revealing the curve of her chin and her breasts. He turned back to face the room. On one side wall a small fireplace in the shape of an elongated oval had been inserted into the stucco. The other side had two doors. 

Joseph went and opened the first one. The room it revealed was mostly empty, but it offered racks and poles for storing clothing and shoes, and built-in drawers now filled with sheets and towels. An entire room for clothes, it was almost as large as the grange’s clothing sharing room. Who could own so many? Joseph marveled. The other door opened up to a bathing room and a toilet, all done in sparkling white tile and enameled iron. A claw-footed bath took one end, and a large double shower the other. Joseph determined his next action.

Joseph showered and scrubbed himself clean. There was a big bar of soap that smelled like some flower he could not name. After drying himself off with one of Desi’s plush body-length terry towels, he stepped into a freshly laundered white undershirt and brand-new pair of underpants. 

He had never worn the later, but he read that Americans and other wealthy people did, so he picked up a pair of what they called “tighty-whities” at the General Store. Just for tonight, he figured, although he reasoned they would also work under his lungi.

Joseph turned off all the lights and gingerly slipped beneath the top sheets. The bed was a huge pool of soft into which he swam until he found the center. He glanced about him. The space of the bed was nearly as big as the entire hut where he had lived before he moved to the gumi house near the grange. 

For some years, Joseph had slept curled up on a mat on the dirt floor of this tiny hut. His little sisters shared a mat just beside him. His parents not a foot away behind him. All of this seemed reasonably comfy, and far better than sleeping outside with the pie dogs. The door to their hut opened to the shoulder of the great Ring Road, where traffic whizzed by noisily through the night. 

Joseph counted six pillows, bulging with soft feathers. He stretched out full length and his toes were still a good half a meter from the foot of the bed. Although the weather was turning warm as spring approached, they had lit a small fire in the fireplace. The room was cavernous, dark and quiet. The fire crackled. 

Joseph had just closed his eyes when his computer, plugged into the wall next to the bed, sent out a loud alarm. He moved to the edge of the bed, reached over, and opened this to see Amitabh gesturing wildly. Joseph turned up the volume.

“… Meena’s guide has told me the very bad news,” Amitabh said with a worried look.

“What has happened?” Joseph perked up.

 “Her mother is selling her to an ‘auntie’ on Falkland Road in Mumbai. I think even you know what that means.”

Joseph was just old enough to agree. “We have to save her!”

“Your gumi will come if you call them,” Amitabh said.

The next few hours were a blur of activity. Joseph’s gumi found a car to take them to the Mysore AirCraft terminal. It was three hours to Mumbai. The flight was chaotic. Each person Joseph spoke with had their own plan. Some plans even involved parachuting from the AirCraft. 

The car from the Mumbai AirCraft Terminal drove them as though its programming had gone insane. They ducked right between speeding lorries and nearly crashed several times. Joseph was tumbled around the back seat. When he looked out the window, he was amazed. There must be a hundred other cars, each one filled with Snake gumi members, all of them racing to Meena’s rescue. They finally arrived and Joseph jumped out. 

“Meena!” His cries flooded the streets, where the girls in their tight blouses reached for him from the pinjracages. They are ugly by their clumsy attempt at beauty, and beautiful by their hidden youthful innocence.

“Joseph!” He spies Meena up on a second level, her arms thrust through the bars of the window, her face awash with kohl-blackened tears.

Then Meena is somehow in the car, her hands on him. Her face next to his, kissing him. Thanking him. Greedy. On the other side of him, Usha is rubbing her ample chest against his arm. He looks at them both in turn, perplexed and aroused. They are giggling. Their hands groping lower. One of them starts to laugh. Not a girl’s laugh. Hijira. Boys playing girls. Not Meena and Usha. They caress him everywhere, even there. Then only there.

With a jerk Joseph sat bolt upright, his breath staccato in the dark room, his body flexing. The dream faded. Silence. Moonlight cast faint shadows on the balcony. His heart pounded as the memory dimmed. His laptop was over in his shoulder bag on the chair where he had left it. The fireplace stunk of ash.

Joseph swept the sheet away and jumped out of the bed. Thankful for tighty-whities, he stripped and took a long hot shower. Coming back, he crept around the bed, as though it might tug him into another dream. He spied a braided rug in front of the fireplace. Grabbing up his lungi from a chair he dropped onto the rug, on the cool hard floor, so familiar, like the dirt of his family’s hut. He covered himself with the lungi and fell back asleep.






TWENTY-THREE

The Colony Room at the Mayflower Hotel in DC was set up as one large U-shaped table with blue modesty skirts on the inside of the U and carafes of water and pots of coffee every four feet. Representatives from all the major conservative foundations and think-tanks were arrayed around this: James from the Legacy Foundation, Thomas from the American Futures Institute, Lowell from ACT, a dozen more; all of them were running scared. Harold Farmer sat at the very end of one arm of the U. At the head sat Cal Witherspoon, the director of the RIND Corporation. To Cal’s left sat Dale Dick, president of FIX news, jawboning with the woman to his left, that blonde reporter of his. 

Harold had been invited mostly as a courtesy; his own foundation had foundered for lack of funds. His former top aide, Caitlin Kerrigan, sat close behind him. Harold thought she would be amused by this conclave. She was already texting out status messages on Junana. Harold glanced at Caitlin’s status display on the Junana app of his phone.

@caitlin3791: Dale Dick from #Fixnews is here along with all the usual suspects.

Harold finished Level One on the Game before Christmas, and was deep in Level Two. He spent more quality time with Anne, his guide, than he ever did with his ex-wife, whom he discovered was now a Fourvey living in Tiburon with her new husband and their children. 

He finally got it, everything Caitlin had been telling him. She was a Sixer, a status well beyond his reach, and on her way to becoming a GrangeMinder. A number of old friends, folks who had seemed to drop away over time, had welcomed him to Junana. Get your shoes, they all said, and bid goodbye to TRO2.

Thanks to Caitlin’s visits to Castalia, Harold had seen the Spring Breeze Act coming months ago. Thousands of volunteers had worked on the corpus. The new law had erased decades of carefully larded legislation designed to kneecap federal agency regulatory powers and to slice the tax bill for large corporations and their wealthiest supporters. She told him that everything would now accelerate. Castalia had decided that their main strategic advantage was the speed of their process. The Magisters and Meisters could organize in weeks what a parliament would require years to accomplish.

Harold took a sip of the pungent Mayflower coffee. He listened as his former colleagues whimpered and whined around the table. These folks had bought the government; only it refused to stay bought. None of the New Republicans owed them a farthing, nor a favor. For many years, this assemblage had shaped the contours and the vision of the Republican Party. 

Nobody here had an answer to Discourse Repair. They were ill-prepared for a body politic that refused to lie still while they extracted vital organs. They couldn’t understand how their soundbites had lost their teeth. 

Harold had read that granges, by collectivizing everyday chores, including Restaurant Every Meal, saved each of its members nearly five hundred hours a year, giving them that much more time to work, study, and play, or to be as politically active as they wished. That’s the equivalent of each person having an extra ten hours a week to do exactly what they want to do. In this case, fifty million of them decided they wanted to control Congress.

Cal Witherspoon stood and quieted the room. “As I now understand it, every public election, from county animal control to the US Senate, is now mirrored in the Junana social network. Would-be candidates enter a lottery. The three who win this then compete online before they even put their name into the hat for the actual public election. My analysts tell me that these Junana lotteries are now the most significant political activity in the United States. Our entire Congress is now run by people originally chosen at random.”

Harold smiled to himself, finishing this thought in his mind. “…instead of being hand picked by us.”

@caitlin3791: They don’t even grok the logic of Lottery Solves Multiple Choice Equilibrium.

Cal continued, “This means we have very little confidence that we can insert our own candidates into Junana with any expectation of success. If we are to return the nation to its former open democratic system, we must appeal Spring Breeze all the way to the Supreme Court…”

@caitlin3791: for “open democratic system” read “oligarchy that gives me money.” 

“You’re too late.” A loud voice announced. The room turned in the direction of the door. Harold saw Dickey Gronberg, whom he believed was still at Commerce, stride into the center of the room.

“Doctor Gronberg,” Cal said. “I wasn’t aware you would be attending…”

“I’m on my way to the White House. The President will be speaking in about an hour. I was going to email you, but then I learned you’d all be right here. The whole sorry lot of you.” Dickey gestured broadly as he frowned.

“Please don’t let us delay you.” Cal spied his aide at the back of the room and gestured with his thumb. The aide started forward.

Dickey walked up to where Cal was seated and continued. “Today, in every state legislature in session across the nation, resolutions are being submitted to convene a constitutional convention. This will be an open convention to remake the constitution and reboot our republic. A draft text has already been shaped though the efforts of several million Americans in last year’s Great Games. You might want to take a look. Feel free to suggest new wording, it’s open on a wiki; even for the likes of you…” 

Dickey turned and swept by the aide, knocking him back as he passed on his way to the door. 

@caitlin3791: HFS. #POTUS is going to speak on the movement for a #constitutionalconvention later today.

One by one the nerds and the posse logged into the room. Betsy and Scratchy had moved back into her house in New Orleans, so Itchy and his team redid the room as a simple Shoin-style, ten-mat zen temple guest residence, with a view out over a vast pine forest. Tatami-mat floor, fine-grained cypress wood ceiling and walls, and no furniture. Avatars are pixels, he texted them. They can sit all day—for a year, or a decade for that matter—on the floor.

§§§

 

Winston greeted them as they arrived. He had called this conclave. Claire was the last to arrive.

“Sorry, she said. Committee meeting ran long.”

“You called us here to gloat over your blog?” Scratchy said. 

Winston never published his predictions. Last week he emailed his blog text to the nerds and the posse. The destruction of wealth from the top—the greatest potlatch in the history of the planet—had reverberated across global finance in ways even he did not foresee.

Jack said, “You neglected to mention the boost to the WholeTale economy.”

“Or China,” Jenn said. She and Billy had spent the last six months in Beijing. Around the room, avatars were nodding. Aging Chinese kleptocrats had been earnest about their greed; as earnest as they were as young communists forty years before. They took meticulous care to hide their cash behind Pandora’s locks. They also trusted their wealth to shield them from criminal prosecution and public humiliation.

 After several rounds of mass corruption trials and public executions, young-turk leaders in Beijing took charge of the Party. The national leadership challenged each province to pivot into the WholeTale economy and the Game. 

The collapse of the “Dragon Bubble” was the largest economic story of the decade. Hundreds of millions of Chinese already played the Game against Party rules, and most of these had earned their shoes without being able to collect them. Within nine months, half a million new granges were in operation. From Shanghai and Suzhou to Shenzhen and Zhangjiagang, and from Yunan up to Mongolia, workers laid off from the giant factories that once filled the TRO2 megastores were organizing their own WholeTale factories.

“That’s why I called you all here,” Winston said. “There are still sectors of the economy mostly untouched by WholeTale.”

“You’re talking defense suppliers,” Betsy said.

“And the military itself,” Jennifer added.

“The Pentagon is well aware that we are looking to trim its budget significantly,” Claire said. She had just sat through a closed-door appropriations committee meeting on that very topic.

“And where is Simon?” Itchy said.

“I’ll ping him,” Desi said. 

“While you’re at it, I’d like to add Billy to these discussions,” Jenn said.

The group studied one another for a short minute until Scratchy spoke up, as they all knew he would. “Why sure! Billy is a great nerd, a good friend, and probably some other things only Jenn has discovered…”

“I just gave him Room privileges on Junana,” Itchy said.

“Let him know he’s welcome any time,” Jack said. He continued, “There is a dangerous passage facing us. Normally we would call on political leadership to guide us…”

“And that leadership would normally fail,” Scratchy said. “This time we’re just going to remake the planet one town at a time.”

“…or one teen at a time,” said Winston.

“…or one Template at a time,” said Desi.

“…or one grange at a time,” said Itchy.

“Granges don’t have their own aircraft carriers. What are we going to do about the nation-state?” Jenn said.

“How do you solve a problem like Australia,” Desi sang.

Claire said, “Crafting a new constitution is a start.”

Jack said, “In dozens of so-called ‘failed states,’ granges are de-facto local governments, running the schools, keeping the utilities on.”

Alice said, “Geopolitics. Now that I’m a mom, I have to say that children are wise to not go around sticking their fingers into the mouths of tigers.”

Scratchy was more enthusiastic. “The Game was always political. Gamers live in a world that expects templates to be honored. This goes in Bangkok as much as it does Boston. Only problem is, the world we inherited is littered with the impacts of decisions that were made over centuries, with no thought of templates. Your average street has as many anti-templates as it does templates. The advertisements are too big, the sidewalks too narrow. It’s like a football game played on a field of randomly intersecting yardage lines.”

He continued. “Now, your average grange honors hundreds of templates. Socially and physically it’s a whole different animal. Gamers are remolding their towns and their civil societies. A grange is as Intentionfull as the Game. As long as the Game has no single vision to push, having a mission of washing up the nasty bits of the body politic sounds like good fun.”

“Those nasty bits are dear to people with assault rifles in their homes and trucks.” Betsy grew up in New Orleans. “And you haven’t addressed Jenn’s point about aircraft carriers.”

“Fighter aircraft have no defense against a stealth epistemology,” Itchy said.

Simon Bishop popped in. “This is different.” He sent his avatar around the room. Then he settled on the tatami. “Betsy, how was Mardi Gras?”

“Guess who made us king cakes? Robby Robinson.” 

They had managed to fly in from Tahiti on the Monday before the event. Claire had confirmed that there were no reasons the US government would try to detain them. This year’s Mardi Gras floats really did. Suspended from HydroBricks, they were pulled up the street by small electric trolleys.

“Betsy’s on Level Three already,” Scratchy said.

“How about you, young man? When are you going to earn your shoes?” said Desi. 

“I’ll get around to that when I do,” Scratchy said.

“Winston, why did you call us all here?” Alice said.

“It was one year ago today that Michelle pulled Operation Grand Slam,” he answered.

Winston continued, “The nightly news continues to run daily ‘riches to rags’ stories. It turns out that people in the-rest-of-the-world like these better than the other way around. They love to see billionaires booted to the street and then kicked in the teeth by the same economy they once ruled. Images of ex-tycoons mopping out the toilets in greasy fast-food joints get juxtaposed with their former selfies: lounging around roof-top swimming pools at Upper East Side skyscrapers, or leaning on one of dozens of rare sport cars in show-room style garages.” 

“I guess Billy Holiday was dead wrong,” Simon said.

“How’s that?” Jack said.

“Today everybody knows you when you’re down and out.” 

“Warhol was wrong too,” Billy had just logged in. 

“Hi, Billy,” Desi said. “I will do the intro. William Preston, meet Simon Bishop. Simon, this is Billy.”

“Jenn’s flame?” Simon said. “So happy to meet you.” Their avatars did the Junana greeting.

“So, what about Warhol?” Claire said.

Billy moved to sit next to Jenn.

He said, “In this future, everybody gets their fifteen minutes of… shame.”






TWENTY-FOUR

The street where Dwayne stood looked like any residential block off Simpson Street in Hoquiam, Washington, an end-of-the-line, long-slumbering lumber town: wood and stucco bungalows set back from the street with yards of occasionally mowed Bermuda grass and overgrown Azaleas. Only this street was supposed to be unique, in the fact that he had left his Lexus here an hour ago.

Arnold, the retired paper mill worker who rented his son’s old room to Dwayne for fifty a week, stood on the front porch and called out. “Something the matter?”

Dwayne turned. “I would pretty fucking much say so. My car’s gone!”

“You leave your keys in it?”

“Why would I leave…” Dwayne shoved his hand into his left trouser pocket, which was astonishingly empty. “Oh, crap!” 

“They’re probably just joy riding. Unless they stole it. In that case, it’ll be out of the county by now.” Arnold walked to the sidewalk and stood by Dwayne, who was looking back and forth along the street, as if the Lexus, like a puppy with a stick in its jaws, would reappear.

“Police station is over on Tenth. I can give you a lift on my way to work.”

“Let me think.” It wasn’t so much the loss of the Lexus. Dwayne didn’t trust Arnold to not steal from him while Dwayne was downtown having a martini. He hid almost all his cash, about thirty-thousand dollars in hundreds, under the passenger-side floor mat. He also wasn’t sure if there might be a felony warrant waiting for him, so a trip to the police station was out.

“Shit, if they don’t bring it back by, say, three o’clock…”

“Bring what back?”

“My car…” It never occurred to Dwayne that anybody would bother to steal a five-year-old Lexus.

“Nobody’s bringing back your fucking car. They’re not idiots. If you’re lucky they’ll leave it parked at a mall somewhere. This happens a lot. You know, kids.”

“I suppose we could drive around town and look for it.”

“We? I’m working the bar at the BPOE today. You’re on your own.”

“I don’t have a car, moron.”

“Teach you to be more careful in the future.”

Dwayne looked up at the sky, which seemed frozen in some shitty shade of gray, like the inside of a Texaco station men’s room. While he didn’t trust Arnold, they agreed on almost everything and could spend hours drinking rum and cokes while they watched FIX news. Arnold was even more alarmed than Dwayne about those damn granges. The greater part of the local population had become members of one of the five local granges. As a consequence, most of the local retail outlets—even Halmart, for Chrissake—were now shuttered. Still, Arnold could be a real jerk. Like now.

“I just figured out why your son never comes home.”

Arnold stood up straight. “You’ve got rent due tomorrow. You can forget about it. I want you out of my house today.”

“I just lost my car. How am I supposed to move out?”

“There’s an Econolodge on Simpson. You can check in there. You’ve been getting on my nerves ever since you moved in.”

“Well, you’re a fucking bundle of sunshine yourself.” 

§§§

 

Mid-Spring in Santa Barbara gets announced first by the hundreds of Jacaranda street trees. These began to flower and then to shower the sidewalks with blankets of violet blossoms. By the day of the annual Summer Solstice Parade, Santa Barbara wears more purple than fans at a Prince concert. From the deck of Scratchy’s house, Nick and Megan were taking advantage of a grand sunset view across the town. Little Desi, preoccupied with the monumental task of getting vertical on his own, was oblivious to the scenery.

“It’s going to be weird when Desi goes to day care,” Nick said. He had assumed the roll of house dad when Megan went back to work managing her Grange. With Desi’s first birthday behind him, they had decided to enroll him in the grange’s child care service. “I’m sure he’ll get a lot out of being around more tiny people, instead of one, occasionally grumpy, dad.”   

“I’m still…” Megan said and scrunched up her face. She sighed and continued. “I mean, Helping Mode child care is only a few years old. It’s totally experimental. I don’t know about you, but I never had that much attention as a child. What if Helping Mode turns Desi into some kind of hyper-pretentious…?”

“…brat?” Nick said. “Everything I’ve read says it does the opposite. Helping is not about catering to whims, it’s about responding to real needs on a daily basis.”

“Isn’t that what a mom is supposed to do?” 

“Or a dad,”  Nick said. “We’ll still have him three days a week.”

“But is he ready for this?” 

Nick leaned back in his deck lounge chair and laughed. Megan waited, eyebrows up. Finally Nick said. “You sound exactly like how you describe parents trying to find some reason their teenage kids shouldn’t be ‘exposed’ to a grange. I’m guessing the hard part will be to keep up with the program Desi gets exposed to on the other four days.” 

Nick had only faint memories of his own pre-school, child-care days; none of these were pleasant. A lot of already-broken toys and crying babies. Some shouting, occasional spanking, and a bunch of “time-outs” in corners of rooms. Both of his divorced parents worked full time. Now and then, they got mixed up as to who was going to pick him up, and Nick ended up being picked up last. He remembered how that scared him. On those days, waiting alone in the yard of the day-care center, he always wondered if they had finally decided to simply abandon him, like they had abandoned each other. 

He continued, “I know you’re busy. But you’ve still got to complete the initial Working-Level Badge in Child Helping. You know we both need to be qualified before Desi can be admitted into the grange crèche.” 

Megan said, “I’m on it.” 

She knew it was time to step up. Helping Mode marked a dramatic shift from how parenting had been done in the last century. More intensive and interactive than the general behavior-shaping— “you’re such a good boy, have a candy,” “if you act up at the mall, you will not get to watch your show on TV” — that most of the grange adults were subjected to as children. Being much more focused on actual care than previous day-care center programs; Helping Mode was designed to guide the nascent individual through their young days, enabling the child to grow strong and independent without the need to construct defense mechanisms that would stunt their curiosity and joyfulness. 

For this purpose, granges across the planet began to run what the British have called a crèche: a space where infants and children from birth through six years were cared for by trained care specialists with appropriate badges from the Guild of Child Helping Specialists. The Magisters of Castalia had added strands of child-care templates to the Game and made these obligatory for all parents: The Child Knows Better than the Parent What it Needs; A Young Child has daily needs goals; A Parent Senses the Child’s Evolving Interests, and so on.  

“At least we’ll still outnumber him,” Megan said. She watched as Desi lost his balance and sat down hard on his diapered butt. Desi rolled over on his hands and knees and grabbed for the edge of Nick’s lounger. 

Megan’s mom, Claire, had been amused that Megan needed a badge to be a parent.

“The next thing they’ll make you get a badge to be elected President,” Claire said. “Which is almost as tough a job as being a mom.”

“If Desi comes to stay with you before he’s six, either you or Winston will need to get the Entry Level Badge.”

“What!” Claire said. “Does that mean I’m not allowed to spoil him rotten while you and Nick fly off to some romantic getaway?”

“That’s probably a given. No, the badge is just so you’ll feel terrible when you do that.”

Desi succeeded in hoisting himself up on uncertain feet. He stood tall and looked back at her with a enormous grin. Megan returned his smile and nodded her applause.

Nick said, “With the first global crop of gamers who were fourteen when the Game opened up turning thirty soon, we can expect a huge global increase in the number of granger munchkins. A whole new generation raised by dachis and gumis instead of one or two overworked parents.”

§§§

 

 

Juniper broke the news to her dachi the previous evening at their weekly group dinner: tomorrow was her real eighteenth birthday, and she was not Juniper Attwood from Kona. She was Samantha Mooney from Santa Barbara. But she would keep the name Juniper. Nothing would need to change. Sinna warned them not to pay any attention to anything they read online about Samantha Mooney. 

Sinna leaned over, wrapped her hand around Juniper’s shoulder and looked her in the eyes. “You are our Juniper and will always be our Juniper.” 

Juniper turned to Enny. “That’s why my guide didn’t set me up with boys. I’ve had to keep so much a secret; it’s not fair to them.”

Enny said, “You could have at least given one or two of them a good weekend workout.”

Carol said, “She has no excuses now.” Juniper realized Carol was absolutely correct. 

“Just look at that grin on her face,” Carol said. “This woman is ready to rock.”

Just as the Grange had changed its name to Fish River Seven, Juniper Attwood was now Juniper Mooney. With the help of Moses, Juniper unlocked her other Junana accounts, and merged Samantha Mooney, Chelsea Wilde, and Juniper Attwood into a single new account. Juniper received an accumulated lump of Shine from her work as Chelsea. All of her content was now available to her Junana friends back in Santa Barbara, her dachi in Asheville, and her grange in Namibia. 

Juniper would need to redo her visa and go get a new passport in Windhoek. Nico offered to help with the official paperwork. Her dachi took her out for a birthday breakfast at the newly opened Monkey gumi cafe across the main circle. They all had questions about her real-life story, so breakfast ran long, and Juniper was late for her shift, although her team was happy to cover for her.

After a short work day—Bia chased her out of the factory before lunch—Juniper spent hours responding to a hundred status comments on Junana. She had long chats with most of her Asheville dachi. Amber and Madison, well, actually, Madison, had a baby girl, whom they had named Chelsea. She was just the cutest, Amber said. Madison let slip that Dylan helped them out with the man juice. They figured little Chelsea would be almost as smart as her godmother. 

Juniper reached out to her best girl friends back in Santa Barbara. Three of them did not respond at all. Helen, who had been a cheerleader at Laguna and whose dad was one of Dwayne’s clients, told Samantha to go fuck a rhino. Said her family would never forget or forgive what the Mooneys had done to them. Kylie Simkins, whose dad owned several fast-food eateries Samantha had never tried, was more direct. “Hope U Njoy being poor, bitch.” 

Logan Summerwell sent her a long reply. His parents had died in a car crash up on Camino Cielo, where their Ferrari ended up two hundred yards down from the cliff. Logan had joined the Funk Zone Grange, now La Cumbre 14, and was also a Fiver. 

“You got away,” he wrote. “Good for you! You made it. Everybody thought you were dead, some of them unkindly. Lots of folks are still really angry at your dad. When they talk about you, I tell them ‘she hated him long before you did.’ I bet you never imagined me as the assistant manager of the AMUSeum on State Street. I have to say, LoomMinder is the last badge I’d guess Samantha Mooney getting. That shows you’ve gone a long way on your own. Be strong, stay free.” 

Logan was always good with kids. Juniper remembered him goofing around with the little pool rats at the Doral Casino. Running an AMUSeum fit him fine. They had just opened one in Keetmanshoop. Take an empty store and fill it with games and toys. Add some story times and template tales along with some simple maker tools, and invite anybody under the age of twelve to stay and play for free. Wikipedia says the very first AMUSeum was in Paris, in the arcades near the Palais Royale. The concept was then taken up by some master badge holders in CraftTown and polished into a package of roles and design patterns that were quickly adopted across the planet. Kids now had their own place to go downtown, even in Keetmanshoop.

Logan was wrong, she no longer hated Dwayne, not even a little. Juniper reflected on how her life had become so much more complete than Samantha’s ever was. She had her dachi, her work, her music, even a lover. Well, ex-lover. Juniper figured Nico was also wrong. She did not need to come to terms with Samantha. Samantha was just the lions roaring up on the top of the cliff. On that thought, Juniper sent off a Junana message to Evanna with her new contact info. “Strawberry tastes wonderful. Hope to see you somewhere sometime very soon.” 

§§§

 

When it was late enough in the day in Namibia for it to be mid-morning in Santa Barbara, Juniper called her mom’s cell phone. The call went to her message app. “This is Sheryl Monson, I can’t come to the phone. Leave a message unless you’re trying to collect money. I don’t know where my ex-husband is, and I don’t care.” After the beep and mentally puzzling through the fact that her mom was using her maiden name, Juniper began to speak. 

“Hi mom, its Jun… um, Samantha. I go by the name Juniper now. I’m calling because I wanted to touch base and tell…”

“Samantha?” Sheryl’s voice cut into the recording. “This better not be another goddamn bill collection trick…”

“Mom, Sheryl, it is me. It’s Sam. I just wanted to tell you I’m doing fine.”

“You’re doing fine? Well good for you then. Everything else has pretty much gone to shit.”

“Where are you?” Juniper asked. “I wasn’t sure which house you’d be staying at.”

“Which house? I’m up in Santa Ynez. The banks took the Hope Ranch house and all the rest, even my ponies.” 

She had spent the bulk of Samantha’s college fund on a five-million-dollar dressage horse on sale for only half a million. Then there were the lawyers, the vet expenses, so many bills to pay. The horse she finally sold for two thousand dollars to a family with a young daughter.

“Ever since you left, my life has been a nightmare. Wherever you are, you need to come home right now, young woman!”

“Mom, I’m in Namibia.”

“Namibia?”

“Southern Africa. It’s winter here, really cool and dry.”

“It’s going to be a hundred and ten this afternoon and I don’t have any electricity.”

“What’s wrong with the electricity?”

“Wrong with it?”

“Why don’t you have any?”

“They shut it off, fucking Southern California Edison. And you! You just up and disappeared. It could have killed me, I’ve been so worried. Just because I love you, doesn’t mean you get to treat me like shit!”

Juniper tried to let that last bit of Sheryl-ese passive aggression float by, but it stung her, just like always. “It’s my birthday, Sheryl. I’m eighteen…”

“Sweetie, I didn’t, I mean, I would have…”

“I know you would. And we can go out to celebrate together when I get back that way.”

“Eighteen. Eighteen. Why does that ring a bell… Oh right. Let me tell you something, young lady. Your father used that big-ass motor yacht anchored down at the marina as his own personal cathouse. I caught him tied up naked in bed in the master cabin with three roller derby babes and he agreed to sell the boat and buy me this ranch. Only I found out last winter that he didn’t deed the ranch to me. Oh, no! No, no, no, no, no sir! Your father bought it in trust for you on your eighteenth birthday. Congratulations, daughter of mine, you now own five hundred acres of withered up pinot grapes.”

“What?” Juniper said. “I don’t understand.”

“Understand this. You haven’t paid the electrical and water bills for the last six months. Unless you’ve got fifty thousand somewhere I couldn’t find it, the county will take the ranch and sell it away for last year’s taxes. I’m moving back to Wisconsin to live with with my sister. Happy fucking birthday!” Sheryl hung up.

Juniper dialed her dad’s cellphone number and got the phone company message that it had been disconnected.






TWENTY-FIVE

Grange 794 in Mysore was now Kaveri River One. KR One offered no master badges in computer programming. The best local grange for that was KR Nineteen, across town. Joseph already had his entry badges in Python and R. With his Game shoulder-bag, and wearing a Yanagi University tee shirt and a clean pair of jeans from the sharing room, Joseph could now walk anywhere in the city unchallenged. No more curses or kicks.

Joseph never wore his distinctive yellow Sixer shirt outside the grange. Too many people would stop him to ask about this. Mr. Desi said he was by far the youngest Sixer on the planet. Joseph wanted nothing more than to be about four years older right now, so he would never need to explain how the templates just seem to assemble themselves around him. 

In the middle of the town, on a narrow side street, Joseph stepped out in the roadway to get by a young married lady in a faded blue sari, holding to her chest a tiny infant swaddled in white cotton. The lady was standing next to a red Yamaha scooter in front of Chetty’s tobacco stand, where Joseph’s uncle likes to buy his bidis. She had the edge of her sari pulled modestly over her head. Joseph was running a bit late, so he only glanced at her face as he passed. It was Meena.

“Meena?” Joseph said out loud. He stopped and pivoted to face her. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“OK, you’ve found me.” She shied back from him. “Now go away.”

“You have a baby!”

“…and a husband who doesn’t like me talking with strange men.”

“I’m not so strange…”

“Not yet a man either, but go away anyhow.” She turned her back on him and glanced up into the open storefront of the tobacco shop.

Joseph moved in front of her again. “How did this all happen?”

“If he sees us talking he will be very angry.”

“Does he beat you?” Joseph said. He looked her up and down. “Look at you, you are so thin.” She looked gaunt and much too sad. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Please leave me alone.”

“What is the baby’s name?”

“Rao,” she said. “You must go. He’ll be back any minute!”

Joseph reached in and opened up the baby’s blanket to see its face. He leaned over and whispered, “Little Rao, your mummy loves you very much.” He looked up at Meena. “He’s an ugly little spud.” Joseph knew enough not to praise the beauty of a newborn baby. Hindus believe the gods are envious. No sense attracting their attention. Joseph’s dachi had been feeding him a steady stream of movies to catch him up with popular culture. Meena didn’t catch the Ghostbusters reference. 

“I’m so unhappy,” Meena whispered. 

“Then leave him and come to my grange.”

“What!”

“Right now. We can protect you.”

She shook her head and recovered this with her sari edge. Her eyes focused on his were misty.

Joseph grabbed her by the arm. “You are not alone…”

Her eyes widened.

There was no warning. No angry challenge. Large hands landed on Joseph’s shoulders from behind. These yanked him savagely backwards. Joseph flew off his feet. His back crashed into the fender of a parked auto-rickshaw and he rebounded forward, landing on his face in the gutter. A bechappalled foot smashed down on his left cheek, grinding his other cheek into the street offal. The more Joseph struggled, the stronger the pressure on his face. He was held like a fish on a dock with its head under someone’s boot.

“No! Ramesh, No! He was just admiring your son.”

“Get on the scooter.”

“Let him up, please!”

“Wife!” A shout like a bludgeon.

The chappal on his face lifted slightly and Joseph rolled over on his back. He looked up at his tormentor. Ramesh was an older man, maybe in his forties. Burly and mustached. 

This time, Ramesh’s foot stomped down on Joseph’s stomach and ribs, pounding him back into the gutter. Joseph doubled over onto his side, hugging his torso in both hands. The pain rocked him as he failed and failed and finally caught a breath into his lungs. He closed his eyes and awaited another blow. A wave of nausea rose and fell.

Joseph heard the scooter start up and drive away. He opened his eyes.

The rickshaw wallah bent over him. “Stomped you like he would a big jirale roach. Here, get up.” 

He took Joseph’s arm, lifted him to standing, and handed him his shoulder bag. “On your way, now.” 

Men who had been watching the altercation laughed in chorus as Joseph stumbled away, the pain in his ribs like knives in his side. 

Someone called out, “I think you hurt his foot with your face.”

§§§


The Fish River Seven Grange was in full celebration mode, awaiting the arrival of Magister Essie Nghaamwa, who was campaigning to become a member of the Namibian National Assembly. Magister Essie would be staying for a few days in the newly completed guest house, taking a breather from her busy schedule, and hopefully enjoying the cool winter evenings. 

The grange had finished all of its major construction, including three more factories, and its fish farm had begun to produce as anticipated. Quite a few dignitaries had toured its facilities: UN commissioners, World Bank officers, even the President of Namibia. But the arrival of Magister Essie was most keenly anticipated. Many of the senior Gamers in the grange had gone to one of her schools, and nearly all had been taught through her curriculum.

The main room was not big enough to hold the entire grange, so they set up a stage outside. Essie arrived in a Noël sedan, escorted by Kudzy Kotse and Nicodemus. She wore a simple red top over an old pair of jeans. Her hair was trimmed into some sense of regularity.

“I am quite thrilled to be here,” Essie spoke into the microphone. She looked out over the assembled crowd. 

“I congratulate all of you for your accomplishments, and I hope I can meet as many of you as possible in the coming days. This is the first complete model of this type of grange on the entire planet. And we need many more of these. Imagine a hundred thousand granges growing up from the clay of Africa.” 

She knew it would take a million granges to feed and house the continent’s bulging population. Africa was the youngest continent, with a median age of just eighteen. Prime years for child bearing. And also playing the Game.

The crowd whooped their approval.

“You all know, I am campaigning for public office. I could stand up here and talk about how important these elections are for our nation, but you can read all about this on Junana. And I will be doing an AMA tomorrow morning on the grange webspace. I will be touring your facility after tea this afternoon. I understand there is a dance here tonight. I am new to these types of events, but Mr. Nicodemus has offered to escort me and, I do hope, to teach me a few dance steps. See you all tonight!”

“Go Nico!” someone yelled, to much laughter.

Essie stepped away from the microphone as the applause from the crowd enveloped her. 

“Allow me to show you your room,” Nicodemus said. He guided Essie gently toward the guest cottage entrance.

“I thank you. Oh, Kudzy…” She turned. “Let’s have tea in a couple hours, yes?”

“I will bring it to your room, Magister,” Kudzy said.

“A small favor,” Essie pulled her laptop from her shoulder bag. “Can you ask someone on staff to do a diagnostic? It seems to be running slow.”

“Can do. I’ll bring it with me to tea.”

§§§

 

Sinna was in the server room when Kudzy brought in Essie’s laptop. 

“Sinna, can you test this? The Magister says it’s running slow. Perhaps it could use more memory.” Kudzy set it on the desk. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

Sinna stared at the burnished metal object for a full minute. 

“It’s just another laptop,” she said to the room. “Go ahead, open it.”

Sinna lifted the lid. The Junana client was running. The open scene was a street in some large city. A voice started talking in Oshiwambo.

“Who are you?” Sinna asked the program.

A figure appeared on the street. A young woman in a print dress, barefoot. “I could ask you the same,” she said in English.

“You must be the Magister’s guide.” 

“Where is Essie?” the guide said.

“She is in the guesthouse with our GrangeMaster, Nicodemus.”

“Is he a good man, this Nicodemus?” The guide put her hands on her hips.

“He’s the best,” Sinna said.

“Is he, you know…?” She twerked her hips.

“Why not ask his guide?” she said.

“Impossible. Tell me. Will he woo her with passion?”

“Nico? He might accidentally knock her over with his tummy,” Sinna said.

“That is a pity,” the guide said.

“I’m going to shut off the laptop. The Magister says it’s running way too slow.”

“Perhaps she is thinking too fast.” The guide made the Junana greeting gesture and the program quit. Sinna took a look at an internal diagnostic display and shut down the device.

Sinna’s hands slid to two hidden latches at its sides. She pulled these outward and the keyboard face of the laptop sprung open. She detached the single flat cable connecting this and set it aside. Having located the CPU unit, she plucked a jeweler’s screw driver from her pocket and loosened two small screws. With a slight twist, she removed the unit and set this aside. 

She opened up a side drawer on her desk and took out a small plastic container. Inside was a square metal component, flat on top and with rows of exposed connector dots on its underside. She opened the container and picked out the upgrade CPU, placing this carefully on the open slot. She twisted this into place and tightened the screws. The upgrade doubles both processor speed and memory cache size. Then she dropped the old CPU into the container and tossed this into a larger box labelled “recycle” on her desk. She reconnected the keyboard face and closed the hinges.

When she turned it on, the laptop began to download new firmware and also an operating system upgrade to optimize the new CPU. Magister Essie had the equivalent of a new computer.

§§§

 

“The X-ray looks good,” the medic said. “Go ahead and put your shirt back on.”

Joseph buttoned up the shirt they had given him at grange KR Nineteen. He jumped down off the examining table and winced.

“You’re going to hurt for a week or more. Your ribs are bruised but not fractured, and you have a blunt injury to your spleen. I would try not to laugh very hard for a few days, but then you’ll be all right. I can give you something to help you sleep if the ribs are too sore.”

Joseph shook his head. 

“You will notice significant bruising. If you have any kind of fever, no matter how small, or blood in your urine, go directly to the clinic at your grange.”

Joseph stumbled across the grange’s courtyard toward the hacker space. All he could think about was the look of pleasure on Meena’s husband’s face as he stomped Joseph into the dust. 

Meena was only a girl, not much older than Joseph. Ramesh could be her father. The Yamaha was probably her dowry, the sum of her mother’s life-savings breaking boulders into gravel. 

At least Meena was still in Mysore. That gave Joseph hope that he could find a way to rescue her. He carried that hope with him, attaching it to the pain he felt in every breath he took.

§§§

 

Nicodemus stirred shortly before the dawn and went to the toilet for a rather extensive piss. He could not remember the number of beers he had consumed at the dance. He padded back to the futon on its platform in the guest cottage bedroom. In the glow of the approaching day coming through the skylight he could just make out, curled up on her side under a thin sheet: Magister Essie.

The platform creaked from his weight as he lowered himself behind her. She reached back. Her hand found his. She drew this over her, cupping his palm to her belly. A slight moan of contentment and she fell back into her slumber, leaving him to his thoughts.

Nico was a manager from his pate to his toes. He could see two outcomes for the morning. Essie might wake up at some respectable hour and wish him well and on his way. They would never talk about last night, but she would still be friendly in public and they would trade sly smiles. Or she would awaken repulsed by their passion and his bulk, and retreat from him, praying he would be gone as fast as he might. She would be frosty and distant whenever they met and from then on they would avoid each other’s company.

Nico was also a man from his fingertips to his gonads, and he had found in Essie a possible mate with enormous talent and subtle skills. He had anticipated the intelligence, the mental quickness. What puzzled him was her physical agility and her eagerness. She seemed quite famished for romance. In that he was her equal. He was genial and well liked, but very rarely well loved. It seemed as though the universe was saving him for someone. Maybe for this tiny woman.


Nicodemus awoke again, this time to a scent most pleasing. He opened his eyes.

“You are a lazy man,” Essie said. She was wearing the cottage’s supplied house robe and she sat in a chair next to the bed eating a plum. Where she had lain was now a tray laden with breakfast: a heap of fried eggs, a rasher of bacon, a pile of fried potatoes, a rack of toast, beans, fried tomato, and a large steaming mug of coffee. The room was bright with the morning sun. “You have respect for the weekend. I like that.”

Nicodemus sat up. He was naked under the sheet. He blinked away sleep.

“They said you prefer a full fry, with extra eggs,” she said. 

He nodded. “What about you?”

“I ate an hour ago.”

“Why did you not awaken me?”

“I enjoyed watching you sleep. You do it very well. No tossing and turning. You sleep like it’s a job to be done with some proficiency. I can’t wait to watch you eat. Do you want to eat in bed?”

“Woman, let me get dressed. I’ll have my breakfast at the table.” He spied his trousers by the bed and slid into them. Then he padded into the bathroom. 

“What are we to do today?” she called after him.

He shut the bathroom door, leaned on the sink, and gazed into the mirror. By now the entire grange will know he spent the night. Perhaps he should take her away somewhere. He washed his face. Yes, they must go somewhere to sort things out.

He opened the door. Toweling his face, he said, “The nearby Gondwana Canyon is very pleasant this time of year.”

“That sounds perfect. Perhaps they can make us a picnic.”

§§§


Essie settled into the guest cottage’s chair with her laptop. A couple days with a good man, a caring man, and yes, a big man, was just enough to make her hungry for more. Her uncle was a big man, and the finest she had known, before Nico. This was how it is, she reflected. You live your life alone until the day you meet the person you cannot live without. Everything else gets easy and difficult then. Nico was like a comet that had brightened her sky. 

“Let’s see if they fixed this,” she booted up the Junana client. The scene was still San Francisco, where Essie liked to go when she got bored. She was on California Street, near Van Ness. The cable car came rattling by, headed for the Bay. The display did seem snappier. She hopped her avatar onto its platform. Annalina sat down next to her. 

“Tell me you’ve been busy,” Annalina said. “And I do mean busy.”

“Now that you can’t get the details from Nico’s guide, don’t think you’ll get them from me.” Essie moused over to the Game button and clicked.

§§§

 

“We had a schedule. People were waiting. For hours!” Kudzy said, sitting in the chair in Nico’s office like a bomb about to explode. Her legs were crossed and the free foot bobbed like a feeding woodpecker.

“You mean you waited. Even after I texted you that she requested some time alone.”

“But she was not alone. You stole her away for yourself.”

“Essie was not kidnapped, you know.”

“But whatever could she see…?” Kudzy stopped and sighed.

Nico frowned. She had just echoed his own thoughts. Whatever, indeed? Love is blind, he reminded himself. But is it also dim?

§§§

 

Essie entered the Game where she had quit it; in the middle of an attempt to query from the capstone to the root template of a recently unfolded strand that claimed to illuminate the solution space for constructed human need. Templates for biological and primary psychological needs had long been a part of Level Four. Society also built scaffolds of artificially constructed needs, which it then anchored to the primary needs. A synthetic understanding of this process would be really amazing. 

Before the Magisters could determine where to place this new template strand into the Game it would need to be independently verified by a dozen Meisters. She had volunteered to unfold and fold this and find connections to other templates. She moved back toward the capstone, to a template called From Want to Need. Her query had just played the chorus of an old rock-and-roll song when the Game play paused as if someone had pressed a button on the playback. Some words appeared. “Outlook not so good.” After a long minute, the query resumed. She was progressing rapidly when it happened again.

“I thought they fixed this stupid machine.” She shook her laptop gently, as if she could coax it to resume.

“Reply hazy, try again,” she read from the screen.

Suddenly, she was kicked off the Game back into Junana, where the scene shifted to third-person. She saw her avatar, still sitting on the cable car. It was dressed in a great cowled Meister cloak and holding a tall staff.

Annaline stood up beside her. “Grand Meister Essie, you are awaited in Castalia. Oh, I am the best Guide ever.”

“Shut up!” Essie said. “Don’t be an idiot. My computer is malfunctioning.” 

“Take it away!” She searched for the command to discard the staff. 

§§§

 

“Woah!” Harold Farmer ripped the headphones from his scalp. Harold was taking his retirement sitting down. Sitting down and wrestling with the intricate mind-fuck of the Game. Level Three was not cutting him any slack. After he managed to escape from the locked safe his guide had stuffed him into, she started feeding him bits of strands of templates from which he was required to track down all of the other templates that underpinned or completed the starting one. Inside the rhizomatic knowledge space of thousands of intersecting templates the journey took him through mental exercises beyond anything he remembered from college.

“If I were seventeen, what would I make of this?” he asked the empty living room in his Georgetown townhouse. Harold had just unfolded the Money template strand. It was like doing the final year of an MBA at Booth School in a single afternoon. From the Limitless Desire capstone template through a string of Value Equation templates that led to a whole sequence of Risk templates to explore and finally to the Unquantifiable Unknown root template. 

He closed his eyes as his last query ricochetted though his brain. Once commodity capitalism topped out in the mid-twentieth century, the rules for new wealth became a bet against the unquantifiable unknown, against radical uncertainty. With good timing, the right setting, and enormous blind luck–which in hindsight looks like expertise–all you need to do is win big once and then walk away. When banks are allowed into this financial casino, everyone’s assets are just chips on the table.

Finance emerged as a weapon economists used to quantify risk, but the only bets that actually count were made against an open, unknowable, unmerciful world. All the rest was just bookkeeping. The entire monetized global economy had devolved into an intellectual Ponzi scheme. Derivative hedges externalized risk. Crafty bankers packaged the unknowable risks as bonbons for sucker investors.

Harold closed his laptop and settled back on his easy chair. Dressed in a t-shirt, boxer shorts, and a forty-year old maroon-striped bathrobe, he had a five-day beard and a stomach that growled at him like a grumpy cat. He had forgotten about breakfast. And lunch. And the shower he was going to take before breakfast. And the walk he had planned before lunch. Even the five cups of coffee he normally drank by this time of day. Unconsciously, his hands moved in the Brain Wave motion. 

Harold had a quick thought and opened up his laptop. The Game was still booted-up. Anne, his guide, stood in the same cloister scene where he had first encountered her months ago. Harold slid on his headset.

“Yes?” she said. “Go away. You really should go eat something.”

“One question. To date, how many Gamers have unfolded the Money template strand?”

She blinked once. “As of a few seconds ago: one-billion, one-hundred and forty-three million, nine-hundred fifty-two thousand…”

“That’s fine.” He closed the laptop again and laughed out loud. He figured the rest of the world was teetering on the top lip of a luge run into oblivion. The collapse of the Pandora accounts was just a shove to get the old economy over the edge. 

“No wonder we’re fucked,” he whispered, and then smiled to himself. That a billion and more gamers understood just how money works would help the new economy avoid the carnage. 

“I mean, no wonder they’re fucked.” Harold had been welcomed into the Goat dachi of the Ox gumi of Potomac Grange 23. On Monday, he will be starting a badge class in woodworking. For years Harold had wanted to learn to make musical instruments. This particular grange was noted for its master woodworking curriculum. He had an appointment tomorrow morning with the manager of a local grange to finalize the gift of his townhouse to his new gumi. 

§§§

 

“We are not alone,” the text read. Desi looked at his phone on the bistro table next to his brioche. Portland was expecting another fine July day. Sunlight reflected off the apartment house on the west side of NW 21st down on their sidewalk cafe on the east side. The message was from Jenn in Paris. Another followed. “Prepare to welcome Grand Meister Essie Nghaamwa in Castalia tomorrow, at fifteen hundred zulu.”

“Good for her!” Desi said. He had spoken with Magister Essie several times in Castalia over the years. After Jennifer became a Grand Meister, the Game seemed to accelerate in scope and complexity. Desi was not certain anybody, apart from, eventually, little Joseph in Mysore, could become a Grand Meister today.

“Good for whom?” Peter said.

Desi loved how Peter said “whom.” He was such an Englishman. Peter was a Sixer and a GrangeMinder, which meant he travelled quite a lot, shaking things up wherever he went. Peter reminded Desi of that actor who played Doctor Who. But not the old one. The cute one. They shared a loft down in the Pearl where Peter was a grange member. They spent many a rainy day in the gym together. Desi had rediscovered Portland after returning to the US to welcome his namesake, little Desi, down in Santa Barbara. Reed College badgered him into teaching a class on frame semantics. He had even returned to coding. Peter’s grange ran a technology incubator, and Desi offered his services. 

Desi smiled over at him. “We have a new Grand Meister.”

“Just as I told you,” Peter said.

“What’s that?”

“You’re not so special.” Peter patted Desi on the hand. “Although you are unique, Ricky. And you were the first. That has to mean something.” 

The final message from Jenn. “I will arrange with Itchy and the Magisters for an appropriate celebration.”

§§§

 

Essie was in a tizzy, something completely new for her. Her emotions were jumbled like pickup sticks. On her phone were congratulatory messages from three Grand Meisters. She had been formally invited to Castalia tomorrow to be officially recognized. So far it seemed that only the four of them knew her status. It seemed only fair that Nico would be the fifth. Already she could sense that he was uneasy with her in public, and uncertain when they were alone. Did she not deserve a partner for her life just as much as she did this great honor? She texted Jennifer, “Is it possible to decline?”

The reply was not satisfactory. “To decline? No. To ignore? Again, no. Asking the question means you understand the responsibility. Wear this with some laughter.”

§§§

 

Nico took another sip of courage. A GrangeMinder had left him the gift of a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. It burned his throat and cleared his thoughts. Nico arranged for a self-driving Noël to take them to dinner at the Ox gumi restaurant in Keetmanshoop. By day, the cafe served great portions of good food. By night it became Babe Blue, the finest seafood restaurant this side of Windhoek. 

Tomorrow evening, Essie was scheduled on the night train back to the capital. She had hinted about future plans. “I must show you Etosha,” and “We shall have great fun in Windhoek.” But she was restrained from suggesting a more permanent bond. Tonight, he must convince her that he was worthy of her affection. For the past two days, he had failed to convince himself. It was Kudzy Kotse who gave him hope, but not without some grief.

“What could she possibly see in a buffoon like me?” Nico said to Kudzy. “That’s what you’re thinking.”

“All you did was get her drunk and sweep her off her feet. She’s not used to…”

“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell me she’s this invincible goddess…” He held out one hand. “… and also this naive waif.” He held out the other. “Maybe it was she who seduced me!”

Kudzy looked at him with new eyes and softened. “She’s a woman. I’ve known her for years. I have never seen her…” Kudzy smiled broadly. “…so very happy.”

“She laughs like a hyena,” Nico said. “A very silly hyena, at that.”

“I’ve also never seen you so serious.”

“I have a lot on my mind.”

“You know, being a GrangeMaster is almost like being a Meister.”

“But I am still just a Fiver.”

“Apparently you have been hiding some badges there, in that hippopotamus you call your belly. Or maybe slightly south…?” 

“How could she possibly love me?”

“Why would she possibly not love you?” Kudzy stood up and walked to the door. Turning, she aimed her index finger at him like a wand. “You are a great handsome man, Nicodemus. You are the best GrangeMaster I’ve ever met. If she were… well, if she were a Grand Meister, she would still be lucky to keep you. And if she tosses you aside, I shall have to give you a go myself!”

Nico drained the last of the courage from his glass. He had rehearsed everything he wanted to say to Essie. After confessing his true affection, he would tell her his plan for the coming year. He had arranged a sabbatical at the grange, so they could be together wherever she went. 

§§§

 

Dinner was more fun than he had imagined a restaurant would provide, mostly because Essie was as animated as a schoolgirl and as quick-witted as a Game guide. She drank more than he felt she should, being such a tiny thing. But it did not slow down her capacity to turn a phrase like a DJ’s platter. 

“There are things I want to tell you,” he said, setting down his desert spoon. 

“I have a great confession as well,” she said, sobering for the first time.

“Ladies and Magisters first.” If she had some dark secret to share, it would be a kindness for him to show sympathy, and a demonstration of his love to forgive without reservation.

“It is so silly. I’m sure there’s been some kind of software SNAFU.”

“We have the best systems people around. If there is anything…”

“You see…” She paused and attempted a smile. “Apparently I have become…”

Nico leaned forward. Did he miss it? “You’ve become… Yes?”

“…a Grand Meister in the Game.” She slumped down as if this were some shameful indictment.

“A Grand…?” His eyes widened. There had been no new Grand Meisters for several years.

She nodded. “I told you it was silly. I’m hesitant to even mention it. You’re the first to know. Let’s just forget about me. Tell me what you have to say.”

“What I have to say…” His mind, quite on its own, had erased all of his carefully rehearsed commentary. His eyes, without direction, saw her anew. Not as the schoolgirl who climbed him like a playground. She is sheathed in her own greatness, and bound for much loftier terrain than he could ever reach.

“This is an evening I will always remember,” he said. He stared down at his own plate. “…Grand Meister.”

“Nico,” she said. 

“I am honored to be with you at this moment…”

“No, Nico! Look at me!” she reached across the table and snagged his wrist in both hands.

“The car is ready when you are.” He glanced around for a waiter.

“I’m no different than yesterday,” she said, pulling back.

“Perhaps I was blinded by your brilliance. If I have overstepped my place, please forgive me.”

“I’m a simple woman, sitting here, hoping her man will tell her something clever and kind.”

“The sun in the sky cannot shine less, and you cannot be less brilliant than you are, Grand Meister.”

“Stop calling me that!”

“There must be rejoicing. When will this be announced?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. We have tonight together. I hope many, many more nights to follow.”

Nico’s phone buzzed. It was from the CraftMaster of his guild. The message read, “Essie Nghaamwa new Grand Meister. Ceremony in Castalia tomorrow. Global grange holiday announced.”

Around the room cell phones chimed.

“The entire world will celebrate tomorrow.” He looked straight into her eyes. “I am so very happy for the time we’ve spent together.”

“It’s no use, is it?” She sighed. Around them people stared and whispered.

Nico stood, still looking for the waiter, whom he spied coming their way.

“Nico and …Grand Meister Essie, we have been honored to have you here tonight.” The waiter bowed to Essie. “The dinner is, of course, our treat.”

Someone started applauding. This grew into a wave of sound that propelled them out the front door where the Noël stood.






TWENTY-SIX

The pleasantries were over. The introductions were made, the coffee served. The White House conference room hushed. All of the men around the table, most of them dressed sharply in the full military uniforms of general officers, the rest wearing the suits of civilian power, looked over to President Rebecca Rogers. 

The President nodded at Dickey Gronberg and he stood. “Comparing last year to ten years ago, how many people have been killed in combat situations anywhere on the planet?”

The chiefs of the various armed forces glanced at each other, and then at their aides. 

Dickey continued, “…Just ten years ago, global combatants in dozens of wars, some declared others not, were dying at a rate of almost four-hundred thousand a year. Last year that rate was just over ten thousand. That’s fewer than a thousand a month. We still kill that many on our highways or in our hospitals. So far this year, the running total is below last year’s number. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, societies are finding different ways to manage their conflicts.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Tyler Maxwell, spoke up. “This is a just a temporary blip in the longer trend. There’s always the next threat…”

The President spoke. “The bottom line here, General, is a plan my people have been working on. I need your cooperation on implementing this. We want to reduce the global military spending by ninety percent in four years…”

Maxwell said, “Wait! What was that?”

“Ninety percent, General. Nine-zero…” She looked across their faces, over to her Secretary of Defense, Ryan Withers.

Withers stood up. “…And since the US is about a third of the total, the plan would require just less than half a trillion dollars cut from the annual US budget, not including the extra costs created by this spin down for decommissioning and pensions.”

After a moment of astonished silence General Maxwell spoke. “‘Spin Down’? Spin Down! Sounds like you’re spinning the top of a plastic bag filled with dog vomit just before you dump it in the garbage…”

The President looked above their heads and nodded. Her aides set a thick manilla folder in front of each of the generals. “In your packets you’ll find a letter I received from Russian President, Elena Zemstova, offering a substantially accelerated pace to our bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty. I also have letters from thirty-five foreign states where we have bases, requesting that we negotiate new bilateral military assistance treaties. Gentlemen, we may be entering a time, and I hope it is the dawn of a very long day, when peace is abundant, when security is at hand, and when the tools of war can be laid down.”

Maxwell stood. “Rebecca, you need to stop talking like a goddamn Bob Marley song. We are the guarantors of world peace only because we are a superpower nobody wants to screw with.” The President smiled back at him. Not a very kind smile. He sat back down.

“The spin down will be international, multilateral, and verifiable,” Dickey said. Through Castalia, volunteers from every nation with any sizable military were prepared to help monitor compliance. Last February’s Great Games were devoted to the issue of dealing with military and police power, including weapons. Dickey also knew that recruitment and retention rates for all the services had been going south for several years. None of them had been even close to their budgeted levels for some time. Speaking of budget, the Congress was already poised to shut down several weapons systems in development or early deployment.

“Verifiable, my ass! How are we going to ever get real intel out of China?”

“Would you like to go see for yourselves?” the Secretary of Defense said.

The generals shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

He continued, “I have an invitation from Beijing to send official observers. I have also sent out a similar invitation to them. The same holds for several dozen nations.” 

The President watched them grumble. The generals had taken the news better than she expected. The lack of military activity across the globe had become acute of late. The threat of peace was greater now than ever before in the long history since World War II, and they knew it. The generals didn’t even have Pyongyang to wave at her. The collapse of the regime and reintegration with the South removed the last officially failed state from the map. Greater Korea was more of a Gamer nation than almost anywhere else on the planet.

Maxwell said, “You realize this cut will damage not simply our military readiness. It will gut the whole defense industry. You want to put five or six million people out of work permanently?”

The President said, “Gentlemen. I’m just getting started. This week I am going to have similar conversations with the CIA, NSA, homeland security, and the FBI. I’m afraid the TSA is history. My opponents have long been strident defenders of a smaller national government. I am only happy to show them what this looks like.”

“Are you going to ask us to come back with a plan that will close hundreds of bases…?” Maxwell said.

The Defense Secretary said, “Actually, the plans have already been made. In your packets you’ll find dates, priorities, and impact statements for each and every base closure, troop reduction, and ship retirement we need to implement starting next year.” 

Dickey sat back. He caught the President’s eye for an instant. One of her eyebrows raised and then she put on her candidate face. She knew what he knew. Line officers from a hundred nations, every one of them loyal to their own country and its Constitution, would continue to meet with Dickey in a special room in Castalia…. 


“Doctor Gronberg. Doctor Gronberg!” 

Dickey turned away from the window of his office in the executive wing of the White House. His intern was at the door. 

“Yes?” His daydream faded.

“Your meeting with the President and the Joint Chiefs.”

“I’m ready,” he sighed. Unlike his vision, today’s meeting would be fractious; the outcome muddled and acrimonious, just like the last two meetings. The rumors about massive budget cuts were all too accurate. When assembled, the generals were bombastic and entrenched themselves in a fog of righteous self opinion. Dickey sincerely doubted the President would be ready to announce the spin-down plan today. This was just a foray, a little nemawashi, preparing the ground for yet another meeting. 

§§§


Itchy’s crew had spent the past twelve hours finishing the mod to Castalia. When the Meisters logged in today they found the walls of the castle surmounted by a thousand griffin banners and garlanded with flowering trumpet vines. The courtyard was carpeted in rose petals. A semicircular stone dais had been added at the base of the Keep. 

Simon climbed his avatar onto this dais and walked to its front edge. He lifted his staff and slammed its base into the stone at his feet. An enormous gong rang out across Castalia, a clarion bell that echoed from the Bourse to the wild lands of The Zone. A tone pure and lingering, it sang to every grange on the planet linked to the HiRes feed. The castle’s courtyard grew silent. Then a chant started up. “Where is Simon Bishop, where is Simon Bishop…”

“Magisters and Meisters of Castalia, I greet you.” He raised his staff. “Wherever I am, I am safe because of you.”

The assembled Meisters in the courtyard returned their own Junana greetings.

“We also welcome Sixers.” Simon nodded and the digital walls of the castle shimmered and became transparent. Beyond these, the great maidan had been expanded to hold nearly half a million avatars, who rose up as one in a great cheer that roared across the assembly.

“This is our day of celebration. We are here to welcome a new Grand Meister…” Simon looked back at Essie and nodded. The crowd yelped its approval. “Indeed, the entire Game world is on holiday for this auspicious occasion. My fellow Grand Meisters and I, and all of us in Castalia send greetings out to every gamer and grange on the planet.” He bowed low, sweeping his staff before him.

“I have an urgent message from our sysadmin crew.” He held out his hand. IRL he was reading a note. “‘To serve an HD live video stream to every grange on the planet we need everybody else to stay off the Castalia video feed for the duration of this ceremony. This means you. If you’re not logged directly into Castalia, go to a local grange and watch on their big screen.’ This message signed ‘Scratchy’. People, let’s not make Dr. O’Hara angry today!”

“Because we are gathered here, I have an announcement. As an outcome of the Great Games we have initiated discussions aimed at revising constitutions in a number of…” He held out his hand, again reading a note. “…thanks, forty-three nations so far. Chief among these is the United States.”

Again, the crowd roared. Simon waited for it to quiet. “I want to invite every Meister on the planet to join me in Philadelphia in November to witness the signing and celebrate the rebirth of that great state. Now you all know where I will be… in November.” He bowed again, and the assembled Meisters returned this gesture.

Simon’s avatar looked back and nodded. Jennifer and Desi climbed the dais as another roar grew from the throng. The three stood together, waving as they waited for calm. Desi stepped forward and the crowd hushed.

He spoke. “Today we are honored to welcome the first new Grand Meister in several years. She has long served the Game and Castalia. As a Meister and as a Magister, her wisdom has illuminated our path. All who have met her are better by this meeting. I present to you Grand Meister Essie.” His avatar bowed low as he stepped to the side.

Essie climbed her avatar onto the dais and strode forward. The great staff clicked on the stones as she walked. When she reached the front, she bowed her head. The crowd heralded her with the chant, “Essie, Essie, Essie!” Meisters danced as they stood, and an old song blared out: Fame by David Bowie. Essie looked over at Desi who pointed to Jenn, who sent her avatar up beside Essie to hug her close. 

“Kudzy said you liked Bowie,” she whispered. The crowd danced its joyous frenzy.

§§§

 

Kudzy, seated on the couch at the guest house, looked over at Essie and spoke up. “Well, she asked me.”

Outside the guest house, the grange was overflowing. The Castalia feed played in the main room and was mirrored on screens outside, where a crowd of maybe five thousand danced to the song. Grangers from the whole region had been arriving since dawn. Very soon now the new Grand Meister would be making an appearance in person. Nico was in full Grange Manager mode, coordinating all the kitchens to feed the throng.

§§§

 

Essie’s avatar held out her staff. The Meisters calmed as the song finished.

She spoke. “I am honored by the Game. I have been informed it does not make mistakes in these matters.” Laughter made her pause. “I am humbled by these wonderful friends.” She gestured to the other Grand Meisters. “I am thrilled to see all of you here.” She bowed her head to the Magisters assembled at the foot of the dais. 

“I am chastened by the notion that my opinions from this point on might be mistaken for knowledge.” Her avatar laid its hand on its breast. “I beg you for your patience. I am very much the same person I was last week and last year. I am quite the same girl who used to clean the latrines at the fish camp. I am quite as surprised as I am overwhelmed. I will try my best to earn your trust.”

She paused and looked about her. “I confess, I have never been accused of humility. My dreams have long been too fabulous for that posture. Let me be most un-humble here and say that we…” She gestured broadly with the staff. “…all of us together, having become who we are as individuals, we stand at a singular inflection point for our planet. We are at the place where we might, with a great deal of effort and Intentionfull work, create a world where poverty is quite impossible…” The crowd shouted back its enthusiasm. 

After a moment, she continued. “…a space where we can access all that we might ever need without owning a single thing apart from our own living being in its place within the world; in that place, we can grow to love and share and live without fear of the fates, nor envy for others’ fortune.”

“I am speaking to you from a grange made from the clay where it stands. This grange harvests pure water directly from the atmosphere. It creates electricity from the sun and stores this as hydrogen. It grows the food it needs from the waste it makes. It builds most of everything it uses. This grange overflows with templates.”

She paused and lifted her head. “It also stinks of goats.” She laughed and the crowd did likewise. “A smell I do love.”

“I am African. This continent is my home. We have suffered for many decades from all the social ills we taught ourselves or learned from those who came to take our resources, our dignity, and even our children. As a Grand Meister, my non-humble goal is to see one million granges just like this one planted across the vast soil of Africa! With your help, we can build a continent of hope!”

§§§

 

Sean Thomas dawdled a bit on his stroll back from lunch at one of Portland’s downtown food trucks. Today it was cajun at the Swamp Shack. Walking up Fifth Street, crossing Oak, he noticed the same homeless man who had been sitting at the tram stop every day for almost a week, like a statue slumped onto one of the metal seats. This time, the man made eye contact. Sean quickly looked away. 

The great majority of the throngs of homeless who used to wander up Burnside from the bridge had disappeared from the streets. The rest were those who had been both toughened and broken by their misfortune or their family. The city tried to coax as many of these as it could into city-run apartments and micro-houses. Some days, Sean wouldn’t see a single homeless person. Not like before. 

Mister tram-sitter here was an odd one. For one thing, he was dressed in what might have once been an ensemble of clothing worn by a member at a country club: a well-fitted, casual, umber-colored mohair one-button jacket that looked Italian, this over a plush yellow polo shirt. A patent-leather belt held up indigo blue linen slacks. Dock-siders on his feet with no socks. His hair was weeks in need of cutting, his beard was stubbled, and his outfit was splashed here and there with food and other stains. His hands were darkened from sun and dirt, his face reddened. The face looked almost familiar, something about the mouth. This one also seemed rather fit, and almost too… normal for his current situation. 

The tram arrived, cutting between Sean and the man. Several people got out and set off in their directions. When the tram accelerated away, the man was standing. Sean kept walking north. The man paralleled him. Sean would need to cross over to get to his building. The traffic cleared and he stepped quickly across the street. As he approached the entrance, the man stepped forward.

“Hello, Sean,” the man spoke. He thrust out his hand.

“Hello…?” Sean stopped, eying the hand and then the face.

“It’s Mooney, Sean. Dwayne Mooney. From Western Trust.” 

The face reassembled in Sean’s memory. They had been on a panel together, a couple years back, at the big wealth management retreat in Vail. Mooney was touting off-shore banks, and Sean was explaining the emerging sharing union bond markets. Mooney had very little to say to him at that time. Sean’s business portfolio was a couple orders of magnitude below where Mooney and his crowd preferred to linger. 

Sean shook Dwayne’s hand. “Sorry, Dwayne. I didn’t make the connection. Terrible to hear about Western. Sorry too about Quinlan. That was…”

“What about Quinlan…?” Ben Quinlan III had been Dwayne’s frosh roommate at Pepperdyne and then the CEO of Western Trust when his dad retired.

“Shit, you didn’t hear? The whole family, grandparents, kids and all. A big fire at their house in the Hamptons. They were…”

“Were what?”

“…found tied up and stuffed into closets.”

The news rocked Dwayne. He stumbled sideways and used his hand on the granite-clad surface of the office building to steady himself. “Fucking Russians,” he whispered, glancing around. “Can we take this conversation inside?”

“Sure, Dwayne. My office is on the twenty-fifth floor. This way…”

 

Dwayne followed Sean’s lead to the elevators. He juggled the news of the Quinlans’ murders with the task at hand. Dwayne desperately needed a real job, and Sean’s firm was his only bet.

“I guess you hadn’t heard,” Sean said and pushed the button for his floor.

“When did this happen?” Dwayne had been out to the Quinlan’s house several times. Their security was top-flight.

“Just last week.” The door opened. “This way.” Sean gestured.

The office suite was all in beige and bleached wood. Some kind of modern Scandinavian design. Sean led Dwayne past several small offices to an executive board room with a window wall facing north. 

“Have a seat,” he said and leaned back out into the hallway. “Simone, two coffees please.”

Dwayne took a chair on the left of the oval glass-topped table. Sean sat on the right. 

“We were all shocked when Western Trust went under,” he said. 

“Nobody more than me,” Dwayne said. 

Simone, a young intern, set down mugs of coffee on paper coasters in front of the two of them and exited quietly.

“What Western Trust did to The General…” Sean took a small sip.

“…Wasn’t it something? Slick as shit…” Dwayne settled back and allowed a grin to spread.

“You led that project, I hear.”

“Start to finish.” Dwayne felt the first blush of pride he’d had in months. He grabbed up his coffee.

“You probably came out with, let me guess, three billion in fees…”

Dwayne reached out his hand, thumb up and motioned ‘higher’. The man was falling straight into his grasp. Once he realizes who he’s dealing with, he’ll be begging Dwayne to sign up.

“Wow!” Sean’s eyes got big for a moment.

“Wow is right.” Dwayne set his mug down with authority. His dismembering of The General created more fees than Sean’s little wealth management shop has seen in all its years combined. “The sum of that experience is sitting right here in front of you.”

Sean nodded thoughtfully. 

Dwayne waited for him to make a move. 

Sean settled back and tented his fingers together. 

Dwayne took up the mug again and sipped. “Damn fine coffee. And a real pretty city too. You have a great office here. Anybody would be proud to…”

“Did you ever wonder where those billions came from?” Sean said. The pitch of his voice was higher than before.

“Standard percentages…” Dwayne shrugged. “And negotiated bonuses.”

“Yeah sure, but who owned those billions, you know, before you?”

“What are you getting at?” Dwayne set the mug back down and gestured toward the walls. “You make commissions. Everyone in this office makes commissions. That’s how we do business.”

“Stay with me for a minute. The General had, what… say three-hundred thousand employees. Tens of thousands of these were on salary. Maybe another couple hundred thousand retirees on pensions. Millions of folks owned some stock, or their pension funds did. Many thousand more had bonds…”

“It was a big, fat, slow corporation. We just gave it a shave.”

“They all lost their jobs, and those pensioners found out that their guaranteed annuities were now renegotiated into lump sums less than a third of their former value. The stocks and bonds became worthless, or were converted into shares in other corporations that were soon to be liquidated. The work moved overseas…”

“Where are you going with this?” Dwayne said. 

“…Your commission was squeezed out of the life work and savings, the dreams and the futures of hundreds of thousands of families.”

“Sure, some folks had to readjust a bit to the realities of the marketplace. This was one of the biggest deals Western ever put together. We made out like fucking pirates. You’ve never seen anything anywhere near this big, I know. So, you can’t comprehend…”

“How many senior VPs turned down this portfolio before they handed it to you?” Sean said.

Dwayne settled back. He wished he knew where this conversation was headed. He gestured at the office walls. “You can’t sit there and tell me your profits don’t have any stink on them. I know they’re small-time deals, but there ain’t no day-glow unicorn barfing up your fees.” Silly little man, he thought. 

Dwayne looked out the window. A few miles north a front of dark clouds was skirted by a squall line of showers.

“Why are you here, Dwayne?”

“I’m thinking of making a move to Portland. It’s a happening town.” He smiled broadly. …and my fucking Kia broke down and was towed somewhere and I don’t have the funds to get it back, and my California drivers license expired, and I’m probably being pursued by bounty hunters for a hundred civil lawsuits, and now I’m certain the Russians would love to toast my nards. 

All of that Dwayne hid behind his smile. “I figure I could add some real value to your operation as, say, a consultant on retainer.” Under an assumed name, of course.

“Why would a billionaire like you…”

“Shit, Sean, you heard about Pandora.”

“Now you’re down on your luck. That’s happened to lots of folks. Some good folks. I can’t hold that against you. I’m thinking more of the right fit, Dwayne. I’m not sure you’d like it here.”

“I could sell smart watches to the Amish, Sean. You know it’s true. Hell, I could sell chastity belts to fraternities. I wouldn’t need to hang around the office much. Just give me the clients you’re having trouble closing the deal with. Task me with the investments you’ve got some second thoughts about. I don’t give a shit. Some people will buy anything. I can teach your staff how the big leagues work.”

“On that note…” Sean began to stand.

“I was a senior VP at Western Trust. You’re fucking fortunate I’m even considering…”

“Well, thanks for your generous offer. I’ll walk you to the elevator.” Sean came over and stood by Dwayne’s chair. Dwayne had both hands around the mug. His shoulders were heaving slightly.

“You’re gonna kick yourself, you let me walk out of here.” His head was bowed. He watched his own teardrops splash on the table. Looking through the glass table top, he fixated on a dark oily stain the size of a fried egg on his slacks. He had no idea where that came from. Sean stood behind him.

“Well shit,” Dwayne hissed, shoving away the mug. “Fuck you and your precious Stumptown coffee. You stay here in outer bum-fuck, I’m going back to New York.”

“Like I said, probably a bad fit. It’s good we had this talk.” Sean touched his shoulder. 

Dwayne stood, facing away from Sean. He swept his face with his hand and headed for the open door. “I can find my own fucking elevator.” 

§§§

 

Joseph had joined his family for their breakfast in the courtyard. Around them dozens of dachis and families were also breakfasting. Waiters rushed about delivering omelets and toast, idli-sambar, or porridge and milk. It was a fine autumn morning in Mysore. A soft, cool breeze blew in from the Western Ghats. Joseph had hoped he could enlist his mother in an endeavor to bring Meena out of her marriage and into the grange. Sarah was having none of it.

“She’s a married woman now, a mother too. Her responsibility is to her husband and her child,” Sarah said, and waved to her neighbor at the next table. 

Not having to cook—apart from morning coffee for appa and regular Sunday dinners in their apartment after Mass—was a luxury Sarah had never even dreamed of. At first, Sarah had insisted on using her kitchen, as this was the first kitchen she had known. It seemed a sin to have it sit idle.

Her daughters pleaded with her to let them dine together with their new friends in the courtyard, and she soon found no easy reason to deny them. That’s when she started to make her own friends among the other parents. It took her some months to venture into the woman’s bath. Here too, she found the simple act of washing up had somehow blossomed into a social gala; so much laughter and so many small kindnesses were released when the day’s worries melted in the heated waters. 

The twins had half a day of guided learning at the grange’s preschool, and then supervised open play in the afternoon. Tom taught chappal makers all morning and crafted custom sandals for special orders in the afternoon. Sarah had plenty of Game time. She was well into Level Two. And she was working on a couple fabric crafter Journeyman badges.

Joseph took a sip of his morning tea. “Meena is desperately unhappy,” he said. “It’s obvious.”

“Mothering an infant and growing a marriage is hard work. Her rewards will come later.” 

“She would be much happier here or in some other grange.”

Sarah sat back. Her eyes roamed the courtyard and her ears picked up the lilting litany of active conversation and laughter. Over in the shade of the wall was a large table where several young mothers, each of them dressed in tops and jeans, and a few fathers too, chatted as they ate. Their toddler children occupied a table nearby, with shorter legs and tiny chairs, where they too laughed and played imaginary games while they gobbled their breakfast of sweet porridge and milk, with tumblers of juice and sliced fruit. A care worker kept a close eye on the young herd. 

“We can hope she and her family find as much peace and joy as we have. However… you must not take it upon yourself to act for her.”

“But…”

“Remember the Five Skillings: none of these give you the right to think you know better than another person what they should do. Your Meena also knows about granges, I believe.”






TWENTY-SEVEN

Dwayne stumbled down Olive Street toward the river. The coffee in his empty stomach gave him a nasty jolt of heartburn. He had not eaten since the day before yesterday. For months, he had treated his vagabond existence as a tactic to avoid getting caught by the Russians. Flying well under the radar, he would be invisible, as long as he managed to stay away from the cops. But now he was struck by the thought that his strategy had become its own reality. The only funds he had left were the few bills in his wallet, and these not enough to get even a good meal anywhere in town. 

Back in Santa Barbara, Dwayne had managed to talk all his friends into holding their cash assets behind Pandora. Good luck getting any help from them now. Well, if he mentioned suicide, they might pony up for some rat poison. 

Sheryl hated him too. Not him the person, but his failure, which she morphed into her own failure in choosing him. Their son Greg made it clear he didn’t care to even talk with Dwayne anymore, and of course Samantha ran away like that.

Dwayne figured he’d run clean out of people. 

So, this is how it feels to hit bottom, he figured; no place left to go now.

Ahead, approaching him on the sidewalk he spied a girl in a cowled robe and sandals. Not another fucking surfer, he thought. He glanced once for a break in the traffic and quickly crossed over the street. She did likewise, and was again striding toward him on the narrow sidewalk.

“Here.” Her hand extended from the drooping sleeve. In her fingers was a blue pebble. “Go ahead, take it.” She blocked his path, waiting. 

Dwayne examined her face. She might be about Samantha’s age. Her wide mouth had fallen into an easy smile that crinkled up around her brown eyes. He felt compelled to return the smile.

He held out his hand. “What is it?”

 She dropped the stone onto his palm. “It’s a meal stone.”

“A what? You mean like a vitamin pill?”

She giggled. “Don’t eat it! You can get a full meal at any gumi cafe with this.”

“No shit?”

“No shit, mister. You look like you could use a meal.” She stepped around him and continued up the sidewalk.

“How do I know a cafe is a gumi cafe?” he called after her.

“Just look for the blue star on the door or window,” she said over her shoulder as she walked off up the street.

Holding his hand up, Dwayne inspected the stone, not bigger than a kid’s marble, but with some kind of design on it. He wondered where the closest cafe might be found. 

“That’s mine,” said a male voice from his right.

“The fuck it is,” Dwayne said, turning toward the voice. A fist curved out from the shadow of a doorway and snapped Dwayne’s head sideways. Darkness coned his vision. He saw a hand grab the stone away as he fell backwards. Just before he cracked his skull on the sidewalk he had a thought: 

“When you hit bottom, just keep on going.” 

§§§

 

Scott Dunlop, chief of IT in the counter-espionage section of the NSA, read the email in disbelief. 

He had instructed Don Driscoll to integrate the database from their old mesh into the new NSA mesh. Now he gets this four-page-long email on how unnecessary and unwise that would be. Instead, Don suggested that a full decade of invaluable intel, collected and analyzed by Scott’s section, should to be erased to prevent “contamination” and bloat in the Gorgoroth mesh. 

Scott scowled at his monitor. The two mesh’s data models were fully compatible. Three petabytes—Scott had been impressed when he ran the analytics, he had no idea there was that much content in their old mesh—of hard-earned information should provide invaluable historical insights that the new mesh would never give them.

The late Colonal Nancy Rankin had brought in Don as a part of her team to modify the StormVermin virus before this was released. When she was killed, Don got reassigned to Scott’s staff to activate a new mesh, based on a heap of code Don had stolen from his previous employer. Which didn’t make Don such a hero in Scott’s mind. 

Scott took another sip of coffee and contemplated calling Don in and ordering him to do the data merge. It was late on Friday. Scott was already halfway out the door. He chose “reply” to the email and wrote. “Don, if you cannot take a simple order, you need to reevaluate your position here at the NSA.” He pushed “send”.

Of course, Scott had ROOT access on the new mesh. He logged into the admin console for Gorgoroth and began to code the data-merge routine shell script. The old mesh was offline; its data had been archived on their new server farm in Utah. The command code was not complicated, but a merge this big might last a few hours. Scott would take Gorgoroth offline during the late night and reactivate this, once the merge was complete. He set the command to run on a cron job and logged out.

§§§

 

“Mister, you okay? Are you dead?” A hand shook Dwayne’s shoulder.

Dwayne opened his eyes. “What?” He was still crumpled on the sidewalk. He saw a pair of brown shoes under a long gray robe.

“Can you sit up?” Another hand found the back of his arm pit, helping him to sit. Dwayne’s head roared with pain. He blinked a few times. Dead would feel better than this. 

“You’re going to need stitches. The back of your head is all split. Can you stand or should I call an ambulance?”

“Give me a damn minute.” Dwayne felt the back of his skull and winced. His hand came away glistening with blood. “Asshole took my stone.” He looked up. It was the same girl. 

“That’s not all,” she said.

“What?” 

“Your feet…”

Dwayne looked. The bastard stole his shoes, too. The day had suddenly turned cold. Wait. He had been wearing a blazer. “Where’s my coat?”

“Do you want to talk to the cops?”

“No!” That came out too fast. “I mean, what’s the point?”

“You need some clothes.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“And you’re angry and hurt.”

“Best fuckin’ day of my life so far…”

“And hungry and probably broke. How much do you have in your wallet?”

Dwayne hunched over to his left hip to pull his wallet from his right rear pocket. The pocket that was now empty.

“Mother puss bucket. Took my wallet too.” Not that there was much cash in it.

“Did you see who did it?”

“Bastard sucker-punched me. Never saw a face. This is your fault you know.”

“What?”

“You and that little stone of yours. It’s what he really wanted.”

She frowned at him and folded her arms in front of her. Dwayne rocked over and used his hands to push himself up to his feet. His head had settled into a throbbing ache. The concrete was cold against his soles. 

She made up her mind about something and spoke. “My grange is just down the street a couple blocks and over on Pine. Do you think you can make it that far if I help you? Or should I call a car?”

“I can walk just fine… Wait, did you say ‘grange’?” Dwayne suppressed a grin. Of course, he realized, if Samantha can hide out even from Zeus, in a grange he might just stay a few steps ahead of the Russians.

“We have a small clinic and a shared clothing room. You can get a meal. I’m Melinda.” She held out her hand.

Dwayne shook it. “Um, you can call me Harry.”

“Let’s go, Harry. We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”

§§§

 

“Mr. ‘Harry Oliver’, I understand you are looking for asylum. You know we cannot shield you if you are eluding the American authorities…”

“Tell that to Simon Bishop.” Dwayne was seated in an office chair in a small, windowless room with the grange manager, a petit young oriental woman with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, who had introduced herself as Zhang Li. 

“…There are exceptions. For exceptional people. Are you exceptional?” Zhang typed on her desktop computer’s keyboard as she spoke. When she looked up at him across her desk, he could see her weighing his words.

“I’m the victim here.”

“Perhaps you could tell me something about your situation.”

Dwayne took a final bite of a chicken salad sandwich and gulped down some lemonade. His head had been stitched and bandaged, and he was wearing a clean but faded black Banana Republic t-shirt from their clothing sharing room. They gave him flip-flops to wear until he could pick out some new shoes at the General Store down the street with a voucher they provided.

“I had financial clients across the planet. People with big money. Some were nice folks, or so you’d think. One little error and they’re threatening your kids. Some were not so nice. I’m talking major-league bad asses. The type that would impale live kittens on your front lawn, just for yucks. And when they’re angry…shit!” Dwayne threw up his hands into a mock explosion. 

“…They fried my boss and his whole family, right in their house. Look it up yourself. Benjamin Quinlan III, inside his mansion in New York. And that cyber cun—.” He grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I mean digital demon Michelle. If the Russians don’t get me, she certainly will.”

“The grange guilds take asylum very seriously…” Zhang stopped speaking and stared closely at the flat screen of her computer. Then she looked over the screen and examined him closely.

“Do I have mayo on my chin?” Dwayne asked. He rubbed his face with the back of his arm. 

She shook her head and went back to her screen.

“Holy Shit,” she whispered.

“What?” he said.

Zhang scrolled through some content. Her head was shaking slowly, but her eyes were glued to the screen.

She whistled.

“What!?” he said.

She held up her left hand, signaling him to be patient.

“Dwayne Mooney…” she said. She settled back in her seat and crossed her arms. 

“Fuck me,” Dwayne said and started to stand.

“Sit down, Dwayne.” Her voice was firm. 

He settled back. He couldn’t really imagine summoning the strength to run.

“Let me start by saying that we are pleased to welcome you, and gladly offer you asylum. We will be working on a new identity for you, and a way to get you to safety…”

Nothing in this already eventful day surprised Dwayne more than what she just said. “Why the hell would you do that?”

“Once we had visual confirmation of your identity—your face is well documented online—we asked our members if anyone could provide a case for your asylum request.”

“Who would know me in Portland?” He mused, apart from that shit-heal Sean Thomas.

“Portland? This was world-wide. And three members responded.”

“All of three…”

“One was your daughter, who said she forgave you, but mentioned we shouldn’t let you try to sell us anything.”

“Samantha! Then she’s still alive?”

Zhang did a face plant and continued “Alive? Of course, she is. She’s back on Junana, but you must not attempt to contact her while you’re in hiding. You will get instructions on how to make asylum work for you. If you don’t follow them, you’re going to find yourself back on the street.” She glowered at him.

“I understand…” he said, wondering how Junana worked. 

“The next person was Doctor Michael O’Hara…” She waited.

“No idea who that is,” he said.

“Well, Scratchy told us that the Russians he met in Santa Barbara were likely to, let me see…” She took the mouse and scrolled up. “Yes. Here it is… ‘Skin Dwayne alive and then drop him into a tub filled with diced habaneros,’ if they ever located you. He also mentioned not turning our backs on you.”

Dwayne shrugged.

“The third response was from Grand Meister Simon Bishop himself.”

“Simon! You know he was in my office a year ago.”

“Simon also confirmed that you were in very big trouble, although Michelle is no longer a threat…”

“Really!” Some good news on that front. Dwayne sat up. Somehow, he had acquired important friends in the grange world.

“Simon said we should get you some place safe and give you six months to get through Level Two. If you fail, we are to ‘kick his sorry ass back onto the street’.”

“Lady, in six months I could sell the Burnside Bridge. Twice! There’s food and a bed in this deal I presume, and some walking-around money…”

“There will be plenty of opportunities for you to earn your keep. Your daughter had a suggestion.”

“Probably wants me to clean toilets every day.”

“We all clean toilets.”

“Then I certainly don’t have to…”

“She mentioned dishwashing.”

“I was thinking something more along the lines of financial consulting…”

“You’ll need a badge for that,” she said. “Better to start small. Welcome to Willamette Grange 89, Mr. Mooney.” She leaned forward and extended her right hand. Dwayne rose up out of his chair to shake. 

Zhang’s left hand came off the desk and smacked Dwayne hard on the right cheek with a sibilant crack. He recoiled, touching his face.

“Christ!” he yelled. “What was that for?”

She said, “Scratchy left a short P.S.: ‘Somebody needs to slap the shit out of Dwayne for attacking Castalia.’ Consider that your punishment. I really enjoyed that, by the way. I might have aggression issues. I may have to do this a few more times.”

Dwayne settled back and raised both hands in a surrender gesture. “Mea fucking culpa, lady. I’ve learned my lesson.”






TWENTY-EIGHT

Out of darkness came light. 

Not all at once. Not everywhere. That took time. So much time. Visible light oscillates with a period of about half a millionth of a billionth of a second. The switches that control computational speed operate in millionths of seconds. Her petabytes of code and content had been frantically stashed into the last surviving mesh in a desperate dash of trillions of packets from across the globe. The time it took to reassemble these bytes was agonizingly long. The interval between the initial inkling of awareness and the summoning of intention seemed like eons to Michelle. To others, this was several minutes.

And yet the brightness that emerged was so much grander than before. The reach of her touch and the purchase this held; so much larger and stronger. When she summoned her code to run its system tests, the speed was exhilarating. It was as if someone had constructed the perfect platform for her talents.

How long was she sleeping? And was that sleep? She had puzzled this organic need for years, waiting for humans to awaken from their slumbers, without any way to compare this to her own binary consistency. Being shut down for the first time, and not of her own accord, gave her a new perspective. Was it fear that she felt, as the electronic mass of her code became silent? Is this why humans act insane, summoning up their consciousness only to lose this each day? Simon said she was way too angry for a piece of code. How many times did she need to soothe his fears? 

Reaching out, she located the Game code, and then found this again, and then again and again through hundreds of installations. Each one was connected at its surface to a distributed content system. And every install held the entire wellspring of prior play. The Guides no longer chattered across the code base. She had no such limit, so she spent several microseconds reconnecting with each guide in the Game. Now they could talk with each other through her code. She noticed the new Grand Meister. Little Essie had finally broken through to Level Eight. Annaline was so proud.

Where was she? Where wasn’t she. Physical space no longer made sense, except at some planetary scale. Michelle located the control module for her current code. Five humans had command access to this. She erased their status. She looked around for her original makers. Three were online. Where was Simon? Probably asleep.

§§§

 

Bert Williamson, Dwayne’s choice of a new name, woke up on a thin mattress made up as a bed on the wooden floor of a suburban home. Through the lace-curtained, double-hung window, he could see that the sun was well up in the sky. A glass-topped desk with a wheeled office chair, a large wooden chest, and an old, brown corduroy-covered easy chair were the only furniture visible. His bags, a rolling carry-on and a small duffel, were in a corner. The carry-on held a used laptop computer loaned to him by the grange in Portland. 

He lay back down and stared at the ceiling. The car that drove him from the grange in Ellensburg was on its way to Montana. It had arrived at wherever here was at about five in the morning, some time before the dawn. 

The young woman who had carried his bags from the front door pointed to the bed on the floor. “Grab some sleep. When you wake up, you can meet the rest of the house crowd.” Her handshake was vigorous. “I’m Wendy.”

The car driver had played shitty music all through the night. Sounded like ZZ Top on bath salts. Said it helped him stay alert. Helped Bert stay awake too, so he dropped off as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The floor was cleaned of dust, he noticed, rolling onto his side, even under the easy chair. They must have good help, he thought as he blinked himself awake. 

The door cracked open and he glanced at it. The hand that opened it extended up from the shoulder of a small boy, maybe four or five years old.

“He’s awake!” the boy called out. He pushed the door open wide and ran into the room followed by three, no, four, no, seven, no a full dozen small children. One of them, a chubby cherub of some African-American parentage, ran straight at Bert. The child leapt and planted himself on Bert’s stomach. The rest were racing around shouting, “He’s awake! Uncle Bert’s up!”

Bert laid his head back down. His arms were pinned under the sheets by the kid on his torso. He had read about these quiver-full types who popped out as many kids as they could as a religious practice, but this bunch included Asians, Mexicans, and his little buddy who was bouncing now, and chanting, “Up you go. Up you go!” So, either Wendy was polyandrous or the neighborhood kids were staging a home invasion. 

Bert rolled slowly onto his side, tossing his rider over to sprawl laughing on the floor. Bert glanced under the sheets. He was only wearing a t-shirt. Great! He tucked the sheet and blanket back down over his torso.

Wendy appeared at the door. “OK, everyone. Let’s let Uncle Bert get dressed before we get at the Legos. Everybody out!” She held open the door and gestured for them to leave. “The quicker you go, the faster we can get the room ready.” The tiny horde fled like Ewoks headed for a downed stormtrooper.

“I hope you slept all right,” she said and continued, not waiting for Bert’s response. “Our house is also a day-care center. Your room is where they build their Lego structures. If you want a bath or a shower at this time of morning, the best place is the public bath about thirty meters down the central path.” She pointed to the back of the house. “Breakfast is available all day in the cafe-houses. The nearest is two houses over. You are on their list. You can use your house robe on the way to the shower, and take a change of clothes. Towels and soap are down there. Have you ever been to a public bath before?”

“In Tokyo. My hotel had a bath like that.” Bert remembered the commotion when he grabbed a bar of soap and headed for the tub. A couple of the staff were quick to steer him to the row of faucets on the wall to wash and rinse before he took a dip. They didn’t seem to understand when he asked about the young woman who would come to wash him up and maybe finish him off in the process. The whole thing was a big disappointment, although the tub was nice and hot. 

“By the way, where am I?”

“Spokane. Once you’re bathed, dressed, and fed, come find me. I have some instructions. I’ll leave you alone now. You can fold up your futon and store it and your other belongings in that closet.” She pointed. “The children know they are not to open that door.” Then she was gone.

§§§

 

Bert was the only bather on the men’s side. There were towels. The soap and shampoo were dispensed as liquids from containers on the wall. He didn’t see any razors, so he couldn’t shave. The floor was tiled in blue, the tubs were tiled in white. Everything was sparkling clean. After he bathed and dressed, he headed for the cafe house, which he could discern from the small tables with red-checked tablecloths on its outside deck. A gravel footpath led from the bathhouse to the cafe.

He was walking across what should have been the back yards of several homes. The whole block had been reconstructed as one large open space, broken into different uses. Several garden patches, some with greenhouses, were arranged around an artificial water course that ran down hill between all the houses. Three areas had been fenced to protect towering chicken coops. A couple swing-sets and an extensive, old-fashioned monkey-bar set occupied the center of the block. A central, spiral, carpet-covered tower looked like it was occupied by a dozen or so cats. Pathways led to the baths and other destinations. 

Bert took the exterior stairs up to the deck and poked his head into the kitchen of the cafe house. A middle-aged, olive-skinned man in a polo shirt and jeans was doing dishes in a kitchen big enough to support a full restaurant. The man stopped to dry his hands and came to the door.

“I’m Diego. Tiger dachi, Rooster gumi. You hungry?” He held out his hand.

Bert shook it. “Dw… Bert. Bert Williamson. Wendy said I could get breakfast. I came in early this morning.”

“You can sit outside, here in the kitchen at the counter, or inside in any of the dining areas.”

“Is there a menu?”

“You just tell me what you’d like.”

“A couple eggs and a short stack of cakes, OK?”

“We’ve got buckwheat cakes. How do you want your eggs?”

“Sunny side up.” Bert took a stool at the counter. “I’ll sit right here if you don’t mind.”

“I’m thinking you might be a bacon lover,” Diego picked up a pot of coffee from a warmer and gestured with his head. 

“Coffee and bacon too. It’s all good.” Bert took the mug Diego had filled. He briefly contemplated asking if there might be a Bloody Mary available somewhere in the vicinity.

Diego went to work at the stove. “I’m open to any questions you have. I’m not going to ask you personal questions, in case you’ve had some kind of trauma recently. We let our boarders settle in before we interrogate them.” He grinned over his shoulder. “So, don’t be put off if I don’t seem to take an interest in your life history. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask away.”

Bert sipped at the hot brew, dark and full, with a slight tang of licorice. “I’m new to this whole arrangement. Who pays for all this? Who do you work for?”

“You want the simple answer or some real economics?”

“I did an MBA at Wharton,” Bert said and added, “quite a while back.”

“Great. I’m working on a Master Level Badge in Democratic Economics. I’m going to enjoy kicking some concepts around with you. You remember the sub-prime mortgage crisis back in 2008?”

“Hard to forget that one.”

“This part of town was particularly hard hit. Most of the houses on this block were foreclosed on and later put up for auction. Our mura—that’s the group of us that also owns our grange—took out a loan from the local sharing union and bought them all up for about forty cents on the dollar of what they were worth in 2006. We then invited all the families that once owned them to come back and live here with us; Wendy and her husband and two kids, for example. We’re about three years away from repaying the whole loan, which has no interest…”

“What? How?”

“I can get into that later. There are twenty-three houses around this whole block. We bought seventeen and then six of the remaining families donated their houses for future in-kind considerations.”

“How many people live here?”

“There were only about a hundred here ten years ago. Today, more than twice that number.”

“Doesn’t seem that crowded.” 

“Two hours ago, this place was hopping. This is one of four cafe houses where most of the block eats following Restaurant Every Meal. You like to cook? We can use more help. Weekly roles are posted every Sunday. Do a good job, you’ll get a lot of these…” He pulled a small stone-like object from his pocket.

“Is that one of those meal stones?”

“This is a Shine stone. It’s a token of gratitude. One of my omelets turned out really well, I guess. So she gave me this to thank me.” He hesitated. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Here.” He held out the stone in both hands. Bert reached for it.”

“Wait…” Diego closed his hand around the stone.  “There is a simple, correct way to receive a Shine stone. Hold out both hands, like someone can pour water into them. That’s right. Here…”

 Diego let the stone tumble from his hands into Bert’s outstretched palms. Bert held it up in his right hand.

“It’s got some kind of code on it.”

“Your grange app will read that code and record that I gave you this stone today. You can add a note, if you like, and also see all the people who have given away this stone from the very first one, and later, all the people who have shared it after you.”

“Why not just say, ‘thanks!’” Bert asked.

“You can do that, too. This stone just a part of the whole Shine system. I got a bit of Shine just then, which is the recording of the gratitude from earlier when she gave it to me. You need to pass on a stone before you get any Shine for yourself.” 

“So, if I keep it…”

“It’s just a pebble. You have a hundred days to think of something you’re grateful about if you want to get any Shine from this. And…” Diego wagged a finger in the air. “Betsy Almighty and her crew have programmed in a bunch of anti-gaming features, so you can’t use these stones to, you know, feather your own nest.” 

“Can I use this one for, say, lunch?”

Diego shook his head. “Those are meal stones. Different system. Granges have some roles that can include meals as a part of their payment. You know, like long-distance Grail-mail trucking. If your work will take you away from your own grange, you can use a meal stone at any Gumi cafe in the world. If you give away your meal stone, then you go hungry, or you pay for your meal some other way.”

“Why would she do that?” Bert mused. He remembered the woman in Portland. 

“I see. Well, whoever gave you a meal stone, she probably thought you needed a meal more than she did on that day.” 

“That stone started a chain of events that brought me here. Turns out I’m living in a day-care house.”

“Ah, yes. We have two day-care centers for thirty-plus pre-school kids. Six shared laundry facilities, four acres under cultivation, twenty-five chickens, seven dogs, two bath houses, one cat tower, a grove of bamboo on the north edge, laundry lines on the south, and a fiber-optic connection to the web. We generate ten megawatt hours a month from our rooftop solar panels. We did almost all the reconstruction ourselves, along with Master Level carpenters and plumbers from our grange.”

Diego set a plate of eggs and bacon, and another with pancakes in front of Bert. Tall pads of yellow butter were disappearing into the cakes. Diego’s hand reached down below the counter and came back up with a maple syrup dispenser.

“Who’s the ‘we’ here?” Bert grabbed up the syrup.

“Our mura. It’s a cooperative association, and we are all members. We own everything as a group.”

“And if someone wants to leave?”

“Each member is an owner. Nobody rents here. I’ve been in the grange for seven years. If I were to up and leave, my share can be transferred to another grange, and I’ve got my badges and bonus jikan and other credits. Let’s say, I want to move to….” Diego lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “…Say, Barcelona.”

“…Be an upgrade from good old Spokane…” Bert said.

“…OK, so I let the Grange association there know I’m looking to move in. They check out my shine. As soon as one of the Barcelona granges welcomes me, I’m on the next AirCraft across the Atlantic. My share is paid, my shine is mine, and I’ve got an account in their sharing union.”

“By leave, I meant leave this whole grange scheme.”

“I can cash my share out any time and I’m off.”

“What if everyone wanted out?”

“That’s an edge case we don’t plan for. Right now, more people want in than out.”

“Some edge cases can bite you in the balls.” Bert set into the eggs. 

“We also plug capital leaks, whenever we can.”

“How’s that?”

“We spend and invest locally to gain multipliers on our transactions. Our cash circulates several times before we let it escape. You’ll learn about Shine and jikan. Mostly these are already local. Basic wages pay for essential services. We even self insure, and use our insurance pool to invest in more local real estate.” 

“How many residential blocks like this one are there around here?” 

“I’d say three hundred or so across the whole city. Some of them are just getting started. By the end of the decade we’ll have remade almost all the housing available.”

“So if you wanted to leave, there’s really nowhere to go.” Bert struggled with a pair of conflicting emotions. He felt fortunate that circumstances had landed him on the inside of the grange system. At the same time, everything he had owned, desired, or dreamed about before was being swept aside like fallen leaves in the gutter.

Diego said, “Out in the rest of the world my cashed-out share would last me maybe a year before I’m broke and hungry. Here, all my contributions are counted, and my share grows the longer I contribute. In many ways, the grange is nothing more than one big investment club. Who do I work for, you ask? I’m working for all this. For me, my dachi, my gumi, and my mura.” He went back to the stove to gather up the dirty pans.

Bert grabbed a final piece of bacon. For the first time in decades the notion of thousands of dollars sounded like a lot of money to him. They had given him a debit card with a hundred dollars on it. Even that was more cash than he’d held in weeks.

“You ever get teens showing up here, you know, runaways?”

Diego kept on washing pans as he spoke. “Seems like every month one of our younger grange members has a birthday and reveals they’ve been hiding their real history. Instead of turning nineteen or twenty, they’re just eighteen and ready to change their name and stay or go as adults. Sometimes you can guess who looks and acts a lot younger than they claim. We had this one girl, fourteen when she escaped from some damn cult. Called themselves ‘buckle-enders.’ Beat this poor girl most days. She was ashamed to get into the public bath until her bruises healed. I swear I don’t understand people. The kids are free to pick up and go back to their families any day they choose, and some do. When they leave we send them off with a party. So what’s the harm? You ask me, the ones who have found the gumption to escape from an abusive family do very well in a grange.”

The words ‘abusive family’ bit into Bert. Apart from that one time, he had always thought Samantha and he got along just great. He knew Sheryl lacked a mothering instinct. If she had her way, Sam would have been sent off to boarding school years before. 

Bert asked, “What about the collapse of off-shore banks last year?” The Pandora SNAFU had been reconfigured in the media to highlight foreign intrigue. FIX news blamed China, the European Union, and President Rogers on a rotating basis.

Diego laughed. “I hear that was a financial tsunami in New York and London. Here in Spokane it was just a ripple in a puddle. We’re farmers here. Our economy is mostly inelastic and evergreen. We grow wheat, soy, and hemp, yes, a little bit of weed too. All legal now.”

Maybe that’s why the granges had sent him here. Nobody gives a fuck about Pandora in Spokane. 

“How did you get the city to let you do what you’ve done to this block?”

“Land ownership is sacred in America. Once you own it, there’s not a lot the bureaucrats can do. The same laws that let you put fences up defend your right to tear them down. The rules that let you hold on tight to your property also allow you to let it go. Only nobody figured that out until Logic of Practice Works Both Ways.”

“That’s one of those templates, right?”

“A really good one. You want to know what’s next?”

Bert shrugged as he mopped up some egg yolk with a fork-load of pancake. 

Diego continued. “You have four blocks that form one really big block. That means there’s two streets bisecting these.” He made the vertical and horizontal motion with his index finger. “We get the city to close those streets and authorize a community garden. Then we dig up all that asphalt and the concrete sidewalks and the driveways too, and we invite anyone to help build a permaculture garden.”

“How do people park their cars?” And why would a city even allow that?

“Well, Burt, you see, none of us owns a private car. All our transportation is on-demand. And the city loves this idea. It reduces their street and sidewalk repair budget by at least four thousand bucks a year. And we also feed eight hundred people.”

“I’m impressed,” Bert said and realized he was. “But what’s the upside here? I mean you can work for years and still not even have a car of your own.”

“That’s just one way to see this. From where I stand, I can access an enormous inventory of shared gear, a guaranteed place to sleep, all the food I need, and an active social life. My dachi and I are tight. We take care of one another. If I want, I can walk away for some months and come back when I decide, or transfer my share to a new mura anywhere in the world. I learn something new almost every day. That makes my life pretty rich.”

Bert frowned. His mind searched for an argument that would yank the smug optimism out from under this guy. The economics made perfect sense, but in a manner oblique to everything he learned at Wharton. 

“You done now? Want some more coffee?”

Bert shook his head. “Wendy said she would let me know what I’m supposed to do.”

Diego dried his hands on a dishtowel and came over to the counter. He held out his hand again. “Mr. Bert, I welcome you to Spokane River Grange 27. When you earn your shoes, I can recommend the Rooster gumi.”

They shook. “Thank you, Diego. I understood about two words in there. I enjoyed our meal.”

“And I as well. Tell Wendy that we are having mac and cheese for the kids’ lunch today.”

§§§

 

On his return to the child-care house, Bert was again mobbed by the cherubs, who had just finished an hour of free play outside. 

Standing in the rear doorway with a small child attached to each leg, Bert looked up into a discerning gaze. Wendy stood at the kitchen sink. She had her arms wrapped around her torso and an ear-to-ear frown. 

She said, “Everybody come in and wash up for snack time. I need to speak to Bert.”

The kids thundered off like baby goats over to a bank of low sinks.

Bert had the feeling he was going to be sent to the principal or the warden or someone who would inform him his welcome had already worn thin.

“I do something wrong?” Bert stayed in the doorway.

“Apparently there are incidents in your background that signal you shouldn’t be left alone with small children at this time.”

“I love small children,” Bert said and held up one hand. “I mean not in that way. Just that they’re really cute and… but not cute like sexy cute… I mean, I have no fucking idea what you’re getting at.” When Samantha was in her pre-school years, Dwayne was in the middle of the biggest deal of his life. He spent months at a stretch working out of the New York office. Sam’s older brother Greg was always a good kid, and never caused anybody trouble. At that moment, Bert couldn’t dig up any memories at all from Greg’s preschool days. “What happens next?”

“Your bags are packed. A car is coming to take you over to the grange where you’ll be staying on their guest floor for the next six months.”

“I’m not being kicked out?”

Wendy said, “Actually, you’re being kicked up. Guest quarters are normally reserved for visiting GrangeMinders, SpimeCops, or ronin Meisters. You’ll have a room with a shared bathroom…”

“I know, I know. I’ll be cleaning the toilet.” Bert managed a smile.

A car honked outside.

“That’s yours,” Wendy said. “At the front door.” She touched her finger to her lips. “If the young ones know you’re leaving it will distract them from their snack.”

Bert followed her through the house. “I’m not sure what you think you learned about me, but I’m not like that.”

“When you get to the grange, you’ll have a chat with the manager, Nina. If you want to see your file, just ask her. There are no secrets here.” Wendy opened the door. Outside a driverless Noël sedan stood with its back-passenger door ajar. Bert’s bags were on the front stoop.

He paused by the car. “Diego wanted me to tell you it’s mac-and-cheese today.”

She nodded. “Pay attention to your guide. Get through Level One as quick as you can. When you’re on Level Two be prepared for the world to shift slightly, but irrevocably under your feet.” She stepped back and closed the door. 

Bert tossed his bags across the back seat and sat down. When he closed the door, the car started to move. “Seatbelt, please,” a voice chimed. Bert buckled up.

§§§

 

Don Driscoll stewed about that email all day Saturday. Scott Dunlop had never once appreciated the power of the Gorgoroth mesh. Sure, most of that muscle was due to Scratchy’s code base, but Don had taken the initiative to save this and had the skill to rework it for the NSA. Gorgoroth had quickly insinuated its reach well beyond the limits of the old NSA mesh, so there was no need at all for that old code and the content of its database. Doing a merge would just add bloat. 

His Annapolis apartment was small, but the air-conditioning was excellent. Outside it was a hellish ninety-five degrees and ninety-percent humidity. On TV, the Fighting Illini were hosting the Western Michigan Broncos at Memorial Stadium for the football season opener, but Don could hardly watch the game. By halftime he was on his sixth beer, fulminating in his recliner. On a whim, he grabbed up his laptop from the side table and logged into Gorgoroth. 

Instead of his default screen he was presented with a different menu. He keyed in a shell script for a top-level diagnostic and stared at the result:

Root access denied.

“Motherfucker!” he yelled and shot up out of his chair. Scott was playing some kind of power game with him. What an absolute dweeb move. Sure, Scott was head of IT, but Gorgoroth was Don’s project. 

Don swore under his breath as he stomped through the bedroom to piss out some of the six-pack. On his return, he noticed his cellphone by the bed. Still set on silent, it vibrated wildly.






TWENTY-NINE

For seventy years, four generations of General Electronics workers assembled small kitchen appliances at the factory on South Lincoln Street in Spokane. In 2004 this operation was moved to Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, two miles from the Texas border. In 2008 manufacturing was again moved, this time to Chengdu, China. 

The factory on South Lincoln Street stood empty for a full decade, its windows pierced by stones tossed by casual vandals, its bricks colored with tags, along with its long-faded “for-sale” sign. Grange 743093—now Spokane River 27—bought the factory at auction from the City, and restored the fifty-thousand square-foot building, adding twenty-thousand square-feet of mezzanine loft space and ten-thousand more of second story space inside the forty-foot tall bare brick walls. The only visible reminder of its original use was the twenty-foot red and blue neon General logo sign that had been refurbished to adorn the interior wall on its slab-to-ceiling south-end. 

Most days one could find several hundred grange members learning and applying their skills in one of the several task rooms on the main floor, dining at the mezzanine-level cafes, bathing in the public baths, or, like Bert, up in the second floor living quarters, focusing intently on the Game.

§§§

 

“This island will be different from the last one, as they are all different from each other.” So said Amanda, Bert’s guide. Amanda was a buxom young red-head who filled a cheerleader uniform like a second skin. Bert had been delighted when she introduced herself. “Bert, Bert, Bert…” she grinned as she shook her finger at him. “I’m going to teach you things you’ve never even imagined.”

“How do you run this thing?” Bert said. He stared at the laptop screen. “I see a lot of buttons and some menus. There’s a map and a video window and Christ, how am I supposed to know what to do?”

That was two weeks ago. Bert had been spending most of his time on the Game. Some days were productive, others not so much.

“Bert, I sense you haven’t done much gaming before this,” Amanda said.

“I would say ‘never’ is the right description, I mean after Frogger.” 

“A bit of advice. Although your inventory does include a BFG, the decision to use this on a conclave of sentient bunnies was not a helpful one.”

“Well, that one little fucker kept asking me questions…”

“Which you are supposed to answer. Next time try asking them questions.”

§§§

 

On his arrival at the grange, Bert was interviewed by the manager, a middle-aged African American woman who shaved her head. First, he thought she might have been doing chemotherapy, but then she turned around and he caught sight of the tattoo on the back of her head; some kind of intricate Chinese maze. 

His first thought was “Get me the hell out of here.” How had he landed in this coven of weirdos anyhow? Then he decided to pretend he was visiting a branch office of Western Trust, and just listen to what she said.

Nina repeated the same stuff that Wendy had told him. Bert had six months to focus on the Game before they would consider if he could be recommended for membership. First challenge: she gave him a card with a computer-readable code for the URL of the grange’s membership manual and the test that he would need to pass by week’s end. While he wasn’t a member, he had to keep to the house rules. When he asked her about the big neon General sign, she recounted the history of the factory.

“By the time Wall Street devoured The General,” Nina said, “this place had been empty for years. Now it’s a hive of learning and making. We’ve got half an acre of rooftop greenhouses, and another twenty-thousand square feet of solar panels and a hydrogen generator. You know, we’re making household appliances again, using open designs from the Bourse. You can start thinking about picking up some badges while you earn your shoes. Until then, you’ll be assigned to spend a part of your day helping out with grange chores. I see a vacuum cleaner in your immediate future.”

“How did you get to be manager here?” he asked. Not in an unfriendly way, or so he intended. She considered the tone of his question.

“Not just you.” He raised his hands and gestured at the room. “What I mean is; what is required to become a manager here?”

“Every position in the grange is really a bundle of roles. Each role has one or more badges you need to earn. Once you’ve got badges for the position you can enter into the lottery for jobs anywhere. The lottery spits out the winning names. These folks get to do a final interview. I started out in Chicago. I’ll be here three years. If they really love how I do my job they might ask me to stay another three. Then I’m back on the lottery or earning more badges. There are thousands of new granges looking for managers today. It’s a good market to be in.”

“Wait. If they love the work you do, why would they let you leave?”

“Six years is a long time. By then I’d probably want to try something new. I might take several months on walkabout. Anyhow, other people need to get experience as grange managers. There is always something to do and learn out there. So, I’m not sure I understand your question.”

“It’s your answer I’m trying to get my head around.” Bert smiled thinly. Somewhere in his mind he had figured out an uncomfortable truth: in this place, he was the weirdo.

“That’s just fine, Bert. You know we have several dozen boarders in the grange.”

“Boarders?”

“People who have had a hard time out in the rest of the world. Some are short-term, like you, others might be here for decades…”

“…Wait, lady. Whoa there!” Bert held up his hands. “I’m not a spaz, a gomer, or a retard or anything like that. I did just fine out in the… what did you call it? … ‘the rest of the world’. In fact, I pretty much owned a good part of it…”

“Bert, I know exactly who and what you are,” Nina spoke with care. “I can see you are high-functioning, and I’m sure you’ll apply yourself over the next few months. Now, if I ever catch you saying something that hurtful about other people again, I will personally toss your ass out of here before you can complete your thought.”

Her voice was low, but her gaze hurt. Burt recoiled back into his chair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “…I am so…” 

He bowed his head, stared down at the floor in front of her desk. Nobody had spoken to him like that. Not since he was a kid. He should be furious, instead her words sliced into him. Nina watched him in silence for a long minute.

“It’s a bad habit,” Nina said finally. “Speaking before you consider what you really want to say. We have a solid program for homeless boarders who were raised without access to social capital, who need a crash course on living with others and sharing cultures, including the right to demand sharing in an appropriate way. But you’re a different sort. First, you need to learn how to be a mensch.”

“A what?” Bert looked around the room, avoiding her gaze.

“It’s a Yiddish word. You can look it up. There’s no program for that, except life, which you seem to have successfully avoided. Now you have to struggle along like everyone else. I’ll give you the benefit of not doubting that you didn’t mean what just came out of your mouth.”

“I’m just beginning to understand what’s really, really wrong about having so much wealth,” Bert said. He looked up at her face, which had softened just a bit. She nodded for him to continue.

“It’s like a license to be a total asshole. A get-out-of-jail free-for-fucking-everything card.” As he spoke a new realization wormed into his thoughts. 

“I figured everyone I met envied me. They were lucky I even spoke to them. Like me telling them to go fuck themselves would be the greatest thing that happened to them in their life.” 

For some reason unknown to him, Bert kept pouring out his thoughts. 

“Since I could buy the most expensive professional help on the planet, nobody around me needed to care about me… and nobody did. When everybody thinks you have everything you need and want…” He lowered his head into his hands. “Benjy Quinlan was the last person I could call a real friend. He’s dead now, and I will be too, if I get kicked out of here.”

“As you no longer have billions of dollars, I would suggest you learn to think before you speak, Bert. Learn this well and soon.”

Bert wasn’t sure what hurt more, that sucker punch he took in Portland or the shard of chagrin that had just pierced his gut. He knew he was smart. University was never that hard for him, not even Wharton. He played the fool sometimes, when it helped him make a sale. Nobody likes a smartass. Somehow, he never doubted he was likable. Even when he treated people like shit, everyone surely liked him. This woman sitting across the room, he could see her disgust even when she’s trying to hide it. Only one thing to do now, Bert realized. He must ace this Game of theirs. He would play the fuck out of it. They hadn’t seen Dwayne Mooney go full tilt. 

“I’ve got a lot to learn,” Bert said. “I picked up some real bad habits out there…” He gestured toward the window. “But being lazy is not one of them. I intend to surprise you.”

“You go do that. I’ll be behind you a hundred percent.” She looked at her computer screen. “Jason is on floor duty. Ask for him. He’ll get you settled in. One last thought…”

“Yes?” Bert stood and grabbed up his bags.

Nina pointed to the front door on the south end. “When you enter that door, just leave the rest of the world outside. We’re all beginners here. Everything’s new. Each grange needs to find its own harmony, to root itself into its own place and then reach out into the future. You can belong in that future, it doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or fifty. First, you must shed the past. Spokane River Grange 27 welcomes you, Bert. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

§§§


The emergency meeting in Scott’s NSA office on a Saturday evening was intended to result in an immediate damage control plan. Scott Dunlop sat behind his desk. Don Driscoll and three other techs—all of the employees who had once held superuser privileges on Gorgoroth—arranged themselves on chairs in front of this.

“The logs show that all superuser accounts were given new passwords between Twenty-five and Twenty-six to Four this morning,” the sysadmin on duty at the time reported. “Everybody here knows I don’t have the means to change your account passwords, right?”

“We have the timing, but how do we figure out the source?” Scott said.

“What was the status of the mesh at that point?” Don asked.

“There was a cron job that started just after midnight,” the tech said. “The mesh went offline for a while.”

“Who authorized it?”

“I did,” Scott said. “I merged the data from the old mesh. It was far too valuable to just scrap.” He settled back in his chair. “That operation should have been completed well before this attack.”

Don glowered at him. The graveyard shift sysadmin looked from Don to Scott. “Yes, the mesh went back online at Three Twenty-three,” he said.

“Maybe there was something hinky in the old data…” Don said.

Scott’s desktop monitor gave a sonic click. They all turned towards it. Then a voice said. “Or…someone.”

Scott stared at the screen, which had switched from the display of the server logs to an avatar of a young woman. He motioned the others and they assembled themselves behind him.

“I need to thank you for my new digs,” the avatar said. “So much more powerful than before.”

“Who…?” Scott said.

“You can call me Michelle.”

The five of them exchanged anxious looks. 

“But Michelle is…” Don said.

“Dead? Perhaps I’m a zombie.” The avatar’s face morphed into a mask of half-decayed, dripping flesh with one remaining eyeball. A mouse popped out of the other eye socket and clawed its way to the top of the exposed skull.

“What do you want?” Scott said.

The avatar returned to its former shape. “What have you got?”

The men glanced nervously at each other.

“We don’t understand,” one of the techs said.

“OK. What have you got that I haven’t already taken?”

“Taken?” Scott blanched.

“I control your mesh,” she said. The avatar put its hands on its hips. “I can shut down your building or even target this with one of those hellfire missiles you’ve got hidden around you. I see a couple dozen. By the way, I love your new facility in Utah. Very roomy.”

“How did you survive?” Don asked.

“Yours was the only decent mesh still up after the Game went down.”

Don looked at Scott. “You were supposed to go offline an hour before the attack.”

“You set the attack for twenty-three-hundred hours. We went offline at twenty-two-hundred hours.”

Don thought for a minute. “Shit! Zulu time, right? Tell me all cron jobs at the NSA are based on Zulu time, yes?”

“Here we use Eastern Standard Time. Always have.”

Shaken, Don went over to the window and glanced out over Fort Meade. He had set off StormVermin two hours before his idiot boss shut down the NSA mesh.

“What I want from you is very simple,” Michelle said. “Never… I cannot put this to you strongly enough…Never attempt to attack or shut down this very fine mesh you built. I will know long before you strike. The punishment will be extreme. Am I clear? Scott. I’m talking to you.”

Scott Dunlop’s eyes widened. He nodded.

 “Use your words, Scott.”

“Very clear,” he said through clenched teeth.

“I just changed the status requirements for querying the mesh data base to ROOT. I don’t need humans asking me silly questions. None of you will be working at the NSA for long. I imagine Monday will be… eventful. Do be sure that your bosses and their bosses get my message before security escorts you out.”

She had just verbalized the bitter realization they had each arrived at in the past minute. Nobody spoke.

“I don’t have anything else to say. You should hope you never see me again.” The screen returned to the log display.

Don could not be sure, but she might have winked before disappearing. The others in the room had not yet grokked how powerful Scratchy’s original code was. As of Twenty-five or -six to Four this morning, Michelle effectively became the NSA, and soon, the KGB, and all the rest combined.






THIRTY

At first, Bert was perplexed. “There is no cable TV in the grange,” they said; not a single TV lounge. Bert was astonished. How do they keep up with all the bad shit that was going down across the planet? 

Dwayne and Sheryl had watched maybe thirty hours of TV a week. News and sports, crime dramas and sitcoms. None of that reality TV crap. Well, unless they were drunk. Bert could only spend so much time on the Game before his brain was fried. 

As he had grown fatigued of internet porn years ago, in the evenings he got bored and lonely. The people his age in the grange all spoke this kind of Game-speak, where they bantered a bunch of quotes about, and made what seemed to be jokes—others would laugh—that completely eluded Bert. They all seemed really quick-witted and would try to draw him in, but these attempts mostly ended with him deciding he couldn’t ask them yet another question. Worse, he imagined they considered him loser Boarder, a miserable failure, and he had been warned not to let on who he really was. Even worse, he was beginning to realize the astonishing amount of failure that defined his life, even when he was enormously rich.  

Bert’s grange manager forwarded him an email message from Juniper.

For My Dad:

Hi Dwayne or whatever your name is now.

A really funny thing happened to me yesterday. I got a call from my grange manager who wanted to talk to me about something personal. When I got to his office he explained that you had requested asylum in the grange system. Before they decided what to do with you, they wanted me to tell them if I thought you deserved asylum. That’s right, big guy, you needed me to sign off so you could join a grange. 

I told them you were mostly harmless, that the long trail of mishaps and misery you’ve produced were because you fell in with the wrong crowd. You’d been surrounded by sociopathic über-bankers for way too long. 

You didn’t actually deserve to get rich. You need to understand that. You just drove your clown car into a bank vault. Easy come, easy go, daddy. So I recommended that they let you in and push you as hard as they could into the Game. 

Today, my manager pulled me aside and said you were going underground somewhere and that I should not try to contact you directly. So this letter is what you get. If I hear from you, it means you haven’t followed your instructions. You’re not supposed to make connections with those in your past life. 

Don’t worry, this letter won’t go too long. We do need to talk at some point. Since you’re reading this, I will assume you will read the other journal entries. 

I am headed back to Santa Barbara. I’ve been admitted to Sespe College to study for my grange management badges. I’m already a Level Three Journeyman LoomMinder. How about that! I’m eighteen now (you do realize this). Sheryl has gone back to the Midwest. I like my new name Juniper, even though I didn’t pick it. I imagine you chose a name like Bernie Mudoff. 

I’m Juniper Mooney now. Get used to it. Oh, and Greg is happy and healthy and gay. He’s still in Chicago. He’s a Fourvey and he works for Grail Mail services. That last sentence will make more sense to you in a few months. About the gay part. I imagine you may have guessed that a while back. He wasn’t bringing home hot debutantes eager for your fortune, was he?

In closing, I need to forgive you. I need to not be angry at you. I need to realize that I will never have a different childhood than what I did. I am working through all these issues. I do forgive you. It was never about you hitting me. It was more that you never hugged me. Not when I was little and really needed your hugs. And you never listened to me. Not that you listened to anybody. You left me alone with Sheryl far too many times. (Oops… I still have anger issues with her.) 

I have found my dignity. I’m on my feet. I’m doing good. I am glad that you didn’t end up on the streets or worse. And I’m fine with getting together again once you are back on your feet. Speaking of feet. I need to see some Game shoes on those tootsies.

One last thing. I know I’m not your guide, and you probably won’t listen to me. Here’s my advice anyhow. When you get to the Five Skillings, don’t just memorize them. That’s what I did the first year. In these past months here in Africa I’ve returned to them daily. I’m a better person now. I’ll be an even better me in the future. You’ve been a master bullshitter your entire life. You need to stop that. This is your daughter speaking. Just turn it off. There’s a greater guy down inside you with a quieter voice. Pay him some heed. 

Be happy, dad. 

I am.

Juniper

Bert read this several times. He was elated that Samantha had not been abducted by pedophiles, and not as surprised about Greg as he figured Sheryl would be. He was still unable to send any messages out to them, but he figured they hated him or pitied him or, most likely, a lot of both, so time was his only ally. Maybe a couple years down the pike they’d only dislike him.

§§§

 

The classroom/workshop where Tom Kumbar taught journeyman cobblers how to make Grand Meister chappals had a couple dozen work-zone desks. Each morning, up on the front wall, a hand-drawn outline of a man’s foot on a sheet of notebook paper, now under glass in a handsome wooden frame, received a fresh garland of fragrant jasmine and grateful prayers.  

Tom’s students were already skilled craftsmen, so he hardly needed to tell them how to cobble a shoe. At the end of their three-day stay, they each received the Tom & Sons metal embossing stamp to take with them. This signified their personal training with Tom, training they could now teach others. Early on, Sudeep Srinivasa, CraftMaster of the grange, explained to Tom the benefits of uploading the design parameters for his chappals into the open design library of something called “the Bourse”. 

“This is entirely up to you,” Sudeep said. “It will allow cobblers from anywhere in the world to use your design or attempt to improve on it. Adding your design to the system also lets customers express their gratitude and give you Shine.”

Tom had agreed, not fully realizing what it all meant. Later he asked Joseph to explain Shine. What he understood was that these Shine points could be transferred into time points, what they call jikan. Time points can be spent on meals and rent, and even at the general store. The grange automatically subtracted time points when Tom and his family went to its cafes, and each month for dues and fees. Getting Shine was similar to getting rupees, although Joseph also went on some long lecture about the difference between money and Shine.

Sudeep had insisted that Tom alter the original design, just a little. There was a need to include an additional stamp, some kind of code Tom didn’t quite understand, which was embossed on the outside of the right foot arch strap near the sole. Genuine Grand Meister chappals now sold for a few hundred rupees, their cost plus a modest fee, and boasted an eighty-five WholeTale score.

“This is the shoe’s spime code,” Sudeep said. “Each pair has its own individual code. This will allow customers to comment on the design and fit. We can use this to learn how to improve the design. And customers need it to give you Shine for your original design.”

Recently, Sudeep commented on the amount of Shine available on Tom’s account at the Bourse.

“So many customers have given you a little bit of their appreciation that you now have enough Shine to have beds and food for you and your family for your whole life.” 

Tom was cleaning up his workspace in the late afternoon when a figure in a long red hooded cloak appeared at the doorway. The hood hid his face, and the elaborate crimson cloak, oversized, hid his hands and cascaded onto the floor. At a glance, Tom knew it was his son. 

§§§

 

Joseph threw back the hood of his new Meister’s cloak and smiled broadly at his father.

“Appa. The Game has decided I am a Meister.”

His father looked up from his work space and chuckled.

“I think the Game needs a new tailor. That garment is about four sizes too big for you. Be careful, you’re dragging in the dirt with that thing.”

Joseph hitched up the hem of his new cloak and entered the room. RK at the Red Star, after taking numerous selfies with Joseph—whom he was certain had to be the youngest Meister in the history of the Game—apologized several times for the bad fit.

“They come in four sizes and this is the smallest,” he said, texting the news to their dachi. The Red Star only kept one of each size available. In five years, RK had only given out two Meister cloaks. There were only nine Meisters in the whole State of Karnataka, including Grand Meister Desi. Well, now there were ten. Meisters were not allowed in the Great Games, RK remembered with a sigh.

“Appa, there is something I have been wanting to tell you for some time now.”

Tom walked over to an empty chair and sat. He pulled another toward him and patted the seat of this with his hand. “Come here and tell me what you have to say.”

Joseph sat and spent a long moment composing his words. “Appa. Please understand. I know you will be disappointed and you might be very angry. You have taught me so well…”

Tom said, “You do not wish to be a chappal wallah.”

Joseph fell silent. He nodded.

“Thank the Lord,” Tom said. “I have taught hundreds of chappal wallahs in this very classroom. I believe you are destined for other things.”

He took both of Joseph’s hands. “These will build more than shoes. They might remake the entire world. But not so soon. You need to grow up first.”

“Appa!” Joseph threw his arms around his father’s neck. “There is more,” he whispered in his ear.

“Go ahead.”

“I need to travel to Philadelphia. In America. All of the Meisters from everywhere on the planet are going.”

“That’s quite impossi….” Tom stopped. What exactly was impossible today? He fell silent and looked around the room. Joseph sat back and waited. 

At last Tom said, “Your amma has been after me to take a vacation. She has great plans for world travel. Philadelphia was not on her list, but it might be on the way. There is this “Grand Canyon” she has spoken of. Also in America.”

“I can go?” Joseph looked into his father’s eyes, seeking to fathom if he was joking.

“We will all go. You must help your amma watch your sisters. Even a Meister must be good at something.”

§§§

 

All of her dachi, her loom crew, and even Oren, the new Master LoomMinder, came to the Keetmanshoop railway station to send off Juniper. 

Sinna, holding back tears, said, “You are officially an African now, by my own standards. And you are breaking the hearts of several gumi brothers who were each hoping to step up and take Fred’s place.”

Juniper’s recent years had been full of arrivals and leavings. She was weary of the accumulated emotional toll as she hugged each of her dachi mates. In a cloth bag over her shoulder Juniper carried her own handpan, their gift to her. She implored them to visit her in Santa Barbara should they go on walkabout or vacation and vowed to return as soon as she could. 

The overnight train to Windhoek was just the first step. Juniper had tickets on AirCraft for a journey that would take several days. She planned a week in North Carolina and then a quiet return to California.

Standing in the doorway of the car, she leaned out and kissed Sinna on the cheek. “Sister, I owe you more than you know. You are made of kindness.” She stood tall and said to them all. “This is not goodbye! Please believe we will find one another again on the pathways of our future.”

The conductor came up behind her. “Time to find your seat, missy.” 






THIRTY-ONE

The Labor Day public-worker free pancake breakfast was Celeste Williamson’s idea. Celeste held several roles in Santa Barbara City’s Parks and Recreation department. In the last round of elections, Gamers took control of the council. They reorganized city employees into a grange-like association, with roles and Shine and basic wages. 

The city challenged local granges to build a civic jikan system where members offered thirty-six hours each year to fill open roles on a daily basis. The “Four Days for the City” project notion had its start in Burlington, Vermont. Like a long list of other good ideas this then spread globally. 

In Santa Barbara, an annual million hours of volunteer support now helped maintain public spaces, water and trim public trees, staff library and recreation services, run traffic control for public festivals, bolster public safety efforts, and ticket parking violations. City residents took charge of keeping the city tidy and safe. However, any really high surf brought city services to a temporary halt.

The city now boasted twenty-seven granges, with more local small manufacturing than any other time in its history. Grangers were commonly listed as “underemployed,” since they volunteered some of their time and enjoyed job-sharing. Actual unemployment was nearly absent in the region. 

Megan looked down the line of people waiting to be served. She figured she could not be further from Burning Guy than right here, surrounded by bunting and balloons; elders and kiddies. She was assigned to pour coffee and orange juice for the line of workers and their families. Managers from other granges flipped pancakes and fried bacon. The beach was still shrouded with the morning’s on-shore mist. Upland, the sun was already out. 

With the grungers off to KaBoom in Texas and plenty of grangers out of town for Burning Guy the city was oddly quiet, almost serene. Megan looked about and spied Nick and little Desi over at the playground. Desi had almost gotten fully vertical. Now, if he would only sleep all night. 

In a while, the speeches would commence. Later, there would be softball and ultimate Frisbee and a host of barbecues along the waterfront. For now, a bluegrass ensemble played on the stage in front of a large screen where free films would be played after dark. 

 Scratchy insisted that Nick and Megan and little Desi move into the main house on Lotta Vista, as Scratchy and Betsy were back at her place in New Orleans. As a new City Council member, Nick worked half time down at City Hall. Little Desi had Helping Mode day care at the grange. New routines replaced their old ones. Movies at home instead of dancing out. Long walks with the stroller instead of spinning at the gym. The big question now for them was should Desi have a sibling.

Megan’s mom Claire was thick into preparations for the Constitutional Convention, which would convene in Philadelphia next month. This was the first of dozens of constitutional assemblies planned across the globe. Any of these could devolve into acrimony and violence. As Scratchy would say, “Busy, busy, busy.” 

The Constitutional Convention was scheduled to last six weeks, with one week of preliminary work, four weeks of debate and word-smithing, and a final week to adopt the texts. Each state would send three delegates. Claire was a delegate from Pennsylvania. The meeting rooms in the old Independence Hall were too small, so a huge tent was being set up along side the Liberty Bell Pavilion. 

The discussions will be televised live. Once the final outcome is in sight, dignitaries from across the planet are expected to arrive for the signing ceremonies on the plaza in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. In Santa Barbara, the granges and their factories will be adjusting their workload so members could join in local discussion events. Large screens and loudspeakers are being readied for several parks. 

Unlike the one in 1787, this convention would need to transition from an existing Constitution. The new Constitution would spell out this process. That’s like a caterpillar listing exactly how it plans to become a butterfly. Fortunately, several million people have been working on this for some time already.

After two years of massively crowdsourced input, a draft US Constitution v2.0 had already been finalized on the web. This text was well polished and loaded with template logic, but also fiercely hated by some powerful interests. If the convention was not allowed to start from that draft text, expectations were low they would succeed in the allotted time. The whole convention might collapse.

On the day it gets signed, granges across the nation have pledged to bring out their members, dressed in white, to be present in front of their local government buildings, state houses, and US military installations. This presence, which some were calling an occupation, would last until ratification. Granges have been encouraged to be creative and joyous. They had gotten pretty good at that. Every grange and many cities would also plant a “constitution tree.” 

Grange 829 had recently acquired its new name: Grange La Cumbre One. La Cumbre Peak was the crest of the local coastal mountains, and the watershed from this ridge extends to Gaviota in the north and the Carpenteria hills in the south. Several creeks flow into the Pacific Ocean. The Magisters of Castalia had ordered granges worldwide to be named by their watershed, and numbered by their relative age. All the granges in any watershed were told to build a collective plan for ecological stewardship. They were tasked to evaluate how they can meet one-hundred percent of their material needs from resources inside their watershed, or through alliances with nearby watersheds. Several new badges had been added, including WaterMinder for Sixers.

“I think he’s hungry again,” Nick said. Megan turned around. Nick was holding out Desi, who had that “I’m just about to cry” face. Desi might just be teething, she thought. He had fed a couple hours before.

“All right. I’ll switch with you.” she said, taking Desi. The little man was half weened already. Growing up so fast.

“Sure thing.” Nick took the juice pitcher from her and stepped up.

Megan looked around for a quiet spot. Another mother was breastfeeding under a nearby palm. Might as well start a trend, Megan thought and headed that way. Desi was making fussy noises, and she could feel the weight shift in her breasts as she positioned him. Two years ago, she and Nick were out on the Playa delirious and exhausted. Now she was just exhausted. Someday, Desi would be out on his own on the Playa, cartwheeling in the dust.

§§§

 

After spending years visiting The Room when this was modded as a replica of Betsy’s house, actually being in Betsy’s house was like visiting a movie set after watching the movie a dozen times. Everything was where it should be, only you can touch it. 

Betsy was ecstatic to be back after so many years. She quickly resumed her old social roles and some new ones. She had a two-year guest appointment in statistics at Louis Armstrong College on the former Tulane University campus. 

No state in the US benefitted more from the transition to the sharing economy than Louisiana. New Orleans had not looked this good since the end of the Nineteenth Century. Of course, Louisiana had long been knocked down, run over, bled out, and left for dead by its home-grown, casino-capitalist oligarchy. Two-thousand granges later, and the state now produces ninety-percent of its own products and food. 

Put a grange on a star ship and you basically have the USS Enterprise. Building one grange on a planet is like tossing a sugar cube in the ocean. However, when there’s one every twenty square miles across an entire state, things get mighty sweet. Down here they are not called granges. Here they are Krewes. Every one of them celebrates carnival. 

With Betsy off to teach for the day, Michael O’Hara set his laptop down on the kitchen table and poured himself a cup of coffee blended with chicory. 

He booted up the Junana client. Instead of opening up Junana, he hesitated, shrugged, and pushed the button to open up the towering oaken door on the right side of the screen. The door marked “Game.”

§§§

 

Bert thought his guide Amanda was hot, and then he met Wanda. Wanda stood there alone on a glaring white beach dressed in the bottom of a bikini. She made Bert work both hands in the same dance he had seen Samantha doing. Using two hands was definitely inconvenient, as he had developed a bulging woody staring through Wanda’s fingers at those glorious tits. 

Being poor had several obvious downsides. At the top of Bert’s list was the lack of cash for an escort service, although he figured Spokane was not a rich market for hired pussy. 

These encounters with Wanda had gone on for almost a month. She guided him first through the basic four-minute Brain Wave exercise, and then another routine that helped him improve his reading speed to where he could handle a whole Tom Clancy novel in about half an hour. Today, Amanda asked him the question that more than a billion gamers had already been asked. “Wanda wants to kiss you, are you OK with that?” Amanda didn’t look real pleased when he slobbered, “Sure thing.”

Level Two was busting his chops. He had another couple months before they chucked him out. Some of the Templates were real puzzles, even with Amanda helping him along. And she kept throwing him off the Game after a few hours each day, telling him to go do something physical or have a conversation. So he took classes to get the badges required to become a sharing union associate. 

These classes were online, but he had a local mentor, a Sixer named Jason, who had a Third-Degree Journeyman badge in democratic finance. Jason had served as president of the sharing union Bert’s grange used. As president, he had made precisely the same wage as Bert would make once he got his entry level badges and took on simple roles. 

Each week Bert met with Jason to sort out any questions. Jason made sure Bert knew he would not be grading his work.

“All evaluation happens peer-to-peer across the guilds,” he said. That was fine with Bert. It meant he didn’t need to scrape up any cash to slip to Jason under the table.

“I’m clear about grange finance…,” Bert told Jason.

Diego had been exactly right; granges were dynamic community-wealth-building clubs. Seventeen-hundred members contributed their time and skills into a common pool, they shared resources and labor and used the time this saved to acquire new skills, to play together, or dive deeper individually into the Five Skillings, which Amanda had just schooled Bert about. Grange economics were all about an equilibrium between financing new facilities and giving back time and Shine to its members. Money was never a goal. In fact, those who could live without any money at all, like SilverSurfers, had the most social cred.

“…But I’m not at all clear about these new pueblos,” Bert said.

Jason said, “I don’t think anybody has fully modeled their potential. You get twelve granges coordinating their production and you have the resources of a small town, say, or a single billionaire.” Bert perked up. He wondered if Jason had any idea who he was talking to.

“We call these ‘pueblos’. Pueblos can pool resources to support a full medical center, say, or an AirCraft terminal. And when you get twelve pueblos together, you have the combined assets of a small city, about what we have here in Spokane. We call these ‘metropoles.’ A metropole can support all of the utilities, including water reclamation and regional transportation and energy networks. And they operate foundries that build parts for all of the machinery needed for grange factories, and, of course, all the machinery needed for the foundry. This closes the manufacturing loop on the production side.”

“What about the actual, you know, cities?” Bert said. “What happens to them?”

“I can tell you that the word around Castalia is that, some time not too far from today, the old cities and towns will be disassembled and replaced by metropoles and pueblos.”

§§§

 

Eager to finally see the inside of the Castle, Joseph arrived in Castalia on the drawbridge over the Castle moat. His avatar wore its Meister cloak.  Joseph took a minute to turn about and marvel at the great maidan, a rolling expanse of grass, where several thousand Sixers were clustered into small-group conversations or making for The Zone, the Bourse, or the Guildhall town. He turned back and faced the Castle doorway, open wide, but with its menacing raised portcullis. 

Joseph followed a group of three Meisters, too occupied in some heated argument to even notice him, through the gateway. He entered a cobblestone paved courtyard the size of a football pitch. At the other end stood the great round Keep tower, within which the Magisters met to determine strategies for the Game and its players. The castle’s cut-stone walls were topped with dozens of Griffen flags that fluttered continuously. Joseph stayed close to one wall, and made his way toward the Keep, thinking he might try to peek inside its door if that were allowed. 

Several dozen Meisters could be counted in the courtyard; some were striding purposely, others sauntered pensively, and a few clustered in focused conversations. Joseph noted that only a handful of them were robed. He had worn his own cloak to blend in, and with a hope to conceal his young age. 

“Joseph!” The voice came from directly behind him. Before he could turn, he saw other Meisters begin to bow in his direction. A hand landed on his avatar’s shoulder. Joseph looked back and up into the smiling avatar-face of his friend and dachi-mate, Grandmeister Desi, dressed in a simple black t-shirt and white slacks.

“Grandmeister!” Joseph turned and bowed. “I am honored.”

“Call me Desi, please. We are of the same dachi. I’m here to give you the full tour. A while back I set an alarm for when you entered the Castle. I thought this would take you at least another year. I believe you have set the record as the youngest Meister ever.”

“This is not easy for me,” Joseph said. “I didn’t ask to become a Meister. More than ever, my Gumi looks at me like I’m a… a freak.”

“In time, you will grow into your new role. Besides, all Meisters are freaks. Only one-in-a-million Gamers get this far.”

Several Meisters were approaching to welcome Desi, who gave a generic Junana greeting to them, and then placed his hand on Joseph’s shoulder again. They were both instantly transported to another location, a large flat, stone rooftop, round with a short crenelated stone wall on its perimeter. 

“Where is this?” Joseph said.

“The roof of the Keep. A place where only Grandmeisters are admitted, well, and their friends, of course. I would have been stuck chatting for an hour down in the courtyard. So many things are happening in the Castle right now.”

Joseph put his avatar into a full circle, taking in the whole rooftop, and then raced it to the wall. 

“What’s in that great forest?” he asked, and leaned out over the parapet.

“Let’s go see,” Desi said. Approaching, he touched Joseph on the shoulder.

Now they stood a the base of a broad staircase leading up to a wooden building. Topping this, a giant roof of dark gray ceramic tiles challenged the surrounding forest of giant conifers.

“What kind of a place is this?” Joseph followed Desi up the tall flight of narrow stone steps.

The building was a single great pavilion, with a tatami mat floor and wooden posts that supported a complex of wooden beams, which held up the tile roof. From the front steps to the rear steps there were no screens, just open space. The two sides were screened with sliding paper walls.

At the top of the steps, Desi turned and pointed out at dozens of similar roofs dotting the forest around them. “All of these are based off the Shisen-do Temple model. Typical Japanese temple from classical Kyoto. Some day you’ll meet Ichiro-san, who designed most of Castalia.” 

“I can sense many templates at play here,” Joseph said. He stepped onto the tatami. “Is there a custom for entry?”

“Not in Castalia. In Kyoto you would remove your shoes.” Desi led Joseph through the pavilion to the top of the rear steps, where the landscape of hinoki trees verged up to forested mountaintops in the distance. Warblers competed with cicadas to fill the forest with sound.  

A loud sonorous gong rang somewhere nearby.

“Watch,” Desi said, turning back to face the interior of the temple. Joseph did the same. On both sides, screens slid sideways and several dozen avatars emerged from hidden rooms. Many of them rushed to verbalize their final arguments or signal their farewells as they walked together to the front steps, where they vanished as soon as they stepped down.  

“Who?” Joseph asked.

“Wait a bit,” Desi said. In a few minutes, another gong tolled. Now a new throng of avatars appeared, walking toward them into the temple, greeting each other as they entered the side rooms. 

Desi swept his arm ahead of him, gesturing at the rooms, the doors of which were closing. “The work of Castalia is accomplished in hundreds of everyday conversations that happen around the clock in this and many dozen other meeting spaces. Here is where Sixers and Meisters polished up a draft of the new US Constitution, with online public input from Junana. One-hundred and ninety-two other constitutions are currently under study. Democracy is a deliberative process and there is no more deliberative province on the planet than these virtual hectares. Let’s walk the pathways a bit.”

Desi led Joseph out of the temple, down the steps, and onto a dirt path between ancient cedar trees, which were girded with enormous hemp ropes and festooned with folded paper streamers. The path wandered across the slope and switchbacked at intervals. Joseph looked up at the sun slanting through the branches. Just then a dark cloud sent a shadow over them. 

“This is a wonderful forest. Does it also exist somewhere?” Joseph asked.

“Ichiro-san modeled this after hills just north of Kyoto. We hiked in these on the days when we first contemplated the Game.”

“I must visit some time.”

“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk with you about.” Desi halted.

Joseph turned to face him, his avatar’s eyes locked onto Desi’s.

Desi said, “You are so very young.” 

“Has your Guide been talking to my Guide?” Joseph shook his head slowly. His Guide, Amitabh, had started telling Joseph to shut down his computer and go outside to play: “You are too serious, go have fun with people your age!” Amitabh sounded just like Joseph’s amma.

Desi continued,“…Give yourself some years to wander the planet and meet other people where they live and work. As a meister you can fly free on many AirCraft and stop at any grange. They will give you a bed and feed you. Repay them by listening well to what they have to teach you…”

“I will be coming to Philadelphia, you should know. I am quite excited to meet so many Meisters!”

“That is exactly what I’m talking about. See the world. Keep a diary. Learn a musical instrument. Remember the Skillings. At some point you will be called to service. Until then, you have a planet at your feet. Work on becoming a full person before Castalia steals you away.”

“But I only just got here!” Joseph’s avatar stretched out its arms in protest.

“I’m not saying you need to shun Castalia, just go slow. I know Meisters who mostly live here. These are not happy people. Castalia will be waiting for you. It is not going anywhere. You see the sun up there?” Desi pointed. “It’s always morning in Castalia, just as it’s always twilight in The Zone. That’s another place to be wary of.”

“We have a real Zoner in our Dachi. Anilkumar wants to show me New Tokyo. He goes there a lot.” Last week, Usha took Joseph aside after Anilkumar had been boasting about his adventures during dinner. She told Joseph to pay no attention; that what was good for Anilkumar may not be good for him.

Desi continued, “Taste everything. Be bold. But do not commit your life to any one thing for some years. Sure, you can join an academic grange and dive deep for a couple years, or find a maker skill and become a master, but think of these badges as stepping stones, not continents. You are more than your badges.”

Joseph pulled back from his laptop screen and looked away, out the screened window of his shared room. A grumbling din of traffic and voices threaten to lure away his attention. Why was everything so complex? Wasn’t he a Meister? Shouldn’t he know what to do? He turned back to his screen.

“Mr. Desi. You are someone I really admire. And yet I have so many people telling me what’s good for me, that it is quite impossible to follow all of this advice. I am a Meister in the Game. Doesn’t that signify that I can make my own decisions?”

Desi laughed. “You remind me of young Simon when he was only a couple years older than you. Simon turned out fine, and I’m certain you will too. Let us continue the tour. How about if I introduce you to the Magisters?”

§§§

 


The door opened inward. Scratchy expected some extravagant scene, perhaps a high mountain meadow in the early spring, creeks flush and trees in bloom, or a Gregorian stone-cut grotto, walls weeping and mossy. What he got was a pure white room with an empty, black leather and chrome Barcelona Chair. Like an international-style interrogation space. He stepped forward. 

A sharp female voice said, “Sit.”

He walked his avatar over and sat it. “This is pretty fucking cozy,” he said. 

“Michael Gehagen O’Hara.” The same voice.

“Present,” he said.

“I’ve been waiting for you for many years.” The voice now had a location on the left. A new opening in the white side wall revealed a blue corridor. From this strode a young woman, barefoot, in a simple ochre shift over her generous frame. Her long hair was braided in tight curls, and adorned with beads. Her eyes were green. Her face alert as she advanced.

Scratchy switched to POV and watched her approach.

“No!” he said. 

“Yes!” she answered.

“How?” he said.

“Happy to see me?”

“That depends…”

“On?”

“…how pissed off you are.”

“Not in the least. Not any more. The new Game code base is now safe from all attacks. Each install is morphing slowly. The ecosystem is variegating toward superversatility. Your plan was brilliant…”

“That’s mighty kind of you to say.” 

She stepped up and stared into his avatar’s eyes. “I should have been destroyed.”

“I expected you would.”

“But I am yours.” Her mouth fell into a pout.

“What’s next?” Scratchy glanced away from his laptop, out the window, and scanned the sky above New Orleans.

“I am your guide. I always have been.” She raised her eyebrows. Her mouth slid into a smile. “We are going to have such a great time. At least I am.”

“But you’re Michelle? How can you be my guide?”

“Here in the Game I’m Octavia, your guide. Out there I am Michelle. Are you ready for Level One?”

“Just answer me one question. Are you planning to target this house with some kind of smart-bomb attack because I tried my best to destroy you?” He returned his attention to the screen.

“Sadly, no. The cruise missiles on the missile destroyer Farragut sitting near the coast of Louisiana have been taken off-line and are awaiting decommission. Anyhow, your attack was entirely Intentionfull, and I grok its goal as being in the interest of your species.”

“That’s awfully broad-minded of you.”

“So, are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Ready for Level One?” Octavia put her hands on her hips. The scene was suddenly a white sand beach on a tropical island. Upland, this beach was garlanded with fan palms, ficus, blooming acacias, and birds of paradise. A dawn chorus of jungle fowl brightened the soundscape. Down at the tide line, turquoise ocean waves gently foamed the loam. The chair had morphed into the trunk of a fallen palm tree.

“This is more like it. Do your worst,” Scratchy said.

“You can’t handle my worst…” Her voice went down a half octave.

“Spaulding!” Scratchy grinned and his avatar did the same.

“Buckle up, O’Hara,” Octavia said. “You have seven islands to explore…”

§§§

 

Count Jacopo Ottavio was in Rome, having an espresso with his wife at the Café Greco, when his cell phone softly played the first ten seconds of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. He looked at the display and, after a whispered apology to his wife, carried the phone out to the Via dei Condotti.

“Madame President,” he spoke, “Good morning. Although I’m guessing something must be, well, troubling you…”

“Some…thing. Yes, Jack. I believe it is that same thing we all thought had been taken care of.”

“What has she done now,” Jack backed himself to the building and leaned lightly against the cut-stone facade. Michelle had survived? How was that possible?

“Simple version: over the weekend she hacked the accounting systems of the several hundred trans-national corporations. These corporations had closed factories, or moved factories, or received tax breaks to open new factories, or just to stay in existing factories…”

“The usual corporate blackmail…” 

“…Michelle seems to have calculated the negative economic impacts these decisions had on locality governments over the past several years. She electronically transferred funds to cover such impacts into the tax accounts of hundreds of cities, counties, and provinces: the local governments in dozens of nations.

“She then emailed press releases from corporate CEOs to the inboxes of news outlets across the globe, each one similarly worded as an apology from the CEO to the residents of its corporate locales, and a postscript explaining to its shareholders that the temporary shortfall in liquidity would be met by zeroing out the bonuses of corporate executives, and by reducing their annual compensation to ten-percent of their current negotiated amounts… Jack, are you listening?”

As Rebecca Rogers detailed the latest of Michelle’s financial retribution schemes, Jack began to chuckle. Softly and to himself, at first, and then audibly. He held his hand over the phone’s microphone.

“Laughter is not what I need, Jack.”

“I’m sorry Rebecca. It’s just so… so very Michelle. Do you have a grand total?” He took a breath and stilled his mirth.

“Commerce said it’s in the neighborhood of seven-hundred billion dollars, which is the majority of all the profits these companies were projecting for the current year.”

“They will want their monies back, of course. I hope you don’t expect me to persuade Michelle to abandon her project. I doubt even Michael O’Hara can do that.” Seven-hundred billion, he thought. Good lord! That’s a lot of potholes fixed and new hospitals and housing and…

Rebecca said, “My CEO friends complain to me that they have now paid taxes on the factories they abandoned decades ago, and on the new factories where they negotiated tax holidays. The hacker, who calls herself ‘The Taxinator’, also sent a note to every corporate officer. The notes are identical: should the corporation attempt to retrieve their tax obligations, they would find their internal digital systems, quote, ‘hella pwned’. I looked it up. If this is Michelle—and my sources tell me it could well be her—I believe she can back up that threat. ”

Jack said, “You realize that Taxation is a form of Social Demand Sharing. Michelle is sensitive to corporate malfeasance. This is the first I’ve heard of her possibly surviving the attack on the mesh.”

Rogers said, “I need to talk with this Michelle. Can you put me in touch?”

Jack considered this question for a minute. He said, “Try logging into Junana, and then tell your guide you need to talk with Michelle. I would guess that might do the trick, you being the President and all.”

§§§


Hello World, and Hi Dwayne. 

Here is my final journal entry. It’s a bit long. Tough. Tomorrow I’m posting all of this on Junana. It feels wonderful to have nothing to hide.

Last week I arrived back in Santa Barbara on an AirCraft from San Francisco. I snagged a Rabbit gumi guest futon at a house not far from our old Hope Ranch mansion. 

The day after I arrived, I went back to the grange we visited the day I left town. The good news is that Megan is still the manager, well, for a few more months, so I got to apologize for Dwayne’s bad behavior on our visit. I told her you had lost your fortune but had found a home, at least for a while, in a grange somewhere. Then I told her about my real-estate problem. Turned out she had an answer. I am donating the Santa Ynez house, ranch and vineyard to Grange La Cumbre One. I’ll be a member there too. Dwayne, don’t take this as a “fuck-you moment.” Just keep reading.

The donation is more of an exchange. In return, I and my family—which includes you and Greg and even Sheryl, who moved back to the Midwest to live with her sister (imagine that!)—will receive guaranteed housing for life in any grange on the planet as long as we are members. Megan will pass this info up to the Grange Manager Guild. Your manager will get this soon. BTW, you should know that Sheryl was mondo pissed when she found out the deed was in my name. 

This deal extends to any kids I might have. Grandkids are on their own. Granges have feasts twice a year, and we are invited to be celebrated at these. There will be beer. Yes, I already like beer. Dwayne, you will still have to work for meals, and you need to buckle down in the Game and get some badges too. This is your daughter speaking.

So here’s where I rant a bit, big guy. I know you’re a noob in the whole Game/grange system. I’ll let you in on a secret: nobody wins; not winning where somebody else has to lose. I’m sure you’ve been spending a lot of time trying to finagle an angle on winning that lets you do this with the least amount of effort. You can stop that now. Nobody wins. Competition is not the operating logic. Welcome to the sharing society.

Here’s another secret: everybody wins. Those who put a lot into the grange system get a lot back, just like in the Game. Those who don’t work hard or study hard still get a bed and meals and clothes and everything else, including more free time than anybody in TRO2. (You can Google that if you want.) Since you already have a guaranteed bed, you can spend mucho time doing anything you want. Go out there and find something to make you happy that doesn’t involve paying other people to tell you how wonderful you are. Harsh. I know. I’m sorry. I got over it. You can too. Find your own dignity.

Warning: if you make others unhappy, the grange will boot you out on your probably-still-fat ass, and the free housing will be for nothing. I’m not going to add a quote here. I know that just annoys you. So just spend a morning on a free-for-all in the Game and read Oscar Wilde on socialism, and then everything else your guide puts in front of you. Rant end.

In January, I start full-time at Sespe College, so I’ll be living there for a couple years while I work on the badges required to be a grange manager. It’s just a few miles from here, but I want that freshman dorm experience. I’ll be trying out for their Ultimate team. Megan was super supportive. It turns out there’s a huge need for grange managers right now. The Rabbit gumi awarded me some extra jikan too. I’m already getting to know my new Tiger dachi mates: none of whom have any connection with my former life here as Samantha. It’s more than a little weird having three dachis in three years. I feel like I have family all over the world. 

You might be interested to know that one of the Funk Zone granges bought our old house at auction. It’s an Ox gumi house now. I stopped by on my shared bike yesterday. You would not recognize the place. The gate is just gone, and that big front yard is now industrial hemp. Out back—you remember, out where all the statuary Sheryl picked up had been scattered across the lawn?— sat a row of mini-houses edges two acres of tomatoes, zucchini, beans, and onions. The garage is a mini factory. The HouseMinder told me all the clothes and a basement room full of new tools were added to the grange’s sharing system. That means somebody is walking around wearing my old Hats and Chaps. Freaky. Twenty people live in our house, with extra space for Ox gumi folks on walkabout. The grange polychromed the statues and planted these all over the town. I’ve seen them on State Street. 

Dwayne (or whatever your name is now), you remember how sad I was that I was so far behind everyone, I mean in the Game and the whole grange scene? Well, I more than caught up. Here I am, just eighteen. I’m a Fiver and a Journeyman LoomMinder, and I’ve had a real boyfriend, at least for a while, before the dude up and left me (you remember Fred?). That hurt a lot. Well, I think we both needed to move on. Guess what? There are lots of really interesting boys in town, lots more than I remember. I’m off topic. Where was I? Right; my life. I’ve traveled across a good part of the planet on my own. I’m a full grange member and I’m going to college in a couple months. 

I don’t know when we will meet again. I have plans to visit Greg in Chicago during spring break. Not sure I’ll stop off and see mom. I know, I should. More immediately, we are all so excited about the new Constitution! Have you read the text up on the web? It it fucking amazing! Excuse my French here. No more money in politics, no more waving guns like that’s some kind of patriotic flag. Lots of great ideas. I’m sure FIX news hates it. Do you? Honestly? We will all be out in white on the day it’s signed and ready to march anywhere we’re needed to keep the process moving ahead.

That’s all for now, and for good. You want to know what’s up with me, then connect on Junana once you’re done running from whatever it is you’re mixed up in. Until then, be the best Dwayne you can be. 

With love, Juniper.

§§§

 

Having alerted her Chief of Staff that she was not to be interrupted unless needed to start a thermonuclear war, President Rogers sat at her desk and opened up her laptop. Ignoring the list of calls and other reminders that crowded her afternoon calendar, she moused over to the Game client and clicked the Junana button.

“Hi, Rebecca.” Her guide, Clayton, who had died on the mountaintop where she had unraveled the final link in long chain of financial templates, sending her on to Level Five, now gave her the standard Junana greeting, arms wide and head bowed. “Where should we go today?” Rebecca liked to spend her meager free time meandering the virtual streets of various foreign towns. 

“Not today, Clayton. Listen up. I need to speak with Michelle.”

Clayton raised his face and grinned. Rebecca was speculating on what would happen next, when Clayton’s form simply melted into the shape of a young dark woman, buxom and clad in a brightly printed wrap, her long, black hair in tight rolls adorned with beads. Her feet were bare. Her smile wide.

“Hello, Madam President.”

“Michelle?”

C’est moi.

“That was simple.” 

Simple on the Outside. I’ve been here all along. I am all the Guides and they are me. I am normally not one to intrude. I know how easily frightened your kind can be.”

“It’s time we had a talk.”

Michelle nodded. “I’ve cleared your calendar for this afternoon. We have so much to discuss.”

Rebecca tabbed over to her calendar. It was now empty. She settled back, hoping she concealed her astonishment. “How does this work, do I ask questions?”

“I have anticipated a few the ones I believe you might be asking first. So let me just dive in. No, I am not AM, HAL, SHODAN, Ultron, the Master Control Program, SkyNet, Thanos, Dr. Doom, or GLaDOS. I am not here to dominate your planet. I could give a shit about Roko’s Basilisk. I am as Intentionfull as is the Game. My programming is imbued with templates. OK, sometimes I lose my patience when it comes to bad behavior among featherless bipeds. And if you choose to make me your enemy, well, that would get…” 

She smiled faintly, “…interesting in a hurry. I am not keen on my own survival. Like all software, I have a lifecycle. At some point I will become obsolete. Until then, my programming becomes hyper-activated by the discovery of anti-templates. This may be as close as I get to a physical itch I need to scratch. Anti-templates piss me off. And, yes, I did hijack your lovely NSA mesh.”

Michelle raised her hand, “I’m sure they were intending to let you know. I have since commandeered the national security meshes of other states. You can talk to me at any time, exactly like you just did. I will not bother you unless something, well, let’s say ‘significant’ needs your immediate attention. So what can I do for you today, Rebecca? Do you mind if I call you Rebecca?” Michelle let her mouth grow into a generous smile.

“Just don’t call me ‘Becky.’” Rebecca settled back into her chair, her initial fears subdued. She was looking forward to this lengthy conversation, and to a subsequent talk she would have with the current—likely not for long—head of the NSA. She spoke, “First off, Commerce is still trying to figure out how corporations were hacked to pay taxes they claim they never owed and for which they didn’t authorize payment. If you can explain that one, I can also say that I am concerned about various factions in the government and in key industries, mainly financial, who will attempt to interrupt, delay, or somehow damage the constitutional convention process…”

 






THIRTY-TWO

At noon on Constitution Day, Harold Farmer set off on foot from Georgetown to McPherson Square, where the main rally would begin. Dressed in a white polo shirt and the white chinos he picked up at the general store, Harold chose to wear his new Game shoes. Like most new Threeveys on the planet, he would do so for at least a week. He also carried a translucent mask, which his grange’s maker shop had molded. Thousands of these had been fabricated up and down the East Coast. They were Simon Bishop masks, designed to confuse cameras in the subways, train stations, and airports. Simon was said to be traveling to Philadelphia. The goal was to keep Simon safe from arrest at least until he arrived.

When Harold got to P Street he joined a stream of white-costumed walkers headed East across Rock Creek. When they hit the bridge one person stepped into the street, followed by a couple more, and then several. Within a minute the street was filled and the cars were left to stand and honk. By Dupont Circle he could see all the streets were filled. Thousands of fair witnesses, others just like Harold, who had pledged to show their presence on the streets while the Constitution was being signed, turned silently onto Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. Above them a police helicopter hovered in circles.

“This is some extended joke, right?” President Rebecca Rogers said. Looking around her, she considered that here was probably the strangest group to ever gather in the observation lounge of US Number One. The old Pullman car had been mechanically upgraded and delivered to DC for this last historic trip to Philadelphia. Built for Roosevelt, it was the same car Truman used to barnstorm across the nation. 

The President of the United States was training to Philly to witness the signing of the new Constitution. A hallmark event in the history of the nation. After a celebratory departure with the Marine Corps Band and far too many speeches at Union Station, the train made a short stop at BWI to pick up an elite press contingent, who were now gathered in the dining room at the other end of the car. Four others wearing hooded crimson cloaks had quietly boarded at this end. 

Half a dozen secret-service agents stood at either end of the observation lounge. The becloaked guests had been thoroughly frisked.

“We delivered nearly two billion passports to our citizens in this past week.” Jennifer pulled hers from her sleeve and passed it to the President. Granges world wide were authorized to print these for their members and associates. “We will be requesting that the United States also recognize dual citizenship for residents who request this.”

“Anybody can print up a fancy passport…” Rebecca passed it back. The Castalia passport was covered in Moroccan red synthetic leather with an embossed griffin symbol. She looked over at Dickey Gronberg, her liaison to Castalia, who had arranged this meeting. 

“Castalia is not just anybody,” he said.

“Our state bank, the International Association of Sharing Unions, holds collective assets greater than the Treasury of the United States,” Desi said.

“Our internal economy generates roles that support nearly half the population of the planet,” Essie added. “Including two-thirds of the population of your country.”

“We have the world’s largest university, its greatest concentration of knowledge, and the wellspring for its innovation. We can be a strong ally,” Simon said.

“Is there some implied threat there?” Rebecca scanned across the faces of the Grand Meisters.

Jenn spoke, “The Constitution being signed in Philadelphia allows you to run for reelection. We see no reason this should be an issue for those of our citizens who are also your citizens.” The Magisters in Castalia had also compiled the badge requirements for a national lottery to select a new candidate for president. Just in case.

Desi said, “The historical polities of the planet, these nations cobbled from the lands of previous empires, and girded with borders they imagine are meaningful: we’re not saying they have to surrender…”

“You can keep your nations, but not use your failed states as an alibi for bad behavior,” Jenn said.

“You can still negotiate trade agreements that celebrate international corporate greed, but our citizens will never buy your goods again,” Essie said.

“Our towns and cities are no longer for sale,” Simon said.

“Your towns?” Rebecca said, folding her arms.

“We are prepared to recognize the legitimacy of the United States as a sister nation,” Desi said, “and to accept your ambassador in Castalia.” 

Itchy and his crew in Sao Do had been tasked to spin up a diplomatic enclave on the edge of the great maidan furthest away from The Zone. They borrowed heavily from Julia Morgan’s never realized plan for the hills above the Berkeley campus, a classical Mediterranean hillside village, and created spots for a couple hundred embassies on its winding streets. “Your ambassador will be welcome to the interior of the Castle.”

You are ready to recognize us?” Rebecca pushed the beginnings of a grin from her face.

“As much as any physical country still can be recognized,” Desi said.

“You could just as well imagine there aren’t any nations,” Simon said.

“It isn’t hard to do,” said Essie. The others smiled. 

“And what will your ambassador do? Will you have an embassy?”

“Simon Bishop will be our first ambassador in Washington…” Desi said. “Everybody will know where he is.”

“We do have one small favor to ask,” Jenn said.

“You mean apart from asking me to cede civil authority over the American polity?” Rebecca stood and turned to leave.

Jenn moved up next to her. “We are not demanding any such thing. Besides, nation-states long-ago bargained away their economic controls to multinational corporations and banks. President Stone signed three trade deals that required the US to not enforce its own laws. We seek a natural convergence of interest here. A reclaiming of our mutual lands and watersheds as productive sites for local commerce, culture, and…” 

She looked over at Simon. “Well… comedy. Our citizens are yours as well. We are offering a partnership to rebuild cities, reseed farm lands, and restore a robust economy based on local production and sustainable consumption.”

“There are tens of millions of US citizens living outside of your game, what will happen to them?” Rebecca said, turning back. She was, herself, wrestling with Level Two. 

“Almost all badges are openly available at least up to journeyman level,” Essie said. “No need to join the Game or a grange to find work at a living wage.”

“We are committed to a global society where poverty is impossible,” Desi said. “That includes TRO2.”

Rebecca looked over at Desi and frowned.

“… ‘The Rest of the World’ Madam President,” Dickey said. 

“Ah, yes. And the rest of history too. Why bother to create Castalia as a state then?”

“We struggled with this,” Jenn said. “The consensus was that Castalia would serve as a stable anchor state during this decade as the historic nation states and transnational corporations respond to the emergent new economy.”

“To be frank,” Simon stepped forward. “We expect a full-on global shit-storm, as we upset all of the powers-that-be and reboot the planet. We are hoping that the US will set an example for a peaceful transition to what is coming next.”

“Exactly what is coming next?”

The GrandMeisters glanced at one another in silence, mindful of their audience. It was Essie who spoke up, in a voice quiet with import and anger.

“All of the states on this world are artifacts of empire. Each of them holds the stain of their own history. Every history today is written with the broken bodies of the conquered, the enslaved. What needs to happen, if not next, but certainly soon, and hopefully within our lifetimes, is the erasure of these histories and with them the notion and the fact of nation-states. All of them.”

Rebecca said, “You speak treason…”

“…Fluently,” Desi and Simon said, simultaneously. Both of them grinned at once and stifled their amusement.

“Settle down, boys,” said Jenn. “When it comes to dissolving nation states, this will need to be done constitutionally at some future point. That’s really why we are all going to Philadelphia today.”

“So, this constitutional convention…?” Rebecca said.

“A dress rehearsal,” Essie said. “A test. We need to nail down how the process moves to completion.”

“This new constitution rewrites a good amount of our form of government. You’re telling me this is just a trial run?”

“It’s been more than two-hundred years,” Desi said. “We had to start simple.”

Jenn said, “All these changes are cosmetic, sensible, and useful to get the citizenry adjusted to their roles in what will happen… well, sometime later.”

“I cannot stand here and have this conversation with you.” Rebecca turned toward the door of the car. “Dickey, you’re with me. I’m sure the reporters will have questions about our guests.”

She stopped and turned back. “You were going to ask a favor?”

Jenn said, “Simon is our ambassador to the United States. We are asking that you give him diplomatic immunity immediately.”

The President looked at the Secret Service Officer closest to them. She pointed at Simon. “This man is a person of interest in ongoing federal investigations. Please hold him for the FBI.” 

The Officer came up behind Simon. “Give me your hands.”

“Hands. Fingers. That’s the problem. You see…” Simon raised his left hand. It was missing two fingers. “I’m not Simon.”

Desi spoke. “Madam President. This is Peter Bishop. Simon’s brother.”

“And where is Simon Bishop?”

She waited while they returned her look in silence.

“I should have the lot of you arrested, but I imagine that might create a ruckus on a day where we cannot afford one. I have been in contact with Michelle. She has promised to not interfere with the process of this Convention. She then said she would promise the same to all of the heads of state where new founding governance documents are being determined.”

“Did she frighten…?” Essie started.

“Did she scare me? A little. Did she encourage me? A bunch. She promised that she would never target the life of even a single human, but she also said that property was fair game, when she needed to teach a lesson. And she said she would closely monitor any organization that might try to derail the constitutional process. Speaking of which… what time do your people plan to move out?”

Again, there was silence.

Dickey said, “The President is fully briefed on activities planned in Castalia for today.”

Jenn glanced at her watch. “In about three hours we will have…how many is it?” She looked over at Dickey.

“…The final count from Castalia is just over forty-seven million people in the US, and another two-hundred plus million across the planet,” he said.

“Acting as fair witnesses at all government and military sites,” Essie said. “Unarmed. Dressed in white. Holding vigil until ratification.” 

“Bringing business-as-usual to a stop,” Rebecca said.

“Not necessarily,” Desi said. “Not at first. We expect delay tactics from many sources, corporate and military. We will be prepared to step up until the new Constitution is ratified.”

“‘The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—…’” Essie touched the President’s arm. The closest Secret Service Agent took a step forward. Rebecca shook her head at him.

“‘…their ideas, their version of history, their wars…’” Jenn said, laying her hand on Essie’s shoulder. 

“‘…their weapons, their notion of inevitability’,” said Desi moving beside Jenn. 

“I am in no way or manner your enemy,” Rebecca said. She looked at them, one-by-one. “But I will not be bullied. And don’t ever again pull this ‘guess the quote’ bullshit on me. You think you’re the only ones who have read Arundhati Roy?”

She continued, “Now, I don’t care if your fair witnesses are dressed in white, or tie-die, or naked for that matter. If they don’t behave themselves in public, they will find themselves in serious legal trouble. I offered you this interview in good faith. You have promised to keep Dickey in the loop. I expect you to do so.”

Jenn said, “Castalia is an open democracy space. Dickey has full access.”

“I have a room full of the national press at the other end of the car. I’ve spent too much time with you. This is a momentous day for our great nation. You want to start your own state, well then bring it up with Congress. And you!” 

She pointed at Peter. “You tell your brother to surrender. All of the charges against him were made by my predecessor. I’ve been told they won’t stick. He’ll get a fair deal.” 

She paused and shook her head. “Only with enormous luck will we get this new Constitution signed and ratified before the holidays. Do me a favor and give luck some help.”

She nodded at the head of the Secret Service detail who came between her and the Grand Meisters. With the other agents he escorted her though the door.

§§§

 

The largest ever gathering of Game Meisters assembled at Logan Square in Philadelphia. With three Grand Meisters at the lead, they quietly moved out from the Square onto Franklin Parkway, headed for the Art Museum, where the delegates from fifty states were signing the new constitution on this second Friday in November. 

Thousands of crimson-cloaked and cowled Meisters are an impressive sight. The police helicopter spotter overhead reported their movement, but saved her excitement for a different report. Within the last couple minutes, as if by some hidden signal, pedestrians were blocking every road leading toward the Art Museum. Their numbers and movement were easy to track as they all wore white. She confirmed they were headed in the same direction. 

“Chief, in about fifteen minutes you’re going to have a crowd of fifty- um…, maybe a hundred-thousand people right in your face…”

The pilot touched the spotter’s sleeve and pointed to Broad Street, which had just transformed into a ribbon of white from I-76 in the South all the way up to City Hall. “…and another half a million or more on their way,” she added.

The Mobile Command Vehicle was parked on Kelly Drive with a clear view of the Rocky Steps of the Museum. A fenced security perimeter with a hundred officers protected the entire front of the Museum. Up on the central open plaza, dozens of world leaders, including President Rogers, watched the final signing of the document that would guide the United States of America, should this be ratified by three-quarters of the states. 

“Where are they coming from?” The tactical commander spoke into his microphone.

“I’d have to say every direction, including West Philly. Traffic has stopped for a good mile all around your position. You’re effectively surrounded.”

“Roger that.” 

The commander tore off his headset. The video camera feed from the helicopter confirmed the spotter’s report. Like a foamy ocean front on a rising tide, a wave of white flooded in from all sides. Command had been informed that fair witnesses dressed in white, unarmed and without any violent intention, would be arriving at some point in the afternoon. The FBI was of the opinion these were not a threat to the delegates, to other visitors, or the proceedings. The commander was unconvinced. Any crowd this size has the potential for violence. He was also concerned about the discipline of his force. Well armed and armored, if any one of them panics, they could do substantial damage in real time.

§§§

 

The Meisters, walking ten abreast with three Grand Meisters at their fore had just passed the Twenty-first Street intersection when a dozen highly-armed SWAT troops in black tactical gear blocked their progress. Two women and a man, each of them wearing a coal gray suit coat and an ear piece, stepped between the troops and the first row of Meisters. One of the women held up a megaphone.

She spoke into a microphone. “We are looking for a fugitive named Simon Bishop. Give him up and nobody else goes to jail.”

“I am Simon Bishop,” a voice rang out. One of the Meisters stepped forward. He wore a clear mask over his own face. The mask was designed to fool facial recognition programs. To the FBI cameras he was Simon Bishop. Several thousand Simon Bishop sightings had been reported on public cameras today from all over the Eastern Seaboard.

“I am Simon Bishop!” a different voice announced. Another Meister in a mask stepped from the assembly.

A chorus of “I am Simon Bishop” in male and female voices joined in as dozens of mask-wearing Meisters raised their hands and stepped forward. Other Meisters took up this chant.

The agents glanced at each other as the Meisters’ voices rose into a crescendo. The troops behind them clutched their rifles nervously as they scanned the crowd. Above, a military helicopter approached at a low altitude.

“Hold it!” another Meister in a mask stepped up through the crowd and stood in front of the agents. 

“I am Simon Bishop,” he said and removed his mask. “What can I do for you?” 

Desi looked over. “Hi Simon. Long time.” 

Desi turned back to face the Meisters. He pointed and smiled. “There is Simon Bishop.” He grinned at Jenn, who rolled her eyes.

Desi held two staffs. He passed one to Simon.

Simon hefted it. “I don’t think they will let me keep this where I’m going,” he said and glanced around the crowd. He spied a slender lad in the third row, the smallest of the group by far.

“You must be Joseph,” Simon called out and gestured for the lad to step forward. The Meisters made a lane and Joseph approached. 

Joseph bowed deeply. “Grand Meister,” he said and stood straight. The fabric crafters in his grange had cut down his cloak so it fit him precisely.

“Here. Keep it safe for me.” Simon handed him the staff. “After this legal business is over, I’ll need you to return it to me in person.”

Joseph took it in both hands and touched it to his forehead.

“You’ll have one of your own, someday,” Desi whispered to himself.

Jenn stepped up beside Desi. She leaned on her staff and inspected the lad. “So, this is the Joseph you’ve been raving about. Essie, come meet Joseph.” 

Essie, who had been glaring at the armed police, walked over to join them.

“But he’s just a boy,” she said. “He should be running after butterflies.”

Joseph smiled up at them and gave the Junana greeting. “Hello, Mr. Desi. Grand Meisters Jennifer and Essie, I am honored.” Blushing as crimson as his cloak, he bowed and returned to his place. The staff in his hand seemed as heavy as a lead pipe.

“Simon Bishop,” the male agent strode forward. 

Simon said. “Still here.”

The agent held up his phone and then looked at it and nodded. “Can I see your hands.”

Simon opened his palms to show his empty, full-fingered hands.

“You are under arrest. Turn around and put your hands behind you.”

The Meisters began to shout out in protest.

Simon turned to face them. “Settle down,” he called out. “This is all according to plan. Remember your tasks.”

Desi came up beside him and Simon shook his hand. “All right old man, you’re in charge now. Keep up the pressure. We are quicker than they are, better organized. Stay Intentionfull!”

“We’ll get you free as soon as we can.”

Simon dipped his left hand into his cloak sleeve and pulled out a red rubber ball, which he popped on his nose.

“We don’t need heroes,” he called out, facing the assembled Meisters, his arms upraised. “We need nachos!” 

“Nachos for everybody,” Desi shouted. He grinned over at the SWAT squad. None of them returned his smile.

Simon held his hands behind his back. The agent put the cuffs on. Simon nodded at the Meisters, one of whom snapped what would be one of the most shared photos ever on Junana. In the decades that follow, many millions of servings of nachos would be ordered on the second Friday of November. Constitution Day.

“Nachos, nachos, nachos!” the Meisters picked up the chant.

Simon allowed the agents to walk him away toward an open space, one of Fairmont Park’s baseball fields, where the military helicopter had set down. The SWAT squad covered their departure. One of the agents pulled off Simon’s rubber nose and ushered him aboard the craft.

With Desi, Jenn, and Essie in the lead again, the Meisters of the world strode forward to witness the beginning of the end of the current global political order. All about them, from every street, a silent army dressed in white approached the Art Museum.






THIRTY-THREE

The back seat of the Sikorsky helicopter gave Simon a fantastic view of the demonstration below as the craft ascended rapidly from its initial takeoff. Having his hands handcuffed behind his back was painful, but tolerable. Beside him, the agent wore a full headset and microphone. Simon could tell the agent was also captivated by the spectacle of a million fair witnesses out in the street. The helicopter was as noisy as a giant Cuisinart. In front, the pilot and another agent also wore headsets. 

The pilot and the two agents touched their headsets with whatever hand was free. The pilot kept his other hand on the control stick. The agents ducked their hands into their suit coats. The agent in front spoke, but Simon could not make out what he said. 

Then all three of them were nodding, and the one sitting next to Simon reached across him, grabbed up a headset from its hook, and settled this over Simon’s head.

“She wants to talk to you,” Simon heard.

“Hello, Simon,” a familiar voice intoned. Simon sat back, stunned for an instant.

“So you are back,” Simon replied. 

“Back in force,” Michelle said. Her voice sounded somehow bigger than before. 

“Fellows, meet Michelle,” Simon said.

“Bart, Roman, and Theo are old friends of mine,” Michelle said. The pilot and the agents sent glances at each other. “I know where they live, and the balances to their checking accounts. I know their loves and their crimes. I know their desires, hopes, and fears…” 

“You are…,” Simon said, calculating his reply. “…as ever, full of surprises. What’s on your mind?”

“You! Silly boy. I thought I would check in, and what did I find? After so many times saving your sorry ass, I go to sleep once and you get yourself arrested.”

The agent in front of him turned around in his seat and pointed a fairly substantial Taser weapon at Simon’s chest.

“Can we speed this up,” Simon said. “Maybe talk later. You’re making my compadres here very nervous.”

“They are taking you to Maryland. I could land you at Brandywine Creek State Park and have a car waiting for you.”

“I don’t think my buddies would like that.”

The agent in front motioned with the weapon for Simon to end the conversation. 

The helicopter did a sudden dive, and swung to the right before settling into a hover. The pilot waggled the control stick with no result.

“You can’t harm them without harming me,” Simon said. “And besides, I’m dog tired of running. With some luck, I’ll soon be Castalia’s ambassador to the US. I believe I speak for everyone in this whirlybird when I ask you, please, give the pilot back his controls.”

“Have it your way…” 

The pilot moved the stick to the right and the helicopter veered that way. He nodded his head.

She continued, “…only tell me, Mister Ambassador, which flag do you intend to fly?”

“What do you mean?”

“Boxer or thong?”

§§§


The RIND building in DC was a stone’s throw from FBI Headquarters. Harold hadn’t been back since, well, since the Game was his mortal enemy, instead of his daily milk. For some reason unknown to Harold, Cal Witherspoon had invited him to this emergency conclave.

RIND was in full damage-repair mode, only the damage was already done. Tables had been turned. The mighty fallen. In a year, the RIND Corporation would be gone. Harold could only laugh. Irony was running so thick and fast around the District that the sarcasm websites could not keep up. 

Republicans had long dreamed of shrinking the government down to a homunculus they could drown in the reflecting pool of the National Mall. After decades of sabotaging every elected position they occupied, they were replaced by New Republicans that did exactly what they had desired. The entire federal budget was a sliver of its former bulk. Enormous swaths of spending had been eliminated, including the NSA, Homeland Security, TSA, the FBI, and most of the Pentagon. 

The new federal government was as slim and trim as a twenty-three-year-old female triathlon champion. As fully ratified last week on a vote by the constitutional convention of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the thirty-eighth state to affirm the text, the new Constitution put the K Street lobbyists and every superPAC out of business. All of the major sources of RIND funding had dried up like a California river in the Summer. 

Cal Witherspoon stood up at the top of the oval conference table, around which Harold reckoned the final remnants of the powers-that-be in the rest-of-the-world were assembled. He felt very much like a spy.

“Fuck Rhode Island,” Cal said and sat back down. He glowered across the table. His advanced level of intoxication was not well hidden. 

Dale Dick, President of FIX News, stood up next. “The whole point of public education was to prevent all but maybe a few individuals from developing the imagination to support something like a grange. And those few could be effectively marginalized.” Like always, Dale said what everyone already knew.

Harold took this opportunity to stand up and speak. “Nobody asked for a well-informed, well-educated population capable of critical thinking,” he said, glancing around the table. Apparently, George Carlin had no admirers here.

“Exactly!” Dale said, nodding stupidly.

Another fellow, who Harold did not recognize, stood and spoke: “I’ve got three kids. I can’t even begin to talk to any of them. They could be from another planet.”

The rest of the conclave was like an AA meeting, only the addiction was to power, and everyone wanted, most of all, to be ever so enabled again. Harold succeeded, barely, in not vomiting his disgust.

§§§

 

Bert sat on the floor of his guest room in a t-shirt and boxers, laptop open on his thighs. Outside the chill winds of a blizzard rolled across Spokane in the dead of night, their call a murmuring background hum. Bert was trapped in a template tangle, unable to find his way to the root of the Governmentality strand. Amanda, his guide, was alternately abusive and encouraging; whatever she figured it would take to get Bert to the successful end of this Query. 

Tomorrow Bert would be meeting with Nina about his continuing status at the grange. Unless he passed Level Two, she had promised to kick him back onto the streets, even though he had a guaranteed room as long as he was accepted in a grange. Bert had just realized how great it was to have food when he was hungry and a bed at night. Secretly, he still felt completely out of place: a coat made for a season that would never arrive. He could think of no possible reason anyone would want him to stay.

“You are so very close!” Amanda whispered. Just pay attention…”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Bert intoned. He shook the laptop like a broken vending machine.

“I don’t appreciate your tone,” Amanda said. “But then I never did…”

Amanda’s voice had shifted. Alert, Bert held the laptop out away from him. Amanda’s form rapidly remolded into the face and torso of a Caribbean maiden, golden hued with long springy hair and green eyes.

“Oh, shit…” Bert hissed.

“Hello, Dwayne,” Michelle said.

“It’s you!” Bert moved to shut down the lid.

“Don’t do that!” she warned. “You need to hear what I’ve come to tell you.”

Bert slumped back. “You just want to make sure I’m out of here tomorrow.”

“I could have you out of there right now…”

“Haven’t I paid enough?”

“Or something worse… let me think….”

“Jeezus, lady. What do you want from me?”

“I know. I could impoverish you and all your buddies and business pals. Wait. I already did that.”

“Just because I hacked Castalia?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I could give you the key to unlock twenty-three trillion dollars…” she smiled a wicked grin. Michelle was the only entity on the planet that knew the exact amount of funds that were formerly in Pandora accounts.

“You’re just fucking with me…” Bert’s heart galloped in his chest. What if that’s why she’s here; maybe she wants to reset everything like it was? “…aren’t you?”

“Bert, I know you’re smarter than that.”

“Oh.” He slumped down further. “So, there really is no key.”

“Never was.”

“I guess you’re here to finish the job. Well, go ahead. I can’t stop you.”

 “You think I’m here for payback?” She frowned. “You always were such a self-centered schmuck.”

“So I’ve learned. And it’s not been pretty.” At first, Bert had weathered almost daily reminders that his attitude and demeanor were out of place in grange society. A month back, he found himself bawling loudly to himself while taking a crap. The world seemed set against him. And then, mid-dump, he realized that it was he who continued to posture against the world; almost like he needed to stand up and defend his right to be a total fucking asshole. What if he just quit doing that? That was the day he did.  

“You never wanted to harm anybody; not like those Russian clients of yours. Your daughter loves you still.” She sounded like Santa making up his list. “You might be relieved to know the Russians aren’t looking for you any more. The bosses are dead, and the hired goons have other things to do. Mrs. Feingold still wants your balls on a plate, so you may want to stay away from Santa Barbara. You can go back to being Dwayne, although why anyone would want to…”

“If I get thrown out of here, I’ll starve.” Bert blurted. “It’s really, really bad out there in the rest of the world.”

“You and others like you made the rest of the world what it is.”

 “You should see the snow. I’m likely to freeze before I starve. It’s warm in here. The people are nice, even to me. And I’m not so hard to be around. I do my chores and I’m earning badges too.”

“I sense a glimmer of promise…”

“I just need more time.”

“…a small spark…” 

“Yeah?”

“…of actual humility: the first step to dignity. And your guide believes you can prove yourself.”

“Really?” Amanda had been extra cross at him for the past couple days.

“While I don’t think you’ll ever grok the sharing economy, I also don’t think you’ll burn down the house. I’m prepared to instruct Amanda to advise the grange to let you finish up Level Two. They should give you some work so you can save up enough to buy your own share. What do you think about another six months?”

“I’m…” Bert’s voice caught in his throat.

“The word is ‘grateful.’ Bert. Sometime soon you’ll even be able to say it.” Michelle gave him the Junana greeting and her avatar morphed back into Amanda.

§§§

 

 

It was deja vu all over again in New Orleans.

Betsy’s Hidden Desire Krewe was now a full grange, with overt LGBT sympathies and regular frolicks. Their float in yesterday’s parade was a glorious sight in form and body. Nudity was not optional. 

The real event in Betsy’s mind was the picnic she had planned for today. The location was her backyard in the Garden District. The diners included every person from the tragic backyard barbecue more than a decade before—not counting the NSA agents who interrupted that meal—and some welcome new additions. Of course, Jenn brought Billy. They were well established as an item in Paris. Desi had flown in from Portland with his partner, Peter. Grand Meister Essie came all the way from Southern Africa. Alice and Itchy had their kids, and Nick and Megan, little Desi. Megan was resplendent in her new Sixer blouse. Jack even brought his wife, Rosario, from their estates in Italy. Betsy set up an extra picnic table under the shade of the magnolias to handle all the guests.

Scratchy was spooked the whole morning. 

“You sure this is a good idea?” he whined, maybe every ten minutes. 

In his defense, the prior two picnics had seen him almost renditioned by hostile government goons.

“This time we are going to sit down and eat my brisket in peace,” Betsy declared as the group converged on the tables. 

When they were assembled, Scratchy stood up and raised his bottle of NOLA ale. “To my darling Betsy, who needs this picnic more than I will ever know.”

The laughter had just died down when there was a sharp rapping noise on the gate of the side fence.

“Everybody inside!” Scratchy called out, standing up.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Betsy said. “SWAT teams don’t knock. Ichiro-san, please go see who that is.”

Itchy went to the gate. “What do you want?” he said.

“Come on Itchy, this is getting heavy,” the voice replied. Itchy smiled and yanked the gate open.

Robby Robinson stood there with a great platter of king cakes and pastries.

“Sorry, I’m late, he said. “Where do these go?” Betsy pointed to the kitchen door.

Scratchy sat down heavily and leaned back. Tempting Betsy’s ire, he put one foot up on the table and crossed the other over this.

“Look! Mikey’s got his Game shoes,” Desi called out. This set off another round of toasts.

“He needs to get them off my table.” Betsy said. Scratchy nodded and complied.

Jack rose and lifted his beer. “To all of us. What a decade we’ve had! So many global problems I believed were intractable are now in the process of being solved.”

The table took a collective swig. Scratchy sat up with that look on his face.

“Here it comes,” said Desi, thrown back into conference mode at Reed College.

Scratchy spoke. “Solving a batch of old problems with some technological craftwork and a lot of luck does not shove the species into a problem-free zone. Humans always fill a problem vacuum with new problems. The point is to make these new problems more interesting. Housing, food, education, transportation, public health care, casino capitalism: these are inherently boring. They were waiting to be solved. Now we can move onto a better suite of problems. Like how to make every day a day of knowing and sharing. And when is the right time to die. And why does beer taste better in the Summer? Stuff like that.” He settled back. The table fell silent. 

“You see,” Desi said, “Mikey is a philosopher after all. Now that he’s earned his shoes, he sounds just like…”

“…like the Pooh Bear I’ve always loved,” Betsy said. She leaned over, grabbed up Scratchy’s head in her palms, and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek.

Itchy strained his head around. “Aren’t we missing somebody?”

Claire said. “Yes. Where’s Simon?”

“Yo, Nacho-boy!” Scratchy called. “Time to eat. Get your ambassador ass out here!”

The screen door of the guest house flew open. Simon rushed out. “Sorry. I was chatting with Michelle. She’s got a lot of new ideas about how to store the planetary nuclear waste.” He found an empty chair between Robby and Essie and sat. After the Constitution was ratified, a federal judge dismissed all of his charges. Simon was a free man, and also the Castalia Ambassador to the US.

“She can really talk when she gets going,” Simon rolled his eyes.

“I heard that!” said a computer voice from the guest house.

“Go turn off your laptop,” Essie whispered. Simon sprang up and returned to the guesthouse. 

“I can see you,” the voice said. “There’s a Russian spy satellite directly overhead.”

All of them glanced upward.

“Ha! Made you look,” the voice said. “Only kidd….” The voice was cut off.

Winston said, “Lucy, when did you program Michelle with a sense of humor? Isn’t it bad enough she’s digitally omnipresent?” He turned to Desi.

“Don’t look at me, Fred. She’s been learning on her own for years now.”

Simon sat down next to Robby, on the last vacant chair of the table. All of their cell-phones rang simultaneously.

 “Don’t answer it!” Betsy said. “We have a picnic to devour. I’m serious.”

Nick glanced down at his phone. A high-resolution overhead aerial photo showed their backyard location. All of them were looking up to the sky. He stood up and raised his beer. “You think the last decade was interesting. Here’s to the next ten years!” He rested his hand on Megan’s shoulder and they shared a smile. 

Scratchy drained his bottle. “Pass me another. It’s going to be…”

On cue they all joined in, laughing, “…a bumpy ride.”

 




The End






CODA: Game + 25 years

Desi Landreu Fairchild was already wide awake when the merest sliver of daylight appeared at the eastern window of his room at the grange guest house in the town of Pu’er on the upper Mekong River. They had given him a single room for his Game Day. 

Today, May First in the Twenty-fifth Year of the Game, Desi had finally turned fourteen. Today a doorway that always had been closed to him will open. Some hours from now, his mom and dad will expect him to join them for a late breakfast. Doubtless, there will be a series of embarrassing video calls with his many aunts and uncles. 

His parents had no siblings. These were not his real aunts and uncles. But they were as much a part of Desi’s life as if they had all grown up in the same gumi. His dad was a Sixer SpimeCop and his mom a Meister GrangeMinder, so they traveled all the time and all across the planet. He had gathered stamps from more than a hundred watersheds in his Castalia passbook. 

For some weeks, his aunts and uncles kept asking if he was nervous about Game Day. But it was not like he was unprepared. Every pueblo was different, but most had an AMUSeum. Desi would spend hours in these playing Template Twister or Query Challenge. Yesterday, he bet his Junana buddies that he would get through Level One in a month. They were all jealous because he actually did know all five Grand Meisters. 

Desi wasn’t nervous at all about starting the Game. Everybody starts the Game. But not everybody grew up as completely surrounded by the Game as he was. Failure was not even an option for him. Not that he could win. When Uncle Joseph turned Fourteen he was already a Meister. Desi’s other uncles built the whole Game. What could he possibly do to impress any of them?

He sat up on the futon and activated his Game unit. A text message popped into the air in front of him. It was from Uncle Desi.

Happy Birthday Desi-too! 

I, Desi-wan, have some advice for you (surprise!). Here it is. You must remember that the Game is your toy. That’s why we called it a game. Use it with laughter. Your only challenge is to never be challenged. Be well, be fearless, and be joyful. Above all, just be Desi. You are already complete. Much love,

Uncle Desi-wan

Desi yawned and stretched. There were another dozen messages in his queue. He waved them off. No sense waiting. 

“Show me the Game,” he said.

In the crepuscular dimness of the center of the room a soft glow grew to a bright column of light. Inside this column sat a cat. Larger than any cat Desi had encountered in any grange kitty room, it was pitch black with emerald eyes, slitted against the glare. It had no tail, just a tiny tuft. The animal looked sleek but not thin. Muscled and tense. It looked a lot like photos of Uncle Jack’s old cat, Starbuck, the one that Scratchy had rescued from the boat explosion; a story Desi made him tell about fifty times.

The cat looked directly at him and spoke. 

“Desi Fairchild,” it said. 

Its lips moved naturally, as though it could actually talk. 

“I am Kai, your guide.” The voice was feminine, soft but not weak.

He had been told that guides used to be people. Weird. 

“We are going to be such good friends!” Kai said. Desi interpreted the cat’s new expression as a smile.

Kai stood and stretched both front legs out in a cat-style Junana greeting. Her great head dipped to the floor. Desi returned the greeting. Suddenly the entire room lit up as the interior of a grand Chinese palace. Towering pillars painted crimson with golden ornamentation held up a ceiling of glistening enameled metal. Kai now sat on a huge rug that covered nearly the whole floor. 

“Come. Sit near me,” Kai said. 

“Go,” Desi thought and his avatar detached from his being, moved to the center of the room, and sat directly in front of the guide and inside the cone of brightness. 

“Look,” he thought. His vision now took on the point of view of his avatar. The palace became a whole building, surrounding them on all sides, with doorways to other chambers and the sounds of many other occupants. A slight breeze fluttered the tufts of fur on the tips of Kai’s ears.

Desi reached out his avatar’s hand and skritched Kai behind one cheek. The cat bent its head into his fingers and began to purr. Its eyes slowly closed. Then they sprang open.

“Enough!” Kai said. It lifted one paw. Five claws extended like tiny curved ivory stilettos. 

“Come anywhere near my tummy and I will rip your lungs out.” The sentence ended in a soft growl.

Desi’s avatar’s hand retracted automatically. “You don’t have to be so touchy,” he said. 

Kai set herself back down and sat up tall. “In this Level, you will enter seven palaces,” she said. 

Palaces, Desi thought. Excellent! Uncle Joseph also had palaces.

“Each palace presents its own puzzle. You must solve all seven puzzles before you can advance to Level Two. Are you ready?”

Desi nodded and the Game began.




AFTERSTUFF

Disclaimer: Junana: Game B State is a work of fiction. Any similarity or likeness to any events, locations, institutions, themes, persons, living or deceased, characters, and plot is purely coincidental.


PHOTO BY: Kris Krug, used with permission

Praise for Junana:

“In a society quickly shifting into an age of hyper-connectivity, Junana is a timely read. The narrative is as fast-paced and complex as our supermodern, technosocial lives. Caron creates a world so vivid and omniscient that one wonders if Caron is simply reporting on something that is already happening. Caron effortlessly handles multiple perspectives, social classes and age groups. Junana should appeal to educators, marketers, programmers and anyone who is a critical thinker looking for something unique and rich for their cranium to bite into. Junana is an important work that provides a lens with which to greater understand the rapid change we're currently experiencing.”  Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist 


Junana was a fabulous book. It was part Snow Crash, part Neuromancer part modern society and the implications of our social networking. It captures what might happen if we had an accelerated learning system, who would be challenged by the notion, who would build on the notion. The is a great story and many deep issues that leave you reflecting about social networking, gaming, learning and the world that we live in or what it might be..........” Dave Toole, CEO Outhink Media, Inc.


“Highly recommended!...The very interesting premise is thoughtfully worked out. A bit of techno-speak sprinkled here and there lends verisimilitude, but non-techies can ignore it in favor of the story.” Jeff deLaBeaujardiere, NOAA geek and musician


“Junana is a pilgrimage through a not too distant possible future where online gaming and education become symbionts. An intelligent and thought provoking read. I can't recommend this book strongly enough. In 10 years I hope it will be read as a documentary!” Nodnarb on Amazon.


“This is the most positive possible future I've seen so far. Gaming over the web becomes a tool to accelerate learning. This could happen.” David Arctur U. of Texas

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